Thursday, September 9, 2010

Notes on the Introduction to the Arden 2 Comedy of Errors

Notes to the Introduction to the Arden Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors

Part of this new edition of The Merry Devil of Edmonton will entail an appropriate introduction to the text, and fortunately for me a lot of very good models for this exist. I'm starting with R. A. Foakes' introduction to the Arden 2 Comedy of Errors. Comedy of Errors serves as a good point of comparison for me because it is Shakespeare's shortest play, and much like Merry Devil, is pretty straight up, unproblematic comedy filled with some great clowning and farce. Lets see how Foakes prefaces his text...

Foakes begins with a technical introduction to the text, describing the greater printing environment (i.e. the Folio) in which it is found. He notes the regularity of the Folio comedies that precede it, and discusses some of the ways in which Comedy of Errors is different from these, and may have come from a different source, going on to cite the work of McKerrow in hypothesizing that Comedy of Errors may have been printed from an author's manuscript, and citing Greg's hypothesis about the insertion of act breaks in the print house. (xi - xiii).

Foakes also notes that the inclusion of superfluous information in the stage directions would further indicate they are the result of the hand of an author rather than a prompter (xiii).

Foakes cites the overall good quality of the text of the play, noting the relatively few instances of demonstrable presence of a prompter's hand, and the sporadic evidence of compositor error in refuting Dover Wilson's more elaborate claims about a scribe editing the text as it was dictated to him by someone else (xv).

Before concluding his notes on the text, Foakes describes his editorial process. He explains his modernization of spelling and punctuation, and of general word uses, except for a few cases, and describes the apparatus he uses to call the reader's attention to where his edition varies from the Folio (xvi).

Foakes moves on to give approximate dates for the text using concrete evidence, such as the first recorded performance, as well as more arguable stylistic grounds. He also presents the arguments against the stylistic arguments, as well as other interpretations of the composition date of the play (xvi - xvii).

Foakes notes that the evidence other scholars offer for their interpretations is not very strong, and proposes his own bounds for the date of composition based on textual similarities to Love's Labours Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, and Two Gentlemen of Verona (xxii - xxiii).

Foakes moves on to a discussion of the sources for Comedy of Errors, most specifically Plautus' Menaechmi, and provides a brief summary of the plot (xxiv).

Foakes notes Shakespeare's knowledge of Latin early on, but mentions textual similarities with William Warner's 1595 translation of the Menaechmi. Foakes finds it equally plausible that Warner could have chosen certain words because of his familiarity with Shakespeare's play as it is that Shakespeare could have based Comedy of Errors off of Warner's translation (xxv - xxvi).

Foakes also cites Plautus' Amphitruo as a contributing source to Comedy of Errors, and elaborates on how Shakespeare integrated pieces of this other Plautus comedy into his own (xxvii).

Foakes goes on to point out the likely source of Plautus that Shakespeare used as being prepared by Lambinus (xxviii).

Foakes also discusses Shakespeare's motives in moving the play from Plautus' Epidamnum to Ephesus. His London audience would have been more familiar with Ephesus from biblical references, which have special pertinence to marriage and magic, and from The Excellent and pleasant Works of Julius Solinus Polyhistor, which describes Ephesus as a great sea port and mentions the great temple to Diana (xxix - xxx).

Foakes further cites John Lyly's Mother Bombie as a potential inspiration, and notes some of the similar phrases that exist between the two (xxxiii).

Foakes' next topic of discussion is of the staging of Comedy of Errors. He proceeds from the specific requirements of the play to describe general staging practices of the late 16th century, and discuss some of the specifics of venues available at the time (xxxiv - xxxv).

During the course of his discussion of staging, Foakes makes note of some of the more contentious passages in the text, and describes how they may have been staged given the possibilities of a court performance and mansions available at Gray's Inn, and how they could just as conceivably have been played on the public stage (xxxv - xxxix).

Foakes moves from his textual introduction to a critical one, and begins by stating that any treatment of Comedy of Errors will seem shallow compared with a reading of one of Shakespeare's more mature comedies, and yet would seem like more than is necessary for a play that is commonly regarded as a simple farce. What follows is a solid work of New Criticism that examines some of the more serious elements of Comedy of Errors, and notes their connection with the ritual basis of theatre. Through this analysis of man transformed, Foakes presents a reading of Comedy of Errors that demonstrates it to be more than just a simple farce, and while not quite as developed as Shakespeare later comedies, it shares a kinship with, and in some ways lays the ground work for those works (xxxix - li).

Foakes concludes his introduction to the play with a performance history. Beginning with recorded early modern performances, he traces the plays adaptation through the 17th and 18th centuries, and its eventual reintroduction to the stage as written by Shakespeare, but also touches on notable stage and film adaptations of the early 20th century (remember that this introduction was written in 1962), such as The Boys from Syracuse (li - lv).


Foakes' introduction to The Comedy of Errors is strongest when Foakes is taking a New Critical approach. Even his opening section on the text tends to veer in this direction, and his brief performance history creates a narrative of restoration derision transforming into Edwardian acceptance of this work in Shakespeare's canon. Foakes tends not to provide much by way of historical context, which may be a function of his inability to fix a more precise date, but neither does he seem very much confirmed with examining the society that produced the play (although he does touch on certain aspects of it), or the theatrical practices of the time (although, again, he does touch on these).

To a degree, it seems as if Foakes is writing this introduction for someone with a decent understanding of the education system under Elizabeth, and with a comfortable knowledge of the stage craft of the period. His primary source text is, of course, the Folio, and absent any competing quarto texts, he doesn't have any textual conflations to justify, although his explanation of why the Folio text may be regarded as coming from a foul papers manuscript, and why it might have been edited by someone, perhaps a compositor, to make it more stylistically similar to the five comedies that precede it is interesting. Those stylistic differences that Foakes notes between Comedy of Errors and the preceding comedies in the Folio are also quite interesting.

It is perhaps telling of this introduction that the textual history of this play is relatively uneventful, and that it's stylistic elements have been the more pressing concern. Foakes is therefore correct in making his New Critical arguments to fix the play as a full fledged member of Shakespeare's canon. It is an early work that shows exceptional promise and improvements over the sources from which it is likely derived, and its performance history has only relatively recently begun to acknowledge that the work can be played on stage largely in the form in which it comes to us.


Foakes, R. A. "Introduction." The Comedy of Errors. Arden Shakespeare. London. 1962. Reprinted 2000. xi - lv.

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