Shakespeare’s Sources – The Comedy of Errors

  • Share on Tumblr

Roman Playwright Plautus

Continuing my series on Shakespeare’s sources, today I am going to look at one of Shakespeare’s lighter plays The Comedy of Errors. This play about the separation and eventual reunion of two pairs of twins (a ‘pair’ of masters and their servants) is full of hilarious moments of mistaken identity as unbeknown to them the two sets of twins end up in the same town. Shakespeare was himself the father of twins (though his being a boy and girl were not identical). The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays but Shakespeare also wrote about twins in his later play Twelfth Night. The Comedy of Errors is based on a play called ‘the twins’ by the roman playwright Plautus. Plautus was extremely well known – interestingly his comedies are the earliest surviving complete works in Latin.

It is likely that Shakespeare read Plautus in the original Latin. This highlights how his education – ordinary though it was gave him the tools with which to access classical texts first hand. And in accessing them, to adapt and remake them for his own audiences. Plautus’ play only has one set of twins – it was Shakespeare’s original and witty idea to have two sets of twins. This adaptation allows double the confusion and double the fun!

Here is an extract from Plautus’ play – happily translated into English for the less classically educated amongst us. It is the moment that the twins realise who they are…

MESSENIO
Do you say that Moschus was your father?

MENAECHMUS of Epidamnus.
Truly, I do say so.

MENAECHMUS of SOSICLES
And mine as well.

MESSENIO
Are you of Syracuse?

MENAECHMUS of Epidamnus.
Certainly.

MESSENIO
And you?

MENAECHMUS of SOSICLES
Why not the same?

MESSENIO
Hitherto the marks agree perfectly well. Still lend me your attention. To MENAECHMUS of SOSICLES
Tell me, what do you remember at the greatest distance of time in your native country?

MENAECHMUS of Epidamnus.
When I went with my father to Tarentum to traffic; and afterwards how I strayed away from my father among the people, and was carried away thence.

MENAECHMUS of SOSICLES
Supreme Jupiter, preserve me!

MESSENIO to MENAECHMUS of SOSICLES . Why do you exclaim? Why don’t you hold your peace?

To MENAECHMUS of Epidamnus. How many years old were you when your father took you from your native country?

MENAECHMUS of Epidamnus.
Seven years old; for just then my teeth were changing for the first time. And never since then have I seen my father.

MESSENIO
Well, how many sons of you had your father then?

MENAECHMUS of Epidamnus.
As far as I now remember, two.

MESSENIO
Which of the two was the older–you or the other?

MENAECHMUS of Epidamnus.
Both were just alike in age.

MESSENIO
How can that be?

MENAECHMUS of Epidamnus.
We two were twins.

There is no precise echo of this in Shakespeare’s play but interestingly you can see that Shakespeare kept the time frame of a seven year separation but provided a rather more dramatic reason for the separation in the form of a shipwreck.

Tags: , , , ,

Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

Download a free book written by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells about Shakespeare, Conspiracy & Authorship. Download the Book.

DESTINATION SHAKESPEARE, THE DEBUT POETRY COLLECTION FROM LEADING SHAKESPEAREAN SCHOLAR PAUL EDMONDSON, IS OUT NOW!

24 brilliant poems, inspired by Shakespeare's life and art, bound in an artisan stitched chapbook

get your copy now