The Comedy of Errors
The Comedy of Errors is one of William Shakespeare's early plays. It is his shortest and one of his most farcical comedies, with a major part of the humour coming from slapstick and mistaken identity, in addition to puns and word play. The Comedy of Errors (along with The Tempest) is one of only two of Shakespeare's plays to observe the Unity of Time (classical unities). It has been adapted for opera, stage, screen and musical theatre.
The Comedy of Errors tells the story of two sets of identical twins that were accidentally separated at birth (Shakespeare was father to one pair of twins). Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, arrive in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of their twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus. When the Syracusans encounter the friends and families of their twins, a series of wild mishaps based on mistaken identities lead to wrongful beatings, a near-seduction, the arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus, and false accusations of infidelity, theft, madness, and demonic possession.
- Solinus – Duke of Ephesus
- Egeon – A merchant of Syracuse - father of the Antipholus twins
- Emilia – Antipholus' lost mother, now married to Solinus
- Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse – twin brothers, sons of Egeon and Emilia
- Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse – twin brothers, bondmen, each serving his respective Antipholus
- Adriana – wife of Antipholus of Ephesus
- Luciana – Adriana's sister
- Nell/Luce – kitchen wench/maid to Adriana
- Balthazar – a merchant
- Angelo – a goldsmith
- First merchant – friend to Antipholus of Syracuse
- Second merchant – to whom Angelo is in debt
- Doctor Pinch – a conjuring schoolmaster
- Gaoler, Headsman, Officers, and other Attendants
Because the law forbids merchants from Syracuse to enter Ephesus, elderly Syracusian trader Egeon faces execution when he is discovered in the city. He can only escape by paying a fine of a thousand marks. He tells his sad story to Solinus, Duke of Ephesus. In his youth, Egeon married and had twin sons. On the same day, a poor woman without a job also gave birth to twin boys, and he purchased these as slaves to his sons. Soon afterwards, the family made a sea voyage, and was hit by a tempest. Egeon lashed himself to the main-mast with one son and one slave, while his wife was rescued by one boat, Egeon by another. Egeon never again saw his wife, or the children with her. Recently, his son Antipholus of Syracuse, now grown, and his son’s slave Dromio of Syracuse, left Syracuse on a quest to find their brothers. When Antipholus of Syracuse did not return, Egeon set out in search of him.
The Duke is moved by this story, and grants Egeon one day to pay his fine.
That same day, Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in Ephesus, searching for his brother. He sends Dromio of Syracuse to deposit some money at The Centaur, an inn. He is confounded when the identical Dromio of Ephesus appears almost immediately, denying any knowledge of the money and asking him home to dinner, where his wife is waiting. Antipholus, thinking his servant is making insubordinate jokes, beats Dromio of Ephesus.
Dromio of Ephesus returns to his mistress, Adriana, saying that her "husband" refused to come back to his house, and even pretended not to know her. Adriana, concerned that her husband's eye is straying, takes this news as confirmation of her suspicions.
Antipholus of Syracuse, who complains "I could not speak with Dromio since at first I sent him from the mart," meets up with Dromio of Syracuse who now denies making a "joke" about Antipholus having a wife. Antipholus begins beating him. Suddenly, Adriana rushes up to Antipholus of Syracuse and begs him not to leave her. The Syracusans cannot but attribute these strange events to witchcraft, remarking that Ephesus is known as a warren for witches. Antipholus and Dromio go off with this strange woman, the one to eat dinner and the other to keep the gate.
Antipholus of Ephesus returns home for dinner and is enraged to find that he is rudely refused entry to his own house by Dromio of Syracuse, who is keeping the gate. He is ready to break down the door, but his friends persuade him not to make a scene. He decides, instead, to dine with a courtesan.
Inside the house, Antipholus of Syracuse discovers that he is very attracted to his "wife's" sister, Luciana of Smyrna, telling her "train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note / To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears." She is flattered by his attentions, but worried about their moral implications. After she exits, Dromio of Syracuse announces that he has discovered that he has a wife: Nell, a hideous kitchen-maid. He describes her as "spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her". Antipholus jokingly asks him to identify the countries, leading to a witty exchange in which parts of her body are identified with nations. Ireland is her buttocks: "I found it out by the bogs". He claims he has discovered America and the Indies "upon her nose all o'er embellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole armadoes of caracks to be ballast at her nose." (This is one of Shakespeare's few references to America.) The Syracusans decide to leave as soon as possible, and Dromio runs off to make travel plans. Antipholus of Syracuse is apprehended by Angelo of Ephesus, a goldsmith, who claims that he ordered a chain from him. Antipholus is forced to accept the chain, and Angelo says that he will return for payment.
