Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan (eds), The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition

Contents
Find Location in text

Main Text

A general feature of The Comedy of Errors, one that orthodox critical and stage interpretation has not found easy to account for: its paradoxical representation of events in simultaneous but contradictory terms, as both hilarious and spiritually serious.

Brian Gibbons, 1997

Virtually every good critical introduction to The Comedy of Errors apologizes for the play.

Barbara Freedman, 1980

In The Comedy of Errors, farce and romance share a conception of the world as a fluid place in which characters are subject to forces beyond their control and in which they must be deprived of their normal positions and undergo a test of selfhood. But in farce, identity has a random basis … This means that identity is not a core essence to be uncovered, but an unstable, unpredictable process.

Martine Van Elk, 2009

Shakespeare's Plautine adaptation The Comedy of Errors … takes as its focus the discontinuity between identities and the external marks that display, support, and confirm them. Despite the play's Christian overlay and its extensive references to witchcraft, what has impressed most critics is not its metaphysics so much as its physiques. That is, Errors stresses the marks and rituals — faces, clothing, beatings, warts and moles, meals, rings and gold chains — that make characters recognizable, and it demonstrates in copious variety how reliance upon this material evidence leads to unpredictable identity-effects.

Douglas Lanier, 1993

It was thought good not to offer anything of account saving dancing and reveling with gentlewomen; and after such sports a comedy of errors (like to Plautus his Menaechmus) was played by the players. So that night was begun, and continued to the end, in nothing but confusion and errors; whereupon it was ever afterwards called 'The Night of Errors'.

(from an account of the Gray's Inn Christmas Revels of 1594)

Narrative has an uncanny—and at times, hilarious—power to absorb whatever crosses its path into some meaningful whole. … This is not only true in the play, but of it, since the botched staging of The Comedy of Errors in 1594 and the subsequent trial of those 'responsible' suggest that it was precisely this contingency of story on the situation in which it is delivered or performed that the play's early modern audience found intriguing.

Michael Witmore, 2001

Self-possession in Comedy of Errors is undermined by the doubling of the name and by the doubling of the remembered body to which the name refers. Created in the process is the nightmare of being possessed by alien and malign powers, by a distorted world explicitly situated, as the earlier "find[ing] out [of] countries" [3.2. 110] suggested, in the female body. In this scene the self is "confounded" by being confronted with its ultimate eikón, the uncanny double bearing the same "privy marks" of names and physical features. Even if one obliquely "finds" the matching drop, the discovery does not vitiate the possibility of being engulfed. Fleeing from Nell, Dromio of Syracuse enters the stage seeking confirmation of his self from his master: "Do you know me sir? Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?" (ll. 73–74).

Shankar Raman, 2005

The false presumption of demonic possession in The Comedy of Errors is not the result of deception; it is an instance of what Shakespeare's source calls a 'suppose'—an attempt to make sense of a series of bizarre actions gleefully generated by the comedy's screwball coincidences. Exorcism is the straw people clutch at when the world seems to have gone mad.

Stephen Greenblatt, 1988

Dromio of Syracuse's flippant self-assessment [2.2.197–99] also serves to differentiate him from his twin brother. The Syracusian slave presents himself as a Lylyan servant, saucy and ribald. His asininity springs from both the "foolish ass" and the "licentious ass" traditions. In contrast, Dromio of Ephesus is an "admirable ass" — a patient sufferer bearing unwarranted punishment … By its sheer iteration, [the ass motif] unifies the play; by its primary pg 724appeal to laughter, it helps establish the comic perspective at crucial points in the action; by its varying connotations, it aids in character delineation; by its metaphorical operation, it acts as a paradigm of metamorphosis.

Deborah Baker Wyrick, 1982

1 Samuel Taylor, Paul Hurley, Jürgen Hooper, and Andy Lutz discover they are twins in the conclusion of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's 2014 'Shakespeare in the Parks' production of The Comedy of Errors, dir. David H. Bell.

1 Samuel Taylor, Paul Hurley, Jürgen Hooper, and Andy Lutz discover they are twins in the conclusion of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's 2014 'Shakespeare in the Parks' production of The Comedy of Errors, dir. David H. Bell.

Just as the Dromios' reactions and emotions often mediate between the audience and the stage, they also affect the judgments of their masters. They can activate sympathy. With the Syracusians, for example, Dromio's conviction that they are in fairyland engages Antipholus; Dromio's description of the monstrous Nell also moves his master to believe that 'none but witches do inhabit here' (3.2.148); and his railings at the Courtesan intensify Antipholus's belief that she is a demon.

