Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
play is a comedy that veers toward farce and burlesque. It is sometimes
classified as a "comedy of intrigue" or a "comedy of situation." The latter,
like the modern TV situation comedy, relies heavily on mix-ups and sometimes
slapstick. With approximately 16,250 words, The Comedy of Errors
is Shakespeare's shortest play.
Written: Early 1590's.
Performance: Probably December 28, 1594, at Gray's Inn in London. Gray's
Inn was one of four "Inns of Court," establishments for educating members
of the legal profession. The other inns of court were Lincoln's Inn, the
Inner Temple, and the Outer Temple.
based the plot on The Menaechmus Twins, by Plautus (254?-184 BC),
and possibly, Amphitruo, by the same author.
action of the play takes place in Ephesus (in present-day western Turkey,
near Izmir), an important Greek trading center in ancient times. It was
the site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient
world. Over time, it fell under the rule of various peoples, including
the Cimmerians, Lydians, Persians, Macedonians, and, beginning in 189 BC,
the Romans. A Christian community flourished there in the First Century
its destruction by Goths in AD 262, Ephesus was rebuilt but never recaptured
its ancient importance. By the fourteenth century, it became a ghost town.
Ruins of the ancient temple are a tourist attraction today.
Aegean port city of ancient Ephesus is the bitter enemy of the Mediterranean
port city of Syracuse because the ruler of the latter city had at one time
extorted money from Ephesian merchants who landed in Syracuse to conduct
trade. Those with insufficient funds to redeem themselves were executed.
In response, Ephesus enacted a law banning Syracuse merchants from Ephesus
under penalty of death unless they could ransom themselves. So it is that
when the elderly Syracuse merchant Aegeon arrives in Ephesus, the authorities
arrest him. The ruler of Ephesus, Duke Solinus, decrees that he will execute
Aegeon and confiscate his property unless Aegeon pays one thousand marks
by nightfall. However, feeling sorry for the old man, the duke allows Aegeon
to speak up for himself.
Antipholus of Syracuse. One may also fairly argue in favor of another major
character as the protagonist or maintain that there is no protagonist.
However, Antipholus of Syracuse is the central character in the major event
of the play: the quest for persons lost at sea. He actively seeks them
and, in so doing, occupies center stage and generates the comic episodes.
His brother, Antipholus of Ephesus, is a passive observer or participant
in these episodes. Aegeon, the father of Antipholus of Syracuse, catalyzes
the action in the opening act, but he plays no major role in the events
leading up to the family reunion at the end of the play.
Mischievous Fate, in the form of coincidence and mischance.
Duke of Ephesus.
Merchant of Syracuse.
of Ephesus, Antipholus of Syracuse: Twin brothers who become separated
as children by a shipwreck. They are the sons of Aegeon and Aemilia.
of Ephesus, Dromio of Syracuse: Twin brothers who become separated
as children by a shipwreck. One is the attendant of Antipholus of Ephesus
and the other the attendant of Antipholus of Syracuse.
(Abbess): Wife of Aegeon.
Wife of Antipholus of Ephesus.
Servant of Adriana.
Merchant: Friend of Antipholus of Syracuse.
Doctor who examines Antipholus of Ephesus after the later is jailed.
Merchant: Creditor of Angelo.
Characters: Courtezan (courtesan), gaoler (jailer), officers, servants.
Michael J. Cummings...©
upon a time, Aegeon says, his wife gave birth to twin boys in Epidamnum
(in present-day Albania) during one of Aegeon’s business trips to that
city. Aegeon then purchased another pair of twin sons from a poor woman.
These twins were to be the slaves of his own sons. When he and his wife
were sailing back to Syracuse with the quartet of boys, a storm wrecked
their ship. Two other ships came to the rescue. One, bound for Epidaurus,
Greece, picked up Aegeon, one son, and one slave boy. The other picked
up his wife and the other two boys. Aegeon says he saw it sail away in
the direction of Corinth, Greece. Thus, each set of twins was split up
and carried off in different directions.
years passed. Antipholus, the son rescued with Aegeon, then embarked on
a search for his lost twin brother, accompanied by his slave, Dromio. However,
when Antipholus did not return, Aegeon embarked on a search for him. After
five years, the search took Aegeon to Ephesus—and to his present sorry
circumstances. After hearing this tale, the duke expresses sympathy but
says he cannot change the law. Aegeon must beg or borrow the required sum.
unknown to Aegeon, Antipholus has just arrived in Ephesus, still looking
for his brother. Wisely, Antipholus declares that he is from Epidamnum
in order to avoid arrest. Antipholus has come to the right place, for his
twin brother is indeed in Ephesus with the second slave—and a wife, Adriana.
