Study Guide

The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare

The Comedy of Errors Essay - The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 54)

The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 54)

Introduction

The Comedy of Errors

For further information on the critical and stage history of The Comedy of Errors, see SC, Volumes 1, 26, and 34.

Until recently, the predominating critical evaluation of The Comedy of Errors placed it as an early and immature work, perhaps even the first Shakespeare wrote. The improbability of its plots and primitive character development were cited by critics as major flaws in a play that did no justice to the talent evident in Shakespeare's later comedies. This dismissal has been reconsidered by contemporary critics who have begun to emphasize the continuities between The Comedy of Errors and Shakespeare's later works. Current areas of critical interest include the theme of mistaken identity and the uneasy resolution of the tensions that animate the play. Another area of interest for critics is the extent to which Shakespeare transformed his source material, Plautus' Menaechmi, into a work that spoke to Elizabethan concerns and perspectives.

Many critics have noted the discrepancy in tone between the somber beginning of the play and the farce that follows, but have disagreed about the extent to which this tension is overcome within the play. J. Dennis Huston (1981) describes the opening lines as portraying “forces of dissolution” that give “a dramatized example of the disorder or discontinuity that the comic dramatist must overcome.” Huston argues that the rest of the play pursues this disorder through comic means, but the “threatening chaos” is not fully resolved by the end of the drama. According to Ralph Berry’s (1985) interpretation, the end of the play affirms the social order—both the rule of law and the bonds of family—that the opening scenes threaten. Patricia Parker (1983) examines the opening and closing scenes of the play, particularly Egeon’s narrative of the shipwreck and the closing exchange between the two Dromios, and elaborates on the significance of these lines in the context of the work’s larger themes.

The theme of losing and finding oneself governs the play, and the examination of mistaken identity and the instability of identity figure prominently in modern critical scholarship. Barbara Freedman (1980) writes that the conflict of the play arises from “the simultaneous and interdependent existence of two mutually exclusive self-concepts,” held by the two Antipholus brothers. Douglas Lanier (1993), who finds in the play a reflection of the instability of Elizabethan conceptions of identity, argues that the play “entertains the unsettling possibility that character is perhaps never more (and no ‘deeper’) than a well-managed stage spectacle.” The conclusion of the play offers no reassuring integration of identity, the critic contends, but rather offers the suggestion that the self is “merely” a presentation or performance within a social context. Camille Wells Slights (1993) maintains that the confusion of identity in the play reveals the tenuousness of social and political relationships.

Critics generally agree that The Comedy of Errors was inspired by the Roman playwright Plautus' Menaechmi, a farce that exploits the identity confusion produced by a single set of twins. According to Wolfgang Riehle (1990), Shakespeare was familiar not only with the English translation of the play but with the Latin original as well. One of the most striking changes in Shakespeare's version is the presence of supernatural elements in a setting dominated by the mercantile town of Ephesus. Alexander Leggatt (1974) examines this difference and contends that the “Roman comedy of confusion takes place in a practical world, where nothing is inexplicable. … But Shakespeare gives us a play in a more mixed dramatic idiom.” Leggatt maintains that The Comedy of Errors contains a level of reflection that is entirely absent in the Roman farce. Niall Rudd (1994) argues that due to the expectations of the Elizabethan audience, the romantic frame within which the comic confusion is staged is much more developed in The Comedy of Errors than in Menaechmi. Michael Scott (1982) comments that although the play’s illustration of the absurdity of human existence marks its roots in Roman farce, the complexity of this expression and the “disquieting” force of the comedy reflect Shakespeare’s transformation of the classical plot.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: “The Comedy of Errors,” in Renaissance Drama and a Modern Audience, Macmillan Press, 1982, pp. 1-17.

[In the essay that follows, Scott claims that the success of the farcical form of The Comedy of Errorsdepends heavily on its structure.]

