William Shakespeare was not always the master playwright that he became in his later life. When he first began writing plays, he did not have the mastery of plot, character, concept, and language for which he was to be universally praised. In 1592, he was a young playwright with a historical trilogy and a classical tragedy to his credit; he was just beginning to explore and perfect his craft. The Comedy of Errors is an early experiment with comedy, and his enthusiasm for the experiment is clear in his writing.
Shakespeare followed the example of most playwrights of the Elizabethan era by adapting other plays and sources to make his dramas. This in no way detracts from his genius because what he adapted he made distinctively his own.
Most of The Comedy of Errors derives from Menaechmi (pr. second century b.c.e.; The Menaechmi, 1595) by the classical Roman playwright Plautus, who lived from c. 254 b.c.e. to 184 b.c.e. Act 3, scene 1 of the play originates from another work by Plautus, Amphitruo (Amphitryon, 1694). Both of these plays concern mistaken identity, which Shakespeare adapted for the crux of his plot as well. Just as Shakespeare adapted Plautus, Plautus apparently drew from an unknown Greek playwright. It was said of Plautus that his special genius was for turning a Greek original into a typically Roman play with typically Roman characters. Similarly, Shakespeare, like Plautus, set the play in ancient Ephesus and used some of Plautus’s situations, but Shakespeare’s characters are typically and recognizably of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan age.
Shakespeare changed the framework of the plot, making it much more romantic and accessible to popular tastes. In Shakespeare’s version, the twins’ father, Aegeon, is introduced in the middle of his search for his wife and other son, separated from him by shipwreck. This story line, demonstrating husbandly and paternal devotion, was appealing to the audience. Shakespeare then created the servant twins (Dromios) to add to the fun of the mistaken identity plot. In so doing he doubled the amount of action. He also introduced Luciana, sister of the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, thus providing a love interest for Antipholus of Syracuse. Out of the Plautine cast of nine, Shakespeare retained six of the original characters and developed...
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