The Comedy of Twins: Shakespeare and the Biology of Drama

In his introduction to the play, Stephen Greenblatt argues that the identical twins which feature in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, “are fairly commonplace and the fact that two people can bear the same name even more so, but Shakespeare’s play calls attention to all that is potentially disorienting in the routine circumstances of life.”[1] It is hard to understand what Greenblatt means when he says that “identical twins are fairly commonplace” – in what era, for whom, in what sense? In biological terms they are neither commonplace nor are they rare. In historical terms, being born identical in the late-sixteenth century was extremely hazardous, especially for the twins but more particularly for the mother bearing them. Moreover, the equation suggested in this quotation between identical twins and “routine” and “life”, again elides the biological and historical specificity of multiple birth, and the artistic transformation implied by bringing identical twins to a stage of observation that is both comic and tragic. What Greenblatt “calls to attention” is rather more a narrow understanding of what it means to be and see twins, which he suggest are “as like one another as two coins of equal value”[2] By monetising twinship in this way he overlooks the challenge of staging twins, where one must select players that are not and cannot be identically alike, that are not made of metal but of flesh and bone and genes and hair and so on, and that are not of equal value. Such are the disembodied and paper-based assumptions of a cultural materialist, inattentive to the physicality of theatre and the biology of playing up and out.

 [1] Stephen Greenblatt, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, in The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), pp. 683–684.

[2] Stephen Greenblatt, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, in The Norton Shakespeare, p. 688.

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