Antipholus of Ephesus dispatches Dromio of Ephesus to purchase a rope so that he can beat his wife Adriana for locking him out, then is accosted by Angelo, who tells him "I thought to have ta'en you at the Porpentine" and asks to be reimbursed for the chain. He denies ever seeing it, and is promptly arrested. As he is being led away, Dromio of Syracuse arrives, whereupon Antipholus dispatches him back to Adriana's house to get money for his bail.
After completing this errand, Dromio of Syracuse mistakenly delivers the money to Antipholus of Syracuse. The Courtesan spies Antipholus wearing the gold chain, and says he promised it to her. The Syracusans deny this, and flee. The Courtesan resolves to tell Adriana that her husband is insane. Dromio of Ephesus returns to the arrested Antipholus of Ephesus, with the rope. Antipholus is infuriated. Adriana, Luciana and the Courtesan enter with a conjurer named Pinch, who tries to exorcise the Ephesians, who are bound and taken to Adriana's house. The Syracusans enter, carrying swords, and everybody runs off for fear: believing that they are the Ephesians, out for vengeance after somehow escaping their bonds. Adriana reappears with henchmen, who attempt to bind the Syracusans. They take sanctuary in a nearby priory, where the Abbess resolutely protects them.
Suddenly, the Abbess enters with the Syracusan twins, and everyone begins to understand the confused events of the day. Not only are the two sets of twins reunited, but the Abbess reveals that she is Egeon's wife, Emilia of Babylon. The Duke pardons Egeon. All exit into the abbey to celebrate the reunification of the family.
Date and text
The play contains a topical reference to the wars of succession in France which would fit any date from 1589 to 1595. William Warner's translation of the Menaechmi was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on 10 June 1594, and published in 1595. Warner's translation was dedicated to Lord Hunsdon, the patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. It has been supposed that Shakespeare might have seen the translation in manuscript before it was printed – though it is also true that Plautus was part of the curriculum of grammar school students. Charles Whitworth, in his edition of the play, argues that The Comedy of Errors was written "in the latter part of 1594." The play was not published until it appeared in the First Folio in 1623.
Analysis and criticism
For centuries, scholars have found little thematic depth in The Comedy of Errors. The play seemed merely to be little more than a modernised adaptation of Menaechmi by Plautus. The play was not a particular favourite on the eighteenth century stage because it failed to offer the kind of striking roles that actors such as David Garrick could exploit.
The play was particularly notable in one respect. In the earlier eighteenth century some critics followed the French critical standard of judging the quality of a play by its adherence to the classical unities, as specified by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest were the only two of Shakespeare's plays to comply with this somewhat artificial standard.
Law professor Eric Heinze, however, claims that particularly notable in the play is a series of social relationships, which is in crisis as it sheds its feudal forms, and confronts the market forces of early modern Europe.
Two early performances of The Comedy of Errors are recorded. One, by "a company of base and common fellows," is mentioned in the Gesta Grayorum ("The Deeds of Gray") as having occurred in Gray's Inn Hall on 28 December 1594. The second also took place on "Innocents' Day," but ten years later: 28 December 1604, at Court.
In 1734, an adaptation called See If You Like It was staged at Covent Garden. Drury Lane mounted a production in 1741, in which Charles Macklin played Dromio of Syracuse – in the same year as his famous breakthrough performance as Shylock. In the 1980s, the Flying Karamazov Brothers performed a unique adaptation of this play at the Lincoln Center in New York; it was shown on MTV and PBS.
On 27 December 1786, the opera Gli Equivoci by Stephen Storace received its première at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The libretto, by Lorenzo da Ponte, follows the play's plot fairly closely, though some characters were renamed.
Frederic Reynolds staged an operatic version in 1819, with music by Henry Bishop supplemented with some songs by Mozart and Arne. Various other adaptations were performed down to 1855, when Samuel Phelps revived the Shakespearean original at Sadler's Wells Theatre.
The play has been adapted as a musical at least three times, first as The Boys from Syracuse with a score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, then in 1976 in a version by Trevor Nunn, scored by Guy Woolfenden, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, winning the Laurence Olivier Award for best musical on its transfer to the West End in 1977, and in 1981 as Oh, Brother! with a score by Michael Valenti and Donald Driver. A hip-hop musical adaptation, The Bomb-itty of Errors, won 1st Prize at HBO's Comedy Festival and was nominated opposite Stephen Sondheim for the Best Lyrics Drama Desk Award in 2001.
In India, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar adapted Shakespeare's play in his Bengali novel Bhranti Bilash (1869). Vidyasagar's efforts were part of the process of championing Shakespeare and the Romantics during the Bengal Renaissance.
