The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 77)


The Comedy of Errors

The Comedy of Errors (c. 1594), Shakespeare's shortest play and regarded as one of his earliest comedies, is generally considered an apprentice work that offers only hints of his mature dramatic achievement. The play relies heavily on farce and is largely based on the works of the Roman playwright Plautus (c. 254-184 b.c.), particularly the Menaechmi, from which Shakespeare derived his plot of mistaken identity involving identical twin brothers. Obtaining its humor from the complexity and improbability of its plot, The Comedy of Errors depicts the misidentifications and chaos that ensue when two sets of twins—Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, and their servants, both named Dromio—converge in the city of Ephesus after being separated since infancy. While some modern productions of the play have emphasized only its low, farcical qualities and slapstick humor, contemporary critics have suggested that the work is wrongly undervalued, and foreshadows a number of Shakespeare's most significant themes. Catherine M. Shaw (1980) looks to the Roman sources of the comedy, from which Shakespeare extracted plot lines and molded new characters from antique comic types by infusing them with Elizabethan sensibilities. David Bevington (1997) likewise acknowledges the playwright's extensive adaptation of dramaturgical materials from Roman sources and his transformation of these into figures of relevance to late-sixteenth-century English culture.

The characters in The Comedy of Errors have generally been numbered among Shakespeare's most cursory constructions, and are thought to be developed largely as components of plot. While some scholars have examined such issues in relation to the crisis of identity experienced by the Antipholus brothers, other recent commentators have approached the play's characters in conjunction with external thematic or structural elements in the play, rather than as individuals possessed of considerable psychological depth. William Babula (1973) examines the central characters and their fears of potentially destructive change, and contends that their responses to real and imagined threats of transformation provide the play with a unified thematic framework. Charles Garton (1979) explicates possible linguistic sources of the name Antipholus, viewing its Greek mythological and symbolic contexts as central to the play. Laurie Maguire (1997) concentrates on the figures of Adriana and Luciana, which the play introduces as contrasting female stereotypes relevant to Elizabethan views of women. For Maguire, Adriana occupies the role of “independent pagan Amazon,” while Luciana possesses a more submissive, Christian, and servile temperament. As the drama progresses, according to Maguire, such reductive classifications are deconstructed, allowing these figures to synthesize two extremes of feminine behavior.

The elements of farce, slapstick routines, and musical embellishments have made The Comedy of Errors consistently popular with audiences. Patrick Carnegy (2000) reviews Lynne Parker's Royal Shakespeare Company's 2000 production, admiring the “Mediterranean Mafia-land” setting, quick pacing, and strong appeal to the farcical. Robert Smallwood, however, decries the 2000 staging of the play at the Globe Theatre, finding an overemphasis on crude farce. While the staging, directed by Kathryn Hunter, had some allure in its vaguely Turkish setting, Smallwood deems the mysterious and romantic potential of the drama deadened beneath slapstick and sight gags. Alvin Klein (2001) presents a mixed review of Brian B. Crowe's 2001 production of The Comedy of Errors for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. Klein was disappointed by the production's “shtick,” but considers its emotional finale poignantly realized. The tyranny of farce was a common theme among reviewers of Robert Richmond's The Comedy of Errors performed with the Aquila Theater Company in 2002. Critics Bruce Weber (2002) and Tom Sellar (see Further Reading) both noted well-conceived and entertaining elements in the staging as well as several good performances among individual members of the cast, but observed that Richmond's frantic, heavy-handed, and unremittingly silly interpretation ultimately damaged the piece. After attending a broadly successful adaptation of the play crafted by New York University's Experimental Theatre Wing, entitled the Bomb-itty of Errors, Leanne B. French (2000) delighted in “this frenetic collision of hip-hop and Shakespeare” and commented on the stylish design, music, and humor of the production.

While contemporary reviewers of The Comedy of Errors in production have generally focused on issues of style, a number of modern scholars have devoted their attention to the thematic substance of the play. W. Thomas MacCary (1978) applies the tools of genre and psychoanalytic criticism to The Comedy of Errors. Contending that the play should not be dismissed as simple farce, MacCary analyzes the dynamics of family romance at work in the drama and its broad thematic dimension as a “narcissistic comedy or egocentric comedy” that projects internalized fears and desires on stage. Thomas P. Hennings (1986) concentrates on Elizabethan attitudes toward marriage and the family expressed in the play, such as wifely obedience and the moral obligations of the husband, which act as correctives to the potentialities of destruction, chaos, and decay. Biblical allusions are the subject of Patricia Parker's (1993) essay, which she argues overlay the classical setting and plot of The Comedy of Errors with language, motifs, and symbols related to Christian morality and redemption. Finally, Ann C. Christensen's (1996) feminist-materialist assessment of The Comedy of Errors characterizes the work as Shakespeare's depiction of commercial relations as they encroach upon the domestic household. Christensen traces the ideological conflicts between husbands and wives as inhabitants of interconnected public and private spheres, and examines the double standards that exist for men and women in the protocapitalist social world of the play.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Catherine M. Shaw (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Shaw, Catherine M. “The Conscious Art of The Comedy of Errors.” In Shakespearean Comedy, edited by Maurice Charney, pp. 17-28. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980.

[In the following essay, Shaw evaluates The Comedy of Errors as Shakespeare's eclectic adaptation of Latin sources, and considers the playwright's recasting of classical dramas by Plautus and Terence into an Elizabethan idiom that highlights the contrast between “stage representation and audience expectation.”]

The Comedy of Errors holds a place unique in the Shakespearean canon because it shows at once the most direct derivation from Roman comedy and, at the same...

(The entire section is 5199 words.)

David Bevington (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: 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.

[In the following essay, Bevington surveys Shakespeare's “creative reconfiguration of classical sources” in The Comedy of Errors with regard to late-sixteenth-century London theater.]

The Comedy of Errors is often seen as a work of Shakespeare's “apprenticeship.”1 To what extent is it also a play whose dramaturgy can be understood in the theatrical context of its time? One approach does not preclude the...

(The entire section is 6930 words.)

Laurie Maguire (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Maguire, Laurie. “The Girls from Ephesus.” In “The Comedy of Errors”: Critical Essays, edited by Robert S. Miola, pp. 355-91. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Maguire presents an overview of The Comedy of Errors that elucidates the drama's structural use of pairing and opposition in relation to its theme of marriage and its depiction of the female characters Adriana and Luciana.]

In adapting Roman source material (Plautus' Amphitryo and Menaechmi) for The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare made two particularly significant changes: he doubled the number of twins, and he changed the setting from...

(The entire section is 10665 words.)