The Comedy of Errors The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 34)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Comedy of Errors

Generations of critics considered The Comedy of Errors as mere farce, an apprentice work that gives no inkling of Shakespeare's mature achievements. But in the 1960s critics began re-examining the play as a highly accomplished, serious work that, for all its horseplay, adumbrates many of the central concerns of Shakespeare's oeuvre. Beginning with R. A. Foakes (1962), critics began to discuss the shaky sense of identity of all the major characters, but particularly of Antipholus of Syracuse. Another area of concern that has received sustained critical attention is the question of the play's generic identity—is The Comedy of Errors a farce, a comedy, a tragedy, a mixed-genre work, a problem play? The play's characterization and criticisms of gender relations have also gained increasing scrutiny, the critical literature being marked by a gradual but radical about-face in the interpretation of gender issues in The Comedy of Errors.

Despite ongoing differences and disagreements between critics of The Comedy of Errors, one question may be regarded as having been settled conclusively: the play goes far beyond its source material—the Menaechmi of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus—in its treatment of the theme of mistaken identity. Shakespeare exploits the dramatic potential of mistaken identity, and shows how being mistaken for someone else unsettles the various characters' own sense of identity. While R. A. Foakes was the first to draw attention to the way in which The Comedy of Errors connects a stable sense of self with social harmony and order, subsequent critics have further explored the idea in relation to various elements of the Elizabethan world view.

That Shakespeare also transforms his Plautine source material in his treatment of gender issues was a much later critical discovery. The crux, it would appear, lies in the evaluation of Adriana's character and conduct. She was initally taken to be a shrew—as her counter-part in Plautus Menaechmi clearly is—whose complaining and scolding is the cause of her husband's inconstancy. This view is represented by T. W. Baldwin (1962), who concludes that Luciana's speech on the just and inevitable inequality of the sexes is authoritative. The first major challenge to that position came from Marilyn French (1981), who argues that the play is highly critical of the male "establishment" of Ephesus, which is oppressive and much given to violence. Thomas Hennings (1986), reading The Comedy of Errors in light of the contemporary position on marriage of the Anglican Church, dealt another blow to the older reading, proposing that Antipholus of Syracuse's irresponsibility as a husband is the cause of Adriana's justified complaints. Joseph Candido (1990) reaches a similar conclusion by analyzing the characters' attitudes towards food and mealtimes as a social function that shores up both marriage and society in general. He also shows how Luciana's authority on the issue of gender relations—or any other subject, for that matter—is fatally undermined by her earnest arguments in favor of hypocrisy. By 1993, then, Adriana's exoneration was complete, and the critical evaluation of The Comedy of Errors' stance on gender issues had been completely reversed.

The question of the appropriate generic classification of The Comedy of Errors has occasioned less consensus. Since the critical community gave up the notion that the play is a farce, critics have argued for a variety of more just generic labels without being able to put the question to rest. Gwyn Williams (1964) made a case for the play as near-tragedy. Ruth Nevo (1980) argued that it has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean comedy and should be labeled accordingly. Dorothea Kehler (1987) proposed that The Comedy of Errors is in fact a problem play. Arthur Kinney (1988) qualified these different views by showing the extent to which The Comedy of Errors is informed by mystery plays and other liturgical drama and texts. The debate concerning...

(The entire section is 66,729 words.)