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The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare

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Charles Brooks (essay date summer 1960)

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SOURCE: Brooks, Charles. “Shakespeare's Romantic Shrews.” Shakespeare Quarterly 11, no. 3 (summer 1960): 351-56.

[In the following essay, Brooks compares Adriana in The Comedy of Errors to Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.]

The domineering wife has been a popular literary figure from Xantippe to Lichty's battle-axes. She has a male counterpart in the tyrannous husband, unreasonable masculine brutality being as much disapproved, at least in Christian civilizations, as feminine wilfulness; but the shrew is a more familiar character than the tyrannous husband, possibly because she not only behaves abnormally, as he does, but also violates our sense of order. While he overasserts a right, she overturns a hierarchy which men like to feel is divinely sanctioned. So men delight to laugh at the shrew or to see her justly disconcerted, and they smile with approval at her opposite number, the tender girl patiently and wholly devoted to serving her chosen male. It is not surprising that the shrew gets a hearing on Shakespeare's boards. But Shakespeare's shrews, Adriana in The Comedy of Errors and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, are not merely fools or monsters. They are, like other Shakespearian characters, including the tender heroines who appear by their sides in these two plays, persons unsure of their own hearts, and their spirited conduct is akin to the spirited conduct of Shakespeare's best loved heroines.

Neither Adriana nor Kate is simply shrewish out of a desire to be shrewish. Each has a strong will. Adriana gives rein to her tongue when she finds her will thwarted—“My tongue, though not my heart, shall have his will” (Errors [The Comedy of Errors] IV.ii.18)1—and regrets her “venom clamors” (V.ii.69) when reprehended for them, though she does not relinquish her will a jot. Kate is equally strong willed; rather than conceal her anger and break her heart she “will be free / Even to the uttermost … in words” (Shrew [The Taming of the Shrew] IV.iii.78-79). Carried to the point to which they carry it, will becomes wilfulness, but properly controlled it is valuable to women. Their two submissive sisters, Luciana and Bianca, both prove capable of determined action. Adriana and Kate have just the wills we admire in Shakespeare's finer heroines; they need only to learn to control those wills as skillfully as Silvia, Rosalind, and Portia do.

Along with will goes intelligence. Both Adriana and Kate are admirably intelligent women. Adriana's intelligence is evident in her handling of her sister in their debate early in the play, when Luciana utters platitudes while Adriana states her case forcefully and convincingly; in her irresistible plea to the man she thinks her husband (although amazed, he lets her sweep him home with her); and in her masterful argument to the Duke at the end. Kate's intelligence is evident when she more than holds her own in her battle of wit with Petruchio and when she shows to her father that she is not fooled by Petruchio's bluff:

You have show'd a tender fatherly regard
To wish me wed to one half lunatic …
That thinks with oaths to face the matter out.

(Shrew II.i.288-291)

Their sisters, who show far less wit and imagination, are less valuable conquests. It is not surprising that women as sharp as Adriana and Kate cannot easily be submissive—they trust their own minds, and when they think they are right they follow their own wills. Kate makes the point explicit when she says, “I see a woman may be made a fool / If she had not...

(This entire section contains 3456 words.)

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a spirit to resist” (Shrew III.ii.222-223). She is determined to be nobody's fool, and her tongue is her best defense; since “men were deceivers ever”, the best way to protect herself from their deceit is to scare them off by her bitterness. Her instinct proves right; she can never be bound in marriage to an inferior man for whom her sense of her own worth would allow her to feel only contempt, for the inferior men are easily scared away; she can be submissive and happy only with a man who proves to have a superior mind and spirit. Adriana and Kate are not so different from Silvia, whose wit protects her from a fool like Thurio and wins her a noble Valentine, and Beatrice, who is likewise proof against all men but her equal, Benedick.

The characterizations of the four heroines in these two plays are not wholly good-bad contrasts. Luciana and Bianca, though they make a point of their obedient natures, are not completely submissive, and Adriana and Kate have attractive traits to temper their shrewishness. They are sensitive and passionate. Adriana is deeply grieved by her husband's coldness, genuinely devoted to him, and ashamed of her bitter tongue. Kate is sensitive about her reputation—“Now must the world point at poor Katherine / And say, ‘Lo, there is mad Petruchio's wife, / If it would please him come and marry her’” (Shrew III.ii.18-20). She is ashamed enough of Petruchio's breach of form at the wedding to do what she has never condescended to do before, entreat a man. She protests about Petruchio's ill treatment of the servants as well as of herself. She is justifiably forward in resisting Petruchio's boorish treatment and admirably holds her own in argument though not in physical combat. Her change from willfulness to humility is expressed in a change from rough to imaginative language, but her burst of poetry when she addresses the stranger on the road is prepared for by the hints that there is a sensitive heart beating within her breast and an intelligent mind in her head. This humanizing of the shrew is not an artistic blunder. Both Adriana and Kate play for audience sympathy from the beginning, though they are not wholly successful because they have to struggle against a strong will to dominate. Other Shakespearian heroines succeed better because they find more acceptable outlets than shrewishness for their spirited natures.

Luciana and Bianca recognize the need to be submissive. They try to deny that they also have a will to dominate, but it nevertheless shows itself at times. Luciana importunes the supposed errant husband as vigorously as Adriana does; were she wife rather than sister-in-law, she too might earn the title of shrew. Bianca, though she keeps up until the last scenes the appearance of modest girl, demonstrates that she too is wilful. “I am no breeching scholar in the schools”, she tells her disguised lovers; “I'll not be tied to hours, nor 'pointed times” (Shew III.i.18-19). She will be wilful when she can although she will show a proper respect for duty when it costs her nothing. Adriana and Kate give free rein to their wills, but they come at the end to recognize that they have also a need to submit. Every woman, then, has within her both a need to submit and a will to dominate, and the harmony of the character depends on the balance between the two. These two aspects of character might be labeled the male and the female, since Western culture has a tendency to consider dominance a masculine trait and submission a feminine one. Shakespeare's point would seem to be that women have both male dominance and female submission, and it is perhaps healthier to burn out the male through such experience as Adriana's and Kate's than to let it rest dormant and suddenly flare forth as it does with Bianca.

But though in marriage the dominant woman threatens the proper ordering of a household, in courtship the woman enjoys a superior position. Courtship is not, then, very good training for marriage. Women who take seriously such lavish expressions of praise and worship as sonnet lovers heap upon them will not take easily to the altered marital situation. Such praise the lover in The Comedy of Errors heaps upon Luciana; he calls her “our earth's wonder, more than earth divine”, “a god”, “sweet mermaid”, and “siren” (Errors III.ii.32-47). Adriana was also courted in just such a way:

The time was once when thou unurg'd wouldst vow
That never words were music to thine ear,
That never object pleasing in thine eye,
That never touch well welcome to thy hand,
That never meat sweet-savour'd in thy taste,
Unless I spake or look'd or touch'd or carv'd to thee.

(Errors II.ii.115-120)

In The Shrew the theme is clearly presented in the wooing and wedding of Bianca. In the last scene we are shown men who after marriage expect an altered relationship and women who wish to remain dominant. Also, one of the traits that was particularly desirable in a Renaissance mistress was witty discourse, because mistresses had to set an eloquent tone for the court. But the difference between wit and shrewishness is a difference of degree, not kind; both result from the same power of speech, so that it is but a step from the witty mistress to the shrewish wife. Shakespeare shows elsewhere witty mistresses (Silvia, Rosalind, Portia) who are the subtle but effective guiding spirits in courtship. In these two farces he relates courtship to marriage in such a way that the contrasting attitudes toward women are clear.

The transition from courtship to marriage has to be made, though. A woman matures by transforming herself from worshiped mistress to devoted wife, and a man matures by changing from a worshiper to a governor. Adriana offends in her shrewishness even though we sympathize with her in her provocation. But her shrewishness is more talked about than displayed—Luciana's protest, “She never reprehended him but mildly, / When he demean'd himself rough, rude, and wildly” (Errors V.i.87-88) seems to be accurate, for Adriana, though she importunes, is not always bitter, often pleading for the right to love rather than scolding. One feels that marriage is not so simple an affair as Luciana imagines without challenging Luciana's ideal. In The Shrew, Kate experiences, farcically and brutally, the necessary transformation as she learns to curb her will. She learns to be less frank and direct, to play the role which her husband wishes her to play. This is clear in the key scene when Petruchio and Kate meet the stranger on the road to Padua. In the past she spoke her mind frankly that she might not suffer; but she has seen Petruchio successfully put on an act, treat her brutally “under name of perfect love” (Shrew IV.iii.12). On the road she disputes with him when he calls the sun the moon, then quickly gives in. Obviously when the stranger appears Kate does not see a young maiden, no matter what Petruchio says; but she plays the part assigned to her much more poetically than required. She discovers that such playing can be good sport, that if she bends a little she and her husband can not only live harmoniously, but can also entertain themselves gloriously at the expense of others. She needs only one more lesson, to enjoy her husband's kiss, and she is ready for her great stage triumph. When she sees the other two wives unsuccessfully called into the presence of their husbands and then is called herself, she knows that Petruchio has a new game afoot, and she plays her part so brilliantly that the audience cannot be sure just how serious she is in her final lecture. Kate need not be so ironic as Margaret Webster suggests;2 the others on the stage do not catch the irony; so the point is that she plays her part so well that only she and Petruchio know how much is serious and how much put on. When the couple sweeps triumphantly from the stage, the audience feels not that a curst shrew has been broken in spirit, but that Petruchio has won an enviable mate. These two will go far.

Shakespeare's The Shrew differs notably at this point from A Shrew. In the latter version the shrew's lecture is the conventional theme of the chain of being. The wife should be submissive because it is morally right for her to be—the same reasoning that Luciana uses in The Comedy of Errors. To Shakespeare's Kate, though, marriage is a bargain in which the husband works for the wife and she in turn serves him faithfully. This is the solution that Chaucer presents in The Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath suggests that women desire the same sovereignty in marriage as in courtship; the Clerk suggests that men desire to have absolute sway over their wives; and the Franklin then suggests that these clashing desires can be resolved only when man and woman strike a careful bargain at marriage and adhere to it.

Successful marriage depends, then, on the woman's ability to subdue the male nature which is nurtured in her during courtship. As Draper points out, Petruchio tames Kate by augmenting her choler until it burns out its own fury.3 In Much Ado [Much Ado About Nothing] Beatrice sets out to “tame” her “wild heart” (III.i.112), doing for herself what Petruchio does for Kate. In The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It Portia and Rosalind have a chance, while disguised as men, to exercise their forwardness until they tire of it. In Twelfth Night Viola, similarly disguised, undergoes an apprenticeship in which she learns to act more spiritedly. A different disguise is adopted by Helena in All's Well That Ends Well; instead of playing a male part, she plays an excessively female one, that of whore. Helena is not a simple character, but throughout the play there is a contradiction in her being, a genuine tenderness, devotion, and humility combined with talent, forwardness, and ambition. The bed trick is a violent way of demeaning herself and perhaps assuring Bertram that it is not a shrew he has wed. At any rate, Shakespeare has inexhaustible means for exploring the two parts of woman's nature, spirit and tenderness, and the problems of character, courtship, and marriage which result from their mixture. Adriana and Kate are blood relations of his other heroines.

Successful marriage depends also on the man's transformation from lover to husband. The Comedy of Errors not only presents a contrast between the inexperienced girl and the experienced wife, but also between lover and husband. The lover woos with the lavishness of sonneteers, worshiping Luciana as a goddess who moves about the earth. The simplicity of his expectations is as clear as the simplicity of Luciana's by contrast with the marital discord of their brother and sister. In spite of the discord, Adriana and her husband are attached to each other; since they are attached in spite of their discord, they have discovered a more satisfactory basis for attachment than the ethereal worship which Luciana's lover expresses. The same contrast is presented in The Shrew. Bianca's lovers are all worship in their words, and her father expresses a tender fatherly regard for his daughter's welfare. By contrast, Petruchio is frankly materialistic, having come to Padua to wive it wealthily. But when put to the test, the others show materialistic concerns too; the father will give Bianca to the highest bidder, and the lovers bid vigorously for her. Petruchio is also not so materialistic as he says; he is concerned enough about his relationship with his wife that he goes to great lengths to establish a good one. His praise of Kate during the courtship is obviously pretense, while Bianca's lovers are apparently sincere, but the lovers' attitudes at the end show them to have been guilty of pretense too. The spirited frankness of Petruchio and Kate thus exposes the insincerity of romantic pretense. The moral is not, of course, that all motives are amply expressed in materialistic terms. Lucentio's love for Bianca is real if exaggerated. He cannot live in his romantic dreams forever, and the final scene brings him down to earth.

Shakespeare's romantic heroines have to make men of their lovers as well as women of themselves. If the lover is too earthly he has to be ennobled—Julia's disguise and well-timed faint add the final touch to the education of Proteus; Helena accomplishes the same for Bertram by showing him that a wife can do for him what a whore can and some things that a whore cannot. More often the heroines have to teach their lovers to tread upon the earth, as Juliet and Rosalind do. Rosalind in particular uses her disguise to purge her lover of effeminacy, showing him that “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love” (As You Like It IV.i.106-108). The rarest couple is Beatrice and Benedick, both of whom are spirited and devoted enough to mature with only an assurance of mutual trust. In the other plays varieties in degree and proportion of these two qualities, spirit and devotion, and varieties of problems of courtship and marriage are explored.

The comic point of view assumes that problems can be resolved. The devotion of Adriana and her husband is proof against temporary mistakes. For a woman so spirited as Kate there is a Petruchio to tame her. For a Beatrice there is a Benedick. Excessively devoted girls like Julia, Hero, and Viola are protected by others or by chance. Hermione's spirit enables her to chastise a jealous husband. In tragedy the case is altered. Juliet's spirit cannot quite protect her lover and herself from a tyrannous father and a malicious fate. Ophelia's tenderness makes her a prey rather than a ward to her environment and situation. The right proportion of spirit and devotion does not always harmonize with the situation.

One case of tragic meddling with the male and female natures is Lady Macbeth. She cultivates her will to the point of exorcising her tenderness. She deliberately makes herself a shrew. Between the Macbeths there is, at the beginning, complete understanding, and Lady Macbeth's motive is at least partially a desire to help her husband to do what she knows he most wants to do. Their marriage is so successful, they act so much in harmony, that they reenforce each other in evil deeds which neither could bring himself to do alone. But the understanding and trust which give them such strength turn, after the murder, into misunderstanding and lack of trust. Their success together so preys upon them individually that each becomes isolated from the other—afraid to show the other his inner feeling. This isolation weakens their union, leading to a lack of communication; and their failure to share visions then contributes to their failure to act wisely. Lady Macbeth also fails to recognize her true being. In exorcising tenderness from her nature, she attempts to be what she cannot really be, so that the attempt to split the masculine and feminine in her nature results in the fatal split personality of her madness.

The mature plays are too complex to be adequately explored in these terms. There are other qualities of the nature of women as well as other problems of human relationships involved in them. But the contrast which Shakespeare establishes in The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew between spirited and devoted women has meaning for these other plays. His two shrews are not merely ridiculous figures. They are more forceful than their romantic sisters. Their shrewishness is not simply their natural condition but results from will and spirit which properly controlled can make valuable wives of them. They have feminine tenderness and sensitivity which war with their masculine intelligence and spirit, and their romantic sisters have a subdued masculinity as well as an apparent femininity. All women need these two aspects of nature. The male makes them more successful in courtship, the female more successful in marriage, but too much of either exposes them to difficulties in both situations. Courtship is a time for them to exercise their masculinity to the point of burning some of it out, and it is a time for them to ennoble or make manly their lovers. These themes enrich the farcical action of these two plays. Shakespeare's romantic shrews are posited on the same conceptions of feminine nature as his other heroines, and we need not feel disturbed, when we think of the truths that the tragedies tell us, that these two plays suggest that marriage can sometimes be a battle and yet be a highly satisfying experience.


  1. Citations are to act, scene, and line numbering in The Complete Works of Shakespeare edited by G. L. Kittredge (Boston, 1936).

  2. Margaret Webster, Shakespeare Without Tears (New York, 1942), p. 142.

  3. John W. Draper, The Humors and Shakespeare's Characters (Durham, N. C., 1945), p. 112.

Robert S. Miola (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Miola, Robert S., ed. “The Play and the Critics.” In The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, pp. 3-51. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Miola provides an overview of the play's sources, genre, characterization, language, and critical reception.]


I can't understand who planned all of this overnight fame,
It's a game, it's a game, it's a shame but it must be a game!
Every step that I take, every move that I make,
Every place that I've been, every sight that I've seen,
I've already been there.
Do I know me?

Pleasantly bewildered, Roger Rees's Antipholus of Syracuse sings and dances the above verse in Trevor Nunn's sprightly musical adaptation (1976). Unlike him, early critics and audiences easily identify the original planner of the game—Plautus, whose Menaechmi furnishes Shakespeare with the main confusion of identical twins and the outlines of plot. Witness the first recorded notice, an account of a performance at Gray's Inn in 1594: “a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus) was played by the players” (Gesta Grayorum pub. 1688; 1914, 22). Francis Meres does not note the source directly in Palladis Tamia (1598), that commonplace book lifted from Erasmus, Ravisius Textor, and many others, but he cites Errors [The Comedy of Errors] among other works by Shakespeare to praise him for being “accounted the best for comedy” among the English, as Plautus was “among the Latins” (ed. Munro, 1: 46). Meres then recalls the tag line about the Muses speaking with Plautus's tongue if they would speak Latin, and declares that they would “speak with Shakespeare's fine filed phrase, if they would speak English.” For him, clearly, Errors testifies to Shakespeare's Plautine abilities in comic playmaking and rhetoric.

Recording miscellaneous observations, aphorisms, and recollections, John Manningham, a law student in the Middle Temple, again makes the Plautine association while watching a performance of Twelfth Night (2 February 1602), “much like the Comedy of Errors, or Menechmi in Plautus but most like and near to that in Italian called Inganni” (ed. Munro, 1: 98). In passing, Manningham here anticipates two important critical developments: the treatment of Errors as a seminal Shakespearean comedy, the tracing of Italian backgrounds and analogues. His casual reference to the play may signal its popularity; certainly the phrase, “comedy of errors,” quickly becomes a common expression, appearing with other reminiscences of the play in the works of Dekker (3 times), Middleton, Burton, and other seventeenth-century writers (ed. Munro, 1: 46, 66, 84, 107, 109, 141, 181, 262, 282, 499; 2: 35, 230). Gerard Langbaine (1691, 455), England's first theater-historian, also identifies the source and comments on the play's superiority to William Warner's contemporary English translation: “This play is founded on Plautus his Menaechmi: and if it be not a just translation, 'tis at least a paraphrase: and I think far beyond the translation, called Menechmus, which was printed 4o. Lond. 1595.”


The nature of Shakespeare's debt to Plautus has always occupied editors and critics of The Comedy of Errors. Early on, commentators debate Shakespeare's ability to read Latin. Charles Gildon (1710, 300), for example, author of the first extended critical commentary on all of the works of Shakespeare, argues that Shakespeare read Plautus in Latin:

This comedy is an undeniable proof that Shakespeare was not so ignorant of the Latin tongue as some would fain make him. … Shakespeare did understand Latin enough to read him, and knew so much of him as to be able to form a design out of that of the Roman poet; and which he has improved very much in my opinion.

Many disagree. John Dennis declares that he could “never believe” Shakespeare capable of reading Plautus “without pain and difficulty” and “vehemently” suspects that Errors derives from a lost translation or manuscript, or the assistance of a “stranger” or “some learned friend” (1712, 2: 13-14). Charlotte Lennox (1753-4, 2: 219, 239) pronounces Shakespeare “wholly unacquainted with the Latin tongue” and indebted to Warner's translation, opining dourly that “each error is produced by an absurdity.” Dr. Johnson thinks it more than coincidence that Shakespeare chose to copy the only play of Plautus then in English (1765, 1: C2v-C3). So too Richard Farmer (1767), that scornful Cambridge don who highhandedly confounds proponents of Shakespeare's learning by demonstrating his general reliance on translations and intermediaries.

The relation between Warner's translation and Shakespeare's play has always been a matter for controversy. Early on, error about the date of the translation confuses the discussion; Theobald, Gildon, and others think it 1515 instead of 1595, and therefore available to Shakespeare during the composition of Errors, usually dated in the early 1590s. Knowledge of the correct date weakens the case for influence. The purported parallels between the translation and play, in any case, have always been inconclusive, both the verbal (e.g., the translation of spinter, “bracelet,” as “chain” in both texts) and the thematic (e.g., a general emphasis on Fortune). Shakespeare may or may not have seen the translation or its manuscript; the influence, if any there be, could have gone either way; there is simply no proof that Shakespeare used Warner for this play.

Skepticism about Shakespeare's Latin leads some to deny his authorship and to depreciate the play. Joseph Ritson and George Steevens think Errors the work of some inferior playwright who had enough Latin to read Plautus in the original (ed. Vickers, 6: 47). Steevens (ed. 1773, 2: 221) delivers this summary verdict, often reprinted:

In this play we find more intricacy of plot than distinction of character; and our attention is less forcibly engaged, because we can guess in great measure how it will conclude. Yet the poet seems unwilling to part with his subject, even in this last and unnecessary scene, where the same mistakes are continued, till they have lost the power of affording any entertainment at all.

Judgment about Shakespeare's Latinity affects critical appraisal of the play, extending here to depreciation of the ending, generally singled out for praise by later generations.

At stake in this controversy over Errors are cherished conceptions about Shakespeare and the nature of art, conceptions central to the larger “small Latin” debate of the eighteenth century. On the one side, advocates of Shakespeare's learning point to his knowledge of Latin in general and of Menaechmi in particular to show how Nature and Art conjoined to produce greatness. On the other, the powerful myth of Shakespeare as unlearned genius contradicts the very notion of a lettered bard; this myth begins with Ben Jonson's famous description of Shakespeare's “small Latin and less Greek,” and echoes in Leonard Digges' commendatory verses celebrating a poet wholly innocent of art (1640; ed. Vickers, 1: 27), in John Milton's praise of “Fancy's child,” warbling “his native wood-notes wild” (L'Allegro, 133-4), in John Dryden's revealing assertion, “had he had more learning, perhaps he might have been less a poet” (1696, ed. Vickers, 1: 13).

Responding to Dennis, Farmer, and other skeptics of Shakespeare's learning, T. W. Baldwin (1944) demonstrates the centrality of Latin training to the Elizabethan grammar-school curriculum and to Shakespeare's education. Baldwin (1947, 605-718) goes on to examine the influence of Menaechmi and Amphitruo on Errors, furnishing minute analysis of words, ideas, and scenes. He observes also the presence of other sources including Lambinus' commentary on Plautus (for Shakespeare's conception of “errors” as belief in what is not and failure to believe what is) and the Aeneid (for the words and wanderings of Egeon). Baldwin discerns in Errors the principles of five-act construction derived from Renaissance commentaries on Terence. Arguing for Shakespeare's originality and sole authorship, Baldwin in 1965 publishes an exhaustive account of sources and influences, political allusions, dramatic and social contexts (including exorcism), the names and geography of the play, the Apollonian frame from Gower, the echoes of phrases from other plays. …

Baldwin's monumental labors end a certain phase of the “small Latin” debate by demonstrating that Shakespeare's grammar-school training equipped him to read Latin. Baldwin also demonstrates how diverse texts coalesced in Shakespeare's imagination to form new creations in Errors. But many rightly balk at his positivistic, relentlessly verbal approach, Foakes (ed. 1962, xxviii), for example, criticizes him as “determined to find a source for everything in Shakespeare.” At times the detailed and minute demonstrations veer into pedantry or self-parody, as, for example, when the mere mention of Menaphon (5.1.369) sets off a run to Marlowe's 1 Tamburlaine, where the name appears, to Cooper, Stephanus, and Ovid, where it does not, to Greene's Menaphon, conjoined, in due course, by Plautus' Menaechmi, Gascoigne's Supposes, and the New Testament (1947, 670ff.). Such an approach, founded largely on verbal echo, tends finally to undermine itself, as the sheer multiplicity of sources overwhelms the significance of the individual originating instance.

After Baldwin, critics do not concern themselves much with Shakespeare's ability in Latin but rather with the use he makes of sources, here, his transformation of Plautus and other texts. Erma Gill (1925, 1930) previously tried this approach in two detailed analyses of Errors and Menaechmi and Amphitruo—one treating character, the other plot. Scattered throughout her laborious enumeration of comparisons and contrasts is notice of some interesting transferences: Luciana takes over the old man's championing of the husband's liberty; she and Adriana, his chiding of the wife; Antipholus of Syracuse expresses the wonder of the citizen twin at the strange happenings; Antipholus of Ephesus expresses the travelling twin's violence when accused of madness; The Duke plays the slave's role in solving the puzzle. Most modern editions and discussions, including the standard treatments of Bullough (1957) and Muir (1978), likewise focus on the changes: the switch in setting from Epidamnus to Ephesus, the doubling of the twins, the emphasis on the traveller not the citizen, the expansion of the wife into the complex Adriana, the invention of Luciana, Pinch, and others, the elimination of the parasite and the wife's father, the addition of the Egeon-Emilia frame, the lyrical poetry and love plot, the deepening of seriousness in parts, the Christian overtones.

Aside from concentrating on Shakespeare's use of sources, our century reformulates the “small Latin” debate in another way: Plautus is now defined as tradition as well as text. This means that critics view Plautus (together with Terence) generally as a source of New Comedic plots, plot construction (prologue, epitasis [high point of tension], anagnorisis, [discovery or recognition]), stock character types (the tricky slave, doting old man, helpless adolescent, wily courtesan), rhetorical and theatrical conventions. It means also that critics attend to Renaissance understanding of Plautus, as evidenced by commentaries in editions, performances, translations, and adaptations, including especially those in Italy and France.

A pioneer of this approach, Cornelia Coulter (1920), taking as her subject “the Plautine tradition” in Shakespeare, notes in Errors Shakespeare's flexible adaptation of the standard classical setting (the street with adjoining house doors), his transformation of the prologue into Egeon's speech, his use of the servus currens, or running servant, and the familiar New Comedic restoration of the lost son or daughter, as well as Italian analogues. In a learned study that rewards rereading, Madeleine Doran (1954, 152, 171ff.) suggests the possible influence of Plautine verse variation “on the motives of variation from blank verse to riming couplets or to stanza patterns, and from the pentameter line to different meters” in Shakespeare. Using Jonson's The Case Is Altered, illustrations in early editions of Terence, De Nores' Poetica (1588), and Italian comedy, she also argues that Renaissance readers discerned romance elements in New Comedy, and, therefore, that the marvelous recognition and reunion of Egeon, Emilia, and the family is essentially Plautine. Northrop Frye (1965, 87ff.) remarks the contrast with the usual New Comedic structure, in that the central theme is reunion not of the twins but of their father and mother; he also notes the relevance of the ass and metamorphic motifs of the play, which limn the descent into illusion and emergence into recognition (106-7). Frye (175) perceives the cook as a descendant of the cook in Greek comedy, and (1965, 57) the opening speech as a “sophisticated, if sympathetic, treatment of a structural cliché,” the expository prologue.

Shifts in understanding of Shakespeare's relation to Plautus have made for more positive general assessments of Errors itself. Instead of classifying the play as the work of an inferior playwright, a bookish exercise, or an apprentice piece, critics now see it as a sophisticated imitation. Leo Salingar (1974, 324) thinks that Shakespeare in this play is the first to realize “fully the potentialities of adapting Plautus for the sake of rapid and coherent action” and for “a continuous dramatic image of changing aspects of personality and the ironies of Fortune.” Errors is, then, “no less a landmark” than Henry VI or Love's Labor's Lost. Joel B. Altman (1978, 165-74) argues that Errors differs from other Latinate plays like Supposes and Gammer Gurton's Needle in that it contains no motivating intrigue. Shakespeare here turns the Plautine play into an exercise in defining the self. Not mere mechanical mistakes, the errors in Errors reveal the essential egotism of the characters and take on the meaning of moral shortcomings: each twin can't recognize the other's traces; the wife preaches mutuality but shows jealousy; the husband lightly substitutes courtesan for wife; the spinster lectures on marriage.

An ambitious attempt at reevaluation appears in Wolfgang Riehle's book-length study of the play, Shakespeare, Plautus and the Humanist Tradition (1990). Riehle helpfully reconstructs the Elizabethan reception of Plautus before attempting a comprehensive discussion of characterization, structure, game-playing, dramatic language, and meter. He contributes good insights throughout, on modern misreadings of Plautus, e.g., on classical word play in Shakespeare, on “error” as possibly meaning “a deficiency in a character's behaviour” (103), on the sharing of lines by several characters in Plautus and Shakespeare (159ff.). Riehle claims Amphitruo as a major underappreciated source, attacks Baldwin's analysis of five-act structure, considers context and practical staging effects, and concludes with praise of the play as a “most accomplished achievement” and a document of Shakespeare's “inexhaustible richness” (209, 211). But the book is thesis-ridden in its insistence on Plautus against Terence (it is often not necessary or possible to choose between the two), in its hostility toward non-Plautine sources—classical, medieval, native, and Christian—and in its reliance on generic or thematic generalization (e.g., the chapter on Lucianic traditions).

Reviewing Plautus and Terence in light of their Greek antecedents and Renaissance reception, Robert S. Miola likewise sees Errors as a sophisticated recension of classical and Italian elements. Pinch, for example, is a Plautine senex and medicus, as well as schoolmaster, conjurer, and Italian pedante. The lock-out of Menaechmi and Amphitruo gets replayed in Adriana's lock-out from the Priory, as the Plautine comedy of doors becomes a Shakespearean “comedy of thresholds, of entranceways into new understandings and acceptances” (1994, 38).


Recognition of non-Plautine sources spurs more debate on the form, meaning, and achievement of Errors.


Since an early editor, Charles Knight (ed. 1842, 1: 161), first glossed Ephesus with reference to Saint Paul, the Bible—particularly the epistle to the Ephesians and Acts—has gained attention as a source or context of the play. Calling Dromio of Syracuse “the principal exponent of Scripture,” Richmond Noble (1935, 106-9) furnishes a list of references, including the portrait of an occult Ephesus in Acts 19, and several passages from the Anglican liturgy on matrimony. T. W. Baldwin (1947, 675ff.) notes Pauline presences: the transformed temple of Diana, the portrait of a magical Ephesus, the derivation of Shakespearean geography from Paul's travels as represented by a map illustrating Acts. Naseeb Shaheen (1993, 7-9, 49ff.) lists parallel passages, unpersuasively disputing the assertion that the Ephesian setting and exorcism originally derive from Acts, claiming that the first comes from other sources, the second from the Gospels; he admits, however, that Acts contributes to the play's concern with sorcery and witchcraft, and so, ultimately, makes a distinction without much of a difference. The other echoes, principally from the Geneva and Bishops' Bibles and the Prayer Book, appear to be proverbial or matters of common parlance rather than specific references. We are left with the probable, if intermediated, presence of Genesis and the Pauline materials in the play.

Recognition of Biblical materials as a source of Errors complicates response to the play and sometimes encourages moral or explicitly Christian readings. Noting echoes of Psalm 8 and Ephesians 5 in Adriana's speeches, Peter Milward (1973) argues that Scriptural echoes illuminate a prominent theme—the ideal relations between husband and wife. James L. Sanderson (1975) reviews Paul's exhortation to mercy and forgiveness, patristic traditions, and reformist writings to delineate the theme of patience in Errors, which, he argues, joins both plots and unifies the play. R. Chris Hassel (1979, 37ff.) turns attention to the liturgical year, specifically to the dramatic celebrations and Scriptural readings for Holy Innocents' Day; he notes their emphasis on errors and forgiveness, on the dispersal and reunion of families. Patricia Parker (1983) observes an allusion to Jacob and Esau in Egeon's opening speech, Paul's notice in Ephesians of the cross as reconciler between Gentiles and Jews, and other scattered Biblical allusions in the final acts. These appropriately gloss the play's movement from hostile rivalry to reconciliation and to its “New Testamental recognition scene” (327).

Notice of Biblical echoes has produced for these critics a comedy with serious thematic content. Others have noted Biblical influence on form as well. Evoking Genesis, the Pauline material, and Revelations, Glyn Austen (1987) reads the play as a redemptive comedy which shows the workings of grace, from the fall in the first scene, to the redemption in the last. Less allegorically and more persuasively, Arthur F. Kinney (1988), relates the Biblical background to the staging on Holy Innocents' day (twice), to medieval dramatic traditions, Elizabethan homilies, and the church year: all move the play from a mechanical farce “toward a sense of comedy such as that conceived by Dante in his great Commedia as providential confusion when wandering and bafflement invite man to contemplate wonder and grace—and achieve, through a kind of rebirth, a baptizing or godparenting” (1988, 33). The essay well argues that this varied background exploits the potential of dramatic form and genre. …

The moral readings of this century, we should note, variously belong to a long and venerable tradition that flourished in the late eighteenth century. Unlike Milward, Sanderson, or Kinney, who ground themselves in Biblical echo and allusion and exhibit literary sophistication, earlier readers simply interpret character and plot according to broad moral categories of virtue and vice. Elizabeth Griffith (1775, 141-6), for example, quotes approvingly Luciana's speech on man's pre-eminence; moreover, she continues, Balthazar's plea for Antipholus' forbearance illustrates that “a respect to decency, and the opinion of the world, is an excellent bulwark to our virtues”; another excellent document for wives is the “venom clamours of a jealous woman” speech. Francis Gentleman, well representative of eighteenth-century attitudes, allows that the play does not very obviously illustrate a moral, but he deduces one from it anyway:

that Providence can happily regulate the most perplexed and unpromising circumstances, and change a temporary apparent evil, into a real and lasting good. Patience and submission are herein justly and properly inculcated.

(Bell's edn., 1773-4, 8: 81)

The emphasis on patience here directly anticipates Sanderson's thorough explication of this theme in the play.

