The Comedy of Errors Essay - The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 87)

William Shakespeare

The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 87)


The Comedy of Errors

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

Robert S. Miola (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 12556 words.)

Charles Whitworth (essay date 2002)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 14906 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Charles Brooks (essay date summer 1960)

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....

(The entire section is 3456 words.)

Wolfgang Riehle (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 5193 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

D. J. R. Bruckner (review date 14 July 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)

Michael Phillips (review date 26 March 2001)

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.


(The entire section is 576 words.)

Don Shirley (review date 9 July 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 343 words.)

Don Shirley (review date 9 July 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Douglas E. Green (review date spring/summer 2003)

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...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

Criticism: Themes

Douglas Green (essay date 1995)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 3638 words.)

Martine Van Elk (essay date 2003)

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;...

(The entire section is 10037 words.)

Further Reading


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....

(The entire section is 345 words.)