Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Comedy of Errors opens at Folger Theatre next week, so in celebration I’m “Pinching” two items from our freshly released study guide! The title blatantly states that the play is a comedy, but what does that mean? Below are an article about the comedy in Comedy of Errors, and an activity for you and your students! Which of Shakespeare’s Comedies is your favorite?

Farce and Violence

What type of humor makes you laugh? Witty banter? Broad slapstick? Smart satire or clever intrigue? The Comedy of Errors is not a comedy of ideas. It is a situational farce of mistaken identity with occasional dirty word play and violent physical comedy – the Shakespearean equivalent to a popular MTV show featuring young men doing stupid tricks. As long as the person riding his BMX bike off a roof does not become grievously injured, the slapstick is funny. In the same way, both of the Antipholus brothers are unrestrained in occasionally beating the Dromios, yet the violence seems ineffective. Likewise, Egeon’s death hangs over the entire plot of The Comedy of Errors, yet the audience is never afraid that he will actually die. It is not because audiences are desensitized to violence, it is simply that this light, low comedy enables laughter at the situations these characters are in without focusing too much on their physical well-being.

Also typical in a farce, the audience is asked to believe in a world that looks similar, but exaggerates and builds upon society’s mistakes. Characters and situations in farces are intensified to an improbable degree, if only to hold a mirror up to society’s foolish actions. For instance, anyone from Syracuse is sentenced to death in Ephesus simply for being a stranger. Although this is extreme, how often does a society impose rules on people from foreign lands based on their nationality? A farce handles the idea lightly, and the audience experiences a kind of catharsis from laughing at the misfortunes of others. Even so, they may be laughing at themselves without realizing it.

Make ‘em Laugh

Plot devices (such as ‘mistaken identity’) are repeated in many of Shakespeare’s comedies. Below is a list of some of the plot devices found in The Comedy of Errors. See if you can name one or more plays where the same device occurs. A complete list of Shakespeare’s comedies is below.

1. A ship brings someone to a foreign land.
2. A twin is mistaken for his/her sibling.
3. The hero/heroine is disguised for protection.
4. A character is so rotund that many jokes are made at his/her expense.
5. Someone is accused of being insane.
6. A character falls in love with the wrong person.
7. A man and woman banter wittily until they realize they’re in love.
8. The play ends in reuniting and marriage.

As You Like It
The Comedy of Errors
Cymbeline
Love’s Labor’s Lost
Measure for Measure
The Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Midsummer Nights Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
Twelfth Night
Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Winter’s Tale

For more activities and insights to discuss with your class, visit www.folger.edu/studyguides.

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