Plautus. Menaechmi, or the Twin Brothers. Trans. Thomas Henry Riley. Digireads.com. 2009. Ebook.
Menaechmi is the play which inspired Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. Now Menaechmi is a clever play. There are the mixups—in this case there is just one set of twins, both name Menaechmus and separated at age seven. (The one from Syracuse thought the other dead, so he took on his brother’s name as a memorial.) Menaechmus of Syracuse has traveled to Epidamnum where the other one now lives, and the confusion ensues.
There is potential for a lot of fun here. For Plautus, the local twin is a regular customer of a prostitute named Erotium. Both Erotium and the local twin’s wife confuse the two brothers. In this case the women claim a mantle instead of a chain, and Erotium entertains the visitor. The local twin’s father-in-law encourages his wife to refuse him until he returns the mantle, which, as you can guess, ends up in the hands of the wrong twin. The father-in-law begins to think his son-in-law is bewitched, so he hires an exorcist. That adds to the confusion, just as Pinch does to Shakespeare’s Comedy.
Finally, both twins appear together and the errors are resolved. One source of humor is that the visiting twin’s slave also confuses the two men. His master sends him on an errand for some money which he gives to the other twin who gratefully grants him his freedom.
Much of what would become the conversation between Antipholus of Syracuse and Adriana is done between the visiting Menaechmus and Erotium in this play. The wife has a much smaller part. In fact, she is not even named. There is a single servant. The confusion continues after he has been set free because the other twin still treats him as a slave. Part of the happy ending of Menaechmi is that the slave will be set free by his real master and both twins leave Epidamnum and return to Syracuse together.
The play has its humor, but Shakespeare really made the story much funnier in his telling. One could say that he made it more sophisticated, but it is hard to call any farce sophisticated. Shakespeare has the servants twins as well, and the wife of the local twin is the person most confused over the identity of her husband. The prostitute is less significant. Antipholus resorts to her more out of revenge than anything else. (Since the production of The Comedy of Errors I recently directed was for a K-12 school, we altered about a dozen words and turned the Courtesan into a Courtier whom Antipholus of Ephesus was trying to bribe.)
The Comedy of Errors also has really humorous dialogues. The two men from Syracuse come across as a sixteenth century Abbott and Costello in a few scenes as they joke about Father Time or when Dromio explains how fat the kitchen wench Nell is.
Shakespeare also ties things up in a theatrically more tidy manner. The Twins’ father is also present and reunited with his wife and sons. The single Antipholus of Syracuse looks like he will end up with his sister-in-law’s sister, thus adding a rom-com element to the story. The two servants, both named Dromio, have some real personality.
Compared to Shakespeare’s play, one would conclude that women were treated far worse in Roman times than in Elizabethan England. Not only is the wife in the play nameless, but when her husband leaves for his native Syracuse, he sells his house, his goods, and his wife. Chattel, indeed.
Shakespeare’s women may have had to respect their husbands as their masters, as the single Luciana says. But her married sister tells her that this belief of hers is one reason why she is still single. And the single Antipholus of Syracuse clearly treats Luciana with respect, and his Ephesian twin, according to his wife, used to treat her with respect until his current bout of “madness.” She notes that a smart wife “bears some sway” in the family.
Thanks to The Comedy of Errors, Menaechmi is today more of a historical curiosity. It does stand as a funny piece in its own right, but when compared to The Comedy of Errors, we are reminded that Shakespeare deserves his reputation as a genius.