Friday, March 4, 2011

Poetry Friday: The Comedy of Errors

Image from the Folger Shakespeare Theater

My husband and I saw Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors at the Folger Shakespeare Theater last weekend. It was a twisty farce done up right with clever masks and extraordinary physical clowning.

But, as most comedies do, it got me thinking seriously.

From The Comedy of Errors, here is Antipholus of Ephesus at the end of the play, in Act V, Scene I, describing his earlier mental health evaluation by a Dr. Pinch:

"They brought one Pinch, a hungry lean-faced villain,
A mere anatomy, a mountebank,
A threadbare juggler and a fortune-teller,
A needy, hollow-eyed, sharp-looking wretch,
A dead-looking man: this pernicious slave,
Forsooth, took on him as a conjurer,
And, gazing in mine eyes, feeling my pulse,
And with no face, as 'twere, outfacing me,
Cries out, I was possess'd. Then all together
They fell upon me, bound me, bore me thence
And in a dark and dankish vault at home
There left me and my man, both bound together;"

Well, that IS what happened. We saw it in Act III, Scene IV. But it was all a big misunderstanding. Because Pinch thought Antipholus was someone else. Namely, his twin, also named Antipholus, but of Syracuse.

So why is it funny to hear Antipholus's outrage at the incident? Especially when he concludes with this (unwitnessed) account of his escape:

"Till, gnawing with my teeth my bonds in sunder,

I gain'd my freedom, and immediately
Ran hither to your grace; whom I beseech
To give me ample satisfaction
For these deep shames and great indignities."

Well, it's funny because of the gnawing.

But mostly, we delight in his over-the-top catalog of Pinch's faults, an exaggeration with which we secretly concur, having seen the duped doctor's monstrously unjust mistake just stage minutes earlier.

Which brings me to my serious thinking: How much of poetry is built on the fulcrum of error? Overblown words balancing on one teensy tiny point of truth?

Many poems describe what we, as ordinary people, have already witnessed---we've all seen a flower, or a bird, or a deserted street. We all lived through loss and love and danger and disaster. We don't need poets to catalog the soap operas of our lives.

No, we need them to make deliberate errors in their wild depictions of such things. We need their words to bind us, to confirm our madness, to force us to gnaw our way out of the "dark and dankish vault."

Is that an exaggeration? Yup. Go ahead and Pinch me.

A review of The Comedy of Errors and a short video preview can be found in the Washington Post. If you want to see it, a limited number of standing room only tickets are available for the run through March 6.  The dramaturg's notes are here.

The Comedy of Errors is also playing at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA through March 31.  Their Ten Things You Might Like to Know about the play is great background material. And as a side note, registration for their Shakespeare camps for adults is now open. Go! Make your own errors! I did last year, and may do it again.

Poetry Friday is hosted today at The Small Nouns.


  1. Insightful post! Now I'm thinking of all my favorite poems and how they do this.
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  2. "deliberate errors in their wild depictions of things"... whoa, girl. Is THAT the job at hand??? That's more interesting, even, than I thought...

  3. now i am curious about this description of Pinch and shakespeare's knowledge and appropriation of italian comedia. these sound like the actions of Pulcinella, a character who would morph into Punch (or mr. punch) of the english puppet theatre.

    and also, the phrase "the lie that tells the truth" is now swimming around my head, which i believe is picasso's quote, and one that speaks to this idea of the overblown in poetry (and fiction).

    and now my head is swimming and i have to lie down and it's all your fault, sara.

    but it's all good.

  4. David, what's also interesting is that we attended the performance on Feb. 25th, which was International Commedia dell'Arte Day.

    The printed program pointed out how the use of masks forces the actors to use their whole bodies to convey meaning. So in essence, they had to be even more overblown to "tell the truth."

    I was also interested to read a section of Twyla Tharp's book The Creative Habit in which she says she reads archaeologically. That is, from the latest work back to the earlier. I'd never seen The Comedy of Errors before, so Shakespeare's first play was for me, one of the latest I've seen (or read.)

  5. I like how your post about making deliberate errors works so nicely with my abandonment of perfection this week!

  6. I LOVE the description of poetry as deliberate errors!


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