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The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare

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J. Dennis Huston (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: “Playing with Discontinuity: Mistakings and Mistimings in The Comedy of Errors,” in Shakespeare's Comedies of Play, Columbia University Press, 1981, pp. 14-34.

[In the following essay, Huston reads The Comedy of Errors as a comic representation of the instability of human behavior and experience, and examines the dissonantly tragic beginning and the lingering tensions in the resolution of the play.]

The Comedy of Errors announces Shakespeare's joy in play-making to the world, for it is the work of a dramatist who, above all things else, delights in his medium. In it he finds a reality easily assimilated and manipulated by his newly discovered dramatic powers, since he manages the dramatic microcosm with absolute control. He builds a plot of mistaking, self-consciously contrived, and then he exuberantly pushes his characters around the world he has trapped them in, all the while encouraging his audience, which knows the reason for the mistaking, to laugh with him at the characters' vain efforts to understand their situation. By thus drawing attention to his obvious manipulation of plot and medium, Shakespeare keeps his play—in both meanings of the word—between the characters and the audience. As a result, there is no need for any real development of character in The Comedy of Errors, since the action derives less from what the characters do than from what the playwright does to them. At times Shakespeare does not even differentiate between characters: the two Dromios really are interchangeable. He never allows his characters any substantial complexity: Antipholus of Syracuse seems at first interesting, but he soon becomes as stubbornly one-dimensional as all the other characters in The Comedy of Errors. He must, if the play is to succeed, because the complications of its plot depend on the characters' persistent refusal to change either their minds or their behavior. In a sense, then, even the characters serve as props in this play; the playwright gives them, like puppets, a few defining and unchanging features—some of them interchangeable—and then he moves his characters mechanically about as he wills. The action, like that of a puppet show, depends in large measure on physical movement—on ‘chance’ meetings, misplaced props, and violent altercations. No doubt it is an oversimplification to say that Shakespeare here gives us drama as puppet show. But such an observation does direct us towards the spirit of the work, towards its basic dramatic simplicity and its exuberant physical energy. It also makes clearer the correspondence between Shakespeare's play-making here and the world of child's play. Like the child playing, Shakespeare working, and playing, with the ‘microsphere’ of the theater wields absolute control over a newly manageable object world, not of toys but of actors, costume, and props, which he turns to his particular dramatic uses.

There is, however, at least one notable difference, other than those of intellect and power, between Shakespeare's play and that of the child. The dramatist proffers his play to an audience for approval, while child's play is often, though not always, self-sufficient. And in so addressing an audience, Shakespeare is, at least in part, attempting to extend the range of his mastery; he is including the audience, as well as players, stage, and props, in the world he controls. It is no wonder, then, that Shakespeare's characteristic response to the members of his audience, repeated in an almost endless number of ways in these comedies, is to manipulate them. He manipulates his characters too, and the relationships between these two kinds of manipulation variously define the world of Shakespeare's comedies of play.

In The Comedy of Errors, for example, Shakespeare...

(This entire section contains 8888 words.)

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keeps his audience almost always at a distance from the action. As its title implies, the work is nearly unmitigated farce. For with its dependence on mistaken identity, mistiming, rapid movement, slapstick violence, exaggerated reactions, and outrageous puns, this play has almost as much in common with a Marx brothers movie as with other Shakespearean comedies. It is also, in some obvious ways, Shakespeare's most simply conceived dramatic work, since all of the action develops out of a single basic misunderstanding, a fact known from the beginning to the audience but withheld from all the characters until the end.1 As a result, the audience watches the play from a position of almost godlike superiority; it shares with the playwright the secret that very simply explains all the confusion.

The characters, of course, have no such knowledge. They do not know they are characters in a farce; nor are they granted the divine overview offered to the audience, so they continually try to make logical sense out of the confused welter, the discontinuity, of their experiences. They construct hypotheses to account for others' strange, inconsistent behavior, blaming it on jest, drunkenness, madness, witchcraft, adultery, breach of contract, or thievery. And although these hypothetical explanations are erroneous, they are all more logical and probable, more sensible, than the answer ultimately revealed to these characters. For that answer is purposely ridiculous, the playful invention of a dramatist calling attention to his own imaginative energies as he makes dramatic sense, and comedy, out of the most wildly improbable comic situation he can devise.

What most obviously draws attention to the presence of the playwright in this work is the crucial way that Shakespeare assimilates, and diverges from, his source, Plautus' Menaechmi, where there is only one set of identical twins. By doubling the number of twins—and so geometrically increasing the possibilities for confusion provoked by mistaking—Shakespeare abandons any concern with realism and instead focuses his audience's attention on his capacity to play freely and inventively with the exigencies of a comic plot.2 In the process he associates his art with play in a number of different forms—as release, by daring to overgo his source's already strained use of unrecognized twins with the same name; as spontaneous invention and fun, by delighting his audience and no doubt himself with ever more ridiculous and exaggerated mistakings; and finally, as the technical skill of playwriting, by manipulating basic dramatic problems of plotting and stage business so that the misunderstandings are continually expanded and intensified, until they threaten the social order of Ephesus with apparent chaos: near the end of the play the bonds of marriage, friendship service, business contracts, and law, which structure society and give coherent form to life in Ephesus, all apparently dissolve, as husband turns savagely against wife, master against servant, and debtor against creditor.

Nothing people within the world of the play can do will resolve the violent disputes. The characters try to bring order out of the chaos that develops during the fifth act, but they meet only with more confusion. When they appeal to the representative of the Church for help, the Abbess tricks the woman who addresses her, supplies an explanation that immensely oversimplifies the problem at hand, and then retreats with material witnesses into the secluded and detached realm of the priory. Then the Duke, representative of law and social order in Ephesus, proves no more successful than the Church in dealing with the chaos. When both of the principal litigants in the dispute call on him for ‘justice,’ he listens carefully to strange and conflicting accounts of all that has happened, accounts which are inconsistently corroborated and contradicted by witnesses on both sides of the argument, and then he concludes, helplessly, that ‘you are all mated or stark mad’ (v.i. 281).3 They are not. But they are manipulated, because as characters in a comic farce they are subject to the arbitrary control of a playwright who moves them about—who plays with them—at his pleasure, and the audience's.

There is, then, an enormous discrepancy between the characters' experience of their dilemma and the audience's experience of the same situation. No doubt there is always a substantial difference between what an audience and the characters experience of a play. However life-like it may be, art is never really life for an audience, and it is never anything else for the characters. But almost always in Shakespearean drama there are effects that work to promote audience engagement in, as well as detachment from, the action.4 We may be attracted to the wit and energy of a comic hero or heroine, or identify with the struggles and suffering of a tragic hero, or nod in assent at the wisdom in the folly of a clown. And even when a dramatic effect works apparently for detachment, as Shakespeare's use of the play within a play almost always does, its ultimate thematic purpose may be to encourage our intellectual engagement in the dramatic situation. By watching an audience of foolish young lovers ignore the relevance of a play about foolish young lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream, we may realize that we are thereby being encouraged to become a better audience than the one before us. By watching an Induction that is a series of plays within plays in The Taming of the Shrew, we may be prepared to see the shrew-taming action which follows as a more complex version of the same sort of imaginative playing.

In The Comedy of Errors, however, Shakespeare depends for his principal dramatic effect upon the disengagement of the audience from the characters; the audience is continually encouraged to enjoy its superior knowledge and to laugh at the foolish mistakings of the bewildered characters. Because they know nothing, and the audience knows everything about their predicament, these characters appear laughable in their confusion. In spite of the fact that they are bodied forth on the stage by real people, the characters seem like mechanical imitations of human beings. They entertain us by threatening and inflicting upon one another violence that does not hurt, by posturing emotions that they put aside almost in the next moment, and by moving rapidly about, never settling for long enough in one place to recognize that it is they and not their world which has suddenly started spinning crazily about. The play is, in short, an almost perfect example of Bergson's definition of comedy, of the mechanical imposing itself on the human.

Almost. But not quite—because Shakespearean comedy is never as neat as a general critical summary would have it, never as tidy as its happy endings imply. For there are always in the comedies problems which never get fully resolved. These seem most often to be embodied in the fates of characters who are not included in the final celebrations and who are usually tied, in one way or another, to violence—characters like Malvolio, Don John, and Shylock. But the problems suggested by the figure of the unreconciled outsider are not the only ones which regularly cast a shadow across the bright surface of Shakespearean comedy; they are merely the best known. Another, similar kind of difficulty is presented by Shakespeare's use of the misleading beginning, which, though it may not qualify the final festivities, still reminds us from the first of the chaotic forces of disruption and discontinuity which comedy must either reorder or render harmless.

In The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, Shakespeare begins as if his play were going to be a tragedy. Forces of dissolution threaten the world and characters of these plays: Egeon and Hermia, both separated from their families and from an earlier life of joy, face the judgment of a harsh law which menaces them and which not even the ruling Duke can countermand. There are forces of dissolution, too, at the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing, though they threaten the form rather than the content of the play: in both of these works the playwright apparently cannot get his plot smoothly under way. The Induction of The Taming of the Shrew, lurching through a sequence of fitful beginnings, is finally altogether abandoned once Shakespeare introduces the story of Kate and Petruchio. And the first act and a half of Much Ado About Nothing, spinning out a tangled web of misunderstandings and mistakings, presents a villainous scheme to divide Don Pedro and Claudio, which, apparently following the promise of the play's title, comes at last to absolutely nothing.

The false beginning, as Shakespeare uses it, then, gives a dramatized example of the disorder or discontinuity that the comic dramatist must overcome, both in his play and by his play. If he succeeds in triumphing over this disorder, the proof of the playwright's victory will appear in the comic ending, when resolutions can be worked with miraculous ease. There, what once appeared as chaos proves to be merely part of a larger pattern of order: the storm-tossed sea, which once incomprehensibly divided Egeon's family, just as incomprehensibly brings that family together again. There, what no man before had the power to oppose, is effortlessly put away with a word: ‘It shall not need; thy father hath his life’ (V. i. 390). Such a reversal is not really, as it first seems, a thematic inconsistency, because the whole play has intervened to make the change possible; the threatening chaos of the beginning is displayed by a comic view of life dramatically realized within the play. And at the same time the play, having attained to the order of art, offers the audience and the playwright proof of a temporary victory over the threatening chaos of life outside the theater.

The best way, though, to understand Shakespeare's complex use of what I have called the misleading beginning is to examine one in detail. The Comedy of Errors, by its very title, gives its audience a good idea about what kind of play it is, a knockabout farce built upon mistakings; but the title, however aptly it may be suited to the play as a whole, hardly prepares an audience for the first scene. For there, in an announced ‘comedy of errors,’ Shakespeare sounds the notes of tragedy—or perhaps of romance,5 since the pathos of Egeon's tale, with its references to fortune, its interpolated life stories, and its account of a wife and child lost at sea, might suggest the outlines of romance to an experienced Elizabethan playgoer. But whether the beginning suggests tragedy or romance, it must seem confusing and discontinuous to an audience prepared for a ‘comedy of errors.’ Consider, for instance, the opening speech:

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

(I. i. 1-2)

This hardly sounds like a beginning. The end-stopped verses, with their emphasis on death, doom, end, and fall, and their heavily accented rhymes, seem much more suited to an exit than to an entrance; and Egeon undoubtedly means them to be exit lines, since he is prepared for a judgment of death. At the beginning of a comedy we confront what appears to be the ending of a tragedy—an old man speaking his last words before being led to execution. His words, too, suggest how dominant the idea of death will be in this first scene, where we hear of ‘mortal and intestine jars’ (11), of merchants executed, of laws that promise death to ‘any Syracusian born’ (19), of an agent's sudden demise, of the heavens’ ‘doubtful warrant of immediate death’ (69), of near drowning, of a wife and child lost and feared dead, and of a second child perhaps lost in search of the first. Here surely is a scene filled with sorrow and tragedy, a fact emphasized not only by Egeon's despair at his hopeless condition but also by repeated references to the arbitrariness of the powers that persecute him. He is condemned by a law he cannot even have known about, since the enmity between Syracuse and Ephesus has sprung up ‘of late’ (5), and Egeon has not been in Syracuse for five years. Earlier he has been separated from his wife and child by a chance accident at sea. And earlier still he has been called away from the embraces of his wife by his business agent's apparently sudden death, which has left the care of his goods ‘at random’ (43). Egeon seems indeed, as the Duke describes him, one ‘whom the fates have mark'd / To bear the extremity of dire mishap!’ (141-2).

But Egeon's story and the first scene are not really as tragic as they initially appear, since they may, as I have already suggested, trace the outlines of romance, with its promise of miraculous renewal, rather than of tragedy, with its focus on immeasurable loss. Even more to the point, they are part of a play which will ultimately prove a comedy. And finally, and most significantly, a number of details within the first scene qualify its apparently tragic tone. The first of these details is the fact that Egeon is not an altogether reliable narrator. In general what he says about the events of his past life is true, at least as far as we can tell, but he sometimes jumbles the particulars of these events, and his interpretation of their meaning is often misleading. For example, Egeon has a tendency to see only the worst in a situation. He begins the story of his life of ‘griefs unspeakable’ (33) as if it were one uninterrupted tale of woe. But it is not, for he gives an account of salvation as well as loss, of joy as well as sorrow. Here is the beginning of his story:

In Syracusa was I born, and wed
Unto a woman, happy but for me,
And by me, had not our hap been bad.
With her I lived in joy; our wealth increased
By prosperous voyages I often made
To Epidamnum; till my factor's death
And the great care of goods at random left
Drew me from kind embracements of my spouse … 


There is in this account a certain discontinuity. Egeon claims that his wife would have been happy but for him and for the fact that their luck was bad, and then he says that they were joyfully married and prosperous. The argument makes no sense. Of course, we know what Egeon means: the sorrow came after he and his wife had been happily married for some time, when they were separated. But that is not what Egeon says. So overwhelmed is he by present grief that he makes it color even his account of past joy. In his despair he would reduce the events of his life to the simplistic consistency he sees in them now—to a long series of ‘misfortunes’ (120) and ‘mishaps’ (121).

And what Egeon does at the beginning of his story he does throughout: he tries to impose a perfect, uncomplicated continuity on the complex, discontinuous experiences of his life. To some extent, he succeeds in what he attempts, for his story has a convincingly tragic tone and is coherent enough to be easily understood by an audience. In summary that story sounds perfectly continuous and consistent, but in its particulars it is not nearly as neat and tidy as it sounds, for it is rife with inconsistencies both great and small. We have no idea, for instance, how long Egeon and Emilia have been married before they are first separated. By his overriding tone of sadness, Egeon implies that their happiness has been short-lived, a suggestion apparently confirmed by the story of Emilia's pregnancy, which seems the immediate result of the lovers' ‘kind embracements’ (44). Yet Egeon also explains that after the marriage their wealth increased ‘By prosperous voyages I often made / To Epidamnum …’ (41-42), and this detail suggests a marriage of some substantial length.

There is, of course, good reason for the apparent double time in Egeon's narrative: the marriage seemed short because he was so happy and because it is now viewed under the aspect of memory, which sometimes plays tricks with time. In fact, Egeon's memory repeatedly plays such tricks with time during the course of his story; he often shortens or conflates it to give his experience continuity. We do not know, for example, how long he is married before business takes him from his wife, but the time is longer than he implies. Nor do we know how long he and Emilia stay in Epidamnum before setting out for home. More noticeably, we never hear a thing of the years between the separation at sea and the son's eighteenth birthday, a time during which Egeon apparently gave no thought to searching for his lost family. And also, there is a hiatus in his narrative between the time when his son sets out in search of his lost brother and when Egeon undertakes his five-year journey through Greece and Asia, for we later hear that father and son have in fact been separated for seven years (V. i. 309, 320).

In addition, confusion about time is matched in Egeon's story by confusion about details. The twins can be differentiated from one another only by names (53), but they have the same names (129); before the storm Emilia takes care of the latter-born twin (79), but the child who survives with Egeon is ‘My youngest boy’ (125); when the family faces approaching death at sea, Emilia's tears induce Egeon to seek a means of preservation (75), but it is his wife who initiates the action of fastening herself and the twins to a mast; and finally, the storm that has threatened them all never comes, and the sea at last waxes calm (92), but in this calm sea the ship is ‘violently borne upon’ a rock (103).

All these inconsistencies undoubtedly can be dismissed as unimportant, as the result merely of Shakespeare's carelessness or inexperience. And, besides, they would never be noticed in a theater, where an audience, responding to Egeon's despair, would interpret his story as he interprets it. But what an audience consciously notices is not always all there is to a play, even for that audience. Drama sometimes reaches below the surface of consciousness to stir the depths beneath, as anyone who has ever watched a good production of Hamlet or King Lear knows. A play does not, however, have to be a great tragedy to affect an audience more deeply than that audience may consciously know. Even so apparently frothy a work as The Comedy of Errors may reach at times beneath the level of an audience's consciousness. It will not go so deep as a great tragedy, but it should not be dismissed as all surface just because it is not Hamlet or King Lear.

For example, behind the story of Egeon and his separated family in the first scene of The Comedy of Errors we may glimpse the outlines of genuinely mythic themes which are everywhere in Shakespearean drama—arbitrary natural violence manifesting itself in storm, confused and uncertain identity,6 shipwreck on a strange shore, sudden and inexplicable divorce between husband and wife, an old man hopelessly separated from those he loves and wandering in a world of unspeakable griefs, the transforming power of time, the miraculous return of what seems irrevocably lost, and finally, the incomprehensible abundance of great creating nature. More directly to my purposes here, though, is the fact that beneath the surface of this scene we encounter a pattern which will eventually become a dominant thematic concern in the play. That pattern is of the discontinuity of human experience. We have met it first in Shakespeare's confusing beginning, which plays with the audience's expectations about what kind of drama this ‘comedy of errors’ will be. We have met it next within the realm of the play in Egeon's story, which he tries to make perfectly neat and consistent but which in its small particulars resists his reductively simplifying vision. We can now meet it also in the behavior of the Duke, whose conduct in this scene is inconsistent enough so that even an audience in the theater might take note of it.

Solinus begins by commanding Egeon not to plead his case any longer. But there is nothing in the speech Egeon has delivered which suggests such pleading; the merchant, apparently prepared for a sentence of execution, has called for the Duke to end his woes with the doom of death. For some reason Solinus is not listening to what Egeon is saying, and we soon discover why: he is trying to suppress his sympathy for his prisoner so that he can enforce the harsh law of Ephesus. His first speech is, in fact, a conscious effort to convince himself of the need for Egeon's death. He is not disposed, he claims,—confirming the idea by his denial—to set aside the laws of his country; Syracuse and Ephesus have of late engaged in wars, and the Duke of Syracuse has harshly put Ephesians to death, so Egeon can expect no pity from ‘our threatening looks’ (10). The sudden shift here from the ‘I’ of line four to the royal ‘we’ gives emphasis to the Duke's attempt to act as impersonal justiciary. But he is not as successful at achieving impersonality as he sounds, since he continues to marshal evidence against Egeon, as if he had not yet quite convinced himself to order execution. By the end of the speech, however, the Duke seems to have conquered his impulses for mercy; his conclusion has the ring of inevitability: ‘Therefore by law thou art condemn'd to die’ (26). Solinus still cannot associate himself with this judgment—the prisoner is condemned ‘by law’—but the Duke has at last apparently issued the decree of death. He has no more issued it, however, than he begins to take it away, to delay its enactment: he calls for Egeon to tell his story and to explain what cause drew him to Ephesus. Having begun by ordering his prisoner to plead his case no more, Solinus now in effect commands him to plead it again. The only continuity in the behavior and speeches of this Duke is discontinuity.

And this pattern of apparently discontinous behavior continues as the scene progresses, for after listening to the first part of Egeon's long account of shipwreck and separation, Solinus encourages him to finish his story, assuring him that ‘we may pity, though not pardon thee’ (98). The statement is a direct contradiction of the Duke's earlier claim that the outrage perpetrated by the Duke of Syracuse ‘Excludes all pity from our threatening looks’ (10). Then, when the merchant's tale is finally done, Solinus, moved by the pity which has been implicit in his conduct towards Egeon from the first, delays the execution again. He grants the prisoner a day's reprieve, to allow him time to raise the money necessary for his ransom. Temporarily at least, the Duke puts aside incontrovertible law. His action is thematically significant for at least two reasons. First, it gives evidence that the tragedy threatening both Egeon and this announced ‘comedy of errors’ can be avoided; it converts the apparent end presented at the beginning of this play to a beginning, and so reinforces a comic pattern established but not recognized in Egeon's story—the pattern of sudden miraculous deliverance from imminent death.

Three times in Egeon's tragic account of his misfortunes he avoids expected ruin: when first he would gladly have accepted his ‘doubtful warrant of immediate death’ (69), his wife's cries force him to ‘seek delays’ (75) of their end; when later the sailors, frightened by the approaching storm, have abandoned Egeon and his family on a ‘sinking-ripe’ (78) ship, the sun unexpectedly disperses the storm clouds (89-90); and when finally this ship is wrecked upon a rock and the family is cast into the sea, they are all soon rescued. Having escaped from it three times in the past, Egeon is now once again delivered from death—by the Duke's reprieve. And though he may view this deliverance, like the ones which preceded it, as fruitless—since his exit lines are as much concerned with death as his first speech was—he is nevertheless exiting to something different from his execution. The tragic pattern initiated by the play's dark beginning has not been dispelled, but it has at least been qualified. The Duke's decision to put off Egeon's execution for a day, then, gives a suggestion of form to traces of comedy obscured by the apparently tragic tone of the first scene. That form will be more fully developed in the scenes that follow.

The second reason why the Duke's reprieve of Egeon's sentence is important is because it makes clearer the relationship between the theme of discontinuity and forms of play in The Comedy of Errors. Against the discontinuity of his experience, against the conflict between his human feelings that Egeon should be spared and his sworn duty to enforce an inhuman law, Solinus throws up the defense of a temporary reprieve. For a while he holds the intrusive discontinuity of reality at bay, not, as Egeon has done, by imposing the pattern of tragedy on discontinuous events, but rather by pushing the problem away from him, in time and space: he gives Egeon the rest of the day to search out the money needed to buy release from harsh law, and he turns the prisoner over to the keeping of another. Against law he opposes a temporary reprieve, which creates an insulated world limited in space and time—‘I'll limit thee this day / … Try all the friends thou hast in Ephesus’ (I. i. 151-3)—to contain Egeon and the problems his story and presence bring to the Duke's consciousness and conscience. But although the Duke partly manipulates this intrusive reality by pushing it away from him, he can find no way to assimilate it effectively, to play with it: as Duke he must enforce the law; as human being he cannot bring himself to do so. Caught between the unyielding rigors of law and the equally compelling dictates of human feeling, he tries to satisfy both demands at once and manages to provide Egeon, and himself, only with a temporary reprieve.

Problems only temporarily pushed aside have a way of returning with redoubled force, however; so when we next see Solinus, in the fifth act, he is besieged on all sides by the apparent discontinuity of reality, which batters at the insulated world of the reprieve. Now all cry for ‘justice’ (V. i. 133, 190, 194, 197) and demand action from their ruler. In a way this scene presents Solinus with a nightmare version of his earlier experience. Once again he is called upon to render the doom of ‘justice’; once again he listens to stories which seek to impose coherence on an apparently discontinuous sequence of events; and once again he finds himself temporarily unable to settle harsh judgment upon those before him. But now he confronts, in place of one difficult decision, many apparently impossible ones; in place of barely discernible discontinuity, an engulfing chaos of contradictions. Where earlier, judgment was rendered difficult because of the discontinuity between the Duke's duty as a ruler and his feelings as a human being, now judgment appears impossible because of raging discontinuity in the very nature of things. Everyone has his own account of events, and none of the accounts matches.

In the conflicting reports of what has happened in Ephesus during the afternoon we find discontinuity in forms we have met before: in the details of the narratives, as with Egeon's tale earlier, and in Solinus' continuing inability to reconcile his duty as a law enforcer with his emotions as a human being:

She is a virtuous and a reverend lady:
It cannot be that she hath done thee wrong.

(V. i. 134-5)

Long since thy husband served me in my wars,
And I to thee engaged a prince's word,
When thou didst make him master of thy bed,
To do him all the grace and good I could.

(V. i. 161-4)

But in addition we find discontinuity disrupting even the most basic facts of nature, apparently overthrowing the very laws which govern the movement of things in space and time. Antipholus seems ‘borne about invisible’ (V. i. 187) or, perhaps more correctly, he seems too often visible: here disappearing in retreat behind the walls of the abbey, there appearing in attack after his beating of Dr. Pinch; here dining with his wife and sister-in-law at home, there dining with the courtesan at the Porpentine; here receiving a gold chain of Angelo, there denying that he has ever even seen the chain. In the first scene Egeon's presence threatened the laws of Ephesus; now Antipholus' presence threatens even the laws of nature. Maddening, unassimilable discontinuity, expanding its compass and intensifying its attack, threatens everyone in Ephesus. More than a temporary reprieve is now needed to rescue Solinus from paralysis, Egeon from death, and the society of Ephesus from dissolution in madness, adultery, and incest. Clearly what is needed is the wonderful, restorative power of miracle. In desperation, the Duke summons the Abbess as witness to events. He turns literally and figuratively towards the Church, which at last delivers up its miracle: enter the Abbess with Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse.

In a single moment of wonder Emilia's entry with the second Antipholus and Dromio resolves all the apparent discontinuity in Ephesus: instead of one Antipholus and Dromio, there are two; and all the misunderstandings and mistakings suddenly appear in their true form, as misunderstandings and mistakings merely, rather than as indications of witchcraft, madness, or adultery. At last the playwright reveals to his characters the secret he has shared with his audience since the second scene. And in the process he partly dissolves, at least for a moment, the distance between audience and characters, for when Emilia enters with the second Antipholus and Dromio, all the characters, struck dumb with wonder, become an audience to the revelations played out before them. And as characters become temporarily an audience, Shakespeare's audience may recognize that this situation is reversible—that an audience may be transformed into characters by a world more expansive than the one the playwright creates. After all, the revelations of the comic ending, by resolving the complications of the plot, remind the audience that the play is coming to an end; and one of the effects of such a reminder is to draw attention to the contracted nature of the audience's immediate experience. As they watch the play being concluded, the members of Shakespeare's audience may become aware that they must shortly surrender their perspective of godlike superiority and enter again a world where they themselves are characters. In this world, too, they may, like the characters of the play, be assailed by apparently discontinuous experience and perhaps observed by an audience which, from its godlike perspective, sees a comedy of errors in their fruitless efforts to understand a seeming discontinuity, whose meaning cannot be discovered without revelation.

In Shakespeare's manipulation of his audience's perspective here we find him again self-consciously playing with both his medium and his audience: using his medium to reflect back to the members of his audience an image, assimilated and reshaped, of their own condition; using his audience's awareness that the play draws to wards its end to prepare its members for their return to a wider world. And, as of way of reminding the audience that its immediate world has been limited, in spite of the fact that it has temporarily experienced the illusion of a godlike perspective, Shakespeare dissolves that perspective. He plays with the audience's self-assurance about its understanding of events in The Comedy of Errors by reminding that audience, in the most obvious way, of its essentially limited perspective: he shocks his audience, as he shocks his characters, with a wondrous revelation—that Emilia is wife to Egeon and mother to the Antipholuses. The information is outrageous and ridiculous; it is also miraculous and wonderful, of a piece with the only other event quite like it in Shakespearean drama, the resurrection of Hermione. For in that moment, too, Shakespeare reveals to his audience a secret he has kept hidden from all, and audience and characters experience miracle and wonder together. Here, though, the tone of the revelation is more obviously playful than in The Winter's Tale, for Emilia, in revealing her identity, almost steps out of the action of the play to announce the playwright's exuberant delight in his powers. In the world of a play anything is possible: all characters and events serve the playwright's purposes as he suits them to the ordering form of his plot. Then, too, such an obvious manipulation of the dramatist's play world emphasizes the absoluteness of his powers over his audience, which can still be as suddenly surprised by the play as the characters are. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Shakespeare here does what Solinus earlier could not do: he plays with discontinuity, suiting it to his purposes—and so reshaping it into the effectively coherent form of his plot—instead of merely pushing it aside. By playing with discontinuity, he transforms what is ridiculous to what is wonderful; out of manipulation, he makes miracle.

From one perspective Emilia's revelation offers yet one more example of discontinuity in this play world. How can she have been separated from her son and still live in the same town with him? Where has she been during the past twenty-five years? And why has she never revealed herself to Antipholus of Ephesus, who carries the name of her lost son and is served by a bondman named Dromio? Though an audience might not ask itself these particular questions—since they take us clearly beyond the boundaries of the play and precariously close to the state of mind that once found profit in exploring the girlhood of Shakespeare's heroines7—that audience would find Emilia's revelation preposterous, altogether discontinuous with her previously established identity as Abbess. But from another perspective, the miraculous revelation is both natural and coherent: since the action of The Comedy of Errors has driven its characters inevitably and predictably to this moment of pairing, to this public bringing together of all who have formerly been separated, the reunion of Egeon and Emilia becomes almost a thematic necessity. Though that reunion may seem logically ridiculous, discontinuous with the details of the play as we know them, it is at the same time thematically coherent, consistent with the patterns of the play as they are revealed to us. Emilia's appearance in the role of wife and mother, then, proves miraculous in two ways. Within the world of the play it offers wonderful resurrection and return; within the microcosm of the theater, it gives evidence of the dramatist's all-encompassing creative powers, which enable him, in making the ending of his play, to assimilate the particulars of logical discontinuity by fitting them to the patterns of overall thematic coherence.

Shakespeare's assimilation of discontinuity at the end of The Comedy of Errors also returns us, with a new perspective, to the concerns of the opening scene and of comedy in general—that is, to the problem of how to order the welter of human experience, filled as it is with missed opportunities, mistakes, forgettings, losses, and misjudgments, into a pattern that is both coherent and life-affirming. For comedy assures us that though our life may be tied inevitably to death, to loss, loneliness, and isolation, we may yet find an indefinite reprieve from such ontological disorder in temporary stays against confusion, in friends, family, and community. Such reprieves are, of course, always temporary, since, as Egeon's tale in the first scene shows, they all inevitably dissolve, sometimes even without warning, before the forces of time and tide; but they are, variously, reprieves nonetheless, and the best that man can do in the face of nature's arbitrary, apparently unyielding laws. All of which brings us back to Solinus and his problem in the first scene—and to the relationship between his action and Shakespeare's: the Duke's reprieve of Egeon's sentence here serves as a kind of dramatic emblem for the action of Shakespeare's play itself, since both offer insulated worlds of temporary relief from the harsh laws of intrusive reality. And the insulated world Solinus creates for Egeon—‘I'll limit thee this day / … Try all the friends thou hast in Ephesus’ (I. i. 151-3)—becomes for the audience the comedy of errors which fills up the time between Egeon's exit under temporary reprieve and his re-entry on the way to execution.

Of course there is a manifest difference between Solinus' reprieve of Egeon and the reprieve Shakespeare offers his audience. Solinus is throwing up a kind of desperate defense against a real and imminent threat to life, while Shakespeare is merely playing with the disorder threatening life. The play world he creates is doubly insulated against the intrusions of reality, since his Ephesus is an imaginative construct contained within the wider imaginative construct of the theater itself, while Solinus' temporary reprieve of Egeon is immediately circumscribed by the press of reality. But in a more general way the action of Shakespeare's comedy provides its audience with a reprieve not unlike that which Solinus offers Egeon. The members of Shakespeare's audience, attending a play, temporarily put aside their own problems, frustrations, and sorrows. They enter the theater, there to be entertained, and so to escape, for the space of an afternoon, the often harsh and arbitrary laws of nature and society which hold sway over their lives. The parallel is not, by any means, exact. Egeon is delivered from immediate execution, while Shakespeare's audience, if it thinks on death at all, views it from a great distance; no one ever went to a comedy for the express purpose of delaying his execution. But an audience which attends a ‘comedy of errors’ at least partly goes to the theater in order to find temporary reprieve from the problems of everyday life. Against such problems the play provides refuge by transporting that audience for a time to a realm of imaginative play—to an Ephesus shaped by Shakespeare's self-delighting dramatic powers.

Partly, too, the play offers its audience a reprieve from tragedy by its content as well as its context. The dominant sorrow and woe of the first scene quickly yield to the humorous mistakings and misunderstandings of the scenes which follow, and it is not long before Egeon's tragic story is, perhaps quite literally, forgotten. Shakespeare announces the advent of unmitigated comedy in this play by using a technique he will later employ almost unchanged in The Taming of the Shrew: he writes a second beginning which is essentially a revised version of the first, but very different in tone. In it many of the potentially tragic themes of Egeon's story are restated and reviewed through the perspective glass of comedy.

The second scene begins with a reference to the problem which has been the dominant concern in the Egeon episode, the law forbidding Syracusians to come to Ephesus; but where in the first scene that law was incontrovertible, binding even a ruler to its harsh dictates, here it is something that can be circumvented with ease: the traveler from Syracuse needs only to pretend that he is from Epidamnum. In this scene, then, we have clearly entered the realm of comedy, where laws are merely an inconvenience to be circumvented. Next we hear of Egeon, who has been the focus of our attention until now, but his story is put aside as easily as the law associated with it. The casual way in which Egeon's plight is dismissed may be a little surprising, since we have been led to believe in its dramatic importance, but the gesture of dismissal has obvious thematic purposes. First, it anticipates the ease with which the play itself will put aside Egeon's problems, since he is not to appear again until the last scene. And second, it presents a dramatic analogue of the audience's response to the same situation, because soon, like Antipholus of Syracuse here, the audience will become too absorbed in other business to give much thought to Egeon's plight.

It is a commonplace of criticism about The Comedy of Errors to argue that the tone of sadness established in the first scene is never really dispelled until the happy conclusion, that the perils of Ephesus as imagined by Antipholus of Syracuse are set in contrast to the real peril of Egeon there.8 And this argument is undoubtedly true—but incomplete, because it does not stress the fact that the effect it describes is essentially subconscious. For it is perhaps even more true of an audience's response to this play to say that Egeon is soon forgotten and only returned to memory with his entrance in the fifth act. The reason for this effect is obvious: Shakespeare, playing with his audience's expectations and responses, directs attention away from Egeon. He puts almost a whole play between Egeon's first exit and his next appearance, and he radically alters the tone of the work in the meantime, filling it with all manner of laughable comings and goings. In addition, he releases his audience from worry about Egeon in the second scene, where first the problems raised by his plight are set aside and then the humorous confusion of comic mistaking begins.

Another melancholy merchant from Syracuse in search of his lost family arrives in Ephesus, but he is not threatened by the law that rigorously holds Egeon in bondage—he has only to declare himself of Epidamnum in order to walk freely about—and he is generously supplied with the commodity most valued in Ephesus and, sadly, unpossessed by the other merchant: money. He is also, as we can guess, one of Egeon's missing sons. And when, soon after the scene begins, he is mistaken for another Antipholus by a matching Dromio, we know that what Egeon has lost will soon be found again. That moment of mistaking is important for other reasons also. It finalizes the transformation begun in the play's opening speech, because it converts a potentially tragic situation to comedy by presenting apparent inconsistency of behavior in a humorous rather than a serious context. Here, too, the arbitrary violence of nature and society, so destructive and divisive in Egeon's view of experience, is reduced to comic form, as a slapstick beating and the subject of jokes:

I have some marks of yours upon my pate,
Some of my mistress' marks upon my shoulders,
But not a thousand marks between you both.
If I should pay your worship those again,
Perchance you will not bear them patiently.

(I. ii. 82-6)

But the most important function of this moment of mistaking is to turn the perspective glass of comedy upon the potentially tragic problem of discontinuity in human experience—a problem which, given comic form in this scene, becomes the organizing theme of the play. For from the time when Dromio of Ephesus mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for his master until the time when the two sets of twins finally confront one another, characters are baffled, frightened, frustrated, and nearly maddened by a long series of experiences discontinuous with what they know to be the order of things. Antipholus of Syracuse, a stranger to Ephesus, is treated by Ephesians as if he had lived there all his life; Antipholus of Ephesus, who has spent his life establishing a reputation for honesty ‘Second to none that lives here in the city’ (V. i. 7), is accused of being a liar and a cheat; Dromio of Ephesus, a poor and faithful servant, is twice accused of stealing enormous sums of money; Dromio of Syracuse, following his master about a strange town, is claimed as a husband by a kitchen wench, all grease, whom he has never seen before and hopes never to see again. Adriana, trying to convince her husband to return home for dinner, is treated as a stranger by him; and Luciana, lecturing her brother-in-law on his duties to his wife, is answered by claims that he is unmarried and in love with her, not her sister.

What Shakespeare is here making laughable by his skilful manipulation of two sets of identical twins is only a ridiculous and exaggerated form of the inconsistency of ordinary human behavior and conduct. All men at different times put on different personalities;9 and although very few of us have to live with the circumstance of repeatedly being mistaken for our identical twin, we all have known the embarrassing experience of being confused with someone else or of not being recognized by someone who should know us. Life is not altogether consistent or coherent in spite of our efforts to make it that way, and it is the incoherence, the discontinuity, of life that Shakespeare makes the subject of comedy in The Comedy of Errors. That is why he plays in this work not only with two confused sets of identical twins but also with man's abiding concern for time, money, and law. For all three—time, money, and law—provide man with an artificial but generally effective way of ordering inchoate experience; all three give him the illusion of constancy in a world of flux. Time is as regular as clock work and as coherently patterned as yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Money is a sign of man's trust in at least one continuing system of values.10 Law is a measure of his trust in his society. And all three, if they are to have meaning for man, must retain some measure of constancy, of stability.

This stability, however, is always partly illusory, because values are subjectively affected by experience. The thousand marks that Antipholus of Syracuse thinks it annoyingly inconvenient to lose are for Egeon his very life; an afternoon is a long time for Adriana to wait for her husband to return for dinner, but it is a short time indeed for Egeon to find a thousand marks in a strange city; and the law of Ephesus which not even the ruling Duke can countermand, a visiting sightseer can effortlessly circumvent. Life recalcitrantly resists' the continuity man, with his limited vision and understanding, would impose on it. And sometimes that resistance creates tragedy: Egeon cannot initially reconcile his sense of what life has given him with what it has taken a way. But sometimes, too, that resistance creates comedy: Antipholus of Syracuse, repeatedly resolving to escape from the sorcery of Ephesus, becomes more and more entangled in its witchcraft, until miraculously his lost and wandering family is found and reunited—delivered from isolation and sorrow, and reborn, as Emilia's language makes clear, into the joy of life together.

This final togetherness, characteristic of the inclusiveness of comic endings in general, provides a dramatic and thematic reflection of Shakespeare's technical mastery of, and delight in, his medium in The Comedy of Errors. As characters, apparently discontinuous in their behavior, at last are brought together and delivered into the wholeness of family and secured community, so also dramatic forms and formulas, seemingly discontinuous in their relationship, are ultimately brought together and assimilated into the wholeness of coherence and comedy in this play. Beginnings and endings, tragedy and comedy, farce and romance, laughter and sadness, logical impossibility and thematic necessity, characters and audience, predictability and surprise, mistake and miracle—all are made to serve the playwright's purposes and proclaim his powers as he shapes them into a ‘comedy of errors’ and coherent play, in both senses of the word.