Here is where the play turns into a “comedy of errors," for the brother
of Antipholus is also named Antipholus, and the brother of Dromio is also
named Dromio. Of course, no one in Ephesus is aware that there is one Antipholus
who looks exactly like another Antipholus and one Dromio who looks exactly
like another Dromio.
of Syracuse sends Dromio of Syracuse to an inn called the Centaur, where
they are to lodge and deposit a bag of gold. Dromio is to remain there
until Antipholus arrives after scouting the city. Bemoaning the seemingly
impossible task of finding his brother, who could be anywhere on earth,
Antipholus says, “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the
ocean seeks another drop" (1. 2. 37-38). Dromio of Ephesus comes on the
scene. Taking him for his own Dromio, Antipholus asks him why he has returned
so soon from the Centaur. Dromio of Ephesus, of course, takes Antipholus
of Syracuse for Antipholus of Ephesus and tells him he is late for supper,
meat is cold because you come not home;
inquires about the money that was to be deposited. Believing Antipholus
is referring to sixpence he used to pay for a crupper (a leather strap
that attaches a horse’s tail to the saddle), Dromio of Ephesus says he
gave the money to a saddler. Antipholus thinks Dromio is jesting and demands
to know where the gold is. Dromio says he knows nothing of gold. When Antipholus
strikes him, the slave returns home. There, Adriana scolds him for returning
without her husband (Antipholus of Ephesus).
come not home because you have no stomach;
have no stomach having broke your fast;
we that know what ’tis to fast and pray
penitent for your default to-day. (1. 2. 50-55)
Dromio of Syracuse returns from depositing the gold, he denies having called
his master to supper. By this time, both men think Ephesus is bewitched.
Antipholus of Syracuse observes:
say this town is full of cozenage,
Adriana appears with her sister Luciana. When Adriana scolds the bewildered
Antipholus for not returning to supper, he denies knowing her. Adriana
then hauls him off to her home. While Antipholus of Syracuse is dining
with Adriana, Dromio of Syracuse guards the door.
nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
sorcerers that change the mind,
witches that deform the body,
cheaters, prating mountebanks,
many such-like liberties of sin. (1. 2. 100-105)
of Ephesus then arrives for supper with his slave and two guests, Angelo,
a goldsmith, and Balthazar, a merchant. But they can’t get in because the
door is locked. So Antipholus of Ephesus takes his party for dinner to
the house of a pretty courtesan. He plans to give her a gold chain intended
for his wife and tells Angelo, who made the chain, to fetch it. Meanwhile,
Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love with Luciana and tries to woo her.
However, she rejects his advances, believing that he is her brother-in-law.
(Remember, Luciana is the sister of Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of
Ephesus.) At the same time, Dromio of Syracuse falls prey to the clutches
of a greasy kitchen maid who means to marry him. Thoroughly convinced now
that Ephesus is a city of witchery, Antipholus of Syracuse decides to leave
town and sends Dromio to inquire about a ship. When Angelo returns with
the chain, he gives it to the wrong Antipholus (Antipholus of Syracuse).
Angelo demands payment for the chain from the right Antipholus, who says
he never received the chain. Angelo has him arrested. Dromio of Syracuse
returns to report that he has found a ship, but he tells Antipholus of
Ephesus, not Antipholus of Syracuse. The Ephesian, who remains under arrest,
then orders Dromio to get money from Adriana to bail him out of jail. However,
when he returns with the money, Dromio of Syracuse gives it to Antipholus
of Syracuse instead of the jailed Antipholus of Ephesus. After the courtesan
shows up and demands the gold chain promised to her, he refuses to part
with it. The courtesan then tells Adriana that her husband is mad. Back
at the jail, Dromio of Ephesus shows up and is amazed to learn that he
is supposed to have bail money. Adriana, Luciana, and the courtesan appear
with a Doctor Pinch, who declares the jailed Antipholus insane after feeling
his pulse. Adriana then bails her husband out, and he and his slave are
led away to be locked up at home.
Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio are on their way to the ship, Angelo
confronts Antipholus and demands the money for the gold chain. Swords are
drawn. When Adriana, Luciana, and the courtesan appear, Adriana thinks
Antipholus of Syracuse is her husband and orders him and his slave to be
bound and taken to her house. They escape into a nearby priory. There,
the abbess takes them under her protection.
this time Duke Solinus is passing by as he accompanies Aegeon to the place
of execution. Adriana appeals to the duke for justice. Antipholus of Ephesus
and his Dromio appear and they also appeal for justice. When the abbess
then produces Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio, all of the astonished
company put together the pieces of the puzzle. The abbess, it turns out,
is Aegeon’s long lost wife. Antipholus of Ephesus is reconciled with his
wife, and Antipholus of Syracuse is betrothed to Luciana. Aegeon receives
a pardon from Duke Solinus.
obstinate—loyalty brings families together in times of crisis. This serious
message underlies the comedy. Aegeon and his son, Antipholus of Syracuse,
refuse to give up on their lost family members, even after years of searching
for them. In the end, the entire family is reunited.
pays. Aegeon, Antipholus of Ephesus, and Dromio of Ephesus are all reunited
with their loved ones after a long and unrelenting search lasting many
and mix-ups are part of everyday life and not magical or supernatural occurrences.
