At the close of the year I read Shakespeare’s slapstick comedy—yes, Shakespeare wrote slapstick too—The Comedy of Errors. It’s a lot of fun. Shakespeare was as great a comedic writer as a tragedian. The Comedy of Errors is a very early play, perhaps his very first comedy. There’s a really great scene in the play, sometimes titled, “The Kitchen Wench” scene of Act III, Scene 2, and I’m going to present it here for you.
Let me explain it. The play hinges on two sets of twins, both separated at birth, meet up and the mistaken identity fun that happens as a result of the confusion. The play is set in the city of Ephesus. One set of twins, the aristocratic pair, are both called Antipholus, one from Ephesus and just arrived from the city of Syracuse. To each belongs a slave, the other set of twins, both called Dromio, identified as Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse. Antipholus of Ephesus is married to a lovely lady, Adriana, and while in town Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love and woos Adriana’s sister Luciana. Of course no one realizes who is who or that there are twins in play, and you can see the fun as Luciana thinks that her brother-in-law is trying to seduce her. Now the Dromio of Ephesus is engaged to be married, to the family cook named Nell. Nell is not attractive, as you will see. Nell confuses Dromio of Syracuse as her husband, and she chases after him, love sick. Confused? It’s not that complicated. Here you can understand the play in minute explanation in this video.
Here is the “The Kitchen Wench” scene. The scene divides into two parts. In the first Dromio describes her physical appearance, which is not pretty: fat, greasy, prone to sweat, and dirty. The second part goes off on a word play where Nell is compared to a globe and different countries are identified as parts of her body. What I want to highlight is the wit and cleverness of Shakespeare, even here as a young writer. One didn’t need this scene to be so elaborate to the unity of the play, but Shakespeare provides it for a sense of fun, for a sense of play in the most common sense of the word “play.” Now just before this scene Antipholus of Syracuse has been wooing Luciana, and she has run off shocked thinking her brother-in-law is making a “play” on her. In contrast, enter Dromio of Syracuse who has been running away from Nell. So we have high comedy contrasted with low comedy. Here’s the low comedy, the numbers refer to line numbers.
[Enter DROMIO of Syracuse]
- Antipholus of Syracuse. Why, how now, Dromio! where runn'st thou so fast?
of Syracuse. Do you know
me, sir? am I Dromio? am I your man?
am I myself?840
- Antipholus of Syracuse. Thou art Dromio, thou art my man, thou art thyself.
- Dromio of Syracuse. I am an ass, I am a woman's man and besides myself.
- Antipholus of Syracuse. What woman's man? and how besides thyself? besides thyself?
of Syracuse. Marry, sir,
besides myself, I am due to a woman; one
that claims me, one that haunts me, one that will have me.845
- Antipholus of Syracuse. What claim lays she to thee?
of Syracuse. Marry sir,
such claim as you would lay to your
horse; and she would have me as a beast: not that, I
being a beast, she would have me; but that she,
being a very beastly creature, lays claim to me.850
- Antipholus of Syracuse. What is she?
of Syracuse. A very
reverent body; ay, such a one as a man may
not speak of without he say 'Sir-reverence.' I have
but lean luck in the match, and yet is she a
wondrous fat marriage.855
- Antipholus of Syracuse. How dost thou mean a fat marriage?
of Syracuse. Marry, sir,
she's the kitchen wench and all grease;
and I know not what use to put her to but to make a
lamp of her and run from her by her own light. I
warrant, her rags and the tallow in them will burn a 860
Poland winter: if she lives till doomsday,
she'll burn a week longer than the whole world.
- Antipholus of Syracuse. What complexion is she of?
of Syracuse. Swart, like
my shoe, but her face nothing half so
clean kept: for why, she sweats; a man may go over 865
shoes in the grime of it.
- Antipholus of Syracuse. That's a fault that water will mend.
- Dromio of Syracuse. No, sir, 'tis in grain; Noah's flood could not do it.
- Antipholus of Syracuse. What's her name?
of Syracuse. Nell, sir;
but her name and three quarters, that's 870
an ell and three quarters, will not measure her from
hip to hip.
- Antipholus of Syracuse. Then she bears some breadth?
of Syracuse. No longer
from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out 875
countries in her.
- Antipholus of Syracuse. In what part of her body stands Ireland?
- Dromio of Syracuse. Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.
- Antipholus of Syracuse. Where Scotland?
- Dromio of Syracuse. I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand.880
- Antipholus of Syracuse. Where France?
of Syracuse. In her
forehead; armed and reverted, making war
against her heir.
- Antipholus of Syracuse. Where England?
of Syracuse. I looked for
the chalky cliffs, but I could find no 885
whiteness in them; but I guess it stood in her chin,
by the salt rheum that ran between France and it.
- Antipholus of Syracuse. Where Spain?
- Dromio of Syracuse. Faith, I saw it not; but I felt it hot in her breath.
- Antipholus of Syracuse. Where America, the Indies?890
of Syracuse. Oh, sir, upon
her nose all o'er embellished with
rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich
aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole
armadoes of caracks to be ballast at her nose.
- Antipholus of Syracuse. Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?895
of Syracuse. Oh, sir, I
did not look so low. To conclude, this
drudge, or diviner, laid claim to me, call'd me
Dromio; swore I was assured to her; told me what
privy marks I had about me, as, the mark of my
shoulder, the mole in my neck, the great wart on my 900
left arm, that I amazed ran from her as a witch:
And, I think, if my breast had not been made of
faith and my heart of steel,
She had transform'd me to a curtal dog and made
me turn i' the wheel.905
of Syracuse. Go hie thee
presently, post to the road:
An if the wind blow any way from shore,
I will not harbour in this town to-night:
If any bark put forth, come to the mart,
Where I will walk till thou return to me. 910
If every one knows us and we know none,
'Tis time, I think, to trudge, pack and be gone.
of Syracuse. As from a
bear a man would run for life,
So fly I from her that would be my wife.
The text is copied from OpenSource Shakespeare, here, where you can read the entire play.
Now you can watch the scene acted out in this clip. It’s wonderfully done from of all places, Bob Jones University. Interestingly two lines are omitted from this rendition, the one about Ireland being Nell’s hip and Belgium and Netherlands being her lower unmentionables. The only reason I can think of redacting those out is that Bob Jones University is a religious institution and wanted to remove any sexual overtones. It doesn’t seem so sexual to me. It’s very well done though.
The Comedy of Errors is a short play and a lot of fun. Read it or watch it somewhere. It’s better than television.