The Comedy of Errors, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, is a tangle of preposterous coincidences and hilarious misunderstandings. While Shakespeare adapted his comedy from Plautus’s Menaechme and Amphitruo, he did not slavishly copy plot and structure but reshaped it in a uniquely Shakespearean way. His most daring alteration was to add another set of twins to the story and thereby double the confusion as well as the comedy. “It was the brainwave of an ambitious young dramatist who was, in effect, announcing himself to the Elizabethan playgoers as an English Plautus who could, moreover, outdo his master in comic inventiveness. . . . The substantial changes . . . reveal what a thoroughly professional grasp he had, even at this early stage of his career, of the theatre and the means whereby the attention of an audience can be caught and held” (John Wilders, New Prefaces to Shakespeare [Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1988], 32 33).
The humor in The Comedy of Errors, as with many works of farce, originates mainly in characters’ mix-ups--or “errors” as the title suggests. “An expert farceur, Ralph Lynn, once remarked that the essence of farce was worry. The Comedy of Errors is not a farce, but the elements of farce that it contains can only work their comedic effect if they are based in a real and credible uncertainty in the Antipholus twins as to their own identity” (John Southworth, Shakespeare the Player: A Life in the Theatre [Phoenix Mill, England: Sutton Publishing, 2000], 78).
Many of the characters in the play struggle for identity—to recognize and establish their own identities and to establish relationships with and understand the personalities around them. They experience varying degrees of success, but their vision of others is hampered by a lack of self-knowledge or impaired by insecurities.
The characters who most exemplify this blindness to the people around them are the newcomers to Ephesus—Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, who consistently misinterpret the actions and words of those around them. Antipholus of Syracuse is willing to accept any explanation but the true one, the one which should most appeal to him. He is unable to see what is obvious to the audience for three principal reasons: he believes his quest is futile, he carries around prejudices about the Ephesians, and most importantly, he has failed to grapple with his own identity as an identical twin.
Antipholus of Syracuse claims that finding his lost twin and mother is his greatest desire, the one thing that could make him completely happy. However, it becomes apparent that he does not really believe his dream is attainable: “He that commends me to mine own content, / Commends me to the thing I cannot get: / I to the world am like a drop of water, / That in the ocean seeks another drop, / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth / (Unseen inquisitive), confounds himself. / So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them (unhappy), ah lose myself” (1.2.33 40; all references to act, scene and line numbers in the play are to G. Blakemore Evans, ed., The Riverside Shakespeare [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974]). He lacks faith, perhaps because of the disappointment and discouragement experienced in five years of searching for his misplaced family.
However, after making this speech, he makes no further mention of his family, nor does the text indicate that he makes any inquiries about them. On the contrary, he mentions only his intent to go sightseeing (1.2.30 31). When people begin to mistake him for his twin, he thinks hard and dredges up a combination of superstition and prejudice about the Ephesians, who are, he has heard, wicked and deceitful. After the first mix-up between the Dromios, Antipholus of Syracuse says, “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” (1.2.97 102). When Adriana approaches him and calls him by name, he reasons that she could not have known his name except by inspiration (2.2.166 7), then alternately wonders if he is dreaming or merely mad (2.2.213).
As evidence of his twin’s presence piles high, Antipholus still does not reach the correct conclusion: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend, / And every one doth call me by name: / . . . Sure these are but imaginary wiles, / And Lapland sorcerers do inhabit here” (4.3.1 3, 10 11). Up to this period in his life, Antipholus’ appearance and name have been his alone; he experiences a crisis of identity because he has not paused to consider the nature of life with an identical twin--a twin, moreover, who bears the same name. Because he has not paused to visualize what life with such a twin would be like, he is literally clueless in his search, knowing not for what to look or listen.
Dromio of Syracuse has similar difficulties, and both he and his twin suffer physical abuse as a direct consequence of confused identities. One might expect that Dromio of Syracuse—who knows he has an identical twin wandering around somewhere—would be eager to pinpoint and eliminate the cause of the unearned beatings and false accusations. However, even when his twin tells him through a door, “O villain, thou hast stol’n both mine office and my name” (3.1.44), recognition does not brighten his mind. His outlook on life is an odd combination of stoicism and merriment; he seems to accept that life is sometimes nonsensical and often unjust, and he treats nearly everything as a jest.
Some characters in the play have difficulty seeing their fellows as they truly are because they are pre-disposed to see something else. Adriana’s insecurities make her prey to jealousy; she sees her husband as a fortune hunter incapable of fidelity, and she inadvertently drives him from home with her shrewishness. She welcomes the news that her husband might be mad if this means his behavior is no fault of her own and that he may be restored to his former, loving self with the aid of Pinch, the conjurer. Likewise, the abbess is clearly determined to believe Adriana is at fault, even before she hears her story. No matter how Adriana pleads her case, the abbess twists her words to fit the conclusion which she had reached in advance.
Other players, including Antipholus of Ephesus, Angelo, Luciana, the duke, the courtesan and various officers of the law, are misled even when they exercise their powers of reason and observation. Thus Antipholus of Ephesus is mistakenly taken for a thief and a madman, and he, in turn, sees conspiracy and treachery everywhere around him. While these misconceptions may be more easily excused--after all, none of the parties involved had knowledge of the existence of a twin brother and servant--they are of a more serious nature, since the misunderstandings occur between people who should really know and trust one another better than they have shown.
Just when the characters and the plot seem impossibly tangled, Shakespeare--for whom this is not “too hard a knot . . . to untie” (Twelfth Night, 2.2.40)—steps in to sort things out. Understanding dawns, a family is reunited, a community is restored to peace, and all have come to know one another and themselves much better.
Undeniably, Shakespeare is more concerned with laughter than with plausibility in The Comedy of Errors. In the words of Peter Levi, “To analyze the plot would be picking the wings off a butterfly” (The Life and Times of William Shakespeare [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988], 83). However, even at his most light-hearted, Shakespeare is never shallow. When his characters unaccountably fail to see what lies right before their eyes, the Bard explores why, and his audience learns something about human nature in the process.