The Comedy of Errors
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Comedy of Errors, see SC, Volumes 1, 26, 34, and 54.
Critics agree that The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s shortest play, is one of his earliest comedies. The play relies heavily on elements of farce, deriving its humor from a twisted and improbable plot and the chaos that ensues when two sets of identical twins find themselves in the same city. With characters who have been seen as one-dimensional and the play’s reliance on slapstick humor, The Comedy of Errors has often been derided as an immature effort. Some modern critics, however, defend the play against such attacks, maintaining that it has been unfairly undervalued due to its farcical elements. Popular areas of modern critical analyses include the play’s romantic features, the Antipholus brothers’s search for self, and the play’s exploration of mercantilism. In production, reviewers have noted how easily the deeper issues of the play can get lost within the chaotic and farcical plot, and have praised productions in which such issues remain accessible.
The twin brothers, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, have been viewed as two halves, each searching for unity. A. Bronson Feldman (1955) takes a psychoanalytic approach to the play, maintaining that the brothers are in fact divided aspects of Shakespeare's self—Antipholus of Ephesus as ego, and Antipholus of Syracuse as alter ego. Other critics, including W. Thomas MacCary (1985), find that through the brothers Shakespeare explored the search for selfhood. In MacCary's analysis, Antipholus of Syracuse is searching for himself, while Antipholus of Ephesus represents the ideal ego of his brother. Jonathan Hall (1995) observes that Antipholus of Ephesus is going through a crisis of identity, and stresses that this crisis is related to his inability to honor his pledge as a merchant.
Questions regarding the play’s genre have also generated criticism. Russ McDonald (1988) uses his examination of The Comedy of Errors to highlight Shakespeare's effort to construct meaning in farce and to demonstrate Shakespeare's affinity for this genre. Maintaining that The Comedy of Errors is a mix of two genres, farce and romance, Charles Whitworth (1991) focuses on the play's romantic elements. Whitworth asserts that Egeon's narrative, which frames the play, contains many romantic features, including a shipwreck, as well as separation, rescue, loss, and reunion. Furthermore, the stylized, formulaic language of this narrative is also characteristic of the romance genre, states Whitworth, who concludes that at the play's end, romance and farce merge.
The way the play's serious, romantic, and farcical elements are treated in production varies dramatically. In his review of the 1996 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, directed by Tim Supple, Robert Smallwood (1997) praises the way the production balanced the play's humor with its deeper issues. Smallwood also lauds individual performances as well as the unobtrusiveness of the production's musical accompaniment. Dennis Harvey (2000) discusses the Aurora Theater’s 2000 production of the play, directed by Danny Scheie. Harvey notes that the director's decision to use seven actors to play sixteen roles intensified the gender issues in the play and the chaos of mistaken identity. Under Scheie's direction, according to Harvey, the seven players provided a comic “rambunctious” that was perfect for a staging of The Comedy of Errors. Wilborn Hampton (2001) reviews a radically different version of the play, a musical version by Trevor Nunn and Guy Woolfenden, directed by John Rando. Hampton comments that while some liberties were taken with the text, such as the incorporation of cliches from the culture of the 1960s and 1970s, the production was faithful to the “spirit” of the original.
SOURCE: Feldman, A. Bronson. “Shakespeare's Early Errors.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 36, no. 2 (March-April 1955): 114-33.
[In the essay below, Feldman presents a psychological biography of Shakespeare based on a detailed analysis of the plot and characters of The Comedy of Errors.]
Veterem atque antiquam rem novam ad vos proferam
If we could understand the motives that impelled William Shakespeare to the writing of plays, what were the reasons for his giving a whole life of wealthy imagination to the theatre, we might come into possession of the main keys to the psychology of the stage itself, of plays, the players, and their public. In the hope of contributing toward this achievement I have undertaken an intensive analysis of a play by the paramount dramatist which most historians regard as one of the earliest—if not the very first—of his creative efforts in theatre: The Comedy of Errors. Because of the crude frivolity, the juvenile character of this drama, scholars have not paid it serious attention. The eyes of psycho-analysis turn the more readily to it precisely because of this juvenile character. We know how the childishness of an artist will betray the deepest secrets of his mind, the unconscious origin of the passions of his life. If it is true that the Errors stands the nearest of Shakespeare's works to his infancy, we may expect to discover in it the primary springs of his fantasy, the driving forces of all his dramatic work.
