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The Comedy of Errors

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Generations of critics considered The Comedy of Errors as mere farce, an apprentice work that gives no inkling of Shakespeare's mature achievements. But in the 1960s critics began re-examining the play as a highly accomplished, serious work that, for all its horseplay, adumbrates many of the central concerns of Shakespeare's oeuvre. Beginning with R. A. Foakes (1962), critics began to discuss the shaky sense of identity of all the major characters, but particularly of Antipholus of Syracuse. Another area of concern that has received sustained critical attention is the question of the play's generic identity—is The Comedy of Errors a farce, a comedy, a tragedy, a mixed-genre work, a problem play? The play's characterization and criticisms of gender relations have also gained increasing scrutiny, the critical literature being marked by a gradual but radical about-face in the interpretation of gender issues in The Comedy of Errors.

Despite ongoing differences and disagreements between critics of The Comedy of Errors, one question may be regarded as having been settled conclusively: the play goes far beyond its source material—the Menaechmi of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus—in its treatment of the theme of mistaken identity. Shakespeare exploits the dramatic potential of mistaken identity, and shows how being mistaken for someone else unsettles the various characters' own sense of identity. While R. A. Foakes was the first to draw attention to the way in which The Comedy of Errors connects a stable sense of self with social harmony and order, subsequent critics have further explored the idea in relation to various elements of the Elizabethan world view.

That Shakespeare also transforms his Plautine source material in his treatment of gender issues was a much later critical discovery. The crux, it would appear, lies in the evaluation of Adriana's character and conduct. She was initally taken to be a shrew—as her counter-part in Plautus Menaechmi clearly is—whose complaining and scolding is the cause of her husband's inconstancy. This view is represented by T. W. Baldwin (1962), who concludes that Luciana's speech on the just and inevitable inequality of the sexes is authoritative. The first major challenge to that position came from Marilyn French (1981), who argues that the play is highly critical of the male "establishment" of Ephesus, which is oppressive and much given to violence. Thomas Hennings (1986), reading The Comedy of Errors in light of the contemporary position on marriage of the Anglican Church, dealt another blow to the older reading, proposing that Antipholus of Syracuse's irresponsibility as a husband is the cause of Adriana's justified complaints. Joseph Candido (1990) reaches a similar conclusion by analyzing the characters' attitudes towards food and mealtimes as a social function that shores up both marriage and society in general. He also shows how Luciana's authority on the issue of gender relations—or any other subject, for that matter—is fatally undermined by her earnest arguments in favor of hypocrisy. By 1993, then, Adriana's exoneration was complete, and the critical evaluation of The Comedy of Errors' stance on gender issues had been completely reversed.

The question of the appropriate generic classification of The Comedy of Errors has occasioned less consensus. Since the critical community gave up the notion that the play is a farce, critics have argued for a variety of more just generic labels without being able to put the question to rest. Gwyn Williams (1964) made a case for the play as near-tragedy. Ruth Nevo (1980) argued that it has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean comedy and should be labeled accordingly. Dorothea Kehler (1987) proposed that The Comedy of Errors is in fact a problem play. Arthur Kinney (1988) qualified these different views by showing the extent to which The Comedy of Errors is informed by mystery plays and other liturgical drama and texts. The debate concerning the genre to which the play belongs will undoubtedly continue in the future.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2865

C. L. Barber (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Shakespearian Comedy in The Comedy of Errors," in College English, Vol. 25, No. 7, April, 1964, pp. 493-97.

[In this essay, Barber discusses the nature of the comic elements in The Comedy of Errors.]

Mr. R. A. Foakes, in his excellent Arden edition of the Comedy of Errors, remarks that producers of the play have too often regarded it "as a short apprentice work in need of improvement, or as mere farce, 'shamelessly trivial' as one reviewer in The Times put it." Accordingly they have usually adapted it, added to it, fancied it up. But in its own right, as its stage popularity attests, it is a delightful play. Shakespeare outdoes Plautus in brilliant, hilarious complication. He makes the arbitrary reign of universal delusion the occasion for a dazzling display of his dramatic control of his characters' separate perspectives, keeping track for our benefit of just what each participant has experienced and the conclusions he or she draws from it. One must admit that the way the confusion is elaborated by wrangling with words is sometimes tedious, especially on the stage, where the eye cannot assist the ear in following the young poet's fascination with manipulating language. But most of the time one can enjoy the wonderful verbal energy with which he endows his characters as they severally struggle to put together and express their baffling encounters. There is a great deal of good fun in seeing how each distorts and simplifies, and sometimes lies a little, to make sense of the crazy situation (and often to draw a little advantage from it on the side).

The use Shakespeare makes of Plautine models does involve a real limitation, for the plot is in effect imposed on the characters from outside, an arbitrary circumstance. As a result, too many of the errors are not meaningful in the way that errors become in the later comedies. We miss, as Professor Bertram Evans has pointed out in his Shakespeare's Comedies, people within the play who share in our superior awareness from outside it. The plot does not permit anyone to contrive the errors, tailor them to the particular follies of the victims, and share with the audience the relish of the folly brought out by the "practice"—a method which Mr. Evans has shown to be standard in the later comedies.

But the play is much better, much more meaningful, than the arbitrariness of its plot would lead one to expect. Shakespeare feeds Elizabethan life into the mill of Roman farce, life realized with his distinctively generous creativity, very different from Plautus' tough, narrow, resinous genius. And, although the mill grinds a good deal of chaff as well as wheat, he frequently makes the errors reveal fundamental human nature, especially human nature under the stress and tug of marriage. The tensions of marriage dramatized through Antipholus of Ephesus and his wife he relates to the very different tensions in the romantic tale of Egeon and Emilia with which he frames the Ephesian mix-ups. In the combination he makes of Gower's narrative with Roman dramatic form, we can see Shakespeare's sense of life and art asserting itself through relatively uncongenial materials.

There is more of daily, ordinary life in The Comedy of Errors than in any other of the comedies except The Merry Wives of Windsor. A mere machinery of mistakes is never enough even for the most mechanical comedy; the dramatist must be able to present particular lives being caught up in mistakes and carrying them onward. Something must be going on already—Antipholus of Ephesus late for dinner again, his wife in her usual rage ("Fie, how impatience loureth in your face!"). Shakespeare is marvelous at conveying a sense of a world already there, with its routine tensions:

The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit;
The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell:
My mistress made it one upon my cheek:
She is so hot because the meat is cold …

He also creates a prosperous commercial town outside the domestic world of the jealous wife's household: its merchant-citizens are going about their individual business, well known to one another and comfortably combining business with pleasure—until the errors catch up with them.

To keep farce going also requires that each person involved be shown making some sort of sense out of it, while failing to see through it as the audience can. It would be fatal for one twin to conclude, "Why, I must have been mistaken for my long-lost brother!" So the dramatist must show each of his people taking what happens according to his own bent, explaining to himself as best he can what occurs when, for example, one of the twin masters meets the wrong slave and finds the fellow denying that he ever heard instructions received by the other slave a few moments before. Too often, the master concludes simply that the slave is lazy or impudent, and beats him; this constant thumping of the Dromios grows tedious and is out of key—the one instance where Roman plot has not been adapted to Elizabethan manners.

The idea that the mistakes must be sorcery goes much better. The traveling brothers have heard that Ephesus is full of "Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind." (The town was identified with sorcerers by Saint Paul's reference to their "curious arts" in his Epistle to the Ephesians, one reason perhaps for Shakespeare's choice of the town as a locale, as Geoffry Bullough has suggested in his Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare.) The visitors decide that "This is the fairy land. O spite of spites! / We talk with goblins, owls and sprites." As the errors are wound up tighter and tighter, the wife and sister conclude that husband and slave must be mad, and bring on a real live exorcist, the absurd Dr. Pinch in a huge red wig and beard, to conjure the devil out of them. By the end, Adriana is calling on the whole company to witness that her husband "is born about invisible." We relish the elaboration of these factitious notions of magic to explain events that do indeed seem to "change the mind"; at the same time we enjoy the final return of all hands to the level of fact, where we have been situated all along. The end of the delusions is heralded by Dr. Pinch's being all but burned up by his outraged "patients." The Ephesian husband stubornly hangs onto his senses and his sense of outrage; he sets fire to the "doctor" as a comic effigy on whom to take vengeance for the notions of madness and magic to which almost everyone has given away:

O mistress, mistress, shift and save yourself!
My master and his man are both broke loose,
Beaten the maids a-row, and bound the doctor,
Whose beard they have singed off with brands
  of fire,
And ever, as it blaz'd, they threw on him
Great pails of puddled mire to quench the hair:
My master preaches patience to him and the
His man with scissors nicks him like a fool …

The most interesting misinterpretations of the mistakes about identity are of course those where error feeds already existing passions—Adriana's jealousy, her husband's irritation—and leads finally to a kind of rhapsody exploding just before the final resolution. Adriana's self-defeating rage at her husband is particularly finely treated, especially in the moment when the traveling brother seems to provide her with the ultimate provocation, by making love to her sister. (Shakespeare added the charming, sensible sister, not in Plautus, as a foil and confidant for the shrewish wife.) After a frenzy of railing, the sister brings the wife up short by asking why she cares about her husband if he is so despicable, and she answers "Ah, but I think him better than I say, … My heart prays for him, though my tongue do curse." She is brought up short again, in a final tableau, when the Abbess traps her into betraying how she has made her husband's life miserable. The older woman delivers a splendid, formal rebuke:

Adriana. Still did I tell him it was vile and
Abbess. And therefore came it that the man
 was mad.
The venom clamors of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dog's

Adriana is chastened: "She doth betray me to my own reproof." But her domineering bent is still there: she goes on insisting on her rights to manage her own husband's madness: "I will attend my husband, be his nurse, / Diet his sickness, for it is my office, / And will have no attorney but myself; … "

We can see a revealing contrast with Plautus in the handling of the Ephesian couple's relations. Shakespeare's husband and wife are more complex; they are also more decent. In Menaechmi the husband, at the opening of the play, is making off with a fine cloak of his wife's to give it to Erotium, the courtesan; he has already stolen for her a gold chain of his wife's. Shakespeare's Antipholus only decides to go elsewhere to dine in response to the incomprehensibly outrageous behavior of his wife in locking the doors (while she thinks she has at last got him home). It is in revenge for this that he decides to give the young "hostess" the necklace originally ordered for his wife. His eye has strayed, to be sure—"I know a wench of excellent discourse, / Pretty and witty; wild, and yet, too, gentle; … My wife … Has oftentimes upbraided me withal." In Plautus there is no ambiguity and no mixture of attitudes: from the outset it is "To hell with my wife, I'm going to have my fun." When in Plautus the visiting twin comes along, he has his unknown brother's good time with Erotium, gets the cloak and chain, and rejoices that it was all free. Shakespeare's twin, by contrast, falls romantically in love with the modest sister Shakespeare has provided, speaking some lovely poetry as he does so.

The difference reflects the difference in the two cultures, Roman and Elizabethan. It also reflects the different form of comedy which Shakespeare was beginning to work out, a comedy appropriate to the fullest potentialities of his culture. Roman comedy functioned as a special field-day for outrageousness; by and large, it fitted Aristotle's formula that comedy deals with characters who are worse than we are. Though there are some conventional, stock heroes and heroines, most of the stage people are meant to be fractions of human nature on its aggressive, libidinal side. The central characters in Shakespeare's comedies, on the other hand, are presented as total, not fractional: whatever their faults, they are conceived as whole people. His comedy dramatizes outrageousness, but usually it is presented as the product of special circumstances, or at least it is abetted by circumstances. Often the occasion is festivity, or a special situation like a holiday, a moment felt as a saturnalian exception to ordinary life, as I have stressed in writing about Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. Here the mistakes of identity bring the husband and wife to extremities on a day which is otherwise very much an "every day." Shakespeare however does frame the release of the animal or natural or foolish side of man by presentations of the normal and the ideal. Of course Roman comedy had its recognized place in the whole of life, its accepted fescennine function; but this was something implicit, understood by author, actors and audience. Shakespeare even in this early play makes the placing of the comic extremes part of the comedy itself.

The headlong day of errors is begun and ended by the story of Egeon, the bereft father of the twins, condemned to die in the morning, at evening pardoned and reunited with his long-lost wife and sons. It is a story of a very different tonality from the Plautine materials, derived as it is from Gower's Mediaeval handling of a late Greek romance. Shakespeare handled it again in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, where he realizes exquisitely the sense of life's mystery characteristic of the late romances, centering on precarious and sacred family relationships. In The Comedy of Errors the old tale is used only to sound a chord of grief at the outset (a somewhat blurred chord), then at the end a much fuller chord of joyful atonement. Yet the story of ocean voyages and long separations, so different from the busy, close-together bustle that comes between its exposition and conclusion, provides a meaningful finale.

That the ending does work, in spite of this difference and the utterly far-fetched coincidences involved, is largely thanks to Shakespeare's control of the rhythm of feeling. In the final farce scenes, feelings break loose, people are beside themselves; extras rush on the stage to bind struggling Antipholus and Dromio; a moment later the two are loose again, as it seems, with swords drawn, driving away all comers. Then suddenly, after this release of passion, the tone changes: the Abbess and the Duke, with aged Egeon, take over the stage, figures of authority and reverence. We hear poignant accents of family feeling in Egeon's:

Not know my voice! O time's extremity,
Hast thou so crack'd and splitted my poor
In seven short years, that here my only son
Knows not my feeble key of untun'd cares?
Though now this grained face of mine be hid
In sap-consuming winter's drizzled snow,…
Tell me thou art my son Antipholus.

A moment later the Syracusian Antipholus, who does know his father, comes on stage; the doubles are visible together at last, and the plot is unsprung. But instead of ending there, we are lifted into a curiously serious final moment. The Abbess, now discovered as the wife, speaks of the moment as a new birth of her children:

Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail
Of you, my sons, and till this present hour
My heavy burthen ne'er delivered.

She invites all to "a gossips' feast"—a Christening party, "gossips" here being the old, Prayer-book word for godparents, "god-sibs," brothers and sisters in God of the parents. "After so long grief, such nativity!" the Abbess-wife exclaims. As all go out except the four brothers, the Duke sets his seal on the renewal of community, centered in the family: he uses the word gossip in both its ceremonial sense of "sponsor" and its ordinary, neighborly sense:

With all my heart, I'll gossip at this feast.

One final goodhumored Error amongst masters and slaves, and the play ends gayly with the Dromios' joke about repeating their birth:

We came into this world like brother and
And now let's go hand in hand, not one
  before another.

Shakespeare's sense of comedy as a moment in a larger cycle leads him to go out of his way, even in this early play, to frame farce with action which presents the weight of age and the threat of death, and to make the comic resolution a renewal of life, indeed explicitly a rebirth. One must admit, however, that he does rather go out of his way to do it: Egeon and Emilia are off-stage and almost entirely out of mind in all but the first and last scenes. We can notice, however, that the bonds of marriage, broken in their case by romantic accident, are also very much at issue in the intervening scenes, where marriage is subjected to the very unromantic strains of temperament grinding on temperament in the setting of daily life. Moreover, Adriana and her Antipholus are both in their marriage (as wooing couples are in love); its hold on them comes out under the special stress of the presence of the twin doubles. The seriousness of the marriage, however trying, appears in Adriana's long speech rebuking and pleading with her husband when he seems at last to have come home to dinner (it is, of course, the wrong brother):

Ah, do not tear thyself away from me;
For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again, …
As take from me thyself and not me too.
How dearly would it touch thee to the quick,
Shouldst thou but hear I were licentious …

That for her husband home and wife are really primary is made explicit even when he is most angry:

Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me,
I'll knock elsewhere, to see if they'll disdain

Shakespeare nowhere else deals with the daily substance of marriage, its irritations and its strong holding power (The Merry Wives of Windsor touches some of this, at a later stage of married life; the rest of the comedies are wooing and wedding). There is a deep logic, therefore, to merging, in the ending, the fulfillment of a long-stretched, romantic longing of husband and wife with the conclusion, in the household of Antipholus, of domestic peace after domestic frenzy. No doubt their peace is temporary, but for the moment all vexation is spent; and Adriana may have learned something from the Abbess' lecture, even though the Abbess turns out to be her mother-in-law!

Appearance Vs. Reality

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12655

Sidney R. Homan (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors and Its Audience: 'And Here We Wander in Illusions'," in The CEA Critic, Vol. 47, Nos. 1/2, Fall-Winter, 1984, pp. 17-30.

[In this essay, Homan discusses The Comedy of Errors' myriad collisions of reality with misleading or misunderstood appearances.]

What we hear and see at the present moment constitutes an experience unique to the theater, one not shared by non-dramatic works that, operating by their own unique principles, must perforce have their own definitions of "experience"1 This theatrical "presence" is especially ironic in The Comedy of Errors, given the significance of its past, that "history" extending from the birth of the twins, and from the coincidental birth of twin servants, to the accident at sea separating the family, to the separate lives led in Ephesus and Syracuse, with roughly seventeen years intervening before the Syracusian son and Egeon began the search for their family. No less ironic in terms of theatrical presence is the significance of the future, for there would be no play at all if the Duke had not extended Egeon's life until five that evening.

Given the improbabilities of its plot, what engages us in Errors, I believe, is not so much its mirror image of normal life but rather the gap in Shakespeare's theater of presence between our sense of the play's purpose and the perceptions of its characters who, until the very end, have no sense of their own play on that same stage we witness both aurally and visually. In seeing, at length, their whole play, they can be extricated not only from a comic dilemma but from the larger comedy itself, life's own comedy of errors. We are fixed; they are in error and are erring, in the older sense of "wandering." Our exit from the theater is therefore dependent on theirs.


As the "outside" audience, our first requirement, then, is that we all see the same thing: however confusing they may be to the "onstage" audience, we recognize the two Antipholi as just that—as two. Conversely, the characters' inability to distinguish each other even finds precedent in the play's own prehistory: through Egeon's opening narrative one can imagine the scene where, their mast split in two, the divided family sees its other half in a progressively diminished perspective until even vision itself went blank. Egeon comments that the "sight" of the three being rescued by the fishermen of Corinth was only "as we thought" (1.1.110-111). We, however, see precisely what we need to see, and thus the implied stage set of Syracuse, actually inhabited for seven years by father, son, and servant, need not exist for us.

Hence, for "them" even the most basic object, a prop like the rope or chain so solid it can be seen and touched, cannot be seen for what it is. The Ephesian Antipholus requests money and is brought a rope by his "servant"; the Syracusian Antipholus finds his Dromio bringing not a rope as requested but gold, just as earlier he had received a chain without asking for one. For doing what one was told to do, as well as for not doing what one was told to do, a servant gets a beating. As several commentators have observed, Shakespeare quadruples the number of servant beatings from Plautus, but to the servants so consistently beaten they are literally receiving "something" for "nothing" (2.2.51-52).2 The characters, of course, devise numerous interpretations for these strange events, even though all miss the mark.

And yet when we attach a meaning to such objects, if we see, as some critics have, a social or symbolic meaning to the chain, if we find in the composite gold-chain-rope an emblem of the play's dramatization of the tragicomedy of perception,3 do we do anything less, however more consciously than the stage's confused characters? We ourselves thus "confuse" or exchange an object so that we can avoid mere spectacle, and thereby we sustain that delicate balance of the visual and the verbal essential to the theater. Like the primitive or the sophisticate with his fetishes, the characters also sense in this transformation of gold to rope or of nothing to a chain a mysterious force that denies the literal, that alternately explains or reduces what was assumed, literally, to be only itself. Consciousness of this force, of the playwright whose craft invites our own more productive interpretation, alone separates us from them; as long as they remain unconscious of the source of their confusion, they can see only conflicting purposes, or tragedies of adultery or comedies of enchantment and of windfalls.

Indeed, the visual without the signifying power of language risks losing even its own physical base; at one point the characters onstage can only "Witness" that Antipholus has vanished from the priory and been "borne about invisible" (5.1.187). But there is no magic here, no occult force performing vanishing acts. If Ephesus in Saint Paul's Letters has associations with witchcraft and sorcery, we see no such city here, despite the supposition of the characters. The play is based on reality, a fact: the co-presence of twins.

This bare fact itself is paralleled by the single stage set, its unchanging presence in contrast to, say, the sweeping panorama—to use the movies' cliche—of Antony and Cleopatra or the spatial movement in King Lear from court to heath and back to court. In fact, while there is some debate as to the exact set,4 we know that the bare stage itself served as the street or playing area, with three upstage exits signifying the house of Antipholus, Aemilia's abbey, and the Porpentine where the Courtesan lives. What appears to us, therefore, as a clear, contiguous playing area is not so for the characters who see it as an arena of "tricks" where people exit only to reappear suddenly with changed identities, where, as the Syracusian Dromio believes, the secular earth has been transformed to a "fairy land" (2.2.189).


Our identification with Shakespeare's characters through this need to interpret—and also, I might add here, through our ignorance of Aemilia's presence—is only a prelude to our larger identification when we acknowledge that their confusion both is and is not of their own making, and that this gamut effectively covers possibilities for disorder in our own world. In his first discourse on the inter-relation between time and baldness, Dromio rejects the Syracusian Antipholus's attempt to find something "sound" or "sure" or "certain" in time's assault on human existence (2.2.91-95), yet in the face of this same relative time the characters persist in trying to establish something certain, a source for or a way out of their confusion, whether it take the form of a psychological explanation of marriage problems or the practical strategy of adopting as a reality a role that everyone but the recipient thinks of as his own.

As we acknowledge the play's illusionary status, its being about "nothing," that concession is then undercut by the simple fact that both during and after the performance we share the same world as the characters. In a sense the ending or resolution is secondary, for Errors, as a piece for the theater, concerns more than the onstage family reunion. The title itself tells us, despite the somber opening, that this reunion is a foregone conclusion. Their piecing together of what was otherwise disparate yet autonomous, integral narratives is itself a sign of what we must do. We cannot help but be involved.

The theater is thus a community's attack on the obvious, no less than on narrowed vision; it insists on meaning because, at its core, it refuses to take the world, any world, as it is. What we see must admit a discourse, and like the characters themselves we too must "entertain the offered fallacy" (2.2.186). Adriana demands to "know the truth hereof at large" (4.4.143). In searching for a truth (if not "the" truth) or in seeking an interpretation, we, as the united community of its audience, also charge the stage world with meaning, an action highly significant in a play that presents a fractured community, both in terms of its history and its present lack of a common understanding.

The literal play thus becomes a play of charged presence, and this succession in which an object is enhanced informs the conversation between the Ephesian Antipholus and Balthazar as they debate what determines good entertainment: the fare or the host, in effect, the dinner itself or the context of courtesy (3.1.19-30). Clearly in terms of the play, both are wrong individually and yet right collectively, and that the play at this point for those onstage cannot sustain such a union of existence and essence, if you will, is underscored when both would-be host and would-be guest are barred from the door. Those inside must come forth and join those outside so that outside/inside distinctions, a metaphor itself for the larger cleavage threatening the theater's community, can be dissolved. In terms of the play's visual core, the extremes to be avoided are what we might call the "reductively" physical (just before the act 5 reunions rapiers are drawn as the visitors threaten their hosts) and the "illusory" physical (Luciana is not a magician and, despite its reputation, there are no charlatans in Ephesus).

In point of fact, if the characters are not three-dimensional—and the mathematics of that phrase seems closer to the jargon of conventional theater reviewers—they are not without psychological traces of a malaise frustrating such unified vision.5 We learn that the Ephesian Antipholus "hath been heavy, sour, sad" for a week before the day's actions, though Adriana herself cannot find the link between that condition and what appears to be his present "extremity of rage" (5.1.45-48). Egeon would have gladly embraced even "A doubtful warrant of immediate death" (1.1.168) if it had not been for the "incessant weepings" of his wife; significantly, he forgoes a death-wish for the sake of his mate and thereby allows the tragedy at sea to become a tragicomedy. Upon his entrances in Ephesus, Antipholus is in a state that can only be described as depressed: anyone commanding him to his "own content" commends him to "the thing [he] cannot get"; "unhappy" because of his separation from his family, he will efface himself, going about the town "Unseen," albeit "inquisitive" (1.2.33-40). Adriana is a creature of unfounded jealousy6 and Luciana, otherwise clear-sighted, refrains from marriage and yet counsels Antipholus to conceal his adultery. Aemilia has withdrawn from the world into her convent, and the wouldbe nun in Shakespeare—witness Isabella—must be converted from such celibacy to marriage. In each case, there is evidence of retreat, regression, withdrawal, and such action goes against the play's own insistence, and that of Shakespeare's theater generally, on a community of unified vision as a defense against the randomness of fate.

The central characters are therefore incomplete, lacking wholeness, not the "formal" man (5.5.105) of which Aemilia speaks. This exile from their complete selves is echoed in the various images of division: a ship split on the rocks, with even its auxiliary mast, that for a time serves to unite the family, split in turn; the two towns of Ephesus and Syracuse now "adverse" (1.1.15) over an act of cruelty in which Ephesians lost their lives for the very same reason now threatening Egeon. If the play lacks "real" characters, the fact is that until the very end the real characters themselves are fractured, elsewhere.


Despite the duplication of the twins' first names, for the audience the play's verbal clarity is at one with its visual clarity; we can hear as ironic what the characters take as literal, and as untrue what they themselves take for the truth: Antipholus's confession of love for Luciana, for instance, is just that, and not the evidence of adulterous passion she imagines. We know whether a command given a servant can be fulfilled, and in a play where everyone accuses everyone else of lying, we know that no one lies. For us, then, words fix on their proper referents, and even when the characters consciously play with language, as in Dromio's punning, we can detect an irony behind the smaller irony intended by the punster. However, given the characters' visual confusion, their verbal confusion follows hard upon.

Egeon ironically opens the play with a request that the Duke speak, that he "Proceed" to "procure [his] fall."7 What proceeds, of course, is not his immediate fall, since that is deferred until sundown, but rather Egeon's own narrative, and though the Duke orders him to "plead no more" (3), Egeon proceeds to do precisely that, his argument being that accident and not human design has cast him on these hostile shores. Egeon's speech, as many commentators have observed and as any actor charged with memorizing this lengthy narrative can attest, is the most sustained and eloquent piece of poetry in the play. Yet it is delivered against a political context in which language has become rigid, inflexible, unplayful. The Duke speaks of his countrymen as having "seal'd" the "rigorous statues" of Syracuse with "their blood" (9), and of Ephesus's counterlaw as being "decreed" in "solemn synods" (13). Egeon will die when the Duke's "words are done" (28), and in this fact he takes a certain morbid comfort. Without the inner play to follow, the narrative itself would be irrelevant, nothing but a dead man's ineffectual, albeit moving account of a family's history. Hearing Egeon's words, even acknowledging that his presence here in Ephesus is not a sin of commission, the Duke is still powerless to change his nation's decree. In terms of the reality assumed by the characters in the play's thematic world, the lengthy narrative, while it provides coherence to Egeon's own life, can therefore at best be gossip, at worst, a waste of speech itself. For his listeners in this opening scene, onstage as well as off, Egeon is indeed silenced until that final appearance where execution rather than explication will or should be the order of the day.

Only when our own view expands into the second scene can we admit some alleviation from the verbally moribund world of that opening scene. In his edition, R. A. Foakes observes that Egeon's poetry continues into this second scene,8 and that with the entrance of the Syracusian Antipholus and the scenic link provided by the First Merchant when he refers to a "Syracusian merchant … not being able to buy out his life" (1.2.3-5), we know that the seemingly impossible, Egeon's ransom, is now within the bounds of possibility. If Egeon is ineffectively loquacious, his son vows to be effectively silent—and visually obscure. On the advice of the Merchant, Antipholus will deny his identity and spend his time viewing the town, rather than talking about his history, "Unseen," although "inquisitive." He promises to be as secondary as his father was central in the previous scene: "I to the world am like a drop of water, / That in the ocean seeks another drop" (35-36). We will realize later, of course, that Antipholus's desire for anonymity will be as unrealized as Egeon's commitment to death: the father will be granted life, and the moody son forced into dialogue against his will.

But for the characters, once the visual certainty breaks down—and this occurs a mere forty-two lines into scene 2 when the Ephesian Dromio returns in place of his twin with a reminder that the Ephesian Antipholus, also mistaken for his twin, is late for dinner—then verbal certainly also collapses. Word is literally divorced from object. Puns are sometimes unintentional and are not always playful, as when the Ephesian Dromio, locked out of his master's house, frustrates Antipholus when he translates the requested crow-bar to crow (3.1.80-84). Indeed, here for a time the pun almost threatens to run off with a scene whose pathos is as great for the participants, especially for the excluded husband, as it is comic from our perspective. At one point a character employs "wit" to scan "every word" of a dialogue, and yet he cannot understand a thing that is said (2.2.150-151), cannot fathom the "folded meaning of [the] word's deceit" (3.1.36). If the object so misunderstood threatens to lead to its extinction, then words here quickly degenerate to a glotal sound, then to wind itself, and, what is worse, wind as crude and as insignificant as a fart: "A man may break a word with you, sir, and words are but wind" (3.1.75).

In order to "speak" to a master who beats him without cause, the Ephesian Dromio resorts to a fantastic metaphor in which his skin becomes parchment and the blows from his master the ink (3.1.12-14). We will recall Hamlet's somber question to Horatio: "Is not parchment made of sheepskins?" (5.1.114). In his melancholy, Hamlet would trace even the paper used by the playwright to its source in the skin of a dead, or sacrificial animal. By the end of Errors, where the verbal confusion matches its ancestor in visual confusion, all dialogue is dismissed as "mad" (282). The Syracusian Antipholus would even stop his ears against the exquisite poetry of the women he loves. If one cannot close up the orifice of hearing, then the only alternative is taking the next ship out from Ephesus, removing oneself visually and aurally from this town where object and speech seem helplessly intertwined and contradictory.


Such visual and verbal confusion, and the resulting disparity in perception between audience and characters, is inseparable from the problem of time in the play, both real time and theatrical time. As Gamini Salgado keenly observes, for the characters themselves the only sure time is that accounted for in Egeon's narrative; only the past, all that time antecedent to the actual events of the day spent in Ephesus, proves orderly.9 The twins speak confidently of the Dromios as their "almanac" (1.2.41), the visible record of their birth date, and Dromio confirms the fact: from the "hour of [his] nativity to this instant" he has served Antipholus (4.4.30-31). Balthazar appeals to the Ephesian Antipholus's "long experience" of his wife's "wisdom" (3.1.89) in order to prevent him from being too hasty in censuring her when he is barred from the house. Adriana's reference to the previous week during which her husband's humor was "sour" later becomes part of Aemilia's diagnosis of the source of their marital conflict.

But this same past-tense order just barely manages to make its way from the "pre-play" or from Egeon's "induction" to the inner play. The Syracusian Antipholus is quite right when he designates his time spent in Ephesus as "two hours" (2.2. 148), but this will be the last temporal certainty he will know—until the closing moments. We realize, also, that Antipholus's present problems have very little to do with Aemelia's diagnosis, and if his longstanding service to the state prejudices the Duke to his cause, it alone cannot excuse his seemingly insane actions in the final scene.

Other characters, not at the center of the controversy, have a surer sense of time. The "wind and tide" (4.1.46) do indeed wait for the Second Merchant, though not for the Syracusian Antipholus; and for Angelo there is no confusion when he announces that he "gave [the chain to Antipholus] even now" (55). Yet as this recent, orderly past recedes and the play itself moves toward the moment of disclosure that will in turn allow debts to be paid and ships to depart with their intended cargo, such temporal sanity vanishes, and thus the "now" of the play, while still orderly for us, cannot be so for the participants. The Messenger declares that he has "not breath'd almost" (5.1.181) since he last saw the Ephesian Antipholus, but no one onstage can possibly believe him since before his entrance they have been audience to a raving Antipholus.

Soon time's deformed hand violates all temporal probability, rendering irrational both sight, as in the messenger's conflict with the onstage audience, and language, the latter anticipated when Dromio desperately wishes his master's "mouth" could be as accurate a clock as his own (1.1.66). The servant twin bears the bruises of such disordered time.

Indeed, the two discussions of time most relevant to the inner play come from Dromio: one, his paradox that time at once bestows hair on men even as in passing it renders them bald, both of hair and of wit (2.2.77-108); the other, equating time with a bankrout or thief (4.2.55-62). Even these two accounts of time, once collated, are right only in a negative sense, for in Errors there is, with time, not a diminishment of reason but its replenishment. Given the improbability of two sets of twins sharing the stage, there is, inevitably, a high probability that the coincidence will in time be disclosed. This latter chance, nourished by time, is anticipated by the hairline coincidences in the play: consider the juxtaposition of the twins' exits and entrances within minutes and even lines of each other (for example, 1.2.18-40 or 4.2.66-4.3.11), and the previous discussed inside/outside scene (3.1). Linked to the play's visual and verbal "matings" (3.2.54; 5.1.282), time here stands as both the cause and the victim of their distortions. The audience, of course, accepts this arbitrary stage time, as well as the violation of the unity of place or plot. For us, therefore, "presence" embraces the fictive, perfectly ordered stage world, its bizarre doppleganger experienced by the characters (an absurd fiction born from an historical fact of births), and our own parallel reality offstage. For the characters, however, such presence can only be a cruel caricature.


The image of the actor is inseparable from this trinity of theatrical vision, language, and presence. Here we have actors from Shakespeare's company playing characters either forced into new roles or deprived of a past role, consciously trusting in what we ourselves admit as an impossibility in physics: that two people can occupy the same space. In effect, the play gives a comic, albeit revealing twist to Iago's observation, at once simple, complex, and potentially revealing: "Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago" (1.1.57). But a warning: if we would agree that the distorted onstage image of the audience is not without significance, then the same may apply, in reverse fashion, to the metadramatically confused actors onstage. To what degree are we, offstage, actors unconscious of that play that otherwise passes as life itself?

Again, for the Ephesian master and servant act 3, scene 1 marks the death of roles they thought were their own. In a parody of the Greek ideal of our own double identity, as private person at home and public person in the polis, they are unwillingly forced into a public sphere offering them a role at variance with, rather than complementary to that assumed indoors. The stage itself, with its public playing area downstage and three upstage doors leading to residences, silently underscores this double role. Luciana maintains that once outside his home, man is allowed a liberty—a field of play—that would be inappropriate indoors (2.1.1-43). Seeking to find his brother's home and, at the same time, to re-establish their common home, the Syracusian Antipholus unintentionally forces his brother to leave that house and "wander unknown fields" (3.2.38). Conversely, the women remain indoors and yet are responsible, in a sense, for the explusion of the men, whether that expulsion take the form of Luciana's argument for masculine liberty, Adriana's confusion between husbands, or Aemilia's understandable but fatal choice in accompanying her husband on the sea voyage. Thus, all three women serve not only as the home to which the men must return but also as their source of expulsion and thereby inspiration, offering each man a new identity, allowing the otherwise secure Ephesian Antipholus to play the role of his wandering brother, and the wanderer, the stranger, to fill the vacuum in becoming the domesticated spouse. As has been observed, the inner play in something of a dream world where one takes on—though here without much choice—a role either feared (the wanderer) or desired (the husband, complete with adoring wife, and with servants).10 The twinship is thus both a fact and the grounds for translation to another identity.

Such playing, whether enforced or wished-for, is often terrifying, a displacement of reality—or of what was assumed to be reality—by relativity. The Syracusian Antipholus cries out "Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell? / Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advised" (2.2.212-213), while his servant wonders, "Am I Dromio? … Am I myself?" (3.2.74). At one point his twin compares himself to a football thrown about by the winds of volition (2.1.83). Like that of Sly's when he is transformed from drunken tinker to aristocrat, the change is equally exhilarating: both "man and master" seem "possess'd" (4.4.92), their new roles assigned by "inspiration" (2.2.166-167), they themselves "transformed" (2.2.195). But for them, ultimately, the metamorphosis of roles constitutes a downward spiral, from secure man to ape to ass (2.2.198-199).

The actor's own conscious playing of a role is here distorted, for we are doubly aware that the "man" onstage has both consciously and unconsciously assumed a part. The Syracusian Antipholus thus says more than he knows when he wishes to "lose" himself in Ephesus, or on that stage before us. Perhaps, as has been suggested, this loss of the normal self and the subsequent assumption of a new role shows man as a divided being, homo sapiens turning here, unconsciously, into homo ludens—Huizinga with a twist. The two Antipholi and Egeon are like old Adam, the man before revelation whom Dromio purposely confuses with the sergeant (4.3.13-33): arrested, unable to function in a new role, no longer about to play an accustomed role, or like Egeon and Aemilia held in abeyance, hidden until the final scene. But given the play-time allowed by Shakespeare through the Duke, that working day otherwise so confused here, Egeon emerges at length not as victim but as restored and restoring husband. Likewise, the enforced playing time for the sons allows them, discomforts notwithstanding, time to "dally" (1.2.59), to abandon one's self but also to search for one's other half.

The characters themselves also seem to call for such playing, such stepping outside of an assumed role. The Syracusian Antipholus asks Luciana to "teach" him "how to think and speak" (2.2.3), and the first advice he is given, we will recall, is to "give out" (1.2.1) that he is from Epidamnum, in effect to counterfeit himself. In another sense, this "fairy land" (2.2.189) or "dream" (182) of multiple roles may be unconsciously wished for by the characters, and hence opposes the self-effacing mania of the Syracusian visitors. Or it may stem from an otherwise unfathomable discontent, such as the sour disposition of the Ephesian brother.

If playing a role has its ultimate source in the play's own masterplotter, that providential Shakespeare behind the scenery, its value is to be found in the play's playful servants, not free men but men already assigned a burdensome role, a "gentleman's gentleman" as the English would have it. Men suffering from often arbitrary masters, made even more arbitrary by the day's confusions, the Dromios are thus forced to adopt a sense of play for survival itself. The servants' humor is "merry" (1.2.21), and their ability to jest or play mitigates against the determinism otherwise implicit in the age's medical/psychological term "humor." Even the Ephesian Antipholus, though normally conservative or unplayful, vows to "jest" (3.1.123) in spite of the "expense" to himself. Adriana starves for a "merry look" (2.1.88) from her husband, and though he is in anything but a sportive humor, the Syracusian Antipholus chooses to adopt the fallacy offered by the strange events, to take part, in essence, in what he knows is a play, in something at variance with reality. If time is cruel here, that giver and taker as characterized by Dromio, there is still a "good time" in which to "jest" and hence a "time for all things" (2.2.64-65). Aemilia diagnoses the marital problems as caused by Adriana's inhibiting her husband's "sports" (5.1.77), while the Ephesian Antipholus "entertains" the arrest, despite his knowledge of his innocence, as a "sport" (4.1.81). In general, the play makes a clear distinction between an "ape" (one who consciously plays by imitation) and an "ass" (the helpless butt of humor, playful or cruel as the case may be).

Against the imposed plot, the cruel "mishaps" (1.1.120) that have separated the family, the terror in losing an identity or gaining one unsought, there stands this sense of playfulness that would wrest some of the power from time. Adriana asks the Syracusian Dromio to "play the porter" (2.2.211) and he does, violating his conscious knowledge to his role in a way that distinguishes him from The Shrew's Sly. The otherwise sober Luciana calls on the Syracusian Antipholus to "Muffle [his] false love with some show of blindness" (3.2.8) so as to prevent her sister from—appropriately—reading in his "eyes" and "tongue" (9-10) his reality as an adulterer. To divert the tragedy that will itself be diverted once disclosures are made, he can, with her instruction, "apparel vice like virtue's harbinger" (3.2.12), playing "secret-false" (15). Even the sober Ephesian Antipholus will "play" the faithless husband, choosing the courtesan because she is "witty" and "wild" (3.1.140), the playful opposite of the stereotypical Elizabethan matron, Adriana. Antipholus, in fact, will play that role "Be it for nothing but in spite of my wife" (118). In a larger sense, each twin plays the other, and this applies to servants and masters. The Ephesian Dromio speaks to the issue when he asks his Syracusian counterpart, who is concealed indoors, to consider what it would be like "If thou hast been Dromio today in my place" (3.1.46).

Whatever the source of such playing—enforced, willed, chosen, or advised—it establishes a counterpoint to what the play itself had established in the opening scene, that moribund world, as I have called it, a scene caught in the past and promising nothing beyond a repetition with Egeon's death of a former act of political cruelty. Yet once these varied concepts of playing are established in the inner plot, the characters stick to the stage, the play's field of play, rather than fleeing, though the Syracusian Antipholus attempts to flee. Nor do they go mad beyond recovery, however sorely tempted, nor retreat to the abbey, as if such retreat were possible in a play forcing its characters together.

The very essence of comedy, that coming together after a breach in station or personality has been healed, is at one with the Plautine plot that Shakespeare complicates only to uncomplicate.


