The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 34)
The Comedy of Errors
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Comedy of Errors, see SC, Volumes 1 and 26.
Generations of critics considered The Comedy of Errors as mere farce, an apprentice work that gives no inkling of Shakespeare's mature achievements. But in the 1960s critics began re-examining the play as a highly accomplished, serious work that, for all its horseplay, adumbrates many of the central concerns of Shakespeare's oeuvre. Beginning with R. A. Foakes (1962), critics began to discuss the shaky sense of identity of all the major characters, but particularly of Antipholus of Syracuse. Another area of concern that has received sustained critical attention is the question of the play's generic identity—is The Comedy of Errors a farce, a comedy, a tragedy, a mixed-genre work, a problem play? The play's characterization and criticisms of gender relations have also gained increasing scrutiny, the critical literature being marked by a gradual but radical about-face in the interpretation of gender issues in The Comedy of Errors.
Despite ongoing differences and disagreements between critics of The Comedy of Errors, one question may be regarded as having been settled conclusively: the play goes far beyond its source material—the Menaechmi of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus—in its treatment of the theme of mistaken identity. Shakespeare exploits the dramatic potential of mistaken identity, and shows how being mistaken for someone else unsettles the various characters' own sense of identity. While R. A. Foakes was the first to draw attention to the way in which The Comedy of Errors connects a stable sense of self with social harmony and order, subsequent critics have further explored the idea in relation to various elements of the Elizabethan world view.
That Shakespeare also transforms his Plautine source material in his treatment of gender issues was a much later critical discovery. The crux, it would appear, lies in the evaluation of Adriana's character and conduct. She was initally taken to be a shrew—as her counter-part in Plautus Menaechmi clearly is—whose complaining and scolding is the cause of her husband's inconstancy. This view is represented by T. W. Baldwin (1962), who concludes that Luciana's speech on the just and inevitable inequality of the sexes is authoritative. The first major challenge to that position came from Marilyn French (1981), who argues that the play is highly critical of the male "establishment" of Ephesus, which is oppressive and much given to violence. Thomas Hennings (1986), reading The Comedy of Errors in light of the contemporary position on marriage of the Anglican Church, dealt another blow to the older reading, proposing that Antipholus of Syracuse's irresponsibility as a husband is the cause of Adriana's justified complaints. Joseph Candido (1990) reaches a similar conclusion by analyzing the characters' attitudes towards food and mealtimes as a social function that shores up both marriage and society in general. He also shows how Luciana's authority on the issue of gender relations—or any other subject, for that matter—is fatally undermined by her earnest arguments in favor of hypocrisy. By 1993, then, Adriana's exoneration was complete, and the critical evaluation of The Comedy of Errors' stance on gender issues had been completely reversed.
The question of the appropriate generic classification of The Comedy of Errors has occasioned less consensus. Since the critical community gave up the notion that the play is a farce, critics have argued for a variety of more just generic labels without being able to put the question to rest. Gwyn Williams (1964) made a case for the play as near-tragedy. Ruth Nevo (1980) argued that it has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean comedy and should be labeled accordingly. Dorothea Kehler (1987) proposed that The Comedy of Errors is in fact a problem play. Arthur Kinney (1988) qualified these different views by showing the extent to which The Comedy of Errors is informed by mystery plays and other liturgical drama and texts. The debate concerning the genre to which the play belongs will undoubtedly continue in the future.
C. L. Barber (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "Shakespearian Comedy in The Comedy of Errors," in College English, Vol. 25, No. 7, April, 1964, pp. 493-97.
[In this essay, Barber discusses the nature of the comic elements in The Comedy of Errors.]
Mr. R. A. Foakes, in his excellent Arden edition of the Comedy of Errors, remarks that producers of the play have too often regarded it "as a short apprentice work in need of improvement, or as mere farce, 'shamelessly trivial' as one reviewer in The Times put it." Accordingly they have usually adapted it, added to it, fancied it up. But in its own right, as its stage popularity attests, it is a delightful play. Shakespeare outdoes Plautus in brilliant, hilarious complication. He makes the arbitrary reign of universal delusion the occasion for a dazzling display of his dramatic control of his characters' separate perspectives, keeping track for our benefit of just what each participant has experienced and the conclusions he or she draws from it. One must admit that the way the confusion is elaborated by wrangling with words is sometimes tedious, especially on the stage, where the eye cannot assist the ear in following the young poet's fascination with manipulating language. But most of the time one can enjoy the wonderful verbal energy with which he endows his characters as they severally struggle to put together and...
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Appearance Vs. Reality
Sidney R. Homan (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors and Its Audience: 'And Here We Wander in Illusions'," in The CEA Critic, Vol. 47, Nos. 1/2, Fall-Winter, 1984, pp. 17-30.
[In this essay, Homan discusses The Comedy of Errors' myriad collisions of reality with misleading or misunderstood appearances.]
