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The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare

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Identity The concept of identity is one of the most discussed topics in the criticism on The Comedy of Errors, going well beyond the obvious theme of mistaken identity. Some critics focus solely on personal identity (usually with regard to the twin brothers Antipholi or Adriana, though other characters' identities are also addressed), while others look at how public/social and private identities intersect.

It is generally acknowledged that Antipholus of Syracuse enters the city of Ephesus to make himself "whole" and find his identity, which he believes will happen when he finds his twin brother. However, the strange encounters he has (his social identity) make him question his sanity and that of others who speak to him as if they know him. Antipholus of Ephesus, on the other hand, clings to his personal identity when assailed with threats to it for reasons unknown to him. His wife, Adriana, finds her identity as Antipholus's wife threatened by the perilous course their marriage is taking. Most critics agree that the characters' "original" identities are returned to them or renewed at the end of the play, but not before the social order is seriously threatened.

Genre In most of the commentary on the play, critics devote at least some attention to its genre or classification, even if it is not the subject of the critical piece. It remains a topic of ongoing interest and debate. Some modern critics see the play as pure (or almost pure) farce and important in Shakespeare's canon, unlike early critics who dismissed it as merely a stepping-stone in Shakespeare's career and not worthy of much critical attention.

Commentators who find elements of tragedy and romance in the play usually point first to Aegeon's story at the beginning of the play and his impending death as keeping the play from being pure farce. Antipholus of Syracuse's wooing of Luciana, Adriana and Luciana's debate about love and marriage, and the family reunion at the end of the play are other non-farcical elements critics discuss. Those critics who argue that the play has elements of comedy, too, and not simply farce, note that the characters in the play have more depth and dimension than would characters in a farce—they are real, not mechanized characters.

Love and Marriage Discussion of love and marriage in The Comedy of Errors tends to focus on either the relationship between Adriana and her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, or the debate between Adriana and Luciana on marriage (or both), both of which are deviations from Plautus's play. One critic argues that Shakespeare's introduction of these concepts in the play sets the stage for the romantic love so central in his later romantic comedies, maintains that that is all Shakespeare intended to do, and reads nothing further into the play. Other critics demur, citing Shakespeare's vast deviation from his Plautine source—for example, Adriana's speeches about her unhappiness (and the fact that she has a name in this play—Plautus's name for the wife of Antipholus was "Wife"), the attention given to her marriage, the reduced role of the Courtezan, and the budding love between Luciana and Antipholus of Syracuse. Other commentators explore the changing nature of male/female relationships in courtship and marriage.

Gender Issues The topic of gender in The Comedy of Errors is closely aligned with the topic of love and marriage, with most of the commentary focusing on the women in the play (particularly Adriana, Luciana, and Aemilia). The critics who touch on the role of the men in the play tend to regard them with less enthusiasm than they do the women, except perhaps in...

(This entire section contains 718 words.)

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the case of the Aegeon.

Some critics point to the dual nature of the women in the play—they possess "masculine" as well as "feminine" traits; they are "dominant" in courtship and "submissive" in marriage. One critic calls these "halves" of the "unified feminine principle" "outlaw" and "inlaw." Another commentator notes the division of public (commercial) and private (domestic) spheres represented in the play and the conflict that ensues between Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana because of these spheres' seeming incompatibility.

Critics also point out the significance of Aemilia's appearance at the end of the play and the role of women in general in being catalysts in the outcome and resolution of the play.


Act Summaries