The Comedy of Errors Study Guide

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THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

Written by Luisa Appolloni, Resident Teaching Artist, Education Department (Stratford Festival)

INTRODUCTION TO THE GUIDE

"What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?

 Until I know this sure uncertainty,

 I'll entertain the offered fallacy."

- Antipholus of Syracuse, The Comedy of Errors, Act II, scene 2

The classical idea that comedy is concerned with humans as social beings dates back to ancient Greece in the fourth century BCE and that this art form reflects human absurdities and transgressions. Comedy also has an energy and vitality that differentiates it from tragedy; it lives in the realm of contradictions, allowing us to see things from different points of view and perspectives. This comic play is about contradictions and discovering yourself. For Keira Loughran, the director of the 2018 production at the Stratford Festival, it's a play that resonates for today's audiences, "highlighting our human frailty and reinforcing priorities like reconciliation, respect, discovery, love." Indeed, The Comedy of Errors offers students a chance to explore our foibles and know a bit more about ourselves.

Curriculum Connections

Grades 8 to 12

  • All grades: Language/English (listening to understand, speaking to communicate, reading for meaning)
  • All grades: Drama, Music, Visual Art
  • Grades 4-12: Health and PE (interpersonal skills, creative and critical thinking, bullying and abuse, safe and positive social interaction, conflict management)
  • Grade 4: History (heritage and identity: early societies, 2000 BCE to 1500 CE)
  • Grade 11: Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology (anthropology: explaining human behaviour and culture)
  • Grade 11: Gender Studies (power relations, sex, and gender, representation of gender)
  • Grade 11: World History to the End of the Fifteenth Century (flourishing societies and civilizations)
  • Grade11: Dynamics of Human Relationships (self-concept and healthy relationships)
  • Grade 12: World History Since the Fifteenth Century (the world: 1450-1650)
  • Grade 12: World Cultures (understanding culture, cultural dynamics, cultural expressions)

Topics

Shakespeare

  • Who he was, body of work, significance in English drama/literature
  • Dramatists of the Renaissance
  • Early modern drama

Elizabethan/Jacobean England

  • Social and economic structure (class systems, playhouses, plays and players)
  • Values and beliefs (four humours, Chain of Being, etc.)
  • Conventions of early English drama (comedy, five-act structure, influence of commedia dell'arte)

Language

  • Imagery, blank verse, rhyme, prose

Themes and Motifs

  • Love and marriage
  • Role of women
  • Appearances
  • Servants and masters
  • Identity
  • Twins
  • Madness
  • Family
  • Mistakes and coincidences
  • Isolation and belonging
  • Suffering
  • Supernatural
  • Duty
  • Rules and order
  • Money and debt
  • Scapegoats and social hierarchy
  • Power

A Perspective on the Piece from the Director

With Keira Loughran

What excites you about directing The Comedy of Errors?

I am very excited about doing Shakespeare here, because there are so many resources. If you're working at the Stratford Festival, you want the chance to do a Shakespeare. The company of actors has a much more intimate relationship with the language. The audience also has an intimate relationship with the canon, and I find that exciting, in terms both of challenging and delivering that. It makes you play to the top of your game. I am really excited.

 

While it is still early days, I am wondering if you can speak at all to your vision of the piece.

Peter Hinton says that if you're going to direct a show, you have to figure out what the most problematic aspect of it is for you and determine how to crack that open. It will be different for everybody, because different pieces speak to different people in different ways. For me, the key to cracking this piece was: what was the world of Ephesus? Dictated by the text, Ephesus is talked about in very specific terms. It's talked about as being a city of jugglers and conjurers and people you can't trust. Things don't seem to be what they appear. It has this reputation. There's also a lot of slavery, violence and strict social rules that people take very seriously. Where is the humour and joy and love in this comedy? The play is really funny and is bookended by this beautiful long-lost-family reunion. This bookending was actually where it cracked for me. If that's the framework of the story, then it's a play about finding yourself in somebody else, discovering yourself in someone unexpected or finding yourself in a place where you don't expect to make those revelations. There is great joy, surprise, discovery in all of that.

This puts the characters in a place of needing to discover themselves, which is what allows for all of the misunderstandings to happen. When I put that in context and thought about how I might reconcile myself to the more problematic dynamics of the relationships as dictated by the text - of slavery or the roles of women - I went to the idea of creating Ephesus as a place where the citizens behave in ways that are deviant from the norm. In reading the text, I realized that the people who talk about it as a deviant place are not from there, so there's the possibility that this is how it's seen and judged from outside, but if you actually look at the people who live there, there's an integrity to the way that they choose to engage that comes come from agreed-upon social norms and values that are honourable and have reason, but are different from "the norm."

