illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

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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.


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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...

(This entire section contains 3407 words.)

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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 energies of old holiday, both in the construction of the narrative on stage and in evoking a para-ritual ambience for the contemporary audience. Barber's work showed remarkably clearly the process of co-optation that adapted old communal traditions to new dramatic occasions, and this transition reflects with unusual clarity and detail aspects of the more general movement away from a medieval towards a modern order in sixteenth-century England.9

That Barber's central subject was inevitably Shakespeare tells us something in particular about the latter's attitude to older forms of social celebration and regulation. Unlike the more radical voices either of Stephen Gosson or Ben Jonson—both playwrights and later polemicists against the public theatre from political persuasions we might describe as Reformist and Royalist respectively—Shakespeare's brand of conservatism did not seek to root out the cultural forms of the past in order to assert its own claims. It preferred to absorb them, imagining its relation to the past not as polemic opposition but as metaphor and metamorphosis. Such a position is in general nativist rather than international, evolutionary rather than revolutionary. In some ways it is like Sir Edward Coke's insistence that the common law was a peculiar institution and handed down "immemorial customs" toto divisos orbe Brittannos. A theatre emerging from such a pragmatically conservative stance does not confront its audience, or even seek to settle with it as an independent contracting party, as Jonson does in inducting Bartholomew Fair. Wherever such a theatre goes, like the Chorus in Henry V, it wishes to secure the community's collective assent and imaginative implication first. It seeks to make the story and the theatrical occasion theirs for the telling.

We should consider closely what it means to assert that Shakespeare was conservative in this way, and examine the roots and lineaments of this conservatism and its implications for dramatic structures answering his commercial and professional needs. Some possible misunderstandings can be headed off at once by asserting that to be conservative in this sense is to be like neither Spenser nor Jonson. Along with Shakespeare, both of these figures were staunch supporters of the English monarchy, and in that sense "conservative" as we might see the term. But that is hardly an Elizabethan political position: it is more like the point at which Elizabethan (and Jacobean) politics begins. It should be emphasized that there were no significant opponents of monarchy in England in this period, and that such opponents of the current monarch as there were—basically radical Catholics—were staunchly in favor of monarchy as such and themselves divided as to how far they should go in opposing Elizabeth and James. Even the organizers of rebellions and risings were hardly calling for the destruction of monarchy as a basis for civil order: the traditional order was most often what they saw as under threat when they rose. Though what might be called the "preconditions" for the much more radical political ferment of forty years later were perhaps present, it would be mistaken to read those developments back too far as "oppositional" alternatives.

On the other hand, both Spenser and Jonson were strongly in favor of various kinds of "reform" in the relations between government and people. Spenser's association with the more ardent Protestant reformers not infrequently brought him into conflict with Elizabethan arrangements, and the kind of apocalypticism displayed in Book One of The Faerie Queene, even if oriented towards restoration of the "true Church," required a radical break with much of the recent past which Elizabeth for one was reluctant to make. Jonson, though decidedly of the other religious party and uncomfortable with Spenserian fervencies, also supported a more or less radical revision of the political terms of government towards an imperial profile and away from the more delicate politics of equilibrium and consensus which Elizabeth, along with her ministers, had managed for so long. Though the imperial impulse had been gathering for some time in English politics and law and was by no means a Jacobean invention, it emerged into full articulation with James, and Jonson strongly endorsed it. Recent political criticism of Shakespeare has sometimes overlooked the fact that to be politically "avant-garde" in both Church and State matters in the period meant embracing either Puritanism or Absolutism. The latter stances could also themselves agree in welcoming the image of a strong central figure, as was the case with Prince Henry. At least in the period from 1590 to 1610, "radical" English aesthetics and politics were as often moving towards the imperial monarchy as away from it.

If modern political categories will not help to define Shakespeare as an Elizabethan "conservative," one way of broaching the question is to reflect on the fact—to some extent unusual among his peers—of Shakespeare's lifelong maintenance of relations with the community of his birth. Unsatisfactory though his biographical records are, they are insistently traversed by the thread of Stratford-on-Avon and Shakespeare's concern with the position of his family there. Emphasis on his links with the milieu and politics of the court has tended to obscure this, yet it gives us significant information about Shakespeare's underlying sense of his filiations and community.10 Also of some significance here may be that Shakespeare was never initiated into the "second home" at the universities, which so often eclipsed the natal community with a prestige language and a sense of the common fellowship of learning. Again, the contrast with Jonson is instructive. There is no sign that Shakespeare, unlike Jonson, sought to overcome his scholarly "deficit" or surmount his humble origins either by prodigious application to learning or by small revisions of name and family history, and this despite the ridicule his lack of "nurture" seems to have cost him at various hands, most notoriously Robert Greene's.11 But though important aspects of Shakespeare's work remain close to the pattern of rural and small-town life, this does not mean he was not acutely aware of the challenge presented, for instance, by Stubbes's critique of rural summer celebrations. The task was to discern whether and how older functions could be retained, even if performed by new instruments. Coke's attitude is again instructive: he claimed that English judges found within the customary structures of the common law what was necessary to the present case. They did not alter the law in so doing: they revealed more of it, still and always at work.12

The idea or pattern of cultural activity embraced by such a view of the world is one that does not insist on radical separation from its community or its own history. Where patterns of communal recognition and reflection such as the cycle-plays disappeared, the emerging professional troupes might be inserted on occasion into their room. A discontinuity of formal and logistic organization need not necessitate one at the level of communal function, and while Chester and York clung stoutly to their traditional plays, and Coventry kept up its cycle into Shakespeare's lifetime and subsequently attempted to replace it with a comparable civic drama, other communities might have seen the business more as a matter of "farming out" a community function previously, as it were, performed "in-house."13 Such a tactic preserves what can be preserved and adapts to a new form or occasion those elements that cannot in a process of improvisatory adjustment.

There survives one remarkable account tending to confirm that this is more or less what at least some communities did. In 1639 at the age of 75—which makes him Shakespeare's exact contemporary—Ralph Willis included a childhood reminiscence of the stage in his penitential treatise, Mount Tabor. Willis's story is well-known but deserves quotation in full:

In the city of Gloucester the manner is (as I think it is in other like corporations) that when the players of enterludes come to towne, they first attend the Mayor to enforme him what noble-mans servants they are, and so to get a licence for their publike playing; and if the Mayor like the actors, or would shew respect to their lord and master, he appoints them to play their first play before himself and the Aldermen and Common Counsel of the city; and that is called the Mayor's play, where every one that will comes in without money, the Mayor giving the players a reward as he thinks fit to shew respect unto them. At such a play, my father took me with him and made me stand betweene his leggs, as he sate upon one of the benches where wee saw and heard very well. The play was called, The Cradle of Security, wherin was personated a king or some great prince with his courtiers of several kinds, amongst which three ladies were in speciali grace with him; and they keeping him in delights and pleasures, drew him from his graver counsellors, hearing of sermons, and listening to good counsell, and admonitions, that in the end they got him to lie down in a cradle upon the stage, where these three ladies joyning in a sweet song rocked him asleep, that he snorted againe, and in the mean time closely conveyed under the cloaths where withall he was covered, a vizard like a swine's snout upon his face, with three wire chains fastened thereunto, the other three end wherof being holden severally by those ladies, who fall to singing againe, and then discovered his face, that the spectators might see how they had transformed him, going on with their singing.

Whilst all this was acting, there came forth of another doore at the farthest end of the stage two old men, the one in blew with a serjeant-at-armes mace on his shoulder, the other in red with a drawn sword in his hand and leaning with the other hand upon the others shoulder; and so they two went along in a soft pace round about by the skirt of the stage, till at last they came to the cradle, when all the court was in greatest jollity; and then the foremost old man with his mace stroke a fearful blow upon the cradle, whereat all the courtiers, with the three ladies and the vizard, all vanished; and the desolate prince starting up bare-faced and finding himself thus sent for to judgment, made a lamentable complaint of his miserable case, and so was carried away by wicked spirits. . . .

This sight tooke such impression in me that, when I came towards mans estate, it was as fresh in my memory as if I had seen it newly acted.14

Willis's recollection shows quite clearly the relation between the professional players and the community they play for, aside from its demonstration of the lasting impact dramatic images could have on the Elizabethan spectator, even from what seems to us so barebones a piece as The Cradle of Security. The performance is from the first implicated in the hierarchical network of social life, with its mutual privileges and duties. The troupe of actors is both a professional organization and a roving limb of the nobleman who sponsors them: the Mayor has his choice which of these aspects he will regard. For him to sponsor "the Mayor's play" is to assert his pre-eminence, but also to fulfill his duty to promote the honor and well-being of the commonality, presumably at his own expense. To attend the play is to acknowledge in return both of these gestures. The play in turn moralizes on the duties and dangers of high place and its failure in vivid, eschatological images, and thus also participates in glossing its occasion. Its appropriateness is complete even down to its suspicious treatment of the female figures elsewhere excluded from Willis's recollection of his civic and personal fathers.

