The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 87)
The Comedy of Errors
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Comedy of Errors, see SC, Volumes 1, 26, 34, 54, 66, and 77.
The Comedy of Errors (c. 1594) is the shortest play in the Shakespearean canon and is considered to be one of Shakespeare's earliest and least romantic comedies. The play has been long regarded as an immature work that relies too heavily upon elements of farce and slapstick; however, The Comedy of Errors has been reevaluated in recent years, and many critics now believe that deeper issues and themes lie beneath the work's madcap surface. The wildly implausible plot involves two sets of identical twins separated at birth: the Antipholus brothers—one of Syracuse and the other of Ephesus—and their servants, who are both named Dromio. Chaos reigns when all four come together in Ephesus, where the numerous instances of mistaken identity based on appearance are further exacerbated by the shared sets of names.
Shakespeare's primary source for The Comedy of Errors is Plautus's Menaechmi, a bawdy Roman drama featuring a set of identical twins. Shakespeare added to the mayhem of his play by introducing a second pair of look-alikes. According to Robert S. Miola (1997), the play is also derived from the Bible—specifically St. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians and Acts of the Apostles—as well as a variety of English and Italian dramatic works. Miola is one of several critics who believe that Shakespeare's reliance on his source material, particularly Plautus, has been misunderstood in the past. “Instead of classifying the play as the work of an inferior playwright, a bookish exercise, or an apprentice piece, critics now see it as a sophisticated imitation,” reports Miola. Martine Van Elk (2003) examines the influence of rogue literature on Shakespeare's reworking of Plautus's text. The notion of misidentification was a “cultural fascination” in Elizabethan England according to Van Elk, who discusses the play in the context of the popular cony-catching pamphlets of Shakespeare's time—booklets about deliberate trickery in the London underworld. Van Elk asserts that The Comedy of Errors and the rogue texts correspond “by speaking to the same social issues and appealing to the widespread interest in misidentification.”
Many critics have claimed that the characters in The Comedy of Errors exist strictly as components of the plot. The characterization of Adriana has generated controversy in that some critics believe her to be a shrew, comparable to Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Charles Brooks (1960) studies the representation of Adriana and her more docile sister Luciana (as well as their counterparts Kate and Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew) and concludes that Shakespeare was establishing a contrast between spirited women and devoted women, as well as between “the experienced wife” and “the inexperienced girl.” These comparisons underscore the comic and farcical elements of the play, according to Brooks, and suggest yet another comic contrast: “that marriage can sometimes be a battle and yet be a highly satisfying experience.” Gender issues are also explored by Paul J. Marcotte (see Further Reading), who explores the gender-based differences in the love relationships between Adriana and her husband, and Luciana and Antipholus of Syracuse. Marcotte claims that the play “inculcates a number of surprisingly well connected and coherent comments about the essential relationship which exists between men and women.” Douglas Green (1995) concentrates on the figure of the missing mother in the play. He believes that the brothers' search for identity involves their early separation not only from each other, but also from their mother. Only the twins' mother, Green asserts, can restore them to their proper states as distinct individuals, because she alone can tell them apart.
After its initial run, The Comedy of Errors was rarely produced until the middle of the eighteenth century, when several adaptations appeared. Historically, many productions of the play have emphasized the farcical aspects and, starting in the early nineteenth century, have been accompanied by musical numbers. One of the work's more famous musical adaptations was the 1938 Rodgers and Hart musical comedy, The Boys from Syracuse, which was followed two years later by a film version of the same name. More recent performances have employed circus settings; Miola discusses several such stagings, including the 1983 Goodman Theatre production featuring professional circus performers, and the 1976 staging in Ashland, Oregon, the set for which included carnival rides and a midway. Casting the two sets of twins is a challenge met in a variety of ways in modern stagings. Danny Scheie's 2001 production earns high praise from reviewer Michael Phillips (2001), who claims that by using two actors rather than four, “the play's twice as much fun with half as many people.” Ron Cohen (see Further Reading) positively reviews the high-energy 2002 production of The Comedy of Errors directed and adapted by Robert Richmond for the Aquila Theatre Company. The production featured “buoyant choreography” through which, according to Cohen, “even the scenery dances.” D. J. R. Bruckner (2000) also comments favorably on the Richmond production, noting that “the endless twists of this plot keep the audience laughing for two hours and viewers can see through every one of the sometimes murky puzzlements that so delighted Elizabethans.” The sheer fun accompanying such humorous productions has made The Comedy of Errors one of the most popular of Shakespeare's plays with Elizabethan and modern audiences alike.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Miola, Robert S., ed. “The Play and the Critics.” In The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, pp. 3-51. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.