  1. See Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960) pp. 1-9, for a detailed presentation of this argument.

  2. A similar argument is made by A. C. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1967) pp. 103-4.

  3. All references to Shakespeare in this study are from the edition of Hardin Craig, The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1951).

  4. The most interesting and developed statement of this idea, particularly as it applies to the comedies, is Maynard Mack's, ‘Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays,’ in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1962) pp. 275-96.

  5. For a full discussion of this idea, see Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge University Press, 1974) pp. 59-67.

  6. See Michel Grivelet, ‘Shakespeare, Moliere, and the Comedy of Ambiguity,’ Shakespeare Survey, 22 (1969) pp. 15-26, for a discussion of this theme in The Comedy of Errors and of its relation to the work of Moliere.

  7. Exploration beyond the immediate boundaries of the play, though, does not always have to seem as misguided as L. C. Knights makes it sound in ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?’ Explorations (New York: George W. Stewart, 1947) pp. 15-54. Often a play encourages such speculation as a way of understanding present actions, as I hope to show later in a quasi-psychological analysis of Kate.

  8. See particularly R. A. Foakes' ‘Introduction’ to the New Arden edition of The Comedy of Errors (London: Methuen, 1962) p. xlii, and Harold Brooks ‘Themes and Structure in The Comedy of Errors,Early Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3, eds John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London: Edward Arnold, 1961) p. 65.

  9. A similar argument is made by Hugh M. Richmond in Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971) pp. 50-1.

  10. This argument is presented in a somewhat different form by Ralph Berry in Shakespeare's Comedies (Princeton University Press, 1972) p. 36. A more general statement about the thematic importance of money in comedy appears in Thomas McFarland's Shakespeare's Pastoral Comedy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972) pp. 15-16.


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The Comedy of Errors

Until recently, the predominating critical evaluation of The Comedy of Errors placed it as an early and immature work, perhaps even the first Shakespeare wrote. The improbability of its plots and primitive character development were cited by critics as major flaws in a play that did no justice to the talent evident in Shakespeare's later comedies. This dismissal has been reconsidered by contemporary critics who have begun to emphasize the continuities between The Comedy of Errors and Shakespeare's later works. Current areas of critical interest include the theme of mistaken identity and the uneasy resolution of the tensions that animate the play. Another area of interest for critics is the extent to which Shakespeare transformed his source material, Plautus' Menaechmi, into a work that spoke to Elizabethan concerns and perspectives.

Many critics have noted the discrepancy in tone between the somber beginning of the play and the farce that follows, but have disagreed about the extent to which this tension is overcome within the play. J. Dennis Huston (1981) describes the opening lines as portraying “forces of dissolution” that give “a dramatized example of the disorder or discontinuity that the comic dramatist must overcome.” Huston argues that the rest of the play pursues this disorder through comic means, but the “threatening chaos” is not fully resolved by the end of the drama. According to Ralph Berry’s (1985) interpretation, the end of the play affirms the social order—both the rule of law and the bonds of family—that the opening scenes threaten. Patricia Parker (1983) examines the opening and closing scenes of the play, particularly Egeon’s narrative of the shipwreck and the closing exchange between the two Dromios, and elaborates on the significance of these lines in the context of the work’s larger themes.

The theme of losing and finding oneself governs the play, and the examination of mistaken identity and the instability of identity figure prominently in modern critical scholarship. Barbara Freedman (1980) writes that the conflict of the play arises from “the simultaneous and interdependent existence of two mutually exclusive self-concepts,” held by the two Antipholus brothers. Douglas Lanier (1993), who finds in the play a reflection of the instability of Elizabethan conceptions of identity, argues that the play “entertains the unsettling possibility that character is perhaps never more (and no ‘deeper’) than a well-managed stage spectacle.” The conclusion of the play offers no reassuring integration of identity, the critic contends, but rather offers the suggestion that the self is “merely” a presentation or performance within a social context. Camille Wells Slights (1993) maintains that the confusion of identity in the play reveals the tenuousness of social and political relationships.

Critics generally agree that The Comedy of Errors was inspired by the Roman playwright Plautus' Menaechmi, a farce that exploits the identity confusion produced by a single set of twins. According to Wolfgang Riehle (1990), Shakespeare was familiar not only with the English translation of the play but with the Latin original as well. One of the most striking changes in Shakespeare's version is the presence of supernatural elements in a setting dominated by the mercantile town of Ephesus. Alexander Leggatt (1974) examines this difference and contends that the “Roman comedy of confusion takes place in a practical world, where nothing is inexplicable. … But Shakespeare gives us a play in a more mixed dramatic idiom.” Leggatt maintains that The Comedy of Errors contains a level of reflection that is entirely absent in the Roman farce. Niall Rudd (1994) argues that due to the expectations of the Elizabethan audience, the romantic frame within which the comic confusion is staged is much more developed in The Comedy of Errors than in Menaechmi. Michael Scott (1982) comments that although the play’s illustration of the absurdity of human existence marks its roots in Roman farce, the complexity of this expression and the “disquieting” force of the comedy reflect Shakespeare’s transformation of the classical plot.

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: “The Comedy of Errors,” in Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1974, pp. 1-19.

[In the following essay, Leggatt focuses on the “interweaving of the fantastic and the everyday” in the play, contrasting it to Plautus' Menaechmi.]

In the second scene of The Comedy of Errors, Dromio of Ephesus meets Antipholus of Syracuse for the first time, and rebukes him for not coming home to dinner. Antipholus ignores the rebuke (which means nothing to him) and turns to a more urgent matter:

antipholus s: Stop in your
wind, sir; tell me this, I pray:
Where have you left the money that I gave you?
dromio e: O—sixpence that
I had a Wednesday last
To pay the saddler for my mistress' crupper?
The saddler had it, sir; I kept it not.

(I. ii. 53-7)

We settle ourselves for a couple of hours of farce. The confusion seems to be on a purely material level—mistaken persons and mislaid goods. Shakespeare is keeping to the spirit of his source, the Menaechmi of Plautus, where the action takes place in a hard southern daylight and the issues are all practical ones.

But at the end of this first scene of confusion, Shakespeare introduces a new note. In Plautus, Epidamnum is seen as a place of danger, but danger of a prosaic and familiar kind:

For assure your selfe, this towne Epidamnum, is a place of outragious expenses, exceeding in all ryot and lasciviousness: and (I heare) as full of Ribaulds, Parasites, Drunkards, Catchpoles, Cony-catchers, and Sycophants, as it can hold: then for Curtizans, why here's the currantest stamp of them in the world. Ye may not thinke here to scape with as light cost as in other places.

(II. i. p. 17)1

Antipholus of Syracuse sees Ephesus in quite a different way:

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)

The sleight of hand that deceives the eye, the cunning of the confidence trick, shades into something deeper and more sinister, deception and shape-shifting that attack not merely the purse but the body and soul. There are no such overtones in Plautus. Nor is there much sense of wonder in the characters; only a temporary bewilderment that is easily explained away. Shakespeare's Antipholus of Syracuse, addressed by name by a woman he has never seen before, asks, ‘How can she thus, then, call us by our names, / Unless it be by inspiration?’ (II. ii. 165-6). In the parallel incident in Menaechmi, the courtesan's cook addresses Menaechmus by name, and an explanation (wrong, but reasonable) is immediately forthcoming:

These Courtizans as soone as anie straunge shippe arrive at the Haven, they send a boye or a wench to enquire what they be, what their names be, whence they come, wherefore they come, &c. If they can by any meanes strike acquaintance with him, or allure him to their houses, he is their owne.

(II. i. p. 19)

No such reassuring explanations are offered to Shakespeare's characters. At times even the audience is left in the dark, for Shakespeare takes fewer pains than Plautus to give a logical under-propping to his comic fantasy. There is nothing improbable in identical twins, but identical twins with the same name take some explaining, and Plautus is ready with the answer: ‘When it was tolde us that you and our father were both dead, our Graundsire (in memorie of my fathers name) chaunged mine to Menechmus’ (V. i. p. 38). Shakespeare provides two sets of twins with the same name, and not a word of explanation.

The Roman comedy of confusion takes place in a practical world, where nothing is inexplicable, and where the issues at stake are largely the material ones of who owns what and where the next meal is coming from. The play has a single vision and a uniform texture. But Shakespeare gives us a play in a more mixed dramatic idiom. 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 that goes much deeper than changes from prose to verse, or the varying of metres. It is a mixture of different ways of viewing the world, of which different dramatic styles are ultimately a reflection. Nor is the decision to mix idioms in this way artificially imposed; it springs from Shakespeare's own fresh and imaginative meditation on the central idea of Plautus, the idea of confusion. The Comedy of Errors is unusual in that mistaken identity is itself the primary motif, not (as in As You Like It or Twelfth Night) a technical device to aid the presentation of some other issue. Perhaps Shakespeare, before he could use mistaken identity as an instrument, had to give it a thorough examination. And in exploiting the situations arising from it, Shakespeare demonstrates that confusion, the gap of understanding between one mind and another, can exist at a deeper level than who's-got-the-chain or which-twin-is-it-this-time. These questions are important to the action, and much of the play's immediate comic life depends on them; but they are also signals of a deeper breakdown of understanding; the characters seem at times to inhabit different worlds, different orders of experience.

Some of this effect is created by the mingling—and, at times, the collision—of dramatic styles. In II. ii Adriana, meeting the man she thinks is her husband, attacks him passionately for straying from her, urging him to recognize that as husband and wife they are bound together in a single being, and that consequently she shares in his corruption. Taken out of context, the speech is passionate and earnest, idealistic in its view of marriage and urgent in its emotional response to the breaking of that ideal. But the context is all-important. Adriana's speech follows immediately—with no transition whatever—a racy comic turn between Dromio and Antipholus on time, falling hair and syphilis; she breaks in on two characters who are operating in quite a different dramatic world. And any chance we might have of making the transition from one mode to another and taking Adriana's speech seriously is killed by the fact that all her high talk about the closeness of the marriage bond is directed at the wrong Antipholus, who—after listening to about forty lines on how closely he and Adriana are bound together—asks innocently, ‘Plead you to me, fair dame?’ (II. ii. 146). Or consider the following passage:

antipholus s: The fellow
is distract, and so am I;
And here we wander in illusions.
Some blessed power deliver us from hence!
                                        [Enter a Courtezan.
courtezan: Well met, well met,
Master Antipholus.
I see, sir, you have found the goldsmith now.
Is that the chain you promis'd me to-day?
antipholus s: Satan, avoid! I charge
thee, tempt me not.
dromio s: Master, is this Mistress
antipholus s: It is the devil.

(IV. iii. 37-45)

Here, the attitude of each character is comically dislocated. The courtesan is simply living her casual, material life, while Antipholus is struggling between heaven and hell, in a metaphysical nightmare where even a call for ‘some blessed power’ is met by (for him) a fresh appearance of evil, and (for the audience) a comic anticlimax. The contrast is driven home, once again, by the different styles of speech—the casual chatter of the courtesan, the explosive horror of Antipholus and, on the side, Dromio's more familiar recognition of the powers of evil. This introduces us to a device we will see Shakespeare using throughout his comedies: a speech is comically dislocated by being placed in the wrong context, usually through being addressed to an unsympathetic or uncomprehending listener. The comic value of this device is obvious, and is exploited throughout the play. Yet, as with many such devices, it requires only a twist of emphasis, or a new situation, to make the effect pathetic or disturbing. The gaps of understanding between us are not always amusing. While we laugh easily enough when Adriana fires a long, emotional speech at the wrong Antipholus, it is not so funny when, later in the play, Aegeon pleads with his son to save his life, and his son refuses to acknowledge him.

The effect is to show how frail and vulnerable our attitudes and assumptions are, to bring into sharp focus the incompleteness of anything we may say or do, the fact that, however serious or important it may seem to us, there is always another viewpoint from which it is wrong, or trivial, or incomprehensible. The collisions of different minds that take place throughout The Comedy of Errors help to suggest this. When, for example, Adriana strikes a posture of languishing grief, Luciana's sharp comment deflates it immediately:

Since that my beauty cannot please his eye,
I'll weep what's left away, and weeping die.
luciana: How many fond fools serve
mad jealousy!

(ii. i. 114-16)

The triple rhyme clinches the point: Adriana is not even allowed the neat finality of a concluding couplet. But one might say that Luciana is getting her revenge, for earlier in the same scene she had delivered a lecture to Adriana on the necessity of order in marriage, urging that a wife should submit patiently to her husband, only to receive this reply:

A wretched soul, bruis'd with adversity,
We bid be patient when we hear it cry;
But were we burd'ned with like weight of pain,
As much, or more, we should ourselves complain.
So thou, that hast no unkind mate to grieve thee,
With urging helpless patience would relieve me;
But if thou live to see like right bereft,
This fool-begg'd patience in thee will be left.

(ii. i. 34-41)

One of the most persistent comic points in Shakespeare is the disparity between theory and reality, the breakdown of philosophy in the face of experience—particularly when the experience is yours and the philosophy is someone else's. Throughout the play, Antipholus of Ephesus is (like his wife) the recipient of much good (III. i. 85-106), from the officer who arrests him (IV. iv. 18)—in short, from people who do not really share his problems. He obviously hears this good advice once too often, and retaliates by giving Pinch an object lesson in the difficulties of philosophy: ‘My master preaches patience to him, and the while / His man with scissors nicks him like a fool’ (V. i. 174-5).

The gap between different understandings of the world is centred on the two Antipholus brothers. In Menaechmi the twin brothers inhabit the same prosaic, domestic world and undergo basically the same kind of experience; in The Comedy of Errors not only are their characters more sharply distinguished,2 but the difference between their experiences is more emphasized. In the words of A. C. Hamilton, Antipholus of Ephesus ‘endures a nightmare’ while his brother ‘enjoys a delightful dream’.3 One is showered with gifts, money and women; the other is locked out of his house, arrested for debt and tied up as a lunatic. The difference in their experiences is signalled by a difference in style. The scene in which Antipholus of Ephesus is locked out of his house (III. i.) is noisy, raucous and farcical, full of spluttering threats and bawdy insults; it is immediately followed (III. ii.) by his brother's courtship of Luciana, a quiet scene of romantic feeling shot through with more subtle comic irony, a scene in which the focus is on emotional rather than on physical problems. The contrast is not rigid throughout, for Antipholus of Syracuse is involved in a good deal of knockabout farce, but it is significant that as soon as his brother appears (III. i. is the latter's first scene) we are made aware of this disparity between them.

They seem to inhabit two different towns. For Antipholus of Ephesus, as for the rest of the native population (and initially for the audience) Ephesus is the familiar seaport town of Plautine comedy, a small world of commerce and domesticity, where, as E. M. W. Tillyard puts it, ‘everyone knows everyone else's business, where merchants predominate, and where dinner is a serious matter’.4 Shakespeare even sharpens the commercial interests of the town, giving them a distinctly unflattering emphasis. A dispute over the Duke of Syracuse's treatment of Ephesian merchants has led to ‘mortal and intestine jars’ (I. i. 11), and to a sentence of death on any merchant from one town who visits the other. This is the predicament in which Aegeon stands in the first scene. According to the Duke, he is condemned

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.

(I. i. 22-6)

Though the point is not much developed, this crude measuring of human life in financial terms anticipates the inhuman legalism of Shylock;5 and throughout the play there are several small touches conveying the Ephesians’ narrow concern with money. The merchant who talks with Antipholus of Syracuse in the second scene is kind enough to warn him against the law; but he refuses an invitation to keep him company and join him for dinner, on the grounds that he is already engaged ‘to certain merchants, / Of whom I hope to make much benefit’ (I. ii. 24-5). The officer who arrests Antipholus of Ephesus refuses to release him, even when told he is mad and needs treatment:

adriana: What wilt thou
do, thou peevish officer?
Hast thou delight to see a wretched man
Do outrage and displeasure to himself?
officer: He is my prisoner; if
I let him go,
The debt he owes will be requir'd of me.

(IV. iv. 111-15)

In this commercial world, Antipholus of Ephesus appears to have occupied, when the action begins, a solid and respectable place. Angelo the goldsmith describes him as ‘Of very reverent reputation … / Of credit infinite, highly belov'd’ (v. i. 5-6). His marriage, whatever its internal difficulties, is eminently respectable, having been arranged by the Duke himself (v. i. 137-8, 198). In the commercial and domestic spheres he inhabits, disruption may be fun for the audience, but it is unsettling and unpleasant for the victim. As we see throughout Shakespeare's comedies, love seems to thrive on irrationality and confusion, and emerges from it strengthened, renewed and satisfied: the experience of Antipholus of Syracuse is roughly parallel to that of Demetrius, Orlando and Sebastian. But the world of commerce simply goes crazy when an irrational factor is introduced, and the only satisfaction is for chains and ducats to be restored to their original owners, as though the confusion had never taken place. Nothing is gained in the process, for the transactions of business are barren and limited, incapable of the sudden, spontaneous enrichment that we see in the transactions of love. What is enchantment and enrichment for one brother is simply confusion for the other, a confusion that must be put right. The only party to gain something is the audience: since commercial life has been depicted in such unflattering terms, we are bound to take a special, mischievous delight in seeing it disrupted.

One may even question whether the disruption of Antipholus's marriage leads to any good result for the characters. The disorder produced by mistaken identity is linked to a more familiar disorder, a longstanding unhappiness between husband and wife. Adriana tells the Abbess that her husband has not been himself all week, though his rage has only broken out that afternoon (V. i. 45-8). And when she confesses that her nagging has disrupted the normal rhythms of his life, the Abbess lectures her:

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.

(V. i. 83-6)

We know, of course, that his ‘madness’ depends more on the mistaken-identity confusion than anything else (we have seen him cheated of a meal for reasons other than his wife's scolding tongue). But the Abbess's speech reminds us there are other, more familiar ways a man's life can be disrupted, and with similar results. It is clear enough that not all of Antipholus's problems stem from the fact that his brother is in town, and we may wonder if these problems can all be cured by the discovery of his brother. One curious feature of the ending is that, while the problems of the marriage have been thoroughly aired, there is no explicit reconciliation between husband and wife. The director may contrive a forgiving embrace, but nothing in the text requires it. At the end of Menaechmi, the wife is curtly dismissed as one more piece of household goods to be auctioned off as her husband leaves town to live with his brother (V. i. p. 39). Shakespeare does not give us that, either; he leaves us, instead, with a silence that the performers have to fill by some decision of their own.6 For the critic, with only the text before him, the final state of this marriage must remain an open question. But we may suggest that in the domestic, commercial world of Ephesus there are no miracles.

No miracles, at least, for the native population. For the outsider, Antipholus of Syracuse, Ephesus is a different kind of town altogether, a place of magic and enchantment. His wonder and bewilderment remind us of the town's reputation as a centre of magic,7 a reputation to which none of the native population ever refers. And while—if we shake ourselves—we may remember that nothing supernatural actually takes place, we see the town to a great extent through the eyes of the outsiders, for they are given more dramatic prominence than the natives, and treated, on the whole, more sympathetically. Viewed from the special angle of the outsider, even the normal intercourse of life becomes bizarre and unsettling:

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.
Some tender money to me, some invite me,
Some other give me thanks for kindnesses,
Some offer me commodities to buy;
Even now a tailor call'd me in his shop,
And show'd me silks that he had bought for me,
And therewithal took measure of my body.
Sure these are but imaginary wiles,
And Lapland sorcerers inhabit here.

(IV. iii. 1-11)

The prosaic, day-to-day business of a commercial town becomes something strange and dreamlike, because it is all happening to the wrong man.

Each brother's experience of the confusion of mistaken identity is matched by the more familiar experience of being unsettled by a woman. Antipholus of Ephesus has his domestic routine disrupted by an unseen brother and a nagging wife; Antipholus of Syracuse is enchanted by a strange town, and suddenly bewitched by love (the curious name given him in the Folio, ‘Antipholus Erotes’, suggests both wandering and love). Even when addressed by Adriana, he sees himself as in a dream, a dream to which he is willing to surrender:

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. ii. 211-15)

But this surrender is still somewhat tentative; he offers himself to Luciana more recklessly: ‘Are you a god? Would you create me new? / Transform me, then, and to your pow'r I'll yield’ (III. ii. 39-40). Earlier in the play, there was discontent in his words, ‘So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself’ (I. ii. 39-40). But now he is eager to lose himself in a more profound way, transformed by love.8

There is certainly a transformation in his understanding. As the market-place and the tailor's shop acquire an aura of mystery for him, so too does Luciana. Here the special perspective of the outsider fuses with the special perspective of the lover, whose view of his lady is a transforming vision, comically at odds with reality. In their scene together, we note the practical, worldly manner of Luciana's advice:

If you did wed my sister for her wealth,
Then for her wealth's sake use her with more kindness;
Or, if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth;
Muffle your false love with some show of blindness … 
Then, gentle brother, get you in again;
Comfort my sister, cheer her, call her wife.
'Tis holy sport to be a little vain
When the sweet breath of flattery conquers strife.

(III. ii. 5-8, 25-8)

Her words appear cynical; but there is an undercurrent of sadness in them, as she tries to make the best of a difficult situation. Above all, she is realistic: there are no appeals to higher feelings, and she does not attempt to revive a dead love. But for Antipholus this rueful, worldly, but perfectly clear advice is transformed into a divine, oracular pronouncement, veiled in mystery:

Sweet mistress—what your name is else, I know not,
Nor by what wonder you do hit of mine—
Less in your knowledge and your grace you show not
Than our earth's wonder—more than earth, divine.
Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak;
Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit,
Smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words' deceit.

(III. ii. 29-36)

But the comic disparity between Luciana as we see her and the lover's special vision, though clear enough, is less drastic than it might have been. The alternate rhyme they both use gives a heightened, formal quality to her speech. Despite its worldly content there is something oracular in its manner, and the result is a subtler comic effect than we might have expected. The double vision of Luciana is not just a matter of contrasting our reactions with the lover's; it is built into the presentation of Luciana herself—so that, while laughing at the lover, we can see his point of view. Though romantic love is a secondary motif in this play, the balance between mockery and sympathy, characteristic of later comedies, has already been struck.

This surrender to a special vision is placed ironically against Adriana's very different view of the transformations of love as they occur in marriage. Here the woman surrenders to the man (in courtship it is the other way round) and the surrender can be not life-enhancing but ruinous:

Do their gay vestments his affections bait?
That's not my fault; he's master of my state.
What ruins are in me that can be found
Not by him ruin'd? Then is he the ground
Of my defeatures. My decayed fair
A sunny look of his would soon repair.

(II. i. 94-9)

And she later insists that her husband's corruption will spread inevitably to her (II. ii. 118-45). In the speeches of the lover, the idea of surrender is still innocent and uncomplicated, unbruised by reality. In the speeches of the wife, it has become tinged with self-pity and resentment, as we move from the idealism of courtship to the tensions of the sex war.9

The idea of enchantment and transformation—including surrender in love—is seen from a third angle, that of Dromio of Syracuse, and there is a contrast between master and servant, as there is between brother and brother. What is normal life for the Ephesians and a dream for Antipholus of Syracuse is a folktale horror story come true for Dromio: ‘This is the fairy land. O spite of spites! / We talk with goblins, owls, and sprites!’ (II. ii. 188-9). In place of his master's exotic ‘Lapland sorcerers’, Dromio imagines Ephesus as a town full of more familiar bugbears—fairies and devils. When his master (as he thinks) is arrested for debt, he spins elaborate fantasies about the sergeant as a devil (IV. ii. 31-46; IV. iii. 12-18). (His brother, characteristically, spins smaller fantasies out of the more prosaic business of being beaten—II. i. 82-5; IV. iv. 26-37.) And while Antipholus is eager to surrender himself to a woman and be transformed by her, Dromio's view of this surrender is (like the woman) radically different, and expressed in a comically contrasting style. A few lines after Antipholus has addressed Luciana as ‘mine own self's better part; / Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer heart’ (III. ii. 61-2), Dromio enters, fleeing in panic from the fat kitchen wench, and exclaiming, ‘Do you know me, sir? Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself? … I am an ass, I am a woman's man, and besides myself’ (III. ii. 73-8). He fears that she would have ‘transform'd me to a curtal dog, and made me turn i'th'wheel’ (III. ii. 144). The transformations of love can be comically humiliating as well as exalting.

One of the touching minor effects in the play is the way Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse listen to each other, and sympathize with each other's point of view. When he hears what his servant has endured in the kitchen, Antipholus concludes, ‘There's none but witches do inhabit here’ (III. ii. 154) and decides, despite his love for Luciana, to ‘stop mine ears against the mermaid's song’ (III. ii. 162). (He had addressed her, earlier in the scene, as ‘sweet mermaid’—III. ii. 45.) He yields to Dromio's pleas, and decides to leave town that night. But Dromio can also sink his own fears and recognize how his master is profiting from Ephesus:

Faith, stay here this night; they will surely do us no harm; you saw they speak us fair, give us gold; methinks they are such a gentle nation that, but for the mountain of mad flesh that claims marriage of me, I could find in my heart to stay here still and turn witch.

(IV. iv. 149-53)

To be cast adrift in a town of magic is both exhilarating and frightening; and the interplay between Dromio and Antipholus on this point conveys this dual quality subtly and even movingly. The interest of the play goes deeper than the farcical one of wondering what will happen next; we do wonder that, of course, but we also watch to see how the characters will react to what happens.

At the centre of the play, then, is a farcical comedy of situations that gives rise to a more subtle comedy based on contrasting the characters' responses to their situations. The interest springs from a series of immediate, ad hoc effects—collisions of style, confrontations of character—and we live from moment to moment, unconcerned, for the most part, with the larger sweep of the story. But there is a larger story in the background, and a very different kind of story from the farcical tale of confusion that occupies our attention for most of the play. The story of Aegeon is a tale of wandering, shipwreck and separation, more in the tradition of romance than the tradition of drama.10

Aegeon represents yet another area of experience, isolated from the other characters—an isolation signalled dramatically by the fact that after his long opening scene he is virtually forgotten until the end of the play. Even in that first scene, we seem curiously detached from him. His long account of his misfortunes is literary, clever and rhetorical in a way that prevents a full emotional engagement:11

In Syracusa was I born, and wed
Unto a woman, happy but for me,
And by me, had not our hap been bad.

(I. i. 36-8)

So that, in this unjust divorce of us,
Fortune had left to both of us alike
What to delight in, what to sorrow for.
Her part, poor soul, seeming as burdened
With lesser weight, though not with lesser woe,
Was carried with speed before the wind … 

(I. i. 105-10)

Shakespeare restrains our interest in Aegeon's problems in order to focus more sharply on the problems of his children, thereby reversing what might be the natural response—to feel greater concern for loss and suffering than for the confusion of mistaken identity. He keeps the story of wandering very much at a distance, as something faintly literary, related rather than experienced; and concentrates instead on the more obviously dramatic material of immediate confrontations between characters. Later, in Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale, stories like Aegeon's will be made fully dramatic; but in The Tempest Shakespeare returns to the method of The Comedy of Errors.

At the end of the play, however, Aegeon returns—as it were, bringing his story with him—and as the characters come together for the traditional comic denouement the barriers between them dissolve and the different worlds they inhabit begin to fuse. A stage image and a joke connect the sufferings of Aegeon, condemned by the laws of Ephesus, to the more comic sufferings of his son:

aegeon: I am sure you both
of you remember me.
dromio e: Ourselves we do remember,
sir, by you;
For lately we were bound as you are now.
You are not Pinch's patient, are you, sir?

(V. i. 291-4)

And as the knots are (figuratively and literally) untied, some of the wonder experienced by Antipholus of Syracuse begins to touch the more practical Ephesians. When the Duke sees the twins together he exclaims:

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?

(V. i. 331-3)

To some extent the denouement is a practical, Plautine unravelling of the knots: the right people finally come together in the same place, and the various Ephesians who have lost money and property have it restored to them. But there are also strong suggestions that the denouement is an act of destiny (picking up Aegeon's concern with Fortune) and a miracle (recalling Antipholus of Syracuse's view that Ephesus is a town of magic). Certainly it cannot be brought about by institutional authority: the cry of ‘justice’ with which the Ephesians appeal to their Duke is a confused babble that produces no result, since everyone's idea of ‘justice’ is different and the Duke has no idea what the problem is.12 In the last scene the Abbess, not the Duke, is the real figure of authority, remaining calm and clear-headed while he struggles to make sense of the matter. She alone registers no surprise, accepting the strange events as easily as if she had expected them to happen all along. And she presides over the final feast, suggesting in her invitation that what has taken place is a new birth—thus linking the miracle of the ending with the normal processes of life:

Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail
Of you, my sons; and till this present hour
My heavy burden 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 joy with me;
After so long grief, such nativity!

(V. i. 399-405)13

As the Abbess takes centre stage away from the Duke, so the fussy legalism he has represented is swept away by a deeper authority, the spontaneous force of life. The Duke himself brushes aside the Ephesian law, on being offered the ransom for Aegeon: ‘It shall not need; thy father hath his life’ (V. i. 389). And at the end the Dromios, after debating the question of precedence, conclude that the question is irrelevant: ‘We came into the world like brother and brother, / And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another’ (V. i. 423-4).

The emphasis, at the end, is not on the creation of a ‘new social unit’ (as in Northrop Frye's theory of comedy)14 but on the renewal of an old family unit. Shakespeare is silent about the marriage of Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus; and Antipholus of Syracuse's (presumably) approaching marriage is politely but firmly put to one side, as something to be discussed later. He says 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.

(V. i. 373-5)

He is still caught up in the wonder of the family reunion. In Plautus, Menaechmus of Epidamnum sells all his household and returns to Syracuse with his brother; Shakespeare softens the emphasis considerably, but the point is the same: the final image of security is not a wedding dance but a christening feast, a family celebration. This may be because of the play's concern with identity: identity is surrendered in love and marriage, but when the original family is recreated, the characters join a comforting social group which asks only that they be their old selves. After the challenges to identity throughout the play the characters—and perhaps the audience—need this kind of comfort, a return to the old and familiar, rather than the start of something new which marriage symbolizes.15 Even at the end, the characters' disparate lives and experiences are not brought into a total harmony: security is achieved—and this is characteristic of Shakespeare's comedies—by selecting one experience, and fixing on that. Marriage is not brutally dismissed, as in Plautus; but it is quietly placed in the background, and no great hopes are pinned on it.

In the rejoining of the broken family, there is—as in most comic endings—a clear element of wish fulfilment. The play itself is a special, artificial ordering of experience, and, while we are not given the sort of distancing epilogue we find at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream or As You Like It, the manner of the play throughout is sufficiently stylized to remind us that it is a work of literary and theatrical artifice.16 The play is, even for a Shakespearian comedy, unusually full of rhyme, of jingling verse and of comic turns and set pieces—such as the debates on time and falling hair (II. ii. 63-107), and on the respective merits of cheer and welcome (III. i. 19-29); or Dromio of Syracuse's grand description of the fat kitchen wench in terms of European geography (III. ii. 113-37). And the play presents a story starting from a fantastic premise and moving to an almost equally fantastic conclusion. But at the same time, for all its artificiality, it deals with the most normal and intimate relations of life—wives and husbands, parents and children. In comparing the different worlds the Antipholus brothers inhabit, we saw an intersection of the special and fantastic with the normal and everyday—Ephesus as a town of sorcerers, and as a town of merchants. The same intersection of the fantastic and the normal becomes part of the audience's own experience as it watches the play—a strange and stylized fable built out of the most familiar relationships of life. The result of this interweaving of the fantastic and the everyday is to make us see each kind of experience from the perspective of the other—just as Antipholus of Syracuse is brought to see ordinary tradesmen as ‘Lapland sorcerers’, or the Abbess sees the coincidental rejoining of a long-sundered family as an event as natural as childbirth. The comic strategy of the play is one of dislocation, forcing us to see experiences from a fresh perspective, reminding us that no one understanding of life is final. The mixed dramatic mode gives shading and variety to what could have been a one-note, mechanical farce; but it also embodies a comic vision of the instability of life itself.


  1. References to Menaechmi are to William Warner's translation, in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, I (London, 1957). On the likelihood that Shakespeare knew and used this version, see Bullough's introduction, pp. 3-4.

  2. The difference between the characters is summarized by Marion Bodwell Smith, Dualities in Shakespeare (Toronto, 1966):

    Antipholus of Syracuse is the milder and less rash, the more courteous and considerate of the two. Where Antipholus of Ephesus meets obstacles head-on and is with difficulty persuaded by his friends to make the best of a bad situation, Antipholus of Syracuse is more inclined to go with the tide rather than fight against it (p. 22).

  3. The Early Shakespeare (San Marino, 1967), p. 96.

  4. Shakespeare's Early Comedies (London, 1965), pp. 54-5.

  5. See Smith, Dualities in Shakespeare, p. 24.

  6. There is a similar silence at the end of Measure for Measure, when Isabella says nothing to Claudio, and is given no chance to reply to the Duke's proposal of marriage.

  7. See R. A. Foakes, introduction to his Arden edition of The Comedy of Errors (London, 1962), p. xxix.

  8. For a detailed discussion of the loss of identity as a theme in the play, see Harold Brooks, ‘Themes and structure in The Comedy of Errors’, in John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (eds.), Early Shakespeare (London, 1961), pp. 55-71.

  9. The contrast between lover-and-mistress and wife-and-husband is reviewed by Charles Brooks, ‘Shakespeare's romantic shrews’, Shakespeare Quarterly, XI (summer 1960), p. 355. He takes a more sanguine view of Adriana's marriage than I have.

  10. Bullough, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources, includes a passage from Gower's Confessio Amantis as a probable source for Aegeon's story.

  11. Here I take issue with the frequently expressed view that Aegeon's account of his misfortunes carries a nearly tragic emotional impact. See, for example, H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (London, 1966), p. 71; and Derek Traversi, William Shakespeare: The Early Comedies (revised edition: London, 1964), p. 12.

  12. According to Marion Bodwell Smith, ‘In Shakespeare's plays the cry for “Justice!” is seldom heard without the accompaniment of some sort of irony’ (Dualities in Shakespeare, p. 23). Cf. also R. A. Foakes, Arden introduction, p. xlviii.

  13. This idea is taken up in the final romances. Pericles refers to his newfound daughter as ‘Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget’ (V. i. 194) and Cymbeline, reunited with his children, exclaims ‘O, what am I? / A mother to the birth of three?’ (V. v. 238-9).

  14. ‘The argument of comedy’, English Institute Essays, 1948 (New York, 1949), p. 60.

  15. Stanley Wells has pointed out the importance of non-sexual love as a ‘driving force’ in the play: see ‘Shakespeare and romance’, in John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (eds.), Later Shakespeare (London, 1966), p. 60.

  16. As Clifford Leech points out, ‘the multiplication of farcical incident’ also achieves a sense of distance. See the introduction to his Arden edition of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (London, 1969), p. lxix.

Patricia Parker (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “Elder and Younger: The Opening Scene of The Comedy of Errors,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 3, Autumn, 1983, pp. 325-27.

[In the essay that follows, Parker contends that the opening narration of the shipwreck is frequently misread, and elaborates on the significance of these lines in the context of the work's larger themes.]

Both Henry Cunningham and R. A. Foakes assume in their editions of The Comedy of Errors that there is an inconsistency in Egeon's narrative of the family's shipwreck in the play's opening scene. Egeon states first that it was the mother who was “more careful for the latterborn” (I.i.78), while he was responsible for the elder, when they bound themselves and the children to the “small spare mast” (l. 79). But then he appears, in their reading, to contradict himself when he says in line 124 that he was left with the “youngest” rather than the eldest boy after the mast was “splitted in the midst” (l. 103).1 The assumption that Shakespeare is here guilty of an “oversight” (Cuningham) or of a “conflict in details” (Foakes) arises, however, from a misreading of the lines (ll. 78-85) that describe the placing of the two sets of twins and the parents on the mast.


The lines in question are the following, in which Egeon describes the “delays” (l. 74) sought by himself and his wife before the threat of an “immediate death” (l. 68) at sea:

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
Fixing our eyes on whom our care was fix'd,
Fasten'd ourselves at either end the mast. … 

(ll. 78-85, my italics)

I would argue that the phrasing of this passage, together with the rhetorical crossing, or chiasmus, of the crucial line within it (“Fixing our eyes on whom our care was fix'd”), suggests a placing of the family members on the mast in such a way that a kind of crossing takes place there, too—each parent, bound to one end of the horizontal mast, gazing upon the twin most “cared” for, on the opposite half of the mast. This would mean that there is no oversight or slip at all on Shakespeare's part when Egeon tells his audience that he was left, after the splitting of the “helpful ship” (l. 103), with “My youngest boy, and yet my eldest care” (l. 124), since the child bound by the mother would be on the father's half of the mast and vice versa.

The repeated rhetorical sense of crossing or exchange in the phrasing of “youngest boy” and “eldest care” suggests that the idea of crossing is being emphasized throughout the speech—an emphasis not at all inappropriate in a scene where Egeon faces death precisely because he has crossed an absolute dividing line between two sides.

Within the immediate context of these lines (ll. 78-103), the original positioning of the family members on the mast would mean that each parent is severed from the twin he or she had been most “careful” for. And the sense of an original crossing, missed if we assume that Shakespeare is simply nodding in this scene, imparts an even greater dramatic tension to the subsequent seeking of one divided half for the other after their “unjust divorce” (l. 104) at sea.


But there is also in this opening scene's repeated emphasis on “elder” and “younger” a further resonance, which connects Egeon's extended speech with both the intervening “comedy of errors” proper and the play's closing lines. The detail of lines 78 and 82 (“My wife more careful for the latter-born … Whilst I had been like heedful of the other”) raises there a seemingly gratuitous echo of the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau, the “younger” and “elder” twins on whose rivalry so much of subsequent Old Testament history depends.2 One might think nothing more of such a reference to “elder” and “younger” in this opening scene were it not that it returns in the play's final lines, in the two adopted Dromios' discussion of who should take precedence and their decision to abandon the question altogether:

Eph. Dro. Methinks you are
my glass, and not my brother:
I see by you I am a sweet-fac'd youth;
Will you walk in to see their gossiping?
Syr. Dro. Not I, sir, you are my
Eph. Dro. That's a question,
how shall we try it?
Syr. Dro. We'll draw cuts for
the senior; till then, lead thou first.
Eph. Dro. Nay then, thus:
We came into the world like brother and brother,
And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another.


The two twins' walking “hand in hand” through the door is entirely appropriate to the general comic resolution of the play and to its more specifically thematic concern with the abandoning of the quest for possession or control. It is in this final scene that the impatient wife, Adriana, is shown her own “error” by Emilia in a speech (V.i.68-86) which clearly recalls Luciana's earlier virtual paraphrase of the injunction to wives in the Epistle to the Ephesians.3 But the appearance of the question of “elder” and “younger” at both beginning and end is striking enough to raise the question of its significance for the interpretation of the play as a whole. And it is Ephesians which again provides an interpretative frame.


Foakes and others have suggested a number of ways in which the Epistle itself is echoed in this play set in Ephesus.4 But there is a crucial passage in Ephesians which has not been commented on in relation to Comedy, though it suggests a wider resonance for the echo of Jacob and Esau in Egeon's opening speech, the emphasis in that scene on strict dividing lines, and the transformation of the situation of this first scene in the reconciliations of the last. The Epistle's second chapter speaks of the Law and its strict dividing line between “stranger” or “alien” Gentile and citizen Jew,5 a division into sides as absolute as that between Syracusian and Ephesian in Comedy's opening lines. But it goes on to speak of the Cross of Christ (ii. 16) as the crucial trespass across the boundaries of the old Law, a crossing which joins the two divided sides: “For he is our peace, which hath made both one: and hath broken down the middle wall that was a stop between us … for to make of twaine one newe man in himselfe.”6 In Ephesians, the division of Gentile and Jew is replaced by a reconciliation in which the former “aliants” are “no more strangers and forreiners: but fellowe citizens” in “the householde of God.”7 And the Old Testament rivalry of Jacob and Esau is converted into a partnership in which both are equally “adopted” (Ephesians i.5) sons and heirs (iii.6).

