William Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and Plautus

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (its first recorded performance was in December 1594), The Comedy of Errors has frequently been dismissed as a pure farce, unrepresentative of the playwright’s later efforts. While Errors may contain some farcical elements, it is a complex, layered work that draws upon and reinterprets Plautine comedy. Shakespeare combines aspects of these Latin plays with the biblical source material, chiefly the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Epistle to the Ephesians. While Menaechmi is the most frequently cited authoritative source for Errors, Plautus’ Amphitruo has also influenced it, as Shakespeare’s treatment of identity and its fragility is derived from this latter work. Of course, there are many other structural and thematic resonances between the three texts: each of the plays, to varying degrees, deal with the issues of identity, violence, and slavery, while displaying a keen awareness of aspects of performativity, specifically the figure of the playwright, and the role of the audience.

The structural similarities between the Comedy of Errors and Plautus’ Menaechmi and Amphitruo are quite clear. In addition to adopting the traditional five-act structure, Shakespeare creates act divisions which comply with the Evanthian and Donatian definitions of comic structure (prologue, epitasis, protasis, catastrophe), and draws upon the classical stock of characters: the senex, servus, parasitus, matrona, and meretrix. Of course, this does not mean that Shakespeare is a slavish imitator of all concepts of Plautine. While both of the Roman source plays for Errors begin with a formal prologue, set apart from the first act, Errors instead launches immediately into the first act. This does not, however, constitute an abandonment of the prologue’s essential function. Egeon’s woeful tale provides the audience with the appropriate background to the play, which begins in medias res, thus satisfying the requirements of narration which constitute the first element of Evanthian and Donatian comic structure. That said, Shakespeare’s prologue differs remarkably from its Plautine counterparts. ­It is much more integrated with the play as a whole, and is framed by the revelation of Egeon’s imprisonment in Ephesus, and the Duke’s decree that: …if any Syracusian born Come to the bay of Ephesus, he dies, His goods confiscate to the Duke’s dispose, Unless a thousand marks be levid To quit the penalty and to ransom him.

The gravity of Egeon’s predicament, and the play’s potential for tragedy, is rendered even more poignant by the senex’ constant grief. In direct contrast, the prologue of Menaechmi is witty, urbane, and very informal. Not only does the speaker slyly mock the audience (“Please listen with your whole attention span; / I’ll tell it in the very fewest words I can” ), he delivers a rather sharp jab to other Roman comic playwrights, who proudly boast of their authenticity and “their fidelity to the Greek models, a practice which evidently had some snob appeal.” Ironically, this jab serves as a basis for the playwright to assert his authenticity and dramatic authority: I reveal the real locations when I speak to you. This story’s Greekish, but to be exact, It’s not Athenish, it’s Sicilyish, in fact. (10-12).

Plautus’ positioning of the prologue’ s speaker is vitally important when considering the very close dynamic that exists between playwright, the actors, his agents, and the audience. The play’s numerous asides, while not always aimed directly at the audience, certainly contribute to the sense of complicity and audience involvement. This feeling is heightened later in the play (perhaps out of a need to keep the audience’s attention, which may be flagging) with remarks directed specifically at the viewers, such as Cylindrus’ comment regarding Menaechmus’ behaviour, embarrassed, to the audience. He acts this way a lot with me, he jokes around. He can be very funny if his wife is gone. (317-318),

Peniculus’ outraged The wine’s been drunk, the parasite left out in the cold. No Hercules, I’m not myself, if not revenged, If I don’t curse him out in style. Just watch me now, and Menaechmus II’s plea for the audience’s silence: …everybody, please ­ if that old man returns, don’t tell him, please, which street I took to get away. (879-880).

The numerous songs directed at the spectators (such as that of the doddering father-in-law in lines 753- 774) can only strengthen this bond. In this fashion, the prologue to Amphitruo displays this same preoccupation with audience involvement and influence. Disguised as the servant Sosia, Mercury tells the assembly of his intent to “explain the plot, which underlies / This tragedy.” It is this reference to the tragedy which signals the initiation of a close relationship between author/actor and spectator. Upon seeing the audience’s collective frown at the mention of tragedy, Mercury adopts a conciliatory tone, reminding the audience “you know I’m God / And soon can change it” (AMP: 260), and offering to “make / These selfsame verses be a comedy” (AMP: 260). Flattering (more likely leading) the audience, Mercury lights upon a happy medium“ ­Ah, yes; I know your mind: and I will make it A tragi-comedy: for it is not right To make a play where kings and Gods do speak All comedy. But since a slave takes part I’ll make it for you tragi-comedy.” (AMP: 261)

