Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century


an essay on the play by William Shakespeare

The following essay on Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors was originally published in System of Shakespeare's Dramas. Denton J. Snider. St. Louis: G.I. Jones and Company, 1877. pp. 370-82.

This play should be placed first in the list of Shakespeare's Pure Comedies, not only on account of the period of its origin, but also on the score of logical development. It is simply a comedy of Situation, whose sole instrumentality is Natural Resemblance, for not even Disguise is employed. It, therefore, exhibits an action of the most external kind; human purpose is almost wholly removed from its sphere. Man is thus represented as controlled by chance; his will is reduced to the narrowest limits possible. All the individuals -- even the clowns -- are fully in earnest in the pursuit of their ends, though these ends are an utter deception. The characters are always doing something quite different from what they seem to be doing; there is an appearance continually dancing before their senses, whereby they are led into the most ridiculous acts. Comic Situation, into which the individual is thrust from without, through no volition of his own, is the rule of this drama; life is a complete, sensuous delusion. Nowhere else has the Poet indulged in such a play of wholly external influences.

It is easy to see that there can be but little development of character in a work of this kind. Character rests upon the internal nature of the person; his disposition must be shown in his actions, and his actions must, therefore, be made the means of its portraiture. For the Drama takes the human deed as the vehicle of expressing the feelings, motives, purposes, thoughts -- in fine, the entire spiritual nature -- of man. Such is the Drama in its highest form. Freedom cannot be wholly obliterated. But, if the individual is made the victim of chance -- of unforseen external power -- his character has little to do with his destiny. He is determined, not from within, but from without; his enforced actions thus become a very slight indication of his nature. Still, no doubt there is some manifestation of character, even under such circumstances, though it is very superficial and inadequate. In the present drama, therefore, characterization stands decidedly in the background. We are to think only of the ridiculous situations in which the people who appear in it are placed.

The characterization, incomplete as it is, should, however, be noticed, and contrasted with the riper procedure of the Poet. It moves in certain stiff, traditional types, which hardly rise to a living, concrete individuality -- that is, the persons are more like puppets than complete men and women -- an abstraction rather than a reality. Let us take notice of the most definite figures here. The two Dromios are the ever-recurring clowns, wiht their merry pranks; Pinch is the old picture of the narrow-minded pedant, which is repeated by Shakespeare several times without essential variation. Adriana is the jealous shrew, whose scolding propensity the Poet will develop fully in a succeeding drama. All these forms are borrowed from older and foreign comedies. Their bareness is manifest; one or two peculiarities make up the sum of their characterization; the complete exhibition of all the qualities of a subjective nature, such as we find in other creations of the Poet, is wholly wanting. The individual, when thus made purely the sport of external influences, cannot show any of the deeper elements of character.

There are three movements to the drama, though the first and the last are very short -- the one having more the nature of an introduction, the other of a hasty close. We are, in the beginning, told of the disruption of the family of Ægeon; this is the serious -- indeed, almost tragic -- background of the action; it furnishes the ethical element in which the play moves. The second part shows the "errors" which are rendered possible by this separation of the members of the Family. Here are found the comic situations, as well as the greater portion of the drama. The mistakes of the two pairs of twins, through Natural Resemblance, spring from their previous separation. The third part is the mutual recognition of parents and children, and the restoration of all the members of the disrupted Family. This reunion, in its turn, results from the mistakes which produce so much confusion.

The first movement is the narrative of Ægeon, who is the father, and, therefore, the head, of the Family. The two pairs of twins, and their personal resemblance, are noted; but an accident -- a shipwreck -- has separated Ægeon from his wife, from one of his sons, and one of the servants. Many years have elapsed; the twins have grown up to manhood; their relations, however, are unknown to themselves, to their parents, and to the world. Should they happen to meet, then the mistakes would follow. The family of Ægeon is thus cut in two just in the middle. Now comes the second separation -- the father permits the remaining son and servant to travel in search of the lost brother. But they, too, disappear -- do not return to the parent. We also learn, later in the play, that a corresponding misfortune happens to the mother in respect to the other children. Thus the Family seems utterly disrupted and destroyed, but just this unhappy condition of things is the basis for a return to unity. The present family is endowed with certain peculiarities which will rescue it -- which will force the world to untie the knot of difficulties which arise. These peculiar elements are the double pair of twins, the personal resemblance of the twin sons and of the twin servants, and the identity of their respective names. Here we see the chief means for a discovery of the lost members, and their restoration to the Family. The ground now being cleared, and all the pre-suppositions being explained, the main action of the play begins.

