I’ll be honest, I was not super-excited about teaching The Comedy of Errors to the kids. (You should have heard Marit, my 13 year-old, gasp with disbelief when I read her that line!) I chose this play because we could later attend a performance at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis – always a fitting conclusion after reading a play. So it was with some hesitation that I began my pre-class study of one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies. I thought maybe I would be relegated to talking about mistaken identities through bawdy, low comedy for an entire semester. The Bard, as usual, didn’t let me down. There was so much more to this play than I first thought and we’ve been having a blast.
“The depth of this play lies in its surface.” – Marjorie Garber Shakespeare After All
Garber, author of my favorite go-to book about the plays, explains how each event displayed physically in the play corresponds to something inside the characters. This inwardness is not what you would expect from a rollicking farce. Granted, the kids howl with laughter at all the slapstick and I don’t belabor these “inner meanings” in class, but it’s clear that most of them have picked up on them.
The Comedy of Errors is about a double set of identical twins. The masters – both named Antipholus, and their servants – both named Dromio, are separated at birth in a shipwreck. Everyone ends up in Ephesus and within a single day, mistaken identities cause confusion until the end of the play when all is made clear with happy reunions all around.
Does the “twins-separated-at-birth” theme sound familiar? Think Parent Trap, Twins or Big Business. The story is nothing new, as even Shakespeare “borrowed” this theme from an earlier work (The Menaechmi). One fun aspect for our class is that we have a set of twins with their own tales to tell. (!)
Another surprise for me in reading this play is the Christian overlay. First, Shakespeare sets the play in Ephesus, a pagan city known for its worship of the goddess Diana. Ephesus would be familiar to Shakespeare’s readers, too, as the city which St. Paul visited to spread the gospel. A perfect setting for confusion, weird events and a happy conclusion with an abbess at a priory. Speeches about relationships between husbands and wives as well as masters and servants abound. Garber points out that
Shakespeare drew on certain passages from the Bible, and especially from the writings of Saint Paul, both in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians and in the Acts of the Apostles, where Ephesus is seen as a city of magic and witchcraft, where the residents “use curious arts.”(p. 163)
While it’s not my favorite play, I have really enjoyed it. Clearly, I was mistaken in my initial assessment. I don’t think I’d use it as an introduction to Shakespeare, but for the initiated, it is well worth it. I used excerpts from the BBC production and the Stratford Festival of Canada’s production in class. Both are very different and fun to compare.* Have any of you had experience with this play?
*The Flying Karamazov Brothers have a hilarious and brilliant production which you can view on You Tube, but the unfortunate, over-the-top lewdness of the kitchen wench character prevented me from using it with the students.