The Comedy of Errors

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 278-321).

Act 1, Scene 1 (278-81; The Syracusan merchant Egeon, caught up in a harsh travel ban between Syracuse and Ephesus, stands to lose his life since he can’t pay ransom; he tells his story to Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus: many years ago, after a shipwreck, he and one of his two sons, along with the son’s adopted servant-boy, were rescued, while his wife and the other son and other servant were rescued by others; Egeon has been searching through Greece for years for the lost half of his family, and just had to search Ephesus, too; the Duke pities his sufferings and gives him one more day to find ransom money.)

The Norton editors suggest that The Comedy of Errors deals with the theme of identity, and the implication is that Shakespeare is interested in how easy it is to alienate us from our own personal identity, and make that identity seem strange—a vexed mystery rather than something that gives us comfort and comprehension. That is an interesting emphasis in this early Shakespearean effort that takes for its sources the Menaechmi and Amphitruo of the Roman comic playwright Plautus (some of whose work the author would almost certainly have read in grammar school as part of his Latin studies), and that might best be described as a rollicking farce, not a romantic comedy.

So how does the wretched merchant Egeon’s situation clue us in to this concentration on identity? Egeon stands before Solinus, Duke of Ephesus, facing execution for setting foot in Ephesus during a trade war between that place and Syracuse. Why is he in Ephesus, and why is he condemned to die? More than twenty years ago, Egeon was on a business trip to Epidamnum, where his wife subsequently sailed to him and there gave birth to twin boys; then, having delivered the boys safely, she wanted to go home, so Egeon agreed to go with her. (Egeon had also bought twin brothers born to a lower-class woman and dedicated them as servants to his own sons: the two Dromios.) During the voyage home to Syracuse, the weather turned bad, and the ship’s crew left the passengers to their fate. The ship split up on a rock, and the merchant’s wife and one child were taken up by a boat from Corinth, while the merchant himself and the other son (along with his future servant) were rescued by a different ship. 

That son, Antipholus of Syracuse, eventually wanted to go and find his lost brother, also named Antipholus, and the old man searched for this lost son/brother for five years afterwards. On his way home Egeon visited Ephesus to see if perchance he might discover the lost son there. Now, unable to pay the ransom of a thousand marks, he faces imminent execution, at least upon the expiration of the one extra day the sympathetic Duke has granted him to seek funding. We might say, then, that Egeon is taken unaware on a quest to recover his own identity—his own past and future. 

But what further can we say about this theme of identity? Although the theme is in earnest, we could argue that it doesn’t much matter who, exactly, the merchant is—Egeon is caught up in forces larger than himself, and the Duke professes helplessness before those very forces: Egeon is a citizen of Syracuse, and that’s reason enough for him to die. In the world that the play conjures, one’s identity is largely bound up with one’s family and collective stock, with where one “comes from.”

Act 1, Scene 2 (282-84, Warned by a merchant to keep his identity secret, Antipholus of Syracuse dismisses his servant Dromio of Syracuse to their inn, the Centaur, and goes to have a look around Ephesus; soon, by accident, Antipholus of Syracuse runs into Dromio of Ephesus and takes him for his own Dromio, who answers his demand regarding money in comic vein; Dromio of Ephesus insists he knows of no money entrusted to him and that his mistress sent him to fetch his master home to dinner; Antipholus of Syracuse beats him, but then heads home to the Centaur to question him as to what is going on.)

Antipholus of Syracuse—the child who had been rescued with the old merchant Egeon from the first scene—is in Ephesus on a quest to find his long-lost mother and brother. Warned by a friendly merchant in Ephesus, he knows that he stands in much the same peril that Egeon did, so he must be careful about his identity as a Syracusan in Ephesus. He speaks eloquently and movingly of his quest to find his lost family, saying, “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop, / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, / Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself” (282, 1.2.35-39).

Immediately, there is a misunderstanding between Antipholus of Syracuse and one of the two servants by the same name, Dromio. Antipholus of Syracuse sends his own Dromio off with his gold and decides, for his own part, to go have a look at the town. Just then, Dromio of Ephesus shows up looking to fetch his own master home to dinner, and gets into trouble because he has no idea what Antipholus of Syracuse is talking about regarding the gold given to the other Dromio.