The second movement shows the mistakes which arise from a double Natural Resemblance, and the consequences of taking one person for another in society. These consequences are carried to such a degree of bewilderment that quite all the relations of life become confused and uncertain, and everything fixed seems to be unsettled; even institutions are turned into the sport of accident. The one thread moves about the Ephesian Antipholps as the central figure; he is a substantial and well-known citizen -- an old and intimate friend of the ruler; in times past he has been a brave soldier in defense of the country. He is married also, and thus belongs to the domestic relation; still further, he is engaged in business, and, hence, is brought into familiar contact with the other members of the community. It will be seen that he is an important personage of society, to which he stands in manifold relations. He is known by everybody, and is recognized as having a certain established position and character. In general, he is the substantial man who is connected by an indefinite number of ties with the world around him. Now, into this network, a total stranger is introduced, who resembles him, and is everywhere taken for him. This is the Syracusan Antipholus, who is totally unknown to all these relations, still he is thrown into them; neither he nor society is aware of the change. Personal resemblance is the cause of the mistakes, and the sameness of names prevents the deception from being discovered. The remarkable result is that, by the displacement of one individual, the whole community is thrown into disorder.

To introduce more complications, the same circumstances are repeated in the two servants. The foreign Dromio is put into the relations of the Ephesian Dromio; there thus arises a continual crossing of purposes, which can almost be reduced to a mathematical diagram, so completely external is the procedure.

The first of these relations, therefore, which is seriously disturbed is that of master and servant. The double similarity becomes the source of the most ridiculous confusion. The one Dromio is sent out upon an errand, and meets the wrong master; it is evident that their presuppositions are entirely different -- that their talk will lie in two wholly separate worlds. The result is that at first each supposes the other to be jesting; but afterwards the matter becomes serious, and the servant gets a flogging. Now, when the rightful servant appears, he is no longer in his former relation to his master, on account of the intervention of the former servant. So they pass and repass, with increasing entanglement; one party sends a Dromio, who comes to the wrong master with an incomprehensible message. All soon see that something is out of joint, yet what it is they cannot tell; some external influence is clearly interfering, which is the more terrible because unknown. The foreign master and servant become frightened; they very naturally conclude that it is the land of spirits and goblins; they will leave it at the earliest opportunity. But here, again, trouble arises; cause and effect no longer hold; their means for departure are defeated at every move. Dromio is sent to find a ship to sail away in, and brings back a remittance of money. Thus they are tossed about -- the helpless victims of chance. It is no wonder that they believe themselves to be dreaming, to be transformed into beasts, to have come to a supernatural realm, for all natural mediation has ceased.

Next the difficulty is carried into the Family. The wife sends the servant to bring her husband home to dinner; again the wrong man is found; it is the Syracusan Antipholus, who has no wife, and who denies the relation on the spot. His answer is brought back to her; the result is a violent fit of jealousy. Then the woman appears in person -- berates the stranger for his infidelity; the ethical feeling of the wife thus becomes comic, for its object is an appearance -- a delusion. But he has to go home with her to dinner; the integrity of the Family seems in jeopardy; we tremble lest the mistake may lead to an ethical violation. But a happy turn is made -- the young Syracusan is attracted to the unmarried sister, and turns away from the married woman. Now all is again right and proper. This sister, too, is victimized, for she thinks she is receiving the attentions of her brother-in-law -- a fact which, no doubt, makes her hesitate longer than she otherwise would. Then comes the true husband to his own house; he finds himself locked out, and appearances look very suspicious; in his spleen he goes off and indulges in a naughty revenge. In all these cases the manifold relations of the Family are endangered by a mere appearance; the individuals are victims of a mistake; one person is substituted for another in the wrong place. The result is that the ethical ties of marriage, for a time, become the playthings of accident. The same phase is reflected in low life in the affair of Dromio and the kitchen queen.