The Comedy of Errors similarly begins with the harsh “law” which sets a barrier between Syracuse and Ephesus and condemns the crosser of this dividing line to death. After he tells the story of the division of his own household into two halves and responds to the Duke's request to “dilate” (I.i.122) his narrative, Egeon is granted a temporary respite from “doom” (ll. 150-55) which becomes the period during which the intervening multiplication of “errors”8 occurs—until both plots come (together in the place of doom which turns out to be a place of “nativity” (V.i.400-406). In the middle of the “comedy of errors” proper—the comedy of “alien” and citizen twins—their mutual recognition and reunion are prevented by an intervening “partition wall,” the wall which (in the scene borrowed from the Amphitruo) keeps one half of the divided family out (III. i). The Comedy’s final acts are filled with as yet still largely uninterpreted Biblical allusions which have to do with the period of waiting for “redemption” (the commercial metaphors of the play nicely crossing with the figure of Ephesians i.14) and with the final apocalyptic end to “error” adumbrated in the Cross.9


The opening scene's recall of Jacob and Esau, “younger” and “elder” twin, evokes the Old Testament context of the Law and its divisions (the reciprocity of commercial exchange between the two cities now replaced by the reciprocity of the lex talionis the Duke's opening speech describes). But the evocation of the rivalry of these Biblical twins in the lines describing the mother's and father's greater “care” (I.i.78-85) is already placed in a context which attenuates the Jacob-and-Esau sense of parental preference:

Our helpful ship was splitted in the midst;
So that in this unjust divorce of us,
Fortune had left to both of us alike
What to delight in, what to sorrow for … 

(ll. 103-06)

And the rhetorical crossing of Egeon's later lines “My youngest boy, and yet my eldest care, / At eighteen years became inquisitive / After his brother,” ll. 124-26) evokes a brotherly seeking more suggestive of the Joseph than of the Jacob narrative, even as the crossing of the boundary by both Egeon and his “wandering” son already anticipates the ultimate reuniting of divided sides.10

The play's closing exchange between the two Dromios on the subject of elder and younger, and their final abandoning of the question of precedence, concludes The Comedy of Errors in a way appropriate to the Epistle to the Ephesians and its New Testamental recognition scene.11 “Alien” and “citizen” twin are reunited now that the wall which prevented their mutual recognition in Act III is, to borrow from Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (v.i.337), finally down. And it is the two “adopted” (Ephesians i.5) twins whose abandoning of any Jacob-and-Esau rivalry concludes the scene of reconciliation. What therefore has been perceived as a simple mistake on Shakespeare's part—the confusion of “elder” and “younger” in the opening scene—is not only not an oversight or slip but a figure, and a crossing, important within the opening scene itself and within the larger allusive structure of the play as a whole.


  1. All quotations in the play are cited from the Arden edition of The Comedy of Errors, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Methuen, 1962). References to Cuningham's remarks here are to Henry Cunningham, ed., The Comedy of Errors, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1926).

  2. Northrop Frye, in A Natural Perspective (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), p. 145, notes other Jacob and Esau allusions in The Winter's Tale as well as more obviously in The Merchant of Venice.

  3. II.i.7-25. Compare Ephesians v.22ff. both with Luciana's speeches here and with Adriana's speech on the “one flesh” of marriage in II.ii.119-46.

  4. See Foakes, ed., p. xxix and Appendix I; Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1957), I, 9; Richmond Noble. Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge (New York: Macmillan, 1935). pp. 107-9. For a reading of The Comedy of Errors in terms of the theme of possession and possessiveness, see John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and his Comedies, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1962), pp. 54-57.

  5. Ephesians ii. 12 (Vulgate, “alienati”; Bishops' Bible, 1585. “aliants”: Geneva 1560 version, “aliantes from the communewelth of Israel”).

  6. Ephesians ii. 14-15 (Bishops' Bible, 1585). The Geneva 1560 version gives “hathe broken the stoppe of the particion wall.” James Nohrnberg, in The Analogy of “The Faerie Queene” (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press. 1976), p. 602, notes the generalized echo of Ephesians' “wall of partition” in the Wall of the mechanicals' play of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream (see V.i.165, “partition”).

  7. Ephesians ii.19 (Bishops' Bible, 1585, virtually identical in the Geneva version). This passage is also part of the Epistle for St. Thomas Day, in The Book of Common Prayer (1559).

  8. In the play's final scenes the concentration of New Testament allusions to the period before deliverance from bondage indirectly makes the structure of the play itself, from its opening reprieve from “doom” (I.i.2) and its subsequent “errors” to its end, an analogue of the period before the apocalyptic Judgment of Doom. “Dilate” here refers to the rhetorical dilatio or … of the Renaissance handbooks; but dilatio patriae or “the dilation of the Kingdom” before the apocalyptic end also refers to the period of deferred doom or grace-given respite before that end. See OED (“dilate”; “dilation”; “defer”) and the discussion of dilatio in this context in my Inescapable Romance; Studies in the Poetics of a Mode (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 57-58. Typologically, “breaking down the middle wall of partition” includes both the deliverance wrought by the Cross and its apocalyptic fulfillment (Ephesians i. 13-14, “ye were sealed with the holy spirit of promise, Which is the earnest of our inheritance, unto the redemption of the purchased possession,” Bishops’ Bible 1585).

  9. See, for example, the allusion to the “old Adam” of the … in his “prison” (IV.iii. 13, 16-17), to the Lucifer who appears in this period before the end as an “angel of light” (IV.iiii. 53;2 Corinthians xi. 14), to the “redemption” wrought by the punning “angels” (IV.iii. 38; Acts xii. 11), and to the pre-apocalyptic binding and loosing of Satan (IV.iii. 72-73; Revelation xx.1-2).

  10. Frye. p. 47, remarks on this sense of anticipation and even foregone conclusion in the opening scenes.

  11. Though he does not mention Ephesians and its “particion wall,” Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1973), p. 15, does, interestingly enough, describe the recognition scene in the following metaphorical terms: “At the end of the play … Aegeon returns—as it were, bringing his story with him—and as the characters come together for the traditional comic denouement the barriers between them and the different worlds they inhabit begin to fuse.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: “The Comedy of Errors,” in Renaissance Drama and a Modern Audience, Macmillan Press, 1982, pp. 1-17.

[In the essay that follows, Scott claims that the success of the farcical form of The Comedy of Errorsdepends heavily on its structure.]

The Comedy of Errors is a farce and as such belongs to an art form relying for its strength and theme on the ingenuity of its structure. From Plautus to Ayckbourn farce has exploited social archetypes and institutions so as to entertain its audiences by laughing at the world and its absurdities. The process is naturally thematic, the social, moral or psychological content being an integral part of its dramatic form and balance.1 Thus the aesthetic success of good farce depends on its structure and it is from this viewpoint that any criticism must begin its evaluation. So it has been in recent years with The Comedy of Errors where scholars have focused upon two principal issues, the introduction in the final scene of the Abbess as a structural device to reconcile the ‘errors’ of the plot, and the sentence of death passed on Egeon at the beginning of the play and foreshadowing all the festivities.

To the fore of those criticizing the ‘clumsy’ introduction of Emilia has been Bertrand Evans:

When we learn that there is an Abbess in Ephesus and that this Abbess is no other than old Aegeon's lost wife, the play is within eighty lines of the end. Had we been told of her existence at the outset, we would have been assured, even while recollection of Aegeon's desperate plight shadowed the hilarious scenes, that all would finally be well. As the play stands, with only half of the frame—Aegeon's plight—presented to us at the outset, it is plain that the dramatist has simply deceived us. He makes us believe our view complete when it is only partial … By introducing Aemilia early in the action, Shakespeare could have added another level to the structure of awareness and thus have increased the complexity of our responses.2

Although arresting, such criticism is not altogether correct, since through allowing the audience to realize Emilia's role of reconciliation too early in the work Shakespeare might well have over-simplified his play and thus reduced rather than increased the complexity of response. Further such action would have naturally upset the structural-thematic balance of the play which, as will be shown, largely depends on the audience being unaware of Emilia's healing presence until the final act. Professor Evans however does point us in an interesting direction since he correctly implies that there is some form of correspondence between Egeon's ‘desperate plight’ and Emilia's therapeutic role.

This becomes more evident when the second structural issue of the work is examined, that of Egeon's sentence of death in the first scene. Leo Salingar has admirably illustrated the precise tone set by this serious opening to the play. It is not one of tragedy but of romance:

The experienced playgoer at an early performance would not have been misled … He could hardly have anticipated the fast and funny movement of the rest of the play, but he could have recognised in the opening scene the distinctive notes of romance rather than tragedy; in the speaker's inclination towards pathos rather than aggressiveness, for example, and in Egeon's reference to Fortune, which had left him something ‘to delight in’ as well as something ‘to sorrow for’.3

Salingar continues by showing the work's relationship to established romance conventions thus enabling him to assert ‘that from the outset, both forms of the story of family reunion, the romantic and the farcical, were present to [Shakespeare's] mind together’ (p. 67). It is this fusion of the romance and the farce which helps the play build on its Plautine and romance models in establishing a thematic structure around the marriage convention.

Egeon in the first scene is a pathetic old man, isolated in an alien land divorced from wife and children through the dictates of wealth and Fortune:

In Syracusa was I born, and wed
Unto a woman happy but for me,
And by me,—had not our hap been bad.
With her I liv’d in joy; our wealth increas’d
By prosperous voyages I often made
To Epidamnum, till my factor's death,
And the great care of goods at random left,
Drew me from the kind embracements of my spouse.

(I. i. 36-43)4

This incident was eventually to isolate Egeon from wife and children so that now in Ephesus he has no will to live, his only wish being to know whether his family are still alive:

… here must end the story of my life,
And happy were I in my timely death,
Could all my travels warrant me they live.
Hopeless and helpless doth Egeon wend,
But to procrastinate his lifeless end.

(I. i. 137-9, 157-8)

The ‘procrastination’ of his death implies that Egeon has spent the last five years, at least, of his life in the despair of isolation, searching for his family, his roots which are his identity. It is this loss of self-identity not only for Egeon but for all his relations which is to form the kernel of the play; a simple idea at first only proposed by the old man's pathetic tale but soon stated explicitly as a theme, by 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, lose myself.

(I. ii. 33-40)

It is misleading to see this statement as an insight to Antipholus's characterization. We are not watching a comedy dealing in such terms but rather a farce which negates characterization in favour of simple archetype. Antipholus's speech therefore naturally becomes a clarification of Egeon's opening statement. In this respect the play operates very similarly to a musical score which may begin with an orchestral embellishment before the theme is simply stated by a single instrument, to be then followed by an intricate set of variations.5 Thus Egeon's exposition is simply clarified by Antipholus before we are presented with the complexities of the variations, which in this case we call the ‘errors’ on the theme of the loss of identity. We soon find therefore that the three principal characters, Antipholus of Syracuse, Antipholus of Ephesus, and Adriana are comically portrayed as separated from any relationship with another person. All are searching, striving, enquiring and yet getting nowhere since there seem to be no answers. In both philosophical and dramatic terms, in the twentieth-century, this depiction of separation and utter loneliness has found expression in the farcical theatre of the absurd, Adamov for example crying out:

What is there? I know first of all that I am. But who am I? All I know of myself is that I suffer. And if I suffer it is because at the origin of myself there is mutilation, separation.

I am separated. What am I separated from—I cannot name it. But I am separated.6

Thus the absurd theatre presents the modern audience with empty stereotype figures waiting, sleeping, collecting, eating, babbling, raging, emptily explaining, falsely reasoning. Shakespeare in this farce is not greatly concerned with what we now might see as the absurdists' metaphysical ethic7 but his dramatic score in The Comedy of Errors does employ similar vacuous activities in order to illustrate the loneliness of man devoid of roots whether they be in the context of father, mother, brother or wife. The individual's separation from the family is his absurdity and it is this which finds central expression in the play's portrayal of the Antipholus of Ephesus-Adriana relationship.

To understand fully the complexity of their marriage in the context of the dramatic structure it is necessary to be aware of the correspondence between the twin brothers. Although, in line with Aristotelean principles, there is only one action in The Comedy of Errors there are within it two sets of adventures, those of Antipholus of Syracuse and those of Antipholus of Ephesus. For them Empson's concept of correspondence is operative, ‘once you take the two parts to correspond, any character may take on mana because he seems to cause what he corresponds to or be Logos of what he symbolises’.8 The fact that the Antipholuses are twins immediately signifies that we are meant to understand a correspondence between them and similarly between the two Dromios. Further because of the relationship between the Dromios and Antipholuses there is also some form of correspondence implied between all four characters born ‘That very hour, and in the self-same inn’ (I. i. 53). Each of the four by correspondence represents or reflects certain facets of the other's personality, aspirations and difficulties.9 This is particularly so of the Antipholuses in relation to Adriana since as with farce throughout the ages, much of the play's humour depends on marital problems and intrigues. Quite correctly the marriage debate in the work has often been stressed by critics10 but perhaps what has not been emphasized enough is the way in which both of the twins reflect Adriana's difficulties with her husband. The wife's first appearance sees her complaining of her lot as a woman:

Why should their liberty than ours be more?

(II. i. 10)

A valid question especially for a twentieth-century audience which would no doubt find Luciana's placating replies to be repellently anachronistic. It would be wrong however to take that moral issue as the central element of their discussion, since the dramatist's main concern here is to illustrate Adriana's frustration which is derived from her love for her unresponsive husband. We are presented by her complaints with a form of negative positivism. By railing about her husband she illustrates her attachment to him. It is a common device, Shakespeare for example, employing it to great effect later in his career with his portrayals of Cleopatra and Lady Macduff. Like them therefore at the end of all the railing Adriana admits her life is totally bound up with that of her husband:

… he's master of my state.
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 … 

(II. i. 95-9)

By the end of II.i. therefore the audience is convinced of Adriana's sincerity towards her man. Yet what the audience does not know is whether her husband is as bad as she makes out. The confrontation soon comes between the couple, Adriana making her passionate plea to him:

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 self's 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 thence that drop again
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself, and not me too.

(II. ii. 119-29)

Adriana here dwells on the identity of their personalities as individuals and as part of their married union. She speaks directly therefore to the essence of their very being. But he replies:

Plead you to me fair dame? I know you not.

(II. ii. 147)

In a different play such a reply would prove heart-rending as when Hal turns to Falstaff after the latter's profession of love, and disowns him;

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.

(Henry IV Part Two V. iv. 47)

Antipholus's reply however causes great hilarity since unknowingly Adriana is talking not to her husband but her husband's brother. Yet it is implied, though not stressed, in the context of the play that this is exactly the reply which Adriana would have received from her husband, Antipholus of Syracuse comically corresponding to and thus in part being his twin brother. Shakespeare's farce comically distances a social problem but thereby makes it as poignant, for example, as Pinter's absurd distancing in a play such as The Birthday Party where Petey and Meg are shown through verbal ineptitude to be in the stagnation of the marriage:

Meg Is that you, Petey? (Pause). Petey, is that you? (Pause). Petey?
Petey What?
Meg Is that you?
Petey Yes, it's me.
Meg What? (Her face appears at the hatch.) Are you back?
Petey Yes.
Meg I've got your cornflakes
ready. (She disappears and reappears.)
Here's your cornflakes. (He rises and takes the
plate from her, sits at the table, props up the paper and begins to eat.)
(Meg enters by the kitchen door.) Are they
Petey Very nice.
Meg I thought they'd be nice.
(She sits at the table.)


Neither Shakespeare nor Pinter need be overtly didactic since the conversations within the context of the play's individual dramatic structure allow the thematic point to exist. With Pinter through the vacuous nature of the conversation we are able to laugh at and yet understand the corresponding nihilism of the figures' existence. Similarly with Shakespeare we laugh at the comic misunderstanding of Adriana and her unknown brother-in-law, but instinctively accept the poignancy of the true marital situation presented through the correspondence principle.

Shakespeare does not allow himself to neglect such issues once he has suggested them, and although in a farce he has no intention of over-emphasizing the serious implication of the situation he does permit himself the liberty of taking his variations on the identity-marriage theme a little further. Thus Antipholus of Syracuse decides to play along with Adriana's game, resolves that is to humour the woman as a husband might humour his wife:

Syr. Ant. [Aside.] To me she
speaks, she moves me for her theme;
What, 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?
Until I know this sure uncertainty,
I'll entertain the offer'd fallacy.

(II. ii. 181-6)

Surprisingly the situation is not far here from Adamov and the absurdists. Antipholus in his ‘dream’ gropes for answers and is forced to make pretences of acceptance. Harry Levin notes that in his mouth, as in others in this play, ‘The customary rhetorical questions of comedy … become questions of existential bewilderment or expressions of comic vertigo.’12 Striving for a self-recognition of an identity which all others seem to know:

If everyone knows us and we know none,
'Tis time to trudge, pack and be gone.

(III. ii. 151-2)

Antipholus of Syracuse attempts to grasp anything which to him appears to have substance or validity. He keeps the gold chain, since at least that exists, and he attempts to woo Luciana with professions of his own identity:

Luc. Why call you me love?
Call my sister so.
Syr. Ant. Thy sister's sister.
Luc. That's my sister.
Syr. Ant. No,
It is thyself, mine own self's better part,
Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer heart,
My food, my fortune, and my sweet hope's aim
My sole earth's heaven, and my heaven's claim.
Luc. All this my sister is, or else
should be.
Syr. Ant. Call thyself sister, sweet,
for I am thee;
Thee will I love, and with thee lead my life;
Thou hast no husband yet, nor I no wife—
Give me thy hand.
Luc. O, soft sir, hold you still;
I'll fetch my sister to get her good will.

(III. ii. 59-70)

Yet almost simultaneously he doubts the tests which he provides for himself. What is his identity? Who is he and who are they?

… 'tis high time that I were hence;
She that doth call me husband, even my soul
Doth for a wife abhor. But her fair sister,
Possess'd with such gentle sovereign grace,
Of such enchanting presence and discourse,
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.

(III. ii. 156-63)

Correspondingly, Antipholus of Ephesus discovering the displacement of his identity through the prohibitions from his own house, resorts to assurances of his own masculinity and power—the crow-bar, the rope's end, the prostitute paid for by the chain. The very name of Antipholus whether he be of Ephesus or Syracuse has been usurped. Once again through a different context Shakespeare only a little later in his career was to turn such a theft into tragedy, Richard II crying out to relentless Northumberland:

No lord of thine, thou haught insulting man;
Nor no man's lord. I have no name, no title;
No, not that name was given me at the font,
But 'tis usurp'd … 

(Richard II IV. i. 254-7)

Both in comedy and tragedy the loss of the name signifies the insecurity of man's rationality and being and becomes an expression of the absurdity of his existence. The comic distance in Shakespeare's farce however, is continued over this crucial issue through the use of the second level of correspondences, that of the Dromios.

The creation of the double set of twins is not just the result of combining two Plautine plays, the Amphitruo and the Brothers Menaechmi, but a necessary expression of the structural theme which without the clowns' reflection of the main image would become to bold and/or simplistic. Consequently it is Dromio of Ephesus rather than his master who comically expresses the indignation over the loss of their names:

Eph. Ant. What art thou that
keep'st me out from the house I owe?
Syr. Dro. The porter for this time,
sir, and my name is Dromio.
Eph. Dro. O villain, thou hast stol'n
both mine office and my name;
The one ne'er got me credit, the other mickle blame;
If thou hadst been Dromio to-day in my place,
Thou wouldst have chang'd thy office for an aim, or thy name for
an ass.

(III. i. 42-7)

Through the clowns, the complexity of correspondence allows the variations on the identity-marriage theme to form an intricate aesthetic pattern of comedy. Central to their existence therefore has to be Nell who proves to be a reflective, though physically distorted, image of Antipholus's Adriana:

Syr. Ant. What woman's
man? and how besides thyself?
Syr. Dro. Marry, sir, besides myself,
I am due to a woman, one that claims me, one that haunts me, one that will
have me.
Syr. Ant. What claim lays she to
Syr. Dro. Marry sir, such claim as
you would lay to your horse; and she would have me as a beast, not that I
being a beast she would have me, but that she being a very beastly creature
lays claim to me.
Syr. Ant. What is she?
Syr. Dro. A very reverend body; ay,
such a one as a man may not speak of, without he say ‘sir-reverence’;
I have but lean luck in the match, and yet is she a wondrous fat marriage.
Syr. Ant. How dost thou mean, a fat
Syr. Dro. 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.

(III. ii. 77-96)

Dromio has to accept Nell for what he sees her to be and then run from her by her own light, just as Antipholus must ‘entertain’ the ‘offered fallacy’ in order to escape back to a concrete existence. That fallacy however involves a situation whereby temporarily accepting the negation of one's identity one becomes as a beast; a predicament which the woman has unwittingly forced on the man and yet cannot herself accept. This is true within the concept of the comic structure and by implication through the correspondence of two Antipholuses, in the thematic context of the Antipholus of Ephesus-Adriana marriage. She wishes her husband to be what Dromio comically calls ‘a beast’, that is something which he is not, an identity totally alien to him. Her love therefore is portrayed as desiring to transform the identity of her partner, a desire which evolves from her natural possessive instincts. It is this expression of possessiveness which becomes yet another implication of the structural theme.

From the opening moments of the play an equation is drawn between possession and existence. At first possession finds its metaphor in gold; Egeon's sentence of death will be repealed only on the ransom of ‘a thousand marks’ (I. i. 21). We learn too, as we have seen, that his misfortunes accrued because of financial expediency. We discover furthermore, through constant references to the chain, that in Ephesus love, sex and respect are bought with gold, and that without money only punishment and misfortune are to be found. Thus the two Dromios who themselves were bought and are owned by their masters are continually punished for not bringing the correct sums of money to their respective lords. It is not surprising therefore that in this gold-orientated land Adriana sees herself as owning her husband, possessing him as he possesses money whilst he, it is implied, rates her love behind his financial affairs:

Adr. Say, is your tardy master
now at hand?
… I prithee, is he coming home?
It seems he hath great care to please his wife.
Eph. Dro. Why, mistress, sure my
master is horn-mad.
Adr. Horn-mad, thou villain?
Eph. Dro. I mean not cuckold-mad,
But sure he is stark mad.
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 he;
‘Your meat will burn,’ quoth I; ‘my gold,’ quoth
‘Will you come?’ quoth I; ‘my gold,’ quoth he,
‘Where is the thousand marks I gave thee, villain?’
‘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 …’
Luc. Quoth who?
Eph. Dro. Quoth my master;
‘I know,’ quoth he, ‘no house, no wife, no mistress’, … 
Adr. Go back again, thou slave, and
fetch him home.

(II. i. 44, 55-71,75)

Dromio of course had been to the wrong Antipholus but the correspondence holds good; the wife being weighed by the gold, the husband being commanded to leave the gold for her companionship.

Identity, marriage, possession are the three issues expounded in the opening scene, clarified as themes by Antipholus of Syracuse's arrival in Ephesus and embellished in an intricate pattern of variations throughout the work leading to a final coda in which the Abbess appears. But does she really, as Evans implies, disrupt the aesthetic pattern?

The concept of the convent and monastery as places of retreat from the complexities of an inexplicable and cruel world was to become a major symbol in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Sometimes it was to be employed with startling effect as in the conclusion of Marston's Antonio's Revenge or in Hamlet's vicious instructions to Ophelia, but whether here or as in the more conventional use in The Winter's Tale, the symbol derived its power from its restorative associations. When all is confusion this archetypal place of retreat allows rest and safety. The priory is the final resort for Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant. Its introduction instructs the audience that the confusions have become so great that all rationality is about to be lost to chaos, unless a traditional answer is found to restore order. The abbess appears and takes control. Instead of entering the debate by concerning herself with the husband, she overtly attempts to change the direction of everyone's thought in order to clarify the true reason for all the problems. Thus instead of condemning Antipholus for his sins she turns to Adriana to instruct her about her judgements and jealousy;

And thereof came it that the man was mad.
The venom clamours of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dog's tooth.
It seems his sleeps were hinder'd by thy railing,
And thereof comes it that his head is light.
Thou say'st his meat was sauc'd with thy upbraidings;
Unquiet meals make ill digestions … 
Thou sayest his sports were hinder'd by thy brawls;
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? … 
The consequence is then, thy jealous fits
Hath scar'd thy husband from the use of wits.

(V. i. 68-74, 77-82, 85-6)

In one sense only, is the Abbess in as much error as anyone else, the Antipholus she is protecting is not Adriana's husband. Nevertheless her words are valid in iterating the truths which the comic structure has portrayed. If she is believed, all will be restored. The acceptance, however has necessarily to come through the structure itself and it is here by instigating a conventional recognition scene that the Abbess performs the second aspect of her therapeutic role. If not particularly subtle the scene is quite conventional in the Aristotelean context of anagnorisis and as such tends to allow a satisfactory and harmonious conclusion to the farce. It may not be that throughout the play we expect the appearance of Egeon's wife in the end but we foresee the necessity of some restoring agent and are not disappointed in the event at finding it to be Emilia. She proves to have been the obvious missing link and her words together with her role of discovery are quite consistent with the progress of the play.

It has been in recent years only that the true implications of farce as an art form have begun to come to light. The very complexity and ingenuity of a premier drama of this kind, which The Comedy of Errors inevitably is, illustrate the thematic, social and psychological concerns underlying the artefact. Shakespeare's early comedy is a masterpiece of its peculiar genre and consequently demands to be treated with respect by scholarship and the theatre.13 If this occurs then its true comic value and potential are realized thus allowing the play to perform its function of joyously and hilariously entertaining its audiences. It is interesting that over the past two decades there have been two major revivals of the play by the Royal Shakespeare Company. But perhaps mention should be made first of an interesting production at Stratford, Connecticut in 1963. This as Harry Levin reports, was notable in that a single actor played both Antipholuses. In the light of the thematic concerns of the structure such an idea appears immediately attractive but in reality must cause difficulties.14 If, in farce, the theme depends so much on the structure then an alteration as radical as reducing the two principal parts to one, by employing one actor, forces the theme outside the dramatic form, thus making a directorial thematic commentary on the original play rather than allowing it to develop as it was intended. Shakespeare did not, it seems, want or at least envisage a commentary since he did not include one of his own, as he was later to do with, for example, Feste in Twelfth Night. A criticism of this kind about a production naturally treads a sensitive minefield since we find ourselves in the delicate debate concerning the propriety of directorial influence over and interpretation of an established classical text.

Trevor Nunn's production in 1976 met this problem squarely. Realising that farce demands improvisation and the extension of comic business Nunn embellished the work with songs, dances and comic ingenuity so as to realize the vitality behind the original text. At one hilarious moment, for example, Adriana (Judi Dench) appeared at her balcony, stared at the wrong Antipholus below and melodramatically signalled him to her chamber. He and Dromio looked dumbfounded whilst the audience roared. Action here had correctly complemented the text. Trevor Nunn however went further. Although in an interview with The Times he asserted that the play had ‘no intellectual pretension’15 he cleverly allowed his musical interpolations to emphasize the drama's key thematic issues whilst the audience sat back to enjoy the songs. Thus between I. i. and I. ii. he introduced a song concerning the need of Egeon for a ransom:

Chorus Beg thou or borrow
to make up the sum, make up the sum, make up the sum,
Thou art welcome to try.
Bring not the money by set of sun, by set of sun,
Then … old man you die, old man you die, old man you die.
Girls Try all the friends thou hast
in Ephesus,
Proprietor of the Porpentine Or else
your story must end in Ephesus,
Egeon My comfort when your words
are done
My life ends with the evening sun
Chorus Beg thou or borrow to make
up the sum, make up the sum …

The lively chorus moved and swayed around the old man as the song developed. Although they were concerned for him he was to discover that in Ephesus none were quite ‘so deaf as us’. The music, the action and the humour naturally allowed the audience to realize that the old man would not die but the words correctly set the tone of the romance. He was in difficulty and so he was to attempt to find friends and save his life although rationally there was little hope of him doing either. The final refrain of the song was ‘Then old man you'll die … so you must try.’ It was an interpretative, sensitive and entertaining moment of theatre as the chorus disappeared and the lonely Egeon was led off by a comically officious jailer. Similarly Adriana taking refuge in Campari and soda, and the bespectacled Luciana, attractively peering round her book at the play's action, were given a lengthy, amusing duet and dance routine concerning ‘A man is master of his liberty’. Dromio of Syracuse likewise presented a vivacious and humorous song based on II. ii. 63-109, developing the theme ‘For there's a time and a season / And for all things / There's a time and a place’ whilst Antipholus of Syracuse was permitted to sing of his existential problems, briefly changing the mood by allowing a meditative pause in the midst of the quick-fired activity:

Am I on earth
In heaven or hell?
Do I exist?
Do I appear?
Sleeping, waking,
Sick or well?
Am I bewitched?
Am I here?

In Act IV Scene iv, Pinch led an exciting, anarchic song and dance routine ‘Satan come forth’, in his attempts to exorcise the devil from Antipholus. This was the magical farce, fun and confusion of Ephesus but within the almost comic chaos the intellectual dimensions of the play were being maintained. Purists might argue that such a course was unnecessary and detrimental to the original text.17 Audience figures18 proved however that the show was successful whilst the musical additions remained within the thematic framework of Shakespeare's early farce.

A different kind of interpretative embellishment marked the famous 1962 production in which the director Clifford Williams exploited the comic nature of farce to its physical and intellectual limit. Thus he wrote in a programme note:

When we speak of farce, we commonly think of curates, trousers, French windows, banana skins, laughter, and incredibility. But farce may be given a dimension and a reality which makes it more fruitful than the most painstaking work of naturalism.

… Shakespeare, the dramatist, gives us a crazy though magical Ephesus where men may re-find their brothers and find themselves, and where women may re-find their husbands and learn about themselves. The city and people of Ephesus may be highly improbable, but they are infinitely desirable, a triumph of imagination over life.

To achieve this vision of the play within production Williams expressed the work's relationship with the contemporary popular drama of the Italian commedia dell'arte. Consequently the performance was enhanced by an unpretentious, non-intruding use of mime which seemed to develop from the play's structure and promote its fluid progress. His opening balletic sequence and the creation of a silent though very active group of figures observing and reflecting the follies of the stage enabled the structural theme to be kept in focus. The production being staged over a ten year period throughout England, Europe and the United States as well as being televised, was a major success. It was critically acclaimed from the start, Harold Hobson among others, commenting on the way in which the undertones of the work had been sensitively exposed:

The wild comedy of irrational recognitions is given consistency and a curious force by the suggestion that there is behind it something vaguely disquieting.

(The Sunday Times, 16 September 1962)

That ‘something’ is the very heart of the play's structure and the dramatist's vision, an ability to see and express the comic absurdity of man in the process of living.


  1. Jessica M. Davis, Farce (London, 1978) has adequately assessed the aesthetic value of farce as an art form depending on the delicate balance achieved between aggression and festivity in the context of its structure, ‘Farce is indeed mechanical and its mechanical manipulations of plot and character distinguish it clearly from other, more flexible comic forms. Like all comedy, farce is both aggressive and festive. At its heart is the eternal comic conflict between the farces of conventional authority and the forces of rebellion’ (pp. 23-4).

  2. Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (London, Oxford, New York, 1960) pp. 8-9

  3. Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge, 1974) p. 61.

  4. References to The Comedy of Errors are to R. A. Foakes's edition, The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1962).

  5. A comic piece of music operating in this way is Dohnányi Variations on a Nursery Song where the robust opening exposition is soon clarified by the lone piano simply stating the theme, the nursery song, Ah, vous dirai-je, maman, which in turn is succeeded by the intricacies of the variations on the theme.

  6. Arthur Adamov, L'Aveu quoted from Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Penguin edition (London, 1968) p. 89

  7. Adamov, for example, identifies his separation as a loss of what was once seen as God, a rational explanation for existence. See Esslin, pp. 89 ff.

  8. William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London, 1935) p. 34.

  9. It is tempting to suggest that the twins could be seen as two facets of a single personality. Harry Levin, Introduction, The Comedy of Errors. The Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York and London, 1965) p. xxx, disagrees, ‘That way schizophrenia lies … the actual predicament is that of two personalities forced into the same role, rather than of one personality playing two roles, since the resident twin has the contacts and continuities and the roving twin intercepts them, as it were’.

  10. Nowhere better than in R. A. Foakes, Introduction, The Comedy of Errors, The Arden Shakespeare, pp. xxxix-li, where in particular he links the ‘loss or change of identity’ of the characters ‘with a disruption of family, personal and social relationships’. See also Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London, 1974) pp. 1-19. Professor Leggatt would disagree however with the conclusions of the present discussion in that he states, ‘One curious feature of the ending is that, while the problems of marriage have been thoroughly aired, there is no explicit reconciliation between husband and wife’ (p. 9).

  11. Harold Pinter, The Birthday Party, 2nd edition (London, 1965) p. 9.

  12. Levin, op. cit., p. xxxi.

  13. R. A. Foakes, Introduction, p. xxxix-xi, proposes a correct critical attitude, ‘Any developed account of The Comedy of Errors is likely to seem portentous in relation to the complexities of Shakespeare's mature drama, and extravagant in relation to the usual classification of the play as early farce. Clearly it is important to keep a critical balance; but it is also important to recognize that, from the beginning of his career, Shakespeare was an artist of unusual power, and that all his work deserves serious attention.’

  14. See Levin, op. cit., Introduction, pp. xxx-xxxi.

  15. See John Higgins, ‘Trevor Nunn in Search of Fresh Pastures’, The Times (29 September 1976).

  16. Quotations are from the original prompt-copy text of the performance, housed in the Shakespeare Centre Library, Stratford-upon-Avon. They are reproduced by kind permission of Trevor Nunn. A full cast list for this and other RSC productions is found in M. Mullin (ed.) with K. M. Muriello, Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. A Catalogue to Productions of the Shakespeare Memorial/Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1879-1978, 2 vols. (London, 1980).

  17. Not all critics were happy with the interpretation. John Barber, Daily Telegraph (1 October 1979), though praising the professionalism of the cast complained that the result was simply not amusing.

  18. The production was also televised.

Douglas Lanier (essay date 1993)

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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 the following essay, Lanier explores “the question of how the material conditions and practices of self-display in Elizabethan England relate to crises of self-display faced by Shakespeare’s characters,” by examining The Comedy of Errors.]

'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc'd breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

(Hamlet 1.2.77-86)

What constitutes Shakespearean character? To the extent that Shakespeareans have continued—with various degrees of discomfort—to labor in the shadow of A. C. Bradley, we have persisted, like Hamlet, in locating Shakespearean character in the workings of an inner self, the elusive “that within” which lies beneath, exceeds or evades its outward “show.” Notwithstanding the roses that have periodically been strewn on its grave, this notion of character shows every sign of health. Even the post-structuralist critique of the subject has had the odd effect of redoubling critical attention upon interiority. For although Shakespeareans may no longer be comfortable with unqualified theoretical claims about the autonomy, unity, intentionality, and agency of characters (or, for that matter, people), there remains within much of our critical practice a persistent longing for a not-wholly-demystified self, a subjectivity on or off the stage that is somehow not gaps within signification or offered and accepted hegemonic subject-positions. That longing can be glimpsed in a growing impatience in some circles with a critical practice that, so the story goes, again and again unmasks the culturally determined nature of human character: hence the current backlash against the Althusserian determinism of some New Historicist readings. In response, some feminist and political critics have sought to reformulate the private self as a genuine (if nonetheless qualified) site for political resistance.1 That Shakespearean interiority persists, even in diminished form, in an age of post-essentialist criticism should come as no surprise, for the unique “depth” of Shakespeare's characters has long been one of the centerpieces in his claim to a special place of literary honor. Without the notion of an interiority that “passes show” and prompts our inferences, we would be forced to abandon a long history of audiences’ responses, however implicated in ideology those responses might be. Perhaps even more unsettling, we would risk putting ourselves out of critical business.

For that reason, even now Shakespeareans have in large measure continued to give pride of place to those moments where characters seem to give us special access to the depths of the private self in soliloquies, asides and passionate declamations. In the case of genre, this means a continuing stress on the “mature” tragedies. Where that access to interiority has been conspicuously barred or obscured—as in, say, Antonio's pointedly motiveless melancholy at the opening of The Merchant of Venice or Leontes' savage jealousy in The Winter's Tale—we still set about crafting an explanatory private self from the smallest of textual suggestions. Often, we paper over the gaps by supplying some barely evidenced motive or desire. A longstanding casualty of this procedure has been Shakespeare's early comedies, which, to parrot what has become received doctrine, lack the complex characterization that marks Shakespeare's later achievements. It is a judgment that renders these early plays of interest primarily for what they point toward, not for what they are.2 One very conspicuous mark of their marginal status is the persistent and damning label “farce.”3

For the actor, what constitutes Shakespearean character is quite a different matter. For the actor, the problem of character is first and foremost a material one: how to craft and display a set of physical marks—gestures, postures, sounds, costumes—that are legible to an audience and, if not entirely individualizing, at least distinctive. Within the context of performance, character becomes, we might say, a matter of the mechanics of exteriority. Of course, this idea of theatrical character is hardly new: the term “character” itself springs from “χαραττ-ειν,” to inscribe or wound. Indeed, a glance at the concordance reminds us that Shakespeare typically understood the word as a distinctive external mark, conceived most often as a kind of inscription, that identifies its bearer's nature, wittingly or not.4 We owe to the study of acting as a craft and, more recently, to performance studies a renewed appreciation of character's origin in the material mark, something Bradley famously dismissed as inconsequential to a reader's proper understanding of character.5 This contempt for the study of theatrical character as it makes itself bodily manifest has a long pedigree. Its terminus a quo can be found perhaps in Aristotle's disparaging remarks in the Poetics about recognition scenes built around physical tokens or marks….6 Yet even though studies of theatrical craft and of performance have focused new critical attention on historical details of gesture, costume, and spectacle, such studies have rarely considered the parallel history of how identities are physically produced and displayed within Renaissance culture.7 Although we have come to appreciate that Elizabethan acting is governed by the visual and gestural rhetoric, only relatively recently have we begun to explore the question of how the material conditions and practices of self-display in Elizabethan England relate to crises of self-display faced by Shakespeare's characters.8 Those crises are, we might observe, often duplicated in the technical challenges posed by performing those roles. In the essay that follows I want to pursue two goals: first, to sketch out in very broad strokes one problematic of self-presentation in Elizabethan England; second, to suggest how Errors, by staging disruptions of identity-effects, is preoccupied with interrogating the curious material logic of Renaissance self-presentation. But in addition to these, I will have a third quarry in mind: to suggest how attention to the materiality of Shakespearean character might help us challenge the traditional notion of Shakespeare's artistic “development” and reevaluate the place of the early comedies within his canon.


