The Comedy of Errors Review

There is hardly any Shakespeare play that describes itself more accurately than The Comedy of Errors. As befits the simplicity of the title, the plot (borrowed mostly from Plautus' 'Menaechmus') is not all that complicated. It can get a little confusing, but you would imagine that that is the intention and indeed it's par for the course in Shakespeare's comedies. It's a comedy of mistaken identities, a common enough situation for humour Shakespeare - but unlike say, Twelfth Night where twins separated at birth are also used, there are no additional subplots or complications here, nor any more serious subtext. No, apart from the introduction where Egeon of Syracuse explains the predicament that has led him to risk facing death by setting foot in Ephesus where Syracusians are not welcome, the brief comedy all takes place in a straightforward linear fashion in a few adjacent locations.

Well, maybe not that straightforward. Egeon's tale relates the loss of his wife and one of his twin sons, separated from each other in a shipwreck. The son who grew up with Egeon, Antiphobus, has now come to Ephesus seeking his lost twin brother (you can see where this is going already...), a task that he compares to finding another drop of water in the ocean. A not terribly large ocean evidently, since he is lucky enough - and lucky for the audience too - to have come to the exact place where his brother now lives as a wealthy man, married to Adriana. Of course, before he finds him he is mistaken for his brother and his brother is mistaken for him and all sorts of amusing incidents and confusion arises out of this comedy of errors.

It is all the more amusing and confusing since his brother, for reasons I don't think are ever explained, is also called Antipholus. Perhaps the mother or father was mistaken about which twin they possessed, both believing the one with them was Antipholus. In any case what is even more remarkable, and a source for even more hilarious confusion, is that both identical twins called Antipholus have identical twin servants both called Dromio, presumably also separated in the shipwreck. Oh, you have no idea the confusion this leads to, or rather, you probably do, since that's the joy of The Comedy of Errors or indeed any comedy of errors; you know exactly what you are getting. Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors is no more sophisticated than any other work of this kind, and often less so.

Evidently much lies as it often does in the playing, and the Globe are always particularly good at the Comedies. They're not half bad at the Histories and the Tragedies (the intimacy of the late Romances perhaps better suited to the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse), but the audience-responsive nature of the recreated Globe theatre is the natural place to play up the absurdities of the comedies. Director Blanche McIntyre even includes an additional silent comedy routine in this 2014 Globe production before the play proper commences, Dromio playing around with a pole, ladders and highly hung washing. It's a bit medieval 'Mr Bean'-like, but that's of little consequence in The Comedy of Errors, where there are abundant opportunities for slapstick. It sets the tone well, engages the audience, and it even functions are a set-up for a few later laughs.

But let's not pretend that The Comedy of Errors is in any way important or all that clever a work; it's more fun than philosophy in this Shakespeare play. If it's initially a little confusing trying to work out who is Antipholus of Ephesus and who is Antipholus of Syracuse, and who is the Dromio of Antipholus of Ephesus and who is the Dromio of Antipholus of Syracuse - particularly when they rapidly intermingle from scene to scene - well, that's as it should be. There's a lot of crude humour made in relation to body parts and body shapes, all of which is fully taken advantage of here with due emphasis and exaggeration. Even the lack of subtlety in the verse word-play is used for comic effect, the actors pausing as if delivering the punchline to a joke. It's not the most quotable Shakespeare, but the punchlines never disappoint.

Is there not however some deeper meaning that we can take from it all? You could certainly apply some modern retrospective interpretations on the treatment of women here and the treatment of servants, but the humour is just as much at the expense of the men, the nobles and the authorities. If there's a recurrent theme in all the falling, slapping, beating and confusion, it's perhaps that it tends to emphasise the feeling that everyone is a bit mad. As are we all to some extent, and behave like asses too at times. It's what makes us human, as does the ability to laugh at oneself. Shakespeare never neglected this facet of humanity in his works and The Globe's The Comedy of Errors provides plenty of occasion for the audience to look up and laugh at the actors looking down at the audience and laughing. All the world is indeed a stage.

Globe on Screen's The Comedy of Errors is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is dual-layer and encoded in NTSC format for international compatibility. The disc is region-free.

Disappointingly, the Globe on Screen productions have only been released on DVD for the last few years and that's still the case for the 2014 productions of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors. In the case of The Comedy of Errors the video quality is reasonably good within the limits of the NTSC Standard Definition encoding of a live theatre performance. The image is relatively clear and certainly good enough for standard sized screens. Anyone more used to High Definition presentations on larger screens will find that the detail isn't all there, particularly in wider shots, and colours are a little oversaturated. Depending on the display device being used and the size of the screen, macroblocking, grain-shifting and instability of the encoding may also cause minor fluctuations. The Comedy of Errors however is not a long work, running to just over two hours, so there is less compression required here than on other releases, and it ought to look more than acceptable on most displays.

The audio tracks are plain Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The recording of the live performance is good, the dialogue never less than clear and perfectly audible. There are no radio mics used as far as I can see, just whatever microphones are dotted around the stage. It can be difficult then to get a good level between music and dialogue in some productions, but they are well balanced here.

Optional white subtitles are available for hard of hearing or should you just enjoy reading the text alongside the performance. In contrast to previous years' releases, subtitles are in English only in the DVD releases of the 2014 productions. On the disc itself, the only extra feature is a Cast Gallery. The enclosed booklet has an essay by Will Tosh that explains the origin of the work, how Shakespeare came to write it and the occasion of where it was first performed. The booklet also includes a synopsis.

Its not the most sophisticated comedy in the world, but there are plenty of laughs to be had in the The Comedy of Errors, as well as some recognition of the absurdity of it all, and the need to not take oneself too seriously. You can see that the cast of the Globe's 2014 performance of The Comedy of Errors are clearly having a great deal of fun with the material, as are the audience on the night, and that translates over wonderfully to the recording on this DVD release.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Mike Sutton; friend, colleague and fellow reviewer at the Digital Fix/DVD Times from 2000 to 2015.

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