Richard III and The Comedy of Errors

The soul’s yearning to find its psychological or physical other half unites two of Shakespeare’s early plays, says Peter J. Smith

July 7, 2011


Credit: John Dougall (Clarence) and the company in Richard III/Manuel HarlanA chorus of sinister henchmen: ‘The deed you undertake is damnable’

Richard III and The Comedy of Errors

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Edward Hall

Cast and music by Propeller

At Hampstead Theatre, London until 9 July

And then touring 13-16 July, Neuss Festival, Globe Theatre, Germany; 19-23 July, Galway Festival, Town Hall Theatre, Republic of Ireland; 28-30 July, Verona, Teatro Romano, Italy; 3-7 August, Kronborg Castle, Denmark

Richard III and The Comedy of Errors make strange bedfellows. The former is a tragedy of statecraft, based (loosely) on a historical figure, set in a recognisable medieval England and speaking directly to contemporary concerns of Elizabethan government. The latter is a slapstick farce, deriving from Roman New Comedy, set in exotic Ephesus and performed for a lawyers’ Christmas party. One is brutish, nasty and long (only Hamlet is longer), the other endearing, frothy and short (Shakespeare’s shortest play). One script relies on a central charismatic performer and the other is far more evenly distributed among the acting company. One ends in death and regime change, the other in joyful family reunion and the prevention of Egeon’s threatened execution, which has been hanging over the play from its outset. But juxtaposition of these two unlikely companions makes for some interesting comparisons. Unidentical they may be but, in some ways, the two texts begin to resemble twins.

Between summer 1592 and spring 1594 the theatres were closed owing to an outbreak of plague and Shakespeare busied himself with the composition of Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1593-94). But he also, at precisely this time, wrote Richard III and The Comedy of Errors (1592-93 and 1594, respectively). Both plays are strikingly marked by the influence of the narrative poems. Heavily reliant on the regularity of blank verse as well as rhyme throughout, they demonstrate Shakespeare’s determination to out-Marlowe Marlowe’s pioneering dramatic poetry. The two plays share a conspicuous use of rare vocabulary and even verbal echoes. Richard of Gloucester remarks on his strategy of picking fights: “I do the wrong and first begin to brawl”. In Errors, Antipholus reprimands the goldsmith: “like a shrew you first begin to brawl”. Richard tells of the grief caused by Clarence’s arrest: it “Touches me dearer than you can imagine”. Similarly, Adriana remarks on the pain her husband would feel, were she unfaithful: “How dearly would it touch thee to the quick”.

Thematically too, the plays speak to one another. Both are about family, the Plantagenets’ internecine, Egeon’s fatefully separated. Both ask searing questions about the nature of social status, conferred by accidents of nativity, confirmed by marriage or political standing or annulled by execution or foreign arrest. Perhaps most obviously both plays dwell on the vagaries of identity.

In 1585 Shakespeare became the father of twins, Hamnet and Judith, and his greatest play, Twelfth Night, is about the grief-stricken Viola who assumes (wrongly) that her twin brother is drowned. (Hamnet had died just five years earlier.) Errors too is about the incompleteness of separated twins. “I to the world am like a drop of water/That in the ocean seeks another drop”, laments Antipholus of Syracuse, forever searching for his long-lost brother.

In Richard III this sense of intact selfhood is also conferred by the presence of a twin - not an external, identical sibling, but a psychological other half. On the eve of the battle of Bosworth, Richard has the most extraordinary schizophrenic quarrel with himself:

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.

Is there a murderer here? No. - Yes, I am.

Then fly. - What, from myself? - Great reason why:

Lest I revenge. - What, myself upon myself?

Alack, I love myself. - Wherefore? - For any good

That I myself have done unto myself. -

O, no, alas, I rather hate myself

For hateful deeds committed by myself.

I am a villain. - Yet I lie; I am not.

This multiple personality disorder springs from the disintegration of Richard’s own self. Whereas Antipholus will meet and be completed by Antipholus and Dromio Dromio, Richard’s deviousness has backfired and all that is left is a Manichean mania as he ventriloquises himself further and further from himself: “I myself/Find in myself no pity to myself”.

In electing to perform these early Shakespeare plays in repertory and with a single all-male cast, Edward Hall’s Propeller company foregrounds these shared concerns. One production speaks inevitably to the other and while the shows are free-standing, their complementarity is remarkable. With its frequently outrageous violence, this Richard III is not for the faint of heart. As the opposing factions are brought together, they toast their rapprochement with test tubes of each other’s blood. Clarence is dispatched not in a butt of malmsey but by having his eyes drilled out. Hastings is dismembered with a chainsaw. Buckingham is eviscerated and his ghost subsequently appears, clutching his sausage-string entrails. Unable to remove the ring from Anne, whom he has just suffocated, Richard takes her dead hand into his mouth and bites clean through the ring finger. But all this bloody savagery is accompanied by the most beautiful singing, performed live by the actors, and this oxymoronic combination of Grand Guignol and gorgeous harmony anticipates the fragmentation of the play’s protagonist and, in so doing, nods in the direction of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film version of A Clockwork Orange.

The mayhem is overseen by a chorus of sinister henchmen wearing identical long apron-like coats and alarming balaclavas. They carry clubs, hooks, drills and other means of industrial slaughter. Set in an abattoir, the production bears the hallmarks of Jan Kott’s 1964 nihilistic Shakespeare Our Contemporary. But it is also wryly good humoured. As Richard woos Lady Anne whose slaughtered father-in-law is laid out in front of them (the corpse newly bleeding), he plops himself casually on to the bier. From his sleeve he produces a bouquet in the manner of a children’s entertainer, and his fixed smile is humorously daft. Richard Clothier’s Richard is hampered by a leg iron and a crooked arm but is much taller than anyone else in the company and sports a glamorous peroxide shock of hair. Clothier’s Richard is a complete maniac, played at full tilt without any sense of machiavellian deliberation. The violence is enjoyed in and of itself rather than aiding him towards the crown.

On the eve of the battle of Bosworth, the ghosts of Richard’s many victims materialise in order to encourage Richmond and damn Richard. The scene usually calls for a split stage. Hall’s solution was much neater. The two enemies sat on a table-cum-stretcher, back to back. While Richard addresses Buckingham as “My other self”, Hall implied that it was Richmond, Richard’s nemesis, that mysteriously made him whole.

The chorus of Errors was similarly omnipresent and anonymous but here masked by reflecting shades, soccer shirts and huge sombreros. Instead of polyphonic singing, they gyrated to salsa and The Girl from Ipanema. Bursting with comic lazzi and pratfalls and complete with circus sound effects, this Errors was about as far away, tonally, from the horrors of Richard III as it was possible to be. Naked, Dr Pinch ran through the auditorium, a fizzing sparkler clenched between his buttocks! Nevertheless, the concern with identity was maintained. Bewildered by their reunification, the Dromios wheeled around each other mirroring the other’s gestures in perfect symmetry.

Confronted by a wife whom he has never met before, Antipholus of Syracuse asks us whether he is “Mad or well advised?/Known unto these, and to myself disguised?” Of course, the confusions that befall Antipholus are to do with the unknown presence of his identical twin, but Richard’s self-displacement was no less powerfully evoked. Hall’s twin productions demand an answer to Lear’s overwhelming question: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” The fact that no answer was forthcoming is testament to the productions’ restless imaginative energy.

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