One of the more powerful lessons we have learned from recent accounts of Renaissance culture is the power of display in the construction of Renaissance subjectivity. Because Renaissance hierarchies of being depended upon—indeed were maintained and policed by—rituals of public display, traditionalist interests within Elizabethan culture were particularly uneasy about the public marks of character. In theory, a stable presentational rhetoric of clothing, gesture, mode of address, and style of speech charted one's place in the social matrix. Thomas Elyot locates authority in “majesty,” and “majesty” in “a beauty or comeliness in his countenance, language and gesture apt to his dignity, and accommodate to time, place, and company; which, like as the sun doth his beams, so doth it cast on the beholders and hearers a pleasant and terrible reverence.”9 Elizabethan conduct manuals and sumptuary legislation, to take two examples, tended to classify status-coded behavior and clothing with ever more nuance and precision, indicating a larger cultural drive to determine identities by determining the range and meanings of their material manifestations. The aim was, put simply, to insure that who you saw was who you got. In the case of sumptuary distinctions, ideally the cost of a fabric would “naturally” govern its relationship to its corresponding social status, for only a nobleman could afford the sumptuous clothing appropriate to his rank. But, notoriously, the aristocratic burdens of conspicuous consumption and inflation, combined with the wealth of the nouveau riche, seemed to undermine that “natural” relationship. Those who were traditionally entitled to the signs of rank increasingly found them a difficult financial burden; those who could not afford them before, could now purchase them. This, coupled with the opportunities for imposture provided by urban London's exploding size and wealth, rendered the exterior marks of character less reliable, open to quotation and simulation. As Philp Stubbes points out in his disquisition against ostentatious dress in The Anatomy of Abuses, who you saw was no longer reliably who you got:

But now there is such a confuse mingle mangle of apparell in Ailgna [i.e., England], and such preposterous excesse therof, as every one is permitted to flaunt it out in what apparell he lust himselfe, or can get by anie kind of meanes. So that it is verie hard to knowe, who is noble, who is worshipfull, who is a gentleman, who is not: for you shall have those, which are neither of the nobylitie gentilitie nor yeomanry, no, nor yet anie Magistrat or Officer in the common welth, go daylie in silkes, velvets, satens, damasks, tafeties and such like, notwithstanding that they be both base by byrthe, meane by estate, & servyle by calling.10

It is no coincidence that in his Anatomy Stubbes also castigates the theater, for no small part of the anxiety in anti-theatrical polemics sprang from the fact that playing entailed the citation of behavior and thereby opened a space between the self fashioned and the self doing the fashioning.11 In short, play in its various forms disrupted the logic of Elizabethan display. If the general Elizabethan paranoia about dissembling and conspiracy recently chronicled by Lacey Baldwin Smith is any guide, such indeterminacy in the marks of character was felt to be not only epistemologically disorienting but also politically subversive.12

In his study of Elizabethan courtesy theory13 Frank Whigham has argued that, as the socially mobile became increasingly adept at counterfeiting patrician behavior, defenders of aristocratic privilege sought to reassert a monopoly over the display of social rank. They redoubled their efforts to exercise control over public marks of nobility, an impulse obvious in the detailed distinctions of class and clothing in Elizabethan sumptuary laws. As well, they sought to reconfigure a taxonomy of social types and to coordinate those types with stable sets of identifying marks: thus Jonsonian characterization of humours and the revival in the early seventeenth century of the character as a literary genre.14 Ironically this attempt to subject behavior to detailed classification provided arrivistes with the very material they needed to fashion even more effective simulations of status. In response to the threat of simulation, Whigham argues, defenders of traditional privilege took two steps. First, they subjected displays of character to even more nuanced analysis, looking for the unwitting mistake or telling remark. We can glimpse this emphasis in the challenge Ben Jonson issues in Timber, “Language most shewes a man: Speake that I may see thee,”15 or in the anxiety about rhetorical missteps indicated by Henry Peacham's category “Cautions,” included with nearly every rhetorical figure he lists in his Garden of Eloquence.16

At the same time, Whigham argues, defenders began “to emphasize manner rather than matter: others may be found that can do the things a gentleman does, but they cannot do them properly” (p. 34). Thus the irony of Peacham's counsel in The Complete Gentleman about ostentatious dress, where he instructs his reader to choose “that moderate and middle garb [clothing that is neither ostentatious nor parsimonious] which shall rather lessen than make you bigger than you are; which hath been and is yet observed by our greatest princes, who in [sic] outside go many times inferior to their grooms and pages” (p. 150). Striking in this passage is the studied loosening of the one-to-one correspondence between clothing and rank. Peacham's counsel is but one manifestation of a larger turn in how Renaissance culture conceived of the materiality of identity: a turn toward an interiorization of nobility and value. The link between character and marks of character is reinforced (essential selves still remain determinable from their outward marks), but it is at the same time radically reconceptualized (display comes to reveal rather than to constitute identity). In Peacham's hands the refusal to engage in the magnificence to which one is entitled becomes a visible sign of one's superior status: the true ”prince” displays that his identity does not depend upon ostentatious display. This presentational strategy appears inimitable, since only those who are already “greatest” can afford the luxury of eschewing visible greatness. Nonetheless Peacham clearly opens it to those who are not “our greatest princes.” In fact, the passage seems directed toward precisely that mode of self-mystification that demands “the effacement of the traces of production on the [noble subject].”17 The anxiety is of over-dressing, over-speaking, over-doing, for to overact is to betray that aristocratic character, and authority depends upon counter-theatrical techniques that are nonetheless fundamentally theatrical.

Precisely this anxiety informs Hamlet's declaration that he has, despite his elaborate display of melancholy, “that within that passes show.”18 He contrasts his inviolate and at some level unrevealed character to those “actions that a man might play.” Yet how to make “that within” manifest? The paradox is that Hamlet can manifest his interiority only by engaging in a display from which he then must display an inward distance, and he registers this paradox in his opening qualifier, “ 'Tis not alone.” The vehemence with which Hamlet denies “seeming” betrays his recognition that through “seeming” he becomes subjected, opened to Claudius' devices. His visibility reduces him to a fully readable and iterable character, emptied of his secrets and potential. We might locate Elizabethan interiority not only in emergent regimens of hegemonic control (as Francis Barker has argued) but also in essentializing strategies marshalled against self-presentational practices that run the danger of being mimicked or usurped.19 Yet, as Hamlet's anxiety about his “suits of woe” suggests, there's the rub: this strategy resolves one instability in Renaissance self-display, but in so doing it renders any given characterological mark all the more unreliable. Self-presentation—a condition of being, as Hamlet recognizes, that one can never evade—becomes all the more self-conscious and potentially self-betraying. When all the world's potentially a stage, what is the epistemological status of characterological marks?


This cultural crisis of self-representation, if I may inaugurate yet another Renaissance “crisis,” clearly fascinated Shakespeare throughout his career.20 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.21 That is, Errors stresses the marks and rituals—faces, clothing, beatings, warts and moles, meals,22 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.”23 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.24 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.25 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?26 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.”27 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
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.28 (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.29 With her husband's look and “touch” withdrawn, Adriana's physical features become “defeatures,” suddenly susceptible to ruin and unrecognizability.30 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.31

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' 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 kindness;
Or if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth,
Muffle your false love with some show of blindness.
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 tainted;
Teach sin the carriage of a holy saint;
Be secret-false: what need she be acquainted? … 
'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 come-on 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 well. … 
O! grief hath chang'd me since you saw me last,
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 tongue
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
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 hear.
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 way,
Hath he not reason to turn back an hour in a day?

(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.32 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 man
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
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 me.
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).33 Particularly amplified by the context of Holy Innocents' Day (on which the play was twice staged, in 1594 and 1604),34 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 fist 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 gossiping?
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 brother,
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.”35 This notion of an “omniscient perspective,” which reduces onstage action to a kind of “pseudo-action”36 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.”37 Even though we have no reason to believe that Jonson had Errors in mind when he made this observation,38 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.39 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.”40 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.41 Certainly Errors is from first to last a “play of effects.”42 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.


It is an odd historical coincidence that the first recorded performance of Errors, at Gray's Inn on December 28, 1594, provided counterpoint and perhaps unwitting commentary for a very different sort of “performance.”43 The Gray's Inn revels seem to have been designed on the model of court ceremonial, the tone (as Philip Finkelpearl notes) uncertainly situated between reverence and gentle mockery. Because such revels were officially justified as part of the Templers' education in aristocratic decorum, it is useful to think of the festivities as a kind of cultural dress rehearsal, in which the revellers strove to (re)produce, often before an audience of actual notables, the ceremonial texture of courtly society, its oratorical style, visual spectacle, ritualized actions, and management of diplomatic challenges. Although the content of that “texture” was of course largely student in-joke and parody, its purpose was apparently not—at least in the early 1590s—to undermine respect for authority or to demystify ceremony. In fact, parody served precisely the opposite goal, that of appropriation: the revels were “intended to be for the credit of Gray's Inn.”44 This structured space of license seems to have encouraged the students to enact the ceremonial forms they were mastering all the more studiously and enthusiastically, and it also placed quotation marks around the entire ritual, blunting its force by explicitly marking it as “non-serious,” mere play. Even so, these ceremonial revels were not without consequences, not least because many of the participants expected to take up genuine places at court.45 The first night's festivities focused on the presentation of the Prince of Purpoole, Henry Helmes, chosen, the narrator stresses, because he was “fit for so great a dignity.” At the center of this presentation was the display of the Prince's coat of arms, an elaborate emblem which had as its center the helmet of Pallas. Significantly, this blazon was an elaboration of Helmes's own family arms, which prominently featured three helmets, so that his personal honor and aristocratic identity—quite literally, his name—was thereby linked to his conduct as the Prince of Purpoole. The narrator's explication of Purpoole's arms makes clear that, despite the ceremony's arch tone, Helmes's acts were to have a certain genuine force: “The Conceit hereof was to shew, that the Prince, whose private arms were three Helmets, should defend his Honour by Vertue, from Reprehension of Malecontents, Carpers and Fools … The Words, Sic virtus honorem, that his Vertue should defend his Honour, whilst he had run his whole Course of Dominion, without any either Eclipse or Retrogradation” (p. 15). Helmes's identity, both as a potential courtier and as a gentleman, was bound up in his revels performance, as was the honor of Gray's Inn.

Perhaps for that reason this anonymous account of the Gesta seems curiously preoccupied with performative errors or strains. The “Parliament” that should have culminated the opening evening never met, because of “some special Officers that were by necessary Occasion, urged to be absent, without whose Presence it could not be performed” (p. 20). Later, when the Prince returns after Candlemas from his mock diplomatic mission to Russia, the narrator notes in some detail why his welcoming ceremonies were not performed as first conceived:

the Purpose of the Gentlemen was much disappointed by the Readers and Ancients of the House, by reason of the Term; So that very good Inventions, which were to be performed in publick at his Entertainment into the house again, and two grand Nights which were intended at his Triumphal Return, wherewith his Reign had been conceitedly determined, were by the aforesaid Readers and Governors made frustrate, for the Want of Room in the Hall, the Scaffolds being taken away, and forbidden to be built up again (as would have been necessary for the good Discharge of such a Matter) thought convenient; but it shewed rather what was performed, than intended.

(p. 70)

Material exigencies seem to intrude at nearly every step of the way. Conversely, the narrator seems most delighted when the performance comes closest to the real thing, as in the progress to the Lord Mayor's house and back, a “Shew” that “was very stately and orderly performed” (p. 57). The Prince's progress back home actually fooled some bystanders: “Dinner being ended, the Prince and his Company … returned again the same Way, and in the same Order as he went thither, the Streets being thronged and filled with People, to see the Gentlemen as they passed by; who thought there had been some great Prince, in very deed, passing through the City” (p. 57, emphasis added). This extraordinary moment seems offered to stress the transformative potential of the proceedings, providing they are performed correctly. The comments offered to explain the small plot of the concluding Masque of Proteus, performed at the Queen's behest, evince an awareness that peppers the narrative. The sports were brief “that Tediousness might be avoided, and confused Disorder, a thing which might easily happen in a multitude of Actions” (p. 76). This account of Gesta is informed throughout by the fear of misfires in performance, that anxiety magnified in the last example by the Queen's presence and the potentially catastrophic political consequences.46 As a cultural rehearsal, Gesta focuses the revellers' energies on mastering the arts of courtly display. Through play they learn how to perform the formalities properly and how to improvise deftly over their mistakes.

Errors makes its appearance in this kind of ceremonial space. Apparently, Errors served as an on-the-spot substitute for elaborate “Inventions and Conceipts” that were never performed, probably a masque of friendship addressed to the evening's guest of honor, the Ambassador of the Inner Temple. Gesta records that in expectation of “some notable Performance,” “the multitude of Beholders” which included “a great Presence of Lords, Ladies, and worshipful Personages” became “so exceeding great” (p. 29) that they crowded the performers off the stage. Eager to behold the display of magnificence—the Prince of Gray's Inn and the visiting Ambassador were “very gallantly appointed, and attended by a great number of brave Gentlemen” (p. 29)—and eager themselves to be beheld, the audience at Gray's Inn stole the show. The effect was to blur the line between theater and reality, between an enthusiastic reverence for majesty and a tumultuous disregard for proper decorum, so much so that the audience was “able to disorder and confound any good Inventions whatsoever” (p. 31). To control the crowds, perhaps to impose some sort of visual order on the now chaotic proceedings, and to reserve the sports originally intended “especially for the gracing of the Templarians,” those in charge resolved only to offer such inconsequential sports as “Dancing and Revelling with Gentlewomen” and “a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus)” (p. 31). In the meantime the Ambassador was prompted to leave the evening's genuinely disorderly revels in a huff before these sports even began. Notwithstanding the lightly mock heroic nature of the Gray's Inn Christmas revels, the damage to honor and reputation, the Gesta makes clear, was quite real: “This mischanceful Accident sorting so ill, to the great prejudice of the rest of the Proceedings, was a great Discouragement and Disparagement to our whole State.” In fact, in the mock charges read two evenings later against the master of these revels, the playing of Errors was presented as the crowning indignity of the evening: “And Lastly, that he had foisted a Company of base and common Fellows, to make up our Disorders with a Play of Errors and Confusions.” (“To make up” introduces a tantalizing ambiguity in the passage, for it means both “to atone for, recompense” and “to complete.”) It is difficult to discern how seriously these charges are intended or, if serious, what precisely the indignity is: was it that the players were “base and common,” not gentry? that the play was playhouse fare, not the scheduled “Inventions and Conceipts”? that the subject matter was, given the occasion, poorly chosen? What is clear is that those assembled were scrambling to improvise some ceremony to save appearances.

Shakespeare's play seems to have supplied a kind of gloss to this disruption of ceremonial display: the night was ever afterwards called “The Night of Errors.” In fact, two nights later, in a vocabulary strikingly reminiscent of Antipholus' anxious conjectures about witches and shapechangers, the Clerk of the Crown read mock judgments “thick and threefold” against a “Sorcerer or Conjurer that was supposed to be the Cause of that confused Inconvenience” (p. 32). The accused answered those judgments, after some conventional mockery of legal knavery, in this way: “that those things which they all saw and preceived [sic] sensibly to be in very deed done, and actually performed, were nothing else but vain Illusions, Fancies, Dreams and Enchantments, and to be wrought and compassed by the Means of a poor harmless Wretch, that never heard of such great Matters in all his Life” (pp. 33-34). Remarkably, the accused restores a sense of order to the revels by drawing the real ceremonial breach two nights earlier back into the realm of the theatrical and non-serious. He redefines it as one of many “vain Illusions,” a description that applies equally well to the throng of “worshipful Personages” and Shakespeare's play. Recast as “mere” play, both Shakespeare's and the aristocratic audience's errors simply do not count. Yet whereas Errors in the final scene seems to embrace the operations of chance and theatricality in human affairs, in the Gesta the concatenation of theatrical frames and rehabilitative mock “supposes” unsettles the Prince's authority rather than reestablishes it.

The Prisoner's extraordinary deconstructive analysis of the proceedings leads almost inexorably to one conclusion: the trial serves only as an obvious case of ceremonial scapegoating. It is designed to draw attention away from the fact that “the very Fault was in the Negligence of the Prince's Council, Lords and Officers of his State, that had the Rule of the Roast, and by whose Advice the Common-wealth was so soundly mis-governed” (p. 34). The response of those assembled suggests the uneasy relationship between “mere” play and its very real consequences. The Prince of Purpoole and his statesmen, we learn, were “not a little offended at the great Liberty that they had taken, in censuring so far of His Highness's Government,” and the Prince responded by exercising his “royal” power and relegating the “Attorney, Sollicitor, Master of the Requests, and those that were acquainted with the Draught of the Petition” (p. 34) to the Tower (that is, the stocks). Even in this second evening's entertainment, clearly designed to mitigate the breach of decorum and “utter Discredit of our State and Policy,” the ease with which theatricality invades reality and confounds the simple operations of authority is not so much removed as redoubled. What is reestablished is a precarious semblance of order, but at the price of seeing how interpretively fluid those supposedly stable material practices are. As in Errors, there is an end to these “Law-sports,” but not before our perception of the bounds of stage and world, aristocratic ritual and farce, actor and person, has been altered.

And yet the end is not here. After these “Law-sports,” the men of Gray's Inn turned once again to the task of recovering their lost honor. This time the task took the form of political “reform,” better security for performances, and an elaborate ceremony that took as its theme Amity and Friendship. This ceremony, performed before an audience of eminent peers and courtiers, consisted of sacrifices on the altar of the Goddess of Amity, each sacrifice offered by a different pair of famous friends—Theseus and Perithous, Achilles and Patroclus, Pilades and Orestes, Scipio and Lelius. A bright flame and clear smoke signified the Goddess' acceptance of the incense offering. When Graius and Templarius made their offering, however, “the Goddess did not accept of their Service; which appeared by the troubled Smoak, and dark Vapour, that choaked the Flame, and smothered the clear burning thereof” (p. 36). Momentarily it may have seemed to those assembled that a ceremony intended to signify political union had once again been muffed. But the remainder of the ceremony makes the scene clear. For what on first inspection seemed an error is now fully under theatrical control: “Hereat, the Arch-Flamen, willing to pacifie the angry Goddess, preferred certain mystical Ceremonies and Invocations, and commanded her Nymphs to sing some Hymns of Pacification to her Deity, and caused them to make proffer of their Devotion again; which they did, and then the Flame burnt more clear than at any time before, and continued longer in brightness and shining to them, than to any of those Pairs of Friends that had gone before them; and so they departed” (p. 36). “Sorcery” had supposedly distrupted the first ceremony and potentially the relationship between Gray's Inn and the Inner Temple, but now it now serves the purpose of “magically” recasting the past, making the earlier error seem as if it were part of the larger ritual all along.47 The Arch-Flamen and his “mystical Ceremonies and Invocations” becomes in this context a metaphor for the resourceful courtier (the Grayan beneath the priestly costume) and the almost supernaturally efficacious art of managed display, here capable of purging a public stigma.

The narrator goes out of his way to stress the ceremony's efficacy and its very real consequences:

Thus was this Shew ended, which was devised to that End, that those that were present might understand, that the Unkindness which was growing betwixt the Templarians and us, by reason of our former Night of Errors, and the uncivil Behaviour wherewith they were entertained, as before I have partly touched, was now clean rooted out and forgotten, and that we now were more firm Friends, and kind Lovers, than ever before we had been, contrary to the evil Reports that some Enviers of our Happiness had sown abroad.

(pp. 36-37)

Considering the Prince's personal honor was on the line, little wonder, then, that the Prince should confide in the Templarian Ambassador “that the Shew had contented him exceedingly” (p. 37). But even here, in the hyperbolic assertion that the former performative error “was now clean rooted out and forgotten,” are we not to see some anxiety that the memory and threat of error nonetheless persisted? Certainly the narrator cannot forget that former Night of Errors, for later in the treatise he returns to it and reminds us once again that it had been thoroughly forgotten: “The Performance of which Nights work being very carefully and orderly handled, did so delight and please the Nobles, and the other Auditory, that thereby Grays-Inn did not only recover their lost Credit, and quite take away all the Disgrace that the former Night of Errors had incurred; but got instead thereof, so great Honour and Applause, as either the good Reports of our honourable Friends that were present could yield, or we our selves desire” (p. 56, emphasis added). The focus on the careful and orderly handling of the ceremonies is certainly linked with the narrator's anxiety in the Masque of Proteus about “confused Disorder, a thing which might easily happen in a multitude of Actions” (p. 76). That anxiety draws our attention once again to what Stephen Orgel has aptly called the illusion of power. Orgel's reversible phrase reminds us, as the narrator of the Gesta needed no reminding, of the extraordinary extent to which Renaissance identity depended upon minutely choreographed displays of magnificent surfaces, displays all too prone to going up in dark and troubled smoke.


In discussions of Shakespearean farce, it is the word “merely” that damns: farce is “merely” entertainment, “merely” slapstick, pun and sight gag, its characters “merely” stereotypes or “merely” functions of a “merely” mechanical plot. Farce serves in the critical imagination as the soulless doppelgänger of “true” theater. It portrays a world not of humanist spirit and motive but a world ruled by the collisions and confusions of things, a rigorous and often alien material calculus. Yet as one student of farce has observed, “farce is no mere medley of inane japes and bacchanalian hoots. Its illogicality is most logical.”48 Farce's logical illogicality is what has prompted traditional character criticism to set Shakespearean farce at the margins of the canon: it returns us to character's status as a thing49 fashioned of bruises or gold chains or crack'd voices or twinned faces or declarations of wifely submission or trappings and suits of woe. It entertains the unsettling possibility that character is perhaps never more (and no “deeper”) than a well-managed stage spectacle, a function of theatricality and the logic of marks. Farce is, in effect, the material unconscious of characterological criticism, troubling intentionality, morality, and ego. It is remarkable, then, that the author whose characters have long been cherished as “uniquely lifelike” and “richly interiorized” apparently began his playwriting career by meditating on the materiality of Renaissance character, the troubling contradictions of which may have led him to glimpse the possibility and perils of another kind of character, tentatively, strategically half-seen beneath the actions that a man might play.50


  1. See, e.g., Carol Thomas Neely's “Constructing the Subject: Feminist Practice and the New Renaissance Discourses,” English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988), 5-18, or in a very different vein, Carolyn Porter's “Are We Being Historical Yet?,” South Atlantic Quarterly 87 (1988), 743-85.

  2. Ironically, one way to “redeem” these plays has been to attribute to them a depth of characterization that other critics have unaccountably “neglected,” a critical strategy that only confirms the very critical premises that damn these works in the first place. That is emphatically not the approach adopted here.

  3. In “Fear of Farce,” Russ MacDonald provides a cogent discussion of the critical reception of Shakespearean farce (in “Bad” Shakespeare: Reevaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, ed. Maurice Charney [Rutherford, 1988], pp. 77-79). For some modern examples relevant to the present study, see Larry Champion, The Evolution of Shakespeare's Comedy (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), pp. 38-39; R. S. White, “Criticism of the Comedies Up to The Merchant of Venice: 1953-82,” Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984), 6-7; and Derek Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, 2d ed. (London, 1957). In the case of Errors see Arthur F. Kinney's very useful survey in “Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and the Nature of Kinds,” Studies in Philology 85 (1988), 29-30, esp. 3n; and R. A. Foakes's Arden edition of Errors (New York, 1962), pp. xxxix-xl and li. All citations from Errors are from this edition. For discussions of the nature of Shakespearean farce, see MacDonald, pp. 77-90; Robert B. Heilman, “Shakespeare's Variations on Farcical Style,” in Shakespeare's Craft: Eight Lectures, ed. Philip Highfill, Jr. (Carbondale, 1982), pp. 94-112; and Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca, N.Y., 1991), pp. 78-108. See also David Wiles, “Taking Farce Seriously: Recent Critical Approaches to Plautus,” in Farce (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 261-71.

  4. The entry for “character” in the OED suggests a general if irregular movement from the notion of a material inscription or mark to a characteristic (and later a moral) interior state and its representation in the abstract or in art. This general shift in meaning seems to have occurred in the course of the seventeenth century. This movement is elegantly traced in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty's “A Literary Postscript: Characters, Persons, Selves, Individuals,” in The Identities of Persons, ed. Amelie O. Rorty (Berkeley, 1976), pp. 301-23. For a useful history of literary character before the Renaissance, see Warren Ginsberg, The Cast of Character: The Representation of Personality in Ancient and Medieval Literature (Toronto, 1983). Jonathan Goldberg has produced several extended meditations on the implications of “character” as inscription in Shakespeare; see his “Shakespearean Characters: The Generation of Silvia,” in Voice Terminal Echo: Postmodernism and Renaissance English Texts (New York, 1986), pp. 68-100, and “Hamlet's Hand,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988), pp. 307-27. On the issue of Renaissance interiority, see, in addition to the works listed in n. 8, Patricia Fumerton, “‘Secret’ Arts: Elizabethan Miniatures and Sonnets,” Representations 15 (1986), and Anne Ferry, The “Inward” Language: Sonnets of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne (Chicago, 1983). (See also Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Proof and Consequences: Inwardness and Its Exposure in the English Renaissance,” Representations 34 [1991], pp. 29-52, an article which appeared after I completed this study.) David Bevington, Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare's Language of Gesture (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), pp. 1-98 and passim, and Alan Dessen, Elizabethan Stage Conventions and Modern Interpreters (Cambridge, Eng., 1984), discuss Shakespeare's “language” of costume, gesture, and expression from more traditional perspectives.

  5. For Bradley, Barry Weller observes, the actor is of interest “only insofar as he assimilates the emotional state of the character; as soon as he must find technical means for making his understanding external, for mediating between the text and the theatrical audience, he ceases to be of interest. Readers ‘do not need, of course, to imagine whereabouts the persons are to stand, or what gestures they ought to use’” (“Identity and Representation in Shakespeare,” ELH 49 [1982], 341).

  6. The Poetics, trans. W. Hamilton Frye, Loeb Classics Edition (Cambridge, Mass., 1923), p. 62; see also p. 58. For a survey of Renaissance commentary on Aristotle's conceptions of anagnorisis, see Terence Cave, Recognitions: A Study in Poetics (Oxford, 1988), pp. 55-83; see also his cogent discussion of the “signs of recognition,” pp. 242-55.

  7. I have adopted the awkward term “identity-effects” to stress how fully identity depends upon, indeed is largely produced by, its material supports and their recognition by others.

  8. This is not to say that such study has not been undertaken; for examples, primarily from cultural materialist circles, see Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (New York, 1985); Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton, Eng., 1983), and Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (New York, 1984).

  9. The Book Named the Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg (London, 1962), p. 99.

  10. The Anatomy of Abuses, facsimile edition (New York, 1972), fol. C2v. It is telling that Stubbes ends his list of usurped social positions with magistrates and officers, for not only are status distinctions in danger but also distinctions of legal authority. In her discussion of Stubbes, Jardine notes that this anxiety about the link between usurpation of marks of character and the erasure of hierarchy extends to anxieties about the erasure of gender distinctions and the hic mulier controversy (pp. 151-65). See also N. B. Harte, “State Control of Dress and Social Change in Pre-Industrial England,” in Trade, Government, and Economy in Pre-Industrial England, ed. D. C. Coleman and A. H. John (London, 1976), pp. 132-65.

  11. For the context of Stubbes's anti-theatricality, see Jonas Barish's chapter “Puritans, Popery, and Parade” in The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley, 1981), pp. 155-90; for his discussion of Stubbes, see 166-67.

  12. This “crisis of self-presentation” has of course been remarked in other works: by Eduardo Saccone in his discussion of “sprezzatura” (“Grazia, Sprezzatura, and Affettazione in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier,” Glyph 5 [1979], 35-51); by Jean-Christophe Agnew in Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (Cambridge, 1986), a work that explicitly links the competitive marketplace with the theatrical representation of character; by Lacey Baldwin Smith in Treason in Tudor England: Politics and Paranoia (London, 1986), in connection with paranoia and distrust at the Tudor court; and most famously by Stephen Greenblatt in Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago, 1980).

  13. Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory (Berkeley, 1984), hereafter noted parenthetically in the text.

  14. Peter Womack sees charactery, rightly in my view, as a technique “for assimilating behavioural difference into the generalised discourse of official culture. The aim in writing is to take the apparently random diversity of observable social behaviours and reduce it to classified gestures which, because once noted they can be seen as repetitive, are able to function as signs … to define a person in this way is to exercise power—either the effective power of quasi-bureaucratic assessment, or the aggressive, unconfirmed power of persuasive rhetoric. To ‘characterize’ a dramatis persona is not to constitute, but to invade, its interiority, to subordinate it to one's own word, to make it thing-like and knowable” (Ben Jonson [London, 1986], pp. 53 and 55, emphasis added). So defined, the seventeenth-century character serves to reconstitute coordinates of social distinction by re-identifying certain marks with certain social types.

  15. Works, VIII, ed. C. H. Herford, and Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford, 1925-52), p. 625, ll. 2031-32. Jonson here adapts a rhetorical commonplace from Circero and, ultimately, Aristotle. He goes on to stress how attending to the details of another's speech allows one to invade the inner recesses of the self: “It [i.e., language] springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the Mind” (Jonson, VIII, 625, ll. 2032-33). One can better sense Jonson's aggressive tone if we compare his remark to a similar passage in Peacham's The Complete Gentleman (in The Complete Gentleman, The Truth of Our Times, and The Art of Living in London, ed. Virgil B. Heltzel [Ithaca, N. Y., 1962], p. 54): “Since speech is the character of a man and the interpreter of his mind, and writing the image of that, that so often as we speak or write, so oft we undergo censure and judgment of ourselves, labor first by all means to get the habit of a good style of speaking and writing, as well English as Latin.” (Peacham's wordplay on “habit” is noteworthy.) Compare to Jonson's much-quoted comment on language, Peacham's dictum on “following the fashion” in The Truth of Our Times: “Ecclesiasticus saith that ‘by gait, laughter, and apparel a man is known what he is.’ Truly nothing more discovereth the gravity or levity of the mind than apparel” (p. 198). The focus on revealing “the gravity or levity of the mind” suggests that by the mid-seventeenth century, apparel offers Peacham access not so much to social identity as to interior intellectual bearings. The comparison with Freudian examination of parapraxes is almost irresistible.

  16. See also Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Mind, ed. William Webster Newbold (New York, 1986), particularly the chapters entitled “Concealing and Revealing of Secrets” and “Feigned Secrets.” On p. 166, Wright also discusses the proverb “Speak that I may see thee.” For further reading on the material marks and the interpretation of character, see William J. Bouwsma, “Anxiety and the Formation of Early Modern Culture,” in After the Reformation: Essays in Honor of J. H. Hexter, ed. Barbara Malament (Philadelphia, 1980), pp. 215-46, esp. p. 238; and Margaret Pelling, “Appearance and Reality: Barber-Surgeons, the Body and Disease,” in London 1500-1700: The Making of the Metropolis, ed. A. L. Beier and Roger Finlay (London, 1986), pp. 89-92, esp. the discussion of bodily tokens of witchcraft on p. 89; and Agnew, Worlds Apart, esp. pp. 57-100.

  17. Frederic Jameson, “Marxism and Historicism,” New Literary History 11 (1979), 57, cited in Whigham, p. 33.

  18. This passage might be compared fruitfully to Hal's rebuke to Falstaff at the end of 2 Henry IV, “Presume not that I am the thing I was” (5.5.56), or his soliloquy on “thou idol Ceremony” in Henry V 4.1.224-70, in which he struggles to conceive of a royal subjectivity which is not solely constituted by ceremonial practice: “And what have kings that privates have not too, / Save ceremony, save general ceremony?” (224-25). See Richard McCoy's superb discussion of this speech and Elizabethan ceremonial practice in “‘Thou Idol Ceremony’: Elizabeth I, The Henriad, and the Rites of the English Monarchy,” in Urban Life in the Renaissance, ed. Susan Zimmerman and Ronald F. E. Weissman (Newark, 1989), pp. 240-66, esp. pp. 257-59.

  19. See Erving Goffman's discussion of recuperative tactics in “Remedial Interchanges,” in Relations in Public (New York, 1971), pp. 95-187.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. See Joseph Candido's thorough 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.

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

  24. 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).

  25. 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.

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

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.”

  31. Gāmini Salgādo, “‘Time's Deformed Hand’: Sequence, Consequence, and Inconsequence in The Comedy of Errors,Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972), 82.

  32. See Salgādo'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. Climactic scenes of characters talking past one another are a staple of Plautine comedies.

  33. 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.

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

  35. 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).

  36. Crewe, “God,” p. 204.

  37. Jonson, Works, I, ll. 420-23.

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

  39. 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.

  40. 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.”

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

  42. Kinney, p. 51, his emphasis.

  43. For a discussion of this episode, see A. Wigfall Green, The Inns of Court and Early English Drama (New Haven, 1931; reissue, Benjamin Blom, 1965), pp. 71-85; Philip J. Finkelpearl, John Marston of the Middle Temple: An Elizabethan Dramatist in His Social Setting (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), p. 42; Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (London, 1977), pp. 81ff; and Margaret Knapp and Michal Kobialka, “Shakespeare and the Prince of Purpoole: The 1594 Production of The Comedy of Errors at Gray's Inn Hall,” Theatre History Studies 4 (1984), 70-81. See also the mélange of primary materials collected (if not synthesized) by Basil Brown in Law Sports at Gray's Inn (1594) (New York, 1921).

  44. Gesta Grayorum, or The History of the High and Mighty Prince Henry Prince of Purpoole Anno Domini 1594, ed. Desmond Bland, English Reprints Series no. 22 (Liverpool, 1968), p. 6. All subsequent quotations will be taken from this text and cited parenthetically. Gesta and the other surviving complete Elizabethan Temple Revels, The Prince d’Amour (by Sir Benjamin Rudyerd and presented in 1599), were published much later, Gesta in 1688 and Prince in 1660. The dedicatory letter to Prince suggests that the motive for publishing was the remystification of the Restoration monarchy and a related nostalgia for Tudor ceremonial: “A Prince for some yeares past in disguise, and a stranger to his Native Soil, is now brought to light; and to you he comes, not for Patronage, but welcome. You will not be backward in giving him an Honourable Reception, when you understand that he is your Prince, one that owes to you his very Creation, and has no other Historiographer than an eminent personage of your own Society. His Raign was short, but prosperous; the Genius of the Nation being then heightened by all the accesses of peace, plenty, Wit, and Beauty, in the exact perfection. They who have been borne as it were out of time, and under the sullen influence of this latter ill-natured Age, who look on the past innocent and ingenious pleasures and divertisements wherewith your Honourable Society used to entertain it self and the whole glory and grandeur of England as Romance and Fabulous, may here reade that exaltation of Wit, wherewith all eares were charmed, and wish for the return of those blessed days” (Le Prince d'Amour, or the Prince of Love: With a Collection of Several Ingenious Poems and Songs by the Wits of the Age [1660], fol. A2-A3).

  45. Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies, esp. pp. 150-53. As Axton and other commentators have noted, the Temple revels also served as a practice ground for discretely offering advice to the monarch. Indeed, the much earlier Revels play Gorboduc takes this right and art as its theme.

  46. Gesta shares with The Prince d'Amour some concern to distinguish the mock governments and their ceremonies from the genuine court. Gesta ends on this note: “But now our Principality is determined; which, although it shined very bright in ours, and other Darkness; yet, at the Royal Presence of Her Majesty, it appeared as an obscured Shadow: In this, not unlike unto the Morning-star, which looketh very chearfully in the World, so long as the Sun looketh not on it: Or, as the great Rivers, that triumph in the Multitude of their Waters, until they come unto the Sea. Sic vinci, sic mori pulchrum” (pp. 88-89). In the case of Prince, the comparison between the Prince and Elizabeth structures the first day's ceremony: the challenge of the Prince d'Amour's champion is met by that of the Queen's champion, who rises to declare three times that the Prince is an usurper and to “let him herein be as absolute as he can be; yet know, all Lovers are servants; 'tis the beloved hath the Soveraignty; Let him account then his glory to consist in obeying” (pp. 12-13). Both passages offer royal compliments, but both also seem to suggest by way of these seemingly superfluous denials that such mere sports might—as if by ceremonial ipse dixit—lapse inadvertently into subversive earnest. Thus the final lines of the Gesta in which the play spectacularly erases itself, leaving Elizabeth and her genuine “aura” in its place:

    And cullors of false Principallity
    Do fade in presence of true majesty … 
    The Lyons skinn that graict our vanity
    Falls down in presence of your Majesty.

    (86-87, ll. 30-31, 5-6)

  47. Precisely this sort of theatrical skill leads Leslie Hotson in Mr. W. H. (London, 1964), p. 50, to conclude erroneously that the falling out between Gray's Inn and the Inner Temple was not real but simulated, a calculated prelude to a ceremonial renewing of love between the two societies. This conclusion, I would argue, is precisely what the Grayans are seeking to construct with this ritual.

  48. Jessica Milner Davis, Farce (London, 1978), p. 23.

  49. I am here reversing Albert Bermel's observation in Farce: A History from Aristophanes to Woody Allen (New York, 1982), pp. 25-34, that within farce objects function as characters.

  50. I wish to thank the participants of the 1991 SAA seminar, “Reconstructing Character,” and my colleague Elizabeth Hageman for their encouragement and suggestions for revision.

Wolfgang Riehle (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Significance of Shakespeare's ‘Classical’ Comedy,” in Shakespeare, Plautus and the Humanist Tradition, D. S. Brewster, 1990, pp. 198-211.

[In the essay that follows, Riehle argues that The Comedy of Errors reflects a classically “pagan” orientation, in which the fantastical elements enhance rather than hinder the coherence and intensity of the drama.]

Errors is a play in which a number of themes that were to become increasingly important in Shakespeare's work are dramatized. Very early in the play, the ‘cosmic order’, the ‘cosmic reality behind appearance’1 is envisaged, and the contrast between appearance and reality becomes fundamental. H. F. Brooks has rightly maintained that ‘At the centre is relationship: relationship between human beings, depending on their right relationship to truth and universal law.’2 The necessity of justice as well as of mercy is emphasized. All this, except for the theme of cosmic order, is fully in line with the spirit and tone of Menandrian New Comedy, which centres around the humanism of true relationships. There is, of course, no denying the impact of English late medieval drama on Shakespeare, yet as far as Errors is concerned, it is wrong to argue that, rather than being a play inspired by classical comedy, it is firmly rooted in the popular tradition of the Mystery and Morality Plays.3Errors is the result of Shakespeare's intensive study of the classical tradition, and this is what makes the play so important.

