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Farce and Satire in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors Essays

Farce and Satire in The Comedy of Errors

All is not as it seems in The Comedy of Errors. Some have the notion that The Comedy of Errors is a classical and relatively un-Shakespearean play. The plot is, in fact, based largely on Plautus’s Menaechmi, a light-hearted comedy in which twins are mistaken for each other. Shakespeare’s addition of twin servants is borrowed from Amphitruo, another play by Plautus. Like its classical predecessors, The Comedy of Errors mixes farce and satire and (to a degree) presents us with stock characters.

Besides being based on classical models, is it really fair to call The Comedy of Errors a serious play? I’m not sure it is. Three-quarters of the play is a fast-paced comedy based on mistaken identity and wordplay, and often descending to crude physical humor. The framing plot changes the total impression the play makes, mixing pathos, wonder, and joy with the hilarity. But it doesn’t turn an essentially funny play into an essentially serious one. Still, there are serious elements in the play, and these may stay with us longer than the light ones. These serious elements are not limited to the framing plot, though they often depend on it. In fact, what is serious and thought-provoking in the play is often the source of laughter, too. Usually the laughter comes first, and then, if we’re attentive, we’ll notice that Shakespeare has given us something to think about. Let me offer some examples. First, the play treats with some seriousness issues related to marriage:

jealousy, loyalty, love, misunderstanding, the need for patience, the “troubles of the marriage-bed,” and the “joy” and “kind embracements” that can come with marriage (II.i.27; I.i.39, 43).

Second, the…

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… to describe marriage. Adriana claims that marriage has made herself and her husband “one,” “undividable incorporate”: “For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall/ A drop of water in the breaking gulf,/ And take unmingled thence that drop again,/ Without addition or diminishing,/ As take from me thyself and not me too” (II.ii.142, 122, 125-29). Shakespeare doesn’t pretend that such a union is easily achieved. He is quite aware that to offer oneself to another is to risk oneself.

Works Cited

* Fitch, Robert Elliot. Odyssey of the Self-Centered Self. New York: Harcourt, 1961.

* Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

* Wilbur, Richard. Introduction. Tartuffe. By Jean Baptiste Poquelin de Moliere. Trans. Richard Wilbur. San Diego: Harvest-Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963.

The Characters of Molière’s The Misanthrope

The Characters of Molière’s The Misanthrope

The characters in Molière’s The Misanthrope inhabit a world different from that of many of the playwright’s other works: we are viewing the actions of people at the very top of the social ladder of 17th-century France. For example, the foppish Acaste and Clitandre, who come into Célimène’s house in the second act, are marquesses, the second-highest rank one can hold in the country. They can spend most of the day with Célimène, if they so choose, for their only remaining duty at court is to attend the coucher of Louis XIV, the formal going-to-bed ceremony of the king, to which only the highest members of the court were invited to attend. The characters of The Misanthrope own estates, hold power, and are immensely wealthy. They are not the bourgeois household of Tartuffe, they are not members of the upper-middle class–they are the court.

Through Alceste, the misanthrope of the title, Molière mocks and attacks the behavior of the highest level of his society. But Alceste is no Tartuffe, censuring those about him, while giving the appearance of a puritan, set apart from society. No, Alceste, himself an owner of estates, yearns to be accepted by the very society he condemns, and that was seen from the first in the costume which Molière wore when he played Alceste, a costume that represents the latest fashion–expensive, tasteful, and stylish.

We do not know much about this costume from the script, other than it is adorned with green ribbons. We know what Alceste wore–at least in the first productions–from an inventory of Molière’s effects, made after his death:

Item, another box where one finds the costumes for the presentation of Le misanthrope consisting of breeches an…

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… wearing a curved-brimmed hat, fashionable shoes, and richly embroidered, highly fashionable justaucorps. It was (and is) an Alceste as hypocritical as the society he condemns for hypocrisy, a “supremely paradoxical creature,” as David Whitton has called Alceste: “a fish which cannot abide water, nor live out of water.”

Works Cited

Dock, Stephen V. “Authentic Costuming for Tartuffe and Le misanthrope.” Approaches to Teaching Molière’s Tartuffe and Other Plays. Ed. James F. Gaines and Michael S. Koppisch. New York: MLA, 1995. 117-36.

Lawrenson, Tom. “The Wearing o’ the Green: Yet Another Look at Ôl’Homme aux Rubans Verts.'” Molière: Stage and Study. Essays in Honour of W. G. Moore. Ed. W. D. Howarth and Merlin Thomas. Oxford; Clarendon, 1973. 163-69.

Whitton, David. Molière: Le Misanthrope. Glasgow: U of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1991.

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