(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 passages in Shakespeare's other plays and his sonnets. Although many critics regarded this plundering of the canon with contempt, Reynolds' production was a great popular success and was frequently revived. Samuel Phelps restored Shakespeare's text for his production at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1855 and 1856. As part of the Shakespeare Tercentenary celebrations in 1864, The Comedy of Errors was presented at the Princess' Theatre and elsewhere with the brothers Charles and Henry Webb as nearly identical Dromios. The almost complete text was performed without scene breaks.

There was a smattering of productions of The Comedy of Errors in the early part of the twentieth century, including F.R. Benson's offering at the Coronet Theatre, two stagings at the OLD VIC (1915 and 1927), and an open-air performance in Regent's Park in 1934. Four years later, Theodore Komisarjevsky mounted a brilliant production at Stratford-upon-Avon that has been considered one of the most influential of this century. Emphasizing music, ballet, and farce, Komisarjevsky provided a Comedy of Errors that was fast-paced and colorfully decorated. The costumes were an eclectic jumble of styles and historical periods; many of the male characters wore bowler hats in a variety of hues. The Times critic was enthusiastic: "The display of colour, though extremely various, is always delightful, and the unfailing inventiveness making every movement amusingly and decoratively significant keeps the stage brilliantly and continuously alive."

Modification and adaptation of The Comedy of Errors continued throughout the middle part of the century. In 1938, the same year as Komisarjevsky's production, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart transformed the play into an American musical comedy, The Boys from Syracuse, which was later made into a film. Two years later, London's Mercury Theatre presented A New Comedy of Errors or Too Many Twins, an amalgamation of Shakespeare, Plautus, and Molière. Since then, it has been cast as a Victorian musical comedy, set in the Near East, reformed as an operetta, and turned into a musical with a New Orleans setting. Walter Hudd's 1957 production at the Old Vic Theatre was staged on a double bill along with the tragedy Titus Andronicus. A single company of actors performed both plays in a single setting, in the manner of a troupe of Elizabethan players. The Times reviewer considered the juxtaposition of a "grim Roman play" and a "slender comedy" ill-conceived. Roger Wood and Mary Clarke, however, felt that the two early plays were unexpectedly compatible. Most critics agreed that Robert Helpmann's energetic slapstick routine as Doctor Pinch was the highlight of the evening. Said Wood and Clarke, "The audience by the time of his exit was limp with laughter."

Called "a milestone in post-war theatrical history," by Michael Billington, Clifford Williams' 1962 ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY production was one of the most successful modern stagings of The Comedy of Errors. Hurriedly assembled to fill a void caused by a postponed rendering of King Lear, this production enjoyed a surprisingly warm reception during the Stratford season and was revived for a world tour and several presentations at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre between 1963 and 1972. At a time when many productions of Shakespeare were characterized by drastic experimentation, Williams chose to direct The Comedy of Errors in a largely straightforward manner, an approach most critics found refreshing and unpretentious. Simplicity and a sense of improvisation were central operating principles behind both the set and the acting. The stage consisted of three sloping platforms furnished only with several benches that were put to various uses. The play opened with a masque-like dance in which the actors, dressed in drab rehearsal clothes, slipped into the brightly colored hats, gowns, and costumes they would use in the performance. This emphasis on self-conscious theatricality was further achieved by the cast's acknowledgment of the audience throughout the performance. Williams's production also stressed farce and fun, from its commedia dell'arte touches to its playing of passages of archaic verse for laughs. The bewildering exchange between Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio in Act II, scene ii was treated in the manner of a Victorian music hall. Complex scenes, such as those at Antipholus of Ephesus' door in Act III, were realized in part through pantomime. One of the many memorable sight-gags was the "exorcism" of Antipholus of Ephesus by Doctor Pinch, whose attempts at chasing away evil spirits were punctuated with a generous supply of firecrackers.

