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The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare

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Catherine M. Shaw (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: Shaw, Catherine M. “The Conscious Art of The Comedy of Errors.” In Shakespearean Comedy, edited by Maurice Charney, pp. 17-28. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980.

[In the following essay, Shaw evaluates The Comedy of Errors as Shakespeare's eclectic adaptation of Latin sources, and considers the playwright's recasting of classical dramas by Plautus and Terence into an Elizabethan idiom that highlights the contrast between “stage representation and audience expectation.”]

The Comedy of Errors holds a place unique in the Shakespearean canon because it shows at once the most direct derivation from Roman comedy and, at the same time, an awareness of contemporary audience and occasion. This does not mean that the drama of the intervening years, particularly that of Renaissance Italy and the native English tradition, does not show its influence. Rather, there is something to be gained by looking at either end of a creative process—the pressure of Latin comedy at the beginning and the demands of occasion on performance at the end. If we can assume that this play as we have it in the Folio text shows signs of catering to an audience at least as learned as the playwright, then awareness of specific audience and perhaps also of the specific occasion of the Christmas revels at Gray's Inn in December, 1594, encouraged Shakespeare to indulge in authorial virtuousity; perhaps even to show off a little. Many critics have dealt with The Comedy of Errors as a serious expression of Shakespearean sentiments even though they are couched in Plautine farce—no doubt they are there. What my interest is, however, is in viewing the play as an artistic performance whose comic success depends upon an awareness of its deliberate eclecticism and of a craft expressly designed to set up a confrontation between stage representation and audience expectation.

We might note, for example, that no other Shakespearean play has so few prose lines (230 or 1/8 of the total), and of these, as we might expect, 2/3 (165) are spoken by the Dromios and almost all the rest (58) by Antipholus of Syracuse when he engages in badinage with his servant in Act 2, scene 2 and Act 3, scene 2. This should lead us to speculate on the comic effect of the farcical sequences of mistaken identity, particularly those in which either Dromio takes a drubbing, in which the dialogue is in blank verse, or in the dinner scene mid-play (the only one except for the finale with all the major characters on stage), in which the characters caterwaul in rhymed couplets. Surely, the couching of such Plautine buffoonery in blank verse and rhyme suggests a conscious dichotomy for comic effect. Perhaps in this Shakespeare is following the lead of the courtly John Lyly, whose influence in the play shows elsewhere; but if he is, then his audience would recognize the technique of imitation as well as the deliberate juxtaposition of action and speech pattern.

Shakespeareans are indebted to editors and scholars such as T. W. Baldwin, R. A. Foakes, and Geoffrey Bullough for their investigations into Shakespeare's narrative sources for The Comedy of Errors, for it is upon such knowledge that we can base our assessment of the freedom with which Shakespeare adapted and added and also come to recognize when he broke with direct or indirect Plautine influence to adopt other dramatic methods and style, particularly those of Terence. T. W. Baldwin has dealt in detail with The Comedy of Errors and the five-act Terentian formula for play construction.1 More recently, Richard Levin has drawn our attention to a fact...

(This entire section contains 5199 words.)

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about Latin comedy too often ignored. “Of the eighty-odd plays that have survived from classical antiquity, only those of Terence contain a fully developed double plot.”2 On this subject George E. Duckworth says, “Since the double plot appears in all of Terence's comedies except The Mother-in-Law but is scarcely ever used by Plautus, and since Terence handles the two plots with greater skill in his later plays, it seems probable that he himself developed this feature and in many cases altered the Greek originals to make his own comedies more intricate.”3 I would like to suggest that Shakespeare, whose knowledge of Plautus and Terence was at least as great as theirs had been of Menander and Apollodorus, took the same liberties with Plautine narrative and with Terence's interlocking double plots as Terence had done with his Greek forebears and that this freedom opened the way for an even greater expansion of that “comic complication” and character illumination of which Levin speaks.4 The result is that in Shakespeare's play there are not two, but three levels of dramatic sensibility, each projecting a distinctive tone.

The Terentian double plot is based on the adventures of two young lovers: one more serious and romantic, the other tending toward practicality and somewhat less respectable. Little stage time is given to slapstick. Even though Menaechmi is almost pure farce, however, Shakespeare found the beginnings of a Terentian bifurcation in the Plautine twins. Syracuse is more impressionable and idealistic. His response to Erotium's hospitality is, “Ye immortal gods! Did ye ever in a day bestow more blessings on a man who hoped for less.”5 Epidamus is somewhat more cynical and more of a sexual adventurer. The idea of stealing from his wife to buy favors for his mistress appeals to his sense of justice, and he appears to have been on close terms with Erotium's maid as well. The character distinction is relatively undeveloped in Plautus, but Shakespeare takes advantage of it to make over the twins into Terentian heroes whose differences in personality and in their relationships with added or adapted characters, particularly their respective women, provide the distinction in tone between the high and middle comedy of the play.

Of course, the sexual dealings found in both Roman dramatists had to be dropped or at least left ambiguous. Neither Plautus' bawdy and farcical exploitation of licentious situations nor even Terence's more sophisticated attitudes toward extramarital sex would please the Elizabethan audience unless they were kept subtle or dropped into the buffoonery of the low comic plot. So Shakespeare complies by adding the Dromios and relegating much of the farce to these servants. It is true that each Antipholus beats his Dromio, or one whom he supposes to be his servant, but the emphasis in these farcical scenes is on the victim and his bewilderment. Or, in the bawdy anatomizing of the “spherical” Nell, Antipholus of Syracuse is merely the ear; the low humor is Dromio's.6 Although the name Dromi is derived from Terence by way of Lyly (Mother Bombie), the idea of identical servants came from Mercury and Sosio in Amphitryon, from which Shakespeare also borrowed the feast scene in Act 3. In this, Shakespeare is practicing the technique known in Terence as contaminatio;7 as Terence did with Menander's plays, so Shakespeare intrudes into one Plautine play characters and episodes from another.

The other characters of the farcical level are not the result of contaminatio but rather of accommodation. Plautus' doctor becomes “the hungry, lean-faced” (5.1.238) Dr. Pinch, the first of Shakespeare's comic pedants. Erotium, called amica in Menaechmi, a word often used by Plautus and Terence to mean concubine, becomes in Shakespeare's play merely a nameless “courtesan,” whose profession is left ambiguous and from whom Antipholus of Ephesus seeks “excellent discourse” (3.1.109) only when his wife locks him out. Her cook, a male in Plautus' comedy, not only becomes a skivvy in Adriana's household, but is translated into a female and occupies the low comic position in a hierarchal triad of feminine figures: Luciana, Adriana, and Nell (or Luce). Nell, it is true, appears only briefly on stage, but her insistent demands on her brother-in-law are rehearsed by Dromio of Syracuse and parallel those made by Adriana on her master in the middle comedy. Interestingly enough, Antipholus of Syracuse is again the brunt of chastisement in the high or romantic level of the play when Luciana also scolds him for unhusbandly behavior. This kind of Shakespearean asymmetrical sophistication of a comic situation is unparalleled in Roman comedy—the Syracusan men stand the assaults from the women on all three levels of the play, while the Ephesians for whom they are mistaken get off almost scot-free.

Comedy in which the innocent suffer the most abuse is certainly not new, but it is when superimposed upon a familiar dramatic base that relies for its farcical effect solely upon a balanced repetition of absurd confrontations. The Menaechmian pattern of repeated and bizarre situations arising from mistaken identity is an example of the kind of comedy that Henri Bergson refers to as having been repeated so often (even by Shakespeare's time) that it had reached “the state of being a classical type or model.” And Shakespeare takes advantage of the “comic de facto” in The Comedy of Errors. By superimposing his own, different pattern upon the original model, however, he doubles the comic effect and achieves additional and new “de jure comedy.”8 A second and more sophisticated level of laughter results from the dichotomy between the original Menaechmian farce imprinted on the audience's imagination and the Shakespearean palimpsest that it sees before its eyes on the Renaissance stage.


At the upper level of the comic scale, Shakespeare practices what might be called “extracontamination,” or the addition of characters and their situations from a completely different and, in this case, a nondramatic and anachronistic source: Egeon and the Abbess who, with Luciana, are totally alien to the farcical laughter usually connected with Plautine comedy. Egeon's name, from Aegeus, may have come from the father of Theseus, whom Shakespeare would have come across in his reading of Plutarch or, more likely, as R. A. Foakes suggests, from Cooper's Thesaurus or from The Excellent and Pleasant Works of Julius Solinus Polyster (1587), which would also explain the name of the Duke of Ephesus, although a Solinus also appears in Lyly's Campaspe.9 The tale that Egeon tells, however, was borrowed from that of Apollonius of Tyre as it was related by John Gower in Confessio Amantis, which Shakespeare used again some fifteen years later for Pericles. This version also accounts for Emilia's being an abbess.

Shakespeare's opening of his comedy with the threat of death may have been an allowance suggested by Mercury's joking acceptance of tragicomedy in Amphitryon, but I think it more likely that an expansion of Menaechmi's narrative and psychological limits to encompass a whole family appealed to the apprentice dramatist anxious to outdo Plautus' “very granary” (p. 367) of comic situations. Shakespeare does not, however, interweave Egeon's precarious position into the main narrative as he does with the addition of the Dromios but uses it as a time frame for the dramatic action, which begins in separation and melancholy and ends in reconciliation and joyousness. Nonetheless, by adding characters at either end of the central Plautine progression, he elongates the spectrum of dramatic coloration.

The introduction of Egeon effectively begins the separation of the two Antipholi into distinct Terentian types. The old man's tale of the tribulations that have beset his family is also his son's, and its pathos and gravity carry over to Antipholus of Syracuse when he appears in the second scene. The son is, like the father, under threat from Ephesian law, but, unlike Egeon who has a one-day reprieve and may move freely about the city, Antipholus must lose himself in an alien world to find that part of himself which is his brother. Various critics have dealt with the whole problem of identity in The Comedy of Errors; the point here is to recognize that at the end of Act 1 the dramatic prognosis for Antipholus of Syracuse is anything but comic. He is an alien in a bewildering world—a world that seems to be forcing an identification upon him that he does not recognize—in which his servant acts mad and the thousand marks that are his security against death have disappeared.

Luciana is the only character in The Comedy of Errors for whom Shakespeare clearly practices what is called, again with reference to Terence, “auto-contamination,”10 the addition of a character of his own creation. Her name probably stuck in the playwright's mind from the details borrowed from the travails of Apollonius of Tyre for the Egeon-Emilia frame, although the name Lucina also occurs in the anonymous Soliman and Persida (c. 1592). Her position in the play is to introduce into the serious plot a kind of romantic love common to Terence (and through him to Lyly) but not to Plautus. Kathleen M. Lea suggests that she is provided to be a confidante for Adriana and as a “consolation prize for the deserving stranger.”11 Juxtaposed as she is to Adriana, however, Luciana makes even clearer the distinction between the romantic quality of the high comic level and the bourgeois or realistic comedy of which her sister is a part.

Adriana is neither borrowed nor created; neither is she an accommodation to a dramatic composition more sophisticated than the Plautine farce in which Shakespeare found her. Rather she is a transformation! Gone is the mere “matrona” of Menaechmi, and in her place stands a fully developed woman who stands at the head of a long line of Shakespeare's remarkable heroines. Luciana pales by her as Hero does by Beatrice. In fact, although Shakespeare has shifted the narrative interest in The Comedy of Errors to Antipholus of Syracuse, it is Adriana who prevents the serious concerns from swamping the whole play, not her husband. She even has more lines than he has. Plautus' virago may end up as the nagging wife in Jacobean city comedy, but Shakespeare's Adriana, with her spirit and independence and womanliness, goes on to become Rosalind and Kate and Beatrice and perhaps even Cleopatra. Her husband, on the other hand, never becomes other than a stock type from domestic comedy.

This view of Adriana should lead us to consider with a somewhat less serious eye the disputation on husband-wife relations in which she engages with Luciana. Adriana is clearly a crowd-pleaser, and perhaps her considerations of marriage are designed to titillate a sophisticated mixed audience. Attention has been drawn to the closeness of Luciana's argument to that of St. Paul's. L. Boronski, on the other hand, would see the whole exchange as patterned deliberately as a euphuistic dialogue.12 There is no reason, of course, why it cannot be both or, indeed, assimilate even a third possibility. The position that Luciana takes is remarkably similar to that of Micio in Terence's The Brothers, in which the debate is on how to raise a son. In Terence's play, Micio and his brother, Demeo, present opposing views: Micio advises that a father be generous and patient; Demeo, that he be sparing and hard. The same opposed extremes are presented in the marriage debate in The Comedy of Errors, a subject that must have been of topical interest because Shakespeare comes back to it in Love's Labor's Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, and Much Ado About Nothing. Luciana insists that a man be “master of his liberty” and the wife patient and agreeable (2.1.7-9). Adriana takes a firm view; a man is “unruly” and “feeds from home” (2.1.101-2) and, therefore, a wife should be demanding and keep a tight rein. The joke is that Micio's position does not score a victory in The Brothers. In a clever and surprising conclusion, Terence shows that the wisest course avoids the weakness of either extreme, and surely this is what Adriana represents at the end of Shakespeare's play and, regardless of what scripture says, the position that would most delight an audience at once aware of the stylistics of the argument and of the Terentian compromise—to say nothing of its relationship to the topoi from Cicero through The Marriage of Wit and Science (1568), A Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom (1570), and The Marriage of Mind and Measure (1579), and the like.

Indeed, in the scene before the priory, Adriana's more worldly position ultimately converts even Luciana, for when the Abbess reproaches Adriana for causing her husband's distraction, it is the formerly Pauline Luciana who insists that her sister's behavior was but sauce for the gander:

She never reprehended him but mildly,
When he demeaned himself rough, rude, and wildly.

(The Comedy of Errors, 5.1.87-88)

With this encouragement, Adriana opposes the holy woman's judgment and asserts her rights in the office of wife. This is not “merely possessive love,” as John Russell Brown somewhat chauvinistically suggests, but a statement of her legal conjugal rights certain to draw approval from Shakespeare's mixed audience, particularly one versed in the law and aware, as Shakespeare so often proved himself to be, of the conflicts between secular and spiritual statutes.

Professor Brown attempts to present Adriana's love as “taking” as opposed to “giving.” He says, “Adriana sees love as a system of promises, duties, and bonds,”13 and he is quite right. By the marriage contract Antipholus of Ephesus became, as Adriana says, “Lord of me and all I had” (5.1.137). The “giving” part, both of herself and her possessions, had come much earlier, and now her demands within the marriage bond are valid and understandable. This does not, however, diminish her love and willingness to care for him nor her promptness as a practical helpmeet to “take order for the wrongs” (5.1.146) she thinks he has committed. Much more the victim of the confusions in identity than her sister or the kitchen wench, Adriana has a position at once sympathetic and admirable and entirely in keeping with the realistic level of the comic structure.

Once again, the conscious craft of The Comedy of Errors is not merely the result of Shakespeare's lifting the Plautine farce from its Latin setting, peopling it with more lively characters, giving a contemporary twist to a Terentian debate, and then recasting the combination into a totally new comedy palatable to English Renaissance tastes, because the Roman dramas themselves still clearly underlie the Shakespearean superstructure. Neither does Adriana's view on marriage erase that imprinted on the audience's mind from scripture because Luciana has already presented the Pauline position liberally laced with other Biblical allusions to the subservience to man expected of all created things. The comic totality of The Comedy of Errors and the sophistication of its response in laughter depends upon consciousness of multiple and separate levels of dramatic representation working at once both in dramatic point and counterpoint.


Conscious eclecticism is also what makes the ending of The Comedy of Errors “work” in the theatrical sense, because both its comic structure and its deliberate catering to audience conditioning allow the advantage of playing off actual visual representation against audience mental preconceptions. The mere entrance of the second Antipholus to the rest of the cast assembled on stage would suffice to unravel the mistaken identities, as it does in the Plautine farce. Shakespeare chooses to give the narrative resolution to his comedy a distinctly Terentian twist. As Professor Duckworth points out, “many of the pertinent facts of a Terentian plot were not revealed to the spectator until late in the action”;14 Shakespeare not only holds back knowledge of Emilia's existence, but also introduces her as an entirely new character when she emerges from the priory in Act 5, scene 1. That the Abbess turns out to be the mother of the Antipholi is another borrowing from Confessio Amantis, in which, after much wandering, Apollonius of Tyre is reunited with his wife in Ephesus. This is the same source that accounts for the resurrection of Egeon, the father reported to have died in Menaechmi.

The reactions of the various comic groups to the presence of double sets of twins are finely tuned. The eloquent despair voiced by Egeon when one he sees as his son denies any kinship changes to the joy of waking from a bad dream. Antipholus of Syracuse, whose fortunes were linked with the serious concerns of his father at the beginning of the play and who has throughout the action expressed his bewilderment in repeated doubts as to whether he were awake or asleep, repeats the dream imagery when he reiterates his vows of love to Luciana:

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

(The Comedy of Errors, 5.1.375-77)

As for Adriana, one can only guess her facial expressions when first she exclaims with astonishment, “I see two husbands, or mine eyes deceive me” (5.1.332) and then later when she realizes that the Abbess with whom she had disagreed so vociferously is actually her mother-in-law. Her questions, however, are eminently practical—“Which of you did dine with me today?” “And are you not my husband?”—and she and her husband set about clearing up such realistic matters as who owes whom how much money and who gets the gold chain.


The actual ending of The Comedy of Errors presents specific problems that can perhaps be explained by again giving attention to audience and occasion. Charmingly funny as the Dromios may be in the closing lines as each acts as the other's mirror, why should Shakespeare choose to end the play with the servants of the low comic action rather than with the higher ranking or main characters, as he does in most other plays he wrote? One possible answer is that Plautus closes Menaechmi with a speech by Messenio, the former slave of Menaechmus of Syracuse, except that Messenio's words are only a farcical announcement of the forthcoming auction of Epidamus' property, whereas the Dromios' lines have actual thematic and tonal significance for the end of Shakespeare's play. It is also very strange that Shakespeare would overlook the joyous reconciliations at the close of The Comedy of Errors as an opportunity for providing, or at least implying, some kind of revelry to round out the action, as was common to most Elizabethan comedies. But the ending of the play is abrupt. The actual dramatic conclusion of the action comes with the Duke's agreement to join the reunited family in their celebration, and yet there is not even a call for music to accompany the feast. Perhaps a plausible answer to these problems is that the play as we have it in the Folio text is the version designed to fit into the special entertainment for which we have record in the Gesta Grayorum. It would certainly explain why The Comedy of Errors is so short, just over 1,700 lines, hardly enough for a complete theatrical performance. In fact, the New Cambridge editor thinks that the public playhouse version was “longer than the text that comes down to us, perhaps by as much as four hundred lines.”15

There is certainly ample precedent for using short dramatic representations as part of larger aristocratic entertainments throughout Elizabeth's reign. In addition, Geoffrey Bullough lists a number of Italian and other Continental adaptations of Menaechmi16 in the sixteenth century, and both Foakes and Lea agree that Shakespeare “does seems to have been acquainted with the way in which comedy of mistaken identity was exploited on the Italian stage.”17 George Freedley and John Reeves describe an Italian performance of Menaechmi, which was followed by “one of the famous banquets which included a morisco (a simplified ballet d'action) in which Cesare Borgia acted. As the music rose for a glorious finale, the guests danced with the performers and the Pope looked on approvingly.”18 Shakespeare's play appears to have been adapted to be part of a similar larger entertainment, and there is reason to suspect that The Comedy of Errors was also meant to be followed by a masque.

At the entertainment planned for “Innocents-Day at Night” in December, 1594,19 the Prince of Purpoole was, on behalf of his subjects at Gray's Inn, to entertain an Ambassador from the Inner Temple and his court. The King of Arms announced the arrival of the Ambassador and his attendants to the Prince “then sitting in his Chair of State in the Hall.” The guest proceeded through the hall to honor the Prince of Purpoole with speeches of high compliment. However, the Ambassador was no sooner placed so he could view “something to be performed for the Delight of the Beholders,” than the plans went awry, for “there arose such a disordered Tumult and Crowd upon the Stage, that there was no Opportunity to effect that which was intended.” Indeed, the Gray's Inn lawyers and their company behaved so badly that the guests from the Inner Temple left in displeasure. Considering the progress of events to the disorder, the indication is that had the evening's entertainment continued as planned, the presentment, procession to state, and ceremonial compliments would have been followed by a play and a masque. Under other circumstances, the “something to be performed for the Delight of the Beholders” might have meant merely games of mumchance, barriers, or some other diversion interjected before the play, but the earlier reference to “good Inventions and Conceipts,” suggests that the plan was for something more elaborate such as a masque.20

The end of The Comedy of Errors seems to support this suggestion. After the denouement—the discovering and sorting out of the Antipholi and the Dromios and the joyous reunion of parents with children and brothers with brothers—the major characters, led by the Duke, withdraw from the stage to celebrate the happy occasion. The two servants, the Dromios, are left on stage to go through a series of burlesque gestures as to who will leave the stage first, finally agreeing:

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

(The Comedy of Errors, 5.1.426-27)

This posturing is suggestive of an antic dance, one type of comic contrast that gave rise to the antimasque in the Court Masques and could have been intended as a prelude to the masque dances. These measures, if this were the case, would be performed by members of Gray's Inn and their ladies taking the place of the professional actors for the dance finale. The use of the lowly Dromios as masque presenters is fully in keeping as a final fillip for a play that has relied so much upon comic confrontation and juxtaposition, while, at the same time, their amusing dialogue would provide stage business during the substitution. The masque would thus fulfill two functions. It first rounds out the action of the play proper by visually symbolizing harmony achieved after confusion, and it would also act as the final sport of the entire Innocents-day night celebration.

Various other suggestions would also seem to relate the extant version to this specific occasion: an unusual amount of legal terminology that Sidney Thomas uses to support December 28, 1594, as the first performance of The Comedy of Errors,21 the appropriateness of Emilia's closing line, “After so long grief, such nativity” (5.1.407); and the fact that it was thought suitable for presentation at the stylish Stuart court for the same festival in 1604.

G. B. Harrison senses a rather condescending touch about the play, “a hint that the author is above this sort of thing but if you challenge him he will show you how cleverly he can do it.”22 On the other hand, we might speculate that a beginning playwright would be flattered that his company was asked to present one of his plays before such a prestigious and learned group and go out of his way to adapt it to their tastes and formal occasion. Harold Goddard calls it “pure theatre,” “a product of Shakespeare's intellect rather than of imagination.”23 Although we might not agree totally with this assessment, The Comedy of Errors is certainly a remarkably eclectic play, which depends for its comic impact upon knowing the theatrical game the playwright is playing. It is an Elizabethan hybrid. Although still showing the clear signs of its original farcical stock, the play has been crossbred with both the realism and romance of the English stage and the learned and dialectical wit of Renaissance thought. The multileveling of character and narrative tone and the superimposition of various layers of dramatic representation upon the Latin base have produced a Shakespearean palimpsest. Structurally and stylistically, Shakespeare uses Plautus to outdo Plautus, Terence to outdo Terence, and turns a Roman farce into a polished and sophisticated entertainment, which produces a special intellectual relation between performance and audience depending for its effect upon awareness of its conscious art.


  1. On the Compositional Genetics ofThe Comedy of Errors” (Urbana, Illinois, 1965), Chapter VI, pp. 73-87.

  2. Multiple Plots in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago, 1971), p. 226.

  3. The Complete Roman Drama, edited in two volumes with Introduction (New York, 1942), I, xxxi.

  4. Op. cit., p. 227.

  5. The Two Menaechmuses, trans. by Paul Nixon, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1917), p. 413. All quotations are from this edition.

  6. T. W. Baldwin notes that “Dromio's lesson in political geography … was not lost on the Gentlemen of Gray's Inn, who turned it into ‘Purpoole smut’” (op. cit., pp. 3-4).

  7. Paradigmatic variations of the verb contaminare were used by Terence to describe the transference of plot elements or characters from one play to another. He defends the practice in various of his Prologues (see, for example, The Lady of Andros and The Self-Tormentor).

  8. Henri Bergson, “Laughter,” Comedy, edited by Wylie Sypher (New York, 1956), p. 122.

  9. Introduction to The Comedy of Errors (The Arden Shakespeare: London, 1968), pp. xxix-xxx.

  10. The term auto-contamination is first used by Gilbert Norwood (The Art of Terence [Oxford, 1923], p. 16). Roy C. Flickinger accepts the validity of the term with regard to Terence's stagecraft although he objects to the example Norwood cites (“The Originality of Terence,” Philological Quarterly, VII [1928], p. 112).

  11. Italian Popular Comedy (Oxford, 1934), II, 42.

  12. For a summary of Boronski's argument and the various Biblical borrowings, see R. A. Foakes's notes to Act 1, scene 2, and Appendix 1 (pp. 113-15) in The Arden Shakespeare.

  13. Shakespeare and His Comedies (London, 1962), pp. 54-55.

  14. Op. cit., p. xxxii.

  15. The Comedy of Errors, edited by John Dover Wilson (Cambridge, 1968), p. 77.

  16. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, I (London, 1957), 57.

  17. Foakes, op. cit., p. xxxii.

  18. The History of the Theatre (New York, 1941), p. 66.

  19. Gesta Grayorum, edited by W. W. Greg, Malone Society Reprints, 42 (Oxford, 1914), 20-23.

  20. It is tempting to speculate that part of this planned “Delight” was to have been a rehearsal for the Masque of Proteus, which was performed at Court by the gentlemen of Gray's Inn the following Shrovetide. The “Adamantine Rock,” the movable device employed in the masque, would account for the necessity for “Scaffolds,” which the record tells us were “reared to the top of the House, to increase Expectation.”

  21. “The Date of The Comedy of Errors,Shakespeare Quarterly, VII (1956), 380-81.

  22. “Shakespearean Comedy,” Stratford Papers on Shakespeare (Toronto, 1962), p. 42.

  23. The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951), I, 26.

Bibliographical Note

This paper owes much to classical scholars concerned with the dramaturgy of Latin comedy, particularly Gilbert Norwood (The Art of Terence [Oxford, 1923]; The Nature of Roman Comedy [Princeton, 1942]) and George C. Duckworth (The Complete Roman Drama [New York, 1942]). Also seminal to the study of relationships between Latin and Renaissance comedy is Appendix A “The Double Plot in Roman Comedy” in Richard Levin's Multiple Plots in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago, 1971).

W. Thomas MacCary (essay date spring 1978)

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SOURCE: MacCary, W. Thomas. “The Comedy of Errors: A Different Kind of Comedy.” New Literary History 9, no. 3 (spring 1978): 525-36.

[In the following essay, MacCary presents a psychoanalytic and genre-based reading of The Comedy of Errors that emphasizes its classical comedic sources together with its narcissistic and egocentric themes.]

We say that the human being has originally two sexual objects: himself and the woman who tends him, and thereby we postulate a primary narcissism in everyone, which may in the long run manifest itself as dominating his object-choice.

Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction”

Our comic tradition, since Menander, has been essentially romantic: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl and lives happily with her ever after. Much else, of course, happens in comedy from the fourth century b.c. to the present, but this “nubile” pattern of action focuses our attention. Even in plays where the couple are of little interest as characters, their union nevertheless symbolizes the beginning of a new life, and comedy, if it differs at all from tragedy and satire, must at least make us that promise. There are some plays in the tradition which do not end in marriage, leaving many people dissatisfied: their expectations seem to have been shaped as much by dramatic conventions as by deeper needs and desires. Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors is one of these plays and has been criticized for its lack of definitive marriage plans: there is brief allusion to future arrangements between Luciana and Antipholus of Syracuse, but the marriage of Adriana to Antipholus of Ephesus is left unreconstructed. In fact, this is a comedy of a different kind. Its entire argument prepares us not for the union of man and wife—its view of marriage is especially pessimistic—but for the reunion of twins with each other and with their parents, the sort of reestablishment of the nuclear family which is so important in Shakespeare's last plays. To appreciate the Comedy we need to master certain basic problems: the history of the development of the romantic pattern in comedy; the psychological significance of this pattern; its alternatives and their significance.

Shakespeare's play was adapted from Plautus' Menaechmi, which, in turn, was adapted from a Greek original of unknown author, date, and title. It has been argued that this Greek original did not belong to the period and genre we know as New Comedy,1 as did the originals of most of Plautus' other plays, but was written earlier, before Menander, when comedy had not yet quite reached the final form he gave it. This was the Middle Comedy, preceded only by Aristophanes and the Old Comedy. Now the differences between the three periods are not definitive, but they do help us in tracing the development of the comic tradition, which, I shall argue, was the process of a narrowing of vision. Old Comedy for us is Aristophanes, though the plays of his celebrated contemporaries Eupolis and Cratinus might have differed in important respects from his own. (He certainly claims they did, in a number of passages containing scurrilous references to their work.) For us, though, Old Comedy is Aristophanes' “heroic comedy”:2 each play is dominated by one character, usually an old man, who manages to impose his will on the world. These plays end in festivity which sometimes includes a marriage of sorts, such as the union of Peithetaerus in the Birds with the personified abstract Basileia, or “kingly power.” Such weddings are not the goal toward which the action of the plays moves, but simply an effective closing gesture. The goal of Aristophanic comedy is not marriage but self-fulfillment and self-expression. If we speak in terms of ritual, they follow a pattern of resurrecting the old god rather than of uniting cosmic forces to create a new god.

Already in the last plays of Aristophanes, written early in the fourth century, there is a change of mood and theme, and his Plutus and Ecclesiazusae are usually reckoned as transitional pieces, the beginning of the Middle period. The heroes are no longer unlimited in their fantasy and ingenuity; the plays are more social in their outlook rather than political: whereas previously an individual could change the direction of his state, now he is a function of his environment; there is a concentration of professional and semiprofessional types, such as prostitutes, cooks, and soldiers. Our knowledge of Middle Comedy, which extends from Aristophanes' Plutus in 388 to Menander's Orge in 321, is derived entirely from fragments of lost plays contained in references by later authors. Our impression is that their content was trivial in the extreme, with much attention paid to the preparation of banquets, the arrangements for employing prostitutes, the deception of pimps and bankers—all of this engineered by clever slaves to benefit their young masters. Much of this foolishness seems to have been hung on plots drawn from myth; in fact, travesties of myth were very popular, such as Odysseus at the Loom, Herakles in Veils, etc. The titles surviving from this period suggest that certain patterns of action which were later to become archetypes of comedy were already in use. Several authors wrote “twin” plays, for instance, and there are indications of other such situations in which a man's identity is called into question: he has a double he is unaware of, or he cannot find the double he knows he has. The original of Plautus' Amphitryo capitalized on the former; the original of his Menaechmi managed to combine both. These have been described as “comedies of a dominant idea” to distinguish them from the “comedies of character” which we associate with Menander in the period of New Comedy.3

Menander took all these elements of Middle Comedy, and even a few from Old Comedy, and fashioned a whole new genre. He was much influenced by Euripides and drew on the patterns of recognition and escape which distinguish Euripides' late “romances” Ion, Iphigeneia in Tauris, and Helen from previous tragedy. He confines the professional types to subordinate roles, or makes them break “type,” as with the sensitive and sympathetic soldiers of Misoumenos, Perikeiromene, and Sikyonios. He insists on marriage for his young people and prefers double and triple marriages. What we really come down to in Menander is endless variation on the ritual pattern we call by Persephone's name: the young girl is freed from bondage to an unchosen lover, who is usually old, ugly, and violent, by the young man whom she would choose for her husband if she were allowed to choose. This suggests that the action is seen through the eyes of the young girl; and though he certainly shows a great deal of sympathy for the plight of his women, and it might be argued that one distinguishing and causative factor of New Comedy is the “humanization” of women (they are no longer the drag queens of Aeschylus or the female ogres of Euripides), the plays are still mostly about men: it is their fantasy which is played out, the St. George fantasy of rescuing the beautiful girl from the dragon. Happiness in Menander, then, is marriage. This is to be contrasted with happiness in Aristophanes, which is self-fulfillment and self-expression, and happiness in Middle Comedy, which seems to have been, for the most part, food and sex, in that order, or, occasionally, reunion with one's double, though an examination of the question of identity which such material raises might not have accompanied it.

Northrop Frye speaks of the “comic Oedipus situation” in New Comedy: “Its main theme is the successful effort of the young man to outwit an opponent and possess the girl of his choice. The opponent is usually the father (senex), and the psychological descent of the heroine from the mother is also sometimes hinted at. The father frequently wants the same girl, and is cheated out of her by the son, the mother thus becoming the son's ally. The girl is usually a slave or courtesan, and the plot turns on a cognitio or discovery of birth which makes her marriageable.”4 If the pursuit of a young woman who reminds the young man of his mother is oedipal, then the pursuit of a young man who reminds the young man of himself is pre-oedipal and narcissistic. I do not mean to propose a new cycle of forms here;5 I do think the appreciation of certain correspondences between stages in literary history, stages in human development, and different conceptions of happiness can make our reading of a difficult text more complete. Aristophanes does not use doubles in his plays, but he does consistently develop patterns of action which lead toward the comic close that is implicit in the use of doubles by other authors, i.e., self-fulfillment and self-expression. His male characters enjoy sexual intercourse with women, but they do not pursue women as the embodiment of complete contentment. Rather, they enjoy a wide range of sensual experiences that are specifically sexual (i.e., genital) or capable of producing sexual gratification (i.e., oral or anal): masturbation, homosexual intercourse, defecation and urination in a variety of postures, flatulence, expectoration, scoptophilia, eating and drinking, kissing and fellatio. They also like to talk about all these activities. In short, Aristophanic heroes sound like psychoanalytic textbooks on perversion and, more precisely, they sound like Freud's description of the polymorphously perverse child, the pre-oedipal child, the child before he has learned to channel all his libidinal energy into the pursuit of a woman who will take the place of his mother.

If we were to formulate a kind of comedy which would fulfill the demands associated with the pre-oedipal period, it would have many of the aspects which critics find annoying in The Comedy of Errors. The family would be more important than anyone outside the family, and the mother would be the most important member of the family. Security and happiness would be sought not in sexual intercourse with a person of the opposite sex but in reunion with or creation of a person like the person the protagonist would like to become, i.e., his alter ego, or, more correctly, his ideal ego. There would be an ambivalent attitude toward women in the play, because the young child (male) depends upon the mother for sustenance but fears being reincorporated by the mother. Such fears of the overwhelming mother might be expressed in terms of locked doors and bondage, but the positive, nurturing mother would occasion concern with feasting and drinking. There might even be ambivalent situations, such as banquets arranged by threatening women, and ambivalent symbols, such as gold rings or chains, which suggest both attraction and restriction.

How much do we want to know about the pre-oedipal period? Can we really believe that certain conceptions of happiness develop in certain stages and all later experience is related back to these? To what extent is our appreciation of comedy based on our ability to identify with its protagonists? If we answer this last question affirmatively, then we must at least consider the implications of the other two. Most of us do not have twin brothers from whom we were separated at birth, so the pattern of action in The Comedy of Errors cannot encourage us to identify with Antipholus of Syracuse—clearly the protagonist, as I hope to show below—on the level of superficial actuality. There must be a common denominator, and thus the action of the play must remind us, by way of structural similarity or symbolic form, of something in our own experience. If a play has universal appeal, the experience recalled is more likely to be one of childhood than not, since the earliest experiences are not only the most commonly shared, but also the most formative: what we do and have done to us as children shapes all later experience. A good comedy “ends happily,” which means it follows a pattern of action which convinces us that we can be happy. Happiness is different things at different periods in our lives, and if the argument on development is accepted, the greatest happiness is the satisfaction of our earliest desires. By this I do not mean that comedy should feed us and keep us warm, but rather that it should cause us to recapture, in our adult, intellectualized state, the sensual bliss of warmth and satiety.

I do not think that many critics today would label The Comedy of Errors a farce and dismiss it as deserving no more serious analysis. The patterns of farce, like all the patterns of action in drama, are appealing for some good reason. Clearly the comic pattern involving mistaken identity appeals to us because it leads us from confusion about identity—our own, of course, as well as the protagonist's—to security. The most effective version of that pattern would be that which presents to us our own fears and then assuages them, so it must speak to us in language and action which can arouse memory traces of our own actual experience of a search for identity. While it is true that this search goes on throughout the “normal” man's life, it is most intense in the early years. When Antipholus of Syracuse likens himself to a drop of water in danger of being lost in the ocean, he speaks to us in terms which are frighteningly real:

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

(I. ii. 33-40)

The image is based on a proverbial expression in Plautus' Menaechmi: “neque aqua aquae nec lacte lactis, crede me, usquam similius / quam hic tui est, tuque huius autem” (“water is not to water, nor milk to milk, as like as she is to you and you are to her”) (1089-90).6 From a purely physical comparison, Shakespeare has developed a metaphysical conceit which has vast philosophical implications, but its immediate impact is emotional. The plight of the protagonist is felt almost physically, his yearning for his double accepted as natural and inevitable. Water itself is the most frequent dream symbol for birth, and with the mention of the mother and brother, we are set firmly in the child's world. The brother, in our own experience, is not a brother, but another self, the ideal ego which the mother first creates for us and we strive to assimilate. We are reminded of the Narcissus myth, since water can reflect as well as absorb, and Antipholus of Syracuse seeks himself in his mirror image. The water here, as ocean, is the overwhelming aspect of the mother, the mother from whom the child cannot differentiate himself. She projects to us the image of what we shall become; but it is a fragile image, and if we lose it we risk reintegration with her, reabsorption, a reversal of the process of individuation which we suffer from the sixth to the eighteenth month. Only later, when we have developed a sense of alterity, can we distinguish ourselves from the mother, and her image of us from ourselves.

Plautus, of course, does not frame his comedy of twins with a family romance the way Shakespeare does. Neither mother nor father appears; there is not even any serious romantic involvement for either twin. In fact, the negative attitude toward marriage which spreads through Shakespeare's play derives from Plautus', where the local twin lies to his wife and steals from her, and finally deserts her entirely to go home with his brother. As Shakespeare expands the cast and develops themes only implicit in the Menaechmi, he provides a complete view of the relation between man and wife and clearly indicates the preparation for this relation in the male child's attitude toward the mother. In Plautus we have only one set of doubles, the twins themselves, but Shakespeare gives us two more sets: the twin slaves Dromio and the sisters Adriana and Luciana. We see these women almost entirely through the eyes of Antipholus of Syracuse, our focus of attention in the play. From his first speech onwards it is from his point of view we see the action, and the occasional scene involving his brother serves only as background to his quest: he is the active one, the seeker. We meet the two sisters before he does, in their debate on jealousy, and then when he encounters them, our original impressions are confirmed. They are the dark woman (Adriana, atro) and the fair maid (Luciana, luce) we meet with so frequently in literature,7 comprising the split image of the mother, the one threatening and restrictive, the other yielding and benevolent. The whole atmosphere of the play, with its exotic setting and dreamlike action, prepares us for the epiphany of the good mother in Luciana, the bad mother in Adriana. Antipholus of Syracuse, who seems to have found no time for, or shown no interest in, women previously, is entranced and wonders that Adriana can speak to him so familiarly:

To me she speaks. She moves me for her theme.
What, was I married to her in my dream?
Or sleep I now, and think I hear all this?
What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?

(II. ii. 183-86)

The extraordinary aspect of his reaction, though quite natural in the context of the play's system of transferences, is that he should take for his dream the strange woman's reality: in other circumstances we might expect him to say that she is dreaming and has never really met him, but he says instead that perhaps he had a dream of her as his wife which was real. She is, then, strange in claiming intimacy with him, but not entirely unknown: she is a dream image, and he goes on to question his present state of consciousness and sanity:

Am I in earth, in Heaven, or in Hell?
Sleeping or waking? Mad or well advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised!

(II. ii. 214-16)

If these women were completely alien to him, had he no prior experience of them in any form, then he could have dismissed them and their claims upon him. As it is, he doubts not their sanity but his own, and wonders whether he dreams or wakes as they persist in their entreaties, suggesting he has dreamed of them before, and not without some agitation.

The exact words of Adriana's address which creates this bewilderment are, of course, very like his own opening remarks. She seems to know his mind exactly, and this makes her even more familiar to him though strange in fact. She takes his comparison of himself to a drop of water and turns it into a definition of married love; this, then, is sufficient to drive him to distraction:

How comes it now, my Husband, oh, how comes it
That thou art then estrangèd from thyself?
Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self's better part.
Ah, do not tear away thyself from me!
For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf
And take unmingled thence that drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself, and not me too.

(II. ii. 121-31)

Most critics would acknowledge the central position of these two passages in the argument of the play, but they do not account for their effectiveness. The impact of the repetition is due to the reversal of the protagonist's expectations. He came seeking his mirror image, like Narcissus, his ideal ego, his mother's image of himself, and finds instead a woman who claims to be part of himself; and she threatens him with that absorption and lack of identity which he had so feared: she is the overwhelming mother who refuses to shape his identity but keeps him as part of herself. In his speech he was the drop of water; in her speech the drop of water is let fall as an analogy, but he becomes again that drop of water and flees from the woman who would quite literally engulf him.

He flees, of course, to the arms of the benign Luciana, she who had warned her sister to restrain her jealousy and possessiveness, to allow her husband some freedom lest she lose him altogether. This unthreatening, undemanding woman attracts Antipholus of Syracuse, and he makes love to her in terms which recall the two drop of water speeches:

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

There is as much difference between Adriana and Luciana as between night and day: Adriana is the absence or perversion of all that is good in Luciana. It is not the difference between dark women and fair women we find in the other comedies—Julia and Sylvia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Helena and Hermia in Midsummer Night's Dream—but much more like the difference in the Sonnets between the dark lady and the fair youth: on the one side we have all that is threatening and corruptive, while on the other there is truth and beauty. Again, all is a dream: Antipholus of Syracuse has seen Luciana before, in dreams, in madness, but then she was indistinguishable from Adriana, the two opposites bound up as one. Now, as if by the dream mechanism of decomposition they are separate, and he can love the one and avoid the other. He has overcome his fear of the overwhelming mother and projects now his image of the benevolent mother upon Luciana.

