Thursday, May 27, 2010

A gift for a phrase... And for feminism...?

Firstly, I promise that I am reading Comedy of Errors, and shall tell you about it, but, one small digression...

Hannah/West Wing Bandit left a comment the other day on "Doing Things in the Right Order" that I rudely forgot to reply to (sorry Han!). I had been referring to Billy's gift for phrases and the huge number of quotations credited to him. Hannah said:

"Interesting...but can it just be that his records are the FIRST to have written
those quotes down??? Is that why he's credited with 'coining the phrases'...
could it be possible they were already around,
or is that was 'coining the phrase' means?"

Basically, it's impossible to tell for certain (as are most things to do with Shakespeare!). However, from the surviving manuscripts of other playwrights at the time, such as Ben Jonson and Kit Marlowe, as well as other documents (thousands from that era of all types of documents), it would seem that if any of Shakespeare's quotes were common parlance at the time, no one else really bothered to write them down. Strange though it may seem, it is quite probable that with his fantastic gifts for drama and language, Billy just hit upon the perfect description, witticism or image more often than not.

For example, "to be, or not to be, that is the question" is a stand out quote not so much because the words are unusual, but because they burrow straight into the brain and stay there. And that's Billy's gift.

One of Billy's other gifts is his understanding of women and ability to write strong, interesting, vibrant and funny female characters (also a lot of fabulous female villains. Oh Lady Macbeth, how I love to loathe thee!).

Considering the fact that all female roles were played by young men and that most other playwrights just didn't bother even writing many lines for women, this is quite fantastic. What a mind-blowing exercise it would've been though for his original audiences to watch a young man playing a woman playing a man, such as with Viola in Twelfth Night - conFUsing!!

And in Comedy of Errors, probably among his first plays, Billy's gift for understanding women is right out on display.

Not just his understanding of our vulnerability in the area of fat jokes - yes, that's right, I found one of my favourite quotes again, "she is spherical... I could find out countries in her". Isn't that great?!!

But he also displays his understanding in, um, more important matters also...

Comedy of Errors is a farce (that's not a bad thing!). The action is all carried out in one day, where two identical twins with the same name, and their identical servants, also with the same name, are wandering around Ephesus, just generally getting into one huge scrape. So, it's hilarious, and bawdy, and would've been a very very funny play.

However, there is still such a depth there, and where it first hits me is in the dialogue given to the female characters. The first scene with Ephesian Antipholus' wife Adriana and her sister Luciana is fantastic!

But also a little scary...

The writing expresses so well the anxiety that can consume a housewife who is obviously an interesting and intelligent person, but who has not much to do except wait around for her husband to come home for lunch. It's Betty Freiden four centuries too early!

Adriana and Luciana have a fascinating back and forth about the wifely "duty" to be patient at the will (and whim) of her husband, to be obedient, with Luciana (unmarried) essentially telling her sister just to deal with it, and Adriana pointing out that she has no idea what it's like to wait around on a husband.

Actually Adriana is worried that the reason her husband is home late is because he's cheating on her. Why does she think this? Possibly he's pretty crap at expressing love for her. Possibly because in the society being portrayed, women were actually the property of their husbands, and therefore didn't have a strong sense of security that he wasn't going to do whatever his penis told him and would instead live up to the promises and comittments he's made to her.

Possibly she's just got bugger all else to think about because no one would educate her or allow her to do much other than cook dinner...

Whatever the reason, she's stressed out and freaked out, and Shakespeare does an excellent job of representing her anxiety sympathetically.

What it would've been like to watch two young guys playing that scene is a little beyond me, but I swear I've witnessed almost that exact conversation, and wondered the same things as Luciana wonders...

Isn't that amazing?

And it's not even the Bible!


  1. Love the spherical, I could find countries in her quote hahah

    I want some quotes of this discussion between the women! Sounds v. interesting.

  2. "And it's not even the Bible!"

    What a way to finish.
    Nice post. I want to read this play now.