Like a hibernating hedgehog my blog has long lain dormant, a hedgeblog. But it will now once more emerge blinking into the sun with the fabled Plays, Poems and ‘Panels’ Project!
A sizeable chunk of this reading project has involved reading a whole heap of Shakespeare plays for the first time, particularly the lesser-known ones that have always rather intrigued me. So I’ll start with a couple of those, the comedies The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
I should note that these weren’t read in a scholarly way. I didn’t consult lots of notes or labour over every word but rather just read them as I would an ordinary book and only really looked things up when I got completely lost. So please, if you are an expert on Bill the Bard then do let me know below what I’ve missed or misunderstood!
#1: The Comedy of Errors (c.1594)
Antipholus of Syracuse: Then she bears some breadth?
Dromio of Syracuse: No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip. She is spherical, like a globe. I could find out countries in her.
Both of these plays are comedies, which of course means a whole barrelful of puns and cases of mistaken identity, for which your mileage may vary! Mine certainly does… But The Comedy of Errors is, for my money, one of the better ones, and I’m sure it would work very well on stage.
It’s a classic farce, with some clever moments of physical comedy, and, crucially, as Shakespeare’s shortest play, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. The plot revolves around two sets of identical twins: Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant Dromio of Syracuse, and then their long-lost twin brothers Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus. They all end up in the same town and many identity-based hijinks ensue, such as one twin encountering the wife of the other twin and not knowing her, a master beating his servant’s twin thinking he’s his own servant, and people being arrested for things their twin actually did. Everything spirals out of control into a kind of fevered madness which must be a delight to see performed well.
The action is sharp and snappy and the premise is actually close to credible… Well you never know when your long-lost identical twin might lock you out of your own house and try it on with your sister-in-law do you? I was left admiring the fact that it was written over 400 years ago and yet is still so entertaining (hardly a groundbreaking thing to say about Shakespeare, but some of the other comedies really do draaaag it out in comparison – on which more later!).
It seemed to me that there’s not really much there in terms of theme or deeper meaning – writing an essay digging down into The Comedy of Errors would be rather tricky. Nor are there many beautiful speeches or soliloquies. But as a frothy bit of light entertainment, a little slight Shakespearian snack, it worked very well. Yes, I liked it a lot.
Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare | 1968 | 176p | Paperback
#2: The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)
Falstaff: Setting the attraction of my good parts aside, I have no other charms.
This one though, this one…
The Merry Wives of Windsor was a struggle for me, perhaps the Shakespeare play I enjoyed the least of the ones I read for this project. Whereas in The Comedy of Errors the farcical fun was tight and well-crafted, the similar moments of silliness and misunderstanding in this play fell flat somehow.
Merry Wives features Sir John Falstaff, the overweight drunkard character from the Henry IV plays, in which he plays an important and memorable role. Here, his role is to attempt to seduce two married ladies, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, a plan they are both wise to, and which they go on to stymie mischievously at every turn. One of the ladies’ husbands finds out what’s going on and jealously tries to catch Falstaff red-handed, and meanwhile a stodgy subplot involving the multiple suitors of Mistress Page’s daughter also unfolds.
There are three big set-piece scenes which focus on the humiliation of Falstaff by the two ladies, none of which I found particularly funny. I think the reason it didn’t make me laugh is that Falstaff just seems to me to be a rather unlikeable lech, while the two ladies are somewhat cruel, and the actions of the jealous Mr Ford seemed more sinister than amusing. The subplot involving the suitors of young Anne Page irritated me, as a great deal of the humour derived from the simple fact that one of them has a strong French accent and another has a Welsh accent. Hm. Plotting-wise it was all just rather hard to follow, as there are too many characters and not enough set-up. Where The Comedy of Errors kept things simple and zingy, The Merry Wives of Windsor flailed around like, well, John Falstaff in a laundry basket.
Of course, reading a play like this cannot ever come close to seeing it performed, and I’m sure it comes to life on stage. But on the page, it didn’t work for me.
Cambridge University Press | 1997 | 175p | Paperback