Analysis of the comedy is not an easy task, for Shakespeare bequeathed it to us in a palimpsest form. There is plenty of evidence that he revised this product of his youth several times, and it did not reach the press until he had been in his grave many years. We need not be dismayed by the rapid shifts in quality of its stagecraft and the abrupt variations of the style. The changes in the drama will mystify us only when we lose sight of its substance, the farcical plot, which throws over all the sophistications of Shakespeare's mature art the unmistakable shadow of his novice mind. Scarcely any of his other plays exhibits so hearty an interest in plot as the Errors. The plot is the thing in which we shall catch the conscience of the poet. Shakespeare apprehended this fact and therefore laboured to fill the fabric of the comedy with snares and delusions, ever hopeful of escape from knowledge. With extreme cunning he wrote and rewrote the drama, turning it into a net of Gordian knots which nowhere present a single loose end to enable us to unravel the purport of the play. At whatever point we select to begin our analysis we are bound to use a sharpness without subtlety, to cut the fabric so that it can be untied with the loving patience it deserves.
Suppose we begin the investigation of Shakespeare's Errors with the obvious motive of the farce. Manifestly its purpose is to provoke laughter, extravagant, strenuous, far-fetched laughter, not without tears. The poet means to be merry, like his hero in the middle of the drama, ‘in despite of mirth’ (III, i). With its wild, unbelievable story and dreamlike duplication of characters, the comedy aims at delirium. The prime emotion appears to be one of hysteria, as if the author produced it from a desperate want of hilarity, feeling that he must have merriment or run mad. He does not leave us in doubt about the source of this manic humour. It functioned for him in the same way that the clown Dromio of Syracuse serves his curious master. ‘When I am dull with care and melancholy,’ the master remarks, Dromio ‘Lightens my humour with his merry jests’ (I, ii). Again and again Shakespeare stresses relief from a devouring sorrow as sufficient excuse for his jokes, no matter how ribald or fierce. He seems to have put such gaiety on the plane of athletic sports, considering it precious recreation:
Sweet recreation barr'd, what doth ensue But moody moping, and dull melancholy, Kinsman to grim and comfortless despair … ?
Below the surface motive of the comedy, then, we can plainly see the motive of evading melancholiac depression.
The intensity of the poet's depression on the threshold of his Errors may be estimated by the fact that he altered the raw Roman material of the play in order to give it a groundwork of tragedy. For the sake of its sorrowful opening scene Shakespeare sacrificed elements from his Latin source which would have made the plot more plausible.
In the Menaechmi of his beloved Plautus the twins around whom the comedy revolves are separated by a commonplace event. The father takes one to a distant market town and the boy is lost in a crowd. A merchant finds the little Menaechmus and carries him away across the Adriatic Sea to Epidamnus. The lad's father dies of grief. Back in their native Syracuse the grandfather, learning of the double loss, and anxious to preserve the memory of the lost boy, who was named after him, changes the name of the remaining twin from Sosicles to Menaechmus. The new Menaechmus grows up and travels across the Adriatic hoping to find out what happened to his dear brother. Shakespeare desired more sensational reasons for the parting of the twins. He invented a tempest and a shipwreck to account for it. He refused to let the father die of grief, but increased the old man's torments by parting him from the second son. This boy leaves his father to go in search of a brother whom he has never known. And old Aegeon is compelled, years later, to sail in search of both his sons, across the Mediterranean Sea to Ephesus. Shakespeare completes his disruption of the family by having brutal seamen separate the mother from the child she saved in the wreck. In the midst of this welter of narrative we are disappointed to observe that he names the twins Antipholus and fails to explain why they have identical names. To augment the mystification he bestows on their twin servants the single name Dromio. We know that he got the idea for his two sets of twins from another comedy by Plautus, Amphitruo, but the Latin dramatist adequately accounted for his twins here by making one of each pair a god masquerading to delude mortals.
Plautus opens his Amphitruo with the statement, from the mouth of the god Mercury, that the play commences as a tragedy. Shakespeare may have been encouraged by this to start the Errors in the same manner. But the Roman playwright shows us nothing piteous and terrible, like the first scene of Shakespeare's play. Plautus's excuse for the tragic element in his work is that ‘it is not right to make a play where kings and gods talk entirely comedy’. The tragic element in Shakespeare's work concerns no god or king, only the poor old merchant Aegeon, who has no parallel in Plautus.
What could have driven Shakespeare to make these drastic alterations in his material? Why did he discard the simple disappearance of a twin in a crowd for the barely credible separation at sea? The tempest must have had a special meaning to the dramatist. The central image of Aegeon's tragic tale, the splitting of his ship, must have exerted an irresistible fascination on Shakespeare's mind. He lavished so much imagination on the disaster that he neglected to make clear the reason for calling both of Aegeon's sons Antipholus. The reckless omission of this important detail gives us a glimpse of the hysterical haste with which the poet went to work on the comedy. His reason appears to have been overwhelmed by the images of the storm and the wreck.