[In the following excerpt, Miola provides an overview of the play's sources, genre, characterization, language, and critical reception.]
I can't understand who planned all of this overnight fame, It's a game, it's a game, it's a shame but it must be a game! Every step that I take, every move that I make, Every place that I've been, every sight that I've seen, I've already been there. Do I know me?
Pleasantly bewildered, Roger Rees's Antipholus of Syracuse sings and dances the above verse in Trevor Nunn's sprightly musical adaptation (1976). Unlike him, early critics and audiences easily identify the original planner of the game—Plautus, whose Menaechmi furnishes Shakespeare with the main confusion of identical twins and the outlines of plot. Witness the first recorded notice, an account of a performance at Gray's Inn in 1594: “a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus) was played by the players” (Gesta Grayorum pub. 1688; 1914, 22). Francis Meres does not note the source directly in Palladis Tamia (1598), that commonplace book lifted from Erasmus, Ravisius Textor, and many others, but he cites Errors [The Comedy of Errors] among other works by...
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SOURCE: Whitworth, Charles, ed. Introduction to The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-79. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
[In the following excerpt, Whitworth discusses the production history of The Comedy of Errors and the critical controversy over the play's designation as a farce.]
FARCE, CITY COMEDY AND ROMANCE
E. M. W. Tillyard, in his generally sympathetic if not unequivocally enthusiastic discussion of Errors [The Comedy of Errors], followed the well-established tradition, in both criticism and stage production, of assuming its ‘core’ or essence to be farce and its comedy as being that exaggerated kind peculiar to farce. The critical tradition dates from the time of Coleridge at least. He insisted on the uniqueness of the play in the Shakespeare canon, defining it as ‘a legitimate farce’, distinct ‘from comedy and from other entertainments’ by ‘the licence … required … to produce strange and laughable situations’: ‘A comedy would scarcely allow even the two Antipholuses … but farce dares add the two Dromios’.1 While on the page, farce may be conveyed by vigorous dialogue and in stage directions and a sympathetic reader may react to it, only on the stage does it come into its own, there for all to see. From the low comedy that crept into the Restoration theatre and was decried by Dryden and other...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Brooks, Charles. “Shakespeare's Romantic Shrews.” Shakespeare Quarterly 11, no. 3 (summer 1960): 351-56.
[In the following essay, Brooks compares Adriana in The Comedy of Errors to Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.]
The domineering wife has been a popular literary figure from Xantippe to Lichty's battle-axes. She has a male counterpart in the tyrannous husband, unreasonable masculine brutality being as much disapproved, at least in Christian civilizations, as feminine wilfulness; but the shrew is a more familiar character than the tyrannous husband, possibly because she not only behaves abnormally, as he does, but also violates our sense of order. While he overasserts a right, she overturns a hierarchy which men like to feel is divinely sanctioned. So men delight to laugh at the shrew or to see her justly disconcerted, and they smile with approval at her opposite number, the tender girl patiently and wholly devoted to serving her chosen male. It is not surprising that the shrew gets a hearing on Shakespeare's boards. But Shakespeare's shrews, Adriana in The Comedy of Errors and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, are not merely fools or monsters. They are, like other Shakespearian characters, including the tender heroines who appear by their sides in these two plays, persons unsure of their own hearts, and their spirited conduct is akin to the spirited conduct of...
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SOURCE: Riehle, Wolfgang. “Names and their Meanings.” In Shakespeare, Plautus and the Humanist Tradition, pp. 173-84. Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer Ltd, D. S. Brewer, 1990.
[In the following essay, Riehle examines Shakespeare's practice of naming characters as a way of reflecting their inner natures in The Comedy of Errors.]
We have seen in the preceding chapters how closely Shakespeare studied his two Plautine sources before composing his own ‘classical’ comedy; now we shall return to our earlier suggestion that Errors [The Comedy of Errors] should at the same time be viewed as a text documenting Shakespeare's humanist interests. The current underrating of Errors, both in the theatre and in criticism, shows only too well that we are still inclined to underestimate the profundity of Shakespeare's education. We have to assume that Shakespeare acquired a fairly solid knowledge of the classics in the Grammar School. In many respects Elizabethan Grammar School teaching seems to have reflected the educational ideas of Erasmus.1 Although Shakespeare did not study at a university, his intellectual background and thematic interests are in many respects comparable to the ‘University Wits’, from whom he may have learnt a great deal by way of conversation. It seems to me that Tillyard has given a vivid description of the ways in which Shakespeare may have acquired his...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Bruckner, D. J. R. “O Dromio, Dromio! Wherefore Art Thou Dromio?” New York Times, no. 52253 (26 September 2002): E7.