For us the issue, comically tested in Errors, is how to see the world as it is, how by "computation" (2.2.4) of its various ingredients to come to some assessment of what it is to be human in the context of a world that at any moment can overwhelm the individual, how, in Dennis Huston's words, to live with the "potentially tragic problem of discontiunity in human experience."11 Adriana claims to be "press'd down with conceit—/ Conceit, my comfort and my injury" (4.2.65-66). She uses "conceit" here in two senses, as "understanding" and as "imagination," the latter alluding both to Shakespeare's talent and the art for which a taste must be acquired by the onstage participants. Though it would be absurd to imagine the characters coming to any other conclusion in act 5, the final scene does represent the application of conceit as understanding to a five-act play that has been sustained, consciously and unconsciously, by the characters' willingness to play. If fate or Shakespeare creates the play, the character-actors sustain that creation by remaining in Ephesus, even if forced to do so, here in the legendary home of illusions and illusion-makers. At length they are able to see what is, what we as audience see; and once this happens, then language, so deficient until that moment, blossoms in their own long speeches splicing together the earlier disjointed narratives of their one-day mating. If these final long speeches are dull, they are so only because the characters now tell us what we have known, and in language, now functioning as a mere recorder and at one with its object, that can no longer be playful. Like the four lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream, they speak of events "strange" if not "admirable" (5.1.27), but, again, no magic is involved and here the doubting Theseus is replaced by a Duke who believes their common story precisely because "what is" has not been challenged but rather affirmed. There is no forest here, no separate world in contradistinction to reality or Athens. In Shakespeare's later comedy, the woman alone, Hippolyta, maintained the imaginative sympathy for the lovers in the face of Theseus's disclaimers; here in Errors—if I may borrow Hippolyta's line from A Midsummer Night's Dream—both men and women find the narrations growing to "something of great constancy."12

With this enforced play leading to the harmonious community of the final scene, the characters, without retreating to a forest, can also avoid worlds that have or should have no real existence. Persia (4.1.4)—anywhere but here and now—remains only a theoretical destination for the Second Merchant. Nor does Aemilia remain locked eternally in the abbey; nor does her Syracusian son stay forever the wanderer or her Ephesian son the smug husband. The equitable but cruel state law applied to Egeon never materializes. Like that opening scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream promising a tragedy on the lines of Romeo and Juliet, the opening scene here shows what can happen without play. But the stage, the arena of play, must "admit traffic" (1.1.15), and even as theater itself plays between the visual and verbal, Errors plays on its own seemingly inflexible opening situation. The family re-union in turn frees up both the state and those characters not part of the original accident yet affected by the family's separation. Without the "conceit" of act 5 and of the play generally, Angelo would face imprisonment and the Merchant, going unpaid, would have to change travel plans. Unjust or light penalities, to be sure, but indicating the potential replication when the eyes and ears of those most affected are not functioning properly.

Reality is thus not a constant in this play but rather a compromise between what is and how we perceive that "is." Again, the debate between Balthazer and Antipholus on what constitutes a good meal, the fare itself or the quality of the hosting, underlines this duality. Not to make dinner on time is both a temporal and a spatial fact, and yet at the same time a commentary on the mind-set of the "non-participant."

If man on the stage of both the theater and the encompassing world is at once actor and audience, he also must play both roles constantly, given the nature of dialogue and of the human community. The challenge then becomes: given the definition of reality as an ongoing compromise, can we agree on one counterfeit, with some room for difference, to be sure, but also with boundaries for difference? Can we see the same thing, albeit illusory in being not one thing but the product of a collective vision? Can the characters onstage and, by extension, on the world's stage do what those "characters" in Shakespeare's audience are assisted in doing by an onstage fiction balancing language and spectacle, all within the time-scheme of probability? Dromio cannot valorize such absolute words as sound, sure, and certain, despite his master's insistence; those onstage and off, therefore, must learn to see as one "this sure uncertainity" (2.2.185). To rework Adriana's marriage metaphor, if we are all "undividable incorporate" (2.2.122), individual drops that cannot be isolated from the sea of life, and if the audience offstage can identify with those onstage, then, being doubly so "undividable incorporate," can we still see and hear roughly the same thing?


"Here we wander in illusions" (4.3.43), and the cry goes up for "Some blessed power [to] deliver us from hence" (44). Our human goal is to decipher the source, albeit manifold, of such illusions. Bottom's Pyramus and Thisby also rests on such illusions; for example, Pyramus takes the sight of Thisby's blood-stained mantle as proof that she has been devoured by a lion, but the results are doubly tragic precisely because the community so affected, the children and their parents, never comes together, as do their prototypes in Romeo and Juliet. That artistocratic Athenian audience, who fail to comprehend the parallel between Bottom's comic tragedy and what A Midsummer Night's Dream promises if Oberon and Puck had not intervened, is in Errors an all-knowing and harmonized audience. And while Errors is not blessed with strong, sentient characters—a Rosalind or a Prospero—it does show characters moving away from isolation, out of such "adversity"(4.4.20) whether imposed or self-imposed, whether it be Egeon's mishaps or Adriana's "Self-harming jealousy" (2.1.102). Forced to play, forced to confront a world of illusions, the stage itself taken to an extreme, they make such a movement. Now, acting out of love, Adriana will ransom her husband, even while acknowleding that her "heart prays for him, though [her] tongue do curse" (4.2.28); she will pay his debt no matter how it "grows" (4.4.121) or seems to grow. Similarly, the Duke, while at first upholding the barrier between the two cities, releases Egeon from the ransom; the play's imposed measure for measure is dissolved just as the play of that name, through the wisdom of its own Duke, dissolves judgment, with the exception of the penalty placed on Lucio. Here, even a son is eager to pay the ransom for a father whom he has not seen since his nativity.

In the final scene the characters, like us, see the events of the day as illusions, as theater, as comic errors in a comedy of errors. Having been forced to play actors and audience in that illusion, they are now at "liberty" (2.1.7) from illusions as well as from their otherwise incomplete selves. Similarly, the actor's own impersonation completes our selves, bridging the existential gap between what we do and our perception of ourselves as doers or actors. The world is no different from what it was at the start; the facts remain the same: on this given day are present four members plus servants of the same fractured family. Only the perception, the naming has been altered. Players on both sides of the stage now share the common emotion generated by such liberty, relief, and release. Everyone becomes a "formal" man again (5.1.105), discovering the self through playing (or seeing and hearing, in our case) its opposite, and then rediscovering the self as it is defined in the context of the family.

Allowing ourselves to be transformed from actor to audience, we too are complete, having achieved that completion by journeying into the play, hazarding our everyday concept of reality for this fictive, shaman-like journey, a journey taken both for the profit at its and for the pleasure when its parabolic curve returns us home. We can all go home now, for as we "came into the world" of the theater, we go out "hand in hand" (5.1.425-426), although the characters onstage and those characters offstage leave through opposing exits.


1 My text for The Comedy of Errors is The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

2 See John Arthos, "Shakespeare's Transformation of Plautus," Comparative Drama 1 (Winter, 1967-1968): 239-253.

3 See John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies (London, 1964, reprint), pp. 54-57; and Richard Henze, "The Comedy of Errors: A Freely Binding Chain," Shakespeare Quarterly 22 (1971): 35-41.

4 Anne Barton summarizes this debate nicely in her introduction to the play in The Riverside Shakespeare, pp. 79-80. And for some provocative comments on the staging, and other matters in the play, see Harry Levin, "Introduction to The Comedy of Errors," The Signet Classic Shakespeare, gen. ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York, 1965), p. xxiii-xxxviii.

5 The notion that this is a superficial play, its characters only types, is epitomized in Francis Fergusson's "The Comedy of Errors and Much Ado about Nothing," Sewanee Review 62 (1954): 24-37. Larry Champion finds Adriana alone having something of a "psychology" and hence a subsequent character change in The Evolution of Shakespeare's Comedy: A Study in Dramatic Perspective (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), pp. 13-24. But Barbara Freedman, in two very insightful pieces, finds much more in the play. See her "Egeon's Debt: Self-Division and Self-Redemption in The Comedy of Errors," English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 360-383; and "Errors in Comedy: A Psycho-analytic Theory of Farce," in the special edition on Shakespearean Comedy in New York Literary Forum, ed. Maurice Charney, 5-6 (1980): 233-243. In that same issue see Catherine M. Shaw, "The Conscious Art of The Comedy of Errors," pp. 17-28. And see Ruth Nevo, "My Glass and Not My Brother," in Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London, 1980), pp. 22-36.

6 See Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton, 1972), p. 32.

7 I am especially indebted here to J. Dennis Huston for a series of perceptive remarks he made while this article was in manuscript, as well as for his commentary on Egeon and the play's "induction" scene in Shakespeare's Comedies of Play (New York, 1981), pp. 14-34.

8 See R. A. Foakes's introduction to the Arden edition (London, 1963), p. 12.

9 Gamini Salgado, "'Time's Deformed Hand': Sequence, Consequence, and Inconsequence in The Comedy of Errors," Shakespeare Survey 22 (1972): 81-91.

10 See Michel Grivelet's excellent "Shakespeare, Moliere, and the Comedy of Ambiguity," Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969): 15-26.

11 Huston, Comedies of Play, pp. 32-33.

12 For the significance of this phrase I am indebted to David Young, Something of Great Constancy: The Art of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966).

Douglas Lanier (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "'Stigmatical in Making': The Material Character of The Comedy of Errors," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 81-112.

[In this excerpt, Lanier argues that the instability of the characters in The Comedy of Errors proceeds from disjunctions between apparent and actual identity.]

[A cultural crisis of self-representation] clearly fascinated Shakespeare throughout his career.1 Barry Weller's observation that "much of the action of Shakespearean drama [might be seen] as a struggle, not so much for self-awareness, as for self-representation" (p. 342) is particularly appropriate for the early comedies. Shakespeare's Plautine adaptation The Comedy of Errors, for example, takes as its focus the discontinuity between identities and the external marks that display, support, and confirm them. Despite the play's Christian overlay and its extensive references to witchcraft, what has impressed most critics is not its metaphysics so much as its physiques.2 That is, Errors stresses the marks and rituals—faces, clothing, beatings, warts and moles, meals,3 rings and gold chains—that make characters recognizable, and it demonstrates in copious variety how reliance upon this material evidence leads to unpredictable identity-effects. Like many commentators before and after him, Harold Brooks observes that the play's central issue is relentlessly "made visible, audible, and tangible by 'business' … the gold chain seen, the blows seen and heard, make double the effect they would in narrative."4 Near its center is an emblem of the play's thoroughgoing focus on corporeality: the grotesquely fat kitchen wench Nell, whose sweating, greasy, swarthy body parts Dromio of Syracuse lavishly details and matches to appropriate countries on the globe.5 And, as many commentators have noticed, Shakespeare has changed the setting to Ephesus, a commercial center, and obsessively returns to details of trade such as the ubiquitous mart, several merchants added as minor characters, the central place of exchanges of money and goods in nearly all relationships. Taken together, these changes mark the essentially materialist premises of this world.

Significantly, the plot is set in motion by the duplication of characterological marks, which Shakespeare foregrounds by doubling the single set of twins he found in Plautus's Menaechmi. The two Antipholi and Dromios pose a kind of limit case: how might identity be disrupted when the public marks of that identity are not merely counterfeited but exactly duplicated and possessed by someone else? Once doubled, those marks become nightmarishly iterable, physically the same but signifying differently, open to a wild variety of preposterous supposes and ultimately leading to near social breakdown. Out of that iterability springs the play's much-remarked imagery of shape-changing. Once Antipholus and Dromio's faces can point to identities not their own, the play breaks the seemingly necessary correspondence between outer and inner character; a certain self may not necessarily take a certain shape and form.6 For a culture that places such weight on stable characterological display, the danger to selfhood registers in a threat both spiritual and physical.

In her introduction to The Comedy of Errors, Anne Barton raises the central "naive" question, largely dodged in critical discussions, that shapes a viewer's experience of this play: why don't these characters conclude that their myriad confusions are caused not by wandering affections, demons or madness, but by the presence of twins?7 Their blindness points not, as Crewe has argued (p. 216), to a general failure of reason, nor is it, as Coleridge asserted, simply a donnée we must grant his farce. Rather, it makes palpable an ideological blind spot within a particular kind of logic that governs the construction of Elizabethan identity: these characters don't come up with the solution "twins" because, as Emilia notes, they all make the same "sympathised one day's error" (5.1.397). They assume that distinct identities are manifest in distinct marks. Crucial to this "local" logic is the role of the viewer, who recognizes those marks and upon whose recognition the character's sense of identity depends. Shakespeare signals the importance of this confirming gaze as early as Egeon's tragic tale of shipwreck in the opening scene, where Egeon tells us that in the midst of a tempest he and his wife Emilia tied their twin sons and servants to a mast:

My wife, more careful for the latter-born,
Had fasten'd him unto a small spare mast,
Such as sea-faring men provide for storms;
To him one of the other twins was bound,
Whilst I had been like heedful of the other.
The children thus dispos'd, my wife and I,
Fixing our eyes on whom our care was fix'd,
Fasten'd ourselves at either end the mast

Egeon and Emilia bind their twins in this way, it seems, so that each parent might gaze upon the child he or she loved better, "Fixing our eyes on whom our care was fix'd."8 Presumably, each child might do likewise. This odd chiastic arrangement of parent and child is prompted by the logic of the reassuring, recognizing gaze, and it results, with just a little push from Fortune, in the potentially tragic "unjust divorce" of these three pairs. Without understanding their significance, Egeon underlines the importance of paired gazes when he goes on to describe the sun's gaze upon the earth, which literally changes the features of the obscured "face" it looks upon:

At length the sun, gazing upon the earth,
Dispers'd those vapours that offended us,
And by benefit of his wished light
The seas wax'd calm, and we discovered
Two ships from far

The demand for another's gaze—for a constant witness—is not Egeon's alone. Antipholus of Syracuse underscores that his quest for his twin brother is motivated by a search for his confirming other:

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
(Unseen, inquisitive), confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.
                     (1.2.35-40, emphasis added)

Although critics have traditionally (and rightly) understood this passage as evincing a latent fear of self-dissolution (or "weak ego boundaries"), Antipholus' interjected "unseen" suggests a rather precise formulation: the single gaze of his "fellow," a gaze in which he might find himself, is set against the engulfing gaze of the world, a gaze that fails to see him.9 (His musings, we might remember, follow his declaration that he intends to "view the manners of the town, / Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings" [1. 2. 12-13], pointedly as the viewer rather than the one viewed.) Only after recalling his lost brother does he designate Dromio "the almanac of my true date" (1.2.41), as if his servant were a text—the last he has left—in which he can confirm his being. As the confusions mount, Dromio of Ephesus too seeks to confirm who he is by pointing to his apparently rocky relationship with his master. His central exhibits are the bruise marks that function as Antipholus' characteristic signature: "That you beat me at the mart I have your hand to show. / If skin were parchment and the blows you gave were ink, / Your own hand-writing would show you what I think" (3.1.12-14). Here subjectivity ("what I think") becomes quite literally black-and-blue characters on the white flesh. The joke is that the wrong Antipholus does not recognize those "self-evident" marks and so ironically he adds a few of his own.

With Adriana, thoroughly changed from her Plautine source, our attention shifts to yet another mutual relationship. This time the focus falls upon how completely a wife's sense of self depends upon her husband's recognition of her beautiful features:

His company must do his minions grace,
Whilst I at home starve for a merry look.
Hath homely age th'alluring beauty took
From my poor cheek? then he hath wasted it.
Are my discourses dull? barren my wit?.…
What ruins are in me that can be found
By him not ruin'd? Then is he the ground
Of my defeatures: my decayed fair
A sunny look of his would soon repair
                        (2.1.87-91, 96-99)

In a very important way his look constitutes her sense of identity. As she observes in a later comparison, the enamelled jewel, protected from another's gaze and touch, loses its beauty, yet "the gold bides still / That others touch, and often touching will / Wear gold" (2.1.109-11), a "wearing" that paradoxically produces gold's lustre.10 With her husband's look and "touch" withdrawn, Adriana's physical features become "defeatures," suddenly susceptible to ruin and unrecognizability.11 Her insistence upon the "undividable, incorporate" (2.2.122) union of husband and wife, imaged with talk of drops mingled in the ocean and the more traditional image of elms entwined with vines, derives less from the Plautine character-type of the shrew than from the self-presentational symbiosis Adriana needs. She tells Antipholus that he need only "look strange and frown" and "I am not Adriana, nor thy wife" (2.2.110, 112). Egeon, Antipholus, and Dromio have nearly identical moments. It would seem that supposedly self-evident physical distinctions (accounts of faces, warts, bruises, chains, rings) and events (dinners, promises, arrests, beatings) need constantly to be rehearsed and re-rehearsed in order to maintain who's who. Given such characterological instability, it is little wonder that well over a third of the play is taken up with narrating events that have already occurred before the audience's eyes.12

This logic of recognition leads to a further uncanny identity-effect: instead of the twins possessing their distinctive marks and thus their identities, those marks (and the identities they carve out) come to possess them. More precisely, because their outward characters are not exclusively their own, identities can be projected upon them from without, an operation that feels to the twins like being inhabited by a spirit. Dromio of Syracuse announces this ubiquitous link between being "defined" and being demonically possessed. When Nell (mis)recognizes the "privy marks I had about me, as the mark of my shoulder, the mole in my neck, the great wart on my left arm" (3.2.141-43), Dromio speaks of her as "one that claims me, one that haunts me, one that will have me" (3.2.80-81). And although he dashes onto the stage seeking confirmation from Antipholus that he is in fact Dromio—"Do you know me, sir? Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?" (3.2.72-73)—he later claims that if he had not relied upon an unmanifest manly interiority (his breast of faith and heart of steel) Nell would have transformed him into a "curtal dog," her emasculated beast of burden. Through knowledge or possession of a self's outward marks, he fears, that self can be possessed, and so he urges his master not to give the courtesan the ring or chain she demands: "Some devils ask but the parings of one's nail, a rush, a hair, a drop of blood, a pin, a nut, a cherry-stone; but she, more covetous, would have a chain. Master, be wise; and if you give it her, the devil will shake her chain and fright us with it" (4.3.69-73). For Antipholus of Ephesus, this trope of possession is literalized to great comic effect. Observing "his heart's meteors tilting in his face" (4.2.6), fiery and sharp looks, ecstatic trembling and propensity to strike, all products of his considerable frustration, Adriana, Doctor Pinch and company all conclude that Satan is "hous'd within this man" (4.4.52). In fact, once Pinch's diagnosis takes hold, Antipholus' protests and grimaces only serve as further "objective" evidence of his demonic possession, a point stressed by Pinch's and Luciana's knowing comments about his "pale and deadly looks" (4.4.91, 106). Here we might notice that the "metaphysics" of this play emphatically does not establish some stable supernatural frame of reference. Rather, the allusions to demons, witchcraft, and God's protection are all part of yet another false supposition, generated by the desperate need for these characters to save appearances. In Ephesus the law of the characterological marketplace rules: "possess or be possessed." Indeed, because the twins do not own exclusive rights to the marks of their characters, or to the proliferating interpretations that become attached to those identical yet differing marks, they find themselves again and again self-dis- possessed.

Given such premises and such unpredictable effects, what's a person to do? Antipholus of Ephesus's experience is that resisting only makes matters worse. Near the center of the play, Luciana voices a second and unexpectedly Machiavellian alternative: accept the identity others seek to project upon you and fashion from it a facade that serves your own interests. If Antipholus must carry on an affair (an erroneous supposition on Luciana's part), then, she declares, he should at least preserve the illusion of his fidelity by faking for Adriana the sunny looks she so craves:

If you did wed my sister for her wealth,
Then for her wealth's sake use her with more
Or if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth,
Muffle your false love with some show of
Let not my sister read it in your eye;
Be not thy tongue thy own shame's orator;
Look sweet, speak fair, become disloyalty;
Apparel vice like virtue's harbinger;
Bear a fair presence, though your heart be
Teach sin the carriage of a holy saint;
Be secret-false: what need she be
'Tis double wrong to truant with your bed,
And let her read it in thy looks at board;
Shame hath a bastard fame, well managed
                         (3.2.5-15, 17-19)

On its surface, especially considering its source, Luciana's advice has an unexpectedly moral ring: this would save Adriana's fragile sense of self. But the passage invokes the very distinctions that would thereby become erased, distinctions between false and true, becoming and being, bearing and heart, saints and sinners, virtue and vice. Such a world of well-managed simulacra, another version of Stubbes's "confuse mingle mangle," would obliterate the world she proffered earlier to Adriana, a world of "natural" distinctions and hierarchies where "there's nothing situate under heaven's eye / But hath his bound" (1.2.16-17). It is a world where, we should notice, those bounds are maintained by public rituals of obeisance. As the scene progresses, Shakespeare twice underscores the dangers of Luciana's counsel, first by having Antipholus misread it as a siren-like comeon to which he instantaneously succumbs, and, second by having Dromio rush onstage to recount his tale of Nell, a tale that terrifyingly illustrates the consequences of accepting a projected identity—castration, servility, beastliness. Just in the nick of time, Antipholus resists becoming "traitor to myself (3.2.161). Yet Shakespeare cannot leave the scene without also returning our attention (and Antipholus') to the attractions of pretense for profit. For even as Antipholus utters his intention to "stop mine ears against the mermaid's song," Angelo the goldsmith enters and, mistaking him for the other Antipholus, hands him a gold chain. The central scene ends on a note of extraordinary ideological poise, suspended between rejecting and embracing this other-directed world gone wild.

Anxiety about the effacement of one's distinguishing features reaches a climax in the final scene. There Egeon, who has himself mistaken one Antipholus for another, seeks his son's recognition:

I am sure you both of you remember me.…
Why look you strange on me? you know me
O! grief hath chang'd me since you saw me
And careful hours with time's deformed hand
Have written strange defeatures in my face
                     (5.1.292, 296, 298-300)

Figuring his unrecognized face as a text rendered illegible by the ill-formed over-scribblings of Time, Egeon seeks desperately for some other distinctive mark of who he is, drawing attention next to his voice. When Dromio and Antipholus shrug that they still just don't recall him, Egeon is thrown into anguished self-doubt:

Not know my voice? O time's extremity,
Hast thou so crack'd and splitted my poor
In seven short years, that here my only son
Knows not my feeble key of untun'd cares?
Though now this grained face of mine be hid
In sap-consuming winter's drizzled snow,
And all the conduits of my blood froze up,
Yet hath my night of life some memory;
My wasting lamps some fading glimmer left;
My dull deaf ears a little use to hear—
All the old witnesses, I cannot err,
Tell me thou art my son Antipholus.

Here Egeon's unrecognized visage runs perilously close to extinguishing him, both figuratively ("all the conduits of my blood froze up") and literally (he can only be saved if his son recognizes him and pays his ransom). Egeon backs away from this death by unrecognition by entertaining an alternate possibility: "but perhaps, my son, / Thou sham'st to acknowledge me in misery" (5.1.321-22). Nonetheless, Egeon's persistent reliance upon "these old witnesses" fuels this crisis, for Antipholus can offer equally authoritative "witnesses": "The duke, and all that know me in the city, / Can witness with me that it is not so" (5.1.323-24). We see an earlier indication that these characters occupy different interpretive universes in this exchange between Dromio of Syracuse and Adriana:

Adr. Tell me, was he arrested on a band?
Dro. Not on a band, but on a stronger thing:
A chain, a chain, do you not hear it ring?
Adr. What, the chain?
Dro.        No, no, the bell, 'tis time that I
  were gone,
It was two ere I left him, and now the clock
  strikes one.

Adr. The hours come back; that did I never
Dro. O yes, if any hour meet a sergeant, 'a
  turns back for very fear.
Adr. As if time were in debt; how fondly dost
  thou reason!
Dro. Time is a very bankrupt, and owes more
  than he's worth to season.…
If' a be in debt and theft, and a sergeant in the
Hath he not reason to turn back an hour in a
                            (4.2.50-58, 61-62)

The puns on "band / bond," "on / one" and "hour / whore"—duplicated sounds, yet distinct meanings—and the confusion of referents such as the ambiguous "it" in 1.52 leads to a confusion about objective clock time. By the end of the passage the objective world seems to mime Dromio's final punning line.13 In the final scene of the Menaechmi, one brother, despite the visible evidence before his eyes, must be convinced in an extended comic barrage of personal names and remembered details that his twin brother stands before him; the interpretive universes are eased into synchronism. In Errors, Shakespeare prunes this set piece. In this case the recognition occurs nearly instantaneously, in a glance rather than through persuasion. Only when the two twins are seen standing side by side is some normative frame of reference reestablished, with all its reassuring social determinations of kinship and rank.

Or is it? Undeniably, the characters' "original" identities have snapped back into place but, I want to argue, with a crucial difference. Especially noteworthy is the extent to which these characters' faith in that final perspective has become much more provisional. The Duke hardly supplies an authoritative perspective, for even his lordly eye cannot sort out the myriad errors. Even after the twins stand side by side before him, the Duke remains confused: "One of these men is genius to the other: / And so of these, which is the natural man, / And which the spirit? Who deciphers them?" (5.1.333-35, emphasis added). The Duke does establish who's who by publicly recalling the tale of Egeon's broken family, but he still continues to misidentify Antipholus, and he has to command the twins to "stand apart, I know not which is which" (5.1.364). This touch of comic byplay offers a serious blow to those readings that champion the Duke as an agent and guarantor of order. As the remaining characters unravel their tangle of misrecognitions, their stress is on "if," "I think," and they entertain the possibility that they are dreaming, echoing earlier moments of supposed transformation (for example, 2.2.195-96, 212-15):

Abbess. Speak old Egeon, if thou be'st the
That hadst a wife once call'd Emilia,
That bore thee at a burden two fair sons?

Egeon. If I dream not, thou art Emilia;
If thou art she, tell me, where is that son
That floated with thee on the fatal raft?

Ant.S. [To Luciana.] What I told you then,
I hope I shall have leisure to make good,
If this be not a dream I see and hear.
Angelo. That is the chain, sir, which you had
  of me.
Ant.S. I think it be, sir, I deny it not.
Ant.E. And you, sir, for this chain arrested
Angelo. I think I did, sir, I deny it not.
                            (5.1.374-80, emphasis added)

The Abbess' conventional invitation to a feast signals, as many have observed, the reestablishment of a community and, presumably, each person's place within it. At the same time she signals a symbolic rebirth of her sons: "After so long grief, such Nativity" (V.i.406).14 Particularly amplified by the context of Holy Innocents' Day (on which the play was twice staged, in 1594 and 1604),15 the obvious resonance of the Nativity, that unique historical moment in which flesh and ineffable spirit were mysteriously united, serves as an absolute standard of presence. Measured against it, the characters at the play's end come up short. The same ideological poise that closes 3.2 also closes the play as a whole.

As if to clarify this poise, Errors is rounded off with a double coda that adds small but unmistakable notes of irresolution to the play's very conventional closure devices. In the first coda Dromio of Syracuse misrecognizes Antipholus of Ephesus. Like the Duke's mistaking of Antipholus earlier in the scene, this moment demonstrates how the characterological conditions and logic that led to the errors in the first place are still in force. Once again errors seem ready to begin anew, implying that the "certainty" about who's who established by this anagnorisis may be less definitive than it first seems. The second coda, a conversation between the Dromios, focuses at first on the relational nature of character. Dromio of Ephesus' comment about his brother underlines how the other serves to verify and provide an ideal shape for the I: "Methinks you are my glass, and not my brother: / I see by you I am a sweet-fac'd youth" (5.1.417-18). The conversation quickly turns to the issue of natural rank, coordinates crucial to Renaissance identity that have supposedly just been resecured:

Dro.E. Will you walk in to see their
Dro.S. Not I, sir, you are my elder.
Dro.E. That's a question, how shall we try it?
Dro.S. We'll draw cuts for the senior; till
  then, lead thou first.
Dro.E. Nay then, thus:
  We came into the world like brother and
And now let's go hand in hand, not one
  before another.

The perspective offered here differs remarkably from that in the first act. There Egeon had distinguished between his sons apparently on the basis of order of birth, Antipholus of Syracuse had been incensed to blows when Dromio seemed to flout his superior rank, and Luciana could speak (however naively) of the natural pre-eminence of some creatures over others. As the play opens characters typically invoke fixed hierarchies of rank to chart their identities and actions. Here, however, hierarchy is invoked precisely so that it might be made a matter of chance, not of God or nature ("We'll draw cuts for the senior"), and then it is postponed ("till then, lead thou first"). For the moment at least, these twins dwell in a world where distinctions of degree have not yet been established definitively: "let's go hand in hand, not one before another" (emphasis added). In the opening scene the potentially tragic determinism of fate hung over events, a determinism signalled by Egeon's grim punning on "hap," "happy," and "hope," and his shaping of the narrative of shipwreck. Here in the final scene, it is as if "hap" has become the principle by which characters are (re)created, not destroyed.

My point here is not that the play adopts a kind of social egalitarianism in its final lines. After all, Shakespeare chooses not to use the two Antipholi for this exchange, where the drawing of lots for the senior among men of rank would imply profound, perhaps even revolutionary, social consequences. Rather, the play's final perspective and the identities it supports are subtly but persistently de-essentialized, made pointedly inconclusive and arbitrary. Chance and not any intentional action of the characters initiates the play's scene of recognition. Character, as it emerges from this play, is not co-extensive with its outward marks, but neither is it "that within that passes show." With something of the relentlessness of a nightmare, Shakespeare demonstrates that character is in effect an ongoing inference we make from outward marks, a hypothesis that demands constant interpretive support. And because the marks of character are multivalent, that hypothesis is always vulnerable to competing hypotheses. Of course, by play's end the characters no longer dwell in an infinitely mutable world where identity seems as it does to Antipholus of Syracuse, "Known to these, and to myself disguis'd" (2.2.214). But neither, the Dromios stress, do they dwell in a fully stable world where distinctions of degree are conclusively God-given or where erroneous inferences about identity are no longer possible. Although Shakespeare does not yet locate character in interiority, he keeps before our eyes, even after the errors have been sorted out in the play's final scene, how the materiality of character troubles self-presence.

This conclusion may seem hard to accept, particularly since it would appear that the audience has had a privileged, indeed the definitive, frame of reference throughout the play. Jonathan Crewe, for example, stresses "the existence of an omniscient perspective on the action, a perspective that the audience is allowed to share up to the final moments and that confers upon the audience a happy invulnerability to the 'errors' by which those onstage are plagued. Only within such a perspective is it possible to characterize as errors—that is to say, as wholly illusory—the predicaments of those onstage.16 This notion of an "omniscient perspective," which reduces onstage action to a kind of "pseudo-action"17 dispelled in the final scene, accounts for one way the play has been seen: as "sterile," our sympathy or identification with the characters blunted by our God's-eye view. The final frame of reference—the doubled twins—seems all the more "solid" because we as an audience have accepted it as authoritative from the first and the characters have come to share it with us in the end. But there is, I think, reason to believe that this perspective is more complicated than Crewe and others have suggested. This is particularly so if we turn our attention to the most obvious staging problem this play presents: the doubled twins. If we can believe William Drummond's report, Ben Jonson refused to stage Plautus' Amphitryo because "he could never find two so like others that he could persuade the spectators they were one."18 Even though we have no reason to believe that Jonson had Errors in mind when he made this observation,19 it does make clear, even if we allow for his notorious critical idiosyncrasies, the special demands this play makes upon its audience's capacity for suspended disbelief. These demands Shakespeare deliberately exacerbated with his decision to double the twins. He could not dodge the problem of verisimilitude by having his actors wear masks (as would have been the case in Roman comedy or commedia dell'arte). It is extremely unlikely that he would have had access to two pairs of twins.20 If the differences between the actors playing the twins were perceptible (and the relative intimacy of the Elizabethan stage almost assures that to be the case), then the problem of suspended disbelief, the gap between the visual evidence before us and the supposition we are encouraged to entertain about it, cannot help but constantly be before our eyes. And it is never more so than when the two sets of twins stand side by side at the play's end. As in the recent movie Twins, the obvious differences in appearance would be played for laughs, particularly when the Duke and Dromio continue to misrecognize the Antipholi or Dromio tells his brother "Methinks you are my glass."21 This discrepancy, certainly significant in a play about mistaken appearances, works to distantiate the "authoritative" perspective from which we view the play's action. Although Crewe is correct that we need that perspective in order to judge the errors as errors, we are not as "happily invulnerable" to perceptual error as might first appear. For our "authoritative" perspective itself depends upon a provisional theatrical illusion particularly visible as an illusion. It is an error whose erroneousness the audience is simultaneously encouraged to forget and to recall. The gap between what we see and what we take it to mean draws attention to our own necessary engagement in "supposes" (at a different level of theatricality) and to the aleatory possibilities within the visual logic of character. In Errors Shakespeare powerfully interrogates the materiality of character by pushing its logic to its limits. He leaves the characters and the audience in what Peter Berger has called "ecstasy," a state of standing outside oneself looking at one's own social reality, knowing it is real, but knowing also that one has created it.22 Certainly Errors is from first to last a "play of effects."23 But it would nevertheless be an error to think that the effect of such an entertainment, for an audience that notoriously went to the theater to be seen as much as to see, was not also disturbing and profound.


1 On conceptions of "crisis" in Renaissance culture, see Theodore K. Rabb's incisive summary in The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 1975), pp. 3-34.

2 There are important exceptions, however. Exemplary of the metaphysical line of inquiry are Kinney, and Glyn Austen, "Ephesus Restored: Sacramentalism and Redemption in The Comedy of Errors," Journal of Literature and Theology 1 (1987), 54-69.

3 See Joseph Candido's through and illuminating discussion of the importance of meals in defining Antipholus' identity as a respected citizen and respectful husband in "Dining Out in Ephesus: Food in The Comedy of Errors," Studies in English Literature 30 (1990), 217-41.

4 "Theme and Structure in The Comedy of Errors," in Early Shakespeare, Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies III (New York, 1961), pp. 58, 60.

5 Patricia Parker notes the linkage between Nell's "mountain of mad flesh" and the etymology of the term "farce," meaning "fattened, stuffed" (Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property [New York, 1987], p. 18).

6 The names of the two inns to which the Antipholi refer—the Centaur and the Phoenix—seem particularly meaningful in this context. Both are cases in which the creature's identity is indeterminate, the Centaur being visibly both man and beast, the Phoenix, because periodically reborn, being creatures both different and visibly the same. See Jonathan Crewe on "The Phoenix and the Turtle" in "God or the Good Physician: The Rational Playwright in The Comedy of Errors, " Genre 15 (1982), 211.

7The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston, 1974), p. 79.

8 I here follow Parker's discussion of this crux (pp. 78-80). In 1.1. Egeon tells us that despite the fact that the two sons "could not be distinguish'd but by names" (52), his wife was "more careful for the latter-born," himself "like heedful of the other." Egeon ends up marooned with "my youngest boy, and yet my eldest care"(124), "sever'd from my bliss" (118). His greater care for the elder son no doubt springs from the demands of primogeniture: the elder son is the father's heir and substitute, an image of his authority. Parker notes that the issue of elder and younger returns in the play's final lines.

9 See, for example, the discussion in Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (New York, 1980), p. 26, of this passage and its matching counterpart, Adriana's speech in 2.2.125-29: "Neither sees him or herself as clearly and distinctly autonomous. Neither possesses the detachment of the drop, and both, in consequence, fear oceanic engulfment." Nevo assumes here, somewhat anachronistically, I believe, that such autonomy is possible and normative within Elizabethan culture.

10 The linkage Foakes notes with the proverb "Gold by continual wearing wasteth" is potentially misleading, for the sense of the passage hinges on her paradoxical reversal of the adage: here the "wearing" clearly constitutes its beauty. See Gary Taylor, "Textual and Sexual Criticism: A Crux in The Comedy of Errors," Renaissance Drama 19 (1988), 195-225, for an extended discussion of this interpretive crux.

11 Adriana's fear of the "defeaturing" action of aging finds its counterpart not only in Egeon's speeches in 5.1. about "time's deformed hand" but also in Dromio and Antipholus of Syracuse's witty exchange in 2.2.63-107 over male baldness. That exchange turns on the fact that the link between a man's hairiness and his wit is haphazard. Adriana's mention of Antipholus' "sunny look" unmistakably and suggestively echoes Egeon's mention of the sun's gaze upon the obscured earth, a gaze that calms the seas and rescues his family at least momentarily from "unjust divorce."

12 Gamini Salgado, "'Time's Deformed Hand': Sequence, Consequence, and Inconsequence in The Comedy of Errors," Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972), 82.

13 See Salgado's discussion of time, as well as Eamon Grennon, "Arm and Sleeve: Nature and Custom in The Comedy of Errors," Philological Quarterly 59 (1980), 159-60. Chmactic scenes of characters talking past one another are a staple of Plautine comedies.

14 I see no need to emend the Folio reading "Nativitie" to "felicity," as Foakes does. As others have noted in defense of the Folio reading, the repetition and capitalization of "Nativitie" in the Folio and its placement in the mouth of the Abbess draws attention to its scriptural connotations.

15 See Kinney for a full discussion of the linkages between the liturgical texts for Holy Innocents' Day and the play (pp. 44-51).

16 Crewe, "God," p. 204. This conception of Errors allows Crewe to argue elsewhere for "a certain canonical logic" at work in Shakespeare's earliest comedies, namely the demonstration of "almost alarmingly ostentatious early mastery—and masterfulness" (Hidden Designs: The Critical Profession and Renaissance Literature [New York, 1986], p. 134).

17 Crewe, "God," p. 204.

18 Jonson, Works, I, 11. 420-23.

19 Nonetheless, the possibility cannot be wholly discounted, for Shakespeare's name came up long enough for Jonson to insist, famously, that "Shakespeare wanted arte."

20 For a superb discussion of the issues raised by Jonson's comment, see Anne Barton, Ben Jonson, Dramatist (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 29-31. Discussions of the play's staging problems rarely focus on this issue: see, for example, Foakes's extensive discussion of staging, pp. xxxiv-xxxix.

21 In Twins, when Arnold Schwarzenegger's character declares that he is Danny DeVito's twin brother, DeVito declares, "The moment I saw you, it was like I was lookin' in a mirror."

22 Peter L. Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanist Perspective (Garden City, 1963), pp. 136-38.

23 Kinney, p. 51, his emphasis.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5545

R. A. Foakes (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Comedy of Errors, revised edition, edited by R. A. Foakes, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1962, pp. xi-lv.

[In this excerpt, Foakes argues that the chaotic situations engineered by the plot of The Comedy of Errors expose an underlying instability of the characters' sense of identity.]

Shakespeare altered the tone of his immediate sources for the comedy, Menaechmi and Amphitruo, by introducing an element of romantic love in the jealousy of Adriana and in the passion of Antipholus of Syracuse for Luciana, and also by enclosing the comic plot within the story of the pathetic Egeon; he also enlarged and complicated the element of farce by giving the twin masters twin servants, so multiplying the possibilities of comic confusion. These two developments of source-material do not really tug in different directions, and Shakespeare had a larger purpose than merely to soften the harsh world of Plautine comedy, or exploit more fully the ancient comic device of mistaken identity. His modifications of the sources are used to develop a serious concern for the personal identity of each of the main characters, and for the relationships between them; and the jesting of the Dromios, and the "errors" or mistakes of the complicated action continually support this main development.1

So Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in Ephesus with a feeling that in searching for his mother and brother he has lost his identity, as if he will only find himself when he finds them:

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
(Unseen, inquisitive) confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.
                              (I. ii . 35-40)

Ephesus holds a shock for him, mistaking him for his twin, and fastens an identity on him, so that he is invited to dine with Adriana as her husband, and feels that he is

Known unto these, and to myself disguis'd.
                                       (II. ii. 214)

Here he seizes on the status of intimacy given to him in the household to make love to Luciana, and in her finds a new self, as he discovers a true passion for her. When he says,

              would you create me new?
Transform me then, and to your power I'll
                            (III. ii. 39-40)

he is already transformed through love, in the recognition that she is

         mine own self's better part,
Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer
                                     (III. ii. 61-2)

Luciana thinks he is her brother-in-law gone mad, and, in the face of her inability to recognize him for what he is, he finally claims, "I am thee" (III. ii. 66).

Even as Antipholus of Syracuse discovers a new self, he is also bewildered by the assumptions of the people he meets, including Luciana, that they know him, that he is another person. Meanwhile, his brother, Antipholus of Ephesus, a more strongly determined character, more certain of himself, is angered when his wife refuses to acknowledge his identity; and Adriana, by nature jealous of him, and misled by his twin's attempt to woo Luciana, comes to think the worst of her husband, until she is ready to transform him in her mind2 :

He is deformed, crooked, old and sere,
Ill-fac'd, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere;
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind,
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind.
                            (IV. ii. 19-22)

It is but a step from this for her to treat him as if he were mad or possessed, make him endure the ministrations of Doctor Pinch, and have him locked away in a dark cellar.

The serious force of the presentation of the Antipholus twins is paralleled by a more comic treatment of their servants. Each is puzzled at being mistaken for the other, and each comes to feel that he is being transformed—but into an ass, rather than another person. So Dromio of Ephesus suffers like an ass from the blows of his master (III. i. 18), and, finding that another has assumed his office and identity as servant in Adriana's household, and that for his service he is rewarded with still more blows as his master grows angrier, he resigns himself to his topsy-turvy world with a humorous acceptance of it:

Eph. Ant. Thou art sensible in nothing but blows, and so is an ass.