Comedy of Errors features two sets of twins: (1) Antipholus of Ephesus
and Antipholus of Syracuse and (2) Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse.
Dromio of Ephesus is the slave of Antipholus of Ephesus, and Dromio of
Syracuse is the slave of Antipholus of Syracuse. Antipholus of Ephesus
is unaware that he has a twin brother, Antipholus of Syracuse. And Dromio
of Ephesus is unaware that he also has a twin brother, Dromio of Syracuse.
Coincidences and mix-ups occur when all the twins converge in Ephesus.
Antipholus of Ephesus mistakes Dromio of Syracuse for Dromio of Ephesus.
And Dromio of Syracuse mistakes Antipholus of Ephesus for Antipholus of
Syracuse. And so on. What is the meaning of all of these mix-ups?
Shakespeare was attempting to debunk belief in witchcraft and sorcery,
widely prevalent in his time. Here's why: During the play, the characters
attribute the confusing mix-ups to the work of magicians and sorcerers.
Ephesus appears to be bewitched. But by demonstrating that coincidences
and mix-ups are part of everyday life, Shakespeare was showing his audiences
that strange and seemingly inexplicable developments can occur under normal
circumstances. Perhaps if Shakespeare had written the play in our time,
the 21st Century, he would have tried to debunk belief in flying saucers,
haunted houses, or the "miracle cures" of charlatan televangelists.
Comedy of Errors relies primarily on plot rather than characterization
to achieve its effect. What happens next is more important than
a character thinks or feels or says. There is no deep probing of a
character's intellect or emotions, no attempt to fathom a character's soul.
It is circumstance or situation that counts. However, at least one character,
Duke Solinus, undergoes a significant change. At the beginning of the play,
he is a rigid legalist who, in spite of his expressed sympathy for Aegeon's
plight, is unwilling to bend the law. At the end of the play, he forgives
Comedy of Errors reaches its climax in the last act when all of the
principle characters assemble at the priory and the abbess produces
Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio while the other Antipholus and Dromio
and standing nearby. All of the astonished company then put together the
pieces of the puzzle and the confusion ends. The abbess, it turns out,
is Aegeon's long lost wife. Antipholus of Ephesus is reconciled with his
wife, and Antipholus of Syracuse is betrothed to Luciana. Aegeon receives
a pardon from Duke Solinus..
Act III, Shakespeare blends hyperbole and metaphor in a hilarious scene
in which Dromio of Syracuse laments that a rotund cook is relentlessly
pursuing him. After Antipholus of Syracuse asks him to identify her, Dromio
sir, she’s the kitchen-wench, and all grease; and I know not what use to
put her to but to make a lamp of her and run from her by her own light.
I warrant her rags and the tallow in them will burn a Poland winter; if
she lives till doomsday, she’ll burn a week longer than the whole world.
(3. 2. 88)When Antipholus
questions him further about her looks, another hyperbole results. Here
is the passage:
What complexion is she of?
then turns the woman into an extended metaphor in which he mocks nations
and government policies. Describing her as being so fat that she is as
wide as she is tall, Dromio says that “she is spherical, like a globe;
I could find out countries in her." Here is the rest of the dialogue:
Swart, like my shoe, but her face nothing like so clean kept: for why she
sweats; a man may go over shoes in the grime of it.
That’s a fault that water will mend.
No, sir, ’tis in grain; Noah’s flood could not do it. (3.2.89-92)
In what part of her body stands Ireland?
Marry, sir, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.
I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand.
In her forehead; armed and reverted, making war against her heir.1
I looked for the chalky cliffs,2
but I could find no whiteness in them: but I guess it stood in her chin,
by the salt rheum3
that ran between France .......and
Faith, I saw not; but I felt it hot in her breath.
Where America, the Indies?
O, sir! upon her nose, all o’er embellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires,
declining their rich aspect to the hot breath of Spain, who sent .......whole
armadoes of caracks4
to be ballast at her nose.
Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?