The relation between these two young women and Aemilia, the actual mother of Antipholus of Syracuse, becomes clear in the climactic scene. He has been given sanctuary in the priory, after having been locked up by Adriana and escaping her; Aemilia emerges, like the vision of some goddess, to settle all confusion. Her attention focuses on Adriana, and she upbraids her son's wife for the mistreatment she has given him. It is a tirade not unlike others in early Shakespearean comedy against the concept of equality and intimacy in marriage. We hear it from Katharina at the end of The Taming of the Shrew, and we see Proteus fleeing from such a marriage in Two Gentlemen of Verona, as do all the male courtiers in Love's Labor's Lost. In the later romances this antagonism between the man who would be free and the woman who would bind him home is equally apparent and more bitterly portrayed; e.g., Portia's possessiveness in The Merchant of Venice and Helena's pursuit of Betram in All's Well. The identification of the threatening woman with the mother in the man's eyes is developed to varying degrees in these different instances—the maternal aspect of Portia is remarkable, as are Helena's close ties to the Countess—but here it is transparent: Aemilia must instruct her daughter-in-law on the proper treatment of her son, and we see this through the eyes of Antipholus of Syracuse: he has finally been able to conquer his fear of losing his identity in his mother's too close embrace because she herself tells him that this is no way for a woman to treat him:

The venom clamors of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dog's tooth.
It seems his sleeps were hindered by thy railing,
And thereof comes it that his head is light.
Thou say'st his meat was sauced with thy upbraidings;
Unquiet meals make ill digestions.
Thereof the raging fire of fever bred,
And what's a fever but a fit of madness?
Thou say'st his sports were hindered by thy brawls.
Sweet recreation barred, what doth ensue
But moody and dull Melancholy,
Kinsman to grim and comfortless Despair,
And at her heels a huge infectious troop
Of pale distemperatures and foes to life.

(V. i. 69-82)

This description of madness reminds us of the mythical monsters Harpies, Gorgons, and Furies—all female, like Shakespeare's Melancholy and Despair—bitchlike creatures who hound men to madness. Clearly this entire race is a projection of male fears of female domination, and their blood-sucking, enervating, food-polluting, petrifying attacks are all related to pre-oedipal fantasies of maternal deprivation. By identifying this aspect of the mother in Adriana, he can neutralize it. Antipholus of Syracuse, then, finds simultaneously the two sexual objects Freud tells us we all originally have: his own benevolent and protective mother and the image of himself in his brother he has narcissistically pursued.

Psychologically it is the most satisfying ending possible, and those who ask for marriage here, or some guarantee that the existing marriage between Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana will be revived, simply have not responded to the pattern of action Shakespeare has presented.8 They want a “romantic” comedy, a Menandrean comedy in which happiness is found in the person of a young person of the opposite sex who can complement the virtues of the protagonist and signify to the world that he is a mature and substantial member of the male community. The girl he marries might be a younger image of his mother, as Frye suggests, and he might even have had to compete with his father to win her, but the fact that he feels the need to possess a woman at all is in imitation of his father: this is the way grown men behave, monogamously. The situation in The Comedy of Errors is entirely different: the rejection of the threatening mother and the acceptance of the benevolent mother, in conjunction with the retrieval of the ideal ego or narcissistic image in the double, prepares the protagonist for marriage, but that is a separate and future action. The Comedy of Errors is not a romantic comedy9 but a narcissistic comedy or egocentric comedy. Insofar as comedy can revive memory traces of childhood experiences, this comedy takes us back to the pre-oedipal stage when we first emerged as creatures conscious of our own difference. By the principle of first is best, this kind of comedy can be even more satisfying than the oedipal comedy most frequent in the tradition since Menander.

Again I insist that I do not intend to add another dimension to Frye's “fearful symmetry.” I do not believe that the stages of either literary history or psychic development are so precisely segmentable that elaborate correspondences can be drawn so as to increase significantly our appreciation of individual works. It is just as well that the conventional labels for Greek comedy are Old, Middle, and New, in that order, rather than the reverse, lest we be tempted to speak of Aristophanes as comedy's infancy and Menander as its adolescence. Systems of correspondence almost of necessity become abstract and distract us from our primary concern. I do believe that something significant happened in the comic tradition late in the fourth century b.c. and that Menander was to a large extent responsible for changing the direction of comedy for the next twenty-three hundred years. (I do not pretend to understand what is happening today on the comic stage, but I trace the Menandrean age with ease as far as Oscar Wilde.) Whereas in pre-Menandrean comedy, especially Aristophanic comedy, the goal of happiness toward which the action moves is concerned with the self as independent center of the universe, after Menander it takes two to be happy, and they have to be man and woman. The great modern comedians sometimes recreate the earlier kind of comedy, either spontaneously, as did Mozart in Don Giovanni, or under indirect influence from the pre-Menandrean period, as did Shakespeare in The Comedy of Errors.

Authors do not usually choose their models blindly. Shakespeare saw in Plautus' Menaechmi a pattern of action which interested him, and we see basic similarities between this play and the other early comedies: male friendship is more important than marriage and women are seen as barriers in the way of male freedom and development. The Sonnets, too, show the same concern,10 while Henry VI is a study in misogyny and King John paints a rather frightening picture of mothers and wives as powers behind the throne. I must avoid, though, the suggestion that this was a major concern of Shakespeare's during his youth, lest I add the offenses of biographical criticism to a paper already burdened with the offenses of psychoanalytic and genre criticism. I do insist, finally, on but three points: comedy, as much as tragedy, requires identification between audience and protagonist, a clear point of view, and this must be based on common experience, actual or fantasized; early experiences are formative, and the effective comedian plays upon the fears and desires which we retain from infancy and childhood; romantic comedy has been in the ascendant since Menander, but there are some exceptional plays of the narcissistic type and Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors is one of these.


  1. T. B. L. Webster, Studies in Later Greek Comedy, 2nd ed. (1953; rpt. Manchester, 1970), pp. 67-74.

  2. Cedric Whitman, Aristophanes and the Comic Hero (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), passim.

  3. See Webster, Studies, and W. Thomas MacCary and M. W. Willcock, Plautus: Casina (Cambridge, 1976), pp. 1-8.

  4. Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” in English Institute Essays (New York, 1948), p. 50.

  5. Cf. Fredric Jameson, “Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre,” New Literary History, 7 (Autumn 1975), 135-63.

  6. Cf. Plautus, Bacchides, fr. IV (Lindsay): sicut lacte lactis similest (“as like as milk is to milk”).

  7. See R. Rogers, The Double in Literature (Detroit, 1970), pp. 126-37; Leslie Fiedler, “Some Contexts of Shakespeare's Sonnets,” in E. Hubler, The Riddle of Shakespeare's Sonnets (New York, 1962), pp. 57-90, and Love and Death in the American Novel (New York, 1966), pp. 205-14.

  8. Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London, 1974), p. 9: “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.” One could say the same thing—if one were a critic incapable of visualizing a stage performance of one's own direction—of the marriages in Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, All's Well, and Measure for Measure. The plays that end in secure and satisfying marriages for the major characters are few indeed, perhaps only As You Like It.

  9. D. Palmer and M. Bradbury, Preface to Shakesperian Comedy (New York, 1972), pp. 7-8: “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 discussion here: an omission which reflects less on their merits than on the volume's prevailing interest in the more ‘romantic’ plays.”

  10. See Fiedler, “Some Contexts.”

Patrick Carnegy (review date 29 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of The Comedy of Errors.Spectator (29 April 2000): 43-4.

[In the following excerpted review, Carnegy admires director Lynne Parker's farcical staging of The Comedy of Errors with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Memorial Theatre in 2000 and praises individual performances in the production.]

The Comedy of Errors is not, I imagine, a text that anyone other than a Gradgrind finds himself re-reading for pleasure. On the stage, it's another matter. It's a play that can explode into life when taken to town in the right way, and that's exactly what happens with the hilariously invigorating show in the Memorial Theatre. The director, making her RSC debut, is Lynne Parker. She's given the company an irresistible hit. Parker's conceit is indebted to screwball Hollywood comedy, reminding you that the play was once a 1940s musical called The Boys from Syracuse.

The milieu for The Comedy is Mediterranean Mafia-land, call it Palermo, Ephesus or where you will, with the Duke as a pin-striped, triby-sporting Dook. In its pace and timing the production is more farce than comedy, yet the dark strand of Egeon, father to the Antipholus twins, being under sentence of death is not sold short. The visiting Syracusan partnership of David Tennant's Antipholus and Ian Hughes's Dromio is a faultless double-act of an loose-limbed playboy and a quick-wined gentleman's gentleman who can spring a picnic and a pair of stools from a suitcase in the twinkling of an eye. As unlooked-for mistresses, gold chains and the odd fish accrue about his person, Tennant's face is a sight for sore eyes. His repartee with Hughes reaches its hysterical climax when he quizzes his man about the geography of the latter's would-be seductress, a greasy scullion, ‘spherical, like a globe’, and it deservedly brought the house down.

The Ephesus home pair of Anthony Howell's Antipholus and Tom Smith's Dromio have a lower profile in the play, but Smith puts himself across as a Fawlty Towers Manuel even more flummoxed than Andrew Sachs. Emily Raymond plays Adriana as an excitable wronged wife, with Jacqueline Defferary as her bemused sister, Luciana.

This is a hugely enjoyable show in which almost anything can and does happen. As a magnificent madcap chase gathers momentum I could have sworn that a knight in armour from Henry IV joined in, closely followed by a bright-yellow pantomime camel in hot pursuit of Desmond Barrit as Falstaff. Maybe Barrit, who once won an Olivier award for his playing both Antipholi, just couldn't stay away. It was that kind of evening. Go for yourself and see whether I was dreaming.

William Babula (essay date November 1973)

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SOURCE: Babula, William. “If I Dream Not: Unity in The Comedy of Errors.South Atlantic Bulletin 38, no. 4 (November 1973): 26-33.

[In the following essay, Babula examines The Comedy of Errors central characters and their fears of potentially destructive change.]

The unity of The Comedy of Errors lies in the baffling contexts surrounding Aegeon, the boys from Syracuse, and the boys from Ephesus and in their responses to those contexts. Obviously, there are certain differences among these contexts that cannot be ignored. There are differences in the time spans that matter to the play: over twenty-five years for Aegeon, one week in particular for Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, and one day for the Syracusans. The degree of seriousness with which Shakespeare handles Aegeon and each of the pairs varies greatly as well. There are differences in temperament. Yet, despite these differences, there is an ultimate similarity of situation and response which binds all five characters into the larger unity of this early comedy.

A single element that ties all of these characters is their fear of destructive change. Least serious in their predicament are the Ephesians. While the errors dismay Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, each comes up with a reasonable explanation. This servant is used to beatings. He comments: “I have served him from the hour of my nativity to this instant, and have nothing at his hands for my service but blows” (IV, iv, 31-33).1 Similarly, Antipholus of Ephesus blames his wife for what is happening:

Dissembling harlot, thou art false in all
And art confederate with a damned pack
To make a loathsome abject scorn of me. …

(IV, iv, 104-106)

These are truly the comic characters. Both, accustomed to life in the city, can find the sources of their discomfiture; they have known them before. Yet while the boys from Ephesus basically provide the farce, they provide it in a pattern that functions to unify the play. In reference to change, Dromio feels he is being metamorphosed into an “ass” for putting up with such treatment. Antipholus fears he will be turned into an object of “scorn.” When the errors leave this Antipholus locked out of his house, he blames it on his wife. She has been troublesome before. His response to the situation is to batter the door down. But when a companion notes such public action would severely damage his reputation, Antipholus, afraid of such a slander on his name, decides instead to get private revenge with the Courtezan. As a leading citizen of Ephesus, he does not want his position destroyed.

Yet there is a greater danger to Antipholus of Ephesus than loss of reputation. While he faces baffling experiences through the errors of the comedy, he faces them as well through the actions of his insanely jealous wife. Adriana creates a perplexing context in which he is told he did what he did not do. In fact, her jealousy has changed this man. When he is taken as mad because of certain errors in the play, she explains that he had been undergoing a change all week—before this day of errors: “This week he hath been heavy, sour, sad, / And much different from the man he was” (V, i, 45-46). Apparently she is the cause. Adriana, however, is also fearful of change. On a serious plane she senses the power of devouring time when she asks: “Hath homely age the alluring beauty took / From my poor cheek? …” (II, i, 89-90). More realistically she blames her husband:

What ruins are in me that can be found,
By him not ruin'd? then is he the ground
Of my defeatures. My decayed fair
A sunny look of his would soon repair. …

(II, i, 96-99)

Husband and wife have changed each other for the worse.

Despite these threats of transformation, Adriana and the Ephesian twins are able to explain the maddest events by recourse to the rational. Their problems are presented as essentially comic—Luciana reminds the audience that Adriana's pose is comic folly. By contrast, the Syracusans find little comfort in rationality. When Antipholus of Syracuse, near the start of the play, sends off his money with his servant, but soon meets the other Dromio who denies knowledge of the money, Antipholus grows anxious. But it's not just the money; as the language of Antipholus' first soliloquy suggests, a much more serious threat seems involved. The opening lines foreshadow what his brother says when he is caught in the errors. His first response is realistic and unimaginative: “Upon my life, by some device or other / The villain is o'er-raught of all my money” (I, ii, 95-96). But he immediately begins to see much more serious implications in this opening error:

They say this town is full of cozenage,
As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin …

(I, ii, 97-102)

Commenting upon this passage, Harold Brooks speaks of an “ancient dread of losing the self or soul. …”2 Another critic generalizes that “the whole is given a serious turn, a touch of spirituality and of horror.”3 Certainly to change the mind, body, and soul is to do more than to steal money. Yet the references to cheaters and mountebanks go back to the opening lines of the soliloquy and look forward to Antipholus' last line before his exit: “I greatly fear my money is not safe” (I, ii, 105). Antipholus is worried about threats to his existential being and about his money. One threat could be tragic; the other is conventionally comic.

In Act II, ii, Adriana enters and claims the wrong Antipholus for her husband. He protests to her:

In Ephesus I am but two hours old,
As strange unto your town as to your talk;
Who, every word by all my wit being scann'd,
Want wit in all one word to understand.

(II, ii, 150-153)

His first response is bewilderment. But as she insists, his confusion intensifies, becomes almost philosophic:

What was I married to her in my dream?
Or sleep I now and think I hear all this?
What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?

(II, ii, 184-186)

Dromio of Syracuse defines what is happening in terms that echo his master's and foreshadow the Romances: “This is the fairy land: O land of spites! / We talk with goblins, owls and sprites” (II, ii, 191-192). He also turns to religion, “beads,” and the sign of the cross for protection. Like Antipholus he appears to feel there is a threat to the soul involved in these errors. Obviously the changes are destructive.

In total intellectual confusion, Antipholus restates his problem in terms that may almost remind us of modern existential absurdity:

Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking? mad or well-advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised!
I'll say as they say and persever so
And in this mist at all adventures go.

(II, ii, 214-218)

Metaphorically, the language points to Antipholus' sense of dislocation, physically, mentally, and in terms of identity.4 Life is like a “mist” through which we grope our way. To live is to be lost. To live is to be mad. Or perhaps most importantly, life is like a dream. His question of whether he is sleeping echoes his earlier wonder if he could have been married in a dream or whether Adriana was but part of a current dream. In his last plays Shakespeare will return to a similar vision of life through characters who speak words not unlike Antipholus': Hermione, Posthumus, and Prospero.

Refusing to accept Adriana as his wife, Antipholus woos her sister. She points out the supposed duty he owes Adriana. A half-serious Antipholus in response pleads for intellectual aid:

          Lay open to my earthy-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?

(III, ii, 34-38)

His request is not couched in the terms of magic, but in language that can be associated with postlapsarian man. Christian beliefs, like the metaphorical witchcraft, can present man, having fallen, as a “wanderer in an unknown field.” All men, like the fallen Adam, have an understanding that is “feeble, shallow, weak.” Suitably, Antipholus' wit is limited, “earthy-gross,” bound to the world rather than freed by heaven. Thus these Christian notions go to reinforce part of the image of life the play is projecting: life is a complex beyond our understanding.

But Antipholus, when he learns that Dromio has found a “fat marriage” as well, returns to the motif of witchcraft: “There's none but witches do inhabit here …” (III, ii, 161). And in IV, iii, he comments: “Sure, these are but imaginary wiles / And Lapland sorcerers inhabit here” (IV, iii, 10-11). The references go back to the threat of malignant transformation. At the same time, Antipholus generalizes his situation in other terms which develop the Christian allusions noted above. He responds to one of the errors, the delivery of unasked for gold, with these suggestive words: “And here we wander in illusions” (IV, iii, 43). He repeats the notion that he is groping through a “mist.” The danger of metamorphosis and the illusory nature of the world about him are combining to fashion the response of this Antipholus to his context. Thus both Syracusans, in a strange city, resort to “goblins,” “sprites,” “sorcerers,” and “witches” to express the threat they feel from an incomprehensible environment of change and illusion.

In contrast, the denizen twins respond to situations with reasonable complaints rather than with a belief in “a series of adventures with the supernatural.”5 Yet it is almost their rationality that makes them creatures of farce. For example, it is pure error comedy when Antipholus of Ephesus is arrested for the gold chain he never received. For him it is just another ridiculous mistake in a rather bad day. He reacts by sending for bail; but he gives the message to the wrong Dromio:

Tell her I am arrested in the street
And that shall bail me: hie thee, slave, be gone!
On officer, to prison till it come.

(IV, i, 106-108)

Dromio of Syracuse goes to Adriana, but note how he converts Antipholus' blunt description into an action that has “soul-killing” implications and one that can be presented in language that harkens back to the Christian overtones in the wooing of Luciana:

A devil in an everlasting garment hath him;
One whose hard heart is button'd up with steel;
A fiend, a fury, pitiless and rough …
One that before the judgment carries poor souls to hell.

(IV, ii, 33-40)

Like Antipholus' language when he was anxious about his money, this metaphor for an “officer” extends the significance of what is happening. Apparently, though these lines are comic, the boys from Syracuse feel much more threatened by inexplicable events than their brothers in Ephesus who have the advantage of custom.

Yet, while both pairs are bewildered by events, Shakespeare presents verbally the situation of the Syracusans as more serious. Most serious, however, is the position of Aegeon. Though ignored in the central comedy, he has been identified with his Syracusan son from the outset of the play. When Aegeon is led off condemned, the alien Antipholus is warned that the same thing could happen to him:

Therefore give out you are of Epidamnum,
Lest that your goods too soon be confiscate.
This very day a Syracusan merchant
Is apprehended for arrival here. …

(I, ii, 1-4)

Then the errors begin. Antipholus of Syracuse tries in the comedy to cope with difficult, perplexing, and madly shifting life situations. But on another level the same might be said of Aegeon. If comic confusion has overwhelmed Antipholus of Syracuse, the serious confusion of life has perplexed, and is about to destroy his father. With the opening tragic note sounded, Aegeon in the rest of the first scene tells a sad tale that functions as a serious mirror of the farcical actions.6 He begins as “prosperous” until his “factor's death” forces him to undertake a journey. His wife follows and gives birth to twins, urges her husband to return, and he “unwilling” agrees. The journey on the treacherous sea begins. Soon a storm rises. They abandon the “sinking-ripe” ship, tie each twin (and each Dromio) and themselves to either end of a mast. The sky clears and ships are spotted; apparently Fortune has made another turn.

Relief is only momentary, however, in this Greek Romance. Their mast breaks as two ships approach and the family (and the Dromios) are split apart and picked up by two different ships. All of this action is summarized by the condemned Aegeon:

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

(I, i, 119-121)

His life, his “mishaps” parallel the day spent by his son in Ephesus. It is as if Antipholus' experiences were taken seriously and expanded in time. For five years Aegeon has sought his lost son:

Five summers have I spent in furthest Greece,
Roaming clean through the bounds of Asia,
And, coasting homeward, came to Ephesus;
Hopeless to find. …

(I, i, 133-136)

On his geographical scale he has found no more about what he wants to know than Antipholus of Syracuse has found out about the whirling system of events about him. In a different sense his son's condition appears “hopeless.” When Aegeon closes the first scene with this comment: “Hopeless and helpless doth Aegeon wend …” (I, i, 158), the sound is tragic. Yet Antipholus is certainly “hopeless and helpless” in his farcical context. Shakespeare is using tragedy and comedy to shape parallel experiences especially for Aegeon and his son from Syracuse. Of course, although to a lesser degree, the other baffled characters discussed share in similar experiences.

However, it is through their concern with transformation that Aegeon and the two pairs are united. Antipholus of Ephesus was being changed by the jealousy of his wife; his servant was being beaten into an ass. As Brooks points out, “The alien Antipholus and Dromio fear Circean metamorphosis; Aegeon, that he has been deformed out of recognition by time.”7 In the last scene Aegeon is brought out for execution but sees Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus. He makes the fairly logical error of assuming these are the men from Syracuse. But when they deny knowing him, he laments:

O, Grief hath changed me since you saw me last.
And careful hours with time's deformed hand
Have written strange defeatures in my face:
But tell me yet, dost thou not know my voice?

(V, i, 297-300)

Aegeon speaks in the same terms that Antipholus of Syracuse applied earlier to his experience of the city of Ephesus: in it sorcerers could “change the mind” and witches “deform the body.”

In the tragic frame the vague but dangerous witches and sorcerers—they are described as “soul-killing”—that Antipholus blamed for his experience of errors are made to coincide with specific elements of human existence. Instead of a sorcerer, grief has changed Aegeon. Instead of a witch, time has deformed him. The importance of time as a deformer is emphasized when Aegeon continues his complaint about not being recognized:

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

(V, i, 307-318)

He is right; but it is not the son Antipholus he thinks it is. Thus experience has baffled him as it has baffled Antipholus of Syracuse. While Antipholus fears the serious implications in systems that cannot be arranged by the mind, Aegeon's very life, his suffering, has been just such a system.

In a few moments, however, Shakespeare resolves the dilemma through various recognitions. Brooks notes that the restoration of the family relationship with all its implications is the central concern of the play.8 Yet the comedy has also been concerned with shaping seemingly illusory contexts that bewildered characters and threatened them with deforming changes. It is in the delineation of these experiences that much of the structural unity of the play lies. There is a kind of dramatic unity, as well, in the responses of certain characters to these experiences. While all the major characters may, to different degrees, agree with the response I am leading to, it is given expression by the two characters who are perhaps the most baffled: Aegeon and Antipholus of Syracuse.

The alien Antipholus has faced the whirling confusion of the comedy, presented in metaphors of witchcraft and even of fallen man; Aegeon has faced the near tragic accidents of life, and suffered under the deforming power of time. The story of Aegeon might be the story of Antipholus on another perceptual plane. The image of life, its confusion, its uncertainty, its grief (whether tragic or comic), remains the same. Thus for both Antipholus and Aegeon life comes to have a dreamlike quality. While there is a comic resolution with the appearance of both sets of twins on the stage and the revelation of Aemilia, Aegeon and Antipholus still hold this perplexity-formed vision of life. Both characters have learned to be cautious; they both fear this new turn of events may be as unreal as certain past experiences, another dream. Like Alonso when he finds Ferdinand, they fear the fortunate twist may be but another bit of cozenage. Aegeon is careful with his newly discovered wife as he was not when he thought he recognized his son: “If I dream not, thou art Aemilia” (V, i, 352). Similarly, Antipholus promises to marry Luciana, “If this be not a dream I see and hear” (V, i, 376).

Admittedly, at this point the prosaic Antipholus denizen has little to say. In fact, everything apparently worked out as he would expect; there is a reasonable explanation. Perhaps he would not consider life as a dream. Yet he has been threatened as were his brother and father. If he is content, it is because he lacks the imagination of his brother. He has not learned much. Aegeon, however, through the tragic experiences of his life, through the susceptibility of that life to time, has felt the unstable and misty nature of existence. The comic perplexities of a frightful day in Ephesus have made the same metaphysical impression upon his son from Syracuse. For each, life has come to be like a bewildering dream. Each has become aware that his apprehension of life is “smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak.” Thus Shakespeare has unified his play through a combination of change-threatening experiences at every level and the highly imaginative responses to those simultaneously real and illusory threats made by Aegeon and alien Antipholus on the highest perceptive plane. For both have felt, as the comedy made them feel, that to move through life is to grope through a misty dream.


  1. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1961). All citations in my text are to this edition.

  2. Harold Brooks, “Themes and Structure in The Comedy of Errors,” from Early Shakespeare, ed. J. R. Brown and B. Harris (London: Edward Arnold, 1961), rpt. in Kenneth Muir, ed., Shakespeare: The Comedies, Twentieth Century Views (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), p. 15. The best article on the play.

  3. Louise George Clubb, “Italian Comedy and The Comedy of Errors,” Comparative Literature, 19, 3 (1967), 241.

  4. Brooks develops the importance of identity in the play. See especially pp. 21-23.

  5. Brooks, p. 20.

  6. See Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (1960; rpt. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1967), for the importance of the tragic note struck in the opening scene.

  7. Brooks, p. 21. In his otherwise excellent article Brooks ignores the threat of transformation to the Ephesian twins which ties their situation to that of Aegeon and the Syracusans.

  8. Brooks, pp. 20-21 stresses reunification over the lingering perplexity.


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The Comedy of Errors

The Comedy of Errors (c. 1594), Shakespeare's shortest play and regarded as one of his earliest comedies, is generally considered an apprentice work that offers only hints of his mature dramatic achievement. The play relies heavily on farce and is largely based on the works of the Roman playwright Plautus (c. 254-184 b.c.), particularly the Menaechmi, from which Shakespeare derived his plot of mistaken identity involving identical twin brothers. Obtaining its humor from the complexity and improbability of its plot, The Comedy of Errors depicts the misidentifications and chaos that ensue when two sets of twins—Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, and their servants, both named Dromio—converge in the city of Ephesus after being separated since infancy. While some modern productions of the play have emphasized only its low, farcical qualities and slapstick humor, contemporary critics have suggested that the work is wrongly undervalued, and foreshadows a number of Shakespeare's most significant themes. Catherine M. Shaw (1980) looks to the Roman sources of the comedy, from which Shakespeare extracted plot lines and molded new characters from antique comic types by infusing them with Elizabethan sensibilities. David Bevington (1997) likewise acknowledges the playwright's extensive adaptation of dramaturgical materials from Roman sources and his transformation of these into figures of relevance to late-sixteenth-century English culture.

The characters in The Comedy of Errors have generally been numbered among Shakespeare's most cursory constructions, and are thought to be developed largely as components of plot. While some scholars have examined such issues in relation to the crisis of identity experienced by the Antipholus brothers, other recent commentators have approached the play's characters in conjunction with external thematic or structural elements in the play, rather than as individuals possessed of considerable psychological depth. William Babula (1973) examines the central characters and their fears of potentially destructive change, and contends that their responses to real and imagined threats of transformation provide the play with a unified thematic framework. Charles Garton (1979) explicates possible linguistic sources of the name Antipholus, viewing its Greek mythological and symbolic contexts as central to the play. Laurie Maguire (1997) concentrates on the figures of Adriana and Luciana, which the play introduces as contrasting female stereotypes relevant to Elizabethan views of women. For Maguire, Adriana occupies the role of “independent pagan Amazon,” while Luciana possesses a more submissive, Christian, and servile temperament. As the drama progresses, according to Maguire, such reductive classifications are deconstructed, allowing these figures to synthesize two extremes of feminine behavior.

The elements of farce, slapstick routines, and musical embellishments have made The Comedy of Errors consistently popular with audiences. Patrick Carnegy (2000) reviews Lynne Parker's Royal Shakespeare Company's 2000 production, admiring the “Mediterranean Mafia-land” setting, quick pacing, and strong appeal to the farcical. Robert Smallwood, however, decries the 2000 staging of the play at the Globe Theatre, finding an overemphasis on crude farce. While the staging, directed by Kathryn Hunter, had some allure in its vaguely Turkish setting, Smallwood deems the mysterious and romantic potential of the drama deadened beneath slapstick and sight gags. Alvin Klein (2001) presents a mixed review of Brian B. Crowe's 2001 production of The Comedy of Errors for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. Klein was disappointed by the production's “shtick,” but considers its emotional finale poignantly realized. The tyranny of farce was a common theme among reviewers of Robert Richmond's The Comedy of Errors performed with the Aquila Theater Company in 2002. Critics Bruce Weber (2002) and Tom Sellar (see Further Reading) both noted well-conceived and entertaining elements in the staging as well as several good performances among individual members of the cast, but observed that Richmond's frantic, heavy-handed, and unremittingly silly interpretation ultimately damaged the piece. After attending a broadly successful adaptation of the play crafted by New York University's Experimental Theatre Wing, entitled the Bomb-itty of Errors, Leanne B. French (2000) delighted in “this frenetic collision of hip-hop and Shakespeare” and commented on the stylish design, music, and humor of the production.

While contemporary reviewers of The Comedy of Errors in production have generally focused on issues of style, a number of modern scholars have devoted their attention to the thematic substance of the play. W. Thomas MacCary (1978) applies the tools of genre and psychoanalytic criticism to The Comedy of Errors. Contending that the play should not be dismissed as simple farce, MacCary analyzes the dynamics of family romance at work in the drama and its broad thematic dimension as a “narcissistic comedy or egocentric comedy” that projects internalized fears and desires on stage. Thomas P. Hennings (1986) concentrates on Elizabethan attitudes toward marriage and the family expressed in the play, such as wifely obedience and the moral obligations of the husband, which act as correctives to the potentialities of destruction, chaos, and decay. Biblical allusions are the subject of Patricia Parker's (1993) essay, which she argues overlay the classical setting and plot of The Comedy of Errors with language, motifs, and symbols related to Christian morality and redemption. Finally, Ann C. Christensen's (1996) feminist-materialist assessment of The Comedy of Errors characterizes the work as Shakespeare's depiction of commercial relations as they encroach upon the domestic household. Christensen traces the ideological conflicts between husbands and wives as inhabitants of interconnected public and private spheres, and examines the double standards that exist for men and women in the protocapitalist social world of the play.

David Bevington (essay date 1997)

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

[In the following essay, Bevington surveys Shakespeare's “creative reconfiguration of classical sources” in The Comedy of Errors with regard to late-sixteenth-century London theater.]

The Comedy of Errors is often seen as a work of Shakespeare's “apprenticeship.”1 To what extent is it also a play whose dramaturgy can be understood in the theatrical context of its time? One approach does not preclude the other, of course, but the second does focus attention on Shakespeare's apprenticeship in the theater as distinguished from non-theatrical influences upon him—his reading, the rhetorical bent of what must have been his education, his Warwickshire background, his social class, his observations of London life, and other factors that might be seen as influencing his future development. Even here the distinctions are not hard and fast, since the plays he presumably saw and perhaps helped to perform made plentiful use of rhetorical tropes, romance narratives, classical five-act structure, typed characters, and commentary on the current social and economic scene that Shakespeare might also have encountered in his reading. To study Shakespeare's literary sources (some of them dramatic) and to survey his incessant and only partly digested use of classical citations in a play like Titus Andronicus is to acknowledge that he was a great reader. At the same time, to a remarkable extent he could have encountered much of what he needed in the London theater of the late 1580s and early 1590s.

That theater must have come upon him as an astonishing revelation, however much his appetite for theater may have been whetted (and perhaps frustrated) by the mystery cycles and morality plays he presumably encountered in Warwickshire. Moreover, the London theater put before him the materials he needed in dramaturgical form: rhetoric not as pedagogical ingenuity but as living dialogue, Latin not as dusty pedantry of the sort young William doggedly singsongs in The Merry Wives of Windsor but as plot narrative, ideas about decorum and copiousness not as the abstractions of Donatus and Puttenham but as effective ways of moving audiences to laughter or tears, language not as sterile schoolboy demonstrations but as confrontational wordplay. This essay will argue that Shakespeare was never more a “man of the theater” than in his earliest and most formative years.

Fortunately, the theater Shakespeare encountered was not polarized into elite and popular traditions, as it was sometimes in France and Italy (though “mixed genres” also met with success in the Italian Cinquecento).2 Most London drama of the 1580s was neither rigorously neoclassical nor predominantly a native theater uninformed by classical precedent. Philip Sidney's genteel animadversions against romantic comedies and hybrid drama that violated all the unities were cheerfully unheeded by dramatists and acting companies that could tell what their audiences wanted, but those same playwrights and actors knew a good thing when they saw it in Senecan horror or in Plautine comedy of outwitting fraudulent figures of authority. Shakespeare's “mixed” genres are an essential feature of his great accomplishment, and they are a product not of his reading so much as of the theatrical expectations he encountered when he came to London.

The point can be made first in relation to the “fable” of The Comedy of Errors and how it is constructed. The play is one of Shakespeare's most regularly plotted works in terms of five-act structure. Its action is ostentatiously limited to the daylight hours of a single day, and to a single location; the Duke allows Egeon “this day” to seek the thousand marks that can rescue him from execution as a hated foreigner in Ephesus (1.1.150),3 and before evening all is reconciled. The regularities of exposition, complication, crisis, and resolution are derived from Shakespeare's main sources, The Menaechmi and Amphitruo of Plautus, augmented in sturdily neoclassical fashion by the combining of two classical texts, by the amplification of one servant into two, and the like. Ariosto was an important guide here, known to Shakespeare especially in George Gascoigne's lively translation of Ariosto's I Suppositi (1509) as Supposes (1566, at the Inns of Court), which Shakespeare was to use in writing The Taming of the Shrew.4 Staging requirements are compatible with the familiar Plautine concept of a street scene in front of two or more houses.5 A neoclassical street scene in perspective need not have been employed, but it would have been feasible, especially for performances at the Gray's Inn in 1594. Nowhere else does Shakespeare employ such a formally neoclassical structure and concept of staging.

At the same time, romantic plotting in the frame plot of Egeon and his two sons opens up vistas of extensive voyaging over a long period of time, separation, loss, and seemingly miraculous reunion in the time-honored tradition of the Greek romance-writer Heliodorus of Emesa (third century a.d.) and of many a medieval saint's life, following the model of St. Paul's travels in the Acts of the Apostles.6 Although Shakespeare contains this plot of wandering and rediscovery in a narrative form that cleverly does not disrupt the classical unities of dramatic presentation, it is the essence of everything that Sidney found objectionable in drama. Shakespeare's direct source is the story of Apollonius of Tyre, as translated out of the French by Lawrence Twine in The Pattern of Painful Adventures (registered in 1576, though no published edition survives prior to 1594-5) or as told earlier by John Gower in his fourteenth-century Confessio Amantis (published as early as 1493 by William Caxton, England's first printer).7

Shakespeare thus turned to his reading for the frame plot, but in doing so he had ample precedent on the London stage and in the native English tradition it incorporated.8 Romantic plotting of the sort we find in Egeon's tale is plentifully available, for example, in the late fifteenth-century Digby Mary Magdalene, in which the heroine, after her own blessed encounters with Christ, converts the King and Queen of Marseilles to Christianity and encourages them to make a journey to the Holy Land; sailors maneuver a ship into the acting area, land at a rock to rescue its stranded occupant, and much more.9 Closer to the time of The Comedy of Errors, in the anonymous Clyomon and Clamydes (c. 1570-83), Clamydes journeys from Suavia to Denmark in pursuit of the hand of the King's daughter and is informed that to win her he must kill the flying serpent in the Forest of Strange Marvels. He subsequently encounters Clyomon, the Danish prince, in Macedon, seeking out glory in the court of the emperor Alexander.10The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (1582), perhaps by Anthony Munday, tells of Hermione, son of the banished lord Bomelio, who overcomes numerous obstacles to become worthy of Fidelia, daughter of King Phizantius; Bomelio survives his banishment in the disguise of a hermit and then physician until he too is reconciled to the King. The play's title underscores the oscillations of the plot from amorous hope to threatened disaster until Venus and Fortune as presiding deities arrive at a final accommodation.11 In Robert Greene's Alphonsus King of Aragon (1587-8), the title figure is another son of a dispossessed lord, eager to regain the lost title to Aragon. He disguises himself and joins in the defense of Naples; once he has acquired Aragon, he sets his sights on Constantinople and becomes enamored of the great Turk Amurak's daughter Iphigena. As in Rare Triumphs, Venus is a presiding deity. This Tamburlainian pastiche, loosely based on the history of Alphonsus I of Naples and V of Aragon, 1385-1454, reveals how an adroit commercial entertainer like Greene could infuse chronicle history and heroic drama with the kind of romantic claptrap that showed itself everywhere on the London stage of the 1570s and 80s.

Shakespeare's frame plot in The Comedy of Errors is not close in narrative detail to any of the romantic plays cited here, nor to a host of others one could name, such as George Peele's The Old Wives Tale (c. 1588-1594), Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1589-92) and Orlando Furioso (1588-92) and The Scottish History of James IV (c. 1590-1), George a Greene (1587-93, perhaps by Greene), Fair Em, The Miller's Daughter (c. 1589-91, perhaps by Robert Wilson), and various lost romances like Ariodante and Genevora (1583) and Felix and Philomela (1585). The point rather is that the London theater to which Shakespeare gravitated revelled in romantic plotting and found every imaginable way to incorporate it into other dramatic genres. Shakespeare went to the story of Apollonius of Tyre for his frame material, but his model for the synthesis of romantic adventure with neoclassical farce—a kind of synthesis Ariosto would never have attempted—lay all around him in the stage plays of his generation.

Even in his most neoclassical vein, Shakespeare adapts his plotting to the expectations of his theater. The Comedy of Errors expertly stitches together not one but two Plautine comedies. From The Menaechmi Shakespeare derived the story of twins separated by the fortunes of sea and now united by chance when Menaechmus the Traveler of Syracuse arrives in Epidamnus (or Epidamnum, as Plautus and Shakespeare spell it) and is mistaken by the courtesan Erotium's cook for Menaechmus the Citizen of that town. Although Shakespeare transforms a single servant, Messenio, into two twin servants, and anglicizes the moral atmosphere of the play by enhancing the roles of the wife and her newly invented sister while conversely eliminating the parasite Peniculus and downplaying the function of the courtesan's cook and maid, he retains and indeed augments Plautus's farcically brilliant plot of mistaken identities. To it he adds, from Amphitruo, the business of a husband (Amphityron) locked out of his own house while his wife (Alcmena), inside, receives a lover (Jupiter) in the guise of her husband, while a servant (Mercury) guards the door in the guise of the husband's slave (Sosia). The real Sosia, like Dromio of Ephesus, approaches the door and is so bewildered by Mercury's inventive wit that he begins to wonder who he really is. Again Shakespeare moralizes the situation in conformity with his audience's expectations:12 the wife Adriana never commits adultery with her disguised visitor. Indeed one can argue that the sister Luciana is provided expressly so that Antipholus of Syracuse's amorous desires can be deflected onto a woman who is free to be his wife. Similarly, the comic business of doorkeeping finds a suitable dramatic function for Dromio of Ephesus, one of the characters in The Comedy of Errors not found in The Menaechmi; arguably, the device of two comic servants mistaken for each other is taken from Amphitruo, rather than being simply a duplication of the situation in The Menaechmi. Shakespeare's conflation of two Plautine comedies is admirably skillful; an audience has no sense of being passed from one narrative to another, for the business of mistaken identities links the two stories together, and the character types of citizen husband and comic servant are so compatible that one can only guess at Shakespeare's thought processes as he wove the two plays together.

Two points can be made here about Shakespeare's response to the theater of the late 1580s and early 90s. The first is that his impulse toward an anglicizing moralization, however much it may or may not have accorded with his own temperament and artistic instincts, is wholly in accord with the practices of dramatists like Greene, Peele, Wilson, and the rest. Greene's Margaret of Fressingfield, in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, is invincibly decent and English. She affirms her loyalty to her rural companions and maneuvers her way past the ardent advances of the crown prince of England, choosing instead to marry the Earl of Lincoln in a double ring ceremony with that of the Prince and his Spanish bride. The improbabilities of such a rank-levelling match underscore the extent to which Greene knew how to cater to pipe-dreams of his spectators. Greene's heroines are generally cut from the same cloth, as in James IV and George a Greene. Somehow they manage to be wholesomely appealing and devoid of prudishness even while insisting that erotic love and marriage are to be indissolubly linked. Not surprisingly, the instances we find in Greene focus on women as they prepare to marry, as though in direct response to the Plautine typing of the courtesan.

Shakespeare's adaptation of Greene's model in Adriana and Luciana is thus part of a theatrical trend, one to which other dramatists contributed as well. The title character in Fair Em, The Miller's Daughter (1589-91) and the Countess of Salisbury in Edward III (c. 1590-95) provide further examples. In the boys' more exclusive and courtly private theater, the cult of Elizabeth (complicated by male resentment of her authority) led to many invocations of Diana and of chaste propriety, as in John Lyly's Gallathea (1584-8). The linking of erotic love and marriage in English popular drama and in much nondramatic literature (such as Spenser's Epithalamion) reflected concerns of the English church as it undertook to strengthen and deepen the mutual responsibilities of marriage. Shakespeare's treatment of love and marriage, like Greene's, attempts to come to terms with the misogyny that is so characteristic of Lyly and of many male courtiers who served restively under the rule of a female monarch.13

The second point about Shakespeare's astute mingling of his sources and plots in The Comedy of Errors is that it conforms to theatrical fashions in multiple plotting that Shakespeare plentifully encountered when he first came to London. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay weaves together the story of a scholarly friar-magician with that of the wooing of Margaret of Fressingfield, and shows how the plots can be linked by giving Prince Edward a function in both. The Comedy of Errors is more decorously neoclassical, but it does achieve its linkage of the Menaechmi and the Amphitruo plots in a similar fashion, by locating Antipholus of Ephesus and the two Dromios in two plots that intersect when Antipholus is locked out of his house. Shakespeare uses this kind of intersection often, as in The Taming of the Shrew, where Kate and Bianca as sisters form the centers respectively of the taming and the Supposes plot, or A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Bottom is both the lover of the Queen of Fairies and the leading thespian of the band that performs in Theseus's presence, or Much Ado about Nothing, where Hero and Beatrice as cousins and Claudio and Benedick as fellow officers bring together the two main plots of that play. Similar linkages occur earlier and were thus potential models for Shakespeare, as in Doctor Faustus (c. 1589), in which Faustus himself, his servant Wagner, and Mephistopheles all interact with characters in the raucous scenes of “low” comedy, or Henry Porter's The Two Angry Women of Abingdon (c. 1585-9), with its extensive antithetical balancing of the tribulations of two neighborly families and their sons, Frank Goursey and Philip Barnes.

