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The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare

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Robert Smallwood (review date 1997)

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SOURCE: Smallwood, Robert. “Shakespeare Performances in England, 1996.” Shakespeare Survey 50 (1997): pp. 201-24.

[In the excerpt below, Smallwood applauds Tim Supple's 1996 production of The Comedy of Errors, maintaining that it was straightforward and “attentive” to Shakespeare's language. Smallwood additionally praises the performances of the actors as well as the effectiveness of the musical accompaniment.]

Tim Supple's version of The Comedy of Errors, which opened (prior to a national and international tour) at The Other Place in Stratford in June came from a world of Shakespeare production altogether different from Ian Judge's. Curious, therefore, that this was the first time the RSC had offered the play since Judge's own main-stage production in 1990, when one actor played both Antipholuses and one both Dromios, creating an evening of slick and brilliant theatrical razzmatazz in which the romance of the play's ending was entirely destroyed by the need to resolve (through the use of doppelgängers) the technical problems created by the doubling. Supple's reading of the piece was infinitely simpler. It presented the play in an unchanging set (designed by Robert Innes Hopkins) of a brick floor backed by a wall with central double doors, a window with a grille, and a bell in a niche above—the simplest of suggestions of a sunlit square in Greece or Turkey. As one entered the theatre one encountered an elderly man dressed in a dirty, ragged cloak and chained to a grid in the centre of the floor, alternately slumped in despair or pacing in anguish and frustration to the limit of his chain. The sound of breaking waves could be heard in the distance, and as 7.30 approached the music that would accompany the production began faintly, hauntingly on that Turkish equivalent of the lute, the ‘ud; then the bell rang sharply, the old man stood up, and, accompanied by a gaoler carrying a great sword and a blindfold, in strode Leo Wringer's crisply dapper Solinus, a black man in a white, high-buttoned military suit, a whiff of Caribbean dictatorship about him, to order, not without a touch of contempt, ‘Merchant of Syracusa, plead no more.’

The opening dialogue made clear the principles upon which the rest of the production would be based. It was straightforward, sharply focused, and attentive to the language, and it neither sought, nor needed, to extract from Aegeon's narrative any cheap laughter at the succession of unhappy coincidences that had befallen him. The power of the story was conveyed to us partly by the simplicity with which Christopher Saul's Aegeon told it, but more by the intensity of the listening from Solinus, who was transfixed by what he heard, his attitude changing from the terse and official to the personal and committed as the account progressed. There was no padding, no pantomime pauses and double-takes, just a grief-worn old man telling of his journeyings to despair, punctuated by sad and sympathetic sounds from the little collection of middle eastern instruments—‘ud, zarb, balafan, sitar, with a violin and female singer—that brought a quality of eeriness, of strangeness and mystery, to the play. The use of music to underscore Shakespearian dialogue so often has the depressing effect of putting a generalized emotional wash over everything that the success of Adrian Lee's accompaniment here is worth remark. It derived partly from its spareness, and from the unfamiliar quality of instrumental sounds, but chiefly from the fact that musicians and actors had rehearsed together from the start, language and sound growing into organic unity. Only once, at the end, did the music intrude. The intensity of the play's conclusion...

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was so fully conveyed to the audience that we needed to make our contribution to the event, to make the play and the space ours, through applause, long before the singer had concluded her valedictory vocalizing. It was an odd failure of judgement on the part of a director who otherwise conveyed his respect and affection for the play with unstinted tact.

He costumed the production in modern dress, the Antipholuses in pale linen suits and suede shoes, their similarity carried most tellingly in identical curly brown hair-styles and jutting little beards. Their Dromios both wore baggy black shorts and t-shirts, but it was Duke Vincentio's formula for blurring identity, shaven heads, that most effectively persuaded us into believing in the confusions. Adriana, in an elegant modern suit with a boldly slit skirt, contrasted sharply with her sister Luciana, modest to the point of austerity (if not dowdiness) in long-skirted grey. And for once the Courtesan (Maeve Larkin) and Dr Pinch (Leo Wringer) remained within the realms of credibility, her red high-heeled shoes being the principal, rather innocently transparent, signal of her professional status, while he, in shiny black tight-fitting suit and black hat, and brandishing a Bible (or book of spells), combined a sense of the evangelical preacher from the southern United States with a hint of the voodoo magician in a way that was both witty and disturbing.

There have, no doubt, been productions of The Comedy of Errors in which the central scenes of mistaken identity were more boisterously farcical. Not that the big set pieces—the visiting Antipholus's bewildered response to Adriana's recriminatory tirade, his Dromio's fear of sexual possession by the kitchen maid, the increasing pace and panic of the final arrest and asylum sequence—were not splendidly funny. But they were played against a strong sense of the deeper issues being explored in the play. The complaints of Sarah Cameron's brittle, ill-at-ease Adriana derived from genuine and painful bewilderment and hurt at the loss of her husband's love. Thusitha Jayasundera brought to Luciana a quiet, self-contained intelligence, an apparently knowing caution about emotional commitment and the ‘troubles of the marriage-bed’ (2.1.27), that gave the role a stillness and depth that contrasted tellingly with the rawness of her sister's anxieties and vulnerabilities. To her brother-in-law's ardent wooing she responded with a firm and dignified, though wistful, rejection. His hopeful eagerness for a kiss, which she seemed about to allow but at the last moment rejected, left her with tears in her eyes—for her sister, but also for herself and for him. Even at the end, the impediments gone, she remained cautious and thoughtful, the feminist conscience of the play, uncertain about commitment. Robert Bowman's Antipholus of Syracuse responded to the blandishments of Ephesus with a beautifully poised mixture of innocent delight and wary bafflement. His distrust (aided by the plaintive, otherworldly music, reinforcing his suspicions of magic and witchcraft) could be seen gradually developing into frightened uncertainty about the stability of his own identity (‘If everyone knows us and we know none …’ (3.2.160)), forcing him into close alliance with his Dromio (Dan Milne) in a relationship that was always, and quite rightly, more trusting, and fonder, than that of their twins. His voice, lighter than his Ephesian brother's and with a faint crack to it, gave him a gentle, hesitant, slightly fey quality, very different from his twin's solid, four-square bass. Simon Coates's Antipholus of Ephesus found all the harshness of the part, his resentments fierce, his anger towards his wife bitter and self-righteous, his rage with his Dromio (Eric Mallett) hard and unamused. Funny noises from the band's percussion more or less persuaded us to laugh at his brother's slapstick attacks on his Dromio, but the energy with which the Ephesian Antipholus hit his servant made that impossible, the audience's mounting distaste on several occasions seeming to shame the band into silence as the blows rained down.

The production, then, treated the play with deep respect and with a thoughtful, affectionate delight in the story it had to tell. The effect of all this was most marked, and most welcome, at the play's ending. Aemilia—who last time at Stratford, in a hat like a double lampshade, had been the last in a succession of absurd caricatures—was here, in Ursula Jones's performance, a figure of quiet dignity and gentle authority, costumed simply in a nun's habit. The revelations that accompanied her arrival had a feeling of the miraculous about them, giving to the reunions something of a sacred quality. From here, it was clear, the route to the restoration of Sebastian to Viola, of Marina to Pericles, of Hermione to Leontes, was straight and direct. The ending was not, however, all unalloyed joy—any more than it is in those later plays. The wonder and delight had a touch of muted uncertainty, of hesitation about daring to believe, that gave them a profound seriousness. Much was still to be understood, much to be forgiven. Precisely what had happened between brother and sister-in-law at Adriana's dinner? He had certainly appeared after it in a state of bemused exhaustion and now, at the end, its memory cast its little shadow over the long-yearned-for reunion with his brother. And how much did Adriana deserve the Abbess's energetic telling off that left her publicly humiliated, the Courtesan sniggering in the background? Precisely how culpable was the Ephesian Antipholus's friendship with the Courtesan? Adriana winced and glared at him as he thanked her rival for his ‘good cheer’; he registered his wife's pain and revealed his own embarrassment and shame. Theirs had been the first embrace in the reunion sequence, the long stare of uncertain wonder between the brothers broken by Antipholus of Ephesus's energetic ‘No, I say nay to that’ (5.1.372) as Adriana was about to repeat her dinnertime confusion between them. He held her in his arms tentatively, awkwardly; these two, one knew, had a lot of bridges to mend. The two pairs of brothers finally achieved their embraces after Aegeon's unfastened chains had clattered to the floor, an event that followed hard upon the Goldsmith's last little moment of fuss about his chain. Then, and most movingly, those two elegantly dressed young men in turn took their ragged, exhausted father, just rescued from death's door, in their arms and Aemilia began her final speech of blessing, receiving the embraces of her sons as she declared her heavy burden finally delivered. The verbal benedictions done, she blessed everyone manually as they knelt in front of her before making their exits to the gossips' feast: the Duke, benevolent and eager; Aegeon returning her long, hesitant gaze before going in, without an embrace—thirty-three years of separation, and a nun's habit, clearly requiring a great deal more thought on both sides; Adriana compelled, in spite of protest, to accompany the Courtesan; Luciana, silent through the scene, once moving close to Antipholus of Syracuse but forced away again by the pressure of the scene's events and now departing alone; an unwilling Balthazar, his financial obsessions and sartorial vulgarity strongly suggesting that abbeys are unfamiliar territory; and Aegeon's erstwhile guard, respectfully removing his cap and leaving his sword at the door—an exquisitely detailed and thoughtful sequence of exits. The two pairs of twins were thus left to face the future, Antipholus of Ephesus much less certain that he regarded it with enthusiasm than his brother—for he'd not been searching for anyone, anywhere, and life for him had been just fine until this appalling day. He watched his brother kiss his servant Dromio on the lips, a kiss that rendered thanks for loyalty and patience and friendship through years of wandering, but also marked the end of all that; for, now that it was no longer to be just the two of them, things would never be quite the same again. The Ephesian Dromio watched that kiss too and seemed to will his master to perceive the need for symmetry. His Antipholus did, indeed, think about the possibility for a moment or two; but there was no way that he could change so quickly—or that this director would be tempted along so sentimental a road. Perceiving the unkissed Dromio's disappointment, Antipholus of Syracuse rescued the situation by instructing his servant to ‘Embrace thy brother there’, a piece of sensitivity to the text that was typical of so much in the production. And so the two shaven-headed, bare-kneed sufferers of the play's blows and buffets, real and metaphorical, were left alone to discover from each other, with poignant hopefulness, that after all they were sweet-faced youths, and to scurry off, hand in hand, after the rest. And it was all done in precisely two hours, without fuss and without self-indulgence, by constant alertness and sensitivity to the play's language and delight in the wonders of the story it has to tell. A pity we weren't allowed to applaud it quite as soon as we wanted to.

W. Thomas MacCary (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: MacCary, W. Thomas. “The Comedy of Errors.” In Friends and Lovers: The Phenomenology of Desire in Shakespearean Comedy, pp. 81-90. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

[In the essay below, MacCary maintains that Antipholus of Syracuse is the primary focus of The Comedy of Errors, noting that his search for his brother may be viewed as a search for himself.]

A common structural aspect of the early comedies is delayed marriage; this fact emphasizes the importance to these plays of the young male's trepidation at committing himself physically and emotionally to a woman. In three of these plays the alternative of identification with other males is first tried, and then, only with regret, dismissed as inadequate. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labor's Lost the other males are friends, but in The Comedy of Errors the protagonist seeks his twin brother, whom he speaks of as “myself.” It is in this play that we are closest, then, to the narcissistic pattern of object-choice. We do not find in Antipholus of Syracuse the sensational aspects of the love life of pathological narcissists as defined by Kernberg—polymorphous perversity and sexual promiscuity; rather social isolation is his characterizing feature. We might rather choose to use the Elizabethan term melancholy for this, and associate him with Antonio, The Merchant of Venice, and Jaques in As You Like It, those outsiders who know not how to love.

Before defining this trait further with an examination of the “drop of water” speeches, and before pressing the contention that it is from Antipholus of Syracuse's point of view that we see the action of the play, I think it would be helpful to show that this kind of investigation does not raise new problems, but responds to those raised by other critics, namely, that the play is strangely without an end in marriage, and thus seems not to fit the romantic pattern of comedy. Legatt observes of the final scene and of the relation between Antipholus of Ephesus and his wife Andriana: “The director may contrive a forgiving embrace, but nothing in the text requires it. … For the critic, with only the text before him, the final state of the marriage must remain an open question.”1

Palmer and Bradbury, in their preface to the collection of essays Shakespearean Comedy, explain why this play is not included in their discussion:

Of the ten comedies which belong to the first half of Shakespeare's career, only The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor are not given detailed consideration here: an omission which reflects less on their merits than on the volume's prevailing interest in the more “romantic” plays.2

I have argued elsewhere that the comic tradition prejudices us against The Comedy of Errors, and this might account for its low estimation by critics in the Shakespearean corpus.3 We have been accustomed by Menander, Plautus, and Terence, and their successors, to expect marriage to be not only the end of comedy, but its goal, i.e., that the genre's teleology is marriage and the immersion of the individual in society that marriage symbolizes. Frye, Barber, and Salangar, as we have seen, epitomize the criticism propounding this romantic tradition in comedy. There is, however, a different kind of comedy, represented for us by Aristophanes, some Plautus, some Shakespeare, Molière, and a few later comic poets, in which desires are fulfilled, but not for the male in the female. Rather, this tradition focuses on the male's search for and expression of himself, and this is figured with twins, doubles, friends, and other mirroring devices. I call this kind of comedy narcissistic, and in Aristophanes, at least, I find the polymorphous perversity and sexual promiscuity which Kernberg places at one extreme of his continuum of configurations.

J. R. Brown says that “the audience of Shakespearean comedy is not led towards an intimate knowledge of a single character,”4 and that the doubling of pairs of lovers in Shakespearean comedy is a means of “dispersing our interest, and giving us range rather than concentration.”5 This seems to me again a function of the socialized view we have been encouraged, at least since Barber, to impose on the comedies. In The Comedy of Errors we are introduced to Antipholus of Syracuse by his father, and from this beginning we know that the driving force behind him is his search for his lost twin brother, which we soon come to realize, through language and incident, is a search for himself. Egeon tells us:

My youngest boy, and yet my eldest care,
At eighteen years became inquisitive
After his brother, and importun'd me
That his attendant, so his case was like,
Reft of his brother, but retain'd his name,
Might bear him company in the quest of him;
Whom whilst I labour'd of a love to see,
I hazarded the loss of whom I lov'd.


Then, immediately, we meet Antipholus of Syracuse, and almost his first lines create an image of his self-concern; he meditates in an aside on a local merchant's valediction, “Sir, I commend you to your own content”:

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.


Rhetoric is overripe in parts of the play, but this is not one of them; here the paradox is a function of the psychological condition described, not of the language used to describe it. The whole content of the play is figured in “content”: he cannot find “contentment” until he finds his “content,” his brother, his external self. The drop of water image flows then naturally from this notion of the lost object as the whole of the subject. In order to assure himself of his own existence Antipholus of Syracuse sets out to find his brother (and mother), but in that search he loses the image of himself in the world which teems with others. The project in the stage of primary narcissism is for the subject to introject the image of himself which first his mother and then others project to him. Until that task is accomplished the choice of objects different from the self (both unlike and distinct from the self) is impossible. Indeed, first the mother and then the entire world are seen as a threatening, engulfing void.

Kernberg describes the overcoming of these feelings, and, with reference to an image first used by Freud himself, speaks directly to the dilemma of Antipholus of Syracuse:

Sexual passion assumes the capacity for continued empathy with—but not merger into—a primitive state of symbiotic fusion (the “oceanic feeling” of earlier psychoanalytic literature), the excited reunion or closeness with mother at a stage of self-object differentiation, and the gratification of oedipal longings in the context of overcoming feelings of inferiority, fear and guilt regarding sexual longings.6

It is, of course, these oedipal feelings that Wheeler concentrates on; indeed he sees the great comic problem (especially in the “problem comedies”) as overcoming the guilt oedipally associated with sexuality because of the incestuous pattern which is the origin of its longings. But I stress the anxiety which is a consequence of pre-oedipal fragmentation in the sense of self: the child is still shoring up fragments of his object-relations against the ruins of his symbiosis with his mother. Kernberg always insists that ego boundaries must be maintained in a happy love relationship, just as he insists that ego boundaries must be securely drawn before mature love is possible; hence his distinction between “empathy” and “merger.” It is about merger that Antipholus of Syracuse fantasizes, and not as an experience of love, but rather as a consequence of having failed to integrate his ego through a normal sequence of object-relations beginning with his mother, but focused on his brother.

I am not constructing a psychobiography for Antipholus of Syracuse; I am not treating the separation from his mother, almost at birth, as the traumatic genesis of recurrent pathology. Rather I am suggesting that Antipholus of Syracuse is the focus of attention in The Comedy of Errors because we readily identify with him, and we readily identify with him because we have all passed through the phase of primary narcissism—more or less successfully. The less successful we have been, the more compulsive we become at recapitulating its pattern, and thus we understand what Antipholus of Syracuse tells us about his sense of deprivation. He raises to consciousness in us memory traces of our own psychic development—not because we have all had twins and lost them, but because we have all struggled to find in our early environment (“the precursor of the mirror is the mother's eyes”) an image of ourselves we can assimilate towards, or, rather, introject as ourselves. In this way, by a very complicated (here completely abridged) argument, we can claim that Antipholus of Ephesus represents the ideal ego of Antipholus of Syracuse, and that, ontogenetically speaking, the ideal ego preexists the ego.

Just as Antipholus of Syracuse was introduced to us by his father, and we hear first from another that the young man seeks his twin and then hear from his own lips that this is his sole concern; so we first hear of Antipholus of Ephesus from his wife and his sister. Next we meet not him, but Antipholus of Syracuse again, confused by them for him. From all of them we learn of two different attitudes toward marriage: should the wife restrain, inhibit, and bind her husband to her, claiming he is a part of her, or should she allow him his free movement in the world, waiting patiently at home, never presuming to question or complain? The two Antipholi move in different directions: Antipholus of Syracuse seeks his mother and his brother, and in the process loses himself, while Antipholus of Ephesus flees his wife to find himself. Adriana and Luciana, the dark, binding wife and the bright, liberal wife-to-be, clearly polarize the sexual argument that runs through all the early comedies: the man's sphere is outside, the woman's inside; the man acts and the woman obeys. Though we might find the strongest statement of the first proposition in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and of the second in The Taming of the Shrew, it is in The Comedy of Errors that the overriding theme of male and female identity is clearest: women define themselves by their relations to men, but men define themselves in their own terms. Adriana hauntingly recapitulates the drop of water imagery of Antipholus of Syracuse's opening speech, and, thinking she is speaking to her husband, speaks to a stranger and so drives him mad, as later her husband will appear.

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.


The dominant point of view in the play is that of Antipholus of Syracuse, and hence the male's. Here we have a strong statement by the woman of what she requires from the man, but it is negated by another woman, that man's mother, at the conclusion of the play.

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.


The extraordinary thing that Shakespeare accomplishes in all this is, of course, first the expropriation of Antipholus of Syracuse's own image by Adriana, a threatening, demanding, inhibiting woman. I mean to play on the two meanings of image: she speaks of him as a drop of water just as he had spoken of himself as a drop of water earlier, and in that drop of water we see, of course, his mirror image, his twin brother, his ideal ego, his external soul—but certainly not his wife. Then the reunion of the twins occurs under the mother's auspices: she is the woman who matters most, and she effaces herself.

The situations and language of the play so specifically equate individual psychological needs with socially imposed sexual roles that we are encouraged to add, from later comedies, the physical distinction of the sexes as an explanation. Adriana and Luciana debate the nature and convention of sexual difference:

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


Shakespeare follows the social convention of domesticating women: they stay at home. When they go out into the world, they are dressed as men, equipped with swords, and their tongues are sharpened to a rapier wit. Julia and Portia will debate their wearing of codpieces, the addition to their lack. Clearly Shakespeare encourages us to see for these women an identification between the house and the body: while they are women they stay inside, hidden, like their genitals; but when they become men, they go outside, and wear their genitals openly, even accentuated, in the male fashion of the day. Adriana is usurping male prerogatives, so that she frightens the man she thinks is her husband to madness, and locks him up inside; she is corrected in this behavior by her sister and by the mother of both that man and her husband. Portia and Rosalind are threatening to males in their transvestism; Julia, Viola, and Imogen are not. We shall consider their difference. Now we need only appreciate that Shakespeare, playing upon men's fears, figures women as expansive, absorbing, engulfing creatures whose roles and natures must be defined by walls and social conventions.

The second drop of water speech, in which Adriana pleads conjunction with her husband—the first half of which was quoted above—continues with a suggestion of venereal disease:

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,
And tear the stain'd skin off my harlot brow,
And from my false hand cut the wedding-ring,
And break it with a deep-divorcing vow?
I know thou canst; and therefore, see thou do it!
I am possess'd with an adulterate blot,
My blood is mingled with the crime of lust;
For if we two be one, and thou play false,
I do digest the poison of thy flesh,
Being strumpeted by thy contagion.

(II.ii. 130-44)

One need only compare Sonnet 129 to appreciate what Antipholus of Syracuse would hear in all this:

The expense of Spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
.....          All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
          To shun the Heaven that leads men to this Hell.

From the male perspective the sin of fornication and the threat of disease are both in the woman, in that waist of shame, that Hell, to which is compared the Heaven of the Poet's union with the Fair Youth, and Antipholus of Syracuse's reunion with his lost brother.

The basis of Shakespeare's male characters' fear of the females who would marry them is derived from their fear of reincorporation by the pre-oedipal mother. Water we know to be the most frequent dream-symbol for the birth process.7 In his drop of water speech Antipholus of Syracuse acknowledges his origin from the mother but, deprived of some image of himself in another drop of water (his twin brother, but also his ideal ego), he fears reversal of the birth process. Of course, this is the latent content of this dreamlike speech; the manifest content (though it, too, is unconscious, so only we, the audience, having just heard the family history, can appreciate it) is the separation of child from mother by shipwreck. The sea is actually prominent in several other plays where reintegration of the nuclear family is a goal: Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Pericles. This fear of the overwhelming mother is, then, articulated by Antipholus of Syracuse, and reenforced by Adriana, who would lock him up, and indeed does lock up her own husband, claiming he is mad, the state to which she has almost driven Antipholus of Syracuse. The whole situation can be corrected only by the real mother Emilia, who appears at the end and says, essentially, everything is going to be all right: “You two boys have found each other and me—your father is here, too, but he is not so important in this pre-oedipal struggle for identity which you are recapitulating—and now you can even think about marriage.”8 Shakespeare develops the theme of madness then in the framework of the nuclear family: madness is being two of the same or nothing at all. The twins are confused for each other, so they each think there is an other of them in the world, which is maddening, but they also fear the loss of self entirely, so that two became none, all being absorbed by the sea, the threatening mother and her representations.

Kernberg points out that male fears of close relations with women are derived originally from memories of the pre-oedipal mother, that because men know themselves to have been originally dependent on an all-powerful being different from themselves, they resist such attachments in maturity.9 Women obviously have a different perspective. I think it is best argued that Shakespeare's perspective is always that of the male, though his so-called bisexuality is often hailed as the hallmark of his genius. Adriana is a male's nightmare image of the overwhelming mother; the chaste Emilia is its correction. Luciana also presents herself as a correction of Adriana's threatening persona. Psychoanalytic critics have pointed out that the names are significant: Adriana is the “dark lady” (ater) and Luciana the “bright lady” (lux). Antipholus of Syracuse spontaneously responds to this heavenly creature, and the play on love and reflected light, on self and other occurs, which also dominates The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labor's Lost:

What, are you mad that you do reason so?
SYR. Ant.
Not mad, but mated, how I do not know.
It is a fault that springeth from your eye.
SYR. Ant.
For gazing on your beams, fair sun, being by.
Gaze where you should, and that will clear your sight.
SYR. Ant.
As good to wink, sweet love, as look on night.
Why call you me love? Call my sister so.
SYR. Ant.
Thy sister's sister.
                                                                                          That's my sister.
SYR. Ant.
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.

(III.ii. 53-64)

This is the Neoplatonic figure of the man defining himself by reference to the woman: he sees himself in her eyes, thinks indeed that he is but a reflection of her light. There is also play on the names: Luciana is light; Adriana is night. We shall see that in The Two Gentlemen of Verona Silvia will be a moon goddess, and first Valentine, then Proteus will play Endymion to her. Here, in The Comedy of Errors, the figure is not developed, but implied in the extravagance of Antipholus of Syracuse's language is the distinction between self and Self which Zweig traces from the earliest Christian literature through Shakespeare and beyond. What Narcissus gazes at is only a deceptive image of himself (the imitation of an imitation), but the true Christian, or the true Neoplatonic lover, sees in himself a manifestation of God's grace, as the world of physical objects participates in (methexis) the Forms. This gives a metaphysical model for love which is generally contradicted in Shakespeare; indeed the extravagance of the language here suggests parody.

Having questioned whether Shakespeare ever centers desire or the universe in Truth or Being, having found instead that both erotically and philosophically he sees a tension of opposites mutually defining each other, we offer the following hypothesis: the Neoplatonic worship of the woman represents oedipal orientation of desire; the search for the self in a twin or friend represents primary narcissism; the fear of the overwhelming mother can be read as either oedipal or pre-oedipal, depending on the imagery of its expression. The “oceanic feeling” suggests those pre-oedipal anxieties which come with the recognition that the mother is separate and independent, i.e., anxieties occurring at the end of the symbiotic phase. The sexualized imagery of binding, of locking in or out of the house, suggests oedipal anxieties, i.e., fears of sexual incompetence. That there is no strong father figure, but only strong women in the play, tilts the argument to the pre-oedipal side. Emilia is awesome; Dromio's kitchen wench is disgusting; Adriana is threatening; Luciana is benevolent but colorless. We do not yet see that assimilation between self-images and images of the desired female which, beginning with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, becomes Shakespeare's major comic concern.


  1. A. Legatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), p. 9.

  2. D. Palmer and M. Bradbury, Shakespearean Comedy (New York: Crane, Russak, 1972), pp. 7-8.

  3. W. T. MacCary, “The Comedy of Errors: A Different Kind of Comedy,” New Literary History (1978), 9:525-36.

  4. J. R. Brown, “The Presentation of Comedy: The First Ten Plays,” in D. Palmer and M. Bradbury, eds. Shakespearean Comedy (New York: Crane, Russak, 1972), p. 9.

  5. Ibid., p. 10.

  6. O. Kernberg, “Boundaries and Structures in Love Relations,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (1977), 25:99. The reference to Freud is to the opening of Civilization and Its Discontents.

  7. S. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, in J. Strachey, ed. and tr., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), 5:399-401.

  8. Antipholus of Syracuse was only eighteen when he began his search (I.i.125), and is twenty-three when the action of the play takes place (I.i.132). The twins should then be played as young men, and not middle-aged, as they often are. In Plautus' Menaechmi they are technically termed adulescentes; of course, comedy notoriously polarizes its male characters between adulescens and senex to accentuate the difference in the effects of love upon them.

  9. Kernberg, “Boundaries and Structure,” p. 108.


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The Comedy of Errors

Critics agree that The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s shortest play, is one of his earliest comedies. The play relies heavily on elements of farce, deriving its humor from a twisted and improbable plot and the chaos that ensues when two sets of identical twins find themselves in the same city. With characters who have been seen as one-dimensional and the play’s reliance on slapstick humor, The Comedy of Errors has often been derided as an immature effort. Some modern critics, however, defend the play against such attacks, maintaining that it has been unfairly undervalued due to its farcical elements. Popular areas of modern critical analyses include the play’s romantic features, the Antipholus brothers’s search for self, and the play’s exploration of mercantilism. In production, reviewers have noted how easily the deeper issues of the play can get lost within the chaotic and farcical plot, and have praised productions in which such issues remain accessible.

The twin brothers, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, have been viewed as two halves, each searching for unity. A. Bronson Feldman (1955) takes a psychoanalytic approach to the play, maintaining that the brothers are in fact divided aspects of Shakespeare's self—Antipholus of Ephesus as ego, and Antipholus of Syracuse as alter ego. Other critics, including W. Thomas MacCary (1985), find that through the brothers Shakespeare explored the search for selfhood. In MacCary's analysis, Antipholus of Syracuse is searching for himself, while Antipholus of Ephesus represents the ideal ego of his brother. Jonathan Hall (1995) observes that Antipholus of Ephesus is going through a crisis of identity, and stresses that this crisis is related to his inability to honor his pledge as a merchant.