This idea of Ephesus felt very current to me - this idea of alternative lifestyles. We're at a time of such fluidity across binaries. There is great capacity for humanity and cruelty, misunderstandings and confusion in a world like that, while maintaining great heart. I believe that these stories - Shakespeare's stories - speak to everyone, no matter what their age, cultural background, gender, sexual orientation, identity, etc., and I do try, within my casting, to reflect that diversity. This gives actors an opportunity they might not otherwise have to tackle these roles. It also lets a diverse audience see themselves in the stories in ways that I've sometimes felt excluded from, as a person of colour.

If you go into the world of non-binary and identity fluidity, it's great, because you can have actors of any gender play characters that identify as any gender. You're not asking actors to deny parts of themselves. You're not asking audiences to ignore certain things that may seem contrary to the logic of the world. It is also fun. It can challenge the audience as to what their expectations are. When I started to read the play with this in mind, it was a new reading of the text that was fun and delightful and more complex and challenging.

So I've created an Ephesus where the person with the highest status models this fluidity. The Duke is a man who dresses as a woman. He models that you can choose to live however you want, but the most important thing is the authenticity to yourself and in your relationships with people. So you still have a situation where Antipholus of Ephesus is betraying his wife within whatever agreement they have made. The characters are still human, and they do take things for granted and make assumptions or make poor choices. We want to leave room for all of that.

But on the identity level, it's bending all over the place. The Courtesan is a man who dresses a woman. Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse are both women who dress as men. Why do they cross-dress? It's sometimes up to the actor - perhaps the character identifies as that gender. And maybe they're queer. Or maybe it's because they are going to look for their twin brothers and it's easier to travel around the world dressed as a man instead of a woman. Maybe this means they are experiencing the world differently. According to the text, Antipholus falls in love with Luciana, who is a woman. It's fun, because then we see her find and really discover herself through this attraction to Luciana.

I am not saying that The Comedy of Errors is about gender fluidity. It's about finding yourself in another and finding love and comedy in surprising ways, and I hope the audience will experience this for themselves through the fluid world we create.

 

For those who know the play, what might surprise them? For those who don't, what do you hope they will experience?

I hope the language itself is accessible. I think it is. I think there is a lot of very direct language. What I hope is that audiences are surprised by how contemporary it feels. I am conscious of how theatre can reinforce marginalizing narratives, and this play often gets written off as a one-note joke that can reinforce gender stereotypes, power dynamics and violence. So it's exciting to think we can tell this story in a way that flips it on its head and challenges those stereotypes while retaining the humour and fun of the play. I hope that audiences feel that. I hope that it's fresh and accessible and funny.

In terms of design, people often want to know what period you're going to set it in. I kind of chafe against that impulse with classical material, because it often forces the story into a homogeneous society in a specific place and time in history that I often feel removed from. What is more interesting to me is asking, "What is our imagined reality?" Let's clearly imagine a new world to take our audience into.

Consequently, my designer Joanna Yu and I are approaching it more from the idea of a bunch of friends who got together and started a colony where they are both really into Victorianism and sticking it to Victorianism at the same time. I think we in Canada can very much relate. It's when this country was founded. Victorian values feel very present still. When you are creating that kind of a world - a world that both loves and pushes back against Victorian ideals - it's fun. It's colourful. Everyone dresses very particularly, as the style is more conscious.

 

It's a comedy and I feel like it's a hard time in the world right now, so I'm wondering what you think we can take away from a story like this in the current climate of divisiveness, of polarization, of isolation, of individualization.

I hope it's to stay open to the possibility of changing your opinion. I think the comedy becomes a means of highlighting our human frailty and reinforcing priorities like reconciliation, respect, discovery, love. I hope it's a chance for us to laugh at ourselves and our own blind spots of where we're close-minded and what we assume. I hope the humour comes out of a recognition and forgiveness of ourselves.

 

Who is this play for?

Everyone. I also think it will totally appeal to high schools. I hope that the fluidity is actually something they will understand better than we do, because they are leading that. I think teenagers will appreciate that we're not talking down to them. For teachers and students, they can hopefully have discussions about inclusivity and nonjudgment. I hope people who are gender fluid and interested in non-binary identities will see themselves in a way that is actually relevant and makes them excited. I hope it shows that you don't have to be one thing or another and that life is more satisfying when you find love for yourself and others.