Though Gloucester was larger than Stratford-on-Avon, it seems fair to assume this is the kind of thing which the documented visits to that town of the professional troupes of actors in 1583-4 and 1586-7 involved, and such a context is most likely to have been that in which Shakespeare first encountered the Elizabethan theatre.15 It is in accord with such a view that he depicts players when he comes to write: his troupes, professional or scratch, are very much aware of the social dimension of their work. Though they tend to be overeager, naive or insufficiently au fait with the complexity of their moment (whether the poisoned milieu of Hamlet or the aristocratic churlishness of Love's Labours Lost), they are always conceived as absorbing into themselves the ambient energies of the occasion they play to. What distinguishes their shortcomings from the work of the Lord Chamberlain's Men is not only a difference in technical skill, but the latter's added resources of deliberate critique to add to those of fellowship and service in its repertoire of stances.


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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 adequately performed by more central and officially sanctioned institutions, and are in some ways inimical to them."16 This is an exhilarating vista, yet so much remains unspoken as to give one pause. The assertion that Shakespeare's theatre was a species of collective ritual is by no means a new one, going back as it does at least to Francis Fergusson's attempt to assimilate Hamlet to a model of Sophoclean drama derived from the Cambridge anthropologists, a claim later refashioned by O. B. Hardison with Christian ritual as the model.17 The difficulty here is to specify in what the ritual aspect inheres and how it is addressed and understood by the playwright and taken up by the audience. In both Ferguson and Hardison, "ritual" remains in some sense archeological, an inherited rather than a meditated condition. In Montrose's view, its invocation seems a kind of secret or unconscious gesture in response to an equally unformulable discomfort with established religion. At the same time, the underlying assumption about the expressive or cathartic inadequacies of Elizabethan religion is highly speculative: inadequate for whom? one is entitled to ask, and how do we know? Those who objected most vociferously to the established religious order tended to be those who also strongly denounced the theatre. Though it is certainly true that Shakespeare's plays "present exemplary fictions in which human characters are confronted by change within the self, the family, the body politic, the cosmos," it is hard to see this as a historically specific assertion about Elizabethan drama: it does just as well for Euripides, Goethe, Chekhov, or even Brecht.18

Montrose's remarks are the more frustrating because he is surely right about Shakespeare's attentiveness to the ritual aspects of the dramatic language and action he inherits, though whether the same description will do for Greene or Jonson (i.e. whether it is really a general condition of Elizabethan drama) is another question. A powerful impulse to draw on the magical and world-shaping energies of ritual does inhabit Shakespeare's plays. But if ritual informs Shakespeare's theatre, it is less because of some non-specific malaise in the churchgoing public that the theatre struggles to identify and physic, and more through a quite specific response to the forms of story and dramatic occasion it inherits. The principal place we should look to establish the historicity of a work such as a play is less to a rather nebulous history of the culture at large, and rather to the textures of the work itself understood as the mediated and meditated product of histories at once formal, institutional, social, and vocational. To reduce any one of these to an epiphenomenon of another is to move away from a full appreciation of the work's history and "historicity" rather than towards it.19 In the current instance, neither the assertion of O. B. Hardison that "continuity" characterizes the relation between medieval ecclesiastical ritual and Shakespearean drama nor Montrose's stress on "the essential feature of discontinuity" will really do. It is the intertwining of retention and transformation that is the fullest measure of Shakespeare's historical consciousness. Analysis needs to unfold where this process of adaptation is chiefly accomplished: where continuity and discontinuity confront each other in the metamorphic absorption and troping of older modes of dramatic story into newer ones.

The Eucharistic fusion of word and matter that underlies the dramaturgy of the cycles is a crucial instance of how Shakespeare folds received cultural schemas into his theatre's transformed task. There can be no doubt that the power of this ritual event remained active in Elizabethan society. The very persistence of intense controversy around it testifies to that. As they are absorbed into Shakespearean drama, these struggles over the central symbol of the Christian order reemerge, linked to questions at once of the continuity of English historical experience and of the performance of that experience on stage. This is particularly explicit in Richard II, where the central action articulates a struggle between the desire to affirm the miraculous corporeality of sacramental kingship (tied directly to the actor's performance of Richard in and on his body) and a counter-desire to drain the action of that very mystique in favor of a roughcut and contingent pragmatism of office and role. The identification of workable schemas to interpret the body's action becomes a primary goal, but the play entertains the option of a sacramental solution only as a dream whose fullness, like Gaunt's health, is ebbing almost from before the outset. That Gaunt refers to the Incarnation while himself dying, even as the actor playing him is faced with the daunting technical task of performing the famous long aria to "this sceptered isle," indicates the extent to which the political and the dramaturgical are intertwined through the question of "embodiment." Old symbol and new context, nostalgia and critique, icon and actor self-consciously confront one another. All through Shakespeare's career, questions of "embodiment" framed in relation to the sacramental model are central to his thinking-through of the meaning of theatrical performance. But while a deep desire for the tangibility of the body is pervasive, so also is a sense of the difficulty of grasping such a moment. What was merely dichotomy in the Secunda Pastorum has become a restive dialectic.20

In putting the issue this way, I have in mind a discussion of the self-consciousness of fictive form as representation, in which John Hollander cites the remark of Friedrich Schlegel that "In all its descriptions, this poetry should describe itself, and always be simultaneously poetry and the poetry of poetry." Hollander comments that "a closely guarded poetic secret peers out of the last clause. . . . [which] hides a more powerful assertion—not 'and' but 'because.'"21 We could restate and extend this point here by proposing that poetry expresses its historical conditions most fully, since it also there expresses how it does and does not understand them, where it renders those conditions available to itself in deliberate inflection. To read a poem as an act of historical awareness is to attempt to chart its successes and failures in the struggle for consciousness of its own ways of knowing the world in and through itself.22

In this dialectic of affirmation and critique in Shakespeare's theatre, the dynamic of wonder becomes crucial. Wonder as a conscious crisis of the integrity of knowledge unfolds at just the point where, according to Schlegel and Hollander, the characteristically poetic is to be sought, so that the self-consciousness characteristic of this emotion generates precisely a double orientation on "poetry and the poetry of poetry." In Shakespeare's work, the outbreak of wonder registers interplay and negotiation between simultaneous desires for continuity and discontinuity, between the impulse to successful solution and the forcefulness of a critique that resists easy satisfaction. In tragedy, wonder's turbulent power stems directly from the force that has destroyed the protagonists and their world, even as it also guarantees the audience's relative protection from that force by the saving grace of figuration. In comedy, even more crucially, wonder absorbs into itself the resistance of skepticism, and its force measures that resistance even as the latter is overcome and sublated. Resistance braces the desire to affirm surviving powers of recognition and articulation, and in particular, the reconstruction and survival of the institutions of continuity, chief among them marriage. A variable tempering of wonder and skepticism against one another across different plays marks out a continuum in Shakespeare's comic practice, along which critical argument has in turn arrayed itself.

The language of doubling and twinning which haunts the instabilities of wonder . . . appears specifically in Shakespeare's plays at the level of plotting in his recurrent preoccupation with stories of twins—including the pretend twins of Much Ado about Nothing, the anti-twins Edgar and Edmund, and those twin-like abstractions Art and Nature in The Winter's Tale. What is at stake here is the poetic recognition of the interest the plays and their audiences have in the dialectical mirroring of continuity and discontinuity in one another as motives for theatrical representation. In most cases, the end of the play stages a critical confrontation between these character pairs that is framed by and produces wonder.

In what follows, I will argue that scenes of wondrous speculation, present from the first, articulate in this way much of Shakespeare's concern with the theatre as poetic and social event, and that these scenes focus a particularly Shakespearean self-consciousness in language and action. Careful reading can demonstrate in what way they meditate on continuity as their chief aspiration, one whose difficulty in turn gauges their historical consciousness. In particular these plays use the dynamic of wonder to think through their impulse to absorb and adapt their own cultural history, to be "at once theatre and the theatre of theatre."


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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 antagonism. The question of what narrative is for is before us from the outset, and the opening tableau sets forth large images of the play's stakes which are then worked out in more elaborate detail through the Plautine material. By fusing Plautus' rambunctious plot with the life-and-death romance of Egeon's quest, and both with allusions to St. Paul (as though Plautus and Paulus were anagrammatic twins), Shakespeare's hybrid tests their respective modes of narration, as though asking "Which kind of story, if any, can help us stave off death?"24

This is a weighty question, perhaps too much so for such a slight piece. Yet it is the play's own initial question. Consider the opening tableau. A bound prisoner stands before his judge and asks—for mercy? On the contrary—he asks only for a speedy death:

Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall And by the doom of death, end woes and all.

