Shakespeare, Plautus and The Comedy of Errors
By Fiona Kyle, Dramaturg
The Comedy of Errors, one of William Shakespeare’s earliest plays, was first performed on December 28 in 1594 at Gray’s Inn in London. In an account of its first performance from the Gesta Grayorum, “a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus) was played by the Players.” This leaves little doubt that he drew inspiration from the Roman playwright. Much as Shakespeare borrowed from Plautus, so too did Plautus borrow from Greek comedy. In the early third century BCE in Greece, New Comedy was a popular genre that focused more on lower-class citizens. It satirized society by dramatizing stories of thwarted lovers and mistaken identity using stock characters such as the cunning servant, courtesan, and marriageable young girl.
Plautus, writing in the late-third to early-second century BCE, set the stage for Shakespeare in a variety of ways. He has been considered the first “professional” playwright—i.e. his livelihood depended on his playwriting—and his plays are free adaptations from the Greeks rather than strict translations. New Comedies were considered “mild satire”; Plautus took their structure, threw away all mildness, and slathered on bawdy humor. It is no surprise that Shakespeare looked to Plautus’ œuvre, namely Menaechmi and Amphitryon, for The Comedy of Errors as he threw away all manners by including characters that roast a woman for her heavyset appearance and make fart jokes.
Menaechmi, the primary source material for The Comedy of Errors, centers on twins who were separated as children. One twin, Menaechmus, grew up in Epidamnus and married a rich woman; the other, originally named Sosicles and renamed Menaechmus, grew up in Syracuse. Later, Menaechmus Sosicles sets out in search of his lost brother with his slave, winds up in Epidamnus, and is mistaken for his brother by a courtesan. The shrewish wife of Menaechmus Epidamnus encounters Sosicles, berates him, and fetches a doctor as she believes he’s gone mad. Finally, the twins are reunited and order restored.
Amphitryon, the secondary source for The Comedy of Errors, revolves around the title character, his wife Alcamena, his slave Sosia, the god Jove, and Jove’s son Mercury. While Amphitryon is away at war, Jove falls in love with his wife and disguises himself as Amphitryon. When the real Amphitryon returns, Mercury disguises himself as Sosia to prevent the real Sosia from entering the house. In the end, Jove reveals the truth. Shakespeare married the plot of Menaechmi with the two sets of twins in Amphitryon, and its “door” scene, for The Comedy of Errors.
The Comedy of Errors is considered a neoclassical play. Neoclassicism, a style inspired by the “classical” Greek and Roman periods, adheres to the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. Shakespeare’s play takes place over the course of one day, in one city, and follows the story of separated brothers. Comedy should not be mixed with tragedy in neoclassicism and Shakespeare’s wicked humor shines in each scene of this play. Finally, neoclassical plays are sourced from Greek or Roman playwrights and, as stated in the Gesta Grayorum, Shakespeare turned to Plautus. Shakespeare would write in a more complex style later in his career but the simplicity of neoclassicism inspired him to give us the madcap Comedy of Errors.