So I’m a year into my time as an “All but dissertation” PhD candidate. Yay! I’ve spent a year reading and writing without the threat of comprehensive exams, which has been a pleasure, and even though I can’t say that I’ve put a complete chapter “to bed”, I’m proud of my work-in-progress. The most cohesive section that I’ve written so far is a piece on The Comedy of Errors, which, in its most primitive iteration, was an exercise to put into practice the research that I compiled on early modern medical tracts earlier this year.
I submitted the idea in abstract to The Symposium on Reading and Health in Early Modern Europe at Newcastle University, and was invited to give the paper in person. I reworked and refined the paper to argue that in Shakespeare’s comedies, the playwright shows individuals as inextricably social figures and that, consequently, their humours cannot exist in a vacuum. I discussed how Shakespeare depicts humoural shifts as the result of interpersonal interaction, and that the bodies of the individual and those interacting with him/her can be close-read like texts for evidence of these shifts. The paper was more esoteric than I’d like my critical style to be, but has been excellent practice and really helpful in getting my mind around bigger ideas that I’ll be tackling throughout my dissertation.
After visiting Newcastle for the first time, and trying to understand the Geordies, I headed to Cambridge to catch up with my dear friend Charlotte Ellen, who was in rehearsals to play the role of Dromio of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. Seeing the wonderfully lighthearted production, I found truth in Wordsworth’s words: “We murder to dissect”. Spending the past year close-reading passages to explore the darker side of affect in Shakespeare’s comedies and this one in particular, I realized that I had lost sight of the lighter, brighter tones that dominate the comedies as a whole. As an homage to the genre that I’ve been “murdering” in order to fulfil the tall order of producing an original piece of Shakespeare criticism, I’d like to offer reviews of the CSF’s Comedy of Errors, as well as another post reviewing Oxford Shakespeare Company’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Going against my usual darker readings of the plays, these reviews will focus on the lighter side of Shakespearean comedy in performance.
I’ve been quite outspoken in my belief that we should not subordinate Shakespeare’s text to performance, because only by reading the text can we unfold Shakespeare’s countless potential meanings at once. On paper, I can mull over a word or phrase for hours but by contrast, I can’t press pause on live performance, and a director must confine his or her production to one interpretation at a time: Does the ghost of Banquo sit at Macbeth’s table, or should the seat be left empty to imply Macbeth’s insanity? Should Perdita depict a shadow of the dead Mamillius, or should the characters remain separate, played by separate actors? Is it Lear’s fool, or strictly his endeared “fool”, Cordelia, who is hanged?). Despite my bias for Shakespeare on the page, I have to admit that what I miss out on in only reading the plays is the physical act of performance. The two productions that I watched in England have reminded me how physicality is such an invaluable tool for bringing Shakespeare’s comedies to life.
In Cambridge, Charlotte brought this physicality to life in her role as Dromio. In one scene, she performed acrobatic feats off the wooden slats at the back of the stage in order to hide in plain view from Antipholus who, upon finding his servant, would most certainly beat her. The trauma scholar in me tends to focus on Dromio’s fear of beating, but the Bardolator on vacation was just happy to be part of the happy audience, laughing in appreciation of the dramatic irony. Charlotte’s fellow Dromio kept this physicality going, and the two actresses, upon their characters reuniting at the end of the play, crossed the stage by cartwheeling over each other’s bodies. Because the two actresses didn’t look alike, the audience spent the earlier part of the play suspending their disbelief that these two were twins. This cartwheel action, though, made their twinship believable, and in a flurry of burgundy costumes, the two embodied the play’s spirit of mistaken identities by blurring the line where one Dromio ended and the other began.
The production was full of such physicality, bringing the text to life. For instance, they had Luciana, singleton sister to Adriana, binge-eating cupcakes while her sister droned on about her troubles as a married woman. Luciana took such refuge in those dainty cupcakes, and the frustrated Adriana closed the scene while stamping all over them. I derived special pleasure out of this moment, having seen the tech rehearsal the day before, in which there was much discussion over what baked good would provide the most laughs when stepped on.
The funniest use of physical comedy goes to Doctor Pinch and his codpiece. I’ll be honest, I thought Charlotte was crazy when I found her up at 7 am, sewing together primary-coloured felt; it looked more like a child’s toy than a body part! Let me tell you, though: it got laughs! The actor playing Pinch thrust his hips to the beat of a bongo, infusing the ridiculous character with sexuality, while bringing up one of the play’s central questions: who’s the crazy one? Who is the doctor, and who is the patient, or is Shakespeare teaching us to blur the line between caregivers and genuine quacks? As much as I’d love to get this production on DVD so I can relieve the moment that Pinch made his way into the audience, it’s impossible to relive that sense of pee-your-pants laughter I felt as the actor shook his money-maker!