The bad brother, the not so bad brother and the quite nice brothers
The Comedy of Errors
That was going to be the title of this text because while reading the play I took a dislike to Antipholus of Ephesus. He calls his wife a strumpet and a harlot, at the least bad temper he’s off to the town courtesan, and he beats his poor servant Dromio.
Well, so does Antipholus of Syracuse, but he’s friends with his Dromio as well, jokes with him, talks to him.
Having just watched the BBC production from 1983 I’m at a loss what to think, what to write. Michael Kitchen as the Antipholi is extremely likeable in both roles. Amiable, kind, melancholy, well-spoken in love as Antipholus of Syracuse. Sarcastic, funny, justifiably withering in comments against those he believes have wronged him as Antipholus of Ephesus. Roget Daltry is adorable (sorry, soapy word, but he is!) as the Dromios, so I still like them both.
Right. We have the Globe production from 2014 to watch. Judgment pending until then. Back soon.
Well. That helped not at all. Many of the Globe’s productions are slapstick and so is this one. Often very funny but not subtle in the least, making no use of the many emotional nuances that make this play (and all of Shakespeare’s comedies) so much more than zany. It’s enjoyable and colourful and there’s a lot of shouting and waving about of arms and running about the stage, but none of that clarifies my dilemma. Is Antipholus of Ephesus mean? Is Antipholus of Syracuse less mean? Are both Dromios nice?
The answer, if there is one, might be found – oh revolutionary thought! – in the text.
I’ll start with Antipholus of Ephesus. Before we meet him we learn from his wife Adriana and her sister Luciana that Antipholus spends much of his time away from home. This pains his wife but seems to his sister-in-law completely natural. Since this is an amusing but disturbing exchange about the role of wives in relations to their lords and masters, the husbands, it opens the path to a man who in his first line when we encounter him in Act 3.1 calls his wife ‘shrewish’ but is having a gold necklace made for her. He then calls his servant an ass, but that’s not too great an insult, one to which, along with beatings, Dromio is accustomed. That Antipholus shows irritation at being locked out of his own home is not surprising but when he says, ‘I know a wench of excellent discourse’, and proposes to give her the chain, ‘Be it nothing but to spite my wife - ’ that’s when I start to dislike him. Because I already like Adriana. He then sends Dromio for a rope to ‘bestow / Among my wife and her confederates’ (Act 4.1). To whip them? Tie them up? Hang them? He later calls Dromio (of Syracuse), who doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, a madman, a peevish sheep and a drunken slave, but entrusts him with the key to his treasure chest at home. When his own Dromio comes with the rope, Antipholus beats him and Dromio complains at length of all the beatings he has had to endure from his master. Who then beats him again. He also beats Pinch, the doctor and conjuror and calls Adriana a minion (servant) and by calling her companions ‘customers’ accuses her of harlotry. When Adriana denies that she locked him out and swears that he dined at home with her he calls her, ‘Dissembling harlot…with these nails I’ll pluck out these false eyes…O, most unhappy strumpet!’ (Act 4.4)
OK, he’s not Macbeth or Lear or Richard III or any of those other of Shakespeare’s real villains, but he’s not an endearing character either.
His brother? We see a lot more of him. When we meet him he and Dromio have just arrived in Ephesus. He is ‘weary with long travel…stiff and weary’ and he tells a merchant that Dromio is
A trusty villain, sir, that very oft,
When I am dull with care and melancholy,
Lightens my humour with his merry jests (Act 1.2).
When left alone to wander the town at his content he contemplates:
He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
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.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself (Act 1.2).
From the start then Antipholus of Syracuse reveals himself as a melancholy, contemplative, lonely seeker who regards his servant almost as a friend. That he then beats and later chides Dromio (the other one) over the misunderstanding about the money shows their master-servant relationship but still, he doesn’t accuse Dromio of thievery. Instead he blames ‘some device or other…Dark-working sorcerers…soul-killing witches…’ (act 1.2). Unlike his twin, he doesn’t immediately believe the worst of others.
Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse return easily enough to their bantering and when confronted by Adriana, who addresses Antipholus as husband, he is unfailingly polite, though confused, and in all innocent confusion he falls in love with his supposed sister-in-law Luciana. He romantically woos her, in spite of her dismayed requests that he turn his devotion to his wife, not to her. He says:
Thee will I love, and with thee lead my life;
Thou hast no husband yet, nor I no wife:
Give me thy hand (Act 3.2).
Ah, sweet Antipholus of Syracuse! I’m half in love with him myself.
Nevertheless, he’s upset by what he continues to regard as witchcraft and determines to leave Ephesus immediately which doesn’t, I suppose, make him a very constant and true lover. On the other hand, she hasn’t responded positively to his short courtship so maybe he can be forgiven.
He never succeeds in leaving and in the final scene where the muddle is all explained he remains kind and polite and his last words are to his Dromio: ‘Embrace thy brother there, rejoice with him’ (Act 5.1).
What a nice man!
And the two Dromios? One continually beaten by his master but in love with the fat cook. The other a merry and clever wordsmith who gives as good as he gets in wordplay with his master. These two are charming and delightful. They carry the play.
Bad, less bad and quite nice. I think I’ll change that to: not at all likable – Antipholus of Ephesus. Quite a deep character for whom I feel great affection – Antipholus of Syracuse. And two lovable rascals – the Dromios.
All in one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.
See further in Shakespeare Calling – the book http://www.amazon.com/Shakespeare-Calling-book-Ruby-Jand/dp/9163782626?ie=UTF8&keywords=ruby%20jand&qid=1464585465&ref_=sr_1_3&s=books&sr=1-3