Comedy of Errors is one of William Shakespeare's most early plays, perhaps even his first, but it certainly wasn't his first performed play (the first performed play was likely to have been Henry VI Part II): Comedy of Errors was first performed on 28th December 1594 (Holy Innocents’ Day) at Gray's Inn, largely frequented by lawyers and law students. It's said that night was somewhat of a disaster, known at the time as the "Night of Errors": the players were booked to perform on that night, however it is thought (but not confirmed) that Shakespeare had been asked to perform Comedy of Errors in front of Queen Elizabeth I at short notice. By the time they had finished at Greenwich and rushed across to Gray's Inn (which I believe is about a six mile journey) the temporary stage erected at Gray's Inn for the performance had already been dismantled as it was apparently nearing midnight. Nevertheless the show seemed to have gone on!
The play is very firmly in the Plautian tradition: the plot is largely based on the Menaechmi or The Brothers Menaechmus by Plautus (2nd Century B.C.). In Shakespeare's play, as in Plautus', there are twins: Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, however, just to really confuse things (mistaken identities were a great source of Elizabethan humour), there are another set of twins: Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse. It begins with a merchant from Syracuse, Egeon, who is sentenced to death for trading with a rival city. He explains that he is there in search of his wife and one of his sons (i.e. one of the twins) from whom he was separated during a shipwreck. Solinus, a duke, grants him an extra day to raise the money needed to spare him execution.
This missing twin is Antipholus of Syracuse (who I'll refer to as Syracuse), and he and his slave Dromio of Syracuse (who I'll call 'slave of Syracuse') are in search of his missing twin. We find him in Ephesus, where, coincidentally, Antipholus of Ephesus (hereafter Ephesus) is living (and living very well), along with his slave Dromio of Ephesus (hereafter slave of Ephesus). From here the Elizabethan hilarity ensues: I imagine watching it would be tricky enough, but reading it was a big mistake. In short, Adriana (Ephesus' wife) mistakes Syracuse for Ephesus and demands he returns home from dinner whilst slave of Syracuse stands guard the door; Ephesus inevitably arrives and is angry to be locked out of his own home. Later, Ephesus refuses to pay for a gold chain that, unbeknown to the seller, Syracuse bought, so Ephesus is arrested. Meanwhile Syracuse has fallen in love with Adriana's sister Luciana, but when he makes his advances she assumes he is Ephesus and is naturally disgusted with him. Adriana, for Ephesus' own safety, locks him a cellar assuming he's gone mad, and Syracuse decides to leave, unable to stand what appears to him to be a city full of mad inhabitants. Finally, however, everything is resolved and not before time.
Comedy of Errors really is hard work, but it was made mildly amusing at times by remembering events in Plautus' Menaechmi (that did make it a little easier to follow). All that said, it is I would think a good example of the ol' Elizabethan humour, which is always interesting. Comedy of Errors was written above all else to amuse, and no doubt it did, even after the 'Night of Errors'. It's funny how humour dates, though having just had the misfortune of catching the end of a recent South Park episode, I'm loathe to say our humour is more sophisticated in the 21st Century!