Other complications follow, which it is not necessary to give in detail; the result is, the wife and the community consider the husband to be mad, and Pinch is called upon to cast out the devil. This is the extreme point; man now seems to be irrational -- seems to have lost entirely the ability of understanding his relation in the world. Yet it is an appearance merely; Antipholus is still sane, though he is now bound like a maniac. The truth is, society itself has become irrational in its delusion; Mistaken Identity has brought it to the verge of dissolution. But the Family is quite disrupted, for the husband, who is here in chains, must charge, and, indeed, does charge, the wife with the worst species of infidelity. Such is the outcome of the domestic thread of the play. The comic element is that the whole difficulty is a phantom springing from a deception of the senses; the spectator knows where the trouble lies, and is aware that there is no real conflict; he can laugh to his heart's content at a collision which must vanish at once when the cause of the delusion is discovered.

The third principle which is involved in this entanglement is business -- the commercial relations of the community. Of Angelo, the goldsmith, a chain has been ordered, which he, however, delivers to the wrong Antipholus, and afterwards demands payment of the other Antipholus. The matter is at first treated as a jest, then it grows serious, and at last an officer is called in to enforce the demand. Here Authority is drawn into the meshes, and is victimized by appearance. Moreover, the goldsmith wants to pay his debts with the money; his good name and commercial credit are involved. Public order is disturbed; an encounter takes place on the street, when the Syracusan pair flee to an abbey -- to the protection of a religious house, whereby the abbess, a representative of the Church, becomes entangled in the fantastic sport of chance. Let us notice the situation. The community has now unconsciously eliminated both disturbing elements; the two pairs cannot live in the same society if their resemblance continues to remain unknown. Yet they have done no wrong. But the difficulty cannot rest here; the abbess has defied the Family in the wife, and the Law in the officer; the conflict can only be settled by an appeal to the supreme authority of the land.

This is the State, whose highest representative -- the Duke -- now comes along very conveniently, bringing Ægeon to execution for a violation of law. All parties rush forward to see the ruler with their grievances; the testimony is heard, but the strange thing is that each side produces several witnesses and proves the truth of its statement; the evidence of the senses becomes a mass of confusion and contradiction. The ruler is himself drawn into the delusion; he concludes that they all have drunk of Circe's cup. To solve the difficulty is beyond his power; the matter is incapable of any adjustment. The supreme institution -- the State -- which has come to secure justice to man, is whirled into the wild play of chance, and cannot perform its function. The drama can go no further; the solution must soon come, or human institutions will show themselves less firm and substantial than an empty appearance. So much for the second movement.

The third essential element of the action is now to be unfolded, namely, the discovery of the difficulty, and the restoration of the separated members of the Family. For the mystery will be pursued until its origin is found; the human mind is rational, and cannot believe that the world is irrational; it must investigate any unusual disturbance of causation. Ægeon, the father, is present with the Duke, as before states; he recognizes his son, whom, however, he takes to be the Syracusan Antipholus; but Resemblance still has sway, for it is the Ephesian Antipholus. Then the Syracusan Antipholus appears; at once the source of the deception is brought home to the senses themselves when the brothers are seen side by side. Moreover, there is now a mutual recognition between the one son and the father; they have been separated only a few years. The mother is found to be the abbess; Ægeon is pardoned; all the members of the Family are again united. The other apparent conflicts of the wife, Adriana, of the Business, of the State, are fully explained; the delusion vanishes like a dream; ethical harmony once more prevails; the world is no longer a deceptive mirage of which man is the helpless victim.

The solution of a comedy which rests upon Natural Resemblance is thus made manifest. The resembling individuals are brought together -- in fact, they are forced together by the disturbance which they produce. The cause is then clear; the serious purposes, the angry conflicts, are traced to a mistake -- to a false conclusion resulting from a sensuous appearance. Such is the one instrumentality of the present play -- Natural Resemblance -- whose combinations are quite exhausted in its manifold situations. This narrowness makes it somewhat bald and abstract; its externality, too, can never engage human interest very deeply. Still, the simple means is wonderfully employed; it temporarily reduces to its sway the highest institutions, and confounds all the relations of life; to the individual the world seems enchanted, while to the world the individual seems crazy -- that is, both sides have lost their true relation toward each other; both sides appear to have become irrational. We become reconciled, however, with this unfree and chaotic representation of human action when we see its profound ethical purpose, namely, the restoration of the disrupted Family.

