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.