(I.i. 1-2)

The action, it seems, will be over before it has even begun; the play threatens to contract itself into the few moments needed to utter the sentence and chop off the head. Such an end seems altogether too forbidding and abrupt. Its absoluteness, the anonymity of the speaker, his "fall" with its "doom of death," hint at the image of a more general or final "proceeding" and judgment. His judge continues these intimations in speaking of his Syracusan counterpart whose victims:

Wanting guilders to redeem their lives Have sealed his rigorous statutes with their blood. . . .


These are hints only, but they evoke a complex of images and notions about time, death, and judgment familiar enough to an Elizabethan audience and suggest, without being too explicit about it, that the overall resolution will address some sort of "redemption." We seem to be engaging in a kind of theological oneupmanship on Plautus here. Roman comedy being the work of pagans, it is hardly surprising that such a vocabulary was unavailable to it. But such a play in a Christian society claims it sees further into the life—and death—of things.

These images are unusually stark for opening a comedy, and before their fatality Egeon seems already to have quailed. Duke Solinus for one seems to want the prisoner to begin the play differently. He responds not to Egeon's call for death, but to some imagined plea for mercy: "Merchant of Syracusa, plead no more. / I am not partial to infringe our laws" (I.i.3-4). And though playing stern, he deliberately invites Egeon to re-forge just the ties of sympathy to the community at large that the old man seems most eager to break off. All through the scene, Solinus forces Egeon to return to his story, where Egeon is eager to abridge it, to take it as read. "Gather the sequel by what went before," he insists, as though it were all a self-evident matter of mere logic. Egeon wants to tell us that the world is always fatal, nature and time the twin wheels of a slow, small grinding. There is no point in recounting it all over again: the sentence reaches its period, the great axe falls. That's all there is to it.

Solinus shares this much with Egeon: for him too syntax is an absolute ruler: "passed sentence may not be recalled / But to our honour's great disparagement." Yet Egeon's despair goes deeper and links itself to the general process of time and the bell. Life cures us of itself:

Yet this my comfort, when your words are done, My woes end likewise with the evening sun.


By making him tell the whole tale over, Solinus not only puts off the end Egeon seeks, he works to repair the very social connections Egeon wishes to sunder. Inspired to pity, if not fear, Solinus throws Egeon back on the community for rescue. His task, an almost parabolic one, is to find a redeemer among "all the friends thou hast in Ephesus." This is not to Egeon's liking and he views it as merely one more futile episode in a narrative whose end he has long since longed for: "Hopeless and helpless doth Egeon wend / But to procrastinate his lifeless end." He is a figure of Despair: for him all time is drained of vitality, all story points only deathwards. "Lifeless" is as much an epithet of the speaker as of his expected end.

Does all story, all time uncover only an image of death? Must the rigorous logic of cause and effect lead us to submit to an Iron Law, not "partial to infringement," that stands grimly behind narrative? When is an end not an End? Solinus' "limit" puts these questions before us, so that whenever in the subsequent action we are told what time it is—and we are so insistently—we may recall Egeon's quest. Yet a curious jingle of phonemes all through the course of Egeon's lamentable narrative tells a more lively, lucky "undertale" than their speaker knows. A quartet of terms chimes an arbitrary, serendipitous consonance in the world which brings "hope" and "help" to make "hap" at last "happy."25 This is not logic. On the contrary, these doublings and echoes are silly happenstance, a gratuitous accident of language. Yet their tale outweighs Egeon's in the end, and from their very plasticity Shakespeare will generate a marvelous world of plenitude, of strange and happy miracle.

Meanwhile, the vision of time as an inhuman controlling law ticking away on its ineluctable path is not confined to the first scene. Such a strict sense of time is taken into the play as an integral part of the basic narrative apparatus of classical comedy. T. W. Baldwin argues that this feature is derived specifically less from Menaechmi than from Shakespeare's whole understanding of classical comedy: "Shakespeare already knew these unities; he did not learn them from Menaechmi; at least, not at this time."26 Indeed, the "limit of this day" is so integral to the design of the Antipholus section of the play that its deep connection to the opening scene is often overlooked. Narratively, and to some extent thematically, Egeon's story and that of his sons are segregated, but both put in play a conception of time as one-dimensional, an inflexible linear process in which Death follows Judgment as verb follows subject as two o'clock follows one.

Time as an irreversible sequence of effects organizes both events and conversation for much of the play. As the breakneck, mechanical rhythm of farce comes to orchestrate the action, the intentions of the characters seem more and more to lag behind the onward sweep of the minute hand. From Antipholus of Syracuse's first conversation with a Merchant who rushes off to a business lunch, it is clear that Ephesus keeps as strict a clock as it does a law-court. As with Egeon, though in a less desperate key, time is money, and money is life. The secular, commercial community is bound to time as its vital, regulatory engine. But with Ephesian Dromio's first entrance the mortal clock starts to accelerate and takes on a striking inhumanity:

Returned so soon! Rather approached too late. The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit; The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell; My mistress made it one upon my cheek. She is so hot because the meat is cold; The meat is cold because you come not home; You come not home because you have no stomach; You have no stomach having broke your fast. But we, that know what 'tis to fast and pray, Are penitent for your default today.


Dromio's lines hunt temporal process back along a line of causally related points which has as its latest term the infliction of violence upon him. The traditional vulnerability of the clown's body to attack is here the result of living at the mercy of a rigorous time which servant Dromio's logic maps out rhetorically line by line. Dromio's very name has both the aspect of breakneck speed and linear movement: it means "one who runs," "one who races."27

Clowns are always in danger of becoming sorry cogs in a mechanistic universe under whose laws they suffered long before Newton. In Errors, the life of the body generally is governed by a remorseless temporal violence. The body, thinks Dromio, itself ties one to time: "Methinks your maw, like mine, should be your clock" (I.ii.66), and later, in a pathetic outburst, this same Dromio sums up his whole life as a series of moments struck into his body one by one:

I have served him from the hour of my nativity to this instant, and have nothing for my service but blows. When I am cold, he heats me with beating; when I am warm, he cools me with beating. I am waked with it when I sleep, raised with it when I sit, driven out of doors with it when I go from home, welcomed home with it when I return; nay, I bear it on my shoulders, as a beggar wont her brat; and, I think, when he hath lamed me, I shall beg with it from door to door. (IV.iv.29-40)

The body of a Dromio is an object at the mercy of physical laws, like the football one compares himself to (II.i.83). Narration for him is always only one step away from a beating if he is "out of season": "Ay, ay, he told his mind upon mine ear" (II.i.48). In this farcical view of things, time, money and violence link up in every "striking" of the bell. Each new event "tells," as a bell, a coin, a blow, consequent on its forebear with clarity and remorseless precision.

Several passages of the play that otherwise seem digressive or excrescent are related to this thematic and metadramatic preoccupation with "telling" time. During one of their periodic interludes, the Syracusan pair conduct a peculiar conversation about the baldness of Father Time. Antipholus observes that "there's a time for all things." Dromio denies this by what might be called his First Law of Time: "There's no time for a man to recover his hair that grows bald by nature" (II.ii.71). The somewhat strained banter that follows includes references to legal remedies for time's trespass and to "the world's end," which Antipholus calls "a bald conclusion." The comic routine, itself only "marking time" in the action, puts before us again a temporal order which goes in one direction only: Egeon's deadly time progressively stripping its hapless, hairless victims.

The play's principal dramatic image for narrative as an expression of the First Law of Time, an image that comes to dominate both action and language, is the line. We could plot the whole play as a set of vectors on a street map of Ephesus, where each intersection would mark a staged incident. This linearity reflects and reflects on the nature of narrative generally. Critical discussions of narrative have always used linear imagery—it seems to be a primary human way of conceiving time—but the real witchcraft of Ephesus seems to lie in the way this narrative design keeps incarnating itself everywhere, coming alive from page to prop-box in the lines, ropes, chains, whips, and snares that gradually entangle and constrict the characters. The opening image of the play is of a man bound for death, and rope-bonds thence proliferate. Dromio's tale of being struck because of a spitted pig is told insistently in serried lines. The verse-writing throughout includes many different kinds of "lines" and line patterns, more than is usual in Shakespeare. Alexandrines, fourteeners, quatrains, couplets, stichomythia ("line-story"), all make their appearance. This may have to do with the "earliness" of the play, but it also fits its preoccupation with its own method of story-telling. "What kind of story gets told in lines?" seems the implied question.

