Thursday, March 3, 2011

Laughing with the Bard...the other Bard...

Literary Blog Hop

Today's prompt over at the Literary Blog Hop is "Can literature be funny? What is your favorite humorous literary book?"

The Comedy of Errors (Folger Shakespeare Library)One of the funniest bits of literature I know of is Shakespeare's hilarious play The Comedy of Errors.  It recounts the story of two sets of identical twins accidentally separated at birth when their ship encounters a destructive storm.  The twins look so alike that, as Shakespeare says, they can only be distinguished by name.  The complication here is that the identical twins actually can't be told apart by their names: they have the same names.  One set of twins have the name Antipholus while the other set have the name Dromio.  One Antipolus and one Dromio live together in Syracuse while the other Antipolus and Dromio live together in Ephesus.  At the beginning of the play, they all find themselves together in one place--not yet knowing their twins are even still alive.  This is the set-up for many hysterical instances of mistaken identity.  The dialogue--quite often rhyming--is quick and witty, riddled with wordplay and bad puns. 

The Antipholuses

The Dromios

I will revisit this play at a later date to discuss themes, language use, characterization, etc.--but today I want to tell you a bit about an absolutely stellar performance my 11yo son and I saw recently at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, directed by Andy Posner.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Folger, it is a small, intimate theater with a tradition of putting on some of the most innovative and entertaining performances in the country.  Folger productions often draw from the same pool of talented actors used by DC's Shakespeare Theater Company.

My son and I saw a matinee performance set up for school students (including our small homeschool group).  When we were all seated, an actor--not yet in costume--came out and told us he wanted to share a few video scenes from an upcoming documentary about his English Shakespeare troupe, the Worcestershire Mask and Wig Society.  It soon became apparent to most of us that the film was in fact the first of many jokes we would see in the next two hours.  The mockumentary served to underline the themes of twinning and mistaken identification.

The "documentary" also allows playgoers to see how remarkably different the actors playing the twins look in real life.  The actors differ in height and weight, in coloring and age.  But by the magic of the stage--as well as the brilliant masks designed by Aaron Cromie and worn by all the male characters--we were utterly convinced they were identical.  The actors-especially those playing the Dromios--learned to mimic each other's movements so precisely that many of us in the audience had trouble keeping them apart.

I find it fascinating that none of the female characters wear masks or disguises in this production. (Female actors playing male characters do.) In some ways, this feels like a flip from Shakespeare's time. Then, all the female characters were played by male actors in disguise. Was this modern unmasking the undirector's idea of a double negative?

The Folger performance echoed Shakespeare's fast-moving dialogue by making the physical action seem just as whirlwind.  The stage, set almost to look like a colorful Edwardian circus, is filled with doorways which open and close as characters make their exits and their entrances again and again.  A musician-mime sits to the side of the stage, playing not only background music but interacting with the actors and playing sound effects.  This production is all about show, about masks on top of metaphorical masks--and ultimately about trying to figure out who we really are.

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For more literary laughs, check out my favorite Twitter hashtag yesterday: #SeussSpeare--a tribute to Dr. Seuss on his birthday from Shakespeare fans.


  1. I thought of Comedy of Errors for this meme as well! It's one of Shakespeare's plays that I don't think reads all that well but is a lot of fun to see performed. That's awesome you got to see the Folger performance. The masks are a genius idea if identical twins aren't actually available. I saw a performance in the Boston Commons where we were so far from the stage the actors just had to look similar and the story worked.

  2. A Russian classic, Dead Souls by Gogol, doesn't sound like it but is one of the funniest classics I've read.

  3. I enjoyed your answer. I haven't seen that much Shakespeare performed. Maybe in my future though.

  4. I've never seen of read Comedy of Errors, but I've been mulling over going to see this production. Popping over to Goldstar right now to investigate discounted tickets.

  5. Has anyone taken the grumpy contrarion position that literature cannot, under any circumstances, be funny?

  6. Red: How funny! I love the idea that just a little distance might work as well as masks!

    Teresa: If you can get tickets, definitely give it a try. And take some young people with you!

    AR: You know, I spent half an hour trying to put together a post like that, but I was laughing so hard I knew I couldn't pull it off. Are you grumpy and contrarian enough to do it yourself?

  7. I couldn't fully take the grumpy contrary position either, although it sounds like it would be a fun post to concoct!

    Shakespeare is a prime example of humorous literature.

  8. Comedy of Errors sounds hilarious, and I would love to see a live performance. Unfortunately, I haven't seen a single live performance of Shakespeare's plays. I wish we had something like the Folger around here. :)

  9. Oh, I take the jolly contrarion position. All great literature is funny.

  10. See I'm much to serious... I need to learn to lighten up! I didn't think of WS yet I'm seeing him all over the blogosphere for this week's question. Love him!

  11. I haven't read Comedy of Errors. Obviously I should. I always think the humor in Shakespeare is really brought out in performance.

    See my hop here:

  12. AR: You clearly know yourself. The role of jolly contrarion fits perfectly with your commenting style!

    Mari: I'm pretty serious most of the time and love to wallow in tragedy. Melancholy should be my middle name. But isn't it nice to be reminded of how much humor there is in classic literature? I've loved reading everybody's answers to this prompt.

    LBC: I think you are absolutely right that the Shakespeare's humor is brought out in performance, as Red pointed out for this play in particular in the first comment.

    I love to read the plays after seeing a production--to see what is different but also to have the energy of the stage convey to the words on the page. (This is really the opposite from the way I usually think about films and books, though!)

  13. I've never read or seen Comedy of Errors but I'm supposed to be reading it in May--sounds wonderful! Especially after all the history plays I've been reading/still have to read.

  14. love your choice & the Suess hashtag.

  15. I am a new follower. I am not a Literary follower, sadly. If I was, I would not be wishing that Literature was more Funny. I find it too Serious. I hope you will overlook this.

    Here is my post:

  16. Just added this to Goodreads. I'm becoming very fond of Shakespeare. Which shocks me.

  17. Some ideas to jumpstart the "never funny" case:

    Nietzsche: "That which we can find words for is something already dead in our hearts; there is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking." The Twilight of the Idols

    Or this scene, roughly, from Derek Jarman's film Wittgenstein
    Wittgenstein: I wanted to write a philosophy written entirely in jokes.
    Keynes: Why did you not write it?
    Wittgenstein: I didn't have a sense of humor.

    The problem is that both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are joking, but one can work around that, surely.

  18. I haven't had a chance to read this one yet, but it sounds great! And I am sure like all Shakespeare plays, so much better in person!

    My husband and I might be traveling to the DC area late in the summer and if we do, I told him we are going to see a play if we can!


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