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A Scholar’s Perspective


by Stuart Sherman, Professor of English at Fordham University


Spoiler alert: this one will end happily.

But you knew that already. Shakespeare foretells it in his title. “This time,” as Stephen Sondheim once wrote in his great hot take on what comedy means, “it all comes out all right.”

One of comedy’s great mysteries lies in the funny thing that happens on the way to that ending. We know about it, but we sideline it; we half-manage, moment by moment, to forget it. We forgo the privilege of foreknowledge for the keener pleasure of keeping the characters company in their perplexity.

One of Shakespeare’s great mysteries lies in what might be called his muchness—his gift for taking up our most familiar experiences, in life and in plays—with people (characters), stories (plots), conversation (dialogue), behavioral patterns (genres)—and infusing them with a barely imaginable abundance. By doubling down on their most potent possibilities, he makes them into something new.

In this early play (he was maybe 29 when he wrote it) we can see him mastering that muchness. Comedies, as Vladimir Nabokov once remarked, often unfold “in an essentially grief-proof sphere of existence.” Shakespeare opts to widen the emotional spectrum: he begins with grief abounding. In the city of Ephesus, at the dawn of a new day, Egeon, a foreign and forlorn old man facing imminent execution at day’s end, tells the story of his multiple bereavements to the Duke who has decreed his death.

Even so, in Egeon’s tale of painful loss, Shakespeare helps us detect the seedlings of our forthcoming comic gain. Over the course of his lifetime, he has lost not only two twin sons, identically named (they are both called Antipholus), but also their twin servants (two Dromios), matchingly monickered also. The ancient comedy from which Shakespeare took his plot involved just one pair of twins, so here’s more muchness: Shakespeare opts to double down on the doublings, producing potential symmetries so over-the-top that they almost cry out for recovery, matching up, and sorting out.

But of course not yet. For Shakespeare and for us, the point of these paired pairings is to compound the chaos, to ramp up the speed, force, and farce of all the errors that will fuel the comedy. One pair’s from out of town; one pair lives in town; neither knows the other’s near, and no one around them knows the difference. Cue confusion: a roundelay of identities mistaken, doors slammed, incomprehensions intensified, and opportunities just-missed for getting everything straightened out. The result is a delicious double bind, the comic analog of agony: we do want that happy ending; we just don’t want it to happen any time too soon.

But Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, manages to compound things further—to scatter notes of genuine agony amid the uproar. The one twin who has come to town deliberately to seek out his sundered kindred knows well the near-futility of his mission: “I am,” he says,

like a drop of water

That in the ocean seeks another drop;

Who, failing there to find his fellow forth,

Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.

Two isolated drops in a boundless ocean: what are the chances? In his faltering search for family, he frets, “I lose myself,” and he finds the confusion nearly suffocating. But when, in the evening of this play’s one day, the ocean tide finally turns toward happiness, the Duke who’d decreed Egeon’s death notes the shift:

Now begins his morning story right.

It’s a striking line: by a quiet pun, Shakespeare retraces the play’s expansive emotional arc. At its start, Egeon’s story was naught but “mourning.” Now, the Duke suggests, it can be not so much retold as simply extended, reseen, re-understood. Errors can yield resolution; selves lost can become selves found; mourning can beget new mornings.

We’re near the end of the play, but not (in Shakespeare, never) of the muchness. Perhaps the playwright’s richest gold mine lay in the doubled perception which he would voice a few years later: if “all the world’s a stage,” then any play that mirrors the world will also give him the chance to show, and us the chance to see and savor, the limitlessly varied ways in which the world mirrors the stage.

Near the dawn of his career, The Comedy of Errors is perhaps the most explicit love-letter to theater he had crafted to date. The city of Ephesus, one character remarks, has a reputation for “cozenage”—for trickery—and houses “nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,” “disguised cheaters,” and “darkworking sorcerers that change the mind.” Sounds grim. But by this logic, the city is remarkably like a theater, where trickery and disguises abound, entertainers entertain, sorcerers (actors, playwrights, designers, directors) work to change our minds, and we not merely collude in but actually pay for the privileges and pleasures of the delusion.

And by the Comedy’s logic, rightly so. In Shakespeare’s layered imagery lies a simple equation: if the city = theater and the city = ocean, then the theater is a kind of ocean too, wherein for us as for the characters, it becomes possible ultimately to recognize our kinship with one another and, in the process, to resee our selves. Even dark sorcery can lead to light. Comedy fosters community, both on the stage and in the auditorium; “together” is literally the play’s last word.

Now in its thirty-seventh season, Chicago Shakespeare Theater does once again what it has long done so adroitly: it manages to double down on its namesake’s muchness, in layered and lovely ways. In this, her valedictory production, Barbara Gaines has chosen to revisit the hit Comedy she first brought into being fifteen years ago: cast members from that one will reappear here—a supple twinning across the years; now, as then, she makes of Shakespeare’s show (as if to echo one of his favorite moves) a play within a play, as we watch a fretful troupe of performers trying to film Shakespeare’s script as a diversion and solace for Britons suffering through World War II. In perhaps the production’s sweetest doubling-down, Shakespeare’s love letter to theater becomes a billet-doux to cinema too.

And so this seems as good a moment as any to marvel at the bright sorcery that brought this company into being, and built for us, on this shore of Chicago’s inland sea, three indoor oceans (the Courtyard Theater, Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare, The Yard) wherein again and again we can, drop-like, find in each other our shared humanity and, working together, fathom our own depths.

Back to The Comedy of Errors