The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 66)
The Comedy of Errors
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Comedy of Errors, see SC, Volumes 1, 26, 34, and 54.
Critics agree that The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s shortest play, is one of his earliest comedies. The play relies heavily on elements of farce, deriving its humor from a twisted and improbable plot and the chaos that ensues when two sets of identical twins find themselves in the same city. With characters who have been seen as one-dimensional and the play’s reliance on slapstick humor, The Comedy of Errors has often been derided as an immature effort. Some modern critics, however, defend the play against such attacks, maintaining that it has been unfairly undervalued due to its farcical elements. Popular areas of modern critical analyses include the play’s romantic features, the Antipholus brothers’s search for self, and the play’s exploration of mercantilism. In production, reviewers have noted how easily the deeper issues of the play can get lost within the chaotic and farcical plot, and have praised productions in which such issues remain accessible.
The twin brothers, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, have been viewed as two halves, each searching for unity. A. Bronson Feldman (1955) takes a psychoanalytic approach to the play, maintaining that the brothers are in fact divided aspects of Shakespeare's self—Antipholus of Ephesus as ego, and Antipholus of Syracuse as alter ego. Other critics, including W. Thomas MacCary (1985), find that through the brothers Shakespeare explored the search for selfhood. In MacCary's analysis, Antipholus of Syracuse is searching for himself, while Antipholus of Ephesus represents the ideal ego of his brother. Jonathan Hall (1995) observes that Antipholus of Ephesus is going through a crisis of identity, and stresses that this crisis is related to his inability to honor his pledge as a merchant.
Questions regarding the play’s genre have also generated criticism. Russ McDonald (1988) uses his examination of The Comedy of Errors to highlight Shakespeare's effort to construct meaning in farce and to demonstrate Shakespeare's affinity for this genre. Maintaining that The Comedy of Errors is a mix of two genres, farce and romance, Charles Whitworth (1991) focuses on the play's romantic elements. Whitworth asserts that Egeon's narrative, which frames the play, contains many romantic features, including a shipwreck, as well as separation, rescue, loss, and reunion. Furthermore, the stylized, formulaic language of this narrative is also characteristic of the romance genre, states Whitworth, who concludes that at the play's end, romance and farce merge.
The way the play's serious, romantic, and farcical elements are treated in production varies dramatically. In his review of the 1996 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, directed by Tim Supple, Robert Smallwood (1997) praises the way the production balanced the play's humor with its deeper issues. Smallwood also lauds individual performances as well as the unobtrusiveness of the production's musical accompaniment. Dennis Harvey (2000) discusses the Aurora Theater’s 2000 production of the play, directed by Danny Scheie. Harvey notes that the director's decision to use seven actors to play sixteen roles intensified the gender issues in the play and the chaos of mistaken identity. Under Scheie's direction, according to Harvey, the seven players provided a comic “rambunctious” that was perfect for a staging of The Comedy of Errors. Wilborn Hampton (2001) reviews a radically different version of the play, a musical version by Trevor Nunn and Guy Woolfenden, directed by John Rando. Hampton comments that while some liberties were taken with the text, such as the incorporation of cliches from the culture of the 1960s and 1970s, the production was faithful to the “spirit” of the original.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Feldman, A. Bronson. “Shakespeare's Early Errors.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 36, no. 2 (March-April 1955): 114-33.
[In the essay below, Feldman presents a psychological biography of Shakespeare based on a detailed analysis of the plot and characters of The Comedy of Errors.]
Veterem atque antiquam rem novam ad vos proferam
If we could understand the motives that impelled William Shakespeare to the writing of plays, what were the reasons for his giving a whole life of wealthy imagination to the theatre, we might come into possession of the main keys to the psychology of the stage itself, of plays, the players, and their public. In the hope of contributing toward this achievement I have undertaken an intensive analysis of a play by the paramount dramatist which most historians regard as one of the earliest—if not the very first—of his creative efforts in theatre: The Comedy of Errors. Because of the crude frivolity, the juvenile character of this drama, scholars have not paid it serious attention. The eyes of psycho-analysis turn the more readily to it precisely because of this juvenile character. We know how the childishness of an artist will betray the deepest secrets of his mind, the unconscious origin of the passions of his life. If it is true that the Errors stands the nearest of Shakespeare's works to his infancy,...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: MacCary, W. Thomas. “The Comedy of Errors.” In Friends and Lovers: The Phenomenology of Desire in Shakespearean Comedy, pp. 81-90. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
[In the essay below, MacCary maintains that Antipholus of Syracuse is the primary focus of The Comedy of Errors, noting that his search for his brother may be viewed as a search for himself.]
