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Complete List of Shakespeare Plays on DVDs
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The Comedy of Errors
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site..|..Shakespeare Books
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Type of Work
Key Dates
Sources
Setting
Characters
Plot Summary
Themes
Plotting and Characterization
Climax
Hyperbole
Rhyming Lines
Figures of Speech
Role of Religion
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Complete Free Text
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010..©
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Type of Work

.......The 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.

Key Dates
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Date Written: Early 1590's. 
First 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.

Sources

.......Shakespeare based the plot on The Menaechmus Twins, by Plautus (254?-184 BC), and possibly, Amphitruo, by the same author.

Setting
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.......The 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 AD. 
.......After 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.

Characters
 2
Protagonist: 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.
Antagonist: Mischievous Fate, in the form of coincidence and mischance.
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Solinus: Duke of Ephesus.
Aegeon: Merchant of Syracuse.
Antipholus of Ephesus, Antipholus of Syracuse: Twin brothers who become separated as children by a shipwreck. They are the sons of Aegeon and Aemilia. 
Dromio 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.
Balthazar: Merchant.
Angelo: Goldsmith.
Aemilia (Abbess): Wife of Aegeon.
Adriana: Wife of Antipholus of Ephesus.
Luciana: Adriana~ez_rsquo~s sister.
Luce: Servant of Adriana.
First Merchant: Friend of Antipholus of Syracuse.
Pinch: Doctor who examines Antipholus of Ephesus after the later is jailed.
Second Merchant: Creditor of Angelo.
Minor Characters: Courtezan (courtesan), gaoler (jailer), officers, servants.
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003

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.......The 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. 
.......Once upon a time, Aegeon says, his wife gave birth to twin boys in Epidamnum (in present-day Albania) during one of Aegeon~ez_rsquo~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. 
.......Eighteen 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~ez_mdash~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. 
.......Meanwhile, 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~ez_mdash~and a wife, Adriana. Here is where the play turns into a ~ez_ldquo~comedy of errors,~ez_rdquo~ 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. 
.......Antipholus 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, ~ez_ldquo~I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop~ez_rdquo~ (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, saying: 
The meat is cold because you come not home; 
You come not home because you have no stomach; 
You have no stomach having broke your fast; 
But we that know what ~ez_rsquo~tis to fast and pray 
Are penitent for your default to-day. (1. 2. 50-55) 
.......Antipholus 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~ez_rsquo~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). 
.......After 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: 
They say this town is full of cozenage, 
As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, 
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, 
Soul-killing witches that deform the body, 
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, 
And many such-like liberties of sin. (1. 2. 100-105) 
.......Then 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. 
.......Antipholus of Ephesus then arrives for supper with his slave and two guests, Angelo, a goldsmith, and Balthazar, a merchant. But they can~ez_rsquo~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). 
.......Later 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. 
.......While 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. 
.......At 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~ez_rsquo~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.
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Themes
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Family Loyalty

.......Unbending~ez_mdash~even obstinate~ez_mdash~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.

Importance of Persistence

.......Persistence pays. Aegeon, Antipholus of Ephesus, and Dromio of Ephesus are all reunited with their loved ones after a long and unrelenting search lasting many years.

Happenstance in Everyday

.......Coincidences and mix-ups are part of everyday life and not magical or supernatural occurrences. The 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? 
.......Apparently 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.
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.Plotting and Characterization
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.......The Comedy of Errors relies primarily on plot rather than characterization to achieve its effect. What happens next is more important than what 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 all offenses. 
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Climax
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.......The 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.
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Hyperbole and Humor

.......In 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 says,

Marry, sir, she~ez_rsquo~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~ez_rsquo~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:
ANTIPHOLUS What complexion is she of?
DROMIO 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.
ANTIPHOLUS   That~ez_rsquo~s a fault that water will mend.  
DROMIO   No, sir, ~ez_rsquo~tis in grain; Noah~ez_rsquo~s flood could not do it. (3.2.89-92)
Shakespeare 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 ~ez_ldquo~she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.~ez_rdquo~ Here is the rest of the dialogue:
ANTIPHOLUS In what part of her body stands Ireland?
DROMIO   Marry, sir, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs. 
ANTIPHOLUS Where Scotland?
DROMIO   I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand. 
ANTIPHOLUS Where France?
DROMIO   In her forehead; armed and reverted, making war against her heir.1
ANTIPHOLUS Where England?
DROMIO 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 it. 
ANTIPHOLUS Where Spain?
DROMIO Faith, I saw not; but I felt it hot in her breath.
ANTIPHOLUS Where America, the Indies?
ANTIPHOLUS   O, sir! upon her nose, all o~ez_rsquo~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. 
ANTIPHOLUS   Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands? 
DROMIO O, sir! I did not look so low. (3. 2. 96-110)
Rhyming Lines

.......Shakespeare 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.