[In the following review of the Aquila Theater Company's 2000 staging of The Comedy of Errors, originally published on July 14, 2000, Bruckner claims that Robert Richmond's adaptation not only updates the original text, but actually saves it.]
Whatever would Shakespeare have done without shipwrecks? So many of his plots turn on them that when a character in any play asks where someone is, I half expect the reply to be, “Lost at sea.” Well, life was tough in the old days if you lived on an island, I suppose. It was tougher on theater audiences; since staging a sinking was not possible, people had to sit through long descriptions of storms, broken masts and screams in the wind. None is more tortuous than old Egeon's speech at the opening of The Comedy of Errors—so filled with incident that it induces amnesia, but if you forget any detail, parts of the rest of the play make no sense.
No one who sees the rousing production by the excellent Aquila Theater Company will forget a whit of it. It replaces all the lines of the first scene with another Shakespeare device, a dumb show—the smartest dumb show I have ever seen. Under what might be a trio of giant umbrellas or dirigibles with bright satin streamers falling to earth, a kind of balloon...
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SOURCE: Phillips, Michael. “With Frugal Casting, Scheie's Comedy of Errors Gets It Right.” Los Angeles Times (26 March 2001): F9.
[In the following review, Phillips praises director Danny Scheie's 2001 production of The Comedy of Errors at A Noise Within, particularly his use of two actors rather than the usual four to play the two sets of twins.]
The two sets of crazy mixed-up identical twins in The Comedy of Errors—Shakespeare's probable first foray into comedy—afford some nice, cheap prospects for four actors.
But why spread them around? The play's twice as much fun with half as many people.
In director Danny Scheie's jolly production, now entering the spring repertory at A Noise Within, Donald Sage Mackay plays Antipholus of Syracuse and his long-lost bro, Antipholus of Ephesus. Their respective servants, Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus, are portrayed by Louis Lotorto.
The results are worth seeing if only for the scene where, behind the ancient Grecian version of the Laugh-In joke wall, a fleet-footed, quick-changing Lotorto gets into a fight with … himself.
Scheie has staged The Comedy of Errors several times, for Shakespeare Santa Cruz (where he served as artistic director) and companies in Berkeley and Seattle, among others. It's easy to see why. The concept has plenty of...
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SOURCE: Shirley, Don. “Gags Abound in Comedy of Errors' Carnival Atmosphere.” Los Angeles Times (9 July 2001): F6.
[In the following review of Joe Jordon's 2001 Sacred Fools Theater staging of The Comedy of Errors, Shirley reports that the production was filled with sight gags and broad humor.]
In the Sacred Fools Theater rendition of The Comedy of Errors, director Joe Jordan turns Shakespeare's Ephesus into an island off the coast of Brazil.
Though ruled by a dictator with gun-toting guards, the islanders are celebrating the annual Carnival of Summer. Cue the Latin beat, the vivid colors, the gyrating dancers, a guy on stilts, the fire-eater, the ganja smoking, the black magic, the giant bird puppet that saunters through the streets. Jordan maintains the ambience throughout the show.
Not everything fits the tropical motif, however. Two of the three band members, off to one side, wear white crew-neck T-shirts under their tropical shirts—befitting, say, a U.S. college frat party. They also provide a stream of sound effects that sound inspired by old-fashioned vaudeville.
A servant and his master communicate by cell phone until they realize they're within a few steps of each other. As the two Dromios tussle on either side of a door, they whip out giant squirt guns and shoot water through the mail slot—then one of them aims...
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SOURCE: Shirley, Don. “This Modernized Comedy Has Its Share of Errors.” Los Angeles Times (9 July 2001): F6.
[In the following review, Shirley finds Ben Donenberg's 2001 Shakespeare Festival/LA production of a modernized version of The Comedy of Errors lacking in unity despite some capable performances by the actors and singers.]
The Comedy of Errors examines two sets of twins who are in one city. Each man is unaware of his twin's presence, multiplying the possibilities of mistaken identity and comic mayhem. But why stop the doubling there?
Los Angeles currently hosts two versions of Shakespeare's comedy. The producers, though probably aware of each other, betray no evidence of it.
The bigger show, if not necessarily the better, is Shakespeare Festival/LA's, at Pershing Square now, with a move to South Coast Botanic Garden on July 26.
The festival's artistic director, Ben Donenberg, doubling as the show's director, set the action in contemporary L.A.—though the program designation stops a bit short of that concept, saying we're in “Los Ephesus,” in a nod to Shakespeare's setting.