Eph. Dro. I am an ass indeed; you may prove it by my long ears. I have served him from the hour of my nativity to this instant, and have nothing at his hands for my service but blows …

(IV. iv. 25-30)

At the same time, Dromio of Syracuse shares something of his master's sense of being subjected to witch-craft, and when Luciana, whom he has never seen before, addresses him by name, he speaks as if he has been "transformed":

Syr. Dro. I am transformed, master, am I not?
Syr. Ant. I think thou art in mind, and so am
Syr. Dro. Nay, master, both in mind and in
  my shape.
Syr. Ant. Thou hast thine own form.
Syr. Dro. No, I am an ape.
Luc. If thou art chang'd to aught, 'tis to an
Syr. Dro. 'Tis true, she rides me, and I long
  for grass;
'Tis so, I am an ass.…
                                              (II. ii. 195-201)

His sense of change or loss of identity is confirmed when the kitchen-maid Nell treats him as her man, and he bursts out, 'I am an ass, I am a woman's man, and besides myself (IH. ii. 76). Each Dromio applies the term 'ass' in relation to the beatings he is made to suffer, and to the way he is made to seem a fool; but the idea of being made a beast operates more generally in the play, reflecting the process of passion overcoming reason, as an animal rage, fear, or spite seizes on each of the main characters.3

For the sense of loss or change of identity in these figures goes together with a disruption of family, personal, and social relationships. Antipholus of Syracuse loses himself in the search for his mother and brother, but is hailed by all in Ephesus as if they knew him well; even as he thinks he is subject to "imaginary wiles" (IV. iii. 10), he is, unwittingly, causing a rift in the marriage of Adriana and his brother, and stirring discord between Antipholus of Ephesus and, on the one hand Angelo the goldsmith, on the other hand the Courtesan, over the matter of the chain. In the confusion which follows upon his dining with Adriana, the new self he had found in his passion for Luciana is frustrated; confirmed in his belief that he wanders in "illusions" (IV. iii. 41), he comes on at the end of Act IV, sword in hand, to drive her and Adriana off as 'witches'. At the same time, Antipholus of Ephesus, denied entry to his own house, comes to believe that he is the victim of a plot, and that his wife is a "strumpet" (IV. iv. 122). In addition, the normal relationship of master and servant is broken as each Antipholus meets the other's Dromio, and then beats his own servant for failing to carry out orders given to someone else. The normal intercourse of the city in its friendly, commercial relationships is also disturbed, to the extent that the Second Merchant, believing himself wronged, puts both Angelo and Antipholus under arrest, and the long-standing trust between these two is destroyed. The confusions of identity, involving for Antipholus of Syracuse and the two Dromios a sense especially of loss or transformation, and for Antipholus of Ephesus a need defiantly to assert his identity in a world that seems to go mad, thus lead to a breakdown of the social order through the frustration of normal relationships. Quarrels and arrests follow; Antipholus of Ephesus is bound and locked up; Doctor Pinch is harshly treated, and suffers the painful loss of a beard; the Dromios are mercilessly beaten4 ; and Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio usurp the office of the law when they rush in with 'naked swords'.

The growth of this disorder is reflected in two other strands in language and action which reinforce the serious undertones of the comedy. One is the establishment of Ephesus as a place associated with witchcraft. Antipholus of Syracuse arrives there with a prejudice about the city5 :

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.
                            (I. ii. 97-102)

As he becomes involved with the Merchant, Adriana, Luciana, and the Courtesan, so his belief that the city is a nest of sorcerers grows stronger. He wonders if his love for Luciana results from bewitchment, and calls her "mermaid" and "siren" (III. ii. 45, 47); soon he is ready to think "There's none but witches do inhabit here" (III. ii. 155), or "Lapland sorcerers" (IV. iii. 11); he comes to regard the Courtesan as a "fiend" and a "sorceress" (IV. iii. 63, 64), and finally achieves a state of mind so distraught that he feels safe only with a sword in his hand, and, pursued by Adriana's men, takes refuge in the priory. The prejudice which he has on reaching Ephesus provides a ready explanation for all the strange things that happen to him, and becomes a settled conviction; he is more and more disabled from distinguishing between what is real and what is not, until the whole city seems to him to be in the grip of an evil power:

This fellow is distract, and so am I,
And here we wander in illusions—
Some blessed power deliver us from hence!
                            (IV. iii. 40-2)

Antipholus of Ephesus, by contrast, regards himself as alone sane in a world gone mad. He is given some force of character, and a tendency to violence,6 so that when he is shut out of his own house, he is driven to bewilderment and to passionate exclamation; though calmed for a moment by Balthasar, he thinks of punishing his wife by going at once to the Courtesan's, and by bestowing a "rope's end" (IV. i. 16), i.e. a whipping, upon Adriana and her "confederates." He invents an explanation of her treatment of him with this word; he decides he is the victim of a conspiracy. This private interpretation of his experience is confirmed for him when he is arrested in error, meets Dromio of Syracuse at cross-purposes, in his anger is himself regarded as mad, bewitched, or possessed, and is at last imprisoned in a "dark and dankish vault."

The confusions of identity and consequent disruptions of normal relationships force the characters to judge events according to their own private ordering of experience, as Adriana, too, is ready, at the suggestion of the Courtesan, to think her husband mad, and treat him as a dangerous lunatic. Out of the clashes of these private worlds of experience emerges another strand in language and action which is of some importance, a sense of evil at work in Ephesus. Dromio of Syracuse jests about the Officer who arrests Antipholus of Ephesus, calling him a devil,

One that, before the judgment, carries poor
  souls to hell;
                                   (IV. ii. 40)

he is quibbling on the last judgment, and on a common term for prison,7 but his jest, as is characteristic of the word-play of the Dromios, quickly becomes earnest when he meets his own master in the next scene.8 For Antipholus of Syracuse really thinks of the Courtesan as a "fiend," and uses to her Christ's words, "Satan, avoid," spoken in rejection of the devil's temptations in the wilderness9 ; and if the Officer was a "devil in an everlasting garment" to Dromio, the Courtesan now becomes "the devil's dam." A little later, Adriana puts her husband, as a man possessed by the "fiend," into the hands of an exorcist, who chants,

I charge thee, Satan, hous'd within this man,
To yield possession to my holy prayers.
                            (IV. iv. 52-3)

These hints of the devil at work mark a stage in the play when the appearance of normal order breaks down, and the action erupts into violence, as one Antipholus is bound, and the other rushes in to attack a group he believes are 'witches'—a group that includes the Officer of the law.

In Act V the scene transfers to the Priory, which is the setting for the resolution of all difficulties, and which lends a faintly holy and redeeming colour to the end of the play. Here the enveloping action concerning Egeon is resumed. His hopeless condition, stranded friendless in a hostile city where the law condemned him to death, had been presented in a simple and dignified way in the opening scene. The Duke, representative of justice, had listened to the tale of his long search for his family, and had given him a day in which to seek, vainly as we see, for money to pay a ransom that would save him from execution. The end of the day comes just when one Antipholus lies bound as a madman, and the other has taken refuge in the Priory. At this point (V. i. 129), a solemn procession enters, headed by the Duke, and bringing on Egeon, bound, guarded, and accompanied by the executioner. Adriana, who is anxiously trying to persuade the Abbess to release the man she thinks to be her husband, stops the Duke to beg for "Justice, most sacred Duke, against the Abbess," and, shortly afterwards, Antipholus of Ephesus arrives to cry, "Justice, most gracious Duke, O, grant me justice," this time against Adriana. Each clamours for an idea of justice based on a private ordering of experience, and the conflicting evidence of witnesses and supporters sets a problem too difficult for the law to solve; the Duke cries,

Why, what an intricate impeach is this?
I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup.
                               (V. i. 270-1)

His words nicely suggest the kind and degree of transformation that has taken place in the citizens of Ephesus; they are behaving madly, and there is no order or coherence in what they allege against one another.

To make matters worse, Egeon seizes the opportunity to appeal for help to the son he sees before him, but Antipholus of Ephesus does not know him. The law cannot deal with this situation, and it is time for the Abbess to reappear, with the second Antipholus; the twins are brought face to face for the first time, Adriana's mistake is revealed, and Egeon is saved as the Abbess turns out to be his long-lost wife Emilia. It is as if, through her intervention, the harsh justice embodied in the Duke is tempered by a Christian grace and mercy. Bitterness gives way to harmony, a harmony celebrated in a feast that marks a new beginning, a new life, a baptismal feast, from which Antipholus of Ephesus will not be excluded. Here the characters recover or discover their real identity, order is restored, and the two pairs of twins follow the others off stage, the masters embracing, the servants hand in hand. Violence is replaced by mildness and love, and the sense of witchcraft, evil, and Circean transformation is dispelled.


1 See in the commentary the notes to I. ii. 40, II. ii. 142, III. ii. 45-66, 76, 161-6, IV. iii. 40-2, and V. i. 405.

2 Adriana and her husband are alike in their proneness to anger, their "impatience," or lack of "patience," words used in relation to them several times; see II. i. 9ff., III. i. 85, IV. ii. 16, IV. iv. 18-19, 78-99 and notes.

3 The process is summed up in the Duke's cry as he is faced with conflicting claims at the end, "I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup"; see below, p. xlviii, and see also The same kind of process is at work in the transformation of the sergeant into a devil in Dromio's mind (IV. ii), and of the Courtesan into a fiend in the mind of Antipholus of Syracuse (IV. iii).

4 It is true that Dromio of Ephesus says of his master, 'I have served him from the hour of my nativity to this instant, and have nothing at his hands for my service but blows' (IV. iv. 28-30), and both servants cheerfully expect beatings as part of their lot; at the same time, the anger of Antipholus of Ephesus is abnormal, and it is the sight of him beating Dromio in this scene that confirms Adriana in her belief that her husband is mad: 'His incivility confirms no less' (IV. iv. 44).

5 See above, p. xxix; Shakespeare deliberately set the scene of his play in Ephesus because of the city's biblical associations with sorcery. Menaechmi has its setting in Epidamnum.

6 As Erma Gill noted, 'A Comparison of the Characters in The Comedy of Errors with those in the Menaechmi', pp. 79ff., Shakespeare transferred this tendency to violence from the traveller brother in Menaechmi to the citizen Antipholus.

7 See note to this line.

8 Compare the jokes on mistiming (I. ii. 41ff., II. ii. 54ff.), which turn out to have a bearing on the disorder later in the play (see II. ii. 54-109 and n.; IV. i. 41-80 and n.), and the way in which Dromio of Syracuse both parodies and reinforces his master's prejudices in his account of the kitchen-wench, Nell (HI. ii. 143 and n.).

9Mathew, iv. 10 (Geneva version).

John P. Cutts (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors," in The Shattered Glass: A Dramatic Pattern in Shakespeare's Early Plays, Wayne State University Press, 1968, pp. 13-21.

[In this excerpt, Cutts maintains that the plot of The Comedy of Errors hinges on the characters' failure to see beyond appearances, showing that they neither know themselves nor understand others.]

The lasting interest of The Comedy of Errors, I suggest, lies in the inability of its dramatis personae to see beyond the mirror of identical twins, to see any further than outward semblances. Master and servant, husband and wife, tradesman and client know no more about each other than what mistakenly they see in a glass, nor do they realize they are seeing darkly. We may, of course, suggest that the characters are stock classical and / or commedia dell'arte representations, but whether we agree with this, there are good reasons for suggesting that the Dromios, the nearest counterparts to the classical and commedia forbears, are intrinsic to The Comedy of Errors not because they are characters, but because they make us see double: they make us see the problems at least twice over, and are indeed quite natural consequences of not seeing right the first time. The comedy of mistaken identity, brilliantly handled though it is with Shakespeare doubling the twins and manipulating far more skilfully than Lyly in Mother Bombie, is not just Shakespeare rehandling Plautine and Lylyan material and demonstrating how much better he can do the job than either of these dramatists. He is finding his way toward something that can be inimitably his own, not just in adaptation, but in the very framework and structure itself.

When the mistaken identities are cleared up there is little to suggest that any of the characters considers his "seeing" was at fault, though the nearest implication is that Adriana's shrewishness blinded her. The overall impression of the play is that man is bewitched, that uncanny powers are awake manipulating him. That the play is brilliant in this puppetry sense is glaringly patent; what is by no means so obvious is why man allows himself to be a puppet. And here the significance of the tragic note of Aegeon is indispensable when we consider that this failure to see right is not just a laughing matter but fraught with tragic propensities both for the unseers and for those within the immediate "unseeing" focus; that man's unseeing actions have repercussions far beyond his wildest dreams and fears. With Antipholus of Syracuse we ask, "was I married to her in my dream? / Or sleep I now and think I hear all this? / What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?" (II.ii. 184-86).

How comes it that man "Smoth'red in errors, feeble, shallow, weak" (III.ii.35), estranged from his "dear self's better part" (II.ii. 125), "transformed" both "in mind and in … shape" (II.ii.199) makes such a complete ass of himself? He is apparently "Known unto [others], and to [him] self disguis'd" (II.ii.216), because he has not taken anything like a good look at himself yet, though Antipholus of Syracuse's witty rejoinder to the first merchant's commending him to his own content, "He that commends me to mine own content / Commends me to the thing I cannot get" (I.ii.33-34) has possible introspective overtones, however momentary. Man in The Comedy of [human] Errors is easily "lost," "perplexed" and "bewitched," played upon by external forces not necessarily puckish. For the most part he does not yet know whether the gods are just or no, or whether he should even know to ask the question.

With Antipholus of Syracuse we are sufficiently puzzled by the play's situations to ask "What error drives [men's] eyes and ears amiss?" (II.ii. 186), but we are in a better position than he to estimate why he "entertain[s] the [offer'd] fallacy" (II.ii. 188) in the hope of finding out more about "this sure uncertainty" (II.ii. 187).

On one level it is obviously sheerly ludicrous that he should be greeted by Adriana, whom he has never in his life seen before, as husband, and chided for not giving her the assurance of the chain of fair marriage "quarter with his bed" (II.i.108). On another it is exceedingly appropriate that this marriage estrangement should reflect his own sense of loss "like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop" (I.ii.35-36). Adriana forcibly reminds him of the binding quality of the chain to her which to break is as difficult as to retrieve a "drop of water in the breaking gulf unmingled and "[w]ithout addition or diminishing" (II.ii.128,130). Antipholus of Syracuse nominally in search of "a mother and a brother" (I.ii.39) does run the enormous risk of losing himself in the breaking gulf, of foundering his ship, Aegeon-wise, on the "mighty rock" of inquisitive unseeing (I.ii.38), because he hardly knows what he is looking for or "if that [he is he]" (IH.ii.41).

His coming to Ephesus in one sense reflects his growing concern with the discontent which is himself, and in another his escape from self—his decision to "wander up and down" to weary his identity with restless motion and "in this mist at all adventures go" (II.ii.218). Not until his self is symbolically returned to him in the "glass" (V.i.417) of his image at the very end of the play is the dream texture of his existence shattered into something like reality, and he is in amity with his identity, but ironically he hardly knows how to accept it as reality since his happiness of discovery is concerned with Luciana, who would never have appeared to him if error had not driven his "eyes and ears amiss."

He literally recovers a mother, father and brother, and gains a wife as the play's comedy of errors rectifies its situational self, but the real significance is that he has found a rounded out complete family identity, and in a way that is "past thought of human reason" (V.i.189), not by "Fixing [his] eyes on whom [his] care was fix'd" (I.i.85), but by losing himself "confound[ing] himself (I.ii.38), in the serio-comic "stories of [his] own mishaps" (I.i. 121).

It is a careful ironic stroke of juxtaposition to have his father under sentence of death exclaim at the very end of the first scene "Hopeless and helpless doth Aegeon wend" and then to have Antipholus enter immediately afterward, running the very same risk as his father—"if any Syracusian born / Come to the bay of Ephesus, he dies.… Unless a thousand marks be levied, / To quit the penalty and to ransom him" (I.i. 18-20; 22-23), but with the "sure uncertainty" of his potential redemption money entrusted to a servant part of himself which he has not yet learnt to recognize, his Dromio, except to lighten his humor with his merry jests, and to be anchored at the Centaur where he can succumb to the lower part of his nature. It is only because either the presiding gods of the comedy of errors are benevolent or because stumbling man by rare accident somehow saves himself by stumbling that Antipholus's "Sleeping or waking? Mad or well-advis'd?" (II.ii.215) involvement in the banquet at Adriana's house does not transform him into the bestial victim of "Circe's cup" (V.i.270).

It is not merely coincidental that the dramatist has him describe Adriana's sister, Luciana, as a "siren" (III.ii.47) trying to drown him in her "sister's flood of tears" (III.ii.46), and call for her to "Transform [him] then" (III.ii.40) by singing for herself and by unfolding the meaning of her "words' deceit" (III.ii.36) to his "earthy, gross conceit" (III.ii.34). By this means he hopes to maintain his "soul's pure truth" (III.ii.37), for she is his own "self's better part" (III.ii.61), and yet the workaday rude mechanical servant part of himself, Syracusian Dromio, who has likewise been involved with a "very beastly creature, lay[ing] claim to [him]" (III.ii.88-89) mocks his involvement by reducing it to a consideration of physical geography, centaurishly bawdy at one level—"In what part of her body stands Ireland … Scotland … France" etc. (III.ii.118,122,125,etc.) and mentally assertive at another as Dromio flees from a Circean witch who would have "transform'd [him] to a curtal dog" (III.ii. 151), and "almost made [him] traitor to [him] self … and guilty to self-wrong" (III.ii. 167-68).

What irony it is that the putative Circean banquet takes place in the Phoenix, conducive to the regenerative image of the married calm of love. Antipholus of Syracuse anchors himself temporarily at the Centaur, financially and incognitoishly secure as he thinks, and flees from recognition where he imagines "every one knows [him] and [he] know[s] none" (III.ii. 157) at the Phoenix. He mistakes the Centaur for the Phoenix and the Phoenix for the Centaur. What error drives his eyes and ears amiss.

His case is both closely paralleled and carefully complemented by his Ephesian self. Antipholus of Ephesus is escaping from his identity too. This is the pointed irony of his being faced with his own rude mechanical servant self, Ephesian Dromio, who charges that he "did deny [his] wife and house" (III.i.9). The humor of the error of Ephesian Dromio mistaking Syracusian Antipholus for his master obviously carries the moment in the comedy of errors, but the underlying reflection may be much more important. Ephesian Antipholus's "own handwriting would tell" (III.i.14) on the parchment of his own skin (III.i.13) what his servant sense would tell him if he knew how to recognize it. The metaphorical beating he gives this servant sense is a vain attempt to ignore its lesson.

The very first introduction of Antipholus of Ephesus in the play shows him trying to create the image of a displaced Antipholus, shut out from his house and from his marital bed by a shrewish wife. The jeweled necklace of a chain which he is commissioning at the goldsmith's, Angelo's, is ironically to afford him both an excuse for not having been at home—"Say that I linger'd with you at your shop" (III.i.3), and much more significantly a decoy of a "fair presence" (III.ii. 13)—vice appareled "like virtue's harbinger" (III.ii. 12), but its most serious significance lies in the fact that it is the symbol of the marriage chain he is trying to run away from and of the "unlawful love" (V.i.51) that he is running to link himself with.

But his unseduced servant self (Syracusian Dromio now within the Phoenix) belies him by asking, "Dost thou conjure for wenches, that thou calls't for such store / When one is one too many?" (III.i.34-35). It is exactly fitting that he should be literally shut out from the house and bed that he has obviously been neglecting. Adriana's fears that her husband's "company must do his minions grace, / Whilst [she] at home starve[s] for a merry look" (II.i.87-88) is hardly to be dismissed by her sister Luciana's charge that she is suffering from "Self-harming jealousy" (II.i. 102), when so soon afterwards Luciana can plead with her brother-in-law to "if [he] like elsewhere, do it by stealth" (III.ii.7).

There is no doubt that Antipholus of Ephesus is attempting to escape from the chain of marriage. This is the force of his remark to Angelo for not having brought him the jeweled chain—"Belike you thought our love would last too long / If it were chain'd together, and therefore came not" (IV.i.25-26), and this the powerful significance of his not having "the present money" (IV.i.34) to pay for the chain and being arrested at Angelo's suit for denying receipt of the chain. It is doubly fitting that he thinks he has sent his servant self (Syracusian Dromio) home for money to buy off the arrest, and then is faced instead with the "rope's end" of his basic servant self (Ephesian Dromio). The rope's end had been ostensibly commissioned to "bestow / Among [his] wife and [her] confederates / For locking [him] out of [his] doors by day" (IV.i.16-18), but Antipholus of Ephesus ends up beating his basic servant self.

The comedy, of course, is close to slapstick, master beating servant misunderstanding and misunderstood, but on a more solid level it points to the technique of punishing oneself at one remove, projecting one's guilt on the "obvious" target, until the "living dead" (V.i.241) pinch comes—the need to be "bound and laid in some dark room" (IV.iv.97) to "pluck out these false eyes" (IV.iv.107), not of the "Dissembling harlot" (IV.iv.104) of his wife's eyes, as he fondly imagines, but of his own, if only he could understand, for "his eye / Stray'd his affection in unlawful love" (V.i.50-51).

What irony it is that Antipholus of Syracuse has to gain his temporary freedom by "gnawing with [his] teeth [his] bonds in sunder" (V.i.249), and must attempt to gain his real freedom by appealing to the Duke on the grounds of erstwhile valiant military service when he "bestrid [him] in the wars, and took / Deep scars to save [his] life" (V.i. 192-93) as if past service had anything to do with present misconduct. He is metaphorically fighting for his life as much as his father Aegeon, whom he now meets most appropriately for the first time in his life, and, of course, does not know how to recognize. His nonrecognition makes him a metamorphosed equivalent of one who has "drunk of Circe's cup" (V.i.270) and has become "mated or stark mad" (V.i.281).

"Hopeless and helpless" (I.i.158) Aegeon, Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse all wend, but fortunately their paths converge on the Abbey where the human solution to all their difficulties is to be found in Aemilia, who has "gone in travail" (V.i.400) of her own particular variety for thirty-three years, and has not been delivered of her identityless burden until now. Ironically Luciana accuses the Abbess of conduct ill beseeming her holiness by "separat[ing] the husband and the wife" (V.i. 111), when in point of fact she herself was culpable in listening to the believed husband transferring his attention from Adriana to herself. And ironically, too, the Abbess is overhasty and unseeing in pronouncing judgment on Adriana "betray[ing] [her] to [her] own reproof (V.i.90) of scaring her "husband from the use of wits" (V.i.86) by her "jealous fits" (V.i.85).

All of them, Aemilia, Adriana, Luciana, Aegeon, Antipholus of Syracuse, Antipholus of Ephesus, and the two Dromios need to "go hand in hand, not one before another" (V.i.425), so that their image in the "glass" (V.i.417) is "chained" beside them, forced on their recognition, not comfortably allowed to face them in a medium which seems to relieve them of any real necessity of looking.

The characters in The Comedy of Errors are fundamentally incapable of seeing beyond the outward appearances which serve to complicate and confuse the management of their affairs. Although dimly aware of a need for identity and a need to face their problems on a deeper level than the one of mere external manifestation, they lack the power to pursue this need for they are, after all, little more than puppets at the mercy of a master manipulator. The real dramatic significance of their presentation, however, lies in the fact that each is presented with the adumbrations of a solution to his problem in the existence of his alter ego, and his inability to profit thereby is the result of powers as yet unrecognized, which blind him to the importance of the image in the glass.

Gender Issues

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11425

T. W. Baldwin (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Three Homilies in The Comedy of Errors," in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, edited by Richard Hosley, University of Missouri Press, 1962, pp. 137-47.

[In this essay, Baldwin discusses three speeches concerning the different moral standards applied to men and women in The Comedy of Errors.]

1. Luciana's Homily on the 'Subjection' of the Wife's 'Stubborn Will,' 2.1.7-25

In The Comedy of Errors, Luciana is trying to impress upon her impatient sister the Christian duty of a wife, as stated typically in "An Homelie of the state of Matrimonie": wives "relinquish the lybertie of their owne rule" (Certayn Sermons or Homilies, ed. 1587, sig. 2G7). Luciana had said, "A man is Master of his libertie" (2.1.7). This Adriana resents: "Why should their libertie then ours be more?" (10).

Luciana. Oh, know he is the bridle of your
Adriana. There's none but asses will be
  bridled so.
Luciana. Why, headstrong liberty is lasht with

This dialogue is partly in terms of Proverbs, 26.3 (Bishops' Bible, 1573): "Vnto the horse belongeth a whip, to the asse a bridle: and a rod to the fooles backe." The "headstrong liberty" of the ass gets not only the proverbial bridle for its "will" but is also "lasht with woe," as the horse is with a whip and the fool's back with a rod.1 But the dialogue is also partly in terms of "An Homelie of the state of Matrimonie," which warns the wife against 'stubborn will': "That wicked vice of stubburne wyll and selfe-loue, is more meet to breake & to disseuer the loue of the heart, than to preserue concord" (Homilies, sig. 2G4v). Thus Shakespeare reproduces the 'official' position of the Homilies on the wife's will, combining it with the figure of the stubborn ass from Proverbs.

This prologue on the "headstrong liberty" of "will" introduces a homily on 'subjection' in an ordered Christian world. Noble (p. 107) quotes the Bishops' Bible (the Geneva Bible does not have "subjection"): "Psalms, 8.6-8: 'Thou makest him to have dominion of the works of thy hands: and thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet; All sheep and oxen: yea and the beasts of the field; The fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea: and whatsoever walketh through the paths of the seas.' See also

This biblical triplicity, "the beasts of the field; The fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea," becomes the rhetorical framework for Luciana's homily on 'subjection' :

There's nothing situate vnder heauens eye,
But hath his bound in earth, in sea, in skie.

The corresponding animate creatures in these three divisions are "The beasts, the fishes, and the winged fowles" (18). All these "Are their males subiects, and at their controules" (19). Similarly for man:

Man more diuine, the Master of all these,
Lord of the wide world, and wilde watry seas.

Here, to care for the triplicity, the "wide world" has to serve for the "winged fowles" (which are land-based) as well as for the "beasts." Then the reason for man's mastery is given: he is

Indued with intellectuall sence and soules,
Of more preheminence then fish and fowles, …

According to the basic passage that is being echoed, "thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet." Here is the "subjection" (not in Geneva) of all things to man, under his "rule." But the word 'preheminence,' as Noble points out, is from the Bishops' Bible, Ecclesiastes, 3.19: "For it happeneth vnto menne as it doth vnto beastes, euen one condition vnto them both: as the one dyeth, so dyeth the other: yea, they haue both one manner of breath: so that in this, a man hath no preeminence aboue a beast, but are al subdued vnto vanitie." The gloss is also reflected: "There is no difference betwixt a man and a beast, as touchyng the body, which of them both dyeth: but the soule of man lyueth immortally, and the body of man riseth vp agayne by the mighty power of the spirite of God." In his body, man has no "preeminence" over the beasts; the "preeminence" is in "the soule of man," because men are "Indued with intellectuall sence and soules." While the beast is not specifically mentioned here, nevertheless he is the basic member of the triplicity. The Geneva gloss plays down man's distinctive "reason, & iudgement" as ineffectual, as opposed to faith. While Shakespeare also refers to this difference of "intellectuall sence," he does so with a much different emphasis.

Shakespeare's phrase belongs to the psychological jargon of his time, being in terms of the three souls or parts of the soul, "vegetative, sensible or sensitive, rational or reasonable" (OED): "1398 Trevisa Barth., De P. R., 3.7 (1495), 53. In dyuers bodyes ben thre manere soules: vegetabilis, that yeuyth lyfe and noo felinge, as in plantes and rootes; Sensibilis, that yeuyth lyfe and felynge and not reason in vnskylfull beestes; Racionalis, that yeuyth lyf, felyng and reason in men.… 1531 Elyot, Gov., 3.24. The thirde parte of the soule is named the parte intellectuall or of understandynge." By virtue of the "intellectuall sence," the third of his souls, man is above all other creatures. So God has given him "preeminence" over them. The natural conclusion to this syllogism of analogy is that men also "Are masters to their females, and their Lords" (24). Shakespeare is here "varying" the current phrase of lord and master—"called their husbandes Lordes," says the homily. And so the necessary conclusion of the whole is: "Then let your will attend on their accords" (25). The Christian code does not tolerate for a wife "headstrong liberty" of "will." The statement of the Bishops' Bible is typical: "But as the Churche is subiecte vnto Christe, likewise the wiues to their owne husbandes in al thinges" (Ephesians, 5.24; cf. 1 Peter, 3.1, Colossions, 3.18, etc.). While the theme of the 'subjection' of all to Christ is actually from the Bible, yet Luciana deduces it from the order of nature "vnder heauens eye," as given in the Bible, with all things under Heaven in subjection to man as the pre-eminent being in the lower hierarchy.

2. Adriana's First Homily on Adultery, 2.1.104-15

Twin homilies on adultery by Adriana have caused trouble in posing the major textual cruces of the play. In the first (2.1.104-15), she looks at the case of the adulterer and his "name" from the point of view of the effect upon the adulterer himself; in the second (2.2.132-48), from the point of view of the effect upon the innocent wife and, through her, of the reflected effect upon the husband also.

The "matter" and the technical phraseology of Adriana's speeches come from the official homilies of the day, where "The second part of the Sermon against adultery" laments "what corruption commeth to mans soule thorough the sinne of adultery" (Homilies, sig. K6), and asks "Is not that treasure, which before all other is most regarded of honest persons, the good fame & name of man and woman, lost through whordome? … Come not the french-pocks, with diuers other diseases, of whoredome?" (sigs. K8-8v). Adriana expresses her fear to Luciana that her husband, because of his association with "minions" (2.1.87), will not "keepe faire quarter with his bed" (108); and she states her commonplace in aphoristic style worthy of grammar-school Cato himself: "… no man that hath a name, By falshood and corruption doth it shame" (112-13). The passage immediately in question runs as follows:

I see the Iewell best enamaled
Will loose his beautie: yet the gold bides still
That others touch, and often touching will,
Where gold and no man that hath a name,
By falshood and corruption doth it shame: …

Here we have the "good fame & name" of the homily, which will suffer "corruption," as indeed will even the soul itself, by whoredom, as is there stated repeatedly. In the homily, this "treasure" of "good fame & name" cannot be lost without defrauding Christ, who "hath bought vs from the seruitude of the diuell, not with corruptible golde and siluer, but with his most pretious & deare heart bloud" (Homilies, sig. K7). This phrase "golde and siluer" appeared prominently also in the original marriage ceremony (1549), along with "Iewels of golde." The wide use of "golde and siluer," "treasure," "Iewels," and so on, in Biblical and liturgical language aided in turn the promised chain in bringing on the figure of the corruptible jewel of enamel and gold, in which Adriana obscures her first homily. This gnomic commonplace, clinched with rhyme in a conventional form, is thus correctly stated, and its meaning is clear: No man of name (fame, reputation, honor)2 should shame it with the falsehood of "company," as the husband is doing, which will occasion the corruption of whoredom, as the wife fears. The various suggested emendations of this aphorism, beginning with Theobald's (1733) of "By" to "But" (accepted by Malone, 1790), are certainly wrong.

It must be remembered that Adriana's complete simile grows out of a stated situation. She says of her husband that

His company must do his minions grace,
Whil'st I at home starne for a merrie looke.…
I know his eye doth homage other-where.…
                                   (87-8, 104)

He has promised her a chain:

Would that alone, a loue he would detaine,
So he would keepe faire quarter with his
  bed: …

This promised chain then introduces the figure of "the Iewell best enamaled" (109), to rhyme with "bed." The falsehood to his marriage vow of company with, and eye-homage to, minions may be tolerated, if only the husband does not proceed to the actual corruption of whoredom. To achieve the comparison between the external of "company," involving the "homage" of the eye to "minions," contrasted with the fundamental of the marriage "bed," the subject of the simile is complicated from the usual gold of good name into a jewel of enamel and gold (109-10), a characteristic figure (see note 2). Stated directly instead of obliquely, the resultant simile becomes: touching will tarnish the beautifying enamel of a jewel, even if it does not affect its gold, "and" falsehood and corruption will shame a name (without reservation). The two parts of the simile are joined, not by "as … so," but by the conjunctive "and" (111), which is thus in rendition rhythmically emphatic (as is "man," which is the 'word' of the commonplace, and the contrast with "jewel"). Theobald emended line 112 by suggesting "so" to follow this conjunctive "and" ("and so no man"), in order to amend the meter. However, so far as the technical structure of the simile is concerned, such a "so" is wholly redundant. Logically, it could be used in the sense of 'consequently'; but it is not in the text, and there is nothing about the text itself to suggest that it should be there. The suggestion is a redundant addition by way of wrongly inferred improvement.

As to the alleged metrical irregularity of line 112, Malone objected to inserting either Theobald's "so" or Steevens's "though," since "Wear" or "Where" is "used as a dissyllable," a judgment that elicited from Chedworth (1805, p. 47) the pontifically damnatory pronouncement, "some commentators seem to have no ear." But even if a syllable should be missing, the technical structure clears the sense. A modern reader needs only suitable punctuation between "gold" and "and" (111) to set off the two halves of the simile. Failure to recognize this technical structure has been the cause of all our woe.

The "touching" here is stated as by "company" and by "homage" of the eye paid to "minions" (who occupy the place of the professional loose women of the Menaechmi, and get localized as the suspected Courtesan). This touching will spoil the beauty of the enamel, even if it does not affect the gold. Similarly, "falshood and corruption" tarnish a name (113). The husband is guilty of "falshood" in company and eye already, and the wife hopes only that he will not proceed to the "corruption" of whoredom against his "bed." For, as the homily warns, whoredom will not merely shame the name, the beautifying enamel; it will corrupt even the soul itself, the very gold of one's being. So in the conclusion no reservation is made for gold, such as had been made in the premise. The corruption of whoredom will be absolute.

The conjunctive "and" of line 112 is certainly correct, joining the two parts of the simile. This, as we have seen, in turn clears the conclusion of the simile. Most of the premise also falls naturally into place:

I see the Iewell best enamaled
Will loose his beautie: yet the gold bides still
That others touch, …

The difficulty is in the immediately following lines:

                     … and often touching will,
Where gold and no man that hath a name,
By falshood and corruption doth it shame: …

As the text stands, "will" must be completed grammatically by the next precedent verb, "bides." In that case, "often touching" becomes the object, and the statement becomes, "gold will bide often touching." Then "Where gold" becomes the condition—"if it really is gold." The comma following "will" is in keeping with this interpretation, whereas if "often touching" is taken as the subject, and "Where" is replaced by "Wear," then the line should run on, without a comma, as does the preceding line, with which it rhymes. Theobald's suggested "Wear" (after Warburton) reverses the grammatical structure, which is bolstered by the punctuation.

Spence (1894) retained the folio reading "Where" but did not elucidate it or fit it into his freehand interpretation. Cuningham (1907) followed Theobald in reading "Wear gold; and so no man," and devoted an appendix to explanation of "this somewhat vexed and difficult passage." Apparently independently of Spence, J. Dover Wilson (1922) objected vigorously to Theobald's "Wear." "Theobald reads "wear" for "where," and all mod. edd. follow, ignoring the fact that "touching will wear gold" flatly contradicts 'the gold bides still that others touch.' "Dover Wilson prints "Where," though he obelizes the line and, postulating a cut of two or more rhyming lines, suggests that "the line is hopelessly corrupt." Analyzing the figure a few years later (1927), I argued that "Where" is the correct word, a judgment which our fuller knowledge of the genetics of the figure now justifies. Kittredge (1936) read "Wear" for "Where" (112) and "But" for "By" (113). Hardin Craig (1951) accepts Theobald's "Wear" but obelizes the reading. Peter Alexander (1951) retains the folio text intact, adding only punctuation (most notably, a semicolon after "Where gold"). G. B. Harrison (1952) retains Theobald's "Wear" and interprets the basic figure as one of testing gold by means of a touchstone. C. J. Sisson (1953, and New Readings in Shakespeare, 1956, 1.91) breaks the basic structure of the simile to emend "the whole passage," reading "that" for "yet" (110), "yet" for "and" (111), and "Wear" for "Where" (112). It now appears, however, that the passage is not "hopelessly corrupt," even though we might well wish that Shakespeare had paid some-what less attention to sentential profundity and a little more to sense.3 But the common background of this bit of wisdom gave him and his contemporaries the sense. I hope they enjoyed and profited.

Adriana charges that her husband has already been false to the enamel of his name by "company" and the "homage" of his "eye," and hopes only that he will not proceed to corrupt the gold of his name and of his soul itself by unfaithfulness to his marriage bed. She laments that she cannot please even his eye, as his "minions" do:

Since that my beautie cannot please his eie,
Ile weepe (what's left away) and weeping die.

Proper sentimental self-pity from time immemorial!

3. Adriana's Second Homily on Adultery, 2.2.132-48

When Adriana thinks she has cornered her husband but has cornered Antipholus of Syracuse instead, she bestows on him a companion homily on the innocent wife adulterated by her husband, and the reflected effect upon him. The passage is built up as a thrice-stated figure in syllogistic sequence. In the first statement she poses the hypothetical case of her own infidelity:

How deerely would it touch thee to the
Shouldst thou but heare I were licencious?
And that this body consecrate to thee,
By Ruffian Lust should be contaminate?

In the second statement she claims that, though innocent, she had been contaminated as though she were indeed guilty of adultery:

I am possest with an adulterate blot,
My bloud is mingled with the crime of lust: …

And in the third statement she accuses her husband of having effected this contamination:

For if we two be one, and thou play false,
I doe digest the poison of thy flesh,
Being strumpeted by thy contagion: …

His "crime of lust" introduces a "poison" to his "flesh" (there is no "grime," as Dover Wilson and other editors would emend); and this in turn causes a "contamination," a "mingling," a "contagion" in her "bloud." Thus she is made into a "strumper"; his "crime of lust" results in her suffering the "stain" of an "adulterate blot."

It will be remembered that the homily on adultery had been quite specific as to the results of whoredom. "What gift of nature … is not corrupted with whoredome? Come not the french-pocks, with diuers other diseases, of whoredome?" (Homilies, sig. K8v); and are not wives also "corrupted … through whoredome?" The homily on matrimony gives as the first reasons for matrimony "to bring foorth fruit, and to auoide fornication. By which meane a good conscience might be preserued on both parties, in brideling the corrupt inclinations of the flesh, wythin the limits of honestie. For God hath straitly forbidden al whoredome and vncleannesse, and hath from time to time taken greeuous punishment of this inordinate lust, as all stories and ages have declared" (sig. 2G3v). (On the prohibition against "whoredome," see Hebrews, 13.4, 1 Corinthians, 6.9, Revelation, 22.15, etc.) So, on the purely physical side, her husband will pass on to Adriana any "poison" of his "flesh," such as the "french-pocks" threatened by the homily; and he will do so because of his "crime of lust"—"inordinate lust," to use the language of the homily, for which God may mete out "greeuous punishment."

"The second part of the Sermon against adultery" says that the first part had shown "finally what corruption commeth to mans soule thorough the sinne of adultery." The second part then quotes various passages of Scripture (the principal being 1 Corinthians, 6), and continues as follows: "he saith, do ye not know that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christe, and make them the members of an whore? God forbid. Do yee not knowe, that hee which cleaueth to an whore, is made one body with her? There shal be two in one fleshe (saith he) but he that cleaueth to the Lord, is one spirite" (Homilies, sig. K6v-7). Adriana therefore claims that, though she is innocent of adultery, her husband has, because man and wife are one flesh, made her into just such a strumpet as the Courtesan with whom she suspects him of having played her false. She concludes logically:

Keepe then faire league and truce with thy
  true bed,
I Hue distain'd, thou vndishonoured.

That is, if her husband does his duty by his "true bed," he will punish her as a strumpet, so that "I liue distain'd, thou vndishonoured." She will remain "distain'd" indeed, as he has unjustly made her, but he will have vindicated his honor and so will himself be "vndishonoured."

Both lines of this clinching gnomic distich are clear in their genetics. The underlying figure of the second line is of stained honor. This is the figure regularly used in Italian discussions of such cases of honor, and in these the ruling is the same as Adriana's. Annibale Romei in his Courtiers Academie (1596) twice rules that when a wife is unfaithful, "with her owne, shee also staineth the honour of her husband" (p. 97); "with her owne, she staineth also the honour of her husband" (p. 126). Benvenuto Italiano, in The Passenger (1612), has the same approximate phraseology: "she being marryed and accompanying with others, together with her owne, she staines her husbands honour also" (p. 609). Romei also rules typically that the husband "looseth not his honour, but when hee conuerseth with a married woman" (p. 97), though if he "falsifieth the oth of matrimony, frequenting with a loose woman," he is "worthy of some blame" (p. 96). But both writers agree that the wife stains both her own and her husband's honor by any deviation at all.

