The Comedy of Errors

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 245-93).

Act 1, Scene 1 (253-56)

The Norton editors rightly suggest that the play deals with the theme of identity, and the implication is that Shakespeare is interested in just how easy it is to alienate us from our own personal identity, and make it seem strange, a vexed question rather than something that gives us comfort and comprehension.  So how does the wretched merchant Egeon’s situation clue us in to this interest?  Why is he in Ephesus, and why is he condemned to die from the very first page onward?  Egeon was on a business trip and his wife had followed him just before having twin boys, and then she wanted to go home, so he went with her.  The weather turned bad, and the ship’s crew left the passengers to their fate.  The ship split up upon a rock, and the merchant’s wife and one child were taken up by a boat from Corinth, while the merchant himself and another son was rescued by a different ship. 

That son eventually wanted to go off and find his lost brother, and the old man searched for this son for five years afterwards, and on his way home he visited Ephesus where he now is.  Both of those children had the same name.  Now Egeon is condemned to die because of strife between Ephesus and Syracuse.  We might say, then, that he is taken unawares on a quest to recover part of his own identity—his own past and future. 

But what further can we say about this theme of identity?  It almost doesn’t matter who the merchant is—he 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 group-based stock, with where one comes from.

Act 1, Scene 2 (256-59)

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.  He now stands in much the same peril that Egeon did.  He speaks eloquently of this (257, 1.2.35ff). 

Immediately, there is a misunderstanding between Antipholus of Syracuse and the two servants by the same name, Dromio.  Antipholus of Syracuse sends his own Dromio off with his money, while Dromio of Ephesus promptly shows up and gets into trouble because he has no idea what Antipholus of Syracuse is talking about regarding the gold he gave the other Dromio.  Antipholus of Syracuse seems to think “his” servant must have been cheated out of the money and is 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.  Anyhow, 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 you just did five minutes ago.  What happened?  This is the last thing that Antipholus of Syracuse needs since, as we can see from that earlier passage in which he says, “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop….”  (257, 1.2.35-36).  He already has been questioning who he really is in the distant wake of losing his mother and twin brother at sea.

Act 2, Scene 1 (259-61)

Luciana’s marriage philosophy sounds traditional: Luciana says men “Are masters to their females, and their lords” (259, 2.1.24-25).  As for Adriana, she seems to be worried that her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, has grown tired of her and is cheating on her.  She both blames him for this and turns the criticism inward, I believe.  In this sense, she subscribes to Luciana’s philosophy—the way her husband thinks of her impacts the way she thinks about herself. 

Act 2, Scene 2 (262-66)

Dromio of Syracuse is now accused by his rightful master of lying about having received some gold earlier.  The master does not appreciate being tricked and confused by his servant—it upends the order of things.  There’s quite a witty exchange going on between them, which is common in farcical comedies.  But how does Antipholus of Syracuse, when he meets up with Adriana, who of course thinks he is her husband, process the compounding confusion?  He begins trading in metaphors of dream and insanity.  One interesting point is that Antipholus of Syracuse proposes to himself to “entertain the offered fallacy” (266, 2.2.185).  He’s going to run with the chaos in hopes that things will become clearer.  For the moment, it’s beyond him to set things right.

As for Adriana, here we may want to compare what she says to what Luciana had already said and to what Antipholus of Syracuse has said about his own quest—their way of understanding things is similar: “[F]or know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall / A drop of water in the breaking gulf….”  (264, 2.2.125-26).  It’s the same metaphor: to love someone is to risk everything, to venture the dissolution of one’s very self.

Act 3, Scene 1 (267-70)

A man’s home is his castle, as the saying goes—or at least his inn, in this play.  It’s hard to imagine getting shut out of your own house by people you think you 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 defineus as who we supposedly are. 

Antipholus of Ephesus is being forcibly, rudely estranged from who he is: he is an alienated man, a man who 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 Byron turned into a mark of genius and superiority over the common run of humankind.  Antipholus of Ephesus’ quandary doesn’t involve that kind of smirking or fashionable alienation: it’s flat confusion because the world he knows has turned bizarre.  The merchant advises caution because after all, a man can’t go breaking into his own house, can he?  So Antipholus of Ephesus decides instead to visit “a wench of excellent discourse” (270, 3.1.110), and even decides to give her the chain he has ordered made: “Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me, / I’ll knock elsewhere, to see if they’ll disdain me” (270, 3.1.121-22).  That is his rather spiteful justification for his conduct.

Act 3, Scene 2 (270-74)

Antipholus of Syracuse experiences something like love at first sight when he meets Luciana, who obviously suspects he is being unfaithful to his wife, Adriana.  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.  She also expects generous flattery, and supposes (271, 3.2.21-24) that women are gullible when it comes to male displays of affection. 

