Thursday, May 4, 2017

Shakespeare Made No Error in Adapting Sources for The Comedy of Errors

Antipholus (Andrew Houchins)

Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors, his earliest comedy and shortest play in 1594, and he showed great skill in incorporating elements from other literary sources while making creative changes that made his play more compelling and entertaining.  

For this play, which was first performed as the final entertainment for an evening of merriment for a group of lawyers at Gray’s Inn, Shakespeare drew primarily from the Roman playwright Plautus’ play, Menaechmi.  Despite Ben Jonson’s claim that Shakespeare knew “small Latin and less Greek,” Shakespeare certainly read the entirety of Menaechmi in Latin because there was no English translation available in England in 1594.  The preface to Menaechmi explains that a merchant from Syracuse took one of his seven-year-old twin boys on a business trip abroad but was tragically separated from him during a festival.  The merchant died from grief over his lost child, but the boy was found by a trader and raised in Epidamnum.  The surviving twin boy, still living with his mother in Syracuse, was renamed Menaechmus to honor his lost brother.  The plot of Menaechmi centers on the confusion that is created when Menaechmus of Syracuse comes to Epidamnum to search for his lost twin.  Menaechmus is perplexed when he arrives in Epidamnum and is greeted warmly by the townspeople, and he is delighted but befuddled when he is embraced by two women claiming to be his wife and mistress.  Meanwhile, Menaechmus of Epidamnum is immensely frustrated that his friends and family, who have all been interacting with his long-lost twin, believe he is mad.  Menaechmi’s influence on The Comedy of Errors is evident in the plot of the two separated Antipholi, their experiences in Ephesus, and their reunion.

Egeon tells the story of the twins!
However, Shakespeare showed his incredible skill in choosing what to take from another literary sources and what to create himself in his additions to the Menaechmi plot that make The Comedy of Errors the hilarious, madcap, and touching play that it is.  Shakespeare drew on the use of identical slaves in Plautus’ play Amphitruo in adding to the Menaechmi-inspired plot two identical twin slaves, both named Dromio.  Shakespeare’s decision to name both slaves Dromio was his own invention, and his choice led to the amusing moment in which the two Dromios are situated on opposite sides of a door, both protesting that they are the rightful Dromio.  Dromio of Syracuse announces he is “The porter for this time, sir, and my name is Dromio” (4.1.41-42), to which Dromio of Ephesus replies “O villain, thou hast stol’n both mine office, and my name” (3.1.43-44).  Shakespeare also changed the setting for the play from Epidamnum to Ephesus, which is a city that Shakespeare’s audience would have associated with exorcism, cults, and sorcery.  The audience’s knowledge of Ephesus would have let them appreciate when Dromio exclaims “This is the fairy land: O spite of spites!/We talk with goblins, owls and sprites” (2.2.189-190).  Finally, Shakespeare added a touching element to the play by adding the characters of Egeon and Emilia; their reunion at the play’s conclusion makes the reassembled family complete.   
Dromios reunited

To learn more about Shakespeare’s sources for ASC’s next play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, check back on this blog during the play’s opening week.  To read more about sources for The Comedy of Errors, take a look at the introduction to The Comedy of Errors in the second edition of The Norton Shakespeare, from which the information in this blog comes.  To see our Suzi-recommended production of The Comedy of Errors, contact the box office at 404-874-5299 or purchase tickets on our website at  

Posted by Samantha Smith

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