Not only is it wrong to see major reflections of the Mystery Plays and Moralities in Errors, the play is also less Christian in tone than is generally assumed. The Christian elements, rather than being essential, have the primary function of providing colour and a touch of realism; they make the audience feel that they are in a familiar world. If Antipholus S calls himself a ‘Christian’, then he does it merely in the context of an oath-like emphasis: ‘As I am a Christian’ (I, ii, 77), and when, at the appearance of the Courtesan, Dromio asks whether she is ‘mistress Satan’ (IV, iii, 47), such a reference remains entirely on the surface and cannot be taken as proving a specifically Christian outlook. The notion that husband and wife are ‘incorporate’ as one flesh, is, of course, a common Christian concept, yet in Errors it is not emphasized in a specifically Christian way. Of course, there are a number of allusions to Hell; they occur most frequently in Dromio's report of Antipholus E's imprisonment (IV, ii, 32-40). Yet, as we saw in an earlier context, their function is not so much to produce comic effects as to reinforce the element of threat. As the motifs of Hell and Satan are among the most common Christian notions and at the time when Shakespeare wrote were almost omnipresent, they can certainly not be seen as proving Shakespeare's alluding to the hell scenes and the presentations of Satan in the medieval Mystery Plays, as a recent interpretation would have it.4 Nor should we overlook the fact that Dromio begins his series of hell metaphors by a reference to the classical Tartarus, calling this place ‘worse than hell’ (IV, ii, 32). The only reference, and a very brief one at that, to the medieval theatre which I can find in the play is Egeon's report of his adventurous life, the structure of which resembles a de casibus tragedy. There is nothing else in the play to medievalize its atmosphere in any essential way. That the play was performed on Holy Innocents' Day in 1594, and a second time at Court, exactly ten years later, certainly should not be seen as reflecting a connection between the supposed baptismal theme of Errors and this Christian feast;5 on the contrary, the Gray's Inn report of this performance and the audience's response to it shows very clearly that the play was used as part of the Christmas Revels.6

A further argument put forward in order to prove the supposedly Christian quality of the play is the fact that Shakespeare chose Ephesus as its locality. It is claimed that he made this choice deliberately because this city was familiar to the Elizabethan audience from its description in the Acts of the Apostles, where its superstitious and mercantile atmosphere is evoked; and it is further argued that this gave Shakespeare the chance to include St Paul's admonition to husbands and wives in his Letter to the Ephesians.7 At first sight, these arguments seem to be more substantial than the ones first mentioned, yet they, too, are deceptive. It is, of course, very likely that Shakespeare reckoned with the Elizabethans' being ‘familiar’ with Ephesus and its reputation of being a place of witchcraft and superstition, yet I would like to suggest that this was not the major reason for his choice of locality. This lies rather in the fact that Ephesus was a favourite and important locality for the plots of New Comedy which already made use of its mercantile atmosphere, as in Bacchides or in the famous Miles Gloriosus. Merchants are among the more prominent characters of the plays of classical comedy, and this points to the circumstances which gave rise to Greek New Comedy, the new shift in interests from the common concerns of the Athenian people to private life in Athenian society.8 It is very interesting that in Errors Shakespeare preserves something of this original background, or rather he adapts it to the conditions of his own time when, particularly in the second scene of the play, he creates a specifically ‘mercantile’ atmosphere. It would therefore be wrong to claim that this business world was meant to show the Marxist ‘alienation’ among the play's major characters.9

Among the Christian aspects of the play, there is, of course, the character of the Abbess. Yet it is quite remarkable that, apart from her position, there is no specifically Christian quality to be found in her. She never refers to the Christian God (nor, by the way, does any other character). She mentions, it is true, her ‘holy prayers’ (V, i, 104) and she refers to her ‘oath’ (106), but these are the only indications of her spiritual life, which she gives. When she teaches the Duke the superiority of mercy over justice, we are inclined to interpret this as a Christian theme, and yet the ‘clementia’ of a governor had been a humanist virtue ever since classical antiquity—we need only think of Cicero, Seneca and Stoicism in general, or, as we have seen, of Solinus.10 If Shakespeare had wished to make the Abbess a Christian character, and to introduce questions of Christian belief in his play, he would certainly have used this opportunity in a different way. (Let us remember that the Act of Parliament which forbade the use of the name of God was not passed until 1606.) The constant repetition of critics that the Ephesian Abbess pronounces views on marriage which St Paul first addressed to the Ephesians does not add credibility to their claim. We remember our comparison in the last chapter between Adriana's dialogue with the Abbess and the Erasmian Colloquy On Marriage. The interesting difference between the two lies in the fact that, while Erasmus (who is himself an undogmatic Christian humanist) directly mentions St Paul's teaching on marriage, Shakespeare does not. The view expressed by Luciana that the wife has to submit herself to the authority of her husband is part of a brief sketch of the Elizabethan view of the cosmic order and cannot therefore be interpreted as specifically Pauline. We should further note that the Abbess never adopts St Paul's idea of female subordination; on the contrary, she argues from the point of view of female self-assertion and first suspects that Adriana has not ‘reprehended’ her husband ‘rough enough’ (56f.). In any case, the Abbess's advice to Adriana is based on common sense or reason, rather than on any specifically Christian principles. The way in which she tackles Adriana's problem is simply motivated by her desire to make Adriana aware of her possessive jealousy.

The fact that Aemilia and her family had been separated for 33 years has reminded one critic of the 33 years of Christ's life.11 But what point could there be in any such association? Since in the entire play there is nothing which directly refers to Christ's redemption, an attempt of this kind to prove the medieval and Christian spirituality of this comedy is well-nigh absurd, and one is almost forced to say that criticism of Shakespeare's Errors is, to some extent, itself a ‘comedy of errors’. But what are we to make of the fact that, after the unravelling of the plot and after the various mutual recognitions, the Abbess invites all to a ‘gossips’ feast' (405), where the family reunion is to be celebrated? First, it has to be seen that the emphasis is clearly on ‘feast’ rather than on ‘baptism’. Then, the theme of rebirth is not an exclusively Christian one. In fact, it has been subtly prepared for by including the motif of the Phoenix, which, as we have seen, is the appropriate name for Antipholus's house. (In The Winter's Tale Shakespeare shows another classical ‘rebirth’—Hermione's reunion with her husband.) At any rate, the ‘gossips’ feast' in Errors is alluded to in a metaphorical way, and Shakespeare deliberately avoids any ‘sacramental’ or ‘liturgical’ associations. Let us remember the fact that both Antipholi retain their names, whereas in Menaechmi the traveller Menaechmus becomes Sosicles again after he has found his twin.12 What bring about the final reunion are the humanist qualities of love, patience, and endurance, rather than divine interference. Is it not strange that the Abbess, before she invites the newly-found family members, omits all references to the godhead? Instead she suggests the human solidarity of sympathizing (397) as the prerequisite of the final reunion.13 Whereas in Shakespeare's late plays the belief in divine guidance becomes a central theme, in Errors the idea of providence is, as it were, only subliminally present in the frequency with which characters experience situations they cannot account for, so that they think they are dreaming.14 Again, this sense of wonder is developed much further in the later plays.

The Egeon overplot, of which the Abbess is a part, and which is based on the Apollonius of Tyre, has usually been taken as a specifically medieval element, or to be more precise, as an element of medieval romance. This again is a misunderstanding of Shakespeare's intentions. The Apollonius story is not just a typical example of a medieval romance, not even if it is Gower who retells it. True, in Gower the hero is called a knight, and Apollonius's wedding is described as a courtly feast, but Gower uses this tale of antiquity, in which Diana and Neptune dominate the world, as a deterrent against the sexual aberration of incest. Chaucer refused to include sujets of this kind because he considered them too distasteful15. Not so Shakespeare: incest occurs in his work in a number of forms; we think, apart from Pericles, above all of Hamlet, where Gertrude's remarriage is considered incestuous. And in Errors, as Ralph Berry has observed, incest becomes a ‘theatrical possibility’16 in the very pivot of the play: if Adriana had ‘marital’ intercourse with the twin, she would have unwittingly committed the sins of both adultery and incest. It is certainly true that not much is made of this theme in Errors, but its presence as a dramatic possibility cannot be denied; it certainly does not contribute to the allegedly ‘Christian tone’ of the play. Hence it really makes no difference whether Shakespeare read the Apollonius in Gower's version or as a late classical romance. Egeon, far from being a Christian character, tells his romance story not so much in a medieval but rather in a classical tone, and Shakespeare seems to wish to emphasize this point because Egeon is the only character in the play who refers to ‘the gods’ (whom he calls ‘merciless’) (I, i, 99).

A further reason why the Egeon overplot produces a classical impression is the intertextual links between Apollonius and the world of the New Comedy tradition, as it is reflected in the refined Plautine Rudens. A brief consideration of these texts must suffice here because we shall have to return to them in our final chapter. In both texts, family members are separated and happily reunited through divine providence as well as through the virtue of human piety (pietas), a virtue which, as we have seen, Erasmus also strongly emphasized in his own work. In the Apollonius this piety causes the protagonist's wife to become a priestess in the temple of Diana, while in Rudens a priestess of the temple of Venus helps to bring about the final reunion. Just as in Rudens the virtue of pietas has a central role—and its importance is strongly emphasized as early as the Prologue—so Egeon, by his piety and patience, is able to withstand his tragic fate. This theme of human piety is, as it were, made to replace a specifically Christian attitude.17

The final piece of evidence usually adduced by those claiming that there are essential medieval constituents in Errors is, of course, the ‘romantic’ love between Luciana and Antipholus. However, if we look closely at scene III, ii, we observe clearly that this situation is very different from the typical romantic wooing scene. The sooner we give up the common notion that Shakespeare's romantic comedy originated in his early Errors, the better. It seems that the sheer poetry of the scene has distracted critics from observing what is really going on. Before we begin our analysis, we must bear in mind two things: first, that Shakespeare wanted us to experience the scene from the point of view of Antipholus as the central character, and, second, the fact that, from first to last, Luciana believes that she is addressing her own brother-in-law.

What happens in this scene is indeed a far cry from a genuine romantic wooing. Whereas normally the active part in a wooing scene is assigned to the wooer, the initiative here clearly lies with Luciana, who opens the scene by addressing Antipholus in a speech comprising almost 30 lines. We are, of course, to assume that he had already spoken to her in Adriana's house, and that she is now responding to his ‘advances’. But in a play it is what we see on stage that has the decisive effect. And we are shown Antipholus not so much as an active wooer, but as one responding to Luciana's suggestions and to the signs of encouragement which she gives him. The first thing he says is that he acknowledges her as his teacher: she is to teach him ‘how to think and speak’ (III, ii, 33). He then goes on to say that she has charmed him and that he has come entirely under her spell, so much so that he is speaking as though in a state of rapture; his adoration culminates in his claim that his identity and hers are one: ‘I am thee’ (66). He feels so attracted to her that he forgets the quest for his brother. One might argue that there are other romantic lovers who react in a manner similar to Antipholus. The point, however, is that Antipholus himself very early on experiences his falling in love with Luciana not as being enchanted by her beauty, but rather as succumbing to the bewitching temptations of a ‘siren’.

What can hardly have escaped the notice of either Antipholus or the Elizabethan audience is the bafflingly immoral tone of Luciana's initial advice to him. It is most strange that nevertheless almost all critics admire the alleged wisdom of her advice;18 she is even called an impersonation of ‘virtue’ as opposed to the ‘vice’ of the Courtesan.19 And one critic surprises us with a most daring inversion of what we find in the text: whereas Luciana advises Antipholus to ‘become disloyalty’, he ventures to claim that one of her qualities is ‘loyalty’!20 Occasionally, a critic has felt some uneasiness about her words but has made light of it; her ‘slightly disconcerting’ moral views were, on one occasion, explained away as reflecting the influence of Ovid's Amores.21 In our production of the play, the actress who played Luciana became more and more uneasy about her role during rehearsals, and gradually the evasive ambiguity of Luciana's character emerged. Her advice is indeed difficult to account for: she suggests to the supposed husband of her sister that he should betray her by ‘stealth’ (III, ii, 7). The advice she gives here corresponds exactly to that of Folly in Erasmus's Praise of Folly on achieving peace in marriage: ‘Goodness me, what divorces or worse than divorces there would be everywhere if the domestic relations of man and wife were not propped up and sustained by the flattery, joking, complaisance, illusions, and deceptions provided by my followers!’22 Luciana, as we have seen in an earlier context, is herself a typically Lucianic character who, in advising her partner to be foolish-wise, reveals her own folly because she mistakes Antipholus S for her brother-in-law. At the end of the situation she is prepared to ask her sister for her ‘good will’ (70). For what? one must ask. Even for a present-day audience with their much more liberal moral standards, Luciana's views are rather daring. It is therefore all the more difficult to understand that critics have been ‘caught’ by the poetry of this love situation and have even claimed that the purpose of the scene is to enable Antipholus to find a new identity in Luciana.23

It is important for a more profound understanding of Errors to see that here, in contrast to later comedies, especially Twelfth Night, a young man does not find his identity in his love for a woman or in the love for a female partner together with the friendship with a male friend. Errors is solely concerned with a young man's search for his social integration in his family and especially for his male counterpart. Finding each other, the twins become a symbol of male friendship because they best embody the way in which true friendship is defined by classical authors, above all by Cicero as well as by Renaissance humanists.24 Love between friends is seen as an attraction between two similar minds, between two people of similar qualities and feelings, so that the friend is considered as the alter ego, the ‘other I’, as Sir Thomas Elyot directly translates it.25 Antipholus finds himself by transcending himself through his love for his twin. The Duke hints at this by using a word with particularly classical and humanist connotations: when he sees the twins together, he observes that ‘one […] is genius to the other’ (V, i, 332). The implications of this term have not been fully recognized; it is not just that the one is the ‘attendant spirit’26 of the other; the term ‘genius’ also meant the personification of the higher self to which one aspires.27

Antipholus S wants to find his mother and in particular his brother in order to discover who he is himself. Adelman was on the right track when she claimed that ‘the love plot exists largely to add to the confusions of identity’28 except that there is in fact no love plot, but just one scene; thereafter, the motif of courtship is dropped. In the final situation the idea of Luciana and Antipholus becoming a couple is only very vaguely hinted at and does no more than serve a convention. What we do see is that Antipholus, while he is alone on stage, suddenly realizes that he has been on the point of abandoning his essential task, his quest for his twin as his alter ego. As a consequence, he immediately revokes his behaviour towards Luciana; it appears to him that he was about to commit a serious mistake by succumbing to the charms of a ‘mermaid’ (163). He says that her ‘enchanting presence and discourse, / Hath almost made me traitor to myself’ (160f.). The word ‘traitor’ in Shakespeare has to be taken very seriously; we are by no means justified in passing over it lightly. The sentence suggests nothing less than that Antipholus, by being ‘seduced’ by Luciana's charms, almost gave up his quest for his brother and thus, implicitly, for his real self, too. Just as he thinks that he has met a ‘witch’ (143), so Antipholus in retrospect thinks that he was enchanted by witches. Antipholus, in his rapture, asks Luciana to ‘transform’ him (40), while Dromio believes that he was ‘transformed’ by the ‘witch’ Nell (145). Karen Newman thus comes very near the truth when she states that ‘Words such as dote, siren, mermaid and the like seriously undermine a wholly positive interpretation of the twin's love at this point.’29 Indeed, Shakespeare here deliberately inserts references to the Odyssey, as Ralph Berry has recently observed.30 When Antipholus stops his ears ‘against the mermaid's song’ (III, ii, 163), he has the Calypso episode of Book XII in mind. As Ulysses later encounters Circe, so Antipholus next meets the Courtesan whom he thinks to be another siren. The last direct allusion to the Odyssey occurs immediately before the situation of anagnorisis, when the Duke says of the total confusion: ‘I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup’ (V, i, 271).

However, Antipholus, although he has become aware of the powers which, as he thinks, are distracting him from his quest, nevertheless loses himself ever more deeply in a labyrinth of confusions. The same happens to his brother; he has first to taste the fear of being murdered and to approach the verge of insanity before he finally finds himself through the recognition of his brother. By means of Adriana's subtle name, which, as we have seen, is a variant of Ariadne, Shakespeare alludes to the famous Renaissance (and particularly mannerist31) concept of the labyrinth and opens up a further mythological perspective. These mythological associations provide the play with a universal, symbolic significance. At the same time the critical view of Adriana is reinforced: she does not possess the perfection of Ariadne, and consequently, rather than helping her husband out of the labyrinth, she in fact causes him—and indirectly his twin brother, too—to become more and more entangled in a maze.

To a Renaissance audience the problem of the confusing and transforming of identities was not, however, confined to the world of poetry or mythology; it could become a fact in real life too, and we find it even in the guise of a practical joke. There is an Italian anecdote according to which the famous Brunelleschi once tried to convince a fat carpenter that he had changed into another person, a certain Matteo. Some of Brunelleschi's friends, including Donatello, who were present, all ‘confirmed’ to the poor carpenter that he had become Matteo until he finally believed it and asked himself: ‘What shall I do now, since that I have become Matteo?’32 In a superstitious age, the carpenter has become the victim of his own credulity.

Here Shakespeare's Errors reveals, as it were, an additional level of meaning. Because of his own prejudiced credulity, Antipholus S interprets all the hindrances on his quest as dangerous ‘mermaids’ and ‘sirens’. His brother, too, is almost ruined by the Ephesian belief in witchcraft. Shakespeare not only makes a laughing-stock of exorcism, but he is also concerned about the inhuman effects which may arise from superstition. Just as Antipholus E is taken to be possessed, just as the Courtesan and the other women are taken to be witches, so in Elizabethan everyday reality innocent men and women were condemned as real witches. In both cases the same mechanism of misinterpreting ‘reality’ through a prejudiced imagination is at work. It seems to me that we have not considered seriously enough the fact that, on one level of meaning, Errors also reflects the witch craze, which reached a first climax in the last decades of the 16th century.33Errors is written in the same spirit as Erasmus's and Lucian's fight against superstition and exorcism, against the blinding of man's reason by foolish credulity. Shakespeare's intention can in particular be compared to that of Erasmus in his Colloquy Exorcismus sive Spectrum and of Lucian in his Philopseudes, which we examined in the previous chapter. The play, narrated in the Erasmian dialogue, shows a character who is made a dupe, and as a result suffers such ill effects that he ‘would have been close to real insanity, had not relief come through a quick cure.’34 Erasmus tries to show that calling a person a witch or considering someone to be possessed by a demon is not merely a matter of human misjudgement, but may even, as in the case of Shakespeare's Antipholus E, destroy the victim's very identity.

There is, then, even a satirical level in the complex play of Shakespeare's Errors. All the major characters are made fools of because they are deceived into accepting appearance for reality. We have already seen that even Luciana is satirized as a fool because she is totally mistaken about the real identity of the traveller Antipholus, and he in turn becomes a fool when he allows himself to be ruled by the common prejudice against Ephesus and sees witches in all the women he meets. When, towards the end of the great second scene of Act II, he decides to act the man all the others take him for: ‘I'll say as they say and persever so, / And in this mist at all adventures go’, then this counsel might easily have been suggested to him by Erasmus's Folly.35 And then there is the critical light cast on Adriana's problematic relationship with her husband and the way in which the Abbess tries to cure it. Let us recall that in Menaechmi the theme of routine in marriage and the problems arising from it are also articulated, and Menaechmus is seen to struggle for freedom until finally the game of the auction is announced; yet these problems are simply mentioned as the cause of a turbulent action, and no attempts are made to overcome them. In Errors, the Abbess tries to correct Adriana's exaggerated jealousy, which is a clear symptom of her possessiveness. As we have seen, even Shakespeare's early comedy is, among other things, ‘corrective comedy’.36

This corrective aspect is already fully developed in New Comedy. For example, in the Menandrian play Perikeiromene the jealousy of a character is exposed to laughter.37 The comedy of Menander is concerned with a right sense of values and with the ‘educational problem’ to propagate these values in a play which does not totally dispose of satire.38 Although Menander's plays were unknown in the Renaissance, there was a collection of his moral sentences which Erasmus frequently quoted.39 ‘Error’ in New Comedy is, then, not only a matter of identities being concealed by disguise, and confusions resulting from deceit or the vicissitudes of life; it also implies misguided attitudes towards life or towards one's inner self. As early as the comedies of Menander we find the admonition of … by the Delphic Apollo.40 The dramatic process of Menandrian comedy from agnoia to knowledge also comprises the losing and finding of one's self, the achieving of self-knowledge. Although Shakespeare can have had only a vague notion of Menandrian comedy, he nevertheless became familiar with practically all the dramaturgic and thematic possibilities which this tradition had to offer because, as we have seen, some of Plautus's comedies have faithfully preserved Menander's comic dramaturgy. In some plays of Plautus too, the problem of identity is made dramatic use of, as in Miles Gloriosus (169). In Menaechmi we have the quest of Menaechmus S for his alter ego; ‘he knows in some fashion that his own true identity is dependent upon the discovery of his brother’,41 yet in this play, the problem is entirely made subservient to the achieving of comic effects. However, in Amphitruo, this theme is treated in a much more profound way. Here the loss of identity brings the human characters on the verge of tragedy, and comic as well as tragic emotions are released in a ‘tragicomoedia’, which has now been recognized as Plautus's original creation.

It is, I think, Shakespeare's greatest triumph in Errors that he fulfils the ‘educational’ task of comedy by brilliantly combining the Menaechmi with the Amphitruo. The latter play, almost more than Menaechmi, inspired him to write his own ‘classical’ comedy about identity without ever becoming didactic in a non-dramatic sense. In his mixing of tragic and comic emotions he went far beyond Amphitruo and he, too, for the first time, experimented with the possibilities of tragicomedy.42

Since Errors is a most accomplished achievement, it is improbable that it is a very early play or even Shakespeare's very first comedy. He obviously completed his Errors under the fresh impact of William Warner's translation of Menaechmi, although Shakespeare also worked with the Latin text of the play.43 If Errors will not have originated before 1594, it becomes possible and even likely that it was specially written for Gray's Inn, where it was performed on December 28, 1594. It is tempting to speculate here a little and to assume that there might have been an additional reason for the connection between Errors and Gray's Inn. In 1594 Shakespeare dedicated his Rape of Lucrece, an epic poem based on a classical myth, to Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, who is possibly the male friend to whom Shakespeare also dedicated his Sonnets.44 It may well be that Henry Wriothesley, who had been a student of Gray's Inn, requested Shakespeare to write a ‘classical’ comedy for ‘his’ Inn.

It is particularly remarkable that there is a close thematic connection between Errors and the Sonnets (which, in the view of modern scholarship, were also written in the first half of the nineties).45 First, some very unusual phrases are to be found in both works. Adriana reminds her supposed husband that her body is ‘consecrate to thee’ (II, ii, 132); similarly, in sonnet LXXIV the speaker assures his friend that his life was ‘consecreate to thee’ (6). Adriana complains to her sister that she ‘at home starves for a merry look’ (II, i, 88), while in sonnet LXXV the speaker speaks of himself as ‘clean starved for a look’ (10). Most of the parallels, however, are between Antipholus S and some of the sonnets. In his dialogue with Luciana his language reminds us not only of the Elizabethan love lyric in general, but particularly of Shakespeare's sonnets; yet, interestingly enough, of those addressed to his male friend. When he declares his ‘love’ to Luciana, he says that he is calling her ‘love’ because ‘It is thyself, mine own self's better part’ (III, ii, 61); in a similar way, the speaker of sonnet LXXIV assures his male friend that ‘My spirit is thine, the better part of me’. (8). In these sonnets to the male friend the speaker expresses the idea that he finds his identity because it is revealed to him in his male partner as in a mirror, and that it is by him that he becomes capable of conquering his ‘sin of self-love’, as in Sonnet LXII:

Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye,
And all my soul, and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.
Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account,
And for myself mine own worth do define,
As I all other in all worths surmount.
But when my glass shows me myself indeed,
Beated and chopp'd with tann'd antiquity,
Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;
Self so self-loving were iniquity.
          ’Tis thee (myself) that for myself I praise,
          Painting my age with beauty of thy days.

As we know, it is this idea that lies behind Antipholus's quest for his brother, yet he commits the temporary ‘error’ (a leitmotif in the Sonnets, too) of looking for ‘his glass’ in an unknown woman, before finding it by the recognition of his male twin. This theme is subtly and beautifully echoed in the play's coda, where Dromio E addresses his twin as ‘my glass, and not my brother’ (V, i, 417), because he is able to see his own image in his brother.

Shakespeare has been blamed for increasing the improbability of the confusions by doubling the twins; nevertheless, he has admirably succeeded in achieving credibility, a quality which the humanists demanded from art. In a sense, it could be maintained that with his Errors Shakespeare created a kind of Utopia through art, a concept so dear to the humanists: in this utopian world it becomes possible for an impending tragedy—Egeon awaiting his execution and Antipholus E about to lose his identity—to be averted at the last moment and for four twins and two parents to be reunited on one and the same occasion. This relatively early play seems to anticipate the intrinsic utopian quality of all great art, which Shakespeare then realizes in much more complex ways in his mature and late plays.

It should have become clear from our close comparison between the Roman and the Elizabethan comic playwrights that Shakespeare's greatness is by no means diminished through the recognition of how he was familiar with the art of Plautus and its humanist reception. Only a superficial view of his achievement could lead one to say, as a recent critic has done, that Shakespeare's drama is lacking in greatness because by its concern with moral ‘wholesomeness’ it loses the quality of ‘fantasy’46, of presenting the world upsidedown and defamiliarizing the familiar. Quite the contrary is true. It is this very quality of fantasy47 which manifests itself in Shakespeare's almost incredible intensification and transformation of the New Comedy tradition. It is critics who have tried to make Shakespeare more morally ‘wholesome’ than he really is: we have seen in Errors elements of an antique ‘paganism’ to which we should not be blinded by the recognition of the play's general moral soundness. And the familiar world could scarcely be more completely defamiliarized than it is in this ‘classical’ play. In his process of transformation Shakespeare reaches into the deep recesses of human existence, and even Errors, which has so often been considered as a mere farce, becomes a document of his inexhaustible richness.


  1. H. F. Brooks, ‘Themes and Structure in “The Comedy of Errors”’, in: Early Shakespeare (London, 1967), p. 67.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Cf. especially A. F. Kinney, ‘Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and the Nature of Kinds’, Studies in Philology, 85 (1988), 29-52.

  4. Kinney, op. cit., p. 47-48.

  5. Kinney, op. cit., p. 32.

  6. Cf. the recent study by M. Knapp and M. Kobialka, ‘Shakespeare and the Prince of Purpoole: The 1594 Production of The Comedy of Errors at Gray's Inn Hall’, Theatre History Studies, 4 (1984), 71-82.

  7. This argument is contained in most interpretations of Errors.

  8. Cf., for example, S. M. Goldberg, The Making of Menander's Comedy (London, 1980), p. 1ff., and [L.] Salingar, [Shakespeare and the] Traditions of Comedy, [(Cambridge, 1975),] p. 105.

  9. For a Marxist interpretation cf. A. Schlösser, ‘Das Motiv der Entfremdung in der Komödie der Irrungen’, Shakespeare Jahrbuch, 100/1 (1964/5), 57-71.

  10. Cf. Cicero, De Re Publica, e.g., II, 14 (27); Seneca, De Clementia. On the opposition between law and the Church as discussed at the Inns of Court, cf. W. R. Prest, The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts 1590-1640 (Totowa, New Jersey, 1972), p. 209. I fail to see the ‘Christianity’ and ‘inner life’ of which A. Barton speaks (The Riverside Shakespeare, [ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974),] p. 81).

  11. B. Freedman, ‘Egeon's Debt: Self-Division and Self-Redemption in The Comedy of Errors’, English Literary History, 10 (1980), 379.

  12. This has been rightly observed by D. Haberman, ‘Menaechmi: A Serious Comedy’, Ramus, 10 (1981), 136.

  13. I am inclined to assume with Foakes that the Folio line ‘After so long grief, such Natiuitie’ (V, 406) erroneously repeats the term ‘nativity’ from two lines above and that Hanmer's emendation to ‘felicity’ is convincing and even brilliant. ‘Felicity’ is the appropriate and expected contrast to grief: ‘After so long grief, such felicity’; ‘felicity’ is even preferable to ‘festivity’, yet not ‘only because it does not simply echo the word “feast”, ll. 405 and 407’ ([R. A.] Foakes [ed. The Comedy of Errors, New Arden Ed. [London, 1962]]), but because ‘felicity’ is an eminently characteristic humanist term, which not only occurs frequently in English humanist drama; it also occupies a central position in a work like Thomas Morus's Utopia, where it expresses the final stage of human well-being, which Man achieves if he lives in harmony with himself and if he enjoys the support of human solidarity (Utopia and a Dialogue of Comfort, ed. J. Warrington [London, 21951] p. 39.

  14. Cf. W. Babula, ‘If I dream not: Unity in “The Comedy of Errors”’, South Atlantic Bulletin, 38 (1973), 26-33.

  15. Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, Introduction to Man of Law's Tale, 80ff.

  16. R. Berry, Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience [(London, 1985)], p. 40.

  17. This has been overlooked by J. L. Sanderson, ‘Patience in The Comedy of Errors’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 16 (1975), 610.

  18. Tillyard, for example, called her ‘worldly wise’ (The Nature of Comedy and Shakespeare, The English Association, Presidential Address 1958 [Oxford, 1958], p. 8).

  19. Freedman, op. cit., p. 380.

  20. B.O. Bonazza, Shakespeare's Early Comedies. A Structural Analysis (London, 1966), p. 42.

  21. S. Wells, ed. The Comedy of Errors [(Harmondsworth, 1972)], p. 27, 153.

  22. The Praise of Folly, transl. B. Radice, in: Collected Works of Erasmus, 27. Literary and Educational Writings, 5, p. 97 (italics mine).

  23. Cf., for example, Foakes, op. cit., p. xliii.

  24. Cicero, De Amicitia, ed. W. A. Falconer (London/Cambridge, Mass., 1964), p. 160: ‘nihil esse quod ad se rem ullam tam illiciat et tam trahat quam ad amicitiam similitudo.’ On this idea in Erasmus cf. his Adagia transl. M. Mann Phillips (‘Simile gaudet simili’), Collected Works of Erasmus, 31 (Toronto, 1982), p. 167f., and especially De Ratione Studii, transl. B. McGregor in: Collected Works of Erasmus, 24, Literary and Educational Writings 2: ‘Friendship can exist only among similar people, for similarity promotes mutual good will, while dissimilarity on the other hand is the parent of hatred and distrust […] the greater, the truer, the more deeply rooted the similarity, the firmer and closer will be the friendship.’ (p. 683-4); ‘The deepest form of love coincides with the deepest resemblance […] each is drawn to nothing other than his own character as reflected in another person, that is, to himself in another form.’ (p. 686).

  25. The Book Named the Governor (London, 1962), p. 134.

  26. Foakes, op. cit., p. 103, n.332.

  27. On the significance of ‘genius’ cf. D. T. Starnes, ‘The Figure Genius in the Renaissance’, Studies in the Renaissance, 11 (1964), 234-244.

  28. J. Adelman, ‘Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies’, in: Shakespeare's Rough Magic, ed. P. Erickson and C. Kahn (Newark/London/Toronto, 1985), p. 75.

  29. K. Newman, Shakespeare's Rhetoric of Comic Character (New York/London, 1985), p. 143, n. 10.

  30. R. Berry, Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience, p. 32-33.

  31. Although Shakespeare's art greatly excels mannerism, there are some interesting points of contact which have been discussed in a number of publications; cf. e.g. A. Hauser, Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art (London, 1965).

  32. Quoted in P. Burke, Die Renaissance in Italien (München, 1988), p. 230.

  33. This claim has also been made by T. Hawkes, ‘Shakespeare and new critical approaches’, in: The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. S. Wells (Cambridge, 1986), p. 297.

  34. The Colloquies of Erasmus, transl. by C. R. Thompson (Chicago, London, 1965), p. 230-237.

  35. ‘A man's conduct is misplaced if he doesn't adapt himself to things as they are, has no eye for the main chance […] and asks for the play to stop being a play.’ (The Praise of Folly, op. cit., p. 103).

  36. This point has also been made by S. Wells, The Comedy of Errors, p. 28.

  37. Perikeiromene in Menander, ed., N. Miller (London, 1987), p. 113f.; cf. Sandbach, The Comic Theatre of Greece and Rome (London, 1977), p. 81. Jealousy is also attacked by Lucian, e.g. in his Charon, or The Inspectors in: Lucian, ed. A. M. Harmon, II,429.

  38. Cf. T. B. L. Webster, Studies in Menander (Manchester, 21960), p. 116f.

  39. Cf. J. C. Margolin in: Opera Omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami (Amsterdam, 1917), I,ii,115, n.11.

  40. Cf. Daos in Aspis, Menander, ed. W. G. Arnott (Cambridge, Mass./London, 1979), p. 35.

  41. Haberman, op. cit., p. 133.

  42. If Shakespeare opens his comedy with a tragic scene, so does Menander in his Aspis. There, too, the audience are first confronted with the narration of the tragic event. The slave Daos reports that the shield which he has brought back from battle has not saved his master from a tragic fate; then he narrates in detail the battle in which he believes his master to have died, and tragic emotions are released. But then suddenly the stage is cleared and Tyche appears, telling the audience that Daos and the others have been deceived into believing that the owner of the shield is dead; since he is in fact still alive, the comedy can take its course. The difference between Menander's and Shakespeare's opening is important: whereas in Aspis the tragic beginning gives way to an entirely comic development of the plot, in Errors comic and potentially tragic developments run parallel, or rather they appear as either comic or tragic according to the perspective from which they are viewed.

  43. For a further argument that Errors may have originated in 1594, cf. K. Tetzeli v. Rosador, ‘A Suggestion for Dating The Comedy of Errors’, Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen and Literaturen 217 (1980), 347-49.

  44. On Shakespeare's Patron cf. C. Carmichael Stopes, The Life of Henry, Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's Patron (Cambridge, 1922).

  45. Cf. on this problem L. Fiedler, ‘Some Contexts of Shakespeare's Sonnets’, in E. Hubler, The Riddle of Shakespeare's Sonnets (New York, 1962), p. 52-90; W. T. McCary, ‘The Comedy of Errors: A Different Kind of Comedy’, New Literary History, 9 (1977/8), 525-536; M. Krieger, A Window to Criticism. Shakespeare's Sonnets and Modern Poetics (Princeton, 1964), p. 86f.

  46. G. Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare. A Cultural History, From the Restoration to the Present (London, 1989), p. 395-404.

  47. Cf., for example, A. Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London, 1973), p. 18, and R. Berry, Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience, p. 37.

Ralph Berry (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “The Comedy of Errors: The Subliminal Narrative,” in Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience, Macmillan Press, 1985, pp. 30-45.

[In the essay below, Berry argues that the focus of The Comedy of Errors on “the archetypal experience of wandering, loss and rediscovery” reveals its origins in Greek drama.]

To see The Comedy of Errors as the first of the final romances is no great paradox of vision. It is true that commentators used always to stress the Plautine, and thus the farcical nature of the play. For most of them, The Comedy of Errors was in the first instance an adaptation of Plautus's Menaechmi, and one took it on from there. But the archaic and primitive elements of the play are now more visible than in the past. Northrop Frye points to its dark underside, “which brings the feeling of the play closer to the night world of Apuleius than to Plautus”.1 Such a perception makes the play more of a comedy, less of a farce. Moreover, the romances are now thought of as a vital and ultimately defining area of the canon, to an extent which would not have been conceded a generation ago; so there is a disposition to admit The Comedy of Errors as an anticipation, not merely an experiment. Manifestly, the play works towards the experience of reconciliation and discovered identity, anticipating the drift of the romances. That can be taken for granted. I want here to look at some ways in which this curiously layered play organizes our experience. The most helpful commentary on its provenance, for my purposes, is Anne Barton's:

Behind the Menaechmi, as behind all the plays of Plautus, lay a Greek original now lost. Mistaken identity and the recovery of lost children seem to have been almost obsessive preoccupations of the New Comedy written by Menander and his contemporaries towards the end of the 4th century b.c. A response, probably, to the political chaos of a Hellenistic world that was filled with displaced persons, where children were often ‘lost’ by parents too poor or too distracted to cope with them at the time of their birth.2

If one substitutes “under” for “behind”, the metaphor becomes more pointed. Under the Roman play is a Greek play; under the Greek play is an action so vaguely apprehensible as to merit only “pre-Hellenistic”, the archetypal experience of wandering, loss and rediscovery. The lost Greek original silts down on to a folk memory. This has little to do with “sources”, as conventionally understood.3The Comedy of Errors is a palimpsest, not of composition, but of experience.


Aegeon is the framing definition of the experience, and of its cultural pointers. He is the Wanderer. He tells of tempest, ship-wreck, the parting of family, loss, quest:

Five summers have I spent in furthest Greece,
Roaming clean through the bounds of Asia.

(I. i. 133-4)

Aegeon's account has diverse resonances, part literary, part pure folk memory. The immediate possibility is the parallel with Aeneas's wanderings. At the beginning of Aegeon's prolonged recital of woe comes

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.

(I.i. 32-6)

First noted by Theobald, this seems an audible echo of Aeneas's address to Dido, and it is meant I think to be picked up. It is not simply that there is a repetition of situation—the ruler commands the wanderer to speak—and substance, Aegeon's first two lines corresponding to the general sense of Aeneas's

infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentibile regnum
eruerint Danai, quaeque ipse miserrima vidi.

(Aeneid, II. 3-5)4

It is rather that the whole expressive unit founds itself on “unspeakable: Yet …”, repeating the Virgilian device, in which, after a brief intermediary passage—one waits for the “sed”—it comes in

sed si tantus amor casus cognoscere nostros
et breviter Troiae supremum audire laborem,
quamquam animus meminisse horret luctuque refugit,


and Book II is under way. “Infandum … sed … incipiam” translates closely into “Unspeakable: / Yet … I'll utter”, and the authorities are satisfied that the imitation is conscious.5 The basis for the scholarly consensus is research into the grammar school fondness for the first six books of the Aeneid, as much as the verbal parallels. I should myself hazard that Shakespeare is tapping a shared English experience of much of the audience, the acquaintance with certain books of the Aeneid at school. The incorrigible conservatism of the English grammar school is such that anyone studying Latin in the Fifth form today is likely enough to be reading Book II of the Aeneid—as Shakespeare, if he went to Stratford Grammar School, did.6 At all events, we can think of the layer of reference here as Roman, or more accurately Latin.

Scholars like to deal with the Latin aspect, because it involves the objective certainties of Renaissance education and textbook adoption. The Greek aspect is much less stressed, because there is apparently much less there to stress. Jonson's (and Baldwin's) phrase, “Shakespeare's small Latine and less Greeke” says it all. Yet it is clear that Odyssean themes are strong in the romances.

Both Homer and Shakespeare weave in a great deal of marvel, risk and triumphant adventures into their tales, use a plot about a wandering journey towards home filled with incidents of shipwreck and loss, stress a mingling of blessings and sorrows in the lives of their protagonists, and end their romances with a final reunion scene in which husband and wife, father and child, ruler and kingdom are reunited.7

From this angle alone it is reasonable to take Aegeon as “an early anticipation of this type of wandering figure”.8 In fact, a Homeric parallel surfaces in The Comedy of Errors, for there are passages that hint broadly at Book XI of the Odyssey, and the transformation of the mariners into animals. The idea is well launched in

Dromio S. This is the fairy
land; O spite of spites!
We talk with goblins, owls and sprites:
If we obey them not, this will ensue,
They'll suck our breath or pinch us black and blue.
Luciana Why prat'st thou to
thyself and answer'st not?
Dromio, thou drone, thou snail, thou slug, thou sot!
Dromio S. I am transformed, master,
am I not?
Antipholus S. I think thou art in
mind, and so am I.
Dromio S. Nay, master, both in mind
and in my shape.
Antipholus S. Thou hast thine own
Dromio S. No, I am an ape.
Luciana If thou art chang'd
to aught, 'tis to an ass.
Dromio S. 'Tis true; she rides
me, and I long for grass.
'Tis so, I am an ass.

(II. ii. 188-200)

The Odysseus figure, Aegeon in the opening scene, becomes by easy transference Antipholus of Syracuse: “I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song” (III. ii. 163). And the allusion is made formal by the Duke, who exclaims “I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup” (V. i. 270).9 There is a running parallel between The Comedy of Errors and the Odyssey. The Aeneid and the Odyssey, then, symbolize layers of experience here. The vertical structure of allusions is a metaphor for the psychic layers to which the play appeals.


