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The Comedy of Errors | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Comedy of Errors | Context


Written sometime between 1589 and 1594, The Comedy of Errors is one of William Shakespeare's earliest plays. It is also his shortest dramatic work, with a typical edition of the play coming in at about 14,500 words or 1,800 lines. For comparison, this is about two-thirds the length of an average Shakespearean play, and less than half the length of Hamlet, his longest. Modern productions tend to run approximately two hours, or the length of a typical feature film. To Elizabethan theatergoers, who were used to three and four hour performances, this farcical, fast-paced comedy qualified as light entertainment.

Plot Inspiration

Shakespeare's main source for The Comedy of Errors was the Menaechmi, by Roman comic playwright Plautus (c. 254 BCE–184 BCE). In this play, as in Shakespeare's, twin brothers are separated as children and grow up in different cities. When one brother (Menaechmus Sosicles) reaches adulthood, he embarks on a voyage to find his twin, but he soon finds himself drawn into his lost brother's personal and financial dealings.

The Menaechmi provided Shakespeare not only with his basic plot and protagonists, but also with some of the seemingly minor characters—such as the courtesan—appearing in The Comedy of Errors. Knowing the play's Roman source also helps in making sense of some otherwise confusing details in The Comedy of Errors. For example, Shakespeare's play takes place in Ephesus but is full of allusions to "Epidamium." This is a holdover from Plautus's version, which is set in Epidamnus.

The Dromios, wisecracking twin servants of the Antipholus brothers, are notably absent from the Menaechmi. These two are thought to have been modeled on characters in another Plautine comedy, called Amphitryon or Amphitruo. In that play the gods Jupiter and Mercury take on the forms of Amphitruo and his slave Sosia, allowing Jupiter to seduce Amphitryon's wife. Sosia, like many servant characters in classical drama, is a source of comic relief—particularly when he meets his body double Mercury. Amphitryon is also the source of Act 3, Scene 1 in The Comedy of Errors, in which Antipholus of Ephesus is locked out of his home and his wife and servants refuse to admit him.

Still other elements of Shakespeare's plot seem to come from Apollonius of Tyre, a medieval romance originally written in Latin by an unknown author. This tale is the source of the shipwreck Egeon reports in Act 1, Scene 1. In the Menaechmi sea voyages are less eventful: the twin boys are separated when one of them gets lost in a crowd. Emilia's disappearance and reappearance as an abbess is another feature borrowed from Apollonius of Tyre, whose hero loses his wife in a storm at sea and finds her at the temple of Diana many years later. Shakespeare may have encountered Apollonius of Tyre as part of the Confessio Amantis ("Lover's Confession," begun about 1386), a long narrative poem by English poet John Gower; or in The Pattern of Painful Adventures (1576), a prose adaptation by writer and translator Laurence Twine. Either way Shakespeare clearly found something compelling about the story: decades after writing The Comedy of Errors, he borrowed the same plot of shipwreck and separation for Pericles, Prince of Tyre (written c. 1606–08, first published 1609).

The Classical Unities

During the English Renaissance, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was increasingly seen as an authority on literary form. His Poetics, written about 335 BCE, offered a systematic discussion of the different types of poetry in the Greek world, including tragedy. In his treatise Aristotle wrote that the most successful earlier Greek dramas had tended to take place in a single location, over the course of a single day; these principles are known as the unity of place and unity of time. In addition, Aristotle pointed out, each of these plays had a single plot without distractions or side stories: the unity of action. Together, these three principles are known as the Aristotelian unities or the classical unities.

For Aristotle the unities were a description of what had worked in earlier drama, rather than a strict prescription for how new plays should be written. Moreover, Aristotle was writing specifically about tragedy as it was performed in ancient Greece—with masked choruses and a fairly small cast of named characters. Authors of Shakespeare's time, however, tended to interpret the unities as guidelines for effective playwriting, regardless of whether they were writing tragedies or comedies. Still, familiarity with the unities did not necessarily mean obedience to them: Ben Jonson and John Fletcher, for example, knew of Aristotle's theories but did not apply them uniformly in every play.