The film Big Business is a modern take on A Comedy of Errors, with female twins instead of male. Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin star in the film as two sets of twins separated at birth, much like the characters in Shakespeare's play.
Indian cinema has made six films based on the play: Do Dooni Char starring Kishore Kumar; Angoor, starring Sanjeev Kumar; Bhrantibilas (1963 Bengali film) starring Uttam Kumar; a movie in the Kannada language titled Ulta Palta starring Ramesh Aravind; a movie in the Tulu language titled Aamait Asal Eemait Kusal starring Naveen D Padil; and Double Di Trouble (2014 Punjabi Film) directed by Smeep Kang and starring Dharmendra, Gippy Grewal.
In 1940 the film "The Boys from Syracuse" was released, starring Alan Jones and Joe Penner as Antipholus and Dromio. It was a musical, loosely based on "Comedy of Errors".
In 1978 the USSR launched a film "Comedy of Errors".
- In the Yes Prime Minister episode "The Patron of the Arts" Prime Minister James Hacker complains that "they [the National Theatre] set The Comedy of Errors in Number 10 Downing Street".
- Charles Walters Whitworth, ed., The Comedy of Errors, Oxford, Oxford University press, 2003; pp. 1–10.
- Bloom, Harold (2010). Marson, Janyce, ed. The Comedy of Errors. Bloom's Literary Criticism. New York: Infobase. p. 57. ISBN 978-1-60413-720-0.
It is noteworthy that The Comedy of Errors and Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest, are the only two plays that strictly adhere to the classical unities.
- Eric Heinze, '"Were it not against our laws": Oppression and Resistance in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, 29 Legal Studies (2009), pp. 230 – 63
- The identical dates may not be coincidental; the Pauline and Ephesian aspect of the play, noted under Sources, may have had the effect of linking The Comedy of Errors to the holiday season—much like Twelfth Night, another play secular on its surface but linked to the Christmas holidays.
- Holden, Amanda; Kenyon, Nicholas; Walsh, Stephen, eds. (1993). The Viking Opera Guide. London: Viking. p. 1016. ISBN 0-670-81292-7.
- F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p.112.
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Editions of The Comedy of Errors
- Bate, Jonathan and Rasmussen, Eric (eds.), The Comedy of Errors (The RSC Shakespeare; London: Macmillan, 2011)
- Cunningham, Henry (ed.) The Comedy of Errors (The Arden Shakespeare, 1st Series; London: Arden, 1907)
- Dolan, Francis E. (ed.) The Comedy of Errors (The Pelican Shakespeare, 2nd edition; London, Penguin, 1999)
- Dorsch, T.S. (ed.) The Comedy of Errors (The New Cambridge Shakespeare; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988; 2nd edition 2004)
- Dover Wilson, John (ed.) The Comedy of Errors (The New Shakespeare; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922; 2nd edition 1962)
- Evans, G. Blakemore (ed.) The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974; 2nd edn., 1997)
- Foakes, R.A. (ed.) The Comedy of Errors (The Arden Shakespeare, 2nd Series; London: Arden, 1962)
- Greenblatt, Stephen; Cohen, Walter; Howard, Jean E. and Maus, Katharine Eisaman (eds.) The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Shakespeare (London: Norton, 1997)
- Jorgensen, Paul A. (ed.) The Comedy of Errors (The Pelican Shakespeare; London, Penguin, 1969; revised edition 1972)
- Levin, Harry (ed.) The Comedy of Errors (Signet Classic Shakespeare; New York: Signet, 1965; revised edition, 1989; 2nd revised edition 2002)
- Martin, Randall (ed.) The Comedy of Errors (The New Penguin Shakespeare, 2nd edition; London: Penguin, 2005)
- Wells, Stanley (ed.) The Comedy of Errors (The New Penguin Shakespeare; London: Penguin, 1972)
- Wells, Stanley; Taylor, Gary; Jowett, John and Montgomery, William (eds.) The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986; 2nd edn., 2005)
- Werstine, Paul and Mowat, Barbara A. (eds.) The Comedy of Errors (Folger Shakespeare Library; Washington: Simon & Schuster, 1996)
- Whitworth, Charles (ed.) The Comedy of Errors (The Oxford Shakespeare: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)
- O'Brien, Robert Viking (1996). "The Madness of Syracusan Antipholus". Early Modern Literary Studies. 2 (1): 3.1–26. ISSN 1201-2459.
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- Comedy Of Errors – plain text from Project Gutenberg
- The Comedy of Errors public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- "Modern Translation of the Play" - Modern version of the play
- The Comedie of Errors – HTML version of this title.
- Photos of Gray's Inn Hall – the hall where the play was once performed
- Lesson plans for teaching The Comedy of Errors at Web English Teacher
- Information on the 1987 Broadway production