Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1477
The play takes place in Ephesus, an ancient Greek city in Asia Minor. Ephesus has cut off all trade with the city of Syracuse because the Syracusan duke has treated Ephesian merchants badly, holding them for ransom. The duke of Ephesus has retaliated in kind, proclaiming that all Syracusan merchants apprehended in Ephesus will be killed if they cannot pay a ransom of one thousand marks. In the opening scene, Aegeon, a Syracusan merchant, has been apprehended under Ephesian law and is sentenced to death since he does not have the means to pay his own ransom. When he is asked how he has come to be in Ephesus, Aegeon recounts a sad tale: many years before, he had been married and had fathered twin boys, both named Antipholus. At the same moment as his own sons were born, a poor woman nearby had given birth to twin boys, both named Dromio. Since she did not have the means to raise those boys, Aegeon bought them as servants for his sons. When he and his wife were separated in a shipwreck, one of the infant Antipholuses and one of the infant Dromios were left in the care of his wife; the other infant Antipholus and infant Dromio were left in the care of Aegeon. When Antipholus of Syracuse turned eighteen, Aegeon allowed him to go in search of his lost mother and twin brother, taking his servant Dromio with him. The confusion begins when, shortly after, Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in Ephesus, unaware that both his father and brother are there. He sends the Syracusan Dromio to secure their belongings and a sum of gold at the Centaur Inn. In the absence of the Syracusan Dromio, Dromio of Ephesus enters and mistakes the Syracusan Antipholus for his own master, Antipholus of Ephesus. He tells the mistaken twin that his wife, Adriana, awaits him at the dinner, which is going bad in his long absence. Antipholus of Syracuse is not married and believes that Dromio is fooling with him. When Dromio is ignorant of the gold and the Centaur, Antipholus of Syracuse becomes impatient and strikes him. Dromio of Ephesus runs off.
Dromio of Ephesus returns home and reports what has transpired to Adriana and her sister, Luciana. They believe that Dromio has spoken to Antipholus of Ephesus, and they suspect the latter of being unfaithful to Adriana. In the meantime, the Syracusan Dromio has returned from the Centaur, and the Syracusan Antipholus berates him for having casually perpetrated a practical joke in environs in which they need to be cautious. The Syracusan Dromio does not know what he is talking about, and in denying his master's charges, he incurs a beating. Adriana and Luciana enter and mistake Antipholus of Syracuse for his twin brother. They call him home to dinner, and although the Syracusan twin does not know them, he goes along with them to dine.
Angelo, a goldsmith, and Balthazar, an Ephesian merchant, accompany Antipholus of Ephesus to his home. On the way there, the latter asks Angelo to cover for his time away from Adriana by telling her that he has been at Angelo's shop, watching the goldsmith make a gold necklace intended for her. He then makes fun of the Ephesian Dromio for having suggested that he was beaten by his master in the marketplace for misappropriating a sum of gold given to him. When they reach Antipholus's Ephesian home, the gates are locked against him, the Syracusan Antipholus is dining within, and the Syracusan Dromio has been stationed as a sentry behind the locked door. Although Antipholus of Ephesus protests loudly, he is not permitted to enter because Adriana and Luciana mistakenly believe they are already dining with him and consider the commotion outside just a prank. Balthazar dissuades the Ephesian twin from physically breaking into the house by suggesting that it would cause a public scandal. Antipholus of Ephesus is quite upset and vows to give the gold necklace made for Adriana to the courtezan, who is the hostess of an inn called the Porpentine. He arranges to have Angelo deliver the necklace to him there later. Meanwhile, inside the home of Antipholus of Ephesus, the Syracusan Antipholus takes Luciana aside and tells her he is interested in her and not her sister and his supposed wife. The Syracusan Dromio expresses to his master his dismay at being pursued by Luce, the Ephesian Dromio's reportedly overweight and ugly romantic interest. Later, Angelo mistakenly gives the gold necklace to Antipholus of Syracuse, who is amazed when Angelo refuses immediate payment for it. Surprised and confused by all that is happening in Ephesus, the Syracusan twin tells his Dromio to book them for passage on the first ship leaving that city.
Angelo is confronted in the marketplace by a merchant to whom Angelo owes money, a sum very close to what Antipholus of Ephesus owes Angelo for the gold necklace. But, of course, the Ephesian twin has never received the necklace, and he denies having received it when Angelo asks him for payment. Angelo has him arrested. Antipholus of Ephesus has sent his Dromio to buy a rope with which the former, still angry at his wife, entertains hanging her. The Syracusan Dromio now appears, instead, and informs the Ephesian Antipholus that their sea passage has been booked, making the Ephesian twin look even more guilty in front of Angelo and the others. The Ephesian Antipholus sends the Syracusan Dromio to Adriana for bail money. Although he is reluctant to return to that place because of the presence there of Luce, whom he finds so distasteful, he does return and procures the money from Adriana and Luciana. But when he returns, he finds the Syracusan Antipholus instead and is astonished that he has escaped arrest. The Syracusan pair are then confronted by the courtezan from the Porpentine, who requests the gold necklace in payment for a ring she has given Antipholus of Ephesus at dinner. The Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio flee the courtezan. Then, the Ephesian Dromio returns to the Ephesian Antipholus with a rope instead of the money for his bail and is beaten for his efforts. At that moment Adriana, Luciana, and the courtezan enter, and the Ephesian twin accuses his wife of having locked him out of his home while she entertained a less-than-reputable crowd. Because his behavior seems highly erratic to Adriana and Luciana—to everyone, in fact—they think that his madness bespeaks his possession by devils, and they have brought along one Doctor Pinch to exorcise those demons. They want to take Antipholus of Ephesus with them, but the jailer is worried about losing his fee and his prisoner and will not let him go. He leaves with the prisoner, and, shortly after, Adriana and Luciana see the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio running frightened through the streets with swords drawn and think Antipholus of Ephesus has escaped.
Angelo is apologizing to the merchant to whom he owes money and has inconvenienced when Antipholus of Syracuse enters with the Syracusan Dromio and openly admits having received the gold necklace. Angelo challenges him for his brazen behavior and they draw swords. Just then, Adriana, Luciana, and the courtezan enter and beg Angelo not to harm Antipholus of Syracuse, whom they mistake for his twin and consider mad. At this, the Syracusan pair flee and take sanctuary in the religious priory of the abbess. Adriana demands that the abbess relinquish the seemingly mad pair, but the abbess refuses, intending to use her own skill to nurse them back to health. The duke enters with Aegeon, whose appointed hour of execution has arrived, and offers Aegeon one last chance to procure the money for his ransom. Adriana enters and implores the duke to intervene with the abbess, but just then, a messenger enters and announces that Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus have escaped their bonds and have beaten Doctor Pinch. Antipholus of Ephesus enters and begs the duke to redress, on the strength of the Ephesian twin's long allegiance, the wrongs done to him by Adriana and Doctor Pinch. Aegeon recognizes Antipholus of Ephesus as his son but thinks he is his Syracusan counterpart. The Ephesian Antipholus denies having ever seen Aegeon. In trying to sort things out, the duke hears scattered testimonies, and the situation grows more and more confused until the abbess enters and, in a surprise to both the characters and the audience, recognizes Aegeon as her long-lost husband. She is accompanied by Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, and when the others see the pairs of twins side by side and learn that the abbess had been separated from her young charge Antipholus of Ephesus many years before, the confusion of preceding events dissipates and the family that was fragmented by shipwreck is reunited.
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