What we hear and see at the present moment constitutes an experience unique to the theater, one not shared by non-dramatic works that, operating by their own unique principles, must perforce have their own definitions of "experience"1 This theatrical "presence" is especially ironic in The Comedy of Errors, given the significance of its past, that "history" extending from the birth of the twins, and from the coincidental birth of twin servants, to the accident at sea separating the family, to the separate lives led in Ephesus and Syracuse, with roughly seventeen years intervening before the Syracusian son and Egeon began the search for their family. No less ironic in terms of theatrical presence is the significance of the future, for there would be no play at all if the Duke had not extended Egeon's life until five that evening.
Given the improbabilities of its plot, what engages us in Errors, I believe, is not so much its mirror image of normal life but rather the gap in Shakespeare's theater of presence between...
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R. A. Foakes (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: An introduction to The Comedy of Errors, revised edition, edited by R. A. Foakes, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1962, pp. xi-lv.
[In this excerpt, Foakes argues that the chaotic situations engineered by the plot of The Comedy of Errors expose an underlying instability of the characters' sense of identity.]
Shakespeare altered the tone of his immediate sources for the comedy, Menaechmi and Amphitruo, by introducing an element of romantic love in the jealousy of Adriana and in the passion of Antipholus of Syracuse for Luciana, and also by enclosing the comic plot within the story of the pathetic Egeon; he also enlarged and complicated the element of farce by giving the twin masters twin servants, so multiplying the possibilities of comic confusion. These two developments of source-material do not really tug in different directions, and Shakespeare had a larger purpose than merely to soften the harsh world of Plautine comedy, or exploit more fully the ancient comic device of mistaken identity. His modifications of the sources are used to develop a serious concern for the personal identity of each of the main characters, and for the relationships between them; and the jesting of the Dromios, and the "errors" or mistakes of the complicated action continually support this main development.1
So Antipholus of...
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T. W. Baldwin (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: "Three Homilies in The Comedy of Errors," in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, edited by Richard Hosley, University of Missouri Press, 1962, pp. 137-47.
[In this essay, Baldwin discusses three speeches concerning the different moral standards applied to men and women in The Comedy of Errors.]
1. Luciana's Homily on the 'Subjection' of the Wife's 'Stubborn Will,' 2.1.7-25
In The Comedy of Errors, Luciana is trying to impress upon her impatient sister the Christian duty of a wife, as stated typically in "An Homelie of the state of Matrimonie": wives "relinquish the lybertie of their owne rule" (Certayn Sermons or Homilies, ed. 1587, sig. 2G7). Luciana had said, "A man is Master of his libertie" (2.1.7). This Adriana resents: "Why should their libertie then ours be more?" (10).
Luciana. Oh, know he is the bridle of your
Adriana. There's none but asses will be
Luciana. Why, headstrong liberty is lasht with
This dialogue is partly in terms of...
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Genre And Structure
Gwyn Williams (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors Rescued from Tragedy," in A Review of English Literature, Vol. 5, No. 4, October, 1964, pp. 63-71.
[In this essay, Williams discusses tragic elements of The Comedy of Errors, arguing that the play comes extremely close to being a tragedy.]
There is no need to insist on or to exemplify the way in which The Comedy of Errors has until recently been considered a farce. Coleridge thought it so and on the stage the play has usually been taken as a romp.1 (Shakespeare producers must have their secret list of comedies which may or may not be taken as pantomime.) A careful analysis of this play, however, shows that it might easily have worked out as a tragedy.
Shakespeare criticism has from Meres to the present day been misled by the pedantic division of drama into comedy or tragedy. Even Dr. Johnson, who admitted the appeal from criticism to nature, who observed the mingling of the comic and the serious in everyday life and who said, "Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind, exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature,"2 even such a perceptive mind was too steeped in conventional ways of thinking not to protest occasionally against incongruities he found in Shakespeare's plays....
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Arthos, John. "Shakespeare's Transformation of Plautus." Comparative Drama 1, No. 4 (Winter 1967-68): 239-53.
Discusses Shakespeare's substitution of a hierarchical social order for Plautus's disordered and confused collection of citizens, and asserts that such a change shows Shakespeare's predilection for just and ordered societies.
Baker, Susan. "Status and Space in The Comedy of Errors." Shakespeare Bulletin 8, No. 2 (Spring 1990): 6-8.
Discusses various staging issues in The Comedy of Errors in light of the acting theories of Keith Johnstone, which highlight the play's emphasis on displacement, dislocation, and dispossession.
Clubb, Louise George. "Italian Comedy and The Comedy of Errors." Comparative Literature XIX, No. 3 (Summer 1967): 240-51.
Relates The Comedy of Errors to the commedia grave of the Italian counter-reformation. Though no direct link can be found in the compositional genetics of The Comedy of Errors, Clubb cites certain features that distinguish the Comedy and the commedia grave from the medieval Italian comedies: the lesser role of the courtesan, the "addition of pathos," the theme of jealousy, the theme of madness and sorcery, and the reunification of the characters at the close of the play.
Grivelet, Michel. "Shakespeare, Molière, and the Comedy of...
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