Perpetuating the illusion of the audience’s control over the drama to unfold before them, is Jupiter’s order that “ There shall be detectives, who shall see If any actor has arranged for men To applaud himself, or to prevent some other Receiving his applause, that they shall flay His dress and hide in pieces with a scourge. ” (AMP: 261)

Not only does this give the viewer the feeling of power over the playwright and actor (he/she may decline to support the action by withholding applause), it emphasises the importance of theatre in Roman society, further highlighted by Mercury’s comment that only last year, Jove “came and helped himself” (AMP: 232) the actors who invoked him onstage. The final indication of the audience’s very privileged position in Amphitruo is Mercury and Jove’s decision to bear marks that will signal their true identity and distinguish them from those whose forms they have taken ­ …that you may Distinguish ‘tween us I will wear a plume Upon my hat: while with the same intent My father wears a tassel under his: Amphytrion will not have one: but these marks No one will see, but only you alone. (AMP: 263)

Of course, this position of knowledge is also afforded the Shakespearian audience, but to a much lesser degree, especially when considering Mercury’s later remarks ensuring the spectator is aware of Jupiter’s guarantee that the rift in the Amphytrion/Alcmena marriage will not be irreparable. In The Comedy of Errors, the only assurances we have that the play will end happily are the word “Comedy” in the title, and the romantic convention of the shipwreck which Shakespeare inserts into Egeon’s narratio, and which will be found later in his other comedy of mistaken identity, The Twelfth Night. Although the audience’s participatory relationship with Comedy of Errors is markedly less significant than that existing in the Plautine plays, this does not translate to a lack of power on the part of the playwright. Indeed, in a play characterised by such intricacy and complexity of plot, so many opportunities for spectator confusion, the playwright must be an authoritative presence. It is this hypothesis which informs Jonathan Crewe’s “God or The Good Physician: The Rational Playwright in The Comedy of Errors” (although we may not necessarily agree with Crewe’s view that “the arbitrariness of the play’s inherited conventions and the farcical character of the comedy of mistaken identity in some measure be redeemed” ). The theoretical knot which Crewe works through in his article is whether the playwright “manifests himself either as a benevolent deity, omniscient and omnipotent, whose goodwill anticipates the entire course of the play, or as a ‘good physician,’ working through comic conventions to purge melancholy, impart self-knowledge and exorcise psychic demons.” Upon close consideration of the play, it becomes clear that the playwright is both god and physician, he has a dual identity. His divinity, however, is not true divinity. In a work that is almost palimpsestic, drawing upon Plautine, Pauline and Renaissance thought, the playwright becomes the good physician,’ “not so much a controlling figure as a figure who mediates between a given dramatic heritage and its contemporary audience.” While Crewe draws the conclusion that the playwright oscillates between the role of God and Good Physician, it is perhaps more accurate to infer that the playwright is a minor divinity, whose character is both curative/ meditative, and god-like (which has profound consequences for an audience given the illusion of influence): …the playwright’s ability to manipulate and control appearances in the professional theatre, an ability of which even the privileged spectators ultimately become victims ­conferred on him as a quasi-divinity [….] The masterful control of the play (especially when it seems that everything is out of control), together with the coup de theatre of the ending, establish the playwright as a figure of divine’ omnipotence.

One of Crewe’s arguments for the lack of the playwright’s supreme divinity is that he “stops short of any original act of creation.” While it is undeniably true that the structural/technical similarities between The Comedy of Errors and Plautus’ Menaechmi and Amphitruo extend to Shakepeare’s adoption of key classical figures (the senex Egeon, the matrona Adriana, the meretrix who is left unnamed), it is equally clear that Shakespeare does not limit his dramatis personae to this rather meager allowance. Just as in Amphitruo, the servant Sosia is doubled by Mercury-as-Sosia, Shakespeare adds another Dromio. The play also includes the presence of an officer, jailer, messenger, the Duke of Ephesus himself, merchant (Balthasar) and Goldsmith (Angelo). This greater proliferation of characters is a deliberate attempt on Shakespeare’s part, to not only flesh out the conventional trope of ‘mistaken identity,’ but amplify the feelings of bewilderment and confusion which both Antipholi are so obviously assailed by. Shakespeare “nearly triples the incidents of error from seventeen [in Plautus’ Menaechmi to fifty.”

As may be expected from a play which main concern is the fortunes of two sets of twins, the notion of doubling and doubleness is very important in The Comedy of Errors. Having adopted from Amphitruo the two masters and two servants trope, Shakespeare also proceeds to double the number of female characters found in Menaechmi. The unmarried Luciana acts as a foil to Adriana, whose entire identity is hinged on her status of wife, and the addition of Aemilia/the Abbess renders Egeon’s grief keener, consequently making the ultimate reunion much more symmetrical (and introducing the Oedipal dimension in her struggle with Adriana over Antipholus). But the notion of doubleness is also a supremely significant linguistic element in the play.

