Study Guide

The Comedy of Errors

By William Shakespeare

The Comedy of Errors Introduction

Read the full text of The Comedy of Errors with a side-by-side translation HERE.


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 abstract 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.

What is The Comedy of Errors About and Why Should I Care?

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.

The Comedy of Errors Resources

Movie or TV Productions

1989 TV Movie
A TV production of The Comedy of Errors, directed by Richard Monette.

1988 Movie
A spin-off of the play called Big Business and featuring female twins

1987 TV Movie
A TV version of The Comedy of Errors.

1983 Movie
A BBC production of The Comedy of Errors.

1940 Musical
A musical version called The Boys from Syracuse.

Videos

Bollywood Shakespeare
An Indian Bollywood version of The Comedy of Errors called Angoor was released in 1982. This version is without subtitles.

Images

E. Antipholus
Tim Frances as Antipholus of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors, directed by Han Duijvendak.

Documents

1600s Editions of Shakespeare
The Internet Shakespeare Editions’ collection of facsimiles and other interesting bits and bobs of actual pages of Shakespeare’s work printed in the Folios. Always a delight to look at.

Shakespeare for Kids
Charles and Mary Lamb’s nineteenth century retelling of The Comedy of Errors meant for younger readers, and provided in full by Google Books.

Complete Version of Comedy of Errors
The Comedy of Errors, available as a single page view, from OpenSource Shakespeare. While you should be wary of the line numbers on the text (which do not correspond to printed editions), the most fabulous feature of this page is the breakout of dialogue from individual players, allowing you to view their speech and cue lines in isolation. Great for printing scripts for performance, or just singling out characters for analysis.

Other

Links Galore
An absolutely fabulous collection of links to all sorts of things relating to The Comedy of Errors – the sources, the plays in performance, paintings, interpretations, reviews, and lesson plans – as put together by the English Department of the University of Basel, Switzerland.

Folger Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors
The Folger Shakespeare Library’s site on The Comedy of Errors, complemented by a little background on literary sources.

Real life Comedy of Errors
A completely random news snippet about separated twins who discover each other later in life.

"The Madness of Syracusan Antipholus"
This advanced-level essay, written by Robert Viking O’Brien, is chock full of interesting and complicated ideas. O’Brien draws from theorists and Shakespeare’s tests to forward the claim that S. Antipholus is actually degenerating into madness, or coming close to it, which provides tension and anxiety in the play to move the audience along. O’Brien also grounds the play in its Elizabethan context, revealing how Elizabethan audiences might have interpreted the supernatural and natural causes of madness.

"Doubles and Likenesses-with-difference: The Comedy of Errors and The Winter's Tale"
An academic essay by Brian Giggons comparing and contrasting The Comedy of Errors with The Winter’s Tale.

"Restoring Goddess Diana: Subtexts of Jealousy in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors"
This student’s academic essay provides some interesting assertions about jealousy in The Comedy of Errors, and an interpretation of the play’s mythological allusions.

The Original Performance
A bit of contextual information on the original public performance of The Comedy of Errors.

More Shout Outs
Shout outs to other texts in The Comedy of Errors are provided by some folks at Dartmouth College.