It’s hard to date these plays exactly, of course, and there’s much uncertainty as to the order in which Shakespeare’s first four or so comedies (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labours Lost) were written. According to some, this one is Shakespeare’s earliest work. Well, if it was, it was a remarkably assured first work. But if it was written – as the Oxford editors think – after the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy, then it was, I think, a case of Shakespeare taking it easy after the successful completion of a huge, ambitious project.
The plot is taken from Plautus, but Shakespeare has added in far greater complexities. The handling of all the plot complexities, and of the pacing in general, is masterly. The play is essentially farce, and it doesn’t seem at any point like the work of a beginner.
Of course, there is no depth here – and neither does Shakespeare aim for depth: it is a farce of mistaken identities, superbly executed. There is no great verse here, nor any particularly memorable character. But for all that, one can’t help noticing certain aspects that one wouldn’t normally expect from farce. The first scene, rather surprisingly, hints at possible tragedy; and amidst all the hustle and bustle of a fast-moving and complex plot, Shakespeare manages to insert a romance between Antipholus odf Syracuse and Luciana; and he has managed also to depict also the extremely possessive nature of Adriana.
The exact nature of the relationship between the two Antipholuses and the two Dromios remains uncertain: both the Dromios are referred to as “servants”, but given that they were bought at birth, it seems more likely that they are slaves. And both are beaten by their masters. Perhaps, in Tudor times, it was merely to be expected that servants would be beaten by masters: it may even have been funny. But for all that, Shakespeare is careful to give Dromio of Ephesus a rather eloquent speech bewailing the beatings he has received all his life.
It would be a mistake to read too much into what is, essentially, a very funny and fast-moving comedy. This may not be Shakespeare’s most artistically ambitious work, but for what it is, it could hardly have been done better.