(In the following excerpt, McDonald first surveys previous criticism on the play regarding its classification as a farce and its position in Shakespeare’s canon. He notes that critics have tended to ‘‘elevate’’ the play above the ‘‘vulgar’’ level of farce in explaining its meaning (although its farcical elements are obvious) because it is sometimes perceived as a source of ‘‘embarrassment’’ in the canon. McDonald then examines ‘‘how meaning comes about in farce’’ through the play’s ‘‘theatrical complexity,’’ concluding that the play should be examined for what it is—a farce and a ‘‘source of wonder.’’)
Zeus’s sexual lapses notwithstanding, gods are not supposed to be indecorous, and a characteristic of modern Bardolatry has been its insistence on Shakespeare’s artistic dignity, particularly his attachment to the approved dramatic forms. The popular image of Shakespeare as the embodiment of high culture, the author of Hamlet and certain other tragedies, as well as a very few weighty comedies, is merely a version of a bias that also, if less obviously, afflicts the academy. What I am talking about is a hierarchy of modes, or, to put it another way, genre snobbery. That tragedy is more profound and significant than comedy is a prejudice that manifests itself in and out of the Shakespeare Establishment: in the impatience of undergraduates who, taking their first class in Shakespeare, regard the comedies and histories as mere appetizers to the main course, the tragedies; in Christopher Sly’s equation of ‘‘a commonty’’ with ‘‘a Christmas gambol or a tumbling trick’’; in the disdain of the tourist at the Barbican box office who, finding Othello sold out, refuses a ticket to The Merry Wives of Windsor; in the decision of that Athenian student to preserve his notes from Aristotle’s lecture on tragedy but not to bother with the one on comedy.
If there is a hierarchy of modes, there is also a hierarchy within modes: de casibus tragedy is less exalted than Greek, for example. So it is with the kinds of comedy, and the play to which I shall address myself, The Comedy of Errors, rests safely in the lowest rank. Farce is at the bottom of everyone’s list of forms, and yet Shakespeare is at the top of everyone’s list of authors. Thus, the problem I mean to examine is generated by competing hierarchies. Most literary critics have little occasion to think about farce, and those who concern themselves chiefly with the creator of texts such as Macbeth and Coriolanus do their best to avoid the form. For many years the earliest comedies were treated unapologetically as farces and Shakespeare was praised, if mildly, for his skill at contriving such brilliant and pleasing trifles. But the need to preserve his association with higher things has led in the last three or four decades to a revision of this opinion. It seems inappropriate that the cultural monument known as Shakespeare should have anything to do with a popular entertainment that we connect with the likes of the Marx brothers (Groucho and Harpo, not Karl and Moritz). Criticism resists a Shakespeare capable of wasting his time on such a trivial form.
My purpose is to suggest that Shakespeare could be ‘‘bad,’’ but my definition differs somewhat from those of most of the other contributors to this volume. Rather than re-examine texts that may have been overvalued or seek to locate weaknesses in dramatic technique, I shall argue that Shakespeare’s taste was not invariably elevated and that certain plays are less ‘‘significant’’ than others (or at least that they signify different things in different ways). By addressing myself to what is and is not considered ‘‘Shakespearean,’’ I claim an interest in one of the fundamental issues of this collection: canonicity. A work like The Comedy of Errors must be deformed if it is to conform to that category known as Shakespearean comedy—as a farce it is noncanonical—and such misrepresentation demands a rejoinder.
The first part of this essay surveys the evasions that critics have devised for treating Shakespeare’s efforts in farce, with concentration on the dodges applied to Errors. The remainder, a straightforward study of that play’s theatrical action, proposes to identify the playwright’s strategies for the production of meaning in farce. In light of the concerns of this volume, to contend that Errors succeeds not as an early version of a romantic comedy or as an allegory of marriage but as an out-and-out farce is risky, for such an argument looks like yet another defense of the artistic experiments of a novice and thus seems to exemplify the very Bardolatry that many of these essays vigorously dispute. In fact, however, my aim is to establish Shakespeare’s delight in and commitment to a dramatic form that has become infra dig. To recognize such a bent is to augment our sense of Shakespeare’s actual range. We whitewash our subject by refusing to admit his attraction to farce and declining to explore his talent for it.
Suspicion of farce has fostered two main critical maneuvers, here summarized by Barbara Freedman: ‘‘The first is represented by that group of critics who know that Shakespeare never wrote anything solely to make us laugh and so argue that Shakespeare never wrote farce at all. … The more popular critical approach, however, is to agree that Shakespeare wrote farce, but to consider Errors (as well as Shakespeare’s other predominantly farcical plays) to be nonsensical insofar as they are farce.’’ To begin with the first group, its members are undaunted by Shakespeare’s demonstrable choice of classical or Italian farces for source material: in such cases he may be seen ‘‘transcending the farce which a lesser writer might have been satisfied to make,’’ and thus the form is mentioned so that it can be dismissed.
The most familiar and pernicious tactic of those who would dissociate Shakespeare from the vulgar category is to discuss the early plays as precursors of the mature style, as seedbeds, that is, for ideas and methods that will flower in the later comedies and even in the tragedies. (In fact, hothouses would make a better simile, since the ideas and methods are found blooming in the early play itself by the time the critic finishes.) A. C. Hamilton, for example, asserts that The Comedy of Errors provides a foundation for the later comedies by revealing ‘‘their basis in the idea that life upon the order of nature has been disturbed and must be restored and renewed through the action of the play.’’ Hamilton’s reticence to detect inchoate forms of particular dramatic themes from later works is not shared by Peter G. Phialas, who identifies ‘‘certain features of structure and theme, and even tone, which anticipate significant elements of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.’’ Specifically, ‘‘The Comedy of Errors, though in the main concerned with the farcical mistakings of identity, touches briefly a theme of far greater significance, the ideal relationship of man and woman.’’ This anticipatory practice amounts to reading the career backward: a play is conditioned by what follows it, and its distinctive qualities may be underrated or deformed. The prophetic approach tends to manifest itself in and to merge with the second defensive strategy.
Put simply, this way of thinking involves deepening the farces, exposing their profundity. It has become the preferred means of protecting Shakespeare against his own immature tastes or the vulgar demands of his audience, and it has attracted some eloquent and powerful advocates. Derek Traversi, for example, unites the two critical defenses, seeing Errors as both serious in itself and important in its tonal prefiguration of the later work. He emphasizes ‘‘the deliberate seriousness of the story of Aegeon, which gives the entire action a new setting of gravity, a sense of tragic overtones which, elementary though it may be in expression, is yet not without some intimation of later and finer effects.’’ In other words, the play is profound but not too profound.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007
Russ McDonald, ‘‘Fear of Farce,’’ in ‘‘Bad’’ Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, edited byMaurice Charney, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988, pp. 77–89.