Taking apart selves (and shelves): The Comedy of Errors

I’ve been thinking a lot about how things are put together as I take them apart.

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Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is the IKEA EXPEDIT   – well, now the KALLAX – shelving unit of his plays.

You know the one, black-brown with the 5×5 cubbies you can get those drawer-like inserts for. Every millennial apartment has one, or its 4×2 cousin in the very least.

We got an EXPEDIT a few years back when my wife and I moved from Cincinnati, OH to Minneapolis, MN. I remember putting it together in the room – the “den,” I called it, or the “library,” as my wife insisted – at the back of the house we rented, whose doors opened up to a backyard our dog, Hugo, would never do his business in.

IKEA furniture, we all know, is, pardon my French, already a bitch to assemble, but this big boy was a straight-up motherfucker to put together. Somehow, I constructed the behemoth by my lonesome, nearly crushing my fingers when I muscled it upright from the floor.

After about year, the shelf moved with us from Minneapolis to Laguna Beach, CA, where it became a centerpiece of our living room, its particleboard faded by the sunlight, brackish air, and neighbor’s secondhand smoke that constantly washed in through our windows. We were nervous when the movers got the shelf up the stairs to our apartment; if the doorframe were any shorter, the shelf would have gone to the curb.

It moved with us, too, about a year-and-a-half later from Laguna Beach to Irvine, CA. (My wife’s worked has afforded us a series of relocations, you must be wondering at this point, including our next big one overseas.) The movers had to strap it up and heave it into our loft; the narrow, spiraling stairs up would in no way accommodate its girth. Worried it would snap under its own weight and damage our brand-new unit, I can still see it precariously dangling from the massive arms of our moving crew. They ended up having fun; my wife had to leave the room while they were doing it.

The EXPEDIT housed many books over the years, its shelves adorned with knickknacks and keepsakes we’ve collected from our travels, its broad top displaying pictures, canvases, diplomas, houseplants, dust.

But it won’t be moving with us to Dublin, Ireland. (Little will.) In fact, it didn’t even make it down our loft in one piece. After a couple of beers the other night – ok, deep into a six-pack – I picked its heavy, cumbersome bones apart.

EXPEDIT shelf.jpg
RIP, EXPEDIT. Photo by me.

***

I feel I redeemed myself with The Comedy of Errors. Much Ado About Nothing, you’ll recall, made me feel like the Hamlet of reading.

I read this early comedy this week because it’s short – the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays, in fact. My sister-in-law’s boyfriend was visiting from Portland for the weekend. We had a lot of beer to drink.

But I also wanted to get back on my reading schedule. A man has to have standards.

Many critics consider The Comedy of Errors less accomplished than his other plays, a sort of apprentice drama, exhibiting more so the development of his craft rather than the heights of it.

Well, critics be damned.

So, these parents have twin sons, both named Antipholus, served by twin bondmen born on the same day, both named Dromio, as it happens. Bad weather sunders the family, sailing home one day, in two. One Antipholus/Dromio end up in Ephesus, the other in Syracuse. Years later, the Syracusian pair (as well as the twins’ estranged father, Egeon, detained by some arcane commerce laws) find themselves in Ephesus. All identity hell – and hilarity – breaks loose as the servants confuse their masters, masters their servants, and various Ephesians, including the Ephesian Antipholus’ own wife, Adriana, the play’s central foursome. In the end, the truth outs: real identities are restored and the family is even reunited.

The play’s thematic doubleness dramatically destabilizes any sense of unity or integrity in our ideas of identity and self. As Adriana muses amid the play’s confusion:

…O how comes it
That thou art then estranged from thyself?–
Thy ‘self’ I call it, being strange to me
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than they dear self’s better part. (2.2.119-123)

The play, no doubt, challenges such an “undividable” self. It challenges the very idea of a self.

But the play can really hit you over the head with this theme. Not unlike, in fact, all of the hitting in the play.

Due to the all this confusion, the Dromios take a lot of abuse. It makes for some fun pratfalls and punning. “Am I so round with you as you with me, / That like a football you do spurn me thus?” Dromio of Ephesus asks of his master’s wife, Adriana, after a beating (12.1.81-82).

While the play may be a bit slapstick-y and heavy-handed, I still think it’s a real hoot.