He makes the old man speak of his misfortune as ‘this unjust divorce’ (I, i). Now, matrimony has often been compared to a sea, and divorce to shipwreck. How conscious of these metaphors the dramatist may have been, we cannot say. It is incontestable, however, that the thought of divorce was running in his mind when he composed The Comedy of Errors. Its central events occur in consequence of an estrangement between the hero, Antipholus of Ephesus, and his wife. And the two Latin comedies from which Shakespeare derived the raw stuff of his farce obtain their effects of fun from breaches of marriage.
So far as I am aware, only one of Shakespeare's critics, Frank Harris, has recognized that the poet's own alienation from his wife was a stimulus to the writing of the Errors (1). Unfortunately Harris's interpretation of the play raised more riddles than he solved, obscuring the merit of his discovery. He erred in attempting to sift details from the drama to fit his imaginary biography of the poet. In this essay I intend to steer clear of questions of biography, relying for argument exclusively on the text of the play and its literary analogues.
The ‘unjust divorce’ of Aegeon and his Aemilia is the work of wind, water, and stone, or the caprice of the goddess Fortune, as the venerable traveller insists. The alienation of Antipholus and his Adriana, on the other hand, is portrayed as an error, the climax of a series of errors. The marriage of this couple, Shakespeare seems to say, is nothing but a comedy of errors, indeed a mistake from the start. Adriana's sister suspects that Antipholus married her for her riches (III, ii). He grew cold to her, if not cruel. Before the action of the play commences, he was in the habit of keeping late hours away from his house. ‘His company must do his minions grace’, Adriana complains, ‘Whilst I at home starve for a merry look’ (II, i). She accuses him of unkindness and he charges her with shrewish behaviour. Both are right. Yet until the confusions of the comedy begin, we are led to believe, their temperaments have never exploded in hate. For only a week (prior to the day of the drama), Adriana declares near the end, her husband had been behaving strangely.
This week he hath been heavy, sour, sad, And much different from the man he was; But till this afternoon his passion Ne'er brake into extremity of rage.
From the lips of Luciana and Aemilia the poet casts the blame for the estrangement on the wife. They rebuke her for ‘self-harming jealousy’, for breaking the peace of her household with wicked thoughts of her husband wandering abroad in pursuit of unlawful love. According to the judgement of these women, her conduct toward Antipholus is enough to explain his melancholy and the ‘unjust divorce’ of their souls.
The dramatist's compassion for the melancholy Antipholus bears witness for our conviction that Shakespeare identified himself with the outraged husband. He had broken away from his own wife and felt a strong impulse to justify the act on the stage. It could not be shown straightforwardly, of course. In the first place the poet was too blind with tears of self-pity to see the naked truth. Moreover he sensed that his wife did not hold a monopoly of the guilt in their disgrace. He had the intelligence and the courage to admit that he had contributed wrongs and miseries to the marriage; but his courage took the peculiar path of confessing his sins under the mask of comedy. Adopting the counsel of his Luciana, ‘Be not thy tongue thy own shame's orator’ (III, ii), he showed the world his shame by means of a variety of tongues. He discloses his guilt with a mirthy grimace while protesting, in an agony of remorse, that he is innocent. The core of the whole play is an apology for Shakespeare's errors in matrimony. He is not to blame, the drama pleads in its grotesque fashion: nor should the woman in the case be condemned, though discerning persons of her sex might decide that she was responsible. The fact of the matter, Shakespeare wishes us to think, is that the marriage had been wrecked because the bride and the groom did not really know the individuals they wedded. It was a case of mistaken identity.
In some such way, I imagine, the ego of the poet defended itself against his conscience or superego in the supreme court of his unconscious mind. I and my woman, the dramatist inwardly contended, have done nothing more damnable than entertain strangers as lovers.—She took me in, like Alcmena in Amphitruo, thinking that a hero was going to sleep by her side, and in happy ignorance she united with a god. Alas, poor god! He took in holy wedlock what he thought was an angel, and she turned out to be a termagant, at any rate a woman of torturing whims. Nevertheless, as Plautus says, ‘The god will not allow his sin and fault to fall upon a mortal's head.’ In our pitiable and ridiculous way we are trying to correct our mistakes. Anyhow, I am.—Thus seeking balm for hurt vanity, and excuses for his marital follies and cruelties, the dramatist contrived his Comedy of Errors.
