Adapting Richard III & The Comedy of Errors: A Note From Roger Warren

Any production of Shakespeare is only as good as its adaptation. Shakespeare plays are rarely performed in their entirety, and for Propeller productions, director Edward Hall works with co-adaptor Roger Warren to approach the plays with a sophisticated historical and literary perspective. The following is an excerpt of a note from Warren on the sources and stories of this season's Propeller productions.

The two plays presented by Propeller this season are at once closely linked and sharply contrasted. Both belong to the outset of Shakespeare's career. Richard III was probably written in 1592, immediately after the Henry VI trilogy (1591-1592). The Comedy of Errors was performed, presumably by Shakespeare's company, at Gray's Inn on December 28, 1594. The Comedy of Errors used to be regarded as an even earlier work, perhaps written for local performance before he left Stratford, but this view reflected a low estimate of the play, and modern performances have shown it to be a brilliant piece of theatrical mechanism. It is hard to see how this could have been achieved without the experience of working in the professional theatre.


The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare's shortest play, Richard III his longest, apart from Hamlet. (It has been radically shortened for this production.) And, of course, the subject matter is quite different: The Comedy of Errors is a comedy of mistaken identity, Richard the culmination of Shakespeare's dramatization of the Wars of the Roses which he had begun in the three parts of Henry VI. It has, therefore, two main focus points: it concludes the story of those wars, and presents a full-length portrayal of Richard himself. These two aspects are indissolubly linked. The characters constantly refer back to events of the past, especially to Queen Margaret's ritual slaughter of Richard's father York and his young brother Rutland, and to Richard's (and his brothers') murder of Margaret's son at the battle of Tewkesbury, which saw the final defeat of Henry VI, Margaret, and the House of Lancaster. There is a strong sense of the past coming home to roost. One by one characters reap what they have sown; and while some of them blame or curse Richard, he embodies in himself what they have been: he is the inevitable outcome of their destructive violence.

Richard is apparently a classic image of villainy, symbolised by his (unhistorical) deformity: a crippled mind in a disabled body. Yet he is not only the centre of dramatic vitality, he is also charming, sympathetic even, as the 'virtuous' characters who oppose him are not: from his celebrated opening speech, his candour about his aims lures the audience into complicity with him: we become his accomplices in his bid to seize power. Truthful to us, he exposes, with great sophistication, the vanity and hypocrisy of the political and social world.


Shakespeare treats his main source for The Comedy of Errors — the Menaechmi by the classical dramatist Plautus — in an entirely personal way. His interest in this play may be traced to his schooldays. The main concern of Elizabethan schools was the teaching of Latin, and in pursuit of this aim, pupilswere allowed to perform Latin plays, including the Menaechmi. Shakespeare may well have got to know the play by acting in it. But he made substantial changes. To begin with, he gave the twin masters of the Menaechmi twin servants, thus doubling the potential for confusions and mistaking. Then he moved the setting from Epidamnum to Ephesus, which was famous — or notorious — in the ancient world, and in the Bible, as a center of witchcraft, so that Antipholus of Syracuse half-expects strange things to happen to him.

Still more significant, he introduced an element of romance into the mistakings, in the wooing of Luciana by Antipholus of Syracuse, where the language looks forward to his later comedies, and connects with his own love poetry in the Sonnets. Antipholus calls Luciana 'mine own self's better part,' a phrase which echoes Shakespeare's calling his lover 'the better part of me' in Sonnets 39 and 74. His interest in twins, both here and in Twelfth Night, may also derive from personal considerations. He was the father of twins, and this may have informed Antipholus of Syracuse's sense of loss and of personal disorientation when separated from his twin.

The Comedy of Errors is technically a farce, but one of the most interesting aspects of farce is how painful it often is, how often the audience is invited to laugh at other people's misfortunes, as in the repeated beating of the Dromios or Adriana's sense of marital betrayal. But again, Shakespeare has it both ways: the scene in which Adriana pours out her resentment to the wrong Antipholus is a perfect example of comedy of mistaking, but at the same time we feel for her in her unhappiness. The distance that Shakespeare has travelled from his rather inhuman Plautine model [can be seen] most obviously in the final scene. In Menaechmi, the equivalent of Antipholus of Ephesus offers his wife for sale; The Comedy of Errors ends with the warmth and reconciliation of a multiple family reunion.

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