Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies
Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 245-93).
1. The Norton editors suggest that this farcical play deals with the serious theme of human identity — on what constitutes it and keeps it constant or changes it, how others partly determine who we are, etc. How does Egeon’s sad situation in Act 1, Scene 1 help introduce this theme? In replying, consider how he got into the predicament in which he now stands as well as the nature of that predicament itself.
2. In Act 1, Scene 2, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus start off the confusion for us (and themselves) at their first meeting. What’s the source and type of confusion we come across here? And how does Antipholus of Syracuse react to this confusion? In responding, consider in part his musings about the quest he has been on, the one that has brought him to Ephesus.
3. In Act 2, Scene 1, we meet Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, and her sister Luciana. What is Luciana’s view of relations between men and women? And what seems to be the ground of Adriana’s anxiety about the state of relations between herself and her husband?
4. In Act 2, Scene 2, Antipholus of Syracuse interacts with Dromio of Syracuse, who really is his servant. What confusion unfolds as they speak? Later in the scene, what thoughts cross Antipholus’ mind about his strange situation? Consider how he muses about sleeping and waking, transformation, and madness. And how does your perspective as an onlooker compare to such states, if it does?
5. In Act 2, Scene 2, how does Adriana deal with the shock of her confrontation with Antipholus of Syracuse (rather than of Ephesus — the man who’s really her husband)? What surprisingly serious philosophy does she set forth regarding identity in marriage?
6. In Act 3, Scene 1, the featured characters are Antipholus of Ephesus, Dromio of Ephesus, Angelo the goldsmith and Balthasar the merchant. How do Antipholus of Ephesus and his rightful servant handle being refused entrance to their own house? What does Balthasar suggest while this ruckus is going on, and how does Antipholus of Ephesus justify accepting that advice?
7. In Act 3, Scene 2, what complication arises for Antipholus of Syracuse when he speaks with Luciana, the sister of Antipholus of Ephesus? What does Luciana suspect has been going on with him, and how does she take his current declarations to her? in replying, consider the philosophy about relations between men and women that she has set forth here and earlier.
8. In Act 3, Scene 2, in what difficulties does Dromio of Syracuse find himself not only with his master Antipholus of Syracuse but also with Nell (Adriana’s cooking-maid)? How does his predicament compare to that of his master? And what seems to be the point of the silly references to geographical locations here — with Nell’s body referenced as a globe containing Ireland, Scotland America, the Indies, and so forth?
9. At the previous scene’s end, Angelo the goldsmith gave Antipholus of Syracuse (whom he took to be Antipholus of Ephesus) an expensive piece of jewelry, a chain. This jewelry piece turns out to be an important plot device. What can you say about the way Shakespeare has introduced it and what complications arise here in Act 4, Scene 1, as well as about the possible symbolic implications of a “chain,” considering the play’s emphasis on how identity is formed and maintained?
10. In Act 4, Scene 1, what problem is Antipholus of Ephesus having with Angelo the goldsmith? What happens to Antipholus of Ephesus as a result? Also, Dromio of Syracuse returns and infuriates Antipholus of Ephesus with talk about escaping by sea. How do these two developments, taken together, lend an air of consequentiality to the play’s action at this point and sharply delineate the quandary in which this particular Antipholus now finds himself?
11. In Act 4, Scene 2, what more do we learn from Adriana’s talk with Luciana about the former’s true regard for her husband Antipholus of Ephesus? How does she articulate her feelings for him and her sense of the basis of their relationship? How does she respond to news of his arrest?
12. In Act 4, Scene 3, it isn’t hard to see the basic problem between Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse — the usual mix-up of identities — but what linguistic development adds to the confusion now? In replying, consider Dromio of Syracuse’s circumlocution about “Adam” — why do you suppose Shakespeare makes Dromio speak this way, aside from basic tact about the arrest?
13. In Act 4, Scene 3, consider what Antipholus of Syracuse says to his servant Dromio of Syracuse while the two go about their confused wrangling — how does Antipholus refine his expression of the predicament he’s in? And what seems to be his present plan, such as it is, for getting out of it?
14. In Act 4, Scene 3, what is the Courtesan’s analysis of the strange conversation she’s just had with Antipholus of Syracuse about the chain that keeps turning up as a plot device? How is this comedy of errors affecting her — what is she driven to do at present, and why?
15. In Act 4, Scene 4 describe the situation in which both pairs of Antipholuses and Dromios now find themselves. Why might this portion of the play be described as the point where the comic “knot” is about to be tied most tightly? In your response, consider in part Adriana’s reasoning and the presence of Doctor Pinch.
16. In Act 5, Scene 1, we have arrived at the place where the comic knot is indeed tied as tightly as can be: describe this “knot” or welter of confusions. What’s the situation now? Explain the mix-ups and misunderstandings that beset the characters at this point.
17. In Act 5, Scene 1, what role do Egeon, the Abbess and the Duke now play in setting matters straight — in cutting or untying the comic knot?
18. Act 5, Scene 1 ends with a brief conversation between the two Dromios. These servants are rather of the sort one finds in the ancient comedies of the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence, from whom Shakespeare seems to have borrowed some of his stock comic moves. What significance would you say the two Dromios have held for the play — for its action and in relation to the predicament of the two masters, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus?
19. General question. The Comedy of Errors is an early effort by Shakespeare. Do your read it as mainly a farce or do you (like our editors) see it as more complex and worth putting in conjunction with the later comedies? What principle, if any, is really asserted or explored here? In other words, does it compare favorably to any of the later comedies? If so, which one or ones, and why, or why not?
20. General question. Much has been made of the notion of probability in drama — Aristotle, after all, wrote that a play’s action ought to follow what we today would call the dictates of probability and necessity. We know that the Ephesian and Syracusan Antipholuses and Dromios look almost alike, but how probable is it — how likely — that anyone who really knew a pair of twins (or even one of them) well would mistake one for the other? Is that a realistic premise? Does it matter? Why or why not?
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