In his popular adaptation, The Twins (1762), Thomas Hull succinctly points another moral and adorns the tale:

Joys past the reach of hope!—our lesson this,
That misery past endears our present bliss;
Wherein we read with wonder and delight,
This sacred truth, “Whatever is is right.”

(1793, 51)

It is hard for moderns to imagine purposes that such vapid didacticism could legitimately serve; but this may be our myopia, as the tradition of such reading is widely pervasive for this and for other comedies where the apologia always seem out of tune with boisterous laughs and knockabout action. W. Woods' adaptation, The Twins; or, Which Is Which (1780), likewise has Emilia conclude the play by suggesting that the story might be “worth a serious hearing”:

'Twill prove, the virtuous never should despair;
For oft the troubles, which we call amiss,
Serve to improve the taste of future bliss.

The time for that “serious hearing” seems to have arrived. Recent studies, grounding themselves in Scripture, discern both moral and spiritual aspects to the comedy. But more on this topic remains to be done. A detailed and scholarly examination of Pauline materials, cognizant of the original Greek, early modern translations, exegetic and homiletic traditions, and reformist controversies, is yet a desideratum, especially in view of easy and prevailing assumptions regarding “Catholic” and “Protestant” theologies and views on marriage. One caveat should be entered however: serious hearings ever run the risk of overreading and of wandering far from the theatrical experience of this bright and lively play.


John Manningham's reference to “Inganni,” surely to the popular Gl'ingannati of the Sienese Accademia degli Intronati, performed in 1531 and printed in 1537, turns out to be prophetic. Another origin for Errors, broadly understood as subtext rather than specific generator, is Italian drama, learned and popular. The search for specific filiations having proven fruitless, critics now recognize family resemblances between Errors and Italian drama, a shared European vocabulary of scene, character, and action. Kathleen M. Lea (1934, 1: 199) notes that Shakespeare's play features the mixing of genres characteristic of the commedia dell'arte, and that L'hospite amorose, for example, has just the same display of farce against a tragi-comic background; she observes that a summary of the play's action bears remarkable resemblances to the scenari in Locatelli's miscellany, both featuring the amplification of action in a doubles play by “denials, beatings, jeerings, defiances, jealousies and apologies” (2: 438), and the typical conclusion in a family reunion. She also notes resemblances to stock Italian episodes and characters: the Dromios, e.g., to the servants, Adriana to the suspicious prima donna, Luciana to the second lady. Richard Hosley (1966), surveying Elizabethan productions and adaptations of Plautus and Terence, notes in passing the Italian intermediaries, specifically the courtesan and the pedante. Leo Salingar (1974, 208) calls attention to Italian traditions in Shakespearean comedy: the Italian principle of the double plot, the zanni of the commedia dell'arte, the “bustle of citizen characters and criss-crossing of the action”; the result is a comedy “as much Italian as Roman in spirit.” Moving the study of sources into the broader, more capacious realms of intertextuality, Louise George Clubb (1989) establishes Cinquecento theater as a significant context for Elizabethan drama; … she compares Errors to the commedia grave—plays by Bernardino Pino, Girolamo Bargagli, Giambattista Della Porta, and others, featuring elements of pathos and tragedy, domestic situations with wives, and complicated patterns of errors leading to marvelous reunions.

Contemporary English drama provides another context for the shaping of Errors. Early commentators, anachronistically depreciating the play in light of Shakespeare's later development, tend to ignore such drama or dismiss it. They invoke the barbarity of the age and stage to explain perceived flaws in this early neoclassical comedy, just as they do for its companion, that early neoclassical tragedy, Titus Andronicus.

Attention to theatrical and dramatic environment, however, reveals other shaping influences on the play. Gascoigne's Supposes, from Ariosto's I suppositi and acted at Gray's Inn, 1566, later at Oxford and Cambridge and published in 1575, is a source for Shrew that might have been in Shakespeare's mind during the composition of Errors (Dorsch, ed. 1988, 9). The plot turns on a mistaken series of errors in identification, or “supposes.” Shakespeare might well have looked to playwrights like Robert Greene, who exhibits some skill in the art of connecting two intrigues, juxtaposes comic and more serious materials, and also tries the shipwreck device. Or to John Lyly, who presents plots based on improbability, multiple story lines, a character cataloguing his beloved's points, scenes of lyrical courtship, the name Dromio, the new style of wit-cracking clown exemplified in Dromio of Syracuse, and Italianate complications. … David Bevington reexamines the theatrical context, noting Shakespeare's indebtedness to contemporaries for the romantic plotting of the frame, anglicizing moralization, the emphasis on marriage, the conception of character as defined by social role, the rhetoric—particularly Lylyan argumentation and word play—and the fluid staging. Drawing on a wide range of Elizabethan plays and authors, Bevington shows that Shakespeare, in modifying Plautus, responds creatively to various aspects of his immediate theatrical environment.

Bevington's work and that of the others on Italian context enable us to look forward to Errors instead of simply backward on it. Consequently, a new Errors begins to emerge. Not simply the first efforts of a classically trained neophyte, or the juvenile exercise that anticipates later, more complex Shakespearean plays, Errors now appears as a sophisticated mix of native and neoclassical traditions. It takes its rightful place in the vital community of European theater during a period of creative experimentation; it is culmination as well as commencement.


The Egeon-Emilia story derives from John Gower's “Apollonius of Tyre,” a source for Pericles. Even before Paul Wislicenus (1879) first identified the source of the frame plot, readers had noted its differences from the Plautine material. The chief critical issue that has emerged, subsequently, is not the nature or extent of Shakespeare's indebtedness to Gower, but the form and function of the Apollonian material, i.e., the frame plot.

A. W. Schlegel (1846, 381), Shakespeare's chief German translator, who postulates a theory of organic as opposed to mechanical form, appreciates the blending of diverse elements in Errors; he praises Egeon's opening narration as “masterly” and “affecting” and admires the “greater solemnity” given to the discovery, “from the Prince presiding, and from the reunion of the long separated parents.” Similarly Nathan Drake (1817, 2: 288) declares that Egeon's portrait throws “a solemn, dignified, and impressive tone of colouring over this part of the fable.” John Boydell, whose collection of Shakespeare illustrations reappears throughout the nineteenth century, commissions a representation of the Priory scene that reflects contemporary appreciation for pathos in the play: bound and barechested, an anguished Egeon waits for deliverance next to a saintly abbess; two turbaned, tasselled, and mustachioed twins express amazement (Frontispiece). C. H. Herford (ed. 1899, 1: 126) judges Egeon to be too pathetic and moving for the rest of the play.

Herford's comment signals the emergence of modern attitudes and an aesthetic based on unified form rather than on the appreciation of pathos; the new aesthetic generates more pointed analyses of the frame plot and its relation to the errors plot. Allison Gaw (1926, 628-9), for example, notes five related functions: the provision of organic exposition, the promotion of plot unity, the elevation of tone, the increase in happiness at the end, and the element of surprise. The critical imperative to discover structural and thematic unity in drama, dominant throughout this century until just recently, inspires many readings of Egeon's story as coherently relational to that of his sons. In an influential essay Gāmini Salgādo (1972) well contrasts the orderly and sequential sense of time in Egeon's opening speech with the crazy, random clockwork of Ephesian time in the play; the reunion of the family appropriately restores the natural, sequential rhythm of time, reestablishing cause and effect and individual identity. Vincent F. Petronella (1974) notes the structural pattern of separation and union; the images of binding and releasing, manifest in the language as well as in Egeon's bonds and Angelo's chain, produce a clear-sighted comedy that takes “an occasional sojourn into farce” (487). K. Tetzeli von Rosador (1984) finds unity in plot structure, in the repeated threat and evasion of danger, and in the various tightenings and loosenings of tension.

Like her counterpart Lucina in the Apollonius tale, Emilia is a mother lost at sea and found at play's end as a religious figure in Ephesus. Bertrand Evans (1960) notes that Errors exploits to the maximum the single gap in awareness between characters and the audience—namely, the knowledge that both sets of twins are present in Ephesus. Shakespeare, however, withholds until the very end a crucial plot element, Emilia's identity; this surprise finds a parallel only in The Winter's Tale, again featuring the magical reappearance of a wife and mother. Others remark Emilia's association with the abbey and with Christian symbolism: she says that she has waited 33 years for the birth, not the 23 the play seems to call for, perhaps an echo of the number of years of Christ's life; she invites all to a gossips' feast at the end of the play, i.e., a christening. These lines, spoken by a nun, we imagine, in full habit, encourage those various Christianized readings we have already seen and sort well with her function as a counsellor against nagging and jealousy. A. P. Riemer (1980, 31-3, 113-17) sees other supernatural aspects to Emilia: her role and vocabulary suggest the benevolent, magical medicine of Renaissance Platonism.

Emilia has also figured importantly in feminist revaluations of Errors. … Marilyn French (1981, 76ff.) thinks that the play begins with the feminine as “outlaw, connected with sorcery and rebellion”; later, Luciana and the Abbess symbolize “the superhuman (divine) inlaw feminine principle,” connected with voluntary subordination of self and the renunciation of worldly and sexual power. The women, like the men, must find their proper roles. Dorothea Kehler (1991) discusses Shakespearean Emilias, thinking this one a licensed shrew and female patriarch; Emilia renounces sexual power over men and chooses 33 years of celibacy in holy orders; so doing, she assumes the authority of the patriarchal institution that shelters her and takes center stage as the restorer of family and community.


The Folio title of the play, The Comedy of Errors, unique in its use of “comedy,” would seem to settle decisively the question of genre. Contemporaries of Shakespeare, following Aristotle, define “comedy” by contrast with tragedy, as an imitation of action that arouses ridicule, performed by common and low characters. The first modern editor of Shakespeare, Nicholas Rowe (1709, xvii), reflects this understanding, praising Errors, along with Wives and Shrew, as “pure” comedy, i.e., comedy unmixed with tragedy. Rowe here appreciates the stageworthy jest and zest of the play; he also expresses a neoclassical preference for integrated plots that have clarity and consistency of purpose. Not coincidentally, Errors, along with Wives and The Tempest, often wins praise in the eighteenth century for observing the unities of time, place, and action.

The traditional reading of this play as simple or pure comedy directly opposes more recent evaluations, particularly those in the modern era which perceive in Errors dark and disturbing elements. G. R. Elliott (1939) writes an impressionistic, but nonetheless important, essay on the “weirdness” of the play, which he thinks “penetrated by the comic horror” of its subject; he points to the strangeness of the events and the underlying concern with witchcraft and sorcery. Harold F. Brooks (1961, 60ff.) thinks that the lines about Ephesus seize the audience at the deep level where the ancient dread about losing the self or soul is very much alive; that metamorphosis appears here in hostile aspect also, in confusions, lock-outs, and broken feasts. Brooks also anticipates other developments in the critical history of the play: he notes the artistry in construction, romance possibilities, eclectic mix of sources, and thematic coherences. Gwyn Williams' essay, “The Comedy of Errors Rescued from Tragedy” (1964), argues that the play's concern with adultery, jealousy, violence, and loss of identity move it toward tragedy (he compares Errors to Othello and Lear); the presence of the Dromios, however, rescues the play and reclaims it as comedy. Sensitive to the comedic traditions and to the various textures in the play, Harry Levin (1966) deftly explores the darker potentials implicit in the loss of self; invoking Rashomon, he discerns in Errors a Brechtian sense of alienation and a distinctly modern “shudder of estrangement” (ed. 1965, xxxviii). Gail Kern Paster (1985) thinks that the play reveals the deep ambiguities of personal and civic identity and suggests the fragility of normal social life. …

Nicholas Rowe and Gwyn Williams stand for two extremes in the critical debate on the genre of Errors. There is a third generic possibility, one that mediates between comedy and tragedy, variously identified with each—farce. Samuel Taylor Coleridge considers Errors remarkable as “the only specimen of poetical farce in our language, that is intentionally such” (ed. Raysor, 1: 213). He writes that farce, like comedy, produces “strange and laughable situations”; farce differs from comedy, however, in “the license allowed, and even required” to these ends. A comedy “would scarcely allow even the two Antipholuses. … But farce dares add the two Dromios.” Coleridge's comments … concur with the views of many later writers.

But is Errors a farce? Edward Dowden (1903, 650) considers it a farce manqué, explaining that Shakespeare tries his hand here at a comedy of incident, but that his imagination can “not rest satisfied with a farce”; he adds lyrical poetry in the love episode and a romantic and pathetic framework; the play opens with grief and impending doom and closes “after a cry of true pathos.” Stanley Wells (ed. 1972, 8-9) notes that the play has the characteristics of farce: “absurdities of plot, stylization of action, subordination of character to plot, and a dissociation of response in which violence evokes laughter rather than pity.” But, he observes, the play also has “many humanizing episodes” which turn it into something else.

The view of the play as a farce mixed with other elements is prevalent today, pace Russ McDonald (1988), who spiritedly defends the play as simple farce. He criticizes those who, suspicious of this genre and eager to justify the bard, read Errors as a seedbed for ideas and methods that will flower later, or see in it Shakespeare “transcending” farce and addressing serious issues. McDonald believes that the play merits appreciation as a splendid achievement in an inherently limited mode:

Certain effects and values are missing from this kind of drama: there is no thorough examination of characters, no great variety of tones, no profound treatment of ideas, no deep emotional engagement. But farce gives us what other dramatic forms may lack: the production of ideas through rowdy action, the pleasures of “non-significant” wordplay, freedom from the limits of credibility, mental exercise induced by the rapid tempo of the action, unrestricted laughter—the satisfactions of various kinds of extravagance.


“And yet,” McDonald concedes, “the boisterous action does generate thematic issues” (88).

This concession opens the way for different understandings of farce, its nature and limits. In a series of essays (19801, 19802, 1991), … Barbara Freedman undertakes precisely this reevaluation. According to her,

farce is a type of comedy deriving laughter chiefly from the release and gratification of aggressive impulses, accomplished by the denial of the cause (through absurd situations) and the effect (through a surrealistic medium) of aggressive action upon an object, and functioning through the plot in a disguised punitive fashion.

(19802, 238)

“The key to farce,” she writes (235), “is that we laugh at violence.” It is committed to the discontinuous and the dysfunctional, and shares the qualities of nightmares and the uncanny.

There is also a fourth generic possibility—romance. This is the genre of the marvelous and fantastic, of long loss restored, of sorrow turned to joy, of providential rebirth. In his suggestive mythic taxonomy, Northrop Frye (1957, 166, 184-5) classifies Errors as a sea comedy in the company of Twelfth Night and the later romances, especially Pericles and The Tempest. … Charles Whitworth expands this argument, noting the romance elements of form and matter in the play, particularly the narrated adventures of Egeon and his enacted story, the strange atmosphere of Ephesus, the water and sea imagery, the final spectacle of time going backwards and ending in a new beginning. Productions have variously and successfully staged Errors as romance. In Japan a translator and producer, Tetsuo Anzai, conveys in the resolution “a sense of deep wonder, almost miraculous”… ; and in Stratford-upon-Avon Tim Supple's 1996 production astonishes audiences with its strange power and moving reunions. …


Nineteenth-century reverence for characterization, understood as the depiction of figures possessing emotional depth, interiority, and a capacity for change, generates different critical readings of Errors. This trend begins in the late eighteenth century with the works of Maurice Morgann, Lord Kames, Thomas Whately, William Richardson, and William Jackson. Critics of Errors in this period distinguish between the identical twins. Charles Knight (ed. 1842, 1: 205ff.), for example, praises Shakespeare's “marvelous skill in the delineation of character.” Antipholus of Syracuse is a melancholy wanderer, an enthusiast, a lover who beats his slave but is kind. Antipholus of Ephesus, a brave soldier, “decidedly inferior to his brother” in intellect and morals, shows himself to be spiteful, capable of furious passion, and sensual in temperament. Dromio of Ephesus is precise and antithetical, a formal humorist; Dromio of Syracuse, high-spirited, voluble, impulsive. F. J. Furnivall (ed. 1877, xxv) believes the marriage here one of duty not of love; Antipholus is a brave soldier, but consorts with a courtesan; he is resourceful in confinement. His brother, capable of lyrical love, searching for his twin, “has a far higher nature” but also a violent streak; the Syracusan Dromio is better, more humorous—always merry and cool.

The character of Adriana attracts attention all through the nineteenth century. Mary Lamb (1807) notes the curing of her groundless jealousy and the “unlooked-for joy” of the reunion between Egeon and Emilia. William Hazlitt, in a work significantly titled The Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817), finds only one scene “of a Shakespearean cast” in Errors, “the one in which the Abbess, with admirable characteristic artifice, makes Adriana confess her own misconduct in driving her husband mad” (352). H. N. Hudson (1848, 1: 212-17) closely follows Hazlitt's appraisal; so too does Andrew Lang (1891), who expatiates on female jealousy, “too mean for tragedy, too hateful for comedy.” These critics subordinate all other dramatic considerations—the creation of comedic scenes, the weaving together of multiple sources, the addition of darker and more serious overtones to a high-energy romp—to character, defined as a type of verisimilar representation, categorized as exclusively Shakespearean. The trend toward moralization that energizes the reactions of adaptors like Hull and Woods, and critics like Griffith and Gentleman, also appears here, but the interest now attaches not to the entire fable but to an individual's reformation or growth.

Not surprisingly, given such critical predispositions and the emphasis on character, nineteenth-century critics also begin to read the play autobiographically: Karl Elze (1901, 331-2), citing an earlier commentator, wonders if the birth of Shakespeare's own twins inspires Errors; Frank A. Marshall and Henry Irving (ed. 1888, 1: 77-8) suggest the inattentive Shakespeare and the nagging Anne Hathaway as models for Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana. Frank Harris (1909, 168ff.) reshapes this autobiography by identifying Antipholus of Syracuse, “refined, melancholy, meditative, book-loving,” with the young Shakespeare, new come to London.

Character criticism treats fictional figures as if they are real people. So likewise its descendant, psychological criticism, which often attributes an extratextual life to characters or treats them as embodiments of human impulses and internal conflicts. The first psychological critic on Errors, Otto Rank, thinks that the play presents an Oedipal spectacle at the end—namely, the displaced father and the desired mother. Egeon appears old and debilitated; Adriana, however, becomes young, as though she has just given birth to her sons (Holland, 1964, 157). But this reading distorts the play beyond recognition, neglecting the dramatic fact of Egeon's reprieve from death at the end and portraying the Abbess, a celibate nun for decades, as youthful and fecund. Also perceiving an Oedipal conflict here, A. Bronson Feldman (1955) reads the play as evidence of the author's mental history: Errors reveals Shakespeare's attempt to avoid “melancholiac depression,” to represent his own errors in matrimony (Luciana being the girl he wooed, Adriana the wife she became), and to express “anal malice” toward his mother as well as his search for her. Such fantasy tells us little about the play.

After these inauspicious beginnings, critics have proposed more plausible psychological readings. W. Thomas MacCary (1978) argues that the pursuit of a twin instead of a mate represents the pursuit of a complete and idealized self. Errors is thus a comedy of the pre-Oedipal period of human development, centered on the family and mother and on the person one would like to become. Later (1985) MacCary amplifies these ideas, noting the concentration on water, reflecting pre-Oedipal anxieties of separation, on binding and locking in or out, reflecting fears of sexual incompetence. For MacCary the searching Antipholus of Syracuse is the main character of the play, awakening in us memories of our own psychic development—the trauma of birth separation, the fear of the overwhelming mother, the yearning for individuation and integration. Barbara Freedman (19801), likewise, sees the play as a psychological drama in which disassociated parts of the self become united; thus the Egeon frame is an integral part of the psychodrama which ends in redemption in its multiple senses, primarily financial and theological. Later (1991), rather than apply psychoanalysis to Shakespearean comedy, or offer a single reading of the play, she offers multiple readings which in turn displace each other; she explores the notion of mistaken identity in this play as it illuminates Derridean models of reading and Lacan's notion of subjectivity. Ruth Nevo (1980) says that the characters find themselves through the farce; the play allows repressed libidinal material to surface; the confusions reveal latent selves and therapeutically work out “psychic material—the obsessions, compulsions, fantasies which, unresolved, unremedied, would represent catastrophe” (30). These readings illuminate family dynamics and show the resonant, subliminal power of symbol. The fictional characters here reflect common human aspirations, anxieties, repressions, and struggles. But once again, there is sometimes the unfortunate tendency to reduce action to a template, to read into character, to neglect theatrical tradition and convention, to separate analysis from the affective and performative aspects of the play.


Eighteenth-century editors and critics of Errors often object to its language, particularly the versification. Alexander Pope's first edition (1723) relegates passages deficient in judgment and taste to smaller type at the bottom of the page; these include trivial conceits, like the dialogue about time and hair (2.2.35-108), ribaldries, the “doggerel” verse (14-syllable lines in couplets) of the lock-out scene (3.1), and anything else he doesn't like. Such manifest deficiencies, Pope reasons, indicate a non-Shakespearean origin. Later, Pope (ed. 1728, 1: xxi-xxii) adds Errors to the list of those plays that have Shakespeare's hand in only some characters, single scenes, or a few passages. William Warburton (ed. 1747, 1: sigs. [d8v]-e) thinks Errors, along with Shrew, the three parts of Henry VI, and Titus Andronicus, “certainly not of Shakespeare,” though the playwright perhaps here and there corrected the dialogue and added a scene. Hugh Blair (ed. 1753, 1: xlviii), the Scottish editor, follows Warburton. In our century J. M. Robertson (1923, 2: 126-57) takes up the disintegrationist arguments again, asserting that Shakespeare's share in the play after the opening scene is very limited, and proposing Marlowe as author on the basis of versification and vocabulary.

Edmond Malone (ed. 1790, 1: Pt. 1, 288-90) delivers a learned account of the play, addressing various aspects including versification. He adduces examples of doggerel verse from early Elizabethan plays (2: 203f.); he finds examples of alternate rhymes and doggerel in other early works of Shakespeare, Love's Labor's Lost and The Two Gentlemen of Verona; he explains the metrical irregularities as typical of an early Shakespeare play; he makes a strong case for Shakespeare's authorship. Malone considers the verse part of a complicated chain of evidence on date and authorship; he also pioneers the comparative study of verse as a component of style.

Early depreciation of Shakespeare's verse in this play has given way to more positive appraisals. George Lyman Kittredge (ed. 1936, 134) thinks the remarkable metrical variety probably an attempt to imitate the variety of Plautus. Stanley Wells (ed. 1972, 12-13, 21) notices verse variations like the use of couplets in the sisters' disputation and the contrast between the Ephesian Dromio's blank verse with end-stopped lines, monosyllabic diction, rhythmic regularity, staccato sound effects, and the Ephesian Antipholus' blank verse lament, with its melancholy enjambments and long vowels. Kenneth Muir (1979) also observes the variety of verse forms: Egeon's formal style—end-stopped, eloquent, with stock epithets; Antipholus of Syracuse's lyrical style in rhymed quatrains; the absurd conceits; the rhymed stichomythia and doggerel. Discussing 3.2, T. S. Dorsch (ed. 1988, 20) calls the transitions in verse “from quatrains (interspersed with hypermetric rhymes) to couplets in stichomythia, to couplets sustained, to prose, and finally to blank verse … the speaking and theatrical equivalents” of Baroque concertos. … Brennan O'Donnell (1997), contributes a precise description and comprehensive analysis of the metrical variety in this play. Answering the objections of earlier generations, he demonstrates in Errors “a virtuoso display of the phonetic resources of the language.” That objectionable doggerel in 3.1, for example, O'Donnell argues, transforms “distinct voices to its own tone.” “The presentation of homogenous voices creates an acoustic anarchy”; thus, “the gaggle of echoic repulses serves as an aural correlative to the baffling loss of identity” ([O'Donnell], 408).

Shakespeare's use of image and rhetoric in Errors has also undergone reevaluation in this century under the microscopes of professional literary critics. G. Wilson Knight (1932, 113ff.) notes the importance of the tempest-music contrast here and in other plays: Egeon's tempest is tragic, effecting separation and loss; the action of the play works toward harmonious reunion and recovery in a magical land of gold and riches. Effusive and emotive, sometimes tending to cut plays to grand preconceived patterns, Knight nonetheless shows acute sensitivity to poetry and uncovers surprising patterns of image. More analytical, but wholly invested in the biographical fallacy (the reconstructing of the author's life and personality from the works), Caroline Spurgeon (1935) discerns in Errors typically Shakespearean patterns of association: the greasy kitchen wench recalls Falstaff (in Wives) stewed in grease (118-9); the linking of eyes, death, tears, vault, and mouth in the description of Pinch (192) echoes, more seriously, in King John, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear.

After Knight and Spurgeon, critics have looked harder at images in the play and their significance. John Erskine Hankins (1953, 41ff.), associates Egeon's image of his eyes as “wasting lamps” (5.1.316) with passages from Scripture and the Zodiacus Vitae, a prescribed textbook, and also with Macbeth's brief candle, Othello's light, and other references. The image often appears in tragic contexts where death extinguishes the flame of life. R. A. Foakes (ed. 1962, xlv) notes that the Dromios complain of being beaten like asses; “the idea of being made a beast operates more generally in the play, reflecting the process of passion overcoming reason, as an animal rage, fear, or spite seizes on each of the main characters.” According to Foakes the characters lie between the poles of Circean transformation and the restoration of order in the gossips' feast. Richard Henze (1971) explores the complex images of chains and the various bindings and loosings in the play: the original binding to the mast, the chain and rope as stage props, the various restraints of marriage and society. The characters attempt to get free but entangle themselves; the play shows that “with freedom comes binding, but with the binding, paradoxically, comes freedom—freedom of trust, of fellowship, of love” (37). These studies collectively expand earlier notions of Shakespearean style to include concatenation of image and theme; they also disclose more serious possibilities in meaning.

Two other studies of language break new boundaries in understanding. Eamon Grennan (1980) explores nature and convention in Errors, observing linguistic and poetic elements: Egeon's opening narratio, the use of couplets, Luciana's quatrains, the Abbess's sermon, and Shakespeare's frequent use of the pun. The pun is particularly important: “The play is built on a double pun, the two sets of twins being no less than the incarnation of this linguistic phenomena” (158). Grennan goes on to show how the use of puns reflects intensifying chaos in action until the last act, almost devoid of puns, when language and meaning are restored. Reading Elizabethan documents on dining and on huswifery, Joseph Candido (1990) perceives the food and eating imagery and action in its own cultural context. He argues that Shakespeare transforms the Plautine emphasis on food into a metaphor for human longing; Adriana invites the wrong Antipholus to a feast that is symbolic of her marital union with her husband; the play ends in a gossips' feast of reconciliation. …


Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, precursors of feminist criticism of the play, produce an unfortunately neglected edition (1903) that praises the portrayals of women as evidence of a great genius who would “in the end portray, more fully, greater women”; Adriana and Luciana are “at once human and lovable,” the Abbess, “a wise and artful dame” (xxxiii-xxxiv). Agnes Mackenzie (1924, 24-6), the first genuine feminist critic of Errors, notes the pairing of two contrasted sisters here and in Shrew: Luciana and Bianca, docile and submissive, represent a type “approved of in all ages by the bourgeois mind”; Adriana, a figure of wronged wifehood, becomes almost tragically convincing and thus, “dramatically speaking, the most serious blemish on the play.”

Mackenzie's sarcasm regarding the critical response to Luciana and her paradoxical appraisal of Adriana, simultaneously quasi-tragic and a dramatic “blemish,” raise issues regarding wifely characters and roles that later feminists explore. Juliet Dusinberre (1975, 77-82), for example, notes Luciana's articulation of the orthodox philosophical view regarding women's subordination, and its conflict with theological views that regard men and women as equal in power and dignity. “Puritanism fostered a concern for the treatment of women which gave respectability to Adriana's discontent” (82). Thomas P. Hennings (1986) follows this line of argument, contrasting Anglican exhortations to marital mutuality with what he terms “Erasmian Catholic advice” and the double standard. Lisa Jardine (1983, 46) sees the play as wittily portraying the “helplessness of the wife in a liberalised marriage which laid strong emphasis on dialogue between partners, but continued … to treat articulateness in women as unseemly and unreliable.” These critics have come a long way from Lamb, Hazlitt, and others in the nineteenth century, who simply applaud the curing of Adriana's groundless jealousy; these view her instead in context of gender relations, marital anxieties, and cultural politics.

Feminist criticism has been diverse in its reevaluation of Errors. Coppélia Kahn, like some psychological critics, notably MacCary, views the play as concerned with the creation of individual identity, specifically a masculine self. For her, Errors recapitulates the adolescent process of mourning the loss of parents and of searching for a mate. The women in the play represent aspects of metamorphosis, both terrible and wonderful to the male seeker. Lorna Hutson (1994) thinks that the play rewrites traditions of Christian Terence by identifying women, rather than men, with the dramatic productivity of error. Adriana and Luciana play at being prodigal daughters and wives and, in so doing, translate the sexually and financially erring men into good husbands. … Laurie Maguire explores the notion of duality as it appears in the portrayal of the Ephesian women and marriage. Reviewing the Ephesian background and recent dramatic productions, she argues that Adriana and Luciana variously embody conflicting types of Ephesian woman (pagan and Christian, independent and submissive, goddess and witch).

Feminist criticism of Shakespeare has principally concerned itself with patriarchal power, the role of women, the construction of gender, family dynamics, and sexual anxieties. Though often in conflict with what has come to be known as New Historicism, a critical approach that focuses on political self-fashioning and the pervasive dynamic of suppression and subversion, feminist criticism and New Historicism share important similarities. Both see the text as a site for contemporary political, economic, and social struggles; both read literature in terms of social practice and cultural myth; both operate with overt political agendas aimed at exposing and overturning oppressive authorities. At their best these approaches reveal cultural tensions and suggest interesting production possibilities. At other times, ideology substitutes for perception and flattens out character and action.

Duncan Salkeld (1993) takes a New Historicist approach to argue that Errors represents madness as arising from endemic social contradictions. Egeon's death sentence opposes societal law and familial concord; the confusions of identity derive from a larger “network of confused economic relations” (69). Underresearched in primary sources and merely teasing in its implications, the essay does not distinguish adequately between social conditions and dramatic actions. More helpfully, Douglas Lanier (1993) … shows that the play sketches the problematic of self-presentation in Elizabethan England; he notes the emphasis on external marks and rituals and on the various readings and misreadings of them. Jonathan Hall (1995) believes that Shakespeare here explores the ancient topos of losing oneself within a newly “monetarized” world where credit, reputation, and the ability to pay are central; the play transforms the quest narrative into metaphors of desire in a mercantile economy and shows how comic drama forms the subject in its generating nation state. …


The critical and theatrical history of The Comedy of Errors requires double vision. Rowe's “pure comedy” is Williams' near tragedy. Coleridge's perfect specimen of laughable farce is Freedman's farcical exploration of the uncanny and dysfunctional. The mechanical action of Plautine puppets, later received as a study in character, now reflects pre-Oedipal processes and anxieties. The frothy confusions disclose primal terrors—the loss of self, the doppelgänger. The sophomoric, apprentice piece of the eighteenth-century commentators, perhaps not Shakespeare's, becomes in this century a sophisticated culmination of classical, native, and continental traditions. The juvenile technique now appears as a skilful display of metrical art, imagery, and rhetoric. The bookish imitation of Menaechmi intimates to some Christian mysteries of redemption; to others it reveals contemporary gender politics or economic conflicts. The play speaks to various audiences across unfathomable cultural divides, to the youth movement in Nazi Germany, to patrons of the Japanese kyōgen, to oppressed Africans in townships.

This demand of double vision is perhaps the play's greatest gift to us. We can enjoy the laughs—the pratfalls, the slapstick merriment, Dromio's geographical catalogue, the eccentric Dr. Pinch (often a highlight in performance), the wrong Antipholus' response to the aggrieved Adriana, “Plead you to me, fair dame?” And we can also feel discomfort at the errors—the lock-out, the misidentifications, the loss of loved ones, the loss of one's very self. Both the laughter and discomfort are inseparable, we finally realize. There's not a long way between Bergsonian risibility and Kafkaesque nightmare, between the pagan Ephesus of witches and sorcerers and the Christian one of the Priory and Abbess. Being lost is not merely prelude to being found but an ongoing condition of being, a condition that enables the daily and mundane findings of self we experience in family and society. The waters of the sea wreck ships and drown voyagers, but they also carry travellers to undreamt shores and reappear in the cleansing initiation of baptism, the gossips' feast. Mundane and marvelous, frothy and serious, comic and tragic, The Comedy of Errors awakens our deepest fears and joys.

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———. Cursory Criticisms on the Edition of Shakespeare Published by Edmond Malone. 1792. Rpt. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1970.

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Rudd, Niall. The Classical Tradition in Operation. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1994.

Salgādo, Gāmini. “‘Time's Deformed Hand’: Sequence, Consequence, and Inconsequence in The Comedy of Errors.Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972): 81-91.

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———. Works. Ed. Alexander Pope. 6 vols. London, 1723-5. 1; 2nd edn. 8 vols. 1728. 1, 2.

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———. Works. Ed. William Warburton. 8 vols. London, 1747. 1, 3.

———. Works. Ed. Hugh Blair. 8 vols. Edinburgh, 1753. 1, 3.

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———. Plays & Poems. Ed. Edmond Malone. 10 vols. London, 1790. 1, 2 parts.

———. The Comedy of Errors. Adapted, Thomas Hull. London, 1793.

———. Plays & Poems. Ed. James Boswell. 21 vols. 1821. 1, 4.

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———. The Family Shakespeare. Ed. Thomas Bowdler. 6 vols. London, 1853-5. 2. [first edn. 1807]

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———. Works. Ed. Richard Grant White. 12 vols. London, 1857-66. 1, 3.

———. The Complete Illustrated Shakespeare. Ed. Howard Staunton. 1858-61. Rpt. 3 vols. New York, 1979.

———. Works. Ed. William George Clark, William Aldis Wright. Cambridge, 1864.

———. Works. Ed. Charles and Mary Cowden Clark. 4 vols. London, 1874. 1.

