Comedy, from Farce to Romance
The Comedy of Errors has widely been interpreted as not just a comedy but a farce; a comedic work that features satire and a fairly improbable plot can be considered farcical. In the nineteenth century, the British poet and scholar Samuel Taylor Coleridge affirmed that the play was in fact the epitome of the genre: ‘‘Shakespeare has in this piece presented us with a legitimate farce in exactest consonance with the philosophical principles and character of farce … . A proper farce is mainly distinguished from comedy by the license allowed, and even required, in the fable, in order to produce strange and laughable situations.’’ Coleridge goes on to note that the farce is, in a sense, enhanced by the addition of the second set of twins, the two Dromios, to the two Anti-pholuses; such a situation is indeed so improbable as to be virtually impossible.
A variety of other factors contribute to the perception of the play as a farce. A spectator or reader might expect S. Antipholus to deduce exactly what is going on, given that the purpose of his journey is precisely a search for his lost twin, but even when he is recognized on the street, he deduces nothing. Only his inability to understand his situation, of course, allows for the play’s many other misunderstandings. Indeed, Harry Levin notes that such an abundance of ‘‘errors’’ can be another sign of a play’s genre: ‘‘Farce derives its name from a French word for stuffing; literally it welcomes the gags and the knockabout business that fill in its contours ad libitum [without limit].’’ Barbara Freedman relates in her essay ‘‘Egeon’s Debt’’ that a certain degree of aggression can be another factor emblematic of farce: ‘‘Farce derives humor from normally unacceptable aggression which is made acceptable through a denial of its cause and effect.’’ In Freedman’s allegorical reading of The Comedy of Errors, the circumstances of the brothers Antipholus can be attributed to the guilt suffered by the father; as characters within the farce, of course, the twins can only think to inflict their aggressions on other characters—usually the brothers Dromio.
Certain aspects of the play quite distinctly link it with Shakespeare’s other comedies or distinguish it from his tragedies. Freedman notes that, as Egeon’s condemnation to death constitutes the introductory scene, the play begins with ‘‘the harsh world of law, the cruel and problematic reality with which so many of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies commence.’’ In turn, at the end of the play, the world of law is re-entered—as marked by the duke’s carrying out his official duties—but it has been endowed with a certain degree of mercy as a result of the play’s developments; here, the duke grants Egeon his freedom without accepting E. Antipholus’s money. Freedman also notes that the setting bears significant resemblances to the settings in other Shakespearean plays such as As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘‘The main plot’s nightmarish Ephesus corresponds to the improbable, fantastic, dreamlike realm of the imagination, familiar to us as a second stage in Shakespearean comedy.’’ A key difference, however, is that Shakespeare’s other comedies feature worlds that are actually more like dreams than nightmares; The Comedy of Errors, on the other hand, features what Freedman terms ‘‘the imagined fulfillment of repressed fears and desires in everyday reality.’’
Other commentators have pointed out that the extent of character development is often directly related to genre, and The Comedy of Errors has in fact been widely criticized for its general absence of character development. In his introduction to the play, Harry Levin notes that serious drama is typically endowed with more emotional impact when the characterization is as comprehensive as possible, while with farce, plot often takes precedence over character. Levin goes on to describe the basis of this play’s plot—everyone’s repeatedly mistaking one twin for another, with masters and servants alike—as ‘‘the very essence of the farcical: two characters sufficiently alike, so that each might fit interchangeably into the other’s situation, could not afford to possess distinguishing characteristics.’’ That is, this comedy would perhaps be hobbled by too much character development.
A last aspect of the comedy worth considering is the romantic one. As Peter G. Phialas has pointed out, The Comedy of Errors features a number of romantic elements that will be prominent in the playwright’s later comedies. Phialas highlights the fact that ‘‘Shakespeare introduces the chief structural principle of his romantic comedies: the juxtaposition of attitudes toward love and toward the ideal relationship of man and woman.’’ These notions are explored in the present play through the pairings of Adriana and E. Antipholus and of Luciana and S. Antipholus. Phialas also articulates a more precise view of love that will be seen in more detail in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies to come: ‘‘He is able here to isolate, obliquely and in the briefest compass, one of the central conceptions of those later plays: that love does not possess, that it gives without needing to receive, for it gives to another self.’’ Thus, overall, The Comedy of Errors, with its interweaving of genres as effective as that of any later play, should be recognized as comedy, farce, and romance alike.
The Arrangement of Awarenesses
One aspect of The Comedy of Errors that distinguishes it from later Shakespearean comedies is the absence of situational understanding on the part of the play’s characters. Bertrand Evans goes as far as to say that this aspect of the play is of primary importance: ‘‘With neither character nor language making notable comic contribution, then, the great resource of laughter is the exploitable gulf spread between the participants’ understanding and ours.’’ Evans notes that almost from the very beginning, the spectator is aware that the father has been condemned to death in the same city in which both of his sons, coincidentally, are present at the time; throughout the play, however, none of the characters are aware of these facts. Thus, the audience is fully aware of the play’s ‘‘single great secret,’’ while the inhabitants of the play are ignorant, and this contrast produces the majority of the play’s comical interactions.