The dramatic process in his unconscious took the shape of a dreamlike confusion of identities. He pictured himself as two persons, the husband Antipholus and his double, the unmarried twin, Antipholus of Syracuse, who is taken for the husband by his unhappy Adriana. There is nothing here to prove a split in the dramatist's personality. On the contrary, he has retained his ego entire and dealt himself the luxury of an alter ego. He demonstrates the sort of esteem for himself which makes people say of certain gentlemen that they are too brilliant, they should have been born twins.
The resemblance between the brothers Antipholus is more than skin-deep. The Duke of Ephesus indicates their true relationship when he exclaims.
One of these men is genius to the other. … Which is the natural man, And which the spirit? Who deciphers them?
On the first appearance of the brother from Syracuse he reveals himself as a victim of the same unexplained melancholy that the brother of Ephesus suffers from:
He that commends me to mine own content Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
The Syracusan may well be described as the ‘genius’ or spiritual double of the husband. He is more lyrical in speech, and briefly manifests a tendency to speculative thought. On his arrival in Ephesus, weary from a long voyage, he delays his dinner to gratify a desire to look on the town, ‘Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings. …’ His enthusiasm for sights and insights leads him to bewilderment and hazard, but nothing can diminish it. He vows that he will ‘in this mist at all adventures go’ (II, ii). The Syracusan's intellectual faculties are never so vivid as his carnal ones. He is almost as brutal as his brother. Both of them are quick to beat their servants' skulls for similar audacities. They cherish in common a profound and unfunny antagonism to the woman Adriana. After making her acquaintance for an hour or two the Syracusan twin confesses,
She that doth call me husband, even my soul Doth for a wife abhor.
The Ephesian bursts into a fury against his wife for barring him mysteriously from their house. He orders a rope's end to be brought with a view to punishing her (IV, i). He even threatens to pluck out her eyes (IV, iv)! In short, his soul abhors her too. It is not the spirit of virtue in the twins that shrinks from the shrill lady. Shakespeare does not depict them as patterns of chastity. The Ephesian pays a bold homage to the harlot who runs the Porpentine inn. His brother makes love to Luciana shortly after their first sight of each other, and plans to leave her city the same day. The egoism of this fellow is oddly displayed by Shakespeare in his pretext for abandoning Luciana. Her charms, he says, ‘almost made me traitor to myself’.
But lest myself be guilty to self-wrong, I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song.
His scruples do not prevent him from accepting the wifely services of her sister; he lets Adriana labour under the impression that she is doing her duty to her mate. The promptitude of the twins in embracing female hospitality is nearly equalled by their good-will to men, especially men of their station in society. To these singular features we should add their mode of showing anxiety as soon as they experience a loss of money. All these touches of nature make them more than kin. The creator wisely relinquished his attempt (traces of which survive in three old stage directions) to mark the twins apart by styling the Syracusan ‘Erotes’—the amorous—and his brother ‘Sereptus’—the stealthy.
Incidentally, the poet gives two different statements of their age. In the first scene we learn that the Syracusan journeyed at eighteen in quest of the other. Since then, Aegeon remarks, five summers have passed, or, to be exact, as he is in the final scene, ‘seven short years’. To the father, then, the twins are twenty-five years old. The mother dates their birthday earlier. ‘Thirty-three years,’ she declares, ‘have I but gone in travail Of you, my sons’ (V). We are sorry to miss the evidence of those she calls ‘the calendars of their nativity’. The two Antipholi are presented as men of ‘gravity’ and ‘serious hours’, but demeanour is no index to age. Adriana in chagrin asserts that her mate is ‘deformed, crooked, old and sere’ (IV, ii). But can we trust her testimony in the face of the romance of his twin and her sister Luciana? We cannot even be sure that Dromio of Ephesus tells the truth when he says, examining Dromio of Syracuse, ‘I see by you I am a sweet-fac'd youth’ (V). The cause of the poet's discrepant chronology lies, I feel sure, in his revision of the play at different stages of his career, and may be of use to biographers.