———. Works. Ed. F. J. Furnivall. London, 1877.

———. Works. Ed. Frank A. Marshall and Henry Irving. 8 vols. London, 1888-90. 1.

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———. Works. Ed. C. H. Herford. 10 vols. London, 1899. 1.

———. The Comedie of Errors. Ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke. New York, 1903.

———. The Comedy of Errors. Ed. Henry Cuningham. London, 1907.

———. The Comedy of Errors. Ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch, John Dover Wilson, Harold Child. Cambridge, 1922; 2nd edn. 1962; rpt. 1968.

———. The Comedy of Errors. Ed. Robert Dudley French. New Haven, 1926.

———. The Comedy of Errors. Ed. T. W. Baldwin. Boston, 1928.

———. Complete Works. Ed. George Lyman Kittredge. Boston, 1936.

———. The Comedy of Errors. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London, 1962.

———. The Comedy of Errors. Ed. Harry Levin. New York, 1965.

———. Complete Works. Ed. Alfred Harbage. Baltimore, 1969.

———. The Comedy of Errors. Ed. Stanley Wells. Harmondsworth, 1972.

———. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston, 1974.

———. The Comedy of Errors. Ed. David Bevington. New York, 1988.

———. The Comedy of Errors. Ed. T. S. Dorsch. Cambridge, 1988.

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Shaw, G. Bernard. Our Theatres in the Nineties. 3 vols. 1932. Rpt. London: Constable and Co., 1948. 2.

Sisson, C. J. New Readings in Shakespeare. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1956.

Smith, Bruce, R. Ancient Scripts & Modern Experience on the English Stage 1500-1700. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988.

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Sommers, Pamela. Review of Shenandoah Shakespeare Express production, 1992. The Washington Post, 13 July 1992, B1, B5.

Sorelius, Gunnar. Shakespeare's Early Comedies: Myth, Metamorphosis, Mannerism. Uppsala: Acta Universitas Upsaliensis, 1993.

Speaight, Robert. William Poel and the Elizabethan Revival. London: W. Heinemann, 1954.

———. “Shakespeare in Britain.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14 (1963): 419-32.

Sprague, Arthur Colby. Shakespeare and the Actors: The Stage Business in His Plays (1660-1905). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1944.

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E. Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us. New York: Macmillan, 1935.

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Taylor, Gary. “Textual and Sexual Criticism: A Crux in The Comedy of Errors.Renaissance Drama 19 (1988): 195-225.

———, and John Jowett. Shakespeare Reshaped, 1606-1623. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

Thomas, Sidney. “The Date of The Comedy of Errors.Shakespeare Quarterly 7 (1956): 377-84.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's Early Comedies. London: Chatto and Windus, 1965.

Trewin, J. C. Shakespeare on the English Stage 1900-1964. London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1964.

———. Going to Shakespeare. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978.

Turner, Robert Y. Shakespeare's Apprenticeship. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974.

Ulrici, Hermann. Shakespeare's Dramatic Art: History and Character of Shakespeare's Plays. Trans. Dora L. Schmitz. 2 vols. London: George Bell and Sons, 1876.

Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: H. Holt, 1939.

Vaughn, Jack A. Shakespeare's Comedies. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.

Vickers, Brian, ed. Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage. 6 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974-81.

Von Rosador, K. Tetzeli. “Plotting the Early Comedies: The Comedy of Errors, Love's Labour's Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 13-22.

Walch, Günter. “Die Irrungen: The Comedy of Errors in Germany.” The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays. Ed. Robert S. Miola. New York: Garland, 1997.

———, and Eva Walch. “Shakespeare in the German Democratic Republic.” Shakespeare Quarterly 31 (1980), 408-410.

Warren, Roger. “Theory and Practice: Stratford 1976.” Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 169-79.

Weiss, Theodore. The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Shakespeare's Early Comedies and Histories. London: Chatto and Windus, 1971.

Wells, Stanley. “Shakespeare and Romance.” Later Shakespeare. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 8. London: Edward Arnold, 1966. 48-79.

———. Review of Noble production, 1983. Times Literary Supplement, 19 August 1983, 881.

———, Gary Taylor, et al. William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

Werstine, Paul. “‘Foul Papers’ and ‘Prompt-books’: Printers Copy for Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors.Studies in Bibliography 41 (1988): 232-46.

West, Gilian. “Lost Humour in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.English Studies 71 (1990): 6-15.

Westfall, Alfred Van Rensselaer. American Shakespearean Criticism, 1607-1865. New York: H. W. Wilson Co., 1939.

Whately, Thomas, ed. Remarks on Some of the Characters of Shakespeare. 3rd edn. 1839. Rpt. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1970.

Whitaker, Virgil K. Shakespeare's Use of Learning. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1953.

Whiter, Walter. A Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare. Ed. Alan Over and Mary Bell. 1794. Rpt. London: Methuen, 1967.

Whitworth, Charles. Review of the Noble production, 1983. Cahiers Elisabéthains 24 (1983): 116-18.

———. “Rectifying Shakespeare's Errors: Romance and Farce in Bardeditry.” The Theory and Practice of Text-Editing. Ed. Ian Small, Marcus Walsh. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 107-41.

Williams, Clifford. “Introduction,” The Comedy of Errors. London: Folio Society, 1969.

Williams, Gwyn. “The Comedy of Errors Rescued from Tragedy.” Review of English Literature 5 (1964): 63-71.

Williams, Simon. Shakespeare on the German Stage Volume 1: 156-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Willis, Susan. The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making the Televised Canon. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

Wislicenus, Paul. “Zwei neuentdeckte Shakespearequellen.” Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shakespeare-Gessellschaft 14 (1879): 87-96.

Wood, Robert E. “Cooling the Comedy: Television as a Medium for Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors.Literature/Film Quarterly 14 (1986): 195-202.

For citations to Shakespeare I have used The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al., 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).


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The Comedy of Errors

The Comedy of Errors (c. 1594) is the shortest play in the Shakespearean canon and is considered to be one of Shakespeare's earliest and least romantic comedies. The play has been long regarded as an immature work that relies too heavily upon elements of farce and slapstick; however, The Comedy of Errors has been reevaluated in recent years, and many critics now believe that deeper issues and themes lie beneath the work's madcap surface. The wildly implausible plot involves two sets of identical twins separated at birth: the Antipholus brothers—one of Syracuse and the other of Ephesus—and their servants, who are both named Dromio. Chaos reigns when all four come together in Ephesus, where the numerous instances of mistaken identity based on appearance are further exacerbated by the shared sets of names.

Shakespeare's primary source for The Comedy of Errors is Plautus's Menaechmi, a bawdy Roman drama featuring a set of identical twins. Shakespeare added to the mayhem of his play by introducing a second pair of look-alikes. According to Robert S. Miola (1997), the play is also derived from the Bible—specifically St. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians and Acts of the Apostles—as well as a variety of English and Italian dramatic works. Miola is one of several critics who believe that Shakespeare's reliance on his source material, particularly Plautus, has been misunderstood in the past. “Instead of classifying the play as the work of an inferior playwright, a bookish exercise, or an apprentice piece, critics now see it as a sophisticated imitation,” reports Miola. Martine Van Elk (2003) examines the influence of rogue literature on Shakespeare's reworking of Plautus's text. The notion of misidentification was a “cultural fascination” in Elizabethan England according to Van Elk, who discusses the play in the context of the popular cony-catching pamphlets of Shakespeare's time—booklets about deliberate trickery in the London underworld. Van Elk asserts that The Comedy of Errors and the rogue texts correspond “by speaking to the same social issues and appealing to the widespread interest in misidentification.”

Many critics have claimed that the characters in The Comedy of Errors exist strictly as components of the plot. The characterization of Adriana has generated controversy in that some critics believe her to be a shrew, comparable to Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Charles Brooks (1960) studies the representation of Adriana and her more docile sister Luciana (as well as their counterparts Kate and Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew) and concludes that Shakespeare was establishing a contrast between spirited women and devoted women, as well as between “the experienced wife” and “the inexperienced girl.” These comparisons underscore the comic and farcical elements of the play, according to Brooks, and suggest yet another comic contrast: “that marriage can sometimes be a battle and yet be a highly satisfying experience.” Gender issues are also explored by Paul J. Marcotte (see Further Reading), who explores the gender-based differences in the love relationships between Adriana and her husband, and Luciana and Antipholus of Syracuse. Marcotte claims that the play “inculcates a number of surprisingly well connected and coherent comments about the essential relationship which exists between men and women.” Douglas Green (1995) concentrates on the figure of the missing mother in the play. He believes that the brothers' search for identity involves their early separation not only from each other, but also from their mother. Only the twins' mother, Green asserts, can restore them to their proper states as distinct individuals, because she alone can tell them apart.

After its initial run, The Comedy of Errors was rarely produced until the middle of the eighteenth century, when several adaptations appeared. Historically, many productions of the play have emphasized the farcical aspects and, starting in the early nineteenth century, have been accompanied by musical numbers. One of the work's more famous musical adaptations was the 1938 Rodgers and Hart musical comedy, The Boys from Syracuse, which was followed two years later by a film version of the same name. More recent performances have employed circus settings; Miola discusses several such stagings, including the 1983 Goodman Theatre production featuring professional circus performers, and the 1976 staging in Ashland, Oregon, the set for which included carnival rides and a midway. Casting the two sets of twins is a challenge met in a variety of ways in modern stagings. Danny Scheie's 2001 production earns high praise from reviewer Michael Phillips (2001), who claims that by using two actors rather than four, “the play's twice as much fun with half as many people.” Ron Cohen (see Further Reading) positively reviews the high-energy 2002 production of The Comedy of Errors directed and adapted by Robert Richmond for the Aquila Theatre Company. The production featured “buoyant choreography” through which, according to Cohen, “even the scenery dances.” D. J. R. Bruckner (2000) also comments favorably on the Richmond production, noting that “the endless twists of this plot keep the audience laughing for two hours and viewers can see through every one of the sometimes murky puzzlements that so delighted Elizabethans.” The sheer fun accompanying such humorous productions has made The Comedy of Errors one of the most popular of Shakespeare's plays with Elizabethan and modern audiences alike.

Douglas Green (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Green, Douglas. “Mother's Word and The Comedy of Errors: Notes Toward a Shakespearean Constitution of Patriarchy.” Upstart Crow 15 (1995): 17-25.

[In the following essay, Green analyzes the representation of the mother figure within the patriarchal social system of The Comedy of Errors.]


To begin with, we live in a situation in which the consecrated (religious or secular) representation of femininity is subsumed under maternity. Under close examination, however, this maternity turns out to be an adult (male and female) fantasy of a lost continent: what is involved, moreover, is not so much an idealized primitive mother as an idealization of the—unlocalizable—relationship between her and us, an idealization of primary narcissism.1

In Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, Antipholus of Syracuse expresses the loss of self to which his alienation from the family, as well as the general family dispersal, has given rise: “So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them (unhappy), ah, lose myself.”2 Joel Fineman suggests the significance of the wandering twin's condition, of his lament and anxiety: “the duality of brothers that generates singularity, along with the mirroring complexity of dual reflexiveness and defused images of the discrete self, is the masculine rephrasing of the original relationship of son and mother, of son and his discovery of an outside world from which he is separated and to which he is attached.”3 But of course the Syracusan Antipholus merely articulates a condition applicable to his Ephesian brother as well. Though Antipholus of Ephesus believes he knows himself and has apparently relied on his connection to the Duke's Corinthian uncle Menaphon, presumably as adoptive father (V. i. 367-68), to ensure his place in the city he calls home, his orphaned state—marked primarily by the missing mother—belies the certainty with which he assumes his share of what these city fathers bestow. His separation—should we say alienation?—from his mother and hence his ignorance of several basic relationships, soon to enter into play, undermine his self-knowledge and his presumption of a secure place in the world. Whereas the Syracusan brother is errant, the Ephesian one is erring.

The Ephesian Antipholus, knowing neither father nor mother, founds himself on the patriarchs (Solinus and Menaphon) and their law; thus, for this merchant and his society, such fatherhood is presumably as valuable as biological paternity. However, as his Syracusan brother's doubt attests, this patrimonial currency is rather inflated. From the very first scene in which he appears the security of his familial and social position is called into question: “What art thou that keeps me out from the house I owe?” (III. i. 42). The Ephesian Antipholus does not yet know what ails him—the uncertainty that gnaws at all his worldly relations. On the other hand, though Antipholus of Syracuse knows his father, this twin looks for and to his mother to resolve his self-doubt but is, “like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop,” confounded by the world (I. ii. 35-38). Indeed, Coppelia Kahn notes “that he wants to make a mirroring mother” of the brother he is seeking.4 It is as if he, like Engels, senses that only a mother knows for sure: “In all forms of group family, it is uncertain who is the father of a child; but it is certain who its mother is.”5 Though the family in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors is not the “group family” described by Engels, the notion that fatherhood is a far less certain matter than motherhood has been a central preoccupation of Western society. Until quite recently, proof of paternity has really depended on a woman's faithfulness and, more to the point, on a man's faith in a woman and her word. In a sense, the far-flung offspring of the monogamous union of Egeon and Emilia are subject to an analogous anxiety about identity: Where did I come from? Who am I?

In this play only the appearance and the word of the mother are able to constitute and confirm the identities of father(s-to-be) and sons, husbands, and brothers. In fact, the play opens with the father as alien and alienated, outcast and doomed. Egeon himself acquiesces in his fate: “Hopeless and helpless doth Egeon wend, / But to procrastinate his liveless end” (I. i. 157-58). Later when he mistakes Antipholus of Ephesus for the twin he had raised in Syracuse, Egeon feels the rejection of a father who has lost his station as head of the family: “perhaps, my son, / Thou sham'st to acknowledge me in misery” (V. i. 321-22). The son's denial casts doubt, albeit in a comic framework, on the “natural” bond between father and son, on the possibility of some “natural” recognition and affection between them. Patriarchal authority and paternal claims to respect are thus subtextually suspect.

Emilia's appearance as deus ex machina in the final scenes provides the maternal link, the key to the family history, the solution to the family plot. She distinguishes twin from twin; instructs all, including her daughter-in-law Adriana, in proper conduct; and, as abbess, sanctions all relations with a godly authority and “gossips' feast” (V. i. 406). Above all, she restores Egeon to his place in society—as husband and father: “Whoever bound him, I will loose his bonds, / And gain a husband by his liberty” (V. i. 339-40). Emilia re-establishes and corroborates—even in the case of the Syracusan son he has raised—Egeon's paternal function; without her, he has no assurance of any family tie.

Perhaps what is most telling in her final appearance (V. i. 330-407) is the effect Emilia has on the two men who might claim some authority, familial and political, over her: they are, in her presence, surprisingly hushed. The “most mighty” Duke Solinus and the amazed Egeon defer to her: the first to corroborate the parallel between Egeon's story and hers; the other to inquire about his long lost son. But in marked contrast to the opening of Act I, they are much quieter; whereas Egeon's interminable tale of woe dominates the opening, the abbess' presence dominates the crucial, albeit mercifully shorter, denouement. In resolving this play's errors, Emilia's word alone can “make full satisfaction” (V. i. 399)—sexual, social, and theatrical.6

II. CIRCE'S CUP (V. I. 271)

The mother is never just one person (Freud's error), nor is she ever simply a person.7

The young boy is trained in puberty to the point of near madness to live his whole life within the structure of a fictitious before-and-after construct. ‘Once I've had a woman—the woman—then. …’ This ‘then’ covers everything: guilt, fear, uncertainty, feelings of inferiority will all vanish; life will begin; I will be strong; I will defeat my father; I will leave him; my potential will unfold; SHE will belong to me, and I will protect her.8

We began with the Syracusan Antipholus' fundamental self-doubt, the remedy for which lies in recovering his mother and, through her, his twin or other self and that other other-self, his wife. But this errant twin, this wandering Syracusan, strays from his intended goal, the search for his maternal origin and mirror image; in The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare digresses from the plot of the original Roman comedy into a romantic love plot. In relying on Plautus' Amphitruo for the doubling of the servants, Shakespeare seems also to have seen the possibility of expanding the role of the wife from Menaechmi9 and highlighting the flirtation with infidelity, incestuousness, and, through the introduction of Luciana, love. But this digression is also a repetition, a doubling of another sort. For in the confusion surrounding Adriana's claims on him and his own attraction to Luciana, the Syracusan Antipholus again experiences a loss of self. When he falls in love with Luciana, his words to her suggest that he is willing to surrender any claim to—and any responsibility for—himself: “Are you a god? would you create me new? / Transform me then, and to your power I'll yield” (III. ii. 39-40). Perhaps the most complex moment of attraction occurs when, having called Luciana “mine own self's better part” (III. ii. 61), the Syracusan Antipholus compounds the confusion about which sister he should love by asking Luciana to “Call thyself sister, sweet, for I am thee” (III. ii. 66). In addition to giving himself—like that drop of water in the ocean—over to her, this Antipholus's words transform for an instant his (supposed) sister-in-law into his own sister and, through a nearly simultaneous evocation of the marriage bond, himself into her. As Theweleit notes,10 desire for the sister is commonly substituted for or associated with desire for the mother. In effect, the love plot and the search for the mother are different versions of the nostalgic yearning for pre-Oedipal union with the mother.

The Ephesian Antipholus' frustration with Adriana—tellingly corroborated by his brother—and his ready substitution of whore('s body) for wife('s body) suggest one aspect of the conflation of sister and mother, of lover and mother, of all women to one woman: the Ephesian twin bases his encounters with all women—and, if his irascibility is any indication, with the world—on what he lacked from one woman, his mother.11 In a related but distinct way, the Syracusan brother responds to love ultimately by suspecting the woman to whom he has surrendered himself—and the whole Ephesian society—of witchcraft: “There's none but witches do inhabit here” (III. ii. 156). The Syracusan Antipholus' alienation from his mother and the basic social and natural bonds she embodies manifests itself in a desire for engulfment, most clearly expressed to Luciana: “Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs / And as a bed I'll take thee, and there lie” (III. ii. 48-49). Yet anxiety about such self-loss, even in love, results in suspicion of Luciana and, by extension, of all women and social entanglements, from the threat of which this twin then seeks to extricate himself: “her fair sister, … / Hath almost made me traitor to myself; / But lest myself be guilty to self-wrong, / I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song” (III. ii. 163-64).


The most highly evolved and effective form of encoding the earth's body as the body of infinite womanhood seems to consist in the even narrower conceptualization of the body of all women as the body of the mother—incest as a substitute for further exploration.12

So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.13

To draw the ‘homosocial’ back into the orbit of ‘desire,’ of the potentially erotic, then, is to hypothesize the potential unbrokenness of a continuum between homosocial and homosexual—a continuum whose visibility, for men, in our society, is radically disrupted.14

As the comically befuddled Dromio of Syracuse runs from Luce/Nell, he encounters his master and asks: “Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?” The Syracusan Antipholus replies affirmatively to all three queries, but the master's answer just doesn't satisfy the man: “I am an ass, I am a woman's man, and besides myself” (III. ii. 73-76). As the parodic potential of the names Luce and Luciana suggests,15 Shakespeare burlesques in this Dromio's predicament the male paranoia and frustration that characterize the Antipholi, especially in their relations with women. But we also have something more: in a comic inversion of Antipholus' idealizing words to Luciana, which make her “my sole earth's heaven, and my heaven's claim” (III. ii. 64), Dromio makes of the kitchen wench's body a “globe,” another earth to be explored. In his subsequent banter with his master, the Syracusan Dromio claims that he “could find out countries” in Luce/Nell's body. His joke exposes the problem of otherness posed by women (or located in them by men), here figured fundamentally and ultimately in maternal terms,16 and also manifests the male response to the problem: territorialization, subjugation, exploration, colonization of the female body—and mind. Though a comic servant might have to succumb to the “monstrous” body of a kitchen wench, free men and aristocrats face no such fate.

The complex interplay between male anxieties about the world and about women is most notable in male control over the bodies of women through servitude, prostitution, Pauline marriage, and religion—all of which methods figure in the play. Ironically, in this play Emilia herself reestablishes and fosters familial, social, and even commercial bonds17 in accordance with male homosocial desire: she reproduces the social fabric that reflects their interests; she even restores the possibility of free trade between Syracuse and Ephesus. (We might wonder if she is the “Elizabeth” of Ephesus, an Elizabeth who at about fifty will suddenly—and thankfully—turn out to have [had] a husband and a doubled offspring: indeed the play may mask an anxiety about succession, figured in the unremarked problem of twin heirs; as John M. Mercer reminds us, the play's first audience may have been the lawyers of Gray's Inn, who “were fascinated by twin-like characters, presumably because of the legal implications of mistaken identity, and fostered a long tradition of plays involving such characters.”18) Particularly noteworthy in respect to Shakespeare's construction of masculinity is the way in which Emilia has the power to confer identity on the male doubles by turning the women, who are singular despite their sisterhood, into good wives (and mothers—of their new husbands' identities and future offspring). As abbess, she appears endued with divine authority so great that it overwhelms the temporal (and theatrical) power of the Duke. But from whence that authority? From the ultimate Father? And to what end(s)? Finally, unlike the queen, she transfers her submission from God to a husband; thus her powers are subtly circumscribed—not, as in the later case of Prospero, strictly by herself, but by her subjection to another.

The Abbess' near-usurpation of the Ephesian Duke's civil function does suggest that the role of the good wife and mother may be essential to a healthy state—that motherhood precedes and supersedes the state's patriarchal care and may in fact make it possible. In V. i Emilia instructs her daughter-in-law Adriana (and by extension Luciana, who is present) how to bring together the woman's role as wife and as worthy object of sexual desire; she chides Adriana's shrewishness, blames the wife for the husband's “madness” and faults, and counsels patience. But in so doing, she erases all but the bodily differences among all the (“respectable”) women in this play: they are all reduced to good Pauline wives (and eventually mothers). On the other hand, Emilia fosters the differences among the doubled men (their [future] wives' different bodies become the Antipholi's distingushing feature), makes them individual, and restores them to their father. As with many women, Emilia's role as mother implies significant participation in patriarchal structures. As Arthur F. Kinney shows in an analysis of the play's debt to native medieval drama, Emilia may temper the structures of “Justice” and Law with “Mercy”19 (we may well ask for whom), but she does not undo them.


What the comedies demonstrate, then, is that in sexuality as in all other cultural constructs, societies are not monologic, but full of ideas, some old or new, some dying and some just born.20

At the heart of all restrictions on human behavior is the institution of marriage and the family, and farce provides an outlet for our deep yearnings to see that institution desecrated. … In short, farce is not a moral genre—except in so far as it allows an audience to enjoy a vicarious release in a safe, healthy, and acceptable way.21

Whereas comedy is concerned with unity, adaptation, purposiveness, and harmony, farce is committed to the discontinuous and the dysfunctional.22

Hennings says of The Comedy of Errors that it is not a farce but a comic “celebration of marriage and the family,” particularly the Anglican doctrine of “affectionate marriage.”23 Certainly as constructed in this play, Emilia's role and function, though vital, do not constitute a feminist position; even at her most powerful, Emilia serves the ends of male homosocial desire. In fact, there are hints of anxiety about her power, especially the power of her word: the Duke is on hand to corroborate her story's relation to Egeon's and to ratify her resolution of the play's “errors” by agreeing to “gossip at this feast” (V. i. 407); moreover, the last word goes not to the abbess, but to the Dromios. Though their lack of a mother prevents certainty about their origins (which is the elder?) and hence underscores the power of the Antipholi's mother in this play, the final scene privileges the bonds between “brother and brother” (V. i. 425). On the one hand, the shift undermines the Abbess' resolution by slipping almost imperceptibly from the re-constitution of the familial and social order to a world of twin identities and social indeterminacy: “Methinks you are my glass and not my brother” (V. i. 417). As Barbara Freedman has suggested, “The Comedy of Errors proliferates meanings as a means of escaping containment and at the same time generates narratives that seek to effect closure.”24

On the other hand (and yet in line with Freedman's paradox), the conclusion's shift in focus from the abbess to the Dromios may alleviate subtextual anxiety, most evident perhaps in the ambivalence that might well have attended the use of a Catholic figure to resolve the plot, especially if, as Kinney notes, the Abbess and the priory are transformed versions of the courtesan and the Porpentine.25 But if the Elizabethans would take this transformation of courtesan into nun into (good Anglican?) wife as a series of divine displacements, it is hard for us not to see in it the resolution/repression of a nightmare. (In this respect the play may look forward to Measure for Measure, with its Duke-cum-friar and wife-to-be nun.) The all-male mode of production in this comedy, though it does not foreground the boy-actors' cross-dressing, may nonetheless provide some further relief from the theatrical image of female authority. Indeed, behind the staging of The Comedy of Errors may lie theatrically inexpressible fears and wishes about an aging, unmarried queen with no undisputed heir.

The problematic centrality of the mother in this play—the constitution and elision of so powerful a female agency—belies the typically unproblematic descriptions of Emilia, like that of Janet Adelman, as “the benign and purified mother …, in whose presence masculine identity and the family can be safely reconstituted.”26 Rather, in the Abbess of Comedy of Errors, who is both present and absent, both powerful and, as Adelman would say, “occluded,”27 we find hints of the contradictions surrounding maternity in early modern England; as Mary Beth Rose argues, “motherhood was very slowly beginning to be construed as a problematic status, and … the perceived conflicts center on parental power and authority.”28 This early comedy's strange, elliptical representation of motherhood, however positive on the surface, may help to account for the anxiety surrounding subsequent mothers in Shakespeare: Tamora, Gertrude, Lady Macbeth, Volumnia, and Hermione. These figures are impugned because their power, associated in various ways with maternity, somehow contradicts or otherwise unsettles their crucial function (biological, social, theatrical) in a presumably patriarchal social fabric—a function acknowledged, yet only ostensibly celebrated, in Comedy of Errors.


  1. Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” in The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), 99-118. I quote from p. 99.

  2. William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, The Arden Edition, ed. R. A. Foakes (New York and London: Methuen, 1962), pp. 14-15. References to this edition are hereafter cited parenthetically by act, scene, and line numbers, as follows: I. ii. 39-40.

  3. Joel Fineman, “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, eds. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 70-104; the quotation is from p. 104.

  4. Coppelia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 201.

  5. The quotation is taken from p. 99 of the selections from Friedrich Engels' essay on “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State,” in Feminist Frameworks, eds. Alison M. Jaggar and Paula Rothenberg Struhl (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978), pp. 97-107.

  6. On the play's “commercial vocabulary,” see Russ Macdonald's “Fear of Farce,” in “BadShakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, ed. Maurice Charney (Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 77-90, especially pp. 85-86.

  7. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol. 1, Women, Floods, Bodies, History, trans. Stephen Conway, with Erica Carter and Chris Turner (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota, 1987), p. 367.

  8. Theweleit, p. 376.

  9. For background on the sources, see Foakes' introduction to the Arden edition, pp. xxiv-xxxiv, and appendix I, pp. 109-15.

  10. See Theweleit, p. 377.

  11. See Theweleit, pp. 367-68.

  12. Theweleit, p. 299.

  13. Ephesians 5:28.

  14. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 1-2.

  15. See pp. 99-101 of Thomas P. Hennings' “The Anglican Doctrine of the Affectionate Marriage in The Comedy of Errors,Modern Language Quarterly, 47 (1986), 91-107.

  16. See the passage from Theweleit, p. 299, quoted at the start of this section.

  17. See Macdonald, pp. 82-84.

  18. See p. 25 of John M. Mercer's “Twin Relationships in Shakespeare,” The Upstart Crow, 9 (1989), 24-39.

  19. See Arthur F. Kinney's “Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and the Nature of Kinds,” Studies in Philology, 85 (1988), 29-52, especially p. 48.

  20. Marilyn Williamson, The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1986), p. 182.

  21. Hennings, p. 93.

  22. Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), p. 105.

  23. See Hennings, p. 93 and passim.

  24. Freedman, p. 112.

  25. Kinney, p. 44.

  26. Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays,HamlettoThe Tempest” (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 9-10.

  27. Adelman, p. 10.

  28. The quotation is from p. 296 of Mary Beth Rose's “Where Are the Mothers in Shakespeare? Options for Gender Representation in the English Renaissance,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 42 (1991), 291-314.

D. J. R. Bruckner (review date 14 July 2000)

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SOURCE: Bruckner, D. J. R. “O Dromio, Dromio! Wherefore Art Thou Dromio?” New York Times, no. 52253 (26 September 2002): E7.

[In the following review of the Aquila Theater Company's 2000 staging of The Comedy of Errors, originally published on July 14, 2000, Bruckner claims that Robert Richmond's adaptation not only updates the original text, but actually saves it.]

Whatever would Shakespeare have done without shipwrecks? So many of his plots turn on them that when a character in any play asks where someone is, I half expect the reply to be, “Lost at sea.” Well, life was tough in the old days if you lived on an island, I suppose. It was tougher on theater audiences; since staging a sinking was not possible, people had to sit through long descriptions of storms, broken masts and screams in the wind. None is more tortuous than old Egeon's speech at the opening of The Comedy of Errors—so filled with incident that it induces amnesia, but if you forget any detail, parts of the rest of the play make no sense.

No one who sees the rousing production by the excellent Aquila Theater Company will forget a whit of it. It replaces all the lines of the first scene with another Shakespeare device, a dumb show—the smartest dumb show I have ever seen. Under what might be a trio of giant umbrellas or dirigibles with bright satin streamers falling to earth, a kind of balloon gondola serves as a bouncing boat for Egeon and his wife, Emilia. And they, with four puppets and the help of a few disembodied hands, make the births of their identical twin sons, Egeon's purchase of two more identical twin babies to be the sons' servants and the scattering of the family in a tempest as vivid, funny and slightly cruel as a Saturday morning cartoon.

As confusion of identities increases in the play, Shakespeare has some characters complain that Ephesus, the setting, must be enchanted—an awkward way to let the playwright introduce some funny business that didn't fit his plot. The Aquila's Ephesus is enchanted a levantine maze in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire where the merchants are as silky as their shirts and the soubrettes are belly dancers in billowing damask trousers. In this place anything can happen.

Robert Richmond, the associate artistic director of Aquila, who directs here, emphasizes speed and very broad interpretations of character. As a result, the endless twists of this plot keep the audience laughing for two hours and viewers can see through every one of the sometimes murky puzzlements that so delighted Elizabethans.

David Caron's realization of the two Antipholuses is very clever: the one a bit slow, self-satisfied and vapid, and the other so sharp and hot-tempered he is a menace to himself. Other people may be confused about which is which, but we know. Those twins, however, are almost blown away by Louis Butelli's twin Dromios. Mr. Butelli, who has the timing and precision of a dancer, might be made of rubber. These Dromios know every trick in the long stage history of rascally servants, and they are startlingly sinuous; sometimes other characters encountering them look like people trying to discipline octopuses.

(A glance at the program will tell you these four roles are taken by two different Carons and two Butellis. They are not; one Caron plays both Antipholuses and one Butelli both Dromios. In fact, the company has even made up a couple of fixed photographs of the two ringers, on display in the lobby with the rest of the cast, complete with fake biographies. What is the point of this exercise? It is one thing for characters in a play to fool the audience; it is quite another for the actors to pull something like this.)

If Lisa Carter makes Adriana less shrewish than Shakespeare suggests, she also makes her much more comically gullible. Mira Kingsley's Luciana is a perfect foil for this Adriana, never to better effect than when her primness is melted by the passion of the Antipholus she thinks is Adriana's husband. And if Marci Adilman's Emilia is only a mime in the shipwreck scene, she is hilariously imposing and voluble in the guise of the Abbess at the end. (And in between she gets to be a Nell, who really is, as one Dromio says, a sphere.)

Alex Webb combines the various merchants of the play into a kind of mafioso whose threats of assault with a tiny battery-operated fan should not be allowed to be as hilarious as they are, and he turns Shakespeare's magical schoolmaster Pinch into a lunatic Merlin worthy of Monty Python at its best. And William Kwapy as the Duke is so wily and smooth it is obvious that no mystery, or Ottoman intrigue, could possibly trip him up; when he frees Egeon from the death sentence, he even makes you smile at your suspicion that he regrets not being able to kill him.

Mr. Richmond calls this production an adaptation. It is better than that formula suggests—a very thoughtful updating that saves the text instead of changing it. The company uses music, dance and routines borrowed from film and television to give us the action in the idiom of current popular entertainment, but its fidelity to the play's language brings Shakespeare's idiom much closer than a traditional performance of this possibly could. If it sometimes goes over the top—a lightning-fast sequence involving one Dromio, a prostitute, a snake and a sleeping Turk is slapstick triumphant—well, Shakespeare's customers presumably thought they too would get a few laughs for the shillings and pence they shelled out.

This company, the first mixed British and American troupe approved by Actors Equity to perform in New York, has been deservedly praised here and in Britain for its ingenious productions of ancient plays. But in many ways its intensely amusing and perfectly comprehensible Comedy of Errors lets one see what an extraordinarily inventive and disciplined outfit it is.

Martine Van Elk (essay date 2003)

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SOURCE: Van Elk, Martine. “Urban Misidentification in The Comedy of Errors and the Cony-Catching Pamphlets.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43, no. 2 (2003): 323-46.

[In the following essay, Van Elk relates instances of “misidentification” in The Comedy of Errors to the deliberate trickery represented in Elizabethan rogue literature.]

