(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 Further Reading) both noted well-conceived and entertaining elements in the staging as well as several good performances among individual members of the cast, but observed that Richmond's frantic, heavy-handed, and unremittingly silly interpretation ultimately damaged the piece. After attending a broadly successful adaptation of the play crafted by New York University's Experimental Theatre Wing, entitled the Bomb-itty of Errors, Leanne B. French (2000) delighted in “this frenetic collision of hip-hop and Shakespeare” and commented on the stylish design, music, and humor of the production.

While contemporary reviewers of The Comedy of Errors in production have generally focused on issues of style, a number of modern scholars have devoted their attention to the thematic substance of the play. W. Thomas MacCary (1978) applies the tools of genre and psychoanalytic criticism to The Comedy of Errors. Contending that the play should not be dismissed as simple farce, MacCary analyzes the dynamics of family romance at work in the drama and its broad thematic dimension as a “narcissistic comedy or egocentric comedy” that projects internalized fears and desires on stage. Thomas P. Hennings (1986) concentrates on Elizabethan attitudes toward marriage and the family expressed in the play, such as wifely obedience and the moral obligations of the husband, which act as correctives to the potentialities of destruction, chaos, and decay. Biblical allusions are the subject of Patricia Parker's (1993) essay, which she argues overlay the classical setting and plot of The Comedy of Errors with language, motifs, and symbols related to Christian morality and redemption. Finally, Ann C. Christensen's (1996) feminist-materialist assessment of The Comedy of Errors characterizes the work as Shakespeare's depiction of commercial relations as they encroach upon the domestic household. Christensen traces the ideological conflicts between husbands and wives as inhabitants of interconnected public and private spheres, and examines the double standards that exist for men and women in the protocapitalist social world of the play.

Catherine M. Shaw (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Shaw, Catherine M. “The Conscious Art of The Comedy of Errors.” In Shakespearean Comedy, edited by Maurice Charney, pp. 17-28. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980.

[In the following essay, Shaw evaluates The Comedy of Errors as Shakespeare's eclectic adaptation of Latin sources, and considers the playwright's recasting of classical dramas by Plautus and Terence into an Elizabethan idiom that highlights the contrast between “stage representation and audience expectation.”]

The Comedy of Errors holds a place unique in the Shakespearean canon because it shows at once the most direct derivation from Roman comedy and, at the same...

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David Bevington (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bevington, David. “The Comedy of Errors in the Context of the Late 1580s and Early 1590s.” In “The Comedy of Errors”: Critical Essays, edited by Robert S. Miola, pp. 335-53. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

[In the following essay, Bevington surveys Shakespeare's “creative reconfiguration of classical sources” in The Comedy of Errors with regard to late-sixteenth-century London theater.]

The Comedy of Errors is often seen as a work of Shakespeare's “apprenticeship.”1 To what extent is it also a play whose dramaturgy can be understood in the theatrical context of its time? One approach does not preclude the...

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Laurie Maguire (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Maguire, Laurie. “The Girls from Ephesus.” In “The Comedy of Errors”: Critical Essays, edited by Robert S. Miola, pp. 355-91. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Maguire presents an overview of The Comedy of Errors that elucidates the drama's structural use of pairing and opposition in relation to its theme of marriage and its depiction of the female characters Adriana and Luciana.]

In adapting Roman source material (Plautus' Amphitryo and Menaechmi) for The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare made two particularly significant changes: he doubled the number of twins, and he changed the setting from...

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William Babula (essay date November 1973)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Babula, William. “If I Dream Not: Unity in The Comedy of Errors.South Atlantic Bulletin 38, no. 4 (November 1973): 26-33.

[In the following essay, Babula examines The Comedy of Errors central characters and their fears of potentially destructive change.]

The unity of The Comedy of Errors lies in the baffling contexts surrounding Aegeon, the boys from Syracuse, and the boys from Ephesus and in their responses to those contexts. Obviously, there are certain differences among these contexts that cannot be ignored. There are differences in the time spans that matter to the play: over twenty-five years for Aegeon, one week in particular...

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Charles Garton (essay date fall 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Garton, Charles, “Centaurs, the Sea, and The Comedy of Errors.Arethusa 12, no. 2 (fall 1979): 233-54.

[In the following essay, Garton suggests the significance of Shakespeare's use of Greek mythological sources in his naming and implicit characterization of the brothers Antipholus.]

There exists a belief, which is as yet uncontroverted, or at least inadequately controverted, that when Shakespeare named his principals in The Comedy of Errors—the twin sons of the Merchant of Syracuse, the confusion of whose identities, pending their reunion, is the most overt theme of the play—the poet did not succeed in saying exactly what he meant or...

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Patrick Carnegy (review date 29 April 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of The Comedy of Errors. Spectator (29 April 2000): 43-4.

[In the following excerpted review, Carnegy admires director Lynne Parker's farcical staging of The Comedy of Errors with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Memorial Theatre in 2000 and praises individual performances in the production.]

The Comedy of Errors is not, I imagine, a text that anyone other than a Gradgrind finds himself re-reading for pleasure. On the stage, it's another matter. It's a play that can explode into life when taken to town in the right way, and that's exactly what happens with the hilariously invigorating show in the Memorial...

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Leanne B. French (review date May 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: French, Leanne B. “It's da Bomb.” Entertainment Design 34, no. 5 (May 2000): 8-9.

[In the following review of the Bomb-itty of Errors, a hip-hop adaptation of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors performed in New York City in 2000, French highlights the design and musical elements that contributed to this successful experimental production.]

