The Comedy of Errors
Arthos, John. “Shakespeare’s Transformation of Plautus.” Comparative Drama 1 (1967–68): 239–53. Revised and reprinted in Shakespeare: The Early Writings, pp. 8–41. London: Bowes & Bowes; Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1972.
In adapting the Menaechmi, Shakespeare, Arthos claims, was attracted to features in the works of Plautus (exuberance, musicality, and elements of romance and the fantastic) that he could refashion, “extending their function and significance” to yield a comic vision more golden than hard-edged. Shakespeare emphasized a “yearning for the absolute” (the defining note of the romance genre) and thus transformed a comic world in which conflict is the norm into one that values communion on multiple levels.
Barber, C. L., and Richard P. Wheeler. “Domestic Comedy.” In The Whole Journey: Shakespeare’s Power of Development, pp. 67–85. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Emphasizing the strategies of splitting and displacement, Barber and Wheeler’s psychoanalytic reading of this early play “about family bonds” argues that the two Antipholuses derive in part from Shakespeare’s own felt division between being a married man in Stratford and a playwright in London who is also estranged from his once-prosperous father, now fallen on hard times. The play works to merge these roles into a reunited family. “As within the fiction the twins refind the intact family, Shakespeare refinds it by having made the fiction.” (The first part of the essay reprints Barber’s “Shakespearian Comedy in The Comedy of Errors” [College English 25 (1964): 493–97], in which the author praises the play’s verbal energy, the replacement of Plautus’s “fractions of human nature” with characters “conceived as whole people,” and Shakespeare’s prolific use of domestic detail which “feed[s] Elizabethan life into the mill of Roman farce.”)
Brooks, Harold. “Themes and Structures in The Comedy of Errors.” In Early Shakespeare, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, pp. 54–71. London: Edward Arnold, 1961.
In this frequently cited essay, Brooks examines events, characters, themes (e.g., relationship, cosmic order, and the dangers of illusion), and imagery (particularly animal and water images) to arrive at the “great value” of “the harmonic structure: the structure which by parallel, contrast, or cross-reference . . . makes us compare one passage or person of the play with another, and so find an enriched significance in both.” Act 1, scene 2 serves as a model for establishing the play’s architectural artistry, Shakespeare’s command of scenic units, his ability to pay constant attention to past, present, and future action, and his talent for “combinative power” in composing a play “of diverse yet cooperating strands and tones.”
Church of England. “Homily on Obedience.” In Elizabethan Backgrounds, edited by Arthur F. Kinney, pp. 60–70. Hamden: Archon Books, 1975; reprinted 1990.
The primary sermon read monthly at services in all English parish churches is cited by Luciana in 2.1 to establish basic values tested in the play. As Kinney points out in his introductory comments (pp. 44–48), this homily “is perhaps the chief repository of commonplace Elizabethan [analogical] thought and belief [especially the doctrine of order and degree].” Kinney’s text is taken from the first Elizabethan edition of Certayne Sermons or Homilies (1559), which went through ten subsequent editions by 1595.
Freedman, Barbara. “Egeon’s Debt: Self-Division and Self-Redemption in The Comedy of Errors.” English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 360–83.
Using a psychoanalytic approach to solve a central problem in Errors scholarship—namely, the inability of critics “to prove the frame plot intrinsic to the play or the main plot purposive”—Freedman reads the farcical business involving the twin Antipholuses as the means by which the divided Egeon (one son corresponding to the marital, guilt-ridden side of the father’s psyche, and the other to his single, wandering side) ultimately achieves unity and redemption. Thus interpreted, Errors “no longer appears to be a random and senseless farce of mistaken identities, but a carefully orchestrated psychological drama in which dissociated parts of the self are meaningfully united.” In a later, denser reading, Freedman draws on Freud’s sense of the uncanny, the unfamiliar familiar, to suggest that any attempt to unify the ego results in frustration and defeat, and any attempt to unify the plot of this play will prove impossible. See “Reading Errantly: Misrecognition and the Uncanny in The Comedy of Errors,” in Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy, pp. 78–113 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).
Grennan, Eamon. “Arm and Sleeve: Nature and Custom in The Comedy of Errors.” Philological Quarterly 59 (1980): 150–64.
Grennan finds the play centered in the conflict between physical nature and social custom, experience, and expectation. He traces this dialectic from the emblematic first scene through the intensifying “natural” frenzy of the fourth act, which necessitates the strict conventionality of the law, to the final synthesis achieved in the person of the Abbess, “the perfect fusion of nature (mother) and custom (nun).”
Hennings, Thomas P. “The Anglican Doctrine of the Affectionate Marriage in The Comedy of Errors.” Modern Language Quarterly 47 (1986): 91–107.
