The Comedy of Errors is an early work, lacking most of the features we associate with Shakespeare's masterpieces. It contains no brilliant dialogue or poetry, no very impressive characters, and, most strikingly, its plot line is difficult to take at all seriously. Of all Shakespeare's plays, The Comedy of Errors most nearly resembles a Farce, pure and simple, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as 'a dramatic work (usually short) which has for its sole object to excite laughter'.
This play is both short and funny, but it is also more than that. Shakespeare's genius lies in his concern with what it is to be human and here he elevates a common farce by means of telling depictions of the human condition. He presents and resolves disruptions and anxieties that invite sympathy and stimulate compassion. In watching or reading The Comedy of Errors, we experience an awareness of the value to an individual of relationships to other people. Further, the play presents aspects of the situation of women in Elizabethan society, a matter Shakespeare often dealt with. The redeeming power of love, a profound theme in much of the playwright's later work, is also presented here, in an uncomplicated foreshadowing of subtler renderings.
A traditional opinion among scholars and critics, only lately being revised, is that The Comedy of Errors is best regarded as an apprentice work, only marginally related to the greater plays that followed. There is some justification for this point of view. For one thing, the play is very conventional, conforming in staging and general outline to standard Elizabethan ideas, derived from what was known of ancient Roman drama, of what constituted a proper play. In staging his play, Shakespeare was content to abide by most of the ancient conventions of the form. In accordance with accepted neoclassical doctrine, the action of the play takes place in a single place and in a single day. The setting consists of three buildings—the Phoenix, the Porcupine, and the Priory, each labeled with a sign or emblem—in imitation of Roman stagecraft as it was understood in Shakespeare's time.
Moreover, Shakespeare's play is undeniably farcical in its assembled absurdities. These are simply conventions of farce, as acceptable to a 16th-century audience as those of the Marx Brothers are acceptable today, and no different in kind. In adding the twin servants to the story he received from Plautus, Shakespeare doubled the chances for misadventure and created a set of complications that has been likened to a Bach fugue, but the principles of farce remain the same.
Another striking addition Shakespeare made, changing the character of the work in a very important way, is the sub-plot featuring Egeon. Egeon's explanation of his family's separation in 1.1 serves as a Prologue to the play, a classical device that Shakespeare used more formally elsewhere. More important, Egeon's pathetic circumstances serve to color the farcical main plot: we cannot wholly forget this poor, unfortunate father to the Antipholus twins. Because this is a humorous play, we of course presume that all will end well, but we know that before it does this potential tragedy will have to be overcome somehow. Indeed, Egeon experiences a moment of extreme despair, after his seeming rejection by his long sought son (5.1.298-322). Thus the coming reconciliation scene ends a truly important human crisis, as well as resolving the comic confusions of the central tale. Shakespeare, even as a young man at the beginning of his career, felt that a happy ending should not be divorced from an awareness of mortality and human frailty. In this he utterly transcends the genre of farce.
Some critics have charged that this device damages a play that might have been a fine farce but that, in its present form, is neither tragic nor wholly comic. However, modern opinion has generally held that the Egeon sub-plot is necessary, providing a moral ground for an otherwise unenlightening display of low comedy. In any case, this sub-plot is an early example of an important aspect of Shakespeare's art—the formulation of more than one point of view, generating different and potentially conflicting responses from the audience.
Chief among the characters involved in the central story of The Comedy of Errors is Adriana, one of the earliest of Shakespeare's many attractive heroines. Shakespeare developed Adriana from a stereotype of the contentious, jealous shrew, and she conforms to this image. But she is raised from a type to a real human being through the wit her creator gives her. Further, her evident loyalty to and love for her difficult husband render her quite sympathetic and admirable. She resembles such other Shakespearean women as Katherina, in The Taming of the Shrew, and Beatrice, in Much Ado About Nothing, in being sharp-tongued and independent-minded, but ultimately tender and accepting. The playwright could thus present the reality of Elizabethan women whose personal strengths enabled them to temper, if not overcome, the general subservience of their gender, while at the same time confirming the legitimacy of the system, as his own conservatism inclined him to do. Adriana is contrasted with her sister, Luciana, who is a dimmer figure, demure and passive. The debate between the two women on the proper relation of man and wife (2.1.7-42) is a set-piece disputation of a sort often presented on the Elizabethan stage. Although Adriana is a much more interesting and appealing character, Luciana's attitude to marriage seems to prevail at the play's end, in keeping with the common opinion of the day, which most women and Shakespeare shared.
Many of Shakespeare's plays hinge on a basic political question, the nature of the relationships among the citizen, the ruler, and the state. In this early work, the matter is only touched upon, but in a fashion that reveals an attitude that the playwright was to hold all his life. In a brief but telling passage, the Duke of Ephesus refuses to allow any alteration in the laws (1.1.142-148). He is explicit: his personal honor requires this relationship to the state. This is a kingly ideal that is expressed repeatedly, in much greater elaboration, in later plays. That the young Shakespeare found occasion to present it here, without any compelling reason to do so, suggests its early importance for him.
For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, everyone, not just the king, took his or her identity from a relationship with society as a whole. One was not simply a conscious, individual being, but, more important, one occupied a position in the social framework. Shakespeare was to consider this matter of social identity in a number of ways in later plays; it is touched on in this early work. Antipholus of Syracuse is concerned for his lost selfhood when he regrets the loss of his family in a touching soliloquy (1.2.33-40) on his lack of contentment. Also, it is evident that the distress undergone by the four misidentified twins is caused by the loss of their sense of identity; as the people in their world fail to recognize them, they experience a painful uncertainty as to who they are themselves.
Antipholus of Syracuse, in his confusion, seeks to be remade, through love, by Luciana. The transforming power of love was always an important theme for Shakespeare; in several later plays, it is a major concern. Here, it is overwhelmed by the farce for the most part, but we see it roughly sketched out with reference to romantic love in the depiction of the marriage of Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus, and in the wooing of Luciana by Antipholus of Syracuse. Familial love triumphs in the reunion at the close of the play. And Emilia, the Abbess, who provides the resolution when the Duke, for all his power, cannot, represents the strength of Christian grace and mercy, a transcendent form of love.
Shakespeare's interest in the inner and outer worlds of human experience is what makes him great. He writes of the web of relationships, both political and domestic, that make up a society, and his characters have inner lives that we can recognize as realistic. In The Comedy of Errors, although it is derivative and rather limited in range, we see his talent already beginning to produce a drama of conflict and resolution in a world of basic human concerns, using themes and materials that would recur in his mature work.
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