Sunday, June 9, 2013

Shakespeare titles: The Comedy of Errors

David Tennant gets mistaken for his twin
in the RSC 2000 production of The Comedy of Errors
The Comedy of Errors inaugurates Shakespeare's habit of giving nondescript titles to his comedies—think of Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. This one's even broader, literally generic, having come to mean any story having ironic accidents, mistaken identities, and farcical proportions. Incidentally, the common phrase derives from the title, not visa versa.
Comedy announces the show's genre, but it's Errors that characterizes the action. Late in act 5, as the play's complications are resolved, one of a pair of twins, separated at birth and now reunited, says,
I was ta'en for him, and he for me,
And thereupon these errors are arose.
The play's Errors are mistaken assumptions, confusions of the mind. In this respect, the title echoes The Supposes, a then-thirty-year-old translation of an Italian play. The writer of that comedy, a Cambridge grad and bankrupt gentleman named George Gascoigne, explicated his title in the play's argument (= a plot summary delivered before the play):
But understand, this our Suppose is nothing else but a mistaking or imagination of one thing for another. For you shall see the master supposed for the servant, the servant for the master: the freeman for a slave, and the bondslave for a freeman: the stranger for a well-known friend, and the familiar for a stranger.
For Gascoigne, a Suppose was a confusion of identity, whether intentional or un-. Most comedies in antiquity and the Renaissance were named for a character or dramatic catalyst. By naming his play for its comic theme, Gascoigne probably provided Shakespeare with the inspiration to title his own comedies whimsically. Shakespeare definitely knew The Supposes; he poached its plot for act 4 of The Taming of the Shrew*.
As for The Comedy of Errors itself, the title of this early-career play doesn't just show that Shakespeare was already approaching his titles with imagination and flourish. It also proves that his ability to coin unforgettable phrases was already fully formed by 1594, the earliest recorded performance of the show.

* The bit about a gentleman hiring a random traveller to impersonate his father—or rather the father of his servant, who meanwhile was impersonating him.