Previously, I’ve talked about how Shakespeare sometimes uses disordered sentences when he’s showing a character who’s deliberately trying to be difficult. A few months ago, we looked at Claudius in Hamlet as an example.
But what about the opposite? Sometimes a character might desperately want to be understood, but his own tongue gets in his way. Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors provides us with an excellent example. While traveling in search of his long-lost brother, he finds himself in Syracuse, and there mistaken for his brother. (I’ve often wondered why, since the Syracusan twin knows he had and was looking for a brother, it takes him so long to catch on). Adriana, the Ephesian twin’s wife, lays claim to him in public and then takes him home for lunch – but Adriana has a sister, Luciana, and Antipholus of Syracuse falls for her hard and fast. This is pretty awkward for everyone involved (particularly since Antipholus of Ephesus has apparently been unfaithful towards Adriana before), and the confusion shows in the language.
In the following monologue, delivered in private to Luciana, Antipholus of Syracuse can barely get his words in order at all. That’s hardly surprising – he’s both bewildered and suddenly in love, neither of which are states likely to induce high verbal elegance. (While characters like Romeo and Juliet might spout sonnets at first sight, Shakespeare’s depiction of falling in love strikes more true to most people’s lived experiences in moments like this, or when Cressida babbles ungracefully when she’s finally brought together with Troilus). The hyperbaton in this speech is fairly astonishing, utterly dominating the first several lines, and Antipholus interrupts himself with frequent parenthetical statements and descriptors. Almost nothing he says is without some rhetorical figure affecting his syntax.
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE
Sweet mistress–what your name is else, I know not,
Nor by what wonder you do hit of mine,–
Less in your knowledge and your grace you show not
Than our earth’s wonder, more than earth divine.
Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak;
Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit,
Smother’d in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words’ deceit.
Against my soul’s pure truth why labour you
To make it wander in an unknown field?
Are you a god? would you create me new?
Transform me then, and to your power I’ll yield.
But if that I am I, then well I know
Your weeping sister is no wife of mine,
Nor to her bed no homage do I owe
Far more, far more to you do I decline.
O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,
To drown me in thy sister’s flood of tears:
Sing, siren, for thyself and I will dote:
Spread o’er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed I’ll take them and there lie,
And in that glorious supposition think
He gains by death that hath such means to die:
Let Love, being light, be drowned if she sink.
The one exception to his tangle-tongue troubles is the line I’ve put in bold: “Your weeping sister is no wife of mine.”
That’s an incredible clue for an actor. Antipholus is pretty confused by this point in the play, but he knows damn good and well he’s never gotten married. Further, he knows he really, really wants to stress that point to the woman he’s suddenly infatuated with. An actor can use that line to make physical and vocal changes that underscore his sole surety in the midst of all this chaos – especially since he loses that orderly structure again as soon as he focuses back on Luciana.
This example illustrates another way that rhetoric is useful to an actor: it’s not always about the devices themselves, but sometimes instead about deviation from an established form. Here, the contrasting line of perfectly regular syntax carries as much information as the disorder around it. When a character does something rhetorically unusual, either for that character’s speaking patterns overall or for the moment, that’s valuable information, and it can create the sort of dramatic shift on-stage that audiences love to see. It’s another point of choice for an actor, coded right there into the text.