Hennings uses the “Homily on the State of Matrimony,” a frequently read sermon, along with marriage manuals of the time, to demonstrate that Errors “is not so much an imitation of the Menaechmi as it is a deliberate Christian corrective of the Latin play and its Saturnalian themes.” Citing Adriana’s exchange with her sister at the beginning of 2.1 and her encounter with the wrong Antipholus in the second half of 2.2, Hennings makes the case for Adriana, not Luciana, as the better spokesperson for Anglican teaching on spousal friendship and intimacy, marital duties of both partners, and the wrongness of the double standard. Like Adriana, the Abbess’s voice also supports the Anglican doctrine of conjugal affection. This sermon, and the “Homily on Obedience,” which also informs the play, can be found in the 1968 reprint of the 1623 edition of Certaine Sermons or Homilies, edited by Mary Ellen Rickey and Thomas B. Stroup (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints).
Homan, Sidney. “The Comedy of Errors: ‘And here we wander in illusions.’ ” In Shakespeare’s Theater of Presence: Language, Spectacle and the Audience, pp. 31–45. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1986.
Writing as a theater director, Homan describes the effect of staging the play from the viewpoint of those in it and those who watch it and finds both groups engaged in a similar sense of theatricality. “Given the improbabilities of its plot, what engages us in Errors is not so much its mirror image of normal life but rather the gap in Shakespeare’s theater of presence between our sense of the play’s purpose and the perceptions of its characters, who, until the very end, have no sense of their own play on that same stage we witness both aurally and visually.” In the final scene, both characters and audience “see the events of the day as illusions, as theater, as comic errors in a comedy of errors.”
Huston, J. Dennis. “Playing with Discontinuity: Mistakings and Mistimings in The Comedy of Errors.” In Shakespeare’s Comedies of Play, pp. 14–34. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.
In this postmodernist reading of Errors, Huston likens the play to a puppet show in spirit, locating its considerable power in radical discontinuities which readers and playgoers liken to the discontinuity and fragmentation of all human experience. Huston pays special attention to the “misleading beginning” (i.e., the disparity between the pathos of Egeon’s plight and the audience’s expectation of a “comedy of errors”), to Emilia’s surprise revelation, and to examples of “discontinuous behavior” in between.
Kehler, Dorothea. “Shakespeare’s Emilias and the Politics of Celibacy.” In In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, edited by Kehler and Susan Baker, pp. 157–78, esp. pp. 159–61. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1991.
Kehler is concerned with the “ideological function” of the Abbess (Emilia) within the patriarchal society of the play. Her actions and authority interrogate Luciana’s position in 2.1, but her own celibacy, neither wife nor widow, is also an “error” which confounds gender roles and shows the irreducible inadequacies in the social formation shared by the first playgoers with the characters in the play. Emilia is successful in wielding power because of her ambiguous state as woman, her celibacy and age “dissipat[ing] the threat of [her] sexuality” and empowering her to move from a marginal position to one of authority.
Kinney, Arthur F. “Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and the Nature of Kinds.” Studies in Philology 85 (1988): 29–52.
Exploring how Errors “redefine[s] the nature of kinds,” Kinney contends that the Plautine farce Shakespeare knew at grammar school is joined to the mystery plays he saw as a boy. The lessons on “reuniting” and losing oneself to find a fuller self, when taken with the more frequently noted passages on order, marriage, and the parent-child relationship, make Paul’s letter to the Ephesians “the source that inspired all parts of Errors.”
Knapp, Margaret, and Michal Kobialka. “Shakespeare and the Prince of Purpoole: The 1594 Production of The Comedy of Errors at Gray’s Inn Hall.” Theatre History Studies 4 (1984): 70–81.
This is the fullest investigation into the occasion of the 1594 performance of Errors—the first recorded performance—during the Christmas Revels at Gray’s Inn. The presiding figure was the Prince of Purpoole (a corruption of Portpool, the London parish in which Gray’s Inn was located). Drawing upon the account found in the Gesta Grayorum and measurements of the theatrical space, the authors reconstruct the staging and provide a chronological table of the many celebrations held between December 20 and Shrove Tuesday, thereby showing that the performance of Errors was only one entertainment among several on December 28.
Lanier, Douglas. “ ‘Stigmatical in Making’: The Material Character of The Comedy of Errors.” English Literary Renaissance 23 (1993): 81–112.
In this material analysis, Lanier sees Errors as the crafting of things—of gestures, postures, sounds, and costumes which call attention to their own illogicality and theatricality. Through its copious disruptions of “identity-effects,” Errors interrogates and subverts the cultural assumption that “who you see is who you got.” Attention to the play’s pervasive corporeality and the materialist premises of its commercial world helps rescue Errors from the damning “marginality” of farce.
McDonald, Russ. “Fear of Farce.” In “Bad” Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, edited by Maurice Charney, pp. 77–90. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988.
McDonald defends Errors as an outright farce in which Shakespeare, rather than finding the form embarrassing, uses it to provide what comedy and other forms cannot: “the production of ideas through rowdy action, the pleasures of ‘non-significant’ wordplay, freedom from the limits of credibility, mental exercise induced by the rapid tempo of the action, unrestricted laughter—the satisfactions of various kinds of extravagance.” As farce, the emphasis is on “the delights of disjunction,” but as comedy, the play “moves toward a restoration of human ties and the formation of new ones.”