Kent Cartwright, 2007

Ireland had long figured in the English imagination not so much as an autonomous and self-contained problem but as a threat to England's own territorial and dynastic integrity. … In common parlance, Ireland was England's 'postern' (a term applied to Scotland earlier in Elizabeth's reign)—a narrow but vulnerable rear entry … Shakespeare tropes to comic effect in The Comedy of Errors, where Dromio of Syracuse literally maps the female body of the kitchen maid, Nell. To the question 'In what part of her body stands Ireland?' Dromio replies, 'Marry, sir, in her buttocks. I found it out by the bogs' (3.2.11–13).

Christopher Highley, 1997

Women's bodies figure territory in other of Shakespeare's plays: notably, Falstaff's counterpart in The Comedy of Errors, Nell, is imagined as a monstrous globe. 'She is spherical, like a globe. I could find out countries in her,' Dromio says, proceeding to enumerate the Western European nations embodied in her abundant flesh and foul breath [3.2.110]. Comic though this treatment is (supposed to be), it was given a more serious precedent in the Ditchley portrait of Queen Elizabeth standing atop a map of England.

Valerie Traub, 1989

The style of his comedy is, in general, natural to the characters, and easy in itself; and the wit most commonly sprightly and pleasing, except in those places where he runs into doggerel rhymes, as in The Comedy of Errors … it was the common vice of the age he lived in.

Nicholas Rowe, 1709

In this play we find more intricacy of plot than distinction of character; and our attention is less forcibly engaged because we can guess in great measure how it will conclude. Yet the poet seems unwilling to part with his subject, even in this last and unnecessary scene, where the same mistakes are continued till they have lost the power of affording any entertainment at all.

George Steevens, 1773

Earlier in his career, Shakespeare had avoided springing surprises on his audience. His dramaturgy relied rather on the creation and fulfilment of expectation than on unexpected revelation. Although characters disguised themselves in many of his Elizabethan comedies, the audience was always let into the secret. Only at the climax of The Comedy of Errors is there a sudden revelation..

Stanley Wells, 2016

There are altogether too few of the productions of the drama's greatest master and the world's greatest poet presented on the stage now-a-days. The excuse is that they are not adapted to the age, and that it is something of an effort to understand them. This does not apply to the Comedy of Errors. It is a play of doubles, and the humor of it is perennial.

Review in the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 1880

2 Grace Thurgood (Courtesan), Claudie Blakley (Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus), and Michelle Terry (Luciana, her sister) in Comedy of Errors. National Theatre, 2011.

2 Grace Thurgood (Courtesan), Claudie Blakley (Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus), and Michelle Terry (Luciana, her sister) in Comedy of Errors. National Theatre, 2011.

Of all improbable stories, [The Comedy of Errors] is the most so. The Ghost in Hamlet, Witches in Macbeth, and pg 725Monster in The Tempest, seem all like events in the common course of nature, when compared to those which take place in this drama. Its fable verges on impossibility, but the incidents which arise from it could never have occurred.

Elizabeth Inchbald, 1808

The myriad-minded man, our, and all men's, Shakespeare, has in this piece presented us with a legitimate farce in exactest consonance with the philosophical principles and character of farce, as distinguished from comedy and from entertainments. A proper farce is mainly distinguished from comedy by the licence allowed, and even required, in the fable, in order to produce strange and laughable situations. The story need not be probable, it is enough that it is possible.

S.T. Coleridge, 1817

The choice of Plautus's plays as the basis for this comedy tells us something about Shakespeare's conception of the theatrical experience … People point to the improbable happenings of the late plays like Cymbeline and The Tempest as if they were somehow uncharacteristic of Shakespeare's art; but from the outset his comedies plumb the unfathomable, magical dimensions of the human experience …

Richard Dutton, 1989

[Nineteenth-century actresses] found more challenges in the comedies and romances—Kate, Titania, Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind, Viola, Innogen, Hermione, Miranda. But Adriana and Luciana could hardly compete as star vehicles in such company.

Charles Whitworth, 2002

Ephesus is a place where social ceremonies matter, where the wayward husband's suspected dining away ('having broke [his] fast' 1.2.50) has serious consequences for his wife and home. Antipholus of Ephesus's absence has transformed his house into the social equivalent of a spiritually unprofitable Lent, imposing a penitential fasting on all inhabitants and eliciting from his wife a resentment that manifests itself in violence to her servant and angry abstinence (1.2.89) … Clearly Antipholus of Ephesus's failure to come home for dinner on time is a repudiation of more than mere food; his absence from home is the first step in the flouting of an accepted social ceremony that helps define his identity as respected citizen and respectful husband.

Joseph Candido, 1990

The Comedy of Errors was updated—all the way to the 1920s. With strobe lights, barbershop quartets, and costumes made of long-johns, Cain created an early film version of one of England's funniest comedies. It was thigh-slappingly funny—and never so funny as when Richard McElvain, wearing a professional corduroy jacket with patches on its elbows, ran onto the stage to complain that the production was a travesty of Shakespearean drama.

