Arrangement of Awarenesses in The Comedy of Errors

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The Arrangement of Awarenesses

      One aspect of The Comedy of Errors that distinguishes it from later Shakespearean comedies is the absence of situational understanding on the part of the play's characters. Bertrand Evans goes as far as to say that this aspect of the play is of primary importance: "With neither character nor language making notable comic contribution then, the great resource of laughter is the exploitable gulf spread between the participants' understanding and ours." Evans notes that almost from the very beginning, the spectator is aware that the father has been condemned to death in the same city in which both of his sons, coincidentally, are present at the time; throughout the play, however, none of the characters are aware of these facts. Thus, the audience is fully aware of the play's "single great secret," while the inhabitants of the play are ignorant, and this contrast produces the majority of the play's comical interactions.

      This arrangement of awarenesses among the audience and the characters, then, could not have been more basic, and Evans confirms that it is the simplest of all of Shakespeare's plays. He notes, "In later ones, our awareness is packed, often even burdened, with multiple, complex, interrelated secrets, and the many circles of individual participant's visions, though they cross and recross one another, do not wholly coincide." Shakespeare would come to use certain dramatic strategies to establish and reestablish levels of understanding among the audience and the plays characters, particularly soliloquies and asides, wherein a single character can discourse on something without revealing any secrets to any other characters. Indeed, soliloquies and asides are the literary equivalent of narrative descriptions of characters' thoughts. Evans notes that thne few short soliloquies in The Comedy of Errors do not reveal any unknown thoughts; rather, they "exploit the speaker's ignorance of what we already know." Shakespeare would also come to habitually plant what Evans termed "practices" within his plays; these practices serve to subvert whatever moral or societal order exists by intentionally deceiving other characters. The characters of Iago, in Othello, and Rosalind, in As You Like It, are good examples of such practices. In a different dramatic respect, Evans notes that in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare did not even provide moments where characters come close to fully understanding the greater situation, as the playwright "risks no dialogue that strikes the unsuspected truth." In later plays, on the other hand, moments of conversational foreshadowing are not uncommon. Overall, then, the singular arrangement of awarenesses in this early play is evident in a number of ways.

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