In Plautus's Menaechmi, the slave Messenio cautions his master, the traveling twin who has just arrived in Epidamnus, about the dangers that lurk in the city: “among the people of Epidamnus are the most outrageous voluptuaries and drinkers; besides, very many slanderers and flatterers live there; then, the whores of no other races are said to speak with a more flattering tongue.”1 In translating the text for an early modern English audience, William Warner makes Messenio's warning more specific to English interests. His Messenio calls Epidamnus, “a place of outragious expences, exceeding in all ryot and lasciviousnesse: and (I heare) as full of Ribaulds, Parasites, Drunkards, Catchpoles, Cony-catchers, and Sycophants, as it can hold: then for Curtizans, why here's the currantest stamp of them in the world.”2 In the following scene, where Plautus's Messenio warns his master of “sycophanta” (slanderers), Warner's translation has Messenio impress on Menaechmus the possibility that the inhabitants of the city are “cony-catching villaines.”3 And again, toward the end of the act, when Plautus's slave wants to know if his master will fall for the lures of Erotium so quickly, Warner's Messenio asks if Menaechmus will be “conycatcht thus wilfully.”4 Warner's translation reflects early modern concerns: he reproduces Plautus's catalogue but includes to his readership familiar figures, from “Catchpoles” (tax collectors suspected of trickery) to cony catchers. By repeatedly replacing the more general notions of slander and flattery with the historically and culturally specific idea of cony catching, associated with early modern urban life, his translation summons up a range of popular narratives and texts and establishes a contemporary context for this Roman comedy.

The importance of the theme of cony catching (or trickery by rogues and vagabonds) to the Elizabethans is attested to by the numerous reprints of the cony-catching pamphlets and rogue texts by Robert Greene and others. Printed in 1595, Warner's translation came out a few years after the reading public had seen the first publication of the popular cony-catching pamphlets by Greene in the early 1590s, which thrive on scenes of misidentification.5 When Shakespeare chose Plautus as his source for The Comedy of Errors, he was not the first to do so at a time when cony-catching texts were being widely read. Jack Juggler, the anonymous adaptation of Amphitruo, was composed close to the publication of Gilbert Walker's famous A Manifest Detection of Dice-Play (1555) and entered in the Stationers' Register in 1562, the year after the publication of John Awdeley's The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561).6 With a trickster-rogue in the title role, the interlude is a successful example of the adaptation of a Plautine plot to an English setting—“Englishing” the Roman comedy—by blending classical material with rogue literature. Jack Juggler and Warner's translation make clear that an early modern audience, familiar with rogue texts and cony-catching narratives, could see a close link between unintentional misidentification and the possibility of cony catching. While The Comedy of Errors features no intentional deception (as do Jack Juggler and Amphitruo), it is important that Shakespeare selected the Plautine plays at a time when his audience had been avidly reading these stories of trickery.

This essay argues that The Comedy of Errors should be seen not only as Shakespeare's rewriting of a classical source, but also as a text that enters into a dialogue with the cony-catching pamphlets. It is not my purpose to uncover a hitherto ignored source for Shakespeare's play. Instead, I aim to establish an intertextual relationship between the play and these texts because Shakespeare's reworking of Plautus's comedies of misidentification and the popularity of the rogue literature point to the importance of misidentification as a cultural fascination.7 Shakespeare certainly read the cony-catching pamphlets at some stage in his career—much later, he would use them to create the character of Autolycus in The Winter's Tale.8 This early comedy interacts with the pamphlets in a deeper way, by speaking to the same social issues and appealing to the widespread interest in misidentification, even though it is intentional in the latter and unintentional in the former. In this essay, I propose that reading the scenes of misidentification in The Comedy of Errors in conjunction with the rogue literature enables a more historically informed assessment of the play's use of misidentification because it is placed within the context of the larger cultural interest of the 1590s in this subject. By reading the play alongside the pamphlets, we can further our understanding of the early modern fascination with processes of identification and see how Shakespeare's and Greene's scenes of misidentification work as complex, creative, and entertaining contributions to an early modern conversation on the social order.9

Identification is a crucial measure of the social order and the permeability of class and gender boundaries. When it becomes impossible to tell who someone is (regardless of whether the other is deceiving you intentionally or not), it is clear that the mechanisms that keep individuals in their rightful place have broken down. Like Greene, Shakespeare offers a spectrum of social positions from which misidentification is experienced, hence his additions to the basic plot of Menaechmi, which include not only the servant twins, but also scenes from the adultery plot in Amphitruo and a much more elaborate account of the wife's experience of misidentification. Moreover, the focus of the comedy is shifted from the underpinning of the individual's position to the expectations and assumptions that make misidentification possible and thus undermine the social order more generally. Beyond the issue of intention, these early modern texts show misidentification to be rooted in the nature of social exchange and the social constructions of self and other that come into play in encounters with fellow city dwellers. In widening his scope to include these larger questions, Shakespeare departs from his classical source to appeal to the concerns of his audience. Like the cony-catching pamphlets, the play addresses a basic anxiety about meeting fellow inhabitants of the city, one that had a specific resonance in the theater, as many contemporary warnings about the presence of cutpurses, pickpockets, and cony catchers in the audience testify.10 We cannot treat readers and playgoers as a homogeneous group or speak with any degree of certainty about their responses to these texts. Yet, it seems clear that the subject must have struck a chord with those who lived in a city that was growing at an unprecedented rate and who experienced the effects of vast historical and economic changes, such as urban growth and the emergence of new forms of trade, on social exchange.

Both The Comedy of Errors and the cony-catching pamphlets scrutinize the codes that rule social exchange, making them look random and artificial, to reveal and reflect on the extent to which subjectivity may be socially constructed. These works demonstrate that social identity, on which order depends, is not fixed, divinely ordained, or natural, but open to usurpation, theft, loss, or exchange. They show that the expectations and assumptions with which early moderns encountered one another were capable of being misapplied to individuals and therefore might be seen as conventional or arbitrary. Misidentification in these texts locates a problem in the nature of the constructions of self and other necessary to proper identification. Neither the comedy nor the pamphlets ultimately offer solutions to this problem—instead these texts simply present it and employ a set of rhetorical strategies to ease their reader's resulting sense of alienation from the city. The rogue texts by Greene and others demonize the rogue-trickster, suggesting that the social disruption caused by the vulnerability of identification can be avoided by isolating, properly identifying, and punishing the rogue. Shakespeare relies on the anomaly of the twin body to assume a lack of devious intention. For his conclusion, he draws on romance narratives, which end happily when the parties to the misidentifications confidently reassume their rightful position in the social structure. But these strategies do not eradicate apprehension about life in the city; the self-conscious nature of these containing gestures suggests that identification in general continues to be a problem. In retaining a sense of ambiguity about the city, these texts reveal that the social order, always on the verge of being disrupted, relies on verbal exchange, which is itself impeded by cultural expectations—the notions of self and other that prevent misidentification from being detected.

While rogue literature was long seen primarily as sensationalist hackwork, useful only as a source for historical information about the London underworld, it has in recent years become the subject of serious critical attention even as it has come to be seen as primarily fictional rather than historical. Linda Woodbridge's Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature gives rogue literature a place within a series of different discourses, including emerging forms of civility, nationhood, the reformation, humanism, and, in literary terms, the jest book tradition.11 Craig Dionne also places these pamphlets at the heart of the historical transitions of the period, discussing their ideological function in relation to the emergence of capitalism and the social mobility of the rising merchant class.12 According to Dionne, the task of the rogue books was to objectify the rogue in order to “solidify a consensus among readers who were starting to feel what might be called the weight of historical transition.”13 At the same time, he argues, the books bring to light a disturbing similarity between the trickster-rogue and the self-made gentleman: “Ironically, the otherness of underworld villainy gives voice to the anxieties of a social disruption brought about by the very practices that empowered London's new corporate class: self-advancement through histrionic manipulation of the social and linguistic registers of court and state.”14 The trickster's acting talent, then, problematizes the notion of social position in a larger sense, making social mobility a permanent possibility and a threat to the respectable members of the commonwealth. From a highly theoretical perspective, Bryan Reynolds treats this performativity as evidence of the rogue's “transversal power,” a power that enables the rogue to move between different subject territories and that genuinely disrupts the attempts on the part of the state to maintain order.15

The rogue books present the trickster's mutability as a consequence of his capacity to orchestrate “chance” encounters in the streets of London. In the simplest version of the trickster story, the sturdy vagabond simply pretends to be a licensed beggar, making a mockery of the Elizabethan legal system of licenses, passports, briefs, and badges, which was supposed to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving poor.16 Many rogues in these books carry false papers, which have to be scrutinized as carefully as the beggar's appearance before they can be taken as evidence of identity. In A Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566), Thomas Harman recounts a meeting with a “dummerer,” a vagabond who pretends to be incapable of speech. On being given the beggar's license, Harman subjects it to close observation and finds one of the seals “like unto a seal I had about me, which seal I bought besides Charing Cross, that I was out of doubt it was none of those gentlemen's seals that had subscribed; and, having understanding before of their peevish practices, made me to conceive that all was forged and nought.”17 The material nature of legal proof of identity has made it commercially available, for sale at Charing Cross, a situation that should make readers feel uncomfortable. But the cony catchers' defiance of the law goes further than that. Tricksters are even able to enlist the representatives of the law in their elaborate schemes. In one of Greene's pamphlets, A Disputation Between a He Cony-Catcher and a She Cony-Catcher (1592), the male trickster tells a story of a group of cony catchers who start a lawsuit against a farmer they aim to rob of his purse. Bringing a number of sergeants into St. Paul's Cathedral to arrest the victim, an accomplice pretends to protect the cony and starts a brawl, calling on the apprentices for help. Once the fight is over and there has been ample opportunity for cutting the purse, the trickster who started the suit simply claims to have misidentified the cony and drops the case.18

In The Comedy of Errors, the law is shown to be equally inept at controlling the city by means of identification. Antipholus of Syracuse is told, upon entering Ephesus, that he can escape the death penalty ordered for Syracusians by following the advice to “give out” that he is from Epidamium.19 The mechanisms that should protect the city's trade and prevent alien intrusion into the city are being undermined from within by the anonymous merchant. He is of course the very person whose interests are supposedly protected by the Ephesian law, which condemns Egeon in the opening scene for coming from Syracuse, the city that has mistreated Ephesian merchants. When the chaos intensifies, the ineffective sergeant, who is not in the source texts, comes to stand for the law in Ephesus. His actions are so fully determined by the exchange of money that Adriana is able to take legal control over her husband. As in the case of the cony catchers, the gullible representative of the law furthers disorder by assisting Adriana as she tries to rob the respectable citizen-twin of his place in society. Where in Plautus it is the father of the wife who attempts to have his son-in-law committed, in The Comedy of Errors, Adriana is in charge of a motley crew of assailants, which includes her sister, Pinch, and the courtesan. This helps create the impression of general disorder, which, as in the pamphlets, implicates those who should uphold the law. The treatment that Antipholus of Ephesus receives at the hands of the sergeant shows, as one of Greene's notorious villains, Cuthbert Cony-Catcher, puts it, that “men are valued by their wealth, not by their virtues” in an urban, mercantile environment.20

This assessment is confirmed when Antipholus of Syracuse encounters the city at large. Innocently walking the streets of Ephesus, he discovers what it means to be a well-established merchant:

There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend,
And everyone doth call me by my name:
Some tender money to me, some invite me;
Some other give me thanks for kindnesses;
Some offer me commodities to buy.
Even now a tailor call'd me in his shop,
And show'd me silks that he had bought for me,
And therewithal took measure of my body.


Without realizing it, Antipholus of Syracuse gives a concise image of the daily enactment of social recognition within the urban space. The speech denaturalizes social recognition, making clear that position depends on repeated identification (saluting, calling by name) and exchange of material goods. The citizen's place in the social hierarchy is performed, confirmed, and enhanced by the circulation of money and objects either in the form of trade or through hospitality. His measures are taken for the purpose of providing the merchant with the silk clothing that represents his rank and wealth. The physicality of the citizen's engagement with the city and the need for constant confirmation through proper identification suggest that his reputation and position are undermined on the basis of the material aspects of social being. His domestic and social relationships are all given tangible presence in the play (in the form of food, the chain, the purse, and the rope), so that much like other objects, mercantile identity is capable of being stolen.21

As a matter of course, rogue books tell us, material signs of identity must be treated with a great deal of suspicion. The tricksters' unexplained access to different types of clothes, for instance, means that they can take on any type of social position. Like players on the stage, they can choose to present themselves as gentlemen or country rustics, upwardly and downwardly mobile at will. Even their appearance as beggars is forged, requiring elaborate dressing up, as in the case of Harman's favorite trickster, the counterfeit crank Nicholas Jennings, alias Blunt.22 Exposure happens in the case of Jennings by stripping him naked to reveal his sturdy body, eliminating the costume that has fooled the eyes of his victims. Only the most expert observation makes the discovery of the true nature of the rogue a possibility. In a more complicated falsification of material evidence, a trickster in The Third and Last Part of Cony-Catching (1592) introduces himself as a cousin to a maidservant who moved to London at a young age, so that he can burgle the house of her master. As a masterstroke, he earns the family's trust by sending a gift of bacon and cheese, “with inscription accordingly on it, that it could not be discerned but that some unskilful writer in the country had done it, both by the gross proportion of the letters, as also the bad orthography, which amongst plain husbandmen is very common, in that they have no better instruction.”23 Cony catchers forge the material and social signifiers of identity, based on their knowledge of the evidence that serves to establish and confirm identity, class, and geographic origin. In highlighting this aspect of their deceit, the cony-catching pamphlets reveal, as does The Comedy of Errors, that ordinary social exchange relies on material objects and evidence that can be falsified.

While the material evidence of identity ties the play to the trickster narratives, both move beyond this topic to explore social exchange more generally. In the case of the play, the question of apparel, which would make the sumptuary laws a highly pertinent context, is relevant to the merchant's position, but not to the confusion of the twins. Anne Barton has remarked that this is typical of “that cloud-cuckoo-land of farce,” which allows playwrights to leave threads hanging in the interest of comedy.24 Yet, in the more farcical Jack Juggler the question of duplicate clothing is explicitly addressed. When Jack decides to take the servant Jenkin Careaway's place, he announces to the audience,

This garments—cape and all other geare
That now you see apon me here—
I have doon oon all like unto his.(25)

The evidence of identity that causes confusion in Shakespeare is the material evidence of the twin body, but the process of sustained misidentification is more complex than a concentration on the materiality of identity would suggest. This is also the case in the cony-catching pamphlets—the rogue's ability to trick his victims is only partly based on his access to the material signs of social position. Greene uses the slippery figure of the rogue to depict, like Shakespeare, the disruption of all aspects of social exchange.

More threatening than his ability to manipulate his appearance is the trickster's counterfeit familiarity. The cony catcher may compel misidentification of himself by correctly identifying the cony. Cony catchers frequently present themselves as a relative or a friend of a friend to gain the trust of the cony, often an unsuspecting newcomer to the city. The cony, who expects no such treatment in London, is falsely comforted by finding social relations in the city seeming to be what they are in the country. As Katharine Eisaman Maus has remarked, “Greene's coseners self-consciously exploit rustic modes of identity formation based upon kinship relations, reputation among one's neighbors, and reciprocal acts of hospitality. They counterfeit social intimacy with one for whom that intimacy involves obligations.”26 In the elaborate form of cony catching known in beggar's cant as “Barnard Law,” the cony is deliberately misidentified so that the cony catcher can begin a brief conversation in which the aim is to find out the cony's identity.27 The information gathered thus is passed on to an accomplice who accosts the cony and addresses him by name, to take on the role of an acquaintance.

Maus discusses only the cheating of travelers from the country, but city dwellers are equally prone to this type of deception. Greene tells his readers of a particularly spectacular case of deceit of a lawyer in St. Paul's Cathedral, so remarkable that the trickster, the title tells us, thereafter “Scorned the Name of a Cony-Catcher, and would Needs be Termed a Fool-Taker, as Master and Beginner of that New-Found Art.”28 The cony catcher and his female friend have their sights set on the lawyer's large purse. The “drab” has cheated the man before, but this does not mean she is found out. Instead, it enables her to greet him by name, to pretend to have been sent to him for legal counsel by a mutual friend. While the victim is talking to her, her friend makes it possible for her to cut the purse:

The time serving fit for the fellow's purpose, he came behind the gentleman, and, as many times one friend will familiarly with another, clap his hands over his eyes to make him guess who he is, so did this companion, holding his hands fast over the gentleman's eyes, said, “Who am I?” twice or thrice, in which time the drab had gotten the purse and put it up. The gentleman, thinking it had been some merry friend of his, reckoned the names of three or four, when, letting him go, the crafty knave, dissembling a bashful shame of what he had done, said: “By my troth, sir, I cry ye mercy. As I came in at the church door, I took ye for such a one (naming a man), a very friend of mine, whom you very much resemble.”29

The moment enacts literally the blinding that is essential to cony catching. Inevitably, cony catchers succeed not merely because of their appearance but because their familiar gestures and phrases blind the cony to their unfamiliar appearance. The trickster's question “Who am I?” is a crucial one—rather than realizing that he has no answer for it, the cony believes that the question itself proves that this has to be a friend. As is the case with appearance and outward evidence of identity, words become untrustworthy signifiers of familiarity.

The rogues and vagabonds are experts at improvising and controlling the impression they make on others while keeping the cony tied to his own social position. The cony cannot observe the other as the cony catcher does, and, because he is himself identified correctly, fails to question the signs of identity with which the cony catcher presents him. The basic difference that enables the deception is that the cony takes convention for granted and sees it as a natural, transparent sign of inward truth, whereas the cony catcher sees convention as artificial, a construction that can be twisted for the purpose of making a profit. The trickster, in other words, sees familial and social relationships as capable of being performed. The narrators of these pamphlets logically testify that, although the underworld has its own hierarchies and structures that mirror the world of legality, the rogue's own personal relationships are primarily sexual, transient, and meaningless. The vagabonds use their outsider's knowledge of social relations only for the purpose of subverting them.30 In recounting these narratives, the authors of the rogue books invite their readers to think about the constructedness of their own relationships, conventions, and expectations. Such awareness is in part what must have made reading these pamphlets a pleasurable as well as frightening experience. It allows readers to contemplate the possibility that normality is not natural and fixed but a simple set of codes that can be divorced from their correct context and are prone to subversion and performance.31

This implicit subject of the cony-catching pamphlets is central to The Comedy of Errors. The play begins with the unlikely premise of the undetected presence of twins, a feature that requires the audience's suspension of disbelief and is only important insofar as it allows for sustained confusion. From there, the play turns its focus to that which allows misidentification and confusion to persist, what Joel Altman calls, “the conjectures and affirmations upon which people act.”32 The cony-catching pamphlets give careful accounts of how the tricksters proceed in order to give readers the distance with which to reflect on the mechanics of everyday exchange. Defamiliarization happens in The Comedy of Errors by having the audience be aware of the source of confusion throughout, so that it is capable of reading every utterance in two ways: in accordance with the speaker's intention and with the hearer's interpretation. Normal utterances are placed out of context by having them spoken to or by the wrong twin. This means that the audience can begin to think of the mechanisms of exchange as artificial, prone to disruption and usurpation. Simple, customary gestures, from placing your hands over a friend's eyes as a joke to telling your husband to come in for dinner, are perverted in these narratives and, instead of confirming and enhancing social relationships, begin to destroy them. In short, misdirection leads to the unsettling of social position and has, in all these texts, a larger, disruptive effect on the social order.

Shakespeare's choice to make misidentification unintentional does not shift his subject substantially away from that of the cony-catching pamphlets (or from Amphitruo). Instead, it complicates the issue: now everyone is both cony catcher and cony, depending on one's perspective. Misidentification causes a rapid switching between social positions. For instance, Adriana is both an alluring temptress who tries to trick a traveler and a loyal wife who mistakenly invites an impostor into her house. In order to explain the strange words of the other, all fall back on a set of easy and inherently flawed assumptions about the other. This suggests that generally accepted, conventional modes of understanding the other cause a “blindness” to the other's true identity, much in the way that normal expectations about the ways in which social relationships are maintained cause the cony's inability to detect trickery. Thus, Shakespeare's avoidance of the trickster's agency builds on the trickery in the cony-catching pamphlets of the 1590s and highlights even further the insidious nature of the causes of misidentification.

The unconscious movement between positions is most obvious in the case of Antipholus of Syracuse. In spite of his own ignorance of the effects of his presence, the parallel with the cony-catching intruder into households and relationships is maintained in terms of the social disruption he causes.33 At the same time, his confusion shows him to be the victim of misidentification. Entering the city as a Syracusian, he is in immediate danger, and it remains unclear whether he will follow up on the anonymous merchant's suggestion to pretend to be from Epidamium. His intention becomes irrelevant as he turns out to be already identified as a familiar and is therefore positioned in the role of the trickster by the Ephesian response to his presence. His physical resemblance to one of Ephesus's most respected citizens provides him with a watertight disguise from which he unintentionally makes a profit.34 Becoming what seems to be a contradiction in terms, an unintentional trickster, Antipholus loses his grip on the world around him. He wavers between questioning himself, which opens up the possibility of becoming a trickster, and condemning the devious city around him, the type of response taught to the readers of cony-catching pamphlets. Immediately after the merchant has advised him to hide his true identity, the traveler expresses his loss of self in the famous “drop of water” speech (I.ii.33-40). Traveling into Ephesus, he is bereft of the relationships that anchor identity and finds himself, due to the legal limitations imposed on those who enter, in a state of fluidity, the position from which tricksters and rogues operate. This form of cony catching is even more difficult to control than conventional cony catching because it is the result of the innocent responses of others rather than the devious intention of the trickster.

From the first moment of misidentification, when Dromio of Ephesus tells the man he thinks is his master that he has to come home for lunch, Antipholus of Syracuse is turned into an unintentional trickster who sees himself as the innocent victim of the alien city. Like the unsuspecting countryman who enters London, ripe for gulling by devious urban rogues, he finds himself subject to unanticipated obligations: without his cooperation an entire household is in disarray. The first scene of misidentification grants Antipholus a radically new status of responsibility in unfamiliar social territory, an experience appropriately described as “uncanny” by Barbara Freedman.35 Social historians of the period have chartered the many changes undergone by those who passed from the single to the married state. David Cressy has stressed the extent of the transformation involved: “Marriage assigned new privileges, advantages, and obligations. It redefined social and sexual roles, rearranged patriarchal obligations, and conferred new duties of status, authority, and dependency.”36 Antipholus of Syracuse undergoes this transformation in a matter of minutes by means of misidentification. The false familiarity created by the cony catcher in Greene becomes the imposed familiarity of servant, wife, and sister-in-law, made threatening and supernatural. In both cases, a perverted familiarity destroys social relationships rather than validating and confirming them.

Antipholus's first response to his misidentification by Dromio of Ephesus contradicts his later sense of self-loss; it articulates his self-representation as victim rather than trickster. Bewildered, he remembers the city's reputation:

They say this town is full of cozenage:
As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin.


The lines recall Messenio's warnings about the “Ribaulds, Parasites, Drunkards, Catchpoles, Cony-catchers, and Sycophants” in Warner. Antipholus's speech lists different dissemblers and brings to mind the catalogues of tricksters in the rogue pamphlets, referring to the liberties, where many of these figures were said to reside. As Alexander Leggatt has noted, Shakespeare adds the supernatural to Plautus's (and Warner's) version of the speech.37 Antipholus's hostility toward the city is part of the play's examination of various types of social constructions of others that prevent effective exchange between different people. In drawing this conclusion, Antipholus sets up boundaries around the fluid self of his earlier drop-of-water speech and redefines his position in the corrupt urban environment, but it also keeps him from detecting the source of the confusion.

The confrontation with Adriana and Luciana emphasizes the destabilizing effect of misidentification on all the parties involved. Gradually, Antipholus edges closer to becoming aware of the advantages to being a cony catcher. Again, his responses to the situation are complex, ranging from a curious willingness to enter and dine with the unknown women (reminding us of his lack of response to the merchant's advice early on) to a sense of self-loss and a rejection of the other. He openly contemplates becoming a trickster when he is invited to do so, he thinks, by Luciana. On the edge of accepting his new identity, he retreats when he realizes that her invitation to betray himself is a threat to the core of his being, his “soul's pure truth” (III.ii.37). Faced with the self-loss that is a consequence of the imposition of the trickster role, Antipholus reconstructs his sense of self by claiming the opposite role of victim to the evil temptations of the female other. For Antipholus, the speeches of the women are adulterous, as he tries to probe the “folded meaning of your words' deceit” (III.ii.36).38 The traveler's fears of the city and its “prating” mountebanks and the witches who “deform the body” seem to have come true: misdirected talk leads to a “deformation” of his body in the sense that another's name, and therefore another set of obligations, is attached to it.

Cony-catching pamphlets prominently feature female prostitutes and lovers of cony catchers who use devious language to trick their victims. A Disputation Between a He Cony-Catcher and a She Cony-Catcher is supposed to determine, according to the title page, “whether a Theefe or a Whoore, is most hurtfull in Cousonage, to the Common-wealth.” Greene leaves us with little doubt as to the outcome of the debate. Female cony catchers are clearly more dangerous, as even the male cony catcher admits: “you do it with more art than we men do, because of your painted flatteries and sugared words that you flourish rhetorically like nets to catch fools.”39 The female cony catcher presents her language as supernatural, on a par with the fears of Antipholus of Syracuse. She points out that from a male cony catcher, the cony only needs to fear the loss of his purse, but in the case of a female cony catcher much more is at stake:

[I]f he fall into the company of a whore, she flatters him, she inveigles him, she bewitcheth him, that he spareth neither goods nor lands to content her, that is only in love with his coin. If he be married, he forsakes his wife, leaves his children, despiseth his friends, only to satisfy his lust with the love of a base whore, who, when he hath spent all upon her and he brought to beggary, beateth him out like the prodigal child, and for a small reward, brings him, if to the fairest end, to beg, if to the second, to the gallows, or at the last and worst, to the pox, or as prejudicial diseases.40

Beggary, usually the cony's ultimate fate, is only the least of the terrible outcomes of an encounter with a female trickster. In any case, the effect of female trickery is not only social, financial, and spiritual, but also physical degeneration. Bewitching happens through sexual attraction, but also, importantly, through language. The women's speeches to Antipholus of Syracuse are from the perspective of the traveler marked by inexplicable, dark, violent language, containing the threat to his “soul's pure truth” that follows from exchange with the “Soul-killing witches” (I.ii.100). Without knowing it, the women do what the female cony catcher describes as a common practice: “we straight insinuate into his company, and claim acquaintance of him by some means or other.”41 That Antipholus of Syracuse is bewitched is clear: he asks Luciana to transform him and invites the complete loss of self in the other that he fears when first misidentified. Lorna Hutson suggests that Luciana's attempt to persuade Antipholus to hide his true feelings for her, “dissociates the figure of the rhetorically mobile imposter, the supposed husband, from the threat of sexual betrayal, and relocates that threat in the indiscreet or involuntary ambiguous implication of a woman's words.”42 But I would argue that along with the emphasis on female sexual betrayal, Antipholus himself does remain associated with adultery, as the source for these scenes, Plautus's Amphitruo, suggests. Both the “imposter” and the woman are innocent in intent but adulterous in terms of the effect of their misdirected words. It is not so much that Luciana's words let Antipholus off the hook as that misidentification places both in sexually suspect positions that put their essential selves in danger.

Dromio of Syracuse's misidentification parallels that of his master. Where Antipholus is summoned to live up to the obligations of a respectable householder, Dromio is called on to obey the sexual demands of Luce.43 Luce's knowledge of Dromio's body is more invasive than the town's inexplicable awareness of the names of the travelers: “this drudge or diviner laid claim to me, call'd me Dromio, swore I was assur'd to her, told me what privy marks I had about me, as the mark of my shoulder, the mole in my neck, the great wart on my left arm, that I, amaz'd, ran from her as a witch” (III.ii.140-3). The signs that distinguish the body from all others, conventionally revealed in recognition scenes to herald the misidentified person's renewed acceptance into the social order, are here prematurely disclosed. This seemingly supernatural knowledge of the servant's body confirms the travelers' prejudice about the city and the women in it, allowing Antipholus to conclude that “none but witches do inhabit here” (III.ii.156). Having learned to attribute their own confusion to the seductions of the city, Antipholus and his slave wander through Ephesus like knights in a romance tale, ready to do battle with the powers that besiege them. Following his meeting with the courtesan, Antipholus proceeds, according to the 1623 Folio stage direction, to walk around “with his rapier drawn” (at IV.iv.143). By means of projecting his fears of losing the self outward, Antipholus maintains his own sense of self, but also prevents communication with the women, which could bring about a resolution to the confusion.

The fact that ordinary exchange is capable of generating such chaos accounts for what happens in all of the relationships between social superiors and inferiors in the play. From the female perspective, Antipholus's refusal to recognize Adriana is evidence of his refusal to recognize the social obligations of marriage. The suspicion of adultery on both sides, then, impedes exchange throughout where Adriana is involved. It intensifies the confusion, whereas actual adultery in Amphitruo turns out to have no serious repercussions. The citizen-twin, who values public recognition over his familial duties, consistently refers to the category of his wife's shrewishness to render her words meaningless.44 Dromio of Syracuse is allowed to joke with his master in conversations in which linguistic competition opens up a small space for social equality. But this also means that his speeches, so important to the traveler who depends on him for safekeeping of his money, can be deprived of their ostensible meaning. Dromio of Ephesus is misunderstood for less complex reasons. His master simply believes him to be incapable of understanding and following orders. The Dromios themselves always suppose that their masters are either joking or testing them, so they never question their incomprehensible responses. All these relationships, which turn out to be crucial in maintaining order in general, are undermined by the very assumptions and expectations that normally structure them, but prevent effective exchange. Misidentification is thematically linked with different types of misjudgments. Its pervasive effect on how the individuals involved see themselves points to the artificiality and random nature of subjectivity.

In The Comedy of Errors, social assumptions about others allow for a false interpretation of their words and thus further the chaos rather than ending it. As in the cony-catching pamphlets, misidentification is associated with exchange between men and women, travelers and city dwellers, servants and masters. Generally acceptable modes of understanding the other obscure the other's true identity and create a situation in which disruption of relationships becomes a permanent possibility. The effect on the social order at large is a general social mobility of which the source goes undiscovered. The downward mobility of the citizen, accused of greed, madness, and adultery, provides a mirror image of the traveler's unintended and misunderstood upward mobility. Significantly, the character threatened with downward mobility is the seemingly established Ephesian, while the traveler is repeatedly offered the rewards associated with upward mobility. His entrance into the city, as deceptive outsider mistaken for insider, shows that social position lacks firm grounding, for the citizen but also for Adriana. The uncertainty of Adriana's position is evident when her husband denounces her publicly as a “Dissembling harlot” (IV.iv.101) and her friends as her “customers” (IV.iv.60). As a consequence of misidentification and the assumption of wifely shrewishness, Adriana and the courtesan are conflated in this moment of “misidentification” by Antipholus of Ephesus, in spite of the absence of adultery.

The outcome of the trickster's intrusion into settled relationships is similar. The rogue pamphlets reveal the position of the most respectable citizens to be unstable, and those at opposite ends of the spectrum become interchangeable. The rogue texts go to great lengths to demonstrate that by means of deception, the vagabond threatens to turn his gullible victim, whether gentleman, yeoman, apprentice, farmer, or practitioner of any other profession, into a beggar. Most of the authors of these works present their writings as a warning to those who might be brought to ruin by tricksters and are in danger of losing their jobs, inheritance, and accumulated wealth. In A Notable Discovery of Cozenage (1591), Greene tells his readers of numerous cases in which young gentlemen are eventually “versed … to the beggar's estate.”45 The effect of misidentification is, as in The Comedy of Errors, a swapping of position between outsider and insider: the trickster's victim ultimately descends into vagrancy while the trickster achieves social respectability.

More importantly, both the cony-catching pamphlets and Shakespeare's play highlight the extent to which the social order is already unstable, enabling the trickery and confusion to generate such (near-) disastrous results so easily. The readers and playgoers are reminded that the sources of instability are more pervasive than might seem at first sight. In The Comedy of Errors, the assumptions and expectations that are a part of everyday engagement with others destabilize social positions and undermine exchange, preventing correct assessment of the identity of the other, as they do in the cony-catching pamphlets. In other words, The Comedy of Errors, with its lack of intentional deceit, and the pamphlets, with their deliberate trickery, derive their comic effects from the extent to which individuals act upon limited assumptions and are subject to social constructions of self and other. Whereas these assumptions work by themselves to harm communication in the play, they are strategically deployed in the pamphlets to catch the unsuspecting citizens off guard. The possibility of social disruption is in each a consequence of the beliefs and codes that organize exchange.

The authors of these texts show disorder to be an inevitable part of city life. The readers of Greene's The Third and Last Part of Cony-Catching are told that “this famous City is pestered with the like or rather worse kind of people, that bear outward show of civil, honest, and gentlemanlike disposition, but in very deed their behaviour is most infamous to be spoken of.”46 England's peace, Greene asserts, is only a surface matter. This claim alienates the Londoner (or Londoner-to-be) from his urban environment, instead of being made to feel a part of it. It is the opposite result of what Dionne sees as the ostensible task of these pamphlets, which is to create a social consensus in the face of change. One of the cheaters in Walker's A Manifest Detection of Dice-Play emphasizes the similarities between himself and more respectable members of the commonwealth. Enumerating the ways in which each social station relies in some way or other on deceit, he famously concludes that, “Whoso hath not some anchorward way to help himself, but followeth his nose, as they say, always straight forward, may well hold up the head for a year or two, but the third he must needs sink and gather the wind into beggars' haven.”47 The idea is echoed, in the same, plagiarized words, by a cony catcher in Greene's A Notable Discovery of Cozenage.48

Greene's commercial acumen must have told him that this sentiment was a popular one, for his honest and dishonest characters stress it repeatedly. His Quip for an Upstart Courtier (1592) has honest Cloth-breeches reject many of the representatives of England's different professions as jury members for his trial because of their tendency to cheat innocent citizens to make money. The Defence of Cony-Catching (1592), written under the penname of Cuthbert Cony-Catcher, argues at length for the pervasiveness of cony catching. Cuthbert faults “R. G.” for his unjust emphasis on rogues: “You decipher poor cony-catchers, that perhaps with a trick at cards win forty shillings from a churl that can spare it, and never talk of those caterpillars that undo the poor, ruin whole lordships, infect the commonwealth, and delight in nothing but in wrongful extorting and purloining of pelf, when as such be the greatest cony-catchers of all.”49 The logical conclusion, that Greene himself is guilty of cony catching, is not avoided.50 In “Invisible Bullets,” Stephen Greenblatt argues that passages such as these are not intended to be subversive, but instead are an example of the use of subversion to further contain disorder.51 But whatever the intention behind these passages, the sentiment expressed is not fully contained by the authorial voice. These tricksters imply not only that all other professions are equally tainted by dishonest dealing, but also that the only honest men are those who become beggars. The rogue narratives frequently suggest this possibility, hinting at additional complications in assessing the true identity of the beggar one might encounter in the street. Harman ends his book with the wish that London's rogues may be discovered:

That all estates most plainly may see,
As in a glass well polished to look,
Their double demeanour in each degree.(52)

Walker's trickster makes an alternative reading of these words possible. All estates may see themselves in the “glass” that Harman has created, and the pronoun “their” may turn out to refer not to the rogues but to “all estates,” including the respectable readers of the pamphlet.

