Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare 

Nay, he’s [Time] a thief too; have you not heard men say
That time comes stealing on by night and day? ~ Dromio of Syracuse

The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays written and first performed in late 16thcentury.

It is, as the name asserts, a comedy. Set in a single day, it is about two sets of identical twins, each separated from his brother early in life in a tragic shipwreck. The father and one twin, are rescued and taken to Syracuse; the mother and other child are separately taken to Ephesus. Neither knowing what has become of the other. Accompanying each is another boy, also a twin, also separated from his brother.

And while their separation, is thinly plausible, one thing puzzled me: each twin, raised separately have the same name. There is Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, and their servants Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus.

But the identical names are crucial to the farce, so I suspended disbelief and accepted it.

The pair from Syracuse arrive in Ephesus not knowing it is home to their long-lost twins.

And the mix up begins. They are greeted by people they don’t know as if they are old friends. As Antipholus puts it…
          There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
          As if I were their well-acquainted friend;
          And every one doth call me by my name
          Some tender money to me, some invite me;
          Some other give me thanks for kindnesses;
          Some offer me commodities to buy

The Syracuse bachelors are even met by women claiming to be their wives. There are numerous incidents of mistaken identity, false accusations, false arrest, undeserved beatings, and even Antipholus of Syracuse attempting to woo his brother’s sister-in-law, who can only believe her sister’s husband is suddenly obscenely unfaithful. The poor fellows from Syracuse assume the Ephesians are under bewitchment and sorcery, while the Ephesians conclude that both sets of Antipholus and Dromio are mad, or possessed of devils.

Like all plays, it is intended to be performed, not read, but some plays still read well. Not this one in my opinion. I think the mix ups would be great fun, and easier to follow, viewed on stage or screen, than they are in reading. 

Still, it was a fast paced and farcical romp.

Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, there are little idioms coined by the Bard that have become part of modern vernacular, with their provenance often forgotten. In this case: the title itself, comedy of errors, is one such example. In another example, Dromio of Syracuse complains:
    Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season, 
    When in the why and wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason?

I read this as part of the 2019 Year of Shakespeare Challenge 



  1. There's nothing like a good identity mix-up, and the Bard does it so well. As you say, it's clearly at its best when performed rather than merely read, and I saw a good production of Comedy of Errors once long ago. May be time for a re-read.


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