I have been unable to locate in Latin or Greek literature the name that Shakespeare chose for his ego surrogates. There was a famous artist, a painter, named Antiphilus in the era of Alexander the Great. Possibly he was remembered by the dramatist when he cloaked his unconscious self as Greek for The Comedy of Errors. The principle of determinism in the choice of names still challenges us to elucidate Shakespeare's designation for his doubles. It strikes me that the spelling ‘Antipholus’ was intended characteristically for a pun. We know how fond the poet was of trifling with words; he could truly be called a pun-addict. Also well know is his conviction that by means of wit and drama he could purge the stupidities, the intellectual diseases of the world (2). In the light of these facts I suggest that the name of his heroes may be translated into English as anti-follies. Otherwise the appellation is just Greek to me. If I am right in this surmise it would help to explain Shakespeare's failure to record the reason for the twins bearing the same name. The humane development, the culture of his psyche would not permit him free rein in self-righteousness. As a fool of Fortune in marriage he must have felt uneasy in his posture of justice above the fools of the world. In the conflict between righteous vanity and the woe and shame of his ‘unjust divorce’ the memory of the latter would suffice to make him oblivious of the motive for naming his protagonists Antipholus.
There is no difficulty in accounting for the name of the twin servants, Dromio. It is simply an Italian variation of the name the Roman playwright Terence bestowed on slaves in his first comedy, The Woman from Andros, in The Self-Tormentor, and The Brothers. Shakespeare unquestionably had Italian buffoons in mind when he created the brothers Dromio. A drum, by the way, was a typical property of clowns in his time.
As twin slaves of the Antipholi, one a bachelor like his master, all of precisely the same age, the Dromios could be viewed as simply burlesques of the aristocratic twins. They share certain qualities of their respective employers. The married Dromio, for example, expresses with his scullion Luce the lechery which his master has subdued and refined. The unmarried servant shows less carnality than his brother, and more religion and imagination. His spiritual attributes form a remarkable contrast of Shakespeare's dramatic method with that of Plautus, since the English artist modelled his Syracusan clown on the role that the god Mercury plays in Amphitruo as the double of the slave Sosia. The English poet transformed the divine Sosia into a human being with a rare talent for superstition, just as he changed the Jupiter who usurps Amphitryon's bed into a mortal proud of his chastity, with a rare talent for metaphysics. Between Plautus and Shakespeare, clearly, there was a progress of reason in theology, ensuing in the wake of a tremendous restriction of libido. The Syracusan twins, with all their fleshly frailty, are unquestionably superior in morals to the Roman gods. If the Roman dramatist has any advantage over Shakespeare in ethics, I would say that it consists of his superior passion for liberty. Plautus never lets pass an opportunity to express his sadness and hatred at the sight of humanity in chains. To Shakespeare's eyes the bondage of a Dromio was too light to be taken seriously. He seems to have enjoyed a feudal sense of intimacy between lord and labourer. Antipholus depicts the feudal idea when he warns Dromio not to let ‘Your sauciness jest upon my love’ because ‘I familiarly sometimes Do use you for my fool, and chat with you’ (II, ii). Their relation might be defined as even more intimate, anagogically. It is possible that Dromio incarnates the ‘earthy-gross conceit’ which Antipholus deplores in himself (III, ii), that is the vulgar and servile qualities of the genius who created them both.
The Comedy of Errors contains another set of mental twins, who have eluded the scrutiny of Shakespearean experts and critics. It is conceivable that the dramatist himself was not aware of their identity. Their likeness is drawn with so much dexterity and painstaking cleverness that I am inclined to think he meant them to be equals and opposites. He struggled cordially to discriminate them, and the opinion of generations of scholars on their portraits is proof that he was too successful. The cost of this success, in my opinion, is the defeat of the dramatist's honest intention, and injustice to the woman whom he sketched twice as the wife Adriana and her sister. There are good reasons for thinking that when Shakespeare outlined their characters he proposed, perhaps unconsciously, to limn two aspects or phases of the same lady, his own wife. Luciana would then represent the girl he made his bride, beautiful, tender, and gleaming with extraordinary wisdom; and Adriana would stand for the woman she became, or rather the creature Shakespeare fancied lay potential in his bride. In changing her image to the two distinct heroines he surpassed the metamorphoses of his favourite poet, Ovid, whose mythic transformations he constantly held in the ‘quick forge and workinghouse’ of unconscious thought.
The essential identity of the sisters emerges when we compare their characters in detail. The outstanding trait of Adriana is her shrewishness. Antipholus of Syracuse contrasts her with Luciana primarily on account of the unmarried sister's kind and courteous manner, her ‘gentle sovereign grace’ (III, ii). Next to this quality he adores her ‘discourse’, or adroitness in conversation. Now Luciana herself, though critical of her sister's headstrong attitude to Antipholus, testifies that
She never reprehended him but mildly, When he demean'd himself rough, rude, and wildly.