There’s a point in the play, for instance, when Dromio of Syracuse is suddenly wedded off to Nell (I don’t know how that works, but hey), a kitchen-maid he despairingly describes as a “wondrous fat marriage” (3.2.92).

I hesitate to laugh at appearance-based insults, but Dromio’s ensuing description of Nell is just really funny. They read like early “yo’ mamma’s so fat” or “ugly” jokes. I won’t copy out the full text here (3.2.90-144), so here’s a highlight:

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE What’s her name?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Nell, sir. But her name and three-quarters–that’s an ell [a yard] and three-quarters–will not measure her from hip to hip.

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.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE In what part of her body stands Ireland?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Marry, sir, in her buttocks. I found it out by the bogs.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE Where Scotland?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE I found it by the barrenness, hard in the palm of her hand. (3.2.107-120)

Antipholus of Syracuse continues, asking Dromio where he finds (and ribs) various countries on Nell – including America, interestingly enough (and the Indies, whose jewels he likens to zits on her nose).

***

Sure, the EXPEDIT demanded a Herculean effort to build and move around, but, once constructed, once re-situated, the shelf just sort came part of our lives, receding into the texture of our everyday lives. Taken-for-granted, always there.

But the other night, when I started taking it apart, I came to appreciate its design. A top, bottom, two sides, four long planks in the middle, 16 square planks to create the cubbies, a whole bunch of those little pegs (that slip into the pre-made sockets with a mallet and many expletives), and 8 bigger screws Allen-wrenched into place.

But once you start taking the comedy apart, you start appreciating its craft and detail, its efficiency and modernity. The complexity belying its simplicity.

It’s not a lot of material, but it all holds together – and ingeniously. I can put it together, but I could never have designed it. (I could neither have put anything like The Comedy of Errors together nor have designed it, for the record.)

I unscrewed the bolts and pulled off the top and bottom. Some of the little pegs fell out on their own, many needed just a bit of tug, a lot (most) I simply broke off. I didn’t quite forget the effort it took the make the damn thing, but in ripping it apart, I no doubt appreciated it all over again.

The Comedy of Errors resembles this shelf for me, if you haven’t guessed my unwieldy metaphor so far. Like our EXPEDIT, the play’s easy to take for granted: Shakespeare’s themes of identity, self, relationships, social roles are big and bulky, especially when the dualities pound you over the head. But once you start taking the comedy apart, you start appreciating its craft and detail, its efficiency and modernity. The complexity belying its simplicity.

Shakespeare frequently has characters speaking in rhyming couplets, using his form to mirror his content and heighten his thematic twinning. The Ephesian Antipholus had a goldsmith fashion a fancy, expensive chain for his wife, which creates further confusion in the plot but also the perfect image to convey how interlinked the characters are – how interlinked all of ourselves, our selves, are.

Water metaphors run throughout the comedy, further illustrating the fluidity of self, as Antipholus remarks: “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop” (1.2.35-36). Shakespeare repeatedly likens reputations to their monetary credit, deepening – and complicating – ideas of identity, worth, value, and character.

And the whole experience of mistaken identity compels the Antipholus of Syracuse to question reality: “Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?  / Sleeping or waking? Mad or well-advised? / Known unto these, and to myself disguised!” (2.2.212-14). The Ephesians even try to perform an exorcism on the hometown Antipholus, as the townsfolk think he’s been possessed – a rather intense, if comically staged, image for the problems of individuality the play develops.

***

I know my metaphor’s overwrought. And I know its entire premise is, in fact, questionable, especially as I’m not yet 10 plays into the Bard’s oeuvre and am no Elizabethan drama expert. But, as we ready for our big move to Dublin, we’ve been selling and donating just about everything we own – it’s just amazing how much stuff, even when you’ve gone through several downsizes as we’ve done and am anal, anti-clutter, anti-crap, anti-possession like I am . So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how things are put together as I take them apart.

The Comedy of Errors may not be the sophisticated, hand-crafted, solid-wood antique that will furnish one’s more settled, adult home, but there’s something to be said about the the EXPEDIT.

Author: John Kelly

I write about everyday etymology at mashedradish.com & @mashedradish. I am reading Shakespeare in 2016 at shakespeareconfidential.com & @bardconfidensh.

2 thoughts on “Taking apart selves (and shelves): The Comedy of Errors

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