My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A Comedy of Errors holds a special place in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. It is believed to be his first play; it is one of two Shakespeare plays that observe the “classical unities”; and it is Shakespeare’s shortest play. You can add to this list, Shakespeare’s silliest play, since A Comedy of Errors amply merits this superlative.
To enjoy this work, the viewer must be an expert in suspending disbelief. That there be two sets of twins, bestowed with the same names, who happened to be dressed in the same clothes on the same day—it does not even approach credulity. Added to this is the capstone absurdity that the mother was in the city the whole time, but did not choose to reveal herself to her son for years.
The reward for accepting this improbable premise is hilarity. The humor is low and occasionally crude, but no less brilliant for that. Shakespeare manipulates the simple device of mistaken identity like a virtuoso, squeezing out every bit of drama and every fleeting giggle from this ancient gag. Shakespeare is always witty and amusing, of course, but seldom was he such an expert conjurer of belly-laughs. The scene in which Dromio of Syracuse compares the kitchen-maid to a globe, describing where all the countries can be found on her rotund body, is a pinnacle of comedy.
If this play was, indeed, his first, it certainly augurs Shakespeare’s coming greatness. To make a slapstick farce such as this, the writer need not endow the characters with anything resembling a round personality. But Shakespeare does, and brilliantly. Antipholus of Syracuse is appealing speculative, comparing his search for his long-lost brother to “a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop,” and repeatedly questioning his own identity. His twin brother of Ephesus is decidedly more bourgeois and extroverted; and his wife, Adriana, is touching in her scorned devotion. But of course the real star of the play is Dromio—played by none other than Roger Daltrey in the version I saw—who’s relentless good nature and nonstop wordplay render him irresistibly endearing.
In sum, though certainly not “deep,” this play is both expert and original—a piece of juvenilia that, even by itself, would have secured Shakespeare a modest place in the Western canon, if only as the most perfect example of a staged farce.