The Comedy of Errors is – you guessed it – a comedy by William Shakespeare written in 1594. The play is about two sets of identical twins separated as infants, and the absurdity surrounding their accidental reunion. Since this play appears early along Shakespeare’s writing timeline, critics tend to dismiss it as his more juvenile work. It seems "textbook" in a way we’re not really used to with Shakespeare – it draws from two earlier classical plays, and has a unity of time, place, and action that only appears once more in Shakespeare’s entire portfolio. The play is definitely full of foolishness and frippery, and that lack of deep content, combined with its "by-the-book" writing, often leads critics to conclude there’s nothing more to this play than Shakespeare working out a couple of his writing kinks as an amateur playwright.
To dismiss this play, however, is to fail to realize the importance of The Comedy of Errors in view of Shakespeare’s other works. The play’s first recorded performance takes place on December 28, 1594, as part of the raucous and disorderly Christmas festivities at Grey’s Inn. Shakespeare and his company were still relatively new to the theater scene, and the fact that they were asked to play at Grey’s Inn, one of the courtly venues, before a big-deal crowd, is pretty significant. Shakespeare’s decision to draw on the erudite classics, and to preserve the three theatrical unities (time, space, and action), might be the playwright proving he could master the traditional form before altering it (as he does in his later plays). It’s like how Picasso, revered for his abstraction art, was initially a classical portrait painter.
It’s also important that Shakespeare was trying to draw on his audience’s knowledge of theater by combining two plays from antiquity in the plot of The Comedy of Errors. The story of separated twins comes from Plautus’s Menaechmi, while the separated servants motif comes from another Plautus play called Amphitruo. Shakespeare didn’t only borrow from these classical plays, he built them up, too – by taking out some of the more absurd and one-dimensional characters and replacing them with deeper, feeling players. In Plautus, the equivalent of E. Antipholus’s wife has no name. Additionally, Egeon, instead of being portrayed as the stereotypical meddling parent, received a sympathetic "makeover" as a tragic and abandoned father by Shakespeare’s pen.
With an eye to the classics, it’s also important that the comedy isn’t as farcical in its foundations as some would think. Critic Anne Barton points out that behind every Roman tragedy, there’s a Greek one as a foundation. She notes that Greek comedy writers, like Menander and his contemporaries in 4 BC, would not think of children separated at birth as such a big stretch. In fact, those men were writing during the great Hellenistic wars, when "children were often ‘lost’ by parents too poor or too distracted to cope with them at the time of their birth, and where free citizens could become slaves overnight." Separation, unwanted children, and geographical transience were realities in the Greek world. That trope didn’t survive as anything more than absurd in the later Roman interpretations of the play, but knowing that the Greek is at the root of the story makes Shakespeare’s play a little less farcical and a little more poignant.
One last noteworthy aspect of this play is that the only other Shakespeare play to employ the three theatrical unities (time, place, and action) is actually The Tempest, which is thought to be Shakespeare’s final play. In this way, his introduction to comedy writing, as well as his exit, become bookends, marking his playwriting career. That is to say, when he first needed to make a point of his entry, he used the classic form, and he also employed it for his profound farewell to playwriting.
So, we’ve been upfront with you about the fact that Shakespeare lifted the plot for The Comedy of Errors from Plautus, a Roman playwright. This tells us something that any devoted viewer of the Lifetime Television Network already knows: whether it’s the second century B.C. or the twenty-first century A.D., everybody loves a good twins-separated-at-birth story. When Shakespeare repurposed Plautus's Menaechmi and Amphitruo, he struck Elizabethan box office gold.
But wait! We’ve seen this story a trillion times: mom has twins, they get misplaced, grow up separately, meet again, and then comes the hilarity – wash, rinse, repeat. Consider: you’ve got your Hayley Mills (or your very young Lindsay Lohan, if you prefer the ’98 version) in Parent Trap, your Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins, your Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler in Big Business.
Why not just forget about the Bard and Netflix one of these? After all, the language is easier to follow and, let’s face it, in addition to its talented actresses, Big Business is worth watching just for the rampant eighties shoulder pads that make the female cast look like the starting lineup for the Dallas Cowboys.
What sets The Comedy of Errors apart isn’t a matter of difference but of degree. Shakespeare knows that you already know the story – it was as conventional in his day as it is now – so he’s careful to give you more bang for your buck by intensifying the play’s action and characterization.
Where do we find this intensity? Think about it: this lighthearted romp of mistaken identity buys the S. and E. Dromios a beating, E. Antipholus an arrest, the S. and E. Antipholi accusations of madness and possession, and almost destroys E. Antipholus's marriage. Sure, this is a comedy, and the twins' mother appears at just in time to make everything work out. Still, by jamming in not one, but two sets of twins, and by lending depth to the supporting actors and actresses, Shakespeare pushes the suspense of the play right to the edge of tragedy before fixing everything with a happy ending.
The darkness underlying The Comedy of Errors is what makes it the model for mistaken identity stories. This type of story actually gets called a "comedy of errors" (props to you if you write a book so definitive that you get a genre named after it).
The relief we feel at the end, when everyone’s like, "Ha! Just kidding! Let’s all get or stay married!" is so huge because we’ve just spent an hour watching these characters’ lives reach the brink of ruin completely by coincidence. The play depends on the awfulness of what could happen to make you laugh about what doesn’t happen.