Farce to Romance in The Comedy of Errors

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      The Comedy of Errors has widely been interpreted as not just a comedy but a farce; a comedic work that features satire and a fairly improbable plot can be considered farcical. In the nineteenth century, the British poet and scholar Samuel Taylor Coleridge affirmed that the play was in fact the epitome of the genre: "Shakespeare has in this piece presented us with a legitimate farce in most exact consonance with the philosophical principles and character of farce. A proper farce is mainly distinguished from comedy by the license allowed, and even required, in the fable, in order to produce strange and laughable situations. Coleridge goes on to note that the farce is, in a sense enhanced by the addition of the second set of twins, the two Dromios, to the two Antipholuses; such a situation is indeed so improbable as to be virtually impossible.

      A variety of other factors contribute to the perception of the play as a farce. A spectator or reader might expect S. Antipholus to deduce exactly what is going on, given that the purpose of his journey is precisely a search for his lost twin, but even when he is recognized on the street, he deduces nothing. Only his inability to understand his situation, of course, allows for the play's many other misunderstandings. Indeed, Harry Levin notes that such an abundance of "errors can be another sign of a play's genre: "Farce derives its name from a French word for stuffing; literally it welcomes the gags and the knockabout business that fills in its contours ad libitum (without limit)" Barbara Freedman relates in her essay "Egeon's Debt" that a certain degree of aggression can be another factor emblematic of farce: "Farce derives humor from normally unacceptable aggression which is made acceptable through a denial of its cause and effect." In Freedman's allegorical reading of The Comedy of Errors, the circumstances of the brothers Antipholus can be attributed to the guilt suffered by the father; as characters within the farce, of course, the twins can only think to inflict their aggressions on other characters-usually the brothers Dromio.

      Certain aspects of the play quite distinctly link it with Shakespeare's other comedies or distinguish it from his tragedies. Freedman notes that, as Egeon's condemnation to death constitutes the introductory scene, the play begins with "the harsh world of law, the cruel and problematic reality with which so many of Shakespeare's romantic Comedies commence." In turn, at the end of the play, the world of law is reentered - as marked by the duke's carrying out his official duties - but it has been endowed with a certain degree of mercy as a result of the play's developments; here, the duke grants Egeon his freedom without accepting.

      E. Antipholus's money. Freedman also notes that the setting bears significant resemblances to the settings in other Shakespearean plays such as As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream: "The main plots nightmarish Ephesus corresponds to the improbable, fantastic, dreamlike realm of the imagination, familiar to us as a second stage in Shakespearean comedy." A key difference, however, is that Shakespeare's other comedies feature worlds that are actually more like dreams than nightmares; The Comedy of Errors, on the other hand, features what Freedman terms "the imagined fulfillment of repressed fears and desires in everyday reality."

      Other commentators have pointed out that the extent of character development is often directly related to genre, and The Comedy of Errors has in fact been widely criticized for its general absence of character development. In his introduction to the play, Harry Levin notes that serious drama is typically endowed with more emotional impact when the characterization is as comprehensive as possible, while with farce, plot often takes precedence over character. Levin goes on to describe the basis of this play's plot everyone's repeatedly mistaking one twin for another, with masters and servants alike - as "the very essence of the farcical: two characters sufficiently alike, so that each might fit interchangeably into the other's situation, could not afford to possess distinguishing characteristics." That is, this comedy would perhaps be hobbled by too much character development.

      A last aspect of the comedy worth considering is the romantic one. As Peter G. Phialas has pointed out, The Comedy of Errors features a number of romantic elements that will be prominent in the playwright's later comedies. Phialas highlights the fact that "Shakespeare introduces the chief structural principle of his romantic comedies: the juxtaposition of attitudes toward love and toward the ideal relationship of man and woman." These notions are explored in the present play through the pairings of Adriana and E. Antipholus and of Luciana and S. Antipholus. Phialas also articulates a more precise view of love that will be seen in more detail in Shakespeare's romantic comedies to come: "He is able here to isolate, obliquely and in the briefest compass, one of the central conceptions of those later plays: that love does not possess, that it gives without needing to receive, for it gives to another self." Thus, overall, The Comedy of Errors, with its interweaving of genres as effective as that of any later play, should be recognized as comedy, farce, and romance alike.

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