Dromio of Syracuse has woman troubles of his own since Adriana’s cooking-maid Nell is enamored of him, thinking he is Dromio of Ephesus.  I suppose the geographical references (273, 3.2.116-37) are in part simply rough Elizabethan humor: Shakespeare’s contemporaries did not exactly have delicate sensibilities, so mocking an overweight woman would probably 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.

Act 4, Scene 1 (274-77)

Relationships with objects are part of what constitutes identity, and the gold chain here 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, figures 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.

As a result of the misunderstanding between Angelo and the Second Merchant and Antipholus of Ephesus, the latter is arrested.  When Dromio of Syracuse advises escape by sea, the irony is palpable.  Antipholus of Ephesus is being counseled to escape from his own home.  He sends his servant off to Adriana so she can help him make bail.  The play’s mix-ups and misunderstandings have by this point become down-to-earth realities.  Antipholus of Ephesus is trapped outside his proper self, and he is beginning to suffer the consequences.

Act 4, Scene 2 (277-78)

Adriana is nothing if not constant and devoted to her husband Antipholus of Ephesus.  “I think him better than I say” (277, 4.2.25), she admits.  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 “by lies we flattered be” but rather that disparaging  wordslanguage 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.

Act 4, Scene 3 (279-81)

At the very 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” (279, 4.3.1-3).  What a strange experience that must be when you are in a town you’ve never visited before!

When Dromio of Syracuse seems to speak in riddles about the Sgt. who had arrested Antipholus of Ephesus, Antipholus of Syracuse is confused because he was never arrested and Dromio thinks he was.  Dromio’s comic mention of “old Adam” (279, 4.3.13) is just what the Norton editors say—a reference to unregenerate man dressed in animal skins.  In other words, this 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 talks about salvation and redemption in straightforwardly economic terms.  Dromio of Syracuse is asking if Antipholus of Syracuse has obtained “redemption” by means of bail. 

The plan seems to be to set sail away from this bewitched place.  Antipholus of Syracuse says, “here we wander in illusions” (279, 4.3.39), and he calls upon some deity, any deity at all, to help him and his servant escape. 

The Courtesan decides to play along and serve up a lie of her own (280-81, 4.3.85-91).  As she says, she is out forty ducats, and that is just too much money to lose.  She will accuse Antipholus of Syracuse of lunacy in front of Adriana, whom she supposes to be his wife.  But of course, it’s really the other Antipholus with whom she has the problem.  The man she’s accusing does not have her ring, and never attended dinner with her in the first place.  That was Antipholus of Ephesus.

Act 4, Scene 4 (281-84)

This scene is a setup for the first scene in Act 5.  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” (281, 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 elements and end up looking ridiculous.  Everyone and everything seems to get the better of us.  Well, 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 (282, 4.4.41-43).  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 dined with Adriana.  And 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” you mean that poor Antipholus of Ephesus will be confined as a madman.  Just then, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse burst onto the scene armed with rapiers and scare everyone away (284, 4.4.138ff).  Their present plan is simply to escape the town by ship.

Act 5, Scene 1 (284-93)

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 but not denying that he had.  This draws him into a fight with the second merchant just as Adriana and company enter.  Adriana pleads for mercy, saying that Antipholus of Syracuse is insane (285, 5.1.33).  So Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse run into a priory presided over by an abbess (285, 5.1.37ff).  Adriana tries to get the abbess to release the two men from the priory, but she will not give them up.  The Duke arrives and listens to Adriana’s pleas (287, 5.1.130ff).  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, and then Antipholus of Ephesus shows up to everyone’s astonishment (288, 5.1.191).  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 Antipholus of Ephesus 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” (290, 5.1.271).  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 (291, 5.1.330), and this will set up the possibility of recognition.  Adriana now sees two husbands, as she puts it (291, 5.1.333ff).  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 are the parents of both Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus.  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” (293, 5.1.402-04).  I think what she 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 the audience up 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 his most serious plays. 

In farce, the characters are delightfully foolish and incapable: they’re not three-dimensional, well-rounded characters of the sort you 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, 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 random chance helps them out.  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 Inamorati.  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 these characters, just as Aristotle said 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 I suppose 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.

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 you happened to have heard it, which you hadn’t.  The plot of The Comedy of Errors is pretty much unbelievable: it’s obvious that you wouldn’t mistake even identical twins if you were acquainted closely with one of them, and the coincidences in this play are much too preposterous to pass as likely, especially when you pile up so many of them.  But that isn’t really the point.  What opportunity does such improbable, fantastic stuff open for us?  Well, I think it opens up just the one that the Norton editors explore: the craziness to which we are treated generates a usefully intense species of alienation and bewilderment, almost a comic version of the Freudian 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, 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 make a situation that can best deliver such a feeling, at least in the comic context.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake