The Comedy of Errors | 2016, 2011, 2006
About the Play by Bob Rumsby
“Thank you for performing Comedy of Errors! I had lots of laughs throughout the whole play. It was amazing how everybody remembered all those lines! I especially enjoyed watching the Dromios getting yelled at and punished. It was extremely entertaining to see everyone get mistaken for each other. I absolutely loved it! I’m looking forward to your performance ofHamlet later in the year. Again, thank you very much for doingComedy of Errors. Keep up the great work!”
One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors is also the shortest and the simplest. It is about half the length of Hamlet and one of the few Shakespeare plays that can be performed within the confines of the “two hours traffic of our stage.”
Shakespeare wrote this farce in 1594 or thereabouts, when he had yet to establish himself as a playwright capable of comedies and tragedies of the highest order. The plot of the play derives from a Roman comedy by Plautus, The Menaechmi, but true to form even during this early period, Shakespeare had an additional comic device in mind. The Menaechmifeatures one set of twins; Shakespeare cleverly added a second (the Dromios, twin servants to their twin masters).
True to his source, Shakespeare preserves the classical unities of time and place that the Ancient Greek and Roman dramatists observed in their plays. The action remains in Ephesus throughout, and the plot moves among a few precise locations—a house, a marketplace, a local inn, and a priory. References are made to other remote locations, but no scenes take place there. Furthermore, Shakespeare preserves the unity of time by containing the action inside one day, potentially the last day in the life of a Syracusian merchant (Egeon) whose death is imminent unless he can ransom himself.
To set the scene for the comedy that dominates 10 of the play’s 11 scenes, Egeon tells his sad life story in several long speeches during the first act. Egeon tries to gain the sympathy of the Duke of Ephesus who would execute him for breaking the law of Ephesus: because of past infractions, no Syracusian merchant is allowed on Ephesian shores. Given Shakespeare’s source material and his respect for the unities, it comes as no surprise that Egeon’s long story has the formality and tragic tone that you would expect from the speeches of a Greek chorus. With a nod to the classical origins of the play, the Youth Shakespeare production took the liberty of giving most of Egeon’s story to a female chorus who recited most of his narrative as he awaited his sentence.
While this play is mostly bent on squeezing as much comedy as possible from repeated cases of mistaken identity, Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare if he did not find a way to deepen the discourse somewhere along the way. Here and there we are treated to a foretaste of the sublime poetry of his later work. For example, before sight gags and comic confusion take over the stage, Antipholus of Syracuse reflects on the loss of his family and his search for identity:
I to the world am like a drop of water,
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.
Speeches like these elevate Shakespeare’s simplest comedy to a classic drama that audiences continue to delight in, more than 400 years after its creation.