A Year in Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives. Illustrations by John Austen

After reading Measure for Measure last week in a heavily annotated scholarly edition, I thought I’d take a new tack for The Comedy of Errors and read something designed for pleasure rather than education. It’s hard to get hold of the really, really nice editions on a student budget – neither the city nor the university libraries are likely to put them on loan, and my shelves run more to secondhand paperbacks than illustrated luxury hardback editions.

Fortunately Cardiff University has a handsome, modern and well-equipped Special Collections and Archives division – SCOLAR for short – in the basement of the Arts and Social Sciences Library. I turned up, surveyed the catalogues, ordered a few things and finally settled on a 1939 private press edition, published in New York by the Limited Editions Club.

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives.

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives.

According to the notes in the library catalogue, the book is ‘quarter bound in white buckram over decorative paper-covered boards displaying floral and fruit motifs on pink ground with an abbreviated half title set within decorative border on upper front cover.’ Dr Melanie Bigold, my PhD supervisor, gets very excited by bookbinding, and can use it to tell you where the book was first printed and sold and what the printer had for breakfast that morning – talk about judging a book by its cover! As a complete layman in that field, I couldn’t say much about it – but there’s no denying it’s a beautiful piece of work.

The rest of the book held up to the promise of the cover. I can’t say any of the accompanying illustrations by John Austen ever particularly gripped me, but they were a colourful art deco diversion, and the artist had made the best of it given The Comedy of Errors isn’t a visually spectacular play to begin with. The paper was thick and creamy, the margins generous, the typeface bold and eye-catching. After the Arden edition of Measure for Measure where the footnotes often swallowed up half the page, it was pleasant to be reading something with no critical apparatus whatsoever – the last time that had happened was reading The Merry Wives of Windsor in a Complete Works edition where the text was squeezed in to the very edge of the page with hardly any margin at all. Also – in a first for this project – this edition preserves the original first folio spelling, which adds a wonderful texture to even the less interesting lines of dialogue:

Why prat’st thou to thyselfe, and answer’st not?
Dromio, thou drone, thou snaile, thou slug, thou sot.

The Comedy of Errors itself is a piece of comic virtuosity, the story of a pair of identical twins with the same name, separated at birth and unaware of each others existence, and their identical twin servants, ditto. Naturally everyone keeps mistaking Antonio and Dromio for their opposite numbers – I confess that, without the aid of footnotes or an introduction, I didn’t entirely follow who was supposed to be on stage at once – but I think some confusion is part of the point. After various misunderstandings, during which each Antonio is respectively arrested and committed, the play concludes with the usual scene of recognition, and the family reunited.

coe2

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives

In addition to having the most complex plot, it’s also the most elaborately poetic Shakespeare play I’ve read so far, even more so than Two Gentlemen of Verona, my previous benchmark. The play is written entirely in verse, and goes so far beyond the usual iambic pentameter that characters speak in rhyming couplets for entire pages – as in the quote above – and sometimes break into longer and more discursive hexameter or octameter lines. This elaborate formal invention matches well with the play’s complex, self-confident and symmetrical plotting. Reaching the final lines of Shakespeare’s shortest play, one feels its kinship to the short, controlled, rhetorically intricate forms the Renaissance revelled in, like the sonnet or the double-sestina. It will never have the popularity of one of the bawdier comedies or the bloodier tragedies – it sets itself out to be admired for its technical artistry rather than its drama or pathos – but as a work of self-conscious literary craftsmanship, it’s hard to think how it could have been done better. Reading it in an edition that was itself a work of high-end literary craftsmanship only deepened this insight.

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