Questions regarding the play’s genre have also generated criticism. Russ McDonald (1988) uses his examination of The Comedy of Errors to highlight Shakespeare's effort to construct meaning in farce and to demonstrate Shakespeare's affinity for this genre. Maintaining that The Comedy of Errors is a mix of two genres, farce and romance, Charles Whitworth (1991) focuses on the play's romantic elements. Whitworth asserts that Egeon's narrative, which frames the play, contains many romantic features, including a shipwreck, as well as separation, rescue, loss, and reunion. Furthermore, the stylized, formulaic language of this narrative is also characteristic of the romance genre, states Whitworth, who concludes that at the play's end, romance and farce merge.

The way the play's serious, romantic, and farcical elements are treated in production varies dramatically. In his review of the 1996 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, directed by Tim Supple, Robert Smallwood (1997) praises the way the production balanced the play's humor with its deeper issues. Smallwood also lauds individual performances as well as the unobtrusiveness of the production's musical accompaniment. Dennis Harvey (2000) discusses the Aurora Theater’s 2000 production of the play, directed by Danny Scheie. Harvey notes that the director's decision to use seven actors to play sixteen roles intensified the gender issues in the play and the chaos of mistaken identity. Under Scheie's direction, according to Harvey, the seven players provided a comic “rambunctious” that was perfect for a staging of The Comedy of Errors. Wilborn Hampton (2001) reviews a radically different version of the play, a musical version by Trevor Nunn and Guy Woolfenden, directed by John Rando. Hampton comments that while some liberties were taken with the text, such as the incorporation of cliches from the culture of the 1960s and 1970s, the production was faithful to the “spirit” of the original.

Charles Whitworth (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Whitworth, Charles. “Rectifying Shakespeare's Errors: Romance and Farce in Bardeditry.” In The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, edited by Robert S. Miola, pp. 227-60. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.

[In the essay below, originally published in 1991, Whitworth studies the romantic elements of The Comedy of Errors, urging that the play be recognized as romance in its form and in much of its substance. Whitworth focuses in particular on the structure, content, and language of the framing tale of Egeon of Syracuse.]

What in the world can/should/does an editor do to the text of a Shakespeare play?1 We are reminded by a growing host of performance critics but also, and more significantly, by textual scholars and editors, that play texts are both potential, to be realized in performance, rather than ends in themselves, and, as things in themselves, unstable. We are enjoined to privilege those early texts of Shakespeare—where there exist more than one—which appear to embody his theatrical practice or that of his colleagues, rather than those which represent his first thoughts or a scribe's transcription, and, generally, to have the play in mind as we edit the text.2 What then is the role of the textual editor vis à vis a Shakespeare play? How can whatever he does make any real difference? He works perforce only with the printed signs of Quartos and Folios. The director and actors of the play may start from the text he or another editor prepares, but they can and do deviate from it, cut it, rewrite it, rearrange it, re-edit it at will, even throw it away, as the actor Richard McCabe—or was it Puck?—did with a copy of the New Penguin edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the RSC's 1989 production. Some directors go back to the original printed texts, circumventing all subsequent editions. But the vaunted indefiniteness of the dramatic text is not for the editor. He must make choices and fix them in print, however he may equivocate and canvass alternatives in his notes. He must fix that which must remain unfixed, fluid, open, ambiguous, always at the mercy, inspired or banal, of producers.3 But if that very production, or the totality of all productions, past, present, and future, is the essence of the play, is he not in some quixotic, perverse way engaged in denying that essence? Is not his enterprise both subsidiary and paradoxical, at the same time both prior to and parasitic upon the living business of the theatre? He works for years to produce a printed text, agonizing over accidentals, solving and resolving cruxes, emending, guessing, inventing, admitting defeat, and delivers his text to be printed, bound, and read. But reading is not the activity for which that play was written. Performing is. And his text, over which he sweated for so long, will never be performed as he edited it. It will be reproduced, transformed, literally, in the sweat of rehearsal and performance: Brook's Dream, Hall's Hamlet, Nunn's Macbeth, Warner's Titus, not his, the editor's. The edition used as script is rarely even mentioned in the theatre programme.4 “A poem should not mean but be,” said MacLeish. An editor's text cannot mean. Can it be? Certainly there can be no play on the editor's carefully constructed page. The editor of a novel or a poem or a treatise has no such anxiety. His text goes to its ultimate consumer, the reader, as he has prepared it, unmediated in its essentials. The play editor's text never goes to its ultimate consumer, the play-goer, as he has prepared it, especially in its essentials.

The editor's quest for his text is, from one perspective, a romantic one. He encounters obstacles, fights giants, dodges between Scylla and Charybdis (who shall remain nameless), comes upon ancient strongholds, smoking ruins, signs of skirmishes, dry bones, dust, the landscape of the editorial history of his text. When it is a Shakespeare play, that landscape is vast, the terrain complicated, with traps for the unwary and the challenges of predecessors, the illustrious and the silly, the flamboyant and the hapless, with many of whom he must pause to do battle. But the quest itself is absurd: he can never succeed. He will think he has it, but like Sir Calidore's Blatant Beast, it will escape again, never be finally pinned down, penned in, tamed. What is worse, all productions of his play will repeatedly release it, in virtually infinite mutations, all of them the play, none of them his play. (Even if he convinces himself that he has got the text, he may have lost, or slain, the play.)

To what or whom is the editor of a dramatic text responsible? To the author? He, in Shakespeare's case, is long dead, and besides, we do not, cannot, know what exactly he wrote or wanted. He is, in a crucial sense, irrelevant. To the reader? To the director, to the actor, all of whom are also readers, but who read to different ends than do the student, the teacher, the literary critic, the “mere” reader? And those to whom the ultimate, infinite re-creations of the play belong, theatre practitioners, amateur and professional, great and small, have no responsibility to any editor's text, They may rely upon a single edition, which they will still cut and rearrange as it suits them, or they may work from several, picking and choosing, referring to earlier printed texts, even preferring less reliable texts to more reliable ones.5 Their responsibilities are various: to that chimera, “the play,” in the objectivity of which they sometimes display a touching faith, to the audience, society, the box office, sponsors.

The two activities, reading a printed text and seeing/hearing a performance, are, obviously, radically different.6 The one thing you cannot do as you read the book is really see and hear a performance (imagination is something else); at a performance, you see, hear, even smell sometimes (as in the 1980 RSC production of As You Like It when the most delicious aroma of roast chicken wafted over the stalls as the banished duke and his men sat down to their feast in Act II, scene vii), but you cannot read the printed text of the play, the book simultaneously. To the reader, the medium is print; to the spectator-auditor, the media are many, but print is not normally one of them. The editor provides for the one activity, the director, actors, designer, composer, and others for the other. The editor may hope fervently that his edition is adopted by some director and that his cherished readings will be spoken and thus achieve a fleeting immortality. But he knows that even if that happens, his text, what he edited, will be only part of the play. He cannot provide for those other essential parts, including the way each phrase and line of his text is delivered. The actor gives meaning to words, can indeed give different meanings to the same words, meanings which the editor cannot entertain or even imagine.7 His text is thus at an even further remove from final or definitive meaning. Whether blueprint or skeleton (or some other, always inadequate, metaphor), his text will be the merest starting-point for the performance, that text which was the goal of his long arduous quest. Not only is it destined to be rehandled in the very act of being realized, it is doomed, even as allegedly fixed, permanent, printed, preserved artifact, to be superseded. The beast breaks out as it is being apprehended.8

On the other hand, is it really as hopeless as all that? The writing of a play is an act of literary composition. The editor deals with a literary artifact, written, printed, as any literary work is. Written words are the medium, as they are for a novel or a poem. We cannot edit what is not there, that third dimension: the performance. (Nor should the editor, however much he may yearn to do so, stage the play on the page; to do so is to limit the text's potentiality.) We can only edit that text which is different in its structure and layout—speech prefixes, stage directions, act and scene divisions, and so on, rather than authorial voices, paragraphs, quotation marks, chapters, and so on—but similar in its medium: words. The editor of a dramatic text will always have divided, irreconcilable loyalties: to the written text he works from, the material cause (in Aristotelian terms) of what he aims to make, and to the performed play, the final cause.

These and other related questions have occurred to me, a moderately experienced editor of Renaissance dramatic texts but a relative novice as a Shakespeare editor, as I have worked on an edition of The Comedy of Errors for the Oxford Shakespeare. They are, some of them, simple matters, but they are also, I am convinced, fundamental matters. They are theoretical, or rather philosophical, questions about the nature of the editing enterprise where dramatic texts are concerned, and about the nature of those texts themselves. I do not wish to belabour the obvious, nor to over-dramatize harmless drudgery, but I do wish to pose such questions, even the more naive-sounding ones, and to worry, and encourage my fellow-editors to worry, about what we do. This concern has not sprung ex nihilo, but neither is there yet any articulated theory of dramatic textual editing that addresses these and related questions. Greg's famous theory of copy-text and the guidelines for editors that were derived from it went unchallenged for a surprisingly long time, such were Greg's stature and authority.9 But even as editors, the great majority of whom have not considered themselves textual theorists per se, have worked, they have recognized the limitations and contradictions in Greg's impressive rationale. Its shortcomings are more clearly seen as the peculiar extra-literary nature of early play-texts, the differences between playwriting and authoring, and the primacy of performance over mere reading emerge and are articulated. I am one of that majority, just an editor, not a bibliographer or textual critic tout court, and the questions and sceptical reflections which have arisen in the course of the workaday business of editing a Shakespeare play-text (scepticism has not yet induced paralysis) have led, not to a new theory, but to a preoccupation with the peculiarity of that business.

With these queries pending, or looming, I propose to engage in a sort of quizzical intermittent trialogue with recent Shakespearean textual theory, specifically as enunciated by the editors of the Oxford Complete Works and related publications, and by other textual critics, all on one side, and “my” play/text, The Comedy of Errors, on the other.10 On this side too is some limited experience of testing editorial solutions in the arena of performance when I had the opportunity to advise the director Phyllida Lloyd on textual matters as she prepared and rehearsed a production of The Comedy of Errors for the Bristol Old Vic.11 Like Antipholus of Syracuse, I am “smothered in Errors.” I can only hope that my efforts do not prove me, as he claims to be in the second half of that line, “feeble, shallow, weak” (II.ii.35).

The Comedy of Errors is not a particularly difficult text, compared with others in the Shakespeare canon. It does not raise the “two-text” issue since the Folio of 1623 contains the only early version of the play, and it is not radically corrupt, incomplete, or otherwise maimed. It has its own peculiarities, to some of which I shall return later: a small handful of cruxes, some confusion over characters' names, an occasional vagueness in stage directions, as well as the usual misprints, verse-prose transpositions, unmetrical lines, lacunae, and the like. It is a uniquely Shakespearean amalgam of disparate genres, romance and farce, an early comedy that has more in common with Twelfth Night and Pericles than with the other plays more nearly contemporary to it, and little of the comedy of young love so prominent in most of Shakespeare's first ten comedies.

I want to discuss here some of the problems and puzzles, critical and editorial, it poses, within the framework of the theoretical and procedural issues adumbrated above. The romance and the farce of editing Shakespeare's plays will, I hope, be both evoked and illustrated in this context, the particular surprises and misprisings, double-takes and double thinking involved in doing the mundane job of editing this text framed, as it were, by the larger questions, as the immediate, hectic business of the farcical comedy is framed and overarched by the mythical, romance motifs of erring, losing, seeking, and finding. The harmless, hopeful drudge sets forth, in the giant shadows of his predecessors, equipped with the tools of the trade, instinct, and some notion of what the achieved thing should be like. He should not deceive himself that he has a perfect idea of the thing-in-itself. Romance versus farce; editing texts for readers versus performing plays for theatre audiences; the editor's need to choose, to set something and not something else down in print, but with space for glosses, collations, explanations versus the performer's need to say one thing and not another, despite the “openness” of the text, with no place for verbal glosses or commentary, but virtually unlimited scope for glossing by gesture, expression, inflection; telling, in narrative and in introductions and commentaries on the page versus showing, in performance, with sets, costumes, and music on the stage; diegesis versus mimesis—these complementary, often contradictory sets of conventions, requirements, and procedures seem to me to be reflected in the play, The Comedy of Errors.

Romance is essentially a narrative genre, not a dramatic one. I take it that there are fundamental differences between those two modes, which are more or less identical to Plato's diegesis and mimesis.12 Drama, as theatre, occurs in the present, is immediate, visual as well as aural; narrative is usually in the past tense, is mediated by a narrator who may or may not be the “author,” and nowadays is experienced silently and privately, by reading, though it used more commonly to be experienced aurally and with others. Romance depends upon discursive passages of description, scene-setting, and mood-making, and upon the omniscient narrator's mediation, guidance, information, suspense-building, reassurance, and so on. The time scale is, or can be, vast: “Once upon a time, long ago” is not the dramatist's opening gambit, but it is the essence of the romancer's. Consider Shakespeare's various ploys to overcome that initial obstacle. He uses prologues and epilogues, choruses, frames (themselves either narrative or dramatic), lumps of narrative within the plays (for example, Prospero, Orlando, the Third Gentleman in The Winter's Tale, or Egeon at the beginning of Errors), even a real historical poet, Gower, who appears in Pericles to tell the story that we are unlikely to credit without his assurances as to its authenticity. Only after forty lines, with references to his book, does Gower hand us over to “the judgement of [our] eye”; not content, he presents dumbshows, refers often to his sources, and in all, appears seven times throughout the play, speaking some 300 lines, including an epilogue, all in order to mediate the romance narrative to a theatre audience, to turn telling into showing. Shakespeare's practice in many of his plays amounts to an inversion, or turning inside out, of Plato's and Aristotle's “mixed mode” (a narrative with some direct dialogue): he writes drama, with a lot of narrative, external and internal, to account for that which is beyond the dramatist's and his audience's reach. An Elizabethan paradigm of this kind of mode-switching is George Peele's marvellous little fantasy, The Old Wife's Tale, which announces itself as “tale” but is a play, but a play in which a tale being told turns into a play being performed for an audience which includes the tale-teller herself and her auditors, a play in which several characters tell romance-like tales of travel, hardship, and enchantment.13 In the vogue of performance studies, we must acknowledge that there are limits to the dramatist's art, even as we claim that his written text is not fully realized until it is performed. Shakespeare's and others' metadrama is a recognition of those limits; it is also a challenge to them, pushing out the circumscribing walls of the wooden O's and concrete caverns in which the performance is confined. There are things the dramatist cannot do, qua dramatist, when it comes to story-telling, that the romance narrator can do. But in the theatre the theatrical naturally prevails.

To come to cases: in the theatre, will comedy and its vigorous stepchild, farce, where they are present, inevitably overwhelm, if not subvert, romance? Does romance have a chance where farce pops in its zany face (or arse)? Is The Comedy of Errors, romance in its form and in much of its matter, doomed to live on stage in a single dimension, that of farce? Is the romance to be left to readers only, while theatre audiences get farce(d): two works living under one title? Farce is a viewerly, spectator-friendly genre; romance is a readerly, imagination-friendly one. Romance requires imagination, farce leaves nothing to it. As readers of romance, we have to create our own Arcadias and Faerylands, Illyrias, Bohemias, and Ardens (or Ardennes if we are reading the Oxford Shakespeare). Romance is not visual; it is, “to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture.” Farce has to be seen to be (dis)believed.14 Is it wrong for directors, designers, and actors to take the farce and let the romance go (or worse, send it up)? Or do the improbabilities of romance pushed further, treated comically on stage, necessarily become farcical? That is, is the difference I am talking about one of degree and not of kind? But if so, why isn't Cymbeline, of all the outrageously improbable plays, called a farce, or Twelfth Night? What is the point of Shakespeare's having encased his “farce”—if that is what it is—in a romance, a story which, on its own, has all the sentiment, pathos, and wonder of Pericles? Will we even agree that The Comedy of Errors, in its larger dimension, is romance? For we are told and have been told for a long time that the play is a farce, and theatre practitioners have, it seems, always treated it so.

In 1819, Frederick Reynolds turned the play into an operatic farce. He added songs from other Shakespeare plays, with musical settings by various composers, including Mozart. A reviewer for the European Magazine found Reynolds's enormities just the remedy for a silly, incredible play:

It was attended by the most crowded house since the beginning of the season, and the audience were throughout in a unanimous temper to applaud. … No illusion of the stage can give probability to the perpetual mutations of four persons, paired in such perfect similitude that the servant mistakes his master, and the master his servant; the wife her husband, and the husband his wife. All this so strongly contradicts common experience, that it repels us even in description; but on the stage, with the necessary dissimilarity of countenance, voice, manner, and movement, that occurs between the actors, however disguised by dress, the improbability becomes almost offensive.15

The anonymous reviewer is carried away by his own rhetoric: no husband mistakes his wife, because there are no twin women.16 Even the farce, let alone what was left of the romance, failed to work for this dyspeptic critic, but whether audiences liked the play or not, farce it was and farce it remained. C. E. Flower, in his preface to the play in the Memorial Theatre acting edition, makes much of the text of the “Comedy, or as we should now call it Farce” being fully restored in the 1881 Stratford production.

Many of us would concur in Dr. Johnson's opinion that “Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind,” accurately reflecting “the real state of sublunary nature” with its “chaos of mingled purposes and casualties.”17 It is well known that Shakespeare drew upon Plautus' comedy, The Menaechmi, about twin brothers from Syracuse, accidentally separated in childhood, one of whom journeys in search of the other. It is also clear that in Act III, scene i, he had in mind the first scene of Plautus' Amphitruo, in which Jupiter and Mercury impersonate Amphitruo and Sosia, master and servant.18 But the ingredient that Plautus did not provide was the plot which frames, overarches, and ultimately subsumes the comedy of twins mistook, servants beaten, masters maddened, and merchants thwarted. That plot, which sets The Comedy of Errors in another mode altogether, belongs to a different tradition, one which also went back to antiquity, which Shakespeare knew well and turned to again and again, in which he seems to have been more at home than ever he was in the strictly-structured, rule-governed school of classical comedy. Dr. Johnson, keeping to the Folio's tripartite division of the plays into comedies, histories, and tragedies, opined of Shakespeare that “in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature … His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.”19 I would refine Johnson's distinction and suggest that it was particularly romance and the dramatic genre that approximates it that were most congenial, even instinctive, to Shakespeare throughout his career. He manifests a peculiar fondness for romance, for old, hoary, much-told tales of wonder and wandering, of storms, shipwrecks, pirates, mistaken identity, oracles and mysteries, treachery and betrayal, bravery and devotion, of parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters torn asunder and tossed by Fate, but brought together at last against all odds. All of his comedies and tragicomedies contain such elements, some are essentially of that kind.

Just such a tale, of course, is that of old Egeon of Syracuse, his wife, and twin sons and twin servants, shipwrecked, separated, rescued, lost, finally reunited after years of despair and searching, but not before further trials, danger, and anguish. The Comedy of Errors begins with it and ends with it, and its dominant moods and motives run right through the farcical comedy, tempering it and transforming it into a new kind of whole which cannot, without distortion, even denaturing, be described or performed simply as “farce.” That long discursive opening scene, in which the actors, especially the one who plays Egeon, must grip the audience's attention and imagination with pure tale-telling, holds the cruel promise of execution for the sad, worn-out old man.20 The comedy which follows must be coloured by it. Johnson may have had in mind that scene, among others, when he complained of the tediousness of Shakespeare's passages of narration:

He affects a wearisome train of circumlocution and tells the incident imperfectly in many words which might have been more plainly delivered in few. Narration in dramatic poetry is naturally tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive and obstructs the progress of the action; it should therefore always be rapid and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakespeare found it an encumbrance. …21

Well, maybe, but he repeatedly brought it upon himself by his choice of romance material. The language of Egeon's narrative is stylized, formulaic, the language of romance: “Once upon a time, long ago …” is the mode; and Egeon's story begins a long time ago, at the beginning of his life, in fact: “In Syracusa was I born. …”

Within a few lines of the start of the next scene, we see that the two plots, Plautine comedy and Hellenistic romance, are related, that the promise of doom will not be kept because the elements necessary to avert disaster and to bring about the happy dénouement begin immediately to assemble. Scene ii begins, in sharp contrast to the deliberate narrative tempo of Scene i, dramatically in mid-conversation, in mid-sentence with a friendly local merchant warning the newly-arrived Syracusans of their danger as proscribed foreigners in Ephesus, and pointing the warning with news of another Syracusan who is to be executed that very afternoon. The “wearisome train of circumlocution,” the narrative, ends, and the brisk, immediate action of drama begins: in medias res takes over from “Once upon a time. …” The frequent reminders of the time of day in the play—in eight of its eleven scenes—keep Egeon and his impending fate constantly in mind while he is absent from the stage, in tension with the expectation raised by the romance conventions of the first scene that it will be averted. Shakespeare's observation of the unity of time, here as nowhere else before The Tempest, heightens that effect. The theme was rendered visually by the clock in Theodor Komisarjevsky's 1938 Stratford production: its hands moved as the hours ticked away, and sometimes ran to catch up. Reference to Egeon (not by name, of course) in the second scene links his plot to that of Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse: father, son, and servant, unknown to each other, are in the same place at the same time, aliens all three, despairing seekers for each other and the rest of their family.

Furthermore, the two stories are linked immediately and explicitly by references in both to money. Egeon desperately needs money to save his life; barely half-a-dozen lines after he goes off, “hopeless and helpless,” to seek it, Antipholus receives back from the merchant the money he had held in safe-keeping, the very sum, we are soon told (I.ii.81), that Egeon requires. And the place where all of them are, the alien town of Ephesus, is established as one where money counts, and where the making of profit has priority over the taking of pleasure: the merchant excuses himself from accompanying Antipholus on a sight-seeing tour because he has an appointment with “certain merchants / Of whom [he] hope[s] to make much benefit” (I.ii.24-5).22 Shakespeare's changing of Plautus' Epidamnus to Ephesus was no doubt suggested by the primary source for his Egeon plot, the famous story of Apollonius of Tyre in Gower's Confessio Amantis. It was in Ephesus, where his long-lost wife had been restored to life after shipwreck and become a priestess in the temple of Diana, that Apollonius was reunited with her at last. Egeon finds his long-lost Emilia in Ephesus. Thus, years before he dramatized the story in its entirety in Pericles, he seized upon it as the unlikely frame-plot for his most classical comedy. The alteration of Diana's temple to a Christian priory and Diana's priestess to a Christian Abbess are probably due to the prominence of Ephesus and its affairs in St. Paul's New Testament writings, in Acts and the Epistle to the Ephesians, although Gower supplied a hint by referring to Apollonius' wife as an “Abbess.” From Paul, Shakespeare would certainly have known about the reputation of Ephesus for strange goings-on, with evil spirits, sorcerers, exorcists, and others who practised “curious arts,” as well as its artisans and merchants. Perhaps Demetrius the silversmith in Acts XIX who makes idols for the devotees of Diana suggested Angelo the goldsmith who purveys trinkets for the servants of Venus. Plautus' Epidamnus survives, however, in no fewer than seven references in the play.23 In his choice of Ephesus, whatever the origin of that choice may have been, Shakespeare gave himself both the strangeness, the menace, and the surreal atmosphere of the typical romance setting, and the urban, mercantile, domestic scene of Roman comedy. The very setting embodies the two primary modes that he fused in this play.

Egeon's story of separation at sea introduces that central motif, and sea imagery recurs frequently. Metamorphosis and loss of identity are introduced in the second scene, expressed in the sea image in Antipholus' first soliloquy:

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, failing 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.


Adriana uses the same image later when, ironically, she is pleading with this Antipholus, the wrong one, not to tear himself away from her (II.ii.128-32). Transformation, dissolution, loss of oneself—this related group of states and their various images form a major theme, or super-motif. In Act II, Adriana wonders if age is diminishing her beauty, causing her husband to seek his pleasure in the company of other women; in Act V, when his own son does not recognize him, Egeon exclaims that grief and time must have altered him beyond recognition (both characters use the rare word defeatures, its only two occurrences in Shakespeare). Time's ravages, added reminders of the immediate, real time that is passing in the play's day, and related to the transformation and dissolution motif, become the subject of two comic exchanges (II.ii.;IV.ii.). Metamorphosis is mentioned repeatedly, sometimes humorously, sometimes fearfully. The workaday city of Ephesus itself is curiously animate: its very buildings are called “Centaur,” “Phoenix,” “Tiger,” and “Porcupine.”

Enchantment continues to work upon Antipholus: someone hands him a gold chain, Dromio brings him a bag of gold. Convinced they are bewitched, he calls upon divine aid—“Some blessed power deliver us from hence”—whereupon a courtesan appears (IV.iii.44) (in Adrian Noble's 1983 RSC production, she rose spectacularly from beneath the floor, scantily clad in red and black). Antipholus and Dromio behold not a heavenly rescuer, but Satan herself. Divine aid will come, and in female form, when the Abbess appears and gives them sanctuary, but not just yet. (Parenthetically, we may notice that Antipholus of Syracuse falls under the spells, as he believes, of a series of enchantresses: Adriana in II.ii., Luciana in III.ii., the courtesan in IV.iii., finally the Abbess in V.i.—one enchantress per act, a neat distribution—with, as prelude, the soliloquy in I.ii. in which he voices his fears of sorcerers, witches, and the like. This underlines his vulnerability and impressionability, and is reminiscent of the case of a famous hero of chivalric romance, Sir Percival, one of the Grail knights of Arthurian legend, whose experiences with women during his quest, including his mother, his sister, and the fiend in female guise several times, similarly underline his susceptibility to error and his innocence. In contrast, Antipholus of Ephesus is always accompanied by men only—his servant, friends, business acquaintances, creditors, the officer who arrests him—until IV.iv., the conjuring scene, when at last he is surrounded by women, who insist that he is mad; his brother thinks himself mad, the victim of witches. Another way in which Shakespeare differentiates the brothers, making the Syracusan the romance protagonist while the Ephesian retains the role of the thwarted and irate husband of domestic comedy, is by giving the former no fewer than six soliloquies and asides, totalling fifty lines, while his brother has none.)

A new order, that of genuine divine authority, not Dr. Pinch's sham, intervenes in the person of the Abbess. Her claim to be able to heal the supposedly mad Antipholus and Dromio is the claim of a power superior to those of mere magic, sorcery, even the devil. Now the Duke returns, leading old Egeon to execution. At its height of frenzy, the comical-farcical action, which, as we have seen, is far from being only that, is interrupted by the resumption of the tragicomic one. But its progress is halted too, literally, physically, by the prostrate Adriana, imploring the Duke to intercede with the Abbess and get her husband restored to her. Farce impedes romance temporarily. At this moment, the two plots merge, under the auspices, as it were, of both spiritual and temporal authority, both benign, the Abbess and the Duke. Romance resumes, and subsumes farce. To be sure, the unravelling will take some 300 more lines and there will be further supposes and surprises, even pathos, along the way.

Time, which Dromio claimed had gone back an hour, has now gone back years, to when the family was whole, before the events narrated by Egeon a few hours earlier took place. The boys were infants then, new-born. It is, fittingly, the Abbess, the holy mother, who gives explicit utterance to the metaphor of rebirth, describing this moment as one of nativity, repeating the word (if the Folio is right) for emphasis:

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


Both Pericles and Cymbeline use similar language when they are reunited with children whom they had believed long dead.25 The imminent death with which the play began is transfigured into birth: then we met with things dying, now with things, as it were, new-born. That same death-dealing Duke becomes the life-giving lord: “It shall not need. Thy father hath his life.” Patron already to one Antipholus, the Duke becomes godfather to both at their re-christening. Even the little coda, with its comic business between the pairs of twins, not yet entirely free from error though beyond its more baleful effects, ends on that note. The Dromios resolve that since they do not know which is elder, but came into the world “like brother and brother,” they will now go hand in hand, not one before another, a visual image of recognition and reunion, the joining, not the confounding, of water drops, and a verbal reminder of birth and rebirth. Komisarjevsky's clock should by now have been running furiously backward, whirling away the years, for in the biggest and best of the comedy's errors, Time has indeed gone back, all the way from death to birth, from the intense dramatic final moment to the expansive narrative “Once upon a time,” from the end of the play to the beginning of the story. But that, essentially, is what happens in romance.

