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The Influence of Plautus on the Works of Shakespeare

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Comedy of Errors

            Based on the theme of mistaken identity, The Comedy of Errors is one of the earliest plays of William Shakespeare. A handful of classical elements are found in this play, which connects it to the Roman playwright Plautus’ comedies, especially to The Brothers Menaechmus. This paper is going to critically compare the classical model with the Shakespearean model with particular emphasis on Comedy of Errors.

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            Before delving into the plots of Comedy of Errors and The Brothers Menaechmus, it is important to consider the influence of Plautus on the works of Shakespeare, Jonson, Wilde and Shaw.

One can explore numerous dramatic literary devices that were employed in some of the earliest Latin, Greek and Italian works. These include dramatic satura, biological metaphors, rhetorical and symbolic vocabulary and so on. The pulse of dramatic comedy was set in those early works of Plautus and Terence, and the legacy was masterfully carried into the later traditions through translations and re-creations.

Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and other plays written in vernacular languages by English playwrights such as Jonson, Heywood and Chapman were reproductions of specific plots in Plautus or Terence. The scope of creativity and flexibility was enormous with the re-creations of the original plots.

Many early critics preferred to keep Shakespeare aside from the other Elizabethan dramatists in that his works were not influenced by the New Comedic traditions. But later on, panoptic investigations revealed that Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors was discernibly influenced by The Brothers Menaechmus. Now the methodologies Shakespeare adopted before he took up the task of deciphering Plautus became a matter of serious debate in the critic circle of the eighteenth century. Langbaine’s asseveration that Shakespeare relied on Warner’s translation of the main Latin text reflected the opinions of Gildon, Rowe, Pope, Dennis and Lennox. Dennis went on furthermore to assert that it was nearly impossible for Shakespeare to read Plautus ‘without Pain and Difficulty’ and assumed that he must have resorted to the assistance of a ‘Stranger’ or ‘some learned Friend’. (Miola, 11)

            Contemporary understanding of Shakespeare’s comedic works also takes into account the intellectual factors that were missing in New Comedic traditions. The ‘Plautine’ comedies were written in the backdrop of a farcical universe devoid of moral or ethical issues. The characters were stereotyped and they did not fit into the notion of redemption at all. Having said this, there are ample validations to support the argument that Shakespeare was directly influenced by Plautus and his school of New Comedy.

            The plot of Plautus’ The Brothers Menaechmus involves twin brothers Menaechmus and Sosicles who accidentally gets separated from each other when their father Moschus takes the seven year old Menaechmus to a business trip. Menaechmus is adopted by a businessman who lives in Epidamnus. Moschus dies of grief and Sosicles is renamed after his lost brother Menaechmus. ‘Menaechmus’ Sosicles keeps on searching his brother for years and when he almost gives up hope, he decides to stay for a while at Epidamnus. The theme of mistaken identity is what the play is all about. During his stay at Epidamnus, ‘Menaechmus’ Sosicles faces strange situations just because people over there mistake him for Menaechmus. The dramatic suspicion is masterfully kept alive by Plautus as the two brothers never meet each other until the very end of the plot. While ‘Menaechmus’ Sosicles is met with people whom he thinks are loony and impolite, Menaechmus also goes through lot of hassles with his wife and friend Peniculus. The play ends with the meeting of the two brothers. Messenio, Sosicle’s slave, plays an important role in the play as he helps identifying that Menaechmus and Sosicles are in fact long-lost twins.

            Shakespeare’s digression from this original plot is worth observing. He introduces another set of twin slaves in addition to Plautus’ twin brothers. Comedy of Errors begins with a touch of somberness as Egeon narrates a sad story when he faces execution.

“A heavier task could not have been imposed

Than I to speak my griefs unspeakable:

Yet, that the world may witness that my end

Was wrought by nature, not by vile offence,

I’ll utter what my sorrows give me leave.

