How Shakespeare’s ‘The Comedy of Errors’ can tell us more than what we thought it could
The Comedy of Errors is often thought of as Shakespeare’s least linguistically rich text, that it doesn’t tell us as much about humanity as his others, that it is a bumbling production of humour and twins and escapism. But what if it tells us more than that?
I think it mirrors the world. In this play, everything is a mess. It’s like A Midsummer Nights Dream – the characters lose who they are, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and nothing happens in the way that it should happen.
It seems funny as we watch characters mistake the twins for another, as we watch the theatre become a stage of chaos, as we watch the characters who are obsessed with time mess up the structure.
But Antipholus of Syracuse is in a constant search throughout the play, looking for his twin, as he states ‘I to the world am like a drop of water/ That in the ocean seeks another drop’. For the whole play, he misses his twin by seconds, he is in search, and in his search he encounters so many confusions and mishaps that he states ‘And here we wander in illusions’.
The play has a life of its own, as soon as the play starts the characters are born, the experience for the audience begins, and in this theatre, where characters are born, we are in chaos.
The play starts with wanting to find a brother, but throughout, the disorder grows and grows.The actors are stuck to the stage, the characters cannot reach the boat to travel to Syracuse, they are stuck to stay on the stage and suffer through their time in this place where it seems that ‘There’s none but witches do inhabit here’.
They are stuck to the chaos, they miss what they are looking for, and everything is misinterpreted to be something else.
It’s like life. The world. The way everything is.
We spend our lives trying to find things, wandering through our time in search, for purpose, love, friendship, ourselves, peace. But instead we miss it by inches. Everything feels like a mess, we want to escape, but we can’t, we feel like those around us don’t understand us, and everyone is so so obsessed by time.
It’s like we’re living in the chaos of the theatre. Structured by stages of our life into acts, but within those acts, anything can happen.
And while we’re tying to wander our way through, we feel like we are losing ourself, that there is so much trying to bring us down, that we feel like we are anything but what we are, like Dromio of Syracuse thinks he is an ass, from what his experience in Ephesus has made him think.
To quote As You Like It this time– ‘All the world’s a stage’. Our life is like a play, we get lost within the structure and it all feels like a mess. It feels like everyone is watching us as we try to make our way though, as we try to find sense.
I don’t know how to conclude this thought, but at the end of The Comedy of Errors, everything is resolved, twin meets twin, father is again with mother, and the play ends, liberating the characters from the stage, the audience from their slumber.
It seems that this confusion can’t last forever, this performance, this feeling of losing ones self… that at the close of the day things will be back to normal.
But what is normal? Does it even exist? It doesn’t seem to in Shakespeare. And I don’t think it does for us either. Shakespeare’s plays are like a dream. And I think we are all living in a dream too.
Prospero said it, in The Tempest, as I end this blog post with–
‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep’.