Shakespeare’s lively Comedy of Errors, widely agreed to be the slapstick farce of his youth, begins in a most unexpected way—as a nightmare. It introduces its audience to the old merchant Egeon, who lost his wife and one of his sons many years before, and who has been painfully searching for his other son for five years. As the play opens, the old man has just entered the city of Ephesus to continue the search, only to find himself immediately arrested and sentenced to death—not because he has committed a crime, but just because he is a Syracusan in Ephesus, a city whose relations with Syracuse have soured during the old man’s five-year quest. Egeon has for so long been distressed by the dispersal and loss of his family that he almost welcomes his own death, which he expects to come at the end of the day.
The gloom of Egeon’s suffering lifts after the first scene as the play catches us up in a swirl of events and becomes the farce of “errors,” or mistaken identifications, that its title promises us. The notion of farce carries with it a helpful cooking analogy in the verb “to farce,” which means to stuff a bird for roasting. Before we get very far into The Comedy of Errors, we find it as full of laughable complications as any bird was ever full of stuffing.
Shakespeare started off with a classical source, Plautus’s Menaechmi, a play about a pair of identical twins who, unknown to each other, find themselves in the same city after a lifetime apart, to their own confusion and to the confusion of all who know one but not the other. In the tradition of farce, Shakespeare then set out to multiply the opportunities for comic misidentification by stuffing into his play not one pair of twins but two, giving the twin Antipholuses twin servants, the Dromios. Borrowing from another play by Plautus, Amphitruo, Shakespeare has the wife of one Antipholus entertain the other Antipholus while her husband is locked out of his own house. He also gives one of the servants a memorably obese and lustful fiancée, whose attentions terrify the servant’s mystified twin brother. As each Antipholus meets the other’s Dromio and then his own Dromio, over and then over again, the play becomes so crammed with misunderstandings, with growing resentments, and with anxieties that we are hard-pressed to keep in mind that this “comedy of errors” carries within it rather simple solutions to its tangled questions. When the confusions lead to arrests for unpaid debts and to exorcisms for demonic possession, we begin to doubt that the play can be wound up in comic resolution, especially a resolution that includes the threatened old Egeon, who returns at the end for his appointment with the executioner, long after most of us have forgotten all about him.
Perhaps the most spirited character in this farce is Adriana, the wife of one of the Antipholuses. The play endows her with language rich in imagery and passionate in tone, language that explores her resentment at being under the domination of a husband who seems not to respect her, combined with devotion to the welfare and success of that very husband. In the conflicted speeches of Adriana, in some of Antipholus of Syracuse’s reflections, and in other places worth looking for, Shakespeare suggests complexities beyond the mere complications of farce.