NovelGuide: The Comedy of Errors: Essay Q&A
1. Is The Comedy of Errors a comedy or a farce?
Most criticism of the play, perhaps surprisingly, devotes considerable space to this question. A farce is a light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot situations, exaggerated characters, and often slapstick elements are used for humorous effect. A comedy is a light dramatic work that is often humorous or satirical in tone and that usually contains a happy resolution of the thematic conflict. In farce, character is subordinate to the demands of the plot and is therefore one-dimensional and undeveloped. In comedy, the plot is to a greater extent driven by the characters, which are accordingly multi-dimensional and continue to develop throughout.
The characters in the play do lack the depth of those in the more mature comedies (The Comedy of Errors is considered an early work). This was viewed as a problem by many critics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who based critical analysis of Shakespeare's plays around the psychological complexity of characters. The greater the complexity, the more 'worthy' the play is deemed. Judged by this criterion, The Comedy of Errors falls short of the mature comedies. However, the characters are not as one-dimensional as would be expected from a farce: Adriana, Antipholus S. and Egeon have a measure of complexity. The themes too appear too weighty for pure farce: debt, identity, and love and marriage, though we have to wait for the later plays to see them explored more fully.
With regard to plot, too, the play has aspects of farce. In his "Lectures upon Shakespeare," the poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) called The Comedy of Errors a farce: "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; . . . farce add(s) the two Dromios." Though most Shakespeare plays contain improbable elements, The Comedy of Errors has a great deal, and considerable suspension of disbelief is demanded of the audience.
However, it is possible to argue that the improbable plot, far from being a problem, is the main point of the play. Shakespeare creates an enchanted atmosphere in which anything can happen. The certainties of life are stripped away; reason no longer applies; it is a world of pure potentiality. The fact that most people find this play to be the funniest that Shakespeare wrote (seeing a good performance will confirm this) adds to this disorienting effect, as humor works by subverting expectations. Thus, the farcical elements perform a serious role while at the same time entertaining the audience - entertainment being without doubt Shakespeare's main purpose in writing the play.
In conclusion, the play contains elements of both comedy and farce, but is not constrained by either genre.
2. Compare and contrast the attitude to love and marriage held by Adriana and Luciana. Do their attitudes change in the course of the play?
In Act 2, scene 1, Adriana complains angrily of her husband Antipholus's absences from home. She does not see why men should enjoy more freedom than women, and objects to the double standards applying to male and female behavior. Luciana presents the view of a dutiful wife: Adriana should show patience, and men need more freedom because business takes them out and about. She draws on Biblical sources in her speech upholding the concept of a 'natural order' in which males have dominion over females. It is not presumptuous to say that this is Shakespeare's own view, since his plays uphold the natural order and show the devastating consequences of its subversion.
Adriana sees Luciana's view as "servitude," and blames it for the fact that she is still unmarried. She thinks that if she were married, she would have power over her husband. But Luciana believes that she should learn to obey before learning to love. If her husband strayed, she would not complain until she had a chance to discuss it. Adriana is unimpressed, pointing out that Luciana speaks from inexperience.
Adriana's despair over Antipholus's behavior is a product of her view of marriage as a merging of one partner's identity in the other's (Act 2, scene 2, lines 119-129), so that they are "undividable, incorporate." This view is destructive. Adriana's possessiveness only results in her husband's concocting white lies in the next scene to cover for his absences. And after Adriana unwittingly locks him out of his home, he exploits his friendship with the Courtesan to pay his wife back, her extreme jealousy making her an easy target of such manipulation. Both Adriana and her marriage suffer as a result of her possessiveness.
We later learn that Luciana, unlike Adriana, may accept infidelity if the husband pretends to love his wife and is discreet. Ominously, she unwittingly says this to the man she may marry, giving him permission to cheat. Luciana bends over so far backwards in her submissive stance that she obliterates her own self-respect and identity to the same extent that Adriana does by her extreme possessiveness.
Adriana is rebuked by the Abbess for her possessive nagging of Antipholus, but the Abbess's claim over the moral high ground is undermined by her about-turn: first, she says Adriana has not been tough enough, but then she switches to saying that Adriana has driven Antipholus mad by her jealous fits. The second verdict strikes home with Adriana; her own conscience prompts her to change in the direction of Luciana's patient stance.
Luciana, for all her promised submission to a husband, joins up with a man (Antipholus S.) who only wants to submit to her ("teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak" - Act 3, scene 2, line 33), suggesting that she will modify her stance towards that taken initially by Adriana. However, it is possible to interpret this in another way. A tradition within ostensibly male-dominated societies teaches that women's power lies in submitting to the husband in the 'male' spheres of providing money and protection, while maintaining spiritual and emotional leadership in the marriage. In other words, Shakespeare may be showing us the power of the 'submissive' wife. But Luciana's spirited defence of Adriana against the Abbess (Act 5, scene 1, line 89) shows that she is not prepared to take injustice lying down, and this may suggest that she has modified her views.
3. Compare and contrast the two Antipholuses.
The Antipholuses, though identical in appearance, are very different in personality. Antipholus S. first appears as a melancholic, insecure man who feels quite lost as a result of having lost his twin brother and mother. Even at the beginning of the confusion of identities that creates misunderstandings, he is fearful of witchcraft. He has heard that witches can transform a person's body and mind - another twist on his fear that he has lost his identity.
