Atonement & The Comedy of Errors


No matter which period in time, we humans are no stranger to misunderstandings. Yet, various works of literature and their depictions of misunderstandings might easily sway our perceptions. Great examples would be the tragic results of misunderstandings in Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan and the comedic events because of and reactions to misunderstandings in The Comedy of Errors (1594) by William Shakespeare.

While reading Atonement, I became increasingly frustrated with the naivety of the protagonist, Briony Tallis, and how she consistently misunderstands both the people around her and the events she encounters. Briony’s misunderstandings result in not only the separation of Cecelia Tallis, her sister, and her lover, Robbie Turner, but also in Robbie’s wrongful imprisonment. In the innocent eyes of Briony, Robbie’s love letter to Cecelia appeared perverted and monstrous, and the explicit sex scene that she accidentally witnesses in the library did little to improve Robbie’s misunderstood image in Briony’s eyes. Briony’s misconceptions spur an onslaught of tragic events for which she can only hope and desperately attempt to reconcile at the end of the novel.

McEwan could have written Atonement as a typical romance set in 1935 right before WWII, but he offered a unique perspective on how romance and desires might have appeared in the clear eyes of a child still far from understanding the idea of love and the fervent nature of lust and desire, thus mistaking it as violence instead. Ultimately, Briony’s innocence and naivety emphasize the lasting consequences of misunderstandings, frustrating readers with its ambiguous ending, which suggests Briony’s inability to atone for her childhood mistakes even at old age.

The Comedy of Errors presents misunderstandings as a satire. Although we often know Shakespeare for his tragedies, The Comedy of Errors is a light-hearted play that entertains its audience by ridiculing its characters and their actions. Unlike Atonement, misunderstandings in The Comedy of Errors do not lead to the downfall of its character but conclude with an unexpected happy ending.

The Comedy of Errors offers a very different perspective on the concept of misunderstandings and how we should not internalize mistakes so heavy heartedly but approach them with humour instead. Following the misunderstandings that arise surrounding twins and their slaves, who are also twins, the play results in a string of humorous and comedic events, a stark contrast to Atonement, and presents readers with exaggerated dialogue and reactions. Hilariously, the twins not only have the same first name and distinguished only by where they are from—Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus—and the same with their slaves, Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus. The misunderstandings that occur in the play may not necessarily frustrate the readers, but they certainly might become frustrated by the similar names and trying to distinguish between the characters as the play progresses and the events become more complex. Here, those who are truly in danger of misunderstanding seem to be the readers who must keep track of who’s who along with the characters of the play.

Though these two vastly different depictions of misunderstandings by the unravelling of the novel and the play’s plots and characters, these elements effectively sway the audience’s point of view on the concept of misunderstandings. Yet, one thing that McEwan and Shakespeare’s works have in common is the vastly different ways in which they will frustrate you as you continue reading, and in terms of Atonement, linger long after you finish.