T. G. Bishop, Case Western Reserve University
The sea, in fact, is that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilisation has emerged, and into which, unless saved by the effort of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse.
W. H. Auden
Let it suffice that we have not arrived at a wall, but at interminable oceans.
The aim of this chapter is to argue that Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors provides us with an explicitly germinal model of his dramatic practice at once in its narrative, poetic and social dimensions, and that the conclusion of the work turns to the dramatic dynamic of wonder in order to enact Shakespeare's own recognition of his practice. In order to approach this intricate nexus, we must first consider the larger question of the institution for and out of which Shakespeare wrote, to suggest how he responded to changes in English society and culture by reframing the question of the work that narrative does, in effect retroping old plots in the new context of the professional theatre. Shakespeare's work is in this way informed by a revisionary conservatism by which he self-consciously subjects the stories he inherits to analysis and critique in order to regenerate them for present uses. Apparently exiled from the plays, wonder returns in the end to recoup and transfigure the scattered fragments in a reunion that speaks also to the function of dramatic narrative in Shakespeare's hands. The hyperbolic and overdetermined spectacle of wonder thus invoked becomes a site of plenitude informed in its forcefulness by the resistance of the very skepticism it has had to overcome.
Complex factors determine the transition from late medieval to Elizabethan drama.1 We need to note first some significant shifts in the character of performance as a social occasion. The medieval plays . . . emerge from a community-based, large-scale organization of a recurrent and participatory nature. They are part of a perennial festival where plans are laid and expenses defrayed collectively through guilds and other associations. A substantial part of the purpose and pleasure of this theatre is likewise communal: there is a common involvement in a common project that aims to expound a common knowledge.2 Though economic motives could nerve the festivals as potential sources of trade and prestige, they were not principally commercial ventures. Indeed, the large cost of mounting them at a time of economic difficulty for many late sixteenth-century towns may have contributed to their disappearance.3
While the influence of the medieval festival plays on aspects of Elizabethan drama has been disputed, it is clear that the overall shapes of the two institutions and of their characteristic products are very different. The medieval plays are carefully attuned to their particular institutional context, and hence too specialized to provide a model of dramatic form flexible enough for a secular, professional theatre. Although Emrys Jones, for instance, has argued cogently for some similarities in structure, such as between the Passion of Christ and the baiting of Gloucester in Shakespeare's Henry VI Part Two, even such striking parallels are largely a question of local patterns of action rather than of a general indebtedness in conception.4
The institution of the professional acting company, its attachment to specific patrons, and the eventual settlement of at least some companies in permanent, continuously running theatre venues in the later sixteenth century determined a new shape for the social occasion of performance. At these explicitly commercial concerns, audiences pay the performers not the project. Performances, even before the monarch, are in an important way services for customers, and the nature and quality of the performance impinges not on the honor of a community, but on the commercial viability of the company and the livelihoods of its members. The audience need have no quotidian, community-based relation to the...
(The entire section is 16,460 words.)