Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

The Night of Errors

The first documented performance of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors at Gray’s Inn proved to be a night to remember

5 minute read

Shakespeare’s most madcap comedy starts with an unexpected moment of judicial solemnity. ‘Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall, / And by the doom of death end woes and all,’ declares Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse who has been caught in the enemy city-state of Ephesus. Duke Solinus condemns his prisoner in a speech that rings with legal terminology: ‘plead’, ‘partial’, ‘statutes’, ‘penalty’. The play, we might assume from this beginning, is to be an ethical courtroom drama – perhaps a cautionary tale that explores the abrasive point of contact between inflexible law and the complexity of human experience.

The torso of a man in Elizabethan dress appears from a hole in a blue backdrop with clouds. His legs appear from a different hole in the ground

‘The two sets of identical twins […] soon generate a series of misunderstandings in a plot which has an almost perfect farce structure…’

It isn’t, of course. Thankfully, the play is much more fun than that. The two sets of identical twins – the Antipholuses and Dromios, sons and wards to unlucky Egeon – soon generate a series of misunderstandings in a plot which has an almost perfect farce structure, and Egeon’s punishment is forgotten until the conclusion of the story.

The Comedy of Errors received its first documented performance on 28 December 1594′

But the legalistic opening scene reminds us that The Comedy of Errors received its first documented performance on 28 December 1594 at Gray’s Inn, one of London’s ancient law schools. We know about this early performance because someone wrote an account of the Inn’s Christmas festivities of which the play formed a part. This tongue-in-cheek document, with the deliberately overblown title Gesta Grayorum (Latin for ‘The Deeds of Gray’), was later published from a lost manuscript source in 1688.

The Inns of Court were renowned for their lavish entertainments and this Christmas was no exception. Gesta Grayorum tells us that the younger members of Gray’s Inn were in official holiday humour from 12 December until well into the New Year. The students elected a lord of misrule, named the ‘Prince of Purpoole’ after an adjacent insalubrious alleyway, who led his followers in weeks of high-spirited and expensive revels. The first ‘grand night’ on 20 December was kept on such a scale that the members convinced themselves to ‘take upon us a greater state than was at first intended’ for their next major event, on 28 December (Innocent’s Day). This was, as it turned out, an over-ambitious plan…

On the night in question, a ‘great presence of lords, ladies and worshipful personages’ crammed into the hall to welcome an ‘embassy from ‘the State of Templaria’ (more prosaically, Inner Temple – another Inn of Court half a mile to the south). Such was the crush that the worshipful personages rioted, sending the ‘Templarians’ off in a huff. It was before this mêlée that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who had been commissioned to provide the after-dinner entertainment, performed The Comedy of Errors, which the educated audience recognised as being remarkably ‘like to Plautus his Menaechmus.’ The anonymous author of the Gesta Grayorum also observed that that play’s concerns were pertinent to the disarray of that day’s celebrations: ‘so that night was begun, and continued to the end, in nothing but Confusion and Errors; whereupon, it was ever after called, The Night of Errors.’

Who knows what Shakespeare and his fellows thought? Perhaps they were appalled by the sorry disaster that their hosts had made of the evening. Or perhaps the drunken larks were all part of the point. The chaos of the Gray’s Inn ‘Night of Errors’ didn’t end with the hangover the next day. Instead, the Prince of Purpoole and his men threw themselves into a mock-trial of the ‘sorcerer’ who had incited the riots the night before, and a few days later they staged an elaborate ‘device of friendship’ with the Inner Temple, whose members had apparently been so insulted on 28 December. This show – in which ‘Graius’ and ‘Templarius’ made obeisance at the altar of the Goddess of Amity – was designed to demonstrate that ‘the Unkindness which was growing betwixt the Templarians and us […] was now clean rooted out and forgotten, and that we now were more firm friends, and kind lovers, than ever before we had been.’

‘The chaos of the Gray’s Inn ‘Night of Errors’ didn’t end with the hangover the next day.’

The students of Gray’s Inn either lucked out with a month-long party that had an accidental narrative arc of disorder, conflict and redemption – or they planned it like that from the outset. It seems more likely that the festivities recorded in Gesta Grayorum represent a deliberate attempt to stage a series of events that allowed the two Inns of Court to reinforce their institutional friendship and demonstrate their wealth and confidence to the wider world. The dinners, plays and masques in December 1594 and January 1595 were attended by some extremely well-connected people, including Lord Burghley (the queen’s closest advisor), the earl of Essex and the earl of Southampton. The members of the Inns of Court would have been sure to put on an impressive show

A group of actors in a rehearsal room. One is holding another back.

Phoebe Naughton, Matthew Broome, Laura Hanna and Danielle Phillips in rehearsal for The Comedy of Errors (2023). Photographer: Marc Brenner

Two actors stand back to back holding swords

Michael Elcock and Jordan Metcalfe in rehearsal for The Comedy of Errors (2023). Photographer: Marc Brenner

Three actors stand in a line, brandishing swords and their fists

Hari MacKinnon, George Fouracres and Jessica Whitehurst in rehearsal for The Comedy of Errors (2023). Photographer: Marc Brenner

In this context, the themes of The Comedy of Errors begin to map onto those of the festivities at large. The narrative of Shakespeare’s play – the plot of which he lifted from a Latin text well-known to his largely university-educated audience – similarly revolves around seemingly magical misunderstandings that lead to violence and near-disaster before amity is restored by an authoritative female figure (in his case, the powerful Abbess).

It’s an open question whether or not Shakespeare was commissioned to write The Comedy of Errors especially for the Gray’s Inn revels. The play has been dated to any point between 1589 and 1594, and most editors prefer to assume an early composition which would place the comedy – short, devoid of sub-plots and heavily based on a known source – among his first works. Others have argued that the play is not a tyro piece at all, but a tightly-structured farce with rich characterisation and moving poetry. But whether the Lord Chamberlain’s Men dusted off an existing play or produced one on demand when Gray’s Inn booked the company for their ‘grand night’, The Comedy of Errors was surely chosen with the context of its performance very much in mind. Shakespeare’s play perfectly captures the anarchic spirit of an orderly world turned upside down.


The Comedy of Errors plays in our Globe Theatre from 12 May – 29 July as part of our Summer 2023 season.

Learn more about The Comedy of Errors on one of our pre-show Guided Tours.