Hello there it’s time for Troping the Riff with me The Eclectic Eccentric. Or is it. After all you’ve never met The Eclectic Eccentric and you have no idea if he’s the one typing these words or not. I could just be pretending to be him. I’ll tell you what I’ll be on the corner of Frenchmen and Esplanade in New Orleans on May 15th at 5:00 pm and you can find out for sure. How will you know it’s me? I’ll be wearing a black polo. Hopefully I’m the only one otherwise you might mistake me for someone else and hilarity could ensue. Have you guessed which Trope we’re breaking down this week? What about your identical twin? Do they have a clue? Yep that’s right its time for Troping the Riff to go where practically every sitcom writer in history has gone, it’s time for a case of mistaken identity.
Despite its stranglehold on modern comedy it is believed this trope originated with the Greeks (although I’ll acknowledge it’s believed almost all the tropes originated with the Greeks) and that it was used to great effect in both comedy and drama. While mistaken identity was believed to a common them in Greek theater most scholars believe that it was popularized by Menander who often used a misrecognition of jewelry or child-swapping as the set up for a comedy of errors. Think The Importance of Being Ernest circa 300 B.C. Greece and you’ll have a general idea. Although that is a little unfair to Menander since he did come up with the idea a couple of millennia prior to Oscar Wilde.
But while the Greeks may have invented the concept of mistaken identity it was Shakespeare who made it famous and consequently is the man we can thank for its prevalence in modern storytelling. While identity plays a major role in all of Shakespeare’s works cases of mistaken identity feature heavily in his comedies most notably in Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like it, and The Merchant of Venice with the trope being the main driving force behind the plots.
In more modern times the trope has been put to excellent use by such well respected auteurs as Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, and The Coen Brothers. North by Northwest, The Great Dictator, and The Big Lebowski are all examples of how mistaken identity can be used both to dramatic and comedic effect.
The trope isn’t necessarily limited to characters being mixed up as each other. Sometimes characters can be mistaken for gods as C-3P0 was by the ewoks in Return of the Jedi or as frequently happened to the SG1 team when they emerged from the Stargate. Or perhaps they can be aliens mistaken for humans as often happens to the Doctor.
While mistaken identity may come off as a tired trope there is a reason for that. Identity is an integral part of the human condition both our own and the ones we ascribe to those around us. There is a constant tug between how we internally define ourselves and allowing external forces to dictate to us who we are. We have a need to make sense of the world and our place in it. It is one of the jobs of a story teller to challenge those perceptions and preconceptions. Cases of mistaken identity allow a writer to take a character out of their comfort zone and force them into unusual circumstances. Will they become who they are seen to be or will their true nature shine through. If we say the same thing to two different people does it take on a different meaning? Those questions of identity only begin to scratch the surface of what’s out there. So the next time you see a case of mistaken identity instead of rolling your eyes sit up and pay attention you might just learn something about yourself.
‘Till next time this has been Troping the Riff with…… well maybe it’s better if I let you guess.