The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare (Brief Thoughts)

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare felt a lot like Love’s Labour’s Lost when I read it because there was misdirected love. But The Comedy of Errors takes humor to another level by adding in mistaken identity because of a double set of identical twins!

In The Comedy of Errors, there are two sets of identical twins who were born on the same day, two born to a rich merchant and two born to a poor woman. The rich  merchant bought the two poor babies to be slaves to his sons, and when he returns to his home, his ship is wrecked and the twin pairs are separated. Now, more than two decades later, the two sets of twins happen to be in the same town. Since they are unaware that there are two different servants called Dromio and two different men named Antipholous, there are amusing results!

After I read the play, I watched Big Business, a movie with Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin that follows a similar premise: two sets of identical twins separated at birth. Besides the initial premise, however, the modern-day retelling has very little in common with the Shakespeare play. Nevertheless, it was a funny movie to watch. 

Although The Comedy of Errors is ridiculous and highly unlikely, it is still a delightful play. It must be quite amusing watching in person as the Dromio and Antipholous characters appear on stage and confuse the residents of Ephesus. This wasn’t my favorite Shakespeare play, but I’m glad I read it. Shakespeare has a wonderful way with plot development!

Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare

I had hoped that by waiting a week or two I’d know what I want to say about Love’s Labour’s Lost, but after all this time I still have very little to say. I worry that I feel this way because I read a free Project Gutenberg version of it, and as I read in Shakespeare on Toast a few weeks ago, that is not necessarily a good thing: not every version is created the same.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is an amusing Shakespearean comedy: light, pure entertainment. I found few memorable lines in the version I read, but it was an enjoyable plot. I also watched Kenneth Branaugh’s version of the play, which was a completely original take on it. I loved that he was able to reinvent the play, using Shakespeare’s own words, in a modern scene without too much pain.

The play is about the king of Navarre and his court — four men who take a vow of celibacy for three years while they pursue their studies, forbidding women to even enter their court. When the princess of France hears of this development, she and her court decide to visit and see what kind of reception they can receive. Of course, the young men fall secretly in love with the lovely ladies, despite the King’s decree, and when they all discover the other’s pining love, they decide they should abandon their pledge and flirt with the women. Crossed love letters and a group of women determined to mock the royal court ultimately result in the four young men failing to accomplish their goal of wooing the women, but it makes for an amusing ride for the audience as we watch it unfolding!

Branaugh placed this mythical Basque kingdom and court in Europe in 1939, giving his lovebirds the tendency to burst into songs — Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin. It’s a musical, it’s light. Is there any substance to it? Not a whole lot, but Shakespeare’s original didn’t have much either. There is a lot of play on words, most of it groan worthy. Apparently, Branaugh’s movie had less than half the original words as Shakespeare.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is the least often performed of Shakespeare’s plays. Nevertheless, I’m glad I gave it a try. It’s nice to know that even Shakespeare doesn’t do everything perfectly. Although, I will say that even this mediocre and less than impressive play still has delightful wordplay. Shakespeare didn’t do too badly.


Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb

As I followed along with Allie’s Shakespeare Month in January, I was impressed that so many of the plays that other readers discussed sounded familiar, even though I knew I had not read them or seen them performed. I knew I had never seen or read A Merchant in Venice, for example, but the plot seemed so familiar to me.

I recalled I’d read summaries of Shakespeare in eighth grade English class, so I determined to find the volume that we’d read. I discovered Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, originally published in 1807, and I’m almost certain that was my eighth grade exposure. It was time to read the volume in full. While I’m glad I rediscovered this classic, I’m hesitant to recommend it for children today.

It’s not to say that there isn’t a place for play summaries for children. Obviously, reading summaries of the plays gave me a background for Shakespeare that I recall nearly two decades later. However, the summaries by the Lamb’s are difficult to get through. Most of the text is exposition rather than Shakespeare’s clever dialogue, and let’s face it, clever as they are, Shakespeare’s plots are quite confusing and detailed. For the plays with which I was not familiar, I found it hard to follow the developing stories. For the plays with which I am intimately familiar (Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew), it was rather disappointing to read a surface-level treatment of what I consider genius of plot and language. Besides, much as the authors intended to keep their summaries unbiased, they did give their opinions in subtle ways (such as Mary Lamb’s interpretation of the end of The Taming of the Shrew, a play I think is rather ironic rather than misogynistic).

The Lambs recognized the limitations to their task. One of them wrote in the introduction the following:

It has been wished to make these Tales easy reading for very young children. To the utmost of their ability the writers have constantly kept this in mind; but the subjects of most of them made this a very difficult task.

The introduction further explains that they intended the summaries to also be for “young ladies” who are not able to be schooled as their brothers may be. The Lambs suggest that boys simply read the original Shakespeare instead of these summaries:

For young ladies too, it has been the intention chiefly to write; because boys being generally permitted the use of their fathers’ libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book; and, therefore, instead of recommending these Tales to the perusal of young gentlemen who can read them so much better in the originals, their kind assistance is rather requested in explaining to their sisters such parts as are hardest for them to understand: and when they have helped them to get over the difficulties, then perhaps they will read to them (carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister’s ear) some passage which has pleased them in one of these stories, in the very words of the scene from which it is taken; and it is hoped they will find that the beautiful extracts, the select passages, they may choose to give their sisters in this way will be much better relished and understood from their having some notion of the general story from one of these imperfect abridgments; which if they be fortunately so done as to prove delightful to any of the young readers, it is hoped that no worse effect will result than to make them wish themselves a little older, that they may be allowed to read the Plays at full length (such a wish will be neither peevish nor irrational).

Ignoring the comments about what girls can take or not (and keeping in mind that girls did not recieve a comparative education), I wonder why, then, anyone who can read the original Shakespeare needs to read Lamb’s summary. As I mentioned, there is a place for it, I suppose, and I may even find myself using the Lambs’ summaries with my son in our homeschooling when the time comes for it. Summaries do provide cultural context for young readers.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that we should try to find a way to expose our kids to the original whenever possible. Shakespeare’s writing, not just his plots, are what make his plays magnificent.

Henry VI Part 3 by William Shakespeare

I wish I could finish off my series of posts on Henry VI with as much enthusiasm as I had for the second play, but 3 Henry VI (written 1595) was simply not as enjoyable as 2 Henry VI was.

In the first place, 3 Henry VI is simply violent from the first scene, when Richard Duke of Gloucester enters with the Duke of Somerset’s head and York and Montague compare bloody swords. The play also has lots of betrayal: no one can trust each other, and promises are broken from one scene to the next. “An oath is of no moment,” says Richard Duke of Gloucester in Act 1, scene 2. The leaders themselves are unsure who they want to follow and they frequently change loyalties from one king to the other. It should be noted that the cast of characters includes King Henry VI and King Edward IV. Obviously, there is a bit of confusion as to who is actually ruling England during the years portrayed in this play.

But by focusing on the fragility of power, Shakespeare manages to poignantly touch on the pointlessness of greed and power. Although I disliked King Henry VI in the previous two plays, in this play, his steadfastness is the most enjoyable aspect. He remarks on his life and the pointlessness of war, and the scenes in which he does so are the most memorable of the play. So, while the play does for the majority of the moving action illustrated the ultimate chaos that comes from power and greed, it also draws the other parallel in its quieter, more subtle scenes: the pointlessness of war, the danger with leadership being an inherited calling, and the tragedies associated with betrayal. Continue Reading