What Time is It?

It cracks me up, this concept of Shakespeare and time.  It just doesn’t add up in some plays.  We’ll get to Romeo and Juliet in May of next year, but the same kind of time mix-up applies to The Comedy of Errors.

How long is it between the separation of the family and its reunion?

AS and DS make a decision at “eighteen years” (I.i.125) that they want to travel to find their brothers.  Egeon goes on his own quest, and he had been gone “five summers” (I.i.132).  Now, assuming Egeon left when the boys did, that would put us 23 years down the line (18 + 5 = 23).

However, Egeon tells AE (whom he believes is AS) that it’s been “seven years” (V.i.321) since they last saw each other in Syracuse.  OK, sure… maybe it took two years for Egeon to decide to join his son on the search for family.  So maybe we’re 25 years down the line (18 + 5 + 2 = 25).

BUT… Emilia (the Abbess) says it’s been “thirty-three years” (V.i.403).


It’s a conundrum.

Scansion, the meter, and a little knowledge (yeah, I know, a dangerous thing) to the rescue!

First of all, the little knowledge: the plays we have today are not definitive.  The early editions, while published before Shakespeare’s death, were not proofed by the author.  The post-death publication where authorized by the ownership of Shakespeare’s theatre group, the King’s Men, but they too had no editorial input from Shakespeare.  What we do have then is a mixture of written scripts, stage management and actor’s memory, distilled through literary editors throughout the intervening centuries…. in other words:
so it’s OK to be dubious about certain words and passages.
Keep that in mind.

So let’s take a look at Egeon’s statement to AE:

But seven years since, in Syracusa, boy,
Thou know'st we parted...

— V.i.321-2

Look at that first line and try to scan it:

 x   / x    /     /     x  / x / x   /
But seven years since, in Syracusa, boy,

hmmm…. six stresses, five non-stressed, eleven syllables in the line… and the meter falls apart mid-line.

Let’s make a change:

 x   /      x    /     x  / x / x   /
But five years since, in Syracusa, boy,

And now, suddenly, it works as nice solid iambic pentameter (and now I see we’ll need to have THAT discussion sooner, rather than later).

So now, we’re left with a 23-year gap.  So how to reconcile Emilia’s statement:…

Thirty-three years have I but on in travail...

— V.i.321-2

Substitute “twenty” for “thirty” in the line, and the years add up, AND the line scans the same (the stressed first syllable of “twenty” matches the stressed first syllable of “thirty” so that the line’s opening foot is still a trochee–rather than an iamb–and the line still ends in a feminine ending… and we’re REALLY going to need to have that meter discussion soon).

Suffice to say, I think it’s been twenty-three years. Yes, you have to make two changes to the text… one’s textually supported elsewhere, the other supported both metrically and mathematically.  But it works.

Keep this in mind when we hit Romeo and Juliet next year…