So the second line of the distich has been balanced on the "stain" and "honor" of this Italian ruling, which was a paradox. By any deviation the wife stained her honor, but the husband did not, unless with a married woman. But Adriana had been contending at length that husband and wife are one, and that consequently, if the husband goes a whoring, he makes a strumpet of his wife. So, in that case, "I liue distain'd, thou vndishonoured." Adriana has shaped the Italian phraseology correctly into her paradoxical line. Long before I knew the genetics of the line, I wrote: "Adriana points out to Antipholus that they two are undividably one, and that he would punish any erring on her part. But if so, he ought now to punish her, because he has sinned, and thus in their undividable oneness has made her guilty, without any act of her own. She again advises him therefore to keep fair league and truce with his bed by punishing or distaining her. So will he clear his own honor" (ed. 1927, p. 81). And Shakespeare himself did not change—or need to change—this original phraseology.

The first line of the distich, "Keepe then faire league and truce with thy true bed," is a restatement from Adriana's first homily, "would keepe faire quarter with his bed" (2.1.108). Thus "bed" has kept its place to become the rhyme to "vndishonoured," botched up with the inevitable epithet "true"; "with his" has been adapted as "with thy," and "would keepe" has been adapted to the sentence structure as "Keepe then"; "faire quarter" has become "faire league and truce," the word "truce" doubtless being suggested as balanced alliteration with "true." The two homilies have been tied together; the condition of the first has naturally become the exhortation of the second.

Each line of the distich is as Shakespeare wrote it, and each separately is quite correct. And each line separately states a correct conclusion for the preceding speech, as do the two together. It seems clear also that Shakespeare wrote the second line first, as a correct conclusion of his idea, and then adapted the first line of it from a line in the earlier homily to tie the two homilies together, and to make of the two lines a distich. So far as this text is concerned, then, any scholarly edition can only retain and explain the folio reading.

It seems clear that in Adriana's two homilies the printer accurately reproduced the copy that had been set before him; and thus we owe him a debt of gratitude. In these passages, and in Luciana's earlier homily, we are very close to Shakespeare's pen in the white heat of unblotted composition. The technical rhetorical forms, such as syllogistic reasoning, triplicity, sentential distich, and so on, are all readily at hand, well prepared for the heated flow. Considerable skill is already evident, awaiting that practice which sometimes makes perfect; but without evidence of that meticulous self-correction which is sometimes alleged to be necessary to attain complete perfection. "Would he had blotted a thousand," said the meticulous Ben, whose efforts were already too late; ours may well be more profitably expended upon our own miracles of composition.

Here we have watched the young Shakespeare applying his rhetorical skill to ideas from the official homilies of his day to produce three homilies for two of his characters, all centering on Adriana's problem husband. These homilies in turn throw light on what Shakespeare intended the positions and resultant emotions of those characters to be. Adriana has heard her Job's adviser Luciana, but like the stubborn ass she continues, with the most 'righteous' motives and on the basis of impeccable authority, to betray herself to her own eventual reproof. In doing so, she, like her sister, has been made by Shakespeare to think and speak in the official and conventional language of his day.


1 Richmond Noble, in Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge (1935), p. 237, sees a probable application of this passage in Timon of Athens: "Page, [to the Fool] Why, how now, captain? What do you in this wise company? How dost thou, Apemantus? Apemantus. Would I had a rod in my mouth, that I might answer thee profitably!" (2.2.77-80).

2 For echoing statements on good name, reputation, honor, see Richard II, 1.1.177-8; All's Well That Ends Well, 4.2.45-51; Othello, 2.3.262-5, 3.3.155-61. With the last passage ("Who steals my purse steals trash") may be compared a passage in the Homilies: "many times cometh lesse hurt of a theefe, then of a rayling tongue: for the one taketh away a mans good name, the other taketh but his riches, which is of much lesse value and estimation, then is his good name" (sig. L8v). Compare also my William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke (1944), 2.275.

3 m Albions England (ed. 1589) William Warner had admonished the English against the error of mixing similes and sententiousness: "Onely this error may be thought hatching in our English, that to runne on the Letter, we often ninne from the Matter: and being ouer prodigali in Similes, wee become lesse profitable in Sentences, and more prolixious to Sense" (sig. ¶ 4).

Joseph Candido (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Dining Out in Ephesus: Food in The Comedy of Errors," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 217-41.

[In this excerpt, Candido shows that characters' attitudes toward meals reveals their gendered understanding of marital social obligations.]

C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler observe shrewdly that in The Comedy of Errors "Shakespeare is marvelous at conveying a sense of a world already there," and cite Dromio of Ephesus's first words as illustrating the "routine tensions" of "daily, ordinary life" that pervade the play:1

The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit;
The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell:
My mistress made it one upon my cheek:
She is so hot, because the meat is cold.

The passage is a fine indication of Shakespeare's early genius at dramatic economy, for not only does it catch effortlessly the rhythms of "a world already there," it also points to certain rhetorical and psychological traits that bind the parted Antipholuses and their Dromios together even as the two pairs of twins remain comically at odds throughout much of the play. Dromio's urgent concern over such matters as tardiness for dinner, the condition of food, household plans gone awry, and the anger of his mistress, is by no means exceptional in The Comedy of Errors, for voiced attention to the seemingly unremarkable events of day-to-day life occupy the two Antipholuses and their servants with striking regularity. Listen to Antipholus of Syracuse as he first sets foot in Ephesus:

Within this hour it will be dinner-time;
Till that, I'll view the manners of the town,
Persue the traders, gaze upon the buildings,
And then return and sleep within my inn,
For with long travel I am stiff and weary.
                                   (I.ii. 11-15)

The banal itinerary of the tourist tends not to be fit matter for Shakespearean romantic comedy, but in The Comedy of Errors bed and board often come abruptly to the forefront of the action. We are seldom unaware of people going to and from dinner or talking about the comforts of food and home. It is perhaps natural enough that the traveling Antipholus of Syracuse—whose sense of aimless nonattachment is so resonantly conveyed by the metaphor of the lone water drop seeking its fellow in the ocean (I.ii.35-38)—should be attracted to the security and solidity implied by the shared meal. He is, to be sure, an earnest seeker of dining companions, oddly receptive, for example, to the sudden feast thrust upon him by total strangers later in the play, and eager to make a dinner engagement with the first native Ephesian he meets. We miss much in the play if we ignore the tentative yet deep longing for connection behind his invitation to the anonymous Ephesian merchant:

What, will you walk with me about the town,
And then go to my inn and dine with me?

Coming as it does after Antipholus's admission of frequent "care and melancholy" (I.ii.20), the remark suggests a yearning for the personal and societal integration so sadly absent in the separated twin. Instructive in this regard are the concluding lines of the Ephesian Dromio's previously cited call to dinner, which both elaborate on the servant's urgent request and place the longings of the Syracusan visitor in a wider and more richly suggestive social context:

The meat is cold, because you come not
You come not home, because you have no
You have no stomach, having broke your fast:
But we that know what 'tis to fast and pray,
Are penitent for your default to-day.

Dromio's witty admonition points to serious matters that go beyond a mere hunger for food and society; it posits a social reality in which a genuine and strongly felt causal relationship exists between the abandoned meal and intimate moral and marital concerns. The five lines that take us from cold meat to implied sinfulness ("your default to-day")2 hinge on the assumption that Ephesus is a place where social ceremonies matter, where the wayward husband's suspected dining away ("having broke [his] fast") has serious consequences for his relationship to wife and home. Antipholus of Ephesus's absence has transformed his house into the social equivalent of a spiritually unprofitable Lent, imposing a penitential fasting on all its inhabitants and eliciting from his wife a resentment that manifests itself in violence to her servant and angry abstinence (I.ii.90).3

Before discussing the marital—and expressly sexual—implications of the Ephesian husband's absence from dinner at home, I should first like to review briefly the status of the midday meal for Shakespeare and his audience. William Harrison in his Description of England (1577, 1587) has much to say about the importance of the noon dinner for Elizabethans, particularly since this was the central and most elaborate meal of the day. Harrison's moralistic digression on dining habits, although not explicitly related to the action of Shakespeare's play, nonetheless indicates the close relationship between social mores and social morality. He disparages the frequent "odd repasts" of earlier times that included "breakfasts in the forenoon, beverages or nuncheons after dinner, and thereto reresuppers generally when it was time to go to rest,"4 preferring instead the more enlightened modern habit of eating once, or at most twice, a day. Even this practice, however, is not without the gluttonous abuse of "long and stately sitting at meat" (p. 141): "For the nobility, gentlemen, and merchantmen, especially at great meetings, do sit commonly till two or three of the clock at afternoon, so that with many is an hard matter, to rise from the table to go to Evening Prayer and return from thence to come time enough to supper" (p. 141).

The "supper" to which Harrison alludes was a much lighter evening meal that carried little of the formal or symbolic character of the noon dinner. Lu Emily Pearson and Muriel St. Clare Byrne, both of whom examine in some detail the richly allusive meanings implicit in dinner at the home of a well-to-do Elizabethan, make this point persuasively.5 Echoing Harrison, Pearson notes how the noon meal could drag on almost to supper with only time for evening prayer between; she then proceeds to underscore the personal and social symbolism implicit in the long repast: "cooking, like ornate architecture or elaborate dress or anything else that might impress one's acquaintances with a display of wealth, became a very important advertisement of a man's financial status.… No one was ever expected to partake of all the dishes but to eat and drink moderately by making a selection from the variety so bounteously offered" (pp. 556-57).

Although Pearson here is describing a somewhat more elaborate dinner than the family meal that Antipholus of Ephesus disregards so casually in The Comedy of Errors, even the ordinary dinner prepared for family alone was a matter of some culinary complexity for the housewife. (At least three main dishes were usually served, not including vegetables, bread, and drink, and Dromio mentions capon and pig specifically.) Moreover, Adriana's Elizabethan counterpart could have expected guests on short or no notice—witness the fact that Antipholus of Ephesus approaches his house with Angelo and Balthazar in tow—and her readiness in preparation would have been a sign of her domestic competence as well as her magnanimity as a hostess. Her social role—indeed her identity as wife—was linked in some measure to her success at entertaining, just as her husband's public reputation was linked to the affluence of his board.6 Along these lines Pearson notes that "even everyday meals were served with due decorum in well-managed homes, and the table was carefully set" (p. 565). Byrne further elaborates on what she calls the "ceremony" observed for daily dinner in "a well-to-do townman's household":

a cloth was laid upon the table, and at every place was set a trencher, a napkin, and a spoon. Wine, ale, and drinking vessels, Harrison tells us, stood on the buffet, and the servants filled a clean goblet or Venetian drinking glass when any guest called for liquor. In the kitchen quarters the butler took pains to chip the bread in order to remove any cinders from the crust, and he also squared each piece neatly before he set it on the board. Finally, the great salt-cellar would be placed on the table, and with basin,7 ewer, and fine damask towel ready to hand for the diners'ablutions, all was prepared.

(p. 30)

Clearly Antipholus of Ephesus's failure to come to dinner on time is a repudiation of more than mere food; his absence from home is the first step in the flouting of an accepted social ceremony that helps define his identity as respected citizen and respectful husband. It is surely no coincidence that in the course of the play he is threatened with the loss of both of these socially and emotionally vital aspects of the self. Reputation and marriage begin to dissolve together when the wrong brother dines at home.8

When viewed in this context Adriana's behavior assumes a deeper and more richly suggestive character than the mere ragings of a jealous housewife. Her determination to refrain from eating despite the fact that her husband is two hours late (II.i.3) indicates a serious attempt to maintain personal equilibrium and social bonds in the face of heavy pressures.9 Adriana is no mere jealous shrew (her readiness to forgive later in the play is too often slighted); rather she is a fiercely combative woman confronting squarely the threat of an imperiled marriage and determined to sustain meaningful ties despite social and personal threats to her identity as wife and Lady. This is, oddly enough, a fact that her didactic and self-assured sister fails to recognize. Luciana's smug suggestion to "let us dine, and never fret" (II.i.6) implies an indifference to her sister's emotional plight that reveals the severe limitations of the unwedded woman's easy aphorisms about marriage (II.i. 15-25). Adriana knows better; her rhetoric wisely acknowledges the heavy emotional tool exacted by her husband's absence in terms lost on her sister:

His company must do his minions grace,
Whilst I at home starve for a merry look:

But, too unruly deer, he breaks the pale,
And feeds from home; poor I am but his stale.
                     (II.i.87-101; emphasis added)

When Adriana finally locates the man she believes to be her Antipholus, her first instinct is to reestablish old connections by clarifying the proper relationship of husband to wife. Her moving speech on the mystical Christian notion that the married couple are one flesh evokes longingly an earlier stage of her marriage when identities were stable and rooted securely in the simple ceremonies of everyday life:

The time was once, when thou unurg'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-savor'd in thy taste,
Unless I spake, or look'd, or touch'd, or
  carv'd to thee.
                                   (II.ii. 113-18)

Adriana's suggestive use of the Syracusan brother's earlier image of "a drop of water in the breaking gulf" to define marital inseparability (II.ii. 126) further implies her sense of identification with the man before her, particularly as he represents—in an almost literal sense—the younger and more innocent version of her husband.10 Her urgent invitation to the Syracusan twin can thus be seen symbolically as a psychologically necessary act of marital renewal; Adriana's desire for the earlier and untainted version of her husband is symbolically fulfilled as she enacts with the younger twin the meaningful social ceremony that defines for her the basis of a stable marriage. Speaking, looking, and touching—the characteristic intimacies of romantic love—fuse curiously in her mind with carving. Moral realignment and marital recommitment both meet for the anxious wife in the ordered normalcy of the shared meal:

Come, come, no longer will I be a fool,
To put the finger in the eye and weep,
Whilst man and master laughs my woes to
Come, sir, to dinner. Dromio, keep the gate.
Husband, I'll dine above with you to-day,
And shrive you of a thousand idle pranks.
Sirrah, if any ask you for your master,
Say he dines forth, and let no creature enter.

The episode is rich with implication. Anthropologists such as Mary Douglas and Claude Levi-Strauss have painstakingly detailed the close association of food with sexual longings and sexual identity." Douglas, in particular, has probed how in various cultures "sexual and gastronomic consummation are made equivalents of one another by reasons of analogous restrictions applied to each" (p. 71), a phenomenon with obvious implications for the marital identity of the couple.12 Similarly, Adriana's renewed enthusiasm for dinner with the man she thinks is her husband appears to include such psychological concerns. Despite the fact that Luciana will accompany the pair, theirs will be a rather private meal, "above," symbolically located in the living quarters upstairs rather than in the more public business quarters below. Moreover, the exclusivity of the meal is further underscored by Adriana's (unintentionally ironic) instructions to Dromio to tell all callers that her husband dines away, and by her explicit order to the servant to "play the porter well … let none enter, lest I break your pate" (II.ii.211, 218). Clearly there is more at stake here for Adriana than the rearrangement of a disturbed afternoon. Her private family meal serves as a convenient social vehicle for the larger issue of forgiveness, and her insistence on privacy metaphorically links confidential family matters with the equally confidential regenerative power of the confessional: "Husband, I'll … shrive you of a thousand idle pranks." Even Luciana seems to sense what the renewed meal means symbolically for her sister; there is a note of urgency as well as impatience in her enjoinder to the puzzled guest: "Come, come, Antipholus, we dine too late" (II.ii.219).

The arrival of the real husband, of course, throws all into confusion; but as is so often the case in The Comedy of Errors, it is a confusion that abruptly forces characters to clarify identities and locate priorities. As Antipholus of Ephesus approaches his house with Angelo and Balthazar, he exudes a settled complacency with the verities of his mercantile and male-oriented world. He is late for dinner, and although he knows that Adriana "is shrewish when I keep not hours" (III.i.2), he believes that the remedy for her discontent lies in the protective duplicity of his friend the goldsmith: "Say that I linger'd with you at your shop / To see the making of her carcanet, / And that tomorrow you will bring it home" (ffl.i.3-5). Antipholus's crass gift of the necklace (which in anger he later transfers to the Courtesan) illustrates the immense psychological gap that separates his materialist notion of marriage from Adriana's loftier attitude of Christian idealism. For the inattentive husband, whose response to marital drift is to placate his wife with costly trinkets, the midday meal carries none of the deep-seated marital or sexual significance that it does for Adriana. Indeed, there is every indication that Antipholus sees the dinner as an exclusively male concern, an occasion for refined humanist discourse on the relationship of food to friendship, but little more. Any thought of the neglected wife disappears under the somewhat precious and over-embroidered male niceties that precede Antipholus's discovery of the locked door:

E. Ant. Y' are sad, Signior Balthazar, pray
  God our cheer
May answer my good will and your good
  welcome here.
Balth. I hold your dainties cheap, sir, and
  your welcome dear.
E. Ant. O, Signior Balthazar, either at flesh or
A table full of welcome makes scarce one
  dainty dish.
Balth. Good meat, sir, is common; that every
  churl affords.
E. Ant. And welcome more common, for that's
  nothing but words.
Balth. Small cheer and great welcome makes a
  merry feast.
E. Ant. Ay, to a niggardly host and more
  sparing guest:
But though my cates be mean, take them in
  good part;
Better cheer may you have, but not with better
But soft, my door is lock'd; go bid them let
  us in.
                                         (III.i. 19-30)

The stark reality of Adriana's shut door, carrying as it does the same sexual implications as that of the angry wife in The Menaechmi, turns Antipholus's dinner of male friendship and ostentation into a marital crisis. By virtue of his denied access to home and wife, the Ephesian brother comes to experience precisely the same feelings of alienation and sexual doubt that he has so casually inflicted upon his wife. But the confusion here produces more than mere psychological tit-for-tat. Antipholus's isolation outside the locked house functions symbolically to define the spiritual divorce he has already produced while at the same time literalizing ominously the ends to which his neglect will lead. In this sense the Ephesian brother joins Adriana, his twin, Egeon, and Aemelia in experiencing the anxieties of isolation and nonattachment, with the significant difference that in his case he alone is to blame.

There is a fine irony to the fact that while Antipholus suspects Adriana with another man, his real rival for his virtuous wife is the earlier and idealized image of himself as represented in his younger brother. Adriana does love another man—the Antipholus she so longingly evokes as she recalls what her husband once was, the Antipholus she believes she is restoring at dinner in her upstairs room. In an almost literal sense, then, the Ephesian brother is in conflict with himself, thus embodying, in another more resonantly suggestive form, the self-division that is everywhere in the play.13 As Balthazar wisely points out, Antipholus's unseemly attempts to break into his own house in full view of others is really a senseless act of violence to self:

Have patience, sir, O, let it not be so!
Herein you war against your reputation,
And draw within the compass of suspect
Th' unviolated honor of your wife.

If by strong hand you offer to break in
Now in the stirring passage of the day,
A vulgar comment will be made of it;
And that supposed by the common rout
Against your yet ungalled estimation,
That may with foul intrusion enter in,
And dwell upon your grave when you are

Although the irate husband finally departs "in quiet" (III.i.107), he hardly departs emotionally intact; self-rebellion and self-loathing, not just revenge, drive Antipholus to dinner at the Courtesan's.

The two separate dining experiences of the two identical twins stand in sharp contrast to each other; yet they also reflect each other in curious ways. For Antipholus of Ephesus the dinner with the Courtesan contains many of the same psychological elements as that planned by his Plautine counterpart in The Menaechmi. Just as Menaechmus of Epidamnum's choice of Voluptas over Industria involved a rejection of his wife for male companionship and dinner with Erotium, the Ephesian twin invites his male friends to dine with him at the Courtesan's where he will bestow the necklace "for nothing but to spite my wife" (III.i.118). Obviously Antipholus's rebellious dinner, at which the materialistic sign of his weak marital commitment is to change hands, represents the moral opposite of Adriana's feast of reconciliation. Perhaps less obvious, however, is the way in which the younger Antipholus's behavior at Adriana's dinner unwittingly parallels the unfaithfulness of his brother. As the symbolic embodiment of the younger version of his Ephesian twin, Antipholus of Syracuse reenacts his brother's behavior by forsaking the woman who has welcomed him to the feast and turning his romantic attention to another. In professing love for Luciana he sounds strangely like an only slightly exaggerated version of his older brother:

Your weeping sister is no wife of mine,
Nor to her bed no homage do I owe:
Far more, far more, to you do I decline.

And later, when alone, he finds an even more distinctly "Antipholan" mode of expression:

She that doth call me husband, even my soul
Doth for a wife abhor. But her fair sister,
Possess'd with such a gentle sovereign grace,
Of such enchanting presence and discourse,
Hath almost made me traitor to myself.
                             (III.ii. 158-62)

Something very close to this attitude (expressed in strikingly similar rhetoric) lies behind the Ephesian brother's attraction to the "wench of excellent discourse, / Pretty and witty; wild, and yet, too, gentle" (III.i.109-10), at whose home he will dine and to whom he will give his wife's necklace. At both dinners Adriana is rejected by her husband.

Adriana's broken banquet fails to produce its desired ends, but it nonetheless sets in motion a process of moral and social realignment that continues to the end of the play. Critics have generally tended to overlook the rejected wife's response to her failed dinner, particularly her remarks upon hearing that at the meal her supposed husband has tried to woo Luciana:

He is deformed, crooked, old, and sere,
Ill-fac'd, worse bodied, shapeless every where;
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind,
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind.

Ah, but I think him better than I say,
And yet would herein others' eyes were
Far from her nest the lapwing cries away;
My heart prays for him, though my tongue do
                            (IV.ii. 19-28)

The division here between heart and tongue, feeling and saying, focuses upon yet another pair of forceful oppositions embedded in singleness. Adriana's acknowledgement of her inner divisions not only reflects the outer and more obvious tensions involved in relationships like twinship, sisterhood, marriage, and friendship; it also points implicitly to a means of finding concord in discord. Adriana is a frequent object of others' criticism—her husband, sister, and mother-inlaw are only the most vocal examples—yet despite it all she remains the most fully responsive and synthetic character in the play, preferring finally in a crisis to labor at forgiveness rather than to ease into recrimination. If her first significant act of synthesis is her attempted dinner, her second is her readiness to forgive her husband despite its apparent failure. Her recognition of her own divided response to the supposed infidelity of her husband—outward rage and inward love—and her determination to act charitably in the face of it, implies the wise acceptance of a psychological duality in her self and in her husband that is symbolically represented in the two identical yet separate twins. The gold she gives to ransom her Antipholus is the surest sign of her clear-sighted resolve to meet rejection with forgiveness despite warring inner tensions: "Go Dromio … bring thy master home immediately. / Come, sister, I am press'd down with conceit—/ Conceit, my comfort and my injury" (IV.ii.63-66). When the younger Antipholus rejects the Courtesan as his older brother should have ("I conjure thee to leave me and be gone" [IV.iii.67]), his behavior ratifies symbolically the process of marital reconciliation that Adriana's charity has begun. But the younger Antipholus's behavior is more than merely symbolic; it also has the practical effect of eroding the Ephesian brother's newly formed relationship with the Courtesan. After being turned away by Antipholus of Syracuse (whom she takes for the Ephesian twin), the Courtesan does an emotional about-face in order to recoup the day's financial losses. Her blatant self-concern—in clear contrast to Adriana's charity—only heightens the emotional poverty of her makeshift meal with the wayward husband:

My way is now to hie home to his house,
And tell his wife that, being lunatic,
He rush'd into my house, and took perforce
My ring away. This course I fittest choose,
For forty ducats is too much to lose.

But even Adriana, despite her strenuous attempts to sustain and revivify her marriage, is hardly guiltless of marital neglect. Like her husband, she must endure a harsh public embarrassment that airs private wrongs and forces her to confront squarely her share in the weakened relationship. Her sister's earnest yet commonplace strictures on the superiority of husband to wife (II.i. 15-25) pale beside the withering—and more imperiously authoritative—criticism of the Abbess. Unlike Luciana, who relies on traditional and essentially Pauline notions of marriage to upbraid her sister, the Abbess turns her criticism inward to the intimate day-to-day activities of bedroom and kitchen that Adriana sees as her special province. The Abbess is, ironically, not nearly as concerned with theological and religious matters as she is with the practical goings-on inside Adriana's household. In this sense she sounds far less like a cloistered sister than like the concerned mother-in-law that she is. Here is the Abbess just after she learns, from Adriana herself, of the wife's frequent and public criticisms of her husband:

And thereof came it that the man was mad.
The venom clamors of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dog's tooth.
It seems his sleeps were hind'red by thy
And thereof comes it that his head is light.
Thou say'st his meat was sauc'd with thy
Unquiet meals make ill digestions,
Thereof the raging fire of fever bred,
And what's a fever but a fit of madness?
Thou say'st his sports were hind'red by thy
Sweet recreation barr'd, what doth ensue
But moody and dull melancholy,
Kinsman to grim and comfortless despair,
And at her heels a huge infectious troop
Of pale distemperatures and foes to life?
In food, in sport, and life-preserving rest
To be disturb'd, would mad or man or beast:
The consequence is then, thy jealous fits
Hath scar'd thy husband from the use of wits.

The speech links two important domestic responsibilities that went hand-in-hand for the Elizabethan housewife, preparing food and ministering to the sick. Popular handbooks of the day such as Sir Hugh Plat's Delightes for Ladies (1608) repeatedly spelled out this dual responsibility.14 Plat's four-part discourse takes up such matters as "The Arte of Preseruing," "Secrets in Distillation," and "Cookerie and Huswiferie," concluding with a detailed section on powders, ointments, and home cures that the good housewife would need to know in order to perform her domestic duties successfully. Here one can find remedies for problems such as yellow teeth, chilbains, pimpled or burned skin, bodily bruises of various sorts, and almost any other commonplace malady of the day. Implicit in Plat's book, particularly its final section, is a recognition of the important role of the housewife as custodian of domestic order and ease. In addition to her skill in the preparation of food (the largest part of the book consists of recipes), the resourceful mistress of an Elizabethan house was expected to produce medical results like that which relieved one "M. Foster an Essex man and an Atturney of the Common pleas" of an inflamed face: "Qvilt bay salt well dried & powdered, in double linnen sockes of a prettie bignesse, let the patient weare them in wide hose and shooes day and night, by the space of fourteene daies, or till he be well: euerie morning and euening let him dry his sockes by the fire and put them on againe" (p. 93). It is presumably Adriana's inattentiveness to details such as these to which the Abbess alludes when she speaks of the "huge infectious troop / Of pale distemperatures and foes to life" that characterize the wife's disordered household. Adriana should have paid more attention to Thomas Tusser, whose earnest Points of Huswifery, United to the Comfort of Husbandry (1573), also sees attention to food and physic as dual but hardly separate concerns for women like Adriana. Tusser's advice could almost serve as a shorthand introduction to some of the key critical issues in The Comedy of Errors:

Good huswives provide, ere an' sickness do
Of sundry good things, in her house to have
Good aqua composita, and vinegar tart,
Rose-water, and treacle, to comfort the heart.
Cold herbs in her garden, for agues that burn,
That over strong heat, to good temper may
                                   (p. 274)

          Use mirth and good word,
           At bed and at board.
Provide for thy husband, to make him good
Make merry together, while time ye be here.
At bed and at board, howsoever befall,
Whatever God sendeth, be merry withall.

      No brawling make,
           No jealousy take.
No taunts before servants, for hindering of
No jarring too loud, for avoiding of shame.
                                   (p. 266)15

Tusser's cautionary advice could hardly be more apt in Adriana's case. The wife's defense of her jealous accusations is the virtual textbook antithesis of Tusser's admonitions:

It [suspected philandering] was the copy of
  our conference:
In bed he slept not for my urging it;
At board he fed not for my urging it;
Alone, it was the subject of my theme;
In company I often glanced it;
Still did I tell him it was vild and bad.

Adriana has indeed acted well in trying to refashion her broken noon meal into a dinner of forgiveness for her supposed husband, but absent from her notion of the shared meal is her own penitence for past wrongs. Now, for the first time, we sense why her husband may have been late for dinner in the first place, for he had little reason to expect anything like the calm repast it was his wife's duty to supply. As the Abbess so pointedly says: "his meat was sauc'd with thy upbraidings: / Unquiet meals make ill digestions." Adriana's repeated unquiet meals have provided more sustenance for Antipholus's "raging fire of fever" and "moody and dull melancholy" than they have for his physical and emotional well-being. Adriana has, in short, forsaken the role of hostess and healer that it was her marital duty to perform. To her credit, however, she responds to this open exposé of her short-comings, as she always does to a crisis, with admirable clear-sightedness. Her reaction to the Abbess's scathing public denunciation would have made Tusser proud:

I will attend my husband, be his nurse,
Diet his sickness, for it is my office,
And will have no attorney but myself,
And therefore let me have him home with me.

Adriana's suggestive "Diet his sickness" indicates a clear psychological commitment to her twin responsibilities as purveyor of meals and overseer of home remedies. Implicit in her response is the full acceptance of her role as custodian of the day-to-day activities that ensure marital harmony and household ease. In this sense Adriana becomes the willing secular equivalent of the Abbess, the mistress of a religious household, whose "wholesome syrups, drugs, and holy prayers" are "the charitable duty" of her order (V.i.104-107). Religious mother-in-law and secular wife merge psychologically in a mutual determination to ensure "food, sport, and life-preserving rest" for the separate Antipholuses in their care.

It is frequently observed that the last act of The Comedy of Errors, while suggesting some degree of familial reorientation and renewal, stops short of a full affirmation of marital harmony. This is essentially the view of Alexander Leggatt, who, in an allusive and sensitive essay on the play, points out that there is no explicit reconciliation between Adriana and her husband, leaving the final state of their marriage "an open question." For Leggatt the idea of reconciliation in marriage is not utterly dismissed "but it is quietly placed in the background, and no great hopes are pinned on it."16 This is true enough, for at the end of the play we have no actual nuptial rite or even the symbolic evocation of one as we sometimes do in Shakespearean comedy. Instead the emphasis here is on the unification of an old family (even its younger members are old enough to have grown apart) rather than on the earnest hope for beginning a new one. But this is not to say that The Comedy of Errors is without its own significant—and characteristic—comic closure. When the multiple confusions are finally resolved, the Abbess invites the assembled company into her dwelling for a dining experience of a very different sort from those we have seen earlier in the play. This will be a "gossips' feast" (V.i.406), that is, a baptismal banquet at which the whole family assembles to welcome with joy a new member into a social and religious community. As such, it is a time for reestablishing old bonds and reaffirming one's commitment to a set of moral and religious values that impart spiritual significance to the activities of daily life.17 It is a mended and more comprehensive version of the failed dinners of Adriana and the Courtesan, containing as it does the security and shared spiritual objectives theirs so obviously lack. At the Abbess's feast, in sharp contrast to the dinners planned by Adriana and the Courtesan, participants exist in a stable and recognizable relationship to each other. Indeed, the whole purpose of a baptismal gathering is to ratify collectively the stabilization of one's identity, for it is the baptismal act that fixes a new creature once and for all with a name that denotes both who he is and what one hopes he will become. The Abbess's feast is thus an attempt to reach backward—symbolically at least—to Egeon's and Aemelia's experience with their twin infants on the mast, to begin time again at the key moment when the sacramental stability of a double christening can cancel the psychological division of family shipwreck. Perhaps the surest sign of the need for such stability is the obvious personal and social chaos produced by twin brothers with identical names, a consequence that would have been impossible at their joint baptism. Aemelia is at some pains to rectify this problem, at least in psychological terms; and if we cannot see her insistence upon the banquet in the Abbey as a determination literally to re-name her sons, we surely recognize the event as a fit occasion for her to clarify (and codify) who and what they are.18 Just as in sacramental terms baptism must precede marriage, so too a clear and secure notion of self must precede the hope of marital harmony. It is this process of reclamation that Aemelia begins at her gossips' feast inside the Abbey, a family banquet on which all other feasts—with whatever social, moral, or psychological meaning they may acquire—so heavily depend. After so long marital grief, Aemelia's family needs nothing more than the spiritual nativity and personal stability conferred by the sacrament. It is this need that they ratify in the play's final and most joyously comic banquet.


1 C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler, The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1986), p. 68. See also and

2 So glossed in The Riverside Shakespeare (p. 85) and in other texts. However, some editors, like Foakes, gloss "default" simply as "offence" or "fault" (p. 15).

3 For an impressive examination of the connection between food and sexual aggression in Shakespeare see Janet Adelman, "'Anger's My Meat': Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus," in Shakespeare: Pattern of Excelling Nature, ed. David Bevington and Jay L. Halio (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1978), pp. 108-24. See also

4 William Harrison, The Description of England, ed. Georges Edelen (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1968), p. 140. Subsequent references to Harrison are noted parenthetically.

5 Lu Emily Pearson, Elizabethans at Home (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1957); M. St. Clare Byrne, Elizabethan Life in Town and Country (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1926). Subsequent references to both works are noted parenthetically.

6 Note, for example, the following lines from Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst," in which the poet praises the hospitality of Sir Robert Sidney, Viscount Lisle, and his wife Barbara Gamage:

That found King James when, hunting late
  this way
With his brave son, the Prince, they saw thy
Shine bright on every hearth as the desires
Of thy Penates had been set on flame
To entertain them; or the country came
With all their zeal to warm their welcome
What (great, I will not say, but) sudden cheer
Didst thou then make 'em! and what praise
  was heaped
On thy good lady then! who therein reaped
The just reward of her high housewifery;
To have her linen, plate, and all things nigh,
When she was far; and not a room but dressed
As if it had expected such a guest!
                               (lines 76-88)

7 Pearson discusses a further "ceremonial" aspect of Elizabethan dining regarding the basin: "If different ranks were not represented at table, one basin was frequently used for a small company, two or three washing their hands at the same time, but if guests of various ranks were present, there must be one basin for each rank, and music between courses. Sir Francis Drake, for example, liked to live up to his rank even at sea, and besides observing the usual decorum, he had his meals served with the sound of trumpets and other instruments" (p. 565).

8 The confusion brought about by two sets of identical twins allows Shakespeare to enrich his play in subtly expressive ways. For example, when Antipholus of Syracuse is called to dinner (mistakenly) by the Ephesian Dromio, the Syracusan twin's reaction both expresses his own confusion and restates the actual attitude of the brother for whom he is mistaken: "Hang up thy mistress! I know not thy mistress, out on thy mistress!" (II.i.67-68), and "I know … no house, no wife, no mistress" (II.i.71). For an influential study of the way in which the Antipholan twins reflect psychological aspects of each other, see Barbara Freedman, "Egeon's Debt: Self-Division and Self-Redemption in The Comedy of Errors," English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980):360-83.

9 For a provocative study of the fasting of medieval women and its usefulness as a means of criticizing, manipulating, educating, or converting family members, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), particularly chapters 6 and 7 (pp. 189-244).

10 The question of the relative ages of the two Antipholuses is a vexed one, since Egeon's comments in Li on the issue seem to contradict each other. Many editors note Shakespeare's apparent confusion regarding which twin is the elder and, like Foakes, contend that "such conflict in details is not uncommon in Shakespeare and is not noticed on the stage" (p. 9). Addressing the problem critically, Patricia Parker has demonstrated how the "rhetorical crossing" in the relevant passage (I.i.78-85) indicates that the Syracusan twin is consistently referred to as the younger; see "Elder and Younger: The Opening Scene of The Comedy of Errors," Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983):325-27. Parker's assumption is shared by most critics; see particularly Freedman (p. 368); Tillyard (p. 567); and Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 28-29. The idea is implied if not expressly stated by Robert Ornstein, Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1986), p. 30; and by Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), pp. 6-7.

11 Mary Douglas, "Deciphering a Meal," Daedalus 101, 1 (Winter 1972):61-81; Levi-Strauss, The Origins of Table Manners. Introduction to a Science of Mythology, 3 vols., trans. John and Doreen Weightmann (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), passim, but particularly 3:54-59 where Levi-Strauss discusses the myth of the "clinging woman" which has certain curious analogies to the relationship between Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana. See also, ; and

12 Farb and Armelagos note that "At marriage celebrations in northern Europe during the Middle Ages, it was considered an important moment when the couple ate together" (p. 5).

13 See particularly Freedman's essay mentioned above, and Berry (p. 176). Also of interest in this regard is William C. Carroll, The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 68-77.

14 Sir Hugh Plat, Delightes for Ladies, ed. G. E. Fussell and Kathleen Rosemary Fussell (London: Crosby Lockwood & Son, 1948); all references to Plat's work are to this edition and are noted parenthetically. See also Of interest too are the remarks of George Herbert in A Priest to the Temple or, The Country Parson (1652) where the necessary characteristics of a good parson's wife are set forth in some detail. Herbert lists three separate qualities that such a woman must possess, among them expertise in "curing, and healing of all wounds and sores with her owne hands; which skill either she brought with her, or he [the parson] takes care she shall learn it of some religious neighbor." See The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), p. 239.

15 References to Thomas Tusser are from Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry … together with A Book of Huswifery, ed. William Mavor (London: Lackington, Allen, 1812). Also of interest is George Walton Williams, "Shakespeare's Metaphors of Health: Food, Sport, and Life-Preserving Rest," JMRS 14 (1984):187-202; and Owsei Temkin, "Nutrition from Classical Antiquity to the Baroque," in Human Nutrition: Historic and Scientific, ed. Iago Galdston (New York: International Univ. Press, 1960), pp. 78-97. Temkin points out that the concept of "diet" comprised not only food and drink "but also work, sleep, climate of the home, emotions, and sexual life, i.e., what the medieval doctors came to call the six res non-naturales, the six 'non-naturals'" (p. 83).

16 Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), pp. 9, 18.

17 In Action is Eloquence: Shakespeare's Language of Gesture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984), David Bevington discusses the theatrical centrality of the banquet in several Shakespearean plays, most notably Macbeth, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, and Troilus and Cressida, where the "ceremony of feasting represents not so much God's gift of charity" as a failed ritual of reincorporation that presents a "disillusioned view of lifeless artificiality" (p. 159). As Bevington notes, the "violence and hypocrisy" underlying banqueting in these plays serves importantly to heighten its moral opposite—the "regular form and sense of hospitable order" that a communal feast implies (pp. 159-60). For an elaboration of the idea of inverted feasting in Macbeth, see G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme: Further Interpretations of Shakespeare's Tragedies Including the Roman Plays (London: Methuen, 1951), ch. 5 (particularly pp. 134-41).

18 Elizabethan and Jacobean comedies, of course, abound with concluding banquets (actual or proposed) as symbolic of social harmony and renewal. Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew comes instantly to mind (but see Bevington's modifying remarks here [p. 159]), as do The Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and even the end of The Merchant of Venice, where, although "It is almost morning" Lorenzo sees Portia and Nerissa as dropping "manna in the way of starved people" (V.i.294-95). The disappearing banquet in The Tempest is far too richly allusive to be discussed here, but bears mentioning, as does the proposed feasting at the end of Cymbeline (V.v.483). All references to Shakespeare here are to The Riverside Shakespeare. Suffice it to say that the motif of the concluding harmonious banquet is so pervasive as to appear in plays as diverse as Peele's Old Wives' Tale, Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, and Jonson's Every Man in His Humor and, most notably, Bartholomew Fair.

Genre And Structure

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Gwyn Williams (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors Rescued from Tragedy," in A Review of English Literature, Vol. 5, No. 4, October, 1964, pp. 63-71.

[In this essay, Williams discusses tragic elements of The Comedy of Errors, arguing that the play comes extremely close to being a tragedy.]

There is no need to insist on or to exemplify the way in which The Comedy of Errors has until recently been considered a farce. Coleridge thought it so and on the stage the play has usually been taken as a romp.1 (Shakespeare producers must have their secret list of comedies which may or may not be taken as pantomime.) A careful analysis of this play, however, shows that it might easily have worked out as a tragedy.

Shakespeare criticism has from Meres to the present day been misled by the pedantic division of drama into comedy or tragedy. Even Dr. Johnson, who admitted the appeal from criticism to nature, who observed the mingling of the comic and the serious in everyday life and who said, "Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind, exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature,"2 even such a perceptive mind was too steeped in conventional ways of thinking not to protest occasionally against incongruities he found in Shakespeare's plays.

The incongruities in The Comedy of Errors have side-tracked the critics, who have preferred to consider the play as a farce which is spoilt by the injudicious introduction of serious material. Dowden was perhaps the most sympathetic in seeing the approach to tragedy in the play. For Quiller-Couch the play fell to the ground between farce and romance.3 To H. B. Charlton the introduction of the serious characters, Egeon, Luciana and Emilia, brings in "a range of sentiment incompatible with the atmosphere of The Comedy of Errors," where the general temper of life is "crude, coarse and brutal" in his opinion.4 G. R. Elliott seems to have been nearer to full appreciation of the nature of the play in contrasting the comic horror of mistaken identity with "the real horror of the complete identity of two human beings,"5 R. A. Foakes discusses more fully than has previously been done the serious elements in the play, the loss and rediscovery of identity, the idea of madness in this connection, the resulting "disruption of family, personal and social relationship,"6 witchcraft, and concludes: "The fact is that the serious elements are in some danger of going unobserved, while no one is likely to miss the fun, especially in the distorted and jazzed-up versions of the play which are commonly staged."