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE  [Within.] Mome, malt-horse, capon, coxcomb, idiot, patch!  
.......Either get thee from the door or sit down at the hatch.   
.......Dost thou conjure for wenches, that thou call~ez_rsquo~st for such store,  
.......When one is one too many? Go, get thee from the door.  
DROMIO OF EPHESUS  What patch is made our porter?~ez_mdash~My master stays in the street.  
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE  [Within.] Let him walk from whence he came, lest he catch cold on~ez_rsquo~s feet.   
ANTIPHOLUS OF EPHESUS  Who talks within there? ho! open the door.  
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE  [Within.] Right, sir; I~ez_rsquo~ll tell you when, an you~ez_rsquo~ll tell me wherefore.  
ANTIPHOLUS OF EPHESUS  Wherefore? for my dinner: I have not din~ez_rsquo~d to-day.  
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Nor to-day here you must not; come again when you may.
ANTIPHOLUS OF EPHESUS  What art thou that keep~ez_rsquo~st me out from the house I owe?  
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE [Within.] The porter for this time, sir, and my name is Dromio.
DROMIO OF EPHESUS  O villain! thou hast stolen both mine office and my name:  
.......The one ne~ez_rsquo~er got me credit, the other mickle blame. (3.1.35-48)
In the second example, Antipholus of Syracuse flirts with Luciana, who thinks he is Antipholus of Ephesus.
LUCIANA What! are you mad, that you do reason so?  
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE  Not mad, but mated; how, I do not know.   
LUCIANA  It is a fault that springeth from your eye.  
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE  For gazing on your beams, fair sun, being by.  
LUCIANA Gaze where you should, and that will clear your sight.
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE  As good to wink, sweet love, as look on night. (3.2.55-60)
Figures of Speech

.......Shakespeare's 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: 

    Alliteration

    For a fish without a fin, there~ez_rsquo~s a fowl without a feather (3.1.90)
    Ill deeds are doubled with an evil word. (3. 2. 21)
    Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote. (3.2.49)

    Anaphora

    The time was once when thou unurg~ez_rsquo~d wouldst vow  
    That never words were music to thine ear,  
    That never object pleasing in thine eye,  
    That never touch well welcome to thy hand,
    That never meat sweet-savour~ez_rsquo~d in thy taste,  
    Unless I spake, or look~ez_rsquo~d, or touch~ez_rsquo~d, or carv~ez_rsquo~d to thee. (2,2)

    Metaphor

    Methinks your maw, like mine, should be your clock  
    And strike you home without a messenger. (1.2.69-70)
    Comparison of the stomach (maw) to a clock.

    There~ez_rsquo~s nothing situate under heaven~ez_rsquo~s eye  
    But hath his bound, in earth, in sea, in sky. (2.1.18-19)
    Comparison of the sun to an eye.

    For slander lives upon succession, 
    Forever housed where it gets possession. (3. 1. 113-114)
    Comparison of slander to a living thing. 

    Oxymoron

    The pleasing punishment that women bear. (1. 1. 48)
    Pleasing punishment refers to pregnancy.

    A trusty villain, sir. . . . (1.2.21)

    Personification

    When the sun shines let foolish gnats make sport,  
    But creep in crannies when he hides his beams. (2.2.33-34)
    Comparison of the sun to a person. 

    Simile

    Apparel vice like virtue~ez_rsquo~s harbinger; (3.2.14)
    Comparison of vice to the appearance of virtue.

Role of Religion
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.......Although 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 parents. )
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Study Questions and Essay Topics 

1. 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 ~ez_ldquo~Lords of the wide world~ez_rdquo~ (2. 1. 23). Write an essay that examines the role of women in society during Shakespeare~ez_rsquo~s.time. 
2. Comment on the extent to which Shakespeare uses dramatic irony~ez_mdash~the failure of a character or characters to see or understand what is obvious to the audience~ez_mdash~to achieve his comic effect.
3. 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 preternatural causes?
4. Write an essay about the most incredible coincidences or most peculiar events that you have experienced. 

Notes

1. 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~ez_rsquo~s line, the word heir not only refers to Henry of Navarre but also to the kitchen wench~ez_rsquo~s hair, in a pun. 
2. chalky cliffs: Teeth of the kitchen wench, an implied metaphor in which her teeth are compared to England~ez_rsquo~s white cliffs at Dover.
3. rheum (pronounced ROOM): Discharge from the nose; mucus.
4. armadoes of caracks: Armadas of carracks (galleons).

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