It was thought good not to offer any thing of Account, saving Dancing and Revelling with Gentlewomen; and after such Sports, a Comedy of Errors ... 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.
– Gray's Inn Record, December 28, 1594
This Comedy is an undeniable Proof that Shakespeare was not so ignorant of the Latin Tongue as some wou'd fain make him … for as it is beyond Contradiction plain that this Comedy is taken from that of Plautus so I think it as obvious to conclude from that that Shakespeare did understand Latin enough to read him, and knew so much of him as to be able to form a Design out of that of the Roman Poet; and which he has improv'd very much in my Opinion.
– Charles Gildon, 1710
Abraham Willaerts' 1603
Shipwreck off a Rocky Coast
In [The Comedy of Errors ] 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
Matters are carried so far that one of the two brothers is first arrested for debt, then confined as a lunatic, and the other is forced to take refuge in a sanctuary to save his life. In a subject of this description it is impossible to steer clear of all sorts of low circumstances, abusive language, and blows; Shakespeare has however endeavoured to ennoble it in every possible way ... In short, this is perhaps the best of all written or possible Menaechmi; and if the piece be inferior in worth to other pieces of Shakespeare, it is merely because nothing more could be made of the materials.
– August Wilhelm Schlegel, 1808
[The Comedy of Errors] is taken very much from the Menaechmi of Plautus, and is not an improvement on it ... This play (among other considerations) leads us not to feel much regret that Shakespear [sic] was not what is called a classical scholar. We do not think his forte would ever have lain in imitating or improving on what others invented, so much as in inventing for himself, and perfecting what he invented,—not perhaps by the omission of faults, but by the addition of the highest excellencies. His own genius was strong enough to bear him up, and he soared longest and best on unborrowed plumes.
– William Hazlitt, 1817
Shakespeare, has in [The Comedy of Errors ] 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 license 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. A comedy would scarcely allow even the two Antipholuses; because, although there have been instances of almost indistinguishable likeness in two persons, yet these are mere individual accidents ... But [Shakespeare's] farce dares add the two Dromios, and is justified in so doing by laws of its end and constitution.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1836
The Comedy of Errors may, in a certain sense, be regarded as the pendant to As You Like It... Many circumstances tend to corroborate this opinion; among others, the frequency of rhyme and the doggerel verses, which are quite in the style of Shakespeare's predecessors, and which he has here retained; and also the greater carefulness of the diction and versification, which betray all the anxiety of a youthful poet to deserve the approbation of the public, by the employment of all the external means at his command.
– Hermann Ulrici, 1839
In this light and lovely work of the youth of Shakespeare we find for the first time that strange and sweet admixture of farce with fancy, of lyric charm with comic effect, which recurs so often in his later work … The sweetness and simplicity of lyric or elegiac loveliness which fill and inform the scenes where Adriana, her sister, and the Syracusian Antopholus exchange the expression of their errors and their loves, belong to Shakespeare alone; and may help us to understand how the young poet who at the outset of his divine career had struck into this fresh untrodden path of poetic comedy should have been, as we have seen that he was, loth [sic] to learn from another and an alien teacher the hard and necessary lesson that this flowery path would never lead him towards the loftier land of tragic poetry.
– Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1880
Shakespeare's imagination could not rest satisfied with a farce, however laughable or however skillfully conducted. His vein of lyrical poetry breaks forth in the love-episode, for the sake of which he created Luciana. And he has set the entire comic business in a romantic and pathetic framework—the story of the afflicted old Aegeon and the Ephesian abbess, in whom he discovers his lost wife. The play opens with grief and the doom of death impending over an innocent life; it closes, after a cry of true pathos, with reconciling joy, and the interval is filled with laughter that peals to a climax. This is not the manner of Plautus; but laughter with Shakespeare would seem hard and barren-the crackling of thorns under a pot,—if it were wholly isolated from grief and love and joy.
– Edward Dowden, 1903
In the fifth act Adriana is brought before the Abbess, and is proved to be a jealous scold. Shakespeare will not be satisfied till some impartial great person of Adriana's own sex has condemned her ... But Adriana will not accept the reproof; she will have her husband at all costs. The whole scene discovers personal feeling. Adriana is the portrait that Shakespeare wished to give us of his wife.
– Frank Harris, 1909
It cannot be said that the verse, or the sense of character, or the invention is better than in the other early plays. It is not. The play is on a lower plane than any of his other works. It is the only Shakespearean play without a deep philosophical idea ... It is also the first play that shows a fine, sustained power of dramatic construction.