I also think that this Shakespeare play being in the Studio Theatre is part of what inspires this exploration. That is often where we try out some of our alternative and contemporary work. So I hope this classic play feels alternative and contemporary in a really engaging, expansive way.

PRE-SHOW DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Ask students:

  • How would you feel if you woke up one day and people mistook you for another person?
  • Define farce and slapstick. Do we still see this form of entertainment today on television, in movies or video games?
  • Keira Loughran, the director of this 2018 Stratford Festival production, says,

"Shakespeare's stories speak to everyone, no matter what their age,

cultural background, gender, sexual orientation, identity, etc., and I do

try, with my casting, to reflect that diversity."

Given this statement, discuss what you expect to see in this production. How important is it for us today that theatre reflects our diversity?

WARM-UP EXERCISE: A GARDEN OF LIVING STATUES

Objective:

Students will explore lines from the text using dramatic conventions to demonstrate their understanding of some of the issues presented in the play.

Materials:

  • Space in which to move
  • Lines from the play

Directions:

1.The students will create a garden of statues, using lines from the play to tell a story.

2.Divide the class into four groups and assign each with one of the lines listed below.

3.Students will create a frozen picture (tableau) using everyone in the group to create a picture that expresses the mood/sentiment of the phrase.

4.Remember to maintain focus and create strong physical images, using a variety of levels and facial expressions.

Lines from the play:

  • "Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?"
  • "And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another."
  • "Why, mistress, sure my master is horn mad."
  • "Self-harm jealousy! Fie, beat it hence."

Debriefing Questions:

  • Did your dramatic exploration of the lines communicate information about certain issues of the play? What is your impression about the plotline - do you feel it will be straightforward or otherwise?
  • Re-write these lines in your own words. Once you've done that, compare them to the original. Do your lines capture the same meaning? What are the differences?

 

EXERCISE: A LOOK AT SHAKESPEARE'S USE OF COMIC LANGUAGE

Objective:

Students will analyse and evaluate the comic language in the play using a variety of drama techniques. They will explore different approaches used by Shakespeare to create farce.

Materials:

  • Handout of "A Look at Shakespeare's Use of Comic Language"
  • Space in which to move

Directions:

1.Write on the board, "heterogenium." Discuss this rhetorical term, which means avoiding an issue by changing the subject to something different. Have the students give examples of this device.

2.Working in pairs, have the students read the excerpt from Act II, scene 1, in which Dromio of Ephesus is talking to Antipholus of Syracuse. Encourage them to take apart the speech and play it as the two characters.

3.Have the students come back together to discuss what they learned getting it up on their feet and playing with this rhetorical device.

4.Next, have the students work in groups of three. Each person will play one of the roles: Antipholus of Ephesus, Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse. Imagine there is a door shutting out Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus. How would you stage this? Look at how the insults are structured. Look at the physicality of the scene and the use of rhyme.

5.When the students have finished, have them come together and discuss the farcical elements and influence of commedia dell'arte in this piece.

6.The students, still in groups of three, will then look at the excerpt from Act IV, scene 4. For this type of comedy to work, it has to be fast, precise and physical. Try playing this a variety of ways: as if you are circus clowns; in a very contemporary setting; switching genders.

7.Bring the students together once more and ask for volunteers to present their scene(s).

Debriefing Questions:

  • What techniques did Shakespeare use to bring out the comedy in these scenes?
  • Why is situational humour funny?

 

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Ask students:

  • Many of these characters struggle for (and possibly with) identity, or they are in a world of non-binary and identity fluidity. Why would that appeal to audiences today?
  • How did this production treat gender stereotypes, power dynamics and violence?
  • How did the costumes, lights, music and setting contribute to or enhance your understanding of the text?
  • Discuss the relationships between the Antipholuses and their Dromios. How did this production treat the nature of violence and bullying?

CULMINATING EXERCISE: ALL IS REVEALED

Objective:

Through dramatic exploration students will stage and interpret the final scene of the play. In addition, they will identify ways in which drama can promote inclusivity.

Materials:

  • Handout of excerpt from Act V, scene 1
  • A space in which to move

Directions:

1. Hand out copies of excerpt from Act V, scene 1, in which both sets of twins, as well as Aemilia and Egeon, are united.

