The Comedy of Errors The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 26)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)


Believed to be one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors is regarded by many critics as an apprentice piece, derivative of the works of the Roman playwright Plautus and possessing a wildly improbable plot involving two sets of identical twins. Despite such perceived shortcomings, The Comedy of Errors has proven to be good theater, with its elements of farce and numerous opportunities for elaborate slapstick routines and musical embellishments being consistently popular with audiences. Many of the more successful productions of the play have been performed in the spirit of the commedia dell'arte, a form of early Italian low comedy that features stylized costumes, stock characters, improvisation, and farce. Although it is uncertain whether The Comedy of Errors was played in this manner during Shakespeare's time, most commentators agree that it is an appropriate format for the work.

The earliest evidence of a performance of The Comedy of Errors is found in the Gesta Grayorum of 1688, the records of Gray's Inn, one of the four Inns of Court, which trained young men for the law. During the Christmas season of 1594, the students held nightly revels that included dancing, banquets, masques, and plays. On Innocents' Day 1594, a performance, described as a "Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus)," was given in the main hall by a company of actors. Theater historians long assumed that the performance was by Shakespeare's acting troupe, THE LORD CHAMBERLAIN'S MEN, but modern commentators have suggested that another professional company or even student players may have enacted the comedy. Although the hall at Gray's Inn in which the revels were held still exists, the nature of the staging and performance is also the subject of scholarly debate. Margaret Knapp and Michal Kobialka have suggested that the stage was wide and shallow and positioned in front of a screen, through which entrances and exits could have taken place. T.S. Dorsch, however, has argued that the staging likely took advantage of the hall's geography and utilized a series of doors at one end of the room. All agree that the hall was rowdy and very crowded the night of the performance; the Gesta indicates that a "Tumult" broke out, resulting in much disorder and the cancellation of a previously scheduled entertainment by members of the Inn. In such conditions, the actors in The Comedy of Errors would have had very little open space to work in, and, as Knapp and Kobialka pointed out, they would have had to have been exceedingly adaptable and flexible in their approach to staging.

The comedy was presented again on Innocents' Day 1604 as part of the Christmas festivities at Court, but seems to have received no further performances in the seventeenth century. Shakespeare's text was subjected to considerable modification and revision during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first of several adaptations, the farceEvery Body Mistaken, appeared in 1716. Another, See if You Like It, or 'Tis All a Mistake, was first mounted in 1734 and was revived numerous times over the next eighty years at both COVENT GARDEN and DRURY LANE. Thomas Hull's The Twins of 1762 featured added scenes and songs which were intended to strengthen characterizations and add substance to the final recognition scene in Act V. Stage historian George C. D. Odell felt the changes improved the play's rather mechanical plot. "I believe an audience would get more enjoyment from Hull's … Comedy of Errors than from Shakespeare's," he declared. In 1808, the noted actor and theatrical manager J.P. Kemble presented a version of the play that was a further modification of Hull's adaptation. Scholars concur that the aim of all these revisions was to emphasize the elements of farce and sentiment and to reduce the wordplay and the improbability of the plot. In Frederick Reynolds' 1819 production at Covent Garden The Comedy of Errors was transformed into an opera. Songs were culled from lyrical...

(The entire section is 54,258 words.)