Egeon's opening narrative has begun the process of imagining lines. Maplike, it encourages us to chart the movements of the family across the sea: he ships from Syracuse to Epidamnum, she follows, they return. It is these same lines that he and his son are now attempting to trace or decipher, a linear trajectory forcibly "splitted" when the wooden line to which the family was literally bound—the "small, spare mast"—hit the rock.28 Shipwrecks are everywhere in romances, but the detail of that splitting mast, original with Shakespeare's version, turns out to be much more than variation on a cliché. It is an image integrally bound up with the poetics of narrative in the play. And it may have an even deeper metadramatic dimension. Lars Engle points out that the mast to which the family are bound is also a secret emblem for the linear design of the action: from end to end the family are strung along their mast in the very order in which they speak: Egeon-Syr. Antipholus-Syr. Dromio-Eph. Dromio-Eph. Antipholus-Emilia.29

It is not linear conceptions of time only on which Ephesian social life runs. The whole community is undergirded and held together by a poetics of the line, the bond, the limit, and the boundary. Ephesians are always "drawing the line" at something, as Solinus does when he refuses to "infringe our laws." Each thing, each sign in the city has its appointed place and bonded meaning: the social order, the commercial network, the very town geography are mapped with clarity and semiotic rigor. We dine at the Tiger and host at the Centaur, Adriana stays at the Phoenix, the Courtesan at the Porpentine and so forth. Unfortunately for social and semiotic order alike, walking homophonic puns (or are they metaphors?) are now usurping the names Antipholus and Dromio.

Both the appeal and the danger of a life kept in line are made dramatically concrete in the goldsmith's chain that comes to play such an important part in the action. This prop is first mentioned pat as Adriana is lamenting the fraying of her own bond:

I know his eye doth homage otherwhere, Or else what lets it but it would be here? Sister, you know he promised me a chain.


It is for a moment as though Adriana is speaking of her marriage vow. And when Angelo the goldsmith brings in the prop in question in a later scene, his entrance is likewise carefully timed to crystallize the Syracusan brother's nervous fantasy of a Luciana who,

Possessed with such a gentle sovereign grace, Of such enchanting presence and discourse, Hath almost made me traitor to myself. But, lest myself be guilty to self-wrong, I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song.Enter Angelo with the chain


In the succeeding seventeen lines, the word "chain" appears five times, concluding with:

But this I think, there's no man is so vain That would refuse so fair an offered chain.


The metaphoric connection between the two offers is sustained by that chain of "chains," just as it comes to represent commercial obligation (and especially the bondage of debt) by a similar verbal obsessiveness in the following scene. There the chain appears no fewer than thirteen times in forty-five lines (IV.i.20-65), interwoven with terms like "bound," "bond," "attach," and with references to the pressing march of time.

The increasing confusion of the plot at this point suggests that the importance of this strand of gold is not only in the various "social bonds" that Adriana, both Antipholuses, and the Goldsmith take it for. The chain also becomes an image of the linkages of assumption and inference which give the play its hilarious, increasingly desperate drive. In short, it is a neatly-imaged "chain of events," comically literal, materializing the audience's own attachment to an increasingly knotty plot. We may even see it as an emblem of metaphor itself, appearing as it does so charged with figurative linkages. As these emblematic and metadramatic functions multiply, this polysemous chain of chains comes to head a class of linear counters in an exploration of acts of linkage for good and ill in the play.

For instance, we might also consider the fortunes of the chain's poor cousin: the "rope's end" for which Ephesian Antipholus sends his Dromio in the middle of the "chain" discussion, and with which he intends to beat his wife. The other Dromio shortly appears sans rope and, when duly berated, offers a bewildered pun on death by the hangman's rope, presumably another "end of the line" joke (IV.i.99). As Antipholus is haled off to prison, this same Dromio is sent to Adriana for bail. When the first Dromio later returns, with his rope, the sequence resumes:

ANTIPHOLUS To what end did I bid thee hie thee home? DROMIO To a rope's end, sir, and to that end am I returned. ANTIPHOLUS And to that end, sir, I will welcome you. Beats Dromio


This rather suggests that Antipholus here whips Dromio with that same rope. But there is yet more. The women appear with the Doctor, and Dromio warns: "Mistress, respice finem, respect your end; or rather, the prophecy like the parrot, 'beware the rope's end'" (IV.iv.42-4).31 The hanging joke is common, but here it seems to have come to life. When he later asserts that "God and the rope-maker bear me witness / That I was sent for nothing but a rope" (IV.iv.91), it looks for a moment as if God has himself turned rope-maker. Pinch decides that "They must be bound, and laid in some dark room" (IV.iv.95).

The notion of "bonds" has thus gradually been extended by the play to cover more and more territory. Ordinary dead metaphors of being "bound" to do this or go there begin to chafe uncomfortably (e.g. IV.i.3). The play fills with instances of lines, boundaries, and acts of crossing over. The comic scene at the locked gate, for example, turns on a structural boundary that cannot be crossed, across which names themselves start to break their bonds with referents:

E. DROMIO Maud, Bridget, Marian, Cicely, Gillian, Ginn! s. DROMIO Mome, malt-horse, capon, coxcomb, idiot, patch!


One Dromio here calls names, the other replies in playful parallel with abuse (abusio) and name-calling. And what is an insult but a name emphatically not ours? Antipholus is dissuaded from breaking down the wall in rage only because it would invite a circulation of bad names for himself and his wife over which he would have no binding or regulatory power:

If by strong hand you offer to break in, Now in the stirring passage of the day, A vulgar comment will be made of it; And that supposed by the common rout Against your yet ungalled estimation, That may with foul intrusion enter in, And dwell upon your grave when you are dead. . . .


Names are becoming alarmingly deathless succubi that usurp the lives of people. Ephesian "credit" as a whole depends on a one-to-one correspondence between a name and its nominatum, but the ever-intersecting paths of the twins function like crossed wires, disrupting the flow of information, mismatching the links that bind all things in their "proper" places. It is here that Antipholus decides to divert the chain from his wife to the Courtesan.

The Plautine poetics of line and limit in Ephesus thus governs at once linguistics, narratology, and anthropology. The alarming implications of this poetics do not go unnoticed or uncriticized by the play. The end-driven regulatory scheme of cause and effect, name and referent, is glossed by a set of references scattered through the play to Biblical, and especially soteriological, history. We have already noted the hints of a "fall and judgment" pattern in the opening scene. These resonances return sharpened when Egeon reappears unsuccessful at the end of his "grace period":

By this, I think, the dial points at five; Anon, I'm sure, the Duke himself in person Comes this way to the melancholy vale, The place of death and sorry execution, Behind the ditches of the abbey here.


The "melancholy vale" and "place of death" echo the Biblical "valley of the shadow" and "place of the skull" and take their place in a string of allusions through the play to the Fall and consequent sentence of Death. For instance, when Dromio runs to beg Adriana for money to set Antipholus free, he says his master is "in Tartar limbo, worse than hell," the captive of "A devil in an everlasting garment" and "One that, before the judgment, carries poor souls to hell" (IV.ii.32-3, 40). Luciana in her turn has become "Mistress Redemption." When he returns with the bail to find the other Antipholus unarrested, he enquires: "What, have you got the picture of old Adam new-appareled?"

Not that Adam that kept the Paradise, but that Adam that keeps the prison; he that goes in the calf's skin that was killed for the Prodigal; he that came behind you, sir, like an evil angel, and bid you forsake your liberty. (IV.iii. 16-21)

It is St. Paul's "Adam in whom all die" that is in the picture here, the first patriarch in Hell. All the play's talk of fiends and devils in Ephesus suggests a community still under the dominion of "the penalty of Adam," inhabited by fiends of whom "It is written, they appear to men like angels of light" (IV.iii.56).32 Images of divine judgment haunt the play. Even the glorious figure of Nell (Knell?) the kitchen wench, whose name is not rope enough to measure her body, is an apocalyptic giant: her grime is "in grain. Noah's flood could not do it" and "If she lives til Doomsday, she'll burn a week longer than the whole world" (III.ii.106, 100). The hapless characters enmeshed by the linear poetics of classical comedy are assimilated to St. Paul's Ephesians that were "dead in trespasses and sinnes, Wherein, in time past ye walked, according to the course of this world" (Ephes. 2.1-2).33 When Dromio fears the devil-Courtesan will "shake her chain, and fright us with it," it is the Devil of Revelation who is behind her, and binding in a pit that is indeed at hand.34

That the regulation of the communal order of Plautine Ephesus is in the end a deathward process is made clear by its final champion: the would-be exorcist Dr. Pinch, whose talk is all the fiend and whose very name is constraint. He gets hold of those who have reached the end of their tether, and the "dark and dankish vault" to which he carts them is like enough to hell. But it is his appearance which clinches the matter:

. . . a hungry lean-faced villain; A mere anatomy, a mountebank, A threadbare juggler and a fortune teller, A needy-hollow-eyed-sharp-looking wretch; A living dead man.