Shakespeare presents the shrew as a model of tenderness in the scene where she humours her husband, believing him almost insane—‘poor distressed soul’ (IV, iv). She exhibits her devotion to him in worry over his arrest for debt, which she hastens to pay off despite his torrent of insults. As for Adriana's ‘discourse’, we have every reason to believe her when she affirms that her conversation has been dulled and her wit turned barren by the chill hostility of her husband. ‘If voluble and sharp discourse be marr'd,’ says she, ‘Unkindness blunts it more than marble hard’ (II, i). There is no sign that Antipholus ever acted toward her with generosity, except before their wedding, when she was certainly Luciana-like. The unmarried sister, however, is by no means exempt from Adriana's defects. She too can pour a swift shrillness of epithets on people who offend her (II, ii). Her volubility on occasions can be bluntly evil (III, ii). We may trust the judgement of Adriana when she states that her sister will want to ‘bear some sway’ after she weds, and upbraid her husband if he strays from home to linger in sirens' taverns. Apart from temper and talent in talk the girls are supposed to be distinguished by their looks. Adriana speaks as if ‘homely age’ had deprived her of virgin loveliness, but a moment later she declares that a ‘sunny look’ from her husband would quickly restore her beauty: ‘he hath wasted it’ (II, i). If he had never led her to the nuptial altar she would have glittered precisely as alluring as her sister and the hostess of the Porpentine, whom Antipholus praises as ‘Pretty and witty, wild, and yet, too, gentle’ (III, i). Shakespeare does not tell how old she and Luciana are. If there is any difference in their ages, it is not enough to cleave their souls asunder. They too are one.
In the names of the two girls, I suspect, the dramatist has informed us, in his paradoxical way, that they are twins. If we take Luciana to mean ‘the bright one’, by the facile substitution (in accordance with Grimm's law) of a t for the d in Adriana, we could translate her name as ‘the dark one’. It may also signify the lucent or luscious one gone dry. (For my purpose it is unnecessary to render the last syllables of their names more concretely. To the reader who wishes to take them as meaning simply Anna, I answer: As you like it.)
It is not unlikely that Shakespeare designed these ‘witches’, as Antipholus of Syracuse calls them (III, ii), to stand for the great moon goddess of their city, Diana. Another name for the moon divinity, in the religion of ancient Rome, was Lucina. The Syracusan worships Luciana as ‘more than earth divine’, hails her ‘Fair sun’, and speaks of her sister as ‘night’. In the writer's unconscious, according to my surmise, the feminine ‘sun’ was nothing but the shining face of the moon. He symbolized her sister by the dark side of Diana. The name of this goddess might be interpreted, without stretching the patience of philology, as meaning ‘the double one’. Frazer has observed that Diana appears in ancient myth like a partner of Janus, the two-faced god of Rome (3). The idea of the twofold deity could have provided our poet with the inspiration to change the setting of the Errors from Plautus's Epidamnus to Ephesus. Presumably he was tempted to keep the scene in Epidamnus, since the name appealed to his passion for puns and devilry. He made that town the birthplace of the Antipholi (I, i), and the Syracusan brother is told to pretend that he voyaged from there to Ephesus. When he plans to abandon Luciana his servant buys him passage on a vessel bound for Epidamnus. At all events Shakespeare made Ephesus serve his dramatic aims as a city of the damned. The Epidamnus of Plautus is a town of swindling, sponging, and seduction. Shakespeare's Ephesus is a town of deeds more dreadful, infernal crafts, ‘And many such-like liberties of sin’ (I, i). Its wenches, according to Dromio of Syracuse, are accustomed to cry, ‘God damn me’, which he says is equivalent to the prayer, ‘God make me a light wench’. These girls are therefore worthy to function as ministrants of the moon. Dromio argues that their heavenly bodies are hellish: ‘It is written, they appear to men like angels of light: light is an effect of fire, and fire will burn; ergo, light wenches will burn’ (IV, iii). But Dromio, like his master, is an enemy of all things pagan, when these confront them in the flesh. For the literate Antipholus the cult of Diana would surely have poetic charms, with its visions of wildwood nymphs and vestals entranced or dancing by her silver flame. Outside poetry, however, he would agree with the illiterate Dromio that her religion was witchcraft or else sheer lunacy. Both master and slave are devout Christians—actually Roman Catholics—and according to Christian tradition the sylvan retinue of Diana eventually turned into ghosts and monsters, like the ‘goblins, owls, and elvish sprites’ whom Dromio sees everywhere in Ephesus (II, ii). In the period of Shakespeare a host of scholars were convinced that warlocks and beldames of hell worshipped her: ‘in the night-times,’ it is written, ‘they ride abroad with Diana, the goddess of the Pagans’ (4). The divinity receives no worship in Shakespeare's play because he converted Ephesus to a Christian town. Nevertheless we can glimpse her ‘sovereign grace’, divided among the women of the comedy, performing its magic in the afternoon and dusk. She exercises her spells not only through the dextrous Luciana and the sinister Adriana, but also through the unnamed inn-keeper whom Dromio fancies might be ‘Mistress Satan’ (IV, iii).
