The Greatest Writer Who Ever Lived was 11 years old and struggling through his daily Latin translation. But William Shakespeare's new teacher, Oxford-educated Thomas Jenkins, ended the translation early that day. He called the boy up in front of the class and handed him a new text. The uncertain student began reading, and, in a moment, he animated the flat letters. This exercise was far more than the usual mindless translation; in his voice, wordplay and rhythm leaped from the page.
Fifteen years later, the boy with the weakness for reading aloud was rising through the ranks of London theatre. In search of material that would separate him from his better-educated competitors, he recalled his first acting text: Menaechmi, by the Roman playwright Plautus. Like all Roman comedies, this play was originally performed for the lower classes at festivals and had to hold the attention of its fickle audience. Shakespeare saw the opportunity for a crowd-pleasing comedy of mistaken identity, with room to show off his verbal wit and his poetic lyricism. He had found his voice.
Of course, this is only one scenario under which Shakespeare might have written The Comedy of Errors. Perhaps a friend showed him Plautus' play, or perhaps he read it in William Warner's English translation. But in a career based almost entirely on adapting existing plots, this may be Shakespeare's most faithful adaptation, lifting episodes and lines of dialogue almost verbatim from the original play. Why, then, does the adaptation feel more human, more complete and more comically dexterous than the play that inspired it? What changes distinguish The Comedy of Errors from its predecessor, and how do the similar elements take on a new resonance?
Both plays begin with the same premise: separated identical twins unknowingly end up in the same city, leading to a day of confusion that reunites them. This simple comedic device remains unchanged in Shakespeare's adaptation. As in Menaechmi, the humor arises when one twin gains an identity he didn't know he had, while the other loses the identity he thought he had. One receives credit for the other's accomplishments, while the other receives blame for crimes he didn't commit. Despite his similar use of the twins, however, Shakespeare is not content to leave the idea unadapted. Perhaps recognizing the ridiculousness of a plot based on mistaking twins for each other, he throws out realism and piles on the improbabilities. By introducing the twin Dromios, separated identical servants for the Antipholus twins, Shakespeare multiplies the possibilities for mistaken identity. Now an Antipholus can mistake as well as be mistaken. “A comedy would scarcely allow even the two Antipholi,” wrote the British poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “but farce dares add the two Dromios.”
From the beginning, though, the hilarity of all this twinning takes on a human importance in Shakespeare's adaptation that it lacked in Menaechmi. Plautus writes a prologue to recount how one twin was lost in a crowd by his father on a business trip. The father then dies in grief, and the remaining twin takes on his brother's name. In The Comedy of Errors, by contrast, the father himself describes how an accident at sea split the entire family in half, leaving each parent with two boys. When the father returned home, he named the children after their missing brothers, as a memorial. By bringing the father into the play, Shakespeare turns Plautus' exposition into a story of personal tragedy. In a theme he would revisit in the later Pericles and The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare depicts the reunion of parents and children after years and oceans came between them. In this version, the family is not complete until the father and mother also miraculously reunite—a third restoration of separated “twins.”
The presence in the story of Egeon, that “hapless and hopeless” father, lends urgency to The Comedy of Errors. By centering Menaechmi only on the Menaechmus twins, Plautus creates a one-joke comedy. Although they eventually meet up in a finale full of amazement and joy, their narrow misses could have continued indefinitely had geography and chance allowed. By introducing the possibility that Egeon could die at the end of the day unless help intervenes, Shakespeare sets a countdown to tragedy that impels the story forward. Were the twins to meet only after the death of their father, or never to meet at all, the play could very easily become The Tragedy of Errors.
Shakespeare's adaptation is an improvement over Menaechmi not only thematically but also in characterization. In Plautus' Roman Comedy, a set of stock characters populated every play: the scheming slave, the shrewish wife and the bitter old man, among others. Shakespeare confounds the stereotypes, creating in Adriana a nuanced and complicated figure who is far more than a shrew. Torn between love and jealousy, she blames first her husband and then herself for her marital problems. Finally, when she believes him to be insane, she accepts responsibility for him: “I will attend my husband,” she tells an assembly of important people, “for it is my office.” She begins the play resembling Plautus' character in pure jealousy, but adapts herself to the extremity of her situation.
Her sister Luciana also evolves from Menaechmi, replacing the wife's one-note father. Like Plautus' character, she confronts the person she believes to be her sister's husband, in an attempt to return him to his wife. By making the character a sister, Shakespeare gives her an emotional stake in the proceedings. Antipholus falls in love with Luciana, stirring up simultaneous feelings of attraction and guilt in her. At the end of the play, this unexpected relationship provides wives for both twins and husbands for both sisters. Like her sister, she adapts her absolutist views of love to new circumstances and becomes a more complex human being.
The last major difference between Menaechmi and The Comedy of Errors might go unnoticed in a side-by-side reading of the two plays: Plautus sets his story in Epidamnum, Shakespeare sets his in Ephesus. Of all the possible adaptations, why change the location? Perhaps Ephesus represented a more fertile setting for the zany action of the play. The city gained a reputation as a bustling port, a center for seaborne trade. In Roman times, all roads led to Ephesus ; goods coming from the East ended up in its marketplaces before they were shipped to Europe. The symbolic value of an East-meets-West town might have seemed the perfect setting for a story of colliding worlds.
While some in Shakespeare's contemporary audience might have known Ephesus as a trade center, however, the majority knew its name only from its prominent role in the New Testament. Ephesus was one of the Seven Cities of Asia, and a major site for the preaching of the apostle Paul. Indeed, scholars have recently shown that Shakespeare drew many of the descriptions of Ephesus from biblical sources, including the book of Acts and Ephesians. Paul's warning of “exorcists” who employ “curious arts” to call upon “evil spirits” (Acts 19) inspires the quack exorcist Doctor Pinch. On his arrival, Antipholus remembers the reputation of the town's occult figures as “dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, [and] soul-killing witches that deform the body.” The seemingly random relocation of the play allows Shakespeare to import the cultural meanings of Ephesus and enrich its potency as a setting.
Of course, not all of Shakespeare's adaptations are improvements or innovations. In fact, one of the most effective scenes in The Comedy of Errors comes directly from Plautus, although not from Menaechmi. In Plautus' play Amphitruo, the title character returns home from a war and discovers his wife locked in the house with a man who claims to be him. His servant Sosia tries to break down the door, only to be confronted with an exact copy of himself. Unbeknownst to them, the gods Jupiter and Mercury have taken on their shapes. This scene prompts Shakespeare's double twinning, as well as the scene in which Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus find their door blocked by their doubles. In an exclamation that might have informed Shakespeare's themes of identity lost and recovered, Amphitruo wonders “Have I lost my form? Am I not really Amphitruo?”
As a frequent adapter, Shakespeare saw a chance to apply his unique gift for characterization to sure-fire plots. By choosing a well-known text and mining its dramatic and comedic potential, he guaranteed his audience an entertaining experience. In The Comedy of Errors, he found deeper meaning in farcical situations: mistaken identity reveals the ambiguity of identity, while judgmental characters discover a complicated world. Above all, the transformation of a two-dimensional farce into a three-dimensional comedy reveals a playwright engaged in animating humans out of words on a page.—Akiva Fox, Literary Associate