The irony of the characters’ unconscious double-talk (a result of identity confusion) is brilliantly represented by Shakespeare’s selective use of couplets ­ the two most significant examples of this technique (before the final rediscovery) occur in acts two and three. Adriana and Luciana’s discussion of the subjection of the wife in marriage constitutes the first of these examples. The entire scene, the interruption of Dromio, is conducted in couplets, emphasising their relationship as siblings, two halves of a biological couple, as well as their “double” (or contradictory) nature ­ Luciana is unwed yet preaches wifely subjection, while Adriana is wed and resents her husband’s freedom. The notion of pairing and doubleness is evident also in Antipholus of Syracuse’s declaration of love for Luciana: the abab rhyme scheme of the first, extended speeches is transformed into the aabb couplet form (III.ii.53-70). While heightening the dramatic tension of this scene, the couplets also highlight Antipholus’ perceived doubleness ­ being false to his wife by accosting her sister ­ and his physical doubleness of Antipholus of Ephesus. This technique also serves a solidly practical purpose, as Wolfgang Riehle notes: “the frequent use of couplets in the earlier parts of the play indirectly foreshadows the final reunion of the twin couples.”

As Shakespeare is at pains to represent, this final reunion is only achieved as a result of many errors, “mistakes of identity, resolved through recognition.” Loss of identity is an essential part of The Comedy of Errors and is predominantly defined in terms of property and possession. This very mercantile view of the self (subtly implied in the figure of the courtesan) is personified in Antipholus of Ephesus, whose identity (like the other men of Ephesus) “is equivalent to reputation, which is supported by the ability to pay cash at a specified time.” Setting aside, for the moment, the fiscal component of Ephesian male identity, we must look closer at the significance of reputation. When Antipholus finds himself locked out of his own house, he is dissuaded from his first impulse (“Well, I’ll break in” III.i.80) by Balthasar, who argues that this impatient course of action will damage his standing in the community:“ If by strong hand you offer to break in Now in the stirring passage of the day, A vulgar comment will be made of it And that supposed by the common rout Against your yet ungalled estimation That may with foul intrusion enter in And dwell upon your grave when you are dead. ”(III.i.98-104)

The validity of this line of reasoning is confirmed by Antipholus’ acquiescence. His concern for his good name is also alluded to when speaking of the “wench of excellent discourse#8221; (III.i.109). Antipholus makes certain to point out that his imminent trip to the Porpentine is a direct result of his wife’s neglect, and her suspicions of prior infidelity were unfounded: …I will depart in quiet And in spite of mirth mean to be merry I know a wench of excellent discourse… There we will dine. This woman that I mean, My wife (but, I protest, without desert) Hath oftentimes upbraided me withal. (III.i.107-113)

It is also in this scene that we hear one more time about carcanet Antipholus that has commissioned from Angelo the goldsmith, an item which represents the way time “becomes an organizing principle in the plot.” It is also the symbol of Shakepeare’s problematisation of identity: The golden chain must be paid for by five o’clock, or the law will ineluctable swing into action…as this monetarized time becomes more active in the structuring of plot, it too contributes to the surreptitious subversion of the solidity of identity. Not only is it no longer a question of who you are and whether you can pay (which will re-establish who you are), but correlatively whether you can pay by a stipulated time. This makes identity (reputation) dependent upon external factors over which even the nominally powerful have no control.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing things about the disintegration of Antipholus of Ephesus’ identity is that it is not (as noted above) affected by any action or inaction on his part. The extremity of self-destructive rage he displays in IV.iv.95-109 (“With these nails I’ll pluck out these eyes”) is an attempt to overcome this impotence. Antipholus seeks to gain some degree of control over his troubled self. Similarly, when Adriana is convinced of Antipholus’ adultery, her first instinct is self-annihilation ­ “Since that my beauty cannot please his eye, I’ll weep what’s left away, and weeping die!” (II.i.112-113). Thus the disintegration of identity is connected with violence.

While the violence connected with the identity crises of Antipholus and Adriana is generally self-directed, they actively exert a brutally physical force over the Dromio twins (whose identity trouble is characterised by questions of transformation and usurpation ). The very first time we meet Dromio of Ephesus, he is threatened with a beating (“answer me or I shall break that merry sconce of yours” I.ii.77-79) and then receives a beating for his refusal/inability to tell Antipholus of Syracuse the whereabouts of his gold. This is, however, one of the less confronting incidents. Dromio E’s metaphorisation of the skin as parchment which is written on with the ink of blows (III.i.13) is a disquieting reminder of his status as a slave, sold by his parents at birth. This metaphor also bears striking resemblance to the of slave- branding which Maurice Hunt, quoting Vasco de Quiroga, writes of in his “Slavery, English Servitude, and The Comedy of Errors:” “in their flesh are imprinted the initials of the names of those who are successively their owners…so that the faces of these men who were created in God’s image have been, by our sins, transformed into paper.”

