The Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 2: The Comedy of Errors

Date: Around 1594.


First read: In 2007. I don’t think I ever re-read it.


Productions seen: One at the Edinburgh Fringe, some time around 2003/4 (I think). I’m fairly sure it was a student production.


Productions worked on: None.


Edition I’m using: An elderly Arden.






Couplets. COUPLETS. Good god, Shakespeare, what are you doing to me? Why must everything rhyme? (All right, not everything. Not quite. Just most of the first three acts.) Why do you hate me, Shakespeare?


I’m not inherently anti-couplet. Used sparingly and judiciously they can be effective. Great at the end of sonnets, for instance. Useful for comic purposes, in their right place. But there’s such a thing as excess, and I think we hit that point about three pages into The Comedy of Errors.


I remember not being mad keen on this play when I first saw it back in 200…3, perhaps? When I read it a couple of years later I struggled to finish it. Back then, with less developed critical faculties and a lot less confidence in myself, I assumed the failing was mine. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, right? Every word is golden, each play’s structure exquisite, right? Right?


Realising that it was permissible to critique Shakespeare (and that I had developed the necessary skills to do so) was an important part of my development both as a reader and as a writer. So let me apply my learning and state my considered opinion – The Comedy of Errors is not a very good play.


I can imagine that a really well-done production could be really funny. Given a handful of highly-skilled physical comedians with exquisite timing, the weaknesses of the script could be obscured. Perhaps with a handful of careful cuts, the opening scene could be made to feel like less of an info-dump. As it stands, it’s not exactly elegant.


The heavy reliance on dramatic irony irked me, too. As with the couplets, it’s a device I enjoy in moderation but found overwhelming here. I found myself longing for something more than just yet another mistaken identity – give me some depth in the characters, or even some wordplay on a par with what was on offer in Two Gents!


Actually, I found myself missing Two Gentlemen while I was reading this one. While I wasn’t exactly bowled over, at least there were some hints at the complexity of characterisation that’s to come in Proteus’ soliloquies, and although the structure was messy and the narrative rushed it was less repetitive than this. Again, I wonder whether that repetition could be made to look like cumulative effect by particularly adept performers, but as a director and dramaturg I still find my fingers itching to cut, restructure and ask for greater depth.


As with Two Gents, it’s interesting to see the clear Commedia influences on Shakespeare’s work and I’m glad to have revisited it, but I doubt this play will ever be particularly dear to my heart. I’d close with some favourite lines, but three days after reading the script I’m struggling to call any to mind, so… not this week. Onward to the Henriad. In the meantime, please do share your thoughts and I’ll get on with answering comments from the last week.

5 responses to “The Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 2: The Comedy of Errors”

  1. I’ve seen one or two very good productions of this – an RSC touring one in the Gannochy Sports Centre at Stirling University, and one at Perth Theatre about 20 years ago with Irene Macdougall as the wife and Jimmy Chisholm and Tom McGovern as the two Dromios. I agree it’s repetitive, and the plot very silly, but as you say it can actually be very funny if the cast just go for it – not overdoing the comic business, but just revelling in the daftness of the plot. It has a joie de vivre that can be almost irresistible in the right hands. And it has one line that makes me forgive almost everything else – that lovely one about “I to the world am as a drop of water, that in the ocean seeks another drop.” Aren’t we all…

  2. This underrated play is made (or broken) on the believability of the otherworldly encounters the principal characters find themselves in. Poor directing (whether live, or in ourselves as we read) will bog the play down in its slapstick, or its versified rhyming humor, but neither of those are the point. The wonder of this tiny, hasty play is its plot, and it’s worth noting that it was Shakespeare’s innovation to introduce a second pair of twins in the Dromios. Yeah, they do provide most of both slapstick and humor, but more importantly, they provide more opportunities for confusion, which abounds freely in this play. It’s even there in the first scene! We’re in a comedy: what are we doing with this bleak opening, this man being led to death, this fantastical story of shipwreck and family origins, this unwavering judge the Duke? It’s unsettlingly out of place.