The editor in his quest may face anything from minor, uncontentious emendations to hopeless cruxes, from mere commas and full stops to be distributed judiciously, to gaping blanks where text should be, and to heaps of text where less, or none, should be. He will be grateful, in the present case, for the relative brevity and relative cleanness of the Folio text of The Comedy of Errors, and that there is only the Folio text to contend with, no two- or three-headed monsters. Errors is the fifth play in the Folio, following The Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Measure for Measure, all of which were set by the compositors from transcripts made by Ralph Crane. The four plays which follow Errors—Much Ado About Nothing, Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice—are all reprints of Quartos.26Errors stands alone among the first nine plays in the Folio in having apparently been set from Shakespeare's foul papers, a genesis it shares with only seven others in the volume. This orthodox view, held by Chambers, McKerrow, Greg, and nearly everyone since, of the nature of the printer's copy for Errors has recently been challenged by Paul Werstine.27 His argument that authorial foul papers might have been used in the theatre, and thus that the standard “foul papers versus prompt copy” dichotomy may not be so rigid after all, is rebutted by Wells and Taylor.28 Some of the confusions in the text are of the sort usually attributed to unperfected authorial copy: descriptive or narrative stage directions, imprecise distinctions between characters, uncertain or alternate names for characters, missing or imprecise entrances and exits, and so on. All of these require editorial emendation but not all are necessarily problematic for performers.

Take the names, for example. No editor is likely to hesitate before emending “Iuliana” and “Iulia” in the stage direction and first speech prefix at III.ii. The character in question is clearly Luciana, Adriana's sister, who has already appeared and been named at II.i.3. But the misnamings occur in column a of gathering H4, probably the first column of this play set by Compositor C; meanwhile, C's partner, Compositor D, was getting it right seven times—Luc.—in column b of the same page (this is not to suggest that they were necessarily setting the page simultaneously, side by side). Surely Shakespeare, writing his play seriatim and not by formes, did not forget his character's name between the end of II.ii, where she has the last line, and the beginning of III.ii. Did he on the spur of the moment decide to change her name to “Juliana” to avoid confusion with Luce, who had just made her one and only appearance barely eighty lines before, then revert to “Luciana,” the aberration preserved in the foul papers? Compositor D was in no doubt, nor was B, the third Errors compositor, and C himself conformed subsequently, though he vacillated between Luc. and Luci. on three other pages. Such speculation need not trouble even an editor intent on establishing a consistent text; he emends whether it was Shakespeare the composer or C the compositor who erred. A director may never know if he has not seen the Folio text or an apparatus that records such things.

But Luce is a different, more substantial matter. This character, later identified as the kitchen-maid, appears in III.i. and engages in a slanging match with Dromio and Antipholus of Ephesus, who vainly seek entry to their own house, while their twins are inside, enjoying their usurped places. In the Folio, Luce is named once in a stage direction, seven times in speech prefixes, and three times in the dialogue. This is her only scene, though in many productions she returns in the general mêlées in IV.iv. and V.i. (usually taking the small part of the messenger in V.i., which justifies her presence on stage), and to be reunited with the right Dromio as her master and mistress are reunited. John Dover Wilson, in his first Cambridge Shakespeare edition of the play (1922), listed the character as “Luce, or Nell” and he has been followed by many editors since. A few imply that there are two characters, one of whom does not appear. Only the new Oxford edition goes so far as to change the character's name to “Nell,” and to give only that in Dramatis Personae, stage directions, speech prefixes, and dialogue. Luce is expunged.

The basis for this emendation is Dromio of Syracuse's reference to the woman in question as “Nell” in his comic set-piece duologue with Antipholus of Syracuse in III.ii. There is no reason to identify Luce, who appears in III.i., with Nell the kitchen-maid described as globular in shape by Dromio in III.ii. But the person who stood behind the door and “reviled” Antipholus of Ephesus, that is, Luce, is identified as the kitchen-maid at IV.iv.75-6. So did Shakespeare begin with a maid called “Luce,” then change her name to “Nell,” perhaps to avoid confusion with Luciana, or did he originally plan a second maidservant for the second Dromio? If the latter, then he changed his mind before the end where Dromio of Syracuse gratefully relinquishes any claim in the kitchen-maid to his brother (V.i.417-19). In any case, as the text stands in the Folio, the name “Nell” occurs only once, in a set-piece, where Dromio is desperately inventing witty replies to straight-man Antipholus' questions. The scene, with Dromio's (geo)graphic anatomizing of spherical Nell, is the comical counterpart in prose to Antipholus' lyrical wooing of Luciana in rhyming verse in the immediately preceding seventy lines of the same scene; we witness the first wooing, Dromio reports the other, with grotesque embellishment. “Nell” is an ad hoc invention by Dromio; it allows him (and Shakespeare) their harmless necessary pun on “ell”: “What's her name?” “Nell, sir. But her name and three-quarters—that's an ell and three-quarters—will not measure her from hip to hip” (III.ii.110-13). He even spells it out to be sure we get it, as bad punsters usually do. The actor might pause momentarily before replying “Nell, sir,” as if inventing the name and lining up his gross pun on the spot. This single occurrence of the name in this highly artificial context hardly warrants changing “Luce” to “Nell” eleven times.29 No editor, to my knowledge, has bothered to mention the name “Dowsabell,” let alone proposed that Luce be called that. Yet this same Dromio calls this same woman “Dowsabell” at IV.i.110.

Nevertheless, a director may choose to call the character “Nell,” as Phyllida Lloyd did in her 1989 Bristol Old Vic production. She read and was persuaded by the Oxford editors' argument, liked the jingle of “If thy name be called Nell, Nell thou hast answered him well” (III.i.53), and thought the name suited the actress playing the role. My arguments for retaining “Luce” did not prevail; the director simply chose to do otherwise as she was free to do, citing a recent major edition of the play, and no one could protest that the text was grievously violated or directorial whim irresponsibly indulged. The Oxford editors print “Nell,” I would print “Luce,” and both of us will have done as we did for good reasons. Who will be right? What are the criteria for deciding that question? Shakespeare's intentions? Whatever they were, we cannot recover them, and they may anyway have been one thing at one time, another at another. The beast has not been slain or caught, greasy Nell is forever loose.

Other names and other creatures are less troublesome. The place-name “Epidamium” occurs seven times in the Folio, three on pages set by Compositor C, four on pages set by B. Though minim error is a distinct possibility, the agreement of two compositors makes it more likely that they set what they were reading in their copy. But there was no such place.30 May an editor rectify Shakespeare's errors? Some would not: the Riverside Shakespeare and David Bevington, in both his last revision of Hardin Craig's edition (1980) and his new Bantam (1988), read “Epidamium.” Most editors, however, including the Oxford, follow Pope in emending to “Epidamnum.” But the place in question is Epidamnus, the setting of Plautus' Menaechmi. Why the classicist Pope should have chosen the accusative form of the noun (which occurs in various declined forms in Menaechmi) is mildly puzzling. Feeling slightly giddy at venturing where no fool editor has ever rushed before, I would propose “Epidamnus,” the correct Latin name for the city Shakespeare apparently had in mind. But does it matter? In performance, not a whit. A fictitious place, a mere name on two romance characters' Mediterranean itineraries, that is all it is. But for the editor, it must matter, however insignificant it is: something must be printed and justified against the contending alternatives. In performance, almost anything can be said and no one will blink.

The Courtesan's house is called the Porpentine. This is an archaic spelling of “porcupine,” so a modernizing editor should prefer the modern form. Shakespeare used only “porpentine” though “porcupine” was already current; it occurs eight times in his works, five times in Errors. But it is a proper name here. Is that then an argument for retaining its archaic form? No. That is to opt for quaintness, a practice that mars the otherwise splendid Riverside edition. A quaintness quotient has no place in a scholarly modernizing editor's set of guidelines. We modernize other spellings, so why not this? Curiously, it has been relatively modern editors, starting with Aldis Wright in the famous nineteenth-century Cambridge Shakespeare, who have reverted to “Porpentine,” while Rowe modernized the spelling and was followed by editors until Wright. The Oxford, like eighteenth-century editions, has “Porcupine” (and thus obviates the need for a gloss). No editor, I believe, has retained the Folio spelling “Tyger,” another house-name, at III.i.96, nor “Centaure” for the inn where Antipholus of Syracuse lodges at I.ii.9. And in the context of those other recognizable beastnames which abound in the play, “Porpentine” sounds odd in performance as well as looking odd on the page.

Another problem facing editors, but which causes little or no difficulty in the theatre, is the unmetrical line, whether short or long. The New Cambridge editor of Errors rhetorically asks à propos of one such, “Need we be worried by a line which is metrically short?”31 Editors, pace Dorsch, usually are, assuming that Shakespeare always wrote regular iambic pentameter and that verse lines which contain fewer or more than the standard number of syllables (excluding feminine endings) must be faulty. But perhaps Dorsch is right and the assumption needs reexamining; Shakespeare, like Homer, must have nodded now and then. Metrifying Shakespeare is harder when a syllable or a word is missing than when there are too many; adding something requires that we invent or reconstruct Shakespeare. The line “A meane woman was deliuered” (I.i.54) has been regularized by most editors, usually by adding F2's “poor” before “mean,” though some recent editors, from Peter Alexander (1951) to Bevington, leave the line as it stands in F. In performance it is easy and natural for an actor to pause a beat before saying “mean” or to emphasize it to mark the difference between this woman and Egeon's own wife, about whom he has just been speaking, and thus fill out the line. The same holds for many other such lines, short by a mere syllable. A good actor will not chant verse or mark the metre obtrusively anyway (nor will he reduce it to prose), and a missing syllable here and there, provided the sense is clear and the surrounding flow of the verse is maintained, is hardly going to be disastrous. But again, an editor, producing a printed text, may feel the lack more keenly and will probably at least consider whether to supply it, even if he finally decides not to, or writes a note asking whether we need be worried by it.

Gary Taylor's eloquent advocacy of invention by editors must be endorsed with caution and caveat (note 10 above). It will seem to many chillingly like an unrestricted licence. The naturally conservative editor and the naturally, or supernaturally, inventive poet seldom cohabit in one mind, and Taylor is right when he observes: “It is because those who have the facility seldom possess the judgement to restrain their inclination that those with a gift for emendation … invariably indulge in it too often” (“Inventing,” p. 43). Though no harm may be done by adding a word to fill out a line of verse, will enough be gained to warrant the in(ter)vention? Taylor's own “mean-born” in the line under discussion seems to me to be a scant improvement over F2's redundant “poor mean.” The condition of her birth is not relevant, and to refer to it here points away from the birth that is relevant, that of her “burden, male twins” (I.i.55). The point is that she is now “mean,” that is poor, of low estate, and so is willing to sell her twin sons to Egeon to be servants to his. If the compulsion to metrify proves too strong, I would favour “A mean young woman was deliverèd,” but, like many editors, most actors, and any audience, I can live with the Folio's mere nine syllables. In general, editors seem less troubled by F's long “Vnwilling I agreed, alas, too soone / wee came aboard” (I.i.60), which some retain, or the very short one resulting from breaking it up into two: “Unwilling I agreed. Alas, too soon / We came aboard” (following Pope).32 Sometimes when the latter choice is made, a note solemnly remarks on the rhetorical effect of such a short line at this decisive moment in Egeon's narrative. Such “effect” has been imported by the editor, of course, in breaking up the long line, and an actor can impart rhetorical effect in his delivery by pausing, sighing, whatever, if such an effect seems appropriate at this point, whether or not the line is printed as one or as two in his script.

The inventing editor will find somewhat more fertile ground in Dromio of Syracuse's frantic outburst at II.ii.192-3: “This is the Fairie land, oh spight of spights, / We talke with Goblins, Owles and Sprights.” Here is another short line, lacking two syllables this time. The Second Folio, that anonymous first edited text of the First Folio, recognizes the problem, but does not get it right somehow, reading “and Elves Sprights.” Pope changed “Elves” to the unmistakably bisyllabic “elvish.” Theobald transformed “owls” to “ouphs.” Most modern editors, however, have stuck with F's three unmetrical monsters. Even the Oxford retains an octosyllabic line, but modernizes Theobald's “ouphs” to “oafs,” a lexically legitimate move all right, but one that creates a misleading and therefore undesirable secondary meaning for modern readers and audiences (as any modernization may run the risk of doing). The short line invites expansion. Is it not plausible that, by haplography, Compositor D conflated “oules and elues and” in his copy to “Owles and”? “We talk with goblins, owls, and elves, and sprites” seems appropriate to Dromio's terrified state, his fevered brain coining monsters pellmell.33 But, of course, the actor has even more reason here to pause, engage in business, break the line up, and hence stretch it that extra foot, than was the case with Egeon's line in the first scene discussed earlier. If in performance, where and only where his text can become a play, it does not matter if a word is missing, is the editor justified in indulging the inventing itch? Of course, we edit for readers, who can interrupt their reading of the text, who indeed are invited to do so, to jump to the fine print at the bottom of the page where we discuss the options and defend our decisions, as theatre-goers at a performance cannot. For the play editor's peace of mind, the ideal reader of his edition will be a literary reader and not a theatrically-minded one, and will read it as he or she reads a novel, a poem, Johnson's Dictionary, or Lawrence's letters. When Shakespeare was but the prince of poets, happy drudges lost less sleep.

Lacunae of a whole line or more, even in a rhyming verse passage where it seems clear that something is missing, are dealt with in performance, while the editor sweats and strains and, maybe, invents iambic pentameter. A case in point occurs in Errors III.i., at the height of the furious row between those inside the Phoenix and the rightful occupants and guests outside. In a long rhymed passage, immediately following the line in which Luce's name appears twice, the Folio reads as follows:

ANTI[PHOLUS of Ephesus].
Doe you heare you minion, you'll let vs in I hope?
I thought to haue askt you.
S. Dro.
And you said no.
So come helpe, well strooke, there was blow for blow.

Theobald emended “hope” to “trow” in the first line, producing a triple rhyme, of which there are four others in the passage: lines 19-21, 64-6, 67-9, 76-8. But he produced no more sense. Some modern editors have followed him, including Cuningham, Foakes (new Arden), Wells (New Penguin), Levin (Signet), and Dorsch; the last is peremptory in dismissing Malone's conjecture that a line rhyming with “hope,” perhaps ending with “rope,” had dropped out (p. 68 n.). Just as many, however, have preferred to retain F's “hope,” usually citing Malone's conjecture: Wilson (1922 and 1961), Alexander, Jorgensen (Pelican), Riverside, Bevington, Tetzeli. Only the Oxford, though, both retains “hope” and leaves a space in brackets to indicate that a line is missing before “Do you hear … I hope?” Gary Taylor admits (“Inventing,” p. 43) to not having the temerity to insert his own line into Shakespeare's text in another play, but says further that he would feel no compunction about marking a lacuna and mentioning the conjecture in a note. This he did in the present case, recording “E. Dro. Thou wouldst answer well to hanging, if I had a rope.” This supplies the rhyme, but leaves Luce's (in the Oxford text, Nell's) “I thought to have asked you” still unattached. What did she think to have asked whom? Bevington thinks the missing line should follow rather than precede the “hope” line, but does not conjecture.34

As textual adviser to the Bristol Old Vic production of Errors in 1989, I discussed the lacuna with the director, who, while using the Arden edition as her script, studied the text very carefully, consulting several other editions. Prior to one rehearsal, I composed several alternative lines, one of which she might choose to insert in the gap. Alas for my inventions, I arrived to find that she had decided to ignore the lacuna, keep the Arden's “trow,” and try to make sense of what was there. The actors had invented business to that end. Nell's and Dromio of Syracuse's half-lines were a resumption of a hypothetical previous conversation, a further sally in the former's attempt to seduce the latter. A little personal drama was simmering away indoors even as the larger, more public drama boiled over outdoors. The large Nell spread-eagled the small Dromio against the door. In the fever of the moment, it worked. Dromio's “And you said—no?” became a plea for mercy. No one gave a further thought to the dread lacuna, which in any case was filled from outside when the other Dromio, in mime, thrust a privy member through the letter slot, and the outraged, frustrated Nell inside applied a vacuum cleaner to it. The audience roared its amusement at the mayhem which ensued, and the rejected inventing editor had, willy-nilly, to join in. An emboldened editor may invent, but if he cannot insert his invention in his text, and performers who know about it do not want or need it, it can only survive as a conjecture, buried in a note. What then is its status or point? Inventing Shakespeare only to lose him in the apparatus seems an unprofitable expense of spirit. Yet Taylor's plea is a powerful one, and it enhances that task of helpful drudgery to which editors earnestly commit themselves. It urges the editor to recreate as well as to recover, to become Shakespeare in some sort, momentarily. That his invention, which may not become text, will be only if it is spoken in performance and if it is, will be only for an instant, are the absurd odds against which he plays. Taylor's description of such inventive emendation as game is reminiscent of the late Philip Brockbank's advocacy of “festive scholarship.” Ludic editing serves Shakespeare, the play, and the reader, not just the black signs on the white pages of F. Ludus—the medieval Latin word meant game and play, as students of medieval drama well know. But games have rules and boundaries, as Taylor reminds us. Because he cannot cheat and write his invention into Shakespeare, the gaming editor offers it and hides it wistfully, playfully, at the same time. It may be in print all right, but it is out of bounds, off stage, below the line. A director like John Barton may write hundreds of lines of “Shakespeare” in his adaptation and they get spoken at every performance. The inspired editor invents, and directs furiously in his head.

May an editor adopt a reading recorded only in acting editions? If we mean what we say about the primacy of performance, why not? A crux or a confusion may be clarified by an actor or director who has to get or make sense out of it, and that reading may be passed down in playhouse tradition, unknown to scholarly editors who collate those dozens of other scholarly editions. In Errors I.ii., Antipholus of Syracuse speaks his first soliloquy, quoted earlier (p. 238). In the Hull adaptation of the late eighteenth century, revised by John Philip Kemble in 1811, the Folio's “falling” in line 37 is emended to “failing.” Thus the parallel drawn by Antipholus between the water drop and himself is exact: it seeks its fellow in the vast ocean, and failing to find it, loses (confounds) itself; he, seeking his family in the wide world, unhappy (unsuccessful) in his quest, loses himself. When this emendation was suggested to Owen Teale who played Antipholus in the Bristol production, he grasped it immediately, perceiving the logic and clarity it achieved. An eighteenth-century theatrical emendation lived again in performance 200 years later. It is a tiny change, to be sure, an i for an l, and the improvement in sense is slight if real. But should we continue to resist or ignore it in modern editions because an actor not an editor first invented it, and when a simple explanation, compositorial misreading of i for l, is available anyway? Which reading would Shakespeare have opted for, the actor's, the compositor's, or the editor's? His own—but that begs a few questions.

We have, it would seem, come almost full circle, from making a text by remaking another text which never was, and never will be, what it is meant to be, unless it is performed, and then will be something else quite, to realizing that performance not only makes the play, but can, and often does, make the text itself. Of course, the example just given is a very small one, one word, one letter, in an entire play. We do not edit performance, or base our scholarly editions solely or mainly on texts derived from performance—at least, we do not say that we are doing so. But what of those Shakespeare revisions preserved in the Folio? A modern edition of Hamlet based on the Folio text may, it would seem, be said to be derived from a performance text. But we as editors unmake and remake that particular early text upon which we base our editions, wherever it emanated from, by modernizing its spelling and punctuation, correcting its obvious misprints, spelling out speech prefixes, adding and expanding stage directions, even reconstructing, as the Oxford editors reconstructed the Pericles Quarto, and by emending cruxes, mending lacunae, inventing Shakespeare. In each repeated effort to fix our text, pin it down, get it right, we make the text more, not less, unstable. For each edition is another text, different from all others, be it by no more than a few commas (it is of course always more than that), as each production is a new text, in that larger sense of the word, as well as enunciating a new text in the narrower sense. Every edition is, and is not, definitive. And each performance of a single production has its peculiarities of rhythm, mood, tempo, “feel,” as performers are always telling us.

Actors and directors talk readily about remaking Shakespeare when they do a new production. Indeed, most believe that is what the theatre is about.35 Editors are more reluctant to acknowledge that they too remake Shakespeare, even when they are engaged in producing diplomatic texts or facsimiles. This implies—and this is no earth-shaking discovery of mine—that that TEXT of Shakespeare which we believed, avowedly or tacitly, it was a duty to attempt to recover in toto and exactly, not only is not there to be recovered, that that concept itself is faulty, but that if it were it could never be “restored” in our editions, old- or modern-spelling, diplomatic or inventive. Editors of multi-text plays such as Hamlet and King Lear have come to realize that, if they have the courage of their convictions, they cannot have all the Hamlet or Lear that Shakespeare may have written in their edited texts. They cannot print the complete words of Hamlet and call it Shakespeare's play. To print all the Hamlet that Shakespeare wrote at different times, on first, second and subsequent thoughts, even if one is convinced that he did write all of it, is to produce something under Shakespeare's name that he never invented.36 We can only edit texts, finally, not plays, not authors. Once we accept that our control-text, be it Folio Hamlet or Errors, Quarto Lear or Pericles, is itself only a version, and perhaps a partial one, of Shakespeare's own total Hamlet, Errors, Lear, or Pericles, and that the very existence of that entity is doubtful and unprovable, we may find ourselves freed from the old idolatry. And if we further accept that all our texts are remakes of versions of uncertain provenance, well, we shall be in no worse company than that of the poets banished by Plato from the commonwealth for making counterfeit copies of imitations of the Forms.

This freedom should in turn help us to overcome the “inhibition of seriousness,” as Taylor calls it, the po'-facedness of scientistic textual scholarship which has prevented editors from realizing the playful truth that the object of the quest is given much of its substance and shape by the quester himself. The editor does not return with the captured TEXT in hand, but emerges at the other end of the labyrinthine way with the text that he has found, trouvé.37 Such a concept of the editor's art, partway between setting out to find and retrieve a determinate object that is known to exist a priori out there, and the free, frivolous invention, the parlour-game that Taylor, as he predicts, will be accused of encouraging, seems to me a fruitful one. What I find will, of course, be partly determined by what I look for, and it is no game of blind man's buff that I play, or random hunt I set out upon. Not just any treasure trove will do; ghastly roadside warnings like The Other Shakespeare and the deformed corpses of A. L. Rowse's brood litter the way. But what I cannot come back with, however I may “struggle for the vision fair,” is the one and only Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare.

I might have multiplied the examples of textual puzzles and problems in The Comedy of Errors, and proposed or speculated about them at length. I have avoided the most notorious crux in the play, Adriana's speech beginning “I see the jewel best enamelléd” (II.i.108-12). Whatever an editor decides to print in these lines is bound not to be right. The actress Rosie Rowell managed to make the passage sound quite meaningful as it stands in most modern editions when she played Adriana in Bristol in 1989. Editing inevitably complicates such cruxes, while performance, also inevitably, simplifies them: it must. As Stanley Wells suggests, “For some reason—perhaps because an edition can be annotated—one is more willing to confront a reader than a playgoer with nonsense” (Re-editing, p. 49). But often, what is nonsense on the page is given sense on the stage, or at least an audience is easily persuaded that it makes sense. The moment comes and goes in seconds, and an audience which is not going to worry whether it is “Epidamium” or “Epidamnum” or “Epidamnus,” or fret over Luce or Nell, will be swayed by the gist of what Adriana says as she grieves at her husband's supposed desertion. They will not see the collations and commentaries, or the whole articles devoted to emending and explaining the five lines spoken in fifteen seconds in performance.38 To return to one of the issues raised at the beginning, it is because he must print this or that but not both that the editor has to resolve cruxes, but he sets about it knowing that he can canvass, collate, comment, and explain also, while the actor has to say it, play it, and be done. Shakespeare, of all people, knew that reading a speech and playing it were worlds apart, that obscurity can evaporate in the action of the stage. May it be that some of the famous cruxes are our own inventions, as readers, critics, and editors? Shakespeare did not count on us getting in the way.

I am not yet sure whether to stick to the Folio's double nativity” in the Abbess's final speech (V.i.403-9, quoted above, pp. 240-1). Double nativity at the end of a play about two pairs of twins lost at sea, separated, then reborn, in the words of their new-found mother, is fitting. Besides the play was performed, probably for the first time, at Christmas 1594. Nativity was seasonal. Johnson proposed “festivity” in the final line, Dyce adopted it and was followed by the Oxford edition, but Hanmer's “felicity” fits the line and sums up the tragicomic action best: “After so long grief, such felicity.” Whichever word is spoken in performance, the joy, the felicity, the festivity of comic dénouement and romance rebirth are ambient. Editors will make various decisions; performance will variously fix that particular word at that moment, but will unfix and remake the very text it speaks, playing and showing nativity, festivity, felicity, and more, where the edition can read one of them, collate others, comment on all, but convey none. Text and performance merge, and the printed word, apparently always the same but, as a famous son of ancient Ephesus, Heraclitus, would have known, always in flux, is confounded by the act that gives it being but is itself evanescent, rushing headlong to its own closure, the final curtain.

Romance and farce merge at the end of The Comedy of Errors, I have argued. The local absurdities, cruxes, and confusions of the latter are confounded in the eternal improbabilities and incredibilities of the former. Both genres flaunt unlikelihood, the one calling us to witness with our own eyes that it is true, the other telling us even as it shows us that it cannot possibly be true. To attempt to create a coherent whole out of such unlikely components seems doubly unlikely, ludicrous. But Shakespeare brazenly pulled it off. Setting out yet again to edit a Shakespeare play-text may appear an unlikely, quixotic venture, but we do it all the time, put our names to it, package it and sell it—Wilson's, Foakes's, Wells's, Bevington's, Dorsch's, Whitworth's Errors—claiming, or at least acquiescing in publishers' claims, that we've got it, the play, right here. Performance too is risky, volatile, ephemeral, over as soon as it is done, and just as brazen, each new show—the Lord Chamberlain's Men's, Kemble's, Komisarjevsky's, Nunn's, Noble's, Lloyd's Errors—implying each time that for that time, this one is it, the play, Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors.39 Rectify Shakespeare's Errors? Perform Shakespeare's, the whole of Shakespeare's, and nothing but Shakespeare's Errors? Not very likely. Yet on and off we and they go, doing it because it must be done, repeatedly. None of the products of these efforts, the myriad performances, the endless editions, though they stretch out to the crack of doom, can be Shakespeare's Errors. All of them, hypothetical and actual, future, present, and past, not one before another, may be so called.


  1. A prior question, in the poststructuralist era, might be to do with how “text” in such a context should be construed. I shall use the term in a conventional sense, to denote the written or printed pages which collectively make up a single work of dramatic literature, a play as it is read in book form. The differences between a play text as edited and read, and a play as performed and seen/heard are crucial to this discussion.

  2. Among the fuller arguments for this general case is Stanley Wells's Reediting Shakespeare for the Modern Reader (Oxford, 1984); one of the most recent and vigorous is T. H. Howard-Hill's “Modern Textual Theories and the Editing of Plays,” Library, Sixth Series, II (1989), 89-115. Especially pertinent to the concerns of this essay is Howard-Hill's “Playwrights' Intentions and the Editing of Plays,” TEXT, 4 (1988), 269-78, in which testimony is adduced from an unexpected quarter: C. S. Lewis, half a century ago, anticipated central issues in the current text-performance debate.

  3. I do not mean that an editor should interpret in the text itself. An example of editorial overfixing is the Oxford Shakespeare's “understand” in the speech of Dromio of Ephesus at Comedy of Errors, II.i.51-3 (all references will be to the Oxford Complete Works, in modern spelling, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford, 1986), unless otherwise indicated). In modern as in Elizabethan English, understand is not hyphenated. To hyphenate it is to interpret reductively, to accord priority, with a nudge and a wink, to the secondary meaning, “stand up under his blows.” An editor as annotator may of course do that in his commentary, if he judges it necessary; it is an actor's job to do so in delivering the line, if he judges it necessary.