Douglas Seale's 1963 production at the AMERICAN SHAKESPEARE THEATRE, Stratford, Connecticut, was praised for its imagination and light-hearted tone. The director's most conspicuous innovation was his decision to have one actor play both Antipholus twins, and one play both Dromios. Alan Pryce-Jones remarked that this doubling lent a degree of realism to the rather fantastic plot of mistaken identities. The final scene, in which both sets of twins appear on stage, was managed by cutting several lines and introducing two new actors to act as silent doubles. As Clifford Williams had done the previous year, Seale incorporated the traditions of the commedia dell'arte into this staging of The Comedy of Errors. Periodically, a troupe of half-masked commedia players would appear onstage, mirroring the plot of the play in pantomime. Some reviewers found this approach distracting and ultimately tangential to the performance. "As the evening progressed," Dunbar H. Ogden observed, "one began to wonder just what these figures had to do with the play." The set, designed by Will Steven Armstrong, was strongly reminiscent of a sunny Mediterranean seaside town, and a colorful mosaic decorated the floor. Twelve years later Robin Phillips chose a very different locale for his staging. He set his 1975 STRATFORD FESTIVAL production of The Comedy of Errors in the Old West, although he remained faithful to Shakespeare's text in most other respects. The Duke was cast as a wealthy rancher, the Dromios were cowboys, Aemilia toted a shotgun, and the Antipholus twins were—as John Pettigrew characterized them—Mississippi riverboat gamblers. Dominating the center of the stage was a large Conestoga wagon. For Berners W. Jackson, it was an image rich in layers of association. "The wagon was everything," he stated, "and no one thing: perhaps a symbol of migration, whether over seas or prairies, and final settlement; perhaps simply a center as versatile as the country store." In general, critics looked favorably upon Phillips' unusual thematic setting. Clive Barnes felt the combination of Western locale and Elizabethan language served to emphasize the themes of bewilderment and estrangement that are the essence of Shakespeare's play. "Weird," he mused; "It is a Ray Bradbury science-fiction novel." The performances were noted for their energy and execution. Barry MacGregor as Antipholus of Ephesus was singled out for his well-timed slapstick routines.

The play once again received a large infusion of music in Trevor Nunn's 1976 production. Nunn's The Comedy of Errors with the RSC was acclaimed by many critics for its originality, lavish ornamentation and strong, spirited cast. Musical numbers, composed by Guy Woolfenden with lyrics by Nunn, were organized around turning points in the plot and memorable lines, such as Luciana's "A man is master of his liberty" (II. i. 7). Said Irving Wardle of the score, "It does not give you much to hum on the way out, but it supplies a springboard into dramatic song and dance." Roger Warren complained, however, that musical comedy and Elizabethan farce were incompatible, and he argued that "the sung ensembles tended to merge everyone into puppets, and to blunt personality." The production was universally described by commentators as stylish, colorful, and rich in comic detail. The market at Ephesus was presented as a modern day tourist trap, replete with novelty shops and vendors hawking straw hats, postcards, souvenirs, and T-shirts sporting the name "Ephesus." Minor roles were played as caricatures: the Duke was a Greek generalissimo, while the goldsmith, Angelo's creditor, represented a 1930's American gangster. Noted Wardle, "All this represents no particular time or place, but it is certainly the domain of comedy." Comic routines were characterized by slapstick, set pieces, and circus gags.

This circus atmosphere carried over into two 1983 productions. Adrian Noble's RSC The Comedy of Errors, his first staging of a fully comedic work, received widely contrasting reviews. Robert Cushman called the attempt "catastrophic" and complained bitterly about Noble's loose treatment of the text and emphasis on physical humor. On the other hand, James Fenton praised the playing, calling it "some of the best verse-speaking we have had at Strat-ford in recent years." The set was minimal, comprising a white semi-circular shell with black surround, two chairs, and a pit which, while housing the five-piece orchestra, also served as both obstacle and resting place for the actors. The music, written by Nigel Hess, was a potpourri of jazz, ragtime, operetta, and circus music. The costumes by Ultz were noted for their bold color and style—the Dromios were presented as Emmett Kelly-style clowns, the Antipholi with bright blue faces, the Courtezan as "Mistress Satan in the flesh," and Luciana as a pink, ruffled clown with a hairdo that was described as everything from a large icecream cone to a gigantic phallus. A production in which the entire text was either cut, altered, or subverted, Robert Woodruff 's Comedy of Errors at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in the same year was more notable for the acrobatic skills of its performers than for its presentation of the work. Turning Ephesus into a circus in which one needed to be able to tell jokes and juggle simply to survive, Woodruff recruited comic performance artists The Flying Karamazov Brothers (as the two sets of twins and the added role of Shakespeare himself) and professional clown Avner the Eccentric (as Dr. Pinch in an extended form) to skillfully create an authentic vaudeville production. Even the programme was designed to provoke mirth: on the cover, the title was given as Shakespeare's The Three Sisters, which was crossed out and replaced with the correct designation; inside, readers were informed that "the plot has something to do with twins and juggling." Critics complained that not only was the original text lost amidst the frenzied atmosphere, but there was also a "remorselessness" about the irreverence toward the original work. Woodruff defended his interpretation, claiming the production was "in the spirit in which [The Comedy of Errors] was born." The set, by David Gropman, was minimal, giving maximum space to the circus performers. Susan Hilferty's costumes consisted of various colors, shapes, and textures, the most notable being that of Alec Willows (as both Angelo and the Second Merchant), which was literally split down the middle—one side as Harlequin, the other as leather-clad punk. Critics censured the acting generally, but reserved modest praise for Sam Williams as a competent Dromio of Syracuse; similarly, Sophie Schwab's Adriana was seen as the best synthesis of Shakespeare and circus.

