By Donna R. Cheney
First staged in 1594 at Gray's Inn, London, The Comedy of Errors was probably Shakespeare's first comedy, and at only 1,777 lines is his shortest play. Critics contend that it was deliberately short to precede a masque or jig. The young playwright (only thirty years old) intended it as part of the nighttime revelry of Innocents' Day, December 28, which encompassed dancing, drinking, juggling, and other festivities inherent in the Christmas season. A contemporary reports that princes and the lord mayor of London were present but left before the play because the party became too wild.
Following a plot so intricate would have been difficult under such circumstances. A situational comedy, the plot is ingenious, depending on unexpected meetings, mistaken identity, and incongruous situations. At times the pairs of twins themselves question their own identities. The loud horse-play and coarse wit characteristic of a farce must have pulled in the rowdy contemporary audience and continue to amuse us today.
The Comedy of Errors is based on the Menaechmi of the Greek playwright Plautus. As did Plautus, Shakespeare depends on careful structure, intricate intrigue, and broad humor. The language and structure of a Greek New Comedy would be especially appropriate to an Inn of Court, a more educated audience than, say, the peasants frequenting the pit of The Rose, an already established theater. Shakespeare includes the types of jokes particularly appealing to a drunken Renaissance audience, jokes on fat people, thin hair, bodily excretions, the roles of men and women, even ethnic jibes. But to dismiss the play as only a farce would be to undervalue the work.
The basic plot elements of broad farce are present in the situational humor, but Shakespeare further complicates the action by adding a pair of identical servants and a pair of sisters. However, these characters are more natural than in farce, more believable, more developed as human beings with problems which they try to solve.
Consider the opening scene. The old father, Egeon, has so regretted the loss of his older son that he has given the same name to his younger son and has also handed down the other servant's name to the younger son's servant. We can feel Egeon's anguish as he recounts his sorrowful tale of the loss of wife, son, and servant. He has dared to enter enemy territory, not caring about his own fate if only he can find out the fortunes of his beloved family. When the duke pronounces Egeon's death we are faced with the fine line between tragedy and comedy. Farce would not attempt so deft a touch, nor draw us into the character so deeply. Indeed, had not a comedy been announced in the title, the opening scene might well be introducing a tragedy.
Contrast this opening scene to a familiar pure farce, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was part of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s offering last year. That play begins with a burlesque slave chirping directly at the audience: “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.” Action is continuously exaggerated; we are constantly reminded that what is portrayed is only a play to be enjoyed. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has no serious lines and no serious situations.
Stressing human elements lifts The Comedy of Errors from mere farce. Though she has some of the funniest lines, we can sympathize with Adriana, the unfortunate wife whose “husband” has fallen in love with her sister. Adriana worries about what is wrong with her that her husband refuses to come home, and so she nags. Luciana, the younger sister, counters with a voice of reason which would not be present in pure farce. She is loyal and concerned for her sister and counsels patience in a world of mismatched madness. Luciana's wishes for a marriage relationship of mutual trust and love, of individual integrity and freedom, though maintaining the wife's proper Renaissance subservience to her husband, parallel Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. (That play, too, goes beyond farce into qualities of being human.)
In Plautus's farce, the brother who comes newly to the city finds only delight in his new surroundings. He has great advantages as women throw themselves at him and townsmen pay sums of money to him in his brother's name. More realistically, Shakespeare’s Antipholus of Syracuse finds such exchanges frightening. Even though he has fallen in love with Luciana he wants to flee Ephesus, a place where “none but witches do inhabit” (3.2.156). He is afraid of becoming a traitor to himself, reasoning that he must “stop [his] ears against the mermaid’s song” (3.2.164). When he is finally threatened, Antipholus of Syracuse runs toward sanctuary in the church.
Antipholus of Ephesus is portrayed as a man of good repute in the town. The jeweler knows he will be paid; even the courtesan expects her ring to be honestly returned. He beats his Dromio only when the servant makes preposterous mistakes. He is late for dinner, certainly, but his wife cannot understand such unexpected behavior.
As in all comedies, order is restored in act 5. The perplexing misidentities are corrected. But here, true character is revealed as the play resolves toward realism. All action turns away from the farcical/fantastic toward an acceptable social reconciliation. As in true life, this is a play without a clear hero and heroine, and happiness evolves from the re-uniting of caring couples. The helpful, protective abbess turns into a loving wife, relieved to be reunited with Egeon. Being reminded of his near-brush with a tragic death pulls us back from broad humor.
Perhaps the most touching lines in the conclusion are those of Antonio of Syracuse. When his Dromio is still confused as to which master he serves, Antonio of Syracuse responds not with a farcical beating, but gently: “He speaks to me. I am your master, Dromio” (5.1.412). Rather than being funny, the closing couplet is good advice to us all: “We came into the world like brother and brother, / And now let's go hand in hand, not one before the other” (5.1.425-26).