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The Comedy of Errors:
Shakespeare's First Comedy

By Diana Major Spencer
From Midsummer Magazine, 1996

 

Through the years, critics have dismissed The Comedy of Errors, probably Shakespeare’s fourth play (behind the three Henry VIs), as a silly product of his youth, as an early experiment of embellished “translation,” and as fluff, froth, or farce--and therefore unworthy of serious consideration. G. B. Harrison, noted scholar of a generation ago, called it “very good fun on the stage, but . . . more suited for a New Year’s Eve party than for a conference of critics” (Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison [New York: Harcourt, 1980], 271). A more recent scholar, David Bevington, notes that since its earliest performances, it “has been the victim . . . of directors who regard it as too inconsequential to survive without adaptation and embellishment” (The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 6 vols, [Toronto: Bantam, 1988], 1:np).

Others merely note its early place in the canon, an early performance recorded for the Christmas revels at Gray’s Inn on December 28, 1594: “a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus) (quoted in Shakespeare, 270). The play was also listed in 1598 by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia as “his Errors” between “his Gentlemen of Verona . . . [and] his Loue Labors lost” (Shakespeare, 12).

If, however, instead of looking back at Shakespeare’s youth and inexperience to explain away the shallowness of this play, one were to look forward to where this early play will lead him, one might notice that every significant element of Shakespeare’s mature comedies and romances is already in place in The Comedy of Errors, and it is in these very ways that he departs from Plautus—and everyone else.

Classical comedy, of which Plautus’s Menechmi is an example, uses laughter to ferret out and correct human foibles. Among its elements are mistaken identity, which Plautus supplies through twins who were separated years ago. Only one servant appears in Menechmi (not two, plus a kitchen staff), and he is traveling with the “foreign” twin. The citizen twin has a shrewish wife, a father-in-law, and a flaunting mistress named Erotium (“the erotic one”); the traveling twin has no woman. The comedic elements of trickery and sex-intrigue involve the husband’s blatant infidelity: The citizen twin steals his wife’s cloak to give to his mistress, thus punishing his wife and rewarding his mistress. The requisite comic wrangles and name-calling occur between the citizen and his wife, the traveler and his servant, and the two Menechmi and a jeweler, a merchant, a parasite, a physician, and the courtesan.

Obviously, Shakespeare borrows heavily; but he lightens the farce by eliminating the cynicism of the original. Even at this early date he seems incapable of comedy without the trappings of romance: at least one “love at first sight” scene, the betrothal or nuptials of at least two couples, a plot that proves “the course of true love never did run smooth” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1.1.134), and apparent love-triangles caused by magic disguise, mistaken identity, or deliberate deception.

For his first comedy, Shakespeare needed an unattached woman of youth, grace, and beauty. The dangling twin needed a soul-mate; the scolding wife needed a foil like Luciana to counsel her on patience in marriage. Presto! By adding a sweet sister for Adriana, Shakespeare turns the cynical Plautine sex-intrigue into a seemingly irreconcilable but resolvable marital misunderstanding and a seemingly illicit but innocent courtship, both caused by mistaken identity. He introduces the contrast of a sweet (maybe too sweet) foil for the feisty heroine, a device he will use again in The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Much Ado about Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, and on and on.

Similarly, Plautus offers nothing to correspond to the second Dromio. By adding a twin for the servant, Shakespeare multiplies the opportunities for wrangling with two servants apparently ignoring the wishes of two masters, thus inviting twice as many buffetings and blows. Adding a servant plot also enables Shakespeare to bombard us with sexual and scatological puns and quibbles (some say for the groundlings only) and to distinguish social classes by prose and verse, other typical features of his plays. Most important, the second Dromio allows love among the lowborn, with its own mistaken identities and juicy descriptions of wenches: The Syracusan servant describes Luce in Falstaffian terms as “the kitchen wench, and all grease. . . . If she lives till doomsday, she’ll burn a week longer than the whole world” (3.2.96 102). Shakespeare’s comedies typically present a rustic or clown or servant-class love-match to parallel the higher born lovers and provide the frequent third couple at the wedding.

Finally, adding a serious, even potentially tragic, frame taken from another source to Plautus’s monolithic farce introduces the Bard’s remarkable gift for telling two tales at once--sometimes plot and sub-plot, sometimes frame and pith, sometimes the same plot more than once in parallel versions, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or King Lear. Shakespeare uses the lesser source to provide exposition, and, interestingly, to introduce a framework that drapes most of his comedies and romances, which is the opposite of “comic relief” in his tragedies: these frame tales heighten the comedy by contrast with their dreadful external circumstances. Comedies and romances--including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and so forth—begin with separation of family (through political intrigue, filial disobedience, or natural disaster) and end with reunion and reconciliation.

Shakespeare’s source for the frame tale of The Comedy of Errors was most likely John Gower’s version of Appolonius of Tyre (which Shakespeare later re-used for Pericles), in which a king loses his wife and daughter at sea. The mother dies giving birth to the daughter and is subsequently sealed in a coffin and buried at sea. The daughter is stolen by pirates and sold into slavery, yet somehow avoids prostitution. Meanwhile, the coffin washes ashore in a sympathetic land, and, miraculously, the mother revives, enters a convent and becomes its abbess. After a series of adventures, mostly concerning futile attacks on the daughter’s virtue, everyone is reunited.

Shakespeare’s adaptation occupies scene one in its entirety as Egeon relates to the duke the tragedies and abandonments of his life that have resulted in his forbidden presence in Ephesus. “Proceed . . . by the doom of death [to] end [my] woes,” Egeon tells the duke (1.1.1 2); “this is my comfort: When your words are done, / My woes end” (1.1.27 28). Then he tells his tale of shipwreck, separation, loss of wife, twin sons and twin servants, and, now, his own fruitless search for the son who left him five years ago in search of his twin. Scene two begins with a merchant warning the Syracusan Antipholus that he should pretend to be from somewhere besides Syracuse. The audience knows immediately that this is one of the separated twins, and within thirty lines the farce begins with the entrance of Dromio of Ephesus. Four acts later, after the intervening scenes with two sets of twins and three couples at various stages of courtship and marriage, the action stops—the audience typically shares a gasp and a moment of silence as the abbess, a new character, appears to upbraid the scolding Adriana and take control of the confusion. Of course, the coincidence that Emilia, the deux ex machina, is the long lost wife and mother is too stunningly beyond credibility. Then follow reunion, reconciliation, and joy.

In my early studies of Shakespeare, I considered “sources and analogues” to be annoying afterthoughts assigned by professors to make us learn Latin or Italian names of obscure works that would be of no earthly interest to anyone were it not for Shakespeare’s “plagiarism.” Later, studying medieval English literature revealed that “The Miller’s Tale” contained two independent stories which Chaucer had unified organically. Similarly, the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight consists of two stories which exist in multiple versions, but are nowhere else combined. The fifteenth-century The Second Shepherd’s Play consists of a lengthy parody of the Nativity as the “shepherds abide their flocks,” followed by a relatively short visit to Bethlehem and fervent adoration of the child.

Perhaps these were Shakespeare’s primary sources, more than his Latin and translated models. From the beginning of British drama, the social classes mix, slapstick and serious mix, and biblical stories are paralleled with everyday life among the country folk. The Bard already knew his formula, he was already an “upstart crow,” before pamphleteers and diarists wrote him down. Certainly he refined his language, his plots, and themes along the way, but already his combining and expanding of sources was no mere grafting of branch to trunk, but a creation of genuine hybrids, stronger, more beautiful, and more productive than their progenitors.


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