A Dog Named Crab

I believe it was W.C. Fields who counseled actors never to do a scene with a child or a dog. The very thought of playing Launce would have driven him to drink a quart of gin—not that he ever needed much provocation. The two scenes with Launce and his dog Crab (probably named for the sour crab apple, not the tasty crustacean) stand out sharply from the rest of the play, as if somebody had dropped two Robin Williams monologues into a Sandra Bullock rom-com.

That may be pretty much what happened. There’s a body of scholarly opinion that holds that Launce was added after the rest of the play was written (Clifford Leech, the editor of the Arden Second edition, discerns four stages of composition, Launce’s monologues being the third stage). It’s plausible to suppose—and for my purposes we’ll assume—that Launce was created to provide a role for the new clown of Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Will Kemp. This raises the interesting though subsidiary issue of how much of these speeches is Shakespeare’s. I recall a print source—I think it may have been the book version of Michael Wood’s BBC miniseries about Shakespeare, but I’m too lazy to check—that insisted that clearly these are just transcriptions of Kemp’s routine. I don’t see how that can be right. I can see Shakespeare taking input from Kemp and leaving him room to improvise, especially with physical action, but I think that what we have is Shakespeare’s responsibility. (If you subscribe to the scholarly theory that Crab is associated with Proteus, that’s all the more reason to think that Launce’s speeches are carefully composed to reflect other things in the play.) We can’t go into any detail, but keep this in mind as an early example of how collaboration is likely to have worked in the Elizabethan theater (and when we look at Hamlet’s denunciation of actors’ improvisation).

Of course, Crab has not a single line. Hello, he’s a dog! But here Fields’s dictum comes into play. Whether portrayed by a real dog or a cardboard dog (I’ve seen it done both ways), Crab will upstage Launce—and it’s necessarily Launce’s uncredited doing. The comedy is solely due to the lines and how Launce delivers them in reaction to whatever Crab does—or doesn’t do (especially if he’s cardboard). I’d say that offers more than enough scope for improvisation without altering Shakespeare’s lines. If I were casting Two Gentlemen today, I would try to sign Bill Irwin as Launce. The role requires his physical and intellectual deftness. (I think it’s considerably more demanding than that of Speed, who is supposed to be the smart servant but who loses out to Launce in their one verbal duel (3.1.275–280, the scene with the Comedy of Errors anticipation).)

So let us look at the scenes themselves. They are pretty much self-explanatory, especially if you imagine them being performed, so I won’t have that much to say by way of analysis. But they are both very long, so I’ll devote a separate post to each.




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