The Comedy of Errors is William Shakespeare‘s shortest play, and one the earliest written (first performed in 1594, though not published until the First Folio in 1623). The comedy, based entirely on the happenstances occurring when two identical twins that had been separated at birth end up in the same place, interacting with the same sets of people, unbeknownst to all involved. The resulting interplay of attempted seduction, claims of infidelity, theft, beatings and seeming madness includes extensive use of puns, and can be classified as slapstick. The plot elements are taken by Shakespeare from two Roman comedies of Plautus (especially Menaechmi).
The Comedy of Errors, though certainly funny, is usually considered one of the least substantial of Shakespeare’s plays, lacking any deep philosophical idea; though it does, as stated by John Masefield in the Monthly Letter, show a “fine, sustained power of dramatic construction…The closeness and firmness of the dramatic texture is the work of an acutely clear mind.” It is a not a character driven play; instead this is all about an intricate plot that amuses. Also, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the use of beautiful lyrical language abounds, such as here from Antipholus of Ephesus:
He that commons me to mine owne content, Commends me to the thing I cannot get: I to the world am like a drop of water, That in the Ocean seekes another drop, Who falling there to finde his fellow forth, (Unseene, inquisitive) confounds himselfe. So I, to finde a Mother and a Brother, In quest of them (unhappie) loose my selfe.
More beautiful use of language, in this case showing the jealous heart. Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, in speaking with Luciana, her sister, says in words that so many women have felt:
His company must do his minions grace, Whil’st I at home starve for a merrie looke: Hath homelie age th’alluring beauty tooke From my poore cheeke? then he hath wasted it. Are my discourses dull? Barren my wit? If voluble and sharpe discourse be mar’d, Unkindnesse blunts it more than marble hard. Doe their gay vestments his affections baite? That’s not my fault, hee’s master of my state. What ruines are in me that can be found, By him not ruin’d? Then he is the ground Of my defeaters. My decayed faire, A sunnie looke of his, would soone repaire. But, too unruly Deere, he breakes the pale, And feedes from home; poore I am but stale.
Luciana replies with wisdom:
How manie fond fooles serve mad Jelousie?
Speaking of wisdom, the merchant Balthazar says:
For slander lives upon succession; For ever hows’d where it gets possession.
As the interplay ramps up, with confusion all around, Antipholus of Syracuse’s attendant, Dromio of Syracuse, after being beaten for an incorrectly perceived wrong, says:
Was there ever anie man thus beaten out of season, When in the why and the wherefore, is neither rime nor reason.
What beautiful wording!
Next, to get an idea of the type of light banter that lightens the play, here is some conversation between Antipholus of Syracuse and his attendant Dromio:
Ant. Why is Time such a niggard of haire, being (as it is) so plentifull an excrement? Dro. Because it is a blessing that hee bestowes on beasts, and what he hath scanted men in haire, her hath given them in wit. Ant. Why, but theres manie a man hath more haire then wit. Dro. Not a man of those but he hath the wit to lose his haire. Ant. Why thou didst conclude hairy men plain dealers without wit. … Dro. Time himselfe is bald, and there- fore to the worlds end, will have bald followers.
What follows is some of the best wording in the play, Adriana’s sad musing to who she thinks is her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, though of course it really is Antipholus of Syracuse:
The time was once, when thou un-urg’d wouldst vow, That never words were musicke to thine eare, That never object pleasing in thine eye, That never touch well welcome to thy hand, That never meat sweet-savour’d in thy taste, Unless I spake, or look’d, or touch’d or carved to thee.
Some humor indeed, when Dromio of Syracuse thinks he is to be forced into being married to… let’s just say someone large!
Dro. Marry sir, she’s the Kitchin wench, and al grease, and I know not what use to put here too, but to make a Lampe of her, and run here by her owne light… If she lives till doomesday, she’l burne a weeke longer than the whole World. … Ant. Then she beares some bredth? Dro. No longer from head to foot, then from hippe to hippe. she is sphericall, like a globe … Dro. As from a Beare a man would run for life, So flie I from her that would be my wife.
Those familiar with the Limited Editions Club (LEC) are certainly familiar with the illustrator of this edition, John Austen. Austen (1886-1948) illustrated six books for the LEC between 1931 and 1941. For this edition, his illustrations were cut in wood, and printed directly from the wood-engravings by R. & R. Clark in Edinburgh. Then color was added to them, through four and five printings, each color being cut in linoleum by Austen. In the Monthly Letter, Mr. Austen tells us:
I wished to present my illustrations without the intervention of any process engraver; so that nothing should stand between me and the reader but the printer: and I also wanted to make my designs agree with, and be subservient to, the printed page which they were to face, since no illustration should dare, or could hope, to turn the reader’s attention from the magic of Shakespeare’s poetry.
There was only one way bu which I could accomplish these ends and that was by using the medium of wood engraving: drawing my designs on the wood and cutting them myself, and giving the printer hand-pulled proofs which he could follow faithfully in finally printing the complete edition.
The subject was to me a delightful one, and every cut made with the burin a real pleasure I imagined these puppets of mine as living in the unreal world of the stage; and I devised for them settings which would not, I hoped, distract attention from their lively antics: using simple architectural devices to suggest the various changes of scene from one act to the other.
The Monthly Letter exclaims that there is “an antique gayety in these pictures, a pleasing effect upon the eye…” Though these are not among my favorite illustrations for this set, they certainly do have an amusing quality.
About the Edition
- Part of the 1939/1940 37 volume The Plays of William Shakespeare by the Limited Editions Club
- Designed by Bruce Rogers
- Edited and amended by Herbert Farjeon
- Illustrations from drawings by John Austen
- Preface to the play (in the prospectus) by John Masefield, from “Shakespeare” (Henry Holt).
- Printed at the Press of A. Colish in New York
- Type is an 18 point close facsimile of Janson, made by the Lanston Monotype Company, with the italic used being a creation of the Monotype Company since Rogers did not like the Janson 18 point italic; italic small capitals were made by re-cutting the Italic capitals of the Monotype Garamond Bold in a special size and with slight alterations of a few of the characters with a close new type face
- New paper created for this edition by the Worthy Paper Company of Springfield
- The binding was done by Russell-Rutter Company in New York
- Bound with gilt tops and uncut edges in backs of American linen, with the titles stamped in gold on the spine
- Cover design based on a decoration wall design in a house that that Shakespeare was thought to have stayed at frequently (a friend of his)
- 8 3/4″ x 13″, 63 pages
- Limited to 1950 copies
Pictures of the Edition
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