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.

Animate Twins, Molecular Things

I presented this paper to the Centre for Critical Theory at University of Nottingham. Many thanks go to Andy Goffey for the invitation.

I’d like to open a conversation about animacy, matter, and the molecular status of twins, to question what it is that makes urgent the peculiar exigency of twins, the sense that they are both with ‘us’ and against ‘us,’ and so throwing doubt over what sort of ‘us’ is being claimed and where that relation is being located. I would be truly grateful for any comments or recommendations you might have, anything that you feel seems important or germane, but equally, I’d like to invite an intellectual mercy killing if you think that I’m going seriously off the rails.

In what follows I’d like to provide a commentary on Mel Chen’s work on ‘animacies’, a concept that relates to, describes, and can help challenge hierarchies of agency, awareness, mobility, and liveness, to patrol the distinction between what is ‘alive’ and ‘dead.’ Chen argues a scale of animacy has supported normative concepts of ‘the human’ since, at least, Aristotle’s De Anima, and continues to regulate “gradations of lifeliness”[1] from inanimate, ‘dead things’ – minerals, stones and other non-sentient objects – constitute a zero-degree of agency – through to vegetables, smaller insects and non-vertebrates, to larger animals, mammals, children, women, and finally Man as a maximally agentive figure. Animacy stratifies Nature according to liveness, purpose, and sentience over which humans assume privileged access.

For Chen, understanding the racialised, sexualised and abelised political ecologies that can feed off and maintain the animacy scale helps to “trouble the binary of life and nonlife [to give a clearer] way to conceive of relationality and intersubjective exchange”.[2] The failures, breaks, and contradictions between the animate and inanimate reveal how the scale of animacy “must continually interanimate in spite of its apparent fixedness”[3] – hence, her book is called ‘animacies’ on the understanding that other practices, epistemologies, and ontologies are possible.

Ok, so how do twins fit in? And this, perhaps, is my main point, fittedness doesn’t quite cover the specific and often contradictory forms of mobility that twins achieve along this unstable cline, a mobility that is neither ‘culturally’ or ‘naturally’ directed, but articulates itself through the numerous ways that twin bodies can, do, and might matter.

There are a number of ways that twins may interanimate across and along the animacy hierarchy – from a sense of incongruent codependence, to adult infantalisation, to the ableist logic of extrasensory communication to the dis-ableism of infant language impairment. But I’ll focus the rest of this paper on the use of twins in the natural sciences, especially in psychology, genetics, and epidemiology, where they are thought of and make explicit ‘things’; people whose agentive powers both plunge down the animacy scale through their instrumentalisation as and proximity to laboratory materials, animals, and tools – ‘the non-human’ – and projected up the animacy scale, for being a powerful investigatory community generating, to quote one twin researcher “unique insights […] simply by acting naturally”[4]. Their every life event, decision is resonant with scientifically universal information ­– their bodies are used to stabilise and articulate new vital locations, processes, and therapeutic possibilities.. This is “knowledge and insight for everyone,” to quote one leading epidemiologist, “not just for twins”[5] It’s this particular animation of twins that I’d like to focus on for the rest of this paper and I hope to have time later to consider whether there’s a materialism of twinship that permits us to look at relations and intersubjective exchange in a different light.


So: twin things. Those born together in a single gestation first entered studies of heredity, genetics, and then a wide range of allied fields and subfields, through Galton’s biometric analysis of “nature and nurture”– a phrase first coined in relation to his twin studies of the mid 1870s. Guided by depth biology Galton hoped to discover the mechanisms that allowed twins to “keep[…] time like two watches, hardly to be thrown out of accord except for some physical jar”[6] From Galton we can trace the long process that has scientifically en-thinged twins – recruited them as evidence and material, imagined and treated as tools in order to animate new theories of life, development, and disease. Over 1.5 million twins and family members now participate in research worldwide, measured for a huge variety of physical and behavioural traits.

