Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Comic Contract: Esther and The Comedy of Errors

The Frisch Parents Association is sponsoring a production of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors to be performed at Frisch on March 4 at the school. Since Purim has just passed and I can never read the megillah without thinking that it sounds like a court drama and a comedy, I thought I'd create the following interdisciplinary lesson on Esther and Shakespeare's play.

The Comedy

The comedy originated in ancient Greece, with Aristophanes (448-380 BCE) being one of the first great comedic playwrights. His comedies, which fall under the category of Old Comedy, focus on political satire and make great use of sexual and scatological innuendo. New Comedy, which lasted through the reign of the Macedonian leaders, until about 260 BCE, focused on comedy of situation, often referred to as farce, and comedy of manners, comedy that relies on a particular set of societal manners that are being thwarted or overturned. Menander is a great comedic playwright of New Comedy. 

Esther is a brilliant satire of Persian court life even as it employs expertly comedy of situation and exhibits characteristics of the comedy of manners. Here is Aristotle on Persian court life, as he describes it to his pupil, the famous Alexander the Great, who went on to conquer Darius III, the last of the Achaemenid kings, the family of rulers from which Achashverosh hailed:

One can sense that Achashverosh is being mocked in Esther; his rule is constantly being challenged and subverted. No sooner does he kill his wife for insubordination and choose a new one than Haman, the courtier he then empowers, threatens the life of Achashverosh's new queen. Achashverosh's courtiers convince him to pass a law that states all women should accede to their husband's commands, while we scratch our heads and wonder how such a law could possibly be enforced. Our attention is soon diverted by other intrigues that then move the story's action to the conclusion in which Achashverosh seems to do nothing but accede to a woman's wishes. This is political satire, comedy of situation and comedy of manners on a par with any master playwright's.

Let's continue to analyze comedy by taking a look at The Comedy of Errors. Here is a brief synopsis of the play:

Comedic Tropes

Following is a brief synopsis of the conventions of comedy, ones that Shakespeare mastered and employed:

As we see in the video, Shakespeare learned from Plautus, the great Roman playwright, who in one of his plays, also has a set of twins cause a case of mistaken identity. Shakespeare intensifies the farcical outcome of the trope of mistaken identity by doubling the sets of twins. In The Comedy of Errors, not only are the main characters, the Antipholuses, twins, but their servants, the Dromios, are twins as well.

Esther as well makes great use of the tropes that the ancient Greeks and Romans and then Shakespeare utilized in comedy.

Stock characters:

The buffoonish king, the cunning villain, the damsel in distress, the wise and true adviser: they all appear in Esther. The wonder for the Jews is that the latter two are part of our nation.

Interfering servants:

Tragedy rests on the fact that the tragic hero falls from his high position. Our attention is never on anyone but the hero as we watch a tragedy. Comedy, on the other hand, allows us to see how the other half lives. Though it's clear in comedy that a ruler controls the land and its laws, we are given a humorous view of who is "really in charge." Think of all the times in Esther when a servant, attendant -- or non-Persian queen! -- is the one who makes the suggestion that then moves the story to its next phase. In Shoshanat Yaakov, which we sing after each reading of the megillah, we end by praising Charvona, the servant we remember as good. That's an astounding shout out, when we consider the might of the Persian empire and the role that the Persian king played on the world stage at the time, but it makes perfect sense when we think of the genre of comedy.

Mistaken identities and intrigue:

Obviously mistaken identities are fun and cause a lot of confusion and laughter. They do so in Esther as well: we laugh at Haman when he thinks the king's request to suggest ways Haman would honor a person means Achashverosh wants to honor him. Intrigue also creates part of the political satire in Esther. Mordechai happens to be at the king's gate when Bigtan and Teresh plan to do mischief to the king, and of course the intrigue of who is threatening the king's new wife is the climax of the story.