Instead of recognizing right away that, in spite of all appearances, this “Dromio” is not who he seems to be, Antipholus of Syracuse believes that his own servant must have been cheated out of the money and is now ashamed to admit it, so he beats him. This is typical of new comedy in that the relationship between master and servant is often on display. It is not only identity that is called into question by such mix-ups, but also events themselves—it becomes almost impossible to figure out what one did five or ten minutes ago. What just happened? This mix-up is the last thing that Antipholus of Syracuse needs since, as we can see from the earlier passage in which he says, “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop …” (282, 1.2.35-36), he has already been questioning who he really is in the distant wake of losing his mother and twin brother at sea. Off he goes, then, to the Centaur Inn, where he hopes to find out what’s really going on.

Act 2, Scene 1 (284-87, Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, debates with her unmarried sister Luciana about the latter’s submissive views regarding relations with men; Dromio of Ephesus comes home and says that their own Antipholus struck him over money matters and denied he had a wife; Adriana fears that her Antipholus is cheating on her; she sends her Dromio back to “her” Antipholus.)

Adriana’s unmarried sister Luciana’s marriage philosophy sounds traditionally Pauline: Luciana says that men “Are masters to their females, and their lords” (285, 2.1.25). As for Adriana, when her servant Dromio comes home with a story about how their Antipholus beat him over money and disclaimed that he even had a wife, she begins to worry that her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, has grown tired of her and is cheating on her. She both blames him for this and yet turns the criticism inward, all but blaming herself while seeming to do otherwise: “What ruins are in me that can be found / By him not ruined?” (287, 2.1.96-97) In this sense, at least, Adriana unwittingly subscribes to her sister Luciana’s philosophy—the way her husband thinks of her impacts the way she thinks about herself, makes her feel unattractive and unlovable.

Act 2, Scene 2 (287-92, Antipholus of Syracuse reassures himself that his gold is safe at the Centaur, then engages in a battle of wits with Dromio of Syracuse, who has by now returned; Adriana shows up and reproaches Antipholus of Syracuse, whom she thinks is her husband; Antipholus of Syracuse responds with incredulity, and can’t accept Dromio of Syracuse’s denial of any previous conversation; the two men wonder if they’ve been bewitched, or dreaming—how else could their names be known to these women?—and decide they had better play along; Adriana and Lucia invite them in to supper and bid Dromio of Syracuse to deny anyone else entrance.)

Once Antipholus of Syracuse realizes that his gold is safe, he meets up with the now-returned Dromio of Syracuse. The master does not appreciate being tricked and confused by his servant—it upends the order of things. “If you will jest with me,” he advises his servant, “know my aspect, / And fashion your demeanor to my looks …” (288, 2.2.32-33). He beats his servant “again” (though it’s a different Dromio), but then they engage in a jocular battle of wits that touches on the relationship between masters and servants, baldness, and the syphilitic condition that sometimes causes such hair loss. This kind of semi-stichomythic dialogue is common in Greek and Roman New Comedy, and in more modern farce.

Soon, Adriana is on the scene, and she launches into a lengthy but affecting speech about the nature of marriage as true union, a pact “undividable, incorporate” (290, 2.2.123), and tells Antipholus of Syracuse that if he leaves her, “as easy mayst thou fall / A drop of water in the breaking gulf / And take unmingled thence that drop again / Without addition or diminishing” (290, 2.2.126-29)—language very similar to the words he had earlier addressed to himself about his sorrow at being separated from his lost family. Both Adriana and Antipholus of Syracuse apparently agree that to love someone is to risk everything, to venture the dissolution of one’s very self. David Bevington, in an introductory essay for The Merchant of Venice, points out that Shakespeare’s Christian characters in that play tend to validate the notion of “losing the world in order to gain the world” (182, see Shakespeare’s Comedies. New York, etc.: Pearson/Longman, 2007). The language in the present play, though it be set in pre-Christian times, reinforces the same notion.