The Comedy of Errors also holds up a “glass well polished” to all estates. The absence of intention shows misidentification to be deep-rooted in social exchange. Like the pamphlets, the play stages the plight of those who are not in control of the effects of their identification by others. The result is invariably a loss of position, whether imagined as a loss of marital harmony, financial profit, trade relations, property, or even spiritual salvation. The restoration of order in The Comedy of Errors proceeds in close connection with the reformation of the law and the alleviation of the anxieties about the female other in the final recognition scene. Shakespeare concludes his play by transforming the urban space into a Christian, morally controlled, stable environment in which family is the primary source of identity. His ending, drawn from the escapist romance tradition, fails to solve the problem of exchange in the growing city as is made clear by the generic shift needed to effect it and by the silence of a number of important characters, including Adriana and Luciana.53

The authors of the rogue books alleviate concern about city life by pretending to instruct their readers on how to identify the rogue and understand his speech, using different tactics to “fix” the mobile trickster. Awdeley classifies types of rogues and tricksters in The Fraternity of Vagabonds;  Greene produces detailed descriptions of the apparel of certain types of rogues and, like his predecessors, lists phrases in beggars' cant; Harman surveys the different types and gives a large number of names at the end of A Caveat for Common Cursitors. As Woodbridge has remarked, “The promise of disclosure animates the whole genre,” but it is a promise that is impossible to fulfill.54 The rogue books make the mechanics of the underworld look so intricate and its practices so widespread that the readers can hardly feel secure about their own ability to recognize the rogue on the street. The relationships that break down in the play do so with equally alarming ease and without conscious effort on the part of anyone. The pamphlets and Shakespeare's play never fully dispel concern with the processes of identification and the mistakes people inevitably make.

Instead, The Comedy of Errors leaves the playgoers, like the readers of the pamphlets, with the uncomfortable sense of an unpredictable social world in which cultural expectations and assumptions only serve to further disorder and the truth about the other is forever elusive.


  1. I would like to thank Clifford Dammers for the literal translation of the passage. The original reads:

                        in Epdamnieis
    voluptárii atque potatores maxumi;
    tum sycophantae et palpatores plurumi
    in urbe hac habitant; tum meretrices mulieres
    nusquam perhibentur blandiores gentium.


    For the Latin version of the play, see Plautus, “Menaechmi,” in The Perseus Project, ed. F. Leo,, ed. Gregory R. Crane, October 2002.

  2. William Warner, “The Menaechmi of Plautus,” in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 8 vols. (London: Routledge, 1957), 1:12-39, 17.

  3. Warner, 1:18.

  4. Warner, 1:21.

  5. I avoid the use of literary labels such as “mistaken identity” and “recognition” (or the Aristotelian term anagnorisis) to stress the social and historical as opposed to the aesthetic and conventional significance of scenes that involve identification.

  6. Gámini Salgádo suggests an original date of 1552 for Gilbert Walker's book in Cony-Catchers and Bawdy Baskets: An Anthology of Elizabethan Low Life (Harmondsworth, Middlesex UK: Penguin, 1972), p. 25. I have used this collection for all rogue pamphlets cited in this essay. For the composition of Jack Juggler, E. K. Chambers proposes a date between 1553 and 1558 (The Mediaeval Stage, 4 vols. [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1903], 2:457). For speculation about the date and possible authorship by Nicholas Udall or Thomas Heywood, see the introduction to Three Tudor Classical Interludes: Thersites, Jacke Jugeler, Horestes, ed. Marie Axton (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982), pp. 15-24. Authorship of the two rogue texts usually attributed to Walker and John Awdeley is uncertain.

  7. For an essay that argues for an intertextual relationship between the rogue literature and Twelfth Night, see Angela Hurworth, “Gulls, Cony-Catchers, and Cozeners: Twelfth Night and the Elizabethan Underworld,” ShS [Shakespeare Survey] 52 (1999): 120-32. Hurworth's interests are different from mine, however, in that she works primarily within a literary paradigm, not examining the social and larger cultural significance of the connection between Shakespeare's play and the trickster narratives.

  8. Editors have pointed out that Shakespeare used The Second Part of Cony-Catching (1591) and The Third and Last Part of Cony-Catching (1592) for the gulling of the clown and some of Autolycus's speeches. See The Winter's Tale, ed. John Dover Wilson and Arthur Quiller-Couch, New Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1931), pp. xxii, 176-7.

  9. Social historians have not reached a consensus with regard to the stability of early modern England and London in particular. Some point to political and social inequality, unemployment, and poverty as sources for unrest; others place emphasis on the decentralized, participatory nature of government to argue that London was, unlike its continental counterparts, a relatively peaceful community. Most agree, at any rate, that the perception of instability was widespread. For balanced accounts of the differences between the two camps, see Ian W. Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London, Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), and, from a literary point of view, Lawrence Manley, Literature and Culture in Early Modern London (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995).

  10. See Appendix 2, “References to Playgoing,” in Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 205-51. In The Second Part of Cony-Catching, Robert Greene describes the “Nip” who frequents playhouses and “standeth there leaning like some manerly gentleman against the doore as men go in,” ready to pick their pockets (Salgádo, p. 212, qtd. in Gurr, p. 208). Later references voice complaints in which the term cony catching is explicitly used. For instance, the Lord Mayor wrote to Lord Burghley in 1594 that the plays were “the ordinary places of meeting for all vagrant persons & maisterles men that hang about the Citie, theeves, horsestealers, whoremoongers, coozeners, connycatching persones, practizers of treason, & other such lyke” (Gurr, p. 210). The antitheatrical literature often cited the rogue's presence in playhouses, positing him as an “other” over and against which proper identity is established.

  11. Linda Woodbridge, Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2001).

  12. Craig Dionne, “Playing the ‘Cony’: Anonymity in Underworld Literature,” Genre 30, 1/2 (Spring/Summer 1997): 29-50.

  13. Dionne, p. 35.

  14. Dionne, p. 46.

  15. See Bryan Reynolds, Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2002). The term “transversal” is expanded from its use in the work of Félix Guattari. Reynolds makes connections between the rogues and performativity also drawn in this essay, but is more deeply concerned with the relationship between the binary opposition of criminal culture and official culture than I am here.

  16. Arthur Kinney's introduction to his collection of rogue texts discusses the licensing system (Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars [Barre MA: Imprint Society, 1973], pp. 1-56, 40-5). See also A. L. Beier's Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560-1640 (London: Methuen, 1985), esp. chap. 7.

  17. Thomas Harman, “A Caveat for Common Cursitors,” in Salgádo, pp. 79-153, 118.

  18. The story is entitled “A Pleasant Tale of a Country Farmer, that Took it in Scorn to have his Purse Cut or Drawn from him, and how a Foist Served him” and appears in Greene's A Disputation Between a He Cony-Catcher and a She Cony-Catcher, in Salgádo, pp. 265-315, 275-78.

  19. Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, in The Riverside Shakespeare, 2d edn., ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), I.ii.1. All quotations from the play are from this edition and will appear parenthetically within the text by act, scene, and line number.

  20. [Cuthbert Cony-Catcher], “The Defence of Cony-Catching,” in Salgádo, pp. 339-77, 346.

  21. Many readers of The Comedy of Errors have been struck by the material nature of mercantile exchange in the play and the extent to which individuals depend on the proper circulation of goods and objects to maintain their position and identity. Douglas Lanier, for instance, claims that the play engages with a “larger cultural drive to determine identities by determining the range and meanings of their material manifestations” (“‘Stigmatical in Making’: The Material Character of The Comedy of Errors,ELR [English Literary Renaissance] 23, 1 [Winter 1993]: 81-112, 85; rprt. in The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, ed. Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare Criticism 18 [New York: Garland, 1997], pp. 299-334, 302).

  22. Beier claims that with Nicholas Jennings we have one of the few cases in which the description in a rogue pamphlet has been confirmed by the historical record (pp. 117-8). For an interesting reading of the Jennings episode, see William C. Carroll, Fat King, Lean Beggar: Representations of Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 70-96.

  23. Greene, “The Third and Last Part of Cony-Catching,” in Salgádo, pp. 231-63, 238.

  24. Anne Barton, introduction, “The Comedy of Errors,” in The Riverside Shakespeare, 2d edn., pp. 111-4, 111.

  25. “Jacke Jugeler,” in Four Tudor Comedies, ed. William Tydeman (Harmondsworth, Middlesex UK: Penguin, 1984), pp. 45-94, lines 174-6. Modern productions of The Comedy of Errors often feature the twins in identical clothing, a choice that is an interpretative shift away from the play, which does not call for or offer an explanation of the twins' similar dress.

  26. Katharine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 25.

  27. Barnard Law is described in most rogue books, based on the frequently plagiarized A Manifest Detection of Dice-Play. Much of Walker's entire work is presented as if never before published in the anonymous Mihil Mumchance (1597).

  28. Greene, “The Third and Last Part,” p. 242. The jargon is a little confusing because this type of trickery is also known as “cross-biting,” i.e., deceit that involves the help of a female.

  29. Greene, “The Third and Last Part,” p. 243.

  30. Steve Rappaport's revisionist argument for London's stability during the period relies on the strength of close personal contact between and within social groups; the rogue literature shows that the very types of relationships that maintain stability may be undermined and exploited by cony catchers. See Worlds within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), chaps. 6 and 7.

  31. For a very different argument about the reading of rogue literature, see Woodbridge. Her situation of rogue literature in the jest book tradition means that in spite of the many ways in which she takes these works seriously, she assumes that early modern readers did not. She sees these texts as “aiming mainly at entertainment” (p. 91).

  32. Joel Altman's remark points us in a fruitful direction, though I do not share his conclusion that the play is primarily about the errors involved in egoism (The Tudor Play of Mind: Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978], p. 165).

  33. In the context of a different argument, Eamon Grennan has also treated the traveling twins as deceptive regardless of intention in “Arm and Sleeve: Nature and Custom in The Comedy of Errors,PQ [Philological Quarterly] 59, 2 (Spring 1980): 150-64.

  34. In Plautus, the traveling twin fully intends to make the most out of his misidentification. Gail Kern Paster has helpfully pointed out that the scenes of misidentification in Shakespeare follow a distinct pattern, “outward from the domestic world to the world of commerce,” the opposite of the pattern in Plautus, whose traveling twin begins by meeting the courtesan and ultimately encounters the wife (The Idea of the City in the Age of Shakespeare [Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985], p. 188). On the whole, this means that Antipholus is more estranged from the city while Menaechmus Sosicles is always on top of the confusion.

  35. Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 28-113; rprt. as “Reading Errantly: Misrecognition and the Uncanny in The Comedy of Errors,” in The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, pp. 261-97.

  36. David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), p. 287.

  37. Alexander Leggatt points out that the supernatural hints at the famous representation of Ephesus as a town of witchcraft in the Bible (Shakespeare's Comedy of Love [London: Methuen, 1974], pp. 1-3; rprt. in Miola, pp. 135-53, 135-6).

  38. In “Shakespeare, Molière, and the Comedy of Ambiguity,” ShS 22 (1969): 15-26, 18, Michel Grivelet highlights the thematic importance of Adriana's potential adultery. He sees this as an instance of Shakespearean ambiguity.

  39. Greene, “A Disputation,” p. 275.

  40. Greene, “A Disputation,” p. 287.

  41. Greene, “A Disputation,” p. 274.

  42. Lorna Hutson, The Usurer's Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 205. Hutson's thesis is that Shakespeare resolved the problem of representing women within the scandalous context of the Roman comic plot by making his female characters “productive … at the level of the audience's uncertainty about their sexual intentions and desires” (p. 190).

  43. As is well known, the character is confusingly also named Nell by Dromio. Thomas P. Hennings points to interesting connections between Luciana and Luce in “The Anglican Doctrine of the Affectionate Marriage in The Comedy of Errors,MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly] 47, 2 (June 1986): 91-107, 98-101.

  44. Ann Christensen has argued that Antipholus of Ephesus fails to see that the domestic and the commercial spheres are closely tied. She claims that “the interdependence of the ‘separate spheres’ everywhere inflects the action” (“‘Because Their Business Still Lies Out A' Door’: Resisting the Separation of the Spheres in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors,L&H [Literature and History] 5, 1 [Spring 1996]: 19-37, 24).

  45. Greene, “A Notable Discovery of Cozenage,” in Salgádo, pp. 154-92, 181.

  46. Greene, “The Third and Last Part,” p. 233.

  47. Walker, “A Manifest Detection of Dice-Play,” in Salgádo, pp. 27-58, 43.

  48. Greene, “A Notable Discovery,” p. 174.

  49. [Cuthbert Cony-Catcher], p. 346.

  50. On p. 360 of “The Defence of Cony-Catching,” Cuthbert asks tauntingly, “what if I should prove you a cony-catcher, Master R. G., would it not make you blush at the matter?” and goes on to accuse R. G. of selling his dramatic version of Orlando Furioso to two playing companies.

  51. Stephen Greenblatt asserts of Walker's passage and of rogue literature in general: “The subversive voices are produced by and within the affirmations of order; they are powerfully registered, but they do not undermine that order” (Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988], pp. 21-65, 52). The case for containment, to my mind, underestimates the ambiguity of the effect of these passages on the reader, who may feel a complex mixture of attraction to the wit of the trickster, admiration for his intelligence, fear of what he means in terms of everyday encounters on the street, and anxiety about the consequences of his presence for the commonwealth at large.

  52. Harman, p. 153.

  53. Dorothea Kehler's argument that the play is in fact a problem comedy is in part based on the silence of the two women in the concluding scene (“The Comedy of Errors as a Problem Comedy,” RMR [Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature] 41, 4 [Winter 1987]: 229-40).

  54. Woodbridge, “Imposters, Monsters, and Spies: What Rogue Literature Can Tell Us about Early Modern Subjectivity,” Interactive Early Modern Literary Studies Dialogues (1999): 4, 1-11,, October 2002.

Michael Phillips (review date 26 March 2001)

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SOURCE: Phillips, Michael. “With Frugal Casting, Scheie's Comedy of Errors Gets It Right.” Los Angeles Times (26 March 2001): F9.

[In the following review, Phillips praises director Danny Scheie's 2001 production of The Comedy of Errors at A Noise Within, particularly his use of two actors rather than the usual four to play the two sets of twins.]

The two sets of crazy mixed-up identical twins in The Comedy of Errors—Shakespeare's probable first foray into comedy—afford some nice, cheap prospects for four actors.

But why spread them around? The play's twice as much fun with half as many people.

In director Danny Scheie's jolly production, now entering the spring repertory at A Noise Within, Donald Sage Mackay plays Antipholus of Syracuse and his long-lost bro, Antipholus of Ephesus. Their respective servants, Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus, are portrayed by Louis Lotorto.

The results are worth seeing if only for the scene where, behind the ancient Grecian version of the Laugh-In joke wall, a fleet-footed, quick-changing Lotorto gets into a fight with … himself.

Scheie has staged The Comedy of Errors several times, for Shakespeare Santa Cruz (where he served as artistic director) and companies in Berkeley and Seattle, among others. It's easy to see why. The concept has plenty of mileage on it. But do the bits work? Yessir. They work.

The production does take a while to gather steam. Not all the Noise Within regulars appear entirely comfortable within this universe of shtickery. Deborah Strang's trio of roles feels effortful; as Adriana, perplexed and shrewish wife of one of the twins, Anna C. Miller doesn't seem to be in a larkish mood.

But the twins are in fine hands. Costumed like a straw-hatted, bottom-of-the-bill 1920s vaudevillian, Mackay works effortlessly and well with Lotorto, dressed in bellboy duds, as if he were calling Philip Morris. There's a relaxed quality to their interplay, and to their delineation of the twins. One set speaks in a general-purpose Southern dialect; the other sports eyeglasses and talks like Phil Silvers. Or Joey Faye.

When the Syracuse duo sets foot in Ephesus, they're immediately mistaken for the local Antipholus and Dromio. From Roman laff-riot Plautus, who wrote The Menaechmi, Shakespeare lifted an idea with roots in ancient Grecian comedy. It may be the Bard's most rudimentary contraption, but a sound premise is a sound premise.

The music in Scheie's production includes “Lady of Spain” and “Puff the Magic Dragon,” played on accordion by Christopher Ervin Moore. Apollo Dukakis takes two roles, that of Second Merchant (costume designer Alex Jaeger dresses him like a Mongolian version of a Van Heusen shirt ad) and, delightfully, the Abbess Emilia.

Scheie's chief inspiration is that back wall, a skeletal wooden creation with windows on two levels, and a center set of doors. Everything this production does best takes place behind it. Yet for all the slapstick and sight gags, this staging—even with some over-earnest playing in the supporting ranks—doesn't feel frantic.

And Scheie's concept is fun. Allow me to drop a bombshell: That's all this text is, or should be, or probably can be, though there's a dash of sweetness, too. Scheie locates it, right at the end.

For the 1883 Riverside Shakespeare, Richard Grant White assessed The Comedy of Errors as a “mass of anachronism; but for this neither Shakespeare's audience nor he himself cared the snuff of a rushlight [candle]. Let us be at least as wise as they were.”

Yes. Let's.

Wolfgang Riehle (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Riehle, Wolfgang. “Names and their Meanings.” In Shakespeare, Plautus and the Humanist Tradition, pp. 173-84. Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer Ltd, D. S. Brewer, 1990.

[In the following essay, Riehle examines Shakespeare's practice of naming characters as a way of reflecting their inner natures in The Comedy of Errors.]

We have seen in the preceding chapters how closely Shakespeare studied his two Plautine sources before composing his own ‘classical’ comedy; now we shall return to our earlier suggestion that Errors [The Comedy of Errors] should at the same time be viewed as a text documenting Shakespeare's humanist interests. The current underrating of Errors, both in the theatre and in criticism, shows only too well that we are still inclined to underestimate the profundity of Shakespeare's education. We have to assume that Shakespeare acquired a fairly solid knowledge of the classics in the Grammar School. In many respects Elizabethan Grammar School teaching seems to have reflected the educational ideas of Erasmus.1 Although Shakespeare did not study at a university, his intellectual background and thematic interests are in many respects comparable to the ‘University Wits’, from whom he may have learnt a great deal by way of conversation. It seems to me that Tillyard has given a vivid description of the ways in which Shakespeare may have acquired his intellectual background. He points out that ‘a man can be learned in more ways than one and that at least one of those ways fitted Shakespeare’.2 He maintains that Shakespeare might have drawn an idea directly from a classical author, or he might have learnt it from a contemporary author who himself drew on the classical tradition, or he might have heard the idea discussed. Tillyard then concludes that Shakespeare was indeed learned, albeit not in a strictly academic or systematic way.3 To a considerable extent this is probably true; yet our examination has shown how intimate his knowledge of Plautine Comedy and of the New Comedy tradition behind it in fact was, and we have seen that, by reading Plautus in the original Latin, he must have acquired important information on Roman comedy and its reception by the humanists from the introductory essays of these editions. An interesting proof of this is the fact that many of these editions contain an explanatory essay on the meaning of the names of the characters appearing in the comedies, and this explanation of the ‘ratio nominum’ or ‘etymologiae’ was particularly stressed by the humanist editors.4 In this, they were obviously following a suggestion by Donatus, who laid down that the ‘ratio’ and the ‘etymologia’ of the names of the dramatis personae must be recognizable.5 Names and their meanings were also the subject of a detailed debate, which has been examined by J. L. Calderwood, so that there is no need to go into further detail here.6

Plautus usually takes over the names of his characters from his Greek sources; he is fully aware of their meanings and sometimes makes effective use of them, as in his Bacchides. In this comedy the cunning slave is appropriately called Chrysalus because the golden boy—this is the meaning of the Greek name—has to supply gold for a young master. He knows, however, that his plans may go wrong and that then the young man's father, thinking that he has been cheated by Chrysalus, will change his name from Chrysalus to Crucisalus, because he will in all probability take revenge and have him nailed to a cross (crux). In Menaechmi the seductive nature of the Courtesan is admirably suggested by her name Erotium. The cook Cylindrus, a stock character in New Comedy, derives his name from the ‘cylindrus’, a rolling pin. The proverbial voracity of the Parasite, who consumes even the leftovers from his Patron's table, is well brought out in the name Peniculus, a name not adopted from Greek but created by Plautus; its meaning is ‘table brush’, yet the sexual innuendo is, of course, an intentional side-effect.7

In his excellent guide to criticism on Shakespeare's reception of the classical tradition, John W. Velz rightly says that ‘much yet remains to be said about onomastics in Shakespeare’.8 The fact that Shakespeare was familiar with the traditional view going back to classical antiquity according to which the name of a person reflects and represents his very nature is most clearly documented by the conclusion of his Cymbeline. There Leonatus is made aware of the ‘fit and apt construction’ of his name: he is ‘the Lion's whelp’, ‘Being Leo-natus’. His daughter is truly called a woman, ‘mulier’, because by her virtue she has become a ‘piece of tender air’ = ‘mollis aer’ (V,v,443 - 49). This explanation of the meaning of the two names is given a special dramatic function: it suggests the final restitution of Posthumus's real nature, and, similarly, Imogen's true self is revealed when her disguise is no longer required. Shakespeare here quite deliberately employs etymologically appropriate, ‘telling’ names as a way of characterizing the dramatis personae.

The name Solinus directly refers to one of the literary authorities favoured by Renaissance humanists. In the third century a.d., Julius Solinus compiled a compendium of knowledge about the ancient world.9 It became widely known, and in 1587 was translated into English by Arthur Golding. Foakes wrongly minimizes the importance of this work by calling it a ‘description of the Mediterranean countries’ written by a ‘geographer’.10 Nor is it correct to claim that there is nothing to suggest Shakespeare's direct use of this book. Not only does Solinus in his book mention Epidaurus (referred to by Egeon in I, i) and give a succinct description of Ephesus,11 yet, to the Elizabethans, he was more than a ‘geographer’, as is usually maintained, he was the author of a book of ‘res mirabiliae’, of the wonders of the world, as its title suggested. We find an interest in the strange, the marvellous and miraculous in Shakespeare too. Thus, the legendary ‘anthropophagi’, mentioned by Othello in his famous narration of his past adventures, are to be found in Solinus's book.12 Of course, Shakespeare may have read about them in Mandeville, Raleigh, or Holland's Pliny, but the parallels between Shakespeare and Solinus are so numerous that, since the latter's name occurs in Errors, we are almost compelled to believe that Solinus served Shakespeare as a mine of information. The name Lysander, one of the male lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream, occurs not only in Plutarch but also in Solinus's Collectanea.13 Shakespeare is said to have taken the name Hermione from Plutarch, Homer or The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune; however, her life as told in these sources does not bear any resemblance to the Shakespearean character, whereas Solinus mentions that she gives birth to a child, albeit a boy.14 Considering the interest in the miraculous and strange, which Shakespeare shares with Solinus, we must recognize a subtle irony in the fact that Shakespeare has Solinus open his comedy.

Far more important than these connections is the fact that Solinus is deeply concerned with decidedly humanist values such as pietas and clementia, and this may account for the special interest Shakespeare took in his work. In the dedication of his book to a certain Adventus, Solinus praises the clementia and benevolentia of his addressee.15 And in the book itself, even when describing certain animals, Solinus stresses their capacity for this same clementia. He finds it in lions and also in elephants, who are further credited with an almost human intellect.16 And so there is an extra irony in Shakespeare's Errors: his Solinus, rather than being merciful by nature, has first to learn the superiority of clementia over justice. The fact that in his own Solinus Shakespeare dramatizes a ruler's conflict between justice and mercy provides this play, as Tillyard has pointed out, with an additional political dimension: ‘The Duke […] is not just the conventional ruler […] he is a human being, in a great office, subjected, as all such people must be, to the conflict between personal feelings and political duty’.17 Although the general audience do not, of course, notice these subtle interrelations, their existence cannot be denied; they point clearly to the humanist background to this play.

It has been suggested that the name Egeon may have been developed from that of the Aegean Sea, mentioned in Solinus.18 However, it is probably no mere coincidence that in the Folio the name is spelled ‘Egeon’. If the Folio spelling is correct, then the name is not just a reminiscence of the Aegean Sea. Would the fact that Egeon has travelled and suffered on the Aegean Sea be sufficient reason for naming him after the Sea? This seems doubtful, if not absurd, especially if we recall the fact that names in the classical comedy tradition often refer to a major quality of the character who bears the name. I prefer to think that Shakespeare here makes use of a further and more subtle linguistic association. The name, which is mentioned on five occasions, may be understood as a derivative of the Latin verb ‘egeo’ = ‘I am poor, in need of, wanting, in search of someone or something’. Only the ending ‘-on’ would then have to be accounted for. If we take it as the common Greek noun ending, as in the name ‘Apoll-on’, we have in ‘Ege-on’ a name made up of two hybrid elements, a Latin and a Greek one, which is not unusual. Understood in this way, the name describes admirably Egeon's role in the romance subplot which frames the play: he is the poor one because he wants ransom money and misses his relatives; he goes in search of them and, as a result, runs into extreme danger. It is interesting and most fitting that he is named ‘Egeon’ for the first time just after he has told us of his unfortunate losses.

The name Antipholus has always been a puzzle to critics. In his New Arden edition Foakes writes that ‘Antipholus appears to stem from the Greek “Antiphilos”, listed as a proper name for a lover in H. Estienne (Stephanus), Thesaurus Graecae Linguae (1572)’,19 and Baldwin refers to the verb ‘αντιφιλεω’ and the Latin definition as ‘Redamo, vicissim amo, amore prosequar’;20 according to Foakes, it is uncertain where Shakespeare found the name.21 Indeed, the name not only suggests ‘a lover’, but with the prefix ‘anti-’ it signifies reciprocity—loving and being loved in return. No doubt Shakespeare was fully aware of the implied meaning of this name. It has been pointed out that there is an Antiphilus in Sidney's Arcadia and an Antiphila in the Heautontimoroumenos of Terence.22 In the comedy Chrysis by Enea Silvio Piccolomini a Courtesan bears the name Antiphila. We do not know why Shakespeare changed Antiphilos to Antipholus. Perhaps it is a case of partial assimilation, or it was done for reasons of euphony. A possible explanation is the fact that in the Plautine Stichus as well as in Eunuchus and Phormio by Terence there is a character called ‘Antipho’. If we add to this the Latin masculine ending ‘-us’, and an intermediate ‘l’ to make the pronunciation easier, we get the name Antipho-l-us.23 Thus the name may be explained as a contamination of ‘Antiphila’ and ‘Antipho’, both frequently found in Roman comedy. Shakespeare's ‘Antipholus’ is unique, yet its Greek meaning is only slightly blurred. The name suggests that love is the motive of his quest for his brother, that love rescues the brother from the dangerous situation in which he finds himself, and that love brings about their reunion. The name also suggests the idea which Erasmus discusses, and to which we shall have to return, that love is inspired primarily by a partner whose nature is similar to the lover.24

In the Folio text of Errors we find the speech headings ‘Antipholus Sereptus’, ‘Antipholis [sic] Erotes’ and ‘A Errotis’. Obviously these additions to the names stem from Shakespeare's own hand. The first has been correctly interpreted as a reminiscence of the Prologue to Menaechmi, where the denizen twin is called ‘surreptus’, and it is assumed that Shakespeare adopted this addition on the analogy of the speech heading ‘Menaechmus Surreptus’ which occurs in a number of Renaissance editions. In these editions the other twin is often called Menaechmus ‘Sosicles’ (or ‘Sosides’ or even ‘Advena’).25

The Folio word ‘Erotes’, or ‘Errotis’, as the cognomen of the traveller twin, is more difficult to account for. It has been unconvincingly explained as an indirect reference to Erotium in Menaechmi; it is argued that Shakespeare may have ‘thought initially of the Antipholus who was to be entertained in mistake for his brother by Adriana as identified with Erotium's Menaechmus; or, alternatively […] the name of the Courtesan prompted Shakespeare to think of Eros, and to mark off Antipholus of Syracuse as the one who falls in love.’26 The interpretation generally accepted today is still less plausible: ‘Erotes’ is taken to have been derived from ‘erraticus’ or ‘errans’, meaning the traveller, ‘errant’ twin, who is thus contrasted with the stolen twin (‘surreptus’). However, Foakes correctly notes that it is hard to explain how ‘Erotes’ could be derived from ‘Erraticus’.27 On the other hand, the name Erotes really does make sense if it is derived from the Greek word ‘ερωταω’ ‘to ask’, ‘to try to find out’. The proper form of the name would then be ‘Erotetes’, but the contraction may be explained as a case of haplology. Thus the Greek name ‘Sosicles’ for the Plautine twin is here replaced by another Greek word, a defining attribute, which characterizes him as a Quester and distinguishes him from the other twin on account of his specific function in the play. This cognomen has to be seen in the light of other Shakespearean names of Greek origin, such as, for example, Ophelia and Sycorax.28 In any case, it is an astonishing instance of Shakespeare's erudition.

As far as the name ‘Dromio’ is concerned, most critics hold the view that it is formed from the slave name ‘Dromo’, which occurs in Terence. However, the Dromos in Terence are particularly insignificant figures, being almost supernumeraries who have nothing to do with the servus currens or servus callidus types. Indeed, to Erasmus the name simply suggests a dull character, for he speaks of the ‘Dromonem stupidum atque hebetem’,29 and he frequently uses it in his Colloquia Familiaria. There can be no doubt, however, that, as we have seen, the immediate source of the name is Lyly's Mother Bombie, since Lyly's Dromio bears a considerable resemblance to Shakespeare's twin servants. Whereas the original meaning of the name Dromo is ‘a runner’, Lyly and Shakespeare, by introducing an extra ‘i’, slightly modify it so that it acquires a lively rhythm; it thus nicely suggests the nervous activity of these servants. The minor character of the goldsmith is given the name Angelo, an appropriate tag name in Elizabethan times, because an ‘angel’ was a gold coin with the figure of Saint Michael stamped upon it.30

In his book on Shakespeare's names, Levith claims that ‘Adriana’ contains an implication of ‘darkness’,31 but to me it is not clear how this meaning should suggest itself by way of a Latin etymology. One could argue that, since it recalls the male name Hadrian, it implies a certain ‘maleness’, and therefore ‘Adriana’ seems just the right name for the shrewish wife of Antipholus. However, the key to the significance of this most unusual name lies elsewhere. No one has noticed that the name Adriane occurs several times in Chaucer as well as in Gower—as a variant of the classical Ariadne. Wherever we look in medieval vernacular literature, be it the poetry of Machaut, Boccaccio, or the Italian translation of Ovid's Heroides32 which contain Ariadne's letter to Theseus, we find the name Adriana which may go back to a medieval Latin form ‘Adriagne’.33 That Shakespeare knew Ovid's retelling of Ariadne in the original Latin of his Heroides is confirmed by the fact that in III Henry VI (I, iii, 48) as well as in The Taming of the Shrew (III, i, 42) he quotes lines from this Ovidian text. He will then also have consulted Chaucer's Legend of Good Women which is based on Ovid. In Chaucer's version, as we have already seen, Ariadne is always mentioned as Adryane.34 He shows how Ariadne/Adryane and her sister at first feel pity for Theseus, who is to be killed by the Minotaur. By using her famous thread, Ariadne shows him the way out of the labyrinth. He swears that he will ever be faithful to her, and they become husband and wife. Having entered the labyrinth with the gaoler, they secretly make their escape. Suddenly, however, Theseus becomes enamoured of Ariadne's sister because, in the words of Chaucer, she ‘fayrer was than she’ (Legend of Good Women, 2172);35 he steals away from Ariadne while she is asleep. Then she complains about having been ‘betrayed’ (Legend of Good Women, 2188), and this is where her Letter to Theseus starts in Ovid's Heroides. Ariadne's complaint culminates in the following lines:

quid faciam? quo sola ferar? …
Cum mihi dicebas 'per ego ipsa pericula iuro
Te fore, dum nostrum vivet uterque, meam.’
Vivimus, et non sum, Theseu, tua; si modo vivis,
Femina periuri fraude sepulta vivi …


What am I to do? Whither shall I take myself? […] you said to me: ‘By these very perils of mine, I swear that, so long as both of us shall live, thou shalt be mine!’ We both live, Theseus, and I am not yours!—if indeed a woman lives who is buried by the treason of a perjured maid …

Morsque minus poenae quam mora mortis habet.


and death holds less of dole for me than the delay of death.

In Shakespeare's Errors, the name Adriana, being a vernacular form of Ariadne, opens up an interesting mythological parallel and is at the same time an inversion of the classical Ariadne. In both Ovid and Chaucer Ariadne is the victim of Theseus's infidelity;37 in some dramatic moments of the play, Shakespeare's Adriana, too, complains about her husband's suspected betrayal:

The time was once when thou unurg'd wouldst vow
That never words were music to thine ear …

II, ii, 113ff

I'll weep what's left away, and weeping die.

