The Comedy of Errors The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 77)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Comedy of Errors

The Comedy of Errors (c. 1594), Shakespeare's shortest play and regarded as one of his earliest comedies, is generally considered an apprentice work that offers only hints of his mature dramatic achievement. The play relies heavily on farce and is largely based on the works of the Roman playwright Plautus (c. 254-184 b.c.), particularly the Menaechmi, from which Shakespeare derived his plot of mistaken identity involving identical twin brothers. Obtaining its humor from the complexity and improbability of its plot, The Comedy of Errors depicts the misidentifications and chaos that ensue when two sets of twins—Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, and their servants, both named Dromio—converge in the city of Ephesus after being separated since infancy. While some modern productions of the play have emphasized only its low, farcical qualities and slapstick humor, contemporary critics have suggested that the work is wrongly undervalued, and foreshadows a number of Shakespeare's most significant themes. Catherine M. Shaw (1980) looks to the Roman sources of the comedy, from which Shakespeare extracted plot lines and molded new characters from antique comic types by infusing them with Elizabethan sensibilities. David Bevington (1997) likewise acknowledges the playwright's extensive adaptation of dramaturgical materials from Roman sources and his transformation of these into figures of relevance to late-sixteenth-century English culture.

The characters in The Comedy of Errors have generally been numbered among Shakespeare's most cursory constructions, and are thought to be developed largely as components of plot. While some scholars have examined such issues in relation to the crisis of identity experienced by the Antipholus brothers, other recent commentators have approached the play's characters in conjunction with external thematic or structural elements in the play, rather than as individuals possessed of considerable psychological depth. William Babula (1973) examines the central characters and their fears of potentially destructive change, and contends that their responses to real and imagined threats of transformation provide the play with a unified thematic framework. Charles Garton (1979) explicates possible linguistic sources of the name Antipholus, viewing its Greek mythological and symbolic contexts as central to the play. Laurie Maguire (1997) concentrates on the figures of Adriana and Luciana, which the play introduces as contrasting female stereotypes relevant to Elizabethan views of women. For Maguire, Adriana occupies the role of “independent pagan Amazon,” while Luciana possesses a more submissive, Christian, and servile temperament. As the drama progresses, according to Maguire, such reductive classifications are deconstructed, allowing these figures to synthesize two extremes of feminine behavior.

The elements of farce, slapstick routines, and musical embellishments have made The Comedy of Errors consistently popular with audiences. Patrick Carnegy (2000) reviews Lynne Parker's Royal Shakespeare Company's 2000 production, admiring the “Mediterranean Mafia-land” setting, quick pacing, and strong appeal to the farcical. Robert Smallwood, however, decries the 2000 staging of the play at the Globe Theatre, finding an overemphasis on crude farce. While the staging, directed by Kathryn Hunter, had some allure in its vaguely Turkish setting, Smallwood deems the mysterious and romantic potential of the drama deadened beneath slapstick and sight gags. Alvin Klein (2001) presents a mixed review of Brian B. Crowe's 2001 production of The Comedy of Errors for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. Klein was disappointed by the production's “shtick,” but considers its emotional finale poignantly realized. The tyranny of farce was a common theme among reviewers of Robert Richmond's The Comedy of Errors performed with the Aquila Theater Company in 2002. Critics Bruce Weber (2002) and Tom Sellar (see...

(The entire section is 81,740 words.)