A common structural aspect of the early comedies is delayed marriage; this fact emphasizes the importance to these plays of the young male's trepidation at committing himself physically and emotionally to a woman. In three of these plays the alternative of identification with other males is first tried, and then, only with regret, dismissed as inadequate. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labor's Lost the other males are friends, but in The Comedy of Errors the protagonist seeks his twin brother, whom he speaks of as “myself.” It is in this play that we are closest, then, to the narcissistic pattern of object-choice. We do not find in Antipholus of Syracuse the sensational aspects of the love life of pathological narcissists as defined by Kernberg—polymorphous perversity and sexual promiscuity; rather social isolation is his characterizing feature. We might rather choose to use the Elizabethan term melancholy for this, and associate him with Antonio, The Merchant of Venice, and...
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SOURCE: O'Brien, Robert Viking. “The Madness of Syracusan Antipholus.” In Early Modern Literary Studies 2, no. 1 (April 1996): 3.1-26.
[In the following essay, O'Brien asserts that Shakespeare exploited his Elizabethan audience's emotional response to The Comedy of Errors by suggesting that Antipholus of Syracuse is truly in danger of succumbing to madness.]
Many readers of The Comedy of Errors notice that Egeon's possible execution provides a dark frame around what appears to be one of Shakespeare's most light-hearted comedies. Yet the threat of death that hangs over Egeon in the frame plot also hangs, in the main plot, over his Syracusan son. This threat results from Antipholus' Syracusan origins, of course, but also—less obviously and more significantly—from the possibility that Syracusan Antipholus is losing his mind. The Elizabethans believed that, without correction, insanity usually led to death; for Shakespeare's audience, the deaths of Lear and Ophelia probably seemed inevitable as soon as the characters went mad. I shall argue in this essay that, in The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare uses the possibility that Syracusan Antipholus is genuinely threatened by madness, and therefore death, to manipulate his audience's anxieties. I shall also show how, despite the play's dependence on a classical source, Syracusan Antipholus' descriptions of his “transformed” mind...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Smallwood, Robert. “Shakespeare Performances in England, 1996.” Shakespeare Survey 50 (1997): pp. 201-24.
[In the excerpt below, Smallwood applauds Tim Supple's 1996 production of The Comedy of Errors, maintaining that it was straightforward and “attentive” to Shakespeare's language. Smallwood additionally praises the performances of the actors as well as the effectiveness of the musical accompaniment.]
Tim Supple's version of The Comedy of Errors, which opened (prior to a national and international tour) at The Other Place in Stratford in June came from a world of Shakespeare production altogether different from Ian Judge's. Curious, therefore, that this was the first time the RSC had offered the play since Judge's own main-stage production in 1990, when one actor played both Antipholuses and one both Dromios, creating an evening of slick and brilliant theatrical razzmatazz in which the romance of the play's ending was entirely destroyed by the need to resolve (through the use of doppelgängers) the technical problems created by the doubling. Supple's reading of the piece was infinitely simpler. It presented the play in an unchanging set (designed by Robert Innes Hopkins) of a brick floor backed by a wall with central double doors, a window with a grille, and a bell in a niche above—the simplest of suggestions of a sunlit square in Greece or Turkey. As one entered the...
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SOURCE: Harvey, Dennis. Review of The Comedy of Errors. Variety 378, no. 7 (3-9 April 2000): 58.
[In the following review, Harvey offers high praise for the Aurora Theater’s production of The Comedy of Errors, finding it to be “entirely error-free.”]
Solinus/Courtesan: Brian Yates Sharber Egeon/Angelo/Dr. Pinch: Joan Mankin Antipholus of Ephesus/of Syracuse: Susannah Schulman Dromio of Ephesus/of Syracuse: Brad DePlanche Balthasar/First & Second Merchant/Maid/Emilia: Adam Gavzer Adriana: Susan Marie Brecht Luciana: Johanna Falls Musician/Constable: Scrumbly Koldwyn
There's something about “The Comedy of Errors”’ “generic Shakespeare” nature that gives directors leave to treat it as a near-blank page—one on which virtually any stylistic or conceptual fillip can be imposed. Under almost every circumstance, the play bounces back, frivolous yet hardy as a Neff ball. It's become a signature piece for idiosyncratic Bay Area director Danny Scheie, who first staged his ingenious vest-pocket version as a college thesis project in 1985, then scored a hit at Shakespeare Santa Cruz three years later, reprising the production in the first annum of his brief SSC artistic directorship in '93.
Substantially reworked each time, the show's latest incarnation is packing the high-polish but determinedly small-scale Aurora Theater Co.'s minuscule Berkeley...
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SOURCE: Hampton, Wilborn. “A Little Shakespearean Traveling Music.” The New York Times (19 May 2001): B10.
[In the review below, Hampton discusses a staging of Trevor Nunn and Guy Woolfenden's musical version of The Comedy of Errors, directed by John Rando, contending that the production honored the spirit of the original play.]
When Ben Jonson eulogized Shakespeare as being not of an age but for all time, he had no way of knowing about the 1960's. But it has been the proof of Jonson's tribute that Shakespeare's plays have survived transportation to just about every decade since, although admittedly some travel better than others.