  4. The New Penguin Shakespeare is the RSC's “house” edition and is frequently mentioned in programme credits. Directors there often use others as well or instead; the Arden is a favourite because of its copious annotation, which, however, actors often admit, can be either an encumbrance or irrelevant to their work. Antony Sher writes that the company used both New Penguin and Arden editions when rehearsing Richard III in 1984: “and when there are discrepancies we'll choose whichever is more useful for our purposes” (Year of the King [London, 1985], p. 156).

  5. In his 1988/9 production of Hamlet for the RSC, director Ron Daniels transposed a scene in accordance with the “bad” Quarto of 1603. He also cut 900 lines from the New Penguin text, itself based on the “good” Quarto of 1604/5, with liberal helpings from the Folio.

  6. On hearing versus seeing a play in Shakespeare's time, see Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 85-97.

  7. A good example of this occurred in Deborah Warner's 1988 production of King John, when Salisbury (Edward Harbour), as he spoke the lines “My arm shall give thee help to bear thee hence, / For I do see the cruel pangs of death / Right in thine eye” (V.iv.58-60), to the mortally wounded Count of Melun, reached behind his back to receive a misericord from his companion Pembroke, with which he put Melun out of his agony. The stage business not only conferred a novel meaning upon “My arm shall give thee help to bear thee hence,” but was appropriate in the context, a soldierly act of mercy to a dying, noble enemy who had done the English lords a good turn by warning them of treachery.

  8. At least three noteworthy editions of The Comedy of Errors have appeared since I undertook my own in 1985: that in the Oxford Complete Works, T. S. Dorsch's New Cambridge (1988), and David Bevington's Bantam (1988). There was a bilingual German-English edition by Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador in 1982, and the script used in the BBC television production was published in 1984. Meanwhile, a variorum edition is in progress in the United States, and the Arden is being revised, etc.

  9. The classic essay “The Rationale of Copy-Text” is reprinted in Greg's Collected Papers, ed. J. C. Maxwell (Oxford, 1966), pp. 374-91. Howard-Hill challenges the rationale and the editorial tradition since Greg in the first article cited in n. 2 above.

  10. Besides works already referred to, I would include in this body of recent work in the immediate light of which my (and others') current editing of Shakespeare is being conducted: Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Modernizing Shakespeare's Spelling, with Three Studies in the Text of“Henry V” (Oxford, 1979); the same authors' (with John Jowett and William Montgomery) William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford, 1987); Wells, Shakespeare and Revision, Hilda Hulme Memorial Lecture, University of London, 3 December 1987 (London, 1988); Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (eds.), The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of“King Lear” (Oxford, 1983), and several articles written in response to this volume; Gary Taylor, “Inventing Shakespeare,” Jahrbuch 1986 (Bochum, 1986), 26-44; Taylor, “Revising Shakespeare,” TEXT, 3 (1987), 285-304; Taylor, other articles by Taylor and the other members of the Oxford team, and reviews of their books and edition. To these could be added a host of articles, both theoretical and on specific matters relating to the Shakespeare text, such as Folio and Quarto printers and compositors, published in the last decade by such scholars as Fredson Bowers, G. Thomas Tanselle, D. F. McKenzie, Paul Werstine, Howard-Hill, and many others. Among all of these, the Oxford Textual Companion is the one for a desert island, or for the editor-errant travelling (moderately) lightly. It is a monumental work of scholarship, and while editions continue to bloom and fade, it will fertilize them and fodder their editors and critics for generations to come.

  11. Preliminary consultations on the text were held in November and December 1988, when Miss Lloyd was Sir Barry Jackson Fellow in the School of Performing Arts, University of Birmingham, with practical work on text and performance with drama students. Several such sessions also took place with the Bristol Old Vic company during rehearsals of the production, which ran from 16 February to 11 March 1989 at the Theatre Royal, Bristol.

  12. Aristotle, typically, complicated this straightforward distinction: for him, in drama, the poet's agents, the actors, imitate for him by taking on the characters of the persons; thus drama is in one sense a mediated form (Poetics, 1450a-b). But since for Aristotle action is more important than character, the immediacy of the representation or imitation gives the dramatic genre, tragedy, its superiority over the narrative one, epic (1462a-b). Conversely, Homer is a good narrative poet to the extent that he speaks little in his own person and a great deal in the (assumed) persons of his characters. Another Aristotelian tangent worth pursuing would be the consequences for the subsequent study of drama as poetry of Aristotle's relegation of the elements of performance—spectacle, music, etc.—to positions of minor importance.

  13. This dimension of Peele's play is discussed more fully in the introduction to my New Mermaids edition (London and New York, 1996), pp. xxvi-xxvii.

  14. I realize that I have oversimplified both romance and farce for the sake of my argument. There can be more to farce than buffets and pratfalls. But critics who label The Comedy of Errors “farce” also oversimplify the genre in focussing on those elements, and thus fail to do justice to the play.

  15. Reprinted in Gāmini Salgādo, Eyewitnesses of Shakespeare (New York, 1975), pp. 68-9.

  16. But this is as nothing compared with the hash made of the play by one reviewer of the 1989 Bristol Old Vic production. Among other things, he names the wrong actor in the part of Angelo, refers to Adriana's entrance in a swimming pool when it was Luciana who appeared thus, says that the Abbess comes out leading the Ephesian Antipholus, and that Shakespeare unforgivably marries off the Abbess and Egeus (a double howler); that Egeus (again) is “bailed” at the end when, of course, he is pardoned and released unconditionally. Finally, he says, we shall never know which Dromio ends up with Nell (as that production called Luce), when it is perfectly clear a few lines from the end that the Syracusan resigns her with relief to his Ephesian twin (Financial Times, 21 February 1989).

  17. Preface to Johnson's edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765), reprinted in W. K. Wimsatt (ed.), Dr. Johnson on Shakespeare (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 62.

  18. The fullest, often irksomely exhaustive treatment of sources for the play is T. W. Baldwin's On the Compositional Genetics of“The Comedy of Errors” (Urbana, Illinois, 1965).

  19. Johnson on Shakespeare, p. 64.

  20. Phyllida Lloyd, in her 1989 Bristol Old Vic production, had the courage, as most modern directors have not, to put Egeon alone on stage with the Duke for the first scene. Egeon was lit by a single white spot. Some of the Duke's questions were given to recorded voices off, as of a crowd or press corps, but the theatre audience were not distracted, as so often, by a stage audience busily listening and reacting.

  21. Johnson on Shakespeare, p. 67.

  22. The word “money” occurs twenty-six times in Errors, more than in any other play in the canon. Marks and mart also occur more times than in any other play. Gold/golden are found more times only in Timon of Athens; ducats and merchant(s) more times only in The Merchant of Venice.

  23. Plautus, incidentally, set one of his plays, Miles Gloriosus, in Ephesus, and another, Curculio, in Epidaurus, mentioned in Egeon's narrative; most are set in Athens. Epidamnus was in Illyria.

  24. On the reading “failing” for F's “falling,” see above, pp. 250-1. Antipholus' lines about seeking and failing to find his mother and brother are an abbreviated romance narrative on the same theme as Egeon's: another link between the plots. The inner plot, the farcical comedy itself, sounds a romance chord. In Menaechmi, the romance story is told briefly in the Prologue, outside the play.

  25. Pericles, xxi. 183-5; Cymbeline

  26. Wells, Taylor, et al., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, p. 39.

  27. “‘Papers’ and ‘Prompt Books’: Printer's Copy for Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors,Studies in Bibliography, 41 (1988), 232-46.

  28. Textual Companion, p. 266.

  29. But see the note in its defence (Textual Companion, p. 267).

  30. Compositor C also set “Epidarus” at another place on the same page where “Epidamium” appears twice. F2 corrected the former to “Epidaurus.” But Shakespeare might have gone back and changed it if he had revised his foul papers, because Emilia later says that she and the children with her had been picked up by men of “Epidamium,” not Epidaurus (V.i.357).

  31. T.S. Dorsch (ed.), The Comedy of Errors (Cambridge, 1988), p. 64 (n. to II.ii.181).

  32. Henry Cuningham (old Arden) thought “We came aboard …” an incomplete line and proposed to complete it thus: “… and put to sea, but scarce,” an intelligent conjecture, if one accepts the short-line hypothesis.

  33. Gareth Roberts has strengthened the case for “owls” and against replacing it with “elves,” arguing that it is quite plausible for Dromio to fear being sucked black and blue by a strix, a screechowl's body housing a witch or other malign spirit (“The Comedy of Errors II.ii.190: ‘Owls’ or ‘Elves’?,” Notes & Queries, N.S. 34 (1987), 202-4).

  34. The Comedy of Errors (New York, 1988), p. 29n.

  35. Though the kind of informed, sensitive inventiveness that Gary Taylor urges editors to exercise is sometimes in the theatre, unfortunately, usurped by directorial arrogance, duncicality, or perversity.

  36. Ergo, we cannot edit Hamlet, but either the bad Quarto or the good Quarto or the Folio of Hamlet. If Hamlet is an eclectic edition, Shakespeare did not write it. If Shakespeare wrote different versions at different times, which survive as Quartos and Folio, eclectic editions are amalgamations and adaptations, misleadingly labelled. A comparable case-history from Elizabethan nondramatic literature is that of Sidney's Arcadia(s). He may have written all of the “old” Arcadia and all of the incomplete “new” Arcadia which breaks off in mid-sentence in Book III, but he did not write the composite Arcadia published in 1593. That was constructed after Sidney's death by his literary executors, who also rewrote some of the “old” Arcadia used to piece out the “new,” and, with a link passage by yet another author, Alexander, was the version read for more than 300 years: the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia more than her brother's, in a significant sense. Yet even after the discovery and publication of the complete “old” Arcadia early this century, some editors (e.g. Maurice Evans) and critics (e.g. C. S. Lewis, Walter R. Davis) have edited and written about the composite version, insisting, in some cases, on its primacy (see Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford, 1954), pp. 331-3).

  37. As in Provençal trobar—find, make, invent, compose, as the troubadours did.

  38. The latest and most detailed discussion, of many, is Gary Taylor's “Textual and Sexual Criticism: A Crux in The Comedy of Errors,Renaissance Drama, N.S. 19 (1988), 195-225. My use of masculine pronouns throughout this essay when referring to Shakespeare editors reflects the fact observed by Taylor at the beginning of his, namely, the virtual absence of women from the field.

  39. I have deliberately excluded film and television from this discussion. They are quite different media from the stage, and Shakespeare's plays were not written for them. Film is a cool medium, its message frozen.

Dennis Harvey (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Harvey, Dennis. Review of The Comedy of Errors.Variety 378, no. 7 (3-9 April 2000): 58.

[In the following review, Harvey offers high praise for the Aurora Theater’s production of The Comedy of Errors, finding it to be “entirely error-free.”]

Solinus/Courtesan: Brian Yates Sharber
Egeon/Angelo/Dr. Pinch: Joan Mankin
Antipholus of Ephesus/of Syracuse: Susannah Schulman
Dromio of Ephesus/of Syracuse: Brad DePlanche
Balthasar/First & Second Merchant/Maid/Emilia: Adam Gavzer
Adriana: Susan Marie Brecht
Luciana: Johanna Falls
Musician/Constable: Scrumbly Koldwyn

There's something about “The Comedy of Errors”’ “generic Shakespeare” nature that gives directors leave to treat it as a near-blank page—one on which virtually any stylistic or conceptual fillip can be imposed. Under almost every circumstance, the play bounces back, frivolous yet hardy as a Neff ball. It's become a signature piece for idiosyncratic Bay Area director Danny Scheie, who first staged his ingenious vest-pocket version as a college thesis project in 1985, then scored a hit at Shakespeare Santa Cruz three years later, reprising the production in the first annum of his brief SSC artistic directorship in '93.

Substantially reworked each time, the show's latest incarnation is packing the high-polish but determinedly small-scale Aurora Theater Co.'s minuscule Berkeley City Club space and might well run all year if not for their relysked commitments. (Scheie opens yet another “Comedy” for Seattle Shakespeare Fest on April 13.) An unalloyed delight, overflowing with comic inspiration, this rambunctious yet flawless little staging cries for a commercial transfer.

Always fascinated by the mistaken-identity and gender-blur elements that drive many of the Bard's comedies, Scheie heightens those aspects here by using just seven actors to play all 16 roles. (Onstage pianist Scrumbly Koldwyn chips in with a few line readings as well.)

Plot's patent contrivance is underlined by their frequent crossdressing, and pushed to breaking point when some thesps eventually have to switch characters within a single scene.

Thus well-born Antipholuses (Susannah Schulmann, whose Southerngent Ephesean edition is particularly inspired) and their twin slaveys Dromio (a maniacally inventive Brad DePlanche) are double-cast, while other performers take as many as five roles apiece. Sole exceptions are Syracusean businessman Antipholus' wife Adriana (Susan Marie Brecht, wringing infinite variations on spousal exasperation) and her sister Luciana (an airheaded-flapper Johanna Falls). Letter is flattered if nonplused when her supposed in-law, A. of Epheseus, becomes a smitten suitor, while politely evading his “wife.”

Setting the piece in a vague early-20th century NYC, Scheie lifts ideas from the prior century's stage melodramas, vaudeville, even the Three Stooges and “Gone With the Wind.” A red curtain at one end of the small, unelevated playspace is sole “set”; gags include the aristocratic twins' death-sentenced father Solinus (Joan Mankin) illustrating his tragic family separation 33 years ago via classroom transparency-projector.

But humor is mostly dependent on the terrific cast's game slapstick, broad albeit precise physical characterizations, and spot-on timing.

Scheie's anything-goes approach might lead one to expect a gimmicky skim across the text. Yet his great strength as a Shakespearean director is the cogent emphasis placed on every line, rendering this “Comedy” a constant source of laughs big and small, rather than one hinged on flashy set pieces.

Ensemble is rounded out by nimble contribs from Adam Gavzer (lending his parts a giddy multinationality) and Brian Yates Sharber (especially outrageous as an indignant lady of the evening). At barely over two hours, including intermission, this “Comedy” is one of the fastest-paced in memory, as well as one entirely error-free.

Robert Viking O'Brien (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: O'Brien, Robert Viking. “The Madness of Syracusan Antipholus.” In Early Modern Literary Studies 2, no. 1 (April 1996): 3.1-26.

[In the following essay, O'Brien asserts that Shakespeare exploited his Elizabethan audience's emotional response to The Comedy of Errors by suggesting that Antipholus of Syracuse is truly in danger of succumbing to madness.]

Many readers of The Comedy of Errors notice that Egeon's possible execution provides a dark frame around what appears to be one of Shakespeare's most light-hearted comedies. Yet the threat of death that hangs over Egeon in the frame plot also hangs, in the main plot, over his Syracusan son. This threat results from Antipholus' Syracusan origins, of course, but also—less obviously and more significantly—from the possibility that Syracusan Antipholus is losing his mind. The Elizabethans believed that, without correction, insanity usually led to death; for Shakespeare's audience, the deaths of Lear and Ophelia probably seemed inevitable as soon as the characters went mad. I shall argue in this essay that, in The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare uses the possibility that Syracusan Antipholus is genuinely threatened by madness, and therefore death, to manipulate his audience's anxieties. I shall also show how, despite the play's dependence on a classical source, Syracusan Antipholus' descriptions of his “transformed” mind draw on specific, Elizabethan ideas about both supernatural and natural causes of madness.

The character's first appearance on stage, as a wanderer newly disembarked from a ship, draws on strong cultural associations between wandering, water, and insanity. Michel Foucault explores these associations in Madness and Civilization when he investigates a reality behind the imaginary Ship of Fools. Boats of mad people did in fact ply European rivers, for boatmen were often charged with removing the insane to the countryside or to another city.1 Foucault sees these mad boats both as a practical solution to the social threat posed by the insane, and as a ritual laden with significance. The water over which the mad are carried purifies them at the same time it excludes and confines them (7-12). He relates this ritual to older cultural material relating madness and sea-borne passengers.2

When Syracusan Antipholus arrives in Ephesus “stiff and weary” from his long journey over the sea, he gives his money to his servant and sends the servant away. He says that he plans to wander the town and look at its buildings and inhabitants. When the only other person in Ephesus who knows his identity leaves, Syracusan Antipholus is in the position of a lunatic released from one of the ships of fools described by Foucault. Antipholus soon discovers that he is incapable of interpreting what is said to him, and the city's inhabitants see him as mad.

His situation is the same as the parallel character's in Plautus' Menaechmi, Shakespeare's primary source. If the resemblance between Syracusan Antipholus and Foucault's released madmen stopped there, it would be difficult to claim that features of the scene resemble the cultural pattern described by Foucault. Antipholus' first soliloquy reinforces that pattern, however, by using water as its central metaphor:

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.


We find the metaphor of water dissolving into water elsewhere in Shakespeare as an expression of “losing one's self.” It appears, for example, in Richard II's deposition scene, when Richard describes himself as melting “away in water drops!” (4.1.263), in Hamlet's famous soliloquy, “O that this too too sallied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” (1.2.129-30), and in Antony and Cleopatra, when Antony describes himself as being like the shapes one sees in the clouds: “That which is now a horse, even with a thought / The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct / As water is in water” (4.14.9-11).4 If these characters associate their own unsettled identities or extreme melancholy with water, the great mad characters immerse themselves in it. Lear tears off his clothes in the driving rain and asks for the land to be submerged: “You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!” (3.2.3-4). Ophelia enters the water of the weeping brook “like a creature native and indued / Unto that element” (4.7.179-80). The connection between water and madness does not, of course, originate with Shakespeare. According to Foucault, it either begins with the ritual of the mad ships, or the ships themselves reflect an older cultural pattern: “One thing at least is certain, water and madness have long been linked in the dreams of European man” (12).

Wandering and madness are similarly linked. Foucault outlines how the wandering madmen of pre- and early-modern Europe typify this connection, which reflects a reality similar to that found in the late twentieth-century United States. In Elizabethan England, mentally-disturbed vagrants were a “ubiquitous presence” (Rosen 153) represented in ballads by the figure of Tom o'Bedlam, who wanders in search of his “stragling sences” (Lindsay 35). Edgar's soliloquy in King Lear reflects this presence as well:

The country gives me proof and president
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb'd and mortified arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,
Sometimes with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity.


Syracusan Antipholus also connects mental confusion and wandering when he bids farewell to the merchant in the second scene: “I will go lose myself, / And wander” (1.2.30-31). “Lose myself” and “wander” mean much the same thing here, but the first phrase hints at a loss of identity, an unsettling of the psyche that is more explicitly described in Antipholus' first soliloquy. Significantly, this soliloquy ends by describing the effect of Antipholus' wanderings: “So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy lose myself” (1.2.39-40).

Wandering defines Syracusan Antipholus' character. Indeed, the first Folio uses Syracusan Antipholus' status as a wanderer to distinguish him from his twin. The Folio's stage directions call him “Antipholis Erotes” (1.2.S.D.), while his brother is called “Antipholis Sereptus” (2.1.S.D.). Surreptus, or “stolen away,” was a common Renaissance epithet for Plautus' town-dwelling twin. Erotes, on the other hand, appears only in Shakespeare's play. Textual scholars have suggested several meanings for the name, but most see it as a corruption of Erraticus, formed from the verb errare, to wander (Foakes, xxvi-vii). The epithet fits the Syracusan twin, who, like his father, has presumably traveled “in farthest Greece, / Roaming clean through the bounds of Asia” (1.1.132-33). Ephesian Antipholus, on the other hand, has had a settled life.

If we take “wandering” as a mental rather than physical state, the distinction applies to the play's present action as well. Ephesian Antipholus' wife may believe that he is wandering mentally, but despite this diagnosis and his treatment by Dr. Pinch, the Ephesian twin remains “settled” in his sense of reality. His situation is thus safely in the realm of error as “mistaking.” Just as various characters mistake him for his twin, his wife and Dr. Pinch mistake him for a madman. He knows they are wrong. The Syracusan twin's situation is altogether different. The state of mind described in the first soliloquy becomes more unsettled in the confusing confrontations that follow. Syracusan Antipholus never thinks the characters he meets are mistaken or mad—instead, he doubts his own sense of reality. When confronted by the raging, jealous Adriana, for example, Syracusan Antipholus wonders if he married her and was unaware of it, or if he is now dreaming: “What, was I married to her in my dream? / Or sleep I now, and think I hear all this?” (2.2.181-82). This kind of questioning continues to the very end of the play: even after most of the problems of mistaken identity have been cleared up, Syracusan Antipholus alludes to the possibility that he is still dreaming (5.1.376).

These are the questions of a madman, for as Robert Burton, citing Avicenna, says, madmen “wake as others dream” (335). The wandering twin in the Menaechmi does not ask such questions. Unlike Shakespeare's Syracusan Antipholus, Plautus' Syracusan Menaechmus never doubts his own sense of reality. He pretends to be insane, “adsimulem insanire” (831), rather than thinking he is insane. Unlike Hamlet's “antic disposition,” this pretence is never ambiguous: Plautus continually shows us the character's sanity. When confronted with someone's inexplicable words or behavior, Menaechmus assumes that the other character, not he, is mad.

A comparison of the confused-identity scenes in the Menaechmi and The Comedy of Errors reveals the difference. In the Menaechmi, the humor in these scenes often results from arguments over who is insane. For example, in the first such scene, a cook mistakes the wandering twin for the settled one. Syracusan Menaechmus immediately decides that the man is insane—“certe hic insanust homo” (283)—and when the cook insists that he knows Menaechmus well, Menaechmus gives him money to be purified by a priest, “nam equidem insanum esse te certo scio” (292). An argument follows over who is sane. Neither character doubts his own sanity for a moment.

In Shakespeare's play, scenes involving the settled twin provide similar humor, as do some scenes involving the wandering one. Yet when Syracusan Antipholus is mistaken for his brother, he is bewildered in a way that Syracusan Menaechmus never is. Shakespeare's wandering twin rarely argues with characters who confuse him with his brother, and even when he does argue, the exchange has an unsettling quality not found in Plautus. In The Comedy of Errors' first scene of mistaken identity, for example, Syracusan Antipholus meets his servant's twin and asks how he has completed his errand so quickly:

How chance thou art return'd so soon?
EPH. Dro.
Returned so soon? Rather approached too late. …


The exchange is the first in a series of unsettling disruptions of Antipholus' sense of time. The period's “faculty psychology,” which derives ultimately from Aristotle's De Anima, associates such disruptions with the decay of the sensitive soul's perceptive faculties, a decay that, like the decay of the intellective soul, signals the onset of madness (Park 465-73).

G. R. Elliot describes how disrupted time gives the play a feeling of “weirdness” absent in Plautus (95-106). While Elliot explores this feeling as a feature of the Comedy's atmosphere, more recent scholars have seen the play's strangeness as a representation of psychological states. For example, in an essay on the relation of the frame plot to the interior plot of mistaken identity, Barbara Freedman asks what it means to be recognized as someone else. She sees Syracusan Antipholus' situation as representing “a present persona confused with a past, denied persona—a part of the self with which [one] no longer identifies” (367). In Freedman's reading, the play's mistaken identities realize repressed parts of the psyche. This realization can be frightening, and Freedman sees the play as a kind of nightmare. That the play does not have what Harry Berger calls a “green world” (3-40) makes it all the more terrifying: “By not removing the play's action to a magical island or forest, Shakespeare stresses the essence of nightmare: the imagined fulfilment of repressed fears and desires in everyday reality” (Freedman 363).

The threat of death hangs over this “farce,” as does the threat of madness that appears again in Hamlet and King Lear. Syracusan Antipholus struggles with this threat throughout the play. When the first confusions arise, he tries to determine their nature and includes the possibility that he has lost his senses: “Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell? / Sleeping or waking, mad or well advis'd?” (2.2.212-13). In the third act, he decides he is on earth and that witches are twisting his mind (3.2.155). He generally adheres to this explanation for the rest of the play. When he falls in love with Luciana, he believes he is surrendering his mind to a witch's power (3.2.161-63). In the fourth act, he attributes various confusing offstage encounters to “Lapland sorcerers” (4.3.11).

Antipholus has been prepared for this explanation by stories he has heard about Ephesus, which is said to be inhabited by “Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind” and “Soul-killing witches that deform the body” (1.2.99-100). Significantly, no such association exists in the Menaechmi. Like Shakespeare's Ephesus, which “is full of cozenage, / As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, / … Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks” (1.2.97-98, 101), Plautus' Epidamnum is filled with tricksters of various kinds (260-61). None of these is said to be practicing black magic, however, and scholars have suggested that Shakespeare changed the play's setting to allow for the possibility of such magic (Foakes xxix).

For Shakespeare's audience, the city would have been most familiar as a center of pagan worship. In Acts, devotees of Diana drive Paul from of the city. Before his expulsion, however, Paul performs a number of exorcisms. When these exorcisms are unsuccessfully imitated by “vagabond Jews,” the failed exorcists are attacked by a possessed madman: “the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded” (19.16). This failure and Paul's successes lead to conversions and the burning of magic books: “Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men” (19.19). In the Bible, Ephesus is associated with magic—“curious arts”—and with madness caused by possession.

Both in the first-century Near East and in Elizabethan England, people commonly attributed madness to possession that in turn was often attributed to black magic. In both places, people tried to exorcise madness-inducing demons with different degrees of success, and the successes were often conscious frauds. Shakespeare uses an account of such frauds to create Edgar's pretended madness in King Lear: the names of Poor Tom's demons come from Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of egregous Popish Impostures, to withdraw the harts of her maiesties Subiects from their allegeance, and from the truth of Christian Religioun professed in England, vnder the pretence of casting out devils (1603).5 If, in King Lear, Shakespeare used pretended exorcisms to create pretended madness, in Twelfth Night he had one of his characters use pretended exorcism to harass another character. Feste's exorcism of Malvolio—“Out hyperbolical fiend! how vexest thou this man!” (4.2.25-6)—remains comic as long as the audience feels certain that Malvolio is sane: the scene's sinister undertone results from a vague fear that he may lose his sanity. The parallel scene in The Comedy of Errors lacks this undertone because, as mentioned earlier, Ephesian Antipholus' sanity is never in doubt. The audience is free to laugh at what might otherwise be a frightening exorcism:

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 passage may allude to the fraudulent exorcisms described later in Harsnett's Declaration. The earliest dates given for The Comedy of Errors' composition, 1584-89 (Foakes xvii), would make those exorcisms contemporary events; the latest would make them recent history. Even if Shakespeare is not alluding to fraudulent exorcisms, his audience probably saw Doctor Pinch much as Ephesian Antipholus does, as “a mountebank, / A thread-bare juggler and a fortune-teller” (5.1.239-40). We should note, however, that although Shakespeare's audience may have regarded Pinch as a fraud or a quack, they would have seen nothing unusual in his treatment of Ephesian Antipholus' supposed madness: “They fell upon me, bound me, bore me thence, / And in a dark and dankish vault at home / There left me” (5.1.247-49). The “dark-room treatment,” which also appears in Twelfth Night (4.2), was “one of the chief methods for the treatment of the insane in both Elizabethan and seventeenth-century England” (Reed 11). Shakespeare's audience probably took its efficacy for granted. The problem with this treatment in The Comedy of Errors results from the sanity of the patient and the (possible) fraudulence of the practitioner. The same is true of Pinch's attempted exorcism. Its ridiculousness should not lead us to conclude that Shakespeare and his audience did not believe in genuine exorcisms or in madness caused by possession. Even a thinker as relentlessly skeptical as Thomas Hobbes, writing in the middle of the next century, felt compelled to take possession-induced madness seriously, if only to dispute it (142-46). Before Hobbes, supernatural causes for mental illness were taken for granted, even by those who favoured explanations based on physical humours. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, for instance, Robert Burton departs from his description of humor-induced melancholy for a lengthy “Digression of the nature of Spirits, bad Angels, or Devils, and how they cause Melancholy” (157-79).

As the preceding example shows, belief in supernatural causes for mental illness was not limited to the illiterate, who were less familiar with “physical” explanations based on the theory of humours. The learned explanation for madness was in fact more likely to be supernatural than natural (Porter 30). Even medical doctors who ordinarily pointed to “natural” causes would, in extreme cases, point to supernatural ones (Rosen 146). For the Elizabethans, these causal categories were not contradictory. The Bible lent authority to supernatural interpretations; the classics lent authority to natural and supernatural interpretations: in the Phaedrus, for example, Plato describes both kinds of madness (265A). Throughout the Middle Ages, the idea of natural causes coexisted with that of supernatural intervention (Clarke 82). By the late sixteenth century, learned discussions of madness often focused on distinguishing between the two explanations (Kocher 297-305).

