'Plucking a Crow' in The Comedy of Errors

Maureen Godman

Abstract


The account of the Christmas revels at Gray’s Inn in 1594, published after the fact and known as the Gesta Grayorum, is the rich and largely unexplored context of the first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. In referring to the Gesta, scholars usually mention the “tumult” that caused part of the original entertainments for the evening of the performance to be abandoned, even though Shakespeare’s play was performed as planned. Little critical attention, though, has been given to the Gesta as a dramatic piece in itself. This is a pity because when we look at Errors in context, we see that the play takes significant cues from the framing revels, not only in a direct echoing of its themes, but in subverting them in humorous ways. Moreover, Shakespeare seems to take advantage of the revels’ leaning towards satirical and topical comment in order to insert some of his own, particularly in order to respond to Greene’s attack on him as an ‘upstart crow’. In a scene in which Shakespeare clearly demonstrates his virtuosity in the skills that Greene suggests he lacks, he reiterates Greene’s insult in order to humorously deflate it, a tactic he has used earlier in the play in drawing attention to his detractor’s idiosyncrasies of appearance and inadequacy of wit.

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