In most of his works Shakespeare was even less preoccupied with the unities than his contemporaries were. Apart from the late Tempest, The Comedy of Errors is the only Shakespearean play to satisfy all three. Everything happens in the same city over the course of a single day, as part of the same basic plot. In a way the unities serve as a container for the strange antics and mishaps, which fill The Comedy of Errors, lending structure and restraint to an otherwise hectic and confusing play. What happens in Ephesus stays in Ephesus, and all of the numerous "errors" are resolved in time for dinner.

Performance and Publication History

The first known performance of The Comedy of Errors took place on December 28, 1594. The venue was Gray's Inn, one of London's four Inns of Court (i.e., law schools), whose students had commissioned the play as part of a Christmas entertainment. This was a high-profile event: students from rival schools, including an "embassy" from the Middle Temple, were in attendance as guests of honor. The evening was festive for the students, but frustrating for the performers, as "general drunken bawdiness resulted in a riot with an overcrowded stage and no room for the actors."

Despite its rambunctious opening night, Shakespeare's play evidently came to be associated with Christmastime among early modern English theatergoers. In 1604 it was performed again at the court of King James I, again as part of a Christmas celebration. Though apparently well-liked by Shakespeare's contemporaries, The Comedy of Errors was not published until 1623, when it appeared in the First Folio. There are no important early quarto editions of The Comedy of Errors; thus, modern editions are based entirely on the folio text. (Quartos and folios were publishing formats used for Shakespeare's texts; quarto pages were smaller than folio pages.)

Adaptations for Stage and Screen

After the 1604 production The Comedy of Errors was absent from the English stage for over a hundred years. It reappeared in the early 18th century in the form of two farcical adaptations: Every Body Mistaken (1716) and See if You Like It, or, 'Tis All a Mistake (1734). Toward the end of the 18th century and well into the 19th century, musical versions of the play predominated. Notable adaptations include The Twins, Or Which is Which adapted by W. Woods (1780) and the opera Gli Equivoci ("The Misconceptions," 1786), with music by Stephen Storace and libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. The original version of the play, or something close to it, finally reappeared in theaters in 1855 under the direction of English actor and theater manager Samuel Phelps.

During the musical craze of the mid-20th century, several of Shakespeare's plays were adapted into high-energy shows full of song and dance. The first of the Bard's works to receive this treatment was The Comedy of Errors, which composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart transformed into the Broadway hit The Boys from Syracuse (1938). Like many adaptations before and since, The Boys from Syracuse takes place in a reimagined ancient Greece complete with flowing tunics and stately Grecian columns, though the anachronistic elements (e.g., "taxi chariots") are hard to miss. The show was, by all accounts, a great success, leading to a film adaptation in 1940.

Half a century after The Boys from Syracuse premiered, filmmakers revisited The Comedy of Errors in Big Business (1988), starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin. In its overall style and setting, this film represents a sharply different approach from The Boys from Syracuse, taking place in an aggressively modern world of mega-corporations and power suits. Moreover, the two sets of twins in Big Business are female, with the "Antipholus" figures working as high-powered business executives and the "Dromios" as gingham-clad country girls. Promotional materials for Big Business, like those for many productions of the original play, emphasized the sheer silliness of the plot: the theatrical poster for the film gives top billing to "Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler."

Errors in the Modern Era

Although they lack the big chorus numbers of The Boys from Syracuse, modern productions of The Comedy of Errors tend to possess all the zaniness and whimsy of an early stage musical. Wardrobes range from colorful Renaissance garb to sailor suits, with minor characters such as Luce often showcasing the costumer's inventiveness. Other productions up the ante by having each pair of twins played by a single actor. The California Shakespeare Theater, for example, mounted a 2014 production, in which Danny Scheie played both Dromios, with only slight costume changes to indicate which character was which.

A few modern directors, however, have approached The Comedy of Errors with more restraint. British director Tim Supple, for example, directed a 1996 Royal Shakespeare Company production described as "thoughtful and sombre"—two adjectives seldom applied to this usually farcical play. Shying away from circus-like sounds and colors, Supple's production made use of an extremely simple set: a brick wall with a single door. Gone, too, were the clownish costumes so often associated with The Comedy of Errors. Instead, Supple's troupe performed in subdued modern dress: suits and fedoras for the men, long skirts and cardigans for the women.
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