In Snezana Petrovic's set, a vista of Hollywood often looms in the background. The main characters wear a lot of black, designed by Alex Jaeger to look casual but chic, in the style of young Hollywood. Antipholus of Ephesus is...
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SOURCE: Green, Douglas E. Review of The Comedy of Errors. Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 2 (spring/summer 2003): 40-1.
[In the following review of the Guthrie Theater's 2002 production of The Comedy of Errors, Green suggests that director Dominique Serrand's interpretation of the play was informed by his circus background.]
When Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling brought in Dominique Serrand of Theatre de là Jeune Lune in Minneapolis to design and direct Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, he most likely knew that he was doing to Shakespeare what Shakespeare had done to Plautus: doubling the double-trouble. Serrand, whose background includes circus school as well as many years as the head of Jeune Lune, brings a clown's sensibility to Shakespeare's most farcical comedy. Early on, the Guthrie production itself seems to be interrupting a performance of Britten's operatic A Midsummer Night's Dream; along the way, there are cabaret-style songs that make hash of famous Shakespearean lines. In general, Serrand's Comedy [The Comedy of Errors] underscores the artificiality of comic conventions like mistaken identity to deflate assumptions about Shakespeare's high-culture status.
This production ignites a parodic “culture war” between the low comedy of the play itself and the extra-dramatic musical and gestural commentary provided by Diva and her...
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SOURCE: Green, Douglas. “Mother's Word and The Comedy of Errors: Notes Toward a Shakespearean Constitution of Patriarchy.” Upstart Crow 15 (1995): 17-25.
[In the following essay, Green analyzes the representation of the mother figure within the patriarchal social system of The Comedy of Errors.]
I. MOMMY'S DEAREST
To begin with, we live in a situation in which the consecrated (religious or secular) representation of femininity is subsumed under maternity. Under close examination, however, this maternity turns out to be an adult (male and female) fantasy of a lost continent: what is involved, moreover, is not so much an idealized primitive mother as an idealization of the—unlocalizable—relationship between her and us, an idealization of primary narcissism.1
In Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, Antipholus of Syracuse expresses the loss of self to which his alienation from the family, as well as the general family dispersal, has given rise: “So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them (unhappy), ah, lose myself.”2 Joel Fineman suggests the significance of the wandering twin's condition, of his lament and anxiety: “the duality of brothers that generates singularity, along with the mirroring complexity of dual reflexiveness and defused images of the discrete self, is...
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SOURCE: Van Elk, Martine. “Urban Misidentification in The Comedy of Errors and the Cony-Catching Pamphlets.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43, no. 2 (2003): 323-46.
[In the following essay, Van Elk relates instances of “misidentification” in The Comedy of Errors to the deliberate trickery represented in Elizabethan rogue literature.]
In Plautus's Menaechmi, the slave Messenio cautions his master, the traveling twin who has just arrived in Epidamnus, about the dangers that lurk in the city: “among the people of Epidamnus are the most outrageous voluptuaries and drinkers; besides, very many slanderers and flatterers live there; then, the whores of no other races are said to speak with a more flattering tongue.”1 In translating the text for an early modern English audience, William Warner makes Messenio's warning more specific to English interests. His Messenio calls Epidamnus, “a place of outragious expences, exceeding in all ryot and lasciviousnesse: and (I heare) as full of Ribaulds, Parasites, Drunkards, Catchpoles, Cony-catchers, and Sycophants, as it can hold: then for Curtizans, why here's the currantest stamp of them in the world.”2 In the following scene, where Plautus's Messenio warns his master of “sycophanta” (slanderers), Warner's translation has Messenio impress on Menaechmus the possibility that the inhabitants of the...
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Cohen, Ron. Review of The Comedy of Errors. Back Stage 43, no. 31 (2 August 2002): 48.
Praises the high-energy 2002 production of The Comedy of Errors directed and adapted by Robert Richmond for the Aquila Theatre Company.
Foakes, R. A., ed. Introduction to The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare, pp. xi-lv. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1962.
Provides a comprehensive overview on the textual history, stage history, and critical history of The Comedy of Errors.
Harrison, G. B., ed. Introduction to The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare, pp. 15-20. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1955.
Provides a synopsis of the Penguin edition of The Comedy of Errors.
Hart, F. Elizabeth. “‘Great Is Diana’ of Shakespeare's Ephesus.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43, no. 2 (2003): 347-74.
Discusses Shakespeare's use of the fertility goddess Diana and the city of Ephesus in both The Comedy of Errors and Pericles.
Hassel, Chris. “The Comedy of Errors in Context and in Performance.” Upstart Crow 17 (1997): 23-39.
Examines Christian allusions and contemporary religious controversies in The Comedy of Errors.
Marcotte, Paul J....
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