Within necessity's sharp Pinch lurks a figure familiar from countless homilies. St. Paul would have seen through Pinch at once: under his disguise of family therapist, he is Death's point-man in Ephesus.35

At the end of the line, the wear and tear of Time on hapless mortality crystallizes in Egeon's final appearance, having failed to secure a community of friends to change his iron bonds for human ones and save his life. In the play's most moving passage, Egeon longs for something more than the body of this death, and the death of this body:

O time's extremity, Hast thou so cracked and splitted my poor tongue In seven short years, that here my only son Knows not my feeble key of untuned cares? Though now this grainèd face of mine be hid In sap-consuming winter's drizzled snow, And all the conduits of my blood froze up, Yet hath my night of life some memory; My wasting lamps some fading glimmer left; My dull deaf ears a little use to hear.


This is where the rhetoric of the opening scene pointed, the victimization of "one thing after another" and the partition of community—the tongue like the mast—in cracking and splitting. The play has staged the temporal drive of classical comedy itself as a drive towards death.

Confronting this deadly world of bond and line, its story-books ruled by antique precept, are two alternative sites of imagery: one an equally inhuman contrary, the other a sublation the play hopes will transfigure both contraries alike. The first alternative Egeon's family faced on their "helpful bark" in the dissolute violence of the storm and the all-melting ocean of natural chaos.36 In this environment we can no more survive than under the iron government of Time's Law. Law in Ephesus opposes and seeks to shape the always incipiently chaotic flux of natural process. To this extent it is presented as fitfully appealing. Errant Antipholus of Syracuse longs for the stable order of bounded social life when he lands on the firm ground of the mart, bringing the very marine dissolution of which Egeon has just spoken with him into Ephesus. A famous speech expresses the pathos of oceanic boundlessness:

I to the world am like a drop of water That in the ocean seeks another drop, Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.


Boundary in these lines has become fluid, evanescent, and metamorphic.37 The pathos of its imminent loss is curiously cosmic, perhaps through the submerged connection between world and drop, as though a person were not less a node than a globe of manifold possibilities, a little Nell made cunningly. Indeed, the threat to Dromio of Nell's magnitude belongs with this sense of the uncontrollable flux of the world as a potential solvent of personal identity, as too does the element of fear mixed with desire in his master's response to Luciana. For these men, women have too much fluidity about them.

If the contraries of rope and ocean, law and nature, were the only alternatives, it would be a grim lookout. Some mediating term or passage is needed between them. For this transfiguration the play turns to two sources: intellectually to the language of the sacramental, emotionally and dramaturgically to the theatre of wonder with its dialectic of surrender and self-consciousness. Death and earth, the penalty of Adam, is only half the story. Out of Paul's redemptive contrary ("Even so in Christ shall all be made alive") Shakespeare produces a third possibility, a deeper tide towards a breakdown of order not into death but life. Between the two opponents of Time-as-Law there is some commerce: both stress the availability of sudden, improvisatory breakthroughs. Hence the language of wandering and ocean occasionally coalesces with the language of the sacramental under the banner of fluidity. But their two tendencies are fundamentally distinct: one divides and fragments only, where the other does so in order to generate a more vital compounding. Unlike so many of his Protestant contemporaries, but very like those who wrote and performed the medieval cycle-plays, Shakespeare's principal point of connection to theology is not through sin but through the notions of incarnation and the sacramental, where word and matter, spirit and flesh are explicitly confounded in the creation of communal forms of life.

Apart from the hint of "redemption" in the opening scene, various reminiscences of the Incarnation pepper the middle of the play: Dromio refers to his "nativity," there is a character called Balthasar and a merchant who has been waiting since "Pentecost." And when Ephesian Antipholus chooses not to break down the door of his house for fear his credit will suffer, we might see a worldling's distant anti-echo of the liberation and epiphany played out before the infernal gate and its rapscallion Porter.38 The "undoing" of time's tyranny also appears when Dromio comes to "Mistress Redemption" for bail. First there is a telling reminder of three familiar images for the bondage of time and story:

ADRIANA Tell me, was he arrested on a band? DROMIO Not on a band, but on a stronger thing: A chain, a chain! Do you not hear it ring? ADRIANA What the chain? DROMIO No, no, the bell; 'tis time that I were gone.


Bond, chain, and bell are cardinal images of the world's rigor. But the hint of new, more liberal possibilities follows:

DROMIO It was two ere I left him, and now the clock strikes one. ADRIANA The hours come back! That did I never hear. DROMIO O yes, if any hour meet a sergeant, 'a turns back for very fear. ADRIANA As if time were in debt! How fondly dost thou reason! DROMIO Time is a very bankrupt, and owes more than he's worth to season. Nay he's a thief too: have you not heard men say, That time comes stealing on by night and day? If 'a be in debt and theft, and a sergeant in the way, Hath he not reason to turn back an hour in a day?


This corresponds to the earlier jokes about Time's baldness, but now Time is fugitive rather than bailiff. If Time still steals from us, runs away too fast, he now begins to show a capacity for the unexpected and tras gressive. If Time can run backwards, there is no telling what may happen. If Time is a thief, we glimpse a world less dominated by logic, more open to improvisation and even miracle, in which "the day of the Lord wil come as a thief in the night" (2 Pet. 3.10). This new vision of time is associated directly with the redemption of Antipholus from his bonds, and when Dromio hands over the money, he does so with a reference to St. Peter's release from prison, itself instance and echo of Christ's power to liberate: "Here are the angels that you sent for to deliver you" (IV.iii.41).39

The linear imagery of Ephesus also appears again strangely shifted and fused with the fluidity of ocean in Antipholus' evocation of Luciana's hair as a bed afloat on the surface of the ocean:

Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs, And as a bed I'll take them, and there lie, And in that glorious supposition think He gains by death that hath such means to die: Let Love, being light, be drowned if she sink.


The thin meniscus that screens life from death is sustained and made viable by the magically erotic, a power that will allow Antipholus to float luxuriantly on a raft of hair, close to but not concerned at the danger of drowning in nature's deep.40 Metamorphic Eros occupies the middle ground between rope and water, "error" as fatal mistake and "error" as endless deviation.41 This fusion of the erotic with the sacramental is a combination that comes to be characteristic of Shakespeare's work. It is by no means always a stable combination, and can turn bitter in the extreme as it does for Othello. But in The Comedy of Errors, as for Adriana, the language of ocean is eroticized and attracted towards the sacramental:

For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall A drop of water in the breaking gulf, And take unmingled thence that drop again Without addition or diminishing As take from me thyself, and not me too.

(II.ii. 126-30)

The breaking gulf as the sacrament of marriage described in Ephesians is Shakespeare's most important image of lived contaminatio.42 If the gulf breaks, it is a dynamic and creative fracture, as the bonds of most Ephesian institutions are not. Its surging energies at once sustain and mobilize the central social institution. The crucial importance of Paul's letter to the play thus comes into clearer focus. Paul's vision of erotic desire in marriage as a social counterpart to the Word-as-Flesh undergirds Shakespeare's contamination of boundary with flux, a move that at once dissolves law and circumscribes ocean.

The Shakespearean drama of contaminano that unfolds in The Comedy of Errors has, like its classical counterparts in the play, its metanarrative emblems. Consider again the "chain" as an image of narrative. As a figure of bondage, it points us to the world of rigor and Old Law. But as a figure of metaphor, it points on the contrary to a power in language that desires and makes new pertinencies, new constituencies, new connections with the world. That the chain's first associations should be to erotic emotion is therefore deeply appropriate, since in Shakespeare Love is the sign par excellence of the promise of new community, as well as that under which all of Paul's unifications occur. The chain thus both looks to the marriages of the conclusion and recalls the ropes and mast that bound the shipwrecked family together as the play's first images of bonds that protect from the blind chaos of mere nature.

The resuscitation of community through clarification of the vital significance of narrative turns out to be the play's deepest impulse, and explains the pervasive use of the Ephesians' epistle. Paul's theology there is oriented especially to the maintenance of community: the letter is written to bolster and encourage the cohesion of a Church threatened with fragmentation. Against Egeon's vision of the tongue "cracked and splitted," we can set Paul's image of a body that has overcome such attrition:

For he is our peace, whiche hath made both one: and hath broken downe the wal that was a stoppe betweene us,/ Taking away in his fleshe the hatred, (even) the law of commaundementes (contayned) in ordinaunces, for to make of twayne one newe man in hym selfe, so makyng peace:/ And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body through (his) crosse, and slue hatred thereby. (Ephes. 2.14-16, Bishops' Bible)

What Shakespeare takes from Paul's writings is less a particular doctrine than a kind of figurative substrate of images and associations in which incarnation is the principal trope for all kinds of unification, including that which creates new community between the play and its audience. This commitment to incarnation as the goal of poetry has a kind of secular "real presence" as its dramatic ideal, and imagines language itself as a ubiquitous informing power. Verbal utterance at this level deeply creates and roots itself in a form of life and experience, where the world fits itself to one's desire and a language can be found that mediates each to the other. Such an ideal language does not constrain, constrict, bully, or scar: language that does that is what Ephesus deals in when it writes its governing signs, as Dromio laments, directly into the flesh in bruising and chaining. The language of Shakespearean incarnation, on the other hand, seeks a sacrament-like function which can express the life of the flesh, and inform that life with its own vitality. Language is in this way itself a creative activity, not a merely secondary one, welling up from some deep source which is also the source of experience. The plasticity of language and the mutability of experience are twin—or one—in their interinanimation. They are a vital unity of a kind usefully imaginable through the older theological conception of the sign that acts.