– John Masefield, 1911
In Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare has learned to base his fun on farcical character instead of farcical situations. That, he had not yet learned in The Comedy... Instead, we have the characteristic, ingeniously artificial ornaments of puns and verbal quibbling of numerous varieties. Unless one enjoys the sheer nimbleness of mentality which these artificialities display, he will find little solace in the verbiage of this play. But if one can induce the mood of rollicking, farcical hilarity ... and enter into the nimble spirit of the fun, The Comedy of Errors may prove to be his favorite farce-comedy.
– Thomas Whitfeld Baldwin, 1928
Shakespeare's first recoil from the insouciant romantic formlessness of Love's Labours Lost seems to have been a feeling that plays without backbone are hopelessly crippled. No plot, no play. And so apparently the recoil turned him to Classic comedy. Putting himself to school to Plautus for his Comedy of Errors, he submitted himself to a discipline which, however uncongenial to the spirit, was a salutary apprenticeship to the mechanics of play-building. But it was much more than that. When Shakespeare took the Roman comedians for his pattern, he was reverting to the practice on which his English predecessors, and French and Italian pioneers before them, had established the new comedy of modern Europe.
– H.B. Charlton, 1930
I think the underlying reason for its success is the fact that Shakespeare was thoroughly penetrated by the comic horror, so to call it, implicit in the subject. Real horror attaches to the notion of the complete identity of two human beings … All normal persons (and especially Shakespeare) set so much store by human individuality that they shrink from the thought of its being submerged. … There is something shuddery in the close resemblance of persons just when this appears to us intensely entertaining ... The Comedy of Errors has a note of real weirdness just when its mirth is keenest.
– G. R. Elliott, 1939
The characters speak and act what they believe to be truth while the audience, knowing the secret, chuckles in superiority. The recognition itself is held off until the latest possible time, an almost improbable time, since for either twin to see his fellow would have brought the comedy down like a house of cards. In dramatic manipulation The Comedy of Errors is not superior to Menaechmi, but it is far richer and of far greater general significance. It is worth pointing these things out because they show so well the difference between Elizabethan comedy and classical comedy.
– Hardin Craig, 1948
When Shakespeare began to study Plautus and Terence, his dramatic instinct, stimulated by his predecessors, divined that there was a profounder pattern in the argument of comedy than appears in either of them. At once—for the process is beginning in The Comedy of Errors— he started groping toward that profounder pattern, the ritual of death and revival that also underlies Aristophanes.
– Northrop Frye, 1949
The introduction of Aegeon and Luciana is such an important thing that it calls for more than a passing notice. They import romance and sentiment into a comedy of confused identity. The romantic element which comes so unexpectedly into a classical comedy is Shakespeare's most daring innovation here and points the way in which he will discover his métier.
– S. C. Sen Gupta, 1950
We know little about the contemporary reception of The Comedy of Errors, but it is easy to fancy its being what we call today a 'hit.' It gratifies the essential theatrical craving ... We live in the midst of a confusing world. We are forever making blunders ourselves and becoming the victims of blunders of other people. How restful yet exhilarating it would be if for once we could get above it all and from a vantage point watch the blunders going on below us. Well, that is just what the theater permits us to do for an hour or two ... In one form or another practically everything that goes on in the theater is based on something misunderstood by some or all of the people on the stage that is at the same time clear to the people who are watching them. The spectator is thrilled to share a confidence of the dramatist at the expense of the actors. Hence the playwright's rule: Never keep a secret from your audience. Here is one explanation of the incessant concern of drama with the theme of appearance versus reality. And herein, too, lies the danger of theater.
– Harold C. Goddard, 1951
The Comedy of Errors, like other comedies of that taste, is so clear that it ought to be reducible to a formula. Molière's comedies often strike us in the same way. Certainly one can find in them many standard and publicly available devices, whether of plotting, attitude, or conventional characterization. Without that heritage I do not suppose Shakespeare could, at so early an age, have written anything so easy and assured. Yet he uses it for his own purposes, like a good cook who first learns and then forgets the basic recipes, or a dress designer who assumes the clichés of fashion only to go beyond them to something not quite predictable. Only Shakespeare could derive The Comedy of Errors from Plautus, and only he could proceed from that simple fun to the enigmatic humor of his maturity.
– Francis Fergusson, 1954
This comedy has no Falstaff, Toby Belch, Dogberry—not even an Armado. Comic effect emerges not once from character as such. If the Dromios prove laughable, it is not in themselves but in the incompleteness of their vision of situation that they prove so ... Here are no malapropisms, dialectical oddities, few quirks and twists of phrase: the very pun, hereafter ubiquitous, is scanted. With neither character nor language making notable comic contribution, then, the great resource of laughter is the exploitable gulf spread between the participants' understanding and ours. This gap is held open from beginning to end … Not until The Tempest (in the comedies) did Shakespeare again hold one gap open so long for exploitation; never again did he place so great a responsibility on a single gap.