“The Comedy of Errors,” an early play that is about the closest Shakespeare came to pure farce, is one that travels especially light, and a campy and brash staging of Trevor Nunn and Guy Woolfenden's musical version by the director John Rando and the Acting Company offers a diverting evening, depending on how one might enjoy a night at a Hippie theme park.
The adaptation was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1976. Mr. Nunn, who was then artistic director at the R.S.C. and soon to make his fame in America by directing “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Les Miserables” and “Cats,” wrote lyrics cued by lines from Shakespeare's text to music set by Mr. Woolfenden.
In the Acting Company revival the...
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SOURCE: McDonald, Russ. “Fear of Farce.” In “Bad” Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespearean Canon, edited by Maurice Charney, pp. 77-90. Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988.
[In the essay that follows, McDonald uses his examination of The Comedy of Errors to highlight Shakespeare's effort to construct meaning in farce and to demonstrate Shakespeare's affinity for this genre.]
Zeus's sexual lapses notwithstanding, gods are not supposed to be indecorous, and a characteristic of modern Bardolatry has been its insistence on Shakespeare's artistic dignity, particularly his attachment to the approved dramatic forms. The popular image of Shakespeare as the embodiment of high culture, the author of Hamlet and certain other tragedies, as well as a very few weighty comedies, is merely a version of a bias that also, if less obviously, afflicts the academy. What I am talking about is a hierarchy of modes, or, to put it another way, genre snobbery. That tragedy is more profound and significant than comedy is a prejudice that manifests itself in and out of the Shakespeare Establishment: in the impatience of undergraduates who, taking their first class in Shakespeare, regard the comedies and histories as mere appetizers to the main course, the tragedies; in Christopher Sly's equation of “a commonty” with “a Christmas gambol or a tumbling trick”; in the disdain...
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SOURCE: Whitworth, Charles. “Rectifying Shakespeare's Errors: Romance and Farce in Bardeditry.” In The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, edited by Robert S. Miola, pp. 227-60. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.
[In the essay below, originally published in 1991, Whitworth studies the romantic elements of The Comedy of Errors, urging that the play be recognized as romance in its form and in much of its substance. Whitworth focuses in particular on the structure, content, and language of the framing tale of Egeon of Syracuse.]
What in the world can/should/does an editor do to the text of a Shakespeare play?1 We are reminded by a growing host of performance critics but also, and more significantly, by textual scholars and editors, that play texts are both potential, to be realized in performance, rather than ends in themselves, and, as things in themselves, unstable. We are enjoined to privilege those early texts of Shakespeare—where there exist more than one—which appear to embody his theatrical practice or that of his colleagues, rather than those which represent his first thoughts or a scribe's transcription, and, generally, to have the play in mind as we edit the text.2 What then is the role of the textual editor vis à vis a Shakespeare play? How can whatever he does make any real difference? He works perforce only with the printed...
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SOURCE: Hall, Jonathan. “Mercantilism and Desire in The Comedy of Errors.” In Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, pp. 239-52. Madison, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.
[In the essay below, Hall stresses that the crisis of identity experienced by Antipholus of Ephesus is related to his inability to honor his pledge as a merchant, and that through Antipholus of Syracuse, the mercantile, “venturing hero,” Shakespeare explored anxieties concerning eroticism.]
The advent of mercantile capitalism should not be understood as a purely “economic” transition, if by that term we mean the severely delimited and specialized set of theories and practices characteristic of the epoch of bourgeois hegemony. The later “science” of political economy tends (naturally, as it now seems to us) to obscure its own basis in an alienation of the practices of monetary power and rationalized administration from all other social interrelations and cultural practices. It is constituted as an impersonal science precisely through a “forgetting” of its nonetheless persistent and real connections with the politics of the everyday, that is interpersonal relations of every sort and, consequently, the organization of even supposedly private desire. But this economic scientism, so familiar to us as to appear almost unquestionable (except occasionally on moral grounds), is a...
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Christensen, Ann C. “‘Because Their Business Still Lies Out a' door’: Resisting the Separation of the Spheres in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors.” Literature and History 5, no. 1 (spring 1996): 19-37.
Contends that in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare examined Elizabethan concerns about the increasing separation between the public/commercial and private/domestic spheres.
Freedman, Barbara. “Errors in Comedy: A Psychoanalytic Theory of Farce.” In Shakespearean Comedy, edited by Maurice Charney, pp. 233-43. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980.
Contends that the genre of farce in general, and The Comedy of Errors in particular, deliberately denies and displaces meaning, a practice necessary for ordinarily unacceptable aggression to be accepted in a humorous manner.
Hennings, Thomas P. “The Anglican Doctrine of the Affectionate Marriage in The Comedy of Errors.” Modern Language Quarterly 47, no. 2 (June 1986): 91-107.
Argues that unlike its Plautine source, The Comedy of Errors ultimately celebrates Christian society, family, and marriage.
Maguire, Laurie. “The Girls from Ephesus.” The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, edited by Robert S. Miola, pp. 355-92. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997....
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