The Comedy of Errors is a farce and as such belongs to an art form relying for its strength and theme on the ingenuity of its structure. From Plautus to Ayckbourn farce has exploited social archetypes and institutions so as to entertain its audiences by laughing at the world and its absurdities. The process is naturally thematic, the social, moral or psychological content being an integral part of its dramatic form and balance.1 Thus the aesthetic success of good farce depends on its structure and it is from this viewpoint that any criticism must begin its evaluation. So it has been in recent years with The Comedy of Errors where scholars have focused upon two principal issues, the introduction in the final scene of the Abbess as a structural device to reconcile the ‘errors’ of the plot, and the sentence of death passed on Egeon at the beginning of the play and foreshadowing all the festivities.

To the fore of those criticizing the ‘clumsy’ introduction of Emilia has been Bertrand Evans:

When we learn that there is an Abbess in Ephesus and that this Abbess is no other than old Aegeon's lost wife, the play is within eighty lines of the end. Had we been told of her existence at the outset, we would have been assured, even while recollection of Aegeon's desperate plight shadowed the hilarious scenes, that all would finally be well. As the play stands, with only half of the frame—Aegeon's plight—presented to us at the outset, it is plain that the dramatist has simply deceived us. He makes us believe our view complete when it is only partial … By introducing Aemilia early in the action, Shakespeare could have added another level to the structure of awareness and thus have increased the complexity of our responses.2

Although arresting, such criticism is not altogether correct, since through allowing the audience to realize Emilia's role of reconciliation too early in the work Shakespeare might well have over-simplified his play and thus reduced rather than increased the complexity of response. Further such action would have naturally upset the structural-thematic balance of the play which, as will be shown, largely depends on the audience being unaware of Emilia's healing presence until the final act. Professor Evans however does point us in an interesting direction since he correctly implies that there is some form of correspondence between Egeon's ‘desperate plight’ and Emilia's therapeutic role.

This becomes more evident when the second structural issue of the work is examined, that of Egeon's sentence of death in the first scene. Leo Salingar has admirably illustrated the precise tone set by this serious opening to the play. It is not one of tragedy but of romance:

The experienced playgoer at an early performance would not have been misled … He could hardly have anticipated the fast and funny movement of the rest of the play, but he could have recognised in the opening scene the distinctive notes of romance rather than tragedy; in the speaker's inclination towards pathos rather than aggressiveness, for example, and in Egeon's reference to Fortune, which had left him something ‘to delight in’ as well as something ‘to sorrow for’.3

Salingar continues by showing the work's relationship to established romance conventions thus enabling him to assert ‘that from the outset, both forms of the story of family reunion, the romantic and the farcical, were present to [Shakespeare's] mind together’ (p. 67). It is this fusion of the romance and the farce which helps the play build on its Plautine and romance models in establishing a thematic structure around the marriage convention.

Egeon in the first scene is a pathetic old man, isolated in an alien land divorced from wife and children through the dictates of wealth and Fortune:

In Syracusa was I born, and wed
Unto a woman happy but for me,
And by me,—had not our hap been bad.
With her I liv’d in joy; our wealth increas’d
By prosperous voyages I often made
To Epidamnum, till my factor's death,
And the great care of goods at random left,
Drew me from the kind embracements of my spouse.

(I. i. 36-43)4

This incident was eventually to isolate Egeon from wife and children so that now in Ephesus he has no will to live, his only wish being to know whether his family are still alive:

… here must end the story of my life,
And happy were I in my timely death,
Could all my travels warrant me they live.
Hopeless and helpless doth Egeon wend,
But to procrastinate his lifeless end.

(I. i. 137-9, 157-8)

The ‘procrastination’ of his death implies that Egeon has spent the last five years, at least, of his life in the despair of isolation, searching for his family, his roots which are his identity. It is this loss of self-identity not only for Egeon but for all his relations which is to form the kernel of the play; a simple idea at first only proposed by the old man's pathetic tale but soon stated explicitly as a theme, by Antipholus of Syracuse:

He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
(Unseen, inquisitive) confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.