– Bertrand Evans, 1960
Beyond all its obvious crudities The Comedy of Errors aims at presenting a serious and humane view of human relationships. Most obviously of all, perhaps, the part played by the women in the entire series of farcical episodes is humanized in a way entirely foreign to the essential cynicism of the classical source.
– Derek Traversi, 1960
Shakespeare's preoccupation with the comedy of mistaken identity, [shows him] first as a brilliant apprentice-imitator in The Comedy of Errors [and] later with an increasingly deep brooding over the truth hidden in the dramatic convention; for, if it is accepted that all our dealings with reality are affected by an inability certainly to distinguish between what is said and what is meant, between things as they are and as they appear to be, between Truth and Opinion, then the comic errors develop a peculiar relevance to life itself.
– Frank Kermode, 1961
The Comedy of Errors is an early study in the nature of personal identity. How soon does one's conception of oneself, the belief in one's own identity, break down before lack of recognition on the part of others? How far do we need others in order to have an identity at all? Is one's identity entirely dependent on the personal and social links and bonds, the ties of family, love, friendship and civic duty? In order that these questions might be tackled without in this case leading to madness and violent death, as they do in King Lear, Shakespeare added the twin servants.
– Gwyn Williams, 1964
Here, in a play that may be his first comedy, we find Shakespeare following what was to prove his permanent instinct: never to forsake the norm of social life. However distant he may get from that norm into inhuman horror, or wild romance, or lyrical fancy, or mystical heights, he always reverts, if only for a short spell, to the ordinary world of men and to its problems of how they are to live together ... You may say that he was forced to do this to please his public; but he was also following his instincts, which insisted on connecting, on demonstrating the unity of all experience. The extent to which he indulged that instinct in The Comedy of Errors has not been fully recognized.
– E. M. W. Tillyard, 1965
In style, The Comedy of Errors is a microcosm of early Shakespeare: the frequent rhymes, the endstopped lines, the quibbles, the rhetorical dialectic of question and answer in a single speech, the oxymoron and stichomythia, the echoes of Kyd and Marlowe, all are there. It is also a compendium of devices and situations Shakespeare used in other plays, early and late. The twins, the circumstances of the shipwreck, the kindly merchant, the comic exorcist, and the visitor who is convinced that the town is bewitched, appear in Twelfth Night, the turbulent wife lessoned in The Taming of the Shrew, the irrevocable law not enforced in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
– Marion Bodwell Smith, 1966
Here in a farce, in what may well have been his earliest comedy, Shakespeare introduces the chief structural principle of his romantic comedies: the juxtaposition of attitudes toward love and toward the ideal relationship of man and woman ... Adriana's concept of lover is the right to possess, to receive and own and be master of, whereas both her sister and Antipholus of Syracuse oppose to that concept their view of love as giving.
– Peter G. Phialas, 1966
Indeed this play is a good beginning one for the student of Shakespeare, for ability to enjoy the madness of total bewilderment is not a tutored one; every child has it. In the chaos created by two sets of twins (not to mention some four merchants), the expert is not of much help, as painstaking plot analyses of the play have shown. In telling who is who, or where, at any one time, the expert is about as helpful and impressive a guide as a professor leading a tour through a maze of mirrors in an amusement park.
– Paul A. Jorgensen, 1969
[In The Comedy of Errors, the gold chain begins] as a simple object—a gift purchased by Antipholus of Ephesus for his wife; but as the action develops, the chain becomes considerably more important than a simply property. As Plautus uses the mantle, it is just a gimmick that allows a few jokes about perverse and bawdy topics. Shakespeare's chain, on the other hand, naturally symbolizes the cohesion of society as it asserts its orderly supremacy over prostitutes, wayward husbands, shrewish wives, and lost brothers ... [This] simple object becomes a complex symbol of the recommended norm in the play, the bridling of headstrong freedom and wandering individuality.
– Richard Henze, 1971
Business, money, things, and pleasures out of things as they relate to money are an omnipresent consideration, the climate of the play, the motive power and shaper of the plot. Appropriately the lives of the characters turn on these ... Our chief pleasure consists of watching them being hauled and mauled about, and the variety of ways discovered to do so, that the maximum of profit be wrung out of them. In this respect the characters are not much more than exploitable commodities.
– Theodore Weiss, 1971
At its ending The Comedy of Errors admits its own artificiality, its participation in that special realm of fairy-tale where the lost are always found, while reminding the theatre audience that it has not been in complete control of the situation after all. This last scene is consciously contrived but also moving in a way that seems to anticipate the marvelous discoveries of Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale.
