So dexterously manipulated is the plot of what is likely Shakespeare's first comedy and so brisk its pace that we are liable to dismiss the work as frivolous and unfeeling. Such an attitude is unfair. The Comedy of Errors is an ingratiating play, hardly flawless, but one that reveals a budding genius exploring themes and developing techniques that emerge triumphantly in later masterpieces.
The basic story comes from The Menaechmi of the Roman playwright Plautus, whose creative life extended from roughly 205 to 184 B.C. Shakespeare's play involves Plautus's twin masters, who undergo confusions compounded by the presence of identical twin servants, a twist taken from another of Plautus's works, Amphitryon. The Comedy of Errors stays loyal to its classical antecedent by maintaining unities of time and place, but in more important ways moves beyond the sheer farce that marks Roman comedy.
First, the added characters of Egeon, Luciana, and the Abbess contribute to a tension created by the mixture of both comic and dramatic episodes. In addition, the play has moments of intense romanticism as well as suspense that verges on the melodramatic. And the ending is a catharsis of sorts, wherein all conflicts resolve amidst universal joy.
Several other elements here return in subsequent comedies of Shakespeare. The mainspring of the plot is a shipwreck, after which a family is broken apart, then reunited. The language is suffused with references to dreaming and sorcery. The surrounding community is preoccupied with money, a devotion that invades private lives. Several characters suffer dilemmas in which they are left stranded, uncertain of their identity. Other characters undergo a metamorphosis, as the trials they endure lead to permanent changes of personality and values.
One distinction that separates this play from others to follow is that no single character schemes to set off the plot, and consequently no character can explain everything we see. All participants are confused. Thus we do not find ourselves rooting for a hero and against a villain. In fact, the play has no truly dark figure, and therefore risks keeping us detached observers: amused, but not emotionally committed to the outcome. However, the passion of several characters as well