The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 54)
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...
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Criticism: Beginnings And Endings
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 discovered dramatic powers, since he manages the dramatic microcosm with absolute control. He builds a plot of mistaking, self-consciously contrived, and then he exuberantly pushes his characters around the world he has trapped them in, all the while encouraging his audience, which knows the reason for the mistaking, to laugh with him at the characters' vain efforts to understand their situation. By thus drawing attention to his obvious manipulation of plot and medium, Shakespeare keeps his play—in both meanings of the word—between the characters and the audience. As a result, there is no need for any real development of character in The Comedy of Errors, since the action derives less from what the characters do than from what the...
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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 responsible for the elder, when they bound themselves and the children to the “small spare mast” (l. 79). But then he appears, in their reading, to contradict himself when he says in line 124 that he was left with the “youngest” rather than the eldest boy after the mast was “splitted in the midst” (l. 103).1 The assumption that Shakespeare is here guilty of an “oversight” (Cuningham) or of a “conflict in details” (Foakes) arises, however, from a misreading of the lines (ll. 78-85) that describe the placing of the two sets of twins and the parents on the mast.
The lines in question are the following, in which Egeon describes the “delays” (l. 74) sought by himself and...
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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 it on from there. But the archaic and primitive elements of the play are now more visible than in the past. Northrop Frye points to its dark underside, “which brings the feeling of the play closer to the night world of Apuleius than to Plautus”.1 Such a perception makes the play more of a comedy, less of a farce. Moreover, the romances are now thought of as a vital and ultimately defining area of the canon, to an extent which would not have been conceded a generation ago; so there is a disposition to admit The Comedy of Errors as an anticipation, not merely an experiment. Manifestly, the play works towards the experience of reconciliation and discovered identity, anticipating the drift of the romances. That can be...
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Criticism: Classical Themes
SOURCE: “The Comedy of Errors,” in Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1974, pp. 1-19.
[In the following essay, Leggatt focuses on the “interweaving of the fantastic and the everyday” in the play, contrasting it to Plautus' Menaechmi.]
In the second scene of The Comedy of Errors, Dromio of Ephesus meets Antipholus of Syracuse for the first time, and rebukes him for not coming home to dinner. Antipholus ignores the rebuke (which means nothing to him) and turns to a more urgent matter:
antipholus s: Stop in your wind, sir; tell me this, I pray: Where have you left the money that I gave you? dromio e: O—sixpence that I had a Wednesday last To pay the saddler for my mistress' crupper? The saddler had it, sir; I kept it not.
(I. ii. 53-7)
We settle ourselves for a couple of hours of farce. The confusion seems to be on a purely material level—mistaken persons and mislaid goods. Shakespeare is keeping to the spirit of his source, the Menaechmi of Plautus, where the action takes place in a hard southern daylight and the issues are all practical ones.
But at the end of this first scene of confusion, Shakespeare introduces a new note. In Plautus, Epidamnum is seen as a place of danger, but danger of a prosaic and familiar kind:
For assure your selfe, this...
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SOURCE: “The Significance of Shakespeare's ‘Classical’ Comedy,” in Shakespeare, Plautus and the Humanist Tradition, D. S. Brewster, 1990, pp. 198-211.
[In the essay that follows, Riehle argues that The Comedy of Errors reflects a classically “pagan” orientation, in which the fantastical elements enhance rather than hinder the coherence and intensity of the drama.]
Errors is a play in which a number of themes that were to become increasingly important in Shakespeare's work are dramatized. Very early in the play, the ‘cosmic order’, the ‘cosmic reality behind appearance’1 is envisaged, and the contrast between appearance and reality becomes fundamental. H. F. Brooks has rightly maintained that ‘At the centre is relationship: relationship between human beings, depending on their right relationship to truth and universal law.’2 The necessity of justice as well as of mercy is emphasized. All this, except for the theme of cosmic order, is fully in line with the spirit and tone of Menandrian New Comedy, which centres around the humanism of true relationships. There is, of course, no denying the impact of English late medieval drama on Shakespeare, yet as far as Errors is concerned, it is wrong to argue that, rather than being a play inspired by classical comedy, it is firmly rooted in the popular tradition of the Mystery and Morality...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare and Plautus: Two Twin Comedies,” in The Classical Tradition in Operation, University of Toronto Press, 1994, pp. 32-60.
[In the following essay, Rudd compares the plot structure, characterization, and farcical elements of Plautus’ Menaechmi to The Comedy of Errors.]
In comparing the two plays I shall quickly outline the Menaechmi, noting certain features.1 Then, going on to The Comedy of Errors, I shall describe how, while retaining important Plautine elements, Shakespeare wove the Latin farce into the framework of a Hellenistic romance, and how in doing so he developed both genres into something richer and more complex, something which reflected contemporary ideas on love and on Christian marriage.