In his struggle to understand what is happening to him, Syracusan Antipholus wavers between the two explanations. Generally, he provides a supernatural explanation, but this explanation is itself bound up with the physical, for the play continually connects mental transformations to physical ones. Syracusan Antipholus' initial description of the inhabitants of Ephesus—“Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, / Soul-killing witches that deform the body” (1.2.99-100)—makes this connection, as does the following exchange between Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio:

SYR. Dro.
I am transformed, master, am I not?
SYR. Ant.
I think thou art in mind, and so am I.
SYR. Dro.
Nay, master, both in mind and in my shape.
SYR. Ant.
Thou hast thine own form.
SYR. Dro.
No, I am an ape.


Dromio's words foreshadow his later questioning of Syracusan Antipholus: “Do you know me sir? Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?” (3.2.72). In this scene, Dromio's fear of transformation results from his encounter with his twin's lover, the hideous kitchen wench who knows various “privy marks” on his body, so “that I, amazed, ran from her as a witch. / And I think if my breast had not been made of faith, and my heart of steel, / She had transformed me to a curtal dog” (3.2.143-45). Dromio's description of this comically terrifying encounter immediately follows Antipholus' wooing of Luciana. Like Dromio's encounter, this wooing also involves transformation, but what Dromio feared, Antipholus desires: “Are you a god? would you create me new? / Transform me then, and to your power I'll yield” (3.2.39-40).

Antipholus repudiates this wish after he hears Dromio's story. He realizes that his desire is leading him toward madness and suicide, so “lest myself be guilty to self-wrong, / I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song” (3.2.161-63). Antipholus here wards off the enchantments of a woman he believes to be a witch (3.2.155). At the same time, he resists the love-induced madness that could lead him to commit the sin of self-murder.

Madness brought on by love appears so frequently in the period's literature that we tend to think of it as a convention—something Cervantes could mock, for example, by having Don Quixote, in the Sierra Morena, imitate Orlando Furioso (197-203). Yet these literary madnesses reflected a reality. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton supplies a long list of mad, suicidal lovers from literature and then tells his readers to

Go to Bedlam for examples. It is so well known in every village, how many have either died for love, or voluntarily made away themselves, that I need not much labour to prove it; Death is the common catastrophe to such persons.


Burton, who devotes almost a third of his Anatomy to love melancholy (see Reed 106), provides what may strike us as a strangely physical description of how such love is engendered: the beloved infects the lover through the eyes, for “rays, … sent from the eyes, carry certain spiritual vapours with them, and so infect the other party” (681). Once the infection has occurred, Burton says, the passion lodges in lower regions of the psyche, from whence it rises to distort the lover's senses, and, in extreme cases, drive him or her mad.

A similarly physical idea of madness appears in The Comedy of Errors. After Syracusan Antipholus' confusing encounter with Adriana, he asks “What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?” (2.2.184). On one level, his question suggests a possibility not thought of by other characters in the play: mistaken identity is responsible for their confusion. On another level, Antipholus' question suggests an actual disordering of the senses. Shakespeare is playing on a meaning of “error” largely lost to us, that of “fury” or “extravagance of passion” (OED). As in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, in Elizabethan physical psychology, extreme passion—an upsurge from the lower regions of the psyche—destroys the higher faculties (DePorte 115-18). Timothy Bright's Treatise of Melancholy (1586), for example, describes how “vehement contemplations” disorder the senses (35).

Bright says this disordering can “cause horrible and fearfull apparitions” (131). If not corrected, it leads to madness and death. Indeed, Elizabethan parish records often list, as causes of death, mental states like “frenzy” and “thought” (Forbes 117-18). Shakespeare's drama reflects the idea that uncorrected madness is ultimately fatal; as Foucault notes in Madness and Civilization, “In Shakespeare … madness … occupies an extreme place, in that it is beyond appeal. Nothing ever restores it either to truth or reason. It leads only to laceration and thence to death” (31-32).

The Comedy of Errors is not King Lear. Nevertheless, as I have argued here, this seeming farce touches upon what would have been a genuine anxiety for the Elizabethan audience. Syracusan Antipholus is struggling for his mind and his life when he cries out, near the end of the play,

The fellow is distract, and so am I,
And here we wander in illusions—
Some blessed power deliver us from hence!


Such outcries are comic because the audience is aware of the cause of Syracusan Antipholus' confusion. But however faint, the anxiety produced by fear of madness remains, darkening the play's entertaining confusions.


  1. For the transportation of the insane during the Middle Ages, see also Rosen 140-41.

  2. Foucault believes that the relationship had special significance for Europeans “on the horizon of the Renaissance” (18), when madness to some extent replaced death as a theme for meditation (13-15). Foucault briefly traces the literary use of madness from Erasmus' Praise of Folly to Cervantes and Shakespeare (12-17, 27-32). Curiously, Foucault's description of this development has been blamed for the relative lack of new work on madness in Tudor and Stuart England. Carol Thomas Neely claims that, in Madness and Civilization, Foucault's “Renaissance” has few distinguishing characteristics: it is merely a continuation of his “Middle Ages” (779). This has led younger scholars to focus on the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the period of Foucault's “great confinement,” when the older view of madness is replaced by one continuous with the present view. It seems to me that Foucault does distinguish between notions of madness before the late seventeenth century. In any event, we can hardly blame him for inadequately describing those differences: as its subtitle indicates, Madness and Civilization focuses on “Insanity in the Age of Reason,” not earlier periods.

  3. Quotations from The Comedy of Errors come from the New Arden edition. All other Shakespeare quotations come from The Riverside Shakespeare.

  4. See Foakes' note on 1.2.33-38 in the New Arden edition of The Comedy of Errors. In his list of water-into-water metaphors, Foakes also includes the Duke's comment in The Two Gentlemen of Verona that “love is as a figure / Trenched in ice, which with an hour's heat / Dissolves to water, and doth lose his form” (3.2.6-8).

  5. In Shakespearean Negotiations, Stephen Greenblatt explores the political and cultural implications of Shakespeare's use of Harsnett (94-128). For a different reading of those implications, see Murphy.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Aristotle's De Anima, Books II and III. Trans. D. W. Hamlyn. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1968.

Berger, Harry, Jr. Second World and Green World: Studies in Renaissance Fiction-Making. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Bright, Timothie. A Treatise of Melancholie. Containing the causes thereof, & reasons of the strange effects it worketh in our minds and bodies: with the physic cure, ad spirtuall consolation for such as have thereto adjoined an afflicted conscience. London: Thomas Vautrolier, 1586. Facsimile. The English Experience 212. Amsterdam: Da Capo P, 1969.

Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Ed. Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1927.

Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha. Trans. Samuel Putnam. 2 vols. New York: Viking P, 1949.

Clarke, Basil. Mental Disorder in Earlier Britain: Exploratory Studies. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1975.

DePorte, Michael V. Nightmares and Hobbyhorses: Swift, Sterne, and Augustan Ideas of Madness. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1974.

Elliott, G. R. “Weirdness in The Comedy of Errors.University of Toronto Quarterly 60 (1939): 95-106.

Foakes, R. A. Introduction. The Comedy of Errors. William Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1962. xi-lv.

Forbes, Thomas Rogers. Chronicle from Adgate: Life and Death in Shakespeare's London. New Haven: Yale UP, 1971.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

Freedman, Barbara. “Egeon's Debt: Self-Division and Self-Redemption in The Comedy of Errors.English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 360-83.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. C. B. Macpherson. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1951.

Kocher, Paul H. Science and Religion in Elizabethan England. New York: Octagon Books, 1969.

Lindsay, Jack, ed. Loving Mad Tom: Bedlamite Verses of the XVI and XVII Centuries. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1970.

Murphy, John L. Darkness and Devils: Exorcism and “King Lear”. Athens: Ohio UP, 1984.

Neely, Carol Thomas. “Recent Work in Renaissance Studies: Did Madness Have a Renaissance?” Renaissance Quarterly 44:4 (Winter 1991): 776-91.

Park, Katharine. “The Organic Soul.” The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy. Eds. Eckhard Kessler, Charles B. Schmitt, Quentin Skinner. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. 464-84.

Plato. The Dialogues of Plato. Trans. B. Jowett. 4 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1953.

Plautus. Menaechmi. In Plautus, 2: 364-487. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1917.

Porter, Roy. Mind-Forg'd Manacles: A History of Madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Reed, Robert Rentoul, Jr. Bedlam on the Jacobean Stage. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1952.

Rosen, George. Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968.

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. Ed. R. A. Foakes. Arden Shakespeare 4. London: Methuen, 1962.

———. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: Feldman, A. Bronson. “Shakespeare's Early Errors.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 36, no. 2 (March-April 1955): 114-33.

[In the essay below, Feldman presents a psychological biography of Shakespeare based on a detailed analysis of the plot and characters of The Comedy of Errors.]

Veterem atque antiquam rem novam ad vos proferam


If we could understand the motives that impelled William Shakespeare to the writing of plays, what were the reasons for his giving a whole life of wealthy imagination to the theatre, we might come into possession of the main keys to the psychology of the stage itself, of plays, the players, and their public. In the hope of contributing toward this achievement I have undertaken an intensive analysis of a play by the paramount dramatist which most historians regard as one of the earliest—if not the very first—of his creative efforts in theatre: The Comedy of Errors. Because of the crude frivolity, the juvenile character of this drama, scholars have not paid it serious attention. The eyes of psycho-analysis turn the more readily to it precisely because of this juvenile character. We know how the childishness of an artist will betray the deepest secrets of his mind, the unconscious origin of the passions of his life. If it is true that the Errors stands the nearest of Shakespeare's works to his infancy, we may expect to discover in it the primary springs of his fantasy, the driving forces of all his dramatic work.

Analysis of the comedy is not an easy task, for Shakespeare bequeathed it to us in a palimpsest form. There is plenty of evidence that he revised this product of his youth several times, and it did not reach the press until he had been in his grave many years. We need not be dismayed by the rapid shifts in quality of its stagecraft and the abrupt variations of the style. The changes in the drama will mystify us only when we lose sight of its substance, the farcical plot, which throws over all the sophistications of Shakespeare's mature art the unmistakable shadow of his novice mind. Scarcely any of his other plays exhibits so hearty an interest in plot as the Errors. The plot is the thing in which we shall catch the conscience of the poet. Shakespeare apprehended this fact and therefore laboured to fill the fabric of the comedy with snares and delusions, ever hopeful of escape from knowledge. With extreme cunning he wrote and rewrote the drama, turning it into a net of Gordian knots which nowhere present a single loose end to enable us to unravel the purport of the play. At whatever point we select to begin our analysis we are bound to use a sharpness without subtlety, to cut the fabric so that it can be untied with the loving patience it deserves.

Suppose we begin the investigation of Shakespeare's Errors with the obvious motive of the farce. Manifestly its purpose is to provoke laughter, extravagant, strenuous, far-fetched laughter, not without tears. The poet means to be merry, like his hero in the middle of the drama, ‘in despite of mirth’ (III, i). With its wild, unbelievable story and dreamlike duplication of characters, the comedy aims at delirium. The prime emotion appears to be one of hysteria, as if the author produced it from a desperate want of hilarity, feeling that he must have merriment or run mad. He does not leave us in doubt about the source of this manic humour. It functioned for him in the same way that the clown Dromio of Syracuse serves his curious master. ‘When I am dull with care and melancholy,’ the master remarks, Dromio ‘Lightens my humour with his merry jests’ (I, ii). Again and again Shakespeare stresses relief from a devouring sorrow as sufficient excuse for his jokes, no matter how ribald or fierce. He seems to have put such gaiety on the plane of athletic sports, considering it precious recreation:

Sweet recreation barr'd, what doth ensue
But moody moping, and dull melancholy,
Kinsman to grim and comfortless despair … ?


Below the surface motive of the comedy, then, we can plainly see the motive of evading melancholiac depression.

The intensity of the poet's depression on the threshold of his Errors may be estimated by the fact that he altered the raw Roman material of the play in order to give it a groundwork of tragedy. For the sake of its sorrowful opening scene Shakespeare sacrificed elements from his Latin source which would have made the plot more plausible.

In the Menaechmi of his beloved Plautus the twins around whom the comedy revolves are separated by a commonplace event. The father takes one to a distant market town and the boy is lost in a crowd. A merchant finds the little Menaechmus and carries him away across the Adriatic Sea to Epidamnus. The lad's father dies of grief. Back in their native Syracuse the grandfather, learning of the double loss, and anxious to preserve the memory of the lost boy, who was named after him, changes the name of the remaining twin from Sosicles to Menaechmus. The new Menaechmus grows up and travels across the Adriatic hoping to find out what happened to his dear brother. Shakespeare desired more sensational reasons for the parting of the twins. He invented a tempest and a shipwreck to account for it. He refused to let the father die of grief, but increased the old man's torments by parting him from the second son. This boy leaves his father to go in search of a brother whom he has never known. And old Aegeon is compelled, years later, to sail in search of both his sons, across the Mediterranean Sea to Ephesus. Shakespeare completes his disruption of the family by having brutal seamen separate the mother from the child she saved in the wreck. In the midst of this welter of narrative we are disappointed to observe that he names the twins Antipholus and fails to explain why they have identical names. To augment the mystification he bestows on their twin servants the single name Dromio. We know that he got the idea for his two sets of twins from another comedy by Plautus, Amphitruo, but the Latin dramatist adequately accounted for his twins here by making one of each pair a god masquerading to delude mortals.

Plautus opens his Amphitruo with the statement, from the mouth of the god Mercury, that the play commences as a tragedy. Shakespeare may have been encouraged by this to start the Errors in the same manner. But the Roman playwright shows us nothing piteous and terrible, like the first scene of Shakespeare's play. Plautus's excuse for the tragic element in his work is that ‘it is not right to make a play where kings and gods talk entirely comedy’. The tragic element in Shakespeare's work concerns no god or king, only the poor old merchant Aegeon, who has no parallel in Plautus.

What could have driven Shakespeare to make these drastic alterations in his material? Why did he discard the simple disappearance of a twin in a crowd for the barely credible separation at sea? The tempest must have had a special meaning to the dramatist. The central image of Aegeon's tragic tale, the splitting of his ship, must have exerted an irresistible fascination on Shakespeare's mind. He lavished so much imagination on the disaster that he neglected to make clear the reason for calling both of Aegeon's sons Antipholus. The reckless omission of this important detail gives us a glimpse of the hysterical haste with which the poet went to work on the comedy. His reason appears to have been overwhelmed by the images of the storm and the wreck.

He makes the old man speak of his misfortune as ‘this unjust divorce’ (I, i). Now, matrimony has often been compared to a sea, and divorce to shipwreck. How conscious of these metaphors the dramatist may have been, we cannot say. It is incontestable, however, that the thought of divorce was running in his mind when he composed The Comedy of Errors. Its central events occur in consequence of an estrangement between the hero, Antipholus of Ephesus, and his wife. And the two Latin comedies from which Shakespeare derived the raw stuff of his farce obtain their effects of fun from breaches of marriage.

So far as I am aware, only one of Shakespeare's critics, Frank Harris, has recognized that the poet's own alienation from his wife was a stimulus to the writing of the Errors (1). Unfortunately Harris's interpretation of the play raised more riddles than he solved, obscuring the merit of his discovery. He erred in attempting to sift details from the drama to fit his imaginary biography of the poet. In this essay I intend to steer clear of questions of biography, relying for argument exclusively on the text of the play and its literary analogues.

The ‘unjust divorce’ of Aegeon and his Aemilia is the work of wind, water, and stone, or the caprice of the goddess Fortune, as the venerable traveller insists. The alienation of Antipholus and his Adriana, on the other hand, is portrayed as an error, the climax of a series of errors. The marriage of this couple, Shakespeare seems to say, is nothing but a comedy of errors, indeed a mistake from the start. Adriana's sister suspects that Antipholus married her for her riches (III, ii). He grew cold to her, if not cruel. Before the action of the play commences, he was in the habit of keeping late hours away from his house. ‘His company must do his minions grace’, Adriana complains, ‘Whilst I at home starve for a merry look’ (II, i). She accuses him of unkindness and he charges her with shrewish behaviour. Both are right. Yet until the confusions of the comedy begin, we are led to believe, their temperaments have never exploded in hate. For only a week (prior to the day of the drama), Adriana declares near the end, her husband had been behaving strangely.

This week he hath been heavy, sour, sad,
And much different from the man he was;
But till this afternoon his passion
Ne'er brake into extremity of rage.

From the lips of Luciana and Aemilia the poet casts the blame for the estrangement on the wife. They rebuke her for ‘self-harming jealousy’, for breaking the peace of her household with wicked thoughts of her husband wandering abroad in pursuit of unlawful love. According to the judgement of these women, her conduct toward Antipholus is enough to explain his melancholy and the ‘unjust divorce’ of their souls.

The dramatist's compassion for the melancholy Antipholus bears witness for our conviction that Shakespeare identified himself with the outraged husband. He had broken away from his own wife and felt a strong impulse to justify the act on the stage. It could not be shown straightforwardly, of course. In the first place the poet was too blind with tears of self-pity to see the naked truth. Moreover he sensed that his wife did not hold a monopoly of the guilt in their disgrace. He had the intelligence and the courage to admit that he had contributed wrongs and miseries to the marriage; but his courage took the peculiar path of confessing his sins under the mask of comedy. Adopting the counsel of his Luciana, ‘Be not thy tongue thy own shame's orator’ (III, ii), he showed the world his shame by means of a variety of tongues. He discloses his guilt with a mirthy grimace while protesting, in an agony of remorse, that he is innocent. The core of the whole play is an apology for Shakespeare's errors in matrimony. He is not to blame, the drama pleads in its grotesque fashion: nor should the woman in the case be condemned, though discerning persons of her sex might decide that she was responsible. The fact of the matter, Shakespeare wishes us to think, is that the marriage had been wrecked because the bride and the groom did not really know the individuals they wedded. It was a case of mistaken identity.

In some such way, I imagine, the ego of the poet defended itself against his conscience or superego in the supreme court of his unconscious mind. I and my woman, the dramatist inwardly contended, have done nothing more damnable than entertain strangers as lovers.—She took me in, like Alcmena in Amphitruo, thinking that a hero was going to sleep by her side, and in happy ignorance she united with a god. Alas, poor god! He took in holy wedlock what he thought was an angel, and she turned out to be a termagant, at any rate a woman of torturing whims. Nevertheless, as Plautus says, ‘The god will not allow his sin and fault to fall upon a mortal's head.’ In our pitiable and ridiculous way we are trying to correct our mistakes. Anyhow, I am.—Thus seeking balm for hurt vanity, and excuses for his marital follies and cruelties, the dramatist contrived his Comedy of Errors.

The dramatic process in his unconscious took the shape of a dreamlike confusion of identities. He pictured himself as two persons, the husband Antipholus and his double, the unmarried twin, Antipholus of Syracuse, who is taken for the husband by his unhappy Adriana. There is nothing here to prove a split in the dramatist's personality. On the contrary, he has retained his ego entire and dealt himself the luxury of an alter ego. He demonstrates the sort of esteem for himself which makes people say of certain gentlemen that they are too brilliant, they should have been born twins.

The resemblance between the brothers Antipholus is more than skin-deep. The Duke of Ephesus indicates their true relationship when he exclaims.

One of these men is genius to the other.
… Which is the natural man,
And which the spirit? Who deciphers them?


On the first appearance of the brother from Syracuse he reveals himself as a victim of the same unexplained melancholy that the brother of Ephesus suffers from:

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

(I, ii.)

The Syracusan may well be described as the ‘genius’ or spiritual double of the husband. He is more lyrical in speech, and briefly manifests a tendency to speculative thought. On his arrival in Ephesus, weary from a long voyage, he delays his dinner to gratify a desire to look on the town, ‘Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings. …’ His enthusiasm for sights and insights leads him to bewilderment and hazard, but nothing can diminish it. He vows that he will ‘in this mist at all adventures go’ (II, ii). The Syracusan's intellectual faculties are never so vivid as his carnal ones. He is almost as brutal as his brother. Both of them are quick to beat their servants' skulls for similar audacities. They cherish in common a profound and unfunny antagonism to the woman Adriana. After making her acquaintance for an hour or two the Syracusan twin confesses,

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

(III, ii.)

The Ephesian bursts into a fury against his wife for barring him mysteriously from their house. He orders a rope's end to be brought with a view to punishing her (IV, i). He even threatens to pluck out her eyes (IV, iv)! In short, his soul abhors her too. It is not the spirit of virtue in the twins that shrinks from the shrill lady. Shakespeare does not depict them as patterns of chastity. The Ephesian pays a bold homage to the harlot who runs the Porpentine inn. His brother makes love to Luciana shortly after their first sight of each other, and plans to leave her city the same day. The egoism of this fellow is oddly displayed by Shakespeare in his pretext for abandoning Luciana. Her charms, he says, ‘almost made me traitor to myself’.

But lest myself be guilty to self-wrong,
I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song.

(III, ii.)

His scruples do not prevent him from accepting the wifely services of her sister; he lets Adriana labour under the impression that she is doing her duty to her mate. The promptitude of the twins in embracing female hospitality is nearly equalled by their good-will to men, especially men of their station in society. To these singular features we should add their mode of showing anxiety as soon as they experience a loss of money. All these touches of nature make them more than kin. The creator wisely relinquished his attempt (traces of which survive in three old stage directions) to mark the twins apart by styling the Syracusan ‘Erotes’—the amorous—and his brother ‘Sereptus’—the stealthy.

Incidentally, the poet gives two different statements of their age. In the first scene we learn that the Syracusan journeyed at eighteen in quest of the other. Since then, Aegeon remarks, five summers have passed, or, to be exact, as he is in the final scene, ‘seven short years’. To the father, then, the twins are twenty-five years old. The mother dates their birthday earlier. ‘Thirty-three years,’ she declares, ‘have I but gone in travail Of you, my sons’ (V). We are sorry to miss the evidence of those she calls ‘the calendars of their nativity’. The two Antipholi are presented as men of ‘gravity’ and ‘serious hours’, but demeanour is no index to age. Adriana in chagrin asserts that her mate is ‘deformed, crooked, old and sere’ (IV, ii). But can we trust her testimony in the face of the romance of his twin and her sister Luciana? We cannot even be sure that Dromio of Ephesus tells the truth when he says, examining Dromio of Syracuse, ‘I see by you I am a sweet-fac'd youth’ (V). The cause of the poet's discrepant chronology lies, I feel sure, in his revision of the play at different stages of his career, and may be of use to biographers.

I have been unable to locate in Latin or Greek literature the name that Shakespeare chose for his ego surrogates. There was a famous artist, a painter, named Antiphilus in the era of Alexander the Great. Possibly he was remembered by the dramatist when he cloaked his unconscious self as Greek for The Comedy of Errors. The principle of determinism in the choice of names still challenges us to elucidate Shakespeare's designation for his doubles. It strikes me that the spelling ‘Antipholus’ was intended characteristically for a pun. We know how fond the poet was of trifling with words; he could truly be called a pun-addict. Also well know is his conviction that by means of wit and drama he could purge the stupidities, the intellectual diseases of the world (2). In the light of these facts I suggest that the name of his heroes may be translated into English as anti-follies. Otherwise the appellation is just Greek to me. If I am right in this surmise it would help to explain Shakespeare's failure to record the reason for the twins bearing the same name. The humane development, the culture of his psyche would not permit him free rein in self-righteousness. As a fool of Fortune in marriage he must have felt uneasy in his posture of justice above the fools of the world. In the conflict between righteous vanity and the woe and shame of his ‘unjust divorce’ the memory of the latter would suffice to make him oblivious of the motive for naming his protagonists Antipholus.

There is no difficulty in accounting for the name of the twin servants, Dromio. It is simply an Italian variation of the name the Roman playwright Terence bestowed on slaves in his first comedy, The Woman from Andros, in The Self-Tormentor, and The Brothers. Shakespeare unquestionably had Italian buffoons in mind when he created the brothers Dromio. A drum, by the way, was a typical property of clowns in his time.

As twin slaves of the Antipholi, one a bachelor like his master, all of precisely the same age, the Dromios could be viewed as simply burlesques of the aristocratic twins. They share certain qualities of their respective employers. The married Dromio, for example, expresses with his scullion Luce the lechery which his master has subdued and refined. The unmarried servant shows less carnality than his brother, and more religion and imagination. His spiritual attributes form a remarkable contrast of Shakespeare's dramatic method with that of Plautus, since the English artist modelled his Syracusan clown on the role that the god Mercury plays in Amphitruo as the double of the slave Sosia. The English poet transformed the divine Sosia into a human being with a rare talent for superstition, just as he changed the Jupiter who usurps Amphitryon's bed into a mortal proud of his chastity, with a rare talent for metaphysics. Between Plautus and Shakespeare, clearly, there was a progress of reason in theology, ensuing in the wake of a tremendous restriction of libido. The Syracusan twins, with all their fleshly frailty, are unquestionably superior in morals to the Roman gods. If the Roman dramatist has any advantage over Shakespeare in ethics, I would say that it consists of his superior passion for liberty. Plautus never lets pass an opportunity to express his sadness and hatred at the sight of humanity in chains. To Shakespeare's eyes the bondage of a Dromio was too light to be taken seriously. He seems to have enjoyed a feudal sense of intimacy between lord and labourer. Antipholus depicts the feudal idea when he warns Dromio not to let ‘Your sauciness jest upon my love’ because ‘I familiarly sometimes Do use you for my fool, and chat with you’ (II, ii). Their relation might be defined as even more intimate, anagogically. It is possible that Dromio incarnates the ‘earthy-gross conceit’ which Antipholus deplores in himself (III, ii), that is the vulgar and servile qualities of the genius who created them both.

The Comedy of Errors contains another set of mental twins, who have eluded the scrutiny of Shakespearean experts and critics. It is conceivable that the dramatist himself was not aware of their identity. Their likeness is drawn with so much dexterity and painstaking cleverness that I am inclined to think he meant them to be equals and opposites. He struggled cordially to discriminate them, and the opinion of generations of scholars on their portraits is proof that he was too successful. The cost of this success, in my opinion, is the defeat of the dramatist's honest intention, and injustice to the woman whom he sketched twice as the wife Adriana and her sister. There are good reasons for thinking that when Shakespeare outlined their characters he proposed, perhaps unconsciously, to limn two aspects or phases of the same lady, his own wife. Luciana would then represent the girl he made his bride, beautiful, tender, and gleaming with extraordinary wisdom; and Adriana would stand for the woman she became, or rather the creature Shakespeare fancied lay potential in his bride. In changing her image to the two distinct heroines he surpassed the metamorphoses of his favourite poet, Ovid, whose mythic transformations he constantly held in the ‘quick forge and workinghouse’ of unconscious thought.

The essential identity of the sisters emerges when we compare their characters in detail. The outstanding trait of Adriana is her shrewishness. Antipholus of Syracuse contrasts her with Luciana primarily on account of the unmarried sister's kind and courteous manner, her ‘gentle sovereign grace’ (III, ii). Next to this quality he adores her ‘discourse’, or adroitness in conversation. Now Luciana herself, though critical of her sister's headstrong attitude to Antipholus, testifies that

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


Shakespeare presents the shrew as a model of tenderness in the scene where she humours her husband, believing him almost insane—‘poor distressed soul’ (IV, iv). She exhibits her devotion to him in worry over his arrest for debt, which she hastens to pay off despite his torrent of insults. As for Adriana's ‘discourse’, we have every reason to believe her when she affirms that her conversation has been dulled and her wit turned barren by the chill hostility of her husband. ‘If voluble and sharp discourse be marr'd,’ says she, ‘Unkindness blunts it more than marble hard’ (II, i). There is no sign that Antipholus ever acted toward her with generosity, except before their wedding, when she was certainly Luciana-like. The unmarried sister, however, is by no means exempt from Adriana's defects. She too can pour a swift shrillness of epithets on people who offend her (II, ii). Her volubility on occasions can be bluntly evil (III, ii). We may trust the judgement of Adriana when she states that her sister will want to ‘bear some sway’ after she weds, and upbraid her husband if he strays from home to linger in sirens' taverns. Apart from temper and talent in talk the girls are supposed to be distinguished by their looks. Adriana speaks as if ‘homely age’ had deprived her of virgin loveliness, but a moment later she declares that a ‘sunny look’ from her husband would quickly restore her beauty: ‘he hath wasted it’ (II, i). If he had never led her to the nuptial altar she would have glittered precisely as alluring as her sister and the hostess of the Porpentine, whom Antipholus praises as ‘Pretty and witty, wild, and yet, too, gentle’ (III, i). Shakespeare does not tell how old she and Luciana are. If there is any difference in their ages, it is not enough to cleave their souls asunder. They too are one.

