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THE FABLE AND COMPOSITION
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS.
SHAKSPEARE certainly took the general plan of this comedy from a translation of the Menæchmi of Plautus, by W. W. i. e. (according to Wood) William Warner, in 1595, whose version of the acrostical argument is as follows:
"Two twinne-borne sonnes, a Sicill marchant had, "Menechmus one, and Sosicles the other;
"The first his father lost a little lad,
"The grandsire namde the latter like his brother:
"Where th' other dwelt inricht, and him so like,
"Father, wife, neighbours, each mistaking either, "Much pleasant error, ere they meet togither." Perhaps the last of these lines suggested to Shakspeare the title for his piece.
In this comedy we find more intricacy of plot than distinction of character; and our attention is less forcibly engaged, because we can guess in great measure how the denouement will be brought about. Yet the poet seems unwilling to part with the subject, even in the last (and unnecessary) scene, where the same mistakes are continued, till their power of affording entertainment is entirely lost. STEEVENS. VOL. III.
This comedy, I believe, was written in 1593.-See An Attempt to ascertain the Order of Shakspeare's Plays, vol. ix. MALONE.
THE FABLE AND COMPOSITION
In order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merit of a writer, it is always necessary to examine the genius of his age, and the opinions of his contemporaries. A poet who shall now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantment, and produce the chief events by the assistance of supernatural agents, would be censured as transgressing the bounds of probability, be banished from the theatre to the nursery, and condemned to write fairy tales instead of tragedies; but a survey of the notions that prevailed at the time when this play was written, will prove that Shakspeare was in no danger of such censures, since he only turned the system that was then universally admitted, to his advantage, and was far from overburdening the credulity of his audience.
The reality of witchcraft or enchantment, which, though not strictly the same, are confounded in this play, has in all ages and countries been credited by the common people, and in most, by the learned themselves. The phantoms have indeed appeared more frequently, in proportion as the darkness of ignorance has been more gross; but it cannot be shown, that the brightest gleams of knowledge have at any time been sufficient to drive them out of the world. The time in which this kind of credulity was at its height, seems to have been that of the holy war, in which the Christians imputed all their defeats to enchantments or diabolical
opposition, as they ascribed their success to the assistance of their military saints; and the learned Dr. Warburton appears to believe (Suppl. to the Introduction to Don Quixote) that the first accounts of enchantments were brought into this part of the world by those who returned from their eastern expeditions. But there is always some distance between the birth and maturity of folly as of wickedness this opinion had long existed, though perhaps the application of it had in no foregoing age been so frequent, nor the reception so general. Olympiodorus, in Photius's extracts, tells us of one Libanius, who practised this kind of military magic, and having promised χώρις ὁπλιτῶν κατὰ βαρβάρων ἐνεδεῖν, to perform great things against the Barbarians without soldiers, was, at the instance of the empress Placidia, put to death, when he was about to have given proofs of his abilities. The empress showed some kindness in her anger, by cutting him off at a time so convenient for his reputation.
But a more remarkable proof of the antiquity of this notion may be found in St. Chrysostom's book de Sacerdotio, which exhibits a scene of enchantments not exceeded by any romance of the middle age: he supposes a spectator overlooking a field of battle attended by one that points out all the various objects of horror, the engines of destruction, and the arts of slaughter. Δεικνύτο δὲ ἔτι παρὰ τοῖς ἑναντίοις καὶ πετομένες ἵππες διά τινος μαγανείας, καὶ ὁπλίτας διαέρος φερομένες, καὶ πάσην γοητείας δύναμιν καὶ ἰδέαν. Let him then proceed to show him in the opposite armies horses flying by enchantment, armed men transported through the air, and every power and form of magic. Whether St. Chrysostom believed that such performances were really to be seen in a day of battle, or only endeavoured to enliven his description, by adopting the notions of the vulgar, it is equally certain, that such notions were in his time received, and that therefore they were not imported from the Saracens in a later age; the wars with the Saracens however gave occasion to their propagation, not only as bigotry naturally discovers prodigies, but as the scene of action was removed to a great distance.
The Reformation did not immediately arrive at its meridian, and though day was gradually increasing upon us, the goblins of witchcraft still continued to hover in the twilight. In the time of