Chen, whose academic background is in comparative linguistics, argues that “language users use animacy hierarchies to manipulate, affirm, and shift the ontologies that matter the world”.[7] With this in mind, consider the status of twins when researchers like Nancy Segal refer to her research participants as “a powerful investigatory tool”[8] or as “living laboratories”[9] Twins matter, but particularly as they serve as efficient, exploratory and contingent tools. Robert Plomin describes his studies of identical twins who differ for a given phenotype as “a sharp scalpel for dissecting non-shared environmental effects from genetic effects.”[10] Twins are ‘technical things’ absorbed into experimental systems and used to bring to light and make matter the epistemic objects that comprise molecular processes.[11] Returning to the animacy scale, I think this use of twins problematizes both the inanimate, stone-like inertia of ‘the thing’ and the spatial and temporal integrity of its all-powerful human antagonist. However, I’m not sure that Chen’s work gives satisfactory guidance when she argues that “when humans are blended with objects along this cline, they are effectively ‘dehumanized’ and simultaneously de-subjectified and objectified”.[12] She uses a distinction between object and subject that finds sustenance in Martha Nussbaum’s claim that objectification occurs whenever “one is treating as an object what is really not an object, what is, in fact, a human being.”[13] Twins, however, are not only treated as or “blended” with things, but are experimental bodies understood as a complex assemblage of cell lines, gene expression levels, methylation sites, and microbial communities, to name just a few kinds of ‘matter’ that twin research has tried to articulate. Somehow, twins remain human twins, realised in and through and perhaps despite their thingliness.

It’s for this reason that I find Chen’s animacy scale or cline both incredibly useful but also rather linear, her discursive approach too narrow for the range of practices that I take to doubly en-thing twins – practices that not only render them technical objects in contemporary genomic research – beings that are measured, sampled, computed, and ‘shared’ as part of a globally-configured experimental apparatus – but also providing the evidence for what Nikolas Rose has characterized as the “molecularization of vitality”; which, with and among other things, decomposes, anatomizes, manipulates, amplifies, and reproduces “tissues, proteins, molecules, and drugs […] to be regarded, in many respects, as manipulable and transferable elements or units, which can be delocalized – moved from place to place, from organism to organism, from disease to disease, from person to person.”[14]

Here the role of animacy forces a set of ethical, epistemological, and ontological decisions that, for me, makes a critical medical humanities approach to twins necessary and possible – should twins be defended against instrumentality, safeguarding an autonomous, lively, unique, unbreakable and free ‘human’, or, can we break with the scales of anthropocentric privilege since, doing so, pursues the more difficult and critical – as in urgent or decisive – and certainly more risky task of understanding how and why twins come to matter in different ways and at different times.


If animating twins permits a recalibration of what it means to instrumentalise bodies conceived at a molecular scale, then I join those who are keen to challenge the strict partition between a human inner and non-human outer – to perforate “the exclusionary zone made of the perceptual operands of phenomenology”[15], and, by dismissing its correlationist accessory, which thrives through a plural multiculturism set against a static mononaturalism, I take the study of twin animacies to open up different, transcorporeal, transobjective socialities. Mel Chen’s characterisation of molecular intimacy is, I think, somewhat problematic, based as it is on physical absorption and assimilation: “When physically co-present with others, I ingest them. There is nothing fanciful about this. I am ingesting their exhaled air, their sloughed skin, and the skin of tables, chairs, and carpet of our shared room”.[16] I am both wary of the notion of physical co-presence being valorised and relied on here but also of how Chen’s human-nonhuman assemblies bare some similarity to Jane Bennett’s attempts to elevate “the shared materiality of all things”[17] to stress how each human is “a heterogeneous compound of wonderfully vibrant, dangerously vibrant, matter.”[18]As in Chen’s analysis, this vital materiality finds its force in accommodating and absorbing what is foreign. Bennett writes: “Vital materiality better captures an ‘alien’ quality of our own flesh, and in so doing reminds humans of the very radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the nonhuman. My ‘own’ body is material, and yet this vital materiality is not fully or exclusively human. My flesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners”[19] We might characterize some of this object-oriented thinking as operating under what Chen calls the “xenobiotic”[20] where the argumentative thrust of these new ontologies, which borrow so much from molecular biology, follow particular trajectories of inclusion as they extend agency into the world by locating the nonhuman within.


