Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is a madcap romp of mistakings and misadventures, wrapping together two Plautine comedies sauced with Scripture and Renaissance poetry. Yet the tangled web of estranged family that Shakespeare weaves holds significant differences from any of his originals, pointing to ideas about family and marriage that Shakespeare no doubt held, and was to develop further in later works. Plautus’ Menaechmi yields a basic framework for Shakespeare’s plot: two long-separated brothers mistaken for one another.
Yet Plautus’ two brothers differ markedly in attitude: one is “gay, generous, and fun-loving,” the other “shrewd, calculating, and cynical” (Kinko, p. 10). Shakespeare’s Antipholi seem as confused as their Menaechmi relations, but more interchangeable in general temperament. Plautus’ Amphitryon provides the idea of doubling servants as well as masters, but these are duplicates by divine action: one set are disguised gods fully aware of the situation, the other confused mortals. So why the device of like-behaving mortal twins?
Perhaps it is in the family members Shakespeare adds — Egeon, Aemilia, Luciana — that we discover the motives for his adaptations. One of the main themes of Shakespearean comedy is that of the new community: thus the stereotypical round of marriages that is a given for almost any comic Act V. Here we have only one new marriage, between (Syracusan) Antipholus Erotes and Luciana, the restoration of happiness to (Ephesian) Antipholus Sereptus and formerly shrewish Adriana, and the renewal of Egeon and Aemilia’s long-sundered wedding bonds (taken and developed from Gower’s Confessio Amantis).
But the characters begin the play almost wholly sundered from community: Egeon has long lost both wife and half his progeny, and abandoned his known son for a seven years’ search; Antipholus Erotes seems blithely unaware of his father’s presence in town, so complete is their separation; even Antipholus Sereptus is estranged from his wife Adriana, not enjoying the fruitful state of marriage that must be the lot of comic characters.
They are all awash in a capitalist society of business and bonds, with little room for generosity but much for the Officer, debtors’ prison, and harsh laws against Syracusan foreigners that even the Duke cannot overturn. Here St. Paul enters the fray, with the prescriptions of his Epistle to the Ephesians (! ): “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord…. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it…. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. ” (Eph. 5:22, 25, 28).
Through Luciana’s philosophy and Aemilia’s revelation of Adriana’s shrewishness, The Comedy of Errors shows, in a more dilute form, the same philosophy of mutual and cooperative subjection that Shakespeare is to explore more fully in The Taming of the Shrew a few years later. Without the structure and society a family yields, a Shakespearean character is lost amidst the riot and chaos of civilization: sour Jaques abandoning the Arden weddings, ascetic Malvolio bound in the dank cellarage, mad Lear wandering the heath, Leontes pining for his lost Hermione. Comedy of Errors is prologue and experiment for dramatic families to come.