And it is here, at the level of this intrigue in Esther, that we begin to see the seriousness of Esther and its meaning for us as Jews. Mordechai is the faithful servant, but he is not a figure of fun. He is in deadly earnest as he waits for news not only of his kin but of his people, and, as Harold Fisch points out, he will sit in ashes and sackcloth against the backdrop of the lush and luxurious Persian court, not to be mocked or beaten, but because he will do anything to save his people. His faithfulness to a higher king than the Persian one inspires his niece to find the courage to end her passive acceptance of her fate, to stop being a kind of servant in the Persian court and instead to assert her will so that her people will be saved (8-14).

Fisch also points out that Esther's modesty and dignity as the comedic beauty pageant gets under way only serve to heighten our sense of the ridiculousness of the Persian court (Ibid.). Therefore, even though Esther is at first a passive vessel which Fate tosses about at the beginning of the story, we immediately see in her the qualities of her uncle's home. Those qualities enable her to find the inner fortitude to perform the task that Life asks of her, and it is those qualities that we as Jews prize, a sense of hatznea lekhet and an unwavering commitment to our faith and our people.

It is also on the level of identity that Esther and The Comedy of Errors can be compared and contrasted. Shakespeare's comedy makes great use of the motif of mistaken identity, wringing out of it plenty of humorous moments, but the play also asks us basic questions about what it means to be human: when we are dislocated from our place and from our families, when we are not known in the marketplace and in our homes, what do we make of ourselves? The Comedy of Errors, one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, demonstrates that not knowing oneself and feeling exiled from one's place in the world can lead to madness:

Dromio of Syracuse to Antipholus of Syracuse (his rightful master):

Do you know me, sir? am I Dromio? am I your man? am I myself? (II.ii.)

Jews know all too well what it's like to be dislocated from place, and Esther, a book whose setting is the Diaspora, takes on so many of the complex issues of what it means to be a nation functioning in an exilic world. Esther at first is told to hide her very identity, as Antipholus is instructed to do when he reaches Ephesus. Esther's and Antipholus' lives, in fact, depend on their not revealing their identities. In order to survive, they must hide their true selves. However, doing so is not a tolerable situation. The need to be honest about who one is seems to be a basic one shared by all humans. The Comedy of Errors ends with familial, social, economic and political order being restored when the identities of the two sets of twins is revealed.

Esther ends as well with the Jewess not only being able to state who she really is but with the power to instate her uncle over Haman's house. She remains queen, and Mordechai becomes second in command to the king. Esther, then, seems to prove there will be no disaster if Jews assert their peoplehood. In light of Jewish history, that statement seems facile and callous, however, so perhaps the more proper thing to say is that we would not be here today as Jews without the constant commitment we made as a people to be true to our identities and not be cowed into submission by any external force.

The Comic Contract

A final point about comedies that can be used to assess their endings and the finale of Esther: comedies end with the comic contract's having been fulfilled. What is the comic contract?

Rules are important in comedy mostly because they tend to get broken (this is true in Esther as well). Unlike tragedies in which the breaking of rules leads to whole-scale ruination, comedy has us traipse about in a land of "unruliness" only to return to the safe harbor of law and order. Consider in The Comedy of Errors how many characters enter the wrong door and cause the chaos they do; in tragedy, these actions cause disaster as Oedipus in the wrong bedroom proves. In comedy, Oedipus' action would turn farcical, would be laughed at and resolved.

The rules in comedy get established right away, so we know exactly what to expect the characters will be fighting against. Usually the rules are laid down by the reigning monarch, a king or duke who brooks no argument and whose will is supreme, but through the course of the comedy, through all the challenges to and flouting of the rules, the ruler comes to see that he must temper Law with Compassion, Judgment with Mercy, and doing so becomes part of the Comic Contract. Thus, the Comic Contract is the pact the comedy makes with the audience that familial, social, economic and political order will be restored in a compassionate manner. Think of what Puck says at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles, do not reprehend:

if you pardon, we will mend:

And, as I am an honest Puck

If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends. (V.i)

Or, to return to the work we've been analyzing, think of the Dromios at the end of The Comedy of Errors. They argue as to who should enter a room (!) first.