How does Antipholus of Syracuse, as he interacts with Adriana (who thinks he is her husband and addresses him by his name, “Antipholus”), process the compounding confusion? He turns to trading in metaphors of dreaming, insanity, and bewitchment. Such thoughts lead Antipholus of Syracuse to “entertain the offered fallacy” (291, 2.2.187) rather than try to sort matters on the spot. He will run with chaos, in hopes that things will soon become clearer. His own Dromio will do likewise. As it turns out, Adriana invites “her man” in to dinner, and he is constrained by his plan to accept. As critics such as David Bevington have pointed out (Shakespeare’s Comedies 4), in this way a loyal wife is able to indulge her fantasy of counter-cheating on her supposedly faithless husband, and yet remain loyal.

Act 3, Scene 1 (292-96, Antipholus of Ephesus meets with his Dromio, Angelo the Goldsmith, and Balthasar the merchant; he argues with his Dromio, who claims to have been beaten by him, not knowing it was the other Antipholus; the party goes home, only to find themselves barred from entry by Dromio of Syracuse, the servant Luce, and Adriana; Antipholus of Ephesus threatens to break down the door, but Balthasar admonishes him to avoid doing anything so rash; Antipholus of Ephesus decides, as a jest against Adriana, to go have dinner with an attractive “wench” he knows, and give her the bracelet he has commissioned as a gift for Adriana.)

A man’s home is his castle, as the saying goes—even if it’s just a room above an inn, as in this play. It’s hard to imagine getting shut out of our own house by people we think we know—location is part of a person’s identity, along with relationships with material objects and people. To at least some extent, things, places and other people define us as who we supposedly are.

When he is denied entry to his home, where he expects that his wife is waiting for him and dinner is on the table, Antipholus of Ephesus is being forcibly, rudely estranged from who he is: he has become a stranger to others and even to himself. That’s the bad kind of alienation—not the good kind Woody Allen references sarcastically in a short story when he mentions the greedy garage mechanic who is “so alienated he can’t stop smiling.” And then of course there’s romantic-era alienation, which clever poets such as Lord Byron turned into a mark of genius and superiority over the common run of humankind. Antipholus of Ephesus’s quandary doesn’t involve either kind of alienation, whether smirking or fashionable: he slips into a state of flat confusion because the world he knows has suddenly turned bizarre. The merchant Balthasar advises caution because, after all, a man can’t go breaking into his own house, now can he? So Antipholus of Ephesus decides instead to visit a courtesan he knows, “a wench of excellent discourse, / Pretty and witty; wild, and yet, too, gentle” (296, 3.1.109-10), and even decides to give her the chain he has ordered made for Adriana: “Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me, / I’ll knock elsewhere to see if they’ll disdain me” (296, 3.1.120-21). That is his rather spiteful justification for his conduct. Somehow, pretending to engage in adultery doesn’t seem like the wisest idea, but let’s see where this goes. After all, it will work well for those nice ladies Mistress Page and Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and, come to think of it, also for Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice.

Act 3, Scene 2 (296-300, Luciana begs Antipholus of Syracuse to at least pretend that he still loves Adriana, and he at once falls in love with her and, disclaiming any connection with Adriana, proposes marriage to Luciana; Dromio of Syracuse is alarmed that the heavyset Nell, aka Luce, lays claim to him for a husband; Antipholus of Syracuse determines that now would be a good time to leave Ephesus; Antonio the goldsmith shows up with the chain the other Antipholus had ordered, and the current Antipholus ends up paying him for it.)

Antipholus of Syracuse experiences something near to love at first sight when he fields the gentle reproaches of Luciana, who obviously suspects he has been unfaithful to Adriana and no longer loves her. Luciana is keenly aware that men are a controlling power over women; she does not dispute this fact of Renaissance life, but calls for fidelity in return. Women are gullible when it comes to male displays of affection, she insists, so the least her sister’s supposed husband can do is flatter her: “Comfort my sister, cheer her, call her wife. / ‘Tis holy sport to be a little vain / When the sweet breath of flattery conquers strife” (297, 3.2.26-28). We should note, too, that the affinity between Luciana and Antipholus of Syracuse is somewhat reinforced by their speaking in elegant quatrains rather than unrhymed blank verse.