The background of the Menaechmi is supplied in the ingratiatingly jokey prologue.2 A father from Syracuse takes one twin to Tarentum and leaves the other at home. At Tarentum, the boy Menaechmus gets lost in the crowd and is carried off to Epidamnus by a merchant. Though the father dies of a broken heart, in Epidamnus the boy is well brought up, and eventually a wife is found for him, complete with dowry. After this the kidnapper is conveniently drowned—a death described in suitably heartless terms.3 Back in Sicily the grandfather changed the second twin's name to Menaechmus in order to maintain the...
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SOURCE: “Egeon's Debt: Self-Division and Self-Redemption in The Comedy of Errors,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 10, No. 3, Autumn, 1980, pp. 360-83.
[In the essay that follows, Freedman defends The Comedy of Errors against criticism that contends it is an early and immature effort by tracing the problem of identity in both the frame plot and the main plot.]
Virtually every good critical introduction to The Comedy of Errors apologizes for the play. Shakespeare was a mere youth, so the story begins, when he wrote the work, “still without too much to say about love, politics, or human nature.”1 The generic conventions of farce provided their own peculiar restraints, since farce is a kind of drama “that not even Shakespeare could extend beyond somewhat narrow limits.”2 Repeatedly, the reader is warned not to waste time searching for latent meanings in the text.3 Rather, we are advised to be grateful for what we do have: a “superb farce,” a “pure comedy of event.” We may value it as an “assimilation and extension of Plautine comedy,”4 for its “symmetry and near flawlessness of … plot,”5 or finally, for its rich “harmonic structure” of interrelated themes and patterns of imagery,6 but we should never expect this “primitive” to stand up to Shakespeare's...
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SOURCE: “‘Stigmatical in Making’: The Material Character of The Comedy of Errors,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 81-112.
[In the following essay, Lanier explores “the question of how the material conditions and practices of self-display in Elizabethan England relate to crises of self-display faced by Shakespeare’s characters,” by examining The Comedy of Errors.]
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, Nor customary suits of solemn black, Nor windy suspiration of forc'd breath, No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, Nor the dejected haviour of the visage, Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, That can denote me truly. These indeed seem, For they are actions that a man might play; But I have that within which passes show, These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
What constitutes Shakespearean character? To the extent that Shakespeareans have continued—with various degrees of discomfort—to labor in the shadow of A. C. Bradley, we have persisted, like Hamlet, in locating Shakespearean character in the workings of an inner self, the elusive “that within” which lies beneath, exceeds or evades its outward “show.” Notwithstanding the roses that have periodically been strewn on its grave, this notion of character shows every sign of health. Even the post-structuralist...
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SOURCE: “Egeon's Friends and Relations: The Comedy of Errors,” in Shakespeare's Comic Commonwealths, University of Toronto Press, 1993, pp. 13-31.
[In the essay below, Slights studies the portrayal of personal and political relations in The Comedy of Errors.]
‘We being strangers here, how dar'st thou trust …’
Preaching on Ephesians 5, a text that seems to lie behind the setting of The Comedy of Errors,1 John Donne offers an analysis of the essential nature of all human societies since the birth of Eve's first son: ‘from that beginning to the end of the world, these three relations, of Master and Servant, Man and Wife, Father and Children, have been, and ever shall be the materialls, and the elements of all society, of families, and of Cities, and of Kingdomes.’2 Whether or not all societies of all times consist of these three relationships, as Donne alleges, The Comedy of Errors does. The reunion of Egeon with his wife and sons provides the telos of the plot, and the scenes of mistaken identity that constitute the action ring changes on confused relations between master and servant and husband and wife. The comedy is also consistent with Donne's analysis in its representation of these relations as forms of power. According to Donne, ‘(because the principall foundation,...
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Anderson, Linda. “Early Comedies.” In A Kind of Wild Justice: Revenge in Shakespeare's Comedies, pp. 23-33. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987.
Traces the theme of “comedic revenge” in The Comedy of Errors.
Barber, C. L. “Shakespearian Comedy in The Comedy of Errors.” College English 25, No. 7 (1964): 493-97.
Argues that the play is deceptively fantastic in its portrayal of human relations.
Berry, Ralph. “And here we wander in illusions.” In Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form, pp. 24-39. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Studies the extent to which The Comedy of Errors prefigures themes found in later comedies.
Bevington, David. “The Comedy of Errors in the Context of the Late 1580s and Early 1590s.” In The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, edited by Robert S. Miola, pp. 335-53. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.
Discusses The Comedy of Errorsin the larger context of Elizabethan theater.
Crewe, Jonathan V. “God or The Good Physician: The Rational Playwright in The Comedy of Errors.” Genre 15, Nos. 1 and 2 (Spring/Summer 1982): 203-23.
Examines two conceptions of the playwright that allow the farcical elements of the play to be...
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