Characterization in The Comedy of Errors certainly reveals the intensity of Shakespeare's reading in Plautus and in neoclassical comedy. Clever servants and their masters are at the center of the plot.14 Yet the cast is very English, for all the play's being set in Ephesus, and manifests a concept of character that is compatible with the London stage of the late 1580s and early 90s. The parasite is gone, and the courtesan is given a reduced role and retinue. The conventional doctor, Medicus, becomes the zany Pinch, a schoolmaster and a conjurer whose attempts to exorcise Satan from Antipholus of Ephesus add hilariously to the play's fascination with magic, dreaming, and witchcraft (see 4.3.77, for example). Whereas The Menaechmi refers to a goldsmith, to whom the courtesan's maid carries a chain for mending, Shakespeare brings on a goldsmith named Angelo, presenting him as one who might well belong to the London guild of goldsmiths. Three merchants, one named Balthasar, augment the play's mercantile and bourgeois ambience. An officer and a messenger supplement the atmosphere of civic officialdom. Luce is a brilliant translation into the English domestic household of the courtesan's maid and cook. Duke Solinus, Egeon, and his wife the Abbess Emilia come from a world apart from those worlds created by Plautus, even if Plautus, Terence, and Menander rely, as does Shakespeare, on theatrical concepts of role-playing. And, as we have seen, Adriana and especially Luciana are more English than Roman in their views on domestic harmony. On balance, most of the play's characters are not essentially Plautine. They are, on the other hand, highly recognizable in terms of London's theatrical environment.

Shakespeare's concept of characterization admirably fits his anglicizing of the comedy. The play's characters are defined by their roles, in the social structure and in the family. Antipholus of Ephesus is a householder, a patriarch, a husband, a master of servants, a brother, a commercial trader, a worthy citizen of the town.15 All that he does can be explained in terms of the decorums and responsibilities of these roles; comedy arises out the conflicting demands of these roles generated by mistaken identities. We laugh to see a master shut out of his own house, denied entrance by his own servant. We laugh to see a servant told that he may not enter the house because it is already provided with servants. The comedy of mistaken identity depends upon the concept of role. The recurring conundrum of this play, nightmarish to its participants and hilarious to us, is one of misplaced identity in which a character is led to wonder if he has any role and hence any identity.16

Shakespeare shows later how brilliantly he can treat the subject tragically, as when King Lear is denied in succession his roles as king, father, master, judge, and sane human being. Here in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare explores the dark potentials of illusion and misrepresentation as well;17 yet the theme remains comic in that it questions but ultimately does not disrupt identity. The play's resolution is to restore to Antipholus of Ephesus his wife, his brother, his loyal servant, his commercial integrity, and his place in the polis as a good subject of the Duke. Other less comfortable roles, like that of patronizing the local courtesan, assume the character of the midsummer madness that has seized for a time the citizens of Ephesus, and that has been discarded now that sanity and status are restored. So too with Antipholus's brother, whose role of seeker is ultimately confirmed; with the servants, who at the last see in each other as in a mirror the portrait of one who is fulfilled by being a servant; with the women, who recover or discover their identities as loyal and patient wives; and even with Luce, the “fat friend” who is now to be Dromio of Ephesus's wife and the other Dromio's sister-in-law (5.1.415-7).

Examples of this comic treatment of role-playing are not hard to find in Shakespeare's contemporary theater. Luce's below-stairs flirtations with the Dromios, parodying the quarrels and misunderstandings of their social betters, are not unlike the bantering that goes on in Lyly's Endymion (1588), for example, between the pages Dares and Simias and the maids-in-waiting Scintilla and Favilla, or between the pages Criticus and Molus and the ladies of Sappho's court in Sappho and Phao (1584). The invention of Luciana gives to Shakespeare the opportunity for a debate between two sisters as to how women should respond to marital infidelity. The plot of mistaken identities allows the audience to explore vicariously a fantasy of infidelity as it watches Adriana flirt with her husband's twin brother (as in many similar fantasies about making love to twins), and yet Adriana does all this unknowingly; the device explores disloyalty as a kind of reciprocity for Antipholus of Ephesus's waywardness without in fact making Adriana guilty of anything. The portrayal is not deeply motivated in psychological terms, but is instead a farcical comic manipulation of Adriana's conventional roles as shrew and beleaguered wife.18 None of this is in Plautus, but it does resemble, for example, the comic conflict in Porter's The Two Angry Women of Abingdon, where the amity between two neighborly women, Mrs. Goursey and Mrs. Barnes, is tested by Mrs. Barnes's fear that Mrs. Goursey is more interested than she should be in Mr. Barnes. When Mr. Barnes tells his wife to rule her tongue and be hospitable to their friend, she turns on him angrily, prompting Mrs. Goursey to flare up at her erstwhile friend. The men, seeing they are both saddled with curst wives, resolve to patch things up if they can, but things are not made any better when Mr. Barnes scolds his wife for being at fault in the quarrel. His role-conscious criticism is that she has violated rules of neighborliness out of womanly willfulness. She for her part sees her role as that of the justly jealous wife. The strife between the families worsens until finally a Justice of the Peace, Sir Ralph, plays the role of Duke Solinus (or Duke Escalus in Romeo and Juliet) in urging all to a peace.

The suddenness and arbitrariness of falling into a complicated and sometimes guilty love relationship, destined to become a hallmark of Shakespearean romantic comedy, is not absent from the concept of character in The Comedy of Errors, especially in the wooing of Luciana by Antipholus of Syracuse and parodically in the below-stairs antics of Luce and the Dromios. Plautus, in his Amphitruo and The Menaechmi, shows little interest in the phenomenon (though it does surface elsewhere in New Comedy, especially in Terence). Shakespeare's English theatrical resources, on the other hand, were rich in opportunities, as found also in the narrative materials on which the plays were based. Fair Em gives us William the Conqueror falling in love with the mere picture of Blanch, daughter of Sweyn, King of Denmark, much as King Henry VI is to do when he sees a picture of Margaret of Anjou in 1 Henry VI. Blanch falls for William at once when he comes to Denmark, even though he is in disguise. Meantime, Mandville, a gentleman of Manchester, berates himself for falling in love with a seeming miller's daughter, Em, but is unable to control his own feelings of rivalry with Trotter, the comical servant who seems more socially suited to be Em's suitor until her father is revealed to be the disguised Sir Thomas Goddard, in hiding in the wake of the Norman Conquest. In Anthony Munday's John a Kent and John a Cumber (c. 1587-90), the Prince of South Wales (Sir Griffin Meriddock) and Lord Geoffrey Powis enlist the help of a Welsh magician, John a Kent, to abduct Llwellen's daughter Sidanen and the Earl of Chester's daughter Marian from arranged and loveless marriages. Examples could easily be multiplied, from Greene's James the Fourth, where the King falls in love with the virtuous Ida in betrayal of his vows to Dorothea, daughter of the King of England, and is eventually recalled to his duty; or John of Bordeaux (1590-94), perhaps by Greene and revised by Henry Chettle, in which the Emperor's son Ferdinand falls guiltily in love with Rossalin, the wife of the title figure; or Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Mucedorus (1588-98), and a host of other contemporary plays.

Shakespeare's dialogue in The Comedy of Errors, as Robert Y. Turner has shown,19 is fashioned out of the rhetorical tropes that he learned in school, but it is also noteworthy that Shakespeare's “apprenticeship” in this regard points to many examples from his dramatic contemporaries and immediate predecessors. John Lyly above all other dramatists showed how the pedagogical and theatrical could be brilliantly combined by putting on stage juvenile actors and inviting them to capitalize on their familiarity with rhetorical word games. Sir Tophas in Endymion, afflicted by love melancholy, complains to his page Epiton that he is “but three quarters of a noun substantive” and is little more than a “noun adjective” because he cannot “stand without another,” that is, cannot survive without Dipsas's love (3.3.16-19).20 His lame witticism plays on the familiar Renaissance definition of a noun as enunciated in Lily and Colet's famous A Short Introduction of Grammar, sig, A5: “A noun is the name of a thing, that may be seen, felt, heard, or understande[d],” and also on that same book's definition of a noun substantive, or what we would call simply an adjective (as in “a black coat,” where black is abstractly a nominative for a certain color but here used to modify “coat”): “A noun adjective is that cannot stand by itself, but requireth to be joined with another word.” Tophas's “stand” thus comes to mean (a) “stand alone in a sentence,” (b) “survive,” and (c) “be erect.”

Argumentation and use of syllogism come in for a fair amount of fun in Lyly, as in Sappho and Phao, where the pages Criticus and Molus end their first scene of wordplay in the following exchange:

Soft, scholaris, I deny your argument.
Why, it is no argument.
Then I deny it because it is no argument.


To Molus's insistence he was not intending to use syllogistic argument in what he has just been talking about, Criticus replies in effect that if it was not syllogistically constructed then it was invalid. Marlowe or his collaborator exploits a similar jest when Dr. Faustus's cheeky servant Wagner uses schoolboy choplogic to rebuke the Doctor's two scholarly friends for their inquiries into the Doctor's whereabouts (Doctor Faustus, 1.2).

This pattern of adolescent wit combat onstage gave Shakespeare what he needed to write the dialogue of the Syracusan Dromio when he inquires of his master why he has been beaten:

S. Antipholus.
Shall I tell you why?
S. Dromio.
Ay, sir, and wherefore; for they say every why hath a wherefore.
S. Antipholus.
“Why,” first—for flouting me; and then “wherefore”—for urging it the second time to me.
S. Dromio.
Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season,
When in the why and the wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason?


The wit resides in the tension between logic and violence, between the rationality that ought to be accessible through reasoning and the seeming inexplicability to Dromio of what is happening to him. Much the same kind of humor resides in Dromio's syllogistic attempt to deny his master's proposition that “There's a time for all things” through appeal to the bald pate of Father Time and to the impossibility of recovering hair once lost to natural baldness (2.2.64-106); the language of comic exchange here is rife with logical signposts such as “Your reason?” and “By what rule?” and “For what reason?” The two Dromios' summing up of the dubious attractions of Luce is structured like a secular catechism, with questions like “What claims lays she to thee?” and “What complexion is she of?” and “Where Scotland?”

As Turner observes, the verbal exchanges take various forms of word games, twisting a central word from the opponent's statement into a new context in an act of verbal power, repeating and then reversing the preceding statement, turning a literal statement into a metaphorical one, engaging in riddle to prove the impossible (as when time is “proven” to go backwards at 4.2.53-5), and the like. Surprisingly, perhaps, we find essentially the same verbal pattern of wit combat in an early “serious” play like 1 Henry VI.21 This was an essential means through which Shakespeare learned to solve the problem of dialogue, in its pacing and development of character. He undoubtedly brought to the task his schoolboy training in rhetoric; he also lived and breathed it in the theater he saw in London.

Staging, finally, is an aspect of The Comedy of Errors over which contemporary theatrical practice has considerable influence, despite the play's adherence to neoclassical precedent. Even if the play seems to call for the traditional street scene flanked by domus, Shakespeare is entirely comfortable with an “open” scene that allows the actors' location to be fluid and unspecific. Act 3 scene 2, for example, begins with a domestic scene that plausibly belongs indoors at the house of Antipholus of Ephesus. Luciana is being wooed by the person she takes to be her own sister's husband, though we know him to be Antipholus of Syracuse. The conversation is intimate and domestic, like other scenes seemingly located in the house, especially the conversation of the two sisters about marital duty in 2.2 and their later worried consultation as to what they ought to do about Antipholus of Ephesus's seeming fascination for his sister-in-law in 4.2. Although Shakespeare provides occasional directional remarks that are consistent with a location on the street in front of the house (“Then, gentle brother, get you in again,” 3.2.25, “I'll fetch my sister, to get her good will,” 3.2.70, “Go fetch it [the money to redeem Antipholus], sister,” 4.2.47), these exhortations are also plausible if one imagines an interior location from which characters depart into other rooms to find someone or something. Yet by the end of 3.2 we certainly must imagine the scene to be outdoors, since the goldsmith Angelo shows up unannounced with the chain that has been ordered. A scene that begins in domestic intimacy ends in vigorous outdoor farcical action.

John Lyly offers apt illustrations of this kind of fluidity amid a set calling for certain fixed symbolic locales, ambiguously neoclassical and native English. In Sappho and Phao, for instance, two “houses,” antithetically opposed to represent the cave of Sibylla and the bedchamber of Sappho, are separated by a neutral playing space that can varyingly represent Phao's ferry location and Sappho's court, all comprising Syracuse and its environs. Phao need only make a short symbolic journey across the open stage to arrive at Sybilla's cave; pages and court ladies can converse in the open, allowing us to understand that they are going to see Phao at his oarsman's location or are in the vicinity of the court. Cave and bedchamber open onto the stage so that the speakers need not be hidden within some stage structure. Neutral stage space foreshortens distance and signals the metaphorical import of various journeys.22 Other locations in Syracuse are invoked as offstage, much as The Comedy of Errors alludes repeatedly to such inns as the Centaur (1.2.9), the Tiger (3.1.95), and the Porcupine or Porpentine (3.2.166). (The Phoenix, located at Antipholus's house, 1.2.75, is presumably associated with one stage door; the Porcupine, the dwelling of the Courtesan, need not require any such fixed sense of locale, though we do need one door to represent the Abbey for the moment of reversal in 5.1 when the Abbess enters with Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse. None of these requires any stage structure.)23 Many of these tricks of stage illusion are ambivalently neoclassical and indigenous. Lyly was the theatrical genius preeminently able to synthesize the two in his plays designed for Blackfriars (like Sappho and Phao and Campaspe, both in 1584) or for the location known as “Paul's” (Gallathea and Endymion, both first performed in 1588), with the requirements of Whitehall and other royal palaces also in mind. It is perhaps not coincidental that The Comedy of Errors, so akin to Lyly in staging method, was acted at the Inns of Court in 1594. (Love's Labor's Lost, often justly called Shakespeare's most Lylyan play because of its juvenile wit combat, can similarly be antithetically staged in such a way as to juxtapose the ladies' tent with the gathering-place of Navarre and his fellow lords, all within the purviews of Navarre's park.)

The central action of denying Antipholus of Ephesus his own house, derived from Plautus's Amphitruo, nicely demonstrates how Shakespeare, at the Inns of Court and probably in a public theater as well, adapts an ancient Roman script lacking authentic stage directions to the practicalities of his stage or stages.24 The very likelihood of multiple performance in varying locations and before audiences of differing social makeup obligated Shakespeare to be adaptable, just as Lyly, Marlowe, and others learned to be versatile. As Act 3 scene 1 commences, Adriana bids her seeming husband in to “dine above” (2.2.206), presumably on the second floor above Antipholus's shop. They presumably exeunt into the tiring house, though the Folio text gives no stage direction to separate 2.2 from what is plainly marked as “Actus Tertius. Scena Prima.” The absence of an exeunt may encourage us to speculate that Dromio of Syracuse remains visible somewhere onstage as porter, and that the scene is in effect continuous. Certainly the action works well if Antipholus of Ephesus and his Dromio then approach the stage door, knock, and are answered by Dromio of Syracuse from some location where he is visible and audible to the audience. The expedient of erecting some door onstage seems unnecessary and unlikely in the fast-paced Elizabethan theater. Alternatively, Dromio of Syracuse could remain offstage behind the stage door, bellowing his lines.

In any event, it seems likely that Luce, who is directed to “enter” at, does so above, by way of signaling that she is within the house in the upstairs dining room with Antipholus of Syracuse and with her mistress, the latter being similarly directed to “enter” at line 60.1.25 Both women might well then be easily seen and heard by the audience and yet be understood to be invisible to those at the door. These devices are not unlike those used by Marlowe, for example, in The Jew of Malta (c. 1589-90), when Abigail throws down her father's treasure to him at his house that has been converted to a nunnery, or Doctor Faustus, in which the protagonist is first seen “in his study” (A-text) and yet can move beyond any constricted sense of location without a scene break, or later in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, where in one remarkable scene (3.5) Juliet is able to bid a tearful farewell to Romeo at her “window” in the upper acting gallery and then exit above to join her mother on the main stage, with no scene break and seemingly without her having left her chambers.

Staging thus expresses visually what is so evident throughout The Comedy of Errors: Shakespeare's responsiveness to his immediate theatrical environment in every aspect of his modifying his classical sources. At the same time, the play shows the daring of his achievement.26 Far from being the imitative “apprenticeship” exercise as it has been viewed by so many critics, this early work shows how a creative reconfiguration of classical sources in the rich environment of the contemporary London theater could move Shakespeare rapidly in many directions that his subsequent work would take.


  1. Robert Y. Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974). This is a book worth rediscovering; I am indebted to it for many insights. See also T. W. Baldwin's William Shakespeare's Small Latine & Lesse Greek, 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1944), and E. C. Pettet, Shakespeare and the Romance Tradition (London: Staples, 1949).

  2. Louise Clubb, “Italian Comedy and The Comedy of Errors,Comparative Literature, 19 (1967), 240-51.

  3. Textual citations are from David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

  4. Clubb, “Italian Comedy and The Comedy of Errors,” 240-51, argues for Italian influence on English Renaissance comedy in terms of increasing complication, doubling of characters, didactic discourse on moral topics, and still more, pointing to Cristoforo Castellati and Curzio Gonzaga, among others, besides Ariosto. See also K. M. Lea, Italian Popular Comedy, II (Oxford, 1934), pp. 362-3 and 352 ff.

  5. See note 20 below, and accompanying text, on the staging of the play and on the lack of necessity for a specific domus labelled the Porcupine or Porpentine.

  6. Gāmini Salgādo, “‘Time's Deformed Hand’: Sequence, Consequence, and Inconsequence in The Comedy of Errors,Shakespeare Survey, 25 (1972), 81-91, aptly contrasts the two different aspects of time that govern the frame plot and the play proper. See also C. L. Barber, “Shakespearian Comedy in The Comedy of Errors,College English, 25 (1963-4), 493-7, who sees Shakespeare's “sense of life and art” asserting itself in the way the play combines “Gower's narrative with Roman dramatic form,” merging a narrative of reunion over long distances and time with one of restoration of domestic harmony.

  7. See T. W. Baldwin, On the Compositional Genetics of The Comedy of Errors (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965). A. C. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1967), makes a case for Shakespeare's use also of Ovid's Metamorphoses. John Dover Wilson, ed., The Comedy of Errors, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), p. 106, points out that the old miracle and morality plays come into use, especially in Dromio of Syracuse's ravings about Tartar Limbo and a devil who “carries pour souls to hell” (4.2.32-40).

  8. Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), p. 30, speculates on Shakespeare's choosing romantic plots for his early comedies because of the plays he had seen as a boy. He points out further (pp. 64-5) that Shakespeare could have found in The Golden Legend the stories of St. Clement and St. Eustace, with their narratives of the extraordinary reunion of twin brothers.

  9. Salingar discusses Mary Magdalene on p. 68.

  10. Salingar, pp. 33-5 and 69-71. His discussion of Common Conditions on pp. 35-7 is also pertinent.

  11. Salingar, pp. 37-8.

  12. See Alfred Harbage, As They Liked It (New York, 1947). The cleaning up of New Comedic action was everywhere characteristic of English appropriation of Italianate neoclassical drama, as observed by Salingar, passim, T. W. Baldwin, Compositional Genetics, Bruce Smith, Ancient Scripts and Modern Experience on the English Stage 1500-1700 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), and others.

  13. Mary Beth Rose, The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988); Louis A. Montrose, “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations, 2 (1983), 61-94, rpt. in Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 31-64; and Montrose, “A Kingdom of Shadows,” The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre and Politics in London, 1576-1649, ed. David L. Smith, Richard Strier, and David Bevington (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 68-86. See also Montrose, The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), and Philippa Berry, Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen (London: Routledge, 1989).

  14. Salingar, pp. 78-9, argues cogently that English imitations of Plautus and Terence were generally farces of trickery, as in Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton's Needle from the 1550s down through Lyly's Mother Bombie (c. 1589).

  15. Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship, pp. 156-7, and Thomas F. Van Laan, Role-Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978).

  16. On loss of identity, see Harold F. Brooks, “Themes and Structure in The Comedy of Errors,Early Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3 (London, 1961), pp. 55-71, and Barbara Freedman, “Egeon's Debt: Self-Division and Self-Redemption in The Comedy of Errors,English Literary Renaissance, 19 (1980), 360-83.

  17. Harry Levin, “Two Comedies of Errors,” Refractions: Essays in Comparative Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 128-50.

  18. Charles Brooks, “Shakespeare's Romantic Shrews,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 11 (1960), 351-6, argues for a psychological reading of shrewishness in this play; but see Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship, pp. 146-62, and E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Early Comedies (London: Chatto & Windus, 1966), pp. 46-72.

  19. Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship, pp. 11-27 and 201-14.

  20. John Lyly, Endymion, ed. David Bevington, The Revels Plays (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1996).

  21. Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship, pp. 12-27, 204-7.

  22. John Lyly, Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, ed. George K. Hunter and David Bevington, The Revels Plays (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1991), pp. 184-8.

  23. E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1930), I.307, is not alone in supposing that three, not two, houses are represented at the back of the stage: the Priory, the Courtesan's house at the sign of the Porcupine or Porpentine, and, in the center, the house of Antipholus of Ephesus at the sign of the Phoenix. Indeed, a stage direction at 4.1.131-2 does specify that Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus enter “from the Courtesan's.” But since the Courtesan herself is not present at this moment, and appears only in the crowd scene of Act 5, no special door need be required at 4.1.131-2; the stage direction may indicate simply that the audience is to understand that Antipholus and Dromio have just come from the Courtesan's and that Antipholus has left there the chain he originally intended for his wife. The dialogue makes no mention of the Courtesan's, so that the audience is given no apparent way of making a visual connection unless we posit a signboard. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare, p. 103, accepts Chambers's account without argument. R. A. Foakes, ed., The Comedy of Errors, Arden Shakespeare (London, 1962), pp. xxxii-xxxv and xxxix, discusses the staging in some detail.

  24. Robert Miola, to whom I am indebted for a thorough and learned reading of an earlier draft of this essay, points out to me that the lockout scene of the Amphitruo was garbled in the surviving texts and was reconstructed in erudite notes in Latin editions of Plautus.

  25. G. R. Elliott, “Weirdness in The Comedy of Errors,University of Toronto Quarterly, 9 (1939-40), 95-106, discusses this scene thematically in terms of its contrasts between love and pathos on the one hand and farcical rage and frustration on the other. Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), pp. 1-19, argues similarly in this scene and in the play for a contrast between mundane materiality versus magic and danger. The two brothers are similarly polarized: one is showered with gifts, women, and money, while the other is locked out of his house and later tied up as a lunatic.

  26. Stanley Wells, ed., The Comedy of Errors (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).

Jonathan V. Crewe (essay date spring-summer 1982)

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SOURCE: Crewe, Jonathan V. “God or the Good Physician: The Rational Playwright in The Comedy of Errors.Genre 15, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1982): 203-23.

[In the following essay, Crewe examines two idealizations of the playwright—one divinely omniscient, one the “good physician”—implied in The Comedy of Errors and explores themes related to these designations.]

In the ensuing discussion I will be concerned with the playwright of The Comedy of Errors. I will, that is to say, consider “the playwright” implied in the play rather than the William Shakespeare whom we believe on good authority to have written The Comedy of Errors. This “playwright” is not the real-life author but the idealized figure whose nature and activity the play itself implies. The “rationality” of this playwright is not, I would suggest, to be taken for granted—on the familiar if radically untenable assumption, for example, that Shakespeare “always knows what he is doing”—but is itself at stake in the play. The achievement of a rationale for The Comedy of Errors, and thus of a rational identity for the playwright, requires both that the arbitrariness of the play's inherited conventions and the farcical character of the comedy of mistaken identity in some measure be redeemed. I will suggest that in the process of “redeeming” the play, and thus himself, the playwright assumes no fixed identity, but rather hesitates between two identities, that of God and that of the Good Physician.

The implied playwright of The Comedy of Errors, then, manifests himself either as a benevolent deity, omniscient and omnipotent, whose good will anticipates the entire course of the play, or as a “good physician,” working through comic conventions to purge melancholy, impart self-knowledge, and exorcise psychic demons. Upon this question of identity (this either/or) much else depends: the nature of error, the nature of comedy, and the nature of the comic resolution. Moreover, the process of rationalization and of identity-formation entailed in The Comedy of Errors may be taken to exemplify the problematic of Shakespearean comedy, at least in one of its major aspects.

The “divinity” of the playwright in The Comedy is implied in several quite obvious ways. It is implied by the perfect comic form of the play insofar as that form necessitates a supreme controlling presence. Perhaps it is also implied in the “superhuman” virtuosity with which the original doubles of Plautine comedy are redoubled, thus revealing itself in a mode of superior skill and control. It is implied by the existence of an omniscient perspective on the action, a perspective that the audience is allowed to share up to the final moments and that confers upon the audience a happy invulnerability to the “errors” by which those onstage are plagued. Only within such a perspective is it possible to characterize as errors—that is to say, as wholly illusory—the predicaments of those onstage. The “divinity” of the playwright is ultimately revealed rather than implied in the grand finale, in which Emilia is sprung in the guise of the Abbess, in which full clarification is achieved, and in which an obviously predetermined restoration of benign order is accomplished.

The very nature of the Elizabethan theatre is exploited to establish the “divinity” of the playwright. Physically, that theatre offers a privileged (error-free) perspective on the action, not merely because the audience remains apart from—often literally above—the action, but because spectatorship, as opposed to ritual participation, is institutionalized in the theatre. Its being so enters continuously, as we know, into Shakespeare's calculations as a playwright; a “gap” exists to be exploited, to be reinscribed within the plays, and perhaps ideally to be reduced. One immediately relevant consequence of the audience's separation and privileged perspective is that onstage action may become a kind of pseudo-action, arising from the perceived error of the characters rather than from true necessity or from any established efficacy of action. Indeed, onstage action may become virtually coextensive with “error” or “erring” (errare) from the undeceived vantage-point of the onlooker. If such “erroneous” action may after all be traced back to the determining will of the playwright rather than to the characters' “free will,” a question remains as to what the characters do will in and through their actions. A contradiction may emerge within the same action between the will of a divinity shaping the end and the wilful rough-hewing of the putatively autonomous characters.

It may seem as if I have by now fully anticipated my own argument, yet the divinity of the playwright remains to be considered under further aspects, and for the present I am concerned to establish little more about The Comedy of Errors than readers of the play would normally acknowledge. Both the superior knowledge of the audience and the absolute foreknowledge of the playwright reduce to near-zero the stakes that appear to the puppet-characters in The Comedy of Errors to be bound up in their actions. Moreover, the playwright's ability to manipulate and control appearances in the professional theatre—an ability of which even the privileged spectators ultimately become victims—confers on him a quasi-divinity that is exploited to the hilt in The Comedy of Errors. The masterful control of the play (especially when it seems to the characters that everything is out of control), together with the coup de théâtre of the ending, establishes the playwright as a figure of “divine” omnipotence.

Stated in these terms, the presence of a “divine” playwright in The Comedy of Errors would probably be acknowledged by most readers. Indeed, the fact may seem obvious, and may constitute one ground of objection to the play. The reduction of the human predicaments in the play—which include claustrophobic bondage, lovelessness, alienation, delusion and despair—to a series of mere errors may seem facile if not heartless, conferring on the play the farcical character that has often been attributed to it. Indeed, the transformation of these predicaments into humorous spectacle for an invulnerable audience may seem to make the theatre a version of Bedlam, while the playwright's “divinity” will become not only that of a manipulative charlatan but of a showman in the worst sense. Of course, such considerations as these are not foreign to Shakespeare. Everyone knows that he reverts to the strict form of classical comedy only in The Tempest, in which the nature of the controlling divinity is visibly exposed, humanized and called to account in the figure of Prospero. (While Trinculo and Stephano devise a scheme to exhibit the monster Caliban, Prospero ultimately acknowledges that “thing of darkness” as his own and thus acknowledges his own implication in the nature of Caliban.) In the long interim separating The Comedy of Errors from The Tempest, the “divine” powers and privileges of the playwright are never reasserted in full measure, nor is the audience again allowed the degree of invulnerability it enjoys in The Comedy of Errors. Indeed, the dethroning and unmasking of any quasi-divinity is relentlessly effected throughout the Shakespearean canon, a fact that accounts as much as anything does for the “humanity” of Shakespeare.1

In The Comedy of Errors, the divinity of the playwright is upheld. This is not to say that it is blindly upheld, but rather that it is consciously maintained throughout the play. Although the nature of this “divinity” is somewhat humorously exposed in the conjuror's finale, a degree of seriousness can be retained if the divinity of the playwright can be conceived as derivative from, or analagous to, true divinity.2 This is not just a matter of the playwright's being able to “stand for” the divine being. The phrase “the divinity of the playwright” may ambiguously refer to both the identity and the doctrine, so to speak, of the playwright. In Shakespeare's vocabulary, as well as our own, “divinity” refers not only to the divine being but also to the system of thought, belief and observance arising from the assumed presence of a divine being. In anything but an inconceivably primitive context the two forms of “divinity” are interdependent, and if the divine nature of the playwright is to be more than a trivial conceit, it must be located within a systematic divinity.

This I take to be the case in The Comedy of Errors. Within the play's “divinity” an at least quasi-divine conception of the playwright remains tenable. It does so because it need entail neither hubristic presumption nor a theatrical travesty of divine powers as long as it relies on the possible analogy between a true divinity and a divinity of the theatre. The role of the comic dramatist in particular may be constituted and justified by analogy with the divine, since analogy may without sacrificing resemblence also acknowledge the difference between small things and great. Indeed, the playwright may feel himself bound to this analogy if his work is to justify itself at any level other than that of pure farce or ignoble showmanship. I would suggest that it is not so much divine presumption as this peculiar divine necessity that informs The Comedy. If the play nevertheless remains precariously close to farce (as well as being somewhat “un-Shakespearean”), perhaps it is because the analogy upon which the quasi-divine status of the playwright depends is always questionable, and perhaps unduly optimistic. Trusting to analogy becomes itself the subject of an extensive Shakespearean critique, while a possible alternative to this analogical conception of the playwright is, as I have suggested, also present in The Comedy of Errors.

What is now necessary is a closer consideration of the “divinity” of the playwright. To begin with a significant deduction, the divine powers of the playwright, however extensive, stop short of any original act of creation. At the simplest level this means only that the playwright reworks existing dramatic forms and character stereotypes rather than creating forms and characters of his own. No matter how fully stock situations and characters are developed and refined, no matter how ingeniously plot-structure is complicated, and no matter how many simple forms are combined to produce the final synthesis of the play, the act of creation is always pre-empted, and the divinity of the playwright will thus always be of an inferior order. This fact is advertised rather than concealed in The Comedy of Errors. The appreciation of the play may paradoxically be heightened by this exposure, since it will facilitate recognition of the humanizing and transforming powers of a master playwright reworking familiar material. The spectator who knows that The Comedy is “unoriginal” may indeed appreciate it more justly than one who does not, while the complicated virtuosity of the transformation will supply the basis for a sophisticated appreciation of the play.

At the level of the playwright's craft, then, the presumption of creativity can and must be foregone, yet the “divinity” of the play requires that both an original act and state of creation be conceived. In The Comedy of Errors, various traces or “evidences” of this original state remain. If these evidences point to the original state of the play before it has been reworked, they even more importantly point to a prior, mythical state of creation, preceding and pre-empting the mere craft of the pagan dramatist. In other words, the play contains evidence of what came before it.

At one level this prehistory is simply the history that the characters expound in the opening scenes. At another level, what comes “before” The Comedy of Errors is the old play that the playwright reworks. At yet another level, what comes first is an original act and state of creation from which the play lies at an infinite distance. All these questions of priority need not concern the spectators, yet they must concern the playwright. Or, to put it differently, the extent to which they do concern the playwright will affect his own conception of his role as well as the nature of the play he produces. Both will depend less on his own “originality” than on his consciousness of origins. It therefore becomes possible that the playwright of the Menaechmi, while enjoying legitimate temporal priority over the playwright of The Comedy of Errors, may nevertheless have had a more limited view of his own material (or of its origins) than that available to his successor. As a result, the playwright of the Menaechmi may have been subject to forms of error (particularly short-sightedness) akin to those of his characters. Given an extended ontological perspective, it may become possible for the Elizabethan playwright to realize what is only implicit in the Roman comedy of twins, and also to attempt a fuller—even a definitive—rationalization of Plautine comedy. That, it appears to me, is what Shakespeare attempts in The Comedy of Errors on the basis of his own “divinity.”

It would be premature to call this divinity Christian. In Milton's poetry, for example, a comparable superiority of perspective is consistently rationalized as the outcome of Christian revelation that literally makes all the difference. That revelation opens up a complete perspective on the history of creation and at the same time secures the applied logic and aesthetics of Christian belief. But for Shakespeare, and especially for the playwright of The Comedy of Errors, the basis of such an assumed superiority remains problematical. The divinity of the playwright originates in the theater, and its ultimate justification remains in doubt.

It is true that a Christian context is implicit in the play, one well-known peculiarity of which is its reliance on St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians on the subject of love, marriage, and the proper roles of the sexes. The play also apparently incorporates some material from Acts of the Apostles in which Ephesus is described as a place in which “curious arts” and dubious magic are practiced.3 Such allusions establish a Christian outlook within the play. They do not however make The Comedy of Errors a “Christian play” (i.e., a morality play), and indeed it is one of the major errors of those onstage to believe that in Ephesus they are in the presence of evil charlatans, black magicians and demonic deceptions.4 What they cannot “see,” as the audience may, is the benign and healing theatricality that is shaping their ends. They are also blind to the existence of a benign stage deity that controls the entire action. We cannot therefore say that a Pauline or even dogmatically Christian divinity prevails in The Comedy of Errors, although it may be suggested that a certain logic, conditioned by Christian history and habits of belief, governs the play. This logic also sustains the analogy between the divinity of the playwright and a true divinity; perhaps too this logic prevails over dogma wherever the two threaten to come into conflict.

What all the “evidences” of the play refer back to is an original created unity. The mere existence of dramatic conflict presupposes such unity, which becomes both the “lost” point of departure and the actual point of return for the play. While a state of separation and conflict may be essential to drama, such a state cannot, at least in comedy, be conceived as primary or interminable. That thought is quite simply unthinkable (whateven may be suspected) in the “divinity” of the comic playwright. Clearly the narratives, soliloquies and early action (or pseudo-action) of The Comedy of Errors all entail a rupturing of unity from within and from without. This rupturing, which threatens to culminate in disintegration or anarchy, has begun before the play starts, and it continues throughout the early scenes of the play. Starting in medias res, the play reveals that a state of separation and discord exists between the twin cities of Syracuse and Ephesus. That rupture has been formalized as a general lex talionis, one that the Duke is powerless to suspend despite its manifest injustices in the case of Egeon, who stands condemned to death simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then we hear in Egeon's narrative that his present plight is the logical end to an absurd series of misfortunes that began with the shipwreck in which both sets of twins were divided from one another, and he from his wife. Huge and expanding gaps of space and time have seemingly divided the characters from one another, disrupting the unity of the family and leaving individuals isolated, melancholic and lacking an adequate sense of identity. In one sense a condition of “error” prevails as the characters become uprooted wanderers on the face of the earth, blindly in quest of the place or person that will restore lost unity. An original “error” in this sense, namely Egeon's wandering abroad in quest of some dispersed property, has precipitated all the subsequent errors. “Error” in its multiple senses of going astray, being mistaken, and being involved in complicated misunderstanding, threatens, in fact, to become the universal condition of the play, as we observe the proliferating misconceptions and cross-purposes of the first three acts.

The rupturing of unity through error threatens to continue when we see Adriana and Antipholus E. becoming estranged, yet this series cannot be thought to continue indefinitely. The end Egeon anticipates (and indeed comes to desire) is death, while for other characters a final loss of identity through the rupturing of external boundaries emerges as the threatened end. Such is the “end” Antipholus S. anticipates and even proleptically enacts in his speech:5

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


In the first of these lines the self is conceived on a reduced scale, yet identity persists and may even seem to be secured by the analogy between macro- and microcosm; the self-enclosed drop of water remains momentarily suspended in deceptive resemblance to a stable globe. This suspension is only momentary, however, since in moving to “seek” another drop, and thus to (re)constitute identity and unity on a larger scale, the drop “falls,” merging into an oceanic mass without stability, definition or form. Both the stable unity of the “world” and the correspondingly stable unity of the isolated drop can only fall into terminal error. The boundaries of the self reveal their extreme fragility in the moment in which the drop moves, and an already reduced identity is finally lost—or paradoxically confused with that of its alter ego—as the drop “confounds himself.”

It has often been observed that Adriana expresses her own sense of reduced and threatened identity in metaphorical terms closely akin to those of Antipholus S., thus expressing from the conjugal rather than the fraternal standpoint the consequences of a loss of unity. What has been “lost” in Adriana's case is once again a “full” identity, only her loss stems from the seeming rupture between husband and wife. Given this extremely precarious sense of self in both Adriana and Antipholus, but also implicitly in other characters in the play, an excessive dependence on conventional roles, familiar appearances, and fixed external markers of time and place becomes inevitable. These become the containers of the fluid self. As soon as any of these external and wholly arbitrary forms of security is threatened, panic or rage break out. The disruption of regular mealtimes, the apparent departure of a servant from his regular comic act, seeming aberrations of behavior, the apparent loss of financial security, all prove excessively disconcerting in the absence of any sustaining inner order or self-definition. The mere fact that her husband is “late” in relation to the arbitrarily set time of two o'clock (II.i.3) launches Adriana on a tirade about the miseries of women, while Antipholus S. is disconcerted by the early arrival of the servant whom he calls “the almanac of my true date” (I.ii.41). And so it goes. While not all the characters express their sense of self as Adriana and Antipholus do, their common dependence on appearances for forms of regularity involves them in almost universal hysteria as those appearances and forms progressively break down.

It may seem arbitrary to relate all the play's phenomena of rupturing and threatened dissolution to an original created unity, since all that is required is given in the apparently matter-of-fact exposition of what has led up to the present state of affairs. It seems hardly necessary to go “behind” this history to an obscure mythical point of origin. Yet there is something avowedly “strange” about the original condition of the family as Egeon recalls it. The twin sons born to Egeon and Emilia were “.. the one so like the other, / As could not be distinguish'd but by names” (I.i.51-52). In this condition, names distinguish. Identity is truly constituted, not by appearance or action, but by the potency of a name that corresponds to the essential being. Appearances, even indistinguishable appearances, cannot deceive, nor are distinctions arbitrary or invidious. The twins are not “confounded” either in themselves or by onlookers, since the identity of each is secured by his proper name.

Is this an accurate recollection? Is Egeon aware of the peculiar logic of what he is claiming? The twins, by the time we encounter them, have identical names, and are only—ineffectively—distinguished by their association with particular places, Ephesus and Syracuse. The Arden editor speculates that Egeon's ostensible recollection is actually an uneffaced trace of the original (Plautine) state of the play, in which the twins did have different names. What Egeon “remembers” is thus actually what the playwright has forgotten to cover up or assimilate to his own design. That is one possible explanation. It is also clear, whatever the explanation, that Egeon is “recalling” as a part of his own history a mythical condition in which the power of proper names absolutely prevails. This is a condition utterly unlike that which prevails in the play. Moreover, Egeon is recalling a mythical “time” in which identity and difference could coexist within a larger unity, a time of fruitful concord without “identity crises,” éstrangements or confusions. Again, a time utterly unlike that of the play, and preceding the first fatal error. What we thus find in Egeon's speech is an uneffaced trace of a time and condition akin to that made explicit in the paradoxical formulas of “The Phoenix and the Turtle”:6

So they loved as love in twain
Had the essence but in one,
Two distincts, division none;
.....Property was thus appalled,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.

The evidential value of Egeon's claim, as well as the legitimacy of glossing it with the help of “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” is dubious. More supporting evidence of a mythic origin would be helpful, yet it is hard to find. What can, however, be said is that The Comedy of Errors is virtually unthinkable without such an origin, the almost complete effacement of which may be significant in itself. The clue supplied by Egeon may be enough to disclose the logic of the play.

In possession of this clue, we may insistently ask why a “time” and “condition” resembling that in “The Phoenix and the Turtle”—or resembling that of the “original” united family in The Comedy of Errors—is desired by the principal characters, if not all the characters, in the play? The condition of unity, secure identity and of concord remains apparently normative despite its absence in the play, despite its having been long-lost prior to the play. Is the actual history of the characters enough to account for this desire? To account for the obsessive quests on which Egeon and Antipholus S. embark, and for the self-assertive rage of Adriana? To account for all the nostalgic regressiveness that precludes “mature” acceptance of a conflicted and imperfect world, a divided and diminished self? Perhaps the immediate history of the characters will suffice to explain their feelings and desires, yet Egeon's peculiar recollection suggests the possibility of a further explanation in terms of a universally felt mythical loss. That loss may still be “making itself felt.”

Before relating these issues to the undertaking of the playwright, I shall first consider Egeon's own understanding, one that the play seemingly contradicts. The one peculiarity I have so far noted in Egeon's account of himself is in no way isolated or emphasized in the flow of his exposition. Whatever significance it may possess for others, it has none for Egeon; for him, it is merely one detail among others. It is a detail that certainly does not govern his interpretation of events.

Readers will recall that Act I, scene i of The Comedy of Errors is a virtually uninterrupted monologue spoken by Egeon. This form of exposition looks like “early Shakespeare,” which is to say relatively lacking in dramatic craftsmanship and verbal fluidity. The excessively long, formal address virtually stops the play dead in its tracks, while no dramatic necessity is established for Egeon's narrative. The Duke tells Egeon that nothing can save him from the full rigor of the law, and then invites him to tell “for what cause thou cam'st to Ephesus” (I.i.30). Does it now really matter why? What is now at stake in the narrative? The mere prolongation of the narrative, although perhaps more than the Duke has bargained for in asking for a “brief” account, will not postpone the moment of execution, and will thus lack one time-honored justification of narrative per se. Dramatically, Egeon's account seems almost entirely beside the point.

What is to the point, however, is the very fact that Egeon's narrative is so undramatic. The first scene frames but does not partake of the action of the play, and to the extent that Egeon does have a place in that action it is not as a storyteller but as one in quest of another to bail him out. (The Duke having relented slightly out of a sense of “honor” that prompts him to substitute a large cash fine for the death penalty.) The narrative quality of Egeon's address is foregrounded by such phrases as “… by misfortunes was my life prolonged, / To tell sad stories of my own mishaps” (I.i. 119-20) and “but here must end the story of my life” (I.i. 137). The “storytelling” quality is intensified by the obvious romance provenance of Egeon's tale of shipwrecks, separations and amazing misfortunes, while it becomes possible to detect a (possibly unconscious) sprezzatura in Egeon's disclaimers:

A heavier task could not have been impos'd
Than I to speak my griefs unspeakable. …


But ere they came—O, let me say no more!
Gather the sequel by that went before.