II, i, 115

Whereas, however, in the classical myth and in Chaucer's retelling of it, the faithful and ‘good’ woman helps Theseus out of the labyrinth in which death awaits him, Adriana involuntarily contributes towards entangling her husband deeper and deeper in a maze of confusions which makes him afraid of losing his life (IV, iv, 107). Yet like her mythological prototype, Adriana is compelled to think that her husband wants to make love with her sister, a suspicion that is, however, unwarranted because she takes the twin for Antipholus E. Whereas in Chaucer, Theseus by his infidelity, becomes a real ‘traitour’ (Legend of Good Women, 2174), Adriana's husband merely intends to become unfaithful as an act of revenge, while the other Antipholus realizes that, by falling in love with Luciana, he had almost become a ‘traitor’, yet not to her, but to himself (III, ii, 161).

Shakespeare's early plays in particular show that the Ariadne myth must have left a deep impression on Shakespeare. While in 1 Henry VI the married Suffolk, who has fallen in love with Margeret, refers to the Minotaur and his labyrinth (V, iii, 189), in The Two Gentlemen of Verona a direct analogy is established between Julia's diappointment about her philandering Proteus and Ariadne's complaint; being confronted with her rival Silvia, Julia claims that she ‘did play a lamentable part. / Madam, 'twas Ariadne passioning / For Theseus' perjury and unjust flight’ (IV, iv, 167ff.). We also remember the fact that in A Midsummer Night's Dream Theseus' proneness to infidelity is expressly commented on by Oberon who refers to his betrayal of Ariadne (II, i, 79f.). If Shakespeare in Errors preferred the variant ‘Adriana’ to ‘Ariadne’, he wanted to achieve the effect of subtle allusion so that the educated members of his audience could discover for themselves both the paralleling and inverting of the Ariadne myth. Shakespeare is, then, indeed doing much to provide his comedy with intellectual depth: he first adds a mythological perspective to the confusions of identity by transforming the Amphitruo myth, and then he combines the confusions with the mythological motif of the labyrinth, with the effect that Adriana's behaviour, which is the opposite of that of Ariadne, is indirectly criticized. Moreover, the reminiscences of the classical myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth serve as a beautiful symbolic suggestion of the mysteries of human life. And Shakespeare adds a further mythological perspective by choosing the Phoenix image as a name for Adriana's house; Foakes comments on it as follows: ‘The image of this mythical bird, rising out of its own ashes to renewed youth, is appropriate to the story of Antipholus and Adriana, whose love is finally renewed out of the break-up of their marital relationship.’38 This comment hits the nail on the head and should not be omitted in any future edition of the play.

As regards the sign of the house of the Courtesan, Foakes is less convincing because he only quotes Sisson: ‘there was an inn called the Porpentine “on Bankside … Shakespeare's audience probably knew it well”’.39 The point is, of course, that the Porpentine is not just an inn but a brothel. As no one would associate a courtesan with a porcupine, the sign functions, as it were, e contrario and bears an ironical implication. The name of the inn where Antipholus S stays bears the name (and sign) of the Centaur, which the editions do not comment on. It is true that this tavern is not directly present or visible in the play, nevertheless its role is not unimportant, for Antipholus S arrives there between Acts I and II in search of his Dromio. Like the motif of the Phoenix, the Centaur could be interpreted in Christian terms and said to signify Man's twofold nature, his animal instinct and his human intellect; it is used in this way in Titus Andronicus (V, ii, 203) and King Lear (IV, vi, 124). Seen in this light, the image well suits Antipholus S, who in search of his own identity has to undergo a process of transformation. Likewise, the fact that the Centaur is half man and half animal links Antipholus with this same thematic strand of transformation, which culminates in the reference to Circe in the final Act of the play.40

The sinister person whose task it is to turn a human being transformed by the devil back into his original condition is the exorcist Dr Pinch. We could not easily think of a name more suitable for an exorcist than ‘Pinch’. First, it perfectly ‘depicts the character's physical appearance’,41 as described in the last Act (V, i, 238-242). Then, it is well known that the Elizabethans liked to think that elves and spirits ‘pinched’ human beings, an idea which we find in Shakespeare, too.42 This is what Dromio fears when he says that if he and his master do not obey the spirits which they believe surround them, ‘they'll […] pinch us black and blue’ (II, ii, 192). ‘Pinching’ thus amounts almost to ‘a spirit taking possession of somebody’. If an exorcist wants to expel evil spirits from the human being in whom they dwell, he has to ‘pinch’ them in return, and therefore Dr Pinch's name suggests part of his activity as an exorcist. The name further implies violence, and his appearance on stage should indeed have a menacing effect.

It appears, then, that in the naming of his characters Shakespeare pursues a threefold aim. He takes great care that the sound effect of a proper name suitably evokes the character of the bearer. Levin has already observed this suggestive quality in some of Shakespeare's names, such as that of Shylock, of which he remarks: ‘Shakespeare makes the sound convey a meaning of its own, compounded of sharpness and harshness, so that the name evokes the character by a kind of psychological onomatopoeia.’43 The second function of names in Shakespeare is then, as we have seen, the direct indication of the nature of a character. Names in Errors such as Antipholus, Dromio, Egeon, Pinch and Angelo can be best described as ‘characteronyms’. However, Levin, who discusses this term, is unaware of the fact that the tradition of New Comedy, which contributed greatly to the frequency of such names in Shakespeare's works, is nowhere clearer than in the Latin names Fidele, Perdita, Marina and Miranda in his last plays. Levin merely makes the general remark that the device goes back at least as far as Homer, and then he turns to the morality tradition and to Restoration Comedy.44 The third function of Shakespeare's name-giving in Errors is to open up a mythological or classical-humanist perspective in a most subtle way.

If the name Solinus contains specifically humanist implications, then the same is true of Luciana, perhaps the most interesting name in the whole play. I find Levith's attempt to derive ‘Luciana’ from ‘lux’ and to define its meaning as ‘the shining one’45 entirely unconvincing; as we shall see, her character in fact is incorrectly described as bright and shining. As the metrical context suggests, the name is to be pronounced Luc-i-ana and not trisyllabically, as in the Italian pronunciation. In his edition, Foakes suggests that Shakespeare may have derived the name from the word Lucina, which, he says, is the name of Apollonius's wife in the medieval romance.46 It is true that she is given this name in the title of the Apollonius edition of 1576. Yet we have to be aware of the fact that ‘Lucina’ in classical literature had a precise meaning and could not readily be transferred to another character: it was the cognomen of Juno as the goddess of childbirth, and as such it occurs in the Plautine Aulularia (692) and Truculentus (476) as well as in the Terentian Andria (473) and Adelphoe (478), or to give an example from Renaissance poetry, in Poliziano's Rime Varie.47 Shakespeare was certainly aware of this because in his Pericles, based on the romance of Apollonius, he uses this cognomen in its correct sense, when Pericles addresses Juno with these words: ‘Lucina, o / Divinest patroness and midwife gentle’ (III, i, 10-11). It is therefore most unlikely that Shakespeare would have derived ‘Luciana’ from ‘Lucina’, especially because Luciana's status as an unmarried woman does not in the least remind us of ‘Juno Lucina’.

The reason for Shakespeare's choice of this name seems to lie elsewhere. In an age which was particularly language-conscious, it is simply inconceivable that this name was not meant as a deliberate allusion to Lucian, who was esteemed by the Renaissance humanists as one of their favourite authors of late antiquity. It is therefore hardly surprising that Shakespeare included a clear allusion to him in his ‘classical’ comedy. What Lucian meant to Renaissance humanism can only be assessed if his reception by Erasmus and Thomas More is taken into account; and in order to understand the full implications of the direct reference to Lucian, it is necessary to present an outline of the intertextual links between Lucian, the humanists Erasmus, Thomas More, and Shakespeare.


  1. Cf. Baldwin, [T. W.,] Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke [(Urbana, 1944), 2 vols.] and especially Sr. M. Joseph, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (New York, 1947).

  2. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 12.

  3. Tillyard, ibid.

  4. For example, in the edition P. Terentii Comoediae Sex elegantissimae cum Donati Commentariis (Basel, 1567); it explains the ‘Idiomata Personarum’ and ‘Ratio Nominum’.

  5. Donatus, Commentum Terenti, II, 12.

  6. J. L. Calderwood, ‘Elizabethan Naming’ in: Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad (Berkeley, 1979), p. 183-220.

  7. Cf. Menaechmi, ed. H. Rädle (Stuttgart, 1980), p. 122.

  8. J. W. Velz, Shakespeare and the Classical Tradition. A Critical Guide to Commentary, 1660-1960 (Minneapolis, 1968), p. 36.

  9. J. Solinus, C. Ivlii Solini Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium, ed. T. Mommsen (Berlin, 1895).

  10. Foakes, [R. A. The New Arden Shakespeare (London, 1962)], p. xxx.; Foakes's remark that there is a character called Solinus in Lyly's Campaspe is beside the point because he is so insignificant as to speak only two sentences (ibid.).

  11. Op. cit. p. 56; p. 166.

  12. For example, op. cit., p. 82.

  13. Op. cit., p. 29.

  14. Op. cit., p. 63.

  15. Op. cit., p. 1.

  16. Op. cit., p. 119, 111.

  17. Tillyard, op. cit., p. 143.

  18. The Aegean Sea occurs, for example, on p. 58; Solinus also mentions a certain Aegaeon Chalcidiensis who has, however, no connection whatsoever with the Shakespearean character. It is true there is an Aegaeon in Claudian's De Raptu Proserpinae, but he is a monstrous giant with a hundred arms (Claudiano, I Rapimento di Proserpina, ed. F. Serpa (Milano, 1981), I, 46, p. 52.

  19. Foakes, op. cit., p. 2.

  20. Baldwin, [T. W.] Shakspere's Five-Act Structure, [(Urbana, 1947)] p. 696.

  21. Foakes, op. cit., p. 2.

  22. M. J. Levith, What's in Shakespeare's Names (London/Sydney, 1978), p. 68. It escaped Baldwin's notice that it was Cicero who, in his famous De Amicitia, for the first time translated αντιφιλειν by his newly coined verb ‘redamare’. (W. A. Falconer, ed., Cicero. De Senectute, De Amicitia, De Divinatione, The Loeb Classical Library [London/Cambridge, Mass., 1964], p. 160).

  23. Baldwin already suspected that ‘Antipho of Terence's Phormio […] is here really to blame for the o interchanged with the final i (Shakspere's Five-Act Structure, p. 696).

  24. Cf. chapter IX, note 24.

  25. Cf., for example, the editions M. Accii Plauti Sarsinatis Comici Festiuissimi Comoediae XX (Basel, 1535), Plautus Poeta Comicus (Strasbourg, 1508), and Baldwin, Five-Act Structure, p. 695.

  26. Foakes, op. cit., p. xxvif.

  27. Foakes, op. cit., p. xxviif. Baldwin is not helpful either when he points out that the name Erotes recurs in an obscure work, Nicolaus Wyman's Colymbetes sive De Arte Natandi; he fails to establish any connection between this text and Shakespeare's Errors. (Shakspere's Five-Act Structure, p. 697).

  28. On Greek names in Shakespeare cf. J. W. Hales, ‘Shakespeare's Greek Names’, Notes and Essays on Shakespeare (London, 1884), p. 105-119.

  29. Erasmus, De Ratione Studii, in: Opera Omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami, ed. J. C. Margolin (Amsterdam, 1971), I,2,144,9.

  30. Levith, op. cit., p. 69.

  31. Levith, ibid.

  32. Machaut, Le Jugement du Roy de Navarre, quoted in E. F. Shannon, Chaucer and the Roman Poets (Cambridge, 1929), p. 68. Boccaccio has Fiammetta compare her tears to those of ‘Adriana’ in: Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, ed. F. Erbani (Milano, 1988), p. 146f. On the Trecento translation of Heroides cf. S. Brown Meech, ‘Chaucer and an Italian Translation of the Heroides’, PMLA, 45 (1930), 116. On Shakespeare's knowledge of Chaucer see A. Thompson, Shakespeare's Chaucer (Liverpool, 1978).

  33. Cf. J. Gower, Confessio Amantis in The English Works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay (Oxford, 1901), II, 89.

  34. On Chaucer's version of the myth cf. S. Brown Meech, op. cit., 110-28 and B. Harbert, ‘Chaucer and the Latin Classics’ in: Geoffrey Chaucer. Writers and their Background (London, 1974), p. 133-53.

  35. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson (London, 21957), p. 512.

  36. Ovid. Heroides and Amores, ed. and transl. G. Showerman (Cambridge, Mass./London, 1963).

  37. Cf. Shannon, op. cit., p. 67.

  38. Foakes, op. cit., p. 16, n. 75.

  39. Foakes, op. cit., p. 49, n. 116.

  40. On the important motif of transformation in Errors cf. W. C. Carroll, The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy (Princeton, 1985), p. 63ff.

  41. Levith, op. cit., p. 68.

  42. Cf. Merry Wives of Windsor, IV,iv,58 and passim.

  43. Levin, op. cit., p. 65.

  44. Levin, op. cit., p. 55f.

  45. Levith, op. cit., p. 69.

  46. Foakes, op. cit., p. xxxi.

  47. Angelo Poliziano, Poesie Italiane, ed. S. Orlando (Milano, 1976), p. 235.

Charles Whitworth (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Whitworth, Charles, ed. Introduction to The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-79. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Whitworth discusses the production history of The Comedy of Errors and the critical controversy over the play's designation as a farce.]


E. M. W. Tillyard, in his generally sympathetic if not unequivocally enthusiastic discussion of Errors [The Comedy of Errors], followed the well-established tradition, in both criticism and stage production, of assuming its ‘core’ or essence to be farce and its comedy as being that exaggerated kind peculiar to farce. The critical tradition dates from the time of Coleridge at least. He insisted on the uniqueness of the play in the Shakespeare canon, defining it as ‘a legitimate farce’, distinct ‘from comedy and from other entertainments’ by ‘the licence … required … to produce strange and laughable situations’: ‘A comedy would scarcely allow even the two Antipholuses … but farce dares add the two Dromios’.1 While on the page, farce may be conveyed by vigorous dialogue and in stage directions and a sympathetic reader may react to it, only on the stage does it come into its own, there for all to see. From the low comedy that crept into the Restoration theatre and was decried by Dryden and other guardians of dramatic decorum (see p. 27 n. 1 above), to vaudeville and the popular French farces of the late nineteenth century by masters like Labiche, Feydeau and Courteline, to the slapstick of early American cinema, farce has always had to be seen to be (dis)believed. It relies on visual gags, facial expressions, large gestures, exaggeration, repetition, grotesque business such as pratfalls, ear-wringing and nose-pulling. That generations of literary critics, many of whom rarely or never went to the theatre, could have affirmed so emphatically that The Comedy of Errors is a farce is just one of the misfortunes of its critical and theatrical history.

What critics usually have in mind when they label the play as farce is the increasingly hectic and crazy action in the middle acts generated by the presence in Ephesus of two sets of identical twins, and in particular the physical violence of which the two servant Dromios are the main victims. Their increasingly irritated and uncomprehending masters, the Antipholus brothers, resort to beating and threats of such punishment on several occasions—there are specific directions in the Folio only at 2.2.23 and 4.4.45—and there is much talk of beating, especially by the Dromios. Beat, beaten and beating, always in the primary sense of physical blows (as opposed to the beating of the heart, for example, or of the sea upon the rocks), occur a total of fourteen times in Errors, more than in any other play in the canon. There is further vigorous action in 3.1 when Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus and their dinner guests try to enter their own house, where their Syracusan twins are already ensconced, and in 4.4 when the exorcist Pinch and his assistants catch and bind the supposedly possessed Ephesian master and servant. But to categorize the whole play as ‘farce’, even ‘the only specimen of poetical farce in our language, that is intentionally such’, as Coleridge did, solely because there are twins and people mistake them or because masters sometimes beat servants, would seem to be wilfully to ignore its other facets. Perhaps critics' uneasiness about its authenticity, dating from Pope, could be resolved by isolating it in a separate genre from all of Shakespeare's other plays. After all, there are apparently identical twins, of opposite sexes, in Twelfth Night, one of whom is married to a woman who thinks she has married the other, who is in fact a girl—yet few critics have called that wonderful comedy a farce. Beatings are administered and characters are otherwise physically assaulted in a comical context in many other plays: The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost, even The Tempest, but those plays have not generally been relegated to the literary outer darkness connoted by the term ‘farce’. As for improbable or ‘unbelievable’ endings, if that is what some may have in mind as justifying the label, one need look no further than some of Shakespeare's other comedies—Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure—or any of the late plays, with their multiple, complex, truly incredible revelations and resolutions—The Winter's Tale, Pericles, and above all, Cymbeline.

Farce is essentially a dramatic genre, viewerly, spectator-friendly; romance is essentially literary, readerly, a narrative genre, making large demands upon the imagination whereas farce leaves little or nothing to it. In performance, drama occurs in the present, is immediate, visual as well as aural, shows as much as or more than it tells. Narrative is usually in the past tense, most often in the third person, and the narrator must supply descriptions of places, actions, persons and their states of mind; such work is done by actors, directors, designers, composers and set-builders in the theatre. Romance in particular relies on the scene-setting, mood-making, spell-binding voice of the narrator. ‘Once upon a time, long ago’ is the romance narrator's typical opening gambit, but not the dramatist's, whose action begins in the present, in medias res. Even if a narrator does not start his story at the beginning, as many authors of prose romance have done, from the Greeks Chariton and Xenophon of Ephesus to the Elizabethans Sidney, in his original Arcadia, and Lodge, in his Rosalynde, but rather at a decisive moment in the plot, as both Heliodorus in his Ethiopian Story and Sidney in his partially-revised Arcadia did, he must eventually go back and fill in, in his own voice or in that of one or more characters, the prior history necessary to the hearer's or reader's understanding of all that will occur. And of course he is free to move from one place and one character or group of characters to another and back again—the entrelacement of French medieval romance—confident that the hearer/reader will follow. Both the time-scale and the geographical space of romance can be vast.

But the task is much more difficult for the dramatic author who, as Shakespeare so persisted in doing, attempts to put romance matter on the stage. There is not time for all that scene-setting, back-tracking, gap-filling, digressing and explaining, and there is normally, in the dramatic mode, no narrator on hand to do it. Consider some of Shakespeare's ploys to resolve the problem of the intractability of romance story: he uses prologues, epilogues, choruses, frames, or simply great lumps of narrative within the play. The forward action stops, and someone tells the story or the necessary part of it that is supposed to have taken place previously and/or elsewhere, up to the present moment, when the present-tense of drama resumes: Orlando at the beginning of As You Like It and Oliver in Act 4, Scene 3 of the same play, Othello with his striking story about story-telling in Act 1, Scene 3, Prospero in the second scene of The Tempest, the succession of Gentlemen in Act 5, Scene 2 of The Winter's Tale. Samuel Johnson complained that in his narrative passages Shakespeare

affects … a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few. Narration in dramatic poetry is naturally tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obstructs the progress of the action; it should therefore always be rapid and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakespeare found it an encumbrance …2

If that is so, Shakespeare repeatedly brought it upon himself by choosing to dramatize romance material. Only once did he (and his collaborator) simply put a narrator on stage and leave him there throughout, to sort out for the spectator/auditor the tangled threads of the too-complicated plot, that of the Apollonius of Tyre story: Gower in Pericles. It is a striking recognition of the peculiar nature of the material that in the most quintessential romance in his entire dramatic canon, Shakespeare and his colleague in effect handed the famous story back to a story-teller, and a real, historical one besides. Gower refers repeatedly to his tale or story, calling it a play only in the very last line: ‘Here our play has ending’. (Then George Wilkins, who was probably Shakespeare's collaborator, wrote his prose version, ‘being the true history of the play of Pericles, as it was lately presented by the worthy and ancient poet, John Gower’, thrusting the romance firmly back into its more natural, narrative mode.3) The Apollonius story was simply too much to handle in conventional theatrical terms. As we have already seen, just that story, or one very like it, is told by Egeon in the first scene of The Comedy of Errors. Furthermore, the denouement of that story, its concluding chapter as it were, constitutes the final three hundred lines or so of the play.4

The farcical action is framed, overarched and subsumed by the romance plot, as the latter absorbs the characters from the former: in the family romance finale, both sets of twins as well as a husband and wife are reunited, two sons are restored to their parents, the misunderstandings between another husband and wife are resolved, as is a potential rivalry between sisters, a new pair of lovers is formed, legitimately now (and Dromio of Syracuse gratefully escapes a snare set for him by a man-hungry kitchen wench). Egeon himself, the narrator of his and his family's tragic mishaps in the first scene, becomes a character in the dramatic conclusion to his own story, absorbed in the stories told by others, suffering errors and confusion and anguish as they have done, then being saved from death, then rejoicing with them in the rescues and reunions. The language of the final scene both recalls Egeon's account of the twins' birth in his opening narrative, and anticipates that of the finales of other, later family romances: both Pericles and Cymbeline, for example, like the Abbess in The Comedy of Errors, use images of rebirth when they are reunited with children whom they had believed dead.5 And the last coup de théâtre of all looks forward to the ‘resurrection’ of Hermione in the final scene of The Winter's Tale: the revelation of Emilia as Egeon's wife. We had known that both sets of twins were in Ephesus since the first of the ‘errors’ in Act 1, Scene 2. Their eventual reunion was just a matter of time. But Shakespeare keeps from us the fact that the Abbess, who does not appear until the final scene anyway, is Emilia, Egeon's wife, mother of the Antipholus twins, alive and safe; the last we heard of her was in Egeon's tragic tale of their separation at sea years before. Even in Pericles, we witness the rescue of Thaisa from the sea well before the end when she is reunited with her husband. But the romance ethos and atmosphere seep into the rest of the play too, infusing even the ‘farcical core’ and the city comedy with mystery, weirdness and awe. Indeed, this early comedy is much more nearly kin to the true romances and the romance-based comedies of Shakespeare's later career than has usually been acknowledged.

Egeon's seemingly interminable narrative, ‘the wearisome train of circumlocution’, ends, and he is led away to await his fate: the past has caught up with him. The dramatic present of theatre succeeds the narrative past of romance, and the second scene opens in the midst of a conversation, in mid-sentence in fact (‘Therefore …’), begun before the three characters, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse and the First Merchant, burst upon the scene and into the story. ‘Once upon a time’ gives way to in medias res. The very verbs and temporal indicators change, from the past, mostly distant, of Egeon's story, to the immediate present, indicative and imperative: ‘Therefore give out’ (1.2.1), ‘This very day’ (3), ‘Is apprehended’ (4), ‘not being able’ (5), ‘Dies’ (7), ‘There is’ (8). The shift is radical—plot, mode, time-scale, everything. Nevertheless, we soon begin to understand that the two apparently unrelated plots are related, and also that the threat of death to the weary old man with which the first scene ended will not be carried out, as the elements necessary to forestall it and bring about the happy denouement begin immediately to assemble: tragicomedy (or romance), not tragedy, will be the genre. The very subject of the conversation into which we intrude in the second scene is what we have just witnessed in the first, the dire sentence pronounced against Egeon. The frequent reminders of the time of day—in eight of the play's eleven scenes—keep Egeon and his impending doom on the edge of the spectator's consciousness while he is absent from the stage, from the end of 1.1 to well into Act 5, just under a third of the way through the final scene. Shakespeare's pointed observation of the unity of time—all of the action occurs between late morning and late afternoon of the same day—signals the end of the romance, its final chapter.

In the only other Shakespeare play whose time-scale is explicitly limited to one day, The Tempest, Prospero interrupts in the second scene the dramatic action begun by the storm in the first to tell Miranda the story of their lives and misadventures up to that moment. His narrative serves exactly the same purpose as Egeon's in the first scene of Errors. It is very nearly the same length (about 150 lines; Tempest 1.2.37-187) as Egeon's ‘sad stories of [his] own mishaps’, and like his, it is punctuated by questions and remarks from his auditor. In the later play too, the action that unfolds constitutes the final chapter of the story related by the father to his daughter, and that action begins with the arrival on the scene of the first of the other characters from the story who must together act out its conclusion. A similar strategy is evident in the early comedy. This is just one of the ways in which the Egeon romance plot ‘overarches’ the inner plot drawn from Plautus. Coincidences and links begin at once to appear: Antipholus and Dromio are from Syracuse, which provides the opportunity for the Merchant to tell them about their fellow countryman who has just been condemned to death (and to suggest that they ‘give out’ they are from somewhere else). Within a few minutes, the amount of money returned to Antipholus by the Merchant in the opening lines—‘There is your money that I had to keep’ (1.2.8)—and entrusted by the master to his servant, is mentioned: a thousand marks (1.2.81). That sum, we just heard, is exactly what is needed by Egeon to pay his ransom (1.1.21).

Money and trade will be prominent motifs throughout the play: Ephesus, for all its reputation as a strange and dangerous place, is also a working commercial centre, where the making of profit and the doing of deals is everyday and everybody's business. The enmity between Ephesus and Syracuse has arisen from a trade war: merchants are in the thick of it. The Duke defends the business interests of his subjects with terrible rigour. No sooner does the old merchant Egeon leave the stage to seek the pecuniary means to save his life than another merchant ostentatiously hands over just that sum to Egeon's son. The First Merchant excuses himself from accompanying Antipholus on a visit of the town because he has an appointment with ‘certain merchants’ of whom he hopes ‘to make much benefit’ (1.2.24-5). Antipholus himself proposes to ‘Peruse the traders’ (13) while on his sightseeing tour, presumably because they are one of the things the city is famous for. Several merchants, a goldsmith and a businesswoman (the Courtesan) figure among the dramatis personae. Buying and selling seem to be going on all the time. Creditors repeatedly demand payment of bills, people get arrested in the street for debt, send for money to pay fines, pay officers to arrest others. Money, purses and articles of barter (a chain, a ring) are prominent properties in any production of the play. Dromio of Syracuse's first exit is on an errand to put his master's money away safely at their inn; his absence is the occasion of the first ‘error’ when his twin comes to call his supposed master home to dinner. The word money occurs twenty-six times in Shakespeare's shortest play, more than in any other work in the canon. Marks (the amount of money) and mart also occur more times than in any other play. Gold and golden are found more often only in Timon of Athens, ducats and merchant(s) more times only in The Merchant of Venice. The rare guilders occurs only in Errors, where it appears twice. This extraordinary density of vocabulary relating to financial and commercial affairs, with the busy to-and-fro of the marketplace, makes The Comedy of Errors a true city comedy. The city itself, Ephesus, has a personality, is not just a setting, but a presence in the play's world, like Venice in The Merchant of Venice, Vienna in Measure for Measure, or Rome in Julius Caesar.6 But the comparison should be made also with such romance never-never lands as the wood outside Athens, the Forest of Arden, Illyria, or Prospero's island. Whatever moved Shakespeare to replace Plautus' Epidamnus with the Ephesus of romance and the New Testament, it gave him two cities in one, a twin: the bustling, mundane metropolis of urban comedy, and the weird and wonderful setting of romance.

The imagery of romance also carries over from the first scene to the second and thence to the rest of the play, binding the separate plots and the broken family together. Egeon's tale is of the sea and shipwreck, of a family torn apart, carried away from one another, helpless before the stupendous powers of nature. The motif, expressed in imagery of the sea and the loss of oneself in that vast element, is the theme of Antipholus' first soliloquy:

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, failing there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them unhappy, lose myself.


The objects of his hopeless search and subjects of his despairing meditation, his mother and his brother, are those very ones who were lost to Egeon and his remaining son, this same Antipholus. In fact, Egeon in his long tale in the first scene, and Antipholus in his short reflection in the second, speak of the same lost members of their family, and both speak the language of the sea, the former referring literally, in his factual narrative, to a particular large body of water, the latter, in his dramatic soliloquy, likening himself, in simile, to a single drop in an even vaster gulf, the ocean. Errors has more occurrences of the word sea(s)—plus one compound, seafaring (also ocean and gulf once each)—than any of the comedies and romances except the obvious sea-story ones, The Tempest, The Winter's Tale, Pericles, and The Merchant of Venice, which has the same number; Errors has one more than Twelfth Night. The bay is mentioned three times in dialogue and once in a Folio stage direction. Only in Pericles in the entire canon do ship(s) and its compounds occur more often. The Comedy of Errors is not just farce, not just adapted Roman domestic or city comedy, it is also romance, sea-romance, family romance, and not only in the Egeon frame plot.

Adriana, the scolding but devoted wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, echoes the other Antipholus when she addresses him, mistaking him for her wayward husband:

For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself, and not me too.


The conjugal conflict of domestic comedy is expressed by the distressed wife in the same terms as her unknown brother-in-law's anguish in his isolation and despair. Storm, shipwreck and loss at sea, the very stuff of romance, become metaphors for spiritual and emotional incompleteness, hopelessness, self-doubt, loss of one's identity. The sea/water motif swells and surges into all corners of the play, in floods, tears, streams, waves. In an unexpected passage of formal verse in cross-rhymed quatrains and couplets, which set it off from the blank verse and prose on either side of it, Antipholus of Syracuse, infatuated by Adriana's sister Luciana, imagines that she is a mermaid, enticing him to perdition, to lose himself in a watery bed:

O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note
          To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears.
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote.
          Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed I'll take them, and there lie,
          And in that glorious supposition think
He gains by death that hath such means to die.
          Let love, being light, be drownèd if she sink.


Later in the scene, in a grotesque prose counterpart to Antipholus' lyrical wooing, Dromio tells him of his terror at the advances of the immense kitchen wench, the spherical ‘Nell’. Her sweat and grime are too much even for Noah's flood to wash away (106-9). In his geographical anatomization of her, the English Channel and its chalky cliffs, armadas of Spanish treasure ships, and such faraway lands across the seas as America and the Indies, are evoked (116-44). The scene ends with Antipholus' resolution to take the first ship available and flee this increasingly disturbing place. Salt water washes over and through the whole fabric of the play.

Sinking and drowning, dissolution, transformation, metamorphosis, madness—these and related processes and states constitute a central motif, running through the play from beginning to end. They occur and recur, weaving a dense web of associations and allusions, criss-crossing and bridging the various plot elements, making one whole. Words such as changed and transformed echo throughout. The mood is sometimes humorous, sometimes fearful, sometimes anguished. Adriana wonders if age is diminishing her beauty, causing her husband to seek his pleasure with other women (2.1.88-102). When old Egeon's son does not know him, he supposes that grief and ‘time's extremity’ must have changed him beyond recognition (5.1.297-9). Both use the rare word defeatures, its only two occurrences in Shakespeare. Dromio of Syracuse is convinced he is an ass in the scene with Antipholus just mentioned (3.2.77), and that the ‘drudge’, ‘diviner’, or ‘witch’ who claims him for her betrothed would, had he not been resolute and fled, have turned him into another kind of beast:

And I think if my breast had not been made of faith, and my heart of steel,
She had transformed me to a curtal dog, and made me turn i'th' wheel.


‘I am transformèd, master, am not I?’ wails the same bewildered Dromio earlier (2.2.198), convinced he is an ape (201). Luciana tells him that he is merely an ass (202), having already called him ‘snail’ and ‘slug’ a few lines before (197), as he muttered nonsense about goblins, elves, sprites, and being pinched black and blue (193-5). He even feels like an ass: ‘'Tis true: she rides me, and I long for grass. / 'Tis so, I am an ass’ (203-4). In the very next scene, the other Dromio is told by his master ‘I think thou art an ass’, and replies in much the same way as his brother: ‘Marry, so it doth appear / By the wrongs I suffer and the blows I bear’ (3.1.15-16); he confirms his metamorphosis a few scenes later: ‘I am an ass indeed. You may prove it by my long ears’ (4.4.30-1). The workaday city of Ephesus itself is curiously animate: its buildings and houses bear the names of exotic fauna—Centaur, Phoenix, Tiger and Porcupine. More than thirty names of animals, real and legendary, generic and specific, occur in the play.

The Duke makes explicit the idea of metamorphosis (and in so doing looses its hold upon fevered imaginations) in the final scene when he exclaims ‘I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup’ (5.1.270). No one has, of course. But the allusion to the goddess-enchantress of ancient legend recalls her transformation of Odysseus' men into swine in Book 10 of the Odyssey, most famous of all classical sea-romances. It also recalls the ‘siren’ and ‘mermaid’ of Antipholus' rhapsody in 3.2 when he was under the spell of Luciana's ‘enchanting presence and discourse’, and his subsequent determination to ‘stop [his] ears against the mermaid's song’ (169): it was Circe who gave Odysseus advice on how to avoid the deadly Sirens' song by stopping his men's ears with wax so they could not hear it as they sailed past (Odyssey, Book 12). Apart from one in Act 5 of the First Part of Henry VI (a passage which may not have been written by Shakespeare), this is the only allusion to Circe, by name at any rate, in the canon.

Madness, the fear of it in oneself and the conviction of it in others, is a closely related theme, as are magic and conjuring. Even before anything bizarre or distressing happens to him, Antipholus of Syracuse voices in his first soliloquy his trepidation at finding himself in Ephesus, with its renowned ‘libertines of sin’, eye-deceiving, body-deforming, mind-changing, soul-killing (1.2.98-102). The lexical group of words formed from and including mad—madness, madly, madman, etc.—are more frequent in Shakespeare's shortest play than in any others except his longest, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night, a play which has more than that and a pair of twins in common with the earlier comedy. The theme was already there, of course, in Menaechmi: the local brother's relations and acquaintances think he is mad as he seems not to know any of them, and a doctor is sent for to cure him, the ancestor of Shakespeare's schoolmaster-exorcist Dr Pinch. The treatment prescribed for the supposedly mad Ephesian master and servant is exactly that imposed upon the allegedly mad Malvolio in Twelfth Night: ‘They must be bound and laid in some dark room’ (4.4.95). The furious frustration of Antipholus of Ephesus is exactly that of Malvolio: to those who are convinced that one is mad, nothing one can say—especially ‘I am not mad’ (4.4.59)—will change their minds. The frantic comic tension that has built up in The Comedy of Errors prior to Act 4, Scene 4, creates a quite different atmosphere from that in Twelfth Night when Malvolio's tormentors insist that he is mad, but the utter conviction and deadly earnestness of everybody (including, particularly, the grieving wife Adriana) give the underlying theme of supposed madness a potential gravity and disquieting edge missing from the later play. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio's alleged madness is a prank, which deteriorates into a cruel joke. He is the unfortunate butt. Everyone knows that Malvolio is not really mad (not in the way the conspirators pretend he is anyway), the threat ends with the joke, though the distasteful impression of mental cruelty may remain, as is seen in much modern criticism and many modern productions, in which Malvolio is made an almost tragic figure. Feste's Sir Topas is a much more sinister exorcist than the pompous mountebank Pinch. Everyone concerned does believe that Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus are mad, no one is pretending or playing a game. Only the denouement resolves that problem and saves the two from further attempts at ‘curing’ them. Of course, the farcical frenzy has reached such a peak, and Pinch is so inept, that any real threat remains well below the surface in performance. It is there nevertheless, part of the pervasive romance atmosphere.