Roman on Greek: that is our code for the opening. The allusions, conscious or subliminal, to the Aeneid and the Odyssey conduct us into the play world. It is Hellenistic, archaic, romantic. “For Shakespeare”, says Bullough, “romance was mainly of the Mediterranean.”10 The local associations of Ephesus would also mean something to the Elizabethans. They thought of it as a great seaport, renowned for its Temple of Diana. St Paul stayed there for two years.11 Hence the audience would connect it with St Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, and its appeals for domestic unity. They would also remember that Ephesus was known for sorcerers and exorcists, and for St Paul's “curious acts”. The Biblical allusions help to establish the dark underside of this play. But these cultural referents are absorbed in the broad symbolism of the action and its background, with the atavistic appeal to collective memories of wandering and loss. Always at the back of the action is the sea, as great a presence here as in The Tempest. It is the sea that parts Aegeon and his family, that brings Antipholus of Syracuse to Ephesus, that calls him throughout. “For he is bound to sea, and stays but for it” (IV. i. 33). “Both wind and tide stays for this gentleman” (IV. i. 46). That sense of the sea—waiting, pulling, imperious—is strong in The Comedy of Errors. Not only is it a reminder, in its ebb and flow, of the mysterious forces that govern the individual, it is the image through which the individual defines himself:

Antipholus S. 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)

Adriana For know, my love,
as easy may'st thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf
And take unmingled thence that drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.

(II. ii. 124-8)

It is another version of the theatre experience, with the audience (see Chapter 1) the sea. Both Antipholus and Adriana find in the sea the deepest formulas for human identity. It is a symbol that transcends cultural allusion.

In fact, this play constantly reaches towards the universal. If Measure for Measure is the most Freudian play in the canon, The Comedy of Errors is the most Jungian. It is rooted in the collective subconscious, and archetypes of enduring power are presented. The plot itself is a playful rendering of the hostile brother motif, a theme which as Aronson points out recurs often in Shakespeare.12 Here, the brothers are unwitting not hostile; it is only through ignorance that Antipholus of Syracuse intrudes upon his brother's domain. The Syracusan appears, archetypally, to be the “younger” brother; he is defensive, apprehensive, easily daunted (but luckier, for all that). His enduring impulse, when confronted with difficulties, is to take to the boats (“I long that we were safe and sound aboard”, IV. iv. 150), while the “elder” brother is passionate, overbearing, a fighter. This mutuality of temperament is a part of the psychic integration of the play. Then again, Luciana provides perhaps the clearest statement in Shakespeare of the anima archetype.

Antopholus S. It is thyself,
mine own self's better part,
Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer heart,
My food, my fortune, and my sweet hope's aim,
My sole earth's heaven, and my heaven's claim.

(II. ii. 61-4)

She, for Antipholus, is “the embodiment of this omnipresent and ageless image [of woman] which corresponds to the deepest reality in man”.13 The final transformation of the anima is the Abbess, who also combines the functions of Great Mother and Wise Old Man. In the end, the Syracuse merchant attains his “heaven's claim”, too. The archetypes, to which I shall return later, are the inner substance of this drama. The archaic is simply the period costume of the universal.


Let us turn to the general experience of the opening scene. Its narrative is, as Northrop Frye says, “a sophisticated, if sympathetic treatment of a structural cliché”.14 The hieratic solemnity of the opening has the decorum of tragedy:

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

(I. i. 1-2)

The speaker—and thus, at this moment of supreme weight, the play—invites the Duke to define the experience as tragic. He, for 23 lines, appears to pronounce the verdict of tragedy. Yet there are hints of unwillingness to complete the definition. “I am not partial to infringe our laws” begins to sketch an apology; he explains at length that the Syracusans and Ephesans have similar edicts; he indicates that a heavy fine would suffice, but that Aegeon's property is only a tenth part. He draws the only available conclusion, “Therefore by law thou art condemn'd to die.” The Law says, in effect, “what else can we do?” It is not the brutal imposition of iron statute that the more literal-minded commentators imagine. So, when Aegeon hopelessly acquiesces,

Yet this my comfort; when your words are done,
My woes end likewise with the evening sun.


the Duke, somewhat uneasily, invites Aegeon to keep the conversation going; something might turn up.

Well, Syracusan, say in brief the cause
Why thou departed'st from thy native home,
And for what cause thou cam'st to Ephesus.


The play now changes, for all its dramatic energies are concentrated upon Aegeon. The prisoner transforms the court. As narrator, he takes over; he holds the audience in a spell. It is a display of magic, the power of the story-teller. In performance it is not to be sabotaged by the director.15 Length here is not tedium, but the evocation of a primitive experience, the submission of an audience to the teller's capacity to create a world (cf. Sheherezade). Its immediate consequence is a shift in roles for Aegeon and the Duke. Prisoner and judge become story-teller and audience; hence Solinus becomes a suppliant:

Do me the favour to dilate
at full
What have befall'n of them and thee till now.


His next speech is openly apologetic, “Now trust me, were it not against our laws … My soul should sue as advocate for thee” (142, 145). The power of the teller has already wrought against the framing definition, tragedy. There are hints in the main narrative, too: “happy but for me, / And by me, had not our hap been bad … Was carried towards Corinth, as we thought … By fishermen of Corinth, as we thought” (37-8, 87, 111). The actor is entitled to glean some laughs from the repeated “as we thought”: he is obeying the larger instructions of the script, and “as we thought” is a pointer towards the whole.16 Having proposed itself as tragedy, the play converts into an intimation and promise of comedy. The narrator, defying the logic of therefore by law, wills the marvellous, the death-suspended, the comic, and the audience assents to the logic. The “law” will yield to a yet stronger force.

This force manifests itself through fantasy. The Comedy of Errors is organized along two lines of psychic advance. One is that of erotic promise, unbelievable good fortune, discovered identity, the fulfilment of all one's desires. The other is that of loss, shattered identity, pain. The first line is stronger, and its triumph never really in doubt. The second is always present, often uppermost, at all times shadowing the experience of cast and audience. Threat and promise make up the fantasies of this play, and we ought to catch at their blurred shapes.


Antipholus of Syracuse has the largest speaking part, and channels much of the play's experience. His character-note is longing, a yearning for fulfilment in relationship; and the refused dinner-invitation leads to

Farewell till then. I will go lose myself,
And wander up and down to view the city.

(I. ii. 30-1)

For him the action is compounded of vague threats:

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)

and allure:

To me she speaks; she moves me for her theme.
What, 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?
Until I know this sure uncertainty,
I'll entertain the offer'd fallacy.

(II. ii. 180-5)

The fear, be it noted, is of foreigners. The archetypal challenge to self comes from strangers. Equally, the invitation comes from the exotic, the alluringly strange. So, through the curtain of doubts:

Dromio S. This is the fairy
land. O spite of spites!
We talk with goblins, owls, and sprites:

(II. ii. 188-9)

and his own confusions:

Antipholus S. Am I in earth,
in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advis'd?

(II. ii. 211-12)

Antipholus goes into the house:

I’ll say as they say, and persever so,
And in this mist at all adventures go.

(II. ii. 214-15)

The echoes are of a fairy world. There is the house, there is the fair witch, offering whatever inducement of gingerbread or blandishment that can tempt the hero—or victim. Antipholus, a little o'erparted with the hero-role, quakes: but enters.

The play now enters III. i. upon its most intense and symbolically resonant phase, for it becomes the experience of Antipholus of Ephesus, shut out from his own home. The situation is enduringly fascinating: modern folklore abounds with tales of people who slip out of their apartment for a moment, usually in déshabillé, and find themselves locked out with alarming consequences. No doubt some of the anecdotes are true, but the market is larger than the instances. Antipholus of Ephesus, rooted in the reality of his calling and on his home territory, sees the world transformed. The familiar marks crumble. Moreover, behind the obvious shock of exclusion, there is a profoundly disturbing sexual threat, one which commentators habitually ignore.

Act III, scene i, as all agree, is based on Plautus's Amphitruo. It was a popular grammar school text, and Baldwin thinks that Shakespeare read the Latin original in the fourth form.17 In the Plautine original, Amphitrion is shut out of his house, while Jupiter makes love to his wife Alcmena. Plautus dramatizes a primal fear. And a section of Shakespeare's audience would recognize the Plautine source. But the remainder of the audience would in any case receive the impression of sexual congress behind locked doors, which the play creates in its own right. The previous scene has ended on a note most favourable for Antipholus of Syracuse: Adriana is clearly in a mood to charm her husband, and is insistent that they are not to be disturbed:

Come, sir, to dinner. Dromio, keep the gate.
Husband, I'll dine above with you today
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.
Come, sister. Dromio, play the porter well.

(II. ii. 205-10)

The audience is now to be teased with a sexual fantasy.

It is confirmed in the heavy verbal underlining of III. i. There's an easy bawdry in

Dromio E. Let my master in,
Luce Faith, no; he comes too late … 
Dromio E. Have at you with a proverb:
Shall I set in my staff?

(49, 51)18

If Antipholus of Ephesus does not realize the appalling implications of his “Are you there, wife? You might have come before” (63), the Elizabethan audience will help him out. Dromio adds to the effect with “Your cake here is warm within” (71), “cake” being “woman”,19 and his next line, “It would make a man mad as a buck to be so bought and sold” presents his master as a male deer in rutting season, and a cuckold. The worst, so the audience is led to suppose, has happened. Antipholus thinks it too, and evidently plans a sexual revenge with the co-operation of the Courtesan:

I know a wench of excellent discourse,
Pretty and witty, wild, and yet, too, gentle,
There will we dine. This woman that I mean,
My wife—but, I protest, without desert—
Hath oftentimes upbraided me withal.
To her will we for dinner … 
Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me,
I'll knock elsewhere, to see if they'll disdain me.

(109-14, 120-1)

“Knocking” is standard slang for sexual entry.20 But above all, the double-entendres and bawdry of the text stem from the stage symbolism itself: the house, perceived from earliest times as the coding for woman, and the knocking at the gates, the male attempts at entry. The symbolism is the more charged if the nature of the inner action is considered. What is held before the audience as a theatrical possibility is incest.

Incest takes up some space in the canon. The remarriage of Gertrude to Claudius is held to be incestuous, and the charge is repeated in Hamlet's final words to Claudius (“thou incestuous, damnèd Dane”). Father-daughter incest appears in Pericles. Though not named by Henry, the “incest” of his marriage to his brother's widow is the core of the discussion in Henry VIII, II. iv. The word is a metaphor for the relations of Isabella and Claudio (“Is't not a kind of incest, to take life / From thine own sister's shame”, Measure for Measure, III. i. 138-9), and a type of hypocrisy for Lear: “thou simular of virtue / That art incestuous” (King Lear, III. ii. 54-5). Lucrece has “Guilty of incest, that abomination” (The Rape of Lucrece, 921). Richard III plans to marry his niece. If one takes the canon as a giant exploration of human consciousness, incest, in several of its variant forms, is more than a marginal presence in that consciousness. Here in III. i., at the midpoint of The Comedy of Errors,21 incest is the compelling fantasy which is held before the audience as a likely reality. It is the dark centre of a play shot with fitful visions. Has it happened?

No, it has not. Act III, scene ii, takes the audience away from the vertiginous edge, and conducts it towards sanity and order. It rapidly becomes clear that the encounter between Adriana and Antipholus of Syracuse has been a fiasco. Luciana's first line tells all: “And may it be that you have quite forgot / A husband's office?” which is plain enough speaking. Luciana upbraids Antipholus for the disastrous dinner-party—here as earlier the play anticipates Macbeth—and Antipholus confirms matters with “Your weeping sister is no wife of mine” (42), by which time, if not earlier, the audience must be aware that Shakespeare has been trifling shamelessly with its sensibilities. The play now modulates into mere comic dalliance with incest, for Luciana believes herself to be courted by her brother-in-law (which we know not to be true). A final tease is to come, for the actress is entitled to garner all she can from Adriana's “Which of you two did dine with me today?” (V. i. 369). But that is Shakespeare the professional milking a situation dry. The real message, which is one of reassurance, has come earlier through numerous channels. And here we should pause to take in one of them, the suggestions that link the action with England.


There is no doubt of the archaic character of this play. But it overstates matters to assert that “Shakespeare draws away from everything that is local or specialized in the drama of his day.”22 A residue of dramatic material obstinately insists that The Comedy of Errors is played before an English audience around 1590. The inn references are clear enough; theatregoers know and love hostelries. The “Centaur” and “Tiger” have not yet been located, but the “Phoenix”, thrice mentioned, was the sign of a London tavern and of a shop in Lombard Street. It is referred to in the prologue of Jonson's The Staple of News.23 The “Porpentine”, mentioned five times, was the name of a Bankside inn; “Shakespeare's audience probably knew it well.”24 The inn references function as psychic stabilizers. Then, money. This play has no truck with drachmas. Guilders it is for the Second Merchant and for Solinus, who also speaks of marks. Marks touches off some wry levity with the Dromios. The coinage of the last two acts is ducats. It appears that “Many foreign coins were in continual circulation in England during Elizabeth's reign”,25 hence the coinage has a distinctly English, as well as Continental, reference. I do not know a more infallibly precise index to the nature of reality, throughout the canon, than money; and these guilders, marks and ducats figure the idea of the foreign at home which is basic to this play. They circulate happily with the honest sixpence, which turns up in the hand of Dromio of Ephesus. His brother takes charge of angels. And gold, of course, is much with us here: “universal, immutable, impartial” as de Gaulle observed. It is the true international currency of the mind.

Dromio's tour of modern Europe, focused on the symbolic geography of fat Nell (III. ii.), extends the audience's reassurance that all will be well. The theatrical point about topical references is that only a home-grown audience can get them. Whatever the precise meaning of “France … arm'd and reverted, making war against her heir” (III. ii. 122-4), the mental dimension of the passage is contemporary Europe, centred on England. Similarly, one makes jokes about Irish bogs and Scots barrenness from England. The comic lewdness of the passage defines its general import, a signal that the play is going to pull out of its baffling and vestigially frightening confusions.

England signifies reassurance. And this subliminal message has been sent even at the shock of III. i., the moment when Antipholus of Syracuse discovers that his own door is locked. Dromio, obeying his master's orders, shouts “Maud, Bridget, Marian, Cicely, Gillian, Ginn!” (31). Suddenly Roman, Greek, Biblical, Mediterranean cease to bear upon the dramatic experience. After all, we are back home. It is impossible to take seriously a setback in which we are excluded from Bridget and Maud. Typically of The Comedy of Errors, its playing with primal anxieties is accompanied by signals of primal comfort.


Even so, the later phases of The Comedy of Errors handle archetypes of serious and compelling authority. Much of Act IV is spun out of purgatory, or hell.

Dromio S. No, he's in
Tartar limbo, worse than hell,
A devil in an everlasting garment hath him … 
One that before the judgment carries poor souls to

(IV. ii. 32-3, 40)

Antipholus's “chain” (51) is in the logic of association the bondage of hell. There are hints of “redemption” (IV. ii. 46), and “Paradise” (IV. iii. 16), but the prevailing state is captivity, with “prison”, “sergeant” and “durance” the guiding terms. Deliverance is the ship, “the bark Expedition put forth tonight” (IV. iii. 37), which Antipholus of Syracuse, as in a dream, is unable to reach. Instead comes the Courtesan, “Mistress Satan … the devil's dam” (IV. iii. 48-50), to frighten Dromio of Syracuse. Hell, however comically rendered, is the motif of Act IV. It is a nightmare, a bondage from which the captive actors struggle to be free.

Hence, in the symbolic logic of the drama, hell modulates into devil and then into possession, which in turn yields to a ritual of exorcisement:

Dr Pinch I charge thee, Satan,
hous'd within this man,
To yield possession to my holy prayers
And to thy state of darkness hie thee straight!
I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven!

(IV. iv. 54-7)

Hell having been redefined as possession, the way is open for Act V's line of strategic advance. Exorcisement gives way to convalescence. Adriana sees the process purely as recovery, “And bear him home for his recovery” (V. i. 41), but the Abbess invests it with religious associations:

How long hath this possession held the man?
… he took this place for sanctuary,
And it shall privilege him from your hands
Till I have brought him to his wits again,
Or lose my labour in assaying it … 
… I will not let him stir,
Till I have us'd the approved means I have,
With wholesome syrups, drugs, and holy prayers,
To make of him a formal man again.

(V. i. 44, 94-7, 102-5)

A ritual of healing is envisaged. The Priory, before whose gates the final action takes place, is the sanctuary of body and mind, the guarantor of the values of the close.

But these values are not achieved without an episode of significant turbulence. The cruel and anarchic spirit of comedy, now operating through Antipholus of Ephesus, breaks out of bondage and expresses a myth of liberation. It comes in two versions, the servant-messenger's:

My master and his man are both broke loose,
Beaten the maids a-row, and bound the doctor,
Whose beard they have sing'd 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 while
His man with scissors nicks him like a fool.

(V. i. 169-77)

and Antipholus's:

Along with them
They brought one Pinch, a hungry lean-fac'd villain,
A mere anatomy, a mountebank,
A threadbare juggler and a fortune-teller,
A needy, hollow-ey'd, sharp looking wretch,
A living dead man. This pernicious slave,
Forsooth, took on him as a conjurer,
And gazing in mine eyes, feeling my pulse,
And with no face, as 'twere, outfacing me,
Cries out, I was possess'd. Then all together
They fell upon me, bound me, bore me thence
And in a dark and dankish vault at home
There left me and my man, both bound together,
Till, gnawing with my teeth my bonds in sunder,
I gain'd my freedom, and immediately
Ran hither to your Grace:

(V. i. 237-52)

The violence of this episode is evidently designed to release the emotional tensions created by the action. Liberation, we note, is accompanied by revenge: Antipholus of Ephesus goes in for outright torture of Dr Pinch, a feature he naturally omits from his report. That is why Shakespeare needs to plant two versions. In this most binary of plays, there are always two sides to events: what it looks like, and what it feels like. The messenger reports two dangerous lunatics on the rampage; Antipholus of Ephesus gives us the other side, the experience of hellish incarceration (in the “vault at home”) with the “living dead man”, a kind of zombie,26 as the guardian of the underworld. Freedom becomes a plea to (and for) Grace. And, in the play's terms, grace is bestowed.

It takes on the form of a rebirth:

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

(V. i. 400-2)

says the Abbess, making the entire action the convulsions of delivery. The symbolism is confirmed in the lines which follow:

The Duke, my husband, and my children both,
And you the calendars of their nativity,
Go to a gossips' feast, and go with me;
After so long grief, such nativity!


As Alexander Leggatt notes, “the final image of security is not a wedding dance but a christening feast, a family celebration”.27 With the naming of characters comes the affirmation of identity, family, society (for the Duke presides, as he should). The dark coupling at the centre of the play has led to a rebirth of the family, a restatement of relationship. And in keeping with the standard Shakespearean technique, the frankest statement of the implications is given to a clown:

Dromio S. She now shall be
my sister, not my wife.


The prohibition on incest is the foundation of the family. That, and the graceful settlement of the primogeniture issue, marks the decorous conclusion to the play. What the Dromios exit into, what the audience is left with, is home.28


  1. Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965) p. 77.

  2. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1974) p. 81.

  3. Geoffrey Bullough reprints three works as sources for The Comedy of Errors: the Menaechmi of Plautus; the Amphitruo of Plautus; and a portion of Gower's Confessio Amantis, that relating to the story of Apollonius of Tyre. See Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 8 vols (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957-75) I, 12-54.

  4. I quote from F. A. Hirtzel's edition of Virgil (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1900).

  5. T. W. Baldwin, citing this and the shipwreck incident, believes “that Shakspere consciously borrows from the wandering Aeneas touches for his wandering Aegeon” (William Shakespere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, 2 vols (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1944) II, 487). Virgil Whitaker accepts that “The first scene is heavily indebted to Virgil's Aeneid for details of Aegeon's travels” (Shakespeare's Use of Learning (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1953) p. 85). For a dissenting view, see J. A. K. Thomson, Shakespeare and the Classics (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952) pp. 48-51: “But this line ‘infandum, regina …’ was so well known and so often quoted and imitated … that familiarity with it would not of itself prove acquaintance with the Aeneid” (p. 50). Similarly, Thomson doubts that Shakespeare read Plautus in the original.

  6. A. H. Nason reproduces the record of James Shirley in the fifth form of Merchant Taylors' School. Cicero's first oration In Catilinem led inexorably to the second book of the Aeneid. See James Shirley, Dramatist (1915; reprt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967) facing p. 21.

  7. John Dean, “Constant Wanderings and Longed-for Returns: Odyssean Themes in Shakespearean Romance”, Mosaic, 12 (1978) 50-1.

  8. Ibid., 50, n. 11. It is accepted that Aegeon also recalls the story Apollonius of Tyre, via Gower's version: “a moderately literate or experienced playgoer listening to Egeon's story could have responded to the echoes in it from the best known of exemplary romances, Apollonius of Tyre”, a story which originated as a Latin romance of the third century a.d. See Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge University Press, 1974) p. 62 et seq.

  9. R. A. Foakes, in his New Arden edition of The Comedy of Errors (London: Methuen, 1962), notes the allusion to the Odyssey and adds: “This line is the culmination of the images of transformation.”

  10. Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, VIII, 245.

  11. For the “Christianizing” idea of Ephesus, see ibid., I, 10; Foakes (ed.), Comedy of Errors, pp. xxix, 113-15.

  12. Alex Aronson reviews the “hostile brother” motif (though without reference to The Comedy of Errors) in Psyche and Symbol in Shakespeare (Bloomington, Ind.: University of Indiana Press, 1972) pp. 113-25.

  13. C. G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of Self, 2nd edn (Princeton University Press, 1968) p. 13.

  14. Frye, A Natural Perspective, p. 57.

  15. J. C. Trewin bears down hard on such directors, in Going to Shakespeare (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978) pp. 47-8: “it was not hard for a director to find appropriate emphases for a yawning Duke: ‘Well, Syracusian, say in brief the cause’”.

  16. One would naturally add the information given in the playbill, but there are always some members of the audience who do not take it in. Every box-office manager can tell strange tales of disappointed ticket-holders.

  17. Baldwin, Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, I, 326.

  18. The Riverside edition, like Bevington, accepts “staff” as bawdy.

  19. Foakes (ed.), Comedy of Errors, p. 46; and E. A. M. Colman, The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (London: Longmans, 1974) p. 187.

  20. See the entries on knock in J. S. Farmer and W. E. Henley, Slang and its Analogues: Past and Present (reprt. in 3 vols, New York: Kraus Reprint, 1965); and Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 2 vols, 5th edn (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961).

  21. It is perhaps worth noting that this play's structure depends on a “split” centre. Act III has two scenes, and not, as so often in Shakespeare, three.

  22. Frye, A Natural Perspective, p. 58.

  23. Foakes (ed.), Comedy of Errors, p. 16.

  24. C. J. Sisson, New Readings in Shakespeare, 2 vols (London: Dawson, 1956) I, 93: quoted by Foakes (ed.), Comedy of Errors, p. 49, who also notes that a London brothel bore the name.

  25. Foakes, ibid., p. 4.

  26. For zombie, Webster's Third New International Dictionary has (lb) “the supernatural power or essence that according to voodoo belief may enter into and reanimate a dead body”.

  27. Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974) p. 17.

  28. There are 41 references to “home” in The Comedy of Errors, more than for any other play in the canon.

Camille Wells Slights (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Egeon's Friends and Relations: The Comedy of Errors,” in Shakespeare's Comic Commonwealths, University of Toronto Press, 1993, pp. 13-31.

[In the essay below, Slights studies the portrayal of personal and political relations in The Comedy of Errors.]

‘We being strangers here, how dar'st
thou trust …’


Preaching on Ephesians 5, a text that seems to lie behind the setting of The Comedy of Errors,1 John Donne offers an analysis of the essential nature of all human societies since the birth of Eve's first son: ‘from that beginning to the end of the world, these three relations, of Master and Servant, Man and Wife, Father and Children, have been, and ever shall be the materialls, and the elements of all society, of families, and of Cities, and of Kingdomes.’2 Whether or not all societies of all times consist of these three relationships, as Donne alleges, The Comedy of Errors does. The reunion of Egeon with his wife and sons provides the telos of the plot, and the scenes of mistaken identity that constitute the action ring changes on confused relations between master and servant and husband and wife. The comedy is also consistent with Donne's analysis in its representation of these relations as forms of power. According to Donne, ‘(because the principall foundation, and preservation of all States that are to continue, is power) the first relation was between Prince and Subject, when God said to Man, Subjicite & dominamini, subdue and govern all Creatures; The second relation was between husband and wife … ; And the third relation was between parents and children’ (113-14). In the play, a ruler demonstrates his power by sentencing a man to death in the first scene and by rescinding the sentence in the last. In the intervening scenes, confusions of identity are manifested by masters beating the wrong servants and by a husband and wife's struggle for power.

A third significant parallel between the play's representation of society and Donne's account is the connection between the human and non-human worlds. In Donne's exposition, the relationship between prince and subject was established ‘when God said to Man, Subjicite & dominamini, subdue and govern all Creatures.’ In the comedy, Luciana explains that ‘Man’ is

Lord of the wide world and wild wat'ry seas,
Indu'd with intellectual sense and souls,
Of more pre-eminence than fish and fowls.


As the immediate context of these lines specifies, the man who dominates physical nature in Luciana's account is not inclusively human but, rather, exclusively male:

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 controls:
Man, more divine, the master of all these,
Lord of the wide world and wild wat'ry seas,
Indu'd with intellectual sense and souls,
Of more pre-eminence than fish and fowls,
Are masters to their females, and their lords.


In both accounts, then, the relations of dominance and subjection in human affairs are natural and necessary and posited on human control of physical nature.

Donne's version suggests that these arrangements serve human convenience—the ‘preservation of all States’—but the emphasis is on the divine institution of this distribution of power: ‘God said to Man, Subjicite & dominamini.’ In fact, Donne derives the structure of human society from the nature of the Godhead: ‘God was always alone in heaven, there were no other Gods … but he was never singular, there was never any time, when there were not three persons in heaven … As then God seemes to have been eternally delighted, with this eternall generation, (with persons that had ever a relation to one another, Father, and Sonne) so when he came to the Creation of this lower world, he came presently to those three relations, of which the whole frame of this world consists' (5:113). Luciana, intent on reconciling her angry sister to her wayward husband, describes men as ‘more divine’ than the rest of creation and refers to ‘heaven's eye,’ thus suggesting divine approval of the distribution of human power. But the play as a whole treats human society not as divinely ordained but as practically necessary. The misadventures of Shakespeare's hapless twins occur in a world where human society is a necessary protection against the harsh conditions of physical existence. In the opening scene, Egeon's account of the shipwreck that started his troubles evokes the dangerous world beyond the boundaries of the city. The violence of wind and water and ‘mighty rock’ (I.i.101) dispersed his family. Subjected to an unjust Fortune (I.i.105) and unpitied by the ‘merciless’ gods (I.i.98-9), Egeon hopes only that people will know that his misfortune ‘Was wrought by nature, not by vile offense’ (I.i.34).

Although Egeon protests that the world of physical nature is unjust and merciless, he does not perceive it as random or chaotic. He registers no surprise or awe at the ocean storm that began his misfortune, recalling matter-of-factly:

A league from Epidamium had we sail'd
Before the always-wind-obeying deep
Gave any tragic instance of our harm.


As the waves obeyed the wind, so the people in their makeshift boat were ‘obedient to the stream’ (I.i.86) until the more powerful sun dispersed the storm and calmed the seas. Egeon assumes that the physical world follows its own laws by which the inferior is obedient to the superior. Egeon and his family, without their ship and abandoned by its crew, are helpless against the superior power of violent nature. After the shipwreck, Egeon and his wife managed to save their lives and those of the two pairs of infant boys in their care by fastening themselves to the small masts which ‘sea-faring men provide for storms’ (I.i.80) until they were rescued by ships from Corinth and Epidaurus. Evidently, then, men can become lords ‘of the wide world and wild wat'ry seas’ (II.i.21) only in concert with others of their kind. In an orderly society people can protect themselves and establish control over nature. Thus when Egeon's search for his family brings him to Ephesus, he defers without protest to Ephesian authority. Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus who sentences Egeon to death as an enemy alien, justifies his action not as an expression of his divinely granted personal right to rule but as the application of a law he is powerless to change. He justifies the law not as an embodiment of natural law or of transcendental justice but as an exercise of the power and responsibility of the state to protect its citizens against an external enemy. He explains that both the Syracusians and the Ephesians have decreed

To admit no traffic to our adverse towns:
Nay more, if any born at Ephesus be seen
At any 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.


Personally, Solinus pities Egeon as an innocent victim of ‘dire mishap’ (I.i.141), but officially, he sentences him to death according to Ephesian law. The power of the state exists to protect its own citizens; Egeon, deprived of relationships with his ruler and his family, is outside society and so ‘Hopeless and helpless’ (I.i.157).

Throughout The Comedy of Errors the importance attached to belonging to society is suggested both by the amount of dialogue directly concerned with social machinery like making appointments and paying bills and by the play's imagery, which typically is drawn from the details of social activity. For example, when Antipholus of Syracuse woos Luciana, after one fairly perfunctory reference to her as a ‘fair sun’, he avoids the roses, stars, and pearls of traditional love talk and praises her instead as ‘My food, my fortune, and my sweet hope's aim’ (III.ii.56, 63). Nature imagery in this play usually suggests danger and destruction rather than beauty or fertility. Thus Egeon thinks how old age brings changes that hide his identity in ‘sap-consuming winter's drizzled snow’ (V.i.313). And Antipholus of Syracuse expresses his loneliness far from home by likening himself to ‘a drop of water’ in the vast, formless ocean (I.ii.35). Even Antipholus' vision of Luciana as a mermaid contains as much fear as admiration:

Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;
Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed I'll take them, and there lie,
And in that glorious supposition think
He gains by death that hath such means to die.


Although Antipholus feels willing to submit to the destructive sexual element at this point, he soon decides to flee from the ‘mermaid's song’ that has ‘almost made me traitor to myself’ (III.ii.164, 162).

The characters in The Comedy of Errors are social beings who habitually contrast the familiarity and safety of human society with the dangers outside its boundaries. They see the world of nature as threatening but ordered according to a hierarchical pattern in which people participate. They defer to the Duke and look to him to settle their disputes. The subjection of servants to masters is similarly unquestioned. The relationship of the two Dromios to their masters is neither servile nor solemnly formal. Antipholus of Syracuse, for example, is obviously fond of the ‘trusty villain’ who, ‘When I am dull with care and melancholy, / Lightens my humor with his merry jests’ (I.ii.19-21), but there is no question but that the servant must submit to his master's power. As Dromio ruefully acknowledges, he must obey orders ‘although against my will, / For servants must their masters' minds fulfill’ (IV.i.112-13).

Some critics have seen a conflict between two incompatible views of marriage in Adriana's bitter complaints about her husband and Luciana's advocacy of wifely submission. To Peter Phialas, for example, Luciana represents romantic love, whereas Adriana is the shrewish wife, ‘who thinks of love in terms of possession, ownership, and mastery’ and ‘rejects the notion that the man should be master in the home.’3 But Luciana makes an odd advocate for romantic love. Her primary motive is to quell open dissension. She reprimands Adriana for being insufficiently submissive, and she urges Antipholus to conceal his infidelities from his wife: ‘if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth’; ‘Be secret-false: what need she be acquainted?’ (III.ii.7, 15). Adriana's complaints serve not to contrast with her sister's romanticism but to elicit a defense of the gender hierarchy within marriage. When Adriana asks, ‘Why should their [men's] liberty than ours be more?’ (II.i.10), Luciana tells her at length in the passage quoted earlier. And in spite of protesting against Antipholus' infidelities, Adriana never questions her duty to love, honor, and obey her husband. She describes Antipholus to the Duke as ‘my husband, / Who I made lord of me and all I had’ (V.i.136-7). Nor is this public orthodoxy belied by private rebellion. Her self-abasement to the man she takes to be her strangely standoffish husband should satisfy the most demanding proponent of male domination:

Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine,
Whose weakness, married to thy stronger state,
Makes me with thy strength to communicate:
If aught possess thee from me, it is dross,
Usurping ivy, brier, or idle moss,
Who, all for want of pruning, with intrusion
Infect thy sap, and live on thy confusion.


Thus, although Luciana's counsels of avoidance and appeasement contrast with Adriana's bitterness, their basic understandings of marital obligations do not differ. In spite of twentieth-century interpretations of Adriana as a portrait of a sixteeth-century shrew, her insistence on her husband's marital responsibilities is remarkably similar to John Donne's interpretation of St. Paul on marriage. According to Donne, ‘The generall duty, that goes through all these three relations, is … Submit your selves to one another, in the feare of God; for God hath given no Master such imperiousnesse, no husband such a superiority, no father such a soverainty, but that there lies a burden upon them too … The wife is to submit herselfe; and so is the husband too’ (5:114). The nature of that submission, he says, ‘is love: Husbands love your wives’ (115). Although the Ephesians in The Comedy of Errors give no evidence of knowing St. Paul much less the Dean of St. Paul's, they assume a similar view of social hierarchy. Even in her defense of male supremacy, Luciana stipulates that ‘There's nothing situate under heaven's eye / But hath his bound’ (II.i.16-17), and she and Balthasar, as well as Adriana, try to recall Antipholus to his ‘husband's office’ (III. ii.2. cf. III.i.85-106).

The corollary of the duty of mutual submission and assistance, Donne observes, is the interdependence of master and servant, husband and wife, father and son: ‘They depend upon one another, and therefore he that hath not care of his fellow, destroys himselfe’ (114). Similarly, Balthasar assumes the mutual dependency of husband and wife when he argues that Antipholus' violent assault on the locked door of his house would dishonor both him and his wife, and Adriana invokes this concept when she berates Antipholus for rejecting her. She begs Antipholus not to ‘look strange and frown’ (II.ii.110) because ‘thou art then estranged from thyself’:

Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self's better part.
Ah, do not tear away thyself from me.


For either wife or husband to violate their marriage vows is to damage both:

For if we two be one, and thou play false,
I do digest the poison of thy flesh,
Being strumpeted by thy contagion.
Keep then fair league and truce with thy true bed,
I live dis-stain'd, thou undishonored.


This plea for love and fidelity is not the tirade of a comic virago bent on mastery.

Parental authority does not cause the frustration and suffering that the power of masters and husband does for the Dromios and Adriana. No one neglects his or her obligations as parent or child, and no character is moved to instruct another in the duties of care and love. But the obligations of parents and children are nevertheless a source of dramatic tension. Egeon's narrative of the shipwreck assumes that parents are responsible for protecting their children and emphasizes his helpless inability to save his babies from disaster. Even more poignantly, in the last scene Egeon mistakes Antipholus of Ephesus, who has not seen his father since infancy, for his twin brother. Egeon's initial certainty that his son will save his life withers before Antipholus' blank incomprehension, and Egeon concludes that his son is ashamed to acknowledge a miserable old man as his father.

Since for these characters, as for Donne, the constitutive elements of society are personal relationships, a man without political or family ties remains pretty much at sea. Antipholus of Syracuse is not threatened with death as his father is, but he is nonetheless aware of his vulnerability as an outsider. Arriving in a strange city without any established relationships, he feels that he is losing his individual identity:

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.


Loss of personal relationships brings physical danger as well as psychological disorientation. ‘We being strangers here’ must be constantly on guard (I.ii.60), Antipholus warns his servant Dromio.

If the literal loss of home and family is fraught with danger, so too is the disruption of basic relationships. Adriana warns her husband that he cannot neglect their relationship without injuring her identity and his own:

For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.


While Antipholus of Syracuse uses the water-drop analogy to express fear that his personal identity is dissolving in a sea of undifferentiated humanity, Adriana uses the same image to argue the complementary point that a separable, autonomous self cannot exist independent of human relationships. Anyone who deliberately damages his basic social relationships is dangerously self-destructive and anti-social. In The Comedy of Errors conflict arises not from competing values or goals but from mistaken identities in the context of universal dependence on social roles.

Despite my misleadingly solemn account of attitudes towards society in The Comedy of Errors, dependence on social relations is central to the play's comic tone. Its humor is posited on the decorum demanded by social roles. The scenes of mistaken identity are not of the kind where a dignified, solemn man is taken for and treated as a notorious libertine. Individual temperament has little—and the responsibilities of social role much—to do with the comedy. For example, Adriana's eloquent plea against marital estrangement creates humor rather than pathos because it is addressed to the wrong man and elicits the comically deflating response—but I am a stranger:

Plead you to me, fair dame? I know you not:
In Ephesus I am but two hours old,
As strange unto your town as to your talk.


The assumption that the husband is master of the house creates comic incongruity when Antipholus of Ephesus brings friends home for dinner. As the scene begins, Antipholus is feeling some misgivings at being late and arranges for a friend to provide an excuse for his tardiness, but his apology that ‘My wife is shrewish when I keep not hours’ (III.i.2) is clearly jovial in tone. He confidently expects his wife to welcome his guest. To Balthasar's courteous demur, ‘Small cheer and great welcome makes a merry feast’ (III.i.26), Antipholus responds with the polite diffidence of a man who takes pride in the hospitality he offers:

Ay, to a niggardly host and more sparing guest:
But though my cates be mean, take them in good part;
Better cheer you may have, but not with better heart.


This elaborate exchange of compliments anticipates the civilities with which King Duncan is made welcome to Dunsinane and serves a similar purpose, indicating through a minor social ritual the intricate network of pride, humility, deference, and hospitality that binds a community together. The shattering of the promised welcome is much less sinister in the comedy than in the tragedy, but no less complete. Antipholus finds the door locked against him and himself defied and ridiculed by his servants and repudiated by his wife. At these blows to his belief that the household is his to command, Antipholus passes quickly and ludicrously through bewilderment, embarrassment, shock, and rage.

A similar comedy of crossed purposes takes place when Luciana hears declarations of love from a man she believes to be her sister's husband or when one of the Dromios delivers a message to his master's uncomprehending twin. For example, when Dromio of Ephesus proudly delivers the rope he has been sent to find while his master impatiently expects the bail money that can release him from arrest, they sound like Abbott and Costello discussing ‘Who's on first’:

e. ant. How now, sir? have
you that I sent you for?
e. dro. Here's that, I warrant
you, will pay them all.
e. ant. But where's the money?
e. dro. Why, sir, I gave the money
for the rope.
e. ant. Five hundred ducats, villain,
for a rope?
e. dro. I'll serve you, sir,
five hundred at the rate.
e. ant. To what end did I bid thee
hie thee home?
e. dro. To a rope's end, sir,
and to that end am I return'd.
e. ant. And to that end, sir, I
will welcome you.
                                        [Beats Dromio.]

(IV. iv.9-17)

The comic point is that in spite of their mutual acceptance of the terms of their relationship both the master's power and the servant's obedience are totally futile.

