Great Books of Western Literature: Shakespeare’s Early Comedies


1.  Introduction

In 1994, Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, wrote The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, in which he argued for the more conservative viewpoint that literature should follow the “art for art’s sake” ideal and not have it be subservient to some program of social engineering or political correctness.

After I moved to Chicago this summer, I found that the local library, together with the interlibrary system that stretches across the libraries of the Chicagoland area, is a wonderful resource.   I re-read Harold Bloom’s book and decided to embark on a program of reading (and in some cases, re-reading) the Great Books of Western Literature, in particular as set forth by

  • The Great Books of the Western World series by Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Harold Bloom’s book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

I am planning on reading the works of the Theocratic Age, as Harold Bloom describes it, i.e., the literature of the ancient world), but I wanted to intersperse it with reading the complete works of Shakespeare, the plays (the histories, comedies, and tragedies) and the poems (the Sonnets and the other poetical works).    This latter has been a lifelong dream, but although I have certain plays here and there during the course of my life, I have never set forth on a program to read the complete works until now.    For that project, I have the additional work:

  • Harold Bloom’s book Shakespeare:  The Invention of the Human

I have not yet started to read the plays based on the chronology that Harold Bloom gives, but I have listened to recordings of the play to hear how they have been performed by a modern theatrical company.    This particular work covers the three early comedies of Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1592), The Comedy of Errors (1593), and The Taming of the Shrew 1594).

2.  The Two Gentlemen of Verona

As an apprentice work, this is the weakest of the three early comedies.    It’s plot is confusing, the characters’ motives at times unconvincing, and the language is uninspired, except for a lively scene spoken one of the character’s servants, Launce, about his dog Crab.    For those who have seen the film Shakespeare in Love, Ralph Fiennes plays Shakespeare right after he completes this apprentice work and before he completes his first authentic tragic work Romeo and Juliet.

One of the reasons why this period is considered the “apprentice” period of Shakespeare is because he was imitating the works of other playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe.   However, he was imitating them more in the genre of tragedies and  histories rather than comedies.    In the area of comedies, he was freer to invent, but the fruits of that formidable cognitive power and imagination were yet to be evidenced in this early work.

3.  The Comedy of Errors

This is a work which outshines the Two Gentlemen of Verona and the early history written about this time, the three parts of Henvy VI, because

  • the plotting is ingenious,
  • he starts to creates the representation of introspection

For the plotting, he takes two plays by the Roman comic playwright Plautus, The Two Menachmuses and Amphitryon, and combines them so that not only are the masters of the play twins (confusingly with the same name Antipholus), but their servants are as well (and also have the same name Dromio).    They get separated in a shipwreck when their boat splits in half, with their father Egeon saving one of the Antipholus twins  and one of the Dromio twins, with their mother in the other half of the boat with one of each pair of twins!    He goes to live in Syracuse, and the mother goes to Ephesus.    However, these two cities are normal enemies of each other, and citizens of one city are not allowed to enter the other.

The play starts when Egeon is defying the decry to try to find out whether his other son went to Ephesus or not.   He is found out, and the Duke of Ephesus says he must be killed if he cannot pay a ransom within 24 hours.    His son and servant try to find the father, but are amazed that everyone seems to know them, even though they have never set foot in the town!   Of course, the complications multiply as one of the two servants talks to one of the masters, goes away, and then the other servants comes back.    However, the master does not understand why his orders previously given were not obeyed, by this servant who now seems to claim he doesn’t know what the master is talking about.

By the end, they go to the temple to seek the advice of the priestess, but then there is a final recognition scene because she turns out to be the mother of the Ephesus twins who disappeared on their arrival!   It’s all absurd, but it’s also very fast paced, because the action takes place on a single day.    Shakespeare has taken his Roman precursor and improved upon the already complicated plot by combining the plots of two different plays.    This shows the inkling of the creative genius that was to come.

Even more important for the history of literature, one of the two Antipholus characters, the one from Syracuse, is the introspective one, as opposed to the other more outwardly-directed Antipholus from Ephesus.    He is constantly not just commenting on the action, but reflecting on its metaphysical meaning.   Of course, he is not doing this yet in the way of “overhearing” himself, which is the way that Shakespeare creates the sense of presence in the character, but at least he is reflective on the events around him, the first step of that introspection that would later be perfected in the character of Hamlet.

It was a very enjoyable play, and one where I think Shakespeare started to show the potential he would evince later on.

4.   The Taming of the Shrew

This play is unusual in that starts out with a frame-tale of a peasant who is drunk, and on whom a passing nobleman decides to play a prank by dressing him in fine clothes and making him think that he is actually a nobleman himself, with the former lifetime as a peasant just an unpleasant dream from which he has fortunately awoken.

The nobleman decides to entertain himself by watching the peasant’s reactions to a play which is put on by the nobleman in the peasant’s honor.   However, the action of the play now goes totally over to the play-within-a-play, and it never comes back to the peasant at the end of it.    It was not until Hamlet that Shakespeare came up with a play-within-a-play that worked dramatically to enhance the frame tale; this early experiment is not successful at all in comparison.    But it does show Shakespeare’s willingness to experiment with form, even if again this experiment didn’t turn out as well as his later ones.

What is interesting is that the “engagement” of Kate, the shrew, and Petruchio, her suitor, is at first such a mutual provocation.   And yet underneath the surface, Kate understands that she is the equal in boisterous spirit and temperament to Petruchio and thus is attracted to him.   Kate realizes that, as we would say today, she has to “go along to get along,” but by doing so of her own free will, she is the one who controls the situation going forward.

According to Harold Bloom, the modern sensibilities of women’s liberation have left theater audiences repulsed by Petruchio’s patriarchal attitude towards Kate, but this is because political correctness has robbed many modern theatergoers of the gift of irony, of which Shakespeare had in abundance.    It is the opposite problem that many have to the viewing of the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, where the women of Athens stage a sex strike to prevent the seemingly never-ending war with the Spartans from continuing.    Many modern readers think that Aristophanes is advocating an anachronistic attitude of “women’s liberation,” but that is only because they do not see that Aristophanes is being ironic in his portrayal of Athenian women, and is advocating the opposite of what appears on the surface.

Kate in her final speech, therefore, is NOT asking women to be obedient, but rather “how to rule absolutely, while feigning obedience.”   The subtlety of this position is something which Shakespeare puts in the mouth of his female characters, which shows that Shakespeare, although capable of creating characters from any sex, gender or class, he often gave his best lines to the female characters rather than to the male ones, and to the servants rather than to the masters.

5.  CONCLUSION

I enjoyed both of the last two comedies, although I am glad I finally read the first one (Two Gentlemen of Verona), if only to be able understand more fully the background to the movie Shakespeare in Love.    There are hints here and there of the greatness to come.   However, as Harold Bloom has once pointed out, if Shakespeare had died after this early period, he would have left works that would have put him perhaps close to the level of theatrical rivals such as Christopher Marlowe, but not their equal.    He was not the figure that overshadowed them all, and created the representation of introspection on the stage which changed the course of Western Literature.

 

 

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