Now that the Stratford production,7 surely the gayest and most intelligent within living memory, is triumphantly touring the world, it may be the moment to look further into these serious elements and the apparent incongruity that has been seen in the play. A further analysis of the play seems called for, so that the reason may emerge for Shakespeare's addition of the two Dromios to the material he took from Plautus. This in turn may throw some light on the famous incongruities.

It will then appear that Shakespeare's purpose in making this duplication was not merely to increase the comic effect by repetition of a situation on a lower plane, a device he frequently used in comedy; it was not even to enhance the fun which could be elicited from the mistaking of identities. It was to save the play as comedy, to ensure, in fact, that there should be any fun at all.

As Shakespeare conceived the situation of Antipholus of Syracuse, the young man's bewilderment might well have made him desperate and against the solemn background of Egeon's predicament any act of violence could have carried Antipholus on to tragedy. On the other hand, this might have been precipitated by Antipholus of Ephesus, the more violent of the twins. The two Dromios, however, not only provide the low humour, the backchat, the healthy indecencies; not only is their predicament kept firmly comic, but the occasional contact with Dromio of Syracuse, the only person in the play (before the final recognition by Egeon) who recognizes him for what he is, clearly saves the sanity of Antipholus of Syracuse. It is true that his meetings with Dromio of Ephesus confuse him further but they do enable him to work off some of his mental anguish in the physical drubbings he administers.

Without the two Dromios the play would hardly have had any farcical elements, except for the late introduction of Dr. Pinch, who is apt to be blown up into a music-hall act, not entirely without justification from the text. Much less a farce, the play might not even have ended as a comedy. After all, Antipholus of Ephesus had much more to go on than Othello was to have.8

It may be worthwhile going quickly through the play once more, to follow this thread of concern with identity, to establish the seriousness of this thread and to observe how the two Dromios, more particularly Dromio of Syracuse, pull the play back from the brink of disaster.

Act I sc. i. Egeon's identification with Syracuse threatens to cause his death. (The dangers of peripheral aspects of identity.)

The Duke's sympathy is hamstrung by his own identity as ruler (ll . 142-5).

Act I sc. ii. Antipholus of Syracuse must deny one part of his identity, his Syracusan origin, to preserve his goods (//. 1-2).

To the losses he has already suffered he now foresees the possible complete loss of his identity. This is expressed in the telling image of the drop of water:

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.
                               (II. 35-40)

Dromio of Ephesus now appears and confuses him. He puts this down to witchcraft.

Act II sc. i. According to Luciana, the personality and will of a woman should be subjugated to that of her husband. Men, she says,

Are masters to their females, and their lords:
Then let your will attend on their accords.
                                   (II. 24-5)

(Katharina says something very similar at the end of The Taming of the Shrew, when she has become a quite different person from the girl everyone knew and whom we saw at the beginning of the play.)

Act II sc. ii. Antipholus of Syracuse desperately tries to find reasons for the new identity which is being thrust upon him. In Act I it was witchcraft; now it is dreams.

What, was I married to her in my dream?
                                          (I. 182)

Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse are forced to acknowledge that some change has come over them, but the similarity of their experience is a kind of comfort. A puzzling experience which is shared is not so alarming as one faced alone. Antipholus of Syracuse now sees the change as a mental one.

Syr. Dro. I am transformed, master, am I not?
Syr. Ant. I think thou art in mind, and so am I.
                                              (II. 195-96)

A little later, as he goes in to dine with Adriana, Antipholus of Syracuse for the moment accepts his recognition by others as a person who is strange to himself. It may be worth while risking an adventure in another identity:

Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad or well advis'd?
Known unto these, and to myself disguis'd,
I'll say as they say, and persever so,
And in this mist at all adventures go.
                                (II. 212-16)

Act III sc. i. It is now the turn of Antipholus of Ephesus; he is denied by his wife:

Adriana: Your wife, sir knave? go, get you
  from the door.
                                                    (I. 64)

Dromio of Ephesus is similarly refused entrance and he also has a wife in the house. Antipholus of Ephesus is only restrained from immediate violence by the two puzzled merchants.

Act III sc. ii. Falling in love with Luciana creates a new human bond for Antipholus of Syracuse to replace those he has lost. The trouble is that this seems to involve the acceptance of a new identity and, still in the adventurous mood in which he went in to dine with his twin brother's wife, he invites Luciana to undertake his education as a new person.

Teach me, dear creature, how to think and
Lay open to my earthy gross conceit,
Smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words' deceit.…
Are you a god? would you create me new?
Transform me then, and to your power I'll
                       (II. 33-6 and 39-40)

But he has not yet completely abandoned his personality, the identity he knows and clings to, and the use of the word 'deceit' in reference to her words stresses his awareness of the dangerous falsity of the situation. The succeeding lines go,

But if that I am I, then well I know
Your weeping sister is no wife of mine.
                               (ll. 41-42)

Even to win this lovely girl he has no wish to lose his identity. It is an extreme version of the surrender of independence which to some extent love always demands. It is a tense situation for him and by no means funny. Dromio of Syracuse also wonders whether he is himself and is surprised to be recognized by his master:

Syr. Dro. Do you know me, sir? Am I
  Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?
                                   (l. 72)

When his questions have been satisfactorily answered by his master, Dromio can afford to be funny at the expense of the fat wife who has been foisted on to him. But no comedy, only a rather nasty situation, sprang from Adriana's mistaking of Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband.

At this point Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse decide to leave Ephesus:

Syr. Ant. If everyone knows us and we know
'Tis time to trudge, pack and be gone.
                                           (II. 151-2)

For Antipholus the only temptation to remain is Luciana, whom he now regards as a witch, relating her to the Sirens of the Odyssey.

           But her fair sister.…
Hath almost made me traitor to myself;
But lest myself be guilty to self-wrong,
I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song.
                             (II. 158 and 161-3)

To love Luciana would be a form of suicide of the identity, since it would involve acceptance of a new one. At this point Angelo enters with the chain ordered by Antipholus of Ephesus:

Angelo: Master Antipholus.
Syr. Ant. Ay, that's my name.
                                               (II. 163-4)

"That's my name," but not, "I'm the person you're looking for." The name now seems to have no relation to the person, a disturbing dissociation.

Act IV sc. iii. Antipholus of Syracuse, owing to the confusion of the two Dromios, is still at Ephesus, showered with gifts and compliments from people he does not know, and still putting it all down to sorcery.

Syr. Ant. There's not a man I meet but doth
  salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend,
And every one doth call me by my name …
Sure these are but imaginary wiles,
And Lapland sorcerers inhabit here.
                           (II. 1-3 and 10-11)

But he seems to be more confident of his identity now and less fearful of losing it. It is a city of illusions, a place notorious for witchcraft, and the sooner he and his man are out of it the better.

And here we wander in illusions—
Some blessed power deliver us from hence!
                                (II. 41-2)

Departure from the city would restore him to what he was before the beginning of the play, but it would, of course, mean death for his father. The other Antipholus's violent attack upon his wife (Act IV sc. iv //. 99-104) shows how dangerous this confusion of identities has become and how near to tragedy the central characters are brought.

In Act V the explanation is unwound and all identities are restored, but not before the Duke has commented:

I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup.
                                                   (I. 271)

The confusion of identity has been painful and potentially dangerous for the two Antipholuses. The denial of identity has been most complete for Antipholus of Syracuse, but he is in a foreign country, in a city renowned for witchcraft and sorcery, and he clings to his reason by reminding himself of this fact. He can always get away and this he is always on the point of doing. For Antipholus of Ephesus the case is very different. He is in a town where he has been a person of importance for twenty years. Quite suddenly to have his orders disregarded by his servant, to be refused admission to his own house and to be denied by his own wife in broad daylight in the presence of others, to be arrested for debt and to be treated as a madman, all this makes a galling, infuriating experience for the Ephesian twin. He is a more violent character than his brother and he might quite easily have killed his wife.

It is significant that the character of Antipholus of Syracuse becomes much more important in Shakespeare's play than his counterpart in the source play by Plautus. Luciana is an addition to the story and so is the introduction of Egeon into the action. The possibilities of the story which interested Shakespeare, his recasting of it and the new elements he introduced, all led headlong towards tragedy, but he may not have felt sufficiently confident at this stage in his career as a dramatist to allow this to happen. It might have been thought too outrageous a flouting of a classical model at a time when Shakespeare was in open competition with university wits. (A similar hesitation, though in the reverse direction, is observable on Shakespeare's part in Romeo and Juliet, which has all the elements and atmosphere of comedy until the death of Mercutio, an event which the dramatist had reluctantly to bring about in order to give the play the promised tragic ending.)

The Comedy of Errors is an early study in the nature of personal identity. How soon does one's conception of oneself, the belief in one's own identity, break down before lack of recognition on the part of others? How far do we need others in order to have an identity at all? Is one's identity entirely dependent on the personal and social links and bonds, the ties of family, love, friendship and civic duty? In order that these questions might be tackled without in this case leading to madness and violent death, as they do in King Lear, Shakespeare added the twin servants. To condemn this on the grounds of improbability, as Quiller-Couch does, undersigned by Dover Wilson,9 is to apply a standard which would not occur to one in the theatre, which is not relevant to drama or to great art of any kind. Shakespeare himself joked about this sort of criticism. "If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."10 It is curiously naïve to require more verisimilitude on the stage than is to be observed in life. Or perhaps absurdly sophisticated. The two Dromios of course provide a lot of fun, but this is not their main function. Whilst more often than not they unwittingly add to the confusion, they do sometimes recognize their true masters and the analysis made above shows this to be the only link that Antipholus of Syracuse has with his remembered identity, with reality. The fact that his servant is also taken for another person extends the predicament outside himself and makes it possible for him to hold the theory of witchcraft as a cause, thereby saving his reason. Antipholus of Ephesus, whom Shakespeare makes less interesting and sympathetic, is not given this comfort, for there is little consolation for him in the fact that his servant is also refused admission to their house. This simply confirms the treachery of his wife to his mind.

There is an interesting ambivalence in the use made of Luciana. At a moment when Antipholus of Syracuse's identity seems to be disintegrating and he is in danger of losing all links with his past life, his new love for Luciana promises the building of a new bond, a new relationship to compensate for the loss of the old. But since a new identity is also involved, which is only viable in relation to her, this would be an act of treachery to his past and to the identity to which he is still clinging. Luciana is therefore a siren and a witch seducing him from his true self.

What seems to have happened in Shakespeare's handling of the story is this. He found the predicament of Antipholus of Syracuse far from farcical, but rather an opportunity to probe into the nature of personal identity. To provide another view of the problem he added to the story the ordeal of Egeon and his denial by Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, who of course do not know him but whom the old man takes to be those of Syracuse. The function of Luciana has already been discussed. The incongruities which have been seen in the play may be said to arise from Shakespeare's failure to accommodate the elements that really interested him in the play to a dramatic formula from which he could not yet quite escape. But since his additions to the story must indicate the nature and direction of his interest we should surely pay more attention to the serious elements in the play, without any risk, as R. A. Foakes points out, of surrendering any of the fun it offers. The Clowns in Hamlet are not the less funny for our considering the play to be in the main serious, nor would we enjoy the two Dromios and Dr. Pinch the less for a fuller realization of the significance of Antipholus of Syracuse.

This is not to read something into the play which is not there but to find conspicuously laid out in it a concern which is central to the writing and thought of our mid-twentieth century, the whole matter of the nature of personal identity, the study of which in The Comedy of Errors was kept by Shakespeare on a comic level only by the introduction of the two Dromios.


1 For a summing up of views on the play see R. A. Foakes, The Comedy of Errors, Introduction, Arden edition (1962).

2Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Raleigh (1908), p. 15.

3The Comedy of Errors, Introduction, New Cambridge edition (1962), p. xxiv.

4Shakespearean Comedy (1938), p. 70.

5 Foakes, op. cit., p. xliii.

6 Foakes op. cit., p. xlix.

7 By Clifford Williams, first presented in Autumn 1962, revived in 1963 and 1964.

8 J. R. Brown suggests in Shakespeare and his Comedies (1957) p. 57, another kind of seriousness, apart from considerations of identity. "No one would argue that The Comedy of Errors is a very profound play, but reference to Shakespeare's ideas about love's wealth and its difference from commercial wealth does suggest that its action is not merely that of a merry-go-round."

9Errors, Introduction (1962).

10Twelfth Night, III.iv. 11.127-8.

11 Luciana is in a sense a step towards the heroines of the later romantic comedies, but she stands apart in the unusually equivocal situation Shakespeare gives her.

Vincent Petronella (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Structure and Theme Through Separation and Union in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors," in The Modern Language Review,Vol. 69, No. 3, July, 1974, pp. 481-87.

[In this essay, Petronella explores the structure of The Comedy of Errors by analyzing the dramatic function of the themes of separation and reunion.]

Shakespeare's play of the twin Antipholuses and Dromios possesses a thematic impact that only in the last decade has been observed, measured, and enjoyed by scholars and critics who have gone further than merely discussing the play in the light of Plautus and Terence; and who, in turn, have gone beyond the question as to whether or not the play is really a farce.1 Source-studies and genre-studies regarding The Comedy of Errors are indeed useful, but so much has been said about these matters that scholarly repetition has become obvious. In other words, the thematic substance of the play was not always given its due in the past; more recently, however, that substance has been shown to be sinewy enough to warrant critical analyses that clarify areas other than those related to the play's genre and sources. And just such areas do I wish to explore in the pages that follow.

It is my contention that this early Shakespearian comedy needs to be studied for the way it employs the structural pattern of separation and union—a pattern that is central to almost every comedy written, but one that informs the language, characterization, and action of The Comedy of Errors in a way that has not been explored in the past.2 This basic structural pattern, moreover, underlies a complex of thematic statements and re-statements of ideas either closely or loosely related to separation and union. In The Comedy of Errors separation is represented by references to, and acts of, severing, untying, releasing, divorcing, freeing, and losing; these are balanced by different representations of union: binding, tying, fastening, uniting, confining, and finding. What is more, the implications of separation and union are profusely widespread. Separation, for example, becomes associated in the play with categories such as illogicality, chaos, and domestic dissolution; whereas union is linked with logic, order, and domestic stability. In the course of my discussion the dramatic polarities created by separation and union and the ramifications of such polarities within the framework of the play at hand will become clearer.

Before looking at the separation-union idea itself we should understand that another aspect of structure in The Comedy of Errors is the play's solid base made up of four interlocking levels of reality: family, commerce, state, and cosmos. The last of these does not have as prominent a role as do the first three; nevertheless, it is present; and, as we shall see, it does receive clear expression before the close of the play's third scene. In turn, the social situation (commerce and state) is not central to the play's meaning as is the domestic. Although the ties of family in the play are temporarily severed, causing, of course, separation, we see that those ties are actually extremely strong ones: brother seeks to be united with brother; son with mother; and father with son. The principal search is for the natural bonds that hold a family together as well as a search for individual members of that family. In a more general way all four levels are marked by a drive toward overcoming estrangement or division; and helping to underscore the importance of domestic, social, and cosmic ties (or the lack of them) is the separation-union antithesis, which helps to create ironies and ambiguities that make this play throb with dramatic and comic vigour. When in the denouement the ironies and ambiguities subside (meaning, of course, that the comic absurdities are at an end), a society and, more importantly, a family, are reunited. Happiness ultimately prevails in the world of the play. Just how Shakespeare effects this outcome with conviction is appreciated if we look at the separation-union pattern and its connexion with the four levels I have outlined.

Let us begin by considering the pattern on the level of state, for this situation immediately demands our attention as the play opens. Egeon, literally bound because he is under arrest, addresses the Duke of Ephesus with a couplet coloured by the tonality of tragic hopelessness:

Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall,
And by the doom of death end woes and all.3

With language expressing eschatological sentiments the play begins. What sounds like a man's last words at the end of his life are actually his first words in a drama that will eventually culminate in freedom and a new lease of life. Here is Egeon, a prisoner of the state, bound by the dictates of the law of the land. Logic ties Egeon to the death-sentence that has been imposed upon him, and as the chief lawmaker and enforcer of order in Ephesus, Duke Solinus argues syllogistically in favour of that death-penalty:

… if any born at Ephesus
Be seen at Syracusian marts and fairs;
Again, if any Syracusian born
Come to the bay of Ephesus, he dies
His goods confiscate to the Duke's dispose,
Unless a thousand marks be levied
To quit the penalty and to ransom him.
Thy substance, valued at the highest rate,
Cannot amount unto a hundred marks;
Therefore by law thou art condemn'd to die.

Different commentators have spoken of Egeon's plight as a 'frame-story' that surrounds the frisky central action of The Comedy of Errors.4 What has not been observed, however, is that Egeon is significantly bound when we first see him in the play (Act I) and when we see him again in Act V.5 It is not only the presence of Egeon at the beginning and at the close of the play that makes him a framing figure; it is also his being seen as one tied by the legal demands of the state. In this way Egeon becomes an emblem for the idea of confinement, especially as it applies to the level of state.

Just as Egeon is put under arrest at one level of the play's action so is Angelo, the goldsmith, arrested at another. Angelo is part of the world of commerce. A bond has fallen due for the goldsmith; but because of the confusion involving the Antipholuses, Angelo cannot meet the bond. Therefore, the Second Merchant has him arrested (IV. 1). This, in turn, leads to the arrest of the Ephesian Antipholus, who is held responsible for Angelo's never being paid for the gold chain. If we stop a moment to think of the thematic and symbolic complications at this point we shall see that they are real and appropriate.

At the level of commerce the word "bond" is obviously significant. But in the context of The Comedy of Errors, the word also suggests binding, arresting, or pulling together toward union. All of these suggestions are supported by two symbolic objects: the controversial gold chain that Antipholus of Ephesus ordered originally for his wife and the rope that the same Antipholus sends his Dromio to buy, presumably to spite Adriana.6 Both items, the chain and the rope, become part of the general confusion at the same time that they signify the possibility of conjugal unity on the one hand and the reality of marital division on the other. Yet, although both the chain and the rope are instruments for binding, they do more to cause separation between characters. When Dromio of Syracuse comes to the wrong Antipholus bringing word of a ship sailing to Epidamnum (IV. 1.86 ff.), the Ephesian scolds this Dromio for not bringing the desired rope. This friction between master and bondman comes on the heels of Angelo's being arrested for not meeting an overdue bond followed by the Ephesian Antipholus's being "attached" (IV. 1.74) for not paying Angelo for the chain. Bond, bondman, legal arrests, a chain, and a rope are all of a piece when we realize that they are associated with the idea of one's being united or linked with legal responsibilities. The verbal exchange in Act IV, Scene 2 between the Syracusian Dromio and Adriana emphasizes this effectively:

Adriana What, is he [her husband] arrested?
  tell me at whose suit:
Dromio of Syracuse I know not at whose suit
  he is arrested well;
But is in a suit of buff which 'rested him, that
  can I tell:
Will you send him, mistress, redemption, the
  money in his desk?
Adriana Go, fetch it, sister; this I wonder at,
That he unknown to me should be in debt.
Tell me, was he arrested on a band?
Dromio of Syracuse Not on a band, but on a
  stronger thing;
A chain, a chain, do you not hear it ring?

Hardin Craig points out that the words "bond" and "band" are interchangeable and that at line 50, the word 'band' also means manacle or dog-leash.7 Being linked or united with legal responsibilities is made obviously stronger by such a pun drawn from the world of pets as well as from that of commerce.

The Courtesan is also a character who may be associated with commerce. In the past she was the subject of divisive altercations between Antipholus and his wife (III. 1.111-13), and in the present action the spiteful Antipholus will use the Courtesan as a way of separating himself from Adriana, threatening to give the chain to the 'hostess' instead of to his wife.8 The chain that was to unite husband and wife becomes symbolic of estrangement in marriage. Antipholus of Ephesus would substitute the rope for the chain, the cheaper object for the more valuable, the Courtesan for his wife. The figure of the Ephesian Antipholus positioned between the Courtesan and Adriana embodies a connexion between the level of commerce and that of family. State, commerce, and family are all part of the action in Act IV, Scene 4. Here are an arresting Officer (representing the order of state), the Courtesan (representing her particular brand of commercial interests), and the two sisters, Adriana and Luciana. The Officer has Antipholus of Ephesus figuratively bound by legal arrest, Dromio of Ephesus comes in with the by now ridiculous rope, and the three women (Adriana, Luciana, and the Courtesan) bring in Doctor Pinch, the local conjurer, to separate Antipholus from the devil. If binding and separating were ever made farcical, here it is as robustly done as could be imagined. The outcome of the scene is the Ephesian Antipholus's and Dromio's being tied up and taken off stage. In the meantime the Syracusian Antipholus (with his repier drawn) and Dromio enjoy severed ties and are making ready to flee from the witchery of Ephesus.9 The action of this bustling scene culminates in presenting the two sets of twins in situations that parallel their states at the outset of the drama. The Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio were bound to their domestic responsibilities when we first saw them; now they are literally bound by the state and by Pinch's would-be assistants in the absurd exorcism, which includes literal binding.10 In the beginning the Syracusian Antipholus and Dromio were free wanderers; now they are again relatively free and desirous of getting out of Ephesus." This situation acts as a frame within the more obvious frame-story of Egeon's legal difficulties.

Thus far we have observed separation or union operating on two levels: state and commerce. I have touched briefly on a third level, the family, and should like now to discuss it at greater length. To begin let us dwell for a moment on Egeon's fine expository speech in the opening scene of the play. I think it significant that the father of the Antipholuses has the opening lines of The Comedy of Errors, for his remarks are followed immediately by those of the 'father' of the dukedom, Solinus. The father of the Family and the father of the State are the only voices we hear throughout the first scene. Duke Solinus is interested in maintaining order and, therefore, is united—indeed equated—with the state as a responsible leader. Egeon, on the other hand, has been separated from his family and, as a result, searches desperately for the bonds of whatever family is left him. Egeon's family, as far as the old man knows, is made up of himself and the Syracusian Antipholus. Ironically his quest for his son will lead to his finding a complete family, but when we first see Egeon he is a man estranged from his loved ones. He is alone. And undergirding the sense of isolation is that wonderful description of what happened at sea many years ago (I.1.62-118). This is an extremely important passage, for it provides the basic dramatic setting and preparation for separation and union in the play. Egeon's speech, with its talk of retaining (line 65), embracing (69), fastening (79 and 85), binding (81), fixing (twice in 84), dispersing (89), meeting (100), splitting (103), divorcing (101), seizing (112), and severing (118), is the dramatic generator that provides the strong alternating current of tying and untying that we detect flowing through The Comedy of Errors. Egeon's speech, for example, sets in motion the dramatic-thematic contrast between sets of characters such as the 'tied' Antipholus of Ephesus and the united Antipholus of Syracuse. The lengthy passage also prepares us for the contrast between Adriana, who is united in marriage with the Ephesian brother, and Luciana, who is single and united.

Ironically it is Luciana, the "free" sister, who speaks conservatively, rationally, and restrictively, as it were. This is to say that Luciana's general demeanour is united with reason, whereas Adriana's is separated from reason by the passions of jealousy and matrimonial despair.12 Where Adriana represents a force that pushes domestic affairs toward separation and dissolution, Luciana embodies unifying Order. No other character (apart, perhaps, from Duke Solinus of Ephesus) speaks as does Luciana for the coherence attainable through order.13 Her speech to Adriana in Act II is a clear indication of this:

Luciana A man is master of his liberty;
Time is their master, and when they see time,
They'll go or come; if so, be patient, sister.
Adriana Why should their liberty than ours
  be more?
Luciana Because their business still lies out
Adriana Look, when I serve him so, he takes
  it ill.
Luciana O, know he is the bridle of your
Adriana There's none but asses will be
  bridled so.
Luciana Why, headstrong liberty is lash'd
  with woe.
There's nothing situate under heaven's eye
But hath his bound in earth, in sea, in sky.
The beasts, the fishes, and the winged fowls
Are their males' subjects, and at their
Man, more divine, the master of all these,
Lord of the wide world and wild wat'ry seas,
Indued with intellectual sense and souls,
Of more pre-eminence than fish and fowls,
Are masters to their females, and their lords:
Then let your will attend on their accords.

These lines by Luciana apply to the level of family, in particular to the relationship between man and wife. What is more, the passage is a brilliant statement of man's relationship to the order of nature or the cosmos. A man is unbound as far as his personal liberty is concerned, argues Luciana, but time binds man to the ever-turning wheel of things. Woman, like the beasts, fishes, and birds, is subservient to man in nature's cosmic plan. Luciana's speech on degree is spoken seriously and is to be taken as such. Shakespeare, at this early point in his play, aptly sketches in the Elizabethan world picture, which represents the greater logic to be contrasted with the absurd illogic that occurs in Ephesus during the course of several hours.

Luciana's sister characterizes herself through an even longer speech—one that also has a philosophical cast about it. Adriana's magnificent speech (II.2.113-46), a complaint to the Antipholus she mistakenly believes is her negligent husband, is filled with commentary on the discomfort of being separated from a loved one. And like the expository speech of Egeon in Act I, Adriana's lines here are packed with words and phrases sounding the separation-union motif: "touch" (line 116), "touch'd" (118), "estranged" (120), "strange" (121), "undividable" (122), "incorporate" (122), "tear away" (124), "the breaking gulf (126), "unmingled" (127), "cut" (137), "deep-divorcing" (138), "mingled" (141), "keep … league and truce" (145). Through this juxtaposing of references to uniting and dividing, stylistic tension is made to carry emotional intensity. Adriana is pessimistic throughout this speech, but she uses the water-drop image (1. 127) not to speak hopelessly of separation (as does the Syracusian Antipholus in 1.2.35-40) but to emphasize the strength of the unifying bond that exists between man and wife. Therefore, as much as Adriana has to say about dissolution or the breaking of ties, she is at least very much aware of the cords that join two people in married love.

The bond between husband and wife is dramatized not only by what Luciana or Adriana says but also by what Egeon and Emilia experience at the end of the play.14 After several years of separation they once again enjoy being together. Separation has given way to union in their fortunate case after Egeon is united by the state and Emilia leaves the confines of the priory. The Abbess says:

Whoever bound him, I will loose his bonds,
And gain a husband by his liberty.

Similarly, Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana are re-bound after the husband is untied by the arresting Officer and the wife frees herself of stifling jealousy. And now for the Syracusian Antipholus and Luciana a presumably happy marriage is in the offing, especially in view of their freedom to marry, Antipholus's willingness to bind himself to "this fair gentlewoman" (V. 1.373), and Luciana's outspoken advocacy of the binding doctrine of degree. Topping off the renewal of family ties between mother and father, husbands and wives, parents and children is the symbolic gesture of the two Dromios who leave the stage with the hand of one brother bound to the hand of the other. A more effective parallel to the re-uniting of the Antipholuses as well as a more suitable conclusion to this drama would be hard to imagine.

Shakespeare's purpose, then, in using the separation-union idea is to establish a patterned structure that not only reflects but also becomes the overall plot-movement of the play. In addition, Shakespeare both fleshes out the fundamental separation-union pattern and communicates its archetypal comic value thematically through words, motifs, and visual action. The Comedy of Errors portrays relative confinement giving way to freedom and past separation being replaced by present reunion. The separation-union antithesis contributes to the play several pulsating and bewildering ironies; but fortunately these ironies are easy to live with, especially when, on the one hand, they are responsible for creating robust comedy and, on the other, they finally become subordinated to the preservation of cosmos, state, commerce, and family as well as to the attainment of the freedom to enjoy these same four levels of human reality. This is what The Comedy of Errors offers us through its rendering of the structural-thematic pattern I have analysed. The play does its work not by means of senseless antics and heavy-handed sentimentality but by producing clear-sighted comedy that is not afraid to enhance its vision with an occasional sojourn into farce.


1 A brief account of recent criticism of the play appears in the note at the end of this article.

2 In his posthumous Shakespeare's Early Comedies (London, 1965), E. M. W. Tillyard comes close to my view of the play (pp. 65-6), but he does not develop the idea beyond a single paragraph.

3 All textual references are to the new Arden edition of the play edited by R. A. Foakes (London, 1962).

4 See the following works cited in the note at the end of this article: the essay by C. L. Barber in College English, p. 496; Harold Brooks's article in Early Shakespeare, p. 56; and Tillyard's Shakespeare's Early Comedies, pp. 52-4. See also ; ; and especially

5 In Act I, Egeon is presumably bound in the literal sense; in Act V, Dromio tells us that Egeon is literally bound (V. 1.294).

6 The fullest discussion to date of the chain and rope as symbols in the play is in Richard Henze's "The Comedy of Errors: 'A Freely Binding Chain'" Shakespeare Quarterly, 21 (1971), 35-41. For other comments on the chain as symbol in The Comedy of Errors see Cutts (pp. 15, 18-20), Bonazza (p. 31), and Tillyard (pp. 65-6). A negative and somewhat myopic observation comes from Mark Van Doren when he says that the chain "achieves no effect resembling that achieved by two plain words, 'the handkerchief, in a scene to come …" (Shakespeare (New York, 1939; reprinted 1953), p. 36).

7The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1961), p. 93, note 49.

8 Some confusion exists as to whether the "hostess" of the Porpentine (III. 1.116-19) and the Courtesan are indeed one and the same person. Balthasar suggests that Antipholus of Ephesus dine with him at the Tiger (111.1.95), and the Ephesian twin replies: "I know a wench of excellent discourse, Pretty and witty; wild and yet, too, gentle; There will we dine" (IH. 1.109). Does Antipholus mean that the "wench of excellent discourse" (clearly meaning the Courtesan) is available at the Tiger and not at the Porpentine? Or is he somewhat distracted at this point, thinking of the Courtesan and his plan to spite Adriana while he accepts the invitation to the Tiger, thereby juxtaposing the Tiger and the Courtesan in psychological confusion? I say no to the first question and yes to the second. The "hostess" and the Courtesan are the same person. For further substantiation, see the continuation of the chain incident (IV.3.43-5). There is no question as to the Courtesan's connexion with the world of commerce, which encompasses more obviously characters such as Egeon, Angelo the goldsmith, Balthasar, the First Merchant, and the Second Merchant. Interestingly, Egeon is a link between the levels of family, state, and commerce in that he is a father, a prisoner of the state, and a merchant.

9 Foakes (pp. 113-15) offers a convenient tabulation of the relationship between Ephesian occultism, St Paul's account of it, and Shakespeare's apparent use of the relevant biblical passages.

10 Doctor Pinch is himself forcibly subjected to binding, according to the Messenger (V. 1.170).

11 Significantly, the First Folio refers to the Syracusian Antipholus as "Erotes" (a possible corruption of erraticus, "wandering"). Foakes discusses this in his edition of the play (pp. xi-xxi and p. 12; see his opening notes to Act I, Scene 2).

12 Especially relevant is II. 1.86-116.

13 Shakespeare gives Adriana's sister (a character not found in the Plautine source) the name Luciana, which derives from lux. This suits one so clear-sighted and high-principled. She is even called "fair sun" (III.2.56). Adriana's maid, Luce, also has a name that derives from lux; but this name becomes significant by way of pun (assuming an Anglicized pronunciation), not by way of association with the light of reason and virtue. Luce appears briefly in Act III, Scene 1, where she is twice called "minion" (here meaning hussy) and once "baggage" (11. 54, 57, 59). And her reply to the Antipholus seeking entry into his house is coarse and bawdy: "Let him knock till it ache" (1. 58). In a dozen or so lines, then, Adriana's maid is linked with loose principles—hence her name. Whereas Luce is apparently separated from the moral norm, Luciana is bound to that norm. (Compare the looseness of Luce in this play with the far more fully realized looseness of Lucio in Measure for Measure.)

14 In A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York, 1965), Northrop Frye writes: "the central theme is the reunion, not of the twins, but of their father and mother" (p. 87). In this way The Comedy of Errors anticipates the dramatic romances at the close of Shakespeare's career. See also , and

Eamon Grennan (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Arm and Sleeve: Nature and Custom in The Comedy of Errors," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring, 1980, pp. 150-64.

[In this essay, Grennan argues that The Comedy of Errors is structured by a dialectic between the concepts of nature and custom.]

In the midst of the comic jostling that gives life to "perhaps the most uncomplicatedly funny of all Shakespeare's plays,"1 lurk a theme and a "structural idea"2 serious enough to command attention not only for the light they cast on this play but for the first sight they give of a concern that was to persist throughout Shakespeare's work. The dialectic of nature and custom variously repeated in the theme, structure, and language of The Comedy of Errors offers, for all its sober overtones, a way into the play that is true to its textual and theatrical possibilities, and provides yet another hint of the integrity and continuity of Shakespeare's imaginative vision.

A brief example of the relationship may be found in the two speeches of Luciana. Since Adriana's sister is Shakespeare's most substantial single addition to his sources her very presence presumably betrays some important emphases this creative adaptation is designed to carry. When, further, the dramatist gives this invented character two dramatically important speeches containing contradictory views of the same subject, it is arguable that they reveal something of what he thought was central to the play's meaning. In fact, as far as the present argument is concerned, the ramifications of Luciana's opposed views of marriage leave few aspects of the play untouched.

To edify, indeed to pacify, her incensed sister, Luciana invokes the customary relationship between men and women in marriage as a manifestation of the cardinal law of nature. In doing so, she employs a traditionally sanctioned mode of analogy:

There's nothing situate under heaven's eye
But hath his bound in earth, in sea, in sky.
The beasts, the fishes, and the winged fowls
Are their males' subjects, and at their
Man, more divine, the master of all these,
Lord of the wide world and wild wat'ry
Indued with intellectual sense and souls,
Of more pre-eminence than fish and fowls,
Are masters to their females, and their lords:
Then let your will attend on their accords.

This eloquent secular sermon on degree paints in miniature what E. M. W. Tillyard has ensured will always be known as "the Elizabethan World Picture." It represents a world of meticulous symmetries, as esthetically rigid ("situate") as the solid couplets themselves. Fixture is the defining mark of this world. By insisting that nature possess the esthetic shapes it is the business of custom to impose upon the world, Luciana implicitly identifies customary truths and the laws of nature. The world and all that is in it run to the dictates of decorum, a single principle governing all aspects of reality. "Decorum," as a recent critic puts it, "was thought to be natural order as perceived by the senses or the aesthetic imagination."4 The unitary mode of perception at work here subsumes the human order of custom into the more comprehensive, magisterial order of nature, "that manner of working which God hath set for each created thing to keepe."5

When Luciana later lectures the man she assumes to be the husband Antipholus on the same subject, however, the picture she provides is a radically different one (III.ii.1-28). Now what she calls "A husband's office" is a question less of cosmic determinism than circumstantial pragmatism. Hortatory piety cedes to practical considerations:

If you did wed my sister for her wealth,
Then for her wealth's sake use her with more
Or if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth,
Muffle your false love with some show of

Mutability penetrates the fixed hierarchical picture of the world; marriage may suffer a seasonal fate ("shall, Antipholus, / Even in the spring of love, thy love-springs rot?" [2-3]). Without meaning to, Luciana severs the institution of marriage from all external supports and leaves it the naked human convention it is, a device to order in a decorous way, no matter what the inner truth, the surface appearances of sexual relationships:

Look sweet, speak fair, become disloyalty;
Apparel vice like virtue's harbinger;
Bear a fair presence, though your heart be
Be secret false; what need she be acquainted?
Though others have the arm, show us the

The repeated use of clothes imagery stresses the emphatic superficiality of this custom: false love should be muffled, vice should be appareled as its opposite, and the "arm" of true love may be replaced in a way that is conventionally adequate by the pathetic "sleeve" of marital hypocrisy. Acceptable external show ought in such cases to misrepresent inner truth. Conventional appearances no longer reflect a natural design of universal nobility; instead, they are the decorous mask of human deceit, transforming the "Lord of the wide world" into a small-time Machiavel of marital politics. As the couplets of the earlier speech give way to the slightly more flexible quatrains of this one, a binary mode of perception capable of splitting custom irrevocably from nature replaces the unitary mode that identified them. Put more simply, the commonplaces of experience usurp the commonplaces of theory.

Between them these two speeches force us, it seems to me, to consider the relationship between nature and custom as it may appear elsewhere in the play, and to ask whether the play takes us beyond the unresolved dialectic with which this unit leaves us.

The theme of The Comedy of Errors has been variously described as "the loss of identity,"6 the quest for identity,7 the possessiveness of love,8 and "Relationship between human beings, depending on their right relationship to truths and universal law."9 These are all worthwhile, if partial, insights into the play. To them I would add my own claim, that the mainspring of the comic action is a conflict between what is customary (or, as I shall also call it, conventional) and what is natural. The very premise on which the comedy stands, for example, suggests no less. All the characters accept the truth of the assumption that identical appearances betoken identical realities. The facts as we know them, and they experience them, conventionally disprove this, however, and our amusement in part is a result of our witnessing such conventional assumptions short-circuited by factual truths. The play is punctuated by enough collisions to establish a structural rhythm, dividing the action into units that repeat this fundamental event.

The emblematic opening incident, for example, draws our attention insistently to two things: the arbitrary implacability of the law (custom carried to its dogmatic extremity), and the natural sympathy evoked by the pathetic figure of the condemned old man. It is, Solinus tells Egeon, "by law thou art condemn'd to die" (I.i.25); this law is itself the result of other "rigorous statutes" (9); the Duke would show clemency "were it not against our laws," and "passed sentence may not be recall'd" (142, 147). On the other hand, Egeon's long, woeful narrative, locked between the calculatedly "tragic" couplets with which he opens and closes the scene, is designed to move an audience to sympathetic grief. Like the Duke, the audience is compelled to experience in an almost ritualistic manner the tension between custom and nature. Abiding sorrowfully by the first all must nonetheless recognize the claims of the second, and grieve at how the pathetic fluency of the individual (externalized in the image of the quest) is subject to the ethic confinement of the law.

Other examples of this structural unit abound. Act I, Scene ii, for example, begins with an overtly civil conversation between Antipholus of Syracuse and the First Merchant. Their exchange is stuffed with social phenomena (mart, merchants, money, statutes, manners, buildings, inns, meal-times, masters and servants, a dinner invitation) and marked by the mannerly tone of polite social gesture ("I crave your pardon," "please you," "Sir, I commend you to your own content" [2-32]. Left alone, however, Antipholus utters a speech that unravels the tightly woven fabric of this secure social world, replacing its fixity, its confident conventional identity with his own mysterious sensation of non-being:

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop.
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
(Unseen, inquisitive) confounds himself.

Such undermining of the customary world continues to the end of the scene. Dromio's breathless language and behavior must seem to Antipholus to be anarchic, 'natural.' They erode the conventional master-slave relationship ("these jests are out of season, / Reserve them till a merrier hour than this" 67-68) and in Antipholus' baffled consciousness transform a solid, understandable environment of merchants, good manners, and fine buildings into a nightmare refuge of "jugglers that deceive the eye," sorcerers, witches, mountebanks, and cheats (95-105).

Act II, Scene i exemplifies the same structural pattern. There, in opposition to the custom-sanctioned picture of the world offered by Luciana (see above), Adriana asserts the nature of her own hurt self; the promptings of private pain force her to reject the fixed, public version of reality expressed by her sister: "They can be meek that have no other cause" (II.i.33). The first encounter between Adriana and Antipholus of Syracuse (II.ii.110 ff.) also confirms the operation of this structural paradigm. Antipholus' freshly restored confidence in the world's customary solidity (achieved by means of a word-game, a conventional way of relating with his slave, 70-109) is rudely shattered by the greeting of his supposed wife. His grasp on reality takes on the confused, fragmentary qualities of a dream (181-84); his servant imagines he has been dropped into a "fairy land"; and their perception of reality as ruled by transformation (nature run riot) is balanced by Adriana's opposite sense (seen in her repeated references to "husband") of reality restored to its norms. For her the world resumes its customary shape; for him it has become a region of dreadful obscurity (212), a place of mist and error where even his own condition ("Sleeping or waking, mad or well advis'd" [213]) must be doubted.

A variant of the same pattern appears in the first sequence concerning Antipholus of Ephesus. His conversation with Balthasar the Merchant is marked by super-polite platitudes, molded to a metric that augments our sense of the exchange as a procession of stylized social postures:

Bal. Good meat, sir, is common; that every
  churl affords.
Ant. And welcome more common, for that's
  nothing but words.
                                     (III. .i.24-25)

This calm social equilibrium is seriously (and hilariously) upset, however, when Antipholus is rejected by his own world. The natural violence of his response ("Go fetch me something, I'll break open the gate" [73]) is only mollified by Balthasar's reminder regarding all the conventional reasons (his reputation, his wife and honor, slander) for not resorting to such tactics (85-106). Even in the depths of the comic occasion, the dialectical tension between nature and custom endures.

