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William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - Compounding Errors

Compounding Errors


Compounding "Errors"

T. G. Bishop, Case Western Reserve University

The sea, in fact, is that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilisation has emerged, and into which, unless saved by the effort of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse.

W. H. Auden

Let it suffice that we have not arrived at a wall, but at interminable oceans.


The aim of this chapter is to argue that Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors provides us with an explicitly germinal model of his dramatic practice at once in its narrative, poetic and social dimensions, and that the conclusion of the work turns to the dramatic dynamic of wonder in order to enact Shakespeare's own recognition of his practice. In order to approach this intricate nexus, we must first consider the larger question of the institution for and out of which Shakespeare wrote, to suggest how he responded to changes in English society and culture by reframing the question of the work that narrative does, in effect retroping old plots in the new context of the professional theatre. Shakespeare's work is in this way informed by a revisionary conservatism by which he self-consciously subjects the stories he inherits to analysis and critique in order to regenerate them for present uses. Apparently exiled from the plays, wonder returns in the end to recoup and transfigure the scattered fragments in a reunion that speaks also to the function of dramatic narrative in Shakespeare's hands. The hyperbolic and overdetermined spectacle of wonder thus invoked becomes a site of plenitude informed in its forcefulness by the resistance of the very skepticism it has had to overcome.


Complex factors determine the transition from late medieval to Elizabethan drama.1 We need to note first some significant shifts in the character of performance as a social occasion. The medieval plays . . . emerge from a community-based, large-scale organization of a recurrent and participatory nature. They are part of a perennial festival where plans are laid and expenses defrayed collectively through guilds and other associations. A substantial part of the purpose and pleasure of this theatre is likewise communal: there is a common involvement in a common project that aims to expound a common knowledge.2 Though economic motives could nerve the festivals as potential sources of trade and prestige, they were not principally commercial ventures. Indeed, the large cost of mounting them at a time of economic difficulty for many late sixteenth-century towns may have contributed to their disappearance.3

While the influence of the medieval festival plays on aspects of Elizabethan drama has been disputed, it is clear that the overall shapes of the two institutions and of their characteristic products are very different. The medieval plays are carefully attuned to their particular institutional context, and hence too specialized to provide a model of dramatic form flexible enough for a secular, professional theatre. Although Emrys Jones, for instance, has argued cogently for some similarities in structure, such as between the Passion of Christ and the baiting of Gloucester in Shakespeare's Henry VI Part Two, even such striking parallels are largely a question of local patterns of action rather than of a general indebtedness in conception.4

The institution of the professional acting company, its attachment to specific patrons, and the eventual settlement of at least some companies in permanent, continuously running theatre venues in the later sixteenth century determined a new shape for the social occasion of performance. At these explicitly commercial concerns, audiences pay the performers not the project. Performances, even before the monarch, are in an important way services for customers, and the nature and quality of the performance impinges not on the honor of a community, but on the commercial viability of the company and the livelihoods of its members. The audience need have no quotidian, community-based relation to the actors on which to draw. Relations "across the footlights" are much more a nonce affair, to a great extent limited to the professional occasion itself, and the openness of these relations to improvisation may well form part of the matter of the play. "Novelty" of both story and occasion becomes an important element in commercial success, and accordingly the public theatres of the late sixteenth century produce and experiment with new plays at a prodigious rate: as high as twenty new plays a year in an uninterrupted season, or about one every two weeks.5

The theatre thus occupied a very different place within the civic life of Elizabethan London from the great five- and seven-day celebrations recorded intermittently but consistently there from the late twelfth century.6 The Elizabethan public theatre was a focus for ad hoc outings and celebration by individuals or small groups (apprentices, law students, families) seeking temporary relief from everyday duties. It could be enjoyed at any time it was open, and was set up to answer, within certain limits, a steady demand. While much of the theatrical calendar was still hitched to traditional timetables (such as the Lenten inhibitions or the Christmas festivals), there was no longer any discernible shaping connection between the ritual life of the community and its theatrical entertainments.7 What was offered was a much more local transaction, which might make use of older forms of festivity and communality, but confined their invocation to the space of the "wooden O" and the duration of the performance. Barring disruptions by plague, riot, or political upheaval (though these were common enough), the public theatres could expect to be open for business continuously for long periods, necessitating a constant and renewable appeal to a public who came by choice and on no common timetable. The collective exploration of traditional forms of common life could have only a very limited role in this theatre. Twelfth Night, for instance, might be played on its name date or else when you would, since nothing in the play ties it to a particular day. What features survive in it from the calendar association are better understood as tropes for psychological and social processes in general than as specific to a particular ceremonial order. For a certain fee, the ludic privileges of a mobilized Epiphany can be enjoyed at any time of year. This is a key liberation for the full-time professional theatre, but the emancipation also makes the company dependent on securing the audience's assent to the performance and its occasion in ways that become increasingly self-conscious. Medieval plays might roar and browbeat their audiences into silence. The gambits of Elizabethan Prologue and Epilogue, with their often nervous rhetoric of placation and apology and their language of bonds, amends, and amity, suggest a very different relation.

