The Comedy of Errors is not one of Shakespeare’s well known or most loved plays and a quick read of the play makes it clear to the reader why. The story follows two set of twin brothers who were separated at birth. Both brothers- as luck and comedy would have it – are given the same name: two Antipholuses are masters of two Dromios. The difference? One is from Ephesus and the other from Syracuse. The father of both Antipholuses tells the sorry tale of how his sons were separated in a ship wreck, one managed to get away safely with him, the other with the man’s wife. However, his son is now looking for his long lost brother and has not been heard of.
Naturally the rest of the play follows as the family members and friends of both Antipholuses and Dromios get thoroughly confused over the identities and characters of the men they encounter – which Antipholus is it? Will the twins ever find one another and will the family be reunited? If the premise of the play seems fairly basic and straightforward, then the rest of the play follows in kind.
That’s to say, from start to finish the play gives off an air of fun; as if Shakespeare sat down and decided he wanted to write something that made the audience laugh without having to reach new heights of wittiness. Therefore the level of humor is much derived from the mixups and slapstick fun that ensues: this is the kind of Shakespeare comedy that caters even for people who claim they don’t like Shakespeare.
On a deeper level it does have a bit to say about family and the nature of relationships, conveying the breakdown of order upon the crisis of identity. Without knowing who Antiphonus is (both in terms of real identity and personal character), this throws everything into whack. Money, family and businesses lie on the line until the play resolves. All might end up happy but when you consider what might happen if the identity crisis was never resolved … it does make you shudder.
Like I said, this isn’t a play which explores the great meaning of life itself through blisteringly sharp humour, but it is one that keeps you smiling and enraptured. To me it helps sum up how great Shakespeare was: even when not at his greatest he still manages to create such fun and enjoyable theatre which also touches the heart.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
(Unseen, inquisitive) confounds himself.
After all, we might not have a twin with exactly the same name as us, but from time to time we still might lose ourselves.
Photo credit: from the modern film adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, Big Business (1988)