The same tension marks the encounter between Antipholus of Syracuse and Luciana. To her conventional advice regarding how to fit the role of faithful husband (see above) he opposes his own natural passion ("Transform me, then, and to your power I'll yield" [III.ii.40]). In turn, even the conventional literary quality of his amorous assault is comically and almost immediately deflated by Dromio's description of Nell. Succeeding the conventional furniture of sirens, "silver waves," and "golden hairs," comes the grotesquely natural phenomenon of Nell, her body a cartographer's bad dream, with the bogs of Ireland in her buttocks, Spain in her hot breath, and the Indies "upon her nose, all o'er-embellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires," (80-145). It is true that, as Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 ("My mistress' eyes") and Donne's Elegy VIII ("The Comparison") show, the deflation of Petrarchan sentiment by underlining the woman's physical features is itself a recognizable convention. In the present case, however, what is on the aesthetic level a conflict between conventions (Petrarchism and anti-Petrarchism jostling one another) is on the substantial level a collision between the "natural" and "customary" in female beauty. It is true too that the use of geographical imagery at this point is also conventional (see Donne's Elegy XVIII, "Love's Progress"). But by its means the playwright instructs the audience in the opposition between conventionally elevating ways of perceiving the woman and her more naturally physical aspects.

As the play proceeds, the dialectic of custom and nature intensifies. By the fourth act the 'natural' side so threatens the whole world of the play that it must be opposed by the strictest of all social conventions, the law. Subject to the natural imperatives of weather and tide (IV.i.33, 46), the Second Merchant initiates a sequence in which Angelo and Antipholus of Ephesus are arrested for debt. In the course of this sequence (IV.i.1-85) the customary niceties of social behavior buckle under the pressures of natural belief and natural anger, as Antipholus' address of the Goldsmith declines from "good signior" through "sir" and "fellow" to "sirrah" (36, 43, 76, 82). Even the strictly conventional Luciana manifests one touch of nature, admitting that "in an honest suit" Antipholus' words "might move" (IV.ii.14). By this, while the structural pattern still operates, the relationship between its components has grown more complex, so that customary and conventional aspects of the world are themselves understood as natural deceptions. Antipholus of Syracuse, for example, in his description of how the Ephesians treat him, reveals the conventional life of the citizens:

Some tender money to me, some invite me,
Some other give me thanks for kindnesses,
Some offer me commodities to buy.

His fearful response to such behavior, however, immediately short-circuits its customary implications: he becomes the prey of natural confusion, convinced that such conventionality is mere deceit: "These are but imaginary wiles, / And Lapland sorcerers inhabit here" (10-11). From the perspective of his terror, the conventional world he evokes is instantly devalued, a point made most explicit when, in a crowning touch to this sequence, his conventionally pious invocation "Some blessed power deliver us from hence" (42) is answered by the entrance of nature in the flesh—the Courtesan.

As the dialectic becomes more and more unbalanced in the direction of nature even that most conventional of men, Antipholus of Ephesus, must begin to lose his grip. At the beginning of IV.iv., however, he is still trying to explain the inexplicable in customary terms: the remarkable events are the result of his wife's "wayward mood" (his first words about her in the play are that she is "shrewish" [III.i.2]). However, when his servant, whom he "knows" has sent for redemption money returns instead with a rope, his threshold of conventionality is crossed and he gives in to his natural outrage by beating the unfortunate Dromio. With the entrance of his wife, her sister, the Courtesan, and Dr. Pinch, his outrage descends into what can only to the others appear natural madness: furiously he calls his wife "strumpet," strikes poor Pinch, struggles with his captors, and physically bound to a slave who is, as Dromio reminds us, bound to him by convention, is finally carried from the stage. In this welter of violent action (the women are driven from the stage by the "return" of the other Antipholus and Dromio) the calm assumptions of custom and convention seem incapable of being sustained for more than a moment or two. The dramatic rhythm, in other words (structure made manifest on the stage), corresponds to a thematic progression.

Finally, the opening of Act V contains a sequence that seems to shatter this structural organization on the comic disorder of events. First the conversation between Angelo and the Second Merchant about Antipholus of Ephesus evokes the conventional city we have already seen (V.i.1-9). With the entrance of Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, however, the mood shifts from such civility to the threat and counter-threat of incipient violence (29-32). This violence becomes even more spectacular when Adriana, Luciana, the Courtesan, and others dash on, and a frightened Antipholus and his man rush off. At this moment of furious action, through which the lineaments of the original paradigm still faintly glimmer, the structural unit that marks the play up to this seems to have been taken as far as it will go. What remains must be dissolution or resolution, chaos or synthesis. The dramatist can conclude his plot or abandon it.

As intimated earlier, the language of The Comedy of Errors mirrors its action, offering its own equivalent of the structural pattern. Even a superficial reading of the comedy immediately reveals how conventional its linguistic and poetic elements are. Repeatedly, our attention seems deliberately drawn to the care with which the dramatist observes contemporary literary conventions, as though this fact were itself the point. Egeon's protracted account of his miseries (I.i.32-140) is a strict version of conventional narratio.10 Its verbal postures are those of a formal oration (e.g., 33, 94, 120), insisting, as any good production will see and exploit, upon an explicitly oratorical relationship between the speaker and his two audiences. That the speech is grounded in literary custom is revealed in its opening lines, which allude to the most famous prototype of such a tale as he is telling—Aeneas' account to Dido of his misfortunes—and by the fact that his whole narration bears some "general similarity" to Virgil's.11 The verse is almost entirely regular,12 and Egeon's three couplests, one at the opening, another after the Duke passes sentence, and the last to close the scene, frame his narration in an obvious way, underlining its conventionally static, tableau-like quality. The sequence as a whole fulfills the conventional function of a prologue or argumentum (as found in Plautus' Menaechmi, for example), composing a frame for the entire action and granting the audience a customary comic knowledge superior to that of any of the participants.

Similar observations are applicable to the language and verse of the other set-pieces salted at regular intervals through the play. The balance of the rhetorical units that make up Luciana's advice to Adriana (ILL 15-25) matches, as I remarked earlier, the universal equilibrium that is the speech's subject. No less regular is Adriana's more emotional reply, its decisively closed couplets as formally conventional as her sister's. Patently conventional too is Adriana's rhetoric of abuse and self-pity. Her speeches abound in extravagant imagery, rhetorical questions, and irritable logic (e.g., II.i.96-98), as well as in the conventionally pathetic diction and imagery of emotional appeal (e.g., 100-01, 114-15). Her direct verbal assault upon her husband (II.ii.110-16) is equally forthright in its rhetorical nature. She repeats the same phrase and employs a diction under the rhetorical influence of the sermon, using to pointed effect such latinate words as "licentious," "consecrate," "contaminate," as well as the more homely "spit," and "spurn," and employing phrases that edge into moral allegories ("ruffian lust," "harlot brow").

Apart from its interesting substance Luciana's advice to Antipholus (III.ii.1-28) also reveals an intensely conventional rhetorical organization. Composed of seven self-contained quatrains, and almost proverbial in its patness, its principal pattern is that of antithetical grouping ("Apparel vice like virtue's harbinger; / Bear a fair presence, though your heart be tainted; / Teach sin the carriage of a holy saint" [III.ii.12-14]), each of which possesses quasi-proverbial authority. Antipholus' lyrical reply is also extremely conventional, its rhetorical pattern traceable to Erasmus' advice on writing love letters.13 Calculated quatrains are its formal architecture, and its diction, imagery, and sentiments compose in their amalgam of Platonic, Petrarchan, and Ovidian elements what Samuel Johnson calls "the common cant of lovers," meaning the conventional rhetoric of love poets.14

Finally, the Abbess's chastisement of Adriana for jealousy (IV.i.58-86) bears all the marks of a conventional sermon against one of the seven deadly sins. "Thou sayest" is repeated with forensic exactitude and point; a sequence of cause and effect is developed with logical inevitability; and the sermon note is especially audible in the way a submerged personification surfaces to become a whole family of full-blown allegorical abstractions. As a result of jealousy, she asks rhetorically, "what doth ensue,"

But moody and dull melancholy,
Kinsman to grim and comfortless despair,
And at her heel a huge infectious troop
Of pale distemperatures and foes to life.

Common to all these uses of language is an assumption that the forms employed and the statements made will immediately and in the way intended by the speakers be decipherable by the listeners. Even when the speakers are at odds with one another they use the language in essentially the same way. Both formally and substantively, therefore, language in such cases is being used according to custom and according to conventional shared beliefs about its secure relationship with non-linguistic reality—the world to which it refers.

Matching the structural pattern set up in dealing with the action, however, the play contains a further use of language that is the antithesis of the one I have just described. Thus at every turn we see the orderliness of conventional verbal forms sabotaged by the linguistic anarchy of the pun. For while the formal presence of the pun is a conventional comic device, its actual function within the fictional world is a reminder of the natural ambivalence inherent in experience. The implications of this fact, then, go deeper than language. For the pun, as Sigurd Burckhardt has remarked, "gives the lie direct to the social convention that is language," and by denying the meaningfulness of words it "calls into question the genuineness of the linguistic currency on which the social order depends."15 The conflict between conventional uses of language and the pun re-enacts in linguistic terms the dialectical relationship of custom and nature observable in the action.

Since the play is built on a double pun, the two sets of twins being no less than the incarnation of this linguistic phenomenon, it is no accident that this is one of the drama's most frequently used literary devices.16 The contrast between the two opposing uses of language is in the play from the very beginning. The stern conventionality of the legal and narrative language of the opening scene, briefly recalled by the first sixteen lines of Scene ii, collides in a remarkable way with the breathless barrage of puns launched against an astonished Antipholus of Syracuse by Dromio of Ephesus. Each mis-reads the other (beginning with Antipholus' "Here comes the almanac of my true date" [41]), and this mis-reading is given active body in the slave's puns on such innocent-seeming words as "stomach," "fast," and "marks" (11,94), all of which have for him, a natural, physical implication.

Such collisions punctuate the play's linguistic activity. In a flurry of puns Dromio of Ephesus interrupts the conventional language of the marriage debate between Luciana and Adriana (II.i.44ff.): physical and metaphysical meanings of a word, the one natural, the other customary or conventional, are divorced (so "at hand" becomes "at two hands," "Told" becomes "tolled," "feel" is given both its meanings). In each case the pun reveals a conventional (polite and almost abstract) meaning, and a physical (natural) one. As audience to this game we are obliged to attend to both, to hold both in an unresolved tension that provokes our comic response. As perpetrators of puns, the slaves repeatedly compensate for their social bondage by their linguistic freedom. Doing so they draw attention to the counterpoint between the conventional fixity of society, which victimizes them, and the natural fluidity of language, which is their weapon of comic revenge. Existing at a more physical level than the other characters (witness their incessant beatings which, while they belong to the dramatic convention that dictates this kind of master-slave relationship, are nonetheless a spectacular example of "natural" action), their language constantly reminds us of this anarchic realm. Thus, while Antipholus of Syracuse is transformed "in mind," his slave insists he himself is transformed "both in mind and in my shape" (II.ii. 195-97), and translates the metaphorical "ass" he is called by Luciana into a literal one, "'Tis true, she rides me, and I long for grass" (200). After his master's amorous siege of Luciana, Dromio counterpoints the conventional language of a lover with a blast of overt and covert puns in his description of Nell (III.ii.71-145). It is the same Dromio who in his account to Adriana of Antipholus' arrest perpetrates a flock of puns by converting such conventional legal terms as "case" and "suit" to their physical meanings, and quibbling on words like "redemption," "band," and "hour" (whore) (IV.ii.44-66).

The pun recognizes the refusal of language to be confined within its conventional borders. Such a deliberate emphasis upon the anarchic independence of language, its natural tendency to contrive a reality at odds with conventional, would-be objective truth best accounts for the extraordinary digressive descriptions Dromio of Syracuse gives of the Officer and of Time (IV.ii.32-40, 53-62; IV.iii. 15-32). In a burst of what seems to be irrelevant creation (and to the utter confusion of Adriana) the ideas of "officer" and "Time" are subjected to a series of remarkable metamorphoses. The Officer becomes a devil, a fury, a wolf, "a fellow all in buff," "a back-fiend, a shoulder clapper," a hound, an avenging angel, Adam, the Prodigal son, a tempter, a bass-viol, and a bidder of kind good-nights. Less extravagantly, Time is turned into a guilty thief and a bankrupt, and made capable of moving backward. The sheer energy of these linguistic explosions, stuffed with puns, transforms their apparent irrelevance into an integral part of the drama. The natural anarchy of such verbal extravaganzas (anticipating Falstaff's splendid fustian) collides dialectically with the stiffest of all the play's conventions, those of law and time.

Marked as I have shown above by intensified confusion in the action, Act IV is also distinguished by an increase in linguistic chaos. First the entrance of the Courtesan causes Dromio of Syracuse to play in breathless terror on such words as "dam," "light," "burn," and "pride," whose inner meanings are all physical and sexual. In a snowball effect, then, puns are perpetrated by everyone, spilling out of such innocuous words as "end," "patient," "senseless," "sensible," "ears," "give," "feel," and "bond," (IV.iv.15-125). In such turmoil the conventional currency of language is de-valued as soon as it is minted. And at this point, just as happened with the play's action, we have gone as far as possible while still retaining, in however unbalanced a way, the dialectic of custom and nature in language. The poet has stretched his language to its limits.

With the entrance of the Abbess at V.i.38, the dialectic of custom and nature in the language and the action of Errors achieves its synthesis. That the Abbess is a conventional figure of authority will immediately be suggested by the stage action, with the "people" growing silent and clustering round her. In questioning Adriana about her husband, however, she shows rich insight and an openness to natural feelings:

Hath he not lost much wealth by wrack of
Buried some dear friend? Hath not else his
Stray'd his affection in unlawful love,
A sin prevailing much in youthful men,
Who give their eyes the liberty of gazing?
Which of these sorrows is he subject to?

Her tone throughout is humane and understanding; her authority, like her verse, is flexible in natural ways. Sin, the customary way of looking at Antipholus' behavior ("possession" in Pinch's terminology), is mitigated by a sorrow that speaks of her concern for a human being. In the same way her rebuke of Adriana's jealousy is not the reduction of a living woman to a conventional caricature (like her Plautine original, and as Luciana and Antipholus of Ephesus see her), but an accurate assessment of the pragmatic particulars. Unlike the conventional chiding of her sister (II.i.10-41), this assessment Adriana can accept: "She did betray me to mine own reproof (90). As the sequence progresses we see that the Abbess combines unaffectedly the qualities of custom and nature. She refuses to submit to the wife's conventional priority when Adriana claims that the cure of her husband "is my office" (99), insisting instead that the higher law of 'sanctuary' be observed. She appeals to the "charitable duty of my order" to justify her taking care of Antipholus, showing the balance between humane and conventional in the conjunction of adjective and noun, while the means she will take to "make of him a formal man again" are likewise a combination of natural and customary, the physical and the spiritual, "wholesome syrups, drugs, and holy prayers" (104). In her speech and behavior she gathers conventional considerations into natural means and leads both into what can only be called the realm of "grace."17

It is at this tense moment that the play comes full circle, bringing not only its plot but also its structural, linguistic, and thematic dialectic to a satisfactory resolution. Egeon is led to execution. Appeals to the strictest conventionality of the law (in the person of the Duke) are made by Adriana against the Abbess and by Antipholus of Ephesus against his wife. As husband and wife narrate the day's occurrences from their opposite perspectives, nature and convention are oddly mingled—the discourse reasonable, the passions insoluble. The sudden appearance of both sets of twins baffles all customary assumptions: "who," asks the Duke, "deciphers them?" (334). It is at this impasse to conventional understanding, however, that the intractable knot is loosed by something beyond nature and custom in the person of Emilia: who is at once a part of this conflict and its proper resolution. In her various identity she belongs to and at the same time transcends both the orders of nature and of custom. By recognizing her husband she looses him from the law's conventional grasp, while she resolves the conventional dilemma of the identical twins by again going "in travail" of them and being at "this present hour" delivered of her "heavy burden" (400-02). Herself a perfect fusion of nature (mother) and custom (nun), it is appropriate that she bring the action to a concluding synthesis of the two. We may call that synthesis grace. That we will not take such grace too heavily, however, we have a lighter reflection of it in the final exit, reserved for the Dromios. Between them as they leave, they good-humoredly dissolve the social convention of precedence, and go off the stage as they naturally came into the world, departing "like brother and brother, / … hand in hand, not one before another."

The scene has a linguistic development parallel to its action. Devoted to the untangling of errors the last act is almost entirely free of puns. Language is restored to its more normal usage: words for the most part bear only one meaning and that the conventionally appropriate one. In the Abbess's intention that all shall retire to the abbey (the house of truth) and there "hear at large discoursed all our fortunes" (395), language will be responsible for the restoration of an order that in part language has dislocated. The conventional meaning of words, like the relationships between those living puns, the twins, are sorted out. As the original shipwreck divided the brothers on a literal and then a metaphorical sea of formlessness and lost identity, the puns, splitting words into two identical but distinct elements, revealed the shape-shifting, uncertain nature of language itself. At the end, then, language is restored to a happy singularity, a sense of its own identity. But, as with the twins, it is an identity taught by experience to acknowledge its own implicit duality, its own dangerous power to shipwreck the conventional uses to which it is put. Such linguistic self-awareness I would call a synthesis of nature and convention, a grace of language proper to all of us, I suppose, but most proper to the poet, for whom inevitably it is not merely a fact but a subject. It is again the brothers Dromio, main agents of the pun, who give final expression to this awareness of the inherent duality of language, a duality that compels language beyond its customary boundaries and forces it to reflect a reality that itself cannot be contained by such conventional bonds. Finally language and reality are seen, quite simply, to have more than one meaning, and these multiple meanings are inseparable from one another. As far as language is concerned, this is the significance of the final couplet:

We came into the world like brother and
And now let's go hand in hand, not one
  before another.

The simplicity of this, coming where it does, suggests a state of innocence after the experience of the fall. The couplet displays a linguistic grace that has the grace to be awkward, caught between and incorporating the convention of verse and the nature of prose. Aware of the experience of the fall, this new innocence instructs players and audience alike that the customary contours of their own experience are neither its final truth nor its substantial meaning.

To see the play as I have seen it in this essay is to locate certain preoccupations of the young dramatist. The relationship between custom and nature is the subject, in part, of The Comedy of Errors. Such a concern seems appropriate to an artist at the outset of his career. It is relevant to him as an individual talent coming to terms with the conventions of his art, and it concerns him as an observer of his world, coming to grips with its truths of theory and experience. Such preoccupations early establish contacts between the man and the artist that transform the making of plays into an activity that can re-enact in itself, whether in a comic or a tragic mask, the most important questions of existence. The relationship between nature and custom is an enduring concern of all of Shakespeare's work; his approach to it gains in richness of insight and complexity of meaning as he develops as a dramatist. To find it occupying such a central place in his earliest play is to suggest yet again the extraordinary coherence and integrity of the vision and the work.


1 David Bevington, Introduction to The Comedy of Errors in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig and David Bevington (rev. ed.; Glenview, III.: Scott, Foresman, 1973), p. 80.

2 The phrase is Ralph Berry's. See Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton U. Press, 1972), p. 26.

3The Comedy of Errors, ed. R. A. Foakes, New Arden Edition (Harvard U. Press, 1962). All textual references are to this edition. References cited as "Foakes" are to the editorial notes in this edition.

4 T. McAlindon, Shakespeare and Decorum (London: Macmillan, 1973), p. 8.

5 Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, in The Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker, General Editor W. Speed Hill (Harvard U. Press, 1977), p. 64.

6 A. C. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare (San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1967), p. 90.

7 Foakes, pp. xliii-xlix.

8 John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies (London: Methuen, 1957), p. 54.

9 Harold Brooks, "Themes and Structure in The Comedy of Errors," in Early Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies III (London: Arnold, 1961), p. 67.

10 See Marvin T. Herrick, Comic Theory in the Sixteenth Century (U.of Illinois Press, 1950), p. 29.

11 See Foakes, p. 5 n.

12 Departures from the iambic norm occur at lines 3, 26, 42, 45, 82, non-pentameters are lines 38, 54, 61, 155.

13 See T. W. Baldwin, William Shakspere 's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke (U. of Illinois Press, 1944), II, 282-84.

14Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, VII (Yale U. Press, 1968), p. 356.

15Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton U. Press, 1968), p. 25.

16 Bertrand Evans' claim that "the very pun … is scanted" (Shakespeare's Comedies [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960], p. 2), is difficult to reconcile with a close reading of the text.

17 It is significant that some undeniable Christian implications do appear not only in the Abbess's function, but in her speech: the "thirty-three years" she goes "in travail of her sons" reminds in a fairly arbitrary manner (since the computation of their years elsewhere does not give such an age) of the age of Christ, while the mention of "their nativity," as well as the overtones of baptism in "a gossips' feast" also contribute to a deliberately Christian sense of grace in this comic resolution. Development of this interesting point is not necessary to the present argument. See John Arthos, Shakespeare: The Early Writings (Totowa, N. J.: Rowan and Littlefield, 1972), pp. 36-37.

Ruth Nevo (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "My Glass and Not My Brother," in Comic Transformations in Shakespeare, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1980, pp. 22-36.

[In this excerpt, Nevo analyzes The Comedy of Errors as a play that contains all the elements that mark Shakespeare's mature comedy.]

If it were not so funny, Shakespeare's first comedy would read like a schizophrenic nightmare: identities are lost, split, engulfed, hallucinated, imploded.1 Apparently solid citizens (solid at least to themselves) suffer "ontological uncertainty" in acute forms, wandering about unrecognized by all they encounter. During this chapter of accidents servants are subjected to assault and battery upon their persons and masters are subjected to the severest undermining of their sense of their own identity. A respectable citizen is shut out of his own house by his own wife and servants, abused by his merchant associates, arrested on charges of falsehood, taken for insane, given over for cure into the hands of a mountebank pedant and, in general, experiences the collapse of all the familiar social and cognitive foundations of his life and his sense of reality. At the same time a displaced, disorientated voyager is so alarmed by the inexplicable behaviour of all Ephesians, including the object of his new affections, that he becomes convinced he has taken leave of his senses, or is the victim of witchcraft. The disintegrating effects of this frenzy of errors are such as to cause one brother to be incarcerated as a raving lunatic and the other to take flight in panic.

These zany events are often dismissed as "farce", a youthful malady Shakespeare was to grow out of. The New Shakespeare editor says, "as yet, farce and romance were not one "form" but two separate stools; and between them in The Comedy of Errors he fell to the ground".2 Quiller-Couch's half-truth misleads. As I have argued in the previous chapter, farce and romance appear, in varying proportions but indivisibly inter-locked, in Shakespeare's New Comedy models; and while it would be simply foolish to deny the increasing refinement of artistry with which he manufactured "one form" out of his heterogeneous materials, nevertheless in The Comedy of Errors, I suggest, not only did he not fall between two stools, he laid the foundations for all his subsequent essays in the comic mode. It is precisely the farcical phase of The Comedy of Errors which, so far from requiring apology, confers upon it a genuine primacy.

I wish to argue that in this first of the comedies Shakespeare's fundamental, generating comic strategy is manifest, and that this is what we must seek if we are to understand the comicalness of Shakespearean comedy. The initiating privation is that created by the losses of the various limbs of a family body. A husband has lost a wife, a wife a husband, parents their children, children their parents, and brothers each other. At the immediate opening of the play we hear of poor Egeon's further loss of his one remaining son, and the threat of death by a harsh and retributive law. All that is required to save Egeon is a thousand marks but the extremity of his situation is the lack of anyone to pay it. Egeon's first speech, therefore is expressive of his total adversity, isolation and bereavement. He is a being so dispossessed that he welcomes his fate:

Yet this my comfort, when your words are
My woes end likewise with the evening sun.
                               (I.i. 26-7)

The Comedy of Errors begins Shakespeare's long exploration of this danger zone with the issue which constitutes the basic condition of personal integrity, of personal identity: sameness and difference, pinpointed, in the doubleness of twins, in its most overt and pantomimic form. The loading of the dice in this direction is made clear by a moment's glance at the Menaechmi, where the complete family plays no part, the likeness of the twins to each other is the occasion of merely technical errors, and the motivations of both sturdily pragmatic. Menaechmus I is engaged in keeping wife, mistress and parasite in that stage of tenuous equilibrium which makes life possible and Menaechmus II is speedily persuaded of the advantages of a courtesan's free hospitality however inexplicable. The climactically hilarious scene in which one twin simulates the madness everyone believes him to suffer from, in order to escape the attentions of a wife and a father-in-law, and the other acts madly out of the sheer fury and frustration induced by the unaccountable events, is totally devoid of reverberations which could suggest the dimension of inner experience. Compare the speech "He that commends me to mine own content" of the melancholy, voyaging Antipholus of Syracuse:

He that commends me to mine own content,
Commends me to the thing I cannot get:
I to the world am like a drop of water,
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth
(Unseen, inquisitive), confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them (unhappy), ah, lose myself
                             (I. ii. 33-40)

This is followed by the first pas-de-deux of mistaken identities—of being "unseen": he is called to a mysterious dinner by his servant who has unaccountably taken it into his head to chatter about mistresses and sisters instead of telling him where his money is bestowed.

When this same Dromio returns home to report to his mistress he does so with perhaps less than complete accuracy but with great pantomimic verve; and it so happens that his tale presents her with just what the feelings of a neglected wife need to inflame them:

When I desir'd him to come home to dinner,
He ask'd me for a [thousand] marks in gold;
' 'Tis dinner-time,' quoth I: 'My gold!' quoth
'Will you come?' quoth I: 'My gold!' quoth
'Where is the thousand marks I gave thee,
'The pig,' quoth I, 'is burn'd': 'My gold!'
  quoth he.
'My mistress, sir,' quoth I: 'Hang up thy
I know not thy mistress, out on thy mistress!'
                                   (II. i. 60-8)

Adriana is a stout warrior against double standards ("Why should their liberty than ours be more?" and has tart replies to her sister's conservative pieties concerning women's place and the virtues of obedience, patience and meekness. But Dromio's tale confirms her worst suspicions, throws her into a paroxysm of self-pity and exacerbates the conjugal battle of the sexes between Adriana and her husband:

His company must do his minions grace,
Whilst I at home do starve for a merry look:
Hath homely age th' alluring beauty took
From my poor cheek? Then he hath wasted it.

What ruins are in me that can be found,
By him not ruin'd?
                            (II. i. 87-90; 96-7)

When we hear her appeal to her once devoted, now (apparently) wayward husband it must come as something of a surprise that she uses the very language of the Antipholus she is in fact addressing in the belief that he is her husband:

How comes it now, my husband, O how
  comes it,
That thou art then estranged from thyself?
Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable incorporate,
Am better than thy dear selfs better part.
Ah, do not tear away thyself from me;
For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled hence that drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.
                            (II. ii. 119-29)

Much has been made of the interesting recurrence, and interesting indeed it is. What I believe we are able to construct both from the recurrence as such and from the import of the ocean-waterdrop relation, is the restless, schizoid condition of Ephesians and Syracusans alike. Antipholus' baffled quest for himself—for the mother and the brother through whom he will realize himself—is the inverted mirror image of Adriana's almost rapacious "incorporation" of her husband into herself, a frantic, possessive dependence. What is lacking in both is self-possession. Neither is his own man, with a composed and secure sense of his own independent separate identity and, in consequence, of the boundaries between himself and others. She is estranged from her husband; he is a stranger in a strange land. Neither sees him or herself as clearly and distinctly autonomous. Neither possesses the detachment of the drop, and both, in consequence, fear oceanic engulfment.

The beautiful farcical point of the play's whole evolution is that precisely oceanic engulfment, the great dread, overcomes them and their fellow protagonists, in the hyperbolic and comic-monstrous forms of fantasy. In the alien Antipholus, the tendency to be confused about who one is and where one is reaches a point where 'alienation' might well be a medical diagnosis. The disorientation and bewilderment of the Syracusan pair is referred to in terms which, while appropriate to the legendary Ephesus, transform the depth of their bafflement into a pathological paranoia: cozenage, sorcery, witchcraft, demonic possession; they are surrounded, so they believe, by cheats, mountebanks, "goblins", "owls", "sprites", "fiends", Satan himself, or "the devil's dam" in the shape of the comforting courtesan. The resident twin becomes "estranged from himself in a sense no less radical.

The more they lose themselves in a spiralling whirligig of misapprehensions, the more their latent selves emerge, or are acted out. This is the fundamental Shakespearean discovery. The processus turbarum educes, brings out, exacerbates and enlarges the comic disposition, the maladies, frailties, fears and obsessions of the protagonists, and in so doing, brings remedy about. Both the comic fury of Ephesian Antipholus and the comic consternation of his twin illustrate the process. And when Adriana expresses her outrage in abuse of her errant husband:

He is deformed, crooked, old, and sere,
Ill-fac'd, worse-bodied, shapeless everywhere;
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind,
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind.
                            (IV. ii. 19-22)

and Luciana very sensibly enquires:

Who would be jealous then of such a one?
No evil lost is wail'd when it is gone.
                                   (IV. ii. 23-4)

Adriana's reply is significant:

Ah, but I think him better than I say;
And yet would herein other eyes were
Far from her nest the lapwing cries away;
My heart prays for him, though my tongue
do curse.
                            (IV. ii. 25-8)

By the same token Adriana's simultaneous welcoming of one twin and rejection of the other can be seen as an externalization of the real ambivalence of her feelings. The knot of errors, the processus turbarum, turns the world of the protagonists upside down, and discovers them to us in all their comical, previously hidden ambivalences, violences and consternations. It also minimally, and as yet, inchoately, reveals them to themselves.

By the end of the play Antipholus will have found not only his mother, brother and father, but himself—a will and an orientation—through the familiar alchemy of romantic love; and Adriana, in the second plot, will have been neatly duped into a recognition of her own weaknesses and a capacity to realize her own genuine lovingness, through the cunning cross-examination of the Abbess. But for these bonuses of insight there is a price, the price of ridicule. Antipholus' courtship of Luciana is ridiculous because the lady in question is under the impression that he is her brother-in-law, who has taken leave of his morals as well as of his senses. It is one thing for a Petrarchan lover to find himself, his own self's better part, his eye's clear eye, his dear heart's dearer heart, his food, his fortune, his sweet hope's aim, his sole earth's heaven, and his heaven's claim in his mistress's visage, and quite another when the lady believes herself his sister-in-law and dashes off indignantly to fetch his wife to berate him.

Similarly, the Abbess's disguise (otherwise merely perfunctory) is made the means of the Abbess's tricky and therapeutic exposure of Adriana to herself. Trapped by the Abbess into a self-confession, Adriana recognizes as in a mirror her own face in the figure of the nagging wife. "She did betray me to my own reproof," she says, acknowledging the remedial, truth-producing power of benign deceit. We never hear whether her husband's solid bourgeois complacency and fiery temper have been in any way chastened by his experiences, but the lively account of Dr Pinch's drubbing provides, as we shall see, a ludicrous, safety-valve catharsis.

The play's comic device is not strictly a "device". It is not invented by anyone. The identicalness of two sets of twins—two different identities under one appearance—is a tricky stratagem at best on the part of nature, not art, and a device only in the sense that the comic dramatist exploits it for his comic purposes. It is, as Harry Levin puts it, "a practical joke conceived and executed by providence."3 But the question of sibling doubles lies at the heart of much persistent human questioning of identities and essences and appearances; questioning which found expression in folklore and literature before the philosophers and anthropologists and psychologists made of it their special province. In The Comedy of Errors the matching of violently severed family bonds with the Dromios' burlesque imitation of their masters' consternations and perplexities: "Do you know me sir?" demands Syracusan Dromio of (this time!) Syracusan Antipholus. "Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?" make problems of identity at the level of mere identification comment ironically upon, or wryly illuminate problems of identity at the level of personal ontology. The Dromios, as they march back and forth with their messages, and their missions, their rope ends and their masters' purses, fated to miscarry and constantly belaboured by their irate masters, function to defuse by laughter the dire personal threat of traumatic non-entity, or total chaotic non-being.

The processus turbarum, with its accelerating and cumulative whirl of errors, produces, in the fullness of time, its own remedies. It also produces most of the sheer risibility of Shakespeare's comedies. It will be statutory for the funniest, most farcical, most palpably ridiculous scenes in Shakespearean comedies to occur when the tumult of errors is at its "hiest and hottest", in Act III, and in IV, while the latter "begins to bring about the remedy". One of the funniest moments, for instance, occurs outside the Antipholus house when Ephesian Dromio yells for "Maude, Bridget, Marian, Cicely, Gillian, Ginn" and receives a mock echo from his mirror-image within: "Mome, malt-horse, capon, coxcomb, idiot, patch," (HI. i. 31-2) and one radical source of comic pleasure—mimicry—is neatly yoked to the whole question of who's who in a name-calling pantomime of excess.

Freud's calculus of the comic economy explains why we find funny both over and under expenditure of physical (in relation to mental) energy.4 The argument is well known and it will suffice to recall no more exacting instances than the routines of a country bumpkin armed with a sledgehammer lunging ponderously about after a fly, or a professor totally absorbed in the mental construction of a sophisticated electronic device for the undoing of the same vexing insect. What farce does is to multiply such situations and propel them, in a rhythm of increasing intensity, towards some point of explosion or collapse. I find in a recent study two excellently expressive terms for the double dynamic of farcical pleasure: riot and deadlock; riot for the hyperbolic whirl of comically excessive, usually disinhibitory actions, and deadlock for the no-exit culde-sac into which protagonists are manoeuvred and from which they must be extricated.5 Farce, thus understood, may be instrumental in strategies of festive celebration, of satiric invective or of cathartic fantasy.

Farce is also, as its etymology tells us, stuffing;6 and the structure of comic pleasure demands that a farce be stuffed indeed, to satiety, by its own exuberance. It is the achievement of Shakespeare's farce to exploit that exuberance for ends far beyond the immediate requirements of risibility, of celebration, or of satire. Ralph Berry has wittily summarized the relation between characters and situations in The Comedy of Errors as "a study of the reactions of people to the farce in which they find themselves."7 But I would prefer to say, 'to the farce through which they find themselves', stressing therapy as final cause. Shakespeare's farcical processus turbarum is a working-out of psychic material—the obsessions, compulsions, fantasies which, unresolved, unremedied, would represent catastrophe.

Put in non-psychological terms, this is to say no more than that the processus turbarum exhibits and enacts the besetting errors of the dramatis personae, and that the play's real and formal remedy is the convergence of the entire family at the Abbey where Antipholus' and Egeon's recovery and all the reunions can take place. One pair of twins has taken refuge there, and is produced to confront the other pair upon their arrival, following the violent overthrow of Dr Pinch, and Adriana's hotfoot pursuit of her "poor distracted husband." Errors are unpeeled like onions as each plaintiff in turn appeals to the Duke, and he in turn to the Abbess. Then the fortuitous presence of the Abbess transforms loss into restoration, grief into joy, ignorance into knowledge, alienation into homecoming, and imminent death into metaphorical rebirth.

Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail
Of you, my sons, and till this present hour
My heavy burthen [ne'er] delivered.
The Duke, my husband, and my children both,
And you the calendars of their nativity,
Go to a gossip's feast, and go with me—
After so long grief, such nativity!
                            (V. i. 401-7)

She, the mother, is the matrix in which the whole family's individual identities are recovered; all are seen to be who they are, while the frontier between harm and remedy, the danger zone which is the territory of comedy, has been luridly marked by the doomed Egeon on his way to the nearby scaffold.

But, as I have indicated, Shakespeare proceeds consistently towards a conception of these follies and of their exhibition, as themselves remedial. His characters act out all manner of absurdities and these are, it turns out, the very stuff of human imperfection; the underside of the drama of psychic life. And the tumult they cause is at once expressive and therapeutic. By becoming absurd, the protagonists objectify their folly. Fooled, they become, to whatever degree, aware of themselves as selves and as fooled, and so have a basis for the regaining of control. And in this connection the episode of Dr Pinch is extremely interesting. Dr Pinch attempts to cure his client by the exorcism, in approved medieval mountebank manner, of the devils by whom he is, clearly, possessed. But since he is not in fact possessed by any devils at all, he turns the tables upon Dr Pinch and beats him prodigiously. The messenger's account of the breaking loose and the revenge of master and man, in V. i. 168-77, is uproariously comic, but what is of particular interest is the counterpoint treatment of remedy in this early comedy. Dr Pinch's cure for Antipholus' ills is a travesty of the true remedy which the play is enacting.

The complex and delicate transformation of perception, which lies at the heart of Shakespeare's comic method, is mediated by the Shakespearean fools, and is, indeed inconceivable without them. They are the common against which we measure the uncommon; they are the sense against which we measure nonsense; they are the natural against which we measure the unnatural; and they are the foolish against which we measure the wise.

Richard Levin, in his valuable study of multiple plots in Renaissance drama8 provides useful categories for a theory of clowns. Clowns, he says, 'imitate' their betters, in actual practice or by formal analogy, giving a low comic version of what the serious, main protagonists are up to. But, as in any analogy, either difference or similarity can be stressed, or both, alternately. And it is in the play of complementaries, of difference and likeness, that the variety, interest and multiplicity of effect of Shakespeare's clowns lie. If, says Levin, it is the difference that is stressed, the ineptitude, rambunctiousness and amorality of, for instance, Pistol, Nym and Bardolph in Henry V, so that the skill, nobility and morality of the King's parallel activities are enhanced, then the clowns are acting as foils. If, on the other hand, it is the striking resemblance between the doings of the manifestly lower characters and the behaviour of the gentry that is stressed, then the higher characters will be disparaged, debased, assimilated and drawn down to the level of the foolish or ridiculous, and the clowns will have functioned as parodies. He quotes the Robin and Dick and Horse Courser episodes in Dr Faustus and notes that there will be differences in critical decision on whether their function is that of foil or parody according (mainly) to the reigning critical Zeitgeist.

Two other possibilities are indicated by Levin. A clown's or clown plot's effect may function simultaneously in contrary directions with reference to two different higher characters. Pistol's cowardly bluster elevates Hal's soldiership by contrast, and ridicules the Dauphin's by similarity. And a clown or clown-plot may function simultaneously in contrary directions with respect to the same higher character or group of characters. In this, the most complex case, the parody is only apparent; it is, in Empson's terms, "pseudo-parody," which disarms anti-sentimental responses by taking them into account in anticipation.9 Mercurio's bawdy in Act II of Romeo and Juliet would be an example, the result of which is to confirm the validity of Romeo's romantic passion, to enhance and not to debase it. Levin spells out the interesting resultant paradox: it is the foil clowns (Touchstone, for instance) not the parodic ones who are themselves literary, or literally, parodists—conscious and deliberate mockers. The further effect is that of a lighting conductor—"which works directly as a foil to set off an elevated main action, while it is working indirectly to attract and draw away those potential reactions hostile to that elevation." And this effect is what he calls magic, like a ritual mock curse to ward off the evil eye, or to reduce its powers by playing something of its part ahead of time.

For the clown's roles as child-idiot-lout, as Saturnalian ruler, and as ritual mocker all seem to operate in this manner by sanctioning the release through the subplot of our anarchic impulses and feelings, under controls which prevent them from threatening the adult, civilized norms of the main plot.

(p. 146)

The Dromios, unlike their masters, whose fate they share, keep their wits about them and are never without some impudent repartee or wry observation, thus making their master's plight even more ridiculous than their own. They are, therefore, like their Terentian prototypes, Eiron-Buffoons. In terms of the Shakespearean law of complementarity this makes the fooled Antipholuses a species of impostor. And so they are, indeed—the visiting Antipholus welcomed to bed and board none of his, and the resident Antipholus treated as an impostor by his frustrated creditors. The Dromios are the characteristic Shakespearean fools though the subtlety, obliquity and variety of the mimetic mockery deployed by later members of the class will grow immeasurably. In Syracusan Dromio's account of the "wondrous fat marriage" apparently in store for him, upon which he expatiates with an Aristophanic verve, there is a good early example of Levin's "lightning conductor" principle:

Marry, 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.

(IH. ii. 95-100)

The analogy is to Adriana's claims upon Syracusan Antipholus as her supposed husband, and the similarity is certainly deflating. It has, moreover, an immediate absurd effect in that the dialogue precipitates Antipholus' beating of a retreat from a place apparently inhabited solely by comic-monstrous witches. But Dromio's diatribe, a ribald vilification of the fat wench's charms, is at the furthest possible remove downwards from the ambience of the relationship which has been developing between the peregrine Antipholus and his ostensible sister-in-law:

It is thyself, mine own self's better part:
Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer
                                          (III. ii. 61-2)

and therefore functions as foil to the latter.

Luciana's "gentle sovereign grace," her 'enchanting presence and discourse' (III. ii. 160-1) is left not only intact but enhanced, while the abusive, wittily anti-erotic catalogue drains off a good measure of the sexual aggression triggered by the volatile situation which has been developing in Ephesus. Traversi says with caution:

The introduction, through the twin Dromios, of a comic underplot, including a burlesque upon marriage itself in the pursuit of the Syracusan by the kitchen maid of Ephesus, presents yet another standpoint from which the central theme can be considered.10

The point at issue, however, is not the 'theme' of marriage but the dignity or absurdity of the protagonists, a matter which it is the function of Shakespearean comedy to place in exquisite and precarious poise.

