The Comedy of Errors Criticism
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespeare for Students)

T. S. Dorsch

SOURCE: "Introduction," in The Comedy of Errors, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 12-18.

The Comedy of Errors is not only very good theatre, it is also very good reading. It is a finely-balanced mixture of pathos and suspense, illusion and delusion, love turned bitter and love that is sweet, farce and fun. The fun begins in the second scene with the entry of the Syracusan pair and is sustained with great verve and vivacity through the next three acts. It arises from the farce of mistaken identity which is the stuff and substance of the play—from all the improbabilities that result from the use of two pairs of identical twins who in the course of a single day repeatedly encounter people whom they know they know, but do not know. "If we are in for improbability," said Dowden, "let us at least be repaid for it by fun, and have that in abundance. Let the incredibility become a twofold incredibility, and it is none the worse." The fun is of course greatly increased by our knowledge of everything that the characters in the play do not know. Even if Shakespeare did not at all times make clear in the dialogue who is who, we should know from his looks and voice who is speaking to whom. One would suppose that no producer in his senses would put on the stage two pairs of actors who could not be told apart. The only possible surprise for us is the advent of the Abbess in the final episodes, and that should not be much of a surprise, for we have learnt from romances that if a wife disappears at the beginning she is more likely than not to reappear at the end.

The keynotes of the play are illusion and delusion. The Abbess and Aegeon are the only persons who are not wholly deluded by appearances, and even they are so far deceived as not to know that all their family are alive and well, and close at hand in Ephesus; and Aegeon is, naturally enough, bewildered when he is unexpectedly faced by two sons who cannot be told from each other even by a wife and two personal slaves. The illusion, like the fun, begins in the second scene when the visiting Antipholus is accosted by a slave whom he knows to be his own Dromio, who precipitately tells him that his dinner is spoiling and he must hurry home, and who emphatically denies that he has in his keeping money that Antipholus has entrusted to him. Newly arrived in Ephesus, he has been thinking about his long and seemingly hopeless quest, and has felt that he is:

like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.

After his encounter with the wrong Dromio he recalls having been told that Ephesus:

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 suchlike liberties of sin.

The Roman-style comedy of misunderstanding is teasingly haunted by moral implications owed to the distant echoes of St. Paul. The phrase "liberties of sin" could not have come from Plautus, and suggests that those who fall under the spells of Ephesus are in need of spiritual conversion as well as material enlightenment. The mind of Antipholus of Syracuse remains "changed" until the end of the play. A little later in the day, when Adriana claims him as her husband, he is led to wonder whether he was married to her in a dream from which he is not yet awake (2.2.173-4). His Dromio, too, is struck with a horrified wonder:

This is the fairy land. O spite of spites,
We talk with goblins, owls, and sprites.

So it continues. He wonders whether he is "in earth, in heaven, or in hell." When Dromio brings him money to save him from the imprisonment with which his brother is threatened, he knows that he is wandering "in illusions" (4.3.36), and when, immediately after this, he is greeted as an old friend by the Courtesan, he know that she is the devil (43), and Dromio agrees...

(The entire section is 37,878 words.)