The Bardathon: 5 – The Comedy of Errors

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.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Michael H. on March 6, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    ‘The Comedy of Errors’ responds well to an imaginative director with a talent for comic business. The most difficult part is the opening scene where the arrested Aegeon narrates the story of the storm at sea and the loss of the twins. He has yards and yards of exposition to deliver to an audience that has barely had time to settle in its seats. You need a very good actor for this role, someone who can give it variety. It works well if the inherent comic element is brought out. I remember Griffith Jones was excellent in this scene.
    ‘TCOE had lain unperformed for many years until a crisis, occuring when production of another play fell through at the RSC, caused it suddenly to appear. It starred Diana Rigg and Alec McCowen and I remember it well. The most joyous version was Trevor Nunn’s production for the RSC taking place on a modern greek holiday island. It had original songs and was extremely funny. The Antipholuses were Roger Rees and the much-missed Mike Gwilym (a marvellous Bertram in ‘All’s Well’). The Dromios were Michael Williams and Nicholas Grace. Luciana and Adriana were Judi Dench and Francesca Annis. It was full of the most delightful moments and sent the audience out on a high. It used to be available on video.
    The play can also bring a tear to the eye. As at the end when everyone is reunited. And the scene when the two Dromios realise they are brothers can be touching. (Anticipating Viola and Sebastian in ‘Twelfth Night’).
    DROMIO OF EPHESUS: Methinks you are my glass, and not my brother:
    I see by you I am a sweet faced-youth. (this should get a sympathetic smiling laugh from the audience)

    Dromio’s last line of the play ‘ We came into the world like brother and brother;
    And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before the other.’
    was turned in the Trevor Nunn production into a most invigorating number for the whole cast, ‘hand in hand’ being manifested literally as the actors shook hands with the audience. A brilliant production.


    • Thanks for that, Mike. I have never seen this play live. The only version I have seen is the BBC Shakespeare version, with Michael Kitchen doubling as the two masters and Roger Daltrey as the two Dromios, and it was very enjoyable. The story does hold up well, and there has been no shortage of modern adaptations. The most well-known is the Rodgers and Hart musical “The Boys from Syracuse”, but let us not forget the delightful Laurel & Hardy version, “Our Relations”.


  2. There are differences between the two sets of twins as well. The Syracuse boys have at least had a father and a kind master when growing up; the Ephesus lads were total orphans, with Antipholus having to stand up for himself at an early age. Presumably that accounts for the different treatment of the Dromios – D/E expects to get beaten, while D/S is surprised when it happens. And I love the sadness expressed by Egeon in the opening scene – the happy endings are all the happier for that starting point.


    • Hello Sheila,

      Looking back, I don’t think I got enough out of this play. (And as you can see from the briefness of this post, I really didn’t have much to say about it.) I have, since, read the Plautus play on which this was based, and in every way, it is clear that Shakespeare had improved immeasurably upon the original. There is indeed, as you point out, much subtlety of characterisation that I had missed, and Shakespeare does not compromise the headlong pace of the plot to accommodate this. Plautus’ plot, though simpler, has nothing like this: the characterisation there exists only insofar as it serves the plot.

      The reconciliations at the end seem to look forward to the ending of Twelfth Night, don’t they? Or even the endings of the late plays.

      Incidentally, there’s a lovely feature-length Laurel & Hardy film, “Our Relations”, that is, effectively, an updating of this plot. It’s not perhaps among teh boys’ best, but, being a Stan & Ollie fan, I love it!


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