(To which the Duke duly responds: “Nay, forward, old man …”). Egeon, in fact, has not only become a melancholy storyteller, but his life has become the almost inexhaustible “material” of that story, which proceeds as an unbroken series of mishaps. The ultimate “mishap,” which seems now to have become imminent, will be the crowning one, its conclusive and validating effect on the entire “story” lending it a certain appeal. Egeon, at all events, almost wilfully embraces his fate, appearing to take a grim satisfaction in the inevitable:

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

(I.i. 157-58)

Procrastinating but also foreseeing the “end,” Egeon remains perversely attached to his own version of his life-story.

What is implied in this tale of mishaps is an essentially amoral world ruled by Fortune, the power Egeon invokes (i. 105) to explain everything including himself. Wittingly or not, he has also supplied his answer to the Duke's question about the cause of his being in Ephesus. Passivity, shortsightedness and irresponsibility characterize Egeon's interpretation, while a kind of random “wending” at once procrastinates the end and supplies mishaps with which to cram the narrative. Egeon is of course in error. His unacknowledged conversion of Fortune into Misfortune imposes a false consistency on the operations of his deity. His transformation of romance into a mode of pure melancholy is at odds with the character of the genre, in which shipwrecks and separations lead in the long run to salvation and reunion. Most importantly, his adherence to his own life-story (which the Duke seems powerless to alter), is at odds with the purposes and principles of comedy, a dramatic genre into which the benign possibilities of romance may be assimilated. Not only can he not “see” the invisible deity who is in control of events, but he unwittingly assumes a power of interpretation that leads him astray. He also cannot “see” that benign logic rather than arbitrary power governs the comedy in which he is destined to participate. He does not anticipate that his own life story, with its foregone conclusion, will be rewritten, and that a better ending is held in store for him by a far-sighted providence. His perverse wish for a lifeless end opposes the good will of the comic playwright. Of course, the audience of the play is not privy to all this either, yet it is allowed some perspective on Egeon's narrative, the lifelessness of which need not go unnoticed. Neither need its tendentiousness or its misrepresentation of the genre to which it adheres. In short, a critical perspective on Egeon's tale is available from the start. The listener need not fall into the Duke's attitude of spellbound passivity.

What applies to Egeon will in some degree apply to each character in the play, at least insofar as his vision, his purposes and his sense of an ending conflict with those of the play's informing divinity. No will but that of the playwright can prevail, and it is always by implication a stronger, better and more rational will than any that opposes or incompletely approximates to it. Adriana, for example, presents a classic argument against the “double standard” that applies to men and women respectively in marriage, at the same time rebelling against the supposed injustice of her plight and threatening to transform the play into another violent “shrew” comedy. She is in error, however, since her suppositions about her husband's activities are quite simply false. She has no authentic “case” and her paranoid resentments arise from her own insecurity rather than from any external cause. Her rebellious error is dramatically exposed by the playwright. Then, with the help of the Abbess who “knows better,” Adriana is made to see the error of her ways and to reconcile herself to her fate and to her husband, both of which are for the best. Luciana, on the other hand, whose essential acceptance of the double standard and whose doctrine of submission imply almost cynically low expectations, parodies rather than conforms to the divine will. Eventually she gets more than she bargained for in the shape of a loving husband, and can seemingly overcome her own sterilizing anxiety about “troubles of the marriage bed” (II.i.27). Again, a better spirit prevails.

The will of the playwright consistently triumphs, legitimately so in serving the best interests of all involved. It triumphs both in the shape of the play and through the mediating figure of the Abbess, who unites in herself the apparently irreconcilable roles of wife, mother and nun. Becoming the agent of love, reason and unification, she transmits the final resolution of the playwright. Before this resolution transpires, however, other expedients have been tried and found wanting. Although they may prefigure the true resolution, they do not correspond to it. Antipholus E.'s golden chain, which ostensibly signifies marital concord and implies the possibility both of linking and of binding separate entities, passes from hand to hand throughout the play, leaving behind it a trail of error. It ineffectively mediates the relationship between husband and wife, and seems finally destined to become the adornment of the whore. If it anticipates the true solution, it cannot represent it, since only the play can do that.

We have already seen that the law of Ephesus becomes a lex talionis in the face of which even the Duke is powerless, while the binding of prisoners, either at the hands of the constable or at the pseudotherapeutic instigation of Dr. Pinch, simply becomes another instance of the bondage of error. True boundaries, which is to say rationally acceptable forms and rules to be inhabited by the characters, can correspond only to those imposed by the playwright. These are the ideal forms (unities) of classical comedy and of the nuclear family, in which brotherly love is at once restored and subsumed in conjugal love. No other forms of tried rationality and maturity exist.

Another false resolution, anticipating the true one, occurs midway through the play, when Luciana romantically manifests herself to Antipholus S. as a divine figure:

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


This false theophany, the place of which is in pure romance rather than divine comedy, can only anticipate the true clarifying and restorative theophany of the play's ending. It can do so even to the extent of implying the existence of a nameless god, and to the extent of allowing for truth to be “folded” in deceit. Antipholus is in error, however, when he jumps to the conclusion halfway through the play, and also when he too romantically identifies divinity itself with the appearance of a woman. In the true divinity of the play, the woman becomes a mediator rather an embodiment of the divine. Even Antipholus cannot fully overcome his own skepticism and his masculine anxieties:

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. …


The female enchanter is always incipiently a betrayer, whose deceit “enfolds” the malignant design of betraying the male ego to its doom; conversely, the lawless passion of the male transforms the woman into an enchanter, the service of whose divinity soon reveals its true end:

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


The service of this divinity entails a willing embrace of error, while its end is a “death” from which no salvation is desired or anticipated. The death-directed romance of this youthful error makes it paradoxically akin to the error of old Egeon, while both forms of error involve a foredoomed idolatry.

Everything in the play, in short, calls for the action of a truly divine power, and the exercise of such power is consciously undertaken by the playwright. For various reasons that I have suggested, and many that I have not, it is necessary in the play that reason and the will of God prevail, nor is there any insuperable contradiction, it would seem, between reason and the will of God as represented by the playwright. (We may even succumb at this point to a Shakespearean pun on God's Will.) What has to be dispelled or converted to truth is a host of errors, a feat that can be accomplished only if reason comes to prevail. An extraordinary absence of reason manifests itself onstage throughout the play, nowhere more so than in the fact, noted by Anne Barton,7 that the sudden appearance of doubles in Ephesus should, instead of creating mad confusion, alert the characters to the presence of their twins in the city. Their long separation is already at an end, if only they could see it. The universal failure to see, however, becomes an utterly ludicrous failure of reason, one that the audience is permitted to observe, and from which it may draw conclusions.

In the full prevalence of reason, there is no error, as there never has been for the omniscient playwright. A prevenient reason and good will, in other words, anticipate all possible errors, never allowing them essentially to take hold or become rooted in time. Throughout the play, error never essentially but only contingently or superficially disrupts unity, compromises true identity, or threatens reason. The resolution, therefore, restores an order of being that has never essentially been compromised. The slate can be wiped clean, as Emilia suggests when she imagines a miraculous (re)birth of her sons:

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


Nothing—or at least nothing bad—has really happened in all the time that has elapsed before the play and in the play.

Within the play-world of pure error, reason can and always already does prevail, requiring only that its full force ultimately be manifested. In the full light of reason, a world of error is a world essentially without uncontrollable passion, madness, impenetrable deception, evil or death. If it is not a world without time, that time heals and matures instead of decaying, but it is not of the essence. No incorrigible antagonism to reason can establish itself, so the comedy of errors—comedy generically founded by the presence of error—precludes any real possibility of tragedy. What the divinity of the play depends on, however, is the questionably assumed priority of a created order of unity, love and reason. It would seem as though the essential basis for such a belief cannot be secured simply because things once happened to be so in Egeon's family, or because they may have happened to be so in the original play, or even because the genre of comedy will have it so. What is required to underpin the logic of the play is nothing less than an original unified act and state of creation. There is such a state of which Genesis speaks, but of which the literal truth is to be doubted. Moreover, the origin of which Genesis does speak is one in which no mere error is committed, and in which “bestrafte brudermord” rather than brotherly love is the true story of sibling relations. This tale of original sin, dictated, perhaps, by an irrational “sense of sin,” is therefore implicitly to be denied. For the comedy of errors to be consistent, no catastrophic “fall” can have taken place, and indeed so disturbing a fall remains irredeemably obnoxious to pure reason. What the logic of the play requires is a benign act and state of creation, any historical departures from which are (mere) errors. Although “lost,” this state of creation is not necessarily lost without trace. “Evidences” exist, whether in the guise of memories, dreams or nostalgic desires; they may even exist in poetic language manifesting a higher degree of regularity, harmony and elevation than current speech admits, in which case “evidence” is widespread throughout the play.8 At all events, the recovery of a perfect lost order (never really lost) becomes an enterprise to which the playwright can commit himself. If the result he achieves is not identical to the original created order, it may nevertheless suffice in the interim, supplying an acceptable equivalent for a true order that is contingently absent, but never to be despaired of.

Needless to say, grounds of objection to this divinity of the playwright are legion. As a “divinity” without a need for Christ, it flouts dogma, and relapses into pagan enlightenment. As a pseudo-theology without rigor or true commitment, it remains a form of play; even of mere conceit in both senses of the word. The evidences on which it relies are of no persuasive kind, while its consequences may be merely grotesque, as in the case of Emilia's thirty-three year labor to deliver her twin sons. The presumption that the down-to-earth and largely undeceived Dromio twins inhabit without realizing their advantages an ideal world disclosed to their “betters” is just that: flagrant presumption. The identification of ideal unity and order with the arbitrary conventions of neoclassicism remains an instance of the shallowest rationalism, if not of bondage to error identical to that of characters in the play. The reassertion of the dominant male and/or class ideology in the guise of an unsurpassably just providence, with or without the created order of things—even with only some hints that it does so—becomes an act of gross special pleading. The tacit claim of both play and playwright to represent a higher order of being is hardly compatible with the cheap, opportunistic theatricality of the representation, which, if it passes muster, does so by comprehensively flattering and indulging the audience. A positively idiotic implausibility reigns in a play about two sets of identical twins separated and reunited under so-called “romantic” circumstances. Such a play can only offend, not embody, reason. Finally, a world of mere error, devoid of evil, is conceivable only in a rationalistic mode of moral imbecility and psychological blankness.

Such is the kind of indictment that the divinity of the playwright provokes. (The brevity of the indictment does not imply any lack of further charges.) It is an indictment, however, that the playwright does everything possible to facilitate by betraying himself, heightening implausibility and giving an unprecedented degree of play to opposing views and principles.9 If the divinity of the playwright is still not to be despaired of, remaining only in abeyance until it reappears in The Tempest, perhaps that is because the playwright remains bound to it over every objection, despite every necessary qualification. No other divinity, and nothing less than a divinity, can comprehensively save the play. In the meantime, however, another conception of the playwright can be entertained. In the title of my essay I have already specified the alternative, while in adopting an either/or formula I have suggested that the clear alternative to “God” is “the Good Physician.” To put the matter in this way is no doubt to underestimate Shakespeare's negative capability, a capacity to be in two minds at once. I will, however, persist with the formula I have adopted, since my concern is not so much with Shakespeare's peculiar indeterminacy as with the idealizations of the playwright to which The Comedy of Errors lends itself. I will also accept that the alternatives I present may not be balanced in The Comedy of Errors. My conceptions both of The Comedy of Errors and of the ensuing plays actually implies the dominance of “God” and the recessiveness of “the Good Physician” in The Comedy of Errors.

The point is that the playwright can be conceived as a good physician. For him to be so does not require him to be omniscient and omnipotent, to be above reproach, or to rationalize and comprehend his entire dramatic stock. He may be subject to the errors of his “patients,” and he may be deeply implicated in their condition, to which death is the “procrastinated” end. He may inhabit a world in which conflict, madness, terror, alienation and lovelessness are not mere illusions but realities, or in which they are at least constitutively human ailments, capable of being alleviated if not cured. He may himself be subject to arbitrary conventions and to forms of imperfect rationality. He may proceed without hope of a final restoration of created order and without a metaphysical perspective. He will inhabit the given reality of the play, without the power fully to rise above it.

On what basis can these claims be made? On the basis that “evidences” of a wholly different order of being are so tenuous or ambiguous as to be inconclusive. If a created unity and order ever existed, evidence of the fact by way of alleged memory traces, dreams, desires, and poetic language prove exactly nothing. On the contrary, all such evidence can be reinterpreted as symptomatic of an irrational human condition that can be alleviated by good-humored exposure, therapeutic re-enactment, and the presentation of reasonably “well-adjusted” models. Mild palliatives may also be administered, such as that of the “happy ending.” If the justification for such practices is incomplete, they also run less risk than does a “divinity” of being consistently spurious.

The art of the good physician is simply the art of healing. The real patients within the theatre are not onstage but in the audience. Far from being invited to observe from a position of security the Bedlamite follies of those onstage, the audience is invited to sympathize with others and to recognize itself. An initial presumption of superiority and difference may give way to recognition of equality and even identity with those onstage. A failure of such recognition will imply an incurable childish hubris, while the acknowledgement of likeness will imply a heightened degree of self-awareness and fraternity. Whether The Comedy of Errors “is” farce or human comedy depends ultimately on its spectators, who alone can free it (and themselves) from cruel inanity. The “good physician” becomes not so much a controlling figure as a figure who mediates between a given dramatic heritage and its contemporary audience.

The role of the good physician is written into The Comedy of Errors because the possible lack of a true divinity means that his practice is emphatically called for. His desirability is established partly by the futile practices of the bad physician in the guise of Dr. Pinch. (He, too, is the false prototype of a true solution). It is to this self-deluded charlatan that the characters are forced to appeal when they are at their wits' end. The supposed competence of Dr. Pinch, who is introduced as a “schoolmaster,” depends according to the Arden editor, on his being “… a learned man (who) would have the Latin in which to address spirits in the language they understood.”10 A citation from Hamlet supports this assumption. The learning of Pinch thus establishes him in the role of a “conjurer” of evil spirits (an exorcist). On encountering the supposedly mad Antipholus E., however, Pinch says “Give me your hand, and let me feel your pulse,” (IV.iv.52), thus extending his practice into the physical realm. Without ever acknowledging or apparently suspecting any incapacity in himself, Dr. Pinch allows himself to be made a figure of universal authority, confidently pronouncing on the state of the patient and answering questions without hesitation. His practice remains a bizarre compound of schoolmasterly pedantry, of quasi-religious conjuration (“I charge thee Satan, hous'd within this man, / To yield possession to my holy prayers”) and of confidently propounded truisms (“… the fellow finds his vein, / And humors well his frenzy”). The net effect of Pinch's efforts is to exacerbate the ostensible madness of his patient (a madness that takes on the character of legitimate exasperation in his presence) and to descend to the lowest common denominator of social constraint: “Go bind this man, for he is frantic too” (IV.iv.113).

Under an aesthetic of the good physician,11 Dr. Pinch becomes the play's principal figure of error. His practice is not only an absurd malpractice, one to which his own appearance as a threadbare mountebank testifies, but it involves precisely the wrong assumptions about the nature of the disease and of the cure in the play. In imputing demonic possession to his patient, he remains enslaved to humorless literalism in the twilight zone between divinity and mere folklore. Whatever the contemporary attitudes to possession and exorcism, the Dr. Pinch of The Comedy of Errors is quite simply in error, and thus no source of enlightenment to those who appeal to him.12 His error is also significantly akin to that of other characters in the play for whom any and all false appearances imply the operation of demonic powers. The locus classicus for this attitude in the play is the speech in which Antipholus S. recites as hearsay (thus giving a paranoid quality to the recital) the terrible things said in Acts about Ephesus:

They say this town is full of cozenage;
An 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.


What this blind dread and “pre-theatrical” superstition preclude is any healing art, any legitimate forms of “conjuring” or “humor” other than those pre-empted by the impotent charlatan. With complete lack of discrimination—consistent, perhaps, with the Pauline rigor of Puritanism—all kinds of performance or illusionism are consigned to the powers of darkness. Yet Antipholus lacks the perspective in which the “Ephesus” of The Comedy of Errors is not really a place of dark enchantment and demonic practices, but the comic stage given over to innocuous entertainment and mild healing.

A better physician than Dr. Pinch appears in the guise of the Abbess, who tricks Adriana into a kind of self-recognition and who also prescribes the anti-melancholic remedy of “sweet recreation” in place of Dr. Pinch's violently exasperating cures. She opposes bondage in its legalistic, medical and domestic forms, and thus supplies a sensible justification for the release of comedy and even for theatre going, notorious “liberties of sin.” The Abbess is not, however, infallible, somewhat misreading the situation that is presented to her and also envisaging a pious sequestration of the “mad” Antipholus. Ultimately the good—if not “ideal”—physician of the play is the playwright himself, exploiting the possibilities of the public theater as a place of healing.

In presenting these two idealizations of the playwright in The Comedy of Errors, I have also implicitly suggested two ways in which the play may be rationalized, on one hand comprehensively and on the other to a degree. In the first instance the reason of the play is pure and absolute, while in the second it is skeptical and limited. In both cases, however, a sufficiency of reason informs the play, as it does the optimistic genre of Shakespearean comedy. The progressive invasion of that genre by Evil rather than error, and by ailments more malignant and intractable than those of The Comedy of Errors,13 increasingly challenges this sufficiency. Benign conceptions of the playwright and of play accordingly shift until both the genre of comedy and the role of the comic playwright prove untenable. An insufficiency of reason discloses itself both in and as Shakespearean tragedy. Yet a consciousness of this insufficiency is very far from implying the defeat of reason or the absence of any further rationale under which the playwright may proceed. On the contrary, reason that persists in the tormenting knowledge of its own insufficiency may at once hold the line and anticipate the time of its full recovery.


  1. The locus classicus in Shakespeare's comedy for the dethroning of a “semi-divinity” is IV.iii of Love's Labours Lost, in which Berowne is exposed. I would suggest that this moment is decisive in Shakespeare's comic development as well as in LLL, implying as it does a relinquishment of certain untenable presumptions.

  2. Compare Portia's self-justification after her “saving” masquerade in Merchant of Venice, V.i.92-95:

    When the moon shone, we did not see the candle.
    So doth the greater glory dim the less:
    A substitute shines brightly as a king
    Until a king be by. …
  3. The Comedy of Errors in the Arden Shakespeare, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Methuen, 1962), pp. 17-18.

  4. Conjuring as a “Christian” (I.ii.77) does Antipholus S. no good in his mounting difficulties, and his appeal in the name of Christianity becomes simply one of his ineffective conventional recourses.

  5. The Comedy of Errors in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), pp. 83-104. (All citations.)

  6. Riverside, p. 1795. The canonical importance of this poem is suggested, though in terms somewhat different from mine, by Joel Fineman, “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles,” in Representing Shakespeare, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), 70-110. From my own standpoint, Shakespeare's poetic essay in “pure logic” (one might almost say in the logic of logic) is a fixed point of reference within the canon. The “condition” of the Phoenix and the Turtle is exactly what cannot be dramatized, while the death of this united pair, reports of which have been exaggerated, becomes the point of departure for romantic comedy.

  7. Riverside, p. 79.

  8. I can only note here what is obviously a crucial issue in itself. The functioning of poetry as “evidence” of earlier and other creation is a major point in Sidney's Apologie, just as it is in the poetics of the English Renaissance. The highly patterned and formalized language of The Comedy of Errors, even in its low comedy passages, may also be conceived as evidence of divinity, although in terms somewhat different from Sidney's.

  9. Characteristically, in allowing the “shrewish” Adriana her dignity, her humanity and her chance to deploy her own rhetoric. If this still does not constitute a fair trial of the issues, since the conclusion is foregone, a relaxation of censorship may nevertheless allow uncontrollable sympathies to be aroused. Even the appearance of justice cannot be secured without this risk, as the history of Paradise Lost criticism may suggest.

  10. Arden, pp. 80-81.

  11. I acknowledge here Stanley Fish's coinage of this indispensable phrase, as I do the more general influence of his reading of seventeenth-century literature on my approach to The Comedy of Errors.

  12. The weakening of reason in the playwright is suggested in Macbeth, for example, with its notoriously opportune “lapse” into witchcraft, demonism and superstition. This “weakening” is also suggested by the presence of a conscientious doctor who can no longer minister to a mind diseased or pluck up a rooted evil. Moreover, the protagonist becomes paradoxically the source of evil and moral vision in the play. No transcendent Reason appears to preside over Macbeth's self-constituted “theater of God's judgments.”

  13. Ailments quite inexticably bound up with forms of play, and even of world play, that have grown malignant, or that cannot in any way be justified. There is of course the malignancy of Iago, but in Macbeth equivocation is hell, and in The Winter's Tale all “play” catastrophically loses its innocence in the diseased mind of the protagonist. In the late sonnets, too, “Will” is no longer simply “good.”

Leanne B. French (review date May 2000)

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SOURCE: French, Leanne B. “It's da Bomb.” Entertainment Design 34, no. 5 (May 2000): 8-9.

[In the following review of the Bomb-itty of Errors, a hip-hop adaptation of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors performed in New York City in 2000, French highlights the design and musical elements that contributed to this successful experimental production.]

How often do you settle in for a Shakespeare play and see young fans scream out for their favorite player, “Dromio, I wannna meet you!” How often does the Bard inspire a crowd to stand up and wave their hands in the air, wave 'em like they just don't care? Well, not often unless the production has bypassed your run-of-the-mill Shakespearean storytelling for a turntable and a few microphones in Off Broadway's “add-rap-tation” Bomb-itty of Errors.

Begun as the cast's senior thesis at New York University's Experimental Theatre Wing, this frenetic collision of hip-hop and Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors moved on to a workshop at Vassar before catching the attention of downtown producer Daryl Roth. Roth found a funky new space for the show, 45 Bleecker, and then enlisted director Andy Goldberg and a seasoned design team—lighting designer James Vermeulen, set designer Scott Pask, costume designer David C. Woolard, and sound designers David Ferdinand of One Dream Sound and Sunil Rajan—to put their spin on the hip-hop Shakespeare hybrid.

As told by the four cast members (Jordan Allen-Dutton, Jason Catalano, GQ, Erik Weiner) and a deejay (J.A.Q.), the story goes a little somethin' like this: two sets of identical twins, one pair named Antipholus and the others called Dromio, are separated when their father loses his fortune. One set of twins is raised in the city of Syracuse, while the others grow up in the city of Ephesus. Fast-forward 20 years and a farce ensues when the pair from Syracuse arrive in Ephesus, unaware of their identical siblings.

Collectively, the director and designers decided to aim low with deceivingly simple design elements that would allow the show to build from an elementary level. “The flats give the notion of having low expectations about the production you are about to see,” says set designer Pask, who with Woolard also worked on The Donkey Show, the disco retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream. “You walk into this gritty space where the tops of the jacks are poking up. They are meant to look like these very skinny painted flats.”

On the costume side, Woolard says that the characters' first introduction is also purposely straightforward. “When we first see the four guys come out for the prologue, we're seeing them present-day, so you're not expecting the vibrancy when we introduce all of the characters and the story itself,” he explains. Delving into teen magazines, album covers, and pop culture, Woolard designed the establishing looks for the two pairs of Antipholus and Dromio to be easily identifiable among many characters (all played by the cast of four). Both actors playing Antipholus wear long baggy pants and red and black running jackets. The Dromios wear more playful oversize three-quarter shorts and bright yellow sweater vests over white T-shirts.

All of these elements are set up in the prologue, which starts with one light over a “Con Ephesus” manhole cover center stage. “It's like a bunch of guys sitting around a flaming garbage can on a street corner rapping,” says Vermeulen. “Then it opens up into a bit of a bluish look that is broken up and still has a street feeling. But at a certain moment we kind of pull back into this one light again and then the entire truss is lit up like rock and roll.”

Researching early Beastie Boys and Run DMC concerts, Vermeulen took many of his cues from the concert world. But the key to his design was blending concert looks with theatre lighting. “There were two plots involved,” he explains. “A rock-and-roll plot with a truss full of PAR cans, ACLs, and star strobes. But the main plot, the theatre plot, was ETC Source Fours and a bunch of Wybron Color Scrollers. It's rap, Shakespeare, rock and roll, and a musical. So to walk those lines was pretty wild.”

Sound designers David Ferdinand of One Dream Sound and Sunil Rajan were also confronted with combining concert and theatre styles while keeping the neighbors happy. “One of the problems we faced was, the upstairs neighbor gave us grief about the low end; originally it was much more hip-hop bass,” says Ferdinand. “But we reached an agreement where he could live and the show could live.”

Being a good neighbor first and foremost, the sound designers then approached the dual nature of the production. “The sound system is trying to give subtle reinforcement for the natural-sounding periods when they're just talking to each other or over light background music,” explains Ferdinand. “And then when the music picks up, the headsets the actors wear, which put the mic very close to the mouth, allow us to get the oomph of their voices over the top of the music when it does get loud.”

Working within a downtown budget, Ferdinand and Rajan made economical equipment choices that would deliver on the dollar. “The PA system is mostly EAW, with a little bit of Altec in there too,” says Ferdinand, referring to the EAW SB528 subwoofers combined with Altec 640 cabinets and the vocal delay system made up of EAW JF80s and J50s. The designers also used Shure U2 Beta 87 handheld transmitters and Shure U1 and U4D receivers, and some modified Countryman B3 mics. “We have a T. C. Electronics Effects M2000 effects unti and Chevin Research amplifiers. And it's an Allen & Heath GL2 console, a very small rack-width console because we didn't have a lot of room.”

Space restrictions at 45 Bleecker, a stage depth of only 10′ or 11′, also played into Pask's set design. All of the worlds he had to create were inventively presented behind the doors of each flat. There is the tacky suburban-style house of Adriana, Antipholus of Epheseus' wife; the gaudy seediness of Othello's Pleasure Palace (OPP); and the hilarious holy ground of a “sports” convent where basketball is iconic. Getting to the nunnery, Pask collaborated with Vermeulen to come up with a door layered with pulsating flicker candles and an illuminated stained-glass window shaped like a basketball. “Trying to have the interiors of these read like real spaces completely contrasted the outside, where the flats are drawn and painted,” he explains. “Meanwhile, the doors are rendered to have these sort of funny little explosions on the interiors.”

While space was an issue for Pask, costume changes were the rub for Woolard. He had to create numerous costumes for each actor who, in some instances, had to change roles by simply walking offstage and back on again. The designer opted for broad strokes to relay character in designs based mostly on hip-hop, with a few Shakespearean touches.

For Luciana, Adriana's dim sister, Woolard said it all with a baby-doll dress and blonde wig. (Vermeulen adds a saccharine-sweet and very funny touch to this character by projecting cartoonish heart and musical note gobos on the wall during “Luciana,” a love song devoted to her.) In a cut velvet dress, Adriana is a Jersey housewife with a bit of sexy edge. Hendelberg, the Orthodox jeweler/rapper, is out-fitted à la Run DMC with a long triple fat goose down coat and Jheri-curl sidelocks. A brainstorming session between Woolard, Pask, and Goldberg also birthed the idea for a Hendelberg-designed necklace—a golden steering wheel outfitted with the Club.

Other Woolard creations include Dr. Pinch, the local medicine man, in full Rastafarian regalia; an overzealous cop from the ’hood in Kangol cap, sunglasses, and a blue running suit with yellow stripes; Desi, the OPP proprietor and lady-of-the-night-with-an-attitude in animal print and stretch; and the abbess of the sports convent, who has a wimple shaped like an oversized baseball cap turned backwards and a robe of athletic mesh.

Supporting the design team were lighting assistant Jason Lyons, master electrician Brian Mauiri, lighting supplier Four Star Lighting, sound operator David Arnold, lighting operator Dan Gunes, production manager Joe Robinson, assistant set designer Lisa Merik, scenic builders Atlantic Studios, assistant costume designer Melissa Schlachtmeyer, costume builder Jennifer Love, and stores “up and down Broadway,” which furnished additional costumes. …

Charles Garton (essay date fall 1979)

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SOURCE: Garton, Charles, “Centaurs, the Sea, and The Comedy of Errors.Arethusa 12, no. 2 (fall 1979): 233-54.

[In the following essay, Garton suggests the significance of Shakespeare's use of Greek mythological sources in his naming and implicit characterization of the brothers Antipholus.]

There exists a belief, which is as yet uncontroverted, or at least inadequately controverted, that when Shakespeare named his principals in The Comedy of Errors—the twin sons of the Merchant of Syracuse, the confusion of whose identities, pending their reunion, is the most overt theme of the play—the poet did not succeed in saying exactly what he meant or what he ought to have meant. That is to say, he muddled the twins' name in such a way that even when the Errors proper have been untangled, and even when the adventitious misspelling of the twins' name in the stage directions of Acts One and Two in the First Folio has been rectified, the audience or reader is still debarred by a wisp of haze from seeing who, in onomastic terms, these two characters really are. What I hope to show is that Shakespeare in fact said with perfect accuracy what he meant, and moreover, that his choice of name, rightly understood, becomes nodal to the patterning of the play as a whole, to its complex of themes and images, to its symbolism and its mythopoeic qualities.

“Because of the nature of its origins,” T. W. Baldwin wrote, “The Comedy of Errors gives us the fullest illustration we shall ever have of Shakspere's methods of composition.”1 This is true. Baldwin wrote it in the preface to his 422-page book on what he called the “compositional genetics” of the play. It is an erudite and valuable book, and it might seem gratuitous to try to add anything, but the slight failing of ear, whether for English or for the classical languages, to which his choice of title-phrase bears witness, impedes his discussion at one or two points, and particularly in this matter of the twins' name. Yet it is the opinion he espoused which at present holds the field.

According to this view, not wholly original to Baldwin but developed by him, the poet in search of a name for separated identical twins, one of whom conducts a yearning quest for the other, began from the notion of reciprocal dearness, mutual love. His classical learning probably led him to think first of Antiphila, a girl in Terence whose name has exactly this meaning (in adjectival form) and was moreover explicitly declared to have it in contemporary lexicons and commentaries. The masculine counterpart of this name in Latin, which Shakespeare would next think of, is Antiphilus, the existence of which is well attested, though he need not necessarily have come across it. Antiphila and Antiphilus are Latin transliterations from Greek, the Greek masculine being Antiphilos, which is not rare as a proper name and was listed as such in H. Estienne's Greek lexicon of 1572.2 On the basis of a little learning, Shakespeare was inclined to settle for this, but the limitations of his Greek led him astray and the name was corrupted “by probably unintentional metathesis” to Antipholis. This is the form that, whether by Shakespeare's inattention or another's erroneous expansion of his abbreviation, got into the Folio stage directions up to 2.2.110. When, at this point, he came to need the name as an actual part of his text, the greater familiarity of Latin drew him over to the -us ending and thus he finally “decided for” the form Antipholus. This appears uniformly through the rest of the play and there is no doubt that it is authentic, though a textual difficulty at 3.2.2-4 prevents us from saying with certainty that it is confirmed by rhyme.3

Foakes, the Arden editor, arrived more compendiously at a similar conclusion, though he did not think that responsibility for coining the name was necessarily to be laid at Shakespeare's door. “Antipholus appears to stem from the Greek ‘Antiphilos’ … but we do not know where Shakespeare found it.”4

I do not wish to oppugn this line of reasoning in toto, but it is surely very shaky. The best thing to be said in its support is that the name Antipholus does not occur in antiquity. If it did, it would have a valid etymology of its own, and the present one would thus fall to the ground. The most we could then say about the Anti-philos idea is that it may (as I think it does) supervene upon the true meaning by aural association. Caution recommends that we should think of it in these terms, and then come back to the name as it is actually given. This may put us in mind of a further, and equally possible, aural association. Syracuse and Ephesus are each the home of one of the twins. In the opening speech of the play Duke Solinus says:

It hath in solemn synods been decreed, …
To admit no traffic to our adverse towns.

(1.1.13, 15)

It is the fact that the towns are “adverse” which creates danger and lends the play a background of tension and seriousness. Now the emphatic notion “adverse towns” could not be more accurately or succinctly expressed in Greek than by anti-poleis. At least one classical writer5 does so express it, but if Shakespeare could think of anti-philos, he did not need prompting to think of anti-poleis too and to give the twins a name which would call this word to mind. Each association is equally valid. Thus, regardless of whether we know what “Antipholus” means, it is possible to say that “reciprocal dearness” and “adverse towns” are both among its harmonics and, as such, are meant to be heard by the attentive listener or reader.

Where then does the name come from? Although no Antipholus is known from antiquity, there is a Pholus known. He is a centaur, Pholus in Latin, Pholos in Greek. He appears in the work of ancient poets and mythographers, sometimes merely as a typical centaur, when there is occasion to list representative names, and sometimes as one of the two or three centaurs who have separate parentage from the rest and myths of their own. His story occurs as a piece of mythographic tradition recounted most fully by Diodorus (first century b.c.) and in the Bibliotheca (first or second century a.d.) misattributed to Apollodorus of Athens.6 The myth ran approximately as follows. Pholus was the offspring of Silenus and a Melian nymph and lived in a cave in the mountain area between Arcadia and Elis. When Hercules passed that way on his third or fourth labor, Pholus entertained him. He gave him roast meat, but ate his own meat raw. Hercules asked for wine, and when Pholus hesitated to give it because the jar belonged to all the centaurs in common, Hercules opened it himself. All the other centaurs smelt the wine and arrived in anger. They came armed with rocks and fir-poles and a fierce fight took place, in which some were killed and the rest routed, with Hercules, who had fought with arrows and firebrands, in hot pursuit. In Hercules' absence his host Pholus, who had survived, pulled one of the hero's poisoned arrows from the body of a dead centaur, surprised that such a slight weapon could kill such a large creature, one of his own kind. The arrow slipped from his hand, pierced his foot, and killed him. Hercules returning found him dead, gave him burial, and then proceeded on his own business. In one of the two versions the mountain area where Pholus lived was called Pholoe apparently already before this incident. The other version says that Pholus was buried at the foot of the mountain which was then called Pholoe after him.7 This second version is more attractive because Pholoe is a quasi-adjectival form and would seem to derive directly from the name Pholus.

With goodwill, and by dint of a little quasi-structuralist pulling and tugging, it would be possible to homologize this unpromising story in certain respects with Shakespeare's. Hospitality, meat, and wine are prominent in both, and in both lead on to uproar and violence. Death ensues in the one story, and is narrowly averted in the other. In the poisoning of Pholus could be seen the original of that hyperbole by which E. Antipholus is said to have been poisoned by his wife's words:

The venom clamours of a jealous woman
Poison more deadly than a mad dog's tooth


—a poison reciprocal to that which she, Adriana, claims to have suffered through his adultery:

I do digest the poison of thy flesh.


Or it could be seen as the congener of that potent drug which is imagined to have wrought upon all the principal characters:

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


The name of Aemilia, mother of either Antipholus, could be heard as an echo of that “Melian” nymph who was the mother of Pholus. Dipping further below the surface of mythopoeia into anthropology, we could point out that in terms of the nature/culture antinomy, which is the matrix of so many myths, Pholus, who is friendly and hospitable, is a partial representative of culture; yet, since he eats his meat raw, a stubborn streak of nature persists in him, uniting him to the other centaurs who, though half-human in form, are more predominantly “anarchic and uncontrollable, wild figures always prone to run amok.”8 And his humaneness with a streak of wildness or confusion could be homologized with the character and fortune of the Antipholus twins.

But it is not necessary to elicit and brandish these common elements, and it would be misleading to do so. Shakespeare knew of the existence of Pholus, and might have got a smatch of his story from a brief allusion in Virgil (Aeneid 8. 293-294) or from somewhere else. But we cannot fairly suppose him conversant with Diodorus or Apollodorus, and in any case the total absence of any Hercules-element in The Comedy of Errors surely cripples the homology. One or two parallelisms may be due to chance, but many of them could be drawn equally between the Comedy and other centaur passages in ancient literature to which Shakespeare had far readier access. Since this is so, it becomes immaterial whether he had read this particular story in detail or not. He thought of Pholus primarily just as “a centaur,” because that is how Pholus usually appears in the other authors who mention him.

He is most likely to have obtained the name from Ovid, who does not tell the story but at Metamorphoses 12.306 mentions Pholus among the centaurs—Nubigenas feros, the cloud-born wild ones (12.211)—in the detailed account of their fight with the Lapiths which turned to havoc the marriage feast of Pirithous and Hippodame. Short of consulting a detailed commentary, a reader of that passage would glean no more than that Pholus was a typical centaur. Shakespeare picked out the name, in the first instance, as such and, possibly with a glance at 12.460, where Ovid mentions another typical centaur called Antimachus, he formed from it the name Anti-pholus to use for each of his twins. The anti- served a double purpose. First, it meant that each twin was “counterpart to a Pholus,” that is, “counterpart to a centaur” and having symbolical affinities with one; second, it meant that each twin is “reciprocal to a centaur,” i.e., reciprocal to the other twin. If Shakespeare looked at Golding's translation of the Metamorphoses he almost certainly (as it is now known that he did in so many other cases) consulted the Latin as well. In Golding he would read that various centaurs took to flight.

And so did Phole. …

Golding's anglicizing of the name makes it monosyllabic and gives it a long “o,” whereas in the Latin it has two syllables and an unmistakable short “o.” Shakespeare needed this short “o” in order for the preceding syllable of his “Antipholus” to carry the main stress, as it clearly does wherever it occurs in his verse.

Shakespeare drew other ideas for his play from this and other parts of the Metamorphoses. Six lines after the mention of Pholus, Ovid has a line

Perculit adversos. Adversum tu quoque, quamvis. …

A subconscious reminiscence of this, in the poet's mind, could have given him the “adverse towns,” each the home of an Antipholus, which feature so prominently in the opening speech of the play. Then too, besides domicile, he needed a father for the twins. Ovid (12.210-211) represents the centaurs as offspring of Ixion and a Cloud. Ixion would not do for the new context. But another person prominent in Ovid's story is Theseus, son of Aegeus. Theseus is twice in this passage (237, 345) referred to as Aegides, as he is also in three other places in the poem. With Aegeus as a father-figure vaguely in mind, Shakespeare could have turned firmly leftward in the book—you turn leftward in the Metamorphoses when you want to be sure of getting to an earlier generation—and picked out the name Aegaeon (2.10). Associated with both of these is the Aegean sea (mentioned at 9.448 and 11.663), which is highly relevant to Shakespeare's purpose.9 The mythical bird called the phoenix, which Shakespeare adopts as a house-name, occurs twice in the fifteenth book (393, 402). Bits of Ovidian material in the play have been recognized by Baldwin and others. But the Metamorphoses was really more than a casual quarry. There is a legitimate sense in which it was a source.

In fashioning the name Antipholus Shakespeare probably had one eye on its being appropriate, or at least not inappropriate, to twinhood and to sonship. Pholus himself was not a twin, but since Ixion, the sire of centaurs in general, begot them on a Cloud under the delusion that it was a goddess, we should probably think of that as a nonce occasion, and of their births as a multiple birth rather than a series of separate events: this prepares the way for twin Antipholuses. But there is another thing. In the ship-race described in Aeneid 5, one of the contenders is a ship called the Centaur, and at the end its captain is given as a prize a captive or slave-woman and her infant boy twins—

Cressa genus, Pholoe, geminique sub ubere nati.

(Aen. 5.285)

The pointedness of the gift has, so far as I know, escaped the notice of Virgilian commentators both ancient and modern. Virgil's mind has anticipated Shakespeare's in a leap of association and given us the picture [of the Captain of the Centaur given Pholoe and her twin sons.]

Pholoe clearly gets her name (by association) from the centaur Pholus and the mountain Pholoe where he was buried. And Virgil already has made the transition from myth to a human individual (a thing which he does likewise with the name Pholus itself at 12.341). Or, if Pholoe's context is still myth, it is myth of such a different kind that many anthropologists would exclude it from the category. Pholoe's twin sons, who by poetic logic are a kind of descendants of Pholus, may have helped to suggest human Antipholuses to Shakespeare, while the further detail, that Virgil's gemini were clearly destined to be servitors, may have chimed in with his next thought, the parallel twinhood of the Dromios, servants to the “counterparts of centaurs.”10

The name Pholus may also have been taken by Shakespeare as an appropriate symbol for sonship and the younger generation. We must not forget that if he saw the name at all in Golding's translation, he saw it as a monosyllabic “Phole.” It is even possible that by a false but plausible enough piece of freelance etymology, he may have half-consciously supposed the name ultimately connected with the root from which we have “foal”—just as one might be tempted to connect “Pholoe” with the (ultimately identical) root from which we have “filly.” Because philology discountenances any such link, or rather has no suggestion at all to make about these names, it does not follow that Shakespeare spurned the idea. Ostensible allusion to a common etymology, figura etymologica, was for him one of the most profound kinds of poetic association, so much so that at times he convinces us against our will and against the evidence of our dictionaries. Did he not ask in King Lear

Why bastard? Wherefore base?

If he linked “Phole” with “foal,” whether guided purely by sound or imagining something more, this would provide “Antipholus” with an additional aptitude for his purpose.

In the economy of the play, the name is symbolic and mythopoeic. Its primary function is, through its reference to a combination of species in a single form, to symbolize and as it were to enmythologize that confusion of identity and loss of identity which are a constant hazard for identical twins and one which here reaches crisis proportions. As myth, the story also gives a focus to more widespread anxieties in the psyche. Not so much, I think, the “primitive horror of the doppelgänger,” as Northrop Frye suggested11—for it is stipulated in the very core of the play's action that neither Antipholus (and neither Dromio) shall suspect the existence, even the phantom existence, of a second, parallel self there in Ephesus—but the fear, or the actuality, of being unable to find an acceptable response, a recognizable register of oneself, in the reactions of others: an apparent skewing in the outer world which may betoken the breakdown of the sonic radar of the personality and consequently the loss of the self. The psychological aspect of the play—aside from the name which so perfectly resumes it—has often been studied.12 No more need be said about it here than that, appropriately to anything which puts the Metamorphoses under levy, it blossoms into a full blown transformation theme. There is the sense of estrangement from the self:

I will go lose myself.


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


How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it,
That thou art then estranged from thyself?


Known unto these, and to myself disguis'd.


What, was I married to her in my dream?


And here we wander in illusions.


And there is the repeated sense of psychosomatic change, imminent or achieved, brought about by magical agency whether benign or malign:

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


This is the fairy land.


—. I am transformed, master, am I not?
—. I think thou art in mind, and so am I.
—. Nay, master, both in mind and in my shape.


Are you a god? Would you create me new?
Transform me then, and to your power I'll yield.