This arrangement of awarenesses among the audience and the characters, then, could not have been more basic, and Evans confirms that it is the simplest of all of Shakespeare’s plays. He notes, ‘‘In later ones our awareness is packed, often even burdened, with multiple, complex, interrelated secrets, and the many circles of individual participants’ visions, though they cross and recross one another, do not wholly coincide.’’ Shakespeare would come to use certain dramatic strategies to establish and reestablish levels of understanding among the audience and the play’s characters, particularly soliloquies and asides, wherein a single character can discourse on something without revealing any secrets to any other characters. Indeed, soliloquies and asides are the literary equivalent of narrative descriptions of characters’ thoughts. Evans notes that the few short soliloquies in The Comedy of Errors do not reveal any unknown thoughts; rather, they ‘‘exploit the speaker’s ignorance of what we already know.’’ Shakespeare would also come to habitually plant what Evans termed ‘‘practicers’’ within his plays; these practicers serve to subvert whatever moral or societal order exists by intentionally deceiving other characters. The characters of Iago, in Othello, and Rosalind, in As You Like It, are good examples of such practicers. In a different dramatic respect, Evans notes that in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare did not even provide moments where characters come close to fully understanding the greater situation, as the playwright ‘‘risks no dialogue that strikes the unsuspected truth.’’ In later plays, on the other hand, moments of conversational foreshadowing are not uncommon. Overall, then, the singular arrangement of awarenesses in this early play is evident in a number of ways.
The Allegory of Egeon
In terms of the direct plot, Egeon’s plight seems to serve only as a framework for the rest of the play, with his tragic family story providing a background but bearing little impact on the action. That is, the plot revolves around the mere fact that one twin is in the home city of the second twin and the confusion surrounding their identities; S. Antipholus’s search for his brother is mentioned only by S. Antipholus himself in a few passing asides, such that the reason for and the basic existence of the search are almost irrelevant. However, Barbara Freedman, in her essay ‘‘Egeon’s Debt,’’ has interpreted the plot as presenting an allegorical explanation of the psychic process Egeon necessarily undergoes in seeking reunion with his family.
Freedman begins by noting the various shortcomings Egeon reveals about himself in the introductory scene, when he relates his tragic story to the duke. Egeon allowed himself to be drawn away from his wife for a full six months by overseas business obligations, as his factor, or agent, had died. Evidently with no assistance from her husband, Egeon’s wife then traveled to join him. After the birth of their sons, his wife alone wished to return home; Egeon agreed to go but was in fact ‘‘unwilling.’’ Once the storm confronted them with the possibility of death, Egeon would ‘‘gladly have embraced’’ that death, perhaps because he was being forced into a strictly domestic situation that he did not care for. Indeed, although he tells his story in a matter-of-fact tone that leaves the reader sympathizing with his misfortune, he is at least guilty of largely neglecting his wife for the sake of his business. With this understanding of Egeon’s past, the personal circumstances of the two twins seem to bear greater relevance. Freedman notes, ‘‘When the action of the storm separated Egeon from his former life, the Ephesian twin was, literally, that part of Egeon which was lost. The Syracusan twin was the part of Egeon which remained with him to the present time.’’ Thus, in E. Antipholus the audience sees precisely the person Egeon was before the shipwreck: a man rooted in a domestic situation, respected in his community, and, generally speaking, focused more on his commercial activity than on his marital partnership. S. Antipholus, on the contrary, is a wanderer in search of his twin—in a sense, in search of his own self—just as Egeon is now wandering in search of the life he lost when he was separated from his wife.
Freedman proceeds to demonstrate that beyond the essence of the brothers’ circumstances, the allegory is manifested in the play’s consistent focus on indebtedness. Egeon’s fate can be conceived of as featuring both a marital debt, in that he owes his wife the attention and affection that he neglected to give her, and a monetary debt, as he becomes obligated to either pay a fine for appearing in Ephesus or face the death penalty. Both sons, in turn, undergo experiences with both types of debts, in somewhat inverse manners: ‘‘Just as the Syracusan twin progresses from fear of actual monetary debt to payment for a mistaken marital debt, so his brother moves from fear of an actual marital debt to payment for a mistaken monetary debt.’’ Thus, in that one debt is essentially a mirror image of the other, they can together be understood as symbolic of the father’s debts, just as the twins are mirror images of each other and, in the context of the allegory, are symbolic of the father. In summing up the importance of this allegory to an understanding of the play as a whole, Freedman declares, ‘‘Egeon’s story is the missing link which turns an arbitrary plot into a meaningfully directed fantasy.’’
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007