Theatre: The Comedy of Errors
We came into the world like brother and brother;
And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another.
—Dromio of Ephesus, V.i
A comedy (of errors
) by William Shakespeare
, based off an even older play by Plautus
. It chronicles the misadventures of two sets of long-lost identical twins, with the same name, as they get mistaken for one another. It's also one of the only Shakespearean plays that follow the Classical Unities— unity of time, unity of place, and unity of story. note
It's also his shortest play.
Aegon, a merchant from Syracuse, has just been arrested by the Duke of Ephesus and is set to be executed unless he pays the Duke a sizable fine. Hoping for mercy, Aegon tells the Duke about his life before his arrest: He was married to a woman named Aemelia, and together had twin boys. The new parents acquired a set of poor twins to serve as valets for when their children became adults (this was Shakespeare's own idea, not found in Plautus' Menaechmi
), but soon after the family was separated by a shipwreck. Aegon survived, with his Antipholus and the valet Dromio. Years later, Antipholus and Dromio left Syracuse to find their long-lost brothers, and when they didn't return, Aegon set off to find them himself, only to get arrested in Ephesus. The Duke is touched by the story, and grants Aegon a one-day extension on the fine (and execution).
Meanwhile, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse
(this'll become important later) finally arrive in Ephesus. Antipholus sends his servant off to pay for a hotel, and then things get confusing. See, Antipholus and Dromio's brothers are alive and well and living in Ephesus, and, in fact, they have the same names as their brothers
. Aemelia, apparently, wanted to name them after their siblings. The obvious occurs: Dromio of Ephesus wanders on stage, and when Antipholus of Syracuse asks if he's secured the inn, he has no idea what he's talking about. Believing Dromio of Ephesus is teasing him, Antipholus of Syracuse beats him. The confusion continues with Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse, and the Ephesians' various lovers. Repeat for two-to-three hours, adding bawdy jokes, accusations of infidelity, and money-transfers when appropriate. Everything ends happily, with the brothers, parents, and lovers all reunited.
Incidentally, a "comedy of errors", lower-case letters, is a humorous play that involves mistaken identity and has a happy ending. This delivers in spades
While not as popular as Shakespeare's A-list, Comedy of Errors
is still performed today. It was adapted into a Rodgers and Hart musical, The Boys from Syracuse
, and into a 1988 movie, Big Business
, starring Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler (as the gender-flipped pairs of twins).
This play contains examples of:
- Abhorrent Admirer: Nell the kitchen wench, an unseen character, is enamoured of Dromio of Syracuse; he does not return the affection. In what might be an Older Than Steam subversion, though, Dromio of Ephesus does.
- Always Identical Twins: The cause of all the trouble, although ironically it's an Informed Attribute in most productions.
- Some productions get around this by simply having the twins played by the same actor. Done right, this can create a whole new level of comedy, though it requires the use of FakeShemps for the twins in the resolution (for example, the 2013 New York Public Theater version).
- It may seem impossible, but a series of quick changes and a set made of doors can go a long way, making the final scene even more ridiculous and hilarious. See Sean Graney's production at The Court Theatre (2010)
- At least one production used, essentially, character lookalike muppets for the final scene, along with prerecorded lines. It made the ending just that much more absurdly hilarious.
- Contrived Coincidence
- Fat Girl: Nell.
A. of Syracuse: Then she bears some breadth?
D. of Syracuse: No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip: she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Oh, yes.
A. of Syracuse: (discussing where countries are on the aforementioned Nell) Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?
D. of Syracuse: Oh, sir, I did not look so low.
- Dead Guy Junior: The reason we have two Antipholuses and two Dromios. They're not exactly common names!
- It's hard to tell, though, since most Shakespeare play characters are Aerith and Bob to modern ears at best, and would be more so if people didn't to this day regularly name their children after characters in Shakespeare.
- Identical Stranger
- The Masochism Tango: Antipholus of Ephesus and his wife.
- Noodle Incident: Nell again, who is never seen, only described briefly. Shakespeare knew he couldn't top what the viewer was probably thinking.
- One Steve Limit: Avoided, much to the chagrin of the characters (and the audience trying to figure out who's who)
- Separated at Birth
- She Who Must Not Be Seen: Nell from the kitchen again.
- Taking the Veil: Emilia did this, believing her husband dead.
- Theme Twin Naming: Twice.
- Title Drop:
This purse of ducats I receiv'd from you,
And Dromio my man did bring them me:
I see we still did meet each other's man,
And I was ta'en for him, and he for me,
And thereupon these errors are arose.
- Too Dumb to Live: in at least one production, for the benefit of the audience keeping track, the Syracusans wear green and the Ephesians wear blue. No one in the cast notices.
- Twin Switch