Friday, February 28, 2014

Binary Opposition in the Comedy of Errors

An Actor's Analysis of Shakespeare's First Play


By GJ Gillespie

As members of the species called the "story telling animal" we long to enhance our sense of self and society through hearing tales that provide templates for thinking about our place in the universe. Shakespeare's ability to tackle profound psychological and existential questions that haunt humanity has long made him a celebrated literary prophet.  Performed for centuries his cannon of tragic and comic plays are as popular as ever.

Over the years I have seen most of Shakespeare's commonly produced plays -- some plays multiple times. So it was a delight when I had a chance to act in a production at our university. The experience of moving from fan to actor provided new insights into the brilliance of the literature. A record of these musings may help others appreciate the power of story to reshape human identity.
Prof. Gillespie as Egeon, father of the twins

Isaac Asimov calls the Comedy of Errors, thought Shakespeare’s first play, a “total farce”.  The play tells the story of one day in the life of a separated family of twins who happen to arrive at the same city unaware.

(Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Works of Shakespeare, Wings Books, New York, 1970. P. 169.)

Audiences laugh at the characters' implausible mishaps and mistaken identities and are warmed by the happy ending when the family is re-united. Surprisingly we are not only entertained but aesthetically elevated. We leave the play house with a renewed faith in the possibility of reconciliation. We are moved beyond what we would expect from witnessing a series of jokes by laughable characters.

Because the play, perhaps more than others, ideally models the structure of drama it is worth a closer look.

By pairing contrasting images in sequences Shakespeare orchestrate a story of salvation, culturally familiar to original audiences but neglected by us today.

Applying methods for rhetorical analysis to the play reveals more depth than might be expected of a farce.

Cast of Northwest University's Comedy of Errors November 2014
Uncovering what is beneath the surface is best achieved by focusing on the character of Egeon, father of the twins, who appears in act one to present his apology and explain how the family was separated, then again in act five in a final defense awaiting execution.

The lines for the "hapless Egeon" are tragic and his tone serious. His pleas are juxtaposed with the silly jokes and slapstick banter of the other characters. We could explain his melancholy as foil to amplify the overall hilarity.  Or we could see him as the scapegoat of the story, a Christ figure, who fulfills the mythical aspirations of the viewers that the conflicts and confusions of the human condition might find happy resolution.

In what follows let me call attention to key contrasts that amplify the humor of the plot and set up the pleasing denouement in the final act.

First I will sum up comic devices used in the play, second reveal the structure of binary oppositions that make up the conflict, finally examine the meaning of key metaphors, devices and props that are imbibed with theology meaning.

There are two theories that explain humor, incongruity and superiority.

First, when a person recognizes that two states are out of sync or contradict one another he or she experiences the pleasure or delight of knowing. This "now I get it" or appreciation of the joke, permits the conscious mind to rise above the irony and gain, what Kenneth Burke calls, a perspective by incongruity.

(Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History: Third Edition with an Afterward, University of California Press, Berkley, 1984.)

The enjoyment of the incongruous humor -- signaled by an outward laugh or inner delight -- bridges the kind of mental gaps that the mind faces daily in trying to grasp recognizable patterns in the chaos of the world.  Humor makes the world feel connected. The knack for amusement in all things, not taking the absurdities of life too seriously, to laugh and enjoy even in the face of hardship, is a life skill aided by playwrights like Shakespeare who understood our need to experience the gestalt of psychological wholeness.

Irony is the comic device in which the recipient is meant to believe the opposite of what is said. Throughout the play the audiences see what the character’s miss. The characters say one thing, but we know that the opposite is true. Adrianna calls Antipholus of Syracuse “husband” when we know that Antipholus of Syracuse just arrived in town.

The second way to explain humor is showing superiority over a victim. Much slapstick humor is funny because we tend to laugh at the plight of characters who suffer indignities or unlikely hardships. Usually the victim’s plight is exaggerated to the point of absurdity. The Three Stooges, a popular 1940’s film series about three goofy friends who constantly get into trouble, illustrate this second device. Unlike our normal reaction of seeing a person physically hurt, the context of the farce causes amusement. When Mo pokes Larry in the eyes with his fingers we laugh. We enjoy our position of superiority over the poor sap who is the brunt of the joke. 

The amusement of feeling superior is the basis for jokes that make fun of people in other groups from our own and is the basis for sexist or racist humor. We may make fun of people who live in another city or who have a different occupation, language or social standing. The comic television series Portlandia constantly makes fun of people who live in Portland, showing the viewer’s superiority of living in their home city that isn’t “crazy”.  In the same way, we may make fun of people or classes who have power over us. Our boss, professor or the ruling political party may have power over us, but we compensate by laughing at them. 

