Mistaken Identities and Mistaken Assessments

     I'll be honest, I was not super-excited about teaching The Comedy of Errors to the kids. (You should have heard Marit, my 13 year-old, gasp with disbelief when I read her that line!) I chose this play because we could later attend a performance at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis - always a fitting conclusion after reading a play.  So it was with some hesitation that I began my pre-class study of one of Shakespeare's earliest comedies.  I thought maybe I would be relegated to talking about mistaken identities through bawdy, low comedy for an entire semester. The Bard, as usual, didn't let me down.  There was so much more to this play than I first thought and we've been having a blast.
"The depth of this play lies in its surface." - Marjorie Garber Shakespeare After All
     Garber, author of my favorite go-to book about the plays, explains how each event displayed physically in the play corresponds to something inside the characters.  This inwardness is not what you would expect from a rollicking farce.  Granted, the kids howl with laughter at all the slapstick and I don't belabor these "inner meanings" in class, but it's clear that most of them have picked up on them.
     The Comedy of Errors is about a double set of identical twins.  The masters - both named Antipholus, and their servants - both named Dromio, are separated at birth in a shipwreck.  Everyone ends up in Ephesus and within a single day, mistaken identities cause confusion until the end of the play when all is made clear with happy reunions all around.
     Does the "twins-separated-at-birth" theme sound familiar?  Think Parent Trap, Twins or Big Business.  The story is nothing new, as even Shakespeare "borrowed" this theme from an earlier work (The Menaechmi).  One fun aspect for our class is that we have a set of twins with their own tales to tell. (!)
     Another surprise for me in reading this play is the Christian overlay.  First, Shakespeare sets the play in Ephesus, a pagan city known for its worship of the goddess Diana.  Ephesus would be familiar to Shakespeare's readers, too, as the city which St. Paul visited to spread the gospel.  A perfect setting for confusion, weird events and a happy conclusion with an abbess at a priory.  Speeches about relationships  between husbands and wives as well as masters and servants abound.  Garber points out that

Shakespeare drew on certain passages from the Bible, and especially from the writings of Saint Paul, both in Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians and in the Acts of the Apostles, where Ephesus is seen as a city of magic and witchcraft, where the residents "use curious arts."(p. 163)

While it's not my favorite play, I have really enjoyed it. Clearly, I was mistaken in my initial assessment. I don't think I'd use it as an introduction to Shakespeare, but for the initiated, it is well worth it.  I used excerpts from the BBC production and the Stratford Festival of Canada's production in class.  Both are very different and fun to compare.*  Have any of you had experience with this play?

*The Flying Karamazov Brothers have a hilarious and brilliant production which you can view on You Tube, but the unfortunate,  over-the-top lewdness of the kitchen wench character prevented me from using it with the students.


  1. My most vivid memory of the BBC version is a bit too much d├ęcolletage for our audience at our CM enrichment co-op for boys. I see from your DVD cover that your Canadian version may have the same issue. However I also was delighted to see Roger Daltrey of the Who in a different setting. Who knew?

  2. Jeannette,
    Yes, same issue - notice I said "excerpts". I'm glad we did it, but the editing was a headache. Roger was very good, though it took some getting used to. Not really on my CM co-op "must-see" list. Did you see a performance?

  3. I have to say, I have a soft spot for the Flying Karamazov's production. It's what inspired me to learn to juggle at 18, which led to meeting my husband at a juggling club a year later. I later had the pleasure of passing clubs with a couple of the Flying K's. Thrill of my life!

    My own favorite of the comedies is actually Twelfth Night. Shakespeare had a thing about twins. I remember hating Shakespeare in high school because I thought it was only dark and depressing plays where everyone dies at the end. :o) With my own children, I actually started Shakespeare using the comedies to get the kids interested (without explaining the innuendo) and it worked out well.

    Peace and Laughter!

  4. Christina,
    That is so neat about the Flying Ks! Fun story. Have you taught your kids to juggle?

    Twelfth Night is a favorite around here, too. Yes, Shakespeare used the twin thing more than once. Perhaps because he had his own set? (Hamnet & Judith)

  5. hmmmm... now you've gone and whetted my appetite!


    amy in peru

  6. Thanks for this Nancy! We are still slowly working through Henry V (our first original Shakespeare reading), but I think slow is good :-).
    I have been wondering which comedy to read first, maybe Comedy of Errors is a good one. I might see if I can find Garber's book in NZ.

  7. Rachael,
    Ohhh...Henry V - yes! Slow is good! As far as comedies go, I would steer you away from starting with The Comedy of Errors as your first one. I would tackle A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night or the Taming of the Shrew first. Garber's book is academic, but she does an amazing job explaining the plays, in particular the Hebrew and Hellenistic influences. It really enriches my preparation in presenting the plays and really understanding them. I just read the chapter on the play we are doing. Does Amazon ship to NZ?

  8. Hi Nancy,
    Amazon does ship to NZ, but I had one bad experience not getting a set of books from a secondhand bookseller through Amazon and never tried them again! We have Fishpond in NZ which is sort of like Amazon, they seem to be able to get anything that is in print.

  9. 'Tis fun indeed!

    Yet another resource (Garber) I will have to tuck away for the future. Thanks!

    Bobby Jo

  10. I am so glad you posted this. I doubt we would have read this play otherwise. I really wish we had some Shakespearean plays performed near us. What a great experience that would be. Anyway, I am passing on the Stylish Blogger Award. You can pick it up along with the rules at my blog, if you'd like. http://daisiesanddominos.blogspot.com/2010/11/stylish-blogger-award.html

  11. You've inspired me to look at Shakespeare again, we haven't read his works in so long