Nothing is more revealing of his comic art, or of the directions it will take than the final moments of the play. The last words are, significantly, Dromio's. Says the Ephesian twin, complacently marching off with his brother: "Methinks you are my glass and not my brother: / I see by you I am a sweet-fac'd youth" (v. i. 418-19). The whole little episode is a deliriously comic forerunner of a Lacanian stade du miroir)1 But it is also a parody of self-discovery. And it punctures the whole grand remedial idea of regenerated, enlightened, separate, complete and viable personalities with the impermeable lunatic logic of its narcissism. Punctures, and yet reaffirms, since the contentment of Dromio with his inability to acquire a separate self at all is, our laughter tells us, the most reassuring antidote to insanity Ephesus could possibly supply.

Shakespeare's next investigation into the acquiring of separate selves—The Two Gentlemen—both complicates and deepens the issues. But in the meantime there are rivalries afoot in Padua, the settling of which will forge a vital link in the dramatist's portrayal of the battle of the sexes.


1 The terms are R. D. Laing's in his celebrated study of the structure and imagery of the schizophrenic personality, The Divided Self (London: Tavistock Publications, 1960; reprinted New York: Pantheon, 1965).

2 The New Shakespeare edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), p. xxii. A brilliant recent psychoanalytic study of The Comedy of Errors (Barbara Freedman, "Errors in Comedy: A Psychoanalytic Theory of Farce," Shakespearean Comedy issue of New York Literary Forum, ed. Maurice Charney, New York: Jeannine Plottel, 1980 [expected]), which came to my attention too late to be fully taken into account, agrees in the defence of farce. It is "a strategic denial and displacement of meaning" through absurdity and the disjunction of cause and effect precisely in order for repressed libidinal material to find an acceptable outlet. "Farce enacts," says Freedman, "a primitive superego punishment for its characters' transgressions in the form of a maniacal plot which both arranges libidinal gratification and punishes for it." The initial transgression in the case of The Comedy of Errors is Egeon's abandonment of his wife, and the twins represent the consequent splitting up of his psychic personality into the restless wanderer and the delinquent stay-at-home. The play is obsessed with confronting, punishing and forgiving debts—Egeon's which is actual and monetary but meaningless, and the twins' which are basically marital, mistaken and meaningful. Barbara Freedman's richly suggestive study extends, and confirms, my own at many points; but in her emphasis upon the "one original, meaningful plot which can be retrieved" from the dispersions and denials of the farcical working through, that is, the plot of Egeon's rehabilitation or reintegration, she pays perhaps too little attention to the diversified, individualized dramatic material of the play.

3 H. Levin, introduction to the Signet edn of The Comedy of Errors (New York: New American Library, 1965), p. xxvi.

4 "Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press 1953-1966, vol. VIII, p. 236.

5 Zvi Jagendorf, "Happy End." Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1977), pp. 16-20.

6 See Robert C. Stephenson, "Farce as Method," Tulane Drama Review, vol. 5, no. 2 (1961), pp. 85-93; and Eric Bentley, "Farce" in The Life of Drama (New Jersey: Atheneum, 1964), pp. 219-56.

7 Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 25.

8 Richard Levin, The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 109-47.

9 William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (reprinted 1930; Penguin, 1961) p. 52.

10 Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: The Early Comedies (London: Longman Green, 1960), p. 12.

11 In the now famous article which heralded Parisian neo-Freudianism, "Le Stade du Miroir" (1949), Lacan writes of the child's experience of himself when placed in front of a mirror, compared with that of a monkey which does not recognize itself, as indicative of the fundamental "ontological structure of the human world." It suffices to comprehend the stade du miroir as an identification in the full sense of this term in analysis—that is, the transformation produced in the subject when he assumes an image.… The joyful assumption of his specular image of a being still unable to control his motor functions and still dependent on his mother to nurse him … therefore seems to me to reveal in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the je precipitates itself in a primordial form, before it becomes objectified in the dialectic of the identification with the other, and before language re-stores to it in the universal, its function as subject." Trans. Anthony Wilden, The Language of the Self (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968), p. 135.

Dorothea Kehler (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors as Problem Comedy," in Rocky Mountain Review, Vol. 41, No. 4, 1987, pp. 229-40.

[In this essay, Kehler argues that The Comedy of Errors is a problem play that has the appearance of a mixed-genre work.]

Many elements combine in The Comedy of Errors to create a genera mista: the tragicomedy of the Egeon frame, the romantic comedy of S. Antipholus's love for Luciana, the predominant farce of a mistaken-identity plot with its knockabout humor. The plot develops out of a series of quests: Egeon seeks his son and finds his family; S. Antipholus seeks his brother and finds Luciana; Adriana seeks her husband's love and finds … what? Despite the last-act clarification of identities, we wonder if Adriana and E. Antipholus will be happier in an off-stage act 6 than they were in act 2; we also wonder if Luciana, whose most moving speech descants on not bringing trouble home (III.ii.1-28), is sufficiently convinced of her prospects for happiness with S. Antipholus to risk the "troubles of the marriage bed" (II.i.27) so amply illustrated in her sister's marriage. The play explores but does not answer a question answered emphatically in the negative throughout the Middle Ages: whether romantic love and marriage can co-exist. However earnest the Elizabethan wish to fuse desire and morality, Shakespeare was too keen an observer of human nature to provide simplistic solutions to profound problems. Errors, transcending its time in the honesty of its depiction of the marital estate, adds yet another "kind" to its heterogeneous form—the problem play.

An awareness of Shakespeare's infinite generic variety exists among both past and present critics. Samuel Johnson observed that

Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination.


Gwyn Williams, following Johnson's lead, asserts, "Shakespeare criticism has from Meres to the present day been misled by the pedantic division of drama into comedy or tragedy" (63). With regard to The Comedy of Errors Williams holds that "Without the two Dromios the play would hardly have had any farcical elements, except for the late introduction of Dr. Pinch.… Much less a farce, the play might not even have ended as a comedy" (65). W. Thomas MacCary sees Errors as pre-Menandrean or Aristophanic, a narcissistic or egocentric comedy taking as its goal the happiness of the self rather than the happiness of a heterosexual couple. Pointing out that "the marriage of Adriana to Antipholus of Ephesus is left unreconstructed," he urges a re-examination of genre: "this is a comedy of a different kind [from Menander's romantic New Comedy]. Its entire argument prepares us not for the union of man and wife—its view of marriage is especially pessimistic—but for the reunion of twins with each other and with their parents" (525).1 With these critical statements in mind, I wish to consider the problem play elements in The Comedy of Errors.1

Both the final long silence between Adriana and her husband and the silence with which Luciana responds to her suitor's reiterated proposal produce an open ending that anticipates the problem plays All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. In the former, Bertram replies to the king rather than to his wife, who asks, "Will you be mine, now you are doubly won?" His answer is conditional: "If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, / I'll love her dearly—ever, ever dearly" (V.iii.311-13, italics added). Bertram's silence toward Helena is underscored by Diana's silence toward the king. Disillusioned, Diana had declared, "Marry that will, I live and die a maid" (IV.ii.74); now the king offers her what earlier he had offered Helena: "Choose thou thy husband, and I'll pay thy dower" (V.iii.324). But she does not speak again. In All's Well we question whether the married couple will find love; whether the single woman will marry; and, if she does, whether she will be any happier than Helena. Measure for Measure also invites comparison with Errors, for both Luciana and Isabella have remained single out of choice3 ; in the final scenes neither encourages her suitor. Nor does the married Angelo say a word to Mariana to indicate that they will be any happier than Lucio and his scorned punk. The similarity between the inconclusive conclusions of Errors and these later problem plays strongly suggests some commonality of generic elements.4

The specific problem Shakespeare explores through the relationship of Adriana and E. Antipholus is both timeless and peculiarly modern: can love survive marriage?5 C. L. Barber notes that, unlike Plautus, Shakespearc "frequently makes the errors reveal fundamental human nature, especially human nature under the stress and tug of marriage" (493). Considering Shakespeare's depiction of a marriage "subjected to the very unromantic strains of temperament grinding on temperament in the setting of daily life," Barber concludes of Adriana and E. Antipholus, "No doubt their peace is temporary" (497). Certainly, despite their classical origin, Adriana and E. Antipholus could pass for a well-to-do modern couple headed for divorce. He, successful in business but bored at home, is ripe for more entertaining companionship; she, too much at home and insecure about his attachment to her, becomes impatient and demanding. Although a divorce in law may not be a customary Ephesian alternative, a divorce of hearts within a stifling marriage is universal. In Errors, Adriana and E. Antipholus enact that incipient emotional divorce as a psychodrama whose anagnorisis, if not to them, may yet be intelligible to us.

More than any other character in Errors, Adriana subverts farce. Because we know her more intimately than we do her husband, she lays first claim to our interest. Although most often described as a jealous and possessive shrew, of late she is not without defenders.6 Marilyn French, in an illuminating reading, sees Adriana's problem as powerlessness created by economic, political, and social structures (72). But if the key to Adriana's personality and predicament is powerlessness, it is powerlessness of another sort as well. The play focuses on the emotional structure of a marriage, depicting the almost inevitable imbalance of love between spouses—an imbalance often aggravated to the woman's disadvantage by societal conditioning and restrictions—and the plight of a woman dependent on her husband for her sole identity as beloved wife. Byron knew the world's Adrianas: "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart, / 'Tis woman's whole existence" (Don Juan Canto I, st. 194). Edward Berry clarifies the generic issue raised by Adriana's emotional isolation and loss of identity, expressed in her neo-Platonic, Pauline speech (II.ii. 119-29) on the melding of husband and wife into one soul:

In their explorations of the self, the comedies are in some ways not unlike the tragedies, for in both genres Shakespeare consistently maneuvers his central characters into positions of psychological isolation, leaving them exposed and vulnerable both within and without. While this kind of isolation is conventional in tragedy, in comedy it is unique to Shakespeare.


While a seminal model for the heroines of Shakespeare's romantic comedies (Charles Brooks 355), Adriana is also a precursor of Juliet and Desdemona. For all that Adriana is a character in a play long received as farce, her nature and situation are no less tragic than comic, and this duality creates yet another generic complication of Errors.

Powerless over her husband's heart, Adriana grows restive and irritable, questioning the restrictions on women's freedom: "Why should their [men's] liberty than ours be more?" (II.i.10). When Luciana replies that the husband is the bridle of the wife's will, Adriana asserts, "There's none but asses will be bridled so" (II.i. 14). Male supremacy turns marriage into "servitude" (II.i.26). Although for the audience these lines imply a feminist manifesto, for Adriana they seem to hold no more lasting significance than does her threat to break Dromio's pate across. Tormented and confused, Adriana lashes out indiscriminately at all male authority, at E. Antipholus, and at an ineffectual slave; it is not sexual equality she seeks, however much she might profit from it, but only the husband she had in her spring of love:

The time was once when thou unurg'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'd in thy taste,
Unless I spake, or look'd, or touch'd or carv'd
  to thee.

What Adriana cannot accept is that the honeymoon is over, that she is no longer all in all to her Antipholus. Institutionalizing desire within marriage frustrates this husband and this wife. While E. Antipholus wards off claustrophobia by lingering on the mart, despite his complaint that "My wife is shrewish when I keep not hours" (II.i.2), Adriana becomes obsessed with the conviction of her husband's infidelity, assured that to be excluded from two hours of his life is to be excluded from his heart forever. Unable to smile at grief, she becomes, in Luciana's words, one of the "many fond fools [who] serve mad jealousy" (II.i.116). In her company are Othello, Posthumus, and Leontes, who respond to suspected cuckoldry with privileged male fury. The jealous bourgeois wife merely nags, but her situation,7 like that of her male counterparts, can be seen as the stuff of tragicomedy or tragedy rather than farce. Implicit in Errors is a transgression against the codified genre.

As Adriana's eloquent "nags" reveal her fierce hunger for a caring husband, Luciana's stilted set speech on male rule dwindles in importance, becoming, if not a non-sequitur, a red herring for which critics in-advisedly have fished:

There's nothing situate under heaven's eye
But hath his bound, in earth, in sea, in sky.
The beasts, the fishes, and the winged fowls
Are their males' subjects, and at their
Man, more divine, the master of all these,
Lord of the wide world and wild wat'ry seas,
Indued with intellectual sense and souls,
Of more pre-eminence than fish and fowls,
Are masters to their females, and their lords:
Then let your will attend on their accords.
                               (II.i. 16-25)

Just as Adriana's profound love for E. Antipholus undermines this speech's relevance, so the delineation of the male characters undermines its validity. "Man, more divine" is sadly represented in Errors. Most worthy are the loving but powerless Egeon, and Duke Solinus, who requires a miracle to enable him to tolerate foreign merchants as easily as he does native courtesans. The divinities with whom Adriana has more to do are even less awesome: the mountebank Pinch; the deluded, broken-pated Dromios; and their equally deluded, violent masters. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare bodies forth the principle of male supremacy through characters whose preeminence is dubious; Susan Snyder points out that the Elizabethan audience expected comedy to overturn accepted truths and customs (26-27), and Juliet Dusinberre points to those Elizabethan women who rejected the status quo, even to the extent of wearing men's clothes and weapons (7-8). Dusinberre notes that both liberated women and Humanist-influenced Puritans sympathetic to women comprised a significant part of Shakespeare's audience. For the more politically, intellectually, and theologically venturesome, Adriana must have evoked more compassion than amusement (11,4-5, 15).

Nevertheless, the traditional interpretation of act 2, scene 1 reminds us that Adriana's emotional problems are compounded by her social situation: "revolt against a wife's place in the cosmic hierarchy," according to Harold Brooks, "is the original source of discord in Adriana's marriage" (67). In the cosmos as envisaged by men, woman is subordinate; hence, in the social system, she readily becomes a possession. At this Adriana has not balked. By marrying E. Antipholus, Adriana has accepted the authority of both the Duke and her husband, "who I made lord of me and all I had / At your important letters" (V.i. 137-38). She revolts not against her place but against lack of love; her longing to be a vine to her husband's elm (II.ii. 174-76) reveals her deepest desire: to subjugate herself in marriage. It is her misfortune that, in a male-dominated society, the possession who becomes possessive is regarded as a shrew.

Adriana's error is not refusal to accept male supremacy but the nagging tongue that provides her only relief. Even when she thinks E. Antipholus is courting her sister, she admits, "My heart prays for him, though my tongue do curse" (V.ii.28). She is trapped in a painful cycle. Feeling rejected, she desires her husband all the more desperately, but her incessant recriminations, later confessed to the abbess (V.i.62-67), elicit only further rejection from E. Antipholus. He lables her shrewish and "breaks the pale" (II.i. 100), having found "a wench of excellent discourse, / Pretty and witty; wild and yet, too, gentle" (III.i.109-10). "Mad jealousy" prevents Adriana from realizing how self-defeating and absurd is the attempt to moralize another into love. Although a character's blindness is fundamental to farce, Adriana's pain is so keenly felt and lyrically expressed that sympathy undercuts laughter, and the problematic aspects of marriage—and genre—assert themselves.

Adriana's inability to comprehend the effect she produces upon E. Antipholus is the psychological reality behind the convention of indistinguishable twins in Errors. She is unable to distinguish her husband from his brother because she no longer knows her husband, having become totally engrossed in her own needs. Errors of physical identity aside, she speaks an emotional truth in her reply to Luciana:

Luc. Then swore he that he was a stranger
Adr. And true he swore, though yet forsworn
  he were.

Adriana mistakes the newcomer for her husband because S. Antipholus is the honeymoon-lover of her heart's desire, like her husband in appearance, unlike him in spirit: sea-fresh, unspoiled by a stale marriage, trailing no minions in his wake. Most pitiful—and certainly at odds with Errors' farcical temper—is our realization, based on Adriana's intelligence, spirit, and capacity for love, that this out-of-control "shrew" must herself once have been "a wench of excellent discourse, / Pretty and witty; wild and yet, too, gentle"—another twin!

Despite her "venom clamours" (V.i.69), Adriana seems singularly restrained and chaste compared to her husband, a chief vehicle of farce in Errors. On stage, E. Antipholus strikes the Dromios (IV.iv.17,42) and Doctor Pinch (IV.iv.51), and attempts to pluck out Adriana's eyes (IV.iv.102). A messenger reports that E. Antipholus beats the maids, singes off Pinch's beard, throws pails of puddled mire on Pinch, encourages E. Dromio to nick Pinch with scissors (V.i. 169-77), and vows to scorch and disfigure Adriana's face (V.i. 183). E. Antipholus compounds violence with insensitivity to his wife's feelings; by withholding love and attention he induces a jealousy that is not entirely paranoid. At his first entrance, he asks Angelo to assist him in deceiving Adriana as to his whereabouts (III.i.3-4); more important, his acquaintance with a courtesan would distress a wife as patient as Griselda. Although Luciana tries to allay her sister's fears, secretly she suspects that E. Antipholus wed Adriana for her wealth and that he likes "elsewhere" (III.ii.5-7). Although Shakespeare apparently departs from his sources, making E. Antipholus guilty of thoughtless or spiteful congeniality rather than adultery, French penetrates the underlying fable: "on the mythic level, the play deals with serious disruption: a man neglects his wife for his prostitute" (75). Matthew would have agreed: "whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (5.28). In fact, Shakespeare does not rule out the possibility of E. Antipholus's having committed adultery. Edward Berry suggests that "The ring [which E. Antipholus receives from the courtesan] is an appropriate symbol of the sexual and economic ambiguities in Antipholus's extra-marital relationship" (183). In Errors the distinction between having the name without the game or the name with the game is not so much a matter of substantive moral difference as of genre: if E. Antipholus has fallen only in spirit but not in flesh, the sin is revocable, a comic rather than tragic error. A happy ending, or some semblance of one, remains a contingency.

Luciana's admonition and the intrigue plot collaborate to reveal a means of perhaps achieving that happy ending, if husband and wife allow themselves to be instructed. Luciana's speech on male supremacy misfires, but its introduction does not: "Why, headstrong liberty is lash'd with woe" (II.i. 15). Directed at Adriana, this admonition applies with equal if not greater force to E. Antipholus. Adriana, awash in emotion, has only worsened her situation by abusing the liberty of her tongue as a quick-tempered mistress, contentious sister, and discontented wife. Her husband, abusing the liberty of his eye, has ravaged the marital peace; abusing the liberty of his hand, he is taken for mad. The woe such headstrong liberty has brought them could be alleviated through the self-government endlessly enjoined by Renaissance moralists, through the subjugation of our infected will to our erected wit.8 To do other is mutual madness. During her exchange with the courtesan, Adriana finds a name for her husband's fault:

Cour. How say you now? Is not your husband
Adr. His incivility confirms no less.

Will she realize that she too is guilty of incivility, a concomitant of headstrong liberty, of the will's mastery? Erasmus can tell us whose fault is greater: "Of an evyll husbande (I wyll well) a good wyfe may be mard, but of a good the evyll is wont to be refourmed and mended. We blame wyves falsly. No man (if ye gyve any credence to me) had ever a shrewe to his wyfe but thrughe hus owne defaute" (sig. Diiv). Nevertheless, both the unthinking husband and the neglected powerless wife suffer, having forfeited contentment by insisting on their own satisfactions.

The plot, undervalued for lacking an intriguer "to make the confusion delightfully purposeful" (Jorgensen 57), actually achieves the thematic purpose of forcing E. Antipholus to lose his identity and take on his wife's: serving mad jealousy, he feels what she feels. Thinking himself sexually betrayed—is he projecting his own guilty conscience onto her?—he discovers the pain of being "abused and dishonour'd / Even in the strength and height of injury" (V.i. 199-200). In another comedy involving a shipwreck, tradewar, twins, jealousy, and madness, Malvolio, like E. Antipholus, is bound and imprisoned in darkness. The practical joke suits, for in the world of cakes and ale, Malvolio's confusion of ambition with love and his denial of harmless pleasure mark him as insane. Shakespeare first employs this jocular punishment in Errors, with himself, the playwright, rather than his characters, as intriguer. For his incivility E. Antipholus suffers the treatment of a madman. (Adriana is also punished for incivility: betrayed by the abbess to her own reproof and public embarrassment). The plot holds a mirror up to husband and wife, showing them how their headstrong liberty has guided time's deformed hand in writing strange defeatures on their marriage. Of course this couple may prove no more capable of profiting from their lessons than did Malvolio. The play remains curiously open-ended.9

Directors who impose a happy ending have a good case. Happiness being preferable to unhappiness, Adriana and E. Antipholus are likely to opt for it; theirs, after all, is a comic world. The audience also opts for the happy ending in comedy. Even in James Cellan Jones's BBC production, which stressed the nonfarcical aspects of Errors, the beginning of a reconciliation is suggested as E. Antipholus places the chain about Adriana's neck. After all, Adriana and her husband have been party to a miracle, the reunion of a family sundered for a generation; to blast such unlooked for joy with self-indulgent discord touches upon sacrilege. Thanks to the miracle of reunion, their nuclear family is now extended10 : Adriana's isolation turns to a gossips' feast, and E. Antipholus may find wholesome recreation within his enlarged family. Ironic as it is that the only incontrovertibly happy couple has been separated for thirty-three years, even so the advice and example of loving parents may foster civility in their children.

Perhaps most important as a persuader to civility is the future of S. Antipholus and Luciana. Luciana, who makes no reply to S. Antipholus's proposal (V.i.374-76), had indicated earlier, when she mistook him for her brother-in-law, only that his words "might move" (IV.ii.14, italics added). The psychological reality behind the convention of indistinguishable twins for Luciana—the reason she cannot tell her would-be husband from E. Antipholus—is that, expecting no more of men than that they be "secret false" (III.ii.15), she has little motivation to sift their appearance from their reality. Her commitment phobia, as it were, may be explained by a last act in which errors of identity are clarified but errors in love are not. Luciana's sixth-act response depends on the reflection of her own future that she sees in her sister's and brother-in-law's problematic marriage. Will brother and sister, for the sake of brother and sister, learn to curb their infected wills? After the players have left the stage, will problem comedy resolve to romantic comedy?

Whether Shakespeare's personal experience of marriage accounts for this novel admixture of genres in his first comedy is an intriguing but unanswerable question. His portraits of Kate, Emilia, and Paulina suggest, however, that the stock character of the shrew proved too narrow for Shakespeare's breadth of understanding. Adriana's uncomic potential is released as Shakespeare, unlike earlier writers of shrew plays, considers the causes of shrewishness and the ordeal of a shrew. Such considerations, dictating a more realistic view of personality and marriage, take us beyond the classical pale into something rich and strange.11 (Later, Shakespeare's sensitivity to the stock Jew will change the generic coloration of The Merchant of Venice.) But whatever causes begot this generic experiment, Errors succeeds. The demons that frighten us the most evoke the most cathartic laughter. The difficulty of sustaining a loving relationship as nuances of feeling inexorably change is just such a demon. The farce of mistaken identities and hallucinatory situations creates the verfremdungseffekt that allows us to laugh when the pain of human isolation brings us closer to tears. Through generic disjunction, Shakespeare demonstrates how complex are the responses an audience can experience when Plautine intrigue bows to genera mista, creating, most notably, a timeless vision of dissonance in the comedy of errors we call marriage.


1 According to MacCary, "the negative attitude toward marriage which spreads through Shakespeare's play derives from Plautus', where the local twin lies to his wife and steals from her, and finally deserts her entirely to go home with his brother" (530).

2 Francis Fergusson is representative of another critical tradition. Although he notes that "there is one strand running through the whole Comedy of Errors which might seem, on a first reading, to break the mood of farce: the troubled adventures of Antipholus of Ephesus's long-suffering wife" and that Adriana "and her sister and her maid, and eventually her real husband's mistress, form a dreary female procession through the quick twists of the plot" (35), he relies on performance tempo to define genre. Competent production will defeat our human response: "We are not called upon for much sympathy or imagination: in fact we must not try to see through these characters' eyes, or feel what they feel. It would ruin everything to take the wife's troubles … at all seriously" (36). Fergusson justifies this reductive view by claiming that "The play belongs in the stream of popular comedy, from Menander to Minsky" (36).

3 Although Alexander Leggatt draws a less precise parallel—between Adriana and Isabella—he observes that Adriana and E. Antipholus say nothing to suggest a reconciliation (9).

4 The endings of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, as Richard Levin observes in his argument for closure, also feature "silent women" (341, n.4). Not germane to my discussion are Hermia and Helena, who are granted the husbands they had originally desired and who ascribe their midsummer night's tribulations to an innocent dream rather than to fickle lovers. Neither is Miranda, who accepts the marriage Prospero has engineered for her, loving at first sight—of any man other than her father. But the endings of Two Gentlemen and Winter's Tale pose genuine problems if we accept Ralph Berry's premise that the behavior of the characters in Shakespeare's comedies (and by extension, in his romances) "is, or ought to be, explicable in terms of naturalistic psychology [since] Shakespeare's intuitive grasp of psychology is the foundation of his drama" (18). Silvia may well have second thoughts about the lover who so peremptorily makes a gift of her love to the man who had just attempted to rape her. And Paulina has suffered too much and lived too long to be "given" in marriage, no matter how well-intentioned the donor.

Taking issue with many readings of Shakespeare's endings as ironic or ambiguous, Levin attacks "refutation" (337) of Shakespeare's "real meaning" (349). Aside from the intentional fallacy, Levin's insistence that "Shakespeare did not wish to be misunderstood" (349) fosters a simplistic view of Shakespearean drama as straightforward movement on a depthless surface.

5 Shakespeare's plays do not abound in happy marriages. Setting apart the generally dismal marriages in the histories and giving the benefit of the doubt to Kate and Petruchio (he likens her to a range of beasts of field and sky, and she finally learns to obey her "keeper" [V.ii.151]), to the Pages (each ready to deceive the other over Anne's marriage), and to Portia and Brutus (he confides in her only after she wounds herself), we are left with Paulina and Antigonus's doomed marriage and with unions in which one or both spouses is fatally headstrong or vicious: Dionyza and Cleon, the Queen and Cymbeline, Hermione and Leontes, the Capulets, Gertrude and Claudius, and of course the Macbeths!

6 See, for example, Weiss 14-18 and Ralph Berry 31-33 (who are sympathetic to Adriana) as opposed to Charlton 68, Brown 54-57, and Evans 7. In the criticism much more is made of Adriana's shrewish possessiveness than of E. Antipholus's nascent philandering and full-blown violence. In an otherwise insightful discussion, Barber admits that Antipholus's "eye has strayed, to be sure," yet his emphasis is on Adriana's "usual rage" as "the jealous wife" (494), on "Adriana's jealousy," on her "self-defeating rage" as "the shrewish wife," on "her frenzy of railing," and on "her domineering bent" (495). Not only does Barber allocate the lion's share of the blame to Adriana, but he concludes his essay by making explicit a sexist joke that Shakespeare could easily have allowed to surface but significantly did not: "Adriana may have learned something from the Abbess' lecture, even though the Abbess turns out to be her mother-in-law!" (497).

7 See Hupka' s discussion of romantic jealousy as a culturally determined situation rather than an emotional aberration (313-16).

8 James L. Sanderson emphasizes the need for patience:

The characterization that Shakespeare gives the principles here may be somewhat "humorous," that is, limited to certain specific predispositions of character.… But it seems clear that Shakespeare also intends the audience to recognize certain traits of easy wrath, impetuosity in thought, and recklessness in conduct—in short, deficiencies in patience—and he dramatized the "errors" in the play as manifestations of such flaws of character.


9 Structuralists as well as genre critics are interested in the phenomenon of the side-stepped happy ending. The "meaningful absence" of the expected or the violation of a generic convention produces what Jurij Lotman refers to as a "minus device," whose importance should not be overlooked in the analysis of the text (51).

10 With allowances for Errors' Ephesian setting, Adriana's and E. Antipholus's family corresponds closely to what Lawrence Stone calls "The Restricted Patriarchal Nuclear Family" that flourished in England between 1550 and 1700 (653-64).

11 A major tenet of the hermeneuticist Hans-Georg Gadamer is that discovering new meaning in art is in fact discovering inherent potential meaning:

the literary critic, who is dealing with poetic or philosophical texts, knows that they are inexhaustible.… Every actualisation in understanding can be regarded as an historical potentiality of what is understood. It is part of the historical finiteness of our being that we are aware that after us others will understand in a different way. And yet it is a fact equally well established that it remains the same work, the fullness of whose meaning is proved in the changing process of understanding, just as it is the same history whose meaning is constantly being further determined.


Works Cited

Barber, C. L. "Shakespearian Comedy in The Comedy of Errors." College English 25 (1964): 493-97.

Berry, Edward. Shakespeare's Comic Rites. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Berry Ralph. Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Brooks, Charles. "Shakespeare's Romantic Shrews." Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960): 351-56.

Brooks, Harold. "Theme and Structure in The Comedy of Errors." Early Shakespeare. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3. New York: St. Martin's, 1961. 55-71.

Brown, John Russell. Shakespeare and His Comedies. London: Methuen, 1957.

[Byron, George Gordon.] Don Juan. Byron. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. The Oxford Authors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. 373-879.

Charlton, H. B. Shakespearian Comedy. London: Methuen, 1938.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: Macmillan, 1975.

Erasmus, Desiderius. In Laude and Prayse of Matrymony. Trans. Richard Tavernour. [1532].

Evans, Bertrand. Shakespeare's Comedies. Oxford: Clarendon, 1960.

Fergusson, Francis. "Two Comedies: The Comedy of Errors and Much Ado About Nothing." Sewanee Review 62 (1954): 24-37. Rpt. in Shakespeare's Comedies: An Anthology of Modern Criticism. Ed. Laurence Lerner. Baltimore: Penguin, 1967. 32-43.

French, Marilyn. Shakespeare's Division of Experience. New York: Ballantine, 1981.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. [Wahrheit und Methode. Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1960.] Trans, of the 2nd 1965 ed. New York: Seabury, 1975.

Hupka, Ralph B. "Cultural Determinants of Jealousy." Alternative Lifestyles 4 (1981): 310-56.

[Johnson, Samuel.] Preface [to Shakespeare, 1765]. The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. 15 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958-85. 7: 59-113.

Jorgensen, Paul A. Introduction. The Comedy of Errors. Harbage, William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. 55-58.

Leggati, Alexander. Shakespeare's Comedy of Love. London: Methuen, 1973.

Levin, Richard. "Refuting Shakespeare's Endings." Modern Philology 72 (1975): 337-49.

Lotman, Jurij. The Structure of the Artistic Text. Tr. Ronald Vroon. Michigan Slavic Contributions, 7. Ann Arbor: [University of Michigan Press,] 1977.

MacCary, W. Thomas. "The Comedy of Errors: A Different Kind of Comedy." New Literary History 9 (1978): 525-36.

Sanderson, James L. "Patience in The Comedy of Errors." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 6 (1974): 604-18.

[Shakespeare, William.] All's Well That Ends Well. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Gen. ed. Alfred Harbage. 369-99.

——. The Comedy of Errors. Ed. R. A. Foakes. The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1962.

——. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Gen. ed. Alfred Harbage. The Pelican Text Revised. New York: Viking, 1977.

——. The Taming of the Shrew. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Gen. ed. Alfred Harbage. 84-114.

Snyder, Susan. The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. New York: Harper, 1977.

Weiss, Theodore. The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Shakespeare's Early Comedies and Histories. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Williams, Gwyn. "'The Comedy of Errors' Rescued from Tragedy." Review of English Literature 5.4 (1964): 63-71.

Arthur F. Kinney (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and the Nature of Kinds," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXV, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 29-52.

[Discussing The Comedy of Errors in terms of dramatic genre, Kinney explores liturgical influences shaping the play.]

In his extraordinarily helpful study, Shakespeare and the Confines of Art, Philip Edwards works from premises that may seem in the abstract not only potentially complex but paradoxical. One of them is this:

The protean Shakespeare seems to change his being as he moves from the cosmos of Hamlet to that of Othello, of Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra. Our attempts to synthesize and catch the common factors too often hide the more obvious and more important quality of dissimilarity. The characters speak different languages, were brought up in different moral worlds, face entirely new difficulties—just could not belong in the neighbouring play. In each play a different mind seems to be creating a different world.'

Yet earlier Edwards has also issued the cautionary observation that, unlike many great poets, "Shakespeare escaped public resistance: his work was not gradually mediated to the public by the discerning few" as we might expect art to be when it keeps changing from play to play; rather, "popular approval slowly moved him towards acceptance by the critics" (6). But to talk about any of Shakespeare's plays—and here I will concentrate on what is putatively his first play, The Comedy of Errors—as the Elizabethans would have seen and understood them, Edwards' sense of popular understanding, is to talk of the conventions for plays and entertainments which they had come through long training and experience to expect. It is to talk of the uniqueness of a Shakespearean play, what marks it off from the others, in light of its similarity to existing traditions. It is, as the Tudors would have us do, to speak of Shakespeare's works as redefining the nature of kinds.

For some time we have been doing just this with The Comedy of Errors more often perhaps than with any other of Shakespeare's plays. A quarter century ago, D. A. Traversi wrote that this play is "a farcical work completely in the manner of Plautus"; more recently, Joel Fineman confidently proclaims the play "purely a farce of twins, and a mechanical farce at that."2 But it is not quite so simple as all that. Given the Tudor perspective, even the very title tells us it is not, for Shakespeare seems to signal his own design by putting comedy in the title as he does nowhere else. And, in fact, simply calling the play a farce has created difficulties in reading the text and in producing the play. If we read the play as a farce following such customary definitions and discussions as the wellknown one by Eric Bentley, noticing the aggressive, hostile, and violent movement and sensing as a basic theme the destruction of the family and of family values,3 we shall concentrate on the middle acts and ignore the beginning and ending of the play. Many directors do, and the result is something like commedia dell' arte, a contemporary form of comedy in Italy but one posterior to Shakespeare in England. Such productions not only skew meaning but fragment the play: in the New Arden edition, for example, R. A. Foakes cites the anonymous reviewer in the London Times who says of a 1905 production that

We … find certain things in The Comedy of Errors out of place in what is mainly, after all, a farce—the impending death of Aegeon, for instance, the love-making of Antipholus of Syracuse to Luciana, and the scene between the Abbess and Adriana before the steps of the priory. These things are not of farce as we understand it.…4

Just so: the sharp juxtaposition of the play's title and its Plautine elements repeatedly asks us, as it must have asked the early Tudors, whether the play means to stress the absurdity of plot or the human need for family, whether it focuses on circumstances or on estrangement, whether it is controlled by incident or by theme, whether it means to arouse spontaneous laughter or quickened sympathy.

Our first reaction is to think that it means to do all of these things, to combine farce and comedy, yet so far only Alexander Leggatt has made much of this. "Shakespeare gives us a play in a more mixed dramatic idiom," he writes. "The market-place atmosphere of Plautus is still present, but it no longer monopolizes the play; it is varied by suggestions of fantasy and mystery, and the result is a mixture of styles."5 Leggatt goes on to note the "collisions" (14) of farcical incident with comic themes to explain this "mystery," while others have turned to the exotic setting of Ephesus or the traditions of romance. But again the facts suggest that this is the wrong place to look: the initial staging of the play on Holy Innocents' Day (for a work dealing with innocents and innocence) and with consistent (and overt) Christian references (so that Ephesus takes on Pauline connotations) indicate, rather, that the "mystery" of this play is one shared with something like the Secunda Pastorum, the Second Shepherds Play of the "Wakefield Master," which sees something serious in the stolen sheep and something farcical in the act of discovering it. Shakespeare seems, that is, to have understood the ranging resources of kind to which Rosalie L. Colie and Alastair Fowler have called our attention even at the start of his long and varied career as playwright.


We know now only that The Comedy of Errors was produced twice, in 1594 at Gray's Inn and in 1604 at the court; both performances were on December 28, Holy Innocents' Day. That is no coincidence. This connection with an important feast day of the Elizabethan and Jacobean church—that church which required attendance and whose liturgy became second nature—points to a huge number of liturgical connections which, when pursued, reveal just how bold Shakespeare's brilliant and initial effort in combining Roman farce and Christian belief really was. In superseding the pagan world of Plautus with his own Christian one, Shakespeare emphasizes the precise moment of that catastrophic change as the Elizabethans always perceived it—at the moment of the Nativity. "At Christs birth all [pagan] Oracles were mute, / And put to lasting silence," Thomas Heywood writes,6 pointing to the miracle of the Incarnation (or the re-incarnation, of and by God) that marked the Christmas seasons of joy and high spirits. The later John Selden is even more to the point: "Oracles ceas'd presently after Christ, as soon as no body believ'd them. Just as we have no Fortune-Tellers, nor wise Men, when no body cares for them."7 In a play in which fortune-tellers are displaced by an Abbess, whose miraculous appearance seems permanently to defeat the devilish conjuring in newly holy Ephesus, she invites us to contemplate her "Thirty-three years … in travail" (V.i.400)8 that by "the calendars of … nativity" can result in a "feast" (V.i.404-05) for "gossips"—that is, a time of baptizing, of "godparenting" (from the Anglo-Saxon godsibb). There is no more mistaking these references at the end of the play than the use of comedy rather than farce in the play's title. "After so long grief," the Abbess tells us, "such felicity" (V.i.406). This miracle which turns the holy Ephesus of the Holy Bible into a proper setting for this initially Plautine play—surely an act of felicity in Shakespeare as strong and as theatrically striking as any—is the mystery ("felicity") of birth, the sacred renewing in this play of the sense of Christ's birth. Indeed, it is the same mystery (and the same felicity) that we (and Shakespeare, drawing on native stage tradition as much as on his Plautine schoolbook tradition) found at the heart of the medieval cycles of mystery plays, those other dramas of the Nativity and of Holy Innocents' Day when unbelievers (like Dr. Pinch in the witch-ridden state of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors) would be replaced by those who had been informed by Christ (such as the Abbess in the newly holy city in the play).

Such hints of this native tradition of church plays and liturgical drama that surrounded Shakespeare as a boy in Warwickshire invoke not simply yet another possible genre in a play which deliberately mixes kinds to establish one of its own, but a tradition which invites us to some extremely helpful ideas about the play, ideas to which Shakespeare himself provides clues so as to direct (or redirect) meaning. The Comedy of Errors intends, with one reference following another, to direct us away from the farce of a world of men who are foolish in their pursuit of fortune and family when they forget about God and toward a sense of comedy such as that conceived by Dante in his own great comedia as providential confusion when wandering and bafflement invite man to contemplate wonder and grace—and achieve, through a kind of rebirth, a baptizing or godparenting, a restructuring of experience which takes the form not simply of union and transformation, but of reuniting, of making parts newly conceived into a whole which they had earlier enjoyed.

Moreover, this mixing of kinds is just what the Tudor imagination, at its best, was setting out to do—in the Defense of Poesie and The Faerie Queene, in The Unfortunate Traveller and in Measure for Measure. We should sense the need, furthermore, because the earlier frames of reference we have used, when pressed into the simplest sort of exacting service, simply will not do. Structurally, for example, The Comedy of Errors has no real basis, no deep structure in common with Roman Old Comedy. So, for instance, those plays in which a man and his wife plot against each other (as in Casina) or in which we observe the pranks of a parasite (Curculio) or a clever slave (Epidicus) depend on stories of intrigue and connivance. But there is no trickster in The Comedy of Errors, no deliberate intriguer; there is only Antipholus of Syracuse's suspicion of some, calling our attention to the fact that they are simply not there. The force of plot is, rather, the force of fate or providence, not the craftiness of wily man.9 H. B. Charlton sees these Roman plays somewhat differently—"The outstanding feature of the whole body of Roman comedy is that whilst it is full of sex, it is almost entirely devoid of love.… the object is almost invariably illicit"10—yet this too points to the enormous gap between the intentions and acts of copulation in Roman plays and the discussions of love that saturate The Comedy of Errors, discussions (and definitions) by Egeon, Adriana, Luciana, the two Antipholi, and Emilia, the Abbess. The "hard fathers, foolish mothers, vnthrifty young men, craftie seruantes, [and] sotle bawdes" that Roger Ascham complains of in Plautus, or the moral lessons the representative Tudor translator Richard Bernard finds in the New Roman Comedy of Terence, where we are to learn by knowing laughter "the nature of the fraudulent flatterer, the grimme and greedie old Sire, the roysting ruffian, the minsing mynion, and beastly baud,"11 the stock stereo-types of farce, are simply not part of Shakespeare's play. Rather, "The study of Adriana's jealous love, the lyrical proposal of Antipholus of Syracuse to Luciana," says Kenneth Muir in his indispensable book on the sources of Shakespeare's plays, results in "bewilderment and horror."12 Anne Barton agrees: "violence and disorder in Ephesus rise to a pitch that is both funny and frightening."13 The emphasis on farce in Old Comedy, on plot in New Comedy, and on transformation in romance is replaced in The Comedy of Errors by a psychological portrayal of Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant Dromio acting out the fears that Egeon renounces at the beginning of the play, allowing Ruth Nevo, for one, to think of "a schizophrenic nightmare" in which "identities are lost, split, engulfed, hallucinated, imploded."14

Barton and Nevo are not merely two twentieth-century sensibilities looking back on Tudor times, but two critics profoundly engaged in the very process of Shakespeare's play when they see, from quite separate starting-points, how dangerously close this drama can seem to come to the apocalyptic. But it is precisely this scraping along the skin and bones of our psyches, this constant return to the basic themes and human fears of estrangement, solitude, and exile—of being alone without family or friend, or being (as one character puts it explicitly) partial, fragmentary, incomplete—that arises directly from the occasion at which it was first staged; for this sense of isolation, of incompleteness was precisely what the Nativity meant, both in simple narrative terms and in only somewhat more complicated liturgical terms, to the churchgoing Elizabethans. Men generally lost a sense of direction, they believed, and God, in order to call His family of man back to Himself, sent part of Himself, His Son, to reconstitute His larger and more complete family. The Nativity of Christ, which cuts like lightning through a moment in human history as the Tudors perceived and received it, awakens the pain of loss and at the same time offers hope of the end to exile. This is the force of the lessons at Christmas-tide, of the prescribed church homilies under Edward VI and Elizabeth I. Strangers made pilgrims in just this way is how Shakespeare's audience would have conceived of nativity and the Nativity on Holy Innocents' Day, and how they would have defined providence. The recent BBC production senses this too, for even among the mountebanks and harlequins of their initial commedia dell' arte production, the chief characters with whom we associate wear crosses and crucifixes and, whenever confused or distraught, persistently kneel and genuflect.

