Shakespeare's Staging
The Comedy of Errors
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Friday, 22 April 2005 06:09


The Comedy of Errors: Dromio of Ephesus: Mark Samuels; Dromio of Syracuse: Edward Zang. Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, Cleveland, 1963. Courtesy of the Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.


The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare's successful attempt to write a neoclassically "correct" imitation of Roman comedy in the vein of Plautus and Terence. It observes the unities of time (one day), place (Ephesus), and action (the trial of Egeon), and matches many other precedents of character and plot: lost children, the courtesan, the duplicitous or incompetent servants, the confusion from twins, etc., but Shakespeare's heightens the effect by doubling the original pair of twins in Plautus' Menaechmi. The tone is frequently farcical, but Shakespeare diversifies this by serious treatment of the distress of Adriana, the wife of one of the twins, at the apparent misconduct of her spouse, which gives the play a more modern, serious touch. Adriana's indignant dialogues with her sister, Luciana, introduce serious discussion of the unfairness of the sexual double standard. Via the confusion of identities, Shakespeare cleverly exploits the reputation of his location, Ephesus, as a place of supernatural happenings, appropriate to its devotion to Diana of the Ephesians (as vividly presented in the Acts of the Apostles). The play is a hugely predictable crowd-pleaser, despite its elaborate contrivances and light tone.


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Richmond, Hugh M. "Sexual Norms Revised: The Comedy of Errors." In Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy, 48-64. Indianapolis; New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.

Rivlin, Elizabeth. "Theatrical Literacy in The Comedy of Errors and the Gesta Grayorum." Critical Survey 14, no. 1 (2002): 64-78.

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The Comedy of Errors at Talkin' Broadway.

Female Spectators and The Comedy of Errors

Compared to the precedents in Plautus, this script pays serious and sympathetic attention to its female roles: the seemingly misused wife, Adriana, laments the sexual double standard which her husband seems to exploit when his twin is courting her sister. There is great deftness in Shakespeare's handling of this situation since male spectators can dismiss the censure because the husband is not guilty of the main charge. However, he does, in resentment at his wife's unintelligible hostility, turn to the consolations of the prostitute, which may validate his wife's attack on male promiscuity for female spectators; but even the Courtesan is presented humanely. The play also comically develops many other dramatic ironies, which flatter the audience via its superior knowledge to the personae on stage. Moreover, the play transcends farce in suggesting how instable the sense of human identity may be in general, and how limited are human powers of perception socially. This stress on the volatility of reality is reinforced by the plot's location in Ephesus, cited in the Acts of the Apostles as one of the most mysterious and exotic environments in the Levant, because its powerful cult of Diana evokes the supernatural potentialities of the Great Earth Mother. In this the city serves as a catalyst of unexpected emotions comparable to the Green World which provides the context of psychological mutation in other Shakespearean comedies. As usual, Shakespeare's location of his plots establishes a meaningful setting for his psychological concerns, like Venice and Vienna in later comedies (see Gallery 10). ©HMR


Robson and Crane in The Comedy of Errors, 1879. New York: Metropolitan Litho. Studio. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

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