In the names of the two girls, I suspect, the dramatist has informed us, in his paradoxical way, that they are twins. If we take Luciana to mean ‘the bright one’, by the facile substitution (in accordance with Grimm's law) of a t for the d in Adriana, we could translate her name as ‘the dark one’. It may also signify the lucent or luscious one gone dry. (For my purpose it is unnecessary to render the last syllables of their names more concretely. To the reader who wishes to take them as meaning simply Anna, I answer: As you like it.)

It is not unlikely that Shakespeare designed these ‘witches’, as Antipholus of Syracuse calls them (III, ii), to stand for the great moon goddess of their city, Diana. Another name for the moon divinity, in the religion of ancient Rome, was Lucina. The Syracusan worships Luciana as ‘more than earth divine’, hails her ‘Fair sun’, and speaks of her sister as ‘night’. In the writer's unconscious, according to my surmise, the feminine ‘sun’ was nothing but the shining face of the moon. He symbolized her sister by the dark side of Diana. The name of this goddess might be interpreted, without stretching the patience of philology, as meaning ‘the double one’. Frazer has observed that Diana appears in ancient myth like a partner of Janus, the two-faced god of Rome (3). The idea of the twofold deity could have provided our poet with the inspiration to change the setting of the Errors from Plautus's Epidamnus to Ephesus. Presumably he was tempted to keep the scene in Epidamnus, since the name appealed to his passion for puns and devilry. He made that town the birthplace of the Antipholi (I, i), and the Syracusan brother is told to pretend that he voyaged from there to Ephesus. When he plans to abandon Luciana his servant buys him passage on a vessel bound for Epidamnus. At all events Shakespeare made Ephesus serve his dramatic aims as a city of the damned. The Epidamnus of Plautus is a town of swindling, sponging, and seduction. Shakespeare's Ephesus is a town of deeds more dreadful, infernal crafts, ‘And many such-like liberties of sin’ (I, i). Its wenches, according to Dromio of Syracuse, are accustomed to cry, ‘God damn me’, which he says is equivalent to the prayer, ‘God make me a light wench’. These girls are therefore worthy to function as ministrants of the moon. Dromio argues that their heavenly bodies are hellish: ‘It is written, they appear to men like angels of light: light is an effect of fire, and fire will burn; ergo, light wenches will burn’ (IV, iii). But Dromio, like his master, is an enemy of all things pagan, when these confront them in the flesh. For the literate Antipholus the cult of Diana would surely have poetic charms, with its visions of wildwood nymphs and vestals entranced or dancing by her silver flame. Outside poetry, however, he would agree with the illiterate Dromio that her religion was witchcraft or else sheer lunacy. Both master and slave are devout Christians—actually Roman Catholics—and according to Christian tradition the sylvan retinue of Diana eventually turned into ghosts and monsters, like the ‘goblins, owls, and elvish sprites’ whom Dromio sees everywhere in Ephesus (II, ii). In the period of Shakespeare a host of scholars were convinced that warlocks and beldames of hell worshipped her: ‘in the night-times,’ it is written, ‘they ride abroad with Diana, the goddess of the Pagans’ (4). The divinity receives no worship in Shakespeare's play because he converted Ephesus to a Christian town. Nevertheless we can glimpse her ‘sovereign grace’, divided among the women of the comedy, performing its magic in the afternoon and dusk. She exercises her spells not only through the dextrous Luciana and the sinister Adriana, but also through the unnamed inn-keeper whom Dromio fancies might be ‘Mistress Satan’ (IV, iii).

By the supernal power of sex which Diana represents the characters are all flung into craziness. True, this does not occur until the hero Antipholus of Syracuse sets foot in the city. Shakespeare toiled hard to impress us with the notion that Antipholus is ever on guard against the power of sex. How could he act as the prime mover of its madness in the comedy? My answer is that, despite his piety, he is the evil ‘genius’ of the Errors. To each of the women in it his apparition radiates a satanic magnetism, of which he is blissfully unaware. His Dromio seems to comprehend this. When Antipholus warns the hostess of the Porpentine, ‘Avaunt, thou witch!’ Dromio dryly remarks: ‘Fly pride, says the peacock’ (IV, iii). Apropos of the peacock, we recall that the bird was a companion of the goddess Juno, in whom Frazer has discerned a twin of Diana (5). So the Syracusan may rightly be regarded as a minion of the moon. Wherever he walks it looks as if lunacy prevails; no wonder he must ask himself,

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

(II, ii.)

He might well speak of his experience in the words of another of Shakespeare's heroes:

                    It is the very error of the moon;
She comes more near the earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad.

(Othello, V, ii.)

The adventures of Antipholus prove to be ‘well-advised’. He manages to enjoy himself among the Ephesians, and unites with Luciana in the end.

The omission of the moon-goddess from Shakespeare's Errors was probably dictated by discretion more than religious propriety. The educated subjects of Elizabeth were accustomed to hearing the Virgin Queen extolled as the English Diana, and literary allusions to the divinity of the moon were frequently assumed to imply an opinion of her Majesty (6). Shakespeare apparently endeavoured to banish all thought of Elizabeth from the minds attending to his farce. Perhaps he remembered the penalty inflicted on his forerunner Richard Edwards when that comic dramatist referred to classic Greek personalities in language that was construed as criticism of some Tudor courtiers (7). Shakespeare could not afford to have any wit of the royal court construe the function of Diana in his comedy as a joke on the Queen. He described the city of Ephesus, remember, as a hotbed of black magic, swarming with

Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body.

(I, ii.)

If he had introduced the goddess of these magicians in the play he would have risked damnation as one who hinted that Elizabeth was the mistress of mountebanks and hellhags. Insofar as her Majesty is glanced at in the Errors it is through the glare of the authority of Solinus, the ‘sweet prince’ of Ephesus. The Duke is barely more than an abstraction, law and order incarnate. The first syllable of his name, Sol, would serve to ward off suspicion that the poet delineated him as a deputy of Diana, the antagonist of the sun. Solinus will not stand for nonsense and moonshine; he is emblematic of system, a foe of anarchy, indeed a deputy of the superego in us all.

So Shakespeare expelled the magnificent moon-woman from The Comedy of Errors. A quick look at a concordance tells us that the moon is not mentioned even once. Yet the shadow of the goddess is perceptible in every scene. She glows above the heads of the women in their excitement or serenity and broods tenebrously over the men. When the young Shakespeare wrote the comedy, in the darkness of his unconscious, he must have offered a mocking reverence to her ‘whom all Asia and the world worshippeth’, and echoed the cry of the silversmiths against the apostle Paul: ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’ (Acts of the Apostles, xxix, 28).

To the learned of Shakespeare's period Diana was the goddess of virginity. Luciana would therefore seem to be a truer embodiment of the Diana ideal than Adriana. Let us not be deceived by this seeming. The emphasis of the poet on the ‘unviolated honour’ of the wife, her horror of the licentious (II, ii), her lack of offspring, and the gestures of frigid purity that drove her husband to the Porpentine inn, prove her deserving of a vestal's glory.

Shall we assent to the proof? Is it not also seeming, a tissue of ostensible truth? We have seen Luciana portrayed as a temptress, a siren luring the bachelor Antipholus to ‘self-wrong’. Shakespeare in fact makes her an advocate of hypocrisy. In the belief that Antipholus is her brother-in-law, she instructs him to execute his lust by stealth: ‘Teach sin the carriage of a holy saint; Be secret-false’ (III, ii). The purity of her sister is no less illusory. Some may reject the accusations of her husband—‘Dissembling harlot!’ ‘O most unhappy strumpet!’ (IV, iv)—as products of fallacy, brought on by the revelation that she welcomes an unknown man in his absence. Those who think so should try to explain the slip of her servant Dromio's tongue when, early in the play, he talks of her husband's delay in coming home: ‘Why, mistress’, he blurts, ‘sure my master is horn-mad.’ She responds at once to the indictment of adultery. ‘Horn-mad, thou villain!’ He hastens to correct himself, ‘I mean not cuckoldmad’ (II, i). From the psychopathology of such mistakes we can deduce a hint of veracity in Dromio's slip. Apparently his master has behaved like a man stung by fancies of his wife's adultery long before her afternoon's entertainment. Is it conceivable that the headstrong Adriana had done absolutely nothing to promote those fancies? Hours before he calls her strumpet she weeping brands herself with the stigma. She calls herself a ‘stale’ of Antipholus. Later, in fantasy of his own sins, she announces:

I am possess'd with an adulterate blot;
My blood is mingled with the crime of lust.

(II, ii.)

Her basis for this self-accusation is a mere metaphor of marriage, that she and her mate are in wedlock one. Under the tones of uxorious indignation we can detect the voice of repressed sensuality, just as under the chambers of Adriana we find dwelling the kitchen-wench Nell, or Dowsabel, whose lascivious advances frighten Dromio of Syracuse. The acuteness of Shakespeare's unconscious satire on the virginal sisters may be perceived in the third name he invented for the obscene kitchen-wench. He also calls her Luce, as if to invite comparison with the chaste yet hypocritic Luciana.

The truth is that the sisters, like the brothers, are impure in heart. Among the paradoxes of the comedy the confidence they display in their virginity and virtue is perhaps the most absurd. They are all sinners, all fools—what you will: ‘Smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak’ (III, ii).


Our investigation of the Errors thus far leads to the conclusion that the comedy was precipitated out of the poet's unconscious by marital troubles and disaster. We have still to elucidate the riddle, what made a gentleman of his courage and intelligence prone to sexual conflict and disaster? How did he ever come to entertain strangers as lovers? His marriage could not have been the first enterprise of this sort. Before he married he must have committed other erotic errors more or less like those he has caricatured in his play. In all his affairs of the heart, we may be sure, the blind god Cupid led him blind, quelling his intelligence and making his courage flare up. In the mist of passion he would go at all adventures, no matter what tortures and remorse might follow. The Narcissus in him could usually single out somebody to blame for his stumbling and sprawls. If not, there was always fortune to be cursed, or his birth stars.

The answer to our riddle must lie in the nature of this Narcissus in Shakespeare, the colossal self-love which could project itself into the twin heroes of the comedy and have enough energy left to make their twin clowns and other characters ruddily vital and radiant. From the Narcissus pool of his soul he drew the power—and ‘will in overplus’—to surmount the tragic defeats and comic humiliations of his life. From mysterious fountains in the same pool his ego also drank sweet poison, mistaking jets of self-pity for the elixir of self-love, and so steeping itself in a melancholy that not seldom resembled madness. It was in flight from the peril of utter unreason that Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors. For the play not only endeavours to explain the struggle of the poet's conscience with an event; it struggles to explain the poet, to assist the understanding of the stranger he felt was himself. To love oneself and win self-knowledge: is the feat possible?

So far as Shakespeare had the strength, when he composed the Errors, to venture the feat—handicapped by his terror of baring himself to taunts and mental rapine—he did it in meditation and development of his ‘personae’, the two Antipholi. Naturally he endowed them with his admirable traits—his dignity, his noble charity and generosity, his affection for the arts of peace, his grace to women and good-will to men. Dignity or honour obliged him to add his less attractive traits—his impulses to jealousy and revenge, his severely controlled lust and ferocity, and the will to lie, steal, mutilate, or kill. We have already noticed how the Ephesian, on being locked out of his house, commands the purchase of a rope's end to lash his wife, and later, when she brings a doctor for his distraction, threatens with his own nails to pluck out her ‘false eyes’ (IV, iv). In a parallel scene of the Menaechmi the slave Messenio threatens to gouge out the eyes of some men who are trying to drag his master off as a lunatic. The memory of this probably lurked in Shakespeare's mind when he pictured the half-crazed husband menacing his wife. Antipholus vents his sadistic wrath on Dr. Pinch instead, applying fire to his beard, extinguishing it with pails of puddled mire, while his servant nicks the doctor with scissors (V). Meanwhile his brother turns thief with the golden chain that the Ephesian wished to give a courtesan to spite his wife. The theft ensues on the dinner which the Syracusan has obtained from Adriana by turning cheat. Afterward he and his Dromio scare off the two sisters and the courtesan with naked swords (IV, iv). These little larcenies and bestialities recompense the twins for their grand refusal to tread the path of unholy dalliance and adultery.

It is curious to see how the bachelor brother treats the house of Adriana like an inn, and makes love to one of the hostesses, immediately before the espoused one determines to dine at the inn whose mistress Shakespeare merely names Courtesan. In neither episode does the house become a brothel, like the home of Erotium in Plautus, where Menaechmus the newcomer dines with the prostitute at his brother's expense. The wish, which George Meredith styles sentimental, to get pleasure unpaid for is obviously behind the comic conception of both playwrights. But Shakespeare's horror of indulging the wish deprives his play of much humour. He presents Antipholus of Ephesus as a paragon of idealism in morals. ‘How dearly,’ says his wife, ‘would it touch thee to the quick, Shouldst thou but hear I were licentious.’ She conjures a vision of him tearing the wedding ring from her finger to ‘break it with a deep divorcing vow’ (II, ii). Less than two hours later her husband gives the hostess of the Porpentine the chain he had promised Adriana, and takes or snatches a ring from the courtesan (IV, iii). It is likely that Shakespeare considered this a token of second wedlock, a marriage made in hell.

In the poet's self-portraiture his attitude to matrimony reveals a profound and painful ambivalence. Luciana lectures her sister on the divine rights of the male in wedlock and the necessity of obedience in wives. The essence of this sermon runs veritably through all of Shakespeare's dramas, apparently integral to his dogmas of church and state. At the same time he preaches the doctrine that male and female are incorporated at the wedding altar into one. By this ritual the wife partakes in the godlike rights of her mate, and therefore can limit or confine them. She can demand obedience from him. Shakespeare recognized the privilege, the sovereignty of the wife, yet could not bring himself to admit it frankly. Instead he tossed in childlike anguish between the horns of his dilemma.

The heroines of Plautus exhibit a pride of sex, or sense of feminine dignity, unknown to the women of The Comedy of Errors. Alcmena refuses to endure her husband's charges of unchastity. She demands her goods and slaves from him and prepares for divorce. The wife of Menaechmus, lacking her solitary strength, still castigates her husband for his thieving, and summons her father to protect her from outrage. Erotium is stronger: she storms at her double-crossing lover and drives him out of her house. The men in the Menaechmi and Amphitruo are forced to appease, cajole, and act subservient to their women.

Except in the case of Aemilia, Shakespeare commands his ladies to act subservient to their men. Even that grand dame mainly functions as a guardian of her men, and condemns the woman who troubles their voluptuous peace. The freedom that Aemilia enjoys from sexual bondage is the outcome of her holiness. She is a governess of nuns. For women who did not covet the virgin's gloriole, and set their hearts on independence, the poet seldom had anything but anger, mockery, and tears.

At the root of his agony seems to burn the irresistible urge to embrace strangers as lovers. His ego, as I conceive it, constantly hunted for objects on whom to shower the surplus of his libido, and invariably learned that the objects were doomed to be foreigners. Again and again he must have tried to join an alien soul to his own and waked from the dream of friendship or the honeymoon aghast and bewildered by the discovery that he was once more alone with the unknown, marvelling like his Antipholus:

What! was I married to her in my dream?
Or sleep I now and think I hear all this?

(II, ii.)

The plot of The Comedy of Errors, if we interpret it truly, will provide us with clues to the mystery of the poet's tendencies in love.

Ordinarily when one hears the popular phrase, a man's better half, one thinks it refers to his wife. Sir Philip Sidney employed it in his Arcadia as equivalent to true-love. When Shakespeare uses it—or a variant—we cannot tell what he means. Sidney's usage appears to be intended when Antipholus of Syracuse appeals to the stranger Luciana as ‘mine own self's better part’ (III, ii). Earlier in the comedy we find the phrase aimed differently. Adriana, reproaching the man she fancies is her husband, exalts herself as ‘better than thy dear self's better part’ (II, ii). If we take this as a boast of superiority to the woman of his heart, we are confronted with an enigma. Who could this rival woman be? Judging by Adriana's jealousy, we might guess it is her husband's courtesan, though the wife gives no sign of having information about the temptress of the inn. Adriana simply suspects that his eye offers ‘homage’ somewhere (II, i). It is surprising to hear her, suddenly definite about his alleged sin, allude to the rival with the phrase of respect. Presumably Shakespeare designed it here for irony. The rest of Adriana's speech, however, is so earnest and tragic that we feel it imperative to search for a deeper design.

She pleads for compassion to the frostily intellectual Antipholus of Syracuse:

How comes it now, my husband, O! how comes it,
That thou art thus 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.

Thus Adriana sees her husband's inner existence as a structure of three parts: himself, a ‘better part’, and herself, the best, the only one she calls estranged.

With the probe of psycho-analysis we are able to explore the identity of the second person of this trinity, and determine the moment of her mingling with the hero's self. Shakespeare has betrayed her unaware.

The simile Adriana employs for her spouse's original ego—a drop of water—is familiar to Antipholus, since he has employed it in soliloquy for himself. In one of his first utterances in the play he muses:

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.

(I, ii.)

The ‘breaking gulf’ of Adriana's speech recalls the comparison of matrimony to a sea. The ocean of Antipholus he himself compares to the world. It strikes me as a less extensive vastness. Long before Edward Carpenter consciously thought of sex as oceanic, poets and other visionaries had established the likeness in their dreams, and written rapturously about the ocean unaware of its sexual analogy. The real meaning of Antipholus's ocean springs to view in the lines of his soliloquy that follow the mournful image. In these verses the ‘fellow’ he seeks becomes twofold:

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

The emergence of the mother in the goal of his search may perplex us after reading the reference to his fellow, especially when we remember that Aegeon had not mentioned the mother as an object of his boy's voyages. No such motive appears in the Menaechmi, where the twins' mother, Teuximarcha, is named once and conveniently forgotten. In The Comedy of Errors the mother Aemilia plays a majestic and strategic part. Until the last scene, only her Syracusan son manifests a faith that she is still alive, but he manifests it only in these two lines. Shakespeare obviously found the subject too venerable or extremely touchy. My readers may seize this occasion to protest that the brother of Antipholus could not be sanely regarded as an object in the ocean of sex. Granting they are right, at the hazard of their tolerance, I am tempted to suggest that the ‘fellow’ whom Antipholus yearns to find is in a potent sense feminine. In view of my belief that the Syracusan is a ‘genius’ or demon double, it is logical (by the laws of folklore) to assume that he is seeking a body, a material form. Insofar as the Ephesian is earthier and more matter-of-fact he performs this material function. Since earth and matter are from ancient times symbolic of the maternal, I am led to wonder if the ‘water’ Antipholus longs for is not—more than just feminine—motherly?

In consequence of this reasoning we have to translate the quest of Antipholus for reunion with his mother as a dream-journey of desire for rebirth. In dreams, and in dramas too, ‘Birth is almost invariably represented by some reference to water: either we are falling into water or clambering out of it, saving someone from it or being saved by them, i.e. the relation between mother and child is symbolized’ (8). Shakespeare in fact nearly stripped away the last web of glamour between our scientific insight and his poetically concealed sperm-drop endeavouring to reach the womb. It will be noted that Adriana speaks of a drop of water falling in and then being taken from ‘the breaking gulf’. To the woman there is hope of ultimate redemption for the ‘drop’. To the malcontent Antipholus the falling drop is fated to devastation, to ‘confound himself’. Nevertheless he travels on, ‘unseen, inquisitive’.

Just as he fancies himself confounded and lost in the ocean of the world, he looks with fascination on the city of Ephesus and resolves to wander through its labyrinth of streets: ‘I will go lose myself’ (I, ii). Shakespeare was well acquainted with the poetic practice of hailing cities as foster-mothers. His fellow-playwrights (for diverse examples, Thomas Watson and Thomas Dekker) fondly alluded to their birthplace London as a mother. To Shakespeare the metropolis must have seemed a stepmother, with all the charms and criminal appetites of stepmothers in fairy tales; for many years London let him starve for love.

At this point the sceptical reader will have ripened for me a cluster of pungent questions. Among the foremost perhaps is this: Will the venerable Aemilia fit into the equation which Adriana proposes for her distressed mate's ego? In other words, Is the mother his dear self's better part?

From the text of the comedy I have extricated but one piece of proof that Aemilia is the true rival of the wife in the heart of her son. In the final act Antipholus of Syracuse, flying from the wife and her compatriots, escapes into the sanctuary over which the long lost Aemilia rules. She and the Syracusan are of course ignorant of each other's identity. Adriana, frustrated, demands from Solinus protection of her marital rights, not knowing the relation of Aemilia to her man: ‘Justice, most sacred duke, against the abbess!’ Her grievance plainly sounds as if the abbess had stolen her beloved. Unconsciously, so to say, Adriana has fathomed the abyss of the Antipholus mind. Old customs of matrimony ordain that a man shall hold his wife above his mother in the scale of his values. The spouse is generally judged more valuable in political economy. So the miserable girl is justified in claiming that she is better than her husband's ‘better part’. Love, notwithstanding, laughs at her priority. Safe in the bosom of the priory church the ‘genius’ Antipholus can defy both wife and duke. The genuine Antipholus, by the dictates of Shakespeare's reality principle, stays outside the sacred refuge and faces the music of political economy. On his ego wounds the abbess cannot perform the miracles which her ‘wholesome syrups, drugs, and holy prayers’ promise the spirit from Syracuse. With the confidence of maternal power she expects ‘To make of him (the fugitive) a formal man again’. But she is powerless to make a healthy head of a family out of the profane or ‘natural’ son.

A sequel question we have to meet is—How could Aemilia be the ‘better part’ of the twins when one of them extols Luciana as his better part? The evidence for my answer is scanty and fragmentary, but it is the best we could hope to obtain from the poet at the stage of his self-knowledge and self-revelation where he wrote his Errors. My answer is twofold. When the Syracusan makes love to Luciana the poet revels in the illusion that the mother's image in this interval is demoted in his heart. And in that interval he is eager to entertain a stranger as a lover. The poet's unconscious remains undeceived by the gesture of demotion and goes ardently ahead with its drive for the assimilation of Luciana to the image of Aemilia. Whatever real person he had in view when he conceived the younger character vanished while the erotic scene was plotted; or rather her memory dissolved into the familiar and permanent memory of his mother. Luciana could become the ‘better part’ of Antipholus solely by metamorphosis into Aemilia.

At once the vigilant reader will inquire, Does this mean that Aemilia is a simulacrum of the goddess Diana? I think, no. Diana in the drama—insofar as she is visible—is actually a simulacrum of Aemilia. She has been converted from pagan goddess to Christian abbess, from a queen of vestals to a governess of nuns. That is why the influence of the Ephesian moon-woman is felt throughout the play. The influence of the mother assumes the mythical radiance. She is the goal of the Syracusan's journey and therefore the driving force of Shakespeare's plot. In the love song of Antipholus to Luciana I find a faint proof of her immanence in the moonshine of the dramatist's soul. He imagines her sister weeping continually till she creates a ‘flood of tears’. Then he begs Luciana not to drown him in the flood—not to unite him to Adriana out of pity—since he wants her alone for his love:

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.

(III, ii.)

The waves are silver, we know, because the moon beams on them. By what magic could the golden locks of Luciana fall on her sister's silver tears? Only by identification of the two. This becomes possible to fantasy if we translate them into phases or aspects of a personification of the moon. But Antipholus does not dream of reclining on the moon; he visions himself on a white-crested sea. In the language of homely reality, he wishes to lie on his mother's breast and suck her milk. We can now understand why the two sisters, the bright and the dark, may claim to possess parts of the hero's self. Having convinced his ego of their semblance to his mother, they gained admission to her fane in himself and in turn enjoyed his idolatry. In exchange for this reverence they had to give up his love. Loving them signified to him ‘self-wrong’ and internal treason, i.e. betraying the maternal deity erected by his ego in childhood. Since the goddess belonged to none but himself, worshipped without prospect or hope of sexual intercourse, she could reign in his unconscious both as mother and as virgin. This psychic contradiction has its mythic parallel in the cult of Diana, who was revered for her strict and frosty chastity and adored for her warm sympathy with women giving birth. In the sanctuary of Diana at Rome her statue displayed many breasts, as if she herself had known the bliss of maternity (9). The Roman women, delivering their babies, invoked the assistance of Lucina, the moon.

Aemilia's children are restored to her at the end of the comedy, and Shakespeare down-rightly indicates her stature in their twin minds. He denies the daughter-in-law an apology for Antipholus's truculence or a pardon for her faults. For the sake of popular romance he bestowed on Luciana three lines of reassurance of the other brother's love. There is no mistaking the significance of the happy ending. It is joy over the return of the twins to the supreme love of their life. For the sake of this overwhelming attraction one Antipholus is cruel to her rivals, and the other hardens his heart to the allurements of girls. Under the mask of the abbess we discover the secret cause of her son's unjust divorce. From some abysmal temple in his brain her moon-coloured idol governs his sexual tides. She is a jealous goddess, and will have no other mistresses before her. Union with another is iniquity to her, and she is never slow to revenge the sin. In retaliation for her child's efforts toward liberty, to hunt for a new love elsewhere, she flogs his ego from her stronghold in his head, with silver cords.

The wish for maternal pillow and milk brings to the surface of the dramatist's mind the idea of death. In the ‘glorious supposition’ that Adriana's tears and Luciana's hair have been made a bed for Antipholus, he is ready to believe ‘He gains by death that hath such means to die’. In the midst of his ecstasy the thought of extinction becomes sweet to him. Why? The sole reply that occurs to me is that the mother in the dramatist's mind must be dead. Whether the woman in whose image he fashioned his goddess was really in her grave is a question beyond our present interest. Our business is to explain the connexion in Shakespeare's drama of the thoughts of mother and death. The apparition of Aemilia near the final curtain, like a dea ex machina, leaves me with an inkling that she is a holy ghost. Her sacredness is stressed to a degree unworthy of mortals, summoning to mind the observation that humans must perish before they turn angelic or divine. We can glimpse the phantom character of the abbess more plainly when a minor individual of the play defines in her presence the background of her home:

                                                  … the melancholy vale,
The place of death and sorry execution,
Behind the ditches of the abbey here.


The odour of tombs and hecatombs hangs over the happiness of the comedy's last scene. Could such things be close to the mother of the poet's doubles if death was not irrevocably close to the poet's own mother in his thoughts?

Alert readers of the play will note the curious fact that Shakespeare designates the home of Aemilia an abbey and also a priory. She herself is always called abbess. In view of the poet's passion for paronomasia we may wonder whether he sensed a likeness between the spirit of the abbess and the abyss, the ‘vale’, behind her house? The airs of both are sublime and malignant, capable of blasting mortal happiness. If our assumption of their likeness is correct we can proceed to unravel some of the most tenacious knots in the drama. The flourishing of the metaphor in the poet's head would mean that he regarded the matrix not just as a fountain of life—Adriana's ‘breaking gulf’—but as a desert of death too. This ambivalence of his concepts of the womb and vagina would account for the antithetical nature of his two heroines, the lucid and cool yet golden Luciana and her arid and hot yet night-hued sister, each an embodiment of the divine mother in the dramatist's brain. When he regarded females as distinct personalities (aliens) his endopsychic mother acted as their prototype, the pattern of all beauty and wit. When he regarded them as creatures entwined in his destiny (lovers) she acted as their severest critic, an implacable competitor of the whole sex. In her activity as the model of loveliness she fomented tempests in his libido; in polar opposition she obstructed it, lifting before his mind's eye the rock on which the loves of his life were wrecked.