Meanwhile, Dromio of Syracuse has woman troubles of his own since Adriana’s cooking-maid Nell (aka Luce) is enamored of him, thinking he is Dromio of Ephesus. The servant’s bawdy geographical references (299, 3.2.114-46) are in part simply rough Elizabethan humor: Shakespeare’s contemporaries did not exactly have delicate sensibilities, so mocking an overweight woman would not have seemed out of line to the audience, and of course the topical humor about exploration is obvious. England was in fact beginning to explore the world at that point, and Shakespeare’s audiences would have been curious. The same goes for the unfriendly references to Ireland, Scotland and France—places that were considered troublous for the English.

Antipholus of Syracuse throws both his own and Dromio of Syracuse’s prospective love match into doubt when he abruptly, but sanely, decides that he has had enough of all this confusion: “If everyone knows us, and we know none, / ‘Tis time, I think, to trudge, pack, and be gone” (300, 3.2.154-55). When Angelo the Goldsmith enters proudly bearing the chain that the other Antipholus has commissioned, Antipholus of Syracuse is momentarily taken aback, but quickly feels obliged to pay for it anyway, even if not at the moment.

Act 4, Scene 1 (301-03, Antipholus of Ephesus tells Dromio of Ephesus to go buy a rope he can use to whip Adriana for locking him out; a Second Merchant threatens to have Angelo arrested for debt; Angelo requests payment now from Antipholus of Ephesus for the gold chain, but of course the latter refuses because no chain was given to him even though he asked that it be brought to the Porcupine Inn; Angelo is incredulous—he has given the chain to the other Antipholus of Syracuse, who hasn’t yet paid him; Angelo is arrested, and in turn accuses Antipholus of Ephesus, who is arrested, too; Dromio of Syracuse shows up with news that a ship awaits to take him and his master to Epidamnum; Antipholus of Ephesus has no idea what he’s talking about, and gives him a key to gain access at home to a money-box that will allow him to post bail.)

Relationships with objects are part of what constitutes identity, and the gold chain here that becomes the subject of an argument between Angelo the Goldsmith and Antipholus of Ephesus is just such an object. At the heart of bourgeois identity is the power to command the labor of others by means of the commodity we call money. The chain, in this instance, constitutes what we might call a cash nexus or tie between Angelo the Goldsmith and Antipholus of Ephesus; their relationship is constituted at the point of exchange. Unfortunately, that exchange hasn’t yet taken place—at least not between these two men. Angelo had given the chain to Antipholus of Syracuse, who offered to pay him later on.

As a result of the unpleasant goings-on between Angelo, the Second Merchant to whom he owes money, and Antipholus of Ephesus, who is told to cough up the money for an item he never received, both Angelo and the latter men is arrested. When Dromio of Syracuse arrives at the scene with news that the ship his master had bid him find is even now awaiting their arrival, the irony is palpable. Antipholus of Ephesus is being counseled to escape from his own adopted country. He sends Dromio of Syracuse home to Adriana with a key to a money-box whose contents will secure his bail. The play’s mix-ups and misunderstandings have by this point woven an alternative reality: Antipholus of Ephesus, a successful businessman in Ephesus where he has lived since he was a child after being rescued from shipwreck, is trapped outside his proper self, and he is beginning to suffer the consequences. Dromio of Syracuse grumbles at his latest errand, but obeys and heads back to Adriana: ”Thither I must, although against my will; / For servants must their masters’ minds fulfill” (303, 4.1.112-13).

Act 4, Scene 2 (303-05, Luciana admits to Adriana that Antipholus of Syracuse wooed her, but still she counsels patience with the man they both believe to be an erring husband; Adriana speaks ill of Antipholus, but denies that she means it; Dromio of Syracuse enters and asks Adriana for Antipholus of Ephesus’s bail money; Adriana gives him the money, and is overwhelmed by anxiety and depression.)

Adriana is nothing if not constant and devoted to her husband Antipholus of Ephesus. Though she mocks his appearance momentarily, she confesses, “I think him better than I say, / And yet would herein others’ eyes were worse” (304, 4.2.25-26). This kind of talk is merely protective jealousy on her part. What she says is almost like the sonnets of Shakespeare, only in reverse—it isn’t that, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138, “by lies we flattered be,” but instead that her disparaging  language hides genuine affection. This is one of the most optimistic things about the play: ultimately, the constancy Adriana shows seems likely to guarantee her husband’s identity, and keep the two of them together in spite of all the madcap events that have befallen them.