    With this bleak expose having framed the story, the plot unfolds at a maddening pace. The events in question don’t last much longer than the play depicting them, and we are faced with as many as FIVE of the principal characters on scene together, each in their own world of “who’s who?”, each asking and answering questions as their own perspective allows them, scene after scene after scene. But we, as readers/viewers, and unlike anyone else in the play, are privy to the whole truth, which is interestingly both a boon and a curse. It’s a boon because we are given the understanding the characters so desperately seek. But it’s our curse too because the multiple perspectives the truth has opened up all lend to our confusion.

    It’s true, though, that the characters don’t respond to much else besides the situation they’ve been thrust into. They do, however, have distinct personalities, and occasionally touch upon something sublime. I loved the honesty of the Ephesian Dromio, and his “‘My gold!’ quoth he”‘s. Like many vitalists in Shakespeare, his cheer seems endless, as surely it must be, being sustained through beatings he’s been receiving long before this play. And the Syracusian Antipholus approaches something marvelously metaphysical. He introduces himself as “a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop” (I.2:35), which is beautiful both in and out of context; and he has the most rational response of all to this absurdity: “Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell? / Sleeping or waking? mad or well advised? / Known unto these, and to myself disguised! I’ll say as they say, and persever so, / And in this mist at all adventures go.” (II.2:211-215) Compare to his Ephesian counterpart, a beast of an angry, petty, haughty man. “Known unto these, and to myself disguised!” is metaphysically unsettling, which fits the “witches and sorcery” view the Syracusians have of this odd town. Hell, it describes the play quite fittingly too.

  3. Sure, to paraphrase Gertie Stein, there ain’t much there there. Substantive it is not, and start tugging on the loose threads of logic, and the thing will unravel faster than a sweater from Old Navy. That said, having been involved in multiple productions, it (in my experience, anway- knock wood), has never failed to be a crowd pleaser. As BeeDice alluded to above, I think there may be something to the audience getting to feel intellectually superior to all the characters on stage. That said, this is also the play that made me realize that, for whatever reason, audiences are much more wiling to accept absurd contrivances in Shakespeare (or perhaps classical plays in general) than they are in more contemporary fare.
    I do disagree, however, with one point in BeeDice’s beautifully articulated analysis. I think that slapstick kind of is the point. This thing is pretty much a straight up farce (once you get through the, as has been pointed out, excruciatingly clunky exposition), and IMO a farce without slapstick ain’t much of a farce. I mean, the whole ‘spherical like a globe’ exchange feels like a classic vaudeville routine. Speaking of which, on the subject of memorable lines, Dromio describing the greasiness of Nell the kitchen wench with “If she lives til doomsday, she’ll burn a week longer than the whole world” is a pretty solid goof.

  4. Catching up here… you know me, I like language, poetry, rhythm, and rhyme, but I agree it’s all overused in this one. I too got bored of the repetition of mistakes – granted, as pointed out above, the characters aren’t aware of what is happening, and perhaps it is our awareness that makes us less patient, HOWEVER, the Syracusian pair set off expressly to look for their lost brothers, so you’d think that at some point this possibility could have occurred to them.

    You rightly spot the commedia influence on the play, but it seems to have gone full circle influencing it back – the similarity with Carlo Goldoni’s ‘The Venetian Twins’ (1747) is surely more than a coincidence. I saw a rather dexterous production of this one at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010, which was very enjoyable.

    There are a couple of points that I want to raise that drew my attention because I’m obsessed with these issues: Aegeon’s “crime” and Nell, the kitchen-maid, Dromio of Ephesus’ wife. I probably wouldn’t try to expand on these or make them more blatant if I were working on a production/adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, but these two things could easily be used as starting points for new work (inspired by…). Aegeon is condemned to death because of his nationality – because he is an illegal migrant. Nothing else. In fact, he’s not even a migrant, he’s a traveller. He just happened to cross the wrong border. Then Nell… we never get to see her, but I love her. We get to see her in Dromio of Syracuse’s brilliant description. I would love to work with an actor to create that character.

    Anyway, that’s my rushed tuppence for now. See you next week.

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