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THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
The Comedy of Errors was first printed in the folio of 1623; but there can be no doubt that it is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays. Perhaps 1591 or somewhat earlier is a probable date. Later than the close of 1593 it can hardly be, for in III. ii. there is an allusion to the civil war in France which closed when Henry of Navarre - Henri IV-was recognized as king. The bulky wench described by Dromio, who needs an atlas to set forth the maps of her various parts, has in her forehead France, armed and reverted, making war against her heir.' In 1589 Henri III died; and Henri of Navarre became heir to the throne. In 1591 an English expedition was sent to Henri's support; it may be that at that moment the topical allusion would be best received. In 1594, as we read in the Gesta Grayorum, a Comedy of Errors was enacted 'by the players' at Gray's Inn. It is much more likely that this was Shakespeare's play than the Historie of Error, which was given by the children of St. Paul's at Greenwich as early as the New Year, 1576-7. Any drama of that date would in 1594 have appeared very rude and antiquated. The internal evidence afforded by the play wholly agrees with our assigning it to a very early date; doggerel verse abounds; rhyme, both in couplet and quatrain, is frequent; the characters are arranged with symmetry as in other plays of early date; verbal jests have still an irresistible fascination for the young poet, who afterwards could amuse his hearers with something better than this cheap jugglery.
The source is undoubtedly the Menaechmi of Plautus, with possibly some advantage gained from the lost Historie of Error. But how Shakespeare became acquainted with the play of Plautus we cannot say. The earliest English translation of the Menaechmi of which we know is that by W. W. (William Warner), published in 1595. Shakespeare's 'small Latin' may have been enough to enable him to enjoy Plautus in the original. Or he may have seen the translation by Warner in manuscript. The first scene of Act III certainly owes something to another play of Plautus-the Amphitruo-in which the house of Alcmena is taken possession of by Jupiter in the disguise of her husband. Two things in the Comedy of Errors are of Shakespeare's own invention; he makes the fun more fast and furious by the introduction of a second pair of indistinguishable twins-the brothers Dromio; and secondly he sets the whole comedy in a serious and pathetic framework-the story of Egeon. Mere laughter-though his laughter was loud and freeseldom entirely satisfied Shakespeare even in comedy. Here in a border of romance we observe the freaks and follies of human life.
It is more a play for the stage than for the study. There on the boards-the intrigue is dazzling and yet expounds itself clearly and swiftly; the young dramatist was already a master of theatrical technique. 'Until I saw it on the stage,' wrote Charles Armitage Brown, 'I had not imagined the extent of the mistakes, the drollery of them, their una bated continuance, till, at the end of the fourth act, they reached their climax, with the assistance of Dr. Pinch, when the audience in their laughter rolled about like waves. In a comedy, or, as Coleridge calls it, a farce, which depends for its life chiefly upon a series of dazzling incidents, no searching study of character need be expected. Yet Shakespeare, who has made the two Antipholuses so like in aspect, has to some extent differentiated them in temper and disposition. The brother of Syracuse is in comparison with him of Ephesus an interesting and amiable person.
It is not, however, what they are, but what they do that is important; and their differences of character are less significant for the purposes of the play than is the resemblance of their persons. There is no other play of Shakespeare in which action so predominates over character.
Perhaps Shakespeare felt that we should weary of a play wholly made up of surprises and mistakes. Hence possibly the lyrical passages which tell of the love of the 'Syracusian' brother for Luciana; and hence also the story of old Egeon's misfortunes, with the final scene of restoration to his long-parted wife. In the juggle of incidents Shakespeare could not quite forget that he was a dramatist or that he was a poet. Such lines as these belong not to the Plautine, but to the romantic Elizabethan drama :
O! train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote:
Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
He gains by death that hath such means to die:
Here Shakespeare is not far from anticipating the tone of Romeo and Juliet.
The bright embroidery of incident stands out from the dark ground of the misfortunes of Ægeon. Why could not Shakespeare find content in being farcical throughout one entire comedy? It is evident that he needed to throw out his unflagging display of mirth by a contrast. The old man stands before us doomed to death; and presently a play, like the flashing across, and to and fro, of dragon-flies, distracts our attention, but the human sorrow and affliction cannot wholly pass from view; before the close it must give place to some consolation. This is not the spirit in which mere farce is written. Plautus is in fact too light for Shakespeare.
If Shakespeare's earliest comedies were Love's Labour's Lost, The Comedy of Errors, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as seems probable, it looks as if he were feeling his way, and had not struck into his true line of romantic comedy until the third of these plays was written. He began with his gay mockery of affectations, yet not without something in the same drama of the romance of a story of love. He experimented next in the comedy of incident, and yet here again not without some of the lyrical poetry of a love-comedy. In the Two Gentlemen he discovered the way which he was to follow for long; yet he pursued that way with an uncertain and faltering step. We value the second of these plays chiefly as exhibiting the writer's skill in the construction of a plot. When character came to occupy his attention, Shakespeare is often less dexterous in holding together the threads of an intrigue than he is here. As I have elsewhere written, here the unexpected is always happening; the discovery is staved off to the fifth act with infinite skill; the nearer each brother approaches the other, the more impossible it becomes for them to meet.' And when the discovery arrives, it is not the mere solution of a laughable intrigue; it touches something deeper in our human hearts; it rescues old Ægeon from his doom; it restores the Abbess to the arms of her husband; it has in it some sense of the tears and the joys of mortal things. Laughter is good, and we can hardly have too much of honest laughter. But the happiest laughter has in it some alliance to our sympathy with the sorrows of humanity.