1/ The premise of The Comedy of Errors is simple: it’s about 2 separated twin brothers with the same name, and about their slaves, who are also twin brothers with the same name, and the twins get mistaken for each other.
It’s a farce and it’s hilarious. As I’ve rediscovered Shakespeare and read a lot of his plays lately, I now think Shakespeare is the greatest of writers, for he triumphs in all kinds of genres: tragedies and histories and comedies and more, and the comedies themselves have different styles and belong to various subgenres—the farce of The Comedy of Errors is different from the comedy of Much Ado About Nothing or Love’s Labour’s Lost, and nothing like the comedy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The sheer range is incredible.
One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s always something dark about them: Much Ado About Nothing has a plot that involves manipulation, slander, humiliation, and a challenge to a duel; Love’s Labour’s Lost has a death and doesn’t end with a wedding; A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with a father forcing his daughter to marry a guy against her will and threatening to kill her; and The Comedy of Errors begins with a death sentence, which hangs over the entire play.
2/ In the introduction, Tony Tanner notes that in no play is the relationship between husband and wife more seriously examined than in The Comedy of Errors.
The first conversation between Adriana (wife of Antipholus of Ephesus) and her sister Luciana is about that.
“ADRIANA Why should their liberty than ours be more?”
(Act 2 scene 1)
Luciana says a few things that sound subservient.
“ADRIANA This servitude makes you to keep unwed.
LUCIANA Not this, but troubles of the marriage bed.
ADRIANA But, were you wedded, you would bear some sway.
LUCIANA Ere I learn love, I’ll practice to obey.
ADRIANA How if your husband start some other where?
LUCIANA Till he come home again, I would forbear.”
That sounds like the shit lots of Viet women think and say.
I like Adriana’s response:
“ADRIANA Patience unmoved! No marvel though she pause;
They can be meek that have no other cause
A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,
We bid be quiet when we hear it cry;
But were we burd’ned with like weight of pain,
As much or more we should ourselves complain:
So thou, that hast no unkind mate to grieve thee,
With urging helpless patience would relieve me;
But, if thou live to see like right bereft,
This fool-begged patience in thee will be left.”
This would go well with my blog post about Shakespeare and the empty words of consolation.
Antipholus of Ephesus doesn’t come home for dinner, so Adriana has to go seek him, thinking he has an affair. She runs into Antipholus of Syracuse, who of course doesn’t recognise her.
These lines from her sister Luciana to Antipholus are interesting:
“LUCIANA […] If you did wed my sister for her wealth,
Then for her wealth’s sake use her with more kindness;
Or, if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth,
Muffle your false love with some show of blindness.
[…] Bear a fair presence, though your heart be tainted,
Teach sin the carriage of a holy saint,
Be secret-false: what need she be acquainted?
What simple thief brags of his own attaint?
‘Tis double wrong to truant with your bed
And let her read it in thy looks at board…”
(Act 3 scene 2)
A lot can be said about these lines, but it strikes me personally because lots of Viet women (not me) have that mindset.
“LUCIANA […] Alas, poor women! Make us but believe,
Being compact of credit, that you love us;
Though others have the arm, show us the sleeve:
We in your motion turn, and you may move us…”
The 2 sisters are contrasted, but the interesting part is that they’re not simply types like a shrew or a submissive woman. Look at these lines:
“LUCIANA Self-harming jealousy! Fie, beat it hence.”
LUCIANA How many fond fools serve mad jealousy!”
(Act 2 scene 1)
Later, Luciana tells Adriana about her husband (it’s actually Antipholus of Syracuse) flirting with her and Adriana says he’s now deformed and vicious.
“LUCIANA Who would be jealous then of such a one?
No evil lost is wailed when it is gone.
ADRIANA Ah, but I think him better than I say;
And yet would herein others’ eyes were worse.
Far from her nest the lapwing cries away;
My heart prays for him, though my tongue do curse.”
(Act 4 scene 2)
Adriana is strong-willed and assertive but also passionate, Luciana seems to believe in the traditional role of a wife but chides her sister for getting jealous and upsetting herself over a man.
In Act 2 scene 2, when the 2 sisters go look for the husband, Adriana makes a very long speech about marriage. It is comic in context as she’s talking to the wrong man, who doesn’t know who she is, but the speech itself is serious and heartfelt.
“ADRIANA […] How comes it now, my husband, O how comes it,
That thou art then estranged from thyself?
Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable, incorporate,
And better than thy dear self’s better part.
Ah, do not tear away thyself from me;
For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again
Without addition or diminishing
As take from me thyself, and not me too…”
(Act 2 scene 2)
She also says what Antipholus would do if she were to cheat, and tell him “Keep then fair league and truce with thy true bed”. It is a great speech, and she tells her husband to come back, without sounding pathetic or subservient.
Both characters are complex and have an inner life. It’s not necessary as such—perhaps not for a farcical comedy—but Shakespeare gives them depth nevertheless.
3/ The hilarity of the play is that the characters don’t know they’re in a comedy—to them, others are witches and sorcerers or have gone mad, or perhaps they themselves are going mad.
Whilst William Hazlitt says Shakespeare makes no improvement to the source play by Plautus, Menaechmi, Tony Tanner says Shakespeare makes significant changes and turns it into a much richer play—he summarises the plot of the Plautus play, compares the 2, and argues why The Comedy of Errors is much richer and deeper. Shakespeare enlarges the role of the wife (Adriana), making her more articulate and sympathetic, and gives her a sister.
“… in general, the main characters have an emotional and even moral dimension, an inner life, which is entirely foreign to Plautus’s mercenary knock-abouts.” (Introduction)
The entire essay is terrific, Tony Tanner writes about doubles, identity, the water motif, the theme of family separation and reunion, etc. Here’s the final sentence:
“… if this is indeed Shakespeare’s first comedy, it is truly remarkable how many of the themes and preoccupations of his later work he here, thus early, broached—how promptly, as it were, he staked out his dramatic territory.” (ibid.)
It is remarkable indeed.