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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

On Shakespeare, Twins, and *The Comedy of Errors*

William and Anne Shakespeare were the parents of twins (though not identical) – Judith and Hamnet, born in 1585.

Twins were also part of Shakespeare's literary and theatrical heritage. The Comedy of Errors is based on Menaechmi, a comedy about twins and mistaken identity by the Roman playwright Plautus, whose career was thriving around 200 B.C. Plautus's works – in Latin – were frequently used as grammar school texts in the Renaissance, so Shakespeare could expect much of his audience to recognize the source. Shakespeare complicates matters delightfully by doubling the number of twins and borrowing from another of Plautus's comedies, Amphitryon, about identically-named twin servants.

Twins could also be a matter of deep concern in Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance culture. William Viney, a research scholar at Durham University, points out that twins were frequently felt to be “things contrary to nature.” According to Aristotelian philosophy, twins qualified as monstrous since “they were infrequent forms without clear purpose.” In other words, they didn’t happen often and it wasn’t clear why they did. In searching for explanations, people could associate twins with an imbalance of humours (the fluids that affected personality and health), with sexual infidelity (how better to explain any excess “seed”?), and with the supernatural – all of which are themes found in Shakespeare's play.

But Shakespeare, perhaps because he and Anne had twins of their own, anticipates more modern attitudes, as well – twins as a source of wonder, as a sign of unexpected bounty, as a cause for celebration. This is especially the case in his later play Twelfth Night, but is clearly evident in the joyful recognition and reunion of twins at the conclusion of The Comedy of Errors.

From Flatwater Shakespeare's resident gemellogist (expert on twins) and stage manager, Michelle Zinke:

Twins are important in Greek and Roman mythology (Apollo and Artemis, Romulus and Remus, Castor and Pollux AKA the Gemini) as well as in various cultures (they are found in Native American and African stories) and the Hindu religion (the Ashvins are twin gods of healing). I’ve also read about cultures that found twins to be so odd and disturbing that one or both were killed at birth.

A lot of stories that I’ve read about twins tend to focus on them either as intense rivals or as very connected in a positive way. I, of course, prefer the latter stories. My sister Monica and I personally have experienced a 'twin connection' multiple times: suddenly knowing that something was wrong and calling the other person; getting similar injuries while living in two different states; plenty of examples. These things have happened much less in the past 10 years; we think we haven’t needed the link as much during that time since we live so close to each other now.

Mom also said that we had our own form of communication when we were young. She said it wasn’t a complete language but still words that no one else knew or understood. We’d have conversations that way at times. Also, apparently often we would stop playing, look at each other, and then start giggling or laughing out loud. She could never figure out why.

We’ve been told that we still have many of the same gestures and voice inflections. We don’t think that we are very alike anymore, compared to when we were little, but other people seem to think that we still are quite similar. That’s one of the reasons why I really liked Flatwater Shakespeare's 2006 production – the actors seemed to work at sharing gestures and patterns of speech.

I think Shakespeare had it right – twins should be celebrated. Let’s face it, twins are pretty awesome.”

(Image: In this 19th-century depiction of Shakespeare at home in Stratford-upon-Avon, Hamnet stands at one side of the playwright and Judith leans on the other.) 


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