The Comedy of Errors
Until recently, the predominating critical evaluation of The Comedy of Errors placed it as an early and immature work, perhaps even the first Shakespeare wrote. The improbability of its plots and primitive character development were cited by critics as major flaws in a play that did no justice to the talent evident in Shakespeare's later comedies. This dismissal has been reconsidered by contemporary critics who have begun to emphasize the continuities between The Comedy of Errors and Shakespeare's later works. Current areas of critical interest include the theme of mistaken identity and the uneasy resolution of the tensions that animate the play. Another area of interest for critics is the extent to which Shakespeare transformed his source material, Plautus' Menaechmi, into a work that spoke to Elizabethan concerns and perspectives.
Many critics have noted the discrepancy in tone between the somber beginning of the play and the farce that follows, but have disagreed about the extent to which this tension is overcome within the play. J. Dennis Huston (1981) describes the opening lines as portraying “forces of dissolution” that give “a dramatized example of the disorder or discontinuity that the comic dramatist must overcome.” Huston argues that the rest of the play pursues this disorder through comic means, but the “threatening chaos” is not fully resolved by the end of the drama. According to Ralph Berry’s (1985) interpretation, the end of the play affirms the social order—both the rule of law and the bonds of family—that the opening scenes threaten. Patricia Parker (1983) examines the opening and closing scenes of the play, particularly Egeon’s narrative of the shipwreck and the closing exchange between the two Dromios, and elaborates on the significance of these lines in the context of the work’s larger themes.
The theme of losing and finding oneself governs the play, and the examination of mistaken identity and the instability of identity figure prominently in modern critical scholarship. Barbara Freedman (1980) writes that the conflict of the play arises from “the simultaneous and interdependent existence of two mutually exclusive self-concepts,” held by the two Antipholus brothers. Douglas Lanier (1993), who finds in the play a reflection of the instability of Elizabethan conceptions of identity, argues that the play “entertains the unsettling possibility that character is perhaps never more (and no ‘deeper’) than a well-managed stage spectacle.” The conclusion of the play offers no reassuring integration of identity, the critic contends, but rather offers the suggestion that the self is “merely” a presentation or performance within a social context. Camille Wells Slights (1993) maintains that the confusion of identity in the play reveals the tenuousness of social and political relationships.
Critics generally agree that The Comedy of Errors was inspired by the Roman playwright Plautus' Menaechmi, a farce that exploits the identity confusion produced by a single set of twins. According to Wolfgang Riehle (1990), Shakespeare was familiar not only with the English translation of the play but with the Latin original as well. One of the most striking changes in Shakespeare's version is the presence of supernatural elements in a setting dominated by the mercantile town of Ephesus. Alexander Leggatt (1974) examines this difference and contends that the “Roman comedy of confusion takes place in a practical world, where nothing is inexplicable. … But Shakespeare gives us a play in a more mixed dramatic idiom.” Leggatt maintains that The Comedy of Errors contains a level of reflection that is entirely absent in the Roman farce. Niall Rudd (1994) argues that due to the expectations of the Elizabethan audience, the romantic frame within which the comic confusion is staged is much more developed in The Comedy of Errors than in Menaechmi. Michael Scott (1982) comments that although the play’s illustration of the absurdity of human existence marks its roots in Roman farce, the complexity of this expression and the “disquieting” force of the comedy reflect Shakespeare’s transformation of the classical plot.