Ultimately it seems that the best hope for an anti-pholus is

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


But he is, in the event, destined to be made a formal man again by simple anagnorisis, at which point of exit the poet underlines the theriomorphic fantasy:

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


The other chief implication of the name Antipholus for the character of its bearers is that they are marked by the generic qualities of centaurs, over and above the matter of ambiguous identity. Though (most) centaurs have Ixion for their father, they tend to be at the same time children or grandchildren of primal powers in nature—Cloud, Sky, Earth, Gods—and the mythical Aegaeon, uncle by some accounts to the centaur Chiron, was the direct offspring of Earth and Sky or Earth and Sea. The Antipholuses have in Aegeon and Aemilia a known, human father and mother, but if we try to trace their pedigree beyond this point, our way is blocked by the great, natural backdrop of the play, and we are left looking at Sea, Earth, and Sky. Shakespeare, in thinking of centaurs, had also in mind the general qualities communicated by the Centaur-Lapith battle in Ovid or the brief allusions in Virgil; for as we have seen, the modest swing of Pholus himself towards the cultural side in the nature/culture antinomy13 was probably unknown to him. Centaurs in general swing more to the nature side—it should not be forgotten that to Homer they are beasts (phêres)14—though their appearance, at once grotesque and handsome, their association with the well-born, and their capacity to wonder and contemplate, leaves them in this respect, too, in an ambiguous position.15

The Antipholuses share with centaurs the vigor of youthful prime, which can yet be denounced by an angry woman as

Ill-fac'd, worse-bodied, shapeless everywhere.


When S. Antipholus says that a tailor “took measure of my body” (4.3.9), he speaks of it as of an act simultaneously reassuring and extremely strange. While the “pre-eminence” of “man, more divine” than beast, fish, or fowl is emphasized (2.1.15-23), the experience or behavior of the twins several times calls forth imagery of animal and pasture:

But, too unruly deer, he breaks the pale
and feeds from home. …


Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit …
The folded meaning …
Against my soul's pure truth why labour you
To make it wander in an unknown field?


As with centaurs, each is credited with a sexual appetition or vigor which in the circumstances of the play takes on a nasty aspect. E. Antipholus, who has been “oftentimes upbraided” for attentions to a courtesan, proposes to renew them to spite his wife (3.1.107-121), while S. Antipholus, who by reason of the romantic exigencies of the plot cannot behave dishonorably in the matter of sex, can in the scene immediately following be shown as “in the spring of love” and upbraided for it as a vice (3.2.1-28). The twins' presence, like that of the centaurs in Ovid, leads to uproar, violence, and the utter bedevilment of the society in which they are harbored. Only, what in Ovid becomes a set piece of lengthily described carnage,16 in Shakespeare remains a comedy in which the theriomorphism is as much benign as malign, and in which death is no more than a potentiality and a metaphor.

There are several other ways in which the name Antipholus pulls together, and pulls into shape, thematic elements and image-groups. The ship-names in the play, Delay and Expedition, are frankly allegorical, but the house-names are a direct outgrowth from the Shakespearian mythopoeia. The most frequently mentioned of these is the Centaur. Near the beginning of the first Antipholus scene (1.2.9) and near the end of the last one (5.1.140), as well as at five places in between, S. Antipholus is shown to have chosen this for his lodgings. We are intended to imagine him throughout the play as based on a house having a sign-board “The Centaur.” The other twin likewise has a board over the house or shop where he lives saying “The Phoenix.” On the first, Foakes in the Arden edition comments simply, “Possibly a London inn bore the sign, but I have not found a reference to one” (1.2.9n.). Of the second he says that the Phoenix was the sign of a London tavern, but in this case he recognizes a symbolic value. “The image of this bird, rising out of its own ashes to renewed youth, is appropriate to the story of [E.] Antipholus and Adriana, whose love is finally renewed out of the break-up of their marital relationship” (1.2.75n.). It may incidentally be this, though at the end there is not a word in the text about renewal of love between this twin and his wife. Rather, each signboard directs attention to both twins. The Centaur symbolizes the deep-rooted confusion of identity incident to their twinhood, along with the various qualities of character which I have indicated. And play is made on the name. The indignant question of the Syracusan twin to Ephesian Dromio, “You know no Centaur?” (2.2.9) is nicely ambiguous, overtly referring to the house or inn, and covertly and unconsciously to himself. (It is a striking fact that neither Dromio has denied knowing a Centaur, though S. Antipholus thinks one of them has as good as done so). As for the Phoenix, associated with the later-appearing twin but visited by both, it symbolizes the sequel to the confusion, the rebirth or resurrection of the twinhood and of the whole family, what Aemilia pointedly calls “such Nativitie” (5.1.406, Folio reading). Shakespeare carries the symbolism a step further by balancing these two sign-boards against two others, the Tiger (3.1.95) and the Porpentine (3.1.116, etc.). Tiger and porcupine are more bristly and rebarbative than centaur and phoenix: suitable to be encountered amid the stresses of the developing action, but ultimately less germane to the twinhood than are the other two creatures. At the same time, tiger and porcupine are creatures belonging to real life, while centaur and phoenix belong only to myth, and herein once again the poet underlines the fact that his play has more to do with psychology than with history.

If an Antipholus with centaur-affinities has a scolding or would-be dominating wife, we might well expect to find her symbolically characterized as a rider, or perhaps to find a dispute as to which one shall ride. The play loses no time in making this point. In the first scene in which Adriana is mentioned—the same scene in which we are introduced to the Centaur inn—Dromio of Ephesus first relates her heated anger at her husband's non-appearance for dinner, and immediately afterwards refers to sixpence given him by her husband

To pay the saddler for my mistress' crupper.


That is, first we hear of her as a domineering, angry scold, and immediately afterwards as a rider. It is highly appropriate that the following scene should show her deep in discussion with her sister as to whether the male should or should not be the dominating partner in a marriage, and that within a few lines we have the imagery of “out o' door,” “bridle,” “asses,” directly applied to the question.

Why should their liberty than ours be more?
Because their business still lies out o' door.
Look, when I serve him so, he takes it ill.(17)
O, know he is the bridle of your will.
There's none but asses will be bridled so.


A closely-connected image-pattern, which runs through the middle Acts (not I and V), is the assimilation of the two Dromios to asses, with “malt-horse” (3.1.32) and “peevish sheep” (4.1.94) as nonce variations. The assification or asininity of the Dromios appears in passages too numerous to quote, but in this pointed example we see one of them not only assified but ridden:

Dromio, thou drone, thou snail, thou slug, thou sot.
S. Drom.
I am transformed, master, am I not?
S. Ant.
I think thou art in mind, and so am I.
S. Drom.
Nay, master, both in mind and in my shape.
S. Ant.
Thou hast thine own form.
S. Drom.
                                                                                                    No, I am an ape.
If thou art chang'd to aught, 'tis to an ass.
S. Drom.
'Tis true, she rides me, and I long for grass.


Revealingly, the other Dromio in turn seems to claim that he has been afflicted with similar asininity from the moment of birth:

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


The name Dromio, of course, means a runner, but it is only when we see him as servant to an anti-pholus that we get the full import of his characterization as a clopping ass.

Further image-patterns which come into focus as centaur-characteristics are those which describe rage, furor, and those which locate their subjects in infernal surroundings. These are ultimately, but perhaps indirectly or subconsciously, reminiscences of lines in such poets as Virgil and Statius describing the furentis Centauros … Pholumque (Georgics 2.455-456) or the centaurs and Aegaeon/Briareus along with other fabled creatures located at the entrance to Hades (Aeneid 6.286-287, Thebaid 4.535-537). Such lines give an added dimension to the cry “my master is horn-mad” (2.1.57), to the dazed question—

Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?


and to a lurid sequence later:

Where is thy master, Dromio? is he well?
S. Drom.
No, he's in Tartar limbo, worse than hell.
A devil in an everlasting garment hath him,
One whose hard heart is button'd up with steel;
A fiend, a fury, pitiless and rough …
One that, before judgment, carries poor souls to hell.


Before proceeding to the capstone of the present interpretation, it seems a duty to examine objections which might be raised (or rather, which have been raised by critics who saw advance copies of this essay), in the light of the argument so far. This may as well as be done methodically. Thus—

Objection: The name Antipholus is unusual, and may therefore be unintentional, as Baldwin supposed.

Answer: It is unusual, yes. That is why the compositor at first read it as, or altered it to, “Antipholis”—perhaps by vague recollection of some similar-sounding name such as Amphipolis. But after seeing it enough times he realized that “Antipholus” was indubitably the author's intention and from the end of Act II on adhered to this form, which is accepted as correct by all modern editors.

Objection: The overtones that are here suggested, such as anti-philia, anti-poleis, Phole/foal, twinhood, sonship, etc., are not proved.

Answer: The argument does not depend on the overtones. Overtones can never be “proved.” The argument is essentially concerned with the literal meaning of the actual name we have got, “Antipholus.” It accounts for this name. That is where Baldwin fails. Once the truth about the name is realized, the range of possible overtones can be left to discussion and to the judgment of the individual critic or reader.

Objection: Shakespeare's redende Namen are all English or close, and do not require classical knowledge for their proper appreciation.

Answer: “Dromio,” in this very play, requires such knowledge, being intended to suggest “runner, servus currens.” In other plays, names which require such knowledge are Perdita, Miranda, Iris (a Spirit in The Tempest), Ophelia (from ὠφελία), Desdemona (from δυsδαιμονία), and Titania (τιτήνη, queen). In the same way, the relations of Beatrice and Benedick (she who blesses, he who is blest) cannot be properly understood without a knowledge of Latin.

Objection: The Folio, in its early stage-directions, refers to the Syracusan twin as “Antipholis Erotes” or “Antipholis Errotis,” and the root of Erotes/Errotis, meaning “love,” supports deriving the twins' actual name from “Antiphilus,” with its implication of reciprocal dearness.

Answer: In the first place there is great uncertainty whether “Erotes/Errotis,” with its companion word in the Folio, “Sereptus,” is by Shakespeare at all. Both words are corrupt forms, and may be no more than ignorant expansions of an “E” and an “S” originally intended to mean Ephesian and Syracus(i)an. If Shakespeare did write the two words as they stand, he can only have intended them as additions to the Errors of which this is the Comedy. It has been recognized that “Sereptus” is a garbling of the Latin surreptus, “snatched away,” and that “Erotes” garbles some other Latin word meaning “wanderer.” Errans and erraticus have been suggested. Errator would do equally well, and so would the simple erro. (Any of these words could, on any occasion, be written with a single ‘r’ and a contraction mark above it. If the compositor found er(r)o he could, not recognizing it as a noun, have stuck on his -tes or -tis in the attempt to make it into one.) If the word had come from the root of eros, “love,” it would better have fitted the other twin, whose counterpart in Plautus is in love with the courtesan Erotium. But in any case erotic love does not have anything to do with the philia between the twins—and if it did have, it would apply to both twins, not just one.

Objection: The image of Adriana riding a centaur husband is awkward.

Answer: The image of a woman riding a horse-like creature who is in reality a man is ineluctably fixed by the line “'Tis true, she rides me, and I long for grass” (2.2.200). The speaker here thinks of himself as an ass, the servant of an Anti-pholus. For the idea of riding an actual centaur, see Ovid, Met. 12.401. Of course in a male chauvinist world the image of a wife in the saddle had something preposterous about it, and was meant to have.

Objection: In its formation the name does not conform to ancient onomastic principles, which did not allow an existing name to be compounded with a preposition—the only exception being in the case of theophoric names. Therefore, if “Antipholus” means what is claimed, Shakespeare has done something which no one has done, in antiquity or since, in fashioning a Greek name.

Answer: This objection misunderstands the position of Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance writers, who felt free to coin names which were out of accord with ancient Greek conventions and would have sounded strange to ancient Greek ears. Plautus, for example, has Plesidippus, Pamphilippus, Pseudolus, and Antamoenides, all of which are oddities by the Greek reckoning. And nearer Shakespeare's own time examples are legion: I need only cite Psychephonus, Menaphon, and (a name which Shakespeare certainly knew) Penelophon. Shakespeare himself—and in plays which are set in the pre-Christian world at that—has many names strange to antiquity, such as Cesimon, Dionyza, Dromio, Escanes, Helicanus, Lychorida, Philotus, Phrynia, and Thaisa. And in The Comedy of Errors he is not representing the classical Greek world at all, but a later or a never-never epoch in which Ephesus has a duke, an abbey, and ducats.

With regard to names compounded by prepositions and other prefixes, when Julius Caesar needed a name to express “counter to Cato,” he coined “Anticato,” and this is accepted by Plutarch as 'Αντικάτων. When Germain de Brie in 1519 needed a name to express “counter to Sir Thomas More,” he coined “Antimorus.” At about the same time, when an eminent Swiss doctor wanted to call himself “peer to Celsus,” he coined the name “Paracelsus.” This last is exceedingly like what Shakespeare has done. He was no more bound by ancient Greek rules than were Plautus, Caesar, or the men of the Renaissance.

However, if Shakespeare had wanted or needed more precise warrant, how far is it reasonable to suppose him to have gone into the theory of ancient Greek nomenclature? The rule cited was not formulated till long after his time, and in any case applied to Greek life rather than in Greek literature. But he could observe that when the Greeks needed a name meaning “counterpart to a father,” they coined “Antipatros.” When they needed “counterpart to eros or to Eros,” they coined “Anteros.” For “counterpart to Ares” they coined “Antares” (a star name), for “counterpart to Alcidas (Heracles)” they coined “Antalcides.” When St. John, or whoever wrote the first epistle ascribed to him, needed a name meaning “(perverse) counterpart of Christ,” he coined “Antichrist.” On this principle “counterpart to a centaur” would have been “Anticentaurus,” but this, besides being a mouthful, was both too crudely obvious and too un-namelike to serve Shakespeare's purpose. “Antipholus,” with the same meaning, is a very neat substitute; it is suitably un-obvious and it pulls in the direction of the shape and sound of real Greek names. “Pholus” is used for a typical centaur, much as Dickens in Our Mutual Friend has one of his characters repeatedly call another “Aaron,” to mean “typical Jew.” And the root pholo- had already been used to mean “centaur-related” in the passage of Virgil discussed above. That the prefix anti, when consciously compounded with actual names, is usually joined with a non-human, i.e., a divine name—this fact, had Shakespeare known it, would only have given “Antipholus” a greater appeal to him, because Pholus, a non-human, is the mythological paradigm, and almost the tutelary deity, in relation to whom the Antipholuses have their being.

The reason why the Greeks did not often consciously compound actual human names with prefixes is that in real life they did not often want to, anymore than we want names meaning “co-Smith” or “against Peter” or “un-Jimmy.” But when the need does occur, as it does in literature, Greek rises to the occasion. In a sense, Homer had led the way by compounding “Paris” with dys- to give “Dysparis,” and Euripides had followed suit with “Dys(h)elena.” In “Philopator,” “father-loving,” a name from real life, the second element is only a common noun. But what if one should want to say “Cleon-loving”? Aristophanes in a comedy did, and coined the name “Philocleon.” There were two ancient comedies named after characters called “Phileuripides.” And, to give a very close formal parallel to “Antipholus,” two other Greek comedies were named for a title-role “Antilais,” i.e., “counterpart to Lais,” Lais being a noted courtesan of circa 400 b.c. If we add to these cases that, scattered about ancient literature, there occur a mythological human called Paphus, another called Antipaphus, a Danaid called Phila, a girl's name Antiphila, a man's name Dorus and another man's name Antidorus; if there could be, as there were, a centaur called Medon and a philosopher called Antimedon; and when, besides all these seemingly (though not technically) pairable names, Greek confronted the Renaissance playwright with numerous other seeming pairs such as Leon and Antileon, Clymene and Periclymene, Chares and Antichares, Dia and Peridia, Menidas and Antimenidas, Theon and Protheon, it is surely going too far to ask that Shakespeare should have fathomed or cared about a rule which no dictionary or textbook of the times could tell him, and to say that he would therefore have abstained from coining “Antipholus” as here explained. Indeed, if he did divine such a rule, I think he would have been all the more set in his choice, since apart from its “theophoric” utility the name is chosen above all to underline confusion of persons. He would also relish the confusion the name has actually caused.

Final objection: The explanation given contributes little to the interpretation of the play.

Answer: As indicated just above, the man-horse image is chosen to underline the concept of confusion of identities on which the play turns, and it enriches the interpretation of almost every passage quoted hitherto, as well as establishing the significance of the Antipholuses in their topographical setting, a larger matter to which the rest of this paper will be devoted.

For the boldest and most spectacular leap of intuition which Shakespeare has made is to sense the propriety of introducing centaurs into a seascape. The questions which confront us here are: first, what is the ancient basis of this propriety? second, what conscious or subconscious associations could have prompted the poet's mind? and thirdly, how has he expressed and elaborated his idea?

As to propriety, centaurs are land-creatures, and attempts to explain them as, by origin, the spirits of mountain torrents have not really prospered; but for some reason—nobody knows exactly why—they seem to have been, as horses were, under the protection of the god of water and the sea. Poseidon, whose original function is somewhat obscure, may in prehistoric times have been “husband of the earth-goddess,”18 but in the classical period he is god of water, and especially the sea, where he reigns with his trident, and also—as Poseidon Hippios—god of horses, capable of assuming equine form himself and regarded as the begetter of several mythical steeds. Nilsson's idea19 that he became Hippios because the crests of waves bring to mind “white horses” is nowadays out of favor, and the real reason for the connection remains unexplained. As sea-god and, though more shakily, as horse-god, Rome and the Renaissance naturally equate him with Neptune. Now water and Poseidon both appear in the Pholus story. When the centaurs lost their battle with Hercules and were routed, some fled to the sea-cape called Malea, one to the river Evenus, and “as for the rest, Poseidon received them at Eleusis and hid them under a mountain.”20 In view of this it has surprised anthropologists that Poseidon does not figure among the progenitors of the centaurs. Although he does not, it is perhaps just worth remark that he, Aegaeon, and the centaur Chiron were closely related through Cronus (Kronos), and Aegaeon according to one tradition was the offspring of earth and sea.

There is, then, some still to be unraveled logic of myth behind the connection, but the logic of poetry does not wait upon anthropologists. Virgil had twice already adopted “centaur” as the name of a ship, and each time, in almost identical words, he pictures its long keel furrowing the deep salt sea (Aeneid 5.158; 10.197). On the first of these occasions, as we have already seen, the Centaur is in a race and its captain is rewarded with a maidservant Pholoe, who is nursing twins. In terms of topography, and also of imagery, Shakespeare makes his play a great waterscape or seascape in which the geographical poles—the “adverse towns” (antipoleis)—are the seaports of Syracuse and Ephesus, and the twins—the Syracusan and the Ephesian Antipholus—are the sons of Aegeon. In mythology Aegaeon is associated in his own right with the Aegean sea, and it has been noticed by others, and remarked above, that Shakespeare's mental route to the name was probably via Aegeus, from whom, according to a wellknown tradition, the Aegean sea actually received its name.21 Aegeus was son of Neptune, god of all the seas. The other principal sea between the western and eastern poles of this story is the Adrian or Adriatic, and it can hardly be accident that, while one of the twins lodges at the Centaur, the other is wedded to Adriana. This incidentally discredits Baldwin's idea, supported by a specious but invalid chain of reasoning, that Shakespeare imagined Epidamnum as lying close to Ephesus.22 Shakespeare's Epidamnum is the Plautine Epidamnus, and he left it where the latter was—on the Adriatic. It might be loosely described as on the Ionian Sea, the mare Ionium which lay between Magna Graecia and Greece proper, and perhaps extended to Crete, but it has nothing to do with Ionia, where Ephesus is, and to put it there robs Shakespeare of what is surely one of the romantic postulates of his story, that the original home, the break-up, and the reunion of the family should all be separated by wide stretches of sea.

The whole complex of water-imagery in the play, partly suggested by a phrase in Plautus, and used especially by and of the Antipholuses,—used in many ways but, above all, to image their loss of each other and of their identity—has been studied by others and need not be rehearsed at length again here. But how much more vividly apposite does it become when it is remembered that an antipholus is before all else a creature in whom two identities are confused and that the twins thus named are sons of an Aegeon who owes so much of his dramaturgical existence to the sea. A boast may be made of man, as a sex, that he is

Lord of the wide world and wild wat'ry seas,


but, part twin from twin, and he is anything but lord of the seas.

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.


Water separates. And water and water-spirits may flow contrary to the tenor and will of the individual soul:

O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note
To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears;
Sing, siren, for thyself. …


They may seem to lend that soul a new identity—“for I am thee” (3.2.66)23—though the agency of transformation may be mistrusted:

I'll stop my ears against the mermaid's song.


But water, as Adriana says, herein prefiguring the close of the play, can also unite beyond possibility of dissolution:

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.


When, from the end of the play, we look back, we see that an antipholus is something less than lord of the seas, something more than a negligible drop of water. Yet he is conformable to the seas' element, riding out the storm.

An instinct like Shakespeare's recurs, in a very different medium, in Maurice de Guérin, a young French writer of the nineteenth century whom Matthew Arnold singled out for his “truly interpretative faculty.” In his work Le Centaure de Guérin set his imagination to consider what account an aged centaur might give of himself to a human being. Here is part of his picture:

I had my birth in the caves of these mountains. Like the stream of this valley, whose first drops trickle from some weeping rock in a deep cavern, the first moment of my life fell in the darkness of a remote abode, and without breaking the silence … Sometimes, too, my mother came back to me, having about her the odours of the valleys, or streaming from the waters which were her haunt. Her returning thus, without a word said of the valleys or rivers, but with the emanation of them hanging about her, troubled my spirit, and I moved up and down restlessly in my darkness … Wandering along at my own will like the rivers, feeling wherever I went the presence of Cybele, … I bounded whither I would … But when Night overtook me on the slopes of the mountains, she guided me to the mouth of the caverns, and there tranquilized me as she tranquilizes the billows of the sea … The sea-gods, it is said, quit during the hours of darkness their palaces under the deep; they seat themselves on the promontories, and their eyes wander over the expanse of the waves. Even so I kept watch, having at my feet an expanse of life like the hushed sea … I have sometimes believed that I was about to surprise the thought of the sleeping Cybele … but I have never made out more than sounds which faded away … or words inarticulate as the bubbling of the rivers … ‘O Macareus,’ one day said the Great Chiron to me, ‘… Seekest thou to know the gods … and from what source men, animals, and the elements of the universal fire have their origin? But the aged Ocean, the father of all things, keeps locked within his breast these secrets; and the nymphs … sing as they weave their eternal dance before him, to cover any sound’ … For me, … I decline into my last days … I linger … to see come up from the horizon the rainy Hyades, the Pleiades, or the great Orion; I feel myself perishing and passing quickly away, like a snow-wreath floating on the stream; and soon I shall be mingled with the waters which flow in the vast bosom of Earth.24

That is how de Guérin's instinct sees a centaur. He sees him on land, but in a kind of poetic waterscape, and destined to be received at length into “the waters which flow in the vast bosom of Earth”—to be received, in fact, by Poseidon, lord of river, sea, and ocean, under the hill. And when, in our own day, Pablo Picasso sketched his idea of a how a centaur should look, he portrayed him armed, not with boulder and not with a bough, but with a trident.25


  1. T. W. Baldwin, On the Compositional Genetics of The Comedy of Errors (Urbana 1965) vii.

  2. As noted by R. A. Foakes, ed.: Arden Edition of Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors5 (Cambridge, Mass. 1962) 2. All quotations from the play will be made from this edition.

  3. Baldwin (above, note 1) 100-102, cf. the same writer's William Shakespere's Five-Act Structure (Urbana 1963) 695-697.

  4. Foakes (above, note 2) 2.

  5. Strabo 3.5.3.

  6. Apollodorus 2.5.4. Diodorus 4.12.3-8 goes into more detail.

  7. Apollodorus 2.5.4; Diodorus 4.12.8.

  8. G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (Cambridge, Berkeley, and Los Angeles 1970) 157-158, and see whole context.

  9. Baldwin, Five-Act Structure (above, note 3) 685-686 points out the relevance of Aegeus/Aegean to the play. For the Aegaeon/Aegean connection see Stat. Ach. 1.207-210, Theb. 5.288-289.

  10. Another passage where twins and a centaur are found closely together (though the meaning is different) is Lucan 9.536-537, where Geminis, Chiron, and Aegoceros occur within the space of two lines.

  11. Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York 1965) 78. Cf. Eleanor Winsor Leach, “Meam Quom Forman Noscito: Language and Characterization in the Menaechmi,Arethusa 2 (1969) 30-45, esp. 43 n. 1.

  12. As by Frye: see reference in previous note.

  13. Cf. Kirk (above, note 8) 152-162, esp. 157-158.

  14. Iliad 2.743.

  15. Cf. Kirk (above, note 8) 160.

  16. Ovid, Met. 12.210-535.

  17. Foakes wrongly places a comma after “look.” There is none in the Folio, and “look when” is, as often, equivalent to “whenever.”

  18. H. J. Rose and C. M. Robertson in OCD2 s.v. Poseidon.

  19. M. P. Nilsson, A History of Greek Religion,2 tr. F. J. Fielden (New York 1964) 121.

  20. Apollodorus 2.5.4.

  21. See note 9 above for both Aegeus and Aegaeon. Juv. 13.81 summarily makes Neptune father of the Aegean sea.

  22. Baldwin, Compositional Genetics (above, note 1) 147-158, 361; cf. Five-Act Structure (above, note 3) 687.

  23. Foakes (above, note 2) 3.2.66 n. and Introduction xliii.

  24. Maurice de Guérin, Le Centaure (1840). The translation given is that of M. Arnold in his essay on de Guérin originally published in 1865. It is here cited from his Lectures and Essays in Criticism, ed. R. H. Super (Ann Arbor 1962) 36-39. For de Guérin's “truly interpretative faculty,” see p. 15.

  25. The Picasso picture is now at the Musée Grimaldi, Antibes. A copy of it may be seen on the book-jacket of Kirk (above, note 8), who, however, passes over the trident in silence.

Laurie Maguire (essay date 1997)

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

[In the following excerpt, Maguire presents an overview of The Comedy of Errors that elucidates the drama's structural use of pairing and opposition in relation to its theme of marriage and its depiction of the female characters Adriana and Luciana.]

In adapting Roman source material (Plautus' Amphitryo and Menaechmi) for The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare made two particularly significant changes: he doubled the number of twins, and he changed the setting from Epidamnus to Ephesus. Critics frequently observe the effects of these changes. The first increases “the incidents of error in the play from seventeen to fifty”1 for, although the resident twin in Menaechmi can be mistaken, there is no one whom he can mistake; and the second introduces the occult, Ephesian deception, sorcery, “emphasizing witchcraft instead of Plautine thievery.”2 Both changes seem to me to be linked, relating to Shakespeare's investigation of duplicity (in both its literal sense of doubleness and its metaphoric sense of deceit), and his analysis of marriage, that institution in which “two become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31).

Although my departure point is source material (Shakespeare's decision to change location and double the twins), my destination is women and marriage in The Comedy of Errors, for Ephesus is associated with a pair of models for female conduct (one independent, one submissive) whose polarity resonates throughout the play in the characters of Adriana and Luciana. I want to approach this subject through a survey of binaries in Errors in order to accentuate a critical mode (thinking and seeing with double vision) which may prove useful in my subsequent discussion of Ephesian women. In considering the conditions of Adriana's marriage, and the thematic double to which they lead—the “double standard,” which Adriana protests against in her rhetorical question, “Why should their liberty than ours be more?”—this essay will also focus on twentieth-century stage treatments of Adriana and her society. My subject, then, is not “the boy(s) from Syracuse” (although the play is presented from the viewpoint of the Syracusans)3 but “the girls from Ephesus.”


It is impossible to talk about The Comedy of Errors without invoking duality, polarity, antithesis, symbiosis, fusion, binary oppositions. Shakespeare combines Pauline and Plautine sources, mixing one of antiquity's most spiritual writers with one of its most salacious. He gives us two kinds of supernatural power, the prestigidatory exorcisms of Dr. Pinch and the holistic religion of the Abbess. He explores two kinds of personality loss, the negative in the fragmentation caused by grief, the positive in the sublimation of love.4 Lodgings are characterised by division and duality: the Centaur (half man, half beast) and the Phoenix (death and rebirth). There are two lock-out scenes, one each for husband (Antipholus of Ephesus) and wife. Emendations by Hanmer and Johnson notwithstanding, the play ends most fittingly, as it began, with a double birth:

And you, the calendars of their nativity,
Go to a gossips' feast, and go with me—
After so long grief, such nativity!

(5.1.405-07; my italics)5

“Who deciphers them?” asks the Duke of the two Antipholi (5.1.335), adopting a verb from reading practice, the compare-and-contrast exercise of the interpretive critic, the collation work of the editor. The characters come only belatedly to a critical mode forced upon the audience from the beginning.

Egeon's romance narrative frames the central scenes of farce, prompting Charles Whitworth to describe the generic hybrid as “two works living under one title.”6 The Antipholus twins (also, we note, two works living under one title7) have antimeric experiences: Antipholus of Syracuse has a “delightful dream,” Antipholus of Ephesus a “nightmare”;8 Antipholus of Syracuse is afraid of foreigners, Antipholus of Ephesus is disoriented by a domestic threat; Antipholus of Syracuse is welcomed and recognized, Antipholus of Ephesus is rejected and denied. These inverse parallels also find expression within individual characters. Thus, Adriana catalogues her husband's faults but concedes, “I think him better than I say” (4.2.25); Luciana has two speeches on marital relations, the first of which offers a text-book defence of female subservience, the second “a picture less of cosmic determinism than circumstantial pragmatism.”9

Appropriately, the linguistic medium of this play is paradox and the pun (those figures wherein two opposites co-exist) and duplication. Antipholus of Syracuse decides to entertain “sure uncertainty” (2.2.185) and employs, as Karen Newman points out, antithesis, anaphora, chiasmus.10 Adriana finds conceit to be both her “comfort and [her] injury” (4.2.66). Egeon is asked to “speak … griefs unspeakable,” and gives a narrative filled with paradox: pregnancy is a “pleasing punishment,”11 marine disaster separates the family leaving husband and wife “what to delight in, what to sorrow for” (1.1.32, 46, 106). Dromio of Syracuse offers the sage tautology “every why hath a wherefore” (2.2.43-4), only to find his master responding in kind: he beats Dromio twice, “first—for flouting me, and then … / For urging it the second time” (2.2.44-6). The puns, so often dismissed as the rhetorical embellishments of a youthful Shakespeare, are, as Grennan points out, the linguistic equivalents of the play's dual subjects; thus, when identity is reestablished and family reunited in Act 5, the puns all but disappear and language is “restored to a happy singularity.”12

It is fitting, if only serendipitously so, that the textual cruces, such as they are, in this single-text play (the only authority for which is the Folio) relate to duplicity (see note 5) and division. Adriana's sister is given two names (Iuliana in stage direction [speech prefix: Iulia.] on her appearance in 3.2 (TLN 786-7), Luciana elsewhere). The first is possibly a compositor's misreading of the second, or an authorial change of mind; whatever the cause, the Folio text preserves a divided identity for Luciana, as for her sister, brother-in-law, and future husband. Adriana's kitchen-maid has also made division of herself. Introduced as “Luce” on her first appearance at 3.1.47 (TLN 670), she is elsewhere rechristened “Nell,” apparently for the sake of a pun at 3.2.109-10 (TLN 900-901); this, like the later “Dowsabel” (4.1.110), is most plausibly a local improvisation of Dromio's and, appearing only in dialogue, does not confuse.13

Following McKerrow's “Suggestion,” textual critics have long confidently believed that the manuscript copy underlying the printed text of Errors is authorial “foul papers.”14 The titles which distinguish the Antipholi vary (and are easily confused with the consistent titles which distinguish the Dromios) before settling into consistency in Act 3; furthermore stage directions provide narrative information unnecessary for a prompter (e.g. “Enter … a Schoole / master, call'd Pinch”; TLN 1321-2) and hence assumed to be the literary explanations of an author. Paul Werstine has recently disputed this assumption, showing that when “one addresses the stage directions of Comedy of Errors with questions about whether their origin is authorial or theatrical, one finds that they offer divided testimony.15 “Foul papers” and “promptbooks,” it seems, like the Antipholi, may be mistaken for each other. Confusion and duplication are inherent in all aspects of this play.

Needless to say, productions capitalize on such doubling, underlining the thematic with the visual. In the Regent's Park production in 1981 (directed by Ian Talbot), Dr. Pinch was cast against the text16: a stocky actor, described as a “lean-fac'd villain,” a “mere anatomy,” a “needy hollow-ey'd, sharp-looking wretch,” a “living dead man” (5.1.238-42) served as a reminder that, as in the case of Antipholus of Syracuse, verbal identification may be at odds with reality. The Luce of the Folio became two maids in Trevor Nunn's 1976 RSC production, a spherical kitchen-maid (Nell), affianced to Dromio of Ephesus, and a tall, slim maid (Luce), servant to Adriana, who was subsequently paired off with Dromio of Syracuse. In the 1990 RSC production (directed by Ian Judge), the First Merchant (1.2) was not one but two, dressed identically, sharing lines and speaking in unison. In the same production the Antipholi and the Dromios became one, “each pair … played … by one actor in two minds about the whole thing” (Daily Express, 30 April 1990), although a double was necessary for the reunion of the last scene.17 This production presented Dr. Pinch as a fairground performer who encased the “possessed” Ephesian master and man in wooden boxes and sawed them in half. Thus, in demonstrating his showmanship, Dr. Pinch inadvertently symbolised the twins' divided states.

Productions also draw attention to the similarities between Errors and the late plays. The Manchester Royal Exchange production in 1993 had the enthroned Duke descend from on high to hear Egeon and pronounce sentence: one felt as if one were hearing an early Shakespearean comedy but watching a late Shakespearean romance. Romance is, as often observed, a narrative genre, and in Pericles, for example, the characters themselves frequently resort to story-telling as if narration will alleviate their woes. Thus Cleon asks his wife

My Dionyza, shall we rest us here,
And by relating tales of others' griefs,
See if 'twill teach us to forget our own?


The Comedy of Errors has several narrative high-spots—the woes of Egeon, Adriana, and Antipholus of Ephesus, for example (1.1.31-139; 5.1.136-160; 5.1.214-54). In most productions it is clearly the power of Egeon's narrative which motivates the Duke's (relative) leniency in 1.1.18 Dromio of Ephesus also has an opportunity to relate his griefs (4.4.29-39). In Clifford Williams' 1962 production for the RSC, Dromio addressed his complaint to the officer, who sat down leisurely to hear this latest narrative.

Williams' production also showed itself most fully aware of the conventions of the romance dénouement with its reliance on an item of personal jewellery to clear up confusions. Antipholus of Ephesus seized gratefully on the Courtesan's introduction of the ring: “'Tis true, my liege, this ring I had of her” (5.1.278). The action was halted for relieved exclamations, examination of the ring, and attendant stage business, all of which clearly had the status of conclusion for Antipholus. Only when the Courtesan introduced the new complication—that she had seen Antipholus enter the Abbey—did the tone change, the happy ending vanishing as Antipholus fainted.

Thus, productions, sources, text, language, genre, and theme combine to make sure that we view Errors with double vision, that we look both back and ahead, that we think in duplicate, seeing Pericles as we watch Errors, hearing St. Paul as we see Plautus, observing language, identity, families, and genres fragment and unite. Although confusion is inherent in Shakespeare's Plautine sources, duplication on this scale is not.

Nowhere are the duplications and polarities more evident than in the play's discussion of marriage, an institution which is both spiritual and social, sometimes both romantic and farcical; an institution which cruelly reverses the rhetoric and power of courtship, transforming the worshipping male servant into household master and the female mistress into obedient conjugal servant; an institution in which personalities may struggle for individuality or unity (or both); an institution in which one's most intimate companion can sometimes seem a stranger. Adriana inhabits a society which does not permit her the wry bluntness of the twentieth century (“Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?”), but she anticipates this image of restraint in her dialogue with Luciana:

[H]e [Antipholus] is the bridle of your will.
There's none but asses will be bridled so.


Adriana's marital predicament, in which “bridal” doubles with “bridle,” is clearly another of the play's dominant binaries, but it has received less attention than it deserves. Wells dismisses it in a generalisation (“the wife is brought to an understanding of flaws in her relationship with her husband”) and Ralph Berry makes it but an introduction to another subject: “There is domestic drama, certainly, in the tensions between Adriana and her husband. … More interesting, perhaps, is the master and servant relationship.”19 C. L. Barber and Germaine Greer are in a critical minority in articulating the complex dualities in the topic: marriage's “irritations and its strong holding power” (Barber), the difficulty of “creating a durable social institution out of volatile material of lovers' fantasies” (Greer).20



Given the thematic emphasis on twinning, doubling, fusion, it is appropriate that Paul's letter to the Ephesians contains advice about marriage, that state in which “two become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31). Identical twins, separate but the same, provide an ideal metaphor for the theme of division and reconciliation, not just of two pairs of siblings but of two pairs of marriage partners. One marriage (that of Egeon-Emilia) is disrupted by external hostility (shipwreck), the other by internal (domestic) strife; both marriages are characterised by separation (Egeon is a Renaissance commercial traveller, Antipholus a straying husband), and both wives object to their husbands' absence (Emilia makes provision to follow her spouse [1.1.47-8], Adriana protests).

Marriage is a difficult business to negotiate (I use both noun and verb advisedly). Both Adriana and Antipholus refer to their marriage as an arranged marriage. Antipholus describes Adriana as the woman “whom thou [the Duke] gav'st to me to be my wife” (5.1.198), a reference made independently by Adriana: “Antipholus my husband, / Who I made lord of me and all I had, / At your [the Duke's] important letters” (5.1.136-8). Adriana, it is implied at 5.1.161-4, was the Duke's reward to Antipholus for military service.

Marriage may be a transaction, the woman an object traded by men, but it also, paradoxically, as far removed from transaction as is possible: a holy union, characterised by mutual spiritual giving. Thus St. Paul: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 4:21). The commercial and the spiritual seem strange bedfellows (as it were) but they are no more paradoxical than the dramatic hybrid which results from Shakespeare's Pauline and Plautine sources. Shakespeare negotiates the thematic and generic tensions in his disparate source material to create a successful partnership.21 Adriana has more trouble synthesising polarities.

Adriana's difficulty derives in part from a duality in Renaissance attitudes to women. Viewed as both divine and dangerous, women and their beauty could lead men to an appreciation of higher things (the spiritually beautiful, the celestial) or to physical temptation (lust, gratification, damnation). Both extremes of these female stereotypes are represented in Errors. The love-stricken Antipholus of Syracuse employs the vocabulary of the worshipping Petrarchan wooer: “your grace,” “more than earth divine,” “Are you a god?” are the terms he uses for the resisting Luciana in 3.2. In the contrasting episode, which follows immediately, Dromio of Syracuse describes his pursuit by the sexual Luce in the language of demonology: Luce “haunts” him, she is a “diviner” [witch], she knows “what privy marks” he has, so that he “amaz'd, ran from her as a witch” (3.2.144). The common root of these two women's names (Luce and Luciana) shows that the demonic female (the diviner who would possess the male) and the divine female (the goddess whom the male wishes to possess) are but two sides of the same female stereotype.

This duality is pushed further in Errors with the representation of the demonic and divine two female stereotypes by the professional extremes: by the Courtesan (whom Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse characterize as “Sathan,” “Mistress Sathan,” “the devil,” “the devil's dam”: 4.3.48-51)22 and by the Abbess (characterized in dialogue as “a virtuous and a reverend lady”: 5.1.134). Emilia's dual role as procreative mother and chaste Abbess (during a surely significant period of thirty-three years, the number of years Christ lived on earth23) links her even more obviously with that other chaste mother, the Virgin Mary. Adriana attempts to unite both extremes, attending to her husband's body and soul: she offers dinner/sex and confession (“Husband, I'll dine above with you to-day, / And shrive you of a thousand idle pranks”; 2.2.207-08).

Whether Adriana offers Antipholus of Syracuse dinner or sex is, in fact, a moot point. Stanley Wells views the rendezvous as innocent: “Shakespeare raises the moral tone by substituting the dinner party of Menaechmi for the bedroom setting of Amphitruo.24 However, there is an association between food and sex (the former a metaphor for the latter) in the brothel scene in Pericles,25 and Ralph Berry suggests that the “audience would … receive the impression of sexual congress behind locked doors.”26

“Your cake here is warm within: you stand here in the cold” says Dromio of Ephesus to his master (3.1.71), where “cake” euphemistically indicates “woman,” and the scene concludes with “standard slang for sexual entry,” Antipholus' decision to “knock elsewhere” since his “own doors refuse to entertain [him].”27

Certainly, the argument from stage symbolism is persuasive: “the house [was] perceived from earliest times as the coding for woman, and the knocking at the gates, the male attempts at entry.”28 This is the symbolism in plays as diverse as Lysistrata (where the women deny their husbands sex, and lock themselves in the Acropolis only to be threatened by phallic weapons) and Henry 5 where Henry's invasion of France is analogous to his conquest of Catherine. “Enter our gates, dispose of us and ours, / For we no longer are defensible” says the yielding Governor on the walls of Harfleur (3.3.49-50) in a line no less appropriate to the Princess. However, practical considerations may support the notion of culinary rather than sexual offerings. Luciana chaperones the meeting; given Antipholus of Syracuse's fear of Adriana and love of her sister, it seems unlikely that he would engage in sexual intimacies with his hostess; and in the Shakespeare canon adultery is not the comic matter that fornication is.29 What is clear is that Adriana's attempt to unite female physicality and divinity involves ministering to her supposed husband's body and soul: she provides dinner (or its less euphemistic equivalent) and confession. For Adriana, wifehood is a fusion of two opposing female stereotypes.

“Why should their liberty than ours be more?” Adriana protests in 2.1, the noun subtly hinting at the kind of freedom men enjoy, that in which they visit the Liberties.30 Elizabethan marriage may be a mixture of otium (the social niceties of leisurely dinners) and negotium (“If thou didst wed her for her wealth”), but Antipholus looks elsewhere for Erotium. I choose the word deliberately, for Shakespeare elects not to: Erotium is the name of the Courtesan whom the resident twin visits in Menaechmi. In The Comedy of Errors the Courtesan is “pretty and witty; wild” (3.1.110), a provider of hospitality (“thanks for my good cheer”: 5.1.393), a woman “of excellent discourse” (3.1.109). Critics remind us that discourse is not what courtesans were renowned for; but in Greek society hetairai certainly were. High-class escorts (“hetaira” literally means “companion”), distinct from concubines, prostitutes in brothels, or streetwalkers, hetairai provided intellectual conversation as equals, socialising with men at dinner and drinking parties.31 By turning Antipholus' sexual and social needs into a business, the Courtesan in Errors achieves outside marriage what Adriana has not managed within: the fusion of otium, negotium, erotium.