To revive Chen’s description of the animacy scale and apply it to her own interanimations, I want to ask in what way does focusing on particular kinds of vibrant things “manipulate, affirm, and shift the ontologies that matter the world”? What, after so many years of humanistic, anti-essentialist broadsides against molecular biology, are we to make of the genetic matter that co-ordinates the somatic identity of twins in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Because, if there is one question same-sex twins are asked by strangers it is this: identical or non-identical, monozygotic or dizygotic? This is gene talk through and through and it’s how twin bodies matter between molar and molecular scales. Despite the informatic metaphors of gene action – where ‘codes’ and ‘scripts’ are ‘read’ and ‘translated’ – ­Barry Barnes and John Dupré remind us that “DNA is stuff, and we are able to relate directly to it and gain knowledge of it as such–where to find it, how to separate it off, how it behaves as material, and so forth […] DNA is indeed a tangible material substance.”[21] Through twins and the research in which they participate, that tangibility has been made possible. And its on this basis that, in my approach to twinning, I want to resist the absolute collapse of the inner and outer, the rather lava-lamp-like materialism of the xenobiotic, since one does not become a twin in the same way one becomes infected or toxic; twinship may share something in common with concepts of biosociality, biological or genetic citizenship, but not in the same way that all of these terms have become tied in the STS and sociology literature to the circulation of “disease, disfigurement or disability”[22], what we might think of as the ‘proper terrain’ of biopolitics. No, I think the animate matter of twins makes another perspective possible; one that does not let the molecular elide the molar and one that does not over- or undermine the physicality of genes, but one that opens up the thingliness of specific people whose animate identity is internally-external, materially distributed within and between bodies.

[1] Chen, Animacies: Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), p. 167.

[2] Chen, Animacies, p.11.

[3] Chen, Animacies, p.30

[4] Nancy Segal, ‘Twins: The Finest Natural Experiment’, Personality and Individual Differences 49 (2010), p. 317.

[5] Tim Spector, ‘The Use of Twins in Research’. BRC Biomedical Forum, Guy’s Hospital, 9th January 2013.

[6] Galton, ‘The History of Twins as a Criterion of Nature and Nurture’, p. 574

[7] Chen, Animacies, p. 42.

[8] Nancy L. Segal, Born Together–Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012), p. 2.

[9] Nancy Segal, Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (New York: Putnam, 1999), p. 1.

[10] Robert Plomin, ‘Commentary: Why Are Children in the Same Family So Different? Non-Shared Environment Three Decades Later’,International Journal of Epidemiology 40 (2011), p. 587.

[11] For more on the distinction between ‘technical’ and ‘epistemic’ thing taken from Hans–Jorg Rheinberger, Towards a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube (Stanford: California University Press, 1997), pp. 28–29.

[12] Chen, Animacies, p. 40

[13] Martha Nussbaum, ‘Objectification’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24. 4 (1995), p.257

[14] Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), p.13, p. 15.

[15] Chen, Animacies, p.209

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 13.

[18] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, pp. 12–13.

[19] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, p. 112

[20] Chen, Animacies, p. 208.

[21]­ Barry Barnes and John Dupré, Genomes and What to Make of Them (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2008), p. 64

[22] Rose, The Politics of Life Itself, p. 137.

“Twins and Doubles” – A Radio Programme on The Forum, BBC World Service

Lucky for me, my friend Lina Hakim has passed a link to this radio programme on the BBC, which features some tremendous guest speakers. The show is described in this way:

The Singh Twins are two sisters who are not only identical twins, but have created a successful career as a single artist. They will be telling us what it means to interpret the world through double vision. Also, psychologist Nancy Segal who has been studying identical Chinese twins separated at birth, and Nicholas Royle, a novelist and professor of literature, takes us into the unsettling world of doubles and alter egos in fiction.