– Anne Barton, 1974
As we see throughout Shakespeare's comedies, love seems to thrive on irrationality and confusion, and emerges from it strengthened, renewed and satisfied ... But the world of commerce simply goes crazy when an irrational factor is introduced, and the only satisfaction is for chains and ducats to be restored to their original owners, as though the confusion had never taken place. Nothing is gained in the process, for the transactions of business are barren and limited, incapable of the sudden, spontaneous enrichment that we see in the transactions of love. What is enchantment and enrichment for one brother is simply confusion for the other, a confusion that must be put right. The only party to gain something is the audience: since commercial life has been depicted in such unflattering terms, we are bound to take a special, mischievous delight in seeing it disrupted.
– Alexander Leggatt, 1974
Structurally and stylistically, Shakespeare uses Plautus to outdo Plautus, Terence to outdo Terence, and turns Roman farce into a polished and sophisticated entertainment, which produces a special intellectual relation between performance and audience depending for its effect upon awareness of its conscious art.
– Catherine M. Shaw, 1980
In the sixteenth century there were two traditions of comedy. One was the satirical revelation of human errors, played out so that the audience laughed to see their own follies so skillfully exposed. The other was to use as a setting some upset, sadness or problem that is subsequently resolved happily. [Ben] Jonson wrote in the first, more hard-hitting tradition, where we laugh at the characters; Shakespeare in the second where we laugh with them. The hallmark of Shakespeare's comedies is consequently the move towards reconciliation and a restoration of order by the correct understanding of the original problem.
– Angela Pitt, 1981
In the comedies, [Shakespeare] came as close to exposition of a system of practical values as he could, without creating characters to serve as mouthpieces for his own ideas ... At the core of a coherent social structure as he viewed it lay marriage, which for Shakespeare is no mere comic convention but a crucial and complex ideal. He rejected the stereotype of the passive, sexless, unresponsive female and its inevitable concomitant, the misogynist conviction that all women were whores at heart. Instead he created a series of female characters who were both passionate and pure, who gave their hearts spontaneously into the keeping of the men they loved and remained true to the bargain in the face of tremendous odds.
– Germaine Greer, 1986
Displacement is one of the governing principles of the action and the focusing of the audience's visual attention on two pairs of twins makes the interplay clear. The new, strange, or unaccountable must either occupy the space belonging to the known, or be excluded by it. Much of the comedy arises from the characters' attempts to make what they see tally with what they think they know so that the familiar pattern of life will be preserved. The most usual recourse is to accuse others who are behaving aberrantly of madness or satanic possession, and the visitors can only account for their reception by regarding Ephesus (perhaps in the light of its biblical reputation) as a place of sorcery and enchantment, full of false appearances.
– Joanna Udall, 1992
The coldness or dispassionateness of the Antipholuses is striking in contrast to the charming reunion of the Dromios, with which Shakespeare sweetly ends his comedy ... These two long-suffering clowns have had to sustain numerous blows from the Antipholuses throughout the play, and the audience is heartened to see them go out in such high good humor ... It would be absurd to burden The Comedy of Errors with sociopolitical or other current ideological concerns, and yet it remains touching that Shakespeare, from the start, prefers his clowns to his merchants.
– Harold Bloom, 1998
Antipholus of Syracuse has the longest role of lines, but in performance the Dromios are likely to dominate the action. They align themselves with two commedia dell'arte traditions: they get masters, and they are brainier than those masters. But in several respects they break with commedia convention. Although smart, they are not cunning or at times maligning like Arlecchio or Pulcinella; nor do they trump up the sort of schemes (to win money or a wife or a fight) that generally fall to pieces or yield unwanted results. They are loyal and long-suffering companions, never insolent, not even mildly disobedient. They therefore have all the more reason for resenting the ingratitude they both receive from their masters' sticks when they have each carried out the precise errands the masters demanded. In addition, they emit most of the play's wit and word play, rather than being responsible, as in commedia scenarios, for inordinate settos of bumping and bruising. They are, in a word, intellectuals—we might almost swear, scholars—who enjoy nothing more than concocting a jolly quibble or a phrase with three or more meanings and a literary allusion or two, a strong hint of bawdy, a Latin tag thrown in, whenever apt, and a preoccupation with punishment.
– Albert Bermel, 2000
As we switch from the death sentence to the almost surreal quality of mistaken identities of both master and servant, it may seem easy to forget the opening scene and its foreboding. Quite possibly, the audience puts any concern about Egeon aside as he disappears from the action ... But the play itself really won't let the audience forget the brief amount of time allotted to Egeon [before his execution at the end of the day].
– Kay K. Cook, 2003
– Contributed by the CST Education Department