Introduction: The Comedy of Errors

March 16, 2012 in Introduction

This is one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, following The Taming of the Shrew, the Henry VI cycle and Richard III, but preceding A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. It is also one of his funniest, but like all of his comedies there is a dark undertone.

The story is deceptively simple. Two sets of identical twins are separated as small children. One set, both named Antipholus, are sons of a wealthy merchant, the other their servants, both named Dromio. They grow up in separate cities and the fun begins when one Antipholus and Dromio arrive in Syracuse where the other Antipholus and Dromio have lived since childhood. Antipholus of Syracuse is married to Adriana and is an established and well-respected citizen. What is comical, often side-splittingly so, is how these two sets of twins, Adriana, her sister Luciana, and the townspeople of Syracuse all keep running into each other, but never the twins together, so that all manner of confusions arise. “Who are you?” is answered by “you’ve known me all my life”; “I just gave you a bag of money” is answered by “I’ve never seen you before in all my life”; “I love you” is answered by “But you’re married to my sister”, which is answered by “I’m not married”, then by “Oh you cad”…

Things all work out in the end of course, with the twins astounded to confront their exact lookalikes. What isn’t so funny, though, is the anguish the characters go through as their sense of identity is warped out of all recognition. In the process marriages and lives are threatened, power is used and abused, servants protest against cuffs and kicks, and women struggle against oppression by husbands and the church. In other words, though the characters are as individually quirky yet universal as Shakespeare’s characters always are, the depth in the play is based on what Stephen Greenblatt calls, in the introduction to the Norton edition, “the hidden strangeness of ordinary existence” and the “alienation and existential anxiety” found in all of Shakespeare’s plays.

The Comedy of Errors is not one of the most widely performed of the Shakespeare collection, nor have many movies been made based on it. It did, however, rate a musical, The Boys from Syracuse (1940), and several productions of the play have been televised, most notably one directed by Trevor Nunn, with Judi Dench in the 70’s, and the BBC Complete Works of Shakespeare version in the 80’s with Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltry playing the two sets of twins. In 2003 a Japanese film version, directed by and starring Mansai Nomura, was released. It’s time for a new English language version. With the rich potential of interpreting the class and gender conflicts within the power struggle between the church and state and the basic hilarity of the play, Kenneth Branagh or Julie Taymore could create another masterpiece to bring Shakespeare alive once again to young (and old) audiences.

Contributed by Ruby Jand

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