In Syracusa was I born, and wed

Unto a woman…” (The Literature Network, 2000-2009)

The day his wife gave birth to twins, a poor woman also gave birth to two sons who were twins. Egeon purchased these two boys as his sons’ slaves. But a shipwreck brought disaster to Egeon’s life as Egeon was left with one son and one slave while his wife rescued the other son and slave. Egeon never saw his lost son and his slave. Now the story rolls over as his grown-up son Antipholus of Syracuse and his slave Dromio of Syracuse set off for their lost counterparts. But Antipholus of Syracuse does not return and Egeon himself sets out in search of him.     This story touches the heart of the Duke of Ephesus and he gives Egeon one more day to pay back the fine.

            The day Egeon leaves in search of his son, Antipholus of Syracuse too reaches Ephesus to find his brother. He sends Dromio of Syracuse to deposit some money at an inn. The confusions and chaos of mistaken identity starts from this point onwards as Dromio of Ephesus comes along almost immediately, denying any knowledge of money and asking Antipholus of Syracuse to get back to home for dinner. Such atrocity from a servant is not taken lightly by Antipholus of Syracuse, and Dromio is beaten up.

            The servant comes back to Antipholus’ ‘wife’ Adriana and tells her about the incident. When she is told that her ‘husband’ acted ignorant of her identity, Adriana, who already had doubt on the character of her husband, becomes convinced of her suspicions.

            The plot becomes extremely confusing yet farcical as Antipholus of Syracuse comes across Dromio of Syracuse. The sons and servants keep driving the people of Ephesus mad as they cannot comprehend how those fellows can appear in different places within a very short span of time. Other characters in the play, including Angelo, the goldsmith, a female courtesan, merchants, Adriana’s cook Nell – everybody in the town forms bizarre opinions of the son-servant duo. The story becomes intriguingly farcical as a psychiatrist is appointed to treat Antipholus of Ephesus. In the end, Egeon recognizes his son, thinking him to be Antipholus of Syracuse, but Antipholus of Ephesus cannot recognize Egeon. However, everything is sorted out in the end as the family reunites and Egeon is pardoned by the Duke.

            The points of similarity between the plot of The Brothers Menaechmus and that of Comedy of Errors suggest the intertextual patterns that Shakespeare must have recreated. But one cannot overlook his own inputs with regards to Elizabethan intelligence and innovative dramatic devices. Shakespeare purposefully made the plot more intriguing by first of all introducing identical slaves, and then by characters like Luciana and Nell to complicate the confusions of mistaken identities. Antipholus of Syracuse finds himself smitten by Luciana whereas Dromio of Syracuse is approached by Nell. The subtlety of such literary techniques was in fact dazzlingly appealing to the Elizabethan audience. Not only does it make the plot a fascinating one, but also gives scope of using dramatic tools such as puns: “…in her buttocks. I found it out by the bogs.”, “I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand.”, “In her forehead, armed and reverted, making war against her heir”, “Faith, I saw it not; but I felt it hot in her breath.” (Shakespeare et al., p. 195)

            Apart from mistaken identities, slapstick literary devices and wordplay have also been employed profusely in Comedy of Errors. However, the plots for both The Brothers Menaechmus and Comedy of Errors necessitate the introduction of slapstick or exaggerated physical movements, it is in Shakespeare where one can find subtleties of humor blended with slapstick.

            Notwithstanding the difficulties in comparing two works from different literary times, it is an engrossing challenge for the critics and historians alike to relate Plautus and Shakespeare to a common string of ‘mistaken identity’. Shakespeare’s intensive familiarity with Latin literature developed from the staging of plays in the academics and schools throughout the fifteenth century. In Plautus’ comedies Shakespeare could sense the ideal components for recreating an entertaining comedy unfolding around a succession of mistaken identity.

Work Cited

Miola, Robert, S. Shakespeare and Classical Comedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Shakespeare, William, & Orgel, Stephen, & Braunmuller, A. R. The Complete Works. London: Penguin Classics, 2002.

The Literature Network. Comedy of Errors. 2000-2009. <http://www.online-literature.com/shakespeare/errors/1/>

 

Cite this The Influence of Plautus on the Works of Shakespeare

The Influence of Plautus on the Works of Shakespeare. (2016, Sep 14). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/comedy-of-errors/

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