June 29, 2010
Like most classical comedy, Shakespeare has no fear of using archetypes, or instantly recognizable character types. Normally, he has a hero of some kind who falls in love with a woman, generally an innocent, ingénue type. The play is about these two trying to get together despite circumstances which oppose their marriage. Along the way, they interact with other archetypes: the hero has a witty comedic sidekick, while the ingénue has a wiser, more worldly female companion. There is usually a villain of some kind, almost always an older man, who seems threatening but becomes ridiculous before the eventual marriage. Finally, there is a group of clowns, whose attempts to wow people in power compose the play’s main subplot. Of course, Shakespeare spices this formula up in every case, adding a few different twists—be they fairies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or absurd laws (Measure for Measure)—but all of these character types are present.
The Comedy of Errors follows a very different formula. While most of Shakespeare’s comedies draw mainly from courtly romances of the time, which thrived off the hero and ingénue types, Comedy is far more grounded in Roman farce, being based off two Plautus plays (The Brothers Menaechmus and, to lesser extent, Amphitryon). Plautus himself used a whole series of archetypes, mainly based on Greek comedies: there is the clever slave, who is the only sane one in an insane world, the wise old man, the vain concubine, and the arrogant blowhard military hero. Roman farce also had a very different focus than courtly romance: while the second places the emphasis on a love story, the first focuses instead on layers of deceit, where characters become more and more confused by progressive lies.
The Comedy of Errorsis fascinating because, while it is rooted mainly in Roman farce, Shakespeare borrows elements from courtly romance to make it more palatable to his audiences. Thus, while the plot is driven by self-assured masters and their wise slaves, the play ends with a traditional coupling. There is a contrast between women, the innocent and the less innocent, but neither of them are young ingénues. Comedy thus reads as an interesting cross-genre piece. It has elements of traditional Shakespearian comedies, but lives in a noticeably different world than most of them. It thus creates a style of comedy all to itself, both a “comedy of errors,” a farce piece, and a romantic comedy.
—Will Bishop, Production Dramaturgy Intern
The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare opens September 16, 2010. It is adapted and directed by Sean Graney, the founder of the Hypocrites.