Act 4, Scene 3 (305-07, Antipholus of Syracuse marvels at all the interactions he keeps having with merchants who think they know him; Dromio returns with the gold that the other Antipholus sent him to fetch for bail, and the current Antipholus is suitably baffled about this and about talk of his arrest; Antipholus asks his servant about the prospect of booking passage on a ship to Epidamnum, but is told that the ship has, indeed, already sailed due to the delay caused by his supposed arrest; Antipholus is sure both men are mad; a Courtesan enters and invites them to dinner, but Antipholus of Syracuse insults her, calling her “devil”; she asks for her ring back, or the chain instead, but he refuses; the Courtesan decides to go to Adriana and claim that “Antipholus” has stolen her ring by force.)

At the beginning of this scene, Antipholus of Syracuse makes a remark that strikes home: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend, / And everyone doth call me by my name” (305, 4.3.1-3). What a strange experience it must be to visit a place for the first time and find that one is known by almost everyone there! If The Comedy of Errors weren’t a farce, it would be an episode of The Twilight Zone.

When Dromio of Syracuse seems to speak in riddles about the officer who had arrested Antipholus of Ephesus, Antipholus of Syracuse is confused because it was not, of course, he who was arrested. Dromio’s comic mention of “old Adam” (306, 4.3.13) sounds like exactly what the Norton editors say—a reference to fallen Adam, or unregenerate man dressed in animal skins. In other words, this leather-clad sergeant hounds men for their sinful conduct, reminding them that they are fallen and trapped in their own wrongdoing. But it’s also a joke on the determining influence of money since Christian theology often references salvation and redemption in straightforwardly economic terms. Dromio of Syracuse is asking if Antipholus of Syracuse has obtained redemption by means of bail.

In any case, the plan is to sail away from this bewitched place, Ephesus. Antipholus of Syracuse is convinced that he and his Dromio must be mad: “here we wander in illusions” (306, 4.3.40), and he calls upon some deity—any deity at all—to help him and his servant escape.

The Courtesan, who met Antipholus of Ephesus for dinner and gave him a ring worth forty ducats in exchange for the gold chain, which she does not yet have, invites the men to dinner but is rebuffed. When Antipholus of Syracuse refuses to give her the chain, she decides to go to Adriana and tell her a strategic lie; namely, she will say that the man she believes to be Adriana’s husband has robbed her of her ring: she is sure that Adriana will realize that her husband is quite mad, and will then give her the ring back, or the money value for it.

Act 4, Scene 4 (308-12, Dromio of Ephesus dismays Antipholus of Ephesus by bringing him not money but rope; he beats Dromio, who complains bitterly at a lifetime of ill-treatment; Adriana and others bring in Dr. Pinch to recover Antipholus of Ephesus’s sanity; Adriana insists that he dined at home earlier, but he protests that he was locked out, and Dromio of Ephesus seconds him; Adriana says she sent money for his bail, but Dromio of Ephesus says he was sent only to get some rope; he repeats that he received no gold, but that they were locked out; Dr. Pinch orders both men to be restrained, and they are taken away; Adriana will repay the debt, but wants first to meet the creditor who had Antipholus of Ephesus arrested; Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse enter with rapiers drawn, and the others flee; Antipholus means to set sail this evening.)

This scene is a setup for Act 5’s catastrophe or successful ending. First of all, Antipholus of Ephesus is disappointed when his servant Dromio of Ephesus brings back not bail money but instead rope. The poor servant complains that he has nothing “for my service / but blows” (308, 4.4.29-30). This is a traditional theme in ancient comedy and indeed in farce, which is itself a very ancient form of entertainment, something like slapstick where we are always at odds with the others and with the elements and end up looking ridiculous. Everyone and everything seems to get the better of us.

Antipholus of Ephesus finds himself accused by his own wife of being insane, and to make matters worse, Dr. Pinch is called in to effect a cure (309, 4.4.53-56). Adriana insists to her husband that he dined at home with her, when in fact he did no such thing: he was shut out of his own house, and the other Antipholus (of Syracuse) dined with Adriana. Now Antipholus of Ephesus is told that he was never locked out and that he never asked for anything but rope. But Adriana offers to pay the debt, so it seems as if all should be well—if by “well” we mean that poor Antipholus of Ephesus will be confined as a madman, along with Dromio of Ephesus. This is the lowest point, the nadir, of misfortune for Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio: these men are practically natives of Ephesus, and now both of them have been utterly ruined and stripped of their proper identities as a respectable businessman and his servant.