By the supernal power of sex which Diana represents the characters are all flung into craziness. True, this does not occur until the hero Antipholus of Syracuse sets foot in the city. Shakespeare toiled hard to impress us with the notion that Antipholus is ever on guard against the power of sex. How could he act as the prime mover of its madness in the comedy? My answer is that, despite his piety, he is the evil ‘genius’ of the Errors. To each of the women in it his apparition radiates a satanic magnetism, of which he is blissfully unaware. His Dromio seems to comprehend this. When Antipholus warns the hostess of the Porpentine, ‘Avaunt, thou witch!’ Dromio dryly remarks: ‘Fly pride, says the peacock’ (IV, iii). Apropos of the peacock, we recall that the bird was a companion of the goddess Juno, in whom Frazer has discerned a twin of Diana (5). So the Syracusan may rightly be regarded as a minion of the moon. Wherever he walks it looks as if lunacy prevails; no wonder he must ask himself,
Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell? Sleeping or waking? mad or well-advis'd?
He might well speak of his experience in the words of another of Shakespeare's heroes:
It is the very error of the moon; She comes more near the earth than she was wont, And makes men mad.
(Othello, V, ii.)
The adventures of Antipholus prove to be ‘well-advised’. He manages to enjoy himself among the Ephesians, and unites with Luciana in the end.
The omission of the moon-goddess from Shakespeare's Errors was probably dictated by discretion more than religious propriety. The educated subjects of Elizabeth were accustomed to hearing the Virgin Queen extolled as the English Diana, and literary allusions to the divinity of the moon were frequently assumed to imply an opinion of her Majesty (6). Shakespeare apparently endeavoured to banish all thought of Elizabeth from the minds attending to his farce. Perhaps he remembered the penalty inflicted on his forerunner Richard Edwards when that comic dramatist referred to classic Greek personalities in language that was construed as criticism of some Tudor courtiers (7). Shakespeare could not afford to have any wit of the royal court construe the function of Diana in his comedy as a joke on the Queen. He described the city of Ephesus, remember, as a hotbed of black magic, swarming with
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, Soul-killing witches that deform the body.
If he had introduced the goddess of these magicians in the play he would have risked damnation as one who hinted that Elizabeth was the mistress of mountebanks and hellhags. Insofar as her Majesty is glanced at in the Errors it is through the glare of the authority of Solinus, the ‘sweet prince’ of Ephesus. The Duke is barely more than an abstraction, law and order incarnate. The first syllable of his name, Sol, would serve to ward off suspicion that the poet delineated him as a deputy of Diana, the antagonist of the sun. Solinus will not stand for nonsense and moonshine; he is emblematic of system, a foe of anarchy, indeed a deputy of the superego in us all.
So Shakespeare expelled the magnificent moon-woman from The Comedy of Errors. A quick look at a concordance tells us that the moon is not mentioned even once. Yet the shadow of the goddess is perceptible in every scene. She glows above the heads of the women in their excitement or serenity and broods tenebrously over the men. When the young Shakespeare wrote the comedy, in the darkness of his unconscious, he must have offered a mocking reverence to her ‘whom all Asia and the world worshippeth’, and echoed the cry of the silversmiths against the apostle Paul: ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’ (Acts of the Apostles, xxix, 28).
To the learned of Shakespeare's period Diana was the goddess of virginity. Luciana would therefore seem to be a truer embodiment of the Diana ideal than Adriana. Let us not be deceived by this seeming. The emphasis of the poet on the ‘unviolated honour’ of the wife, her horror of the licentious (II, ii), her lack of offspring, and the gestures of frigid purity that drove her husband to the Porpentine inn, prove her deserving of a vestal's glory.
