The Swaddled Twins
created in 1617, artist unknown
The Comedy of Errors, like most of Shakespeare's plays, was based in part on previously published works that he perhaps had read as a schoolboy or heard as a young actor/playwright in London. This comedy, written early in Shakespeare's career, was based largely on the work of Plautus, one of the most famous Roman comic playwrights. One hundred thirty plays were written under Plautus's name, though his admirers and peers estimated only about 20 were actually the writer's work.
Plautus did not begin his writing career until he was 45 years old. As a young man he had traveled with an amateur acting troupe that specialized in farce. He served in the Roman army for a short time, and also worked as a merchant. Once he began writing, he focused his plays on situations and characters he knew well—merchants and marketplaces, soldiers and the military—and wrote mostly comedies, a genre he was quite familiar with from his days touring with the acting company. His plays were colloquial and lively, and were always paired with other public events like chariot races or circuses. Plautus wrote neither for enlightenment nor complex characterization, but rather to entertain the Roman populous in the liveliest fashion.
The Menaechmi was written near the middle of Plautus's playwrighting career, and tells the story of a merchant of Syracuse who was the father of identical twin sons. One of the boys, named Menaechmus, as a child was accompanying his father on a long trip when he was kidnapped and stolen away to Epidamnus. He is raised there and eventually marries a wealthy—and nagging—wife. Menaechmus develops a relationship with the Courtesan Erotium, to whom he gives countless gifts that he filches from his wife.
Back in Syracuse, the merchant's other son, named Sosicles, is renamed Menaechmus after the kidnapping, in remembrance of his lost brother. When he reaches adulthood, Menaechmus Sosicles sets out to find his brother. He travels for six years with his manservant and eventually lands in Epidamnus, where, unbeknownst to him, his twin lives. The uncanny resemblance between the two brothers causes Menaechmus of Epidamnus's wife, his mistress, and everyone else in the town endless consternation. After much confusion and a great deal of farce, the brothers recognize each other and the play ends.
Shakespeare takes the plot from The Menaechmi (as well as some elements from another Plautine work, Amphityron) and reshapes it for his own audience. The so-called "Old Comedy" of the Roman stage, with its practical, straightforward language and two-dimensional characters, had little use for poetry. In some ways, particularly in contrast to his later plays, Shakespeare's early play reflects its source in its language, too. However, when Shakespeare inserted a love interest for Antipholus of Syracuse (Adriana's sister Luciana), poetry inevitably followed. Luciana is not the only character he added to his Renaissance rewrite. Shakespeare also gives Antipholus of Syracuse's servant Dromio an identical twin brother, prompting the probability for twice as many complications of mistaken identity. Shakespeare cut some of the stock characters of Roman Comedy, inserting others, including a kitchen-maid he named Nell—a spherical woman ripe for comedic characterization. He switched the location from Plautus's little-known Epidamnus to the town of Ephesus, a name familiar to Shakespeare's audience for its biblical reputation as a place full of evil spirits, magic, and sorcery—a town that might well induce such twin-inspired chaos.
Shakespeare changed the tone of his source, as well. Plautus was famous for farce—loveless tales of absurd high jinks and comedic implausibility. Shakespeare humanized Plautus's stock characters. In The Menaechmi, the citizen twin has no guilty second thoughts about stealing from his wife or about his affair with the Courtesan, and does both, in fact, with roguish abandon. Shakespeare's citizen Antipholus, however, is not so ready to run to the Courtesan, and never actually gives her his wife's chain, though he threatens to. Though Adriana is a nagging wife, Shakespeare makes sure she is also sympathetic to the audience. She quickly bails her husband out of jail, and her possessive instincts—though frustrating to Antipholus—are rooted in her love for him.
The conclusion of Comedy is quite different from Plautus's work. Plautus kills off the twins' parents early on, but Shakespeare's Comedy begins, and ends, with the father Egeon's appearance. And at the play's miraculously coincidental ending, Shakespeare reunites him with his long lost wife and sons. Plautus ends his play with the Menaechmi twins so enamored with one another that they decide to travel the world together, after auctioning off all the worldly possessions of the citizen twin, including his wife, to the highest bidder! Shakespeare brings his two "Antipholi" brothers closer to finding love beyond their twinship: Antipholus of Ephesus with his wife at last, and Antipholus of Syracuse with Adriana's sister, Luciana.
Roman comedy was rife with parallels, a dramatic convention that Shakespeare was fond of, too. The Comedy of Errors is perhaps the earliest example of parallel plots and characters in Shakespeare, but he returns to them time and time again in his later plays, including A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew. As he does, he reminds us of all the similarities that serve as threads between our seemingly unrelated lives—much as they do for the unsuspecting Menaechmi, Dromios and "Antipholi."
– Contributed by the CST Education Department