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 express their baffling encounters. There is a great deal of good fun in seeing how each distorts and simplifies, and sometimes lies a little, to make sense of the crazy situation (and often to draw a little advantage from it on the side).
The use Shakespeare makes of Plautine models does involve a real limitation, for the plot is in effect imposed on the characters from outside, an arbitrary circumstance. As a result, too many of the errors are not meaningful in the way that errors become in the later comedies. We miss, as Professor Bertram Evans has pointed out in his Shakespeare's Comedies, people within the play who share in our superior awareness from outside it. The plot does not permit anyone to contrive the errors, tailor them to the particular follies of the victims, and share with the audience the relish of the folly brought out by the "practice"—a method which Mr. Evans has shown to be standard in the later comedies.
But the play is much better, much more meaningful, than the arbitrariness of its plot would lead one to expect. Shakespeare feeds Elizabethan life into the mill of Roman farce, life realized with his distinctively generous creativity, very different from Plautus' tough, narrow, resinous genius. And, although the mill grinds a good deal of chaff as well as wheat, he frequently makes the errors reveal fundamental human nature, especially human nature under the stress and tug of marriage. The tensions of marriage dramatized through Antipholus of Ephesus and his wife he relates to the very different tensions in the romantic tale of Egeon and Emilia with which he frames the Ephesian mix-ups. In the combination he makes of Gower's narrative with Roman dramatic form, we can see Shakespeare's sense of life and art asserting itself through relatively uncongenial materials.
There is more of daily, ordinary life in The Comedy of Errors than in any other of the comedies except The Merry Wives of Windsor. A mere machinery of mistakes is never enough even for the most mechanical comedy; the dramatist must be able to present particular lives being caught up in mistakes and carrying them onward. Something must be going on already—Antipholus of Ephesus late for dinner again, his wife in her usual rage ("Fie, how impatience loureth in your face!"). Shakespeare is marvelous at conveying a sense of a world already there, with its routine tensions:
The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit;
The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell:
My mistress made it one upon my cheek:
She is so hot because the meat is cold …
He also creates a prosperous commercial town outside the domestic world of the jealous wife's household: its merchant-citizens are going about their individual business, well known to one another and comfortably combining business with pleasure—until the errors catch up with them.
To keep farce going also requires that each person involved be shown making some sort of sense out of it, while failing to see through it as the audience can. It would be fatal for one twin to conclude, "Why, I must have been mistaken for my long-lost brother!" So the dramatist must show each of his people taking what happens according to his own bent, explaining to himself as best he can what occurs when, for example, one of the twin masters meets the wrong slave and finds the fellow denying that he ever heard instructions received by the other slave a few moments before. Too often, the master concludes simply that the slave is lazy or impudent, and beats him; this constant thumping of the Dromios grows tedious and is out of key—the one instance where Roman plot has not been adapted to Elizabethan manners.
The idea that the mistakes must be sorcery goes much better. The traveling brothers have heard that Ephesus is full of "Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind." (The town was identified with sorcerers by Saint Paul's reference to their "curious arts" in his Epistle to the Ephesians, one reason perhaps for Shakespeare's choice of the town as a locale, as Geoffry Bullough has suggested in his Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare.) The visitors decide that "This is the fairy land. O spite of spites! / We talk with goblins, owls and sprites." As the errors are wound up tighter and tighter, the wife and sister conclude that husband and slave must be mad, and bring on a real live exorcist, the absurd Dr. Pinch in a huge red wig and beard, to conjure the devil out of them. By the end, Adriana is calling on the whole company to witness that her husband "is born about invisible." We relish the elaboration of these factitious notions of magic to explain events that do indeed seem to "change the mind"; at the same time we enjoy the final return of all hands to the level of fact, where we have been situated all along. The end of the delusions is heralded by Dr. Pinch's being all but burned up by his outraged "patients." The Ephesian husband stubornly hangs onto his senses and his sense of outrage; he sets fire to the "doctor" as a comic effigy on whom to take vengeance for the notions of madness and magic to which almost everyone has given away:
O mistress, mistress, shift and save yourself!
My master and his man are both broke loose,
Beaten the maids a-row, and bound the doctor,
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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.
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