A farcical case of mistaken identity

The Comedy of Errors - William Shakespeare

Fortunately I ended up seeing this play performed last year by one of the few Australian Shakespearian companies so I have a better understanding of what is going on than if I had just read the play outright. However, it is also fortunate that Youtube has all of the BBC editions of Shakespeare's plays (along with quite a few other plays), however when I typed in Comedy of Errors into the Youtube search engine I discovered that I hit on a huge number of results, none of them being the particular version that I wanted, and I suspect that due to the use of the title to refer to a series of complete muff-ups, then actually finding the play is going to be difficult in and of itself.

So, here is another classic example of how a Shakespearian phrase has entered into common use - a comedy of errors tends to relate to a series of mistakes and stuff ups. However, the original root word from which error comes from (the Latin word errarre refers to the wondering of one's mind or a distraction) has nothing to do with our modern usage of the word (which simply means a mistake). Yet, our use of the word probably comes from this particular play in that the entire play is about mistaken identities, namely that there are two sets of identical twins which do not know of each other's existence. Mind you one lot does realise that the other does exist, but it appears that they do not realise that they are identical twins, and the comedy of the play evolves entirely around this concept of mistaken identity.

The idea of the mistaken identity through the use of identical twins is a concept that has been used quite often and goes back to the Ancient Roman comedy by Plautus called The Menaechmus Twins. However, as is expected from Shakespeare, while he may have taken the concept, he also added much more too it, including a second set of identical twins (which gives rise to the idea of the beatings) and makes it much more romantic (two concepts that I will touch upon later). The idea is still used today especially with the advances in movie technology. Fans of Hong Kong cinema may remember Jackie Chan's contribution to the genre:

 


 

and sometimes the twins may not necessarily be identical:

 


 

and even Van Damme offered his own contribution, despite the fact that the only reason the film is funny is because it was so bad: