By Cheryl Hogue Smith
The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays and is certainly his first comedy. Its errors take viewers on a humorous journey as the main characters in the play discover their true identities. Opening with a tale of woe from Egeon, whom the Duke soon sentences to death, it ends with the unification of an entire family. While the script is clearly a comedy because of all the farcical situations, the human problems encountered by the characters in the play—especially impending execution, family separation, adultery, and abuse—seem occasionally to veer off into the realm of tragedy.
Mark Spilka has argued that an important difference between tragedy and comedy is that in a tragedy, characters change and learn through their experiences, but in a comedy, characters never learn and simply go on being their foolish selves, which is one of the main sources of their humor. Similarly, Utah Shakespeare Festival dramaturg Michael Flachmann contends that one major difference between comedies and tragedies is in the timing: In comedies, the timing works in favor of the characters (as in the misadventures of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), whereas the timing works against the characters in tragedies (for example, the delayed delivery of the letter from Juliet to Romeo). If we combine these two theories, we gain considerable insight into how Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies work. For example, Othello is initiated into jealousy and heartache just minutes after he has killed Desdemona; King Lear learns about familial love while holding a newly-dead Cordelia in his arms; and Romeo and Juliet suffer through love and loss after each “experiences” the other’s death. In contrast, the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream learn little from their excursions into the woods, but emerge united due to the comic timing of the play, and Beatrice and Benedict finally admit their true feelings for one another after being in the right place at the right time to “overhear” the gulling episodes. The Comedy of Errors, however, may seem to be a dramatic exception, not conforming neatly to the claims of theory. While its timing makes it a comedy, the characters learn about themselves in ways that link it to tragedy
The Comedy of Errors is built around the notion of misidentification, and the only resolution to the problems in the play is for everyone to learn about their true identities. Egeon must find his sons in order to escape execution; the Antipholi must learn about each other in order to win their respective girls; each Dromio has to find his twin to avoid further beatings; and Emilia leaves her abbey to find her husband and her sons. Each member of this family—including the Dromios—must resolve the problem of his or her identity in order for the play to reach a satisfying conclusion. So a play that relies on the prime ingredient that Spilka reserves for tragedies—characters learning more about themselves through error—is what makes this play work so brilliantly.
The first error in the play might be the confusion surrounding the identical names of the Antipholi and Dromios, but Egeon explains why each twin's name is the same when he concludes his long narrative about his five-year quest to find his sons: “My youngest boy, and yet my eldest care, / At eighteen years became inquisitive / After his brother; and importuned me / That his attendant—so his case was like, / Reft of his brother, but retained his name— / Might bear him company in the quest of him” (1.1.124–129). The only way this play can work is if the two sets of brothers each have the same name (which isn’t all that far-fetched if one simply looks to boxing great George Foreman, whose five sons are all named George). This name-game adds to the confusion and helps generate the errors that drive the play. In fact, it’s because of the names that Antipholus of Syracuse doesn’t figure out the problem. After Adriana and Luciana first encounter the wrong set of twins and demand they come home for dinner, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have the following exchange:
ANT. S: Did you converse, sir, with this gentlewoman? What is the course and drift of your compact?
DRO. S: I, sir? I never saw her till this time.
ANT. S.: Villain, thou liest; for even her very words Didst thou deliver to me in the mart.
DRO. S.: I never spake with her in all my life.
ANT. S.: How can she thus then call us by our names? Unless it be by inspiration. (2.2.159–166)
Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse think the town of Ephesus is enchanted, which they accept as the reason for the strange encounters they are experiencing. Later, in act 4, Antipholus of Syracuse reaffirms that he believes the city of Ephesus is haunted or ruled by sorcery: “And Lapland sorcerers inhabit here” (4.3.11) and “And here we wander in illusions. / Some blessed power deliver us from hence!” (4.3.41–42).
These lines are spoken as Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse plan on leaving this strange city, just before they meet the Courtesan, whom they believe is “Mistress Satan,” a “devil,” a “sorceress,” and a “witch” (4.3.47, 48, 64, and 77, respectively). Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse are so confused that they are convinced that sorcery is the cause of all their problems.
The misidentification of Dromio of Ephesus in 1.2, whom Antipholus of Syrcuse mistakes for Dromio of Syracuse, is the first action-driven error in the play, and from that moment on, Shakespeare builds one error upon the next upon the next, creating a error-driven, causal chain of reactions that finally reaches its last link at the end of the play. The consequences of the errors could be grave, but the timing and execution of the characters and the plot demonstrate the validity of Flachmann’s theory; one mistake in the timing of the play, and Egeon dies, Emilia remains an abbess, the twins stay separated, and Antipholus of Ephesus’s marriage lies in shambles. Spilka’s theory, however, doesn’t quite work with The Comedy of Errors, since the play centers on characters learning more about themselves, which they do, even beyond understanding their identities. Egeon, for example, had given up on life and actually welcomed death prior to finding his sons, so by the end of the play, he has learned to value his life and appreciate his newly found family. Similarly, Emilia had resigned herself to a life of celibacy and isolation until she found her family again, which returns her from a world of religious devotion to the bosom of her former secular life.
And audiences get the impression that Antipholus of Ephesus, after feeling what it was like to be shut out of his home and incarcerated, will become a more loving and responsible husband to Adriana. Until the characters go through such developmental arcs, the play is not resolved. To have such potentially tragic consequences coupled with the sheer comic joy of the play is what makes this script work so beautifully. Because the characters’ lives seem to be in ruin throughout most of this play, The Comedy of Errors thinks it is a tragedy, but the timing resolves the action in blissfully comedic ways. Its success, therefore, is that it is a "comical tragedy," for the comedy and tragedy “go hand in hand, not one before the other” (5.1.429–430), but instead become united like long-lost twins.