A production that was criticized for putting style before substance, Ian Judge's 1990 RSC presentation of The Comedy of Errors was a visually stunning, surreal presentation of the work. The set, designed by Mark Thompson and described by John Peter as "an amazing technicolor dream town," featured a black and white chessboard floor, white walls punctuated by nine brightly colored doors, numerous objects hanging from the ceiling, and a reproduction of Salvador Dalí's couch based on the lips of Mae West. The surrealist theme was additionally emphasized by Dr. Pinch appearing as Dalí himself. The production was also notable for its use of single actors as both sets of twins (Desmond Barrit as the Antipholi and Graham Turner as the Dromios) and for the innovative characterization of the former as fat, unattractive, and coarse, and the latter as refined sophisticates. Nigel Hess's music was praised as clever by most but criticized by John Simon as "something like a laugh track run amok." Performances by Cherry Morris as Aemilia and Estelle Kohler as Adriana were singled out for praise, and the cast was generally considered adequate for the presentation of stereotypical characters.

Reviews And Retrospective Accounts Of Selected Productions

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Gray's Inn 1594


The earliest evidence of a performance of The Comedy of Errors is found in the Gesta Grayorum, the records of Gray's Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in London which trained young men for the law. According to the Gesta, the students of Gray's Inn held nightly revels during the Christmas season of 1594; the festivities included banquets, dancing, masques, and plays. On Innocents' Day (28 December), a performance of a play, described as a "Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus)," was given in the main hall by a company of actors. Theater historians have long assumed...

(The entire section is 40901 words.)

Comparisons And Overviews

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Harold Child (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: "The Stage History of The Comedy of Errors," in The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson, Cambridge at the University Press, 1922, pp. 115-19.

[In the following excerpt, Child provides a stage history of The Comedy of Errors, from its premiere at Gray's Inn in 1594 to F.R. Benson's 1905 production in London.]

In spite of an entry in the accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber, which states that the Lord Chamberlain's Company was acting before the Court at Greenwich on the evening of December 28, 1594, it is commonly accepted that...

(The entire section is 4028 words.)

Staging Issues

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Clifford Williams (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors," in Introductions to Shakespeare, Michael Joseph, Ltd., 1978, pp. 40-4.

[Williams directed the much-acclaimed 1962 Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Comedy of Errors. In the following essay, he provides a short overview of various twentieth-century productions, then goes on to discuss Shakespeare's handling of sources and stagecraft]

To discuss The Comedy of Errors is a pleasant task, for it means paying tribute to an old friend. There is some additional (immodest) pleasure in that I played some part in distinguishing the light of this particular...

(The entire section is 5859 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Christiansen, Richard. "Shakespeare Breaks into Vaudeville for an Offbeat Comedy of Errors." The Chicago Tribune Arts and Books (16 January 1983): 8-9.

Provides an overview of director Robert Woodruff's career and discusses his association with the Flying Karamazov Brothers for his 1983 production at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

Edinborough, Arnold. "The Stratford Shakespearean Festival." Shakespeare Quarterly XIV, No. 4 (Autumn 1963): 433-36.

Reviews Jean Gascon's 1963 production at Stratford, Ontario, noting that many of the director's innovations were unsuccessful.


(The entire section is 849 words.)