Elizabeth H. Hageman, reviewing the Boston Shakespeare Company's production, 1981

As early as The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare knew the unities, and so far as I know, handled them at least as skillfully as any of his contemporaries. Nor had Shakespeare forgotten his skill when he came to write his last complete play, The Tempest … But in the intervening years between The Comedy and The Tempest he has only occasionally approached the unities. Whatever his reason for using the unities or not using them, certainly ignorance is not that reason.

T. W. Baldwin, 1944

[The Abbess] interrogates Adriana at some length, leading her on to incriminate herself by admitting to a more extreme form of jealous behavior than she has in fact practiced. This is perhaps the most remarkable example of the double standard in the entire canon: is it possible to imagine someone scolding Othello in this way and telling him that he should have put up with his wife's infidelity quietly?

Ann Thompson, 1997

Looked at from this larger dramatic perspective, the more compelling Adriana's argument [in 2.1] appears to be, the more effectively Shakespeare demolishes feminist criticism of male behavior. No matter how good her arguments are, Adriana is doomed to lose. Shakespeare seems to give Adriana her due—only so that he can, with an appearance of utter impartiality, do her in.

Gary Taylor, 1988

The unmarried Luciana [Christine Adaire] was particularly striking, a bespectacled spinster who provided aphorisms about wifely obedience, aphorisms a deal too neat to manage the complexity of the world in which she found herself. The character is an early instance of one of Shakespeare's favorite types (John of Gaunt trying to get Bolingbroke to make a virtue of necessity, Polonius attempting to mold Laertes), and in this [Shakespeare & pg 726Company] production she managed to reveal that for all her certainty about who she is and what she believes, she really has no self (nothing to say but sayings) until romance offers a metamorphosis.

Ronald R. Macdonald, 1986

It was with the lighter comedies that Komisarjevsky made his most popular contribution [to Stratford] … The toy-like set, with its skewed perspective and unsettling combination of three-dimensional units with flat houses, carried the production into that area of farce where real human problems are indistinguishable from supercharged absurdities.

Dennis Kennedy, 1993

The curtain rises on a painted stage, an Ephesus of doll's house quaintness, no element, certainly, of Asia Minor, but proper scene of eternal pantomime and harlequinade. Its citizens appear as puppets and playboys bound to no especial century, but heirs of a timeless invention. In a moment we are enraptured.

Ivor Brown, reviewing Theodore Komisarjevsky's Stratford Production, 1938

Like their forbearers in [St Paul's Letter to the Ephesians], the morals of Shakespeare's Ephesians promote economic security over a commitment to ethical or religious values. From the beginning of the play, The Comedy of Errors serves to contrast the flawed, materialistic interests of Ephesus with the more holistic Pauline ethos of the Syracusian pair of travellers.

Sarah Neville, 2009

Whereas Shakespeare limited Egeon's stage presence to 1.1 and 5.1, [director Stephen] Fried used Egeon's reprieve to allow him to raise the funds to spare his life as the rationale for Egeon's repeated appearances onstage throughout the production. The handcuffed Egeon wandered in and out of scenes with a tin cup begging for money, always under the watchful eye of his soldier guard. His silent presence reminded the audience of his plight and the dangers of being a foreigner in Ephesus.

Barbara Ann Lukacs, 2009

This play is founded on Plautus his Menaechmi: and if it be not a just translation, 'tis at least a paraphrase, and I think far beyond the translation …

Gerard Langbaine, 1691

He had an intention to have made a play like Plautus' Amphitro, but left it off for that he could never find two so like others that he could persuade the spectators they were one.

William Drummond, recounting Ben Jonson's explanation for his never writing a play featuring twins, 1618

The actors [playing the Dromios] are readily distinguished from each other by those who know them, but their resemblance is quite close enough. It must be remembered, once for all, that if the performers really could not be told apart the spectators would take no pleasure in the play; for all the fun lies in following the mistakes and mishaps, and seeing how and why the characters blunder.

Review of the play in the Boston Daily Advertiser, 1879

Shakespeare attempted to write farce in The Comedy of Errors, and he succeeded. Certain effects and values are missing from this kind of drama: there is no thorough examination of characters, no great variety of tones, no profound treatment of ideas, no deep emotional engagement. But farce gives us what other dramatic forms may lack: the production of ideas through rowdy action, the pleasures of 'non-significant' wordplay, freedom from the limits of credibility, mental exercise induced by the rapid tempo of the action, unrestricted laughter—the satisfactions of various types of extravagance. Indeed, farce may be considered the most elemental kind of theater, since the audience is encouraged to lose itself in play … That the author of King Lear was capable of writing The Comedy of Errors should be a source of wonder, not embarrassment.

Russ McDonald, 1988

logo-footer Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. Access is brought to you by Log out