Pre-production of The Comedy of Errors (TCOE) necessarily has us pondering some of the comedy tropes on which this play -- and several of Shakespeare's others -- relies.
TCOE was one of Shakespeare's earlier plays. It's his shortest and generally considered to be his most farcical: not one, but two -- TWO! -- pairs of twins, separated at birth, who "coincidentally" each fall into parallel Lord-Servant relationships with each other, and when everyone eventually finds themselves in the same city...hilarity, of course, ensues.
It would be easy to think that it has been the enduring popularity of Shakespeare himself that rendered these devices into the tropes that we find permeating popular culture today. But, as so often happened, Shakespeare was borrowing a concept and then turning it up to 11.
Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins
Titus Maccius Plautus, for whom a single set of twins was sufficiently ridiculous (!), wrote his play Menaechmiin approx. 254 B.C. Plautus was a typical part of the grammar school curriculum in Shakespeare's day, so he may have encountered the play as a schoolboy in the original Latin. In any case, a translation into English was published in 1595, and was dedicated to Lord Hunsdon, who was also the patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Source material achieved, Will set to work.
Shakespeare himself fishes in this pond again throughout his work, adding the nuance of fraternal twins (and losing the second pair) in Twelfth Night, and using the mistaken identities of the lovers in A Midsummer Nights Dream as the catalyst for much of the midsummer madness. Other plays use the mistaken identity concept in more isolated moments for character or plot exposition (and, usually, a laugh): As You Like It, Measure for Measure, Merchant of Venice....
Of course, as we know, Shakespeare at his most effective operates on several levels at once. While on the surface, a trick to elicit laughter or to advance the plot, "mistaken identity" of the various kinds that he offers us through his works also act as a meditation on the nature of identity itself: who are we, really? What does it mean to know someone? Can something intrinsic in one character eventually come to see past the exterior disguise or presumed identity to get at the intrinsic self of another character? While the Shakespeare in the Park script of The Comedy of Errors is still being edited, and actors only just being cast, it remains to be seen exactly how our production will address these and other deeper questions.
Will there be laughs a-plenty? Oh, yes! But, beneath the knee-slapping, there's always heart and humanity and some truths that touch both. We hope you find those, too, during your short hour-glass with us this summer.
Check AMC's top 10 cases of mistaken identity in the movies!