Shakespeare's poetry does what medieval drama always threatened to do, what Aquinas indicated was always implied by the logic of a sacramental semiosis: it unbinds itself and its shaping power from the Church. At the heart of Shakespeare's drama is a power confident that words can incarnate lives before the eyes of an audience without the institutional apparatus of the Church to guarantee their orthodoxy, and without a structure of dogma external to the dramatic occasion. Though such a stance suggests that the playwright is in direct competition with God, no sense of struggle ever emerges, either in abjection or self-aggrandisement (Marlowe is an instructive comparison here). The universe of verbal creation is capacious enough to allow for both. It follows that one can only with some restriction speak of the Shakespearean project as a "secularization." One could just as easily call it a radical resacralization of the world. For Shakespeare words are all, but a great all inseparable from the continuing life of the world itself, and whose deepest energy springs from the ever-metamorphic reproduction of the world. It is as though Shakespeare read the Bible as an epic poem written by Ovid.

The problem finally to be faced is by what counter-magic the trixiness of metaphor can be reconciled with the hunger for persistence, how the pun can be made flesh. It is here that we encounter the play's own rabbitout-of-the-hat in the person of Emilia. Nothing in the classical logic of the narrative requires her presence: all that is required is that the two Antipholuses (or even the two Dromios) finally run into one another in the street. In Shakespeare's play, this encounter is shepherded by Emilia, who seems to grasp at once the precise shape of the resolution called for. She becomes its focal point, stands in in her own person for the redemptive figure that the Pauline allusions have led us to expect. Why should the body of the mother, whose labor as mother is explicitly announced as finally accomplished at the point of reunion, replace the body of Christ?43

The play is almost explicit about this compounding of Emilia's gestation with the Incarnation. Emilia declares "Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail / Of you, my sons, and till this present hour / My heavy burthen ne'er delivered" (V.i.401-3). That odd time interval corresponds to no chronology mapped out anywhere else in the play, indeed it contradicts Egeon's tale.44 Shakespeare is notoriously careless about such details, but that will not explain this particular choice of number. The answer is, of course, that thirty-three years was the period of the Incarnation, at the end of which the clock was turned back, the chain broken, and the fatal debt paid.45 Emilia's "thirty-three years" of "travail" end likewise in liberation from bonds, forgiveness of debt, and redemption of time—all accomplished in the moment of recognition. This image of a labor to deliver the world anew redefines the nature of narrative as a temporal process and supervenes over the old images and mechanisms of plot closure. Its gargantuan—and rather disturbing—pain was after all not towards death, but towards new life, and the Plautine logic which drew us to expect, as early as I.ii, that Antipholus' "thousand marks" would in the end redeem Egeon, is pointedly set aside by Solinus: "it shall not need, thy father hath his life." The late and peculiar completion of the twins' "suspended" nativity translates the characters back in time to a "gossips' feast" to be held in the sacral space of the Abbey, in which all will join to break down "the wal that was a stoppe betweene us." Nativity (rhyming with itself in Emilia's closing speech), incarnation, baptism, marriage: the sacramental counters pile up upon one another, but are also absorbed into the natural image of childbirth, here understood as the redelivery of its own vitality to the community.

The "poetics of incarnation" plays a still deeper role in the scene. It has to do with Shakespeare's feel for our knowledge of the world in our language: how language can deliver the world as a gestated presence to us for naming and recognition. We can glimpse this if we consider again Shakespeare's attraction to fictions of identical twins. Linguistic witchcraft such as metaphor, pun and double reference have materialized throughout the play as twinning. The scene of recognition where the twins finally meet puts flesh on these verbal two-in-one paradoxes, and the dissolution of identity and boundary which Paul's sacramental language imagines is also crystallized for them and us when they stand before one another. Instead of the romance cliché of recognition tokens—what Stephen Gosson sneered at as the "broken ring,.. . handkercher, or piece of a cockle shell"46—we have matching pair of living bodies, a pair that yet comprise or share, so the language seems inclined to claim, one spirit:

One of these men is genius to the other; And so of these, which is the natural man, And which the spirit? Who deciphers them?


Flesh and spirit are each in each here, and cannot be extricated. Romance anagnorisis provides the dramatic and emotional occasion to focus a profound feeling both for language as a discoverer of the world and for theatre as a site of knowledge ("theory"). It almost seems that the scene, with its language of mirroring and of confrontation with a miraculous other self, is a response to Paul's famous formulation of how our limited knowledge is to be completed: "for now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face." Each twin is both self and other, as the lovers were without knowing it in Plato's Phaedrus.

We may seem to have erred far in our turn from the matter of "wonder," but the strange and satisfying paradox of the identical twins who face one another at the play's end returns us to it. It is the first of Shakespeare's many scenes that exploit this feeling of the world made over in wonder, and it shows us just how involved his dramaturgy is with the issues of knowledge and its ground that wonder engenders. In sharing in a mutual wonder "across the footlights," the characters are for the first time equal with the audience, as the secret we have held for so long is now made common knowledge.47 Each Antipholus (= "reciprocal love") facing himself tastes the audience's delight in the realization of knowledge released, transferred, freely given, incarnate for all to see.48 The boundaries between stage and audience are deliberately made porous. No one is quite sure of what his or her bearings ought to be: all the characters will assert is that the world has become somehow both theirs to live in and at the same time beyond them, that they can embrace it only between affirmation and denial. Gingerly they explore the world's new shape, linking it together piece by piece, feeling at its edges with the mind's fingertips as skepticism and elation hold one another in tension:

ANGELO That is the chain, sir, which you had of me. ANTIPHOLUS I think it be, sir, I deny not. ANGELO And you, sir, for this chain arrested me. ANTIPHOLUS I think did, sir, I deny it not. 


We can hear language's adequacy to the world being felt out. The double drift of separation and identification that marks theatrical wonder's relation to the world it meets reappears here through the reunited twins. One Dromio at least has a strong sense that he may be seeing himself—one rather gets the impression that it is for the first time: "Methinks you are my glass, and not my brother; / I see by you I am a sweet-faced youth" (V.i.418-19). The discovery of his beauty is a joke, of course, but it also focuses the general sense that the world is a newly beautiful place where the self is potentially at home with itself, where narcissistic delight can be true without being invidious or damaging.

Gestation is the play's final image of itself, replacing the rope of classical poetics and the sea of romance flux with umbilical cords and amniotic fluid. It may also give something of Shakespeare's sense of himself as a nascent playwright. The end of the process that Egeon figured as deathward turns out to be an image of the society and family gradually re-membered into a living body. Re-membering is also the image of the work of the play itself, and of its working on itself over the course of the narrative to articulate characteristic procedures and conceptions of Shakespearean drama. If we have always felt that Nell was the play's most striking figure, the end proves this intuition right by revealing her as the play's great comic image of the body that can contain us all, that will by its very material cohesion resist the Flood and postpone death "a week longer than the rest of the world." Nell is the play's early, popular foreshadowing of the figure of the mother produced as the final site of unification. The incarnative imagination casts itself revealingly as a female principle of vivification which stands in for the body of Christ. Feared in Nell as too overwhelmingly material, this principle is embraced in Emilia as the site where the social body can be revealed in its most concrete, but also most wonderful, work of reproduction.49

At the end of the play, romance recognition, heterosexual marriage, sacramental semiotics are assimilated to one another as common images of a credible faith in the world.50 The body of Christ resurrected becomes the body of Emilia delivered. The final attachment of this comic vision to the world rather than to a supernatural aspiration is summed up in the topos of reproduction within the verbal order of matrimony. By linking the conservative notion of "legitimacy" with the transformational power of incarnative trope, Shakespeare registers at once inheritance and renewal. The impetus to matrimony that will drive the whole of Shakespeare's writing in comedy is a response therefore not only to social and political conditions, as many have argued, but to questions of cultural and poetic self-consciousness at the widest level.