I have not heard the Singh sisters speak before and found them to be fascinating interviewers. Nancy Segal’s new book, Born Together, Raised Apart (2013) gives an account of her work with the Minnesota twin study, receiving this rather tough response from Michael Rossi in the LRB. She provides some interesting arguments about why zygosity testing should be discounted for twins. Nick Royle, despite conflating the Freudian ‘uncanny’, ‘the double’, and other alter-egos with the biologically-specific phenomena of twinship (listen to how he historicises the double with respect to self-consciousness and Romanticism – hence ‘disturbance’, ‘dissonance’, ‘alienation’ – along with the technology of photography. Love how Segal takes him to task on this!). Royle was a tutor at Sussex while I was undergraduate there and prompted me to write a dissertation about Shakespeare’s twins, so I owe a debt to him and his book The Uncanny.

Between Lone Rangers and Double Agents

This short essay first appeared in Desert Island: Toby Phips Lloyd (Durham: Institute of Advanced Study, 2013), pp. 30–33. With special thanks to Toby Phips Lloyd, Simon James, and the IAS.

In 1979 Jim Lewis went in search of his twin brother. After six weeks he called at Jim Springer’s home in Dayton, Ohio, and discovered he had been leading a life in parallel. The ‘Jim Twins,’ as they became known, had been separated at birth. Both suffered from heart problems, were compulsive nail-biters, and suffered from insomnia. Both had married women named Linda, divorced, and then married women named Betty. One had named his son James Alan and the other James Allen. Both called their dogs Toy. Both had worked as deputy sheriffs, petrol station attendants, and at McDonalds, taken their holidays on the same Florida beach, smoked the same brand of cigarette, and drank the same brand of beer.

Whatever we might glean from such tales of twins reunited, the sudden confluence of sibling stories – durations separate yet found to be held in strange parallel with one another – is a generative structure and a place from which to construct new, explanatory narratives. Do the Jim Twins prove the genetic underpinning of complex social behaviours or do they simply demonstrate the cultural homogeneity of Middle America? Moreover, should the polarities of genetic determinism and social constructivism, and the molecular and social scales these imply, act as our only guides when assessing the riddling semantic potential of bifurcating individualism? One response might be to look at how artists have treated the idea of doubling and twinship as entwined processes that are both intrinsic and performed.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Toby Phips Lloyd began DJing under the moniker, ‘Steve’s Evil Twin’, and seized the dramatic advantage of a proximate persona. Desert Island, among other works that reveal Lloyd’s interests in performance and portraiture, includes a video that explores biographies both large and small, real and imagined. And yet, if the video aspect of Desert Island is a kind of self-portrait it is one viewed, thanks to a sort of pseudo-twinship, through a peculiar hall of mirrors. Replacing the dialogue staged between host and celebrity – the hallmark of the BBC’s popular Radio 4 programme – Lloyd asks questions of another Lloyd who, sat opposite and in different clothing, remembers and muses between musical interludes.

Lloyd interviews himself, curbing the aural illusions of radio to striking visual effect. Paradoxically, the content of these biographical narratives, focussing on his early life and artistic interests, are not located in the interview, the dialogic aperture between interviewer and interviewee, but reverse the sequential progress between question and answer. When two people who are identical meet in the scenario that Lloyd imagines for himself then questions are formed in the knowledge of both the content and structure of the answer. This means that the whirling, analeptic quality of Lloyd’s biographical narratives – which frequently recall a past time – work in distinction to the scripted, forward momentum produced by his dominion over both roles. In a structural sense, Toby Phips Lloyd, an only child, entertains an only twin; ‘Steve’s Evil Twin’, the DJ, returns with music and the performativity of entwined remembrance.

