Shakespeare's sources

The Comedy of Errors (2005) Dromio of Ephesus (Forbes Masson) knocks at the door of his own house. Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

Performance history expert Rebecca Brown investigates the stories which inspired Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors.

The most obvious source for The Comedy of Errors is Plautus's comedy The Menaechmi. In sixteenth-century Europe, Plautus was perhaps the most popular of the dramatists of ancient Rome and this was certainly one of his most popular plays. The Menaechmi of the play's title are a pair of identical twins, sons to a Syracusan merchant. One of them, Menaechmus, is lost as a child and the other is given is given his name in his memory. As an adult, the remaining twin goes off in search of his brother and, after many confusions of mistaken identity, the brothers find each other and all is well.

Shakespeare makes many changes and additions to the story of The Menaechmi. He enlarges and enriches the role of the neglected wife, and adds a sister, father and mother as well as the new location of Ephesus. The most striking of Shakespeare's additions is that of a second pair of identical twins - the servant Dromios. Shakespeare's knowledge of another of Plautus's plays, The Amphrituo, gave him the germ of this idea. In this play, Jupiter and Mercury impersonate a mortal master and servant so that Jupiter can make love to the mortal's wife.

In both Plautus and Shakespeare's plays, much comedy is found in seeing the rightful master denied access to his own house. In Shakespeare's hands, the play becomes not just a dazzlingly confident manipulation of fiendishly complicated plot twists, all set within one day and one place, but a poignant story of love, from the conjugal to the fraternal and parental.

George Gascoigne's play Supposes, an English version of Ariosto's I Suppositi, was performed at Gray's Inn in 1566 and offers a similar sequence of disguises and mistaken identities involving masters, servants and rich fathers. Ariosto, writing at the very beginning of the sixteenth century, himself drew on the comedies of Plautus and Terence.

Another English play from the period just before Shakespeare is John Lyly's Mother Bombie, in which all manner of masters, servants and young women are tangled up in false identities and confusions.

The characters of the father Aegeon and that of his long-lost wife, Abbess Emilia, can trace their ancestry back to John Gower's Confessio Amantis (1390). Gower tells the story of Apollonius's wife who appears to die in childbirth while at sea. Consigned to the waves, her body floats to Ephesus where, revived, she becomes a priestess of Diana and is eventually reunited with her husband. This story was to provide the raw material for Shakespeare's much later play, Pericles.

Like the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible cannot be underestimated as an influence on writers of Shakespeare's period. In St Paul's Acts of the Apostles, Shakespeare read about the strange sorceries for which Ephesus was notorious. St Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians is full of advice on the right way for husbands and wives - as well as masters and servants - to behave; advice most pertinent to the various pairings in Shakespeare's play.

Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Photo shows Dromio of Ephesus (Forbes Masson) being refused entry at the door of his own house in the RSCs 2005 production of The Comedy of Errors.
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

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Teaching Shakespeare