During a recent Quiddity podcast I mentioned that my family (my two youngest are 14 and 15) was embarking on a “Summer of Shakespeare”. Outside of a survey of the New Testament this would be the only academic exercise we would undertake during this otherwise busy season. Summertime meant we were in the mood to tackle his comedies, beginning (appropriately enough) with The Comedy of Errors. I would like to share three things we discovered from that time together.
I can’t emphasize enough how helpful it was for my students to have a grasp of Shakespeare’s England. I say England, because in the Bard’s day his country wasn’t as closely knit to Europe as during Chaucer’s time. This didn’t require more than a couple of hours comparing and contrasting the two periods. The Church of England’s disassociation from Rome, the rise of the modern nation-state, the trade wars — my students were able to locate apects of these circumstances as signposts in The Comedy of Errors. Having the contextual background made them feel “smarter,” if you will, when they recognized elements of commercial rivalry and hubris in the Bard’s arrangement of the setting of the play.
In arranging a dramatic reading, it turned out that The Comedy of Errors, with its two sets of twins, was the perfect introduction for siblings close in age. We did no “acting” (we were short of outside participants) but reading the play aloud was a family affair, with my daughter and wife reading the parts of sisters Adriana and Luciana, repectively. My son had fun taking on the parts of both Dromios, enjoying their wit toward their masters and suffering (figuratively) their abuse. But the key was to stop to laugh at the many instances of confused identity, as well as the comical paranoia Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse experienced in Ephesus. Shakespreare’s arrangement of accidents in this drama brought some illumination to our family’s way of viewing unfamiliar circumstances.
Allowing the elements of the story to unfold with opportunities to freely inject questions and discussion (without much by way of commentary), Shakespeare was discovered to be an enjoyable writer. My son, hooked by the playwright’s shady history as the “deer-snatcher of Avon,” was able to appreciate the satire in the exchanges between servant and master. I think both my students were surprised at the liberal use of farce in depicting hierarchical relationships. Above all, they got to taste the rich wordplay in the Bard’s ability to cast images on the imaginatio (e.g. Dromio of Syracuse’s description Luce’s physique as a “globe,” associating her features with the nation-states of the international intrigue). My daughter found Shakespeare “as witty as the Marx Brothers” — high praise coming from her, and something I don’t think she expected.
The Bard’s, depth, arrangement, style, and content were all found captivating. To the extent that my son and daughter want to continue to explore his work on their own, the “Summer of Shakespeare” has been a worthwhile part of their vacation.