Honors Bachelor of Arts

Document Type


Faculty Advisor

Thesis Director: Dr. Shannon Byrne; HAB Course Director: Dr. Shannon Byrne




Undoubtedly the most well-known playwright in the English language, Shakespeare’s influence can be felt in most every genre in most every era. Allusions to his work can be found anywhere, from horror novels to sci-fi. Beyond allusions, most strongly felt is his stylistic influence in theatre. Names, plot devices, and images have all been taken from Shakespeare’s greatest works and implemented and transformed in new art forms. However, not all elements of Shakespearean drama originated with the bard himself. Shakespeare drew inspiration from the dramatists that preceded him, especially Roman playwrights. In his earlier works, these similarities are apparent. The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s most direct adaptation, based primarily on the plot of the Menaechmi and supplemented by the Amphitruo, both by Plautus. The play consists of two sets of comic twins, separated at birth, with one of the twins journeying to the city of the other where mistaken identity causes all sorts of comedic events. As aforementioned, this play is one of his earliest, with the first known performance in December 1594. There are many theories about the date of composition, spanning as early as 1589. While some dates are more likely than others, the only certainty is that the play was written sometime between 1589 and 1593, making it one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays.1 The most significant difference between the Plautine model and The Comedy of Errors is the addition of another set of comic twins. In the Menaechmi, there is only one set of Menaechmi, Menaechmus of Epidamnus and Sosicles, also known as Menaechmus, of Syracuse. The Comedy of Errors has two sets, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus and Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse. This addition is from the Amphitruo, where Jupiter and Mercury impersonate Amphitryon and his slave Sosia. Shakespeare also derives several scenes from the Amphitruo, i.e., when Dromio of Syracuse bars Antipholus of Ephesus from entering his own house. The Comedy of Errors is a direct adaptation of Plautus’s works. However, what Shakespeare takes from these works is not just in the plot, but other elements that drive the comedic engines at work in the play. Countless authors have done literary analysis on The Comedy of Errors and the Menaechmi. They’ve uncovered much of how Shakespeare went about building his adaptation of Plautus, but how do these plays differ in dramatic analysis? What insights can be gleamed from approaching these plays in dramatic terms? The goal of this paper is to answer this question. Using formalist analysis as described by James Thomas, this paper will address how these productions differ. A formalist analysis focuses on categorizing information provided by the script as much as possible. It is more extreme than simple Aristotelian divisions, and its many specific criterion make it ideal for comparison. Thomas describes this type of analysis as “A systematic collection of close-ups to form at last the big picture.”2 Another benefit of this type of analysis is its generality. Other types of script analysis tend to focus on the script from one particular perspective, such as from the position of an actor or a director. Formalist analysis is applicable to all, not varying one aspect of a script over another. Dissecting a script into basic components allows for ease of comparison; attempting to compare the entirety of these two plays would be herculean, but the analysis of individual aspects is more manageable. These components are the given circumstances, the background story, characters, idea, mood, and atmosphere. By viewing how these differing elements interact and supplement one another, the style of these two plays can be properly defined and compared to show that through the implementation of tragic and dramatic elements, Shakespeare subverted farce and Plautine style to comment on familial duty and marriage.



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