The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

“A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,
We bid be quiet when we heart it cry.
But were we burdened with like weight of pain,
As much or more we should ourselves complain.”

In a quest to focus on my Shakespeare Project for 2017, I’m reading through some of the plays following the schedule of the A Bard a Month group on Goodreads.  They have The Comedy of Errors listed as the first play of Williams Shakespeare yet my The Life and Works of William Shakespeare has it listed as the 5th.  From the evidence, the only thing that’s certain is that no one knows for sure, right?  In any case, it definitely shows in its structure and method a rather simple presentation of a budding farce that nevertheless manages to capture the audience’s interest and tickle their humour.

The play appears to be dated somewhere between 1589-1591.  It did not appear in Quarto form but made its first appearance in the Folio of 1623 and the first documented performance in the Gesta Grayorum was at Gray’s Inn on December 28, 1594.  In dating this play, the rhyme scheme is also of assistance, and classical allusions, fantastic imagery, wire-drawn wit, conceits and puns abound as in earlier plays.  The action occurs within a single day, and the buttressing of dual improbabilities in the duplication of the twin masters and servants, the romantic tension of the parties, and the blending of tragedy and comedy bring some complexity to this unseasoned work.  Resembling Plautus’ play, Menæchmi, portraying whimsical confusion and mistakes involving twins of Syracuse, The Comedy of Errors may also have the basis in another drama, The Historie of Error, performed in 1577-78, although the parallels are certainly less apparent.

source Wikimedia Commons

A trader from Syracuse, Egeon, is apprehended in the port city of Ephesus.  As the law forbids either inhabitant from entering the other’s city, Egeon is sentenced to death unless someone is found to provide the fine of one thousand marks.  In despair, he reveals to the Duke of Ephesus that thirty-three years ago in a storm at sea, he was separated from his wife, one of his twin sons, and one of his two twin servants; he and one son were picked up by a Corinthian ship and his wife, his other son and the other servant by an Epidaurian ship.  The years pass as Egeus grieves the loss, renaming his remaining son Antipholus after his lost son and the servant, Dromio, after the lost servant.  Now, against all statues, he is here in Ephesus to discover the fate of the missing part of his family.

Without a friend in the city, Egeon’s fate seems certain, but his son, Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio, turn up in Ephesus unbeknownst to him, also looking for his missing brother as he has been searching for seven years.  And lo, the missing Antipholus of Ephesus indeed resides in the city with his servant, Dromio, and thence the “errors” begin, causing a rollicking adventure of humour and suspense. Adriana chastizes her husband, but why does he not appear to know her?  Lady Luciana, her sister, is horrified by the advances of her brother-in-law.  A gold chain ordered by Antipholus of Epheus, mistakenly ends up in the hands of his brother and accusations, threats and recriminations follow.  An abbey becomes a refuge, yet who exactly is the regal abbess, and will Egeon eventually be saved and the family reunited?

A Scene from The Comedy of Errors
Thomas Stothard
source ArtUK

In spite of all my questions, there wasn’t much mystery to the play, but while hilarity is perceived by the audience who can regularly guess at the outcomes of situations, the characters themselves are often in states of anguish, irritation, despair, and confusion, not at all comedic from their point of view.  The well-crafted tension between these two aspects of the play gives us a glimmer of promise for Shakespeare’s later works and taste of his genius to come …..

Further reading:

0 thoughts on “The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

  1. I do need to watch this performed one day…

    A Bard a Month sounds good – I was hoping to read one a month as it happens. Love's Labour Lost is my next one 🙂

  2. I was able to see a live performance at Bard on the Beach and I fell in love with the play. The performance was much better than the reading.

    I have The Taming of the Shrew next on my list! I haven't read Love's Labour Lost yet so I'll be looking forward to your review.

  3. My kids have this great collection of Shakespeare's plays rewritten for children (yes, this sometimes requires a lot of glossing-over and story-telling acrobatics). For school last year, my son (then 8) chose to write up a book report of The Comedy of Errors, and I was a bit curious about why he chose it. Turned out he wanted to rant about how "it was just too full of errors" and kept annoying him with how everything went wrong all the time 😀 I had to laugh, because that's kind of my reaction to it too…

  4. i saw this in Ashland when young and never forgot it – it's wonderful, i still think… "wire-drawn wit": excellent (but i think i've heard it before?) anyway, nice post, with all the lucidity inherent in your previous posts… many tx…

  5. That so wonderful that an eight-year old is writing a report on a Shakespearean play! Yes, the farce in it is rather obvious but for some reason, I was able to look past the ridiculousness of it. I did have a problem with the fact that even though Antipholus of Syracuse was searching for his lost brother, it never occurred to him that the mistakes might be related to him. Duh! 😉

  6. I love Ashland!

    Wire-draw is rather antiquated, but it's such a great word: to draw or stretch forcibly; to wrest; distort; also to draw or spin out to great length, tenuity or overrefinement. There's not really a better synonym for it.

    Thanks, Mudpuddle! 🙂

  7. I think this is one of those plays you really need to see on the stage rather than reading. I read it years ago, and thought it a throw away, but within the past 5 years, I've seen at least 3 productions, and enjoyed them all immensely. It's basically situation comedy, slapstick, but good fun.

  8. I know! I love it. Except where he pretends he's the Ghost and chases his little sisters around going, "OoooooooooEEEEEeeeeeeee! I'm the ghost of the king!" and freaks them out. (He knows I call myself Hamlette online and has decided that must mean "Hamlet" is the most famous play in the world, hee.)

  9. Exactly! I saw if first and loved it …. one of my favourites. I know that it wouldn't have been a favourite if I'd read it only. It's amazing how much performance adds special nuances that are missed with reading it.

    With 3 productions under your belt, you're an expert! 🙂

  10. I remember reading this one and not being particularly impressed. In fact most of his comedies left me, well….feeling not particularly satisfied. Maybe like you mentioned, I need to see them performed!

  11. Try to see this one performed. It was so enjoyable! Otherwise I agree with you about some of the other comedies. I didn't really enjoy A Midsummer Night's Dream, which, I know, puts me in the minority.

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!