2. Stand in a circle and read aloud, with each person taking a line.

3. Review all words and phrases that are unfamiliar and check for understanding.

4. Divide the class into two groups. Each group will stage the reunion scene. Although there are ten characters with speaking parts, there are many others who are in the scene watching and reacting to what is going on (e.g. Luciana, Second Merchant, Officers, Egeon's Executioner  and Messenger). NOTE: Allow the students, if they wish and are comfortable doing so, to play any of the roles, regardless of gender, cultural background, sexual orientation, identity, etc.

5. Have each group go over their section and read aloud the text several times for clarity and meaning.

6. Rehearse the scene, then have the entire class come together and present their scene to each other.

Debriefing Questions:

  • If your scene incorporated diversity and the switching of genders, etc., how did this change the way you saw and heard the scene?
  • For most of the play, it is possible for both Antipholuses and Dromios to be played by one actor each - but they appear together in the final scene. How would you solve this staging challenge?
  • The similarities and differences of twins fascinate us, and are often augmented in comedy for our entertainment. How does your excerpted scene compare with the Stratford Festival's final scene?
  • Did you find the language accessible once you got the play up on its feet? Why?
  • Is The Comedy of Errors an apt title for this play, or would you give it another title? What would it be and why?
  • How does drama promote inclusivity?

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY for THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

               

SHAKESPEARE: HISTORY, CRITICISM and BIOGRAPHY

Beckerman, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Globe, 1599-1609. 1962.

Bentley, G.E. Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook. 1951.

Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z. 1990.

Brown, Ivor. Shakespeare and the Actors. 1970.

Brown, John Russell. Shakespeare and his Theatre. 1993.

Burgess, Anthony. Shakespeare. 1970.

Campbell, Oscar James, ed. The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare. 1966.

Dobson, Michael, ed. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. 2001.

Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Shakespeare. 1992.

Frye, R. M. Shakespeare's Life and Times: a Pictorial Record. 1968.

Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642. 1980.

Hodges, C. Walter. Shakespeare and the Players. 1948.

Muir, Kenneth and Samuel Schoenbaum, eds. A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, 1985.

Nagler, A. M. Shakespeare's Stage. 1985.

Schoenbaum, Samuel. William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life. 1975.

Taylor, Gary. Reinventing Shakespeare. 1989.

Thomson, Peter. Shakespeare's Theatre. 1983.

Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. 1943.

Wells, Stanley, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies. 1986.

 

TEACHING SHAKESPEARE

Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare. New York, 1970.

Edens, Walter, et al. Teaching Shakespeare. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1977.

Gibson, Rex. Secondary School Shakespeare. Cambridge: 1990.

Gibson, Rex. Stepping into Shakespeare. Cambridge: 2000.

Gibson, Rex. Teaching Shakespeare. 1998.

Gibson, Rex and Field-Pickering, Janet. Discovering Shakespeare's Language. Cambridge: 1998.

O'Brien, Veronica. Teaching Shakespeare. London, 1982.

Stredder, James. The North Face of Shakespeare: Activities for Teaching the Plays. Cambridge, 2009      

 

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS:

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare.  2017.

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors.  Cambridge School. 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. The Folger Shakespeare Library, 2005.

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors.  Oxford School Shakespeare - Oxford University Press, 2002.

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. The Pelican Shakespeare (Penguin Random House), 2016.

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. The Royal Shakespeare Company (The Modern Library), 2011.

 

ONLINE RESOURCES

BookRags.com Homepage, http://www.bookrags.com

Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet, https://archive.is/shakespeare.palomar.edu

MIT Global Shakespeares http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/europe/#

MIT Shakespeare Homepage: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare http://shakespeare.mit.edu/

Shakespeare's Life and Times, web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Library/SLT/intro/introsubj.html

Shakespeare Online, www.shakespeare-online.com

Movie Review Query Engine, www.mrqe.com

Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com

                                                                 

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS ON FILM, VIDEO and DVD:

1978 (USA) The Comedy of Errors. Directed by Philip Casson; starring Roger Rees, Judi Dench and Richard Griffiths.

1983 (UK) The Comedy of Errors. Directed by James Cellan Jones; starring Cyril Cusack, Charles Gray and Roger Daltrey.

2012 (UK) National Theatre Live:The Comedy of Errors. Directed by Dominic Cooke; starring Lenny Henry, Claudie Blakley and Chris Jarman.

2015 (UK) Shakespeare's Globe: The Comedy of Errors. Directed by Blanche McIntyre; starring Simon Harrison, Matthew Needham and Jamie Wilkes.

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