Shakespearean Comedy: Who’s on First?

The Comedy of Errors, Act 1

Finally, a break from the tragedy.

The Comedy of Errors was probably the first play written by Shakespeare.  While the chronology of his repertoire is far from definitive, scholars have more or less established a working sequence, with the Comedy of Errors heading the pack.

It’s a farcical tale of mistaken identity whose underlying premise reminds me a lot of this classic routine from Abbott and Costello:

In order for a story like this to work, you have to go into it like you would a campy Michael Bay movie – with a big bucket of popcorn, willing to suspend your disbelief.  Accept in advance that the premise will be sketchy and roll with it.  Tom Cruise flicks have required less.

In this case, prepare to swallow the whopper that identical twin sons were born on the same day as their identical twin servants.  One day, a shipwreck separates the parents along with one son and a servant each. Unable to reunite, they spend many lonely years apart.

Fast forward to the present, where both sons, along with their servants, a wife, her sister, and the parents unknowingly end up in the same city together.  Suffice it to say that hilarity ensues…if you are the sort that goes in for that kind of thing.

Me? I’m a Monty Python fan who used to love the screwball humor of Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and Dom Deluise (R.I.P.).  Good comedies are harder to come by than competent dramas and tragedies these days, so it’s not like I’m rooting against this kerfuffle.  It’s just that the schtick tends to wear out its welcome fairly quick.  More like Benny Hill or an overly long Saturday Night Live sketch than Murder by Death, Arthur or The End.

I’m told that the staged versions of these mistaken-identity farces come off better than the plays read alone.  I’ll grant that I have yet to witness an early specimen presented live, as it was meant to be experienced.  So I will reserve judgment until then.

Did I mention how happy I am to be free of tragedy and history?

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