According to the laws of the lands of Ephesus and Syracuse, it is forbidden for a native of one land to journey to the other; the penalty for the crime is execution or the ransom of a thousand marks. Aegeon, a merchant of Syracuse who recently traveled to Ephesus, is to be put to death because he cannot raise the thousand marks. When Solinus, duke of Ephesus, hears Aegeon’s story, he gives the merchant one more day to raise the money.
It is a sad and strange tale Aegeon tells. Many years earlier, he journeyed to Epidamnum. Shortly after his wife joined him there she delivered identical twin boys. Strangely enough, at the same time and in the same house, another woman bore identical twin boys. Because that woman and her husband were so poor that they could not provide for their children, they gave them to Aegeon and his wife Aemilia, to be attendants to their two sons. On the way home to Syracuse, Aegeon and his family were shipwrecked. Aemilia and the two children with her were rescued by one ship, Aegeon and the other two by a different ship, and Aegeon did not see his wife and those two children again. When he reached eighteen years of age, Antipholus, the son reared by his father in Syracuse, grows eager to find his brother, so he and his attendant set out to find their twins. Aegeon comes to Ephesus to seek them.
Unknown to Aegeon, Antipholus and his attendant, Dromio, are just arrived in Ephesus. There a merchant of the city warns them to say that they come from somewhere other than Syracuse, lest they suffer the penalty already meted out to Aegeon. Antipholus, having sent Dromio to find lodging for them, is utterly bewildered when the servant returns and says that Antipholus’s wife waits dinner for him. What happens is that the Dromio who returns to Antipholus is Dromio of Ephesus, servant and attendant to Antipholus of Ephesus. Antipholus of Syracuse gives his Dromio money to pay for lodging, and when he hears a tale of a wife about whom he knows nothing he thinks his servant tricked him and asks for the return of the money. Dromio of Ephesus was given no money, however, and when he professes no knowledge of the sum, Antipholus of Syracuse beats him soundly for dishonesty. Antipholus of Syracuse later hears that his money was delivered to the inn.
A short time later, the wife and sister-in-law of Antipholus of Ephesus meet Antipholus of Syracuse and, after berating him for refusing to come home to dinner, accuses him of unfaithfulness with another woman. Not understanding a word of what Adriana says, Antipholus of Syracuse goes to dinner in her home, where Dromio is assigned by her to guard the gate and allow no one to enter. Thus it is that Antipholus of Ephesus arrives at his home with his Dromio and is refused admittance. So incensed is he that he leaves his house and goes to an inn. There he dines with a courtesan and gives her the gifts he intended for his wife.
In the meantime, Antipholus of Syracuse, though almost believing that he must be the husband of Adriana, falls in love with her sister Luciana. When he tells her of his love, she calls him an unfaithful husband and begs him to remain true to his wife. Dromio of Syracuse is pursued by a kitchen maid whom he abhors but who mistakes him for the Dromio of Ephesus who loves her.
Even the townspeople and merchants are bewildered....
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A goldsmith delivers to Antipholus of Syracuse a chain meant for Antipholus of Ephesus and then tries to collect from the latter, who in turn states that he received no chain and accuses the merchant of trying to rob him.
Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse decide to leave the seemingly mad town as soon as possible, and the servant is sent to book passage on the first ship leaving the city. Dromio of Syracuse brings back news of the sailing to Antipholus of Ephesus, who by that time is arrested for refusing to pay the merchant for the chain he did not receive. Antipholus of Ephesus, believing the servant to be his own, sends Dromio of Syracuse to his house to get money for his bail. Before Dromio of Syracuse returns with the money, however, Dromio of Ephesus comes to Antipholus of Ephesus, naturally without the desired money. Meanwhile, Dromio of Syracuse takes the money to Antipholus of Syracuse, who did not send for money and cannot understand what his servant is talking about. To make matters worse, the courtesan with whom Antipholus of Ephesus dined gave him a ring. Now she approaches the other Antipholus and demands the ring. Knowing nothing about the ring, he angrily dismisses the woman, who decides to go to his house and tell his wife of his betrayal.
On his way to jail for the debt he does not owe, Antipholus of Ephesus meets his wife. Wild with rage, he accuses her of locking him out of his own house and of refusing him his own money for bail. She is so frightened that she asks the police first to make sure that he is securely bound and then to imprison him in their home so that she can care for him.
At the same time Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse are making their way toward the ship that will carry them away from this mad city. Antipholus is wearing the gold chain. The merchant, meeting them, demands that Antipholus be arrested. To escape, Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio flee into an abbey. To the same abbey comes Aegeon, the duke, and the executioners, for Aegeon did not raise the money for his ransom. Adriana and Luciana also appear, demanding the release to them of Adriana’s husband and his servant. Adriana, seeing the two men take refuge in the convent, thinks they are Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus. At that instant a servant runs in to tell Adriana that her husband and Dromio escaped from the house and are now on the way to the abbey. Adriana does not believe the servant, for she herself saw her husband and Dromio enter the abbey. Then Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus appear before the abbey. Aegeon thinks he recognizes the son and servant he is seeking, but they deny any knowledge of him. The confusion increases until the abbess brings from the convent Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, who instantly recognize Aegeon. Then all the mysteries are solved. Adriana is reunited with her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, and his Dromio has the kitchen maid once more. Antipholus of Syracuse is free to make love to Luciana, and his Dromio, too, is freed. Still more surprising, the abbess turns out to be Aegeon’s wife, the mother of the Antipholus twins. So the happy family is together again. Lastly, Antipholus of Ephesus pays his father’s ransom and brings to an end all the errors of that unhappy day.