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“This sympathizèd one day's error”: Genre, Representation, and Subjectivity in The Comedy of Errors


This essay reexamines the mixtures of genres in The Comedy of Errors to argue that Shakespeare's play encourages reflection on genre as a mode of representation. In particular, the genres of romance and farce each offer specific approaches to subjectivity, which would have been especially meaningful to early modern urban playgoers grappling with the period's many cultural, economic, and social transitions. While The Comedy of Errors emphasizes romance in the frame and farce in the middle of the play, Shakespeare has the two genres overlap with, address, and incorporate each other, creating not only a generic rivalry but also striking instances of generic merger. These moments allow the audience to contemplate the nature of the world view presented in each genre and to determine its own position in the debate on subjectivity that emerges from the confrontation of the two. Romance and farce present identity as made up of the same components, but they judge these components in opposing ways. The same aspects of selfhood that point to an unchanging, essential core to the self in romance suggest the randomness of subjectivity in farce. Shakespeare's idealist version of romance overcomes the challenges posed by the secularism of farce by making materiality an integral part of collective harmony and individual subjectivity. All the same, the vast transformation that must take place to arrive at closure in the play suggests the broad differences between the two genres and their respective world views.

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