Still another aspect of the madness theme, different from both the supposed madness of Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus and the alleged madness of Malvolio, is the fear that one is mad, or going that way, oneself. This is the predicament of the Syracusan pair from early on in the action. It reinforces strongly their isolation in a strange country, particularly that of Antipholus, who is given several soliloquies in which he expresses his fears. Such fears, such isolation, generating self-doubt, failure of the will, the temptation to surrender, and sometimes madness itself, are common to romance heroes from Odysseus of Ithaca to Apollonius of Tyre to Lancelot du Lac to Frodo Baggins of the Shire, struggling on in his lonely mission in the hostile Land of Mordor, and Luke Skywalker facing the evil forces of the Empire. For some of those heroes, as for Antipholus of Syracuse, the absence of family, the uncertainty even that he has a family any more, is a main factor in their despair and sense of isolation. Antipholus is peculiarly vulnerable because he is lonely, and is susceptible to the least suggestion that he may be losing his senses and his self. Ephesus is definitely not the place to be when one is in that frame of mind. Egeon is not the only one who finds danger in that strange, hostile city. For Antipholus too is a romance hero, wandering, searching, isolated, fearful, half-believing already the things he has heard about Ephesus and resolved to be gone as soon as possible, yet held there as if by magnetism. Before the end of Act 2, Scene 2, though he suspects some ‘error’ that ‘drives our eyes and ears amiss’ (2.2.187), he is ready, until he knows ‘this sure uncertainty’, to ‘entertain the offered fallacy’ (188-9), that is Adriana's insistent invitation to be her husband and come in to dinner, though he may wonder: ‘What, was I married to her in my dream?’ (185). In just such terms, another twin, Sebastian in Twelfth Night, a stranger in Illyria, when enjoined by Olivia to go with her to her house, marvels ‘Or I am mad, or else this is a dream’, and resolves still to sleep (4.1.60-2). Later, while he hopes that ‘this may be some error but no madness’ (4.3.10), he is driven to conclude the contrary: ‘I am mad, / Or else the lady's mad’ (15-16). In any case, ‘There's something in't / That is deceivable’ (20-1).7 The close parallels between the predicaments and reactions of Antipholus of Syracuse and Sebastian, even to the very language and images in which they express themselves, illustrate well the kinship between the ‘early’ and the ‘middle’ comedy written some seven years later. Surely the twinship of Sebastian and Viola in the later play, whichever source he may have drawn it from and despite the differences in plot (and gender), triggered recollections and produced echoes in Shakespeare's mind of passages composed for the earlier one. We do not hesitate to affix the label ‘romance’ to Twelfth Night. The fear-of-madness motif is common to both plays.

The vulnerability of Antipholus is strikingly emphasized by the scenes in which he is seen in the company and under the spell—as he believes—of a woman. These imagined enchantresses succeed each other in a sequence of neatly distributed scenes, one per act: Adriana in 2.2, Luciana in 3.2 (in which we also hear of Dromio's encounter with the terrible ‘Nell’, another sorceress), the Courtesan in 4.3, the Abbess (his mother) in 5.1; another element in the play's tight and tidy structure. And as prelude to the sequence, there is the soliloquy in 1.2 in which Antipholus voices his fear of sorcerers, witches and the like. His case is similar to that of a hero of Arthurian romance, Perceval, one of the Grail knights. Brought up by his mother in ignorance of chivalry (his father, the famous King Pellinor, had been killed, and the widow tries to protect her sons from a similar fate), his encounters with women—his mother, his saintly sister, the fiend in female guise several times—underline his naïvety and his susceptibility to error. During his Grail quest, he narrowly avoids succumbing to temptation on several occasions when beautiful women, always of course fiends in human form, attempt to seduce him. When Antipholus of Syracuse, convinced that he and Dromio are bewitched, calls for divine aid—‘Some blessèd power deliver us from hence’ (4.3.44)—the Courtesan appears, not a heavenly rescuer, but the fiend herself. In Adrian Noble's 1983 RSC production, she rose spectacularly from beneath the stage floor, scantily and seductively clad in red, black, and white. The terrified Antipholus recognizes her immediately: ‘Satan, avoid! I charge thee, tempt me not!’ (48); then, to Dromio, emphatically: ‘It is the devil’ (50). Epithets such as ‘Satan’, ‘devil’, ‘fiend’, ‘sorceress’, ‘witch’, ten or more of them in a thirty-line passage, are hurled at the supposed ‘devil's dam’ (48-79). In the very next scene, 4.4, Satan is hailed again by the would-be healer Pinch, who exhorts him to leave his abode in the allegedly mad Antipholus of Ephesus. The madness theme is now given expression in satanic terms. One brother sees the devil in the woman standing before him, the other is believed by all who know him to have the devil in him. Divine aid will come, and in female form, bringing safety and relief from the fear of madness, when the Abbess appears and gives her unknown Syracusan son and his servant sanctuary. In contrast to his brother, Antipholus of Ephesus is always seen in the company of men only—his servant (or the other, wrong, one), friends, business associates, creditors, the officer who arrests him—until the conjuring scene (4.4), when at last he is surrounded by women—his wife, his sister-in-law, the Courtesan—who insist that he is mad. The same woman, the Abbess, mother to this Antipholus also, will resolve that error too. The two brothers are further distinguished by the fact that the Syracusan has no fewer than six soliloquies and asides, totalling fifty lines, while the Ephesian has none. The one, isolated, fearful, impressionable, is the vulnerable romance protagonist, the other, irascible, defiant, impetuous, the jealous husband of domestic comedy.

A complex of related motifs, made up of opposite or complementary states or processes, underlies and reinforces the more prominent and explicit ones, such as metamorphosis, loss of identity and madness. Losing and finding, closing and opening, binding and freeing, spellbinding and spellbreaking, condemning and pardoning, separating and uniting, beating and embracing, dying and being (re)born, and other such pairs are the play's thematic sinews. And binding all of them together, ensuring that the positive, hopeful one of each pair—finding, freeing, pardoning, uniting, embracing—prevails in the end, is Time. ‘The triumph of Time’, the subtitle of Robert Greene's short romance Pandosto, published in 1588 and used by Shakespeare as his main source for The Winter's Tale, could well stand as a subtitle for all romances, including The Comedy of Errors. Time, of which we are repeatedly made aware as it ticks away, bringing the happy end of the story ever closer, and its nevertheless ineluctable ravages, the work of its ‘deformèd hand’, are the subject of two comic exchanges, between Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse (2.2), and between the same Dromio and Adriana at the end of 4.2. Dromio is Time's spokesman, and at the very end of the play, he defers to his brother, his ‘elder’, in acknowledgement of its inexorable rule over all persons and things, despite such apparent anomalies as twinship. It was noted earlier that the time of day is mentioned frequently, some ten times, in eight of the play's eleven scenes, and that does not include the two comic duologues just referred to and a few other general references to the hour, clocks, sunset, etc. In only two other plays in the canon, As You Like It and Henry IV, Part One, both considerably longer than Errors, does the word clock occur more often, and in only a small number of plays, a half-dozen or so, does hour(s) occur more often.

As the time of day, five o'clock, set for Egeon's execution, is announced—‘By this, I think, the dial point's at five’ (5.1.118)—the Duke and the old man return to the stage for the first time since the end of the first scene. The Abbess has just withdrawn into the abbey into which the Syracusan pair had fled (5.1.37). The Ephesian pair had previously been forcibly removed into the Phoenix to be bound and laid in a dark room (4.4.131). Both pairs of twins are hidden away, the farce is suspended, and the main romance plot resumes. A new order intervenes in the person of the Abbess, one of genuine divine authority, not Pinch's sham, and the solemn temporal authority of the Duke reasserts itself after the anarchic disorder of the previous scenes. The farce is suspended, but the comedy continues and bridges the two plots: Adriana throws herself prostrate at the Duke's feet, impeding his progress towards the place of execution, literally halting the tragic progress in its tracks. At this moment the two plots meet and merge, for Adriana pleads with the Duke to intercede on her behalf with the Abbess to get her husband, whom she believes to be in the abbey, restored to her. Just as the First Merchant in 1.2 links the Egeon frame and the inner play by informing the newly arrived Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse of another Syracusan's fate, so now another member of the city's thriving commercial community (Angelo the goldsmith in the present edition) announces the arrival of the Duke and Egeon at the appointed time, signalling the opening out of the action to embrace both plots. His interlocutor is sure that they are to witness the final act of a tragedy: ‘See where they come. We will behold his death’ (5.1.128). But this is romance, not tragedy. To be sure, the unravelling will take some three hundred more lines, and there will be further supposes, surprises, reversals and irruptions, even some pathos, as when Egeon pleads with the wrong son and servant, the ones who have never known him (286-330). Again, the parallel with Twelfth Night is evident: in the later play, Antonio, under arrest and in mortal danger, pleads desperately with the supposed Sebastian whom he had befriended earlier. But it is the uncomprehending Viola in her disguise as Cesario whom he addresses (Twelfth Night 3.4.325-64). The finale of Errors is one of Shakespeare's most eventful and complex, a true romance denouement, anticipating those of later plays such as As You Like It, Twelfth Night, All's Well that Ends Well, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale.8 At 430 lines, it is considerably longer than the final scenes of all but three of the other comedies and romances in the canon: Love's Labour's Lost, Measure for Measure and Cymbeline.

Time, which Dromio claimed had gone back an hour (4.2.53), has in fact gone back years, to when the family of Egeon and Emilia was whole, before the tragic events narrated by the husband and father a couple of hours earlier took place, thirty-three or twenty-five years ago, it matters little. The boys, all four of them, were infants then, new-born. It is, fittingly, the Abbess, the holy mother, who gives explicit utterance to the metaphor of nativity, describing this moment as one of rebirth:

Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail
Of you, my sons, and till this present hour
My heavy burden ne'er deliverèd.
The Duke, my husband, and my children both,
And you the calendars of their nativity,
Go to a gossips' feast, and joy with me.
After so long grief, such felicity!


The imminent death with which the play began is transfigured into birth; then we met with things dying, now with things newborn. The stern, death-dealing Duke of Act 1, Scene 1, becomes the generous, life-giving magistrate, refusing the ransom offered by Antipholus of Ephesus for his new-found father: ‘It shall not need. Thy father hath his life’ (392)—so much for Ephesian law which he had been so scrupulous to enforce in the opening scene. Patron already to one Antipholus, the Duke becomes godfather to both at their re-christening. The ever-moving clock in Theodor Komisarjevsky's famous 1938 Stratford-upon-Avon production … should have been whirling furiously backward at this point, turning back the years, for in the biggest and best of the comedy's errors, Time has indeed gone back, all the way from death to birth, from the intense dramatic denouement to the expansive romance narrative ‘Once upon a time’, from the end of the play to the beginning of the story. That, essentially, is what happens in romance.


Nevertheless, the play seems to have been either played as farce, or denatured and transformed into a saccharine love comedy with many cuts and the addition of music, for a very long time. In the early nineteenth century, around the time Coleridge was proclaiming its uniqueness as ‘poetical farce’, the playwright and show producer Frederick Reynolds mounted a musical extravaganza in London which set the tone of productions for much of the following century and a half. After those early documented performances in 1594 and 1604, the play seems to have had no stage life to speak of until the eighteenth century. No doubt its brevity, perhaps too its low-comic and farcical aspects did not recommend it to later seventeenth-century playgoers, after the Restoration in any case. We have seen that Dryden denounced that kind of theatre. The Comedy of Errors was apparently not one of the many Elizabethan plays to be adapted for the Restoration stage. Little is heard of it in the theatre until the mid-eighteenth century, when heavily adapted and ‘arranged’ versions began appearing on London's stages. A farce, Every Body Mistaken, had appeared as early as 1716; it seems to have been loosely based on Errors. A two-act comedy, See if You Like it, or 'Tis All a Mistake, opened at Drury Lane in 1734, and apparently had a long life both there and at Covent Garden. It competed with at least one other heavily adapted version, which may have been the first of Thomas Hull's several reworkings, from 1762. So, albeit in considerably altered, emended and augmented form, something vaguely reminiscent of Shakespeare's play was around to entertain audiences through most of the eighteenth century.

Some years before Coleridge made his solemn pronouncement upon the genre of Errors, W. Woods adapted it for performance at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, giving his three-act version the title The Twins, or Which is Which?, and defending the liberties taken with the original: ‘the characters and incidents in general of this entertaining piece would rank with much more propriety under the title of Farce. It would also … obtain a great advantage in representation by being shortened’.9 Despite being by far the shortest play in the canon! Woods (who played Antipholus of Ephesus) went on to opine that ‘the similarity of character, and quick succession of mistakes, must render the subject very liable to pall upon an audience during the exhibition of five acts; whereas, by being reduced to three, the judgement will not be so much offended, having less time to reflect on the improbability of the events.’ Woods's text was published in London in 1780. His version temporarily superseded that of Thomas Hull at Covent Garden in August 1790. Hull's may be considered the first major, serious adaptation for the contemporary theatre. His latest version was first presented at Covent Garden in January 1779. Hull, attempting to rescue the play from its perceived hopeless (and incomprehensible) triviality and vulgarity, had sentimentalized it by expanding the wooing scenes, for example in Act 3, Scene 2, where he interpolated some sixty lines before returning to something like Shakespeare's text, which he nevertheless curtailed radically (Odell, ii. 46-7). Much of the text is, in Odell's acerb terms, ‘Hull undiluted by a word of Shakespeare’ (46). But it did represent an attempt to make something other than a slapstick show of the play, and it seems to have pleased the London theatregoing public, as John Philip Kemble's revival nearly thirty years after its first performances testifies: when Kemble revived Errors in 1808, it was Hull's text with a few modifications that he staged.10

That year, the dramatist and novelist Elizabeth Inchbald published a twenty-five volume collection called The British Theatre; or A Collection of Plays, which are acted at the Theatres Royal, Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and Haymarket. In volume i, she printed Hull's version of Errors ‘as performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden … from the Prompt Book’, and refers in her ‘Remarks’ to his ‘judicious alterations and arrangements’. She performed a genuine piece of theatre-historical work, providing complete cast lists for each play in her large collection. We learn, for example, that Charles Kemble, younger brother of John Philip and father of Fanny Kemble, played Antipholus of Ephesus. We discover also that Hull had identified two Merchants; the distinction was apparently not made by editors before Alexander Dyce (1857). Nevertheless, Inchbald enthusiastically joined the ranks of the doubters and detractors:

This play is supposed, by some commentators, to have been among Shakespeare's earliest productions; whilst others will not allow that he had any farther share in the work, than to embellish it with additional words, lines, speeches, or scenes, to gratify its original author, or the manager of the theatre … As it is partly decided that the work is not wholly Shakespeare's, full liberty may be taken to find fault with it. Of all improbable stories, this is the most so. The Ghost in Hamlet, Witches in Macbeth, and Monster in The Tempest, seem all like events in the common course of nature, when compared to those which take place in this drama. Its fable verges on impossibility, but the incidents which arise from it could never have occurred.

Meanwhile on the Continent, in Vienna, The Comedy of Errors was undergoing a different kind of transformation, to the opera stage, at the hands this time of more than competent adapters, the Anglo-Italian composer Stephen Storace (1762-96) and the great Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838). Storace, a friend and almost certainly a pupil of Mozart's and brother of Nancy Storace (1765-1817), the soprano who created the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, produced his opera on a libretto by Da Ponte, Gli Equivoci, based on a French translation of Errors, in 1786, the same year as Figaro. Da Ponte was librettist for that Mozart opera also, as well as for Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1790). It is intriguing to speculate that Mozart must have seen and heard Storace's opera based on Shakespeare's least musical comedy, and may well have advised his younger friend on the score. Winton Dean has high praise for Da Ponte's text, though he worked from a French translation of the play: ‘by far the most skilful’ of late eighteenth-century Shakespearian librettos; he was after all adept at opera buffa.11 Da Ponte cut the Egeon-Emilia intrigue and the Courtesan, and had Euphemio and Dromio of Syracuse shipwrecked on the shore of Ephesus. Nancy Storace was Sofronia (Adriana). Another of Mozart's Vienna circle, the Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who created the operatic role of Euphemio (Antipholus) of Ephesus in Gli Equivoci (as well as Basilio in The Marriage of Figaro in the same year), wrote in his highly entertaining Reminiscences (1826) that ‘it became the rage, and well it might, for the music of Storace was beyond description beautiful’.12 The composer himself must have thought so too: he borrowed from his own score in at least two later operas in English, No Song, No Supper (1790) and The Pirate (1792) (SMC, 215).13 By coincidence, in 1786, the same year as Storace's Gli Equivoci, the French opera composer André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) produced Les Méprises par Ressemblance at Fontainebleau, with libretto by Joseph Patrat. The text, drawn mainly from Menaechmi, seems also to contain borrowings from The Comedy of Errors (SMC, 217-18).

Making The Comedy of Errors palatable to early nineteenth-century audiences—which implies of course that it was felt to be unpalatable as it stood in its original form, as represented in the grand editorial tradition, deriving in a straight line from the folios and those early editions of Rowe, Pope and Theobald—was the concern not only of more or less ‘legitimate’ theatrical producers like Hull, Woods and Kemble. In 1819, Frederick Reynolds ‘laid violent hands’, as Odell puts it, upon Errors, and turned it into a musical spectacle of vast proportions. Reynolds's advertisement indicates the scope of his intentions:

The admirers of Shakespeare having long regretted, that most of his Lyrical Compositions, have never been sung in a Theatre, the Comedy of Errors (one of the shortest and most lively of his Comedies) has been selected as the best vehicle for their introduction,—A few additional scenes and passages were absolutely necessary for this purpose; and however deficient these may be found, it is hoped they will be readily pardoned, as having served to bring on the stage, more of the ‘native wood notes wild’ of our Immortal Bard!

(Odell, ii. 131-2)

Shakespeare's least musical comedy had that deficiency corrected at last, and with a vengeance. The title-page of the 1819 edition specifies the types and sources of the musical embellishments: ‘Songs, Duets, Glees, and Choruses, Selected entirely from the Plays, Poems and Sonnets of Shakespeare … The Overture and new Music composed, and the Glees arranged, by Mr. Bishop. The Selections from Dr. Arne, Sir J. Stevenson, Stevens, and Mozart’ (Odell, ii. 131). A hunting scene is interpolated in Act 3, only to allow the singing of ‘When icicles hang by the wall’ from Love's Labour's Lost. A drinking party in Act 4 at the house of Balthasar (‘a character certainly harmless enough as Shakespeare left him’, quipped Odell) provides the setting for a rendition of ‘Bacchus, monarch of the vine’ from Antony and Cleopatra. Other songs include: ‘It was a lover and his lass’, ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’, and ‘Under the greenwood tree’ (As You Like It), ‘Sweet rose, fair flower’ and ‘Beauty is but a vain and doubtful good’ (The Passionate Pilgrim), ‘Willow, willow’ (Othello), ‘Tell me where is fancy bred’ (The Merchant of Venice), ‘Take, O take those lips away’ (Measure for Measure). Lines from Marlowe's ‘Come live with me and be my love’ (printed in The Passionate Pilgrim) are sung by Adriana, and the show ends in a medley of songs from A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. Henry Rowley Bishop, a prolific composer and arranger, is remembered today chiefly for ‘Lo, here the gentle lark’, for soprano and obbligato flute, which he took from Venus and Adonis (l. 853ff.) and inserted forcibly into Reynolds's extravaganza that passed under the title of The Comedy of Errors.14

Many found Reynolds's enormities just the thing to save a silly, incredible play. The critic for the European Magazine wrote in December 1819:

The revival of a comedy of Shakespeare, with interpolated songs, this evening, was a dramatic epoch, and it seems the favourite expedient of managers, after a run of unpopularity, to recommend them once more to the public good will. If this was the idea in which The Comedy of Errors was revived, its reception has amply justified the hazard. It was attended by the most crowded house since the beginning of the season, and the audience were throughout in a unanimous temper to applaud. We will not repeat the plot, for who does not read Shakespeare? … No illusion of the stage can give probability to the perpetual mutations of four persons, paired in such perfect similitude, that the servant mistakes his master, and the master his servant: the wife her husband, and the husband his wife. All this so strongly contradicts common experience, that it repels us even in description; but on the stage, with the necessary dissimilarity of countenance, voice, manner, and movement, that occurs between the actors, however disguised by dress, the improbability becomes almost offensive.15

The anonymous reviewer, with all his refined sensibilities, is carried away by his own rhetoric: no husband mistakes his wife, because the wife in question, Adriana, has no twin. Even the farce, let alone what little may have been left of the romance, if anything, failed to work for the dyspeptic critic. But he, and the audience too apparently, put up with the absurdity of the pairs of twins ‘for the sake of the music, which was abundant, and in general happily selected’, though the selection of songs ‘might have been more appropriate to the scene’. He concluded that ‘the drama … bids fair to attain a higher popularity than it has ever done before, when bereft of its new musical accompaniments’ (69).

Thus within a few decades, we find Coleridge defending Errors as unique Shakespearian work, a ‘poetical farce’; Woods arguing that the play is indeed a farce, and needs to be shortened so that its absurd plot may be comprehensible and thus acceptable to a modern audience who couldn't put up with a full-length version; Elizabeth Inchbald alternately snorting at the absurdity and sniffing at the distasteful beating of servants (‘a custom that is abolished, except in the West Indies’); and Reynolds and Bishop, to the general applause of critic and spectator, inflating the thing and stuffing it with extraneous music of all sorts, covering up the farce and smothering any remaining hint of a coherent narrative line or dramatic suspense beneath ‘songs and scenery’, of which it was found to be in dire need.

While theatrical producers, even the more serious ones, who deigned to take up the play at all decked it out in a variety of borrowed finery, critics before Coleridge had had little that was good to say about it, being mostly content to note its Plautine provenance. Gerard Langbaine had ventured a little further than that as early as 1691, preferring Shakespeare's to Warner's version: ‘This play is founded on Plautus his Maenechmi, and if it be not a just translation, 'tis at least a paraphrase, and I think far beyond the translation, call'd Menechmus, which was printed 4o. Lond. 1595’.16 Early eighteenth-century critics—Rowe, Gildon, Dennis—all commented on the Roman derivation of Errors, citing this as proof that Shakespeare knew Latin; unlike Langbaine, they apparently took no notice of Warner's version, or considered the possibility that Shakespeare may have known it. Both Rowe and Gildon mention ‘the doggerel’ of some of the verse of the play.17 Warburton, in his edition of 1747, placed Errors with The Taming of the Shrew in ‘Class IV’ of the comedies, as being ‘certainly not of Shakespeare’.18 Pope, as we have already seen, had relegated some passages, mostly of the despised ‘doggerel’ in the Dromios' speeches, to the bottom of the page and small print as being probably unauthentic. As far as I can discover, Warburton was the first to deny Shakespeare's authorship of the entire play. From that outer darkness it struggled to return to the fold. Later in the century, Johnson and Farmer, among others, were concerned mostly with the question of whether or not Shakespeare read Plautus in Latin or got his plot from Warner's translation of ‘the only play of Plautus which was then in English’. As late as 1817, shortly before Coleridge attempted to salvage it, as farce anyway, Hazlitt, placing Errors last in his Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, began his very brief remarks by saying: ‘This comedy is taken very much from the Menaechmi of Plautus, and is not an improvement on it. Shakespear appears to have bestowed no great pains on it, and there are but few passages which bear the decided stamp of his genius’.19 If the play's theatrical fortunes began to improve by the middle of the nineteenth century, its reputation remained low, as did those of a number of the comedies; the later nineteenth century admired the great tragedies, including the Roman plays, and the actor-managers found roles more suited to their talents and showmanship in them and in some of the history plays than in the comedies, with a very few exceptions, such as Shylock and Benedick. Actresses, on the other hand, found more challenges in the comedies and romances—Kate, Titania, Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind, Viola, Innogen, Hermione, Miranda. But Adriana and Luciana could hardly compete as star vehicles in such company.

Samuel Phelps, manager of Sadler's Wells from 1844 to 1862, restored something like Shakespeare's texts to the London stage, supplanting the often grossly overlaid and mangled versions that had become traditional. Odell is categorical: ‘Phelps gave more of Shakespeare in a play than did any other of the actor-managers for two hundred and fifty years’ (ii. 281). Among his many ‘firsts’ were the first production of Pericles (1854) since the Restoration, and the first Antony and Cleopatra (1849) for nearly a century. He staged all but a few of Shakespeare's plays, and Errors was one that benefited from his exceptionally responsible treatment of the texts. Phelps's 1855 production at the suburban Sadler's Wells was one of his triumphs in a decade that saw his restorations of, among others, Timon of Athens, Henry V, Pericles, Love's Labour's Lost and The Taming of the Shrew. Phelps must have been an extraordinarily versatile performer as well as a sensitive and intelligent director: besides reviving roles such as Timon, Henry V, Pericles and Antony, he is said to have excelled as Lear, Othello—and Bottom, in his own outstanding 1853 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.20 His Errors may be considered the first serious attempt at rehabilitation of the play on the London professional stage. It was followed in 1864, the tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth, by another textually faithful production at the Princess's Theatre, played without an interval and including all the scenes from the original text. The main attraction was the Irish identical twins, Charles and Henry Webb, as the two Dromios (Odell, ii. 300-1). It was a gimmick, to be sure, and the Webbs got top billing in the publicity, but Shakespeare's text was again staged more or less as it had been written, and as it had probably not been staged in London between its few recorded Elizabethan and Jacobean performances and Phelps's revival in the previous decade.

The Comedy of Errors reached the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre's Stratford stage in 1882. The director, Edward Compton, played Dromio of Ephesus. In a preface to the Memorial Theatre acting edition published at the time, C. E. Flower makes a point about the text of the ‘Comedy, or as we should now call it, Farce’ being fully restored. So the tradition of Errors as farce died hard. On the critical front, little changed. Editions continued to appear at frequent intervals, of course: they included the major Cambridge Shakespeare of Clark, Glover and Wright (1863-6) and its satellite Globe Shakespeare, used worldwide as a college text for generations, the Arden Shakespeare edition by Henry Cuningham in 1907 and John Dover Wilson's New Shakespeare (Cambridge) in 1922. Errors was respectable, merely by virtue of being included in respectable, new scholarly editions of Shakespeare's works. It could be read like all the others, though the critics had little to say about it. It could also be seen now and again at the theatre: there were revivals at Stratford in 1905, 1914 and 1916, then none until 1938. In those productions, the different actor-directors took different parts: Sir Frank Benson was Antipholus of Syracuse in 1905, Patrick Kirwan was Dromio of Syracuse in 1914, and Sir Philip Ben Greet played Dromio of Ephesus in 1916; Greet had taken the same role in a production that he co-directed at Terry's Theatre, London, in 1899.

In 1938 began a series of remarkable, memorable productions of Errors in Stratford. That year, the Russian director Theodor Komisarjevsky staged the play on a large, stylized but vaguely Mediterranean set, which he designed—‘a romantic huddle of pink and green and grey and yellow houses’ wrote the Times reviewer; ‘a scene of dolls' houses in pastel shades … a Christmas pantomime as it might be staged in Moscow’ mused Clive McMann in the Daily Mail—with the main buildings named in the text clearly marked. … W. A. Darlington in the Daily Telegraph saw ‘an Ephesus outside time and beyond geography’. Timelessness, zaniness and an atmosphere of comic anarchy pervaded the production, and they became hallmarks of productions both in Stratford and elsewhere in the following half-century. Komisarjevsky peopled his Ephesus with additional characters: a usurer, an innkeeper, a tailor, a fisherman, two sailors, two ladies, four officers, an attendant for the Duke—and Nell. A prominent feature of the production, remarked upon by many reviewers, was the clock on a tower at the centre of the set, referred to previously: from time to time, it would strike an hour that did not correspond to the position of the hands, which would then whirl round to catch up. The director-designer's awareness of the crucial importance of time in the play is abundantly clear from the prompt books, in which specific directions concerning the clock are frequent: ‘Clock 12’ (end of 1.1); ‘Clock 1. Turn hands of clock quickly to 2’ (end of 1.2); ‘Clock strikes 3’ (end of 2.2); ‘Clock 4’ (end of 3.2); ‘Clock chimes up to 8’ (4.2.53 in the present edition, altered by Komisarjevsky to ‘It was nine ere I left him, and now the clock strikes eight’); ‘4 Quarters. Clock 9’ (end of 4.4); ‘4 Quarters. Clock 10’ (5.1.118 in the present edition).21 His way with troublesome bits of text was more peremptory: for example, he simply cut the notorious passage at 2.1.110-14. Like their predecessors more than a century earlier who had applauded Reynolds's adaptation of a tiresome play, some reviewers congratulated Komisarjevsky for overcoming the apprentice playwright's shortcomings: ‘The producer, happy to find his author at his worst, throws him away and substitutes a dancing and timeless farce. It is mime, music, madness, what you like; the one thing it is determined not to be is Shakespeare's play. On that barren and tedious farce it superimposes the wittiest and gayest extravaganzas’ (Lionel Hale, in the News Chronicle, 13 April 1938). The Yorkshire Post critic commended Komisarjevsky, who ‘with some authority, decided that [the play] was rubbish, and to show his contempt, has burlesqued it into a French farce’; the critic was sure that the ‘studied affront to Bardolators’ would be ‘Stratford's biggest box office success to date, wail the purists never so much’. Critical commonplaces die hard. Thus, well into the twentieth century, the play's patent feebleness was felt to justify any liberties in production (if produced it must be), just as it always had. That condescension and that permissiveness continued, with rare exceptions, to characterize critical response and stage revivals.

Other notable productions have marked the second half of the twentieth century, as The Comedy of Errors has continued to please audiences, if not always jaundiced reviewers. Clifford Williams staged the play at Stratford in 1962, and his production was still being revived ten years later. … Most critics of course stuck to their preconceptions: ‘However can you stage such a conglomeration of improbabilities?’ (Gloucester Echo, 12 September 1962); ‘It is no mistake to see nothing more in The Comedy of Errors than an endearing Shakespearian frolic’ (Birmingham Dispatch). A few reacted more sensitively to Williams's effort: finding it ‘less fanciful than the earlier one by Komisarjevsky’, the reviewer in The Tablet remarked the ‘underlying note of seriousness established in the opening scene by a moving performance by Tony Church as Aegeon … beautifully spoken and played with touching sadness’. While Edmund Gardner in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald (14 September 1962) still thought the play ‘early, flawed, unsubtle stuff’, he admitted that ‘it still works’. This relatively positive appraisal seems to have been due to both Williams's intelligent reading of the play and the outstanding ensemble playing of the Royal Shakespeare Company: ‘a skin-tight, integrated display of ensemble work … that kind of acting which mixes physical slickness with complete understanding of comedy's vocal nuances’. It is striking that critics began seeing more in the play when directors and actors showed that there was more in it than slapstick, or ‘a neat box of tricks for getting laughs’ (Wolverhampton Express and Star, 12 September 1962). Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times (16 September 1962) praised Alec McCowen, whose ‘bewildered impudence and sudden snatches of fear, finds more in Antipholus of Syracuse than one would have thought possible’. Hobson, in the same review, also put his finger on a crucial dimension of Williams's production: ‘The wild comedy of irrational recognitions is given consistency and a curious force by the suggestion that there is behind it something vaguely disquieting.’

It may be more than mere coincidence that academic critics too began to treat the play seriously, and to recognize its potential depths, at around the same time as first Komisarjevsky then Clifford Williams gave it serious, large-scale stagings in their respective Stratford productions of 1938 and 1962. H. B. Charlton accorded a full chapter to Errors in his Shakespearean Comedy of 1939, and in the same year G. R. Elliot published an influential article on ‘Weirdness in The Comedy of Errors’ that drew attention to that hitherto neglected aspect (University of Toronto Quarterly, 9, 95-106). It was in 1938 too that Richard Rodgers's musical comedy The Boys from Syracuse was staged, with book by George Abbott (who also directed), lyrics by Lorenz Hart, and choreography by George Balanchine. Though the libretto retained but a couple of lines from Shakespeare's text, that great Broadway success doubtless brought the play indirectly to the attention of many American theatregoers. A film version was released in 1940.