Lest we be in danger of admiring her for this, Shakespeare qualifies the Courtesan's triumph in two ways: he makes her the only deliberate deceiver in a play of chance; and he denies her a name. The play concludes with baptism, that act of naming which bestows identity, strengthens family, celebrates society. For as long as she is nameless, the Courtesan is kept outside that society.

Onomastics in The Comedy of Errors are not without thematic or character relevance. “Egeon” recalls the father of Theseus who gave his name to the Aegean Sea, drowning himself from grief at the (supposed) loss of his son. Luciana is associated with light (from the Latin lux) and Lucian, that exposer of follies (cf. the role of Lucian in Titus Andronicus). Angelo is an apt name for a goldsmith, angels being gold coins. Adriana, as indicated above, is the female form of Hadrian, the Roman ruler from whom the Adriatic Sea takes its name; Adriana also appears in Chaucer and Gower as a variant of Ariadne, the princess whom Theseus abandoned on Naxos and Dionysus subsequently wed.32 Ariadne thus has a dual aspect—the mourner and the joyful bride—a duality inherent in another etymology of Adriana as the female form of Janus, the two-faced god.

The kitchen-maid Luce, as we have seen, is also referred to as “Nell.”33 Although Shakespeare uses “Nell” as an abbreviation for Eleanor in 2 Henry 6, he also views it as an abbreviation for Helen: Paris twice calls Helen of Troy by this homely diminutive in Troilus and Cressida. There are more Helens in Shakespeare than there are Eleanors, and they may provide a clue as to how to view the kitchen-maid in Errors. One dominant pattern stands out, that of the sexually assertive female who pursues her chosen mate. Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream trails Demetrius through the wood outside Athens, a role reversal of which she is only too aware: “Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex. / We cannot fight for love, as men may do. / We should be woo'd, and were not made to woo.” (MND 2.1.240-2). This generalisation, in which she moves from the impropriety of her own behaviour to that of all women, illustrates her awareness of society's automatic reaction in which her weakness “will be taken as female weakness rather than as an individual weakness.”34

The link between individual transgression and female transgression was, in fact, already implicit in the Renaissance in the name Helen, by association with Menelaus' Helen, who accompanied Paris to Troy (whether by force or choice is open to doubt, but the Renaissance assumed her willing compliance). In Troilus and Cressida Thersites presents Helen in unflattering terms (a “whore,” a “placket”) and Shakespeare continually associates the name with female sexual eagerness. Critics note that Helena in All's Well That Ends Well seems more eager to lose her virginity than is deemed proper for a heroine. In conversation with Parolles she defends the female right to have and enjoy sex, and subsequently engages in a marathon cross-country pursuit of a man who does nothing to encourage her: she follows Bertram to Paris (a destination with classical overtones), before conveniently arriving in Florence (where Bertram is) despite her intention of travelling to the shrine of St. Jacques le Grand in Spain. To this sexually assertive trio—the Helens of Midsummer Night's Dream, Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well—we must add another Helen, Mistress Quickly (“Nell”) of Henry 4 and 5, whose vocabulary is full of unintentional sexual innuendo. Shakespeare's Helens/Nells are cast in the same mould. To Shakespeare, it seems, all Nells are loose; in The Comedy of Errors Nell is both loose and Luce.

The dramatis personae in Errors are aware of the way in which name confers identity. Dromio of Syracuse reacts noticeably to his finding out the name of the kitchen-maid; he comments on her name and uses it immediately in apostrophe: “if thy name be called Luce—Luce, thou hast answer'd him well” (3.1.52-3). Dromio's master, Antipholus of Syracuse, reacts similarly to not finding out the name of Luciana. His opening apostrophe and ensuing comment (“Sweet mistress—what your name is else, I know not”; 3.2.29) implies that he would use her Christian name if he could. The fact that Adriana identifies the Syracusans by their names is taken as proof that she does recognize and know them (“How can she thus then call us by our names, / Unless it be by inspiration?”: 2.2.166-7) although, as confusions escalate, both Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse grow more hesitant in assuming that name and identity are synonymous. “Do you know me, sir? Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?” asks Dromio in anguish at 3.2.73-4. His master reassures him “Thou art Dromio, thou art my man, thou art thyself” (75) but just 100 lines later he is unable to apply the same confidence to his own situation. “Master Antipholus,” hails the goldsmith at 3.2.165; “Ay, that's my name” is Antipholus' guarded response.35 In a play which is sensitive to names—their meanings and their confusions—the anonymity of a courtesan who is named in the source is conspicuous.

In the reunion of Act 5 Antipholus of Syracuse immediately identifies his father as Egeon, and Egeon and Emilia exchange first names five times in their first six lines of dialogue (5.1.342-7). Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana have no opportunity to use Christian names in the last scene, as Shakespeare does not provide them with a dialogue opportunity for reconciliation. Their marriage is, as Leggatt observes, “quietly placed in the background and no great hopes are pinned on it.”36

The only grounds for optimism lie in the Courtesan's anonymity in a play whose conclusion stresses rebirth and baptism, a gossips' feast, and in the fact that the Courtesan is not included in the final pairing-off (although the BBC production does match her with the Duke). Any optimism is necessarily limited, however, by the fact that Antipholus of Ephesus has more to say to the Courtesan than he does to his wife: he addresses the Courtesan in ten words (“There take it [the ring], and much thanks for my good cheer”), of which the last six may be a termination of a relationship, a salacious reminiscence, or a genuine expression of gratitude. The husband-wife reunion must be realised on stage wordlessly, if at all.

Directors rise to this interpretive challenge. A happy ending is most easily suggested by the simple expedient of Antipholus giving his wife the promised chain so that objects, as identities, are restored to their rightful owners. (Although the BBC Antipholus does give his wife the chain—a large, heart-shaped pendant—his emotional discomfort at the family reunion is made clear by the uncertain looks which pass between himself and Adriana.) Adriana's question, “And are not you my husband?” (5.1.371) is addressed not to her husband but to her dinner companion, Antipholus of Syracuse. She posed the question in resigned sadness in Clifford Williams' production, already aware of the negative answer she would receive, and in urgent desperation in the 1983 RSC production, willing the answer to be positive. This latter production gave Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana an embrace into which Adriana drew Dromio of Ephesus, showing the importance of servants to the family unit in early modern England. Adriana then moved to exit with her sister; Antipholus pulled his wife back to him but she slowly propelled her husband in the direction of his twin. Deliberately eschewing or postponing a marital reunion, this Adriana showed (as does Shakespeare's dialogue) that the reestablishment of the family unit—parents/children, sibling/sibling—was to take precedence over conjugal communion. Her actions with servant and husband left her firmly, if a trifle regretfully, in control of tone.

This Adriana's inclusion of Dromio in the embrace reminded us, albeit in an affectionately twentieth-century way, that the Elizabethan household was an extended family unit. The master-husband held sway over a group of social subordinates: wife, children, servants. The link between the treatment of wives and servants is seen in the linguistic instruction offered by a husband and a ruler in an early comedy and a late romance, respectively. In The Taming of the Shrew 4.5 Petruchio “teaches” his wife the difference between the sun and the moon.37 In The Tempest Prospero gives his slave Caliban the same lesson. He teaches Caliban “how / To name the bigger light, and how the less, / That burn by day and night”; as a result, Caliban tells him, “I lov'd thee” (1.2.335-6).

Marriage may be a spiritual world-without-end bargain, a selfless service; but it may also be little better than slavery. As More's Raphael reminds us, the difference between service and servitude “is only a matter of one syllable.”38 In The Tempest, Ferdinand, in service to Prospero, takes pleasure in a “mean task” which would be as “heavy … as odious” were it not for Miranda's sympathy and love (3.1.1-15); his heart is a willing “slave” to Miranda (3.1.66). This love leads Ferdinand to enter Miranda's service in marriage, paradoxically “with a heart as willing / As bondage e'er of freedom” (3.1.88-9). Miranda, reciprocating Ferdinand's feelings, mirrors his vocabulary: “I'll be your servant” (3.1.85). In contrast, Helen in All's Well That Ends Well does not enjoy reciprocal love, and the consequences are voiced by Diana: “'Tis a hard bondage to become the wife / Of a detesting lord” (3.5.64-5). Thus, marriage may be a pleasurable bondage or a hard bondage, service or servitude.

In Errors Luciana counsels her sister in obedience, patience, and the domestic hierarchy which makes men “masters to their females” (2.1.24); Adriana responds with sisterly sarcasm, “This servitude makes you to keep unwed.” Servitude, asses, bridled: these are the terms Adriana associates with married life. Renaissance matrimony can indeed be “hard bondage” for the female because Renaissance culture associates wives with servants. In the letter in which Paul counsels wives to be obedient to husbands, he also advises servants to be obedient to their masters (Ephesians 6:5-9). Claudius Hollyband links the two social inferiors in a succinct aphorism: “he is happie which hath a good servant, and a good wife.”39 Before continuing with Adriana we need to consider servants and service.


The Elizabethan household, like Elizabethan life, was hierarchical. Husbands ruled over wives who ruled over children; at the bottom of this pecking order came servants. However, my generalisation distorts, flattening as it does the permutations possible. Thus in many instances servants were viewed as a variant of children, not inferior beings but dependents. In Claudius Hollyband's dialogue, The Citizen at Home, the Father's admonition to his servant William reminds one more of parental frustration than employer's dissatisfaction: “William, give here some bread … you will never learn to serve; why do you not lead it with a trencher plate, and not with the hand? I have told it to you above an hundred times.”40 At the other extreme is the treatment which William Gouge describes: “Sometimes Masters offend in the quality of that foode which thay give to their servants, as when it is kept too long, and grone musty, mouldy, or otherwise unsavory: or when the worst kind of foode, for cheapnesse sake, is bought, evene such as is scarce fit for mans meat.”41 Given an inferior diet, servants were thus daily reminded that they “did not belong to their employer's family.”42 Although masters were expected to care for their servants, attending to their physical and spiritual needs and caring for them when ill, Thomas Becon's admonition makes it clear that many masters did not behave in this way. Becon corrects those who “curse, and lame them [servants], cast dishes and pots at their heads, beat them, put them in danger of their life.”43 Compare Vives, whose discussion of the treatment of wives by husbands illuminates the treatment of servants by masters: “some [husbands] there be, that through evyll and rough handelynge and in threatenynge of their wives, have them not as wives, but as servauntes.”44

The Elizabethans understood the term “family” more in the sense of domestic household than sentimental attachments. The components of this household are made clear in Gouge's Treatises on Domestical Duties (an exegesis on Ephesians) which outlines the duties of three sets of people: Wives-Husbands, Children-Parents, Servants-Masters. Treatise 7, “Duties of Servants,” stresses the importance of obedience, referring the reader to the previous treatises on wives and children for the reasons why obedience is desirable: “The reasons alleged to move wives and children to obey, ought much more to move servants” (p. 613). In section 36 (p. 645), “Of servants endeavour to make their judgement agree with their masters,” the reader is referred to Gouge's precepts for other inferiors since the same principle applies. Antipholus of Syracuse corrects his man's behaviour, reminding Dromio that the servant should “fashion [his] demeanor to my looks” (2.2.33), a classic textbook rule for wives: “it beseemes an honest wife to frame her selfe to her husbands affect, and not to be merry, when he is melancholy, not iocund when he is sad, much less fliere when hee is angry.”45

Although social historians are unsure about the extent of the similarity between the roles of servant and wife in the early modern period, in one startling criminal category servants and wives were yoked together. Husband-killing and master-killing were both classified as petty treason. Masters feared betrayal from within, insubordination by servant or wife, those whom Frances E. Dolan characterises as “dangerous familiars.” Petty treason embodies the fear “that the other and the enemy might be the person who makes your fire, prepares your food and lodges in your own cell.”46

Antipholus of Ephesus perceives himself as betrayed by both wife and servant. His wife bars him from the house, his house. His servant purloins a bag of gold, his gold. And both servant and wife compound the villainy by denial. Adriana: “I did not, gentle husband, lock thee forth”; Dromio of Ephesus: “And, gentle master, I receiv'd no gold” (4.4.98-9). Adriana transgresses, albeit unknowingly, by inviting a lover and a strange servant into the marital home; she commits infractions of mensa and possibly of thoro, welcoming the ersatz husband to her table and, perhaps, her bed. Alice Arden did as much and was burned at the stake for her sins.

But Shakespeare is not interested in petty treason—this is a comedy of errors, not of murders47—so much as he is in the parallels between two sets of relationships: master-servant and husband-wife. We see more of the former relationship than we do of the latter; this is perhaps why Ralph Berry views the master-servant relationship as of more interest (see note 19). Berry fails to realize, however, that we are invited to consider Antipholus-Adriana by analogy with Antipholus-Dromio. Which Antipholus-Dromio? Both. The two Antipholus-Dromio relationships, very different, provide us with two possible paradigms of marriage.

If the literature of the period associates wives with servants, the language of Errors links Adriana with Dromio (either and both). Both Dromios are called “ass.” Luciana insults Dromio of Syracuse so, and he agrees: “'Tis true she [Adriana, or possibly Luciana] rides me and I long for grass. 'Tis so, I am an ass” (2.2.200-01). In the next scene Antipholus of Ephesus, applies the insult to Dromio of Ephesus who also agrees: “Marry, so it doth appear / By the wrongs I suffer, and the blows I bear. / I should kick, being kick'd, and being at that pass, / You would keep from my heels, and beware of an ass” (3.1.15-18). In 4.4 Dromio of Ephesus expands on the motif, summarising his sufferings at the hands of his master: “I am an ass indeed; you may prove it by my long ears. I have serv'd him from the hour of my nativity to this instant, and have nothing at his hands for my service but blows” (4.4.29-32). Although in all three cases the insult from master/mistress to man could be left as a one-line criticism, on each occasion the analogy is expanded. It is difficult, then, not to be reminded of the earlier dialogue between Luciana and Adriana:

O, know he is the bridle of your will.
There's none but asses will be bridled so.


Wives, like servants, like asses, endure wrongs and blows from the master whom they serve.

It is noticeable in reading, and particularly marked in production, that the Antipholi enjoy different relationships with their respective Dromios. The Syracusans are friendlier, less hierarchical, more supportive of each other. In one sense this equality is the result of the circumstances in which they find themselves, strangers in a strange land; as the BBC production showed, they “cling to each other for support.”48 The affectionate relationship between Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse was established from the first in the Clifford Williams production, to the evident perplexity of the Merchant. Thus, Antipholus' “A trusty villain, sir, that very oft, / When I am dull with care and melancholy, / Lightens my humour” (1.2.199-201) was delivered as a half-apologetic explanation. The Merchant's refusal of the dinner invitation was due to his desire to get away from the strange duo, his “I commend you to your own content” (1.2.32) emphatic, terminative, relieved at his success in extricating himself.

In this production Dromio's concern for his master was tellingly shown. To Antipholus' reprise of Dromio's alleged misdemeanours—“thou didst deny the gold's receipt, / And tolds't me of a mistress, and a dinner” (2.2.17-18)—Dromio looked (understandably) uncomprehending, before reacting in delight at this evident example of his master's recovery from depression: “I am glad to see you in this merry vein” (2.2.20). Later Dromio anxiously felt his master's forehead when Antipholus of Syracuse asked him about the bark. “Why, sir, I brought you word an hour since” replied Dromio (4.3.37-8), concerned that his master might be running a fever. In the 1983 RSC production Antipholus' “As you love strokes, so jest with me again” was a genuine invitation to his man to replay his earlier absurd answers, each question followed by a pause for Dromio's anticipated (but not forthcoming) music-hall reply (2.2.8-10). I reline:

You know no Centaur? (Pause)
You receiv'd no gold? (Pause)
Your mistress sent to have me home to dinner? (Pause)

In contrast to his Ephesian brother, Antipholus of Syracuse describes his man as a “heedful slave” (2.2.2) who acts “in care” of him (2.2.3), and he acknowledges his “love” for the servant (2.2.28). As Alexander Leggatt points out,49 both Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse are willing to sacrifice their own happiness and safety for the sake of the other (3.2.145-9; 4.4.151-3), an example of mutual selfless love, the kind that ideally characterises marriage.

Very different is the relationship between Antipholus of Ephesus and his Dromio, who are never alone on stage together and are thus denied the intimate friendly chats of their respective siblings. In production, as in the text, Antipholus of Ephesus is clearly a more violent man than his brother. Although both masters beat their servants, productions differentiate the types of beatings. In Trevor Nunn's production, Antipholus of Syracuse used only a rolled-up newspaper to hit his man; the BBC Antipholus of Syracuse employed a soft Tudor bonnet; in both productions Antipholus of Ephesus hit his man with the flat of his hand or with the property rope. This distinction motivated a moment of amazement in the BBC production when Syracusan Dromio's news of the bark in port, delivered to the wrong Antipholus, met with a slap across the face; the close-up of the servant showed his emotional, rather than his physical, pain at this uncharacteristic behaviour, a betrayal of unwritten rules. It is, appropriately, Dromio of Ephesus who is given the comic-poignant testimony about his life history of beatings.50 In Menaechmi Plautus also differentiates the two master-servant relationships. The resident twin, astonished by the magnanimity of the unknown slave who saves him, rejects the servant's explanation that he is Menaechmus' man: “I had never yet anie servant would do so much for me.”51

It is tempting to argue that Adriana seeks in marriage the symbiotic friendly “service” of the Syracusans, but finds that Antipholus of Ephesus offers her only servitude. However, the play does not permit such simple thematic bifurcation. Before deciding what kind of marriage Adriana wants to have, we must first consider what kind of woman Adriana wants to be.


Historically, as we have seen, Ephesus offers two female role models: the independent pagan Amazon and the submissive Christian servant. At the beginning of the play Adriana is clearly equated with the former, Luciana with the latter. Adriana chafes at the restrictions marriage imposes on women; she questions the male right to have geographic freedom, desiring equal liberty for husbands and wives. Critical and resentful of her husband's greater freedom, she expresses herself in actions as well as words, granting herself permission to circulate out of doors. Her quid pro quo independence has not been well received: “Look when I serve him so, he takes it ill” (2.1.12). Desiring “the sweetnesse of liberty,” viewing marriage as rather a “servitude than wedlock,” Adriana is exactly the kind of woman who so alarmed Heywood and appalled the Renaissance male. Playing “two parts in one”—the male and the female—she is in the tradition of the Ephesian Amazon.

It is because of Ephesus' tradition of non-submissive women that St. Paul directs his letter about wifely submission not to the Galatians, Corinthians, or Colossians, not to the Philippians, the Hebrews, or the Romans, but to the Ephesians. It is the Ephesians who are most in need of Paul's advice:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, since, as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church is subject to Christ, so should wives be to their husbands in everything. Husbands should love their wives, just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed for her to make her holy … ; and let every wife respect her husband.

(Ephesians 5: 21-33)52

Concerned to establish domestic harmony through domestic hierarchy, Paul is explicit in his message: husbands must love their wives, but wives must be subject to their husbands.

Luciana knows Paul's lesson by heart:

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

(2.1.16-25, 29)

The lines are Luciana's but the sentiments are Paul's: Luciana is merely paraphrasing Ephesians 5:21ff.53

Having introduced this opposition between the Amazon and the Pauline female, the play immediately begins to deconstruct it. Adriana can hardly be an independent woman since, as a wife, she has technically espoused submission, while Luciana, who preaches submission, can do so only because (as Adriana points out), she is independent:

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


The identities of Adriana and Luciana, like those of the twins, begin to merge, become confused. Despite her rhetorical question, “Why should their liberty than ours be more?”, Adriana seems to want not liberty but the right to love and be loved as a wife. No Moll Cutpurse, she. When next we meet the women it is Adriana who has the long Pauline speech on marriage as she lyrically, passionately tells Antipholus that husband and wife are “undividable incorporate” (2.2.122). Luciana's subsequent speech on marriage is strangely unspiritual, full of knowing advice to her (supposed) brother-in-law about how to conduct an extramarital affair:

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.


Instead of husband and wife being one, as Paul counsels, the wife is to be kept ignorant of the husband's infidelity: “what need she be acquainted?” Paul's letter to the Ephesians was about breaking down the wall of division; Luciana's advice here is about how to paper over that wall.

The contradictions and cross-overs in female identity become increasingly obvious. Despite the feminist vigour of her conversation with Luciana, Adriana plays a more (al)luring role with her husband, while Luciana the good (wearing, in the BBC version, a necklace with a large crucifix) is involved in a disturbing dialogue with her supposed brother-in-law (3.2). One wonders if Luciana's behaviour is not slightly flirtatious. Despite some valiant attempts to redirect Antipholus' attentions (“Why call you me love? Call my sister so”: 3.2.59; and cf.57, 60, 65), Luciana concludes the dialogue with an ambiguous line: “hold you still; / I'll fetch my sister to get her good will” (70).

The line may be a desperate excuse to exit (after all, the situation is now dangerously physical, Antipholus having asked to hold Luciana's hand; and his love talk is clearly out of control since he has just proposed marriage). Both the BBC production and the 1983 RSC version played the line as an impetus to exit. In the 1962 RSC version, however, Luciana succumbed to Antipholus, giving him her right hand in a waltz gesture (repeated in more legitimate circumstances at 5.1.375-7) while her left hand caressed his hair. Although she quickly removed her hand, aghast at herself, her exit line was a helplessly loving acceptance of the situation. In Ian Judge's 1990 RSC production Luciana's acceptance of Antipholus was less passive. “I'll fetch my sister to get her good will” was a spirited decision to face the music, Luciana having agreed to love Antipholus. Her later recounting of the conversation to Adriana was triumphant, not apologetic:

That love I begg'd for you [gleeful laugh], he begged of me. First he did praise my beauty [gleeful laugh], then my speech.

(4.2.12; 15)

In Act 5 the Abbess touches a sore spot when she questions Adriana about the possibility of her husband's “unlawful love.” The BBC close-up of the Courtesan at this moment showed the rival suspected by Adriana. However, in Adrian Noble's production (1983) Adriana's admission that “some love … drew him oft from home” (5.1.56) was accompanied by a glare at Luciana. In Adriana's eyes the submissive sister was not as innocent as she appeared.

By Act 5, then, the identities of Adriana and Luciana are as confused as those of the Antipholi. Adriana the independent meekly submits to the Abbess's rebukes, even though the Abbess's claim (that Adriana's jealousy has caused her husband's madness) is unfounded, as Acts 1 through 4 show. Luciana the submissive objects vociferously on behalf of her sister (5.1.87-8) and encourages Adriana to resist: “Why bear you these rebukes and answer not?” (5.1.89). In the play's conclusion the Antipholi are distinguished, returned to their separate identities, but their partners are not.

This duality seems to be deliberate. Throughout Errors we see Adriana and Luciana trying to work out which type of Ephesian woman to be (pagan or Christian, independent or submissive), and experimenting with whether it is possible to be both. Can women play “two parts in one,” being both divine (goddess) and “diviner” (witch)? Shakespeare juxtaposes this adjective and nouns in the play's structural centre, Act 3, scene 2, where Antipholus' romantic approaches to Luciana are followed by Dromio's narrative about her onomastic relative, Luce. Luciana the goddess, “more than earth divine,” is followed by Luce the “diviner” (140); the advocate of wifely submission in marriage, the woman who will be subservient to her husband, is followed by a more assertive type of servant. But the scene begins with the goddess sanctioning sin and ends with the witch seeking holy marriage. This is hot ice and wondrous strange snow.

Opposites can co-exist, however, as the name Luce/Luciana implies and as Adriana's attentions to her “husband”'s body and soul at 2.2.207-08 specifically show. And if in Errors Shakespeare can combine the pagan and the Christian in Ephesus, why can not the women do so too?

In this duality Adriana resembles Lysistrata, that other independent heroine who staged a lock-out scene. Lysistrata's lock-out tactic was deliberate, Adriana's unwitting, but the motive was the same: domestic harmony. The women in Lysistrata do not want peace qua peace but as a guarantor of normal domestic life: uninterrupted market shopping, regular sexual relations. Adriana similarly regrets the demise of domestic activities: carving, speaking, looking, touching (2.2.113-18). Like Adriana, although for a different reason, Lysistrata has no reconciliation with a partner.54 Instead, in a dénouement unusual in Greek drama, the divided chorus of old men and old women come together, celebrating the resumption of interrupted relations. In Lysistrata as in Errors it is the older couple(s) who are depicted most harmoniously. Adriana is left dramatically in the cold by Shakespeare, and perhaps by Antipholus; she and her husband have some voyaging still to do.

If the ending seems inconclusive, the marital future uncertain, it is not because of Adriana but because of her husband. Three of the four main protagonists in Errors not only experience mistakes of identity but initiate their own experiments with opposing and complementary personalities, doubles, binaries, paradoxes. Antipholus of Syracuse seeks his twin in order to make himself whole again, but, before achieving this goal, he finds himself by losing himself to Luciana. Adriana and Luciana synthesise two extremes of female behaviour. Only Antipholus of Ephesus clings tenaciously to his original identity (5.1.214-54). Act 5 provides the end of a journey for all but him; it is now his turn to explore personality. Ephesian Antipholus must now embark on a quest for self- and family-identity just as Syracusan Antipholus embarked in Act 1.55

The straying husband, the errant Antipholus of Ephesus, thus becomes errant in a different way: like his twin at the beginning of the play, he is erraticus.56 He too may eventually unite opposites, telling his wife “I am thee” (3.2.64). In the spirit of doubling and repetition which is this play's dominant mode, we may hope that Adriana's marriage, like that of her mother-in-law, will be a remarriage. But that is for the future. Adriana inhabits a world where the thaumaturge is Pinch not Prospero, and the one magician—the dramatist—who could give her (and us) a happy ending, declines to do so. Although the play ends, as comedies should, with marriage, Shakespeare leaves us with but the appearance of a happy ending. Not all illusions are dispelled: Ephesus' reputation for duplicity is still in evidence.57


  1. Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Comedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 22.

  2. Ibid., p. 26.

  3. Menaechmi, by contrast, is told from the resident twin's point of view.

  4. Stanley Wells, ed. The Comedy of Errors (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 30.

  5. Unhappy with the repetition of nativity in line 407 (TLN 1896), which they viewed as compositorial eyeskip from line 405 (TLN 1894), Hanmer and Johnson emended to felicity and festivity, respectively. The duplication of nativity may indeed be an error. George Walton Williams (personal communication) points out two other textual cruces that involve repetition: “To seek thy helpe by beneficiall helpe” (1.1.151; TLN 154; Dover Wilson emends the first help to helth, Rowe to life, Cunningham (Arden) to pelf), and “Besides her vrging of her wrecke at sea” (5.1.360; TLN 1835; the New Oxford Complete Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), following Collier, emends the first her to his). Compositorial anticipation, in which the second item (which is correct) drives out the first, may well explain the double nativity of 5.1. All quotations from Shakespeare's plays come from the Riverside edition, edited by G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974) and are included parenthetically in my text; T[through] L[ine] N[umbers] come from Charlton Hinman's facsimile of the First Folio (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968).

  6. Whitworth, “Rectifying Shakespeare's Errors: Romance and Farce in Bardeditry” in The Theory and Practice of Text-Editing, ed. Ian Small and Marcus Walsh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991): 107-41 (p. 114).

  7. Egeon describes his offspring as being so alike that they could not be distinguished “but by names” (1.1.53), yet when we meet them they are onomastically identical. Plautus, aware that the farcical confusions of Menaechmi require a set of identical twins with identical names, gives elaborate background reasons for such double nomenclature: “He changed the name of the surviving brother / (Because, in fact, he much preferred the other) / And Sosicles, the one at home, became / Menaechmus—which had been his brother's name.” (The Brothers Menaechmus, in Plautus, The Pot of Gold and Other Plays, trans E. F. Watling (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), p. 104). William Warner's translation (1595), which may have been available to Shakespeare, is more succinct: “The first his Father lost a little Lad, / The Grandsire namde the latter like his brother” (I quote from the version printed in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 1 [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957], p. 13). Shakespeare, as Alexander Leggatt notes, “provides two sets of twins with the same name and not a word of explanation” (Shakespeare's Comedy of Love [London: Methuen, 1974], p. 3).

  8. A. C. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare (San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1967), p. 96.

  9. Eamon Grennan, “Arm and Sleeve: Nature and Custom in Comedy of Errors,Philological Quarterly 59 (1980): 150-64 (p. 151).

  10. Karen Newman, Shakespeare's Rhetoric of Comic Character (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), p. 81.

  11. The raised eyebrows and rolled eyes of the listening prostitutes in Trevor Nunn's 1976 RSC production showed that these women questioned the paradox, agreeing with the noun more than the adjective.

  12. Grennan, “Arm and Sleeve,” p. 162.

  13. See Paul Werstine, “‘Foul Papers’ and ‘Prompt-Books’: Printer's Copy for Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors,Studies in Bibliography 41 (1988): 232-46 (p. 240). The Oxford Complete Works (gen. eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986]) over-helpfully reduces this protean character to the singular consistency of “Nell,” an emendation based on the belief that “Nell” represents an imperfect revision by Shakespeare to avoid confusion of Luciana/Luce. For arguments in favour of retaining “Luce” see Whitworth (“Rectifying Shakespeare's Errors,” p. 124) and Werstine (“‘Foul Papers’”). R. A. Foakes (ed., The Comedy of Errors [London: Methuen, 1963]) suggests that Shakespeare may initially have “thought of taking over into his play [from Plautus' Menaechmi] both the maid and a figure corresponding to the cook, Cylindrus” (p. xxv, n.1).

  14. See Werstine, “‘Foul Papers’” for analysis of the unsatisfactory use of this term.

  15. Werstine, “‘Foul Papers,’” p. 233, my italics.

  16. The role may originally have been played by John Sincler (Sincklo), an actor in Strange's or Admiral's Men c. 1590-1, and later in the Chamberlain's Men, whose thinness was commemorated in the Induction to The Malcontent (1604).

  17. As Robert Smallwood rightly objected, the introduction of a Doppelgänger reduced “the audience's participation in the joy of recognition and reconciliation … to simple curiosity about how the trick was done” (“Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1990,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 42 (1991): 34-59 [p. 35]). Carlo Goldoni's I Due Gemelli Veneziani (1748) shows the very different dramatic effects which result when Menaechmi is adapted with the aim of one actor playing two twins.

  18. In the BBC production the Duke's invitation for a brief synopsis is a response to the audible pity of the crowd; his two subsequent invitations to Egeon to continue are due to his increasing involvement with the tale. The on-stage crowd in the 1983 RSC production emulated and so reinforced the gestures with which Adriana accompanied her narrative (5.1.136-60), aware of the performance pressure in her tale. In the 1976 RSC version Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus presented their material (5.1.214-54) as if in a court of law, conferring, consulting notes, and taking exhibits (such as the rope) from a briefcase.

  19. Wells, ed., The Comedy of Errors, p. 28; Berry, Shakespeare and Social Class (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1988) p. 22 (my italics). Elsewhere Berry is more astute: “Certainly Adriana has overdone her complaints. … But this is not the same thing as saying she has no grounds for complaint” (Shakespeare's Comedies [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972], p. 32).

  20. C. L. Barber, “Shakespearian Comedy in The Comedy of Errors,College English 25 (1964): 493-7 (p. 497); Germaine Greer, Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 119.

  21. Lock-out scenes are not the prerogative of Plautus alone; one also appears in a Pauline epistle, describing an event that took place in Ephesus. In Acts some itinerant exorcists “planned to experiment by using the name of the Lord Jesus.” The incantation they chose was “I adjure you by Jesus, whom Paul preaches, to come out!” They tried this on a possessed Ephesian, but the demon replied “I know Jesus and I know Paul, but who are you?” The possessed man then pounced on two of his exorcists and drove them out of his house into the street (19:13-16).

    Similarly, Plautus does not have the monopoly on disguise and mistaken identity. In his sermon on Ephesus Common Pleas [Edward Chaloner, Ephesus Common Pleas (a sermon preached in 1618, published 1623] Edward Chaloner compares the devil's theatrical use of disguise to a scene from Plautus' Amphitryo, invoking Acts 14:12 in which the crowd compares Barnabas to Jupiter and Paul to Mercury. Chaloner's marginal reference further stresses the Pauline/Plautine connection. (A divine at Oxford, Chaloner had presumably seen college productions of Plautus.)

  22. The Courtesan in the 1983 RSC production ascended from beneath the stage, clad in red. To the typical (physical) stereotypes of the buxom, callipygian prostitute was thus added another (more ethereal) stereotype: the scarlet woman, the Whore of Babylon, rising through the stage trapdoor, the area associated on the Elizabethan stage with Hell.

  23. The text is inconsistent in the ages of the Antipholi who are presented as twenty-five (1.1.125; 5.1.321) and thirty-three (5.1.401).

  24. Wells, ed., The Comedy of Errors, p. 17.

  25. See Anthony J. Lewis, “‘I Feed on Mother's Flesh’: Incest and Eating in Pericles,Essays in Literature 15 (1988): 147-63.

  26. Berry, Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience (London: Macmillan, 1985), p. 39. This was indeed the impression in Trevor Nunn's production where Adriana's naked arm and shoulder emerged to close the shutters, and her red espadrille dropped from the balcony (the shoe was later presented by Antipholus of Ephesus as “evidence” in his deposition of 5.1: see above, n.18). Antipholus of Syracuse subsequently departed shoeless, a red carnation between his teeth, clearly sexually exhausted. In the 1983 RSC production Adrian Noble made the “dinner” arrangements equally clear by concluding Adriana's invitation to the wrong husband in 2.2. with a clinch which Antipholus increasingly enjoyed: Dromio functioned as a chair for the embracing couple but such was Antipholus' ardour that he and Adriana collapsed in passion on the ground. The offstage intention was unambiguous.

  27. Berry, Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience, pp. 39-40. (Desmond Barritt's Antipholus in the 1990 RSC production made the double entendre clear in his slightly self-conscious announcement “I'll—ahem, ‘knock’—elsewhere”: 3.1.121.) Joseph Candido contrasts the Courtesan's “sexually symbolic open door” with the “shut house of the nameless wife” in Menaechmi. See “Dining Out in Ephesus: Food in The Comedy of Errors,Studies in English Literature 30 (1990): 217-41 (p. 219).

  28. Berry, ibid., p. 40.

  29. I am grateful to George Walton Williams for these caveats.

  30. Antipholus of Syracuse concludes his list of Ephesian iniquities with the summation “many such-like liberties” (1.2.102). Productions often illustrate this phrase with stage business that links it with sex, and hence with Adriana's rhetorical question. In the 1962 production Antipholus accompanied the phrase with hand gestures which indicated a female bosom; in 1976 Antipholus rotated his Blue Guide to admire what was obviously a centre-fold pin-up. Ephesus in the first century a.d. was renowned for self-indulgent leisure: “bordellos, singers, actors, playboys, whores” (Trell, “The Temple of Artemis,” p. 86). [Bluma L. Trell, “The Temple of Artemis at Ephesos” in The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, ed. Peter A Clayton and Martin J. Price (London: Routledge, 1988).]

  31. See Roger Just, Women in Athenian Law and Life (London: Routledge, 1989) and Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves (New York: Schocken Press, 1975).

  32. For Ariadne in Chaucer and Gower see Wolfgang Riehle, Shakespeare, Plautus, and the Humanist Tradition (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1990), p. 179.

  33. Nell is also the name of a kitchen-maid in Romeo and Juliet, who is requested to enter with Susan Grindstone (1.5.9).

  34. Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1978), p. 55.

  35. Onomastic identity and malleability are very much to the fore in Menaechmi, Amphitryo, and the Tudor adaptation of Amphitryo, Jack Juggler. “And what's your name?”—“Any name that suits you” (Amphitryo, p. 243). “You can be Sossia as much as you like when I don't want to be. At the moment I am Sossia.” “[D]id ye never heare why the Grecians termed Hecuba to be a bitch? … Because … she railed, and therefore well deserved that dogged name” (Menaechmi in Bullough [Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957], p. 29). “For ought I se yet, betwene erneste and game, / I must go sike me an other name” (Jack Juggler, p. 79). Such flexibility extends even to geography, where the same stage represents different locations at different times. The prologue to Menaechmi (not included in Warner's translation) explains that the play's location is Epidamnus but when another play is performed on the same stage the location will be some other city (ed. Watling, p. 104). I cite Amphitryo from the translation by E. F. Watling (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964, reprinted 1972), and Jack Juggler from Three Classical Interludes, ed. Marie Axton (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1982).

  36. Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, p. 18.

  37. Whether his attitude is playful or imperative is not relevant to this discussion; but if playful he is parodying by exaggeration conventional imperious behaviour.

  38. He refers to the Latin servias/inservias. See Thomas More, Utopia, trans. Robert M. Adams (1989) in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, sixth edition (New York: Norton, 1993), vol. 1, p. 418.

  39. The French Schoolmaster in The Elizabethan Home Discovered in Two Dialogues by Claudius Hollyband and Peter Erondell, ed. Muriel St. Clare Byrne (London: Etchells and Macdonald, 1925), p. 24.

  40. Ibid., p. 28.

  41. William Gouge, Treatises on Domestical Duties, Treatise 8, para.23, p. 680. I quote from the edition of 1634; the first edition is 1622 (SR 1620).

  42. Ralph A. Houlbrooke, The English Family 1450-1700 (London: Longman, 1974), p. 176.

  43. Thomas Becon, The Catechism … with other pieces written by him in the Reign of Edward the sixth, ed. John Ayre. Parker Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1844), p. 362.

  44. Juan Luis Vives, The Office and Duetie of an Husband (1550), sigs. Kviiiv-Li.

  45. R. S. [Robert Snowse], A Looking-Glass for Married Folkes (1610), p. 54.

  46. Frances E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), p. 67.

  47. Arden of Faversham combines both, creating a hybrid genre even more marked than that of Errors.

  48. BBC TV Comedy of Errors (London: BBC Books, 1984), p. 25.

  49. Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, p. 13.

  50. Robert S. Miola demonstrates the classical, comic antecedents of this testimony (Shakespeare and Classical Comedy, p. 23); but traditions of classical comedy have not stopped the narrative from being delivered seriously in production.

  51. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, vol. 1, p. 35.

  52. The New Jerusalem Bible (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1985).

  53. Trevor Nunn's production had Luciana read the speech from a book in which she showed her sister the relevant passage, indicating that the subject is non-negotiable.

  54. It is unclear whether Lysistrata is married or not; some translations have her refer to her husband, others to her “man” (the original Greek is clearly ambiguous). Peter Hall's production for the Old Vic (1993) paired her off with the Magistrate. Critics who view Lysistrata as married cite the improbability of the Athenian women agreeing to a sex-strike if the initiator were not imposing similar deprivation upon herself; those who view Lysistrata as single find a thematic parallel between Lysistrata, the guardian of Athens, and Athens' mythological protectress, the chaste, unmarried Athena.

  55. This point was made most intriguingly in the BBC production in the reassignment of a line which is marked for alteration but not reassignment in the published text; nor indeed can its reassignment be justified. In the Folio text Antipholus of Ephesus explains his origins: he was, he tells Duke Solinus, brought to Ephesus by “that most famous warrior, / Duke Menaphon, your most renowned uncle” (5.1.368-9). In the BBC film Solinus is given the line “Menaphon your most renowned uncle” (the deleted “Duke” showing that the reassignment is not accidental, although, perplexingly, the BBC text still assigns the line (minus the “Duke”) to Antipholus). On screen Solinus delivers the line with epiphanic fervour as if realising that one more member of the family still remains to complete the reunion. Antipholus of Ephesus' roll of the eyes at the mention of Menaphon suggests that family (whether uncle/nephew, father/son, husband/wife) is not a concept with which he is at ease: he has deliberately ignored the ties that his brother has been so anxious to seek. (This at least is the only explanation I can give for a moment which has no authoritative textual basis. George Walton Williams astutely suggests that the reassignment is an error: in preparing the filmscript from the Alexander text someone interpreted the “Duke” of line 369 as a speech prefix and reassigned the ensuing words accordingly.)

  56. In the stage directions to 1.2 and 2.2 the Folio presents Antipholus of Syracuse as Erotes and Errotis, which editors take to be misreadings of Erraticus (wandering).

  57. I am grateful to David R. Carlson and to Robert S. Miola for generously sharing with me their classical and Shakespearean expertise, and to George Walton Williams for his careful scrutiny of textual details.

Thomas P. Hennings (essay date June 1986)

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SOURCE: 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.

[In the following essay, Hennings studies the celebration of Christian ideals of marriage and family in The Comedy of Errors.]

At exactly what time in his career Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors scholars do not agree, some dating its composition in the late 1580s, others in 1594.1 Those who favor an early date tend to regard the play as a careless apprentice work, coarse in tone, lacking in intellectual substance, and too imitative of its Plautine source. On the other hand, scholars such as Harold Brooks who prefer a later date tend to admire the play for its sophisticated “harmonic structure” of verbal echoes, parallels, contrasts, and cross references.2 According to their readings, Shakespeare cleverly explores such themes as rebirth, identity, and self-knowledge, as well as marriage, time, chance or Providence. For the most part these scholars agree with Leo Salingar that the low tone and scenes of physical humor in the comedy are due to its generic considerations as an Elizabethan adaptation of a classical farce. Not at all servile, it is an experimental and highly original play with a double plot that brings together the diverse conventions of Latin farce, exemplary romance, native and Italian comedy.3

Whether it be the earliest of Shakespeare's comedies—or plays—or whether it had its premiere in 1594 as part of the Christmas celebration at Gray's Inn, The Comedy of Errors is not so much an imitation of the Menaechmi as it is a deliberate Christian corrective of the Latin play and its Saturnalian themes. One of several examples of Plautus's delight in dramatizing opposing human tendencies in a set of twins, the Menaechmi revels in its Saturnalian occasion to ridicule the burdensome routines of Roman society. According to Erich Segal's well received study, it provides for its audience a brief cathartic release from the real strictures of their social order by encouraging their deepest fantasies about the happier time of an innocent, anarchic past—the Golden Age of Saturn. In the comic conflict between a somber gravitas and a pleasant licentia, Plautus ridicules Roman society by concentrating on the troubles of the citizen twin, who is ironically being victimized by the laws and customs of property and marriage. Meanwhile the traveling twin quickly establishes the comic ideal by symbolically leaping into the state of nature, the time before the societal regulations of meum and tuum when the sexual possession of women and the accumulation of wealth knew no legal barriers.4

While the Plautine natural world defines itself as the farcical inversion of social order, it has nothing really threatening in it, certainly nothing of the later Lucretian view of the state of nature as the horrible savagery of primitive men whose natural freedom means their ability to rob, rape, and murder with impunity (De rerum natura 5.925-81).5 The delightful humor of the Menaechmi does not even hint at condemning the amoral natural world. On the contrary, when the citizen husband is united to his twin, he discovers his ideal self and he too becomes a natural man. He gleefully repudiates social institutions by ridding himself of his nameless and shrewish wife and burdensome property, and he leaves the city and all its troublesome parasites.