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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 Turtle." Consider, for instance, the large number of phrases that condense crucial moments of entire plays in a stark and baffling paradox that demands to be understood, and, even more surprisingly, that we think we can and do understand: "Mine own and not mine own"; "Nothing is but what is not"; "I am not what I am"; "This is, and is not, Cressid"; "A natural perspective that is and is not"; "I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing"; "I did love you once. . . . I loved you not."51 These are not merely clever paradoxes, inward-looking mirrors, for they are deployed to register their plays' sense of sources of language, feeling or knowledge ever beyond the horizon of the expressible, which only such teasing, even maddening, formulae can index. Rhetorician Puttenham called such figures "The Wondrer" and certainly in their dramatic context they often have the qualities at once of profound representational power and of equally profound self-consciousness that we have associated with the dynamic of that emotion.52

To take just one more instance, consider how the paradoxes of doubling and doubt shape this radiant moment of discovery in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

DEMETRIUS These things seem small and undistinguishable, Like far-off mountains turned into clouds. HERMIA Methinks I see these things with parted eye, When everything seems double. HELENA So methinks; And I have found Demetrius like a jewel, Mine own and not mine own.

(IV.i. 187-92)

It is not only the heady evaporation of dream mixed with the open-mouthed discovery that "all is true" that makes this so exciting and joyous. It is the gradual discovery, through successive, gingerly approximations, of just the language for this very state. Helena's grasp of the right way to word the world in her feeling catches its own quality of stumbling on truth right there for us: her metaphor crystallizes as the wonderful jewel of itself. We hold it breathless, sparkling in the hand. The possibility of metaphor as the granting of the world we want, our own and not our own, catches up the vibration of erotic desire in its strong toil of grace. In Shakespeare's comedy, language's love for the world can be requited.


1 Of general studies dealing with the transition, I have found particularly useful those of David Bevington, From "Mankind" to Marlowe: Growth of Structure in the Popular Drama of Tudor England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962); F. P. Wilson, English Drama 1485-1585, ed. G. K. Hunter (Oxford University Press, 1968); Weimann, Popular Tradition, and Walter Cohen, Drama of a Nation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).

2 This is not to imply that the enterprise was not organized by hierarchies of participation, inclusions, and exclusions—after all, there had to be audiences at least. But the whole process expressed and involved community structures as instruments of logistic management.

3 For the economic downturn in provincial municipalities at this time, see P. Clark and P. Slack, English Towns in Transition, 1500-1700 (Oxford University Press, 1976) and Charles Phythian-Adams, "Urban decay in late-medieval England" in Philip Abrams and E. A. Wrigley, eds., Towns in Societies: Studies in Economic History and Historical Sociology (Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 159-85.

4 Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford University Press, 1977), Ch. 2, pp. 31-84.

5 Based on figures from Henslowe's diary tabulated in Carol Rutter, ed., Documents of the Rose Playhouse (Manchester University Press, 1984). This high rate seems to be more typical of the earlier period, when the theaters were still building up a repertory of reliable hits. See also Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642, 3rd edn. (Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 103-4.

6 See E. K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage, 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1903), vol. 2, pp. 379-83. The longer performances were held at Clerkenwell before huge crowds of nobility and commoners, usually in the middle of the year and especially at the Feast of St. John. Smaller-scale plays and saints' plays were performed by various bodies of clerks and laymen at other sites, especially for saint's-day celebrations. There were also performances for city guild feasts. It is likely that not all of these plays were religious in nature, as C. R. Baskerville has demonstrated ("Some evidence for early romantic plays in England," Modern Philology [MP] 14 [1916], 229-51, 467-512). It is worth nothing that "the acting of Christ's Passion" was undertaken as late as the 1610s in Ely House "at which there were thousands present" (Chambers, Medieval Stage, p. 382). Stephen Mullaney has lately speculated extensively on "the place of the stage" in London, though to my mind his reading of the theatre as unavoidably "liminal" and therefore transgressive because of its place in "the liberties" over-reads those parts of the City, which also housed both Whitehall and the Law-courts—hardly sites of transgression. See Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), esp. Ch. 1.

7 Some critics have argued the contrary. A recent example is R. Chris Hassell Jr., Renaissance Drama and the English Church Year (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979).

8 Besides studies on Marlowe, which have necessarily to grapple with his iconoclasm, several critics have emphasized the theatre's adoption of a posture of "cultural criticism." See e.g. Margot Heinemann, Puritanism and Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 1980), Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), and Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare's Scepticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

9 C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton University Press, 1959). Barber's work remains important in orienting us on the connections between dramatic form and social custom even if he occasionally cuts the cloth to fit the argument, as with his discussion of the ending of Twelfth Night. It is precisely Shakespeare's impulse to revise or criticize the social forms he incorporates into comedy that Barber tends to downplay.

10 It is worth remembering in this context that the number of people in an average theatre audience was roughly comparable to the number of people in Elizabethan Stratford, so that it was at least a plausible imaginative leap to think of the Globe as a brief, nonce Stratford. See Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 26; A. M. Nagler, Shakespeare's Stage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958), p. 107.

11 On Jonson see David Riggs, Ben Jonson: A Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989). Jonson, of course, made fun of the Shakespeare coat of arms awarded in 1596 and himself claimed descent from Carlisle gentry. That Shakespeare's petition was on behalf of his father is worth thinking about. Even to a cynical eye, it indicates a desire to be seen as a dutiful son (says Lear's Fool: "He's a mad yeoman who sees his son a gentleman before him").

12 See John Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, rev. edn. (Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 34-8, 274-5, and more recently Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), Ch. 2.

13 See Gardiner, Mysteries End; R. W. Ingram, "1579 and the decline of civic religious drama in Coventry" in The Elizabethan Theatre VIII, G. R. Hibbard ed. (Ontario: P. D. Moany, 1980), pp. 114-28. Max W. Thomas discusses Will Kemp's famous dance marathon from London to Norwich in related terms: "Kemps Nine Daies Wonder: dancing carnival into market" PMLA 107:3 (May, 1992), 511-23.

14Short Title Catalogue of English Books, 1475-1640, second editiion [STC] 25752, sig. F7v-F9r. Quoted in Wilson, English Drama, pp. 76-7. Willis later objects by contrast to the corrupting influence of more recent plays.

15 See Schoenbaum, Compact Documentary Life, pp. 115-17.

16 Louis A. Montrose, "The purpose of playing: reflections on a Shakespearean anthropology," Helios 7 (1980), 51-74 at p. 64.

17 Francis Fergusson, The Idea of a Theater (Princeton University Press, 1949), Ch. 4, esp. pp. 114-19; O. B. Hardison, Christian Rite and Christian Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), pp. 287-92.

18 Montrose, "Purpose," p. 63.

19 See the pertinent reflections of Geoffrey Hartman on this question in Beyond Formalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 42-60 and 356-86.

20 This connection between religious and theatrical uses of the language of "incarnation" needs more extensive investigation. Though critics as diverse as Sigurd Burckhardt, Muriel Bradbrook, Graham Hough, and Murray Krieger, along with Montrose, have all used the term to describe Shakespeare's dramatic language, there has been no sustained attempt to follow its implications. This is the more strange in that the term is clearly one of central historical significance in the period. See Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton University Press, 1968); Bradbrook, The Rise of the Common Player (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962); Hough, "The allegorical circle," Critical Quarterly 3 (1916), 199-209; Krieger, A Window to Criticism: Shakespeare's Sonnets and Modern Poetics (Princeton University Press, 1964).

21 Hollander, Melodious Guile, p. 13.

22 For ideological criticisms of various stripes, including Marxism and some versions of "New Historicism," this element of self-consciousness has been a stumbling-block, since ideological criticism is heavily invested in the notion that the work has an "unconscious" which the critic uncovers. This difficulty has recurrently given rise to the notion of an "internal distance from ideology" by which poetry enjoys a special status as cultural production. See for instance Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), pp. 90-101; Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1976), pp. 89-101, and Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), pp. 125-8. Greenblatt in particular puts the matter strongly when he comments (p. 127) that in the "complex, limited institutional independence" of Shakespeare's theatre, "this marginal and impure autonomy, arises not out of an inherent, formal self-reflexiveness but out of an ideological matrix in which Shakespeare's theatre is created and re-created." I am suspicious of that "not/but." Reflexiveness can also operate on the "ideological matrix," including inherited ideologies bound up in the forms of fiction.

23 Most recently, John D. Cox in Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power (Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 64, arranges columns on his page to divide Egeon from his sons once more. But the play is highly suspicious of partitions like this, and always moves to break them down.

24 See T. W. Baldwin, On the Compositional Genetics of The Comedy of Errors (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965). Baldwin demonstrates that Shakespeare used Lambinus' edition of Plautus of 1576 with its commentary, along with T. Cooper's 1565 Thesaurus to gloss unfamilar terms in Plautus or Lambinus. It is therefore unlikely that the translation of Plautus' play by "W. W." (1595) was directly related to Shakespeare's composition.

25 The relevant lines are 37 "happy," 38 "hap," 65 "hope," 103 "helpful," 113 "hap," 120 "mishaps," 135 "hopeless," 138 "happy," 140 "Hapless," 141 "mishap," 151 "help," 157 "Hopeless and helpless." The pattern is striking once remarked. It recurs to some extent at the play's end.