Just after the two men of Ephesus are carried away, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse burst onto the scene armed with rapiers and scare everyone away (311, 4.4.142ff). Their present plan is simply to escape the town by ship. They’ve had enough of the seemingly bewitched, accursed Ephesus.

Act 5, Scene 1 (312-21, Angelo and the Second Merchant encounter Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse outside a priory; Angelo sees that he’s wearing the chain and reproaches him; Antipholus of Syracuse denies ever denying he had the chain; the Second Merchant calls him a liar, and they draw; Adriana orders Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse to be bound up, but they take refuge in the priory; the Abbess asks the cause of Antipholus of Syracuse’s madness; the Abbess says she will cure this man who has sought refuge with her; Adriana determines to protest to the Duke, who is on his way to oversee Egeon’s execution; Adriana makes her petition, and the Duke promises to help; a messenger arrives with news that Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus have broken loose from home and are tormenting Dr. Pinch; Adriana is astounded; Antipholus of Ephesus arrives and begs justice from the Duke; Egeon silently recognizes his son and the young man’s servant; Antipholus of Ephesus relates the day’s events from his perspective; the Duke thinks they’re all mad, and calls for the Abbess; Egeon asks Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus to acknowledge that they know him, but they can’t; the Abbess enters with Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, and all are amazed; the Syracusan pair recognize Egeon, and the Abbess turns out to be Egeon’s wife Emilia; the Duke guesses that these are both twins’ parents; all mysteries are cleared away, and a feast ensues; the two Dromios joke about who’s the eldest, but go into the feast holding hands, as equals.)

Angelo the Goldsmith insists that Antipholus of Syracuse accepted a gold chain from him and then denied it, while this Antipholus acknowledges receiving the chain and says he never denied possessing it. This draws him into a fight with the Second Merchant, who gives him the lie. Just then, Adriana and company enter, and she pleads for mercy, saying that Antipholus of Syracuse is insane (313, 5.1.33). So Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse dash into a priory presided over by an Abbess (313, 5.1.36-38). Adriana tries to get the Abbess to release the two men from the priory, but offering contradictory accusations against Adriana, she will not give them up and insists that she herself will effect a cure. The Duke is on his way to see to Egeon’s execution, and, hearing Adriana’s plea, he agrees to help her. (315, 5.1.133-67).

Next enters a messenger who says that Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant have broken loose from their confinement with Dr. Pinch and mistreated him, singeing his beard and giving him a preposterous haircut, and then, to everyone’s astonishment, Antipholus of Ephesus shows up (316, 5.1.190ff). Egeon believes he has just recognized his son and Dromio, but at the moment no one is listening to him because he’s marching towards his death. Antipholus of Ephesus calls for justice against Adriana for locking him out of his own home and imprisoning him as a madman. He complains of his arrest at the behest of Angelo the Goldsmith over a chain that he, of course, never received. And then he was bound as a madman when he showed up at his home to get bail money. Hearing all this, the Duke wonders aloud if the entire bunch of them haven’t “drunk of Circe’s cup” (318, 5.1.270). They all seem to have been transformed from their proper selves into something almost monstrous, and disharmony reigns supreme.

The condemned merchant takes Antipholus of Ephesus for his son and is bewildered when the younger man says he never saw his father in his entire life. Just as things stand like that, in comes the Abbess with Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse (319, 5.1.330ff). This arrival sets up the possibility of recognition since both pairs of men are now on the scene. Adriana now sees two husbands, as she puts it (319, 5.1.332). Antipholus of Syracuse now recognizes his father Egeon. The Abbess recognizes him as her husband, and we learn that her name is Emilia. These two, as the Duke recognizes, are the parents of both Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus. It seems that while Emilia was rescued by a ship bound for Epidamnum, but Corinthian pirates snatched away the infant and his future servant, so she never knew what became of them. The Abbess declares, “Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail / Of you, my sons, and till this present hour / My heavy burden ne’er deliverèd” (320-21, 5.1.402-04). It is not certain why she says it’s been thirty-three years since that is a discrepancy in comparison with earlier dates given in the play, though some have speculated that “thirty-three” is associated with the number of years Jesus was on earth, and that kind of symbolism might reinforce the play’s concluding emphasis on redemption. In any case, what Emilia the Abbess apparently means is that the two men’s true identity as brothers and as themselves had not really come to pass until this very moment; it is as if they have been born anew.

