Comic Twins and Surrealism: Old and New

Dr. Morrison

In the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup (1933), Harpo presents himself as a second Groucho in the famous mirror scene. Harpo’s attempt to impersonate Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho’s character) is met by Groucho’s series of increasingly challenging tests to prove that the reflection he sees is not himself. This episode is a modern descendant of a long-running theme in European drama: comic twins who may be mistaken for one another.

Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (1594) is part of the comic twins tradition. In this play, twin brothers are separated as infants by a shipwreck. One of the brothers has spent seven years looking for his twin, and arrives in Ephesus, his brother’s town, accompanied by a slave (who also has a twin brother). The local townspeople assume the out-of-towner is the man they know––which leads to many mistakes (or “errors”). So there are two freeborn brothers (both named Antipholus––apparently from missing his brother, the out-of-towner took his sibling’s name) and two slaves (both named Dromio). As you can imagine, there is a proliferation of mistakes concerning a deposit of gold, a dinner invitation, a golden chain, and money for rope and bail. In addition, a romantic overture is made to the out-of-town Antipholus by his brother’s wife, Adriana (though the out-of-towner is more interested in her sister, Luciana).

Shakespeare’s play is itself an adaptation of a Roman play, the Menaechmi (or Two Brothers Named Menaechmus), written by Plautus about 200 BCE. The names have been changed but the plot is very much the same. You might think that you don’t know the brilliant Roman playwright Plautus, but if you have heard of Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, then you know Plautus. The 1960’s musical and movie, A Funny Thing Happened… is based on three of Plautus’ plays (Moliere was also fond of borrowing plots and characters from Plautus). And in fact, Shakespeare seems to have borrowed the idea of a second set of twins (the Dromios) from another play by Plautus, Amphitryo (which had two sets of look-alikes). With this second set of twins in The Comedy of Errors, the number of errors found in the Roman model has been tripled to the nice round number of 50 (if you’re counting).

In all of these twins comedies, characters often find themselves in what they feel is an irrational, dreamlike, or surreal situation: they are locked out of their own houses, arrested for crimes they have not committed, and told they are out of their minds. From their perspective, nothing makes sense (of course, the audience knows which brother is on stage and what mistakes are coming). Naturally the characters seek explanations for these weird events: perhaps the people they’re talking to are insane, drunk, or performing magic––or maybe reality itself has been altered. As the out-of-town Antipholus says, “Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?/Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advised?/Known unto these, and to myself disguised!” (2.2.225-27)

In a farce such as this, members of the audience become almost like gods, watching the misapprehensions of everyone involved. Indeed, to a large degree, the humor derives from the characters working so hard to persuade others of who they really are or what really happened, and from the audience’s confidence that these efforts are destined to fail, at least in the short term. In the end, of course, we’ll have a happy ending: the brothers (both sets!) will be reunited and everything will begin to make sense.

Please, don’t ask: Why doesn’t one of the brothers just ask whether someone looking just like him might be in town?  That might seem like a good idea, but if master or slave asked this question, the play would be shorter, there would be fewer errors, and we’d have much less fun.

James (Jim) V. Morrison

Dept. of Classics

James V. Morrison is Professor of Classics and Humanities at Centre College.  His research and teaching includes Ancient Greek and Latin language and literature.  His current project focuses on ancient and modern comedy and satire.

For more information regarding The Comedy of Errors.