So, we’ve been upfront with you about the fact that Shakespeare lifted the plot for The Comedy of Errors from Plautus , a Roman playwright. This tells us something that any devoted viewer of the Lifetime Television Network already knows: whether it’s the second century . or the twenty-first century ., everybody loves a good twins-separated-at-birth story. When Shakespeare repurposed Plautus's Menaechmi and Amphitruo , he struck Elizabethan box office gold .
But wait! We’ve seen this story a trillion times: mom has twins, they get misplaced, grow up separately, meet again, and then comes the hilarity – wash, rinse, repeat. Consider: you’ve got your Hayley Mills (or your very young Lindsay Lohan , if you prefer the ’98 version) in Parent Trap , your Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins , your Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler in Big Business .
Why not just forget about the Bard and Netflix one of these? After all, the language is easier to follow and, let’s face it, in addition to its talented actresses, Big Business is worth watching just for the rampant eighties shoulder pads that make the female cast look like the starting lineup for the Dallas Cowboys .
What sets The Comedy of Errors apart isn’t a matter of difference but of degree . Shakespeare knows that you already know the story – it was as conventional in his day as it is now – so he’s careful to give you more bang for your buck by intensifying the play’s action and characterization.
Where do we find this intensity? Think about it: this lighthearted romp of mistaken identity buys the S. and E. Dromios a beating, E. Antipholus an arrest, the S. and E. Antipholi accusations of madness and possession, and almost destroys E. Antipholus's marriage. Sure, this is a comedy, and the twins' mother appears at just in time to make everything work out. Still, by jamming in not one, but two sets of twins, and by lending depth to the supporting actors and actresses, Shakespeare pushes the suspense of the play right to the edge of tragedy before fixing everything with a happy ending.
The darkness underlying The Comedy of Errors is what makes it the model for mistaken identity stories. This type of story actually gets called a "comedy of errors" (props to you if you write a book so definitive that you get a genre named after it).
The relief we feel at the end, when everyone’s like, "Ha! Just kidding! Let’s all get or stay married!" is so huge because we’ve just spent an hour watching these characters’ lives reach the brink of ruin completely by coincidence. The play depends on the awfulness of what could happen to make you laugh about what doesn’t happen.
American television has also been an influential force in world comedy: with American series like M*A*S*H , Seinfeld and The Simpsons achieving large followings around the world. British television comedy also remains influential, with quintessential works including Fawlty Towers , Monty Python , Dad's Army , Blackadder , and The Office . Australian satirist Barry Humphries , whose comic creations include the housewife and "gigastar" Dame Edna Everage , For his delivery of Dadaist and absurdist humour to millions, was described by biographer Anne Pender in 2010 as not only "the most significant theatrical figure of our time ... [but] the most significant comedian to emerge since Charlie Chaplin".