With regard to the theme of identity, and whether or not we are to take the play as a little more than a one-dimensional farce, we should discuss briefly what a farce is. It’s an ancient form of entertainment, though we tend to connect it with the Middle Ages in Europe since that is the time period of one of its main manifestations. Consider Molière’s Tartuffe, which is a farcical comedy. Dramatic farce in this context was used to fatten up the space between one abstraction-happy medieval morality play and the next with some down-to-earth, specific characters, rather like satyr plays were used in the ancient Greek theater to lighten up the audience after a trilogy of tragic dramas. Shakespeare wasn’t the first playwright to realize that while seriousness is excellent, you can have too much of a good thing in one sitting. That’s probably why we meet quibbling gravediggers in Hamlet and all sorts of other silly characters in Shakespeare’s most serious plays. That, and because life is simply “like that”: it mixes tragedy, comedy, and everything in between those two extremes.

In farce, the characters are delightfully foolish and incapable: they’re not three-dimensional, well-rounded characters of the sort we would expect in a novel, and they certainly don’t have the complexity of a Macbeth or a King Lear. They make fools of themselves all through the play and are made fools of by other fools, or by tricksters, and nothing they do by means of their own wit seems to get them out of the fix they are in. Instead, some force like blind fate or chance helps them out, or perhaps Providence has something to do with it, or “a favorable disposition of Time itself,” as seems fitting in a comic universe. This farcical tradition includes the Italian Commedia dell’arte, with its wonderful characters such as Zanni the smart-aleck servant, who eventually becomes the clown Arlecchino, il Dottore the know-it-all, il Pantalone the money-grubbing rich egotist, and the braggart il Capitano as well as the lovers gli Innamorati. There’s a lot of slapstick when these kinds of characters interact—a lot of trickery and deceit and good old-fashioned physical humor. In the end, farce is good-natured in that while we laugh at the vices of the characters, just as Aristotle said in The Poetics we do with any comedy, we like them for their sheer ineptitude. Jerry Seinfeld said his show was about “unpleasant people being selfish.” Voilà! This is somewhat different from Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, of course, in that very often we don’t find the comic heroes in them “unpleasant” or even particularly selfish. But in farce, we’re basically dealing with rascals, witty or otherwise, and we like them because we recognize a little of ourselves in them: our confusions, chaotic desires, foolish attempts to control our destiny, and so forth, are not much different, if they differ at all, from such characters’ foibles.

A farce need not be logical or probable if the aim is to make fun of how ridiculous we all are while pursuing our selfish wants. So there would be no need to adhere to Aristotle’s formula of “probability and necessity” even if we happened to have heard of it, which perhaps we hadn’t. The plot of The Comedy of Errors is well-nigh as unbelievable as any work of science fiction: it’s obvious that we wouldn’t mistake even identical twins if we were acquainted closely with either of them, and the coincidences in this play are much too preposterous to pass as likely, especially when so many of them pile up. But that isn’t really the point. What opportunity does such improbable, fantastic stuff open for us? It opens up just the one that Norton editor James A. Knapp explores in his introduction to The Comedy of Errors (269-77): the craziness to which we are treated generates a usefully intense species of alienation and bewilderment, almost a comic version of the Freudian Uncanny, the Unheimlich, wherein something seems to us both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, both intimate and strange, attractive and repulsive.

What could be more intimate to us than our own identity, and what could be more strange to us when it’s called into question so that we see how much artifice is involved in its construction, and how little we have to do with ourselves? Yet, we can’t abandon this construction any more than we can breathe underwater without mechanical aid. It takes the shock of the improbable to create a situation that can best deliver such a feeling, at least in the comic context. In this way, even farce can open out onto a serious exploration of one of humanity’s most abiding concerns, in one form or another.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93861-6.

Copyright © 2012 / 2024 (Revised) Alfred J. Drake