I’ve seen every Shakespeare production produced by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater since 1990. Over the years, as they choose plays from the repertory, I’ve had the treat of seeing new interpretations of plays I’ve attended at Chicago Shakespeare before. Last night, I saw the third version of Comedy of Errors they’ve done. It was a very creative, interesting production, setting the play on a 1940 British movie set, where a team is making a film of Comedy of Errors while the Nazis are dropping bombs. It really worked; click to read a Chicago Tribune review. (I think the review sells the play short)
Comedy of Errors, like Twelfth Night, starts out with a shipwreck that separates siblings and leads to cases of mistaken identity. In Comedy of Errors, two sets of identical twins are separated as infants. Shakespeare sets the stage for farce by giving identical brothers the same names: Antipholus of Ephesus grows up with his servant Dromio, and Antipholus of Syracuse grows up with his servant Dromio. When, as adults, the pair from Ephesus end up in Syracuse, chaos ensues. People think they are having conversations with the Antipholus they know or the Dromio they know, but they are not speaking with the person they think they are. Wife confuses husband, merchant confuses customer, master confuses servant, lover confuses beloved, etc.
The heart of the comedy in Comedy of Errors is that people often think they are having successful communication with another person, when, in fact, the other person is understanding the conversation in a completely different way. As the audience, we can see both sides of the misunderstanding, but each of the characters in the conversation can only hear the part of the conversation they are prepared to hear. As the audience we laugh. But what happens when we return to daily life?
Work life, especially the part that includes interactions with customers, is filled with misinterpreted conversations. We live a daily comedy of errors where sales claims and elevator pitches are misconstrued, where technical explanations are misunderstood, and where nods of understanding are really signals of disinterest. And, as in Comedy of Errors, when we advertise we really never know who we’re talking to. We may think we know, but we really don’t. And we certainly don’t know how we’ll they’ve understood us.
Communication isn’t about saying what you want to say. It’s about being understood. As Harold Bloom wrote, Shakespeare invents characters that are more human than real people. Even in a farce like Comedy of Errors, first performed 416 years ago, Shakespeare’s multiple Antipholuses and Dromios can teach us lessons about communicating in our modern work life. When you converse with a customer, don’t just assume you are understood, make sure you are. And, believe it or not, make sure you really understand who it is you are communicating with. It may be a different character.