Internet Shakespeare Editions


Shakespeare and Plautus

The Roman theatre at Ephesus, setting for Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. Photograph Peter Smith.

Many characters from classical comedy are memorable: the miles gloriosus, or braggart soldier, on whom (in part) the character of Falstaff is based; the senex* ("old man"), an elderly parent who uses his authority or the law to thwart the young lovers; Egeus has this role in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

One of Shakespeare's earliest comedies is based closely upon two Latin originals. The Comedy of Errors takes the plots of two plays by Plautus: the Menaechmi, a play about long separated twins who are mistaken for each other and are eventually reunited; and the Amphitruo, where masters and servants become confused. Shakespeare combined the two plots, and added twin servants to the twin masters to complicate things further.

Click to see the original Roman Theatre at Ephesus, where The Comedy of Errors is set.

A speculation

In The Comedy of Errors, it is as if Shakespeare were determined to prove that he could write a play with a doubly complicated Plautine plot, fully obeying the three unities. Having shown that he could do so, no one would be able to say that he wrote plays which did not follow the disciplined structure simply because he did not know how.


  1. Plautus in Romeo and Juliet

    Another example of the senex is, oddly enough, Capulet, in Romeo and Juliet. Capulet, for all his early protestations that Juliet must love the man she is to marry (1.2.13-19), forces his will on Juliet so insistently that she chooses to fake her death rather than comply. The Nurse and Friar Lawrence are similar to the scheming servants of Plautine comedy--but their efforts do not meet with the same success.