Let us, even at the risk of being charged with undue subtilization, try to reach down to the foundation of the dramatic instrumentality here employed. Mistaken Identity, as used in this and other comedies, shows how the individual is through society, and society through the individual. We see that, if one unit be displaced and another taken for it, the whole fabric will fall into disorder. All must be reflected in each, and each in all. If one person is put in the place of another person without their knowing the fact and without society's knowing it -- that is, without the reflection of all in the one, and of the one in all -- the world becomes a craze, and man seems to be irrational. The individual must have society, in which he finds his true relations -- he can exist as a reasonable being only in society; on the other hand, society requites the favor and recognizes him as this individual, and none other, in all his manifold relations, and thus gives him a true objective personality. Mistaken Identity steps between society and the individual, and, for a time, destroys their connection. Each side, having its existence through the other, will, by such separation, rapidly pass into confusion and dissolution. But the difficulty rests upon Mistaken Identity, not upon Lost Identity; the trouble, therefore, is not permanent, but the mistake is discovered, and the old relations are all restored.

The interpretation should bring out prominently the ethical elements, which always constitute the living principle of the Drama. These ethical elements are not intended to be confined to mere subjective morality -- to the demands of individual conscience. Their purport is far broader; the Ethical World signifies essentially the world of institutions. In the present drama the Family is the sphere in which the action takes place, though other institutions play in; the movement is from the separation of its members to their restoration; between these two extremes lies the entire work.

The disruption of the closest domestic ties is of tragic import, and constitutes the serious element of the drama under consideration. The background is dark and threatening, whose most somber shade is found in the fate of Ægeon, who is even being led out to execution. The parent, in search of his children, has fallen into conflict with the Law. Here we behold a genuine tragic collision, with its two justifiable sides. But of course the comic element is paramount, and strengthened by the contrast with the serious thread. Its force lies in deception -- in the reduction of the individual and society to a huge delusion -- in making institutions the sport of a mere appearance.

Thus both the Tragic and the Comic are present, side by side, though not completely transfused. Another point must not be overlooked -- the entire comic effect rests upon the fact that the audience fully understands the source of the mistakes and complications; the characters, too, are, for the most part, in deep earnest, and do not sport with themselves; thus there is felt to be a chasm between the laughing spectator and the sober-faced actor. Such is, however, the nature of all Comedy of Situation -- the audience must be placed above the deception of the characters.

Nor should the reader expect too much of interpretation; no analysis of an artistic work can take the place of the work itself. An explanation of wit is not, and ought not to be, witty, else it is no true explanation; criticism of poetry, too, is not poetical, but it must be quite free itself from the poetical form. A statement of the chemical ingredients of water will not take the place of water itself to a thirsty man; just as little can the sensuous charm and exhilaration of Art be supplied by an abstract account of its content. The feelings often revolt against an analytic interpretation, because people expect too much; they are dissatisfied at the absence of what seems the very essence of the production, namely, the sensuous form. But explanation implies always a change of this form, which is, therefore, just the side which disappears. Poetical natures strongly protest against the substitution of an interpretation for the poem. They are right; no such substitution ought for a moment to be entertained by the critic.

But to ascertain the rationale of an artistic product is not only reasonable, but indispensable. A great drama is a phenomenon quite as wonderful as any which Nature furnishes; let its law be investigated and stated as soon as possible. In fact, Art can be elevated and sustained only by the retroactive power of the critical judgment. The difference between a barbarous and a cultivated taste is acknowledged; whence does it arise? Only from the application of truer canons of Art. But these canons are originally derived from the understanding, though thy descend into the feelings and become instinctive in their influence upon the taste of the individual. Simple emotion is blind; it should be directed and filled with intelligence. Feel deeply about that which is rational; reason ought always to furnish the content. The difference between the savage and the civilized man lies, not so much in the feelings themselves, as in the objects about which each person feels. Do not, therefore, read an interpretation of a work of Art with the expectation of finding therein the imaginative or emotional element of that work -- disappointment will surely follow.