Segal's interpretation of Plautus relies on the affective theory of farce, which has been neatly outlined by Eric Bentley. In “The Psychology of Farce,”6 Bentley explains how farce allows us to see our repressed desires acted out on stage. Its relationship to the real world is like that of dreaming and waking, and its improbabilities, like those of a dream, are symbolic of “the inner experience” (p. xv). Subconsciously, all of us have the desire to repudiate every tedious rule we must live by. At the heart of all restrictions on human behavior is the institution of marriage and the family, and farce provides an outlet for our deep yearnings to see that institution desecrated: “in farce, as in dreams, one is permitted the outrage but is spared the consequences” (p. xiii). In short, farce is not a moral genre—except in so far as it allows an audience to enjoy a vicarious release in a safe, healthy, and acceptable way.

As a frame of reference the affective theory of farce serves the Menaechmi well enough, but it cannot serve Elizabethan comedy in general or The Comedy of Errors in particular, whose ultimate affect, in its final celebration of marriage and the family, is patently moral. Investigating what he calls the “Saturnalian pattern” of Elizabethan comedy and its festive origins, C. L. Barber has ably observed that its comic structures deliberately generate great tensions between “poles of restraint and release,” yet there is always the final restoration of moral reality: “Holiday affirmations in praise of folly were limited by the underlying assumption that the natural in man is only one part of him, the part that will fade.”7

True to his native conventions of comedy, Shakespeare will gladly exploit the farcical mode of Saturnalian inversion, but he will refuse to indulge in its psychological escapism. In The Comedy of Errors the world of natural freedom or licentia involving the traveling twin, which Shakespeare deliberately associates with dreams (II.ii.182-83, V.i.377), is not the ingenuous Saturnalian ideal. That comic ideal, as well as its mode of inversion, is continually rebuked by the didactic mode, by serious discussions of moral values, and it is continually mocked by satiric ridicule precisely because its atmosphere is governed by the frightening Lucretian view of nature, which by Shakespeare's day had evolved into the celebrated Renaissance doctrine of the decay of nature. Consequently, the corruption of licentious release cannot be a desirable alternative to a severe gravitas, and as the action shuttles between the comic poles of release and restraint, Shakespeare concentrates on the problems of both twins, not just the citizen, and he associates both with physically and morally decaying “Time” itself. In The Comedy of Errors the tensions generated between the contrastive poles resolve themselves in the completion of the comic movement toward a just society founded on the institution of marriage and the family. And establishing the normative pattern of the marital roles is the Anglican doctrine of the affectionate marriage.

Recent essays by Richard Henze8 and Vincent F. Petronella9 have demonstrated how the confused Ephesian society of the play is continually depicted in powerful stage and verbal images of tedious and/or oppressive restriction: Draconian legalism and its concomitant legalese; financial obligations; punctuality; beatings reinforcing hierarchy; innocent men bound in chains, imprisoned, and threatened with execution—not a pretty picture of social bonding, to say the least. Opening the play is the initial stage image of severe gravitas, old Egeon bound in chains and sentenced to death. Unhappily separated from his wife and family, he is a sympathetic figure and the paradigmatic symbol of frustrated love and affection, and his yearning for familial harmony, the perfection or completion of the social self, becomes the play's immediate moral and psychological aspiration. The scene is diametrically opposed to the opening of the Menaechmi where the husband wants to get away from his wife but, when he tries to leave, is subjected to her grueling questioning. He calls her a “custom-house officer” and moans in metaphor that leaving his own home is more difficult than entering a foreign country.10 Aspiring to opposite goals, the opening scenes of the two plays generate antithetical movements toward them, and each is finally fulfilled: the exasperated Plautine husband will offer to sell his wife and property and leave the city while Egeon will be united to his wife and children and admitted to the civis.

In the opening scene of the next act of The Comedy of Errors, the moral value of marriage and the family begins to be studied in depth. The initial scene of restraint, as well as the isolation of spouses (“this unjust divorce of us” [I.i.104], to cite Egeon's phrase), extends itself into the parallel scene of Luciana's advice to the wife, advice from the rule of nature that upholds among other things a paradigm of animal behavior as the model of human conduct (II.i.15-25). Here Luciana mistakenly maintains a half truth, for like everyone else, with the exception of Aemelia, she too is confused, partly right and partly wrong. When I say this I realize how far I depart from the generally accepted interpretation of Luciana's role. Scholars of the highest rank, Anne Barton11 and Harry Levin12 among others, regard her as the play's spokesperson on the theme of marriage. But their interpretation does not explain the further development of Luciana's character, her charactonymic link and structural parallelism to the erotic Luce, or why before the presence of Aemelia, Adriana rebukes the contentious Luciana and sides with the Abbess.13

Because Luciana speaks to the Elizabethan commonplace of wifely obedience, scholars have held her moral voice in high esteem and have claimed that it appeals to the deeply rooted prejudices of the original audience. That wives must obey their husbands is, after all, a commonplace more than Elizabethan. Until the most recent decades, almost every wife at her wedding took a solemn vow to obey, yet no one would insist that every generation has precisely the same understanding of the marital roles. While in this scene Adriana represents partly the burdensome routine of social bonding—punctuality at the main meal and the like—she is no Plautine shrew. She also represents a wife wanting the loving attention of her husband, and her voice defends the Anglican ideal of conjugal affection. In this respect she would have appealed to the sympathy of the original audience, for her dispute with Luciana is not nearly so one-sided as most critics would lead us to suspect.

Because we have not met Adriana's husband we have no sympathy for him. In the Menaechmi we immediately see the citizen quarreling with his wife, and we sympathize with him because he is married to a nasty shrew who makes his life miserable. In The Comedy of Errors we first see the wife complaining about an indifferent husband, and her complaint parallels Egeon's yearning for conjugal love. She is then submitted to a little lecture which informs her that “A man is master of his liberty” (II.i.7) and that men “Are masters to their females, and their lords” (24), and we hear the wife complaining about the old double standard: men can come and go when they want and do what they want; women must be patient and stay home.

Here Shakespeare reverses once again the comic effect of Plautus's opening scene by making the wife the victim of a repressive gravitas. That he would do so would not have surprised at least some of the intellectuals in his audience. That women are the victims of a repressive social order is one of the major themes of Montaigne's long and witty essay on human sexuality, “Upon some verses of Virgil,” and virtually nothing Adriana says in reply to Luciana cannot be paralleled in Montaigne. “For women are not altogeather in the wrong,” writes Montaigne, “when they refuse the rules of life prescribed to the World, forsomuch as onely men have established them without their consent.”14 More importantly, the general tenor of Luciana's remarks is inconsistent with the description of a happily married couple found in the current marriage literature, especially with that of the officially sanctioned “Homilie of the state of Matrimonie,” which during the reign of Elizabeth was required by law to be read each year from the pulpit of every church in England. It is an authoritative Elizabethan document on these matters.15

The official sermon contends that the double standard is wrong and the source of most discord in unhappy marriages. It challenges the older Catholic claim that procreation is the primary purpose of marriage with the Protestant view of its true and original purpose: “It is instituted of GOD … that man and woman should liue lawfully in a perpetuall friendship” (p. 239). The “one concord of heart and minde” (p. 247) to be found in a proper marriage, the sermon explains, is hateful to Satan, whose “principall craft” is to bring in “most bitter & unpleasant discord” by playing upon the foolish confusion intrinsic in lapsarian human nature (p. 240). Explicitly contradicting Luciana's defense of the double standard, the homily defines the grand folly of human nature:

For this folly is euer from our tender age growne up with us, to haue a desire to rule, to thinke highly of our selfe, so that none thinketh it meet to giue place to another. That wicked vice of stubborne will and selfe loue, is more meet to breake and to disseuer the loue of heart, then to preserue concord.

(p. 240)

Unhappily married men, the sermon contends, “in their folly turne all upside downe, while they will neuer giue ouer their right as they esteeme it, yea, while many times they will not giue ouer the wrong part in deed” (p. 240).

Because of the supposed greater capacity of their minds, husbands are to be the moral guides and teachers of their wives and children. Since the capacity to be rational is the criterion of the husband's superiority, his model of how to teach and guide cannot come from the animal kingdom. It is the divine analogy—husbands are to be like God. We are, the sermon claims, “commanded to resemble angels, or rather GOD himselfe through meekenesse” (p. 247). Guided by Christ's love for the Church, his wife, as Paul explains the analogy in the Epistle to the Ephesians (5:21-33), husbands must strive to be of one will with their wives, and therefore they must become humble. They must be understanding, attentive, and compassionate, and they must instruct by edifying example. To be sure, wives too must be meek and humble, and they must willingly obey their husbands as Sarah did Abraham—yet the exemplary pattern of a husband is not Abraham. In one of the most remarkable instances of the influence of Renaissance humanism on Christian thought, the official Anglican sermon declares that the ideal husband of all history is the pagan “Socrates,” who meekly endured the “euill manners” of his shrewish wife so that he might “bee the more quiet with others, being thus dayly exercised and taught in the forbearing of her” (p. 247).

It is precisely because the sermon wants to change the older thinking about marital roles that it instructs the husband in meekness and patience and humility. An indifferent, uncaring, or domineering husband is not a good Christian. As evidence of this belief, John Harington in a note to his translation of Orlando Furioso (1591) goes so far as to contend that an indifferent husband cannot be said to possess any moral virtue (sig. D3r). Proceeding from the doctrine of the wife's natural inferiority, Luciana moves on to a misunderstanding of the roles of husband and wife, seeking to impose upon them the merely natural order of male dominance, an order, according to “An Homilie of the state of Matrimonie,” that almost always results in “chidings, brawlings, tauntings, repentings, bitter cursings, and fightings” (p. 240).

Furthermore, Luciana's own confession of why she is not married undercuts her pose as a moral advisor. Her claim that she fears the “trouble of the marriage-bed” (II.i.27) points to a reluctance about sexuality and the consequences of childbirth, referred to in the homily as “griefe and paines,” the “paine of their trauailing,” “great perils,” and “great afflictions” (p. 243), accurate enough when one considers the medical risks of the time and the number of women who died in childbirth. But overcoming this natural fear—that is, of being married—is the chief nobility of women, advises the sermon, which thereby counters the Catholic claims for celibacy:

… this is the chiefe ornament of holy matrons, in that they set their hope and trust in GOD, that is to say, in that they refused not from marriage for the businesse thereof, for the gifts and perils thereof. … O woman, doe thou the like, and so shalt thou be most excellently beautified before GOD and all his Angels & Saints, and thou needest not to seeke further for doing any better workes.

(p. 243)

In advising her sister, Luciana does not uphold those ideals about marriage and the perfection of women that the original audience had been taught to cherish.

In a play that puts stress on symbolic tags (the traveler, for instance, cannot leave on “the bark Expedition” but must await “the hoy Delay” [IV.iii.38-40]), it would be unwise to overlook the charactonymic link between Luce and Luciana. In making the commonplace observation that the scenes of Luce and Dromio burlesque those of Luciana and Antipholus, we may note that as the drab Luce represents the physical level of love, the supposed natural sexual lightness of women, so Luciana is thematically linked to her as her higher self, a secular, a social or psychological restraint upon human sexuality which proves ultimately ineffective in trying to control the sexual appetites. Of course, the bodily impulses of Luce and the psychological restraints of Luciana keep decorum and have their appropriate social roles.

Luciana's next prominent scene, her encounter with the man she thinks is the husband (III.ii), is linked thematically to her first scene and to Luce's narrated scene with the Syracusan Dromio that follows immediately. Her advice to the husband clearly indicates how mistaken her position can become. What she says to the husband is most hostile to the spirit of “An Homilie of the state of Matrimonie” and all the marriage manuals of the time. Luciana reluctantly accepts the fact of a husband's extramarital affairs, and in the name of maintaining domestic quiet she urges the husband to be deceptive: “Teach sin the carriage of a holy saint; / Be secret-false” (III.ii.14-15). What is wrong with Luciana is that she here exists solely on a superficial and secular level. She speaks to the appearances of things and sounds like Lady Macbeth: “Apparel vice like virtue's harbinger; / Bear a fair presence, though your heart be tainted” (12-13). Where Luce will almost physically mount her partner, Luciana's approach to sexuality more subtly reflects the deep and troubled forces of the concupiscible appetites. As Kenneth Muir has observed, she is attracted to Antipholus;16 and Antipholus—suspecting as much, believing that she has taken her own advice and is dressing her vice as the herald of virtue—mistakenly comes to regard her as a clever temptress pretending to be his sister-in-law inviting him to have an affair with her.

The comic exuberance of this scene brings to the conscious level an “unknown field” of human sexuality, the turbulent passions lurking beneath the superficial calm of things. At first Antipholus is bewildered and thinks Luciana is opposing his “soul's pure truth”:

Lay open to my earthy, gross conceit,
Smoth'red in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words' deceit.
Against my soul's pure truth why labor you,
To make it wander in an unknown field?


Amidst the erotic tensions and confusion of this encounter, Shakespeare releases the powerful forces beneath the conscious level, “Smoth'red in errors,” so that they might be ridiculed, overcome, and corrected. In short, as Michel Grivelet has explained,17 Antipholus takes Luciana's “folded meaning” as an invitation to vent his and her sexual inclinations for incest, and the play enhances the farcical progress from the threat of adultery in the Amphitruo banquet scene to the realm of the profounder taboo: “Call thyself sister, sweet, for I am thee” (66). Existing on a natural plane, the powerful forces of sexuality run deep and may explode in sexual and social chaos. And they almost do so when Dromio meets Luce.

As Dromio, off stage, regards Luce as some kind of witch, so here Antipholus of Syracuse speaks of Luciana as an enchanting mermaid or siren. He releases his erotic puns on “lie,” “light,” “hairs,” and “die” in response to Luciana's unintentional penchant for double-entendre (III.ii.47-52). His ocean imagery picks up the original metaphor he had used to describe his quest for self-fulfillment (I.ii.35-40). As most critics have insisted, his fears that he “confounds” himself or that he will “lose” himself are crucial to the theme of self-knowledge, especially since he had used the key phrase about losing himself when he had said he would wander about the city, thus linking the city with the ocean (I.ii.30-31). In his encounter now with Luciana he momentarily admits to forsaking his quest, and he is willing to drown in the ocean of sexual appetites. It was the stormy ocean, we ought to remember, a symbol of the unruly forces of nature, that had split the family in the first place. However, when Dromio enters to tell what has happened to him, to describe the physical consequences of giving vent to the natural cathexis of erotic energies, the Syracusan Antipholus checks his impulse to lose himself.

Of course Luciana does not consciously offer incest. Like every major character in the play, she too has a good heart. She has only the best of intentions, but a main point of the play, brought out in the many ironic situations, is that human nature works on more than the surface level of appearances and intentions. Luciana is not consciously aware of the folded meaning of her words' deceit, although Adriana momentarily suspects that her sister's deeper motives are not the least bit noble (IV.ii.16).

After hearing of Dromio's encounter with Luce, the traveler returns to his soul's pure truth, understanding that Luciana had “almost made me traitor to myself” (III.ii.162). What causes Antipholus to change his mind is Dromio's depiction of the very sorry state of nature in his description of Luce. Here Shakespeare comically unfolds another layer of reality—the decay of nature in historical time. Continuing the emphasis on the word light, Dromio draws attention to the Latin pun on the sexually loose woman. In her amorousness Luce becomes the satiric parody of the ideal woman, radiantly “all grease” (pronounced grace) so that Dromio does not know “what use to put her to but to make a lamp of her and run from her by her own light” (III.ii.96-98). According to the imagery of the comic language, this greasy, loose, and light woman, is a microcosm of time, encompassing all of history from “Noah's flood” (106) to “doomsday” (99), and she also spatially proves to be a microcosm, the comical inversion of the natural world, “a very beastly creature” (88), turned bottom up, as it were, to expose itself “spherical, like the globe” (114), with the boggy buttocks of Ireland and with the carbuncular pimples of America about her nose, “declining their rich aspect to the hot breath of Spain” (135-36). The subsequent disgusting imagery elaborates on the notion of venereal infection so that according to the spatial and moral associations France is represented by the baldness of the French disease (122-24) and it is no wonder Dromio will not look on Luce's “Netherlands” (138-89)—bawdy jokes on England's rivals that fit well enough into the thematic context of the play where they cleverly parody the ideal woman and the ideal macrocosm, the Christian world of true grace and light.

Much frightened by the possible decay in love-making, Antipholus takes an extreme view of sexuality and will have no more to do with women. To him the world of natural appearances is but an illusion, the wiles of witches and sorcerers. His initial fears of the Ephesian power of deception, it seems, have come true. It is a land of “Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind” (I.ii.99), “Disguised cheaters” (101), “And many such-like liberties of sin” (103). Quite conveniently, the next woman he meets is the nameless “Courtezan” (enchantingly called Erotium in Plautus), and he immediately claims to see beneath her appearance to the devil himself (IV.iii.49-50). Echoing Antipholus's biblical “Sathan, avoid” (48), Dromio, with logical tenacity, couples the cause of moral decay to the physical effect of venereal disease, and the devil and disease images fuse as before with the imagery of illusion, of light and fire (51-57).

The movement of the play from the light of nature and the natural order of things to the moral and physical corruption of nature is nothing new. The progress from the world to the flesh to the devil is so orthodox the original audience would not have thought it the least bit strange or unusual. In Bishop John Bale's morality play The Three Laws (1531?),18 for instance, the first and puniest of laws, lex naturalis, is personified as a country bumpkin overly confident of his abilities. He proves no match at all for the demons of lust and greed who distort and destroy everything that is beautiful in nature. After leaving to encounter them, lex naturalis returns to the stage defeated, having himself become a syphilitic degenerate (pp. 26-27). One probably cannot underestimate the traumatic effect the discovery of the new venereal diseases had on the moralists of the Renaissance. It is as if the diseases themselves are irrefutable proof of the decay of nature. Like lex naturalis in The Three Laws, the state of nature in The Comedy of Errors is full of decay, and we are reminded of the real and present need for “old Adam” (IV.iii.13), the first man of nature and, according to Elizabethan slang, any officer of the law to dress in leather buff and guard the night. “Time” himself is the victim of decaying nature; he too, as well as all his followers, grows senescently and syphilitically bald, the point of a long joke which delays the plot to explore and advance the theme (II.ii.69-109).

The themes of marriage, decaying time, disease, and diabolical possession link the scenes of the double plot. Adriana first introduces the disease imagery in her remarks to the husband about the intimacy of marriage (II.ii.110-46), remarks which fall between Luciana's advice to the wife and Luciana's advice to the husband. So situated, Adriana's imperatives serve as the corrective of Luciana's opinions. Adriana upholds the supernatural ideal of holy matrimony—the unity of mutual love—in opposition to the possible decay of natural sexuality. Much unlike the Plautine wife, and in direct contrast to Erasmian Catholic advice on the subject,19 she does not bring her complaint before the patriarch of the family, a father or father-in-law. The intimacy of the Anglican marriage calls for the wife as well as the husband to be a source of spiritual counsel and solace and thereby help replace the Catholic confessor. Since the Anglican emphasis is on the special oneness of the married couple, who must share the things of the spirit as well as those of the body, husbands and wives must become of one mind and body to fulfill the demands of living in perpetual friendship. “She is thy body, and made one flesh with thee,” explains “An Homilie” to the husband, who is instructed to think of his wife as himself and to love her as he loves himself (p. 246). Adriana's claim that husband and wife are “undividable incorporate” and that the husband must regard the wife as “better than thy self's better part” (II.ii.122-23) is entirely orthodox and not, as Rolf Soellner contends,20 a sign of Adriana's female vanity. A short while later, Antipholus will echo Adriana's description when he proposes marriage to Luciana, calling her “mine own self's better part: / Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer heart” (III.ii.61-62). Meanwhile, Adriana echoes Antipholus's (and the play's) original image of intrinsic familial unity—the drop of water in the ocean (II.ii.125-29). In contrast to Luciana's later advice, Adriana can call attention to the husband's infidelity, explaining that if he sin, the wife is stained, and if he contract a venereal disease, he will give it to her (142-45).

Dismissing Luciana's appeal to a double moral standard, Adriana upholds the Anglican standard of conjugal unity, intimacy, and affection, but she does not and never did seek social or political equality with her husband. Rather, she is content to rely on him, and she echoes and wittily elaborates on the important imagery of Psalm 128 poignantly quoted in “An Homilie of the state of Matrimonie” to express the happiness of married life. “Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine,” says Adriana, taking Antipholus's arm in hers, “Whose weakness, married to thy state, / Makes me with thy strength to communicate” (II.ii.174-76). The official Anglican sermon promises the husband who loves his wife as he loves himself that “GOD shall follow thee with his benediction … as the Psalme saith: Blesseth is the man which feareth GOD, and walketh in his wayes, thou shalt haue the fruit of thine owne hands, happy shalt thou be, and well it shall goe with thee. The wife shal be as a vine …” (p. 243).

Because the audience knows that Adriana is not talking to her husband, it does not wonder if the husband will take her advice. Rather, the situational irony gives the audience the distanced objectivity to approve of the moral excellence of her idealism. The true standard of value is didactically brought to a conscious level in the language of orthodoxy and biblical allusion and placed in tension with the characters' confusion. The characters are never victims of their own malice or the malicious deception of others. The situational irony of the twins leads the characters to think they see a potential for malice actualizing itself in another when in fact it is not. They are “Smoth'red in errors” of their own dark suspicions of lapsarian nature.

Like every major character in the play, Adriana is a static character with a good and loving heart. Unlike the Plautine wife, she owns a genuine concern for her husband's happiness, but nevertheless she is jealous, and jealousy in a wife, according to “An Homilie of the state of Matrimonie” and the Elizabethan marriage manuals,21 is anathema. In fact the sermon contends that a jealous wife is almost as bad as a wife-beating husband (p. 245). Actually aspiring to the high ideals of a Christian marriage, Adriana finds persuasive and edifying the comments of Aemelia about the deleterious effects of a jealous wife. Luciana may have spoken to the doctrine of the double standard, but the Abbess, proceeding from the ideal of physical and spiritual unity in an affectionate marriage, uses the same imagery of disease and infection Adriana had earlier used to describe the faults of the erring husband: “The venom clamors of a jealous woman / Poisons” (V.i.69-70), “the raging fire of fever” (75), “a huge infectuous troop” (81). According to Aemelia's imagery of disease, a jealous wife is like a violent and syphilitic husband, a cause of, certainly not a cure for, the cancer of marital despondency. While Luciana remains confused by Aemelia's comments, Adriana is stung into recognition and significantly confesses that the holy woman “did betray me to my own reproof” (90).

As historical time in decaying nature is mirrored in the sexual fears of the Syracusan Antipholus, so present time in Ephesus seems to endure the same moral and financial bankruptcy that is the citizen's great anxiety. Enjoying the vantage of irony, the audience knows no one in the play is suffering venereal decay, no one is a witch in disguise or a devil, and no one is a thief or swindler. Ironically, at least according to the comic imagery, the only thief is “Time,” who also happens to be the only syphilitic degenerate. In Act IV Shakespeare boldly defies the laws of probability and merrily turns the clock back one hour (IV.ii.54-55). As playwright, he deliberately intrudes upon the action to remind the audience that an hour earlier, in order to describe decayed and decaying nature, Dromio had delivered a long joke on bald “Time” (II.ii.69-109). Shakespeare is linking that scene with the present one as Dromio now describes the confusion in Ephesian commercial society by claiming to see the devil once again, this time disguised as an officer of the law carrying souls off to hell (IV.ii.32-40), and by depicting present “Time” as a thief suffering from bankruptcy as well as whoredom (56-62). In the comic world of inverted justice, where loyal servants are beaten precisely because they are faithful and obedient (IV.iv.24-39), it accords with the comic truth that time should run backward to chase a whore (“hour” [IV.ii.62]). When glossing the language of Dromio's punning, editors are quick to perceive that emerging from the typological level of meaning is the powerful Christian reminder of the ideal and immutable justice of Judgment Day, which this scene burlesques.

“The whole city was filled with confusion” is Luke's description of Ephesus (Acts 19:29), the biblical source of the “merrygreek” tradition. The confusion of social bonding in this play is marked by great violence and by the human capacity for greater violence. The citizen-husband, unlike his Plautine counterpart, wants to give his wife a token of his affection, yet like his Plautine counterpart he thinks the world has gone crazy. With his frustrations grows his great capacity for violence. He calls Adriana a “Dissembling harlot” (IV.iv.101), and he threatens that “with these nails I'll pluck out these false eyes / That would behold in me this shameful sport” (104-5). The threat more than answers Adriana's earlier prediction of what the husband would do should he suspect her of harlotry: “Wouldst thou spit at me, and spurn at me … And tear the stain'd skin [off] my harlot brow” (II.ii.134-36). Wanting to be an affectionate husband, the citizen ironically finds himself threatening to be the worst of all possible husbands, according to “An Homilie of the state of Matrimonie,” the wife-beater and public brawler (pp. 244-45), the great scandal of which he must be reminded of by the merchant (III.i.85-106).

Although Adriana receives the message that her husband vows “To scorch your face, and to disfigure you” (V.i.183), his violent aggression toward her is narrowly averted and turned on him who becomes the comic villain of the play. The situational irony of the twins in the Menaechmi allows for the comic study of the classical art-nature antithesis and a resolution favoring the freedom of nature over the restrictive artifices of society. In The Comedy of Errors it frustrates the desire for family love and affection while it encourages the characters to give vent to their deep fears of lapsarian nature, to mistake good persons for bad, and to think they see lurking behind and within all the motives of mankind the demons of lust and greed. Coming to embody this confusion is the cocksure quack and pedant, Dr. Pinch, who knows when one is natural, when one is diabolically possessed: “both man and master is possess'd: / I know it by their pale and deadly looks” (IV.iv.92-93). Comic justice is initially well served when the vain pretender to learning, a most ignorant force of darkness and restriction (“They must be bound and laid in some dark room” [94]), is given his comic beating in that same dark room and threatened with death (V.i.169-77). He is also beaten with words that expose his folly (238-42).

Pinch, as his name might suggest, is the diametric opposite of Luce, and both are unwise extremes; more importantly he is the secular foil of the Christian Aemelia, perhaps inspired as much by the sons of Sceva, the false Ephesian exorcists of Acts 19:12-16, as he is by his Plautine counterpart. Out of “charitable duty” (V.i.107), Aemelia wants to cure men and ultimately reunite them to their wives, while Pinch remains an ignorant force of separation and isolation. The Abbess takes cures to the high plateau of scientific aid and supernatural guidance: “With wholesome syrups, drugs, and holy prayers, / To make of him [the husband] a formal man again” (V.i.104-5). It is appropriate then that the reunion of the formal man, the familial completion of the self, should be symbolized by the stage image of the living embrace of brothers, husbands and wives, parents and children, and that it should be described in terms of Christian rebirth and baptism (V.i.401-7).

It is appropriate also that Aemelia, whose voice has supported the Anglican doctrine of conjugal affection, should “loose” the “bonds, / And gain a husband” (V.i.340-41) by being Egeon's lost wife and the mother of the twins. Like his sons, separated and bound in chains, Egeon had been associated with decaying time, a sad victim of “time's deformed hand” (V.i.299) and “time's extremity” (V.i.308), whom only Aemelia can recognize and save (and thereby resolve the initial plot question). As Barton shrewdly notes in her introduction to the play (p. 82), the surprise resolution is a pleasant lesson in intellectual humility for the audience who, like the characters of the play, think they have enough knowledge to be correct judges when in fact their knowledge, too, is temporal and therefore limited, not eternal and omniscient. In the last moments of the play, Shakespeare reminds us that there is yet a higher reality of truth we must attain before we can escape from the imperfect world of time and mutability, appearance and illusion. It is a point brought out by the Duke's confusing the twins (V.i.365) and confirmed once again by the Syracusan Dromio's same error soon thereafter (410-12). Knowing there are two sets of twins may lessen but it does not eliminate the chance of error. Indeed, that the error is made twice in the space of a few minutes leaves the distinct impression that it will continue to be made—and often.

For the time being, however, the confusion is brought under control and the characters' fears allayed. The citizen, no longer violent, can now give his wife the token of his affection; Adriana, no longer jealous, joins hands with her husband; the questing brother, no longer frightened by the possibility of venereal decay, looks forward to marrying Luciana, who it seems no longer fears the troubles of marriage. Husbands and wives, parents and children, subjects and ruler unite in a final comic dance of harmony. Christian marriage, family, and society are celebrated, and we have the promise of more marriages to come.


  1. Arguments trying to date the composition of the play on the evidence of presumably topical allusions have been made since 1733 when Lewis Theobald offered a “Conjecture” on behalf of 1591 (The Works of Shakespeare, 7 vols. [1733; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1968], 3: 22). In 1956 Sidney Thomas, relying on external evidence, argued for a 1594 date (“The Date of The Comedy of Errors,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 7 [1956]: 377-84). R. A. Foakes surveys differing modern opinions about the date in his introduction to the New Arden edition of the play ([Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962], pp. xvi-xxiii). The earliest recorded reference to The Comedy of Errors, from Gesta Grayorum (1594-95), is reprinted in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), pp. 1838-39. Evans leans toward Thomas's dating (pp. 48-49). All quotations of Shakespeare are taken from the Riverside edition.

  2. “Themes and Structure in ‘The Comedy of Errors,’” Early Shakespeare, Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies 3 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1961), p. 56.

  3. Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), pp. 17-18, 59-67, 253-56, et passim.

  4. Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 7-14, et passim.

  5. For the evolution of these contrastive views of life in the state of nature in both classical and patristic literature, see Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935); and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in the Middle Ages (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1948).

  6. Let's Get a Divorce! and Other Plays (New York: Wang and Hill, 1958), pp. xii-xx.

  7. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), pp. 8, 10.

  8. The Comedy of Errors: A Freely Binding Chain,” SQ, 22 (1971): 35-41.

  9. “Structure and Theme through Separation and Union in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors,MLR, 69 (1974): 481-88.

  10. Plautus, trans. Paul Nixon, Loeb Classical Library, 5 vols. (1917; rpt. London: William Heinemann, 1932), 2: 375.

  11. Introduction to The Comedy of Errors, The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 81.

  12. Introduction to The Comedy of Errors, The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), p. 74.

  13. Blaze Bonazza has accused Shakespeare of sloppy artistry on this last point, contending that Aemelia is little more than a redundant Luciana (Shakespeare's Early Comedies [London: Mouton, 1966], p. 39).

  14. The Essays of Montaigne Done into English by John Florio, 3 vols. (London, 1603), 3: 512.

  15. Certaine Sermons or Homilies Appointed to Be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth I (1623; rpt. Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1968). Alfred Hart, Shakespeare and the Homilies: And Other Pieces of Research into the Elizabethan Drama (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1934), calls attention to the importance of the official Anglican sermons, but because he is interested exclusively in the history plays, he ignores the moral and theological sermons to concentrate on the political homilies as expressive of political orthodoxy.

  16. Shakespeare's Comic Sequence (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1979), p. 21.

  17. “Shakespeare, Molière, and the Comedy of Ambiguity,” Shakespeare Survey, 22 (1969): 15-26.

  18. The Dramatic Writings of John Bale (London: Early English Drama Society, 1966).

  19. “Marriage,” The Colloquies of Erasmus, trans. Craig R. Thompson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), pp. 114-27.

  20. Shakespeare's Patterns of Self-Knowledge (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972), pp. 73-75.

  21. E.g., Edmund Tilney, A Brief and Pleasant Discourse of Duties in Marriage, Called the Flower of Friendshippe (London, 1568), sig. E4v-E7r.

Robert Smallwood (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Smallwood, Robert. Review of The Comedy of Errors.Shakespeare Survey 53 (2000): 261-62.

[In the following excerpted review, Smallwood describes Kathryn Hunter's The Comedy of Errors performed at the Globe Theatre in 2000 as crude, patronizing, and, “in every sense, a sell out.”]

Kathryn Hunter was ‘Master of Play’ for the Globe's The Comedy of Errors, Tim Carroll ‘Master of Verse’, and Liz Cooke ‘Master of Design’. The setting was vaguely Turkish, with middle eastern instruments accompanying the action from above, and turbaned men and veiled women peopling the world of Ephesus in a potentially interesting way. There were merchants of all sorts, too, plying their wares between the scenes, but it was the fish merchants who began to give the intentions of the production away, their special line in plastic fish proving irresistible as missiles both on stage and between stage and groundlings. The plastic fish epitomized the project. Doomed to failure before it started by the alluring but always fatal decision to double the Antipholuses and the Dromios, the production sold out, as so much of the Globe's work seems so sadly to do, to the lowest common denominator of groundling taste. Marcello Magni is undoubtedly a very accomplished mime artist, but as a Shakespearian actor he is not an easy taste to acquire. His pillar climbing, mugging, and audience molesting were in the vein we have experienced earlier at the Globe, but as both Dromios he here had much longer to indulge them. To cast in a role for which the basic requirement is sharpness and dexterity in verbal repartee an actor whose command of spoken English is at best precarious is openly to declare that one's primary interest is not in the play's verbal texture. This was shown at its most blatant in the dialogue (2.2) between Dromio and Antipholus about time and baldness, here spoken with scarcely a word decipherable while, to the screeching delight of the audience, a game of badminton was played. Whatever became of the blue pencil if a director, or even a Master of Play, feels such contempt for a scene? No sense of the mystery of Ephesus ever emerged, and attempts to produce it were limited to such infantile moments as having a group of Ephesians sweeping the stage suddenly freeze in a bending posture holding their brushes out behind them, or the musicians in the gallery appearing in white plastic animal heads, like so many Harveys.

The acting was in the same vein of crudeness, though Robert Pickavance did attempt, in spite of groundling efforts to push in the opposite direction, to offer a serious account of Egeon's griefs and he was supported in the endeavour by Martin Turner's Solinus. Vincenzo Nicoli was not without a certain goofy charm as Antipholus, but it was at best a wooden performance, with no real distinction offered between the brothers. Yolanda Vazquez gave us one of those caricature Adrianas, standing aside from the role, as it were, and guying all its emotional extremes. Jules Melvin (a female actor) began reasonably well as Luciana, but her brother-in-law's love-verses (heavily underscored by the violin as a hint to the audience that this should be taken more solemnly than the rest of the knockabout with which they were being patronized) apparently turned her head, for she took to putting on an antic disposition and smoking a hookah in imitation of the National's Helen of Troy. Any production, certainly any stage production, of The Comedy of Errors that doubles the twins must inevitably destroy the play's romance ending (the prototype of Twelfth Night and The Winter's Tale) by substituting for the audience's wonder at the final miracle mere curiosity as to how the self-imposed problem will be solved. But here, just as we had come to terms with the doppelgangers and felt relief that, at last, the Abbess, at least, had been treated seriously, we had the annihilation of one of the most exquisite exit sequences in Shakespeare. Off went Antipholus and his double, but off, too, went the stand-in Dromio, leaving Magni on stage alone. The Abbess had left a cross behind at her exit and he dressed it in his coat and danced with it a little. ‘I see by you I am a sweet-faced youth’, he said to his dummy's facelessness and then reached round through the further sleeve of the dummy's coat and began to fondle himself. For the play's final distillment of fraternal reciprocity, of identity through relationship, was substituted this image of self-indulgence, of self-pleasuring, this—but in the fifty-third year of Survey's august history I had better not be the first to use the obvious monosyllable for this swanking piece of vulgarity that provided the perfect finale to the production. The performance I saw was packed, with a long queue for returns, and it was greeted with huge applause, milked to an extent I have rarely witnessed in a series of encored jigs. It was, in every sense, a sell-out.

Patricia Parker (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Parker, Patricia. “Shakespeare and the Bible: The Comedy of Errors.Recherches sémiotiques/Semiotic Inquiry 13, no. 3 (1993): 47-72.

[In the following essay, Parker illuminates the significance of scriptural allusions to the structure and theme of The Comedy of Errors.]

The Comedy of Errors is still part of the Shakespeare canon whose wider resonances have yet to be explored, despite recent attempts to rescue it from the long-standing charge of simple-minded “farce.” What is particularly striking about it is that it combines a classical plot structure from Plautine comedy (doubling the Menaechmi's mistaken identities by featuring not one but two sets of twins) with an extraordinary concentration of biblical echoes still largely uninterpreted. My own experience with this play, however, repeatedly convinces me of the critical importance—stressed from beginning to end in the work of Northrop Frye—of typological networks of biblical allusion as an interpretive tool, in this case in relation both to wordplay and to larger framing structures. What the greater part of this essay therefore sets out to do is to chart the multiple biblical echoes that literally “stuff” this Shakespearean “farce,” in the etymological sense of the term Frye once humorously applied to his own work (Frye 1971: 7); but then, however, as an important second step, to turn from this biblical frame to its disjunctive juxtaposition with other very different discourses, in ways not simply recuperable within a hierarchical sense of the Bible as cultural monolith or authoritative single voice.

Several years ago, I suggested (Parker 1983: 38-58) the centrality of a passage from Ephesians 2 for this comedy set in Ephesus and its plot of alien and citizen, of a family separated until a final Recognition Scene. Ephesians' second chapter speaks of the Law and its dividing line between “alien” Gentile and “citizen” Jew, a division as absolute as that between alien Syracusian and local Ephesian at this Comedy's beginning. But it also goes on to speak of the “cross” as breaking down the “wall of partition” between the two, replacing separation, partition or division by a reconciliation in which the “twain” are made “one,” the former aliens or strangers equally adopted heirs (Ephesians 2: 12-22).1The Comedy of Errors opens with what Frye (1965: 73) characterized as a familiar beginning of Shakespearean comedy—a “harsh law” which here condemns the crosser between Syracuse and Ephesus to death—a “doom” (I.i.2) from which the condemned Egeon gains a day's reprieve only after he responds to the Duke's request that he “dilate” his narrative “at full” (I.i.122).2 This space of dilation that enables the deferral of end and “doom” becomes the space in which the “comedy of errors” then proceeds to unfold, before frame story and intervening Plautine comedy finally come together at 5 o'clock, at the place of expected “doom” that turns out to be a place of “nativity” (V.i.405). In the interim, the mutual recognition of citizen and alien twins (Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio and their like-named Syracusian counterparts) is delayed by the obstacle of an actual wall or partition, before arrival at the Comedy's final acts, which are filled with allusions to the biblical interim of waiting for “redemption,” traditionally described as a period of “dilation” or delay before Last Judgment “Doom.”3


In order to chart the biblical allusions that suggest this larger structural analogue, we need to consider more concretely the play's opening scene and what follows from it. As with many Shakespearean openings—All's Well, for example, or Twelfth Night—it is heavy with the sense of impending end, the “doom” to which Egeon is condemned by “law” (I.i.25). Its opening is an immediately foreclosing couplet, allowing only a constricted space between (“Egeon: Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall, / And by the doom of death end woes and all” [I.i.1-2]). The “doom” of this “law” is soon joined by Egeon's own death-wish in the same closed verse form, in lines that link the duration of “words” with travail or “woes” (“Egeon: Yet this my comfort; when your words are done, / My woes end likewise with the evening sun” [26-27]). The scene that unfolds after the announcement of this “doom,” however, by contrast calls attention to its extended length and the putting off of threatened ends. Egeon explains how he sought “delays” from an “immediate death” (I.i.68) by the stratagem that led to the “unjust divorce” (104) of his family's two halves. When he is granted space to tell his tale (“say in brief the cause / Why thou departedst from thy native home, / And for what cause thou cam'st to Ephesus” [28-30]), his response echoes the locus classicus not of a “brief” but instead of famously protracted discourse, the wanderer Aeneas's response to the request that he dilate his narrative at full.4 What Harry Levin (1965: xxix) called Egeon's “protracted expository narration” continues even after Egeon himself asks leave to stop (“O, let me say no more!” [94]) but the Duke begs him to continue (“Nay, forward, old man, do not break off so, / For we may pity, though not pardon thee” [96-97]); and it calls repeated attention to its own length (“At length […] at length” [88, 112]). It also highlights the tension between speed, haste and immediate or premature ending and extension, postponement or delay. Only, he says, because of his wife's impatient “daily motions for our home return” (I.i.59) did his family set out prematurely on the sea (“Unwilling I agreed. Alas! too soon / We came aboard” [60-61]). Of the tempest they encountered, he relates that he would “gladly have embrac'd” an “immediate death” (68-69) at sea, if the weeping of his wife and babes had not forced him to “seek delays” (74) through a device which, while delaying death, also led to their partition or “divorce” (104), the family's division into separate halves.

Egeon's even tediously extended narrative also contains terms which become suggestive figures for the play that ensues.5 His wife Emilia's pregnancy with twins, which he calls periphrastically the “pleasing punishment that women bear” (46), becomes, by the final act, a figure for the “travail” (the female counterpart here of “travel”) in the intervening years, as well as for the duration of the play itself before the “nativity” that reunites the family's divided parts (V.i.401-405: Emilia's “Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail / Of you, my sons, and till this present hour / My heavy burthen ne'er delivered”). The line's periphrastic avoidance of more direct naming links pregnancy as one particular form of “bearing” to the manifold other kinds of “bearing” and “forebearing” to be encountered as the play proceeds.6

The delaying of “immediate death” in Egeon's tale is also linked to the splitting that, by severing the family's halves, leads to his errancy or wandering: “Thus have you heard me sever'd from my bliss, / That by misfortunes was my life prolong'd, / To tell sad stories of my own mishaps” (118-20). Egeon's words here connect the earlier prolonging of life and woes with the prolonging of his discourse as “sad stories” of travail. But the dilation of Egeon's narrative in this scene—of the loss first of his wife and eldest son and then of his youngest, gone in “quest” (129) of his twin—leads not just to a reiterating of woes but to the opening up of a space within the play's initial sense of “doom.” The opening of the play thus contains a play on opening—as commencement, but also as the creation of a space of “dilation” in all the senses introduced in this first scene. Egeon is given a reprieve from the “doom” of death (150-154) in order to find the “ransom” (22) or “redemption” that would lift his condemning sentence, a reprieve he himself, however, is able to see only as mere “procrastination” or postponement (I.i.157-158), delay without a difference.

