The Comedy of Errors is considered one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, possibly his first comedy and certainly his shortest play, written sometime between 1589 and 1594, although it was not printed until 1623. The primary source of the play is the Menaechmi of Plautus, a Roman comic playwright, but Shakespeare also borrowed from Plautus's Amphitruo. From the Menaechmi Shakespeare took his central plot, which revolves around "errors," or mistaken identity, involving identical twin brothers. To this Shakespeare added additional characters and episodes.
Much of the criticism on the play discusses how Shakespeare complicated Plautus's plot. Shakespeare added another set of twins, servants to the twin sons of Aegeon. The story of Aegeon—his separation from his wife and one of the twin sons—is also a change from the Roman play. Shakespeare gave greater voice to the primary female characters in the play (and thus to issues of gender and the relationships between men and women), especially Adriana, who is merely a shrewish "Wife" in Plautus's play, and downgraded the role of an unnamed Courtezan. Shakespeare's selection of Ephesus for the setting of the play (the action of the play takes place in a single day in a single place) has been noted by critics as an important alteration in the play, since Ephesus was associated with sorcery, exorcism, mystery cults, and emerging Christianity. Critics tend to be in agreement that Shakespeare greatly expanded on the generally one-dimensional stereotypical characters in Plautus's play.
There was a scarcity of commentary on the play prior to the nineteenth century. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the first to discuss the play as a unified work of art, asserting that it was a farce and therefore should not be judged by the standards applied to comedy. Some critics viewed it as an apprentice work, since it was written so early in Shakespeare's career, and few critics argued that the play displays the full range of Shakespeare's dramatic talent. More recent criticism has focused on the play's genre (its "identity" as a tragedy, farce, comedy, or a combination of these) and the way in which it explores the issues of identity, gender, and love and marriage.
Although The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare's shortest play, it has generated a good deal of literary criticism. Critics will likely continue to offer commentary about the play's "identity" (genre) and the popular topic of the identity problems, journeys, and resolutions of its characters. Perhaps, too, the thus far limited exploration of the characters of Aegeon and Aemilia (the Abbess) will continue. With the topics of gender and male/female relationships becoming more popular in the criticism, more commentary in these areas is likely forthcoming, now that Adriana has been "rescued" from being considered as only a "shrew." Some critics continue to see the play as an apprentice work of Shakespeare's, preferring his major works instead, but many are also finding in it much more meaning than simply a story of mistaken identities.
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