The Bard’s ‘Apprentice Work’: The Drop and the Ocean

It’s the chance encounters that keep me haunting used-book stores. I love the random rendezvous with an unlikely book, one you haven’t been looking for but which seems in some way to have been looking for you–an intersection of odysseys that, in the aftermath, seems less accidental than fated. It was an encounter of this kind in the dusty basement of a used-book store in Newport, R.I., not long ago that came at just the right moment to crystallize the question about Shakespeare that had been troubling me.

I’d been browsing in the basement of Newport Books on Bellevue Avenue, a place which, in addition to offering a serious collector’s selection of antiquarian and rare volumes of forgotten lore, has a lower floor full of once-flashy 50′s paperbacks. My favorite was a lurid-covered collection featuring a laughing libidinal babe in a low-cut gown on the cover, a volume called Women and Vodka , which turned out to be a collection of classic Russian short stories by Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, etc.. Stories that, according to the cover copy, offered “naked moments that range from the closed boudoirs of society to the tawdry excitement of back-room rendezvous.” Hold me back!

So I got that, but over on another shelf I came upon another find, the one that initiated the quest this column is preoccupied by. It was a cheap paperback copy of The Comedy of Errors , cheap when it was first published (in 1963) at 50 cents, still cheap at twice the price today.

It wasn’t the price that attracted me; I already have no less than four copies of The Comedy of Errors back home in various expensive editions of the complete works of Shakespeare. It wasn’t that The Comedy of Errors was one of my special favorites in the canon, even among the comedies. It’s widely regarded as one of the very first, if not the first, plays Shakespeare wrote, but is not otherwise highly esteemed, at best a tryout for Twelfth Night , his other twin-centered comedy. The prevailing attitude toward it can be summed up by the title of the introduction to my 50-cent Folger Library paperback edition of The Comedy of Errors : “Apprentice Work in Farce.”

There was something about that condescending dismissal that suddenly precipitated for me the question about Shakespeare that had been haunting me–and suggested that the “apprentice work in farce” was the place to look for the answer.

It was a question about the nature–or the existence–of Shakespearean exceptionalism. I’m drawn to exceptionalist questions for some reason. The question at the heart of the Hitler book I spent 10 years pursuing was an exceptionalist issue: Whether Hitler’s evil could be said to exist on the same continuum of human nature we all share, on the very, very extreme end of the same spectrum of motive and psychology as us, or whether–as some philosophers and theologians argue–he occupies some special category of radical evil all his own, off the chart, in another realm entirely.

The same exceptionalist question can be posed, has been posed, about Shakespeare’s genius: Should we see him on the same spectrum as other great writers, or does he exist in–has he created–some other realm entirely that somehow transcends other great literature.

The entire weight of postmodern Shakespeare scholarship aims to deny the latter alternative. To situate Shakespeare in history as basically just another wordsmith who caught a wave and had his work fetishized because it reflected so well the power relations of his time and served British imperial aspirations in subsequent centuries, a writer no more special than other talented Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists such as Thomas Middleton, say (as scholar Gary Taylor argues). One whose greatness had been exalted for all the wrong reasons as “a rite of civility,” as others have argued. With nothing universal or transcendent worthy of note: Whatever is idiosyncratically “Shakespearean” is an inconsequential epiphenomenon compared with the uses to which his work is put by the prevailing evil hegemony.

This ignores that close reading can find a radical subversion of the values of power and authority in Shakespeare–of all kinds of authority, not just political, but epistemological and metaphysical as well. But dismissing the anti-exceptionalist arguments still leaves open and unanswered the question of in what the exceptional quality of Shakespeare inheres if it does exist. Is there some quality that is uniquely Shakespearean; what is it that makes Shakespeare Shakespearean?

I’m of two minds on the question. I feel intuitively when immersed in his verse, with its shift from thrilling, vertiginous complexity to radiant, visionary simplicity, that I am having an experience unlike almost any other in literature, with the possible exception of the similar response I have to Vladimir Nabokov. But I resist the exceptionalist case as well: Just what does it mean to say that? Does Shakespeare represent a quantum leap, or only an incremental one from Geoffrey Chaucer or John Milton, say, in English, from Lope de Vega in Spanish, Tolstoy in Russian, Homer and Virgil in Greek and Latin?