Just these concerns are what put us back in touch with Holy Innocents' Day, for which The Comedy of Errors was at least twice thought suitable. And so informed, we can see Egeon as the first innocent of many, yet one who seems remarkably, discordantly holy too: he would hazard all, he says, to find his sons. It is faith, rather than weariness, which prompts his acceptance of Ephesian justice at the hands of the Duke as the unexpected ways of a world governed by providence. Egeon's sense of "comfort" (I.i.26) at the threat of imminent death derives from the same sense of faith as Claudio's in Measure for Measure—"The words of heaven: on whom it will, it will; / On whom it will not, so. Yet still 'tis just" (I.ii. 125-26)—a play more openly Christian in setting, but a play also presented during the Christmas season of 1604, on St. Stephen's Day, two nights before The Comedy of Errors. As Measure for Measure has its pointer within the text in this early appeal of the Duke to heaven, so The Comedy of Errors also has its pointer at the outset of the play in the setting of Ephesus. It was Ephesus, in the Acts of the Apostles, where St. Paul "went into the Synagogue, & spake boldely for the space of thre moneths, disputing & exhorting to the things that apperteine to the kingdome of God" (Acts 19:8)15 but where, as in Shakespeare's Ephesus, he seemed to meet only with witchcraft and sorcery "So that from his bodie were broght vnto the sicke, kerchefs or handkerchefs, and the diseases departed from them, and the euil spirits went out of them" (Acts 19:12). It is St. Paul as the more successive corrective to Dr. Pinch. But there is not only this early, itinerant preacher Paul but the letter-writer Paul, building the New Church: in Paul's other connection to Ephesians, his letter to the Ephesians.16 Here we find in the Christian New Testament, rather than in Roman farce, the source that inspired all parts of The Comedy of Errors—that gives it its overall shape and significance, not only mixing with but embodying and transforming Plautine conventions. This summary comes not in the sermon on order and on the directions for husbands and wives, parents and children that has often been cited from Ephesians 6, although this has its part to play in Shakespeare's drama, but in the summary of life's experiences in Ephesians 2 (a text as popular with the Tudors as the later passage). This is a source which has never been cited in connection with The Comedy of Errors, but which proceeds from a statement on death not unlike Egeon's through the sin and confusion of the play's chief action and finally to the last transformation of spirit before the priory. "And you hathe he quickened," Paul writes,

according to the course of this worlde, & after
  the prince that ruleth in this aire, euen the
  spirit, that now worketh in the childr' of

Among whome we also had our cōuersation in
  time past, in the lustes of our flesh, in
  fulfilling the wil of the flesh, & of the
  minde, and were by nature the children of
  wrath, as wel as others.
But God which is riche i mercie, through his
 great loue wherewith he loued vs,
Euen when we were dead by sinnes, hathe
  quickened vs together in Christ, fry whose
  grace ye are saued,
And hathe raised vs vp together, and made vs
  sit together in the heauenlie places in Christ
That he might shew in the ages to come the
  exceding riches of his grace, through his
  kindnes towarde vs in Christ Iesus.
For by grace are ye saued through faith, and
  that not of your selues: it is the gifte of
Not of workes, lest any man shulde boaste
  him self.
For we are his workemanship created in Christ
  Iesus vnto good workes, which God hathe
  ordeined, that we shulde walke in them.

This is the Ephesus the Elizabethans knew by trained instinct, not Shakespeare's. The enforced segregation of Syracusan and Ephesian in the play—like the separation of Jews from Gentiles and Christians from Pharisees in the Bible—results from human sin and hostility which focus on the wrong kind of transgression of the wrong kind of laws. The Elizabethans knew and understood that from childhood. Such divisive acts of fallen men, spurred on by evil lust and Satanic intention in Shakespeare's play, were just those acts that God, Jesus, and Paul meant to heal by reunion. Thus the central theme of the letter to the Ephesians, and one which Elizabethan preachers proclaimed with cogency and simplicity, is not only that of order but that of a reuniting—we think of the speeches on reunion as a kind of transformation back into the original state in The Comedy of Errors"—and the same theme emphasized in the only drama written with Paul as its hero, the non-cycle Digby play known as The Conversion of St. Paul. This is a miracle play which has at each of its three stations the story of the secular Saul and the reformed—the transformed—Paul. Here too we are taught that life is not a state of permanent separation or loss ("I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop, / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, / [Unseen, inquisitive] confounds himself,") Shakespeare's Antipholus of Syracuse confesses early on (I.ii.35-38), but of being found. Chaos and oblivion are destroyed, despite the immediate slaughter of some innocents, in the spreading need and redemptive power of the Nativity ("here we wander in illusions—/ Some blessed power deliver us from hence!" [IV.iii.41-42]). With the patience constantly urged by such disparate characters as Adriana (II.i.32), the Duke's officer (IV.iv.18), and the Abbess (V.i.102), men learn to forget that "guilders … redeem their lives" as the Duke's limited sense of law, of justice, and of redemption has it (I.i.8), for his "law" condemns men "to die" (I.i.25). Rather, faith and "sanctuary" (V.i.94) "for God's sake" (V.i.36) are necessary to bring a man "to his wits again" (V.i.96). Thus the customary world of historic time, of farce—of assignations, wedlock, childbirth—is rescued, subsumed, and eventually fulfilled in this play in providential time.18

Sensing this deeper organization in a play more integral and traditional than it is to us, the Tudors would see the end of The Comedy of Errors, centered as it is on the Abbess, as natural and fitting. Her powers, A. P. Riemer reminds us, heralded by "elevated diction," are "beyond the ordinary through the holiness and virtue conferred upon her by her 'order'" much as Helena will claim all human powers are in All's Well That Ends Well (II.i.l47ff.).19 The Abbess says, in Act V of The Comedy of Errors,

Be patient, for I will not let him stir
Till I have us'd the approved means I have,
With wholesome syrups, drugs and holy
To make of him a formal man again.
It is a branch and parcel of mine oath,
A charitable duty of my order.
                                   (V.i. 102-07)

"The Abbess's powers are sanctioned by religion and morality; she employs natural distillations—syrups, wholesome drugs—accompanied by prayer. The phrase 'charitable duty of mine order' suggests that we have here something other than merely practical, secular medicine; the promise to make Antipholus a 'formal man again' reinforces the particular nature of her skill," Riemer writes (113). But the Abbess, with all her powers, is limited in her power: providence reminds us of the true nature of providentiality. For the Abbess's "control is merely emotional or theatrical: it is events and circumstances that bring about the extraordinary felicity of reunion and salvation," Riemer concludes (114). Human expectations and tested beliefs can help to save: it is a necessary cause in The Comedy of Errors, most decidedly, but not an efficient one.

By changing the classical Epidamnum of Plautus' Menaechmi, the Old Comedy of separated twins, to the Christian Ephesus associated with Paul, then, Shakespeare decisively if subtly shifts the generic expectations of an Elizabethan audience steeped in Scripture and the liturgical calendar from pure farce to something like a divine comedy in which emotional experiences and intellectual reflections portrayed by the characters are shared simultaneously by the playgoers despite their privileged knowledge of the twinned Antipholi and their twinned Dromios. The comedy works, as Paul Ricoeur claims all comedies work, by moving "from what it says to that about which it speaks."20 The shape of the travel undergone by Egeon and by Antipholus of Syracuse is like the progress of Pilgrim, but with a double pilgrimage. In both instances, "The pattern of man's individual life coincides with that of Christian history," as Richard Axton writes in reference to the earlier native drama:21 both Egeon and Antipholus of Syracuse seek that they may find; they lose their present selves to find the fuller selves embodied in their reunited family; they hazard all that they may gain all in a new life that actually restores the old one but with the lessons brought about by faith and heralded by providence. That both characters openly declare this shared philosophy at the outset of the play, one in dialogue, the other in soliloquy, only secures it within the framework of Paul's letter, while the exorcism of Dr. Pinch and the imprisonment of Antipholus of Ephesus, with its allusions to the Harrowing of Hell, confirm, at the play's end, the need for conversion and the desire for salvation. The New Testament and its dramatic outgrowths, as in the Conversion of St. Paul, provide what Kenneth Burke calls the "frames of acceptance" of genres22 in which, here, the past constantly informs the present while the present, in searching for the past, realizes the future. It is this simultaneity of two frames of time—both in the generations represented by Egeon and Antipholus of Syracuse and in the implied past and future—that The Comedy of Errors draws its confusion and its resolution. This it shares with the native English tradition of the miracle play, such as the Digby play of St. Paul, the Digby Mary Magdalene, and the Wakefield Secunda Pastorum.


Still this informing shape strikes us at first as startling—perhaps as ingenious—and certainly at some distance from the play as we have come to know it, on the stage or in the study. So much worldliness in the decidedly mercantile environment of Shakespeare's Ephesus, so many set-up scenes such as the confusion with the courtesan and the misunderstanding about dinner, and so many physical beatings and verbal brawls sound nothing at all like the miracle play of St. Paul—or of any of the other examples of the vibrant, abiding medieval drama that has come down to us. But in this instance, I think, our conventional expectations betray us. If we recall Mak and his farcical transformation of sheep for baby as a parallel to the Nativity in the Secunda Pastorum, or think of the brawling of Noah's wife or the double-dealing of Cain, events analogous to those in The Comedy of Errors, or the juxtaposition of Egeon's grief alongside the Dromios' antics with the mingling of potential tragedy and lively comedy in the Noah play and the Brome Abraham and Isaac, we will be closer to the expectations and realizations of the audiences to whom Shakespeare's first actors played. Much like the language of the Secunda Pastorum, in fact, is the language of orthodox Christianity that The Comedy of Errors refuses to ignore. Adriana advises her sister, for example, that "A wretched soul bruis'd with adversity, / We bid be quiet when we hear it cry" (II.i.34-35); later she also senses of herself that as "I am possess'd with an adulterate blot, / My blood is mingled with the crime of lust" (II.ii.140-41). Insight, Antipholus of Syracuse tells Dromio elsewhere, is realized only "by inspiration" (II.ii.167).

Indeed, it is a peculiar critical myopia that with Shakespeare's apparent first play—closest in time and experience to the religious drama he saw in childhood—we have been blind to just the kind of influence which some of our best and shrewdest readers have found in much later Shakespearean plays—for the playwright, once launched on this sort of mixed reference (or mixed genres, mixed kinds) alluding to sacred plays even over secular influences, will do it again and again in the plays that follow. Hamlet can speak of out-Heroding Herod and Macbeth's porter can make passing but pointed reference to the Harrowing of Hell in plays written well after the dominance of mystery plays in England. There are numerous other, subtler instances. M. C. Bradbrook and somewhat later O. B. Hardison, Jr. were only the first to see in the tetralogy from Richard II to Henry V Shakespeare's own Protestant cycle. "When he wrote a cycle of secular history plays, depicting the Fall and Redemption of the English monarchy," Bradbrook comments in The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy,

Shakespeare was adapting the forms of the old Faith to the glory of the new state, as any good Protestant would do. With the fall of Richard II, the Garden of England is despoiled. With the casting out of the diabolic Richard III, and the triumph of the angelically supported Henry, the ghosts are led out of hell and the curse is annealed. A divine comedy is re-enacted in political terms.23

In addition, Emrys Jones points to the Passion play in the mystery cycles as the pattern Shakespeare follows in the tragedy of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in 2 Henry VI, and the play called The Buffeting (of Christ) behind the treatment of York in 3 Henry VI.24 Lear's humiliation, Coriolanus' exile, Timon's passion, and Caesar's assassination, he tells us, all deliberately hearken back to the plays of Christ's Passion (57, 59, 71-72) while Rosemary Woolf notes the Massacre of Innocents play—the true basis for Holy Innocents' Day where Herod ranted, as Hamlet knows—spelled out in Henry V's warning to the citizens of Harfleur regarding the carnage they will experience at England's hands if they do not yield:

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls

Do break the clouds, as did the wives of
At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen.25
                            (Henry V, III.iii.38-41)

Honor Matthews, whose entire book on Shakespeare deals with the marked and essential residue of medieval liturgical drama throughout all of his plays, finds pronounced verbal echoes of the Ludus Coventriae's Cain and Abel in the speeches of Regan and Goneril, lines from Nature in Friar Laurence's speeches to Romeo and the Coming of Antichrist in the rise of Richard III, to name only three from hundreds of examples.26 Richard S. Ide notes the slaughter of Duncan as the first of many slaughters of the innocents by Macbeth which lead, in time, to significant re-dramatizations in that play of the Last Supper, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Last Judgment.27 Nor were such mystery plays at all remote. The Ashburnham MS of the York Cycle has notations for Elizabeth I by Archbishop Grindal, who examined the Papist script for its use of doctrine, while Matthews records a performance of the Coventry cycle at Kenilworth, neighboring Stratford, in 1575 and A. W. Pollard reports that miracle plays were performed at York at least through 1579, at Newcastle until at least 1589 and at Chester at least through 1600 (last copied in 1607).28 As for Coventry, of the two extant plays surely from that cycle, one is the Coventry Nativity, performed by the Shearmen and Tailors' guild in Shakespeare's own day, covering the Biblical story from the Annunciation to the Massacre of Innocents, and staged at least until 1580. "As one whose boyhood was spent in Warwick-shire," Emrys Jones reminds us, "Shakespeare was exceptionally well placed to catch by the tail the vanishing eel of medieval dramatic tradition" (33).

The form and features of the mystery cycles are pervasive in The Comedy of Errors. The cycles began with serious treatments of the fall (and "death") of Adam (needing, like Egeon, to be saved in the person or representative of Christ), moved into knockabout farce with plays on Cain and Abel (much as we witness with the treatment of the two Dromios), and then restored high seriousness in showing how Christ's love conquered travail and sin (as with the increasing seriousness of the final scenes of Shakespeare's play). Some works, like the Secunda Pastorum, even collapsed these stages into a single dramatic effort. Audiences expected to see such a varied narrative on a fixed platform with several sedes (mansions, rooms, doors) before an unlocalized platea or place on the ground swept clean for players to help them suggest and realize plot as pilgrimage. Thus the Digby Conversion of St. Paul seems to have been played on a platform which had Damascus at one side and Jerusalem at the other end and the road between a playing place before both, while the Secunda Pastorum showed both the shepherds' field and Mak's cottage simultaneously. Like the various "places" in the mystery plays, the moralities, too, had various locations which, if presented first with a kind of shared neutrality, soon took on moral signification as the play unfolded. Most of them, including The Castle of Perseverance with its considerable number of places preserved in a diagram in the Macro MS, shows at once both the Hell-mouth and the Hill of Salvation, allowing within the play the presentation of the four stages of the mystery cycle which is also apparent in Shakespeare's play: Innocence; Temptation and Fall; Life in Sin; Realization and Repentance.29 Following these plays, The Comedy of Errors depicts a representative mankind falling into confusion; distracted by worldly things (like a cloak and a chain) of a mercantile world, such as the merchants of Ephesus whom St. Paul addresses; and vulnerable to desire (for an unnamed courtesan or for Luciana) as the witchcraft Paul sees in Ephesus marked the Ephesians. Like the near-contemporary Everyman, and like the portrayal of Ephesus in the Acts of the Apostles, The Comedy of Errors begins with the Summoning of Death. But like all these religious kinds too, Shakespeare's play shifts from a concern with ars moriendi, holy dying, to holy living, ars vivendi.30 (The conclusion of The Comedy of Errors, in and before the priory, seems especially close to one of its predecessors, The Play of the Sacrament, which, embodying all of the Corpus Christi cycle in one emblematic play, also concludes its pageant of events before the church.) Thus the threatened death of Egeon, finding an early resonance in Herod's threatened slaughter of the innocents, also finds a grim model against which the miracles wrought by providence through the Abbess need to overcome.

Such church plays, acting as what Heather Dubrow suggestively calls "host genres"31 , transform not only the significance of the situation and the plot but even the borrowed doorways from the Roman stage. It is clear from the entrances, exits, stage directions, and stage business in The Comedy of Errors that the three doors are to the Porpentine (an animal known primarily for copulation in medieval bestiaries), the Centaur (the single animal in the bestiaries known for reason), and the Phoenix (a bird, capable of resurrection, that figures Christ).32 In the play, these signs are for the house of assignation of the courtesan, the inn where Antipholus of Syracuse preserves his worldly goods, and the place where he discovers his "divine" Luciana, or the traditional stations of Hell, Earth, and Heaven of mystery and morality traditions here seen as humanly—as partially, even mistakenly—conceived by the wandering, fallen Antipholus.33 Pointedly, Antipholus of Ephesus alone enters the Porpentine to conduct business, while Antipholus of Syracuse naturally seeks out the Centaur with his tendency to reason and to common sense. It is Antipholus of Syracuse who fore-goes the physical satisfaction of a good dinner at the Phoenix, presumably a great attraction for Antipholus of Ephesus, for the satisfaction of love; and it is when he and his servant Dromio run away from this earthly site of resurrection that they come to the priory (stage direction at V.i.37) in a state of fear and in need of direction. He is explicit about his choices too: "Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?" he asks (II.ii.212), calling attention to the three doors of the Plautine stage transformed by Christianity early on in the play into a new set of stations, a new set of choices. And as in the miracle plays Hell here is called a "sty" or "pit" while the great "hall" of the priory suggests the setting of Heaven used in the N-Town cycle.34 But the priory cannot be the same doorway as the Phoenix as previous critics claim, beginning with E. K. Chambers,35 for Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse are running out of that to the priory; nor can it be the door of the Centaur, for they are running away from their worldly goods to a place of holy sanctuary. The doorway of the priory, then, is the miraculously transformed doorway of the Porpentine; the Courtesan has been displaced, visually and on stage, by the Abbess, and through it she comes to conquer sin and commerce by calling forth the entire cast—the whole world of the play—and transforming them too. "Shakespeare's characters live," Harry Levin says tellingly, "in a Christian ethos."36

R. Chris Hassel, Jr. anticipates this understanding of the play when he remarks that "A glance at the liturgical tradition of Innocents' Day makes it even less likely that mere nostalgia or coincidence explains the dual performance of the play on that religious festival." He notes that the proper lesson prescribed for that feast day in the Book of Common Prayer is Jeremiah 31:1-17, concerned with "the dispersal and reunion of families. In fact, from such other prescribed passages as … Matt. 2:13-18, Rev. 14:1-5, and Isa. 60, we realize that this theme was a central motif of the liturgical festival." He notes further that

Jeremiah 31 is insistently parallel to the first and final scene of Errors. After the Lord's several promises to gather the remnant of Israel from the coasts of the world, verses 15-17, on the ultimate deliverance of all innocents, seem particularly close to the situation and the sensibility of Egeon and Emilia, parents of their own lost children:

  • A voice was heard on hie, a mourning and bitter weping, Ra[c]hel weping for her children, … because thei were not.
  • Thus saith the Lord, Refraine thy voice from weping, and thine eyes from teares: for thy worke shalbe rewarded, saith ye Lord, and thei shal come againe from the land of the enemie.
  • And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shal come againe to their owne borders.37


Shakespeare's characters, it would seem, like his audiences, could not escape the Christian ethos even if they wanted to.

So rhetorically this aporetic play, full of doubts, becomes at its conclusion ecphrastic in the forthright sermon of the Abbess, the overall structure resembling a renewed catechism. The stations derived from the miracle and morality plays are underscored by Christian references throughout the play—to the Dromios' twin births in an inn (I.i.53) following the example of the twin Antipholi (I.i.51), to Antipholus of Syracuse's admission that he is a Christian (I.ii.77) and to his Dromio's plea to his rosary (II.ii.188), to Luciana's litany of God's creatures derived from the Homily on Obedience as well as Acts 19 (II.i.15-25), while Act 4, opening with a reference to Pentecost, leads directly to Dr. Pinch's exorcism chanted in Christian terms (IV.iv.52-55), Antipholus' plea for deliverance (IV.iii.42) and Dromio of Syracuse's concern with Adam and his obsession with prodigality (IV.iii.16ff.),38 and the Abbess' final speech on Pauline charity (V.i.102-08). Such open terms and echoes cast their light backward on the suggestive language which forms Egeon's autobiography as he reports it to the Duke. Egeon likens himself, it would seem, to the Adam of the Corpus Christi cycle: "Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall, / And by the doom of death end woes and all" (I.i. 1-2) by showing how his paradoxical response to say what passes the saying can give testimony to those who attend him:

A heavier task could not have been impos'd,
Than I to speak my griefs unspeakable;
Yet that the world may witness that my end
Was wrought by nature, not by vile offence,
I'll utter what my sorrow gives me leave.

His tale, then, is "what obscured light the heavens did grant" (I.i.66) while his problem, as he knows too well, is his lack of faith—he became "Hopeless to find" (I.i.135)—and his awareness of that very loss: "yet loth to leave unsought / Or that or any place that harbours men" (I.i. 135-36). His need for mercy and for renewed belief is the occasion for mercy from the Duke, who anticipates the Abbess, and his words, like hers, are far more Christian than Plautine. Against his crown the Duke places his soul:

Against my crown, my oath, my dignity,
Which princes, would they, may not disannul,
My soul should sue as advocate for thee;
But though thou art adjudged to the death,
And passed sentence may not be recall'd
But to our honour's great disparagement,
Yet will I favour thee in what I can;
Therefore, merchant, I'll limit thee this day

To seek thy health by beneficial help;
Try all the friends thou hast in Ephesus,
Beg thou, or borrow, to make up the sum,
And live.

That such trust and faith has some possibility even in this atmosphere of crass materialism and of doom—one famous production featured a huge clock on stage—is made clear in the opening lines of the very next scene when a merchant tells Antipholus of Syracuse of his own fortune while warning him to keep his citizenship secret (I.ii.1-8). But he is his father's son, even through the most farcical of the scenes, and money and doom are abruptly transformed into something else: "I to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself" (I.ii.39-40). What looks very much like the possibility of a coming act of providence, then, in a language popularized in the miracle and morality plays, seems assured when this Antipholus, lost in a new city and lost to himself, never loses sight of his faith.

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:
If it prove so, I will be gone the sooner.

Attracted instead to Luciana, whose name means "light," he is always able to distinguish between women who are worthy and those who are not, as he has apparently taught his own Dromio. When he meets an Ephesian courtesan on the street, both he and his servant are aware of the temptation she represents, and in Christian terms.

Syr. Ant. Satan avoid, I charge thee tempt me
Syr. Dro. Master, is this mistress Satan?
Syr. Ant. It is the devil.
Syr. Dro. Nay, she is worse, she is the devil's
And here she comes in the habit of a light
  wench, and thereof comes that the wenches
  say "God damn me," that's as much as to
  say, "God make me a light wench." 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; come
  not near her.39

Both are tested here, and not found wanting, just as Antipholus of Ephesus will be tested by Dr. Pinch and again in the dungeon into which he is thrown. Such temptations and trials here, as in the mystery plays, are what provide a blessed joy. "After so long grief," says the Abbess, "such felicity" (V.i.406),40 figuring Mary as intercessor and as mother. At the end of the play, the law of the Duke is apparent with his reappearance—actually, only his second appearance—but he is soon made (eternally) subordinate to the Abbess, as Justice is made subordinate to Mercy in numerous scriptural plays.

So many punning and persistent words introduce us, at the end, to The Word. The final petition of the Great Litany in the Book of Common Prayer is strikingly appositive in thought and image: "Thoughe we be tyed and bounde with the chayne of our synnes, yet let the pitifulness of thy great mercy lose vs." The idea is reinforced in the general confession spoken each day at Morning Prayer: "We have erred and straied from thy waies, lyke lost shepe.… We have left vndone those thinges whiche we ought to have done, and we haue done those thinges which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in vs." "If we say that we haue no synne, we decyve ourselues, and there is no truthe in vs." But The Comedy of Errors does more than give rebirth to general doctrine; it also responds to—and is perhaps partly directed by—the liturgical text for Holy Innocents' Day, making the play a kind of parable for that occasion. The way in which Egeon and his sons seek their own salvation glosses the Scripture assigned that day for morning prayer and not noted by Hassel:

But this shalbe the couenant that I wil make with the house of Israel. After those daies, saith the Lord, I wil put my Law in their inwarde partes, & write it in their hearts, & wil be their God, and thei shalbe my people.

And thei shal teache nomore euerie ma his neighbour and euerie man his brother, saying, Knowe the Lord: for they shal all knowe me from the least of them vnto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I wil forgiue their iniquitie, and wil remember their sinnes no more (Jeremiah 31:33-34)—

as well as the first and second lessons set for that day's evening prayer:

ARise, o Ierusalem: be bright, for thy light is
  come, & the glorie of the Lord is risen
  vpon thee.
For beholde, darkenes shal couer ye earth, and
  grosse darkenes the people: but the Lord
  shal arise vpon thee, and his glorie shalbe
  sene vpon thee.
And the Gentiles shal walke in thy light, &
  Kings at ye brightnes of thy rising vp
  (Isaiah 60:1-3).
Babes, kepe your selues frō idoles, Amē (l
  John 5:21).

The Abbess, like the play, draws into narrative those Scriptural passages which Elizabethans heard invariably, year in and year out, on the same day this play was presented, had perhaps just finished hearing that very morning or afternoon; and both move from the painful memory of a slaughter of innocents to the joy of the knowledge of providence which lies through and beyond such bloodshed during the celebration of Christ's birth, the lncarnation of God come to earth.

Such signs and symbols are captured in the tableaux vivants, the telling emblem scenes allegorically put forth in The Comedy of Errors: in the visual image of the bewildered Antipholus of Syracuse, the maddened (because uninstructed) Dr. Pinch, and, in the final moments, that scene on the steps of the priory that resembles, and is meant to re-embody, something like the Last Judgment. In this, too, The Comedy of Errors looks forward to Macbeth and especially to Measure for Measure where, Ide shows, Vincentio is heralded by trumpets and comes before the gates of the city to distribute rewards and punishments "much like his judicial model at the final compt before the gates of heaven."41 But whereas that justice is purely retributive (and so goes awry), the judgment and justice of the Abbess are distributive (superbly informed by mercy): she displaces the justice of the Duke. This could not be clearer: "Justice, most sacred duke, against the abbess" (V. 1.133) Adriana asks, insisting on the primacy of the law of Ephesus over the law of God, and her husband confirms this request: "Justice, most gracious Duke, O grant me justice" (V.i.190). But such law is at best imperfect; "Most mighty" but not sacred Duke, says the Abbess, "Most mighty duke, behold a man much wrong'd" (V.i.330). It is the Abbess' mercy overcoming human rule: "Whoever bound him, I will loose his bonds" (V.i.339), thereby gaining a husband (V.i.340) and sons (V.i.343, 401) whom she has "delivered" (V.i.402) with the help of God. Thus the Abbess reenacts the host of Judgment plays in the mystery cycles.

The wonders of the religious drama highlight the piling on of wonders that is the concluding movement of The Comedy of Errors, yet none is more wonderful than this: that so short a play—actually Shakespeare's briefest—moves all the way from the Nativity to the Last Judgment, spanning not only the life of the Christian but all of Christian history as well. That too is the essential idea behind Paul's letter to the Ephesians and so may also lie behind Shakespeare's choice of scene.

I Therefore, be§g prisoner in ye Lord, praye
  you that ye walke worthie of the vocation
  whereunto ye are called,
With all humblenes of minde, and mekenes,
  with long suffring, supporting one another
  through loue,
Endeuoring to kepe the vnitie of the Spirit in
  the bonde of peace.
There is one bodie, and one Spirit, euen as ye
  are called in one hope of your vocation.
There is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptisme,
One God & Father of all, which is aboue all,
  and through all, & in you all.…
Til we all mete together (in the vnitie of faith
  & knowledge of the Sonne of God) vnto a
  perfite man, & vnto the measure of the age
  of the fulnes of Christ,
That we hence forthe be no more children,
  wauering & caryed about with euerie winde
  of doctrine, by the deceit of m', and with
  craftines, whereby they laye in waite to
But let vs followe the trueth in loue.…
Be angry, but sinne not: let not the sunne go
  downe vpon your wrath,
Neither giue place to the deuil.…
And grieue not the holie Spirit of God by
  whome ye are sealed vnto the day of
Let all bitternes, and angre, and wrath, crying,
  and euil speaking be put away frō you, with
  all maliciousnes.
Be ye courteous one to another, & tender
  hearted, forgiuing one another, euen as God
  for Christs sake forgaue you.
BE ye therefore followers of God, as dere
And walke in loue
              (4:1-6, 13-15, 26-27, 30-32; 5:1-2).

The Comedy of Errors is also about the long suffering of those who face the deceit of men, temptations of the devil, bitterness and maliciousness in order to restore the one body of the family, as in one baptism, realizes this. His recognition ends the play: "We came into the world like brother and brother," he tells Dromio of Syracuse, "And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another" (V.i.425-26). "After so long grief, such felicity." So Hamner. But the Folio text does not say that. It reads, "After so long grief, such Natiuitie"—with a capital N, while Dyce, after Dr. Johnson, makes another choice still: "After so long grief, such festivity." He may not have the word quite right, but surely he has caught the sense of the play too. Seen thus in all its contexts, The Comedy of Errors is not merely a mechanical farce, a limp and imitative early play, or even a confusion of kinds, but an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning.

At the close, three couples stand with their servants united in one large family, presenting on stage the very heart of Christian theology in a living icon. It is a profound—and profoundly moving—effect, but actually it is only the last of many. For The Comedy of Errors is, from first to last, a play of effects—the arrest of Egeon, the tardiness of Antipholus of Ephesus for dinner, the pursuit of Dromio of Syracuse by Nell, the sudden fascination of Antipholus of Syracuse for Luciana, the sudden appearance of the Abbess and her priory—that keeps us actively searching for causes, forcing us into the position of the characters who are likewise searching for causes, and, like them, frustrated, bewildered, and subject to wonder: open as they are to amazement and to grace.

And such searching by us before the play resembles that of Shakespeare behind it. "Shakespeare was not a system-builder: he was an artist, a dealer in dramatic fictions," Philip Edwards writes. "By adjusting the patterns of art, he would seem to be looking for that fictional ordering which could act as a powerful interpretive formula not only for the experience of his audience, but for his own" (14). Edwards has just cited Twelfth Night, Henry V, All's Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, but we do not need to seek for this motivating force, this secret of Shakespeare's power, in later or major works alone. It is there, coiled up, sprung, and in operation in the earliest of them, where the native, classical, Christian, and Pauline traditions of drama are first exploited and then, in turn, mingled, mixed, and metamorphosed. By bringing his powers of creativity and synthesis to the occasion of Holy Innocents' Day, Shakespeare's peculiar forms and powers of art are visible from the through love. Even the least of the characters, Dromio of Ephesus, first—and apparent for those of us who, like the early Elizabethans, can understand the signals, the allusions, and the significance of the various natures of kinds.


1 Philip Edwards, Shakespeare and the Confines of Art (London: Methuen, 1968; rpt. 1981), 11.

2 D. A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (London: Sands & Co., 1957), 14; Fineman, "Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles" in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 70. This line is the most traditional one. Cf. M. R. Ridley: "It is the best kind of slick prentice work. It is completely artificial, hard, glittering, and exact; but, of its kind, brilliant; it is completely mechanical, 'but it moves,' with the smoothness of well-oiled machinery" (Shakespeare's Plays [London: The Folcroft Press, Inc., 1937], 53). The most sympathetic and detailed of recent authorities is E. M. W. Tillyard, who writes, in his posthumous Shakespeare's Early Comedies, "The core of the Comedy of Errors is farce and it is derived from one play of Plautus and some scenes from another" (ed. Stephen Tillyard [London: Chatto and Windus, 1965], 46). Harold Brooks, "Themes and Structure in 'The Comedy of Errors'" in Early Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1961), 55-71, and Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), chap. 1.

3 Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama (New York: Atheneum, 1964), chap. 7.

4 Introduction to The Comedy of Errors, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Methuen, 1962), liii-liv.

5 Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, 3.

6 Thomas Heywood, The Hierarchie of the Blessed Angells (1635), 24; quoted in C. A. Patrides, Premises and Motifs in Renaissance Thought and Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982), 116.

7 John Selden, Table-Talk, 2nd ed. (1696), 139; quoted in Patrides, 118.

8 Citations of this and other Shakespeare plays are to the New Arden texts.

9 See the relevant discussion by Madeleine Doran in Endeavors of Art: A study of form in Elizabethan drama (Madison, Wisc: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1964), 152ff.

10 H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (London: Methuen, 1966), 52.

11 Quoted in Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare's Comic Sequence (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1979), 3-4.

12 Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978), 16.

13 Anne Barton, Introduction to The Comedy of Errors in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 81.

14 Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1980), 22.

15 My citations of Scripture are to The Geneva Bible (1560) in the facsimile ed. with an introduction by Lloyd E. Berry (Madison, Wisc: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969).

16 Biblical scholars now doubt Paul's authorship of this letter, and assign it to the School of Paul; for Shakespeare, however, the letter was authentic.

17 For example, at II.i.l5ff.; II.ii.195-96; III.ii.39-40; IV.ii.19-22, 27-28; V.i.270-72.

18 On these matters, see also

19 A. P. Riemer, Antic Fables: Patterns of Evasion in Shakespeare's Comedies (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1980), 113.

20 Quoted in Nevo, 10.

21 Richard Axton, "The Morality Tradition" in Medieval Literature: Chaucer and the Alliterative Tradition, New Pelican Guide to English Literature, ed. Boris Ford (Harmondsworth, Engl.: Penguin, 1982), I:347.

22 Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History (Los Altos, Calif.: Hermes Publications, 1959), 43ff.

23 M. C. Bradbrook, The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963), 21-22; cf. Hardison, Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages: Essays in the Origin and Early History of Modern Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 290.

24 Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 35-54.

25 Rosemary Woolf, The English Mystery Plays (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972), 208.

26 Honor Matthews, Character & Symbol in Shakespeare's Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1969), 119. Surprisingly, she pays little attention to The Comedy of Errors. I am grateful to Raymond V. Utterback for directing me to Matthews' study.

27 Richard S. Ide, "The Theatre of the Mind: An Essay on Macbeth" English Literary History 43 (1975): 338-61.

28 Alfred W. Pollard, Introduction to English Miracle Plays Moralities and Interludes, 8th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927, 1965), lxvii.

29 Such stations are diagrammatically shown for the Anglo-Norman La Seinte Resureccion and for The Castle of Perseverance in Medieval Drama, ed. David Bevington (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), 122, 796-97.

30 Some of these remarks paraphrase V. A. Kolve, "Everyman and the Parable of the Talents," in Medieval English Drama: Essays Critical and Contextual, ed. Jerome Taylor and Alan H, Nelson (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972), 340.

31 Heather Dubrow, Genre (London: Methuen, 1982), 116.

32 Cf. T. H. White, The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts, a trans. of a Latin Bestiary of the twelfth century (New York: Putnam, 1954), 10n., 86, 125ff.

33 The recent York presentation of the York cycle at the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey has such a stage which shows Hell-Mouth at one end, the Hill of Salvation at another location, and various stations along a front stage for various locations on earth.

34 See Nelson, "Some Configurations of Staging in Medieval English Drama," in Taylor and Nelson, Medieval English Drama, 116-47, esp. 133ff.

35 E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), 1:307; the idea reappears (without source) in Stanley Wells, Introduction to The Comedy of Errors, New Penguin Shakespeare (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 25, and in Foakes, xxxiv-xxxv.

36 Harry Levin, Introduction to The Comedy of Errors, The Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York: New Amerian Library, 1965), xxviii.

37 Rudolph Chris Hassel, Renaissance Drama & the English Church Year (Lincoln, Neb.: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1979), 40-41.

38 In his edition of the play (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1962), 106, J. Dover Wilson notes that "Dromio's mind is full of images from the old miracle and morality plays." Also quoted in A. C. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1967), 100n.

39 For more discussion of this passage, see James H. Sims, Dramatic Uses of Biblical Allusions in Marlowe and Shakespeare, University of Florida Monographs, Humanities No. 24 (Gainesville, Fla.: Univ. of Florida Press, 1966), 30.

40 "The celebration called for by Aemilia is properly a nativity feast because the central characters are truly reborn; each of them has gained new relationships and thus in the metaphysics of the play transformed his identity." Thomas F. Van Laan, Role-playing in Shakespeare (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1978), 25.

41 "Homiletic Tragicomedy and the Ending of Measure for Measure," an unpublished essay Ide has shared with me, 10.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

Arthos, John. "Shakespeare's Transformation of Plautus." Comparative Drama 1, No. 4 (Winter 1967-68): 239-53.

Discusses Shakespeare's substitution of a hierarchical social order for Plautus's disordered and confused collection of citizens, and asserts that such a change shows Shakespeare's predilection for just and ordered societies.

Baker, Susan. "Status and Space in The Comedy of Errors." Shakespeare Bulletin 8, No. 2 (Spring 1990): 6-8.

Discusses various staging issues in The Comedy of Errors in light of the acting theories of Keith Johnstone, which highlight the play's emphasis on displacement, dislocation, and dispossession.

Clubb, Louise George. "Italian Comedy and The Comedy of Errors." Comparative Literature XIX, No. 3 (Summer 1967): 240-51.

Relates The Comedy of Errors to the commedia grave of the Italian counter-reformation. Though no direct link can be found in the compositional genetics of The Comedy of Errors, Clubb cites certain features that distinguish the Comedy and the commedia grave from the medieval Italian comedies: the lesser role of the courtesan, the "addition of pathos," the theme of jealousy, the theme of madness and sorcery, and the reunification of the characters at the close of the play.

Grivelet, Michel. "Shakespeare, Molière, and the Comedy of Ambiguity." Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969): 15-26.

Develops a psychological theory of comedy and laughter and discusses the similarities and differences between Plautus's Menaechmi and its different adaptations in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and Molière's Amphitryon.

Hamilton, A. C. "The Early Comedies: The Comedy of Errors." In The Early Shakespeare, pp. 90-108. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1967.

Explores The Comedy of Errors as a harbinger of Shakespeare's mature work, discussing both the many strengths already present and the weaknesses that were later to be improved upon.

Levin, Harry. "Two Comedies of Errors." In Refractions: Essays in Comparative Literature, pp. 128-50. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Reviews the similarities and differences between The Comedy of Errors and the Menaechmi. Levin concentrates on the problem of identity and demonstrates that Shakespeare deepened Plautus's two-dimensional play.

Marcotte, Paul J. "Luciana's Prothalamion: Comedy, Error, Domestic Tragedy." College Literature IX, No. 2 (Spring 1982): 147-49.

A defense of Adriana, which uses, virtually without comment, quotations from Shakespeare and other contemporary authors to show that women are as a matter of course very ill-treated by men in general and their husbands in particular.

Parker, Patricia. "Elder and Younger: The Opening Scene of The Comedy of Errors." Shakespeare Quarterly 34, No. 3 (Autumn 1983): 325-27.

Explicates a textual point concerning the division of Egeon's family during the original shipwreck that prepares for the plot of The Comedy of Errors.

Slights, Camille Wells. "Time's Debt to Season: The Comedy of Errors, IV.ii.58." English Language Notes XXIV, No. 1 (Sept. 1986): 22-25.

Proposes an interpretation of what has been taken for a corrupted passage by most Shakespeare editors and connects it with an interpretation of the play's treatment of time as one of its structuring themes.

Weller, Barry. "Identity and Representation in Shakespeare." English Literary History 49, No. 2 (Summer 1982): 339-62.

Includes a brief discussion of The Comedy of Errors in the context of an analysis of Shakespeare's treatment of the theme of self-discovery.

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