The rock in the sexual sea on which Aegeon's family-ship was split is specifically a symbol of the male organ which children often believe the mother possesses within her vagina (10). The infant mind, detecting the absence of the penis in infant females, commonly concludes that they have lost it, that the instrument of virility was mysteriously excised. The idea that stronger, elder females may have retained it persists, and mothers who evoke dread in their sons by exhibiting masculine qualities frequently appear in their dreams with the organ in full view; or else the nightmares show them brandishing emblems of it. By the poetic mechanism of displacement people shift their sentiments of dread from the clitoral zone to the mother's or vampire-woman's ‘hard heart’. When the stony bosom surprises her children by abruptly yielding milk or kindness, folklore pays tribute to the sublime woman by picturing her as a rock which miraculously lavishes a reviving liquid when struck by a magic wand. In the Errors Shakespeare paid tribute to the sublime woman of his dreams by picturing her as an abbess, which may well be englished as she-father. It was the assertion of her masculinity in his unconscious that obstructed his endeavours to love other women. Whenever he engaged in sexual union he became acutely aware of the void in the vagina, and suffered the fear of losing his penis. Fantasies of his own castration blazed in his mind. Under the agony of such thoughts his ego prostrated itself before the maternal image and begged for mercy, repudiating the pursuit of happiness everywhere else. In short, he spiritually castrated himself. Having made himself a eunuch for the goddess's sake, he could approach her bosom with confidence and nestle down to delectable oblivion. We witness a theatrical mimicry of the act in the entrance of Antipholus to his mother's abbey. Cut off from his living family, the hero approaches the rock of the church and it opens to admit him, with the promise of ‘wholesome syrups’ and holy whispers for his peace. Secure within the rock, lulled by his illusion of Catholic death, he could smile defiantly at remembrance of marital or political economy. Not the legion of hell nor the populace of Ephesus could prevail against the maternal stone. Nevertheless the ideas of castration and death were always associated in the poet's head with pangs of cuts and mutilations, sights and smells of blood, visions of skeletons and severed skulls. Even in the final felicity of his play the horrible recollection of such things sticks to his poetry.

Shakespeare was probably persuaded to let the last act take place among these ghastly adumbrations by reasons of dramatic economy. He wanted to disclose the brothers' identity and restore them to their parents on the same street where Aegeon was being led to execution for violating the law of Ephesus.

This entrance of Aegeon reminds us that we have yet to reckon his part in the ego of the dramatist. Surely, if the abbess is the image of Shakespeare's mother, the tragic merchant must somehow stand for his father. Judging by the play we would imagine that the dramatist did not live in awe of his mother's husband. Aegeon does not glow for us with the flame of ideality. He warms us with embers of a singular humbleness, the emotion of a man who knows how little history he is able to make. Shakespeare spends no moonrays of theopathy on him. He seems to have felt for the ineffectual old man a filial pity, bordering on disdain. Since he often felt similarly toward himself, experiencing failure after failure, the poet unconsciously installed his father close to the centre of himself, opposite but intimate.

So intimate was their psychic valence that it might be considered identification. There are moments in the speeches of Aegeon when the voice of the poet can be clearly heard. For instance, in the father's narrative of the calamity that divided his family. He states that when the tempest menaced his ship not far from Epidamnum the sky conveyed to his thought ‘A doubtful warrant of immediate death’, which he himself ‘would gladly have embrac'd’. We are granted no reason for this gladness in the face of the danger to his wife and babes. It makes sense only if we recall that the sea is a symbol for sex and drowning, to Shakespeare's unconscious, a mode of reunion with the mother. The poet is thinking of his own wife and off-spring when Aegeon reports that the incessant weepings of his wife and the ‘piteous plainings’ of the infants forced him to hunt for means of rescue. Aemilia does not impress us as a lady capable of incessant weepings, but Adriana is almost perpetually in tears. Finally, at the end of Aegeon's tale, it is the son, brooding over the central tragedy of his life, the loss of maternal love, who sighs:

Thus have you heard me sever'd from my bliss,
That by misfortune was my life prolong'd,
To tell sad stories of my own mishaps.

The misery and impotence of the son provide us with a mirror of the woeful and ineffectual life of the sire, a mirror which emits the virtues of the father and the genius of his boy. Barring these features, our verdict is bound to be that Shakespeare's personality was precisely what we should expect from the flesh of the heir to his father's natural shocks and outrageous fortune.

Naturally the paternal position in the dramatist's mind was not a static one. During remembrance of the father's fulfilments of claims to the mother's labour and love, the radius between Shakespeare's ego nucleus and the paternal image would certainly widen, and sparks of hate shoot across it. To the boy's way of thinking, the mother belonged to nobody but him. Intruders on their sacred privacy merited all extreme penalties known to savage and child. The father's intrusions were especially resented, because the world and the mother sanctioned them as good or just. Nobody but the boy seemed to object to the divorce of his mother and himself. On such occasions he could contemplate the thought of the father's extinction with a stern joy, the joy of justice done. Doubtless he exhausted his fancy in devising perfect punishments for the old man, according to the law of talion.

The memory of a particular paternal intrusion may have burnt in the poet's unconscious when he invented the legend of Aegeon. He sentenced the old man to death for having dared to enter the precincts of the holy city of Ephesus. Mercantile enmity—so runs the legend—incited the city of Diana and Syracuse to proclaim a state of hatred between them. They decreed a halt of their traffic and intercourse, and resolved, as Duke Solinus puts it,

                    … if any, born at Ephesus,
          Be seen at Syracusan marts and fairs;
          Again, if any Syracusan born
Come to the bay of Ephesus, he dies.

(I, i.)

Aegeon is doomed to decapitation for dropping his anchor in the bay of Ephesus. He can be forgiven only when his sons regain the mother.

Here I will chance the suggestion that the name Syracuse may be interpreted as a pun. Since the dramatist altered the location of his comedy from Epidamnus to Ephesus, but preserved the home of his hero in Syracuse, I felt it necessary to examine the name for a possible motive for keeping it. Since it is pronounced Syracusa throughout the play, construing it as Sire-accuser did not strike me as too fantastic.

It has probably occurred to the alert reader that the name Ephesus may also be a pun. As a city of enchantment and witchcraft it may well have appealed to the poet as a region which effaces the true identities of men and women and puts in their places moon-animated effigies.

If an accusation of Shakespeare's sire prompted the invention of the framework of his plot, another accusation provided the substance of its middle event.

The first scene of Act III, perhaps the oldest portion of our palimpsest, communicates through its metrical antiquity a major trauma of the poet's childhood. Antipholus approaches his wife's door and finds himself locked out. His Dromio calls for servant-girls (all having English names) to open the door. The other Dromio, snug inside, inquires,

Dost thou conjure for wenches, that thou call'st for such store,
When one is one too many? Go, get thee from the door.

The persons in the house are eating a commonplace meal. With these words of Dromio the dramatist conjures up a different feast. The clown is informed that the ‘master’ stands outside; he pretends to be touched:

Let him walk from whence he came, lest he catch cold on's feet.

Now psycho-analysis conjures up a vision of the child Shakespeare straining at the door of his parents' chamber and clamouring to get in. Possibly his humorous father responded in the Dromio way. Antipholus knocks at the barrier hard and listens to Luce the kitchen-girl deride him: ‘Let him knock till it ache’. He rages, ‘You'll cry for this, minion, if I beat the door down.’ The droll inside remarks that the town is ‘troubled with unruly boys’. Adriana orders the newcomer to go away. Injured and perplexed he lingers there, unable to comprehend how his woman could be so frozen-hearted when he stood in need of her warmth. In the autumnal gloom of his heart he murmurs, ‘There is something in the wind, that we cannot get in.’ His slave replies, ‘You would say so, master, if your garments were thin. Your cake here is warm within; you stand here in the cold.’ The forlorn master wishes he had an iron crow to wrench his way in.

Obscene notions raced through the dramatist's brain as he wrote the scene. He recalled the passage in Plautus where Amphitryon, knowing that his wife is entertaining a stranger and unable to gain entrance to her quarters, cries out that he will break in the door, and swears to destroy whomever he sees in his path, wife, father, anyone. No sooner does he raise his arm to execute his oath than Jupiter's thunder breaks from the heavens to arrest him. Amphitryon falls flat before the sound of the god. The piety of the Latin poet seems to have stirred Shakespeare to derision of the divine thunder. In the corresponding scene of his comedy the memory of the celestial admonition is evoked by a mere reference to the breaking of wind. The connexion between the anal and the heavenly thunder was long ago pointed out by psycho-analysis (11). That Shakespeare associated paternal efforts at dictatorship with flatulence may properly be disputed. We cannot doubt that he associated paternity with wind. The symbolism of the pompous epithet he invented for the sea, in the first scene of his play, cannot be comprehended otherwise. He calls it ‘the always-wind-obeying deep’. The resistance of the real sea to air-force counted for nothing in his mind when he thought of the sexual sea, in particular his amorous mother, and her submission to father-force.

The memory of his banishment from the mother's room excited ideas of libidinal rancour and amorphous fears. Death-wishes against her and his father, too, must have surged in his head at the time of the trauma, and colliding with pulses of incest produced an unvanquishable terror, a terror he never overcame (12).

A friend, Balthazar, dissuades Antipholus from attacking the door, assuring him that the honour of his wife is unviolated:

          —your long experience of her wisdom,
Her sober virtue, years, and modesty,
Plead on her part some cause to you unknown;
And doubt not, sir, but she will well excuse
Why at this time the doors are made against you.

The friend warns him that violent entrance would bring down on his head ‘vulgar comment’, mob ridicule and calumny,

That may with foul intrusion enter in
And dwell upon your grave when you are dead;
For slander lives upon succession,
For ever housed where it gets possession.

Antipholus calms down, and determines to visit the wild hostess of the Porpentine inn,

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

And so the scene ends.

What little master Shakespeare did when he departed from the forbidden chamber, we can reasonably surmise. Unruly boys of genius are as prone as the dullest lads to the frenzy and torpor of masturbation. When he grew up he wreaked a vicarious vengeance on his parents. He contrived in imagination to get his ‘spirit’ inside the coveted dwelling, with all its cakes and ale at his disposal, while his carnal self (in empathy with the father as husband) stayed outside with fever and chills.

Shakespeare never lost the conviction that slander was a family heritage, like a curse among the ancient Greeks. It is my conviction that he unconsciously proved it true, by rehearsing again and again, in young manhood and old age, in various disguises, the fatal scene of his infancy, thus inflicting on his children the iniquity of his parents. This repetition compulsion traverses and threads together all his dramatic works.

The sadism of the fantasies Antipholus indulges in after his exclusion reminds me that my summary of Aegeon's death sentence omitted a detail of grave importance psychologically. He is formally condemned because of his inability to pay an exorbitant fine, a thousand marks. The Duke grants him a day in which to collect the money among the Ephesians. By the lucky discovery of his rich sons the old man comes within reach of it, but Solinus releases him from the fine. Money and its worries are never remote from the dramatist's mind. His Syracusan double, in the first act, is fearful that he may lose a thousand marks of his own. In the next act he is portrayed as obsessed with the idea of his gold. In the third he gets the chain his brother had requested and comments on the acquisition with pleasure:

I see a man here needs not live by shifts,
When in the streets he meets such golden gifts.

Later the Ephesian double is arrested for debt to the goldsmith, and the money for his freedom is given to his twin. We are not told the metal of the courtesan's ring, but there is no need to know. The poet's obsession on the yellow treasure is manifest without it. We note that he manifests it, not in ordinary conditions of trade, but luxuriously or anxiously. It glitters for him as gift, fine, or debt. One would think that he suffered from the craving to obtain it free and the dread of losing it. These emotions generally run high in the syndrome of the melancholiac. Psycho-analysis has linked his terror of poverty with the peculiar mode of sexuality known as anal erotic, which frequently explodes in demonstrations of sadism (13). In melancholy the passion for excrement characteristic of this kind of sexuality appears torn out of its normal context of absorbing interest in by-products, commodities, stock-piles, profit and thrift. The anal-erotic mood of melancholy serves as regression under the spur of anxiety to the state of mind where bowel movements signified gifts or obligations to the mother. If the child at this stage of libidinal development does not deliver the ordure on demand, or squanders it in caprice, he hazards the loss of maternal love. Conversely, in the unconscious of the chronically sad, the belief that they have lost maternal love may spur their intellects backward to infantile concern for their ordure, as something wantonly spent or else owed. Under the frown of the maternal divinity in their conscience, their egos writhe in guilt and look forward to doing penance for their financial faults. The result is the dread of penury which we find so active in the melancholiac, and which afflicted Shakespeare most of his life.

The first idea that comes to the abbess's mind when she hears of Antipholus's daily gloom is the likelihood that he has lost money: ‘Hath he not lost much wealth by wrack of sea?’ It is perfectly natural for the mother to worry over the disposal of his gold.

We must not let ourselves be fooled by Shakespeare's costuming of his heroes as merchants. His skull did not carry comfortably the cap of commerce; and he would not have masked his doubles as money-men if he had not been an apprentice in drama emulating Plautus, while steeped in sorrow in a period of financial distress. The Roman dramatist was not bothered by the morals and manners of the market-place. He worked for an audience of buyers and sellers, who rejoiced in the worship of Mercury, god of merchants and thieves. Shakespeare, on the contrary, worked for an audience of spenders and lenders, above all the courtiers of his Queen. Consequently he could not rest content with a hero like Plautus's Menaechmus, who was raised by an Epidamnian trader and inherited his cheap principles as well as his fortune. Antipholus of Ephesus is a soldier rather than a salesman. He was brought to the city by ‘that most famous warrior, Duke Menaphon’, the uncle of Solinus, and earned the latter's gratitude by serving him in battle, taking deep scars to save his life (V). In this conception of Antipholus as a warrior I sense one of those infant inventions which Freud named ‘the family romances’. (14). Nobody understood better than Shakespeare how to spin these daydreams in which children strive to liberate themselves from disappointing and domineering parents by creating imaginary fathers and mothers of nobler blood and more generous hearts. In these fantasies they become the foster sons and daughters of monarchs, or else they are changelings, exiled or stolen from royal cradles and raised by poor but honest wretches who bear a strange resemblance to their real fathers and mothers. Shakespeare's transfer of the lost Antipholus to the care of the martial Duke Menaphon, instead of another merchant like father Aegeon, sounds like a ‘family romance’, and expresses a mild contempt for the old man's occupation.

It is difficult to see how the poet could have dealt with the paternal figure in a manner so supercilious and icy if the old fellow was still alive. The hypothesis that the father was dead has no cult to support it. If my interpretation of his personality is correct, the stately but futile old man could never mount in his son's mind to the pedestal of a god. After death he would stay a ghost. When Antipholus of Syracuse greets his father he asks, ‘Aegeon art thou not? or else his ghost?’ The query may be taken as a conventional phrase of amazement on meeting an acquaintance long unseen or lost. There are features in Aegeon which give the word a lurid precision. He pictures his face as hidden

In sap-consuming winter's drizzled snow,
And all the conduits of my blood froze up.


His last words in the play are addressed to Aemilia; they contain not one quaver of affection or anticipation of happiness and peace. Instead he is pallidly conscientious, almost accusing, requiring her to tell the fate of the son she carried with her from the unspeakable rock. This duty done, he is mute.


The double Antipholus regains the divine Aemilia. ‘After so long grief, such festivity!’ she cries before departing with her family into the abbey. The felicity of the author, the actors, and the spectators, in the last episode of the Errors is so cordial and uncontrolled that one is reluctant to survey it from the standpoint of criticism. Yet the combination of childish and ghoulish elements in the scene needs to be illumined if we are ever to grasp the psychology of Shakespeare, and eventually the psychology of the stage. Is it necessary for the comedy to conclude in environs redolent of bloody graves? What have these to do with the dominant theme of mistaken identity, the entertainment of aliens as lovers?

The replies to these problems, to which our analysis inevitably leads, can perhaps be presented best in the form of a synopsis briefly reviewing what might have happened to Shakespeare before he could compose The Comedy of Errors. Whether the tale I shall unfold corresponds to the facts of the poet's life is a question for future biography to decide. It will suffice for me to point out that no other hypothesis on the play arranges its details in a coherent and rational structure, casting light on all its parts. What once appeared to be discrete and random inspirations, figures of speech, epigrams and exclamations—poetry scattered from a cornucopia without concord or intrinsic sense—now emerges in a network everywhere meaningful, reflecting real movements of life. By the Freudian dialectic we are able to discern the method in the dramatist's seeming madness.

First, there was a tempestuous period which culminated in the wreck of Shakespeare's family. During an absence from home, in a strange city, he had violated his marriage oath; he entertained a stranger as a lover. He did it in absolute ignorance of the real lusts that impelled him. The woman of the adventure had unconsciously reminded him of the dark and marvellous stranger who had been his mother. After the adventure he felt that he had committed a loathsome sin. He thought it was adultery. It was imaginary incest: in a kind of dream he had ascended to his father's place by his mother's breast. The paternal image within him grieved and grew angry. As a child Shakespeare had reverenced his father's might: as a boy he had loved him for his athletic prowess and companionship. Always he had feared and hated him as the man whom his mother obeyed. The permanent residue of these emotions in the poet's brain, circling round the memory of his father, agitated him as self-condemnation. Weakness of paternal authority in his youth, the stealthy disdain he felt for the old man, left him secretly glad that he had done the deed. But the mental image of his mother felt polluted and betrayed. He dreaded her more than any other power in the universe, because she could shut him out from love and leave him eternally alone. To escape these punishments he would happily submit to her whips. The permanent residue of these terrors and the beatitude of their union in erotic pain, circling round the memory of his mother, tortured him exquisitely as self-damnation. With the father's ghost he felt as if he was in purgatory; now he had plunged into hell. He suffered from extreme masochism, and his narcissistic ego refused to bear it. Hunting for avenues of relief, he heard a rumour that his wife was false to him. The proofs were preposterous, but too opportune for his conceit to resist. He wanted an excuse to vent the sadism of his conscience; with barely suppressed exultation he accused his wife of his own crime, without daring to face her with the witnesses or evidence. He fled from her and her offspring, outraged and sorrowing over his exclusion from her love. Consciously he feared that if he faced her he might do something frightful. Unconsciously he flamed with a lust for destruction, which his ego habitually directed on the internal images or external effigies of his parents, because of the scars and frustrations they had imposed on his infant vanity. Sadist thoughts evoked unconscious remembrance of his anal malice to the mother, the way he scattered bowel-gold to her disgust and ire, or refused to pay it forth till she became peremptory. This remembrance was sharpened by the fact that the time of his fury against his wife was also a time of pecuniary distress. Still he lavished money on inns and individuals who enjoyed his flow of talk. Observing that these luxuries only increased his misery, he retreated to a solitude where his main expenses were sweetly sour thoughts, tears, and poetry. He may also have been saddened by the funeral of a friend, for his mind dwelt fondly on graves and effigies of the dead. The urge to self-slaughter kindled memories of his passions of guilt and pangs of outcast love at the time his imagination first confronted the tombs of his father and mother. His heart felt eaten by remorse; the nerves of his maternal temple drained vitality from his Narcissus pool, just as he had once drained life-liquid from her breast.

The poet consciously defined the causes of his melancholy as he knew them in the questions that the abbess asks Adriana concerning the fugitive Antipholus:

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

After the unjust divorce of his wife, in his refuge of tranquil contemplation and poetry, he remembered two comedies by Plautus which appealed to him as works of art full of semblances and lessons of his wicked experience. Turning over the ancient Latin leaves he discharged a heartful of pity and terror with laughter over their lusty gods, jealous husbands, and noble but stubborn wives. The infinitely funny intrigues struck him like a mixture of his own wishes and accomplishments. Possibly, with the aid of alcohol, he fell asleep on his copy of Plautus. Through the laughter and the sleep he replenished the libido in his Narcissus pool, and energetically renewed the ego struggle to control the drives of the id. The source of this new strength is the essence of Shakespeare's genius, and like all genius remains a sphinx to psycho-analysis. The physiology of narcissism may some day solve the riddle. Meanwhile we have our hands full with the problem of the devices by which the genius's ego manages the id. Shakespeare's ego not only declined to give the pulses of his id the outright ecstasies of sex and destruction they craved. He exposed them to the ridicule of the world, twisted, transmuted, and ‘dolled’ or puppeted up. Thus they got the sole outlet his conscience and commonsense could afford.

The basic design for the exposure, the plot, occurred to him in a dream. He crossed in fantasy the four twins of the Amphitruo, with its celestial cuckoldry, and the two twins of the Menaechmi, with its domestic quarrelling, cheating of prostitutes, and final satisfaction of restored brotherhood. The outcome was a farce about himself, on the surface displaying the will to believe that the source of his troubles was erroneous marriage, the mistaken union of strangers. He stated his plea of innocence according to his habit of paronomasia: ‘Not mad, but mated; how I do not know.’ He, put these words in the mouth of Antipholus, courting Luciana (III, ii), and showed their personal significance by repeating the idea from the mouth of Duke Solinus: ‘I think you are all mated or stark mad’ (V). Shakespeare was afraid to find out why mating checkmated him. To be mated, in the English of his lifetime, meant not only to be married; a single man mated was a man confounded, rendered impotent. Shakespeare's impotence resulted from incest-guilt after mating with a facsimile of his maternal idol. No sooner was he free of one facsimile than, like Antipholus's drop of water, he drifted wildly about ‘to find his fellow forth’, that is to mate again. Like that waterdrop he was destined to be confounded and lost (‘mated’), forever looking for a mother from whom he was forever in flight. The dream which The Comedy of Errors ensued displaced the passion of his quest, making its object a brother, a fellow-male, the dramatist's material self. Finding him gave the dreamer the pacific illusion that he was no longer estranged from himself. Latent in the dream was an odyssey of a motherless child, who accused his sire of separating him from the beloved, and sailed alone across a sexual sea to a maternal territory, in which, by the contrary lights of a lunar mother he reached at last the goddess of his desire, the mother-in-death.

By the inner dramatic method which Freud designates the dream-work, Shakespeare saw the fiercest of his unconscious wishes fulfilled. He wanted to rise to his father's place by his mother's breast. He performed the incest in fantasy in a variety of ways. (i) He divided himself into doubles, one of whom floats away with the mother when the father's ship is split. (ii) His doubles end their vicissitudes in the bosom of the mother's church, itself a symbol of maternity. (iii) By identifying himself with father Aegeon he also attained his heart's wish: (a) he sailed the sea of sex as captain of a family vessel, ‘giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel’ (I Peter, iii, 7); (b) he guided his mast into the forbidden harbour of Ephesus, the town of the great mother-goddess Diana. (iv) By identifying Ephesus with the mother, the poet presented his double from Syracuse with a chance to lose himself in her midst. (v) In a regression to infantile rivalry with the father over food, he tricked the wife into serving him a meal while the hungry husband fretted outside. The poet puts emphasis on the sweetness of the meal, comparing it to a cake, an emblem of motherly labour. (vi) He at least made a gesture of sexual promise to the romantic facsimile of his mother whom he named Luciana.—It will be remarked that for each of these incestuous scenes, except the last, the dreamer provided a condign and cruel chastisement, bordering on bloodshed. (i) For floating off with the mother, one double endured not only the hardships of storm and wreck but also suffered a kidnapping by rude fishermen. (ii) For joining the mother in the bosom of her church, the doubles have to bear the sights and smells of its charnel background, a place of capital retribution. (iii) For riding the matrix-boat, the son-incorporating Aegeon is wrecked at sea, and for trespassing on the waters of Ephesus, he is menaced with a hangman's axe, a symbolic castration. (iv) For losing a twin-self in the city of Ephesus, the poet had to pay with the spectacle of the city loosing itself on the twin, hounding him—with his drawn sword—to ‘melancholy vale’ and monastery (a house of symbolic castration, of ‘eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake’—Matthew, xix, 12). (v) For tricking the mistress of the hero's home, his ‘natural’ self must stand in impotent wrath and cold, an exile from her breast, or her larder. By these brutal exactions the poet mentally redeemed his soul from guilt. At the same time, in the theatre of his mind's night, he gratified his lust for falling together with his father and mother to destruction, or rather to sanguine chaos and the brink of death. The coalescence of both these lusts of sex and destruction took place in the fantasy of returning to the womb of the mother in her tomb.

Having accomplished his heart's desires in dream, he woke refreshed, and broke the long fast of his sadness with gusto and glee. Then, after some earnest reflection on raw material and art, he sat down to write The Comedy of Errors. In the affectionate endeavour to justify himself on the stage, he multiplied reasons for the conduct of his puppets, employing a technique analogous to the secondary elaboration of dreams. Next he carried out a tertiary elaboration: he issued his drama-work in a texture to satisfy actors and critics, fulfilling requirements of the contemporary theatre. He garnished the play with coeval allusions (‘modern instances’), indicated erudition delicately, sprinkled the scenes with extra dirty jokes for the groundlings, ‘wise saws’ and singable lines for students and gentry, and crowned the concoction with passages that bright particular ‘stars’ could sink their histrionic teeth into joyously. Despite rubs and botches, contradiction and extravagance, he knew he had produced a gem comparable to the Menaechmi of Plautus, which was said to be that master's earliest drama. Would the world ever realize what it cost him? what bleeding fragments of his life he carved and morselled before he could set forth this dish fit for the lords?

Scripsi et salvavi animam meam.


(1) Harris, Frank. The Man Shakespeare (1909), bk. II, ch. 1.

(2) Cf. Jaques's speech on the liberty of motley in As You Like It, II, vii; Hamlet's lines on the purpose of playing (Hamlet, III, i).

(3) Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough, abridged edition (1942), 165.

(4) Scot, Reginald. Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), bk. 12, ch. iii.

(5) Frazer. Op. cit., 165.

(6) Wilson, E. C. England's Eliza (1939), ch. v, ‘Diana’. Cf. also ch. vii, ‘Cynthia, the Ladie of the Sea’.

(7) Edwards, Richard. Prologue to Damon and Pythias (1587), quoted by E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (1923), IV, 193.

(8) Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1935), 137.

(9) Frazer. Op. cit., 3, 141.

(10) Freud. ‘On the Sexual Theories of Children’, Collected Papers (1924), II, 65f.

(11) Jones, Ernest. ‘The Madonna's Conception Through the Ear’, Essays in Applied Psycho-Analysis (1923), 274f.

(12) Cf. Sharp, Ella Freeman. ‘From King Lear to The Tempest’, Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 27, (1946), 19f.

(13) Freud. ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, Collected Papers, IV, 163.

(14)———. ‘Family Romances’, Collected Papers, V, 74.

Jonathan Hall (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Hall, Jonathan. “Mercantilism and Desire in The Comedy of Errors.” In Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, pp. 239-52. Madison, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.

[In the essay below, Hall stresses that the crisis of identity experienced by Antipholus of Ephesus is related to his inability to honor his pledge as a merchant, and that through Antipholus of Syracuse, the mercantile, “venturing hero,” Shakespeare explored anxieties concerning eroticism.]