Shall we assent to the proof? Is it not also seeming, a tissue of ostensible truth? We have seen Luciana portrayed as a temptress, a siren luring the bachelor Antipholus to ‘self-wrong’. Shakespeare in fact makes her an advocate of hypocrisy. In the belief that Antipholus is her brother-in-law, she instructs him to execute his lust by stealth: ‘Teach sin the carriage of a holy saint; Be secret-false’ (III, ii). The purity of her sister is no less illusory. Some may reject the accusations of her husband—‘Dissembling harlot!’ ‘O most unhappy strumpet!’ (IV, iv)—as products of fallacy, brought on by the revelation that she welcomes an unknown man in his absence. Those who think so should try to explain the slip of her servant Dromio's tongue when, early in the play, he talks of her husband's delay in coming home: ‘Why, mistress’, he blurts, ‘sure my master is horn-mad.’ She responds at once to the indictment of adultery. ‘Horn-mad, thou villain!’ He hastens to correct himself, ‘I mean not cuckoldmad’ (II, i). From the psychopathology of such mistakes we can deduce a hint of veracity in Dromio's slip. Apparently his master has behaved like a man stung by fancies of his wife's adultery long before her afternoon's entertainment. Is it conceivable that the headstrong Adriana had done absolutely nothing to promote those fancies? Hours before he calls her strumpet she weeping brands herself with the stigma. She calls herself a ‘stale’ of Antipholus. Later, in fantasy of his own sins, she announces:
I am possess'd with an adulterate blot; My blood is mingled with the crime of lust.
Her basis for this self-accusation is a mere metaphor of marriage, that she and her mate are in wedlock one. Under the tones of uxorious indignation we can detect the voice of repressed sensuality, just as under the chambers of Adriana we find dwelling the kitchen-wench Nell, or Dowsabel, whose lascivious advances frighten Dromio of Syracuse. The acuteness of Shakespeare's unconscious satire on the virginal sisters may be perceived in the third name he invented for the obscene kitchen-wench. He also calls her Luce, as if to invite comparison with the chaste yet hypocritic Luciana.
The truth is that the sisters, like the brothers, are impure in heart. Among the paradoxes of the comedy the confidence they display in their virginity and virtue is perhaps the most absurd. They are all sinners, all fools—what you will: ‘Smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak’ (III, ii).
Our investigation of the Errors thus far leads to the conclusion that the comedy was precipitated out of the poet's unconscious by marital troubles and disaster. We have still to elucidate the riddle, what made a gentleman of his courage and intelligence prone to sexual conflict and disaster? How did he ever come to entertain strangers as lovers? His marriage could not have been the first enterprise of this sort. Before he married he must have committed other erotic errors more or less like those he has caricatured in his play. In all his affairs of the heart, we may be sure, the blind god Cupid led him blind, quelling his intelligence and making his courage flare up. In the mist of passion he would go at all adventures, no matter what tortures and remorse might follow. The Narcissus in him could usually single out somebody to blame for his stumbling and sprawls. If not, there was always fortune to be cursed, or his birth stars.
The answer to our riddle must lie in the nature of this Narcissus in Shakespeare, the colossal self-love which could project itself into the twin heroes of the comedy and have enough energy left to make their twin clowns and other characters ruddily vital and radiant. From the Narcissus pool of his soul he drew the power—and ‘will in overplus’—to surmount the tragic defeats and comic humiliations of his life. From mysterious fountains in the same pool his ego also drank sweet poison, mistaking jets of self-pity for the elixir of self-love, and so steeping itself in a melancholy that not seldom resembled madness. It was in flight from the peril of utter unreason that Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors. For the play not only endeavours to explain the struggle of the poet's conscience with an event; it struggles to explain the poet, to...
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SOURCE: MacCary, W. Thomas. “The Comedy of Errors.” In Friends and Lovers: The Phenomenology of Desire in Shakespearean Comedy, pp. 81-90. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
[In the essay below, MacCary maintains that Antipholus of Syracuse is the primary focus of The Comedy of Errors, noting that his search for his brother may be viewed as a search for himself.]
A common structural aspect of the early comedies is delayed marriage; this fact emphasizes the importance to these plays of the young male's trepidation at committing himself physically and emotionally to a woman. In three of these plays the alternative of identification with other...
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SOURCE: O'Brien, Robert Viking. “The Madness of Syracusan Antipholus.” In Early Modern Literary Studies 2, no. 1 (April 1996): 3.1-26.
[In the following essay, O'Brien asserts that Shakespeare exploited his Elizabethan audience's emotional response to The Comedy of Errors by suggesting that Antipholus of Syracuse is truly in danger of succumbing to madness.]
Many readers of The Comedy of Errors notice that Egeon's possible execution provides a dark frame around what appears to be one of Shakespeare's most light-hearted comedies. Yet the threat of death that hangs over Egeon in the frame plot also hangs, in the main plot, over his Syracusan son. This...
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