"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Lines I Wished I’d Written: Dromio Describes Nell from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors

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]
  • Dromio of SyracuseMarry, sir, besides myself, I am due to a woman; one
    that claims me, one that haunts me, one that will have me.845
  • Dromio of SyracuseMarry 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
  • Dromio of SyracuseA 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
  • Dromio of SyracuseMarry, 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.
  • Dromio of SyracuseSwart, 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.
  • Dromio of SyracuseNell, sir; but her name and three quarters, that's 870
    an ell and three quarters, will not measure her from
    hip to hip.
  • Dromio of SyracuseNo longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
    she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out 875
    countries in her.
  • Dromio of SyracuseI 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.
  • Dromio of SyracuseOh, 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.
  • Dromio of SyracuseOh, 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
  • Antipholus of SyracuseGo 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.
  • Dromio of SyracuseAs 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.

1 comment:

  1. That's the thing I don't like about Shakespeare. He has too many characters in his plays and they all have confusing names like Dolmio, Antipasti and J'accuse. One can never follow the plot as to who is supposed to have done what and to whom. And there's always a choir singing and a fat man shouting Nessun Dorma. And people dancing on tiptoe, (why can't they hire taller dancers?) And at the end someone dies either by being stabbed or poisoned. And as he dies, instead of the cast calling for an ambulance they continue singing for at least ten minutes. And every one in the audience applauds.

    What's all that about?

    I prefer Tom and Jerry. Much simpler.

    God bless.