Thus the usual judgment that The Comedy of Errors relies on farce and physical comedy is only partly accurate. The play certainly contains a good deal of slapstick and lacks scenes of such multiple ironies as that where Rosalind disguised as Ganymede plays the part of Rosalind and warns Orlando that as a wife she will be ‘more jealous of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen’ (AYL, IV.i.150-1). But the earlier comedy is not simple. When Adriana turns her sarcasm and eloquence on her husband's genuinely mystified twin brother or when she unleashes Doctor Pinch on her true husband because she is trying to do her duty by the ‘poor distressed soul’ (IV.iv.59), Shakespeare has given several twists to the stock portrayal of shrewish wives and tormented husbands. The central irony is that the bitterest quarrels grow out of fundamental agreement. In the last scene when Antipholus appeals to the Duke for justice against Adriana, he charges that his wife has ‘shut the doors upon me’ (V.i.204). Antipholus' complaint interrupts Adriana's appeal for justice against the Abbess, who ‘shuts the gates’ (V.i.156) and so frustrates her determination to take her husband home where she can care for him:

I will attend my husband, be his nurse,
Diet his sickness, for it is my office,
And will have no attorney but myself.


Antipholus' outrage and Adriana's insistence on the duties of her ‘office’ (V.i.99) emphasize their mutual adherence to the norms of conduct defined by social role. Similarly, Antipholus of Syracuse, who delivers short lectures on the art of domestic service—‘If you will jest with me, know my aspect, / And fashion your demeanor to my looks’ (II.ii.32-3)—is understandably exasperated when his servant appears to flout him deliberately and repeatedly. And, of course, both Dromios are no less frustrated that their faithful diligence consistently provokes scoldings and beatings.

A complex picture of the strength and fragility of the human relationships that constitute society emerges from these confusions. The complications of plot pit the individual characters' sense of themselves as unique and irreplaceable against their dependence on other people for their sense of who they are and against the fact that to other people they are indistinguishable from each other. In III. i., when an unknown and unseen porter calling himself Dromio refuses entrance to the master of the house, the response by Dromio of Ephesus epitomizes the baffling predicament experienced by all the major characters:

O villain, thou hast stol'n both mine office and my name:
The one ne'er got me credit, the other mickle blame.
If thou hadst been Dromio to-day in my place,
Thou wouldst have chang'd thy face for a name, or thy name for
an ass.

(III. i.44-7)

On the one hand, Dromio is denied the social role that defines his identity. On the other, the faithful performance of that role has unpredictable, incomprehensible, often unpleasant results. Dromio himself is aware of that much about his own experience. Only the audience appreciates the further irony that the man addressed has, in fact, ‘been Dromio to-day in [his] place’ and beaten as an ass.

The Comedy of Errors presents the tension between the characters' sense of uniqueness and their dependence on precarious social identities as both terrifying and absurd. After the introductory dialogue between Egeon and Duke Solinus demonstrates the life-and-death stakes of belonging, the play transforms nightmare into absurdity, projecting the deep fear of being excluded or rejected from society in a series of hilarious misadventures. All the major characters undergo the Kafkaesque experience of suddenly finding themselves in a nightmare world of strange transformations and inexplicable events. But, of course, in Shakespeare's play the audience knows the simple facts that can explain the inexplicable and replace bewildering rejection with recognition and acceptance. Our awareness that all will end happily when the pairs of twins eventually meet (as we are sure they will) dissipates the potential terror and enables us to laugh freely at the increasing confusion.

The mistakes that make up the plot take the form of violations of social conventions. Since such artificial systems as those governing time, money, and law provide the coherence and stability necessary for society, even minor infractions of these conventions disturb social harmony.6 In Shakespeare's Ephesus, persistent violations almost destroy all social order. In one sense, of course, time is a natural reality over which people have no control. Egeon, for example, attributes his son's failure to recognize him to the unavoidable changes brought by ‘time's extremity’ (V.i.308). Even Luciana's exposition of man's dominion over nature acknowledges that ‘Time is their master’ (II.i.8). But of more importance in this play than the ineluctable passing of time is the human ordering of time. Significantly, Luciana continues: ‘Time is their master, and when they see time, / They'll go or come’ (II.i.8-9). The confusions pivot on how people see and measure time. Because Antipholus of Ephesus does not come home at the conventional dinner hour, his wife goes out to find him and brings his twin home in his place. Because Angelo the jeweler fails to deliver the chain Antipholus of Ephesus has ordered at the time and place arranged, he gives it instead to the wrong Antipholus. Thus, failures in punctuality lead to Antipholus' humiliating exclusion from his house and to his arrest for debt when he refuses to pay for a chain he never received. These actual mistimings are hopelessly entangled with apparent ones. In the first scene of mistaken identity, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus accuse each other of being guilty of mistiming. Dromio, sent by his impatient mistress to bring her delinquent husband home to dinner, accuses Antipholus of being late, while Antipholus, who has ordered his servant to wait for him at the inn, accuses the wrong Dromio of returning too soon and interprets his talk of a waiting wife and dinner as jokes that are ‘out of season’ (I.ii.68). Similarly, when Antipholus next meets the true Dromio of Syracuse, he beats his servant for denying the earlier conversation ‘a second time,’ and Dromio protests at being ‘thus beaten out of season’ (II.ii.46, 47).

Just as Antipholus' and Dromio's real and apparent mistimings are interpreted as breaches of their duties as husband and servant, so too the confusions over money are perceived as violations of the obligations imposed by social role. Money is valued primarily not for any intrinsic worth nor as a means for securing goods and services but as a symbol of the trust necessary for the social exchanges that form human relationships. The chain Antipholus has promised his wife is the source of most of the confusion. When Antipholus decides to give the chain to the courtesan in revenge for Adriana's locking him out, he is symbolically rejecting his role as husband, although he wants to see his action as an expensive prank rather than a serious repudiation of his marriage.7 When he denies receiving the chain and refuses to pay for it, the jeweler is most outraged by the impeachment of his ‘credit’ and ‘reputation’ (IV.i.68, 71). Conversely, when Antipholus of Syracuse receives the chain and the money intended for his brother's bail, they have little value to him because they have no part in comprehensible human relationships. In spite of the mysterious generosity of the Ephesians, he plans to flee as quickly as possible from a place where ‘every one knows us, and we know none’ (III.ii.152).

While most of the incidents in the plot revolve around discrepancies in how people see time and money, the law is the primary concern at the beginning and end of the play. As we have seen, in Act I the violation of a law directed against natives of Syracuse puts Egeon's life at risk. By Act V all the confusions over time and money have become questions of law, as the Ephesians appeal for justice to the Duke as the guardian of social order. But both the Duke's conscientious execution of his office and the respect for his authority by both Ephesians and strangers are ineffectual. Until the two pairs of twins finally meet at the end of the play, respect for law and order merely exacerbates confusion. The comedy of errors reaches its climax in Act V as Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus, supported by a bewildering cloud of contradictory witnesses, demand justice and testify to totally incompatible versions of what has happened, and the poor Duke concludes that they are all mad. With the Duke's inability to dispense justice and establish order, the relations between parents and children, master and servant, husband and wife, and creditor and debtor have broken down, and all social structure seems ready to collapse in chaos.

When social structures cease to function in this world where individuals are helpless against nature and fate, the only possible responses seem to be hopeless resignation, ineffectual anger, or patient suffering of what cannot be avoided. The first alternative is Egeon's habitual reaction. Far from begging for mercy from the Duke, he urges on his own execution:

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

(I.i.1-2; cf. 26-7)

As he reluctantly tells the story of his misfortunes, he reveals that in the earlier catastrophe also he ‘would gladly have embrac'd’ (I.i.69) death but that the tears of his wife and babies forced him to ‘seek delays’ (I.i.74). To the Duke's offer of time in which to raise money for the fine and so to save his life, he responds despairingly:

Hopeless and helpless doth Egeon wend,
But to procrastinate his liveless end.


The other characters react to their troubles with a good deal more excitement and energy. Anger is the usual response. Antipholus of Ephesus threatens to pluck out his wife's eyes. Adriana reviles her husband as deformed in mind and body and threatens to crack her servant's skull. Both Antipholi repeatedly curse, threaten, and beat whichever Dromio is within reach. Like Egeon's hopelessness, the Ephesians' violence is not new. In the first scene of mistaken identity, Dromio of Ephesus' answer to Antipholus of Syracuse's inquiry about his thousand pounds indicates the angry violence of ordinary life in Ephesus:

I have some marks of yours about my pate;
Some of my mistress' marks upon my shoulders;
But not a thousand marks between you both.
If I should pay your worship those again,
Perchance you will not bear them patiently.


Patience, the third response, is often preached but seldom practiced. When Luciana counsels Adriana to bear her husband's transgressions patiently, Adriana interprets the advice as the ignorance of inexperience:

So thou, that hast no unkind mate to grieve thee,
With urging helpless patience would relieve me;
But if thou live to see like right bereft,
This fool-begg'd patience in thee will be left.


Her husband, who is frequently advised to be patient, is even more decisive in his contempt for patience. When Antipholus and Dromio escape from Doctor Pinch's ungentle ministrations, the finishing touch to their revenge is a sarcastic exhortation to patience:

My master and his man are both broke loose,
Beaten the maids a-row, and bound the doctor,
Whose beard they have sing'd off with brands of fire,
And ever as it blaz'd, they threw on him
Great piles of puddled mire to quench the hair;
My master preaches patience to him, and the while
His man with scissors nicks him like a fool


Appeals to patience are no more effective than appeals to marital love and loyalty in the face of outright denial of identity and relationship.

The aggressive impatience of the characters in this reworking of a Plautine comedy comments irreverently on the classical concept of patience. Although some Renaissance humanists found moral guidance in discussions by classical authors of the virtue of enduring adversity with equanimity, others contrasted the classical concept of patience as passive endurance based on control of passion by reason with Christian patience, an active virtue based on faith and hope. While classical patience was summed up in the proverb ‘Bear and forbear,’ a patient Christian, maintaining faith in a providential order in spite of adversity, avoids both wrath and despair and lives in obedience and charity.8 The virtue recommended in Ephesus is essentially the self-protective discretion of classical patience. Thus, Luciana argues that a wife should ‘forbear’ (II.i.31) if her husband strays because jealousy is ‘self-harming’ (II.i.102), and Balthasar advises Antipholus to control his anger because creating a public scandal would damage his reputation. Christian patience is exemplified by the Abbess, who turns out to be Aemilia, the long-lost wife and mother. Her reputation as a ‘virtuous and a reverend lady’ (V.i.134), her religious vocation during the years of the family's dispersal, and the calm dignity with which she performs the ‘charitable duty of [her] order’ (V.i.107) contrast with the intemperate anger of Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus and with the despairing hopelessness of Egeon. In spite of her life of ‘long grief’ (V.i.407), she neither wishes for death nor strikes out at others but sets herself against ‘grim and comfortless despair’ and the ‘infectious troop / Of pale distemperatures and foes to life’ (V.i.80, 81-2).

When all this has been said, however, it is still evident that The Comedy of Errors is not a cautionary tale demonstrating the evil consequences of impatience.9 The patient Abbess doesn't appear until the last scene where her despairing husband and impetuous and angry sons fare as well as she. The characters' follies and vices do not cause the plot complications. In fact, their occasional lapses into patience cause as much confusion as their more usual impatience. When Antipholus of Ephesus threatens to break down the door of his house, Balthasar counsels patience: ‘Have patience, sir, O, let it not be so!’; ‘Be rul'd by me, depart in patience’ (III.i.85, 94). Antipholus uncharacteristically agrees, ‘You have prevail'd. I will depart in quiet’ (III.i.107)—and so effectively postpones the discovery of his unknown twin.

The bizarre experiences suffered in Shakespeare's Ephesus do not demonstrate the need for patience or test individual character in adversity so much as they demonstrate that without shared social structures reality becomes unintelligible. In the last scene, Duke Solinus responds to the deluge of incompatible evidence by observing, ‘I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup’ (V.i.271), and then a few lines later concludes, ‘I think you are all … stark mad’ (V.i.282). The Duke is not alone in deciding that everyone in Ephesus is either mad or bewitched. Although conventions such as the time set for meals and the alacrity with which bills should be paid are artificial and arbitrary, they are so basic to social functioning that the persistent collision of discrepant views violently disrupts the relations between people. The loss of such social roles as husband, wife, and servant threatens the characters' sense of their own identities and destroys their sense of reality. To explain such utter confusion they have recourse to theories of madness or magic. Antipholus of Syracuse finds the experience of being assigned new identities by strangers so disorienting that he doubts his own sanity, wondering whether he is ‘Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advis'd’ (II.ii.213; cf. IV.iii.42). More often, he favors the theory that he is surrounded by the supernatural. In his first appearance he remembers that Ephesus has a reputation for magic and sorcery, and his subsequent experiences confirm his suspicion that ‘There's none but witches do inhabit here’ (III.ii.156). Meanwhile the intermittent appearances of the two Antipholi convince the Ephesians that the Antipholus they know and love has gone mad. At first Adriana does not take literally Dromio's charge that his master is ‘stark mad’ (II.i.59). But when she hears that Antipholus is not merely inconsiderate of members of his household but publicly abusing social relationships, she changes her mind. After the courtesan reports that Antipholus has taken a ring from her in exchange for a chain and then refused to give her the chain, Adriana decides that such anti-social behavior justifies the conclusion that Antipholus is mad. ‘His incivility,’ she reasons, ‘confirms no less’ (IV.iv.46).

The hypotheses of insanity and witchcraft are essential to the play's structural dynamics, in which a movement towards isolation pulls against a movement towards cohesion. While the audience anticipates a meeting of the two Antipholi where all problems will instantly evaporate, these expectations are repeatedly frustrated by the characters' efforts to isolate madmen and to escape from sorcerers. Initially Antipholus of Syracuse is as open to experience as any traveler, planning to wander around Ephesus to ‘view the manners of the town, / Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings’ (I.ii.12-13), and he first reacts to the experience of being greeted by name and claimed as husband by a woman he has never before seen in a spirit of adventure, deciding to withhold judgment and ‘in this mist at all adventures go’ (II.ii.216). But in his next appearance he begins to make arrangements to leave Ephesus. In spite of the attractions of the enchanting Luciana, he plans to board the first ship leaving Ephesus, and in every subsequent appearance he repeats his intention of fleeing from the land of magic and sorcery. Dromio's delivery to the wrong Antipholus of the message that a ship is ready, the wind favorable, and their baggage on board promises some delay, but when Antipholus of Syracuse next appears he is more than ever convinced that the gifts showered on him are only ‘imaginary wiles’ (IV.iii.10) and receives the news that all is ready for departure. He then runs from the courtesan as a ‘devil’ (IV.iii.50) or ‘fiend’ (IV.iii.65), rejects Dromio's plea to stay a while, and exits in full flight for the ship leaving Ephesus that night.

By his growing determination to leave, Antipholus of Syracuse introduces the possibility that he may miss encountering his brother. For Antipholus of Ephesus, meanwhile, the consequence of being supplanted in his social identity by his twin is progressive isolation: locked out of his house, arrested for debt, and finally left bound and gagged in a dark room by Doctor Pinch, whom Adriana hires to cure her husband's madness. The absurdity of the Doctor Pinch episode consists in the fact that Adriana's solicitude for her husband convinces him that she is engaged in a sinister conspiracy against him. The further irony is that the cases of both Antipholi are seen as individual problems and treated by withdrawal and isolation whereas actually they are part of a common mistake that can be corrected only by convergence.

The reunion of twins that corrects errors and restores order does not result from recognizing the disintegrative effects of isolating the strange and incomprehensible. If human agency contributes to the happy ending, it is not through individual perspicacity but through the conventions of time, money, and law. By trying to collect the money owed them, Angelo and the Second Merchant interrupt the departure of Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse and drive them to take refuge in the priory. Similarly, the expectation of justice from the Duke leads all the aggrieved citizens of Ephesus to converge around him. Moreover, although the presence of Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse in the priory is a happy accident, the gathering in front of the priory at 5 o'clock is not entirely coincidental. Egeon's execution is scheduled for 5 o'clock near the abbey, so Adriana and Luciana, the Second Merchant and Angelo, the Duke and Egeon, and then Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus congregate there by appointment. Thus the conventions which have caused so much dissension also serve to bring people together so that reunion is possible.

Primarily, however, the plot is satisfactorily resolved, as the Duke says, ‘accidentally’ (V.i.362). Working against the conscious efforts to withdraw and isolate that would segregate the twins and thus prevent the comic anagnorisis is the on-stage action that involves growing numbers of characters and increasingly frenetic activity. As the pace quickens, originally separate groups break apart and re-form in new combinations until it seems that the twins must meet eventually. This whirlwind of activity, which seems destined to throw together every possible combination of characters, can be read as the work of a beneficent fate or providence. In the text nothing precludes and nothing necessitates such an interpretation. But the change in the last scene from chaos to clarity focuses on factual explanation of the relations among people, not on moral or spiritual enlightenment. R. A. Foakes has suggested that the discovery of Aemilia saves Egeon's life ‘as if, through her intervention, the harsh justice embodied in the Duke is tempered by a Christian grace and mercy.’10 This reading seems to me to exaggerate the play's Christian overtones. In The Comedy of Errors, as in Donne's formulation of the orthodox social theory quoted at the beginning of this chapter, power is constitutive rather than instrumental: society consists of a set of unequal relationships. Although both the sermon and the play stipulate limits to human power, neither contests the authority of master over servant, husband over wife, parent over child, or ruler over subject. But while Donne situates the source and purpose of power in the Godhead, the law administered by Duke Solinus has no transcendental significance. Because the banning of Syracusians is a practical measure produced by particular political and economic circumstances, it can be reinterpreted in the light of new information. In waving aside Antipholus' offer to pay his father's fine, the Duke is neither contradicting his claim that personal sympathy cannot justify abrogating the law nor transcending the law in the name of mercy. When he tells Antipholus, ‘thy father hath his life’ (V.i.391), he is responding to a new set of circumstances: Egeon is no longer an alien from a hostile city but the father and husband of respected citizens of Ephesus. The revelation of Egeon's family relationships means that he is no longer an outsider. He belongs, and so the law against outsiders does not apply.

The ending of The Comedy of Errors doesn't subvert or redeem society through the intervention of a higher spiritual force. The play recognizes that actuality falls far short of an ideally harmonious society in which inferiors defer loyally to superiors who honor obligations to protect dependents. The quarrels between masters and servants and between husband and wife display the injustice and violence inherent in the hierarchical social order, but the play invites the audience to see them not as individual sins nor as symptoms of social injustice but, as the title directs, as errors. Antipholus' infidelity, Adriana's insubordination, and the Dromios' beatings, like Egeon's undeserved suffering and the bewilderment of Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, are consequences of the temporary loss of recognized social roles. The play emphasizes the need to belong to society, not the need to reform it. The dramatic action begins with the helplessness of an isolated individual and ends when individual lives are secured through social relationships. In the Abbess' last speech her metaphor of prolonged birth pains implies that being truly human involves the social manifestation of biological relations:

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 baptismal ‘gossips’ feast' (V.i.406) to which the company exits at the end of the play celebrates the entry of the Antipholus twins into a community in which reason is equated with civility and personal identity with social role. It is a community where the relations of master and servant, man and wife, and parents and children are presented as crucially important, but are experienced as sometimes reassuring, sometimes brutal, often ludicrous, and as terrifyingly precarious.


  1. R. A. Foakes, ‘Introduction’ to the Arden edition of The Comedy of Errors (London: Methuen, 1962), xxix.

  2. The Sermons of John Donne, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953-62), 5:114.

  3. Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966), 25, 11. H. B. Charlton takes a similar view of Adriana as shrew and Luciana as romantic in Shakespearean Comedy, first published 1938 (London: Methuen, 1966), 68, 71.

  4. Unhistoricized interpretations of this speech as evidence of Adriana's parasitic dependency ignore the force of the elm and vine as a traditional emblem of marriage, joining masculine strength with feminine fruitfulness. Adriana explicitly associates barren parasites with influences separating Antipholus from her. As Paul Stevens points out, Adriana's image of marriage contrasts with Titania's distorted version that replaces the vine with barren ivy to describe her embrace of Bottom (MND, iv.i.43-4). Paul Stevens, Imagination and the Presence of Shakespeare in ‘Paradise Lost’ (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 207.

  5. I disagree with the critics who see this speech as evidence of Adriana's over-possessiveness. See Arden edition, note to II. ii. 123-9; Phialas, 14, Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1980), 26.

  6. For a perceptive discussion of time, money, and law in The Comedy of Errors see J. Dennis Huston, Shakespeare's Comedies Of Play (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 33-4.

  7. Richard Henze discusses the chain as a symbol of social cohesion and of the play's recommended norm, ‘the bridling of headstrong freedom and wandering individuality’ (35). ‘The Comedy of Errors: A Freely Binding Chain,’ Shakespeare Quarterly, 22 (1971), 35-41.

  8. Writings and Translations of Myles Coverdale (Cambridge: The Parker Society, 1844), 175; quoted in John F. Danby, Poets on Fortune's Hill (London: Faber and Faber, 1952), 109. I am indebted throughout this paragraph to Danby's discussion of the distinction between classical and Christian patience (108-27).

  9. James L. Sanderson has observed the importance of the theme of patience in The Comedy of Errors and discussed many of these passages in the context of Elizabethan iconographical and intellectual traditions but has reached different conclusions. He argues that errors are caused and compounded by impatience and curable by patience and sees Egeon as an exemplar of patience. ‘Patience in The Comedy of Errors,Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 16 (1975), 603-18.

  10. Arden edition, ‘Introduction,’ xlix.

Niall Rudd (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Shakespeare and Plautus: Two Twin Comedies,” in The Classical Tradition in Operation, University of Toronto Press, 1994, pp. 32-60.

[In the following essay, Rudd compares the plot structure, characterization, and farcical elements of Plautus’ Menaechmi to The Comedy of Errors.]

In comparing the two plays I shall quickly outline the Menaechmi, noting certain features.1 Then, going on to The Comedy of Errors, I shall describe how, while retaining important Plautine elements, Shakespeare wove the Latin farce into the framework of a Hellenistic romance, and how in doing so he developed both genres into something richer and more complex, something which reflected contemporary ideas on love and on Christian marriage.

The background of the Menaechmi is supplied in the ingratiatingly jokey prologue.2 A father from Syracuse takes one twin to Tarentum and leaves the other at home. At Tarentum, the boy Menaechmus gets lost in the crowd and is carried off to Epidamnus by a merchant. Though the father dies of a broken heart, in Epidamnus the boy is well brought up, and eventually a wife is found for him, complete with dowry. After this the kidnapper is conveniently drowned—a death described in suitably heartless terms.3 Back in Sicily the grandfather changed the second twin's name to Menaechmus in order to maintain the family tradition. Years later, Menaechmus 2 sets off in search of his brother and eventually comes to Epidamnus.

The speaker of the Prologue has by now given the author's name (Plautus), cajoled the audience into a receptive mood, outlined the events leading up to the play, and in general made possible a smooth transition from the real-life theatre in Rome to the imaginary setting of Epidamnus on the coast of the modern Albania. He concludes with a gesture towards the simple, all-purpose, set:

haec urbs Epidamnus est dum haec agitur fabula:
quando alia agetur aliud fiet oppidum


This city is Epidamnus as long as this play is in progress;(4) when another play is on, it will become another town.

The play proper begins with the entrance of the parasite Peniculus, who at once introduces himself: ‘The young set call me Brush, because when I eat I sweep the table clean.’5 He then delivers a homily on how to keep friends. Briefly, you bind them to you by food and drink:

apud mensam plenam homini rostrum deliges


You should fasten a fellow's snout to a full table.

If you do, then he'll never run away, even if he has committed murder. Now comes the practical illustration. Peniculus is going to visit his friend and patron Menaechmus, who has exactly that kind of hold over his affections. In fact Menaechmus’ table is piled so high that if you want something off the top you have to stand on your chair. Clearly the purpose of all this is to prepare us for the main character, who is something of a glutton. And that, in turn, provides an introduction to the business of cena, or ‘dinner,’ which has such an important part in the action. That importance is greatly reduced by Shakespeare, who has other dramatic interests. And so it is no surprise to find that Peniculus the gormandizer has no counterpart in The Comedy of Errors.

Menaechmus now enters, abusing his wife, who is indoors and has presumably switched him off:

nam quotiens foras ire uolo, me retines, reuocas, rogitas
quo ego eam, quam rem agam, quid negoti geram,
quid petam, quid feram, quid foris egerim.


The succession of dactyls and cretics conveys his exasperation—an effect lost in a prose rendering:

When I want to go out, you call me back and delay me, asking where I'm going, what I'm doing, what I'm engaged in, what I'm after, what I've got, what I've been up to downtown.

He concludes: ‘I've got a customs-officer in the house; for I have to declare everything.’ Much later in the play, the wife (who by then has ample reason to be angry) sees Menaechmus in the street. ‘How should I handle him?’ she asks Peniculus (568). ‘In the same way as usual,’ says Peniculus. ‘Pitch into him!’ This confirms our view of the matrona as a scold. One thinks of her as being rather like the cartoon figure Andy Capp's wife, with hair in curlers and brandishing a rolling pin. So there is no sense of outrage when at the end of the play Menaechmus decides to auction her off with the rest of his effects, if he can find a bidder. Plautus, therefore, does not intend for a moment that the character should engage our sympathy.

And this turns out to be entirely appropriate; for Menaechmus has no moral status either. He has reacted to his wife's nagging by stealing one of her dresses; and as the play opens he is on his way to present it to his girlfriend Erotium, ‘Sexpot,’ a prostitute who lives near by. It then becomes clear that Menaechmus has not only stolen the dress; he is actually wearing it under his cloak. The scene now turns into a farcical drag act, as Menaechmus minces around the stage, showing off to Peniculus, and preening himself on his squalid piece of thievery. (At one point in all this horseplay Menaechmus and Peniculus go so far as to smell the dress. As Erich Segal says, Plautus is rarely as unsavoury as this.)6 In due course the dress is presented to Erotium, who turns out to be a good deal more than a common tart. She has her own establishment where she can give dinner parties; she keeps a maid; and she is used to giving orders to a cook. Again, as Erotium is not quite the conventional tart, she does not have a heart of gold. Peniculus wryly comments that her affability is just a façade (193ff.). Granted his viewpoint is suspect, because he hates to see Menaechmus waste money on her which could be spent on feeding him. Yet his cynical verdict on Erotium is confirmed when, after receiving the dress, she immediately plans to enhance its value by getting Menaechmus to pay for alterations (426-7). She then tells her maid to persuade him to add an ounce of gold to a bracelet stolen on a previous occasion from his wife (526-32). Finally her maid gets into the act by wheedling Menaechmus into throwing in a pair of gold earrings for her (541-3).

So by the end of Act 1 we have a nagging wife, a deceitful and clownish husband, a gluttonous parasite, and a mercenary whore. What a collection! But really Plautus is not inviting us to condemn these characters. For to condemn them we should first have to take them seriously as moral beings. In fact they are little more than broad stereotypes. And that is fine for the sort of comedy which we are being offered—one which presents a few two-dimensional figures as victims of a series of farcical misconceptions.

These misconceptions begin with the arrival of the Syracusan Menaechmus, whom I shall refer to as ‘the Seeker.’ The Seeker is accompanied by his slave Messenio, who gravely warns him about the deplorable reputation of Epidamnus, or Ruinville:

huic urbi nomen Epidamno inditumst,
quia nemo ferme huc sine damno deuortitur.


This town is called Ruinville, because pretty well no one stays
here without being ruined.

In this den of trickery, then, the Seeker is mistaken for his brother, first by the cook, then by Erotium, then by Peniculus, and then by Erotium's maid. That takes us to the end of Act 3. It is worth adding that the Seeker is morally a true twin of his brother; for having dined and had sex with Erotium on a completely false basis, he promises to have trimmings added to her dress, and extra gold put on her bracelet, while all the time intending to sell these articles as soon as he goes downtown (549).

Meanwhile Peniculus, detained by a public meeting, has been done out of his dinner. This has proved too much for his loyalty, and he has told Menaechmus’ wife about the theft. Eventually, in Act 5, she catches Menaechmus with the dress; but alas it is the wrong Menaechmus. As a result of the ensuing row, she sends for her father, who concludes that his son-in-law has gone off his head. Seizing on this as a possible way of escape, the Seeker pretends to be raving mad, whereupon the father goes to fetch a doctor. By the time he arrives (late, of course, and full of pretentious jargon) the assumed patient has been replaced by Menaechmus. After further altercation, Menaechmus is led away, but is rescued in a brawl by Messenio, who mistakes him for his master. Finally the two Menaechmi encounter each other, and (surprise surprise) Messenio realizes they are twin brothers. Following the recognition scene Messenio is given his freedom—an act of poetic justice towards the only half-decent character among the main actors.7

On turning to The Comedy of Errors, the first thing to notice is the absence of a Prologue. We are plunged in medias res, and the background is supplied piecemeal by the characters themselves. The scene is Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor, and the circumstances are grim indeed. Egeon, a merchant from Syracuse, is under sentence of death unless he can raise 1,000 marks in ransom money. The reason is that Ephesus and Syracuse are in a state of conflict, which involves reprisals, though not actual war. This conflict presupposes a larger, political, background, which is not present in the Menaechmi. More important, the geographical background is also much wider. In the Menaechmi, Syracuse, Tarentum, and Epidamnus form a relatively small triangle, intelligible and indeed familiar to a Roman audience. But the English audience would have had only the haziest idea about the location of Syracuse, Epidamnum, and Ephesus. Still, for reasons which I shall mention shortly, they had all heard of Ephesus; and so they listened as the hapless Egeon told his story.

When sailing home from Epidamnum to Syracuse, Egeon and his family were shipwrecked and, as a result, separated. The family consisted of his wife, their twin sons, and their twin servants: six in all. Egeon, with son Antipholus and servant Dromio, eventually got back to Syracuse. Many years later Antipholus sets off with Dromio to search for his twin and also for his mother:

So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.


Egeon, too, keeps making enquiries as he travels round the eastern Mediterranean on business.8 Foakes speaks of ‘the measured dignity’ and ‘simple gravity’ of Egeon's tale. As the man himself is doomed, the situation ought to be tragic. Yet this doesn't seem quite right, as the play has been advertised as a comedy. By the end of the scene the answer will have been clear, at least to the more alert. Though Egeon's ship went down in a storm, he and his family survived by lashing themselves to a mast. When they were about to be saved, the mast was split in two by a rock; yet they still remained afloat. Half the company was picked up by a fishing boat from Corinth, and the other half by a ship bound for Syracuse. Such miraculous escapes belong to a genre which has the pains and ordeals of tragedy but the happy ending of comedy—namely, the romance.

We now jump ahead to Act 5. The recognitions begin when Egeon, on his way to execution, sees the Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio, whom he wrongly takes to be the two from Syracuse (5.1.195-6). Soon, however, the two Antipholuses and the two Dromios come together; and all is concluded, if not explained, when the abbess of the priory at Ephesus enters. For she turns out to be none other than Emilia, Egeon's long-lost wife, and mother of the Antipholus twins. Egeon is duly set free, and in true comic fashion they all go off to supper. So, whereas in the Menaechmi the comedy is preceded by a prologue—Prologue/Comedy—in Shakespeare's play the comedy is woven into a framework of romance—Romance/Comedy/Romance.9

Although not traditionally acknowledged in classical syllabuses,10 the sentimental romance evolved as a literary form in the Graeco-Roman world. As with other genres, its origins are controversial; and fortunately they do not concern us here. Enough to recall that five specimens have survived, and that we have fragments of many more. Set in the eastern Mediterranean, they have to do with fine, handsome young men and beautiful modest girls, who are separated at the beginning of the story and are finally reunited after the most hair-raising adventures. The events in Xenophon of Ephesus' Ethiopian Story are summarized thus by Paul Turner in the introduction to his translation (1957): ‘Anthea is captured by pirates, nearly raped, nearly made a human sacrifice, buried alive after she has drugged herself to avoid a distasteful marriage, buried in a pit with two fierce dogs. Yet she ends up none the worse for her adventures. Meanwhile Habrocomes her husband has been shipwrecked off the coast of Egypt, captured by shepherds, sold into slavery, falsely accused of murdering his master, crucified on a rock overlooking the Nile, swept by a gale into the river; fished out again and condemned to be burnt at the stake. Happily the Nile overflows and puts out the flames; and Habrocomes is spared for a new series of surprising experiences.’ From this it will be inferred that credibility is not the genre's strongest feature.

A few of these romances, notably those of Achilles Tatius, Longus, and Heliodorus, were known in England at a surprisingly early date, mainly in versions of Latin or French translations.11 But the most influential of all was one which had disappeared much earlier. Before it was lost, an adaptation had been made in Latin under the title Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri, usually shortened to Apollonius of Tyre.12 Towards the end of this work Apollonius, thanks to a dream, eventually travels to Ephesus, where he is reunited with his wife, now priestess of the Temple of Diana in that city. The work came down through the Middle Ages in several versions.13 The one known to Shakespeare was in Book 8 of John Gower's poem Confessio Amantis (1390), where Apollonius' wife, Lucina, is significantly called an abbesse (1849). Did her name suggest Luciana's? Possibly; but at any rate Shakespeare was interested enough in the story to use it again in Pericles Prince of Tyre.

The procedure of sandwiching a farce of mistaken identity between the concluding scenes of a romance was heavily criticized by Quiller-Couch: ‘As yet farce and romance were not one “form” but two separate stools; and between them in The Comedy of Errors [Shakespeare] fell to the ground.’14 Yet in view of its continued popularity the play cannot be written off as a failure; and so it is worth looking more closely at the ways in which the two different genres have been brought together. We have already seen that improbabilities of plot were no obstacle. What, then, about the social rank of the participants? The Latin title of the romance shows that the hero was a prince; and his wife was a princess, daughter of King Archestrates of Pentapolis in Cyrenaica (North Africa). There is nothing, however, to connect Shakespeare's Egeon with the aristocracy. He is simply a merchant from Syracuse. His son, the Syracusan Antipholus, is on the same level (1.2); and the Ephesian twin also appears to be in trade (2.1.4-5, 11). So Shakespeare has eliminated the discrepancy of class by setting his play in the same world as that of the Menaechmi, who were sons of a Syracusan merchant (17).

Within this bourgeois world four types of connection are established. First, a neat link is provided in 1.2.3-7 when a merchant informs the newly arrived Antipholus that

This very day a Syracusian merchant
Is apprehended for arrival here,
And not being able to buy out his life,
According to the statutes of the town
Dies ere the weary sun set in the west.

Towards the end of the play (5.1.124-8) a second merchant says to Adriana (the Ephesian Antipholus' wife) and her friends that the Duke is coming

To see a reverend Syracusian merchant,
Who put unluckily into the bay
Against the laws and statutes of this town,
Beheaded publicly for his offence.

So at the opening and at the finish of the play Egeon is presented to the others as a fellow merchant.

Second, in 1.2 the local merchant, on greeting Antipholus of Syracuse, says ‘There is your money that I had to keep.’ Antipholus hands it to his servant Dromio. Later (1.2.81), when he asks to have it back, the amount is said to be 1,000 marks—the exact sum which was needed to save Egeon's life (1.1.21). By reminding us of this point at 2.1.61 and 65, and again at 3.1.8, Shakespeare creates a vague undercurrent of suspense: if only Antipholus knew who Egeon was.

The most important illustration of what might be called Shakespeare's mercantile emphasis is the fact that, unlike Plautus, he uses gold and sums of money as the chief instruments of misunderstanding. In the Menaechmi, as we saw, the main focus of confusion was the stolen dress. That, like the stolen bracelet, was a symbol of Menaechmus' infidelity. The wallet of money belonging to Menaechmus the Seeker (265, 385-6, 701-2, 1035-7) played a much smaller part in the complication of the plot. Shakespeare, however, makes important and recurrent use of the Syracusan's money (1.2.9; 1.2.54ff.; 2.1.61ff.; 2.2.1), of the golden chain promised to Adriana, the Ephesian's wife (2.1.106; 3.1.1; 3.1.114ff.; 3.2.165ff.; 4.1.1ff.; 4.3.45; 4.4.133; 5.1.2ff.), and of the ducats sent by Adriana to secure the Ephesian's freedom (4.1.103; 2.42; 3.12; 4.11; 4.81ff.). All these items cause confusion and altercation, with frequent charges of bad faith and dishonesty. Shakespeare, however, did not take over Plautus' dress, and he transformed the bracelet into a (more visible) chain, giving it a different and more complex function. Before leaving this commercial theme, we may perhaps risk a preliminary reference to St Paul who, as we are told in Acts 19, caused a riot by preaching the gospel in Ephesus. The trouble began among the silversmiths who made ‘shrines’ (vαoús) for the goddess Diana, and who understandably saw their livelihood threatened by this new religion. The silversmiths' craft, then, was one of the things that English people associated with Ephesus. So, although the point will not bear much weight, it is at least appropriate that in a play set in Ephesus Shakespeare should have created the character of Angelo the goldsmith and made an important comic motif out of a gold chain.15

The Ephesus of the Acts is also the centre of much stranger things. According to the New English Bible, ‘through Paul God worked miracles of an unusual kind: when handkerchiefs and scarves which had been in contact with his skin were carried to the sick, they were rid of their diseases and the evil spirits came out of them.’ Such miracles, no doubt, were accepted as authentic and unsinister by the Elizabethan reader. ‘But,’ continues the account, ‘some strolling Jewish exorcists tried their hand at using the name of the Lord Jesus on those possessed by evil spirits; they would say, “I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul proclaims”. There were seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who were using this method, when the evil spirit answered back and said, “Jesus I acknowledge, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” And the man with the evil spirit flew at them, overpowered them all, and handled them with such violence that they ran out of the house stripped and battered. This became known to everybody in Ephesus … Moreover many of those who had become believers came and openly confessed that they had been using magical spells. And a good many of those who formerly practised magic collected their books and burnt them publicly’ (Acts 19.11-19). Now the Menaechmi is almost completely lacking in a supernatural dimension. When a character is bewildered he complains he is being mocked, or tricked, or insulted; or that another person is asleep, or dreaming, or drunk, or raving mad; but he hardly ever claims that the mysterious events are due to witchcraft.16 In Shakespeare, however, a sequence of strange events reveals the terrifying duality of the world—a world in which Satan and his followers are in perpetual revolt against God (even though they can never hope to win). This cosmic struggle is mirrored within the human soul, which at times of crisis is in danger of being overwhelmed by the forces of evil. When possessed, the human person ceases to be ‘himself.’ Having lost his identity he no longer controls his own actions; and he faces not only a life of madness on earth, but also eternal damnation in the world to come. Such anxieties are present in the Syracusan's mind when he describes the spiritual atmosphere of Ephesus:

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.


These suspicions seem to be borne out by the happenings which follow. Fascinated by Adriana's sister, Luciana, who unaccountably knows his name, the Syracusan concludes, only half-figuratively, that she must be a siren (3.2.47) or a mermaid (163); the town seems to be inhabited by witches (3.2.155) and sorcerers (4.3.12). So when the Courtesan accosts the Syracusan pair, using the right name, they look on her as an incarnation of the devil (4.3.43ff.). These fears are not confined to the Syracusans. The womenfolk are convinced that the Ephesian Antipholus is out of his wits, and so bring in Dr Pinch to conjure or exorcise the evil spirit.17 He duly intones

I charge thee, Satan, hous'd within this man,
To yield possession to my holy prayers,
And to thy state of darkness hie thee straight;
I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven.


