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This play is supposed, by some commentators, to have been among Shakspeare's earliest productions; whilst others will not allow that he had
any farther share in the work, than to embellish it with additional words, lines, speeches, or scenes, to gratify its original author, or the manager of the theatre, who might, perhaps, place it in his hands for the purpose of improvement.
In confirmation of this last notion, Steevens has declared “ The Comedy of Errors” to be the composition of two very unequal writers ; adding—“that the entire play was no work of Shakspeare's, is an opinion which (as Benedick says) fire cannot melt out of me; I will die in it at the stake."
As it is thus partly decided that the work is not wholly Shakspeare's, full liberty may be taken to find fault with it.
Of all improbable stories, this is the most so. The Ghost in “ Hamlet,” Witches in “ Macbeth," and Monster in “ The Tempest,” seem all like events in
the common course of nature, when compared to those which take place in this drama. Its fable verges on impossibility, but the incidents which arise from it could never have oucurred.
Granting that the two Antipholises and the two Dromios were as like, as twins often are, would their clothes, even the fashion of their habits, have been so exactly alike, that mistakes could have been carried to such extremities ? Nay, one brother comes purposely to Ephesus, in search of his twin brother, his own perfect resemblance, and yet, when every accident he encounters tells him directly—that his brother being resident in that very place is the cause of them all, this is an inference he never once draws, but rather chuses to believe the people of the town are all mad, than that the person whom he hoped to find'there, is actually one of its inhabitants.
But it is not so much for the impossibilities contained in this comedy, as on account of its rhyme, and, as Blackstone has termed them, “ long hobbling verses," which makes it suspected of bearing the great poet's name without due cause.
Whether Shakspeare wrote the doggerel speeches of the twin attendants, and other inferior passages, must still remain in some doubt; but that he was the author of Ægeon's narrative at the beginning of the play, and the entire character of the Abbess Æmilia, can be little mistrusted; though not even in these parts are there any very powerful marks of his genius.
This drama was scarcely known on the stage for the last century, till Mr. Hull, in 3779, then deputy manager of Covent Garden theatre, curtailed, and made other judicious alterations and arrangements, by which it was rendered attractive for some nights, and afterwards placed upon the list of plays that are generally performed during every season.
In representing the pair of twin brothers on the stage, their dress is the chief part of their likeness one to the other. Thus, representation gives an additional improbability; yet it is necessary that the audience should not see with the supposed eyes the persons of the drama, for, unless the audience could distinguish one brother from another, which their companions on the stage pretend not to do, the audience themselves would be dupes to the similarity of appearance, instead of laughing at the dupes engaged in the scene.
In most of the old comedies, there is seemingly a great deal of humour designed in the beating of servants :--this is a resource for mirth, of which modern authors are deprived, because the custom is abolished, except in the West Indies; and, even there, not considered of humorous tendency. As far as the usage was ever known to produce comic effect, this play may boast of being comical.
It is suggested by a critic, that the following lines, being a translation from Plautus, in 1595, might have given to Shakspeare the general plan upon which he founded this drama.
“ Two twinne borne sonnes a Sicell merchant had,
“ Menechmus one, and Sosicles the other; “ The first his father lost, a little lad;
« The grandsire namde the latter like his brother : « This (growne a man) long travell took to seeke
“ His brother, and to Epidamnum came, “ Where th' other dwelt ipricht, and him so like,
“ That citizens there take him for the same : “ Father, wife, neighbours, each mistaking either, “ Much pleasant error, ere they meet togither.”