Why are Shakespeare's plays so enduring?
Is it because he unashamedly harnesses the essence of human nature so eloquently that we have no choice but to be captivated by his all knowing insights into what makes us tick? Are we transfixed because his understanding of the human persona relates directly to our own lives? Did Shakespeare know the human psyche so absolutely that today, four hundred years later, the same foibles reside so evidently in us all that we cannot ignore his unique and unapologetic portrayal of our lives, loves, desires and insecurities? All of this may be true, of course, but what makes Shakespeare's plays so wonderful are the themes he chose to expose, discover and develop.
Let's explore some of the themes Shakespeare touches on in The Comedy of Errors:
The case of mistaken identity is the most obvious theme in The Comedy of Errors. Shakespeare based his play on Roman playwright Plautus' Menaechmi which also told a story of mistaken identity. Farce is the perfect vehicle for the purposes of telling a story about mistaken identity. It relies on the visual, as well as, on the technique of the actors and on dramatic irony, which relies on the audience knowing more about what is going on than the characters themselves. In The Comedy of Errors, the audience can sit back and enjoy the hilarity of how the Dromio twins are constantly punished for not carrying out their masters' orders when, in fact, they believe they have meticulously done so. We can laugh out loud at Adriana's situation because we know her insecurities are based on her jealousy and she is, in all reality, responsible for her own deception. The audience of The Comedy of Errors is privy to the farce whereas the characters in the play have no idea what is happening.
Mistaken identity has been explored again and again over the course of history and is still a popular premise in storytelling today. In the nineties, movies where people were somehow transposed into another person's body and vice versa were very popular. Usually these switches crossed over gender and this naturally caused all sorts of dilemmas for the characters.
1. After viewing the play discuss with your students the relevance of the play in the context of today's society. Are its themes still relevant? How have things changed? Then ask your students to think of any other films or stories that are similar to The Comedy of Errors. Ask them why they think that a story of twins and mistaken identity is so popular. What makes it appealing to today's audience?
2. Films to watch about twins and mistaken identity include Big Business starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, a1988 farcical comedy dealing with two sets of twins; Twin Dragons starring Jackie Chan is a story about mistaken identity; and My Brother's Keeper highlights the bond that exists between twins.
The play's tension hinges on coincidence. It is a coincidence that both of the Dromio brothers are working for the Antipholus bothers; it is a coincidence that both of the separated brothers happen to end up in the same city as their mother and father; and it is a coincidence that neither of the twins are in the same place at the same time until the end of the play.
When Antipholus of Syracuse arrives, the merchant pays him a thousand marks and simultaneously cautions him that a Syracusian was arrested that very day. Antipholus of Syracuse therefore has the chance to immediately ransom Egeon, and be reunited with his father. However, throughout the entire beginning, he is too self-absorbed, preferring instead to walk alone through the street. This actually relates to the title, since Error comes from Latin meaning, 'to wander'. This suggests that the play is really about wandering and the character's search to find their true identities.
1. Activity requires a ball and can be used as a warm up for Activity 2 but it is also an activity which gives students a concept of their place in the space and being in the right place at the right time. It requires a high level of focus. Ask your students to form a line one behind the other. Now ask the first person to roll the ball along the ground. Now ask her/him to close his/her eyes. The student walks, counting each step, to where they think to ball has rolled. When the student senses they are at the ball, ask them to squat over the ball so that a triangle is formed between each hand and the student's feet.
2. Activity requires as many balls as students and is designed to allow students to get an understanding of coincidence and the consequences of not being in the right place at the right time. You may even like to point out the connection between wandering and error as balls will inevitably go everywhere. Ask the group to stand in a circle. Stress, before you start the game that they must aim before they throw, as all balls have to remain in play for the game to continue. Throw a ball to a student. Student 1 throws the ball to student 2 who throws the ball to student 3 and so on until everyone has caught the ball once. Explain the 1 always throws to 2 and 2 always throw to 3 and so on. Now, introduce another ball and then another ball until all the balls are in play. The consequence is that the game must stop if someone is off running after their ball(s). Students must always be aware where the next ball is coming from and going.
Twins and Family
In the Renaissance, family was valued very highly but not in the same sense that it is today. Families relied on primogeniture, that is the continuation of family and everything the family represented, through the male line. This passing down through the generations guaranteed that social order was maintained. This idea of primogeniture becomes interesting when twins are concerned, as in The Comedy of Errors. At the end of the play the two Dromio's remain on stage. In the Renaissance the eldest son always has priority, but since they are twins it is impossible to know who is the eldest. Therefore the two twins decide to enter through the door together, rather than fight over who is eldest.
The play also highlights the various beliefs about twins and sons. Twins used to be viewed as two separate or alternate paths that could be taken. Sons on the other hand, were often considered to be extensions of their fathers. In the play this emerges through an analysis of the events which Egeon relates. After the shipwreck where Egeon is separated from his children, he himself becomes a split man. Where he was previously married, he is made a bachelor by the wreck. Since his sons are meant to take after him, we see that one son is married while the other is still a bachelor. At the end of the play, when Egeon is reunited with his wife Emilia, both his sons also end up married, or almost in the case of Luciana and Antipholus of Syracuse.
Love And Romance
At first glance The Comedy of Errors may not appear to be the story of love and romance but when the lights dim at the end of the play that is exactly what it is. What else but love drives Egeon and the other Antipholus to the forbidden city of Ephesus? What else but desire has Adriana in a flutter and suspicious that her Antipholus of being unfaithful to her? What else but love and loyalty keep the Dromio twins from deserting their demanding masters? And, what does a gold chain symbolise – it is the ultimate romantic gift from one lover to another. The story concludes with all the lovers being united. Egeon and Emilia's unification is especially romantic, as they have been long suffering from their unrequited love for one another. Today, we would call this a romantic comedy.
The play focuses heavily on time. All the action and events in the play unfold over 5 acts in a 24 hour period of time. Time also provides the tension in the play by providing a set physical time to end both the action in the play as well as the actual performance. Shakespeare requires that all the action culminate at five o'clock, the time of Egeon's execution, Antipholus of Syracuse's meeting with the merchant, and the moment when Angelo must pay the second merchant his money. This makes for a suspenseful culmination of events to complete the play.