While a discussion of slavery can be taken only so far in a comedy, Shakespeare has ensured that, “in the Dromios’ reiterated pleas to the Antipholus twins to hold their hands ‘for God’s sake,’ [the] play reproduces the tension […] between the injustice of slavery and Christian precept.” A lesser known fact is England’s own implementation of the slavery of its citizens. The Edwardian Vagrancy Act of 1547 and the Vagrancy Act of 1572 respectively “made branding and slavery the punishment for sturdy beggary [and allowed] Justices of the Peace [to] banish incorrigible rogues from England or condemn them to unending servitude in the galleys.” While Hunt distinguishes between slavery and servitude, the distinction is indeed a nominal one, given the appalling working conditions of English servants during the Elizabethan period. Shakespeare’s determination to represent this is even clearer when we compare his treatment of the Dromio twins to that of the Plautine slaves in Menaechmi and Amphitruo. Although Messenio is aware his physical comfort is contingent upon his obedience, he enjoys a fairly satisfactory relationship with Menaechmus Sosicles, who often directly removes the possibility of his error and subsequent chastising: “If I can hold the cash, it’s best for both of us. / Then you can do no wrong, and I can’t yell at you.” (270-271). Amphitruo’s Sosia is beaten, not at the hands of his master, but the god Mercury, posing as his unfortunate victim. The most important difference, however, between the Shakespearian and Plautine treatment of slavery is that the Dromios, unlike Messenio, are not freed at the conclusion of the play, and the abuse is much more frequent. This is best expressed by Dromio of Ephesus, who has the dubious distinction of receiving far more beatings than his twin: I have served [Antipholus E.] since the hour of my nativity to this instant, and have nothing at his hands for my service but blows. When I am cold, he heats me with beating; when I am warm, he cools me with beating; I am waked with it when I sleep, raised with it when I sit, driven from doors with it when I go from home, welcomed home with it when I return; I bear it on my shoulders, as a beggar wont her brat, and I think when he hath lamed me I shall beg with it from door to door. (IV.iv.27-34)

The slavery in The Comedy of Errors is not of a purely physical nature, though, it may just as easily be applied to each of the characters in a metaphorical sense. They are all enslaved in one respect or another. Bound to her husband, doomed by patriarchal law to be the subordinate and neglected half of an unequal whole, Adriana is enslaved both to Antipholus in wedlock, to her love for him, and to the jealousy she naturally feels at his disloyalty. Antipholus of Ephesus’ figurative bondage to his rage (“over his wife’s, courtesan’s, and bondsman’s incomprehensible replies to his commands and explanations” ) finally culminates in his literal binding, an experience rendered all the more humiliating by the simultaneous binding of his servant.

The final, single-scene act of The Comedy of Errors is devoted to the emancipation of the bound (with the significant exception of the Dromio twins) and to the restoration of the fragile identities which disintegrated throughout the course of the play. Egeon’s freedom, unconditionally granted by the Duke, enables “both Emilia’s release from the long bondage of the priory and the nun’s empty life [as well as] the Antipholus brothers’ freedom from tragedy in their sudden joy.” A gossips’ feast is the celebration of this joy, where both Antipholi are to be symbolically rebaptised, an public reaffirmation of their identities. The final interaction of the Dromio twins (who display a more unrestrained delighted at their reunion than the Antipholi) is glowingly described by Shakespeare, and the couplets with which the play concludes symbolise the pair’s affection for each other and the truly symmetrical nature of the play’s conclusion: “We came into the world, like brother and brother, / And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another” (V.i.424-425).


  1. Allison, Sir Robert (trans.): Plautus: Five of his Plays, London: Arthur L. Humphreys, 1914.
  2. Crewe, Jonathan V.: “God or The Good Physician: The Rational Playwright in The Comedy of Errors, in Genre, XV (1/2), 1982, pp. 203-223.
  3. Dorsch, T.S (ed.): The Comedy of Errors, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  4. Hall, Jonathan: Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, London: Associated University Presses, 1995
  5. Hunt, Maurice: “Slavery, English Servitude, and The Comedy of Errors,” in English Literary Renaissance, 27(1): 31-55, Winter 1997.
  6. Miola, Robert S.: Shakespeare and Classical Comedy: The Influence of Plautus and Terence, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
  7. Riehle, Wolfgang: Shakespeare, Plautus and the Humanist Tradition, Cambridge: D.S Brewer, 1990.
  8. Segal, Erich (trans.): Plautus: Three Comedies, New York and London: Harper and Row, 1969.
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