Another factor of humor is exaggeration. Jokes may be overstatements, in which something is said that is far less than it actually is and understatement in which something is said to be far less than it actually is. Because we know that in actuality reality differs from what is stated exaggeration feeds our sense of irony.

In The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare utilizes all comic devices, especially exaggeration.  In Act one Egeon is brought before the Duke of Ephesus, charged with the crime of trespassing. We learn Ephesian law forbids any citizen of Syracuse from setting foot in their town. Egeon, a citizen of Syracuse, is on a journey searching for his lost twin sons. The punishment is a large fine or death. Although formally wealthy, Egeon has spent all of his money on his quest, and because he has no friends in town to pay the fine he faces execution at sundown. He seems resigned to die, preferring death to his unresolved hardships.

The Duke is curious what those hardships might be and asks for a defense for why he came to the forbidden town. Egeon then goes into a long monologue providing the audience with the backstory. He explains how he became separated from his wife and one of his twin sons in a shipwreck. It turns out that each twin son was paired with a servant who also had a twin brother.

Grace and Nathan play Luciana and Antiphoulus
We could find humor in his unlikely hardships, but the tone of the text doesn’t seem funny. The tone and length of the monolog is problematic for the actor who must win the attention of the audience. An exaggerated delivery with vocal variety and sensory showing is key.

Perhaps the original audience would find humor in an old man telling an absurd story of heroically surviving a shipwreck. Exaggerated travel tales would be common entertainment in pubs in the 16th century. A modern comic parallel could be how we might laugh at an old man saying “young people have it easy today. In my day we had to walk five miles to school barefoot in the snow….” We put ourselves in contrast with the person with whom we laugh at.

Humor is pleasing because discordant neural synapses are connected by a joke. It is mental stimulation. The opposite is boredom. The elevating mental connections that occur in irony are similar to the engagement of dramatic storytelling.

In his study of cultural myths anthropologist Levi Strauss discovered the basic structure of binary opposition between opposing forces and people in any good story. He theorized that in order to make sense of the world human beings notice what is familiar and contrast accepted, comfortable assumptions with what is foreign and abnormal. Binary opposition forms the basis for cultural values. We know what is bad by contrasting it with what is good. Stories follow a structure in which conflict between two forces is resolved, thus providing the needed mental glue to bind together what would otherwise be inscrutable.
(Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. Claire Jacobson. New York: Basic Books, 1963.)

The Comedy of Errors has binary opposition between all levels possible dramatic conflict. There is struggle between social class, social order, societies, nature and supernatural forces, between family members, siblings, between agents of commerce, slave- master, husband-wife, male-female romance, and sacred order versus the profane order. By the end of the play all of these factors of disorder are resolved.

In Acts Two to Four we find other contrasting images that form the basis for dramatic interest as well as humor.

Antipholus of Syracuse vs Antipholus of Ephesus.
Dromio of Syracuse vs Dromio of Ephesus.
Merchant demanding payment vs unwilling customer
Antipholus of Ephesus vs his wife Adrianna (who each suppose the other is unfaithful.)
Adrianna vs both Dromios.
Antipholus of Ephesus vs both Dromios.
Servants inside the locked house vs Dromio of Ephesus outside
Sacrilege of magic vs sacredness of holiness.

Besides dramatic contrasts that demand action to achieve a sense of resolution, key devices, metaphors and props in the play also reveal a binary structure. The subject of a play about two sets of twins is itself binary. Identical twins are two distinct persons who appear exactly alike. The presence of twins invites us to consider what makes up personal identity. When we can’t tell the difference between the two we laugh at the limitations of our perception. How do we know what is authentic reality when we can’t trust even our eyes?

Shakespeare’s choice in naming the sons is a binary pun. The Greek word alludes to equal weights set on a scale. “Antipholus” means "opposed in balance". 

(Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Works of Shakespeare, Wings Books, New York, 1970. P. 174.)

One of the most common questions for dramaturges and audiences of the Comedy alike is why the twins – as well as the twin servants -- share the same name? A line by Ageon states that as babies the twins were indistinguishable “but by names”. That implies that the names should differ. But, throughout the dialogue both brothers are called Antipholus. 