By the early 1960s, further critical studies had ensured the place of Errors in the canonical fold, after several centuries of disdain or, at best, patronizing tolerance: among them, T. W. Baldwin's William Shakspere's Five-Act Structure (1947); Bertrand Evans's Shakespeare's Comedies (1960); Harold F. Brooks's important article, ‘Themes and Structure in The Comedy of Errors’ (in Early Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3, 1961). At the same time, the second, revised edition of Dover Wilson's New Shakespeare text (1962) and R. A. Foakes's new Arden Shakespeare edition (1962) brought the latest serious scholarship to bear upon the play. In 1965, Baldwin produced the first full-length study of Shakespeare's shortest play: On the Compositional Genetics of ‘The Comedy of Errors’. From the sixties onward, Errors has figured regularly in studies of Shakespearian comedy, though often, as has been remarked, it has been tacitly assumed if not explicitly stated to be the dramatist's first essay in the genre.22 In the same period, successive editors too, in both separate editions of the play and collected works of Shakespeare, have written critically informed, insightful introductions and commentaries that accord full recognition to its multiple facets and skilful construction; among them have been such scholars as Paul A. Jorgensen, Stanley Wells, Harry Levin, David Bevington, and Anne Barton in her excellent introductory note to the play in the Riverside Shakespeare. The play's coming of age, so to speak, in the critical arena as in the theatrical one, may perhaps be measured by the nine essays from the 1980s and 1990s selected by Robert Miola for inclusion in his volume of criticism on the play, as opposed to just six from the near century and a half, from 1836 (Coleridge) to 1974 (Leggatt); a compiler's choice, to be sure, but he obviously found much very recent, and comparatively little earlier, criticism of the play worthy of inclusion in the first full-length critical collection devoted solely to the one play. Miola himself and Wolfgang Riehle are among recent critics who have returned to the classical sources of The Comedy of Errors and reassessed Shakespeare's debt to them.23

The last three decades of the twentieth century have seen a number of significant productions, in Great Britain as elsewhere. In Stratford alone, starting with the Williams production, each decade since the 1960s has been marked by at least one major RSC revival: 1976 (Trevor Nunn), 1983 (Adrian Noble), 1990 (Ian Judge), 1996 (Tim Supple), 2000 (Lynne Parker)—all in the main house, except for the outstanding Supple production of 1996 in The Other Place. …24 Clearly the intimate space of that venue, and the sensitive direction of Tim Supple, which gave full scope to the actors' art, allowed the shadows and nuances of the play to emerge as they cannot, indeed, must not, in a popular main house spectacular. Like their predecessors Komisarjevsky, Williams, Nunn and Noble in their different ways, Ian Judge in 1990 and Lynne Parker in 2000 answered handsomely to the latter requisite. The former, however, compromised the very structure of the play by doubling the Antipholus and Dromio twins, necessitating transparent substitutions at the end, the romance denouement when the pairs of brothers are reunited, thus cheating the audience of one of the major thrills of recognition toward which the play builds from the beginning. To double the twins may work in film: the BBC television version of 1984 did so, with Michael Kitchen as both Antipholuses and Roger Daltrey as both Dromios. But that is a different medium, and not the one for which Shakespeare wrote his plays. On stage, such a choice leaves only cheating—a double who remains facing upstage, away from the audience—as the unhappy solution at the crucial moment when the twins meet for the first time. (A similar problem arises when Hermione and Perdita are played by the same actress in The Winter's Tale.) Lynne Parker's energetic production, in which different actors played the twins, nudged and winked the audience through a medley of movie and music hall sketches, gorged with technical tricks, gratuitous turns and gimmicks. Actors often forgot, or were not obliged to remember, what play they were in; often it did not matter, nor did the period: in the accelerated hysteria at the end of Act 4, characters from Henry IV, Part 1, which was playing in the adjacent Swan Theatre, joined in the chase (Falstaff, and a bewildered soldier in fifteenth-century armour), an in-joke for patrons who might have seen the other show. Zaniness ruled. The hodge-podge of styles recalled, distantly, the Komisarjevsky classic of sixty years earlier. A businesslike, tailleur-suited Luce greeted the audience with an extratextual prologue in verse, warning them of dire consequences should their mobile phones ring during the performance. Angelo became an Eastern rug merchant, present in almost every scene. The Second Merchant was a mad Cossack wielding a huge sabre. Pinch and his associates seemed to belong to some voodoo sect, and wore long beaked masks like those of medieval European plague doctors. The girlish Courtesan of Nina Conti managed to position herself just once over a draught vent downstage which made her full skirt billow, à la Marilyn Monroe. As a spectacle, of sorts, it worked. The laughs were frequent, loud and long. Shakespeare's text was not permitted to generate many of them.

Stratford playgoers in 2000 with longish memories of RSC productions may have had a mild frisson at seeing Paul Greenwood as the aged Egeon: he had played the younger generation, as Antipholus of Syracuse, in Noble's 1983 version, identified then as the Ephesian Antipholus' twin by his blue face; the Dromios (Richard O'Callaghan and Henry Goodman) had clown faces with red noses. The circus motif was evident too in the suspended cradle which served as a balcony, or merely the interior, of the Phoenix; in 3.1, Antipholus of Ephesus (Peter McEnery) hung from the underside of the cradle while his twin and his wife embraced exaggeratedly above. … (Zoë Wanamaker (Adriana) has spoken of the panic induced by the failure of the cradle to descend at one matinée performance; she and Jane Booker (Luciana) had to improvise movement and business upon entering at stage level in 2.1. Such an accident illustrates both the hazards of high-technology in the theatre, and the continuing necessity for the age-old actor's ability to improvise on the spot.) In the scene, Dromio of Syracuse, stage right, sat behind and held a free-standing door, and listened to the fracas ‘outside’ through the mail-slot. The slanging/farting match between the Dromios took place via that aperture. In 3.2, Antipholus of Syracuse hung upside down from a window to woo Luciana; she was perched on a ladder, just out of reach. Ladders, lifts, bicycles, special sound effects from the pit orchestra—there were gimmicks aplenty in this production too. And music. Trevor Nunn's famous 1976 musical version had been tremendously successful. With an outstanding cast—Judi Dench, Francesca Annis, Roger Rees, Mike Gwilym, Michael Williams, Nikolas Grace, Richard Griffiths, Griffith Jones, Brian Coburn, among others—and music by Guy Woolfenden, it became a classic and was later filmed for television. Nunn solved the Luce-Nell puzzle by having both, the one a lady's maid, the other a kitchen wench. Both it and the BBC version are available on video. The BBC had already presented an operetta version with music by Julian Slade as early as 1954, in which Joan Plowright had taken the part of Adriana; it was revived at the Arts Theatre, London, in 1956.

The Comedy of Errors has had a life on stages other than those of Stratford and London's West End, of course. In December 1894, William Poel produced an elaborate Elizabethan-style reconstruction in the hall of Gray's Inn where the première had probably taken place 300 years earlier. In 1994, another anniversary performance was given at the Inn, directed by Anthony Besch. This was in fact a reprise of the 1954 musical version seen on BBC television. Composer Julian Slade provided new music for this Gray's Inn revival. In 1970, Frank Dunlop transposed Syracuse and Ephesus into London and Edinburgh at the Young Vic, where automobiles and bicycles circulated on the set. There have been a remarkable number of productions of Die Komödie der Irrungen in Germany, where it seems to have remained popular throughout the twentieth century: A Shakespeare Music Catalogue alone lists more than forty German stage productions with incidental music between the 1930s and the 1980s (192-211). A notable production at the Bristol Old Vic by Phyllida Lloyd in 1989 had a direct influence on Ian Judge's RSC version a year later. Lloyd did not make the mistake that Judge was to make, that of doubling the two sets of twins, and her rendition, based on a close reading of the text, was full of wonder as well as weirdness. Her Antipholuses, Owen Teale and Brian Hickey, and Dromios, Colin Hurley and Sean Murray, were of course not identical, but identical costumes implied twinship, as they always do in the theatre. Anthony Ward's stunning skewed set featured a Magritte-like skyscape and doors at first-floor level which opened into empty space. The door of Adriana's house in 3.1 was free-standing: first one Dromio, the one inside, propped it up, then the other, outside, caught it as the other let it fall. The device, a piece of pure theatricality, borrowed no doubt from Noble's 1983 RSC version, resolved the problem and allowed the audience to see inside and outside simultaneously. The necessary letter-slot was provided, through which insults and farts were exchanged, and through which the enraged Nell (Luce) applied a vacuum cleaner to the outside (her) Dromio's crotch. Even in 1989, critics could still be terribly vague about the play's action, or woefully inattentive to the performance, as if befuddled themselves by its manifold ‘errors’: the Financial Times reviewer (21 February) of the Bristol production names the wrong actor in the part of Angelo, says that Adriana makes her entrance in a swimming pool (it was Luciana), that the Abbess comes out leading the Ephesian Antipholus (it is of course the Syracusan twin, who had taken refuge in the abbey), and that Shakespeare unforgivably marries off the Abbess and Egeus—a double howler: they are already married, have been for many years, and he is called Egeon. Finally, he says, we shall never know which Dromio ends up with Nell (Luce), when it is perfectly clear at the end that the Syracusan resigns her, with relief, to his Ephesian twin.

Caroline Loncq, who played Luciana in both the 1989 Bristol Old Vic and the 1990 RSC productions, reported that her RSC colleagues were struck, when shown photographs of the set of the former, by its similarity to that designed by Mark Thompson for the RSC show. Clearly the first influenced the second. But instead of Phyllida Lloyd's close and careful work on the text—a literary adviser was called upon, members of the cast were shown copies of the Folio text in rehearsal, were encouraged to observe the original, or at any rate, the earliest surviving form of the text which they were learning, and to compare various editions' readings of troublesome passages—the RSC director went for ill-judged doublings, gratuitous tricks and over-the-top gags, a vaudeville potpourri. The Abbess wore an extravagant headgear which made her look like the Flying Nun. Any hint of lyricism or pathos in the text was stamped out or sent up. ‘The Travesty of Errors’ was the jaundiced verdict of some spectators. But once again, the unjaundiced majority loved it. Another ill-advised attempt at doubling the pairs of twins was Kathryn Hunter's version at the new Globe in 1999. Reviewers found it clumsy and distracting.25

It is not possible to go further than the year 2000 in a review of the fortunes and misfortunes of The Comedy of Errors. The play is firmly established in the canon and in theatrical repertoires. Doubtless its boisterousness, high jinks and farce will continue to attract directors and audiences. Perhaps some may also continue to find and respond to its subtler aspects, the very real shadows and depths of romance. The stage history of The Comedy of Errors, which has been sketched in rudimentary form here, testifies to its peculiar blend of the seemingly incompatible extremes of farce and romance. It was argued earlier in this Introduction that romance is essentially a non-theatrical mode, while farce is essentially theatrical. It is scarcely surprising then that producers of the play in the theatre have gone for the farce and have, for the most part, let the romance go. The curious penchant of Shakespeare throughout his career for the unlikely tales of romance as matter for stage plays has been remarked upon. That first audience at Gray's Inn at Christmas 1594 may well have been, given the prevailing atmosphere, more in a mood to applaud the frenzied farce than in one conducive to imaginative and sympathetic response to the distressing predicaments in which Egeon, both Antipholuses, Adriana and, to a lesser degree, some of the other characters find themselves. No director is likely to be foolish enough to try to turn Errors into the sombre, laughless ‘dark comedy’ that As You Like It and Twelfth Night often masquerade as nowadays in the theatre, even less to make of it topical-political drama like The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant of Venice. But the best modern productions, such as those of Williams, Lloyd, and Supple, have shown that the tragi-comic element can be respected and rendered movingly, without sending up or grotesque hamming, and without in the least denying or denaturing the farce and the domestic comedy. If directors, designers and actors, as well as readers, critics and playgoers, continue to give the play a fair chance, it will without doubt emerge more clearly as a comedy on a par with, if different from—as each of his works is different from all the others—Shakespeare's best in that kind.


  1. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Shakespeare Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor, 2 vols. (1960), i. 213; quoted by Miola, p. 18.

  2. Preface to Johnson's edition of Shakespeare (1765); reprinted in Brian Vickers, ed., Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, 5: 1765-1774 (1979), 67.

  3. Shakespeare's exploitation of the differences and tensions between the telling/hearing function peculiar to narrative, and the showing/seeing one peculiar to drama, particularly in the late romances but with reference also to The Comedy of Errors among other plays, is the subject of a published lecture by the present editor, Seeing and Believing in Shakespeare (Rome, Ga., 1993). Stanley Wells's ‘Shakespeare and Romance’ (in Later Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 8 (1966), 49-79) contains a suggestive reading of The Tempest as romance, with Prospero as a romance narrator (pp. 70-8).

  4. The similarities and differences in Shakespeare's handling of very similar if not identical romance narrative material in Errors and Pericles, and the narrators' respective roles in the two plays, are discussed in some detail in Charles Whitworth, ‘“Standing i' th' gaps”: Telling and Showing from Egeon to Gower’, in Narrative and Drama, vol. 2 of Collection Theta: Tudor Theatre, ed. André Lascombes (Bern, New York and Paris, 1995), pp. 125-41.

  5. ‘Thou that begett'st him that did thee beget, / Thou that wast born at sea, buried at Tarsus, / And found at sea again!’ (Pericles, 21.183-5); ‘O, what am I? / A mother to the birth of three? Ne'er mother / Rejoiced deliverance more’ (Cymbeline 5.6.369-71).

  6. Gail Kern Paster has a stimulating section on Errors as city comedy in her The Idea of the City in the Age of Shakespeare (Athens, Ga., 1985), pp. 185-94.

  7. Menaechmus Sosicles in Plautus' comedy thinks that Erotium the courtesan is either ‘mad or drunk’ (aut insana aut ebria) when she hails him as her lover (Warner, Act 3).

  8. Stanley Wells compares details in ‘Reunion Scenes in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night’, Wiener Beitrage sur Englischen Philologie, 80: A Yearbook of Studies in English Language and Literature 1985/86, pp. 267-76.

  9. Quoted in G. C. D. Odell, Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, 2 vols. (New York, 1920; repr. New York, 1966), ii. 48.

  10. Kemble liked to give names to Shakespeare's anonymous minor characters; the Second Merchant in Errors is named Chares in his version of Hull (Odell, ii. 56). He made a particular effort to revive the least known of Shakespeare's works; The Two Gentlemen of Verona was also staged by him at Covent Garden in the same season, 1808.

  11. In Phyllis Hartnoll, ed., Shakespeare in Music (1964), p. 100. Further material on the opera is to be found in Roger Fiske, English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 1973), pp. 495-6.

  12. Ed. Roger Fiske (Oxford, 1975), p. 120. I am grateful to Stanley Wells for this reference and for additional details on Storace's opera.

  13. On Storace's life and career and that of Nancy, see The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 20 vols. (1980), xviii. 179-82.

  14. On Bishop and his music for Shakespearian spectacles, those of Reynolds in particular, see Hartnoll, ed., Shakespeare in Music, esp. pp. 75-6.

  15. Reprinted in Gāmini Salgādo, ed., Eyewitnesses of Shakespeare: First Hand Accounts of Performances 1590-1890 (Hassocks, 1975), pp. 68-9.

  16. Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, or Some Observations and Remarks (Oxford, 1691), p. 455.

  17. Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, ed. Brian Vickers, vol. ii (1974), 194, 197, 218, 225, 240.

  18. Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, ed. Brian Vickers, vol. iii (1975), 226.

  19. William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespear's Plays (1817); Everyman Library (1906), p. 253.

  20. Later, in an 1864 production at Drury Lane of the two parts of Henry IV, he played Falstaff in Part One and doubled the King and Justice Shallow in Part Two (Odell, ii. 300).

  21. I am grateful to the custodians of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre archives at the Shakespeare Centre Library for allowing me to consult the prompt books of Komisarjevsky's and other productions of the play in their keeping.

  22. For example, among many others, in E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's Early Comedies (1965); the Penguin Shakespeare Library anthology of criticism, Shakespeare's Comedies, ed. Laurence Lerner (Harmondsworth, 1967); Alexander Leggatt's Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (1974); Kenneth Muir's The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (1977); Ruth Nevo's Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (1980); and Robert Ornstein's Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery (1986), where the title itself implies that Errors was the first (and of least consequence).

  23. Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Comedy: The Influence of Terence and Plautus (1994); Wolfgang Riehle, Shakespeare, Plautus and the Humanist Tradition (1990).

  24. It is not possible in the introduction to an edition to give detailed accounts of all significant productions. Reviews of the first three listed above (including one of Adrian Noble's 1983 production by the present editor) may be found in the volume of criticism on the play edited by Miola. Of the Tim Supple production, which rediscovered the depths of romance anguish without in the least neglecting the high comedy and farce, a perspicacious account by Robert Smallwood is to be found in Shakespeare in the Theatre: An Anthology of Criticism (ed. Stanley Wells, 1997). Further reviews of modern productions will be found in such periodicals as Cahiers Élisabéthains, Shakespeare Quarterly and Shakespeare Survey.

  25. Peter J. Smith: ‘[the production] remained superficial and smugly pleased with the easy comic solutions it offered … ; the play was reduced, for the most part, to a comic vehicle for the performances of Vincenzo Nicoli as the Antipholuses and, especially, Marcello Magni as the Dromios … [and] to the level of a school-leavers' review’ (Cahiers Élisabéthains, 56 (Octobre 1999), 105-7). Lois Potter: ‘In my experience, doubling the parts of the Antipholus and Dromio twins tends to make the play less funny, displacing attention from the plot to the logistics involved in the doubling itself … I felt sorry for the actors playing the doubles’ (Shakespeare Quarterly, 50 (1999), 515).

Abbreviations and References

All Shakespeare references are to the Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (1986), unless otherwise indicated. Place of publication is London unless otherwise indicated.

Editions of Shakespeare

F, F1: Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies … (1623) (First Folio)

F2: Second Folio (1632)

F3: Third Folio (1663)

F4: Fourth Folio (1685)

Alexander: Peter Alexander, The Complete Works (1951)

BBC TV: The Comedy of Errors, The BBC TV Shakespeare (1984) (the Alexander text)

Bevington: David Bevington, The Comedy of Errors, The Bantam Shakespeare (New York, 1988)

Cambridge: W. G. Clark and W. A. Wright, The Works, Cambridge Shakespeare, 9 vols. (Cambridge, 1863; third edition, W. A. Wright, 1891)

Capell: Edward Capell, Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, 10 vols. (1767-8)

Collier: John Payne Collier, Works, 8 vols. (1842-4)

Collier 1858: John Payne Collier, Comedies, Histories, Tragedies, and Poems, 6 vols. (1858)

Craig: Hardin Craig, Works (New York, 1951; 1961; revised edition, D. Bevington, 1973)

Cuningham: Henry Cuningham, The Comedy of Errors, Arden Shakespeare (1907)

Delius: Nicolaus Delius, Works, 7 vols. (Elberfeld, 1854-60)

Dorsch: T. S. Dorsch, The Comedy of Errors, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1988)

Dyce: Alexander Dyce, Works, 6 vols. (1857)

Dyce 1866: Alexander Dyce, Works, 9 vols. (1864-7)

Foakes: R. A. Foakes, The Comedy of Errors, Arden Shakespeare, new edition (1962)

Hanmer: Thomas Hanmer, Works, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1743-4)

Harness: William Harness, Works, 8 vols. (1825)

Hudson: Henry N. Hudson, Works, 11 vols. (Boston, 1851-6)

Johnson: Samuel Johnson, Works, 8 vols. (1765)

Jorgensen: Paul A. Jorgensen, The Comedy of Errors, in The Pelican Shakespeare, general editor, Alfred Harbage (New York, 1969)

Keightley: Thomas Keightley, Works, 6 vols. (1864)

Kittredge: George Lyman Kittredge, Works (Boston, 1936)

Knight: Charles Knight, Works, 8 vols. (1838-43); 12 vols. (1842-4)

Levin: Harry Levin, The Comedy of Errors, Signet Classic Shakespeare (1965)

Malone: Edmond Malone, Works, 10 vols. (1790)

Munro: John Munro, Works, London Shakespeare, 6 vols. (1958)

Oxford: The Complete Works, Oxford Shakespeare, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, general editors (original-spelling edition, Oxford, 1986; modern-spelling edition, Oxford, 1986)

Pope: Alexander Pope, Works, 6 vols. (1723-5)

Pope 1728: Alexander Pope, Works, 8 vols. (1728)

Rann: Joseph Rann, Dramatic Works, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1786-94)

Ritson: Joseph Ritson, The Plays of William Shakespeare, With Notes. In Eight Volumes. A projected edition by Ritson; a specimen first page (104 lines) of Errors from the projected vol. ii survives. The title-page is dated 1787.

Riverside: The Riverside Shakespeare, G. Blakemore Evans, textual editor (Boston, 1974)

Rowe: Nicholas Rowe, Works, 6 vols. (1709)

Rowe 1709: Nicholas Rowe, Works, 6 vols. (second edition, 1709)

Rowe 1714: Nicholas Rowe, Works, 8 vols. (third edition, 1714)

Singer: S. W. Singer, Dramatic Works, 10 vols. (1826; 1856)

Sisson: Charles J. Sisson, Works (1954)

Staunton: Howard Staunton, Works, 3 vols. (1858-60)

Steevens: George Steevens (with Samuel Johnson), Works, 10 vols. (1773)

Steevens 1778: George Steevens (with Samuel Johnson), Works, 10 vols. (1778)

Tetzeli: Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador, The Comedy of Errors/Die Komödie der Irrungen (Bern and Munich, 1982)

Theobald: Lewis Theobald, Works, 7 vols. (1733)

Warburton: William Warburton, Works, 8 vols. (1747)

Wells: Stanley Wells, The Comedy of Errors, New Penguin Shakespeare (Harmondsworth, 1972)

White: Richard Grant White, Works, 12 vols. (Boston, 1857-66)

Wilson: John Dover Wilson, The Comedy of Errors, The New Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1922)

Wilson 1962: John Dover Wilson, The Comedy of Errors, The New Shakespeare, second edition (Cambridge, 1962)

Other Abbreviations

Abbott: E. A. Abbott, A Shakespearian Grammar, third edition (1876)

Bullough: Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (1957-75)

Cercignani: Fausto Cercignani, Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation (Oxford, 1981)

Clayton: Thomas Clayton, ‘The Text, Imagery, and Sense of the Abbess's Final Speech in The Comedy of Errors’, Anglia, 91 (1973), 479-84

Dent: R. W. Dent, Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index (1981)

Eagleson-Onions: C. T. Onions, A Shakespeare Glossary, enlarged and revised throughout by Robert D. Eagleson (Oxford, 1986)

ES: E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1923)

McKerrow: R. B. McKerrow, Prolegomena for the Oxford Shakespeare: A Study in Editorial Method (Oxford, 1939)

Miola: Robert S. Miola, ‘The Play and the Critics’, in ‘The Comedy of Errors’: Critical Essays, ed. Miola (New York and London, 1997), pp. 3-51

N & Q: Notes and Queries

New Readings: C. J. Sisson, New Readings in Shakespeare, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1956)

O'Connor: John O'Connor, ‘A Qualitative Analysis of Compositors C and D in the Shakespeare First Folio’, SB 30 (1977), 57-74

ODEP: The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, compiled by William George Smith, third edition, ed. F. P. Wilson (1970)

OED: Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Edition, 1971; repr. 1976)

SB: Studies in Bibliography

SMC: Bryan N. S. Gooch and David Thatcher, eds., A Shakespeare Music Catalogue, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1991); i. 192-218 (for The Comedy of Errors)

TC: Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, with John Jowett and William Montgomery, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford, 1987)

Tannenbaum: Samuel A. Tannenbaum, ‘Notes on The Comedy of Errors’, Shakespeare Jahrbuch, 68 (1932), 103-24

Tilley: Morris Palmer Tilley, Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950)

Walker: W. S. Walker, A Critical Examination of the Text of Shakespeare, 3 vols. (1860)

Werstine: Paul Werstine, ‘“Foul Papers” and “Prompt Books”: Printer's Copy for Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors’, SB 41 (1988), 232-46

Whitworth: Charles Whitworth, ‘Rectifying Shakespeare's Errors: Romance and Farce in Bardeditry’, in Ian Small and Marcus Walsh, eds., The Theory and Practice of Text-Editing: Essays in Honour of James T. Boulton (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 107-41. Reprinted in Miola, ‘The Comedy of Errors’: Critical Essays (1997), pp. 227-60. References are to the prior publication.

Fr.: French

L.: Latin

Don Shirley (review date 9 July 2001)

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SOURCE: Shirley, Don. “Gags Abound in Comedy of Errors' Carnival Atmosphere.” Los Angeles Times (9 July 2001): F6.

[In the following review of Joe Jordon's 2001 Sacred Fools Theater staging of The Comedy of Errors, Shirley reports that the production was filled with sight gags and broad humor.]

In the Sacred Fools Theater rendition of The Comedy of Errors, director Joe Jordan turns Shakespeare's Ephesus into an island off the coast of Brazil.

Though ruled by a dictator with gun-toting guards, the islanders are celebrating the annual Carnival of Summer. Cue the Latin beat, the vivid colors, the gyrating dancers, a guy on stilts, the fire-eater, the ganja smoking, the black magic, the giant bird puppet that saunters through the streets. Jordan maintains the ambience throughout the show.

Not everything fits the tropical motif, however. Two of the three band members, off to one side, wear white crew-neck T-shirts under their tropical shirts—befitting, say, a U.S. college frat party. They also provide a stream of sound effects that sound inspired by old-fashioned vaudeville.

A servant and his master communicate by cell phone until they realize they're within a few steps of each other. As the two Dromios tussle on either side of a door, they whip out giant squirt guns and shoot water through the mail slot—then one of them aims at the audience. A bit of verbal sparring between one of the servants and his master adopts game show rhythms. One of the Antipholuses goes into a Saturday Night Fever routine. A voodoo healer performs an exorcism with a plastic chicken.

Sight gags—from whatever lineage—just keep coming, especially in the raucous second half. The comedy is as broad as possible.

Initially the yield of laughs per gag is a little light, but the show builds steam. The Dromios, Michael Lanahan and Eric J. Stein, never grow tiresome. Zach Hanks' Antipholus of Syracuse and Jessie Thompson's gangly Luciana manage a brief moment of actual sentiment, while Jon Epstein's Antipholus of Ephesus and Ashley West Leonard's Adriana maintain a harder comic edge.

Don Shirley (review date 9 July 2001)

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SOURCE: Shirley, Don. “This Modernized Comedy Has Its Share of Errors.” Los Angeles Times (9 July 2001): F6.

[In the following review, Shirley finds Ben Donenberg's 2001 Shakespeare Festival/LA production of a modernized version of The Comedy of Errors lacking in unity despite some capable performances by the actors and singers.]

The Comedy of Errors examines two sets of twins who are in one city. Each man is unaware of his twin's presence, multiplying the possibilities of mistaken identity and comic mayhem. But why stop the doubling there?

Los Angeles currently hosts two versions of Shakespeare's comedy. The producers, though probably aware of each other, betray no evidence of it.

The bigger show, if not necessarily the better, is Shakespeare Festival/LA's, at Pershing Square now, with a move to South Coast Botanic Garden on July 26.

The festival's artistic director, Ben Donenberg, doubling as the show's director, set the action in contemporary L.A.—though the program designation stops a bit short of that concept, saying we're in “Los Ephesus,” in a nod to Shakespeare's setting.

In Snezana Petrovic's set, a vista of Hollywood often looms in the background. The main characters wear a lot of black, designed by Alex Jaeger to look casual but chic, in the style of young Hollywood. Antipholus of Ephesus is apparently a celebrity—he occasionally signs his autograph on glossy head shots. For a coda, the cast sings “Hooray for Ephesus” to the tune of “Hooray for Hollywood.”

That's only one side of L.A., and Donenberg glances at other parts as well. The front of the stage suggests a head-on view of a snazzy car, with lights that blink and a “No on Proposition 187” bumper sticker still hanging in there, seven years after the measure against illegal immigrants was on the ballot. The reference isn't totally gratuitous, however, for the play opens with a scene in which a man is condemned to death for his illegal immigrant status; the Ephesus laws make Proposition 187 look mild.

At least that's how Shakespeare's text opens; here that scene is preceded by a Day of the Dead procession that does feel gratuitous. The Day of the Dead commemorates those who have already died; it has nothing to do with this condemned man or with the play's gags.

The parade appears to exist solely so that the show can open with a splash of spectacle before we listen to the prisoner's long speech in which he explains how he got there—and the procession disperses before he begins speaking. We don't hear much about the Day of the Dead during most of the play, and a few final references seem no more organic than the first. In the wide-open spaces in which this production takes place, it might have been better to have grabbed the audience's attention with a pantomimed illustration of the prisoner's story rather than with a device that feels so forced.

Donenberg later introduces another side of L.A., as the Tim Peterson Singers, a gospel group, assist the healer who's performing an exorcism on the apparently mad Antipholus. This sudden burst of music, in a production that could use more music earlier, leads into a bluesy solo for the dynamic Paula Jai Parker, as Antipholus' wife.

Michael Manuel's Antipholus and Brian Joseph's Dromio are well-spoken, and Donenberg gets some solid laughs with a clever use of straitjackets, fairly deep into the intermissionless production. But generally the disparate elements never coalesce, and the comedy feels rather distant.

Douglas E. Green (review date spring/summer 2003)

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SOURCE: Green, Douglas E. Review of The Comedy of Errors.Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 2 (spring/summer 2003): 40-1.

[In the following review of the Guthrie Theater's 2002 production of The Comedy of Errors, Green suggests that director Dominique Serrand's interpretation of the play was informed by his circus background.]

When Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling brought in Dominique Serrand of Theatre de là Jeune Lune in Minneapolis to design and direct Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, he most likely knew that he was doing to Shakespeare what Shakespeare had done to Plautus: doubling the double-trouble. Serrand, whose background includes circus school as well as many years as the head of Jeune Lune, brings a clown's sensibility to Shakespeare's most farcical comedy. Early on, the Guthrie production itself seems to be interrupting a performance of Britten's operatic A Midsummer Night's Dream; along the way, there are cabaret-style songs that make hash of famous Shakespearean lines. In general, Serrand's Comedy [The Comedy of Errors] underscores the artificiality of comic conventions like mistaken identity to deflate assumptions about Shakespeare's high-culture status.

This production ignites a parodic “culture war” between the low comedy of the play itself and the extra-dramatic musical and gestural commentary provided by Diva and her confederates—characters Serrand has introduced and placed in the space surrounding the Guthrie's thrust stage. In similar fashion, confused stagehands and unexpected choruses interrupt the action, the duke's appearance in garish underwear and sock-garters makes a mockery of his authority over Egeon, and ludicrously costumed characters—like the Courtesan sporting a tightly trussed bustle beset by hovering butterflies—expel the least tittle of seriousness. Indeed, noisy stage machinery and bored extras reduce Egeon's prolix exposition to one more occasion for giggling.

We are also confronted with the Other Dromio and the Other Antipholus sitting on couches facing the stage in front of the first row of seats. Because both sets of Ephesian and Syracusan twins are ably played by the same pair of actors in this production, these “other” characters do nothing, except play cards and change their hats, until the very end of the play when they are needed to effect the resolution. In fact, because they are generally inattentive and sometimes even asleep during their two hours' traffic off the stage, they hold up the dénouement, into which they must ultimately be prompted.

Lest we think that only men are fools, women from the kitchen wench to Adriana appear similarly ridiculous. The usually romanticized Luciana loses her aura of gentility and good breeding, undone by her evening-dress-and-sneaker combo. Her encounter with the Syracusan Antipholus, whom she mistakes for her Ephesian brother-in-law, occurs over a lunch table from which she cannot stop eating. She speaks with an increasingly full mouth, which upstages her bewilderment and offended modesty at her presumed in-law's untoward interest in her. Even the Abbess Emilia, usually the play's arbiter of good sense, comes off as a rather annoying know-it-all who has just figured out what we've known for quite some time—and who wants to be congratulated for it.

In an article on the production that appeared in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (4 October 2002), one actor purportedly quoted the director's mantra: “It's not about the words.” That attitude is not typical of the Guthrie's past productions of Shakespeare—by directors of almost every stripe. Certainly, Serrand's farcical circus precludes the sometimes serious musings on identity that arise when the Syracusan Antipholus compares himself and his position in the world to “a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop” (1.2.35-36). But then again, The Comedy of Errors is not Hamlet, or even Twelfth Night.

If this director forgoes the weight that some Guthrie predecessors have found and emphasized in comic Shakespeare, his love of spectacle places him squarely in the tradition of many others, including former artistic director Liviu Ciulei. Unlike Ciulei's, however, Serrand's brand of spectacle, with its roots in the circus, is of the popularizing kind—an impulse that appeals to current artistic director Dowling. No surprise, then, that Serrand has created a Comedy of Errors in which fidelity to Shakespeare's words matters less than having a good time with Shakespeare's words.

Further Reading

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Cohen, Ron. Review of The Comedy of Errors.Back Stage 43, no. 31 (2 August 2002): 48.

Praises the high-energy 2002 production of The Comedy of Errors directed and adapted by Robert Richmond for the Aquila Theatre Company.

Foakes, R. A., ed. Introduction to The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare, pp. xi-lv. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1962.

Provides a comprehensive overview on the textual history, stage history, and critical history of The Comedy of Errors.

Harrison, G. B., ed. Introduction to The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare, pp. 15-20. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1955.

Provides a synopsis of the Penguin edition of The Comedy of Errors.

Hart, F. Elizabeth. “‘Great Is Diana’ of Shakespeare's Ephesus.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43, no. 2 (2003): 347-74.

Discusses Shakespeare's use of the fertility goddess Diana and the city of Ephesus in both The Comedy of Errors and Pericles.

Hassel, Chris. “The Comedy of Errors in Context and in Performance.” Upstart Crow 17 (1997): 23-39.

Examines Christian allusions and contemporary religious controversies in The Comedy of Errors.

Marcotte, Paul J. “Eros in The Comedy of Errors.Revue de l'Université d'Ottawa 38, no. 4 (October-December 1968): 642-67.

Explores the gender-based differences in the love relationships between Adriana and her husband, and Luciana and Antipholus of Syracuse.

Miola, Robert S. “The Influence of New Comedy on The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew.” In Shakespeare's Sweet Thunder: Essays on the Early Comedies, edited by Michael J. Collins, pp. 21-34. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.

Explains how Shakespeare adapted his source material in The Comedy of Errors to address contemporary social concerns and emerging staging issues.

Wells, Stanley. “Reunion Scenes in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.” In Englischen Philologie: A Yearbook of Studies in English Language and Literature 1985/86. Vol. 80, pp. 267-76. Vienna: Wilhelm Braumüller, 1986.

Explores the staging issues involved in the reunion scenes in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.

Werstine, Paul. “‘Urging of Her Wracke’ in The Comedy of Errors.Shakespeare Quarterly 31, no. 3 (autumn 1980): 392-94.

Explains the editorial controversy surrounding the speeches in the reunion scene between Aemilia and Egeon in The Comedy of Errors.


The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 77)