Dromio Ephesus: Will you walk in to see their gossiping?
Dromio Syracuse: Not I, sir; you are my elder.
Dromio E.: That's a question: how shall we try it?
Dromio S: We will draw cuts for the senior: till then, lead thou first.
Dromio E.: Nay, then thus:
We came into the world like brother and brother:
And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another. (V.i)

Order is restored, but not only order. Brotherly love, philanthropy, a going beyond the letter of the law is at the heart of the comedy, and it is a love that Shakespeare extends to his audience as well. Puck breaks down the wall between character and audience by including us under the umbrella of order and fraternal love the characters are enjoying. However, one might consider, since Shakespeare is Shakespeare and never completely does what is expected of him, that the characters who offer us the fulfillment of the comic contract are servants who have proven to be the least reliable, the most "unruly" figures in the play.

In Esther there seems to be a dual restoration of order, and this doubling becomes an important lesson for the Jews in Diaspora. One restoration is by Jews for Jews: Esther and Mordechai make Purim an official holiday that Jews for all time must keep (9:27-31), so Jews are bound by the Law and Lawgiver who has ultimate sway over us, but a second order is restored in Chapter 10, when the Law of the Land is asserted by Achashverosh's once again levying a tax.

However, the Comic Contract wouldn't be complete without the extension of brotherly love to the audience, and since the audience of Esther is Jewish, the joining of hands is primarily a Jewish one: a Jew is second-in-command to the king, a Jew who has been a loyal servant to both his earthly and spiritual rulers and and one who will seek peace for his dislocated and vulnerable people.

א  וַיָּשֶׂם הַמֶּלֶךְ אחשרש (אֲחַשְׁוֵרֹשׁ) מַס עַל-הָאָרֶץ, וְאִיֵּי הַיָּם.1 And the king Ahasuerus laid a tribute upon the land, and upon the isles of the sea.
ב  וְכָל-מַעֲשֵׂה תָקְפּוֹ, וּגְבוּרָתוֹ, וּפָרָשַׁת גְּדֻלַּת מָרְדֳּכַי, אֲשֶׁר גִּדְּלוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ--הֲלוֹא-הֵם כְּתוּבִים, עַל-סֵפֶר דִּבְרֵי הַיָּמִים, לְמַלְכֵי, מָדַי וּפָרָס.2 And all the acts of his power and of his might, and the full account of the greatness of Mordecai, how the king advanced him, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?
ג  כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי, מִשְׁנֶה לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, וְגָדוֹל לַיְּהוּדִים, וְרָצוּי לְרֹב אֶחָיו--דֹּרֵשׁ טוֹב לְעַמּוֹ, וְדֹבֵר שָׁלוֹם לְכָל-זַרְעוֹ.  3 For Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed.

Since Esther, as much as it resembles a play, is still a story related by a narrator, we have no cause to question the writer's credibility, as we do with the characters who speak at the end of two of Shakespeare's plays. However, we might consider the entire motion of the story of Esther, the incredible twists and turns, the unexpected rise and fall of many of the characters. Those rises and falls remind us to be wary in the Diaspora and make us understand one reason the Talmud gives for our not reciting Hallel on Purim: Because we are still servants of Achashverosh (Megillah 14a). Are the Jews the saviors, the heroes, the good guys, or are we the foolish servants, slaves to the whims of a mercurial master?

Purim is the day we contemplate the quirks of Fate, the twin elements of good and evil that are inextricably linked and that are an inextricable part of life; the day we are "lo yodea," we don't know; the day we slip into and out of different identities; and the day that despite all that, we continue to be Jews, to engage in the mitzvoth of the holiday, in which kinship and brotherhood -- mishloach manot ish l're'ehu v'matanot l'evyonim -- are first and foremost in our minds. There is no day in the Jewish calendar more joyous, more comedic in feel than Purim. I hope against the backdrop of comedy and Shakespeare's use of it you've come to appreciate what we might be enacting every year in the little comedy we stage for ourselves on 14 Adar.

Fisch, Harold. Poetry with a Purpose: Biblical Poetics and Interpretation. Indiana University Press, 1990.

Presentation PowerPoint 

Additional Resources

1) See Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky's great presentation on Purim as satire:

Purim as Satire

2) Materials for teaching The Comedy of Errors:

Curriculum for _The Comedy of Errors_

3) The Comedy of Errors and Rhyme:


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