William Shakespeare was not always the master playwright that he became in his later life. When he first began writing plays, he did not have the mastery of plot, character, concept, and language for which he was to be universally praised. In 1592, he was a young playwright with a historical trilogy and a classical tragedy to his credit; he was just beginning to explore and perfect his craft. The Comedy of Errors is an early experiment with comedy, and his enthusiasm for the experiment is clear in his writing.
Shakespeare followed the example of most playwrights of the Elizabethan era by adapting other plays and sources to make his dramas. This in no way detracts from his genius because what he adapted he made distinctively his own.
Most of The Comedy of Errors derives from Menaechmi (pr. second century b.c.e.; The Menaechmi, 1595) by the classical Roman playwright Plautus, who lived from c. 254 b.c.e. to 184 b.c.e. Act 3, scene 1 of the play originates from another work by Plautus, Amphitruo (Amphitryon, 1694). Both of these plays concern mistaken identity, which Shakespeare adapted for the crux of his plot as well. Just as Shakespeare adapted Plautus, Plautus apparently drew from an unknown Greek playwright. It was said of Plautus that his special genius was for turning a Greek original into a typically Roman play with typically Roman characters. Similarly, Shakespeare, like Plautus, set the play in ancient Ephesus and used some of Plautus’s situations, but Shakespeare’s characters are typically and recognizably of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan age.
Shakespeare changed the framework of the plot, making it much more romantic and accessible to popular tastes. In Shakespeare’s version, the twins’ father, Aegeon, is introduced in the middle of his search for his wife and other son, separated from him by shipwreck. This story line, demonstrating husbandly and paternal devotion, was appealing to the audience. Shakespeare then created the servant twins (Dromios) to add to the fun of the mistaken identity plot. In so doing he doubled the amount of action. He also introduced Luciana, sister of the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, thus providing a love interest for Antipholus of Syracuse. Out of the Plautine cast of nine, Shakespeare retained six of the original characters and developed many more of his own.
In addition, Shakespeare changed the characters to fit the tastes of his audience. Plautus’s twins are extremely one-dimensional characters. Both are self-centered, callous young men whose only interest is the gratification of their animal appetites. It is difficult to feel any sympathy or empathy for them. In Shakespeare’s play, however, the twins are simply callow youths whose characters are not yet completely formed. They are not amoral, as are Plautus’s twins. They are simply naïve.
The relationship between Shakespeare’s Antipholus of Ephesus and his wife was much more appealing to Elizabethan audiences than that relationship, as depicted by Plautus, would have been. Shakespeare’s Antipholus does not steal his wife’s jewelry and gowns to give to a courtesan. In fact, he dines with the courtesan and gives her his wife’s presents only out of revenge at being shut out of his house and being given the impression that his wife was entertaining another man. There is a moral dimension to Shakespeare’s play that is lacking in Plautus’s.
Like Plautus’s, Shakespeare’s play is a farce, filled with fast-paced action and dialogue, peopled with eccentric characters, and developed by improbable, exaggerated situations. It is the most elementary of the comic arts—the comedy of situation, rather than the comedy of character or theme. Shakespeare’s later comedies would develop the...
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more difficult styles.
Even in this elementary comedy, Shakespeare shows talent enough to draw some basic characterization and suggest polarities of characters. The younger twin from Syracuse is, stereotypically, more timid than his arrogant older brother. Luciana is gentler and shyer than her sister. The eccentrics, the courtesan and Doctor Pinch, are each separately and strikingly developed.
Shakespeare’s experiments with language and poetry betray his apprenticeship. There is a noticeable simplicity and repetition of diction. The play’s accomplishment and fluency augur what the mature Shakespeare would later produce. The poetic passages of wooing that he created for the Syracuse twin and Luciana anticipate Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597). Dromio of Ephesus’s punning description of his twin’s wife, the slattern Nell, in geographic terms, is a masterpiece of comic overstatement, as is the bawdy, double entendre that enriches the scene in which Ephesus is denied access to his home and wife. All of these touches are strokes of genius and wit.
Shakespeare’s later romantic comedies are foreshadowed by the dignified characters of Aegeon and Aemilia: Their lifelong devotion and eventual reunion elevate the farce to a higher level of comedy. Their plot resolution not only incorporates the plot and subplots but also unites all the characters. This plot development anticipates the festive communion that is the goal of all of Shakespeare’s later romantic comedies.
Shakespeare probably set out to write the perfect Roman-style play. It observes two of Aristotle’s unities: It is set in one locale, and it takes place in the span of a day’s time. Shakespeare added subplots, however, to complement and complicate the main plot. Plautus would never have broken the third unity. Shakespeare also handles his exposition tritely (Solinus asks Aegeon what brings him to Ephesus), and, as a result, the first act moves slowly. Once the playwright moves into the plot complications of act 2, the action and humor never slow until the conclusion.
The characters are shallowly developed, the plot is improbable, and the comedy is developed primarily through situation, but The Comedy of Errors has proved to be a play that delights audiences. Shakespeare wrote more thought-provoking plays than this one, plays that were more sensitive and profound, and plays peopled with better-developed characters, but The Comedy of Errors remains a fun romp, written in excellent pentameter.