Parker, Patricia. “Elder and Younger: The Opening Scene of The Comedy of Errors.” Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 325–27.
Parker defends the seeming confusion of elder and younger twins in Egeon’s account of the family’s shipwreck (1.1.62–93) as logical and consistent, not an example of authorial nodding. The key to unlocking the editorial crux in “My youngest boy, and yet my eldest care” (1.1.124) is found in the rhetorical crossing (chiasmus) of “youngest boy” and “eldest care”—also present in the crucial line “Fixing our eyes on whom our care was fixed” (84). The prominence of “crossing” in 1.1 suggests a pattern of exchange within “the larger allusive structure of the play as a whole.”
Plautus. The Manaechmus Twins and Other Plays, translated by Lionel Casson. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.
This accessible modern translation of the Plautine farce, the Menaechmi, Shakespeare’s primary source, shows the elements on which The Comedy of Errors was built—a wandering twin and a twin whose marriage is interrupted by a gold chain and a courtesan and the confusion of two men. Errors also has similarities with Plautus’s Amphitruo (where a wife locks out her husband) and his Rudens (which combines farce and romance). William Warner’s translation of the Menaechmi (1595), published a year after Shakespeare’s play, is reprinted in Narrative and Dramatic Sources in Shakespeare, edited by Geoffrey Bullough, 1:12–39; scenes from the Amphitruo follow (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966).
Salgādo, Gāmini. “‘Time’s Deformed Hand’: Sequence, Consequence, and Inconsequence in The Comedy of Errors.” Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972): 81–91.
A recollection of the dominant and rapidly ticking clock in Komisarjevsky’s 1938 Errors at Stratford-upon-Avon introduces Salgādo’s discussion of “the movement of time and its apparent aberrations” in the play. Disruptions of normally accepted temporal and causal sequences are responsible for the comic “horror” of confusion and loss of identity. The “most explicit statement” of the play’s preoccupation with the “divergence” of public and private time (clock time vs. inward time) is found in 4.2.66: “The hours come back. That did I never hear.” Salgādo finds more references to clock time in Errors than in any other Shakespearean comedy.
Slights, Camille Wells. “Egeon’s Friends and Relations: The Comedy of Errors.” In Shakespeare’s Comic Commonwealths, pp. 13–31. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
Slights claims that the play is less concerned with testing “individual character in adversity” than in “shared social structures” in which “reality becomes [intelligible].” She sees the play upholding not so much family as communal values. The play’s humor derives largely from the characters’ dependence on social relations and a threatened loss of their social roles as husband, wife, servant; as a result, “all the major characters undergo the Kafkaesque experience of suddenly finding themselves in a nightmare world of strange transformations and inexplicable events.” Errors “emphasizes the need to belong to society, not the need to reform it.”
Tetzeli von Rosador, Kurt. “Plotting the Early Comedies: The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 13–22, esp. pp. 14–17.
Advocating a return to an idea of plot derived and adapted from Aristotle and the Terentian theorists, the author focuses on plot’s thematic dimension and “inexorable forward movement,” using 1.1 to illustrate the play’s central pattern of oscillation between danger and evasion. Crucial to the pattern of building up and then postponing danger is Shakespeare’s tripartite construction of scenes: “the opening section of each may dramatize the conditions which give rise to danger or violence, the middle their imminent or actual outbreak, the last their evasion and the establishment of a new, precarious balance.”
Truax, Elizabeth. “The Metamorphosis of Heroes and Monsters in The Comedy of Errors.” In Metamorphosis in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Pageant of Heroes, Gods, Maids and Monsters, pp. 28–53. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.
Using folklore, romances, iconographic dictionaries, and emblem books popular in Shakespeare’s day, Truax proposes that commonplace animal lore and current ideas about metamorphosis (drawn from Ovid) are central to appreciating Errors, giving it depth and making it more than a “stage-joke.” Truax provides extensive commentary on the symbolically fitting nomenclature of inns (the Centaur, Porpentine, and Tiger) and places of residence (the Phoenix) designated in the play. The absence of apparent sources for the names of the inns suggests their linkage “with the implicit theme of the play—men who act like animals do, in a sense, become them.” The reference to the phoenix, on the other hand, is appropriate to the imagery of death and resurrection that is “implicit” in much of the dramatic action.
Wood, Robert E. “Cooling the Comedy: Television as a Medium for Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.” Literature/Film Quarterly 14 (1986): 195–202.
Wood argues that the 1983 BBC-TV/Time-Life production of Errors, a “successful marriage” of text to medium, reveals the strengths both of Shakespeare’s play and of contemporary television as a way of understanding its comic relationships and “characteristics unique to the theme of twins.” Wood emphasizes the production’s consistent evoking of intimacy by way of the close-up: since “so much of the play is about being looked at . . . the simple close-up of an actor’s face becomes an instrument of power.” The techniques of television (split-screen reproduction, multiple camera angles, close-ups, etc.) nicely preserve the “deliberate unreality” that is “the essence of The Comedy of Errors.”