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HE history of "The Comedy of Errors" is not encumbered with many of those theories which have heaped about the tomb of Shakespeare so vast a cairn of conjecture. The commentators find little in its text to provoke their ingenuity, and no battle royal has raged about the questions of its date or its authorship. It is quietly allowed, by the most sceptical, to be an unadulterated work of the master, and no one has seriously attempted to overturn the slender, but sensible and sufficient, arguments on which its position among Shakespeare's writings is based. No early quarto of it is known; it appears for the first time immediately after "Measure for Measure" in the folio of 1623. Meres mentions it among his six excellent comedies of Shakespeare in 1598, in the course of his "Palladis Tamia." But we know that it was played in 1594, and it is evidently

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still older. There is a patent reference in the third act to that civil war in France which went on from the summer of 1589 to that of 1593. Another and vaguer allusion to "whole armadoes of carracks" is supposed to confine us to the period 1589-91. The consensus of internal evidence, in end-tests and the like, puts "The Comedy of Errors second in the series of Shakespeare's undoubted plays, between "Love's Labour's Lost," which may belong to 1589, and "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," which may belong to 1591. We are not likely to be confuted if we claim 1590 for its year of composition.

The critical interest of "The Comedy of Errors" centres in the fact that it is the only surviving play of Shakespeare in which we observe that he deliberately or closely follows a previous work from the hand of an acknowledged master of drama. In other productions we find him competing with such contemporaries as Greene and Kyd, and easily excelling them. Elsewhere we may persuade ourselves to see the influence of Seneca upon him, or even that of Ariosto. But these traces of apprenticeship to foreign models are slight, and above all they are fragmentary and episodical. For instance,— and we can wish for none more appropriate, we see in the strictly parallel farce of "The Taming of the Shrew " evidence of Latin and Italian influence, yet this play is in its essentials—that is to say, in all its unchallenged Petruchio and Katherine scenes in conception as well as execution a characteristic and independent work of Shakespeare. This "The Comedy of Errors" is not; here for once and never again Shake

speare bent his genius to that of a predecessor only less adventurous than himself. It was one thing to compete with the vague "precursors" of 1580; it was another thing to interpret, as an engraver interprets a painting, a masterpiece by the greatest comic playwright of Latin antiquity.

Hence the very first thing to be done in examining "The Comedy of Errors" critically is to discover what relation it bears to the "Menæchmi" of Plautus, of which it is a studied paraphrase or recast. No English translation of Plautus had been published when Shakespeare's play was composed, and commentators have shown great ingenuity in trying to prove that the poet must have had access to an English version of the "Menæchmi," made in verse by William Warner, but not printed until 1594. It is to exaggerate the littleness of Shakespeare's "little Latin little Latin" to suppose that he required such help. At that time Plautus was abundantly studied in England, and nothing could have been easier than to obtain a sufficiently full impression of a text which was at no point to be implicitly followed. No doubt the omniscience of Shakespeare has been exaggerated, but it is needless to carry reaction so far as to regard him as a dunce and an ignoramus. The existence of adaptations of the "farce of mistaken identity" in several languages has led some critics to see in these the sources of Shakespeare's play, and, in particular, a roughand-tumble drollery called "Jack Juggler," of 1563, has been named. But a glance at these trifles will prove to us that Shakespeare, if he knew of them, discarded them

altogether, and started anew from the plot of the "Menæchmi."

There was much in the temperament of Plautus which could not fail to be attractive to the youthful Shakespeare, who would instinctively recognise in that joyous buccaneer of the Latin stage qualities closely akin to certain of his own. The sort of boisterous animal spirits, held in check only by such discipline as the cultivation of romantic beauty may supply, would be exemplified for us in dramatic literature of the first class only by the works of Plautus, if Shakespeare had not written "The Comedy of Errors," "The Taming of the Shrew," and "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Nearly seventeen centuries passed over Europe without producing a playwright capable of attempting to rival, in its own redundant and efflorescent kind, the marvellous comedy of "The Captives." In a brilliant passage, too, Mr. Mackail has shown that if we wish to discover a parallel to the maritime romance of the "Rudens" we must look for it no earlier than in "A Winter's Tale." It is the more needful to remind ourselves of these elements of likeness between Shakespeare and Plautus, because it is precisely in the "Menæchmi" that the likeness may evade us, since the latter comes down to us as one of the least sentimental and least romantic of all the pure farces of Plautus. Perhaps the note which criticism should strike in approaching "The Comedy of Errors" is that this is the "Menæchmi" rewritten as Plautus himself might have composed it had he approached the subject in one of his more lyrical and more fertile moods.

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