The Comedy of Errors
Critics agree that The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s shortest play, is one of his earliest comedies. The play relies heavily on elements of farce, deriving its humor from a twisted and improbable plot and the chaos that ensues when two sets of identical twins find themselves in the same city. With characters who have been seen as one-dimensional and the play’s reliance on slapstick humor, The Comedy of Errors has often been derided as an immature effort. Some modern critics, however, defend the play against such attacks, maintaining that it has been unfairly undervalued due to its farcical elements. Popular areas of modern critical analyses include the play’s romantic features, the Antipholus brothers’s search for self, and the play’s exploration of mercantilism. In production, reviewers have noted how easily the deeper issues of the play can get lost within the chaotic and farcical plot, and have praised productions in which such issues remain accessible.
The twin brothers, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, have been viewed as two halves, each searching for unity. A. Bronson Feldman (1955) takes a psychoanalytic approach to the play, maintaining that the brothers are in fact divided aspects of Shakespeare's self—Antipholus of Ephesus as ego, and Antipholus of Syracuse as alter ego. Other critics, including W. Thomas MacCary (1985), find that through the brothers Shakespeare explored the search for selfhood. In MacCary's analysis, Antipholus of Syracuse is searching for himself, while Antipholus of Ephesus represents the ideal ego of his brother. Jonathan Hall (1995) observes that Antipholus of Ephesus is going through a crisis of identity, and stresses that this crisis is related to his inability to honor his pledge as a merchant.
Questions regarding the play’s genre have also generated criticism. Russ McDonald (1988) uses his examination of The Comedy of Errors to highlight Shakespeare's effort to construct meaning in farce and to demonstrate Shakespeare's affinity for this genre. Maintaining that The Comedy of Errors is a mix of two genres, farce and romance, Charles Whitworth (1991) focuses on the play's romantic elements. Whitworth asserts that Egeon's narrative, which frames the play, contains many romantic features, including a shipwreck, as well as separation, rescue, loss, and reunion. Furthermore, the stylized, formulaic language of this narrative is also characteristic of the romance genre, states Whitworth, who concludes that at the play's end, romance and farce merge.
The way the play's serious, romantic, and farcical elements are treated in production varies dramatically. In his review of the 1996 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, directed by Tim Supple, Robert Smallwood (1997) praises the way the production balanced the play's humor with its deeper issues. Smallwood also lauds individual performances as well as the unobtrusiveness of the production's musical accompaniment. Dennis Harvey (2000) discusses the Aurora Theater’s 2000 production of the play, directed by Danny Scheie. Harvey notes that the director's decision to use seven actors to play sixteen roles intensified the gender issues in the play and the chaos of mistaken identity. Under Scheie's direction, according to Harvey, the seven players provided a comic “rambunctious” that was perfect for a staging of The Comedy of Errors. Wilborn Hampton (2001) reviews a radically different version of the play, a musical version by Trevor Nunn and Guy Woolfenden, directed by John Rando. Hampton comments that while some liberties were taken with the text, such as the incorporation of cliches from the culture of the 1960s and 1970s, the production was faithful to the “spirit” of the original.