Here’s where The Comedy of Errors comes in. Can there be found, even in this “apprentice work in farce,” some intimations in embryonic form of the radically transcendent complexity the exceptionalists posit in the later plays? If it’s hard to imagine Hitler, say, evolving from some perfectly benign young fellow without imagining some intimations of the evil to flower later, can we find in early “apprentice” Shakespeare some sign or signature of what will soon suddenly, floridly flower into the “Shakespearean”? And just what would it be?

What I’d like to attempt in this column (and perhaps a subsequent one) is to look more closely at The Comedy of Errors for such signs, make some preliminary notes toward a conjecture about what is distinctively Shakespearean in early Shakespeare.

Let’s begin with the rather remarkable transformation of the source material: Shakespeare’s decision to twin the twins. You probably recall that The Comedy of Errors creates an intricate clockwork laugh-machine from the mistaken-identity encounters of two sets of twins, two twin masters and two twin servants, one pair of each separated by a shipwreck as infants.

You might also recall that Shakespeare adopted the basic separated-twins plot from The Menaechmi , by the third-century Roman playwright Plautus. There’s a tendency among scholars to dismiss The Comedy of Errors as a mere imitation of The Menaechmi . No way: Check out The Menaechmi , as I did after rereading The Comedy of Errors . There’s a terrifically entertaining translation by Palmer Bovie in a new four-volume edition of the complete plays of Plautus (Johns Hopkins University Press), edited by Mr. Bovie and one of my favorite Latin translators, David Slavitt (I’ve praised Mr. Slavitt’s version of Ovid’s Poems of Exile in the past). I loved reading The Menaechmi (which, interestingly, has a scene in which one of the twins craftily pretends to madness, anticipating–if it didn’t explicitly suggest–Hamlet’s imposture to Shakespeare).

But without taking anything away from Plautus, The Comedy of Errors is no mere imitation. Shakespeare signals that from the outset by raising the stakes of the separated-twins plot in a remarkable way. He took Plautus’ already complicated single-pair-of-twins plot and doubled it up, twinned Plautus’ twins into two pairs, raising it more than a multiple of two, but to a second power , to an exponentially greater level of comic complexity. Twinning the twins is the equivalent in terms of dramatic construction to shifting from two-dimensional to three-dimensional chess. It’s more than a revision, it’s a statement . Think about it: For 1,200 years or so, Plautus had been (along with Aristophanes) the supreme comic artist in the Western canon. When Shakespeare set out to write The Comedy of Errors , he was not much more than 25 years old, an apprentice, presumably, to an acting company, writing what might have been his very first play. He takes as his model not just one of Plautus’ most famous comedies, but one of his most dizzyingly complicated ones, and signals he’s going to trump it with the sublimely confident assuredness of, say, Babe Ruth at the pinnacle of his career, pointing to the stands to the precise place he’s going to place his home run shot on the next swing. Or, if you find the Babe Ruth analogy too undignified, think of the sublimely casual mastery with which Nabokov linked Homer, Keats and baseball in a single couplet about an imaginary sports-page headline in Pale Fire : “Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4/ On Chapman’s Homer” (a play on Keats’ sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”).

But Shakespeare does more than merely twin the twins and raise the concatenation of complications to a higher power. He also deepens in a radical way the resonance of twinship at the heart of the play. Turns the contemplation of the paradoxes of twinship into a meditation on the meaning and instability of selfhood and the ambiguities of identity. And–here’s the revelation to me in rereading The Comedy of Errors this time–his fascination with the ambiguities of twinship seems a clue to, a reflection of, his fascination with the ambiguities of identity in language, in the doubled and split meanings of words.

It helps explain Shakespeare’s persistent twin obsessions–with twins and with puns. Let me retrace my path to this conclusion, one that began when I was struck by a 10-line passage early in the play containing no less than three references to the experience of losing the self. It’s there in the first act when one of the lost merchant twins, Antipholus of Syracuse, newly arrived in the city of Ephesus in the course of searching for his long-lost twin brother, speaks of how he wants to “go lose himself” by wandering up and down in the strange city. He compares himself to a drop of water in the ocean that seeks to find one particular other drop like himself (i.e., his twin) in the vast deep. And how, failing to do so, he “confounds himself,” loses his own identity. So he goes off to lose himself, sees himself confounding himself and then, just a few lines later, laments how in his quest to find what’s lost, he “loses himself.”