But it is not only the changed lineaments of the social occasion that alter the kinds of plays the Elizabethan theatre nurtures. In the cycle-plays, the performed action and its recognitions are framed by the semiotic complex of the Incarnation and the Eucharist within the institution of the Church. A gesture thither always closes down the potential for either play or skepticism, as none of these authorities can be effectively challenged. Hence in the most experimental or testing plays of this tradition, a gap or rift may open up between the central theological enactment and the elaboration or parody attached to it. In the Wakefield Secunda Pastorum, famous for its social protest and gameful pre-plot of the stolen sheep, this disarticulation is particularly plain. As long as the authority of the structuring institutions remains unimpeachable, such rifting cannot itself be addressed in the play. It remains a symptom rather than a topic.

The sixteenth century, however, saw the appearance and development of an increasingly powerful and institutionalized current of what we might now call "cultural criticism." The reformist polemicists against the theatre have often been noted, yet the wider ramifications of the succession of spokesmen, from Gosson and Stubbes to Prynne, have been less considered. Their importance lies as much in how they indicate the progressive factionalizing of English culture at large as in their specific raillery against the playhouses. Such iconoclasm was not confined to anti-theatrical polemic; its wide range suggests the extent to which skepticism was becoming a posture generally available, as much to playwrights as to their opponents, as Christopher Marlowe's turbulent example shows. What we see emerging for the first time is an extensive cultural dialectic of critique and affirmation, much more fraught and much more concerned to entrench itself in particular institutions than heretofore.8

This does not mean that older, communal functions entirely disappeared. Though it is obvious that the cycle-plays are not an appropriate formal vehicle for the new theatre, which must find pleasures more "packageable" for an increasingly various economic, social, and intellectual order, it does not follow that their function of exploring the nature and modes of collective self-understanding disappeared. A conservative and tradition-minded society, such as Renaissance England largely was, does not lightly discard social forms and ceremonial structures that have served it well, even in the face of critique. With a playwright of socially conservative preferences, as Shakespeare by and large was, the older uses of performance might reemerge grafted onto or articulated through another dramatic structure—as happens with holiday customs in Twelfth Night. C. L. Barber, for one, argued that the rhythms and forms of traditional popular festivity underlie a great deal of Shakespeare's work in comedy, and that these plays made use of the elements and...

(The entire section is 3407 words.)


One recent critic who has sought to address the Elizabethan theatre in this way as an active site of cultural reflection in the moment of performance is Louis A. Montrose. Seeking what he calls "a Shakespearean anthropology," Montrose surveys sixteenth-century English history, emphasizing a galloping disequilibrium and a burgeoning anxiety among a bourgeoisie increasingly unsure of its bearings. From this, Montrose proposes that the Elizabethan theatre became a self-conscious site of surrogate ritual in a world whose reassuring solidity of symbolic practice was being eroded: "I am suggesting . . . that the public theatre absorbs some vital functions of ritual within Shakespeare's society. These functions are not...

(The entire section is 1561 words.)


When Shakespeare chose to frame Plautus' play of the twins of Epidamnum with the venerable romance of the shipwrecked family, he did more than merely complicate the plot: he immeasurably enlarged the scope of the whole dramatic structure. Modern critics have been quick to see the paired stories of the father and his sons as segregated by style or genre or some other consideration, but fixing overrigid boundaries between "frame story" and the central action tends to obscure the links between them in a way the play explicitly refuses.23 The central action and concern of the opening scene is the power of Egeon's narrative to create a community of mutual interest, even in the face of political and social...

(The entire section is 7687 words.)


This sense of comedic resolution as a "fitting together" of contraries—and the discovery of how deeply they may answer each other—can be said to describe not only Shakespeare's attraction to a particular kind of story, but a preoccupation and a sensibility that manifests itself at all levels of his writing. From his consistent attention to erotic experience (both hetero- and homo-), to his predilection for exploiting the unclassical indecorums of the Elizabethan stage, to his notably dense and paradoxical metaphoric language, his impulse is to discover a figurative complement, to push apparent difference towards some deeper reciprocal unity, sometimes imagined beyond language itself, as in "The Phoenix and the...

(The entire section is 3531 words.)