How often do you settle in for a Shakespeare play and see young fans scream out for their favorite player, “Dromio, I wannna meet you!” How often does the Bard inspire a crowd to stand up and wave their hands in the air, wave 'em like they just don't care? Well, not often unless the production has...

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Robert Smallwood (review date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Smallwood, Robert. Review of The Comedy of Errors. Shakespeare Survey 53 (2000): 261-62.

[In the following excerpted review, Smallwood describes Kathryn Hunter's The Comedy of Errors performed at the Globe Theatre in 2000 as crude, patronizing, and, “in every sense, a sell out.”]

Kathryn Hunter was ‘Master of Play’ for the Globe's The Comedy of Errors, Tim Carroll ‘Master of Verse’, and Liz Cooke ‘Master of Design’. The setting was vaguely Turkish, with middle eastern instruments accompanying the action from above, and turbaned men and veiled women peopling the world of Ephesus in a potentially interesting way. There were...

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Alvin Klein (review date 24 June 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Klein, Alvin. Review of The Comedy of Errors. New York Times (24 June 2001): NJ11.

[In the following review, Klein considers Brian B. Crowe's 2001 The Comedy of Errors for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival an excessive farce short on style, but enjoys a few poignant moments in the production.]

One of the reassuring things about The Comedy of Errors, revived once more at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival after a mere eight years, is that you are not expected to understand anything about it. Forget your brain; attend to your heart.

The play has been a puzzlement, one would daresay, ever since Shakespeare wrote it. That...

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Bruce Weber (review date 12 July 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. “Making an Exotic Circus of a Shakespearean Farce.” New York Times (12 July 2002): B2, E2.

[In the following review, Weber sees the Aquila Theater Company's 2002 production of The Comedy of Errors as flawed not in its individual performances, but in the undisciplined directorial decisions of Robert Richmond.]

The Aquila Theater Company, an 11-year-old part-American, part-British troupe devoted to reimagining classic plays, is inclined to exuberant stagecraft. In its new production of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, no moment is deemed complete without a bit of fizzy stage business by the actors or a madcap tweak by the director,...

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W. Thomas MacCary (essay date spring 1978)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: MacCary, W. Thomas. “The Comedy of Errors: A Different Kind of Comedy.” New Literary History 9, no. 3 (spring 1978): 525-36.

[In the following essay, MacCary presents a psychoanalytic and genre-based reading of The Comedy of Errors that emphasizes its classical comedic sources together with its narcissistic and egocentric themes.]

We say that the human being has originally two sexual objects: himself and the woman who tends him, and thereby we postulate a primary narcissism in everyone, which may in the long run manifest itself as dominating his object-choice.

Sigmund Freud, “On...

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Jonathan V. Crewe (essay date spring-summer 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Crewe, Jonathan V. “God or the Good Physician: The Rational Playwright in The Comedy of Errors.Genre 15, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1982): 203-23.

[In the following essay, Crewe examines two idealizations of the playwright—one divinely omniscient, one the “good physician”—implied in The Comedy of Errors and explores themes related to these designations.]

In the ensuing discussion I will be concerned with the playwright of The Comedy of Errors. I will, that is to say, consider “the playwright” implied in the play rather than the William Shakespeare whom we believe on good authority to have written The Comedy of Errors....

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Thomas P. Hennings (essay date June 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hennings, Thomas P. “The Anglican Doctrine of the Affectionate Marriage in The Comedy of Errors.Modern Language Quarterly 47, no. 2 (June 1986): 91-107.

[In the following essay, Hennings studies the celebration of Christian ideals of marriage and family in The Comedy of Errors.]

At exactly what time in his career Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors scholars do not agree, some dating its composition in the late 1580s, others in 1594.1 Those who favor an early date tend to regard the play as a careless apprentice work, coarse in tone, lacking in intellectual substance, and too imitative of its Plautine source. On the other hand,...

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Patricia Parker (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Parker, Patricia. “Shakespeare and the Bible: The Comedy of Errors.Recherches sémiotiques/Semiotic Inquiry 13, no. 3 (1993): 47-72.

[In the following essay, Parker illuminates the significance of scriptural allusions to the structure and theme of The Comedy of Errors.]

The Comedy of Errors is still part of the Shakespeare canon whose wider resonances have yet to be explored, despite recent attempts to rescue it from the long-standing charge of simple-minded “farce.” What is particularly striking about it is that it combines a classical plot structure from Plautine comedy (doubling the Menaechmi's mistaken identities by featuring...

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Ann C. Christensen (essay date spring 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Christensen, Ann C. “‘Because Their Business Still Lies out a' Door’: Resisting the Separation of the Spheres in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors.Literature and History 5, no. 1 (spring 1996): 19-37.

[In the following essay, Christensen approaches The Comedy of Errors as a mercantile comedy that dramatizes tensions between the gendered spheres of public/commercial and private/domestic.]

‘What is habitual and domestic is seldom recorded. Only in a time of crisis are the dispositions of the household likely to be described.’1


The Comedy of...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Clayton, Thomas. “The Text, Imagery, and Sense of the Abbess's Final Speech in The Comedy of Errors.Anglia: Zeitschrift für Englische Philologie 91, no. 4 (1973): 479-84.

Textual analysis of the Abbess's reunion-crowning speech in Act V, scene i of The Comedy of Errors, emphasizing its imagery of rebirth and spiritual reawakening.

Gibbons, Brian. “Erring and Straying Like Lost Sheep: The Winter's Tale and The Comedy of Errors.Shakespeare Survey 50 (1997): 111-23.

Comparative study of dramatic modes and of such concepts as doubling, identity, and the union of man and...

(The entire section is 291 words.)