26 Baldwin, Genetics, p. 207.

27 The name, in the form Dromo, is a common servant name in Terence, but not in Plautus. One of the servants in Lyly's Mother Bombie is called Dromio, which is no doubt where Shakespeare gets his name from. Lyly's Dromio does not enact his name, however.

28 Baldwin (Genetics, p. 116) points out that period Bibles contained maps of St. Paul's journeys, so that a visual element of mapping and lines may well have been part of the imaginative process of composition.

29 Lars Engle, personal communication. Note that it is not necessary for this to have been noticeable to either audience or readers: it is more like a deep schema confirming the play's concern with linearity as a narrative design. It is even, conceivably, a happy accident. Cf. Patricia Parker, "Elder and younger: the opening scene of The Comedy of Errors, " Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983), 325-7. Parker also notes some of the Biblical references with which I will shortly be concerned, and there are a good many others. In part I hope here to remedy her description of these as "still largely uninterpreted."

30 The image of Odysseus bound to that other mast to hear the Sirens' singing is relevant here.

31 The obscure joke about the parrot may go to the breakdown of linguistic mediation here: a parrot repeats its words without intending or knowing their meanings, and therefore can be (in)opportune automatically: it has its jokes thrust upon it, as it were. Here hanging and whipping is all one.

32II Cor. 11.14: "And no marvell: for Satan himself is transformed into an Angel of light" (Geneva Bible, 1560; "Angeli of light" is the page-heading on Y.Y.iir). Unless otherwise indicated, all Biblical quotations will be from the Geneva Bible.

33 Echoes of Ephesians turn up in the most unlikely places: as for example when Dromio says of Nell that "If my breast had not been made of faith, and my heart of steel, / She had transformed me to a curtal dog" (III.ii. 145-6), echoing Ephes. 6 just after the more often cited passages on marriage. Here an interesting question arises: are Shakespeare's characters to be understood as Christians or pagans? In accordance with a movement towards the sacramental for which I will argue shortly, they seem to move across a border during the play, beginning in the crypto-pagan ambience of romance and thence becoming more and more involved with a Christian vocabulary. "Salvation" in a strict theological sense is not the issue of the play, but the redemption of a viable community is (the impulse the play shares with medieval drama); hence the language of the play draws increasingly on Christian sources.

34 Rev. 20.1-3: "And I saw an angel come downe from heauen, hauing the kye of the bottomles pit, and a great chaîne in his hand./ And he toke the dragon, that olde serpe[n]t, which is the deuil and Satan, and he bounde him a thousand yeres,/ And cast him into the bottomles pit, and he shut him vp, and sealed the dore."

35 See Baldwin, Genetics, pp. 47-56. We should also remember that Paul wrote to Ephesus while in prison in Rome as the Gospel's "ambassadour in bondage," and his letter uses a language of death and liberation surely not unrelated to the death sentence he always expected. Cf. his speech to the Elders of Ephesus in Acts 20, esp. vv. 22-3.

36 Cf. Ephesians 14.4: "That we hence forth be no more children, wauering & caryed about with euerie winde of doctrine. . . ."

37 See Baldwin, Genetics, Ch. 12. Also Jonathan Crewe, "God or the good physician: the rational playwright in The Comedy of Errors" Genre 15 (1982), 209-10. Crewe's alternatives, focusing on the "rational" playwright, exclude one who relies on less rational means. A sacramentality that might mediate between the theological and the therapeutic is not discussed as a model for the action.

38 That Shakespeare was familiar with the scene of the "devil-porter" at the Gate of Hell we know from Macbeth. Again, I am not suggesting an allegorical reading here. It is more a question of the trains of thought and association producing the particular texture of the action. The scene is of course more immediately taken from Plautus' Amphitruo, but to confound a medieval echo of Hell's gates with the more classical obvious source would be characteristic of the method of this play.

39 Cf. Acts 12.11.

40 Though it is impossible that this is a recollection of Longinus' hull that saves the Homeric sailors from drowning, it is remarkable that Antipholus' erotic wonder at Luciana should come up with the same image of imminent yet screened dissolution.

41 A few lines earlier these same two tangents of "Error" had been brought within sight of one another:

Lay open to my earthy, gross conceit, Smothered in errors, feeble, shallow, weak, The folded meaning of your words' deceit. Against my soul's pure truth why labor you, To make it wander in an unknown field?


We should recall also the strange epithets used of this Antipholus in the Folio: "Antipholus Erotes" (I.ii.s.d.) and "Antipholis Errotis" (II.ii.s.d.). These may have developed from a suggestive confounding (contaminatio) of Plautus' meretrix "Erotium" with error and errancy: see Evans's note, Riverside Shakespeare, p. 85. The notion of love as a kind of fruitful misprision pervades Shakespeare's work. Are these traces of his "small Latin"?

42 Ephes. 5.28-31, a passage linking the estate of marriage to the mystical body of the Church, which is Christ's "owne flesh." Luciana has earlier (II.i) used other sections of this passage to argue for the supremacy of husbands, as has frequently been remarked, but the deeper poetics of the sacramental body in the play's use of the passage have been less noted.

43 Two relevant connections can only tease us at this point: first that Ephesus was the site of the Great Temple of Diana the Mother in classical times (this was common knowledge, but also particularly available through the tale of Apollonius of Tyre that underlies Pericles); second that the Third General Council at Ephesus (A.D. 431) declared as doctrine, contrary to the assertion of Nestorius and his followers, that Christ did develop as a human child in Mary's body, and that she was consequently theotokos, the bearer of God. Whether this is design or happy accident on Shakespeare's part we cannot know, but once more we discover the confounding of a classical with a Christian motif in the play. The coincidence of Virgin and Mother in Ephesus is also relevant to Pericles.

44 The opening scene suggests the twins are only 23. See Baldwin, Genetics, pp. 107-9.

45 Lest this seem overly ingenious for such a standard "round figure," there is the page in the Bishops' Bible titled "The order of times," showing the timetable of Paul's evangelical career: its first entry gives the figure "xxxiii" as "The yeres of Christes incarnation." Before this comes a map of "the peregrination or iourney of Saint Paul" (Geneva has one of these also), and after, the opening of Romans. See Bishops' Bible, 1569, sig. K2V.

46 Gosson, Plays Confuted in Five Actions, quoted in Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge University Press, 1974), p. 73.

47 Just these connections are revisited in an even more daring fashion in Twelfth Night, where the sense of wavering boundary is also present ("Do I stand there?") as though, as in love, the steady "wal" of the self could no longer be policed, and where the reminiscence of a recognition effected by tokens is made marvelously redundant ("My father had a mole upon his brow"), given that the fact of the answering body supersedes all symbols: "An apple cleft in twain is not more twin than these two creatures." The daring oscillation of gender identity in that play adds an extra pleat to the dialectic.

48 Antipholus (usually spelled "Antipholis" in the Folio text until II.ii.110) is probably a metathesis for Antiphilos, a Greek masculine to parallel Latin Antiphila, a name to which Shakespeare had access, and whose gloss as a "significant" name was available, in the learned editions of Terence—e.g. 1552 Paris—perhaps taught to Shakespeare in school. Antipholus thus presumably implies something like "mutual affection." Baldwin remarks (pp. 100-1) that "Shakespeare evidently expected his Antipholi to signify amor . . . reciprocus, 'reciprocal love.'"

49 That the pair "feared/embraced" should correspond with the class distinction between a kitchen wench and a gentle matron is indicative of how Shakespeare's language remains open to some kinds of transformation but not others. Still, even Nell becomes "a fat friend" at the last.

50 The feast that failed outside Antipholus' door in III.i opens with a friendly dispute over whether "flesh" or "words" make the successful social occasion (11. 19-29). Only the play's end brings them together. On the importance of eating in the play, see Joseph Candido, "Dining out in Ephesus: food in The Comedy of Errors" Studies in English Literature [SEL] 30 (1990), 217-41.

51 From respectively: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, Othello, Troilus and Cressida, Twelfth Night, Much Ado about Nothing, Hamlet. Shakespeare's attraction to paradox, though it is not the first thing that strikes us since his paradoxes are not pointed in an astringently intellectual way, brings him closer to company with Donne and other emergent poets of the 1590s than we might have thought. The difference seems to be in his conception of the ontology of language in general, so that it feels a very different thing in his hands: it is not so much a set of suasive or heuristic tools, still less a suite of ornaments or a pack of social cards (though he can use it in any of these ways), as a capacious surface on which the soul's currents work themselves into expression.

52 Rosalie Colie's marvelous book on the Renaissance tradition of paradox, Paradoxia Epidemica (Princeton University Press, 1966), discusses Shakespeare's use of paradox mostly in the context of "affirming what is 'not'" (Ch. 7) or "reason in madness" (Ch. 15). The sense of affirmation behind apparent contradiction which can often be felt in comedy is less canvassed.

Source: "Compounding 'Errors,'" in Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 63-92.


Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare's Histories