While he confesses to childhood shyness, a predilection for solitude, and a passion for crisps, Lloyd’s song selections are both deeply personal and, thanks to the multiplicity of Lloyds implied by the video, self-consciously performed. The BBC’s programme tends to be crafted around delicately and sympathetically-edited moments of autobiographical candour. This intimacy is subtly undone; what value should we give to one person speaking in dialogue with another that is neither the same nor different? It is an arrangement that makes for uncomfortably comic scenes, such as when Lloyd opens the interview by asking why he, an artist of low media exposure, is even appearing on the programme, or when it is suggested that the reason he got a 2:2 in his film degree is because he’s a “terrible filmmaker”. A preoccupation with failure or inadequacy becomes the subject of one of the work’s most poignant moments. When musing on how “people try to hide or change things they don’t like. I think you should celebrate your imperfections because it’s what makes you special”. Lloyd, both giving and receiving, provides this reply: “that’s an interesting point”. Unsure of the sincerity of this statement, and to raise added doubt over the significance of personal, impersonal, and collective pronouns, Lloyd announces that “we should try and take some of your own advice.” Whether “we” includes interviewer, interviewee and audience alike is, in some sense, among the core mysteries of Desert Island.

In dramatising his interaction with a benevolent other, Lloyd’s work forms a contemporary iteration of a two-fold tradition. Since cases like the ‘Jim Twins’ appear in the news media from time to time, the idea of being reunited with an ‘identical’ self, who appears, acts and has had a similar life-history to our own, retains some cultural force as it prowls the borders between the fantasy of science fiction and the reality of chance. In his book, The Culture of the Copy, Hillel Schwartz has argued that imagining that we have another person walking the earth, looking alike and pursuing the alternatives that your own choices preclude, is a recurring symptom of those societies who prize a unique, unitary and authentic self (we might think of the celebrity culture enshrined by the BBC’s Desert Island Discs as being a suitable by-product of such a society).

Advance copies come in twos
Advance copies come in twos

We imagine ourselves to be double agents, argues Schwartz, because we are taught to be obsessed with the idea of being lone rangers. But, as opposed to the nineteenth–century version of ‘the double’ or ‘doppelgänger’, to be feared for its radical compromise to human individuality, Schwartz argues that there is also great comfort to be found in the idea of the double; someone like you, perhaps someone to like you, and certainly someone who has the power to describe your selfhood in a new way. When Toby Lloyd chooses a pool table as his luxury item to take with him to his deserted island – an object that is strongly emblematic of the pub in which he grew up –, he asks who he will play ‘against’. Exploiting the spatial and the combative senses of the word, Lloyd replies, “I can always play against you.”

What Twins Can Teach Us

READ Research in English at Durham

twins2How have twins been viewed throughout history? Why do twins continue to fascinate us today? In this research conversation, Will Viney outlines his new research project, which aims to show the different ways in which twins have been used as tools of thought in science, myth, and literature.

Your new research project is a cultural study of twins across history and through literature. What got you interested in studying twins?

As an identical twin I grew up as an object of other people’s curiosity. Much of this curiosity seemed to be levelled at our appearance – “oh you’re so similar!” or “oh, how disappointing you’re not more alike!” I started paying closer attention to how and why people are interested in twins and I soon realised that a likeness in physical appearance is just one among many reasons why twins are treated differently to those born alone.

For example…

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Are you interested in undertaking postdoctoral research at the Centre for Medical Humanities?

Centre for Medical Humanities Blog

The Centre for Medical Humanities would like to advise eligible researchers of funding schemes to support postdoctoral work in medical humanities. Please see below for details of the fellowships available and for information on how to apply. Potential applicants are strongly encouraged to contact Centre Co-Director Professor Jane Macnaughton to discuss research proposals in the first instance.

ADDISON WHEELER Fellowships (Durham University scheme)
Addison Wheeler Fellowships encourage ‘efforts for increased knowledge of people and their make-up so as to enable them to make better use of their life here on Earth’. Addressing this aspiration is one of the conditions of the Fellowships but it is intended to be interpreted broadly and should not be seen as restrictive.   They are aimed at researchers of a high calibre, who have completed their PhD at the time of application and are at an early stage in their career. Fellows will pursue…

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