With the play well underway in the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre, we delve a little deeper into the history of The Comedy of Errors.

A man jumps up excitedly in front of an unimpressed soldier.
The Comedy of Errors (2021).
Photo by Pete Le May © RSC Browse and license our images

The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare's 'maddest' play...

Well, in terms of the number of times the word 'mad' is used. You'll find it in Comedy more than 30 times — more than it appears even in plays like King Lear and Hamlet  and almost every character in the play uses it at least once. Just take this short exchange from Act 2 Scene 1:

Dromio of Ephesus: Why, mistress, sure my master is horn-mad.
Adrianna: ‘Horn-mad’, thou villain?
Dromio of Ephesus: I mean not cuckold-mad, but sure he is stark mad: 

It's Shakespeare's shortest play, and maybe one of his first

Getting exact dates for the writing of Shakespeare's plays is quite tricky, but it's generally agreed that The Comedy of Errors was written around early to mid-1594, making it probably the earliest of his comedies.

What isn't in doubt is that it is Shakespeare's shortest play. Whereas the rest of his plays contain at least 2,000 lines, Comedy only has about 1,750, suggesting the playwright understood the old adage that a good comedy knows not to outstay its welcome.

The Comedy of Errors in the First Folio.
The Comedy of Errors in the First Folio.
© William Shakespeare, Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount (printers), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons Browse and license our images

It's one of only two Shakespeare plays using the 'three unities'

Ok, bear with me on this one, as this idea might not be immediately familiar. During Shakespeare's time, Aristotle's theories about literary form were highly regarded; in particular, his ideas about how unity of time, place, and action were important aspects of the most successful Greek tragedies. Shakespeare rarely adhered to all three, but he did for Comedy: the events of the play all happen in the same city (unity of place) over the course of one day (unity of time), as part of the same basic plot (unity of action). 

The only other time Shakespeare did this was with The Tempest, another of his shipwreck tales, which is thought to be one of his very last plays. Some believe that this was a deliberate action on Shakespeare's part: he wanted to employ the three unities right at the start of his career to announce his arrival, then also wanted to use them at the end to make his farewell to the stage.

The first performance of The Comedy of Errors didn't go to plan

The first recorded performance of The Comedy of Errors took place on 28 December 1594 as part of the Christmas revels at Gray’s Inn, one of the four London-based professional associations for barristers.

These events always had the possibility of getting out of hand, and records suggest that the hall was overcrowded and there were fights early on as people tried to get the best seats. The acting company were delayed for hours before getting on stage, and the audience was disruptive throughout. The event didn't finish until the following morning, and it became referred to afterwards as "The Night of Errors".

The play has had some unusual rewrites

It was common in the 18th century to rewrite classic plays. In 1780, William Woods produced The Twins; or, Which is Which? A Farce. In Three Acts  for performance in Edinburgh. Despite it being Shakespeare's shortest play, Woods reduced it to three acts, in case a longer version should "pall upon an audience."

Even worse was See If You Like Itor, 'Tis All a Mistake, an anonymous adaptation staged in 1734 at Covent Garden. This play was even shorter, just two acts, using text from Shakespeare and Plautus, whose comedy The Menaechmi was a major source for Comedy. According to Shakespeare purists, this version was the "worst alteration" possible. Perhaps it's lucky that the name of the person who created this adaptation has been lost to history.