Antipholus E., in contrast, believes he knows exactly who he is at the beginning of the play: he is husband to Adriana, and a wealthy and respected businessman in Ephesus with a comfortable home. But this assumed identity is based on illusion. Before the play's end, it appears that he has lost his wife (when she locks him out), his home (from which she bars him), his gold chain, and even his reputation and freedom (when Angelo vilifies and arrests him for not paying for the chain). All these things are finally restored to him, though not before he is seriously shaken up.
It is notable that, mistaking Dromio E. for his own Dromio S., Antipholus S. is irritated by his servant's apparent "jests" and even strikes him, but he engages with his servant and allows himself to be laughed out of his anger. This contrasts markedly with Antipholus E.'s invariably angry, violent and humorless responses to the Dromios. The two twins also treat their women differently: Antipholus E.'s attitude to his wife is characterized by anger, jealousy and spite, with an admixture of contempt in his request to Angelo for collusion in a white lie to placate Adriana. Antipholus S., on the other hand, is more timorous yet more respectful of women: he runs terrified from the Courtesan, thinking her a devil, but begs Luciana to transform him and create him anew.
It must be said, in Antipholus E.'s defense, that he suffers huge losses (wife, home, gold chain, reputation and freedom) and so has more to be angry about. Antipholus S., on the other hand, gains a temporary wife (whom he does not like - Adriana), a lover in Luciana, a gold chain, use of his brother's house, a dinner, and the attention that is usually given to his wealthy brother. But it could equally be argued that Antipholus S. deserves nature's bounty as a kind of providential balance to his previous sense of loss and incompleteness. In addition, his openness to new experiences in his acceptance of Adriana's dinner invitation makes it fitting that he should be given further gifts. Antipholus E.'s lesson, on the other hand, is that he should not base his identity on the trappings of the wealthy merchant he believes himself to be, because all this can be (and is) taken from him.
4. What role does magic play in The Comedy of Errors?
Shakespeare devotes great care to establishing Ephesus as a place of enchantment and illusion. In the Elizabethan mind, Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey) was associated with sorcery, exorcism, mystery cults, and emerging Christianity. Antipholus S. arrives in Ephesus fearful of its witches and sorcerers, and he blames the confusion caused by the two sets of identical twins on enchantments. This fear spreads to include other characters, who blame magic for the seeming transformations in themselves and their loved ones. Adriana engages Dr Pinch to exorcise her seemingly mad husband, and in Act 2, scene 2, Dromio S. wonders whether he has been turned into an ape or an ass by a sorcerer. Dromio's image encompasses both the strange transformations that a sorcerer was supposed to be able to work in a person's appearance, and the connotation of foolishness, suggesting that they are all being made fools of. By the end of the play, even the normally reasonable Duke has caught the contagion of the fear of magic, and helplessly concludes, "I think you have all drunk of Circe's cup" (Act 5, scene 1, line 271).
The binding of Antipholus E. by Dr Pinch's men, and the Duke's falling victim to fears of witchcraft, push the atmosphere dangerously towards that of a witch-hunt: in Shakespeare's day, people who were suspected of witchcraft were hunted, tortured and burned to death. Only the Abbess's calm intervention saves the situation. Her rational explanation for all that has taken place reveals everyone's fear of magic and witches to be groundless. The 'magic' turns out not to be real, and its chief exponent, Pinch, turns out to be a ridiculous charlatan.
5. What does Shakespeare's use of his sources tell us about his aims in writing the play?
Shakespeare's main source for The Comedy of Errors was a comedy called Menaechmi, written by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus (c.254- 184 BC). Shakespeare probably read the play in the original Latin, since the first English translation was only published in 1595, after The Comedy of Errors is believed to have been written. From Menaechmi Shakespeare took his central plot, which revolves around the errors caused by the mistaken identity of identical twin brothers.
Shakespeare made a number of changes to Plautus's story. First, he added a second set of identical twins (the Dromios), doubling the possibilities for confusion. Second, he expanded Adriana's character (Plautus only has an anonymous shrewish "Wife") and created her sister, Luciana, who acts as a foil to Adriana. In this way, Shakespeare gave women a greater voice and made possible the debate between the sisters about issues of marriage and gender. He also shrank the role of the Courtesan compared with Plautus's equivalent character, and took away her name. Third, he added the background story of Egeon and Emilia, giving a tragic element of loss redeemed by the final reunion. Critics generally agree that Shakespeare rounded out Plautus's one-dimensional characters and gave them greater humanity. Finally, Shakespeare added the setting of Ephesus as a place of enchantment and illusion, creating an undercurrent of fear and allowing for greater exploration of the issue of identity.
The play also draws on other sources. The farcical, fast and furious style of Shakespeare's play is drawn from Italian comedy of his own time. The scene where Antipholus E. is locked out of his home is similar to one in another work of Plautus's, Amphitruo. In Amphitruo, the wife entertains the god Jupiter in her husband's house in the belief that he is her husband; and the wife does sleep with Jupiter. Though Shakespeare does not explicitly say that nothing sexual happens between Adriana and Antipholus S., he implies as much in Antipholus S.'s repugnance for Adriana and his single-minded wooing of her sister Luciana, which we see in full flow immediately after the dinner. Shakespeare thereby makes Adriana more innocent than Plautus's equivalent character and maintains more of a possibility of reconciliation between Adriana and her husband.