This marks a significant elaboration of the Menaechmi, in which the doctor (though no more effective) enquires about the patient's fluid intake, and whether he suffers from flatulence; he then undertakes to give him a course of hellebore (915ff.).18 In these scenes, then, Shakespeare has taken only the slightest hint from the Menaechmi. He is much more indebted to the Acts, a source quite outside the area of the comedy, which he has exploited to enhance the farce.19

He also uses the Acts to weave the farce into the framework of a now Christianized romance. For when the ‘deranged’ Antipholus of Syracuse moves out of the Plautine comedy into the closing scenes of the play, he is taken in hand by Emilia, a serious figure who promises to treat the patient by all her ‘approved means,’ both physical and spiritual:

With wholesome syrops, drugs and holy prayers
To make of him a formal man again.


So the mind will be restored to normality by one who is no longer the priestess of a pagan temple, but a Christian abbess using Christian procedures.

As Shakespeare developed the outer frame into something more than romance, so he developed the inner play into something more than farce. To see how, we shall first look briefly at the Antipholus twins, contrasting them with the Menaechmi. At the beginning of Plautus' comedy, Menaechmus has been driven out of the house by his nagging wife, and as a reprisal he resolves to visit Erotium:

atque adeo, ne me nequiquam serues, ob eam industriam
hodie ducam scortum ad cenam atque aliquo condicam foras


In other words, ‘I’ll give you something to be suspicious about; I'll have dinner with a floozie' (scortum is a low word). Later it transpires that this is no isolated incident. Menaechmus is a familiar client of Erotium's, and she is more than a dinner partner (358f.). Again, no secret is made of their liaison; evidently there is nothing very remarkable about it. When the wife's father comes on the scene, he takes the side of his son-in-law against his daughter, whom he rebukes for being unduly possessive. In exasperation she finally says, ‘But look, he's having sex with a prostitute next door!’ (790). Disconcertingly, the father answers, ‘And he's jolly well right. Thanks to your interference he'll go there all the more often.’ After hearing more in the same vein the wife remarks with some bitterness, ‘I see I've brought you here, Father, to plead my husband's case, not mine. You're supposed to be on my side, but you're taking his.’

So much for Menaechmus. What about the Ephesian Antipholus? We know that his wife feels neglected. She complains to her sister when he fails to come home for dinner (2.1). But her trouble is more serious than this; for she has convinced herself that he is sleeping with another woman (2.1.108). In the next scene, in a highly emotional speech, she accuses Antipholus to his face of betraying her. Not surprisingly, she fails to get a satisfactory response because it is the wrong Antipholus. Meanwhile, her real husband is in Angelo's shop, seeing about a present for his wife. He is late for dinner (we are not told why), and he knows he is in for trouble.20 So he asks Angelo to cover for him:

My wife is shrewish when I keep not hours;
Say that I linger'd with you at your shop
To see the making of her carcanet.


Eventually Antipholus, with his servant Dromio and his friend Balthasar, arrives home for dinner to find that he has been locked out. Inside, Adriana is dining with the Syracusan, whom she takes to be her husband. The row begins when the Syracusan Dromio, who is stationed inside, behind the door, exchanges abuse with his twin. Then the taunts are taken up by Luciana's maid; and finally Adriana herself appears for a brief moment—just long enough to send her husband packing

Ephesian Antipholus Are you
there, wife? You might have come before.
Adriana Your wife, sir knave? Go,
get you from the door!


After rounding off the couplet, she flounces out, leaving Antipholus fuming with suspicion. Balthasar persuades him not to make a rumpus by breaking down the door with a crowbar; but Antipholus insists on registering a protest:

I know a wench of excellent discourse,
Pretty and witty; wild and yet, too, gentle;
There will we dine. This woman that I mean,
My wife (but I protest without desert)
Hath oftentimes upbraided me withal;
To her we will to dinner.


So Antipholus asserts that he has gone to the woman because she is good company, and that (in spite of his wife's suspicions) he has not slept with her. If Shakespeare had meant to cast doubt on this, he could have done so through an expression of polite surprise on the part of Balthasar. But he lets the assertion stand; so for the moment one is inclined to give Antipholus the benefit of the doubt. In spite of his quick temper and his thoughtless lack of punctuality, Antipholus is therefore perceptibly superior to Menaechmus, who was a glutton, a liar, a thief, and a fornicator.

We shall see in a moment how the Ephesian Antipholus gradually moves beyond the Plautine romp. But first let us think for a moment about that exclusion scene. As usual, hints were supplied by the Menaechmi. In 661 Menaechmus submissively promises to return the dress to his wife. She says, in effect, ‘You'd better; otherwise you won't be let into the house’ (662). Menaechmus now has to retrieve the dress from Erotium. He is confident she will hand it over when he promises to buy her a nice new one, and that, so far from shutting him out, she will shut him in with her (671). But Erotium turns out to be much less obliging, and slams the door in his face (698). All this put Shakespeare in mind of the boisterous, but sadly fragmentary, scene in Plautus' Amphitruo, where the hero is shut out of his own house by Mercury while Jupiter is inside with Alcmena, Amphitruo's wife (1018ff.). On the basis of that scene Shakespeare created something quite new. The episode is cleverly prepared as the Ephesian and Balthasar walk home, looking forward to a belated dinner. The host modestly hopes that the food will be up to the occasion, and the guest assures him that the welcome is what really matters (3.1.19-29). Such civilities end abruptly when the door is found to be locked. There follows an interchange of lively abuse, full of the quibbles and bawdiness that Shakespeare and his audience loved. So here, following the ancient procedure of aemulatio, Shakespeare has taken on Plautus and in certain respects beaten him at his own game. For instance, when the Ephesian shouts for his maids,

Maud, Bridget, Marian, Cicely, Gillian, Ginn!


the Syracusan Dromio, from behind the locked door, improvises a jeering retort in a similar metre:

Mome, malthorse, capon, coxcomb, idiot, patch!

The exchanges develop into classical stichomythia as one line answers another. And each riposte gains further sharpness when Shakespeare makes it the second member of a rhymed couplet:

Ephesian Dromio What patch
is made our porter? My master stays in the street.
Syracusan Dromio Let him walk from
whence he came, lest he catch cold on's feet.
Ephesian Antipholus Who talks within
there? ho, open the door.
Syracusan Dromio Right, sir, I'll
tell you when, and you'll tell me wherefore.
Ephesia Antipholus Wherefore? for
my dinner; I have not dined today.
Syracusan Dromio Nor today here you
must not; come again when you may.


Again, as the altercation develops, Shakespeare brings in five different participants. This free-for-all is made possible because the focus has been moved from Amphitruo's bedroom to Antipholus' dining-room. In its new setting, and with its new characters, the exclusion scene has lost its element of theological burlesque, and with it the underlying bawdiness of its situation.21 Nevertheless, it anchors the Ephesian Antipholus firmly within the context of a Plautine farce.

But as the play progresses, Antipholus begins to acquire another dimension. From the Syracusan's speech in 4.3 we infer that his twin is a popular figure in the city:

There's not a man I meet but does salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend,
And everyone doth call me by my name:
Some tender money to me, some invite me,
Some other give me thanks for kindnesses,
Some offer me commodities to buy.


More evidence in favour of Antipholus is supplied in Act 5 by Angelo, who says he is a man

Of very reverend reputation … 
Of credit infinite, highly belov'd,
Second to none that lives here in the city.


More evidence still comes from the Duke, who (somewhat to our surprise) tells Adriana ‘Long since thy husband serv'd me in my wars’ (5.1.61); this is subsequently elaborated by Antipholus himself, who reminds the Duke how he once protected him on the battlefield:

When I bestrid thee in the wars, and took
Deep scars to save thy life.


So the closer he comes to meeting his father, the nobler and less farcical Antipholus is made to appear.

We now come to the Syracusan Antipholus. He also belongs to two literary worlds. Though more dignified than Menaechmus the Seeker, he becomes the primary victim of comic error. Perhaps understandably, his reason is not able to cope with all that happens, and, as noted above, he concludes that the entire city is bewitched. His comic status is also shown by the verbal foolery which he carries on with the two Dromios. His status in the romance, on the other hand, is shown by his rapturous courtship of Luciana (3.2.29ff.). To span these two worlds, Shakespeare has given him a suitably elastic character.

When he first appears (1.2), he tells Dromio to go to the inn with the money. Dromio jokes: ‘many a man would take the money and go for good.’ As Dromio exits, Antipholus describes him as ‘a trusty villain’—a phrase in which ‘trusty’—is seriously meant and ‘villain’ is just good-natured banter. A little later, after an altercation with Dromio's twin, Antipholus concludes that his servant has allowed himself to be cheated out of the cash:

Upon my life, by some device or other
The villain is o'er-raught of all my money.


This time, ‘villain’ is seriously meant, and Dromio's trustworthiness has apparently evaporated. Before we look at the comic scene which causes the change-around, let us go back again to Antipholus' description of Dromio:

A trusty villain sir, that very oft,
When I am dull with care and melancholy,
Lightens my humour with his merry jests.


So there is a gloomy side to Antipholus' character—one which we hear of half way through the scene:

He that commends me to my own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.


In a famous simile, Antipholus goes on to compare himself to a drop of water which is lost in the ocean. As so often, the germ of the idea is found in the Menaechmi, where Messenio exclaims that the two twins are as alike as one drop of water (or milk) to another (1089). But Shakespeare uses the image to adumbrate the serious motif of the fluid self, which may be (regrettably) lost in the mass of humanity or (agreeably) merged with the self of a loved one. At present the gloomy sense predominates, for up to now Antipholus' quest has been futile, and he is in low spirits. So already the Syracusan is a more rounded figure than his Plautine prototype.

Yet this melancholy mood can, we are told, be lightened by Dromio's wit. So when Antipholus meets the wrong Dromio (1.2.41ff.) and obtains a sequence of absurd replies, he assumes his servant is trying to cheer him up. But at present he is not amenable to jokes and so reacts angrily (58, 68, 72, 80). As the bewildered Ephesian Dromio continues to talk nonsense, Antipholus loses his temper and begins to beat him: ‘There, take you that, sir knave!’ (92).

After 2.1, which is arranged in the sequence serious (1-43), comic (44-85), serious (86-116), Antipholus of Syracuse meets his own Dromio in 2.2. Still angry, he beats him once more for joking at the wrong moment. But a change of mood is signalled when Antipholus asks ‘But say, sir, is it dinner-time?’ (54).22 A series of riddles and puns ensues during which Antipholus is coaxed into good humour in the very way described in 1.2.19-21 (quoted above); he is even given the satisfaction of having the last word (2.2.107). So these two comic encounters have a chiastic structure in that the first moves from good humour to anger and beating, and the second moves the other way.

In the dialogue between Luciana and the Syracusan (3.2) the romantic side of the latter's personality is fully revealed. I offer a paraphrase of the first sixteen lines of his speech (29-44): ‘In your knowledge (as proved by your use of my name) and in your beauty you represent no less of a marvel than the earth itself; in fact you are more divine than anything earthly. Explain to my dull understanding the inner meaning of your puzzling words (i.e., 1-28). Why are you trying to baffle my soul which can apprehend the truth (viz. that we are meant for each other)? If you are a divinity, transform me and I shall become your slave. If I am who I think I am, then your sister is not my wife. It is to you that I am drawn.’ Antipholus speaks of Luciana as a mermaid or siren, and longs to drown in her embrace (51)—a more explicitly erotic kind of self-surrender. Then, in language of quasi-religious adoration, he hails her as

Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer heart,
My food, my fortune, and my sweet hope's aim,
My sole earth's heaven, and my heaven's claim.


Finally he begs her to be his wife.

The speech is comic in that the divine knowledge ascribed to Luciana is an illusion. Though she calls him by the right name (2), she is in error about his identity; and erring, as we know, is a human, not a divine habit. Moreover, Antipholus' language is amusing; for, although magnificent, it flies too high. This is the hyperbole of the infatuated, expressing a state which the world smiles at indulgently (and envies). Yet the speech projects feelings of sincere devotion, and this may suggest an analogy with the early scenes of a Greek romance before the lovers have been forced apart. Nevertheless, Shakespeare could not have found an impassioned address like that of Antipholus in his Greek sources. Likewise, though the Greek novels have certain religious overtones,23 the Christian element in the speech (‘My sole earth's heaven, and my heaven's claim’) is not classical, but late Latin or medieval, in origin. This innovation corresponds to the metamorphosis of Diana's priestess (as found in the Apollonius romance) into the abbess of the priory.

Continuing to apply his technique of contrasts, Shakespeare now describes a very different scene of courtship—one which by its grossness offers a parody of Antipholus' sentimental raptures.24 The narrator is the Syracusan Dromio, who comes on stage panting (like the traditional seruus currens) after escaping the attentions of Nell, Adriana's overweight kitchen maid. Antipholus here encourages, and enters into, the coarse humour of his servant as he moves from the woman's fatness to her globe-like figure, and from there to the countries located on her body. Granted, there is more to this foolery than simple vulgarity; some of the geographical references have a contemporary political application.25 Nevertheless, this scene shows once more the farcical aspect of Antipholus' personality.

Yet it is the serious Antipholus who remains at the end of the play. After the ‘deranged’ comic victim has taken refuge with Dromio in the priory he (like Egeon) is saved and returned to the everyday world by the good offices of Emilia. But it is a happier and more complete world, for Antipholus has found not only his brother (as Menaechmus the Seeker did); he has also found his parents, so that the play ends in a family reunion. And that is not all. Though he can scarcely believe it, one of Antipholus' strange experiences turns out not to have been an illusion, and this raises hopes for a happy future. Addressing Luciana, he says

                                        What I told you then,
I hope I shall have leisure to make good,
If this be not a dream I see and hear.


Before we leave the Antipholus twins, one more point should be made about their sexual behaviour. During the exclusion scene there is no suggestion that the Syracusan tries to take advantage of Adriana, as Jupiter does with Alcmena in Amphitruo. He does not find her attractive

She that doth call me husband, even my soul
Doth for a wife abhor


and anyhow one assumes that he has eyes only for Luciana, who is present throughout (2.1.6; 2.2.187 and 219; 5.1.207). Since Adriana does not become sexually involved with the Syracusan, her husband's wild suspicions are completely unfounded (4.4.57, 61, 99, 122; 5.1.197ff.). And even if she had, she would have been no more guilty than Alcmena, who acted out of ignorance. As for the Ephesian Antipholus, he has not attempted to seduce his sister-in-law, in spite of what Luciana and Adriana believe (4.2.1ff.). In financial matters, the Syracusan Dromio did not lose his master's money (1.2), and Angelo did not attempt to defraud the Ephesian Antipholus (4.1.49), or vice versa. The whole play is about misconceptions. Therefore, in spite of some doubts—doubts which are raised when Luciana later speaks of Antipholus ‘demeaning himself’ (5.1.87-8)—it would seem formally inappropriate if Adriana were right in accusing her husband of infidelity (3.1.111-13). If she is wrong, then all the sexual relationships in the play take place within the context of Christian courtship and marriage; even the much-mocked Nell pursues Dromio of Syracuse because she genuinely believes he is her fiancé (3.2.140, 154). As a result, Shakespeare, unlike Plautus, has no central role for the prostitute, and she dwindles into an anonymous minor figure.

We noted earlier how Shakespeare enhanced the farce by admitting a second pair of twins, by adapting the exclusion scene from Amphitruo, and by acknowledging the influence of the supernatural. We have also seen how, by reducing the dramatic function of fornication and adding a more serious dimension to the character of the Antipholus twins, he created something more complex and substantial, and at the same time made it possible to weave the Plautine farce into the now Christianized framework of the Greek romance. We must now consider how the whole process was assisted by Shakespeare's most original achievements—namely, the transformation of the nagging matrona into the many-sided and wholly human Adriana, and the creation of her different but equally credible sister.

To prepare the ground, we revert, for the last time, to St Paul and Ephesus. In his epistle to the Christian community in the city, which lays down the rules for godly marriage, Paul first of all condemns fornication: ‘But fornication, and all uncleanness … let it not be once named among you’ (Ephesians 5.3); … ‘no whoremonger, nor unclean person … hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God’ (Ephesians 5.5). Then, moving on to intramarital relations, Paul says, ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church’ (22-3); ‘Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it’ (25); ‘Let every one of you … so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband’ (33).

With these precepts in mind, we return to The Comedy of Errors. At the opening of Act 2 it is two o'clock. Instead of starting dinner and letting Antipholus eat his cold when he arrives, Adriana has worked herself into a state, first, because her husband is free to wander wherever he pleases, whereas she must kick her heels at home. The second reason does not at once emerge, because Adriana and her sister energetically debate the first.

Luciana Good sister let us
dine and never fret;
A man is master of his liberty.


Adriana Why should their liberty
than ours be more?
Luciana Because their business still
lies out o' door


(i.e., the husband's sphere is the city at large, the wife's is the home). As far as the working class was concerned, one doubts how far that division actually held good in London or Rome; but like Menaechmus, Antipholus is supposedly a respectable bourgeois; and so Luciana's acquiescence represents the conventional middle-class attitude. But Adriana rejects the convention. She retorts, in effect, ‘when I treat him that way he doesn't like it.’ Whereupon her sister irritates her still more by reminding her of the Pauline doctrine that husbands ‘are masters of their families, and their lords’ (24). ‘Huh,’ says Adriana, ‘that's what prevents you from marrying; if you did marry, you'd insist on having some authority’ (26, 28). But Luciana holds her ground: ‘Ere I learn love I'll practise to obey’ (29). This, of course, recalls the marriage-lines in The Book of Common Prayer (1549), where the bride promises to ‘obey … serve … love … honour and keep’ her husband. And it is interesting to see (as one might have guessed) that already in Shakespeare's time the idea was not accepted everywhere without protest.

Luciana's words now prod Adriana into revealing the second reason for her disquiet.

How if your husband start some other where?


Luciana again counsels patience:

Till he come home again I would forbear.

‘All very well for you to recommend patience,’ says Adriana, ‘you've got nothing to be impatient about.’ Dromio now enters. He was sent to fetch Antipholus, but failed to do so because, of course, he was speaking to the Syracusan, who gave him a smack on the ear. Adriana threatens to give him another, and sends him off again.26 Luciana once more chides her for impatience (86), whereupon Adriana reveals that she is not only angry but miserable; and it's all because she thinks her husband is consorting with another woman. This moving speech is punctuated by Luciana, not with indignant remarks about Antipholus’ alleged infidelity, but with reflections on the folly of jealousy (102, 116).

The theme of jealousy is resumed and developed in 2.2, where Adriana remonstrates with Antipholus in a way which shows that her distress arises from passionate affection allied to a rather pathetic sense of insecurity. In this most eloquent appeal she says, in effect, ‘how would you like it if I were disloyal to you?’

How dearly would it touch thee to the quick,
Shouldst thou but hear I were licentious?
And that this body, consecrate to thee,
By ruffian lust should be contaminate?
Wouldst thou not spit at me, and spurn at me,
And hurl the name of husband in my face?


All very moving, but, ironically, the appeal is addressed to the wrong man. More ironically still, the power of Adriana's appeal persuades the Syracusan to enter her house for dinner; and that leads directly to the pandemonium of the exclusion scene and the subsequent taunts of ‘dissembling harlot’ and ‘unhappy strumpet’ (4.4.99, 122).

We have already touched on the scene where the Syracusan pays court to Luciana (3.2). It begins when she makes a direct allusion to Ephesians 5.25 (‘Husbands, love your wives’ etc.):

And may it be that you have quite forgot
A husband's office? shall, Antipholus,
Even in the spring of love, thy love-springs rot?


Then a good-hearted attempt to combine realism with charity: are you really no longer in love with Adriana? Even if you married her for her money you might at least treat her with some decency. If you are carrying on with someone else, you ought to pretend that you're still fond of her and not hurt her feelings. But Antipholus continues to pour out his devotion and finally urges her to marry him. At this point Luciana quickly intervenes

 O soft, sir, hold you still;
I'll fetch my sister to get her good will.


I'm not sure what this means—perhaps no more than that Luciana will fetch her sister and tell her what has happened, so as to avoid putting herself in a false position. At any rate by 4.2 Luciana has reported the whole incident to Adriana. So much for her earlier contention that her sister should be kept in the dark. It looks as if secrecy was possible only as long as Antipholus was thought to be having an affair with just another woman; but once it appeared that Luciana herself was the object of his affections, then the matter could no longer be kept from her sister. In this later scene (4.2), Luciana perhaps reveals more than she intends; for it now becomes clear that she found Antipholus rather attractive, and was not just shocked, but also flattered, by his address:

Adriana With what persuasion
did he tempt thy love?
Luciana With words that in an honest suit might move:
First he did praise my beauty, then my speech.
Adriana (anxiously) Did'st speak
him fair?
Luciana Have patience, I beseech.


Patience again—and one notes that Luciana hasn't answered the question, though in fact she had said nothing to lead Antipholus on. This reticence provokes an explosion from Adriana:

He is deformed, crooked, old and sere,
Ill faced, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere;
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind,
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind.


Luciana (with feline softness):

Who would be jealous then of such a one?

Adriana recovers herself and admits the truth:

Ah but I think him better than I say.

So once again Adriana's jealousy is seen to arise from anxiety and overpossessiveness, not mere vindictiveness.

In the Menaechmi, when the matrona apprehends her (supposed) husband carrying the stolen dress, she sends for her father to come and deal with him (736). The old fellow knows that in matrimonial squabbles there are usually faults on both sides (765ff.), but he treats his daughter unsympathetically:

Quotiens monstraui tibi, uiro ut morem geras,
quid ille faciat, ne id obserues, quo eat, quid rerum gerat


How often have I told you to let your husband have his way, not to be spying on what he does, where he goes, and what he's up to?

This is a clumsy approach; for, whether the wife's nagging is the cause or the effect of Menaechmus' fornication, her father weighs straight in and directly alleges that she is at fault. The procedure of the abbess in 5.1 is altogether more subtle. In attempting to diagnose the source of Antipholus' disorder, she asks Adriana if it could be loss of money, or bereavement, or unlawful love. Adriana fastens on the last: ‘some love that drew him oft from home’ (56).

Abbess You should for that
have reprehended him.
Adriana Why, so I did.
Abbess Ay, but not rough enough.
Adriana As roughly as my modesty
would let me.
Abbess Haply in private.
Adriana And in assemblies too.
Abbess Ay, but not enough.
AdrianaIt 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 glanc'd at it;
Still did I tell him it was vile and bad.


And now the trap closes:

Abbess And thereof came it
that the man was mad.

The abbess now goes through all the points confessed by Adriana, and concludes

The consequence is, then, thy jealous fits
Hath scar'd thy husband from the use of wits.


All this is too much for Luciana. Although the abbess has said little more than what she herself said earlier (‘Self-harming jealousy! fie, beat it hence’ in 2.1.102; ‘How many fond fools serve mad jealousy!’ in 2.1.116), she is not prepared to hear her sister criticized by this strange woman. So she intervenes indignantly

She never reprehended him but mildly,
When he demean'd himself rough, rude, and wildly.


Then, turning to Adriana,

Why bear you these rebukes and answer not?

Adriana (quietly)

She did betray me to mine own reproof


—an interesting switch of emotional positions, in which Luciana becomes indignant and Adriana acquiescent. For the audience, the pleasure derived from this piece of moral enlightenment is only sharpened by the knowledge that the supposedly disordered male, who has given rise to it all, is the wrong man.

This clever psychological interplay takes us far from the Plautine comedy with which we began. Clearly the Menaechmi is altogether less complex and less serious. But before we say farewell to it we should acknowledge it for what it is. First, it is a work of great metrical virtuosity, consisting of speech (senarii), recitative (septenarii or octonarii chanted to a pipe) and song (various metres sung to the accompaniment of a pipe). Therefore, although the music is gone, and even professional Latinists are seldom at home with the lyric metres, one has to think of the Menaechmi as something akin to a musical comedy. This whole aspect of the work has been largely ignored in the present essay. Second, the Menaechmi is a skilful arrangement of comic scenes based on mistaken identity. No doubt some of the credit for this should go to the author of the Greek ‘original.’28 But we should beware of the prejudice which maintains that whatever is formally satisfactory in Plautus must come from his Greek model, while everything clumsy is Plautus' own. Along with the dramaturgical skill goes a certain homogeneity. Since, in dramatic terms, the Menaechmi does not pretend to be anything more than a heartless romp performed by two-dimensional comic types, it remains all of a piece. One has the impression that Plautus knew exactly what he was doing and did it well.

With Shakespeare, the case was different. As a young experimental dramatist, producing a new amalgam of comedy and romance, he could not be expected to attain formal perfection. An instance of imbalance may be seen in the treatment of the Syracusan Antipholus. As Luciana speaks to him in 3.2 he listens with increasing fascination. We cannot be sure how much he has taken in. Very little, perhaps, until she says

Then, gentle brother, get you in again;
Comfort my sister, cheer her, call her wife.


‘Gentle brother’—the phrase stuck when all else was perhaps a vague memory:

And this fair gentlewoman, her sister here,
Did call me brother.


We have already heard how the Syracusan

At eighteen years became inquisitive
After his brother.


He tells us as much himself in 1.2:

So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.


But now, long before he discovers his twin, here is someone who addresses him as ‘brother,’ and whom he greets as ‘mine own self's better part’ (3.2.61). Finally he says,

Call thyself sister, sweet, for I am thee.


The blend of souls is no less complete than when ‘a drop of water … seeks another drop’ and falls ‘to find his fellow forth’ (1.2.35, 37). In the outcome, the discovery of Luciana as a soulmate detracts rather from the Syracusan's eventual meeting with his brother. Granted, Plautus drags out his recognition scene too long. Between the moment when the astonished Messenio cries ‘Good Lord! What do I see?’ (1062) and the embrace of the two twins (1132) no fewer than seventy lines have elapsed. But Shakespeare surely goes too far in the other direction. At the climactic moment of their reunion the brothers do not exchange a single word. Almost as odd is the fact that Emilia addresses only three lines to her sons (5.1.400-2); and they do not speak to her at all. It must be added, however, that in an actual production there is so much going on (with Egeon, Emilia, Angelo, the Duke, two Antipholus twins, two Dromios, the two sisters, and others all on stage) that the anti-climax is barely noticed.

If we are emphasizing (as we must), not Shakespeare's deficiencies, but his amazingly original achievement in The Comedy of Errors, our last word must be about his characters. As we know, the characters of Shakespearian and Greek drama have gone through many vicissitudes in this century. They were turned loose from the text by A. C. Bradley and treated as real people; then rounded up and reincarcerated by L. C. Knights. They have been assimilated to the poet's language, as though they were a special kind of image or metaphor; treated as projections of the plot, or as fluid figures varying according to the rhetoric of the situation; more recently some critics have seen them as ‘written’ by the sociopolitical conditions of their day.

This is no moment to start a discussion of such ideas. But let us recall one point made earlier. While we know that Menaechmus frequently consorted with Erotium (358-72), we do not know how far his wife was to blame. Plautus leaves it open, and we assume he does so because the question is of no interest to him. Nor is it of any interest to us. In The Comedy of Errors the question of Antipholus' innocence remains unresolved. We were inclined to believe him when he told Balthasar that Adriana's accusations were unfounded (3.1.112). Yet later Luciana maintains that on more than one occasion ‘he demean'd himself rough, rude, and wildly’ (5.1.88). To dispose of this charge we have to assume that Luciana has been led by her indignant loyalty into making a baseless allegation. Now both these answers cannot be right. Both may be wrong, in the sense that Shakespeare himself may not have considered the question; perhaps he never envisaged or intended such speculation. But this much, I think, can be said. If I am wrong in raising this kind of problem, then countless readers over the last four centuries have been wrong too. And if such conjecture is misguided (as it may be, for the text does not provide the answer), it is just the kind of mistake that Shakespeare, throughout his oeuvre, encourages us to make. That beguiling spell is already at work in The Comedy of Errors.


  1. The first performance of The Comedy of Errors was on 28 December 1594. A free adaptation of the Menaechmi by William Warner (without the Prologue) appeared in 1595; it was reprinted, with the Latin text en face, by W.H. D. Rouse in the Shakespeare Library series, and by Bullough (1957, 12-39). Though Warner's manuscript had been handed round among his friends before 1595, there is no evidence that Shakespeare used it. Quiller-Couch and Dover Wilson (1962, 75f.) believed that Shakespeare worked from an intermediate play (The Historie of Error) which was performed on 1 January 1577. Most scholars, however, prefer the view of Baldwin (1944) that Shakespeare read the Menaechmi in Latin, possibly in Lambinus' edition (1576) and with the help of Cooper's dictionary (1565). While agreeing that Plautus was Shakespeare's main source, Salingar (1974, 66-7) is inclined to think that he worked towards Plautus from stories like those of St Clement and St Eustace, or that the farcical and romantic stories were present together in his mind from the beginning. Neither idea is incompatible with the present essay.

  2. After greeting the audience, the speaker of the Prologue says apporto uobis Plautum—lingua, non manu, ‘I bring you Plautus—on my tongue, not in my arms,’ a mild pleasantry, extended in the appeal for attention which follows: quaeso ut benignis accipiatis auribus, ‘kindly receive him with favourable ears.’ He then assures the audience that, unlike the writers of comedies who always claim that their plays are set in Athens, he will state quite frankly that the present piece takes place in Sicily—which it doesn't. Literal truth has been sacrificed for the sake of a verbal play, sicilicissitat being a Plautine concoction based on the Greek verbal ending….

  3. He steps into a rapidum fluuium, whereupon rapidus raptori pueri subduxit pedes / apstraxitque hominem in maxumam malam crucem (65-6). A lame translation would be: ‘The swift-flowing river swept the legs from under the boy's kidnapper and carried him away to utter destruction’—lame, because rapidus bounces off raptori, subducere has the poetically just sense of ‘steal,’ and the phrase in malam crucem recalls the punishment meted out to criminals.

  4. The nominative form Epidamnus occurs only here in the play. Shakespeare calls it Epidamnum.

  5. Whatever innuendo may have been conveyed by the actor, the text contains no pun on peniculus = ‘little penis.’ Nor is the opportunity for such humour exploited later, when Menaechmus the Seeker asks Peniculus his name (498ff.). In 285 Messenio takes a peniculus out of his travelling bag. Some commentators assure us it is a clothes brush; others think it is a small sponge, the equivalent of a toilet roll.

  6. Segal 1969, 147.

  7. Perhaps ‘half decent’ is as far as we can go in view of 268, where Messenio is said to be a magnus amator mulierum (cf. 703).

  8. See 1.1.132-6. ‘Egeon,’ a name found in Lily's Grammar, was doubtless chosen as being appropriate for a traveller in the eastern Mediterranean.

  9. In Northrop Frye's fifth, or romantic, phase of comedy, ‘the usual symbol for the lower or chaotic world is the sea’ (1957, 184). Frye includes The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest as examples of ‘sea’ comedies. Very well; but it is in the romantic framework of the play that such symbolism occurs. There is no sea-rescue in the comedy proper, just as there is no sea-rescue in the Menaechmi. For that, or something like it, we have to go to the Rudens, which does contain a shipwreck, and hence prefigures The Tempest. One can talk of an element of romance in the Rudens, even though the romantic novel had not evolved as early as Plautus (late third, early second century bc). One can also talk, more generally, of elements of romance derived from Euripides, employed in Greek New Comedy, and adapted by Roman playwrights. Such considerations, however, have little bearing on Shakespeare's specific debt, at that early date, to the Menaechmi. For the Greek original of the Menaechmi has been lost (see n. 28 below). Shakespeare had only Plautus' version; and the romantic element in that, as we have seen, goes little beyond the basic theme of ‘lost and found’.

  10. The Greek romances were ignored, partly because they were thought to be late (some as late as the sixth century ad), partly because the literary quality of the genre was not valued. Modern opinion tentatively dates the surviving specimens from the first century bc (the Ninus fragments) to the fourth century ad (Helio-dorus). New translations of all the material are available in the admirable collection edited by Reardon 1989.

  11. Heliodorus, ed. princ. 1534; French translation by J. Amyot 1547; Latin translation by S. Warschewiczki 1551; English translation by T. Underdowne based on the Latin 1569 (or 1570). Longus, French translation by J. Amyot 1559; English version of Amyot by A. Day 1587; ed. princ. 1598. Achilles Tatius, first complete translation into Italian by F. A. Coccio 1550; French translation by B. Comingeois 1568; English translation by W. Burton 1597. For a more complete list see Gesner 1970, 154ff.

  12. The most recent text is G. Schmeling's edition (Leipzig 1988). Perry holds, with some others, that the original version was in Latin (1967, 304-5, 324). This view has not won general assent; but even if Perry is right, the novel is derived from the Greek genre in setting, structure, and ethos.

  13. For bibliographical information see Gesner 1970, 155-7; an Old English version in an eleventh-century manuscript has been studied by Goolden (1958).

  14. Quiller-Couch, xxiv.

  15. One assumes that the goldsmith got his name from the gold coin called an ‘angel,’ which was first minted in the reign of Edward IV and bore an image of the archangel Michael.

  16. Before he sees his patient the doctor inquires whether he is laruatus, ‘possessed’ (890). More indirect is the reference to pigs (289, cf. 314), which were sacrificed to secure release from madness.

  17. For exorcism in the sixteenth century see Baldwin 1965, 37-46, and Greenblatt 1988, 94-128.

  18. For the two varieties of hellebore (a drug used to purge the body of the supposedly harmful humour) see O'Brien-Moore 1924, 30-6.

  19. ‘Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen … in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea’ (2 Corinthians 11.25-6). How, one wonders, would the saintly man have responded had he been told that his experiences were the very stuff of fiction?

  20. The germ of the idea occurs in Men. 600-1, where Menaechmus is late for dinner with Erotium: ‘She's angry with me now, I suppose; the dress I gave her will calm her down’.

  21. It was also, of course, from Amphitruo that Shakespeare took the pair of look-alike servants. This increased the possibilities of misunderstanding. (False identifications in Shakespeare outnumber those in Plautus by nearly three to one.) Moreover, with a second set of twins and two parents all pretence at credibility is abandoned.

  22. This cluster of ideas associated with time could have been suggested by Menaechmi 137-40, where Menaechmus hails Peniculus:

    Men. O mea Commoditas, O mea Opportunitas salue.
    Pen. salue.
    Men. quid agis?
    Pen. teneo dextera genium meum.
    Men. non potuisti magis per tempus mi aduenire quam aduenis.
    Pen. ita ego soleo: commoditatis omnis articulos scio.

    (‘Hello! You're the very personification of all that's timely and opportune!’ ‘Hello!’ ‘How and what are you doing?’ ‘Holding on to my guardian angel.’ ‘You couldn't have come at a better moment for me.’ ‘That's my way; I know all the nicks of time.’)

  23. A divinity like Isis or Artemis often presides over the characters' fortunes. This divinity assumes a greater importance in Christian romances like the pseudo-Clementine Recognitiones. See Perry 1967, Appendix 1.

  24. A similar purpose is served by the mechanicals' performance of the Pyramus and Thisbe story in A Midsummer Night's Dream; see Rudd 1979, 185.

  25. See Baldwin 1965, 1-17.

  26. There do not seem to be any overt references to what Paul says about the treatment of servants: ‘servants, be obedient to them that are your masters … And ye masters, do the same things unto them, putting away threatening’ (Ephesians 6.5 and 9 in the Geneva Bible of 1560). However that may be, one notices that the two Dromios collect far more in the way of threats and blows than Messenio does—another example of Shakespeare being more Plautine than Plautus himself.

  27. Cf. 110ff.

  28. We do not know what play the Menaechmi is based on. At least five comedies were entitled ‘Male Twins’ and one was called ‘Doubles’. See Edmonds 1959 and 1961, 2.50, 396, 594, 626; 3.236 and 274.


Baldwin, T. W. 1944. William Shakespeare's Small Latin and Less Greek, 2 vols. Urbana

———. 1965. On the Compositional Genetics of the Comedy of Errors. Urbana

Bullough, G. 1957. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 1. London

Edmonds, J. M. 1959 and 1961. The Fragments of Attic Comedy, vols. 2 and 3. Leiden

Foakes, R. A. 1962. The Comedy of Errors. London

Frye, N. 1957. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton and London

Gesner, C. 1970. Shakespeare and the Greek Romance. Lexington

Goolden, P. 1958. The Old English Apollonius of Tyre. Oxford

Greenblatt, S. 1988. Shakespearean Negotiations. Oxford

O'Brien-Moore, A. 1924. Madness in Ancient Literature. Princeton

Perry, B. E. 1967. The Ancient Romances. Berkeley and Los Angeles

Quiller-Couch, A., and J. Dover Wilson. 1962. The Comedy of Errors, 2d ed. Cambridge

Reardon, B. P. 1989. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. London

Rudd, N. 1979. ‘Pyramus and Thisbe in Shakespeare and Ovid.’ In Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, edd. D. West and T. Woodman. Cambridge, 173-93

Salingar, L. 1974. Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy. Cambridge.

Segal, E. 1969. Plautus: Three Comedies. New York/London

Turner, P. 1957. The Ephesian Story. London

Further Reading

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Anderson, Linda. “Early Comedies.” In A Kind of Wild Justice: Revenge in Shakespeare's Comedies, pp. 23-33. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987.

Traces the theme of “comedic revenge” in The Comedy of Errors.

Barber, C. L. “Shakespearian Comedy in The Comedy of Errors.College English 25, No. 7 (1964): 493-97.

Argues that the play is deceptively fantastic in its portrayal of human relations.

Berry, Ralph. “And here we wander in illusions.” In Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form, pp. 24-39. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Studies the extent to which The Comedy of Errors prefigures themes found in later comedies.

Bevington, David. “The Comedy of Errors in the Context of the Late 1580s and Early 1590s.” In The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, edited by Robert S. Miola, pp. 335-53. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Discusses The Comedy of Errorsin the larger context of Elizabethan theater.

Crewe, Jonathan V. “God or The Good Physician: The Rational Playwright in The Comedy of Errors.Genre 15, Nos. 1 and 2 (Spring/Summer 1982): 203-23.

Examines two conceptions of the playwright that allow the farcical elements of the play to be rationally redeemed.

Hennings, Thomas P. “The Anglican Doctrine of the Affectionate Marriage in The Comedy of Errors.Modern Language Quarterly 47, No. 2 (June 1986): 91-107.

Studies The Comedy of Errorsas a complex portrait of marital harmony, influenced by Christian thought, Italian farce, and Renaissance humanism.

Maguire, Laurie. “The Girls from Ephesus.” In The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, edited by Robert S. Miola, pp. 355-91. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Focuses on the female characters in the play and their relation to the ideal of marriage.

Ornstein, Robert. “The Comedy of Errors.” In Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery, pp. 25-34. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986.

A general introduction to the major themes of the play.

Salgādo, Gāmini. “‘Time's Deformed Hand’: Sequence, Consequence, and Inconsequence in The Comedy of Errors.Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972): 81-91.

Examines the disruption of and attention to time in The Comedy of Errors.

Soellner, Rolf. “The Comedy of Errors: Losing and Finding Oneself.” In Shakespeare's Patterns of Self-Knowledge, pp. 62-77. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972.

Reflects on the redemptive structure of the early comedies.

Wells, Stanley. “Reunion Scenes in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.” In A Yearbook of Studies in English Language and Literature 1985/86, edited by Otto Rauchbauer, pp. 267-76. Wein: Braumüller, 1986.

Examines the staging of separation and reunion in The Comedy of Errors.

Williams, Gwyn. “The Comedy of Errors Rescued from Tragedy.” A Review of English Literature 5, No. 4 (1964): 63-71.

Defends the “improbability” of the play's plot in its broader exploration of personal identity.


The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 34)


The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 66)