So there is laughter over the predicaments of twinship in The Comedy of Errors ; it is a comedy, yes, but there is a recurrent, disturbing sense of loss as well, not just the loss of a twin, but the loss in being a twin. The loss of a sense of unique identity (perhaps a sense of loss as well from the fact that Shakespeare was a father of twins and father of a lost twin–Hamnet, who died in childhood).

But the loss of self can also be seen as a doubling of the self. And there’s another side to the loss of self in Shakespeare, a persistent strain of imagery in which losing the self is pleasurable , in which to be “amazed” in the sense of losing one’s self in a maze is a polymorphous pleasure. (See Peter G. Platt’s valuable recent monograph Reason Diminished: Shakespeare & the Marvelous , University of Nebraska Press, for an elaboration on the theme of the terror and pleasure of losing the self in wonder.)

It was in thinking about the sources of Shakespeare’s preoccupation with twinship and the way twinship put the self in play that it occurred to me that the preoccupation with twinship has a kinship, so to speak, with Shakespeare’s preoccupation with punning, with wordplay, with putting words in play . A preoccupation that can seem labored or disagreeable to some in its obsessive, even compulsive pursuit, but which is, if labored, a labor of love for the Bard.

What is a pun but a doubled meaning, a kind of inverse twinship in which one word splits or doubles into two senses or identities while looking exactly the same on the surface. If puns are inverse twins, one could look at twins as embodied puns, puns on human identity, on individual consciousness.

But the kinship between twinship and wordplay goes deeper than punning. It goes to the nature of Shakespearean ambiguity, a more resonant ramification of wordplay than the simple pun. In which a word doesn’t split so much as lose its singular identity to a coalescing of two or more shadowed significances embodied in a single word; it loses itself to gain a coexistent second self.

Shakespearean ambiguity differs from punning in that the alternate meanings are not on-and-off, black-and-white distinctions but held in equipoise, both simultaneously true. The best, most suggestive recent redefinition of Shakespearean ambiguity can be found in Jonathan Bate’s essay in the Times Literary Supplement on William Empson, my lit crit hero (author of Seven Types of Ambiguity ) and still perhaps the most provocative of Shakespeare critics in this century. Mr. Bate speculates that Empson may have come to his unique apprehension of Shakespearean ambiguity from his exposure to the thinking of quantum physicists at Cambridge in the 20′s and 30′s, and in particular to the uncertainty principle, which Mr. Bates argues was behind Empson’s distinction between “either/or ambiguity” and “both/and ambiguity.”

Either/or ambiguity is the belief that one must choose between alternative meanings of an ambiguous word or phrase, separate them into correct and incorrect connotations. In both/and ambiguity, alternative meanings coexist, ramify and fructify each other, as Empson believed they characteristically did in Shakespeare. In the same sense that the quantum in the new physics was ambiguity embodied–it could partake of the qualities of both particle and wave until it was reductively measured and “collapsed” into a singularity.

We’ve come a long way, I know, from the edition of the “apprentice work in farce” I came upon in the used-book store basement, but I want to return to that image of the drop in the ocean seeking another drop in that 10-line passage that provoked this extended speculation. Because in the next act of The Comedy of Errors , Shakespeare returns to the image of the drop in the ocean again, the particle and wave, only gives it a new twist.

In this case, it comes up when the wife of the Ephesian Antipholus mistakes his wandering twin, the Syracusan Antipholus, for her husband and, in the confusion over his confusion, asks him, “How comes it that thou art estranged from thyself?” And then movingly invokes the dual image of the drop of water and the ocean to evoke the indivisibility of their two selves (although she means her self and the other twin’s self):

“For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall

A drop of water in the breaking gulf,

And take unmingled thence that drop again,

Without addition or diminishing,

As take from me thyself and not me too.”

It’s a touching image of indivisibility (dramatically ironized, of course, by the fact she’s addressing it to the wrong twin), but also, I’d suggest, a meditation on exceptionalism, the question which led me to reread The Comedy of Errors . It powerfully conjures up a vision of an exceptional, indivisible self–the drop of water that can fall into the crashing surf and retain its identity undissolved–even while denying the possibility of indissolubility in reality. One hesitates to say it’s the playwright’s sense of his own uniqueness being invoked here intentionally. But it suggests to me something about the nature of Shakespearean exceptionalism, something akin to the duality of the particle and the wave. Shakespeare is as unique and exceptional as that particular drop in the ocean; he is the drop, yes, but he is also the ocean.