Some suggest that most of the jokes in the farce would be impossible if the brothers had different names, so that we must suspend disbelief and suppress our desire for a reason. It could be that the brothers were known by a common last name, such as “Jones here did this…”

Perhaps an internal rationale for the shared names came about from the confusion of the shipwreck. If the babies were identical, how would the parents know the difference, especially in a crisis? When Amelia bound one son with his servant pair to one end of the mast -- and Egeon did the same with the other children -- each parent could have thought that they cared for the same twin. Egeon seems to have figured that because his wife favored “the latter born” that she chose to bind herself to him. But, what if Amelia chose the other twin (we don’t know his name) and Egeon had custody of the twin named Antipholus? After the separation the babies grew up using the same name. That could explain why the two leading characters are called by the same name.

A shipwreck mix up might also explain why the twin servants are both called Dromio, except that Egeon tells us specifically that the servant of the Antipholus in his care was “reft of his brother, yet retained his name.” Why the twin servants had the same name is left unanswered in the text. It could be that either the twin servants were called by their common last name or given the same first name as a joke or for some other reason. There are modern examples of parents who chose to name identical twins by the same name. In one example the parents named the sons after the father and gave each a different middle name.

(Allison Hurtado, “Twins given same name choose similar careers”, Ahwatukee Foothills News, Phoenix, AZ  September 26, 2010. Date accessed February 11, 2014. < http://www.ahwatukee.com/ahwatukee_medical/article_2ee564ca-c764-11df-a768-001cc4c03286.html > )

All identical twins share hilarious stories of being mixed up with their sibling. Twins who share the same name report that they are constantly mistaken for the other and usually assume middle or nick names.

That two people who look alike might also share the same name is humorous because it violates our expectations of reality. We expect that brothers, especially twins, will have different names. Encountering twin brothers who share the same name jolts our comfortable ways of thinking.

The main question behind the conflict, what dramaturges call the Point of Attack of the Major Dramatic Question, centers on reconciling identity in a confused and displaced world.  This central question is expressed directly by Antipholus of Syracuse who says: 

"To me she speaks; she moves me for her theme. What, was I married to her in my dream? Or sleep I now and think I hear all this? What error drives our eyes and ears amiss? Until I know this sure uncertainty I;ll entertain the offered fallacy."

Then again in Act 2, Sc 2:
“Am I in earth in heaven or in hell? Sleeping or waking mad or well-advised? Know unto these and to myself disguised? I'll say as they say, and persevere so, and in this mist at all adventures go."

Act 2. sc 2. Later he questions his grasp on reality in a musing to himself. "The fellow is distract, and so am I, And here we wander in illusion." Act 4. Sc 3. Each of these sentiments show the kind of rising action that perplexes each character.

Moreover, we can identify crucial props used or referred to in the play that illustrate the binary structure between opposing forces and strategies. We find these objects mediate binary conflict experienced by characters.  

The spare mast that is used as a raft after the shipwreck and the rescue ships and ship quartered by Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse away from the wicked city are instruments of salvation throughout the play that to take agents to safety. The characters caught in the middle of conflict look for the raft or ship to save them.  
The 1000 marks and gold coins illustrate conflict over economic power.
The chain and ring symbolize familial commitments that are quested.
The rope used by Antipholus of Ephesus to beat Dromio symbolizes class stratification between master and servant.

Probably the best symbol of the play’s main dramatic question is the locked door keeping Antipholus of Ephesus out of his house. It is a physical obstacle to resolution of all conflict and best illustrates the drama’s binary structure.

He demands a crow bar – symbolizing the conflict of using physical power -- to break down the door, however is diverted as the play’s conflicts rise.

More than any other character, the concept of binary opposition defines the patriarch of the Comedy of Errors. Egeon might seem more of a tragic character than a comic one, except that he lives in a world of highly implausible contrasts.  In Act one we find incongruity between the following elements.

The powerful Duke and the hapless Egeon
The feuding cities of Ephesus and Syracuse
Egeon pleading for mercy and his resignation to death
Egeon and his wife separated during the first two thirds of her pregnancy.
Wealthy Egeon’s twin sons and the twin sons of a poor woman
Stormy sea and calm sea
Half of the mast split into two by the mighty rock and the other half
His wife picked up by fishermen of Corinth and his own rescue ship headed in an opposite direction
Egeon and natural and supernatural forces that cause him trouble

The choice of Egeon for the father of the twins is also relevant to the theme. Egeon's name is associated with the Aegean Sea. According to Greek Myth Aegeus king of Athens gave his name to the sea. The etymology of the word means "of a goat".  