The advent of mercantile capitalism should not be understood as a purely “economic” transition, if by that term we mean the severely delimited and specialized set of theories and practices characteristic of the epoch of bourgeois hegemony. The later “science” of political economy tends (naturally, as it now seems to us) to obscure its own basis in an alienation of the practices of monetary power and rationalized administration from all other social interrelations and cultural practices. It is constituted as an impersonal science precisely through a “forgetting” of its nonetheless persistent and real connections with the politics of the everyday, that is interpersonal relations of every sort and, consequently, the organization of even supposedly private desire. But this economic scientism, so familiar to us as to appear almost unquestionable (except occasionally on moral grounds), is a late development of bourgeois culture, and in our epoch of monopoly capitalism it sits rather awkwardly with the culture of individual enterprise. Capitalist “adventure,” with its sense of personal risk, still has its practitioners, however few and far between, but it is now inescapably marked out as the glamorous myth of an inglorious practice. This is not a moral issue alone, for imperial “adventurers” always had their critics; it arises rather from the sense of there being an already established world market, in which some win and some lose, but neither outcome makes any real difference to general social conditions. In short, nothing collective is any longer at stake in the individual “adventure.” And yet, as Marx remarked à propos of post-revolutionary bourgeois culture in general, such a prosaic state of affairs nevertheless had heroic beginnings.1 One could make the same point about early capitalist “adventure” itself, which borrowed quite a lot of its imaginative self-representations from feudal quest narratives. As Michael Nerlich points out in his Ideology of Adventure, the earlier “quête de l'aventure,” whereby a knight sought to define himself as a true knight, is taken over by the despised “borjois” with the necessary modifications of the ideal.2

I will start my enquiry into Shakespeare's dramatic and poetic participation in the construction of the new modalities of mercantile desire with a comparison between Shakespeare's first merchant comedy, The Comedy of Errors, and its Plautine models, Menaechmi (and to a lesser extent Rudens), not to study influences but to explore the radically different universes of discourse in which both authors construct their heroes' desires. It is no doubt true to say that both plays draw on the ancient device of the comic double which throws identity into doubt, and that their pleasures arise from dealing with the anxiety which this entails.3 My approach, however, will not be to pursue what is historically constant in Shakespeare's comedy and its ancient sources, but, on the contrary, to address the difference in the two plays' negotiation of that crisis of identity. I will argue that the historical specificity of Shakespeare's rewriting of the crisis has important reverberations in the representation of desire and the unconscious in his play. Shakespeare's manic plot does not merely “out-Plautus Plautus,” as Theodore Weiss observes,4 but sets up a relationship of anxiety and decentering completely alien to Plautus's universe of discourse.

In Plautus's play, names and property go astray, and in the last resort, it must be said, wife and mistress are close to being considered as forms of property, whose alienation does not greatly disturb the owner. Indeed, the play ends with the wife being auctioned off along with the other household effects. This comic auction, which provides the closure of the play, is the ultimate affirmation of ownership, and ownership is understood as the right to consume or enjoy. The twin double appears as a rival consumer of the sexual favors of Menaechmus's mistress, and of the meals prepared by his wife. There is another minor rival, who is comic because of his impotent parasite status. That is Peniculus, whose name is usually translated in the secondary literature as “little brush” or “table-sweeper.” But, of course, it also means “little penis.” Both wife and mistress are metonymically linked to the meals that they serve to male appetite throughout the play, which tends to underline the link between ownership and consumption.

The identification of the Menaechmi as a family of maritime merchants seems curiously perfunctory when the play is viewed retrospectively, back across the Renaissance when the merchant is seen as a more complex, and even heroic figure. In Plautus, the merchant is represented merely as owner and consumer, and the greatest threat to Menaechmus through the appearance of his twin concerns the comic interruption of his rights to consume. Insofar as there is a utopian or festive ending, it consists in the restoration of those rights, and in the expansion of the circle of consumers to include the twin brother, Sosicles, and the freed slave Messenio. The social identity of the merchant that is disturbed and then restored in Plautus's play, is the identity of a consumer within a stable world momentarily interrupted. The ending is a restoration of the “familia” as a stable social unit.

Plautus's play has within it a formal potential which Shakespeare develops much later, but in a way which transforms the whole discourse. The contrasts between land and sea, between safety and danger, between fixed property and mercantile movement, are represented in the difference between the established, propertied, and initially satisfied twin and his traveling alter ego. The threat to the propertied self comes from this uncertain other, who is also part of the merchant's own self. But there is no suggestion in Plautus that the mobile twin is the representative of a different form of desire, a desire which might seek to perpetuate its own motion even at the expense of fixed property and the satisfactions of consumption. In other words, Plautus's play is about merchants within a landed, agrarian society. Their confirmation as owners and consumers in the final celebration is the achievement of their desires within a utopian overcoming of rivalry. In Shakespeare's play, by contrast, whatever the formal closures at the end, the desiring (male) self seeks a perpetuation of its mobility. My argument, then will be that Shakespeare reexplores the ancient topos of the loss of the self within a newly “monetarized” world, and this has large implications for his representation of the male erotic drives. In Shakespeare's play, identity is constructed within a totally different social and political order, although the word “constructed” does not sufficiently suggest the precarious and provisional nature of the construction. In Ephesus, identity is equivalent to reputation, which is supported by the ability to pay cash at a specified time. Angelo expresses the normality of the belief that, as some still say, a gentleman's word is his bond, when he gives the golden chain to a baffled Antipholus of Syracuse on the mistaken grounds that the latter has “bespoken” it:

SYR. Ant.
Made it for me, sir? I bespoke it not.
Not once, nor twice, but twenty times you have.
          Go home with it, and please your wife withal,
And soon at supper-time I'll visit you,
And then receive my money for my chain.
SYR. Ant.
I pray you, sir, receive the money now,
For fear you ne'er see chain nor money more.
You are a merry man, sir; fare you well. [Exit]

(The Comedy of Errors, 3.2.170ff.)5

The assumption is that the public name should ensure that the spoken word corresponds to an ability to provide cash at the agreed time, without the slowing and (literally) deadening recourse to law, written bonds or contracts, and the force of the state. That is why there is also a residual aristocratic sense that a name carries value in itself. Only a nobleman's utterance would command sufficient trust. L. C. Knights points, very pertinently, to the insistence in England at the time on the difference between the noble trader in overseas commerce and the ignoble domestic retailer.6 In Elizabethan society, the hybrid social identity of the merchant as nobleman permits the mobility of that political economy, in which the socially guaranteed identity of the nobleman itself functions as credit. And it is precisely this precarious identity that is disrupted, in Shakespeare's play, when the name goes astray. The crisis is not a metaphysical affair but an economic and semiotic one, culminating in Antipholus of Ephesus' apparent failure to honor his pledge (4.1.1ff). The crisis of identity is a failure of credit (etymologically derived from “belief,” but, from 1542, denoting the delivery of goods in the belief in a future ability to pay [OED]). The failure of credit brings about an immediate threat of violent “reterritorialization.”

The failure of this identity is a social crisis entailing a general arrest in both senses of the word. As Angelo, the goldsmith is arrested, he in turn arrests Antipholus of Ephesus for a failure to back up a verbal promise with money. Credit enables exchange, being a system of generalized belief, no longer held without anxiety, that the mere sign (which is what name or reputation has now become) should correspond to a “real” value (gold). Reputation, and its potential ruin, is not an individual matter, nor is it any longer a purely feudal family matter of honor, where the nobleman defends and defines his name with his body and blood if necessary. If identity fails, in the specific social form of mercantile reputation, then there must be a recourse to the law. It is ultimately the law, and not persons themselves, which underwrites the system of mutual trust, and it is only the law which guarantees that the value of a promise will inhere in a real body. Thus the law is the last resort of the system, the violence whose existence is necessary, but whose emergence into visibility is itself a sign of crisis. Its violence is the guarantor of stability at the center of a system of circulation and deferral, but its emergence brings about the death of the system that it guarantees.

For capitalism, as we know, “time is money,” and time in this play becomes an organizing principle in the plot in a way entirely absent from Plautus. The golden chain must be paid for by five o'clock, or the law will ineluctably swing into action. Meanwhile, Egeus must also find money to redeem himself from the law within twenty-four hours, or the law will inevitably exchange his blood for the amount due. This father figure escapes from the dangers of the sea only to be more deeply engulfed in those of the market. Furthermore, as this monetarized time becomes more active in the structuring of plot, it too contributes to the surreptitious subversion of the solidity of identity. Not only is it no longer a question of who you are and whether you can pay (which will re-establish who you are), but correlatively whether you can pay by a stipulated time. This makes identity (reputation) dependent upon external factors over which even the nominally powerful have no control. Just as the system of circulation is permanently liable to sudden arrest, so is the individual, and his arrest can take the form of a complete stop. The monetarization of both time and the bourgeois individual involves this perpetual danger.

The judicial violence, represented unwillingly by the duke, is the necessary precondition for all the social mobility in the play, although it is also its absolute antithesis. That mobility depends on “credit,” which is the understanding that the name stands in for golden coinage (just as the “names” which underwrite Lloyds of London still do). When the violence emerges into visibility, it arrests the very movement that it is supposed to guarantee. This has in fact already happened, in a serious register, before the main action. In this sense the main action repeats in a comic register the sociopolitical scenario that has condemned the merchant father, Egeon, to death at the very outset. The duke states clearly the reasons for the law's exaction:

The enmity and discord which of late
Sprung from the rancorous outrage of your Duke
To merchants, our well-dealing countrymen,
Who, wanting guilders to redeem their lives,
Have sealed his rigorous statutes with their bloods,
Excludes all pity from our threat'ning looks.


The duke himself makes no claim for abstract or universal principles of right here. He is not talking within the terms of Roman law, but from within the constraints of a mercantilist polity. The system is no longer centered on the duke himself, and does not even coincide geographically with his territory. The madness of proliferating doubles is not limited to the Antipholus and Dromio couples in this play, for the duke of Ephesus is also the double of the duke of Syracuse. In other words, there is a decentering of power; the constraints upon the duke come from outside his realm and point to a loss of sovereignty in the nominal sovereign himself. That is why the duke shares the patriarchal impotence of Egeon, with whom he sympathizes. At the same time, this decentering of power must be negated by the exercise of judicial violence. The statutes must be sealed in blood. As blood must replace ink, the body must replace the abstract word, and power must be seen to reside in territoriality and the duke's own person. However, this violence is not really identical with personal rule because personal rule implies a sovereign decision on whether to use violence or mercy, and the duke is not so free. He is constrained to negate by reterritorializing violence the half-acknowledged truth of his loss of sovereignty.

This division in power entails a psychologization of the nominal powerholder, and the duke becomes a figure of split desires. When, like the sultan in 1001 Nights, he commands the reluctant Egeon to tell his tale and postpone his death for twenty-four hours, it is he who desires to “procrastinate” the death which he must pronounce, not Egeon. And this desire for the story is the agent of deferral which enables the play to take place. In other words, although he continues to talk of himself as the embodiment of the law, he in fact behaves as its reluctant and constrained representative, putting himself in the position of the audience and seeking the deferral of the sentence through the narrative of the play itself. This noncoincidence of even the ruler's desires with his “own” discourse is a significant effect of the decentering of power which haunts this comedy.

The duke talks from within the language of contemporary political imperatives, which are actually the guarantees of overseas trade. But those same imperatives, when credit fails, freeze trade and life itself. Then the body of the debtor is answerable to the law. In important ways the issues of The Merchant of Venice are prefigured here. The reason why the duke in this early comedy is helpless before the law (given that he no longer embodies but represents it), is that his (i.e., its) power, authority, and “honor” are indeed at stake, as he says (1.1.142ff.). To restore them requires that he impose death. In the main action of the play, when gold and jewels are restored to their owners, ownership is not the most important aspect of the restoration, as it is in Plautus. What is more important is the avoidance of the last resort of the law.

At a simple level, of course, the audience is gratified because the destruction of bodies is avoided, but this is dependent upon another subtler gratification: namely that spoken words re-acquire value without the resort to the systemic violence that both underwrites and destroys credit. Circulation becomes possible again. Time can become productive instead of being death-bound. The ship for Persia can depart, and the loving address from Antipholus of Syracuse to Luciana becomes permissible (5.1377ff.). The duke is released from his reterritorializing obligation by this resolution of the plot. But, although his sovereignty is restored, this restoration can never be absolute, since the plot has also revealed its contingent quality. Critics have often noted an alleged inconsistency (whether psychological or compositional) in the way that the duke no longer requires the guilders in payment for Egeon's life as soon as they are in fact available. The real point would seem to be that the duke only reacquires the sovereign power to act mercifully when the system of credit is restored. Then the actual surrender of gold coinage to the state is neither necessary nor desirable. The main issue is its return to circulation. Properly speaking, too, the crisis of identity is not resolved in Shakespeare's play, but postponed. The postponement only looks like resolution, because what is restored is a polity that requires a permanent deferral of its last resort of power in order to function at all. Stability is deferred, because in this polity the only stability is death. This is rather like saying that the system requires a permanent crisis of identity in order to function at all. So it is to this question of the psychological counterpart of monetarization that we must now turn.

It is not only the power of the sovereign that is decentered in the process of mercantilist “deterritorialization,” but the discourse of (male) desire itself. It is often noted that the town of Ephesus appears to be governed by witchcraft, and that the duke's exclamation near the end, “I think you have all drunk from Circe's cup” (5.1.271), sums up a great deal, particularly with regard to sexual identity. It is significant that the town of Ephesus is also governed by another magic, which is even more deceptive than that of Circe's isle. This magic, which also dissolves the self, is the market, and it operates as the silent condition of possibility for the metaphoric equivalence of self and money (which, as we have said, is the basis of credit). When Antipholus of Syracuse thinks that he has been robbed, he exclaims:

Upon my life, by some device or other
The villain is o'eraught of all my money.
They say this town is full of cozenage,
As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin:
If it prove so, I will be gone the sooner.
I'll to the Centaur to go seek this slave;
I greatly fear my money is not safe.


Through Antipholus of Syracuse's extended metaphor, the normal or commonplace fear for the loss of money is translated into a demonization of the everyday deceptions of the marketplace. This speech is factually erroneous in its misapprehension of the plot situation, but its governing metaphor articulates a psychic truth. In other words, it functions to convert an “error,” which is a factual matter to be resolved by clarification, into psychic truths of desire. These can never be resolved. For the most striking power of the market is that it has already worked its own particular magic upon Antipholus' speech. The magic power is already there in the way in which Antipholus accepts the metaphoric equivalence of himself and his money. This governing metaphor blurs a distinction between clear factual “error” and the psychic disposition which produces it and unwittingly displays itself. So, even as Antipholus produces a comically inappropriate demonic version of its power, for the amusement of the audience who see it as an “error,” he confirms that demonic power in a way that makes it less certain for them that it is simply an “error.”

In general, the fears of Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, who are the mercantile “venturing” pair, provide more of the disturbing comedy in the play than the pair resident in Ephesus, because of the way in which they mentally transform errors into sorcery, and the women whom they encounter, into fearful witches and sirens. The inappropriateness of this response provides a comedy of “errors,” but Shakespeare's use of the comic goes much further than this. Shakespeare's dramatic discourse explores, through the metaphors, the anxieties which sustain both the comedy and the eroticism of his venturing hero. For him, the market and the town are like a fair, in which all the familiar forms of seduction and deception are present, but they are also a scene in which deception is indistinguishable from magic, and the self is therefore at risk. And there is fascination in the fear, which implies a strong desire for the loss of self that is feared.

The psychological possibilities of reading which emerge here, in marked contrast with the Plautine models, should not be understood in terms of Shakespeare's revelation of the timeless truths of the psyche, however. What happens is more interesting. Shakespeare constructs the very possibility of modern psychologistic readings by reworking the Plautine versions of what Bakhtin calls the “involuntary adventure” of the classical narrative:

It goes without saying that in this type of time, an individual can be nothing other than completely passive, completely unchanging. … to such an individual things can merely happen. He himself is deprived of any initiative. He is merely the physical subject of the action.

[emphases in original text]7

Bakhtin is concerned with what he terms “chronotopes,” namely the narrative modes of constructing a hero within certain pregiven conditions of space and temporality together with the limiting possibilities of action which they imply. But Michael Nerlich's comment, which provides the point of departure for his own Ideology of Adventure, makes a very telling point:

What Bakhtin overlooks, strangely enough, is the fact that the passive, suffering, unchanging human being to whom things happen is the absolute opposite of the modern view of adventure or the adventurer.8

Nerlich's overall argument, in a nutshell, is that the feudal “quête de l'aventure,” later appropriated by the mercantile bourgeoisie, posited “adventure” as active desire, not as unsought and unwelcome event. Here, I would argue, is the historical issue in Shakespeare's transformation of the quest narrative of romance into metaphors of desire in this play. This refers us back to the dominant maritime metaphors.

Unlike the storms in Plautus's Menaechmi and Rudens, the storm in this play is psychologized into revealing metaphors of desires in the male self.9 The storm which has separated the whole family from each other, sets up a desire for reintegration, which is partly gratified at the level of family and state, by the end of the play. But if we focus on Antipholus of Syracuse, who is in search of his brother and mother, the storm at sea which separated him from both his mirror image (his twin) and his nurturing mother, is also what has constituted him as a desiring subject, precisely through that primal separation. Thus what he is seeking is his own annihilation as separate individual, and the sea which threatens to engulf him is also the goal of his desire. As he says early in the scene, at the level of his desires he is not a separate entity but is constituted by a loss and a regressive desire to return to the engulfing sea:

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.


The quest for the mother and brother involves the loss of isolated self-hood. He is not only seeking “to find his fellow forth” (the identical brother), but also the mother who is identified with the ocean. So we have in the metaphor of the ocean and the two drops, a search for a separate male identity in the twin brother, and less avowedly, a search for fusion with a mother figure which overthrows identity by engulfment. It might appear farfetched to say that this constitutes an erotic drive, if it were not demonstrable that Adriana unknowingly returns his metaphor to him, but reaccentuated so that the merging of male into female is an image of fulfillment and not of loss:

How comes it now, my husband, O how comes it
That thou art then estranged from thyself?—
Thy “self” 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.


The comedy of “errors,” or mistaken identities, at this point permits an extraordinary effect: Antipholus' metaphor of desire, strongly marked by a “death wish,” is returned to him as a metaphor of completion. What he fears is also what he seeks. To put it another way, his quest is already aimed at a loss of selfhood, although at the same time that loss is what he fears. Within the situational “error” and its attendant amusement, Adriana confronts him, and the audience, with a disturbing truth of desire, that its fulfillment would be the “confounding” of the self that it seeks and fears.

By psychologizing the external storm, previously the agent of Fate or Fortune, Shakespeare transforms that purely narrative event into a strange collaboration with the subjective desire of the mercantile “adventurer.” This does not mean that such events simply discard their external or “accidental” quality. They certainly retain that unwilled quality, but they also become ambiguously doubled with subjective desire. What happens in these narratives of adventure capitalism is extremely ambiguous. The adventurer has a conscious goal shadowed by an unconscious self-destructive one. This contradictory desire, which requires an “adventure” narrative, is a new construction of the (male) self, and it is explored through the principal metaphors of this comedy. This fear of the loss of self, which is also the secret truth of desire persists in the comic situation of mistaken identity when Antipholus of Syracuse tries to declare his love to Luciana, and she rejects it because she takes him for Adriana's husband. At the situational level, the “error” is clear to the audience. They can see the honest intention in the duplicity of Luciana's discourse when, thinking that she is talking to a deceiving husband, she urges him to be even more deceitful in order to spare her sister's feelings:

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.


Although she then turns to talk of women as the victims of deceit, this speech begins to cast a lot of doubt on the speaker's known “honesty,” for how could honesty be so eloquent about the strategems of duplicity? Despite her honesty, her words are the site of psychic mobility, because what happens here is that Luciana speaks from an assumed position of dialogue with a hypocrisy that she attributes to Antipholus. An utterance is conditioned by its addressee even when that “other” is imagined. An audience which saw the joke here must also feel a disquiet, because even honest language is no longer an expression of a self.

It is, of course, an impenetrable problem to Antipholus of Syracuse, who is attempting to declare his love in accordance with neo-Platonic conventions, which hold that love is the language of truth. He perceives that her words are deceitful, not just in the sense that she is enjoining deceit, but also in the sense (lethal for neo-Platonism) that they are not expressive of the being that inspires love in him. This disastrous disruption—and let us not forget that it is funny—leads him on to the idea that her words are an attempt by her to separate his soul from its truth (i.e., that they are a soul-changing enchantment, Circe-like, close to witchcraft). Although this is actually an erroneous interpretation of her intentions, it is not untrue about her words' effect upon him. Once again, then, the “error” of situation goes on to disclose a truth of his desire: his self-abandonment to the destructive magic which he fears (earlier he has said “I'll entertain the offer'd fallacy”; 2.2.185) is the truth of his discourse of desire:

Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak;
Lay open to my earthly gross conceit,
Smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words' deceit.
Against my soul's pure truth, why labour you
To make it wander in an unknown field?
Are you a god? would you create me anew?
Transform me then, and to your power I'll yield.


This perplexed, but enthusiastic lover transforms her first into a masculine god that will recreate him (above), and then into a mermaid and siren whose love will kill him:

O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note
To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears;
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;
Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed I'll take thee, and there lie,
And in that glorious supposition think
He gains by death that hath such means to die;
Let love, being light, be drowned if she sink.


Theodore Weiss calls this “love as the great school, the enlightenment of a young man by a beautiful young woman.”10 But if there is “enlightenment” here, it is in a fearful destructiveness, because the truth of his desire emerges in these metaphors of love and death, namely that he would hand himself over, body and soul, to what he fears. This, then, is Shakespeare's use of plot of the mistaken identities. The “errors” provide the occasion for the metaphorical utterance of normally unstated truths. The scene ends when Antipholus of Syracuse, (who has been informed of his Dromio's flight from Nell, the engulfing “mountain of mad flesh” which claims to be his wife), responds to this with the same fear of the siren's song:

There's none but witches do inhabit here,
And therefore '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 a 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 my ears against the mermaid's song.


The goddess who enchants is also the mermaid or witch who threatens. But this is not an accurate statement about Luciana as a character, as though she were represented dramatically by Shakespeare as half-witch, half-goddess. It is no longer a simple “error.” Such images are the product of Antipholus's surrender to what he fears; in short, they are metaphors of his desire, not representations of Luciana's inward being. Although Antipholus of Syracuse succumbs to the disturbing charms of witchcraft, this is not exactly the same as surrendering to Luciana. He surrenders to a false representation of her, but to a truth of his own desire, in which enchantment and fear are contributory. The “madness” of the plot, which disturbs and frightens him, also promises him the gratifications of the loss of self for which the market and the sea are joint metaphors. All this has very little to do with representation of the women through their own speech, which is also part of the plot.

The entirely nonmagic quality of the women, in marked contrast to the power which they acquire over Antipholus, is part of the comic effect. Neither Adriana nor Luciana bear any resemblance to Circe or to mermaid figures. Like Miranda later, Luciana could well protest: “No wonder, sir, but certainly a maid” (The Tempest, 1.2.430-31). The magic arises from the way in which the plot provides an opportunity for the play of male fantasies. Its comic quality arises from its non-coincidence with the representation of the women outside those fantasies. The melancholy “death wish” which promises its own gratifications has nothing to do with Shakespeare's representation of women, but everything to do with his exploration of the new discourse of desire.


  1. “Wholly absorbed in the production of wealth and in the peaceful struggle of competition, it no longer comprehended that the ghosts of Roman times had watched over its cradle. But unheroic as bourgeois society is, it nevertheless took heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war and the battles of nations to bring it into being. And in the classically austere traditions of the Roman republic its gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions that they needed in order to conceal from themselves the bourgeois limitations of the content of their struggles and to keep their zeal on the high plane of the great historical tragedy.” Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978), 11; (originally, New York: Die Revolution, 1852).

  2. Michael Nerlich, Ideology of Adventure: Studies in Modern Consciousness 1100-1750, volume 1 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 51-64.

  3. There is a recurrent association of twins and doubles with death. See, for example, Otto Rank, The Double: a Psychoanalytic Study, trans. and ed. Harry Tucker Jr. (New York: Meridian, 1979).

  4. Theodore Weiss, The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Shakespeare's Early Comedies and Histories (London: Chatto and Windus, 1971), 25.

  5. All references to Shakespeare's plays in this book are to the Arden editions.

  6. L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (London: Chatto and Windus, 1937), 51ff. The domestic grocer is still a figure of contempt in British culture. Margaret Thatcher's father marked her off from the patrician wing of the Tory party.

  7. M. M. Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1981), 105.

  8. Nerlich, Ideology of Adventure, 4.

  9. See Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 199ff. My argument is a location of this psychological reading in a historical discourse.

  10. Weiss, Breath of Clowns and Kings, 22.

Wilborn Hampton (review date 2001)

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SOURCE: Hampton, Wilborn. “A Little Shakespearean Traveling Music.” The New York Times (19 May 2001): B10.

[In the review below, Hampton discusses a staging of Trevor Nunn and Guy Woolfenden's musical version of The Comedy of Errors, directed by John Rando, contending that the production honored the spirit of the original play.]

When Ben Jonson eulogized Shakespeare as being not of an age but for all time, he had no way of knowing about the 1960's. But it has been the proof of Jonson's tribute that Shakespeare's plays have survived transportation to just about every decade since, although admittedly some travel better than others.

“The Comedy of Errors,” an early play that is about the closest Shakespeare came to pure farce, is one that travels especially light, and a campy and brash staging of Trevor Nunn and Guy Woolfenden's musical version by the director John Rando and the Acting Company offers a diverting evening, depending on how one might enjoy a night at a Hippie theme park.

The adaptation was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1976. Mr. Nunn, who was then artistic director at the R.S.C. and soon to make his fame in America by directing “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Les Miserables” and “Cats,” wrote lyrics cued by lines from Shakespeare's text to music set by Mr. Woolfenden.

In the Acting Company revival the irreverent tone is set in the opening scene and incorporates a grab bag of cultural cliches from the 1960's and 70's that takes several liberties with Shakespeare's text but keeps to the spirit of the play.

As the Duke of Ephesus, strutting like a cartoon Central American dictator complete with droopy mustache and reflector sunglasses, expounds the background, the entire cast hisses every time he mentions the word “Syracuse.” It gets progressively more rowdy as Mr. Rando and his energetic cast pull out all stops for laughs.

There are sight gags, pratfalls, costuming and lighting gimmicks, silly walks, tumbling tricks. One character reads Cosmopolitan magazine, another uses a can of hair spray, yet another takes a snapshot. The scene in which Antipholus of Ephesus argues with Dromio of Syracuse through a door is played over an intercom. Characters exchange high-fives and Dr. Pinch shows up in an Afro and tie-dyed robe with a voodoo doll around his neck. There is a running gag with a cat from an old James Bond movie; some business with a whip and gun is borrowed from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and there is a long chase scene that Mack Sennett would have loved.

Needless to say, a lot of this has nothing to do with Shakespeare, and it occasionally veers close to being a sophomoric parody. But like Moonwork Theater's recent musical version of “Twelfth Night,” which was set in a 1940's nightclub and struck a similar vein, the cumulative effect is humorously contagious. The songs are mostly amusing ditties, but a couple of them aim at full production numbers reminiscent of rock musicals of the era.

The members of the Acting Company cast are clearly enjoying themselves and the performances are by and large good. Todd Cerveris and Michael Thomas Holmes as flower children versions of Dromio E. and Dromio S. take top honors, closely followed by Evan Robertson and Corey Behnke, each of whom could double as an androgynous rock star, as Antipholus E. and Antipholus S.

Michele Tauber, looking like Mama Cass in a tentlike blue paisley dress, is convincing as Adriana, and Beth Bartley, who could stand in for Sally Field in her hippie days, is credible as Luciana. Some smaller turns are especially good. Royden Mills is a delight as Angelo the goldsmith, a “cool dude” if ever there was one, and Gregory Jackson is deadpan funny playing the Second Merchant as a cross between a refugee from “Get Smart” and Inspector Clouseau.

Further Reading

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Christensen, Ann C. “‘Because Their Business Still Lies Out a' door’: Resisting the Separation of the Spheres in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors.Literature and History 5, no. 1 (spring 1996): 19-37.

Contends that in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare examined Elizabethan concerns about the increasing separation between the public/commercial and private/domestic spheres.

Freedman, Barbara. “Errors in Comedy: A Psychoanalytic Theory of Farce.” In Shakespearean Comedy, edited by Maurice Charney, pp. 233-43. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980.

Contends that the genre of farce in general, and The Comedy of Errors in particular, deliberately denies and displaces meaning, a practice necessary for ordinarily unacceptable aggression to be accepted in a humorous manner.

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.

Argues that unlike its Plautine source, The Comedy of Errors ultimately celebrates Christian society, family, and marriage.

Maguire, Laurie. “The Girls from Ephesus.” The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, edited by Robert S. Miola, pp. 355-92. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.

Argues that The Comedy of Errors offers two distinct models for female behavior through the characters of Adriana and Luciana.

Marcotte, Paul J. “Eros in The Comedy of Errors.Revue de l'Universite d'Ottawa 38, no. 4 (October-December 1968): 642-67.

Explores how Shakespeare's concept of love influenced The Comedy of Errors.

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

Demonstrates the way in which The Comedy of Errors uses its form, language, and plot to manipulate the audience's understanding of temporal sequence.


The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 54)


The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 77)