O, sir! I did not look so low. (3. 2. 96-110)
occasionally casts conversations on trivial matters in rhyme, mimicking
the sublimity of poetry and thereby further heightening the humor. Here
are two examples, both from the first act. In the first example, Dromio
of Ephesus and his master, Antipholus of Ephesus, are attempting to enter
the latter's home. However, Dromio of Syracuse, who is inside, refuses
to open the door.
OF SYRACUSE [Within.] Mome, malt-horse, capon, coxcomb, idiot, patch!
second example, Antipholus of Syracuse flirts with Luciana, who thinks
he is Antipholus of Ephesus.
get thee from the door or sit down at the hatch.
thou conjure for wenches, that thou call’st for such store,
one is one too many? Go, get thee from the door.
OF EPHESUS What patch is made our porter?—My master stays in the
OF SYRACUSE [Within.] Let him walk from whence he came, lest he catch
cold on’s feet.
OF EPHESUS Who talks within there? ho! open the door.
OF SYRACUSE [Within.] Right, sir; I’ll tell you when, an you’ll tell
OF EPHESUS Wherefore? for my dinner: I have not din’d to-day.
OF SYRACUSE Nor to-day here you must not; come again when you
OF EPHESUS What art thou that keep’st me out from the house I owe?
OF SYRACUSE [Within.] The porter for this time, sir, and my name
OF EPHESUS O villain! thou hast stolen both mine office and my name:
one ne’er got me credit, the other mickle blame. (3.1.35-48)
What! are you mad, that you do reason so?
OF SYRACUSE Not mad, but mated; how, I do not know.
It is a fault that springeth from your eye.
OF SYRACUSE For gazing on your beams, fair sun, being by.
Gaze where you should, and that will clear your sight.
OF SYRACUSE As good to wink, sweet love, as look on night.
verbal bag of tricks includes a variety of figures of speech that vivify
descriptions and observations. Among the passages containing memorable
figures of speech are the following:
without a fin,
there’s a fowl
without a feather
(3. 2. 21)
and I will dote. (3.2.49)
time was once when thou unurg’d wouldst vow
never words were music to thine ear,
never object pleasing in thine eye,
never touch well welcome to thy hand,
never meat sweet-savour’d in thy taste,
I spake, or look’d, or touch’d, or carv’d to thee. (2,2)
your maw, like mine, should be your clock
strike you home without a messenger. (1.2.69-70)
of the stomach (maw) to a clock.
nothing situate under heaven’s eye
hath his bound, in earth, in sea, in sky. (2.1.18-19)
of the sun to an eye.
slander lives upon succession,
housed where it gets possession. (3. 1. 113-114)
of slander to a living thing.
that women bear. (1. 1. 48)
punishment refers to pregnancy.
villain, sir. . . . (1.2.21)
the sun shines let foolish gnats make sport,
creep in crannies when he hides his beams. (2.2.33-34)
of the sun to a person.
vice like virtue’s harbinger; (3.2.14)
of vice to the appearance of virtue.
Roman Catholicism was banned in England in Shakespeare's time, he presents
the Abbess in The Comedy of Errors as a wise and admirable person,
perhaps suggesting to the English that the outlawed religion had merit.
(Shakespeare himself was reared as a Roman Catholic by devout Roman Catholic
Questions and Essay Topics
Adriana and her sister, Luciana, express opposing views on the role of
women. Luciana believes women should submit to the will of men, who are
“Lords of the wide world" (2. 1. 23). Write an essay that examines the
role of women in society during Shakespeare’s.time.
Comment on the extent to which Shakespeare uses dramatic irony—the failure
of a character or characters to see or understand what is obvious to the
audience—to achieve his comic effect.
Several characters believe sorcery is responsible for the strange happenings
in the play. Do you believe people today, like the characters in the play,
mistakenly attribute inexplicable or strange events to supernatural or
Write an essay about the most incredible coincidences or most peculiar
events that you have experienced.
heir: Henry of Navarre, or Henry de Bourbonne-Navarre. In 1584, on the
death of the brother of the King of France, Henry became first in line
to inherit the French throne. Because Henry was a Protestant, Roman Catholics
opposed his succession. Subsequently, the French king and the Holy League,
a Catholic Organization, forged a treaty banning Henry from the throne.
Henry went to war against the French and won a crucial battle in 1587.
Later, after becoming reconciled with the French king, he acceded to the
throne of France after the death of the king. In Dromio’s line, the word
heir not only refers to Henry of Navarre but also to the kitchen wench’s
hair, in a pun.
on DVD (or VHS)
chalky cliffs: Teeth of the kitchen wench, an implied metaphor in which
her teeth are compared to England’s white cliffs at Dover.
rheum (pronounced ROOM): Discharge from the nose; mucus.
armadoes of caracks: Armadas of carracks (galleons).
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