(I. ii. 33-40)

It is misleading to see this statement as an insight to Antipholus's characterization. We are not watching a comedy dealing in such terms but rather a farce which negates characterization in favour of simple archetype. Antipholus's speech therefore naturally becomes a clarification of Egeon's opening statement. In this respect the play operates very similarly to a musical score which may begin with an orchestral embellishment before the theme is simply stated by a single instrument, to be then followed by an intricate set of variations.5 Thus Egeon's exposition is simply clarified by Antipholus before we are presented with the complexities of the variations, which in this case we call the ‘errors’ on the theme of the loss of identity. We soon find therefore that the three principal characters, Antipholus of Syracuse, Antipholus of Ephesus, and Adriana are comically portrayed as separated from any relationship with another person. All are searching, striving, enquiring and yet getting nowhere since there seem to be no answers. In both philosophical and dramatic terms, in the twentieth-century, this depiction of separation and utter loneliness has found expression in the farcical theatre of the absurd, Adamov for example crying out:

What is there? I know first of all that I am. But who am I? All I know of myself is that I suffer. And if I suffer it is because at the origin of myself there is mutilation, separation.

I am separated. What am I separated from—I cannot name it. But I am separated.6

Thus the absurd theatre presents the modern audience with empty stereotype figures waiting, sleeping, collecting, eating, babbling, raging, emptily explaining, falsely reasoning. Shakespeare in this farce is not greatly concerned with what we now might see as the absurdists' metaphysical ethic7 but his dramatic score in The Comedy of Errors does employ similar vacuous activities in order to illustrate the loneliness of man devoid of roots whether they be in the context of father, mother, brother or wife. The individual's separation from the family is his absurdity and it is this which finds central expression in the play's portrayal of the Antipholus of Ephesus-Adriana relationship.

To understand fully the complexity of their marriage in the context of the dramatic structure it is necessary to be aware of the correspondence between the twin brothers. Although, in line with Aristotelean principles, there is only one action in The Comedy of Errors there are within it two sets of adventures, those of Antipholus of Syracuse and those of Antipholus of Ephesus. For them Empson's concept of correspondence is operative, ‘once you take the two parts to correspond, any character may take on mana because he seems to cause what he corresponds to or be Logos of what he symbolises’.8 The fact that the Antipholuses are twins immediately signifies that we are meant to understand a correspondence between them and similarly between the two Dromios. Further because of the relationship between the Dromios and Antipholuses there is also some form of correspondence implied between all four characters born ‘That very hour, and in the self-same inn’ (I. i. 53). Each of the four by correspondence represents or reflects certain facets of the other's personality, aspirations and difficulties.9 This is particularly so of the Antipholuses in relation to Adriana since as with farce throughout the ages, much of the play's humour depends on marital problems and intrigues. Quite correctly the marriage debate in the work has often been stressed by critics10 but perhaps what has not been emphasized enough is the way in which both of the twins reflect Adriana's difficulties with her husband. The wife's first appearance sees her complaining of her lot as a woman:

Why should their liberty than ours be more?

(II. i. 10)

A valid question especially for a twentieth-century audience which would no doubt find Luciana's placating replies to be repellently anachronistic. It would be wrong however to take that moral issue as the central element of their discussion, since the dramatist's main concern here is to illustrate Adriana's frustration which is derived from her love for her unresponsive husband. We are presented by her complaints with a form of negative positivism. By railing about her husband she illustrates her attachment to him. It is a common device, Shakespeare for example, employing it to great effect later in his career with his portrayals of Cleopatra and Lady Macduff. Like them therefore at the end of all the railing Adriana admits her life is totally bound up with that of her husband:

… he's master of my state.
What ruins are in me that can be found
By him not ruin'd? Then is he the ground
Of my defeatures; my decayed fair
A sunny look of his would soon repair … 

(II. i. 95-9)

By the end of II.i. therefore the audience is convinced of Adriana's sincerity towards her man. Yet what the audience does not know is whether her husband is as bad as she makes out. The confrontation soon comes between the couple, Adriana making her passionate plea to him:

How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it,
That thou art then estranged from thyself?—
Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
That undividable, incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self's better part.
Ah, do not tear away thyself from me;
For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself, and not me too.

(II. ii. 119-29)

Adriana here dwells on the identity of their personalities as individuals and as part of their married union. She speaks directly therefore to the essence of their very being. But he replies:

Plead you to me fair dame? I know you not.

(II. ii. 147)

In a different play such a reply would prove heart-rending as when Hal turns to Falstaff after the latter's profession of love, and disowns him;

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.