(K. M. Sheard. Liewellyn's Complete Book of Names, Liewellyn Publications, A Division of Likewellyn Worldwide Ltd. Woodbury, Minnesota. 2011. 35)

The sea is a symbol of chaos and suffering. His raft is split by the mighty rock, from which the name of the Aegean sea is derived. As a symbol of the fallen world of human suffering, Egeon is father of the twins. Other sources claim that the Aegean derived it's name from a island -- The mighty rock -- that split the mask -- looked like a goat and the Greek root for goat is agea.

Egeon is the play's scape goat. He faces execution similar to the crucifixion of Christ. He is placed in tragic opposition to the other farcical characters.  In act five the play’s characters gather to witness the execution in what would be an expiatory, sacrificial rite.  In The Rhetoric of Religion literary theorist Kenneth Burke explains one mode of human motivation as the need to transfer guilt onto a scapegoat who must be destroyed so that the community might experience the bond of collective redemption. Egeon’s plight as a displaced parent searching for lost sons makes him an innocent victim whose death would be all the more pitiful.
Joshua and Nathan play Dromio and Antipholus


While Aegean is a symbol of the human condition, and tossed about by the chaos of suffering and powerlessness, the Duke is a symbol of social order, civilization and divine justice.

More binary dramatic action is revealed in Egeon’s view of himself as in opposition to natural and cosmic forces. Egeon personifies the heavens, the sun, time, fortune and the gods as all conspiring against him. The Duke refers to the old man’s plight as a result of the fates. “Hapless Egeon, whom the fates have mark'd to bear the extremity of dire mishap!”

Egeon is the victim chosen in the plot to bear the burden of death to uphold the social order. Egeon’s plight gives the play’s beginning and end symmetry.  The drama begins with Egeon’s defense before the Duke and it ends with his last plea before the Duke. Egeon sees who he thinks is his lost son and asks permission to speak to him, hoping that his son will pay the fine and save his life. But, when he speaks to Antipholus of Ephesus he is un-recognized and rebuffed. In a climate of rejection the Duke concludes that the old man must be senile.

Egeon 's sufferings are varied. He faces execution, is unable to pay his ransom because he spent all of his money searching for his lost sons, he is un-recognized by his son who is his last hope of redemption. The ravages of old age he endures with its afflictions and mental collapses seems oddly paired with the farcical speech of Antipholus of Syracuse in the final act raging against his comrades of falsely accruing him of madness.

After hearing the accusers and defenders of Antipholus of Syracuse the Duke concludes that everyone has lost the ability to reason. “I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup.”  This is an allusion to the drink of a monster in the Iliad that turns men into animals, so we see the binary pair of the irrationality of animal contrasted with sober reasoning of a human, such as the Duke.

Jordan Thomas as Amelia
In act five we learn that the mother of the twins, Amelia, was separated from her son and servant child soon after being rescued. She assumed the position of Abbess of a convent in Ephesus. The biblical city of Ephesus was said to be a place of sorcery and Antipholus of Syracuse tells us that he fears the power of witches and spirits present there. Here we find another feature of binary opposition in the plot – the contrast between profane sorcery and the sacred realm represented by the Abbess and her effort to give sanctuary to Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse who flee to the convent for protection.

The climax of the play occurs immediately after Antipholus denies knowing Egeon three times. His denial might remind the audience of Saint Peter’s thrice denial of knowing Christ.  Egeon is left in despair. From his perspective he has been betrayed like Christ was by Peter. But, he is soon relieved when both sets of twin brothers appear together on stage and are recognized. Then to his delight the Abbess arrives to bring happy news that the entire family has actually been re-united. The Abbess banishes confusion that has caused everyone trouble to announce salvation.

Misunderstandings are mended and the Duke, who we learn was the benefactor of Antipholus of Ephesus, is overcome by the reunion and pardons Egeon who rejoins his wife. Egeon’s defense in act one begins by telling the Duke that he lived in joy with his wife before the separation. Now the play ends with his joyful reunion. Ideally following the arch of dramatic structure, the play returns us to a new state of equilibrium.

Finally the Abbess Amelia invites everyone to a reunion feast. In the last lines the two Dromio’s share jokes and circle each other as if looking into a mirror. The character’s exit in joy. The story ends with a feast, symbolically alluding to the idealized order envisioned by the biblical prophet Isaiah and the writer of the Book of Revelation who speak of a divine meal awaiting the righteous in heaven. The audience is warmed by the archetypical hope that one day humanity will celebrate victory over displacement, confusion and evil by joining together in a heavenly meal. The lost have been found. Everyone is safely home. The theme of the play that celebrates reconciled relationships turns the tragedy of our broken world into a comedy of joy.