(Henry IV Part Two V. iv. 47)

Antipholus's reply however causes great hilarity since unknowingly Adriana is talking not to her husband but her husband's brother. Yet it is implied, though not stressed, in the context of the play that this is exactly the reply which Adriana would have received from her husband, Antipholus of Syracuse comically corresponding to and thus in part being his twin brother. Shakespeare's farce comically distances a social problem but thereby makes it as poignant, for example, as Pinter's absurd distancing in a play such as The Birthday Party where Petey and Meg are shown through verbal ineptitude to be in the stagnation of the marriage:

Meg Is that you, Petey? (Pause). Petey, is that you? (Pause). Petey?
Petey What?
Meg Is that you?
Petey Yes, it's me.
Meg What? (Her face appears at the hatch.) Are you back?
Petey Yes.
Meg I've got your cornflakes
ready. (She disappears and reappears.)
Here's your cornflakes. (He rises and takes the
plate from her, sits at the table, props up the paper and begins to eat.)
(Meg enters by the kitchen door.) Are they
nice?
Petey Very nice.
Meg I thought they'd be nice.
(She sits at the table.)

11

Neither Shakespeare nor Pinter need be overtly didactic since the conversations within the context of the play's individual dramatic structure allow the thematic point to exist. With Pinter through the vacuous nature of the conversation we are able to laugh at and yet understand the corresponding nihilism of the figures' existence. Similarly with Shakespeare we laugh at the comic misunderstanding of Adriana and her unknown brother-in-law, but instinctively accept the poignancy of the true marital situation presented through the correspondence principle.

Shakespeare does not allow himself to neglect such issues once he has suggested them, and although in a farce he has no intention of over-emphasizing the serious implication of the situation he does permit himself the liberty of taking his variations on the identity-marriage theme a little further. Thus Antipholus of Syracuse decides to play along with Adriana's game, resolves that is to humour the woman as a husband might humour his wife:

Syr. Ant. [Aside.] To me she
speaks, she moves me for her theme;
What, was I married to her in my dream?
Or sleep I now, and think I hear all this?
What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?
Until I know this sure uncertainty,
I'll entertain the offer'd fallacy.

(II. ii. 181-6)

Surprisingly the situation is not far here from Adamov and the absurdists. Antipholus...

(The entire section is 6101 words.)

Criticism: Beginnings And Endings

J. Dennis Huston (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Playing with Discontinuity: Mistakings and Mistimings in The Comedy of Errors,” in Shakespeare's Comedies of Play, Columbia University Press, 1981, pp. 14-34.

[In the following essay, Huston reads The Comedy of Errors as a comic representation of the instability of human behavior and experience, and examines the dissonantly tragic beginning and the lingering tensions in the resolution of the play.]

The Comedy of Errors announces Shakespeare's joy in play-making to the world, for it is the work of a dramatist who, above all things else, delights in his medium. In it he finds a reality easily assimilated and manipulated by his newly...

(The entire section is 8888 words.)

Patricia Parker (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Elder and Younger: The Opening Scene of The Comedy of Errors,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 3, Autumn, 1983, pp. 325-27.

[In the essay that follows, Parker contends that the opening narration of the shipwreck is frequently misread, and elaborates on the significance of these lines in the context of the work's larger themes.]

Both Henry Cunningham and R. A. Foakes assume in their editions of The Comedy of Errors that there is an inconsistency in Egeon's narrative of the family's shipwreck in the play's opening scene. Egeon states first that it was the mother who was “more careful for the latterborn” (I.i.78), while he was...

(The entire section is 2279 words.)

Ralph Berry (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Comedy of Errors: The Subliminal Narrative,” in Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience, Macmillan Press, 1985, pp. 30-45.

[In the essay below, Berry argues that the focus of The Comedy of Errors on “the archetypal experience of wandering, loss and rediscovery” reveals its origins in Greek drama.]

To see The Comedy of Errors as the first of the final romances is no great paradox of vision. It is true that commentators used always to stress the Plautine, and thus the farcical nature of the play. For most of them, The Comedy of Errors was in the first instance an adaptation of Plautus's Menaechmi, and one took...

(The entire section is 5989 words.)