What this opening reprieve leads to in the second scene is the “comedy of errors” proper, a Plautine comedy of twins whose length is prolonged by a new form of severance—the fact that the twins never appear simultaneously on stage—but also by the duplication or doubling occasioned by the proliferation of lookalikes bearing the same name. Egeon's romance errancy or wandering—his tale evocative of Aeneas or Odysseus and drawn from the Apollonius narrative of Greek romance—is iterated in the arrival in Ephesus of the alien or wandering Antipholus of Syracuse (Antipholus Erotes in the Folio, suggesting “Erratus” as well as “Eros”), come to Ephesus to seek his twin. This second wanderer is advised as soon as he appears to avoid seconding the fate of the Syracusian already condemned for crossing the dividing line between the cities, by disguising his place of origin (I.ii.1-2). His subsequent decision to “wander” through the city unwittingly echoes the wandering of his Syracusian father, ordered to search through Ephesus for his “ransom,” but this time with a less directed sense of envisioned “end” (I.ii.30-31). This is the twin whose wandering, through this “town” full of “cozenage,” “Dark-working sorcerers,” “Soul-killing witches,” “Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, / And many such-like liberties of sin” (I.ii.95-102)—in lines that recall the Ephesus of Paul's New Testament wanderings—becomes the error or “fallacy” this second Syracusion decides to “entertain” (II.ii.184-186) in a space that becomes the unfolding but also the darkening of a Plautine comedy.


Egeon's opening story of the “unjust divorce” (I.i.104) of his family's halves—a division or partition that echoes the initial barrier between Syracuse and Ephesus—gives to the play the tension implicit in the Platonic myth of halves whose severance prompts desire for reunion, and its incorporation into the figure of the androgynous Adam that makes the “one flesh” of marriage (Ephesians 5:31) not just a union but a reunion of divided parts. In the intervening comedy of errors, this marital “one flesh” appears in the subplot of Adriana's “waiting,” “fasting” and “starving” for her absent husband (Ephesian Antipholus) and the counselling of this wife to “patience” in scenes that directly recall the counsel to wives in Ephesians 5.

Adriana's speech on this “undividable” (II.ii.122) union in Act II, with its double-meaning “estranged from thyself” and its argument that, as her “flesh,” her errant husband communicates his “harlotry” to her, invokes in its “two” made “one” (142) the marital counterpart of the “twain” made “one” from Ephesians 2. Within this echo-chamber of a play, Adriana's “deep-divorcing vow” (138) explicitly recalls the “unjust divorce” of Egeon's family's two halves, just as its “drop of water in the breaking gulf” (126) echoes the “drop of water” to which the severed twin Antipholus had compared himself (I.ii.35-40). Echoes such as these, however, thickening as the play proceeds, not only create verbal affinities between the different plots but also begin to establish structural parallels: Dromio's punning on a “thousand marks” (I.ii.81-82)—both currency and signs of beating—links the money entrusted by Antipholus of Syracuse to his Dromio, the amount needed to ransom Egeon (I.i.21), and the beatings suffered by this second Dromio, who is expected to “bear” them “patiently” (I.ii.86), just as Adriana is counselled by her sister to wait patiently for her husband's return in lines echoing Egeon's periphrasis on the travail of pregnancy as the “pleasing punishment that women bear” (I.i.46). The sense of structural affinity continues, in a plot that strictly observes the unities of place and time, as the deadline set for Egeon's ransom, the time at which Antipholus of Ephesus is to pay his “debt” (IV.i.10-11), and the final payment of the waiting Merchant all converge towards the single appointed hour of five o'clock. This framed middle or mean-time of multiplied “errors,” whose severing of twins, by deferring recognition, extends a play that might otherwise more quickly reach its Recognition Scene, underscores its own delays so insistently as to affect even as apparently minor a detail as the naming of a ship in Act IV, as “the hoy Delay” (IV.iii.40). And it is in this protracted, “erring” middle that the Comedy's increasingly prominent biblical echoes begin to suggest the analogy between the play's delaying of its end and recognitions and the delaying of the “Doom” and ultimate Recognition Scene of the Apocalypse, also a reunion of a divided family, a “redemption” that puts an end to Error, and the delayed return of a Bridegroom or Spouse (Matthew 24-25).

The first dramatic error occurs when Ephesian Dromio, mistaking the “wandering” Antipholus for Antipholus of Ephesus—the “tardy master” who delays his return to his wife—announces that they have been “fasting and praying” for his return (I.ii.51, 89-90), in lines that bear unmistakable echoes of the interim of waiting for this other Master and Spouse:

Here comes your man, now is your husband nigh.


Say, is your tardy master now at hand?
E. Dromio:
Nay, he's at two hands with me, and that my two ears can witness


This “tardy master” now “at hand” recalls the familiar biblical anticipations of Apocalypse as “at hand” or “near,” in contexts alternately, or simultaneously, of joyful anticipation or the terror of impending punishment. Just as in the New Testament this End is understood as in some sense “already here,” so in this play the long separation of the brothers is, as one of its critics (Crewe 1982: 217) remarks, already “at an end, if only they could see it.”7

The concentrated punning in this exchange—linking “at hand,” as something “nigh” or near with the “two hands” of a punishment—depends upon an error in language with which the play compounds the errors resulting from twinned identities, a linguistic doubleness that Shakespeare's contemporaries called “amphibology” or ambiguitas, “when a sentence be turned both ways, so that a man shall be uncertayne what way to take” or “when we speake or write doubtfully and that the sense may be taken two wayes” (“Luciana: Spake he so doubtfully, thou couldst not feel his meaning? / Eph. Dromio: Nay, he strook so plainly, I could too well feel his blows; and withal so doubtfully, that I could scarce understand them” [II.i.50-54]).8 Amphibology and punning involve two meanings competing for the same space, blocking the way to single “understanding” just as Shakespeare's redoubling of Plautine twins retards movement towards resolution and end.

As the comedy proceeds, this doubled twinning also generates the temporal illusion of a “second time.” Immediately following this scene of “doubtful” speech, Syracusian Antipholus, mistaking his Dromio for the other one who earlier informed him of “a mistress and a dinner” (II.ii.18), beats him, he thinks, a second time (“Why first—for flouting me, and then wherefore—for urging it the second time to me” [II.ii.46]), when it is not in fact a “second time,” but an error resulting from twins bearing the same name and assumed identity. The repeated emphasis on time, and “second time(s)” in a play whose mistakes depend so crucially on timing, produces what in Act II becomes an elaborate exchange on “Time” itself (II.ii.57-109), in lines that extend from Syracusian Antipholus's “there's a time for all things” (65) to Syracusian Dromio's argument that “there is no time for all things” (100-101). “There's a time for all things” conveys the sense, as in Ecclesiastes 3, that everything has its “season” (ironically echoed in this servant's complaint that he is “beaten out of season” [II.ii.47]). But Dromio takes it that there is not “time” for all things, and the scene that unfolds (with its punning on “hair” and “heir,” on “fine” as “end” and on “recovery” as a kind of “ransom” or “redemption”) becomes a pyrotechnical display of the errors of amphibology, whose punning deflections both take up time—incurring the critical assessment that the exchange is too elaborately protracted, like Egeon's dilated narrative in Act 1—and create time by postponing its own end or “fine,” paradoxically recovering time while proving syllogistically that “there is no time for all things” (“Syr. Ant: “You would all this time have prov'd, there is no time for all things” [100-101]). The exchange then comes to an end with yet another reference to the “world's end” or apocalyptic Doom (“Syr. Dro: Time himself is bald, and therefore, to the world's end, will have bald followers. / Syr. Ant: I knew ‘twould be a bald conclusion” [106-108]).

There is even more, however, to the dizzying allusiveness of this exchange on “Time.” I have noted elsewhere (Parker 1987: 77-81) the curious reminder of Jacob and Esau—two biblical twins—at the beginning of this comedy, in the reference to Egeon's greater care for the elder twin while their mother was “more careful for the latter-born” (I.i.78). We might wonder why “elder” and “younger” should be stressed at all, especially in the case of twins; but this emphasis returns even more prominently at the play's end, when the servant Dromios, the two “adopted” twins, also invoke the priority of “elder” over “younger” and then drop the question of precedence altogether to walk “hand in hand” into the same “house” (V.i.423-426: “Syr. Dro: We'll draw cuts for the senior, till then, lead thou first. / Eph. Dro: Nay then thus: / We came into the world like brother and brother: / And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another”).

Allusion to “elder” and “younger” at the end of this comedy of alien and citizen twins, and in the umistakable echo at its beginning of Jacob and Esau, the twins on whose rivalry so much biblical history depends, involves yet another dimension of the play's relation to Ephesians and its “wall.” In the New Testament Epistle, Esau and Jacob, Gentile and Jew, are finally reconciled by the union that makes both equally “adopted” heirs of the same “house” (Ephesians 1: 5; 3: 6), the former “aliants” (as the Bishops' Bible puts it) “no more strangers and forreiners: but fellowe citizens.”9 In The Comedy of Errors, “alien” and “citizen” twins from divided cities are kept apart, both by their alternating appearances upon the stage and by the wall that divides and postpones their recognition in Act III. But even in the early lines describing the mother's and father's greater “care” (I.i.78-85), the Jacob-and-Esau sense of parental preference is attenuated by a chiasmus or crossing of sides in which each parent is left with the twin other than the one “most car'd for”; and the rhetorical crossing of Egeon's later lines (“My youngest boy, and yet my eldest care, / At eighteen years became inquisitive / After his brother” [124-126]) evokes a brotherly seeking more suggestive of the Joseph than of the Jacob narrative, even as the crossing of the boundary between Syracuse and Ephesus by Egeon and his “wandering” son anticipates the ultimate reuniting of the family's divided parts.10 The play's closing exchange between the adopted Dromios on the subject of elder and younger, and their final abandoning of priority and precedence, concludes The Comedy of Errors in a way evocative, once again, of the Epistle to the Ephesians. “Alien” and “citizen” twin are reunited when (as Bottom puts it in A Midsummer Night's Dream) the intervening “wall” is finally “down”; and it is the two “adopted” servant twins whose abandoning of elder and younger, Jacob-and-Esau rivalry concludes the Comedy's own reconciliations and Recognition Scene.

When we return from these echoes of Jacob and Esau at the beginning and end of the play to the exchange on “Time” in Act II, we can begin to see much more in its dizzying puns on the redeeming of time, on “hair” and “heir” and on “fine” and “recovery.” “Fine and recovery” is a phrase taken from the legal lexicon of primogeniture, part in Shakespeare's day of the fierce contemporary rivalries of elder and younger, the principal means of curbing the power of elder sons through recovery to bar entails.11 Echoes of Jacob and Esau, the quintessential biblical elder and younger sons, begin to be unmistakable here too as the punning on “recovery” moves to “hairy men,” “plain dealers” and mention of a “blessing:”

SYR. Dro:
There's no time for a man to recover his hair that grows bald by nature.
SYR. Ant:
May he not do it by fine and recovery?
SYR. Dro:
Yes, to pay a fine for a periwig, and recover the lost hair of another man.
SYR. Ant:
Why is Time such a niggard of hair, being (as it is) so plentiful an excrement?
SYR. Dro:
Because it is a blessing that he bestows on beasts, and what he hath scanted men in hair, he hath given them in wit.
SYR. Ant:
Why, but there's many a man hath more hair than wit.
SYR. Dro:
Not a man of those but he hath the wit to lose his hair.
SYR. Ant:
Why, thou didst conclude hairy men plain dealers without wit.
SYR. Dro:
The plainer dealer, the sooner lost; yet he loseth it in a kind of jollity […].


The usual glosses on this “bald Time” are to the baldness of Occasio (or time as “season”) and the “bald sexton Time” of King John (III.i.324); and the punning on “lost heir” and “lost hair” usually referred to the familiar consequences of sexual “jollity” and the civil war in France (as in Peter Quince's “some of your French crowns have no hair at all”). Echoes of Jacob and Esau also, however, hover around the edges of this discussion of whether something lost—an “heir” as well as “hair”—can ever be “recovered.” “There's many a man hath more hair than wit” and “Not a man of those but he hath the wit to lose his hair” could be said, for example, of Esau, the “hairy” man who, outwitted by his usurping twin, loses his right as the elder son or “heir.” This Genesis story of a father with two twin sons, then, could yield the mock-learned conclusion here (“thou didst conclude hairy men plain dealers without wit”). Jacob, the younger twin whom medieval texts like the Cursor Mundi called “bald” in contrast to Esau's “hairy,” becomes the rightful “heir” by covering himself with the “lost hair” of “another man.” For this Esau there might be said to be “no time to recover” (in Hebrews 12: 17, deprived of his “blessing,” he finds “no place to repentance,” as the Geneva Bible puts it), a situation which suggests the absence of the space and time for repentance or “recovery” which is the principal reason for the period of delay or reprieve before the “world's end” or “Doom.” The lost “heir,” however, like the exchanged foundling, is a staple of the New Comedy formulas on which this play depends; and in The Comedy of Errors, the elder twin or “lost heir,” initially severed from his father's greater “care,” is finally recovered, after the protracted time or delayed “doom” which is the comedy itself.

On closer inspection, there is even more to be unpacked in this densely concentrated punning. The description of lost “hair” evokes not just Esau the hairy elder but Jacob, the “plain” man in the sense of “smooth” or “bald,” the twin who usurps his brother's place in Genesis but who, in the subsequent history of these rival twins, loses his “hair” as a consequence of “harlotry” (Isaiah 3: 24), a loss linked to losing his children or “heirs” as well (Micah 1: 16). The Jacob who is Israel outwits hairy Esau to win a “blessing”; but because of his harlotries loses his hair and his status as rightful “heir” in turn. The New Testament then celebrates the Gentile Esau (who in this sense “recovers the lost hair / heir of another man”), and Paul hopes for the redemption of the Jews, the “lost” as opposed to the “adopted” heir. Both “Not a man of those but he hath wit to lose his hair” and “The plainer dealer, the sooner lost” could, then, in the context of this larger biblical history, apply to both outwitted hairy Esau (who had “more hair than wit”) and to Jacob, the simultaneously crafty and “plain” (or smooth) twin. The question of whether there is “time to recover,” or “redeem the time” (Ephesians 5: 16), would apply equally to both of them as well, as figures simultaneously implicated in the punning amphibology of these “doubtful” lines. This extended exchange on “Time,” with its echoes of twins whose exchanges of position before a “wall of partition” (Ephesians 2) is finally down chart so much of the history between Genesis and Apocalypse, is part of the movement from the play's opening recall of the Genesis Jacob and Esau to the final lines where the rivalry of elder and younger, alien and citizen, is abandoned by the adopted servant Dromios, as the separation between cities and the family's two halves is replaced by recognition and reunion in a dramatic ending filled with echoes of biblical Endtime or Apocalypse.


Before this end, however, the multiple biblical echoes that fill this exchange on “fine and recovery” in Act II become even more insistent, as the “errors” of the play both deepen and proliferate. We have already observed the ambiguity or doubleness that links the “tardy master” now “at hand” (II.i.44) to the returning Master and Spouse of that Apocalypse; but not yet the links between the play's repeated references to “harlotry” and the biblical metaphors of harlotry for the threshold or betrothal period of error and wandering before this final Doom, the “marriage” of the New Jerusalem as Bride of that Bridegroom whose coming is delayed. The comically fantastic form this compound takes in The Comedy of Errors' own extended middle is the hyperbolic description of the impending “marriage” of the “kitchen wench” to the Dromio she wrongly claims and terrifies in Act III:

S. Dro:
Marry, sir, besides myself, I am due to a woman: one that claims me, one that haunts me, one that will have me.
S. Ant:
What claim lays she to thee?
S. Dro:
Marry, sir, such claim as you would lay to your horse, and she would have me as a beast; not that, I being a beast, she would have me, but that she, being a very beastly creature, lays claim to me.
S. Ant:
What is she?
S. Dro:
A very reverent body: ay, such a one as a man may not speak of without he say “Sir-reverence.” I have but lean luck in the match, and yet is she a wondrous fat marriage.
S. Ant:
How dost thou mean a fat marriage?
S. Dro:
Marry, sir, she's the kitchen wench and all grease, and I know not what use to put her to but to make a lamp of her and run from her by her own light. I warrant, her rags and the tallow in them will burn a Poland winter: if she lives till doomsday, she'll burn a week longer than the whole world.
S. Ant:
What complexion is she of?
S. Dro:
Swart, like my shoe, but her face nothing like so clean kept; for why? she sweats, a man may go over shoes in the grime of it.
S. Ant:
That's a fault that water will mend.
S. Dro:
No, sir, ‘tis in grain, Noah's flood could not do it […]


The description is all the more hyperbolic for involving a figure who may never actually appear on stage (though she has been identified with that “Luce”—both “loose” and “light”—who bars the return of Ephesian Antipholus to his house in the scene just before). As a “witch” (III.ii.143), she is associated with the juggling and “sorceries” of Ephesus (I.ii.97-102), recalling as well the Circe of the Odyssean story of romance errancy or wandering who transforms a man into a “beast.” Described as “fat […] Nell” (“an ell and three quarters, will not measure her from hip to hip” [111]) and as “spherical, like a globe” (114), she also becomes linked with the “globe” or world, as Dromio proceeds to “find out countries in her” in a mock-blason that makes her body a mappa mundi divided into parts (116-139).

The unmistakable biblical echoes in this long description make her a strangely ambiguous or “double” female figure—a doubleness introduced by the apparently honorific “very reverent body” and its swift corrective “ay, such a one as a man may not speak of without he say ‘Sir-reverence,’” the formulaic apology for the offence here of a “light” woman, an ambiguity continued in her association both with “grease” and its homophonic double “grace” (96). When the blason that divides her body into countries suggests her link with the “globe” or world and adds to the references to “doomsday” (99) the comic detail of her “nose, all o'er embellish'd with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires” (135), this hyperbolic body begins to summon parodic associations with both female figures of that “doomsday” or world's end, the New Jerusalem (decked in precious stones and as broad as she is long), the betrothed and waiting Bride whose “error” is redeemed, and the Great Harlot or Whore of Babylon, a sorceress associated with “beasts” (Revelation 17) who sums up all the accumulated “harlotries” of biblical history before Apocalypse, a figure long linked with Circe as her Odyssean counterpart.12

Both “broad” and “swart” in her “complexion,” this “greasy” female figure recalls the notoriously “uncleane” (Revelation 18: 2) associations of the harlot who will burn “for evermore” (19: 3) for her “inchantements” (18:23), anticipated by the harlot of Proverbs who calls men into her house while the “housbond” or master is away (Proverbs 7: 5-20, Geneva 1560 version)—as has happened here to this frightened Dromio. She also evokes ambivalently the principal biblical figures for the redemption of “harlotry,” including the harlot Rahab whose name means “dilated” or “broad,” prefiguring the period of dilation before Apocalypse, and the “black, but comely” Bride of the Song of Songs, typological counterpart of the Church or New Jerusalem as the harlot whose “errors” and “harlotries” are redeemed in the final “marriage” of the End.13 The sense of redemption as “washing clean” is explicitly summoned in the surrounding lines, with their reference to a “grime” beyond the “water” of “Noah's flood,” the baptism (1 Peter 3: 20-21) to be supplanted by that of burning or fire at “doomsday” (98-100).14 As an ambivalent or compound female figure, she thus recalls even more strikingly both female figures of the world and “flesh” (IV.iv.154), Jerusalem the Bride to be ransomed and “redeemed” and the Harlot whose Circe-like sorceries, enchantments and “amaze” (Revelation 17: 6) are part of the period of renewed error (2 Timothy 4) before that end. Dromio makes this last association explicit when the passage ends with an echo of the vigilance necessary in this period, the “armour” and breastplate of Ephesians 6: “I, amaz'd, 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 transform'd me to a curtal dog, and made me turn i' th' wheel” (III.ii.143-146). The description of this dilated body in the extended middle of a play which calls attention to its own dilation before a put-off “doom” proceeds according to the principle of ambiguity in which punning, double terms look two ways at once. If she does not finally appear on stage, perhaps it is because such an ambivalently symbolic body hardly could.


What is important here, however, is also the moment in the classical five-act structure of this Comedy that this extraordinary set-description comes. In the scene just before, Ephesian Antipholus, the “tardy master,” is barred from returning to his “house” because the alien Antipholus (with his Dromio) has already been taken in, assumed to be the long-awaited spouse. The hostile reception subsequently given to the true “master” who has to “knock” at his own “door” in Act III (i. 58) hence becomes the comic opposite of “knocke, & it shalbe opened unto you” (Matthew 7: 7); and the attitude of those within the house the corresponding opposite of the biblical servants who wait patiently for the return of their Lord (“that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately” [Luke 12: 36]). It is from this point in the play onwards that the biblical allusions to the space of renewed error, wandering and “harlotry” become even more concentrated. In the New Testament prophecies of an end that is “at hand” but not yet come, one of the features of what Church Fathers termed the “interim” age is the coming of an imposter in the name of the true Master or awaited Spouse (Matthew 24: 5-6: “For manie shal come in my Name, saying, I am Christ, and shal deceive manie […] but the end is not yet”). The verse could equally apply to the twin Antipholuses of this comedy, made by Shakespearean alteration to share not just an apparent identity but the same name. The biblical imposter or lookalike is described as working a “strong delusion” and “lyes” (2 Thessalonians 2: 11) on those who believe him to be the true Master returned, before he is finally exposed in the Apocalypse. At this point in Shakespeare's Comedy, Adriana takes the wrong Antipholus to be her awaited “tardy master” now returned and invites him into “his” house. When the real Master and spouse attempts to return after he has “linger'd” (III. i.3), he (along with his Dromio) is kept out by the presence of not just an intervening wall but a usurper twin (“Eph. Ant: What art thou that keep'st me out from the house I owe? […] / Eph. Dro: O villain, thou hast stol'n both mine office and my name” [42-44]).

This scene and the ones that follow it are filled with echoes not only of the “wall of partition” from Ephesians 2, but of other biblical walls and doors to be opened before a final recognition, revelation or ending—from the returning Master knocking for admittance in Revelation 3: 20 (“Beholde, I stand at the dore, and knocke: if anie man heare my voyce & open the dore, I will come unto him, and will suppe with him[…]”) to the story in Acts 12 (explicitly recalled in the punning “angels” sent to deliver Ephesian Antipholus from prison in Act IV), in which Peter is left standing outside the door by a maid instructed not to open it by those who think it to be his daimon or double, a sense of daimonic double summoned in this play of doubles when the twin Antipholuses are called each other's “genius” (V.i.333-334: “Adriana: I see two husbands, or mine eyes deceive me. / Duke: One of these men is genius to the other: / And so of these, which is the natural man, / And which the spirit?”).15 Through the uttering of the words “he comes too late” (III.i.48) by the maid here called “Luce” or “light,” the scene recalls not only this story of movement from darkness to light but the parable of the foolish virgins who return too late, after the Bridegroom has come and the “door” is “shut” (Matthew 25: 10), and are answered, like the excluded Ephesian Antipholus, “I know you not” (Matthew 25: 12). In the context of the extraordinary concentration of biblical allusions which thickens as the play proceeds, this farcical scene of the locked-out husband—already conflating the “errors” of Plautus's Menaechmi with a scene of usurpation and imposture from the Amphitruo—manages to combine both Plautine dramatic subtexts with echoes of the biblical imposter who comes in the name of another “tardy master,” takes his place, and keeps out those who “come too late.”

For those inside this master's house, the space of “fasting,” “praying” and waiting “patiently” for the long-awaited spouse is at this point apparently at an end. But it is not yet over for the play itself: the wall that keeps lookalike in and real master out creates only an illusory sense of resolution and end, much as what one critic calls the “false resolution” of Syracusian Antipholus's address in this Act to Luciana, whose name invokes “Light” (III.ii.29-52), prematurely suggests the illumination of “errors” and the “folded meaning” of ambiguous words (35-36). Each turns out to be a “false theophany,” only anticipating something still to come (Crewe 1982: 215). What we have instead for two more acts is a deepening of error and illusion, a dramatic interim whose harping upon “patience” and “forebearance” continues to recall the New Testament counsels to both before the true apocalyptic end or “fine.”

“Patience” is specifically linked in this interim with the structure of indirection charted by the golden “chain,” a material object with roots in the play's main Plautine source (see Sanderson 1975: 603-606). The chain is first mentioned at the end of the scene (II.i) in which Adriana complains of her husband's delayed return and is counselled by Luciana to be “patient” and “forebear” in lines that rhyme it with “detain”: “Sister, you know he promis'd me a chain; / Would that alone a'love he would detain, / So he would keep fair quarter with his bed” (II.i.106-108). Its associations with detaining, delaying and with lingering are repeated in its second mention, this time as excuse for the “tardy master's” delay (“Eph. Ant: My wife is shrewish when I keep not hours: / Say that I linger'd with you at your shop / To see the making of her carcanet” [III.i.2-4]). As such references accumulate, the chain becomes associated not just with the bonds of society, connecting characters even in their apparent separateness, but also with the detours of the circuitous plot, transforming the corresponding Plautine objects (the mantle and bracelet of the Menaechmi) into something linked with the errancy and delays of the comedy itself.

The chain proceeds by successive detours and deflections after it is blocked from its intended receiver Adriana when her husband is barred from returning to his house by the presence of his usurping double in Act III. When it is sent to the Porpentine, house of the Courtesan, reference is made once again to its association with detaining or delay, first as the Goldsmith Angelo delivers it to the wrong Antipholus (“Lo here's the chain. / I thought to have ta'en you at the Porpentine; / The chain unfinish'd made me stay thus long” [III.ii.166-168]) and then in this Goldsmith's need to collect his payment so that he can discharge his debt to the Merchant who is “bound to sea” and “stays but for it” (IV.i.33). It thus becomes involved with unpaid “debt,” linking the plotting of this “comedy of errors” to the reprieve allowed for Egeon's “ransom,” when Ephesian Antipholus, arrested for non-payment for the chain, must similarly await a monetary “redemption” (IV.ii.46). Increasingly, it also becomes associated with “looking to the end”—in scenes whose respice funem (or “look to the rope”) punningly shadow respice finem (IV.iv.41-43), consideration of this end or “fine.”

As the errors multiply toward this end, so do the biblical allusions surrounding the chain, which finally becomes linked with the “chain” in Revelation that binds the “devil” in the final stages before Apocalypse (IV.iii.69-76). It also becomes associated with desire to know the truth “at large” (IV.iv.143), a desire finally fulfilled when, in the long-delayed recognition scene, the mother of this divided family (Emilia, now an Abbess) invites characters who have each known only in part into the abbey to “hear at large discoursed” (V.i.396) not just the whole of this “sympathized one day's error” (398) but the entire reunited family's history of “travail” (401), an echo of the Duke's earlier request that Egeon “dilate” his narrative “at full” (I.i.122). The chain, then, is not only a subtle Shakespearean transformation of the counterpart objects from his Plautine source, but a measuring of the distance of dilation and delay that created this entire “errant” dramatic interim.


The Comedy's final acts are literally crammed with biblical figures for the space of error and circuitous detour before a final apocalyptic end or “fine,” as well as for what in Ephesians is termed “redeeming the time.” Act IV opens with the Merchant's calling Angelo the Goldsmith to account for a sum due “since Pentecost,”16 (“Nay, come, I pray you, sir, give me the chain: / Both wind and tide stays for this gentleman, / And I, to blame, have held him here too long,” a “dalliance” the Merchant says he cannot “brook” [IV.i.45-47, 59]). It is in this same Act that even the names of the ships call attention to the interposition of delay in spite of all the counsels to dispatch (“I brought you word an hour since that the bark Expedition put forth to-night, and then were you hind'red by the sergeant to tarry for the hoy Delay […]” [IV.iii.37-40]). Act IV also puns on “hours” (or “whores”) that “turn back for very fear” when they meet a representative of the Law (IV.ii.56), wordplay that evokes the staying of the sun in Joshua and other biblical figures for the space of a deferred end or “doom.” The punning on “hours” and “whores” comes in the midst of the sergeant's imprisonment of Antipholus of Ephesus, an arrest that leads Syracusian Dromio to seek the “angels” or gold coins for his “redemption” (“Will you send him, mistress, redemption […]?” [IV.ii.46], or, as F4 has it, “Mistress Redemption,” an even clearer evocation of the Morality Play antecedents of these scenes). In scene iii, when this same Dromio brings the ransom to his uncomprehending Syracusian master, there follows an exchange which is truly dizzying in its compounding of biblical texts:

SYR. Dro:
Master, here's the gold you sent me for. What, have you got the picture of old Adam new apparell'd?
SYR. Antiph:
What gold is this? What Adam dost thou mean?
SYR. Dro:
Not that Adam that kept the Paradise, but that Adam that keeps the prison; he that goes in the calve's-skin that was kill'd for the Prodigal; he that came behind you, sir, like an evil angel, and bid you forsake your liberty.


All of these “verbal transmogrifications,” as Harold Brooks (1961: 68) calls them, have as their single reference the Sergeant, representative of the “Law” who has arrested (the other) Antipholus and thrown him into the prison referred to in the previous scene as “Tartar limbo” (IV.ii.32). But “Limbo” understood as “prison” is traditionally not only the classical Tartarus but what another Shakespeare play calls “Limbo Patrum” (Henry VIII V.iii.64), the Limbo in which “old Adam” under the “Law” (whose sinfulness is imaged in the “coats of skins” of Genesis 3), along with other Old Testament patriarchs, awaits the Master whose coming will mean his “redemption,” a transformation of the “old man” into the “new” (Ephesians 4: 22-24; Romans 6). The “calves-skin that was kill'd for the Prodigal” evokes yet another story of a man who, like Egeon, “had two sons” (Luke 15: 11-32), a tale of exile and return, of a “wandering” son and brother, and an elder one displaced by his coming—a conflation of this paradigmatic biblical story of circuitous “error” and family reunion with the Plautine “comedy of errors,” made easier by the fact that this parable had already been combined with the structure of Latin comedy in Elizabethan attempts to “moralize” it. (The contemporary conflation of the story of the Prodigal exiled among swine with Circe's metamorphosis of men into swine would also be appropriate as an echo in a comedy whose participants, as the Duke remarks, seem to have “drunk of Circe's cup” [V.i.271]) (see Helgerson 1976: 38, 55). As representative of the Law, the Sergeant described as “he that came behind you, sir, like an evil angel” (IV.iii.20) also recalls Satan tempting Christ in the wilderness, the biblical narrative of victory over “Error” in the very space of wandering—a scene also recalled when Antipholus of Syracuse says to the Courtesan, in line 48, “Sathan, avoid,” a phrase out of the Geneva version of Matthew 4: 10. He is thus the opposite of that “good angel” who delivers the apostle Peter from prison in Acts 12, the New Testament story explicitly recalled in Dromio's “Here are the angels that you sent for to deliver you” (IV.iii.40).

The extraordinary concentration of biblical allusions in these scenes—often noted in isolation by editorial glosses—are not just decorative quibbles for the sake of an isolated verbal jest but are typological and structural, creating an overlapping that summons whole stories through single texts and links the secular space of Plautine characters and marketplace “debts” to the biblical space of waiting for “redemption” from “Doom.” The Courtesan referred to in these scenes as the “devil's dam” (IV.iii.51) is hence not just the familiar stock figure of Plautine comedy but is linked through this language (like the “kitchen-wench” in Act III) to the great “harlot” who invites men to “hell.” The recall of Satan as an “angel of light,” in the punning play on “light” (IV.iii.51-57) when the Courtesan appears, evokes that “Lucifer” who is an imposter or usurping lookalike of the long-awaited “Master” or true “Morning Star” (Revelation 22: 16), and the patron of “error” in the period of deferred Judgment, just as the echoes that finally surround the “chain” recall the binding of Satan, or the Great Dragon of the Apocalypse, for “a thousand yeres” (Revelation 20: 1-2).

The binding of Satan in Revelation is part of the period known as the “millenium,” still not the final end but yet another delaying respite before that “Doom.” Satan is bound with a chain for a thousand years, but then is to be loosed again out of his “prison” (Revelation 20: 7), a space described as coming between a “first” and a “second” resurrection. In Act IV, scene iv of The Comedy of Errors, when Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse appear unbound and free, after their twin Ephesian counterparts have been “bound” and imprisoned, Adriana and the others assume that the ones they bound are “loose” and call to have them “bound again” (IV.iv.144-146). But this doubling or only apparent “second time” is, once again, the product of the doubling of identities in this plot of lookalikes, a seconding underscored when Angelo unknowingly calls Antipholus of Ephesus “Second to none that lives here in the city” (V.i.7) and Adriana complains that her husband is “much different from the man he was” (i.46).

The “binding” of Ephesian Antipholus, thought by his wife and the others to be “possessed” (“Pinch: I charge thee, Sathan, hous'd within this man, / To yield possession to my holy prayers” [IV.iv.54-55]), recalls both the binding of Satan in Revelation 20 and the “binding” of the “strong man” in Matthew 12, a passage which has explicitly to do with exorcism or the “casting out of demons.” The demon in this Gospel passage is something which possesses a man or is “housed” in him—as the imposter Antipholus's being housed in the dwelling properly occupied by his twin leads to the daemonization of the “real” Antipholus (of Ephesus) and his binding as “possessed.” The equivalent of casting out demons, then, seems to include the final revelation of the two as two, or twins. And all of these allusive fragments—“Old Adam” waiting in “Limbo,” the exile of the Prodigal Son, the binding and loosing of Satan, the period of bondage or imprisonment before the opening of a “gate” or “door”—combine with other allusions to the period of wandering or the respite before the victory represented by the defeat of the great Dragon bound in Revelation 20, a defeat depicted on the golden angelus coins or punning “angels” sent to “redeem” this imprisoned Antipholus.

The period of “error,” “enchantments,” and partitions that separate this play's characters finally reaches its end, along with the period of Egeon's reprieve, when both frame story and “comedy of errors” converge upon the place of “doom” that becomes a place of “nativity” (V.i.405). The complex of resonances for “harlotry” also comes together in this final scene, when Ephesian Antipholus (accused by his wife of communicating his “harlotry” to her) accuses her in turn of feasting with “harlots” in his house (“This day, great Duke, she shut the doors upon me, / While she with harlots feasted in my house” [V.i.204-205]). “Harlotry” in The Comedy of Errors thus includes echoes of Old Testament strictures against associating with harlots as well as the familiar biblical metaphor for erring or wandering away from God, the figure already suggested in the description of the dilated body of the “kitchen wench” in Act III. Antipholus's charge also recalls the Christ of the “new” dispensation, rebuked for feasting with publicans and harlots, who tells the story of the son who “erred” and then repented and who, like the “Publicans and the harlots,” will enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 21: 28-32)—a story whose summoning here suggests that “error” is a space crucial to pass through before “redemption.”

The play ends with “unbinding” and “re-binding.” Dromio of Ephesus, in a line more Apuleian than Plautine, speaks of having “gnaw'd in two” his “cords” (V.i.290) and of being finally “unbound” (291); the “mad” Ephesian Antipholus is released from prison, and Egeon from his “bonds” by the Abbess who, as his long-lost wife, both frees and regains a “hus-bonde” in him (“Abbess: Whoever bound him, I will loose his bonds, / And gain a husband by his liberty” [V.i.340-41]). The play that forges links throughout between Egeon's deferred “doom” and the space of “error” before this release, culminates in a “nativity” that echoes St. Paul's the creation “groneth […] and travaileth” (Romans 8: 22), a text that also makes the space of dilation and delay before this End both a space of pregnancy or “bearing” and a rebirth, a link strengthened when the period of “travail” is specified as the Christological “thirty-three years” (V.i.401). In its first recorded performance, on December 28, 1594, The Comedy of Errors was presented as a play for the Christmas revels at Gray's Inn. And its simultaneously commercial and biblical imagery of “debt” and “redemption” is joined in this final scene by suggestions that what is involved in coming to “identity” in this play of errors and separated brothers is also a baptism, celebrated in its concluding “gossips'—or baptismal—feast” (V.i.406).17

The final acts of The Comedy of Errors are filled, then, with echoes of the redemption accomplished within the dilation or deferred “Doom” that is all of pre-apocalyptic history, in ways that link the dilation of the play with the space of reprieve before that end. But what the characters are called to at the end of the play is not in fact an apocalyptic end to discourse but this “gossips' feast” (V.i.406) of yet more discourse (see Woodbridge 1984: 224ff.), as the characters go off, as so often in Shakespeare, to “hear at large discoursed” (V.i.396) much more than could be shown on stage. If, that is to say, the biblical echoes that crowd in thick and fast as the play reaches its own end or “fine” suggest Apocalypse, the play itself remains, at this end, still within the space of dilation, as of life, a space and time in which the ultimate end is still “not yet.” This, too, may be appropriate to the echoes of Ephesians, as well as an early adumbration of a characteristically Shakespearean open-endedness. The Epistle to the Ephesians—with its breaking down of the “partition wall”—is in many respects the “Joshua” book of the New Testament, all Recognition Scene. Ephesians itself calls attention to this breaking down as an already accomplished “redemption.” But if its summoning of the “one flesh” of marriage joins the proclamation of already achieved oneness in another text (“There is neither Iewe nor Grecian: there is neither bonde nor free: there is neither male or female: for ye are all one in Christ Iesus” [Galatians 3: 28] Geneva Bible 1560), its counsel to wives to submit to their husbands as the Church is “subject unto Christ” (Ephesians 5: 24) and to servants to be obedient to their masters (Ephesians 6: 5-9) preserves distinctions which in the meantime continue very much to involve hierarchy and subordination. And its looking still ahead, to a future “redemption of the purchased possession” (1585 Bishops' Bible; Ephesians 1: 14) and “earnest of our inheritance” (Geneva Bible) is part of the New Testament sense of an end both “at hand” (1 Peter 4) and not yet come, of a union (“neither male nor female”) already accomplished and not yet achieved.


The language and structures of this Comedy, then, are strikingly, even obtrusively biblical. But there is, however, more that needs to be said about this early Shakespearean saturation of Plautine plot with biblical reference. We have already noted that this “farce” is stuffed with the conflation of not one but two Plautine plays, as well as Apuleian metamorphoses and Egeon's appended narrative from Greek romance. The unpacking of its densely biblical language—and the frame it allusively constructs—is an essential part of rescuing it from its early reputation as simply unworthy of critical attention.18 But it would also appear from the striking copia of this combinatory allusiveness that this early comedy may be deliberately playing with the etymology of “farce,” a term linked in later Shakespeare with what can be “crammed” or “digested” into a more constricted dramatic time and space.19

What makes its allusiveness possible, in a plot that goes out of its way to call attention to the new dramatic economies of place and time, is the ease with which the terms and characters of its multiple subtexts combine and cross—the Courtesan of Plautine comedy with the biblical “Harlot,” the “debt” and “redemption” of biblical Ephesians with the commercial exigencies of its Ephesian marketplace, the scene from the Amphitruo where the true master is shut out with the New Testament imagery of “doors” and “gates,” and a returning Master. This combinatory power is joined by the operations within it of the ambiguous phrase or pun as semantic crossroads or contextual shift. But there is also another very different effect of this conflation and combination, and a disjunction between contexts that cannot so easily be made to fit.

Alexander Leggatt (1974: 18-19, emphasis mine) remarks that the principal comic strategy of this play is one of dislocation, its rude reminders of different understandings and perspectives. Part of this dislocation is the disjunction of contexts out of which its characters act and speak, making them “seem at times to inhabit different worlds, different orders of experience.”20 This dislocation, however, estranges speech in another sense as well—producing something like what Althusser and Macherey have termed a “distantiation” effect, here between different contexts and different frames, setting off a particular piece of language as language, rather than attempting to naturalize it within the seamless garment of a single discourse. When the Courtesan enters to demand the promised “chain” in Act IV, scene iii, the Antipholus she addresses wrongly here (since he is the “alien” rather than the “citizen” twin) responds with “Satan avoid” and takes her to be a “fiend” or, in Dromio's description, the “devil's dam” (IV.iii.45-65). As Leggatt remarks (1974: 3), the Courtesan here “is simply living her casual, material life,” or we might say the dramatic life of a Plautine courtesan from a very different, non-biblical “comedy of errors,” while Syracusian Antipholus speaks a metaphysical language she takes to be simply “mad” (IV.iii.86). The dislocation is emphasized through the difference in reference as well as through radically disjunctive styles of speech.

The play's semantic economy of “ransom,” “angels” and of “debts” allows the easy passage between its material setting and biblical counterparts. But the play leaves unclear what relation this biblical reference bears to the domestic and commercial world of its Ephesus, the place whose “normal activities,” as Joel Altman wryly observes (1978: 169n), “consist in trading, manufacturing, issuing loans, and […] business lunches.”21 The Ephesus of its setting manages to remain not only simultaneously but disjunctively the familiar seaport town of Plautine comedy, a site within its Apollonius narrative, and the biblical Ephesus of Acts and “Ephesians.” The disjunction of discourses within the play parallels the sense of the isolation of its characters in separate worlds, without making clear which is the norm.22 The play's evocation of Ephesians 5: 22-23 (“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. / For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church”) is part, for example, of its summoning of the larger allusive structure of biblical authority, in which the counselling of Adriana to “patience” with her “tardy master” draws on the familiar assimilation of “master” and “Master,” “spouse” and “Spouse,” a structure on which not only Elizabethan homiletics but frequently more modern critical ones depend.23 But the disjunction of contexts and discourses in a comedy of “errors” may also force us to attend to the disjunctions within this analogical structure, just as it might to the ways in which the description of the greasy “kitchen wench” who evokes the “reverent body” betrothed to this Head does not quite fit, or is in excess of, any easily definable frame, its “grease” not finally contained by its homophonically related “grace.” The counsel to Adriana is part of an official culture informed by precisely this and other biblical texts. But in the multiplicity of discourses and realities the play both conflates and keeps disjunctively apart, it is difficult to know precisely where to put the tonal emphasis, and the homiletic voice itself is a dramatized one, staged as the utterance of a particular character or characters.

The culture contemporary with Shakespeare was a notorious assimilator—or appropriator—of other texts and contexts, an assimilation which most often took the form of hierarchical incorporation, a subordinating of alien stories and traditions to biblical truth. Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors could not be the richly “copious” play it is without precisely such an assimilative background, including the assimilation of Latin comedy to the moralized narrative of the Prodigal Son. But the play that crucially depends on such appropriations and analogies also opens up a wedge within this hierarchy—putting the language of different discourses and different contexts on the same stage at once, calling attention to the complex negotiations between them but also to their disjunctive incompatibility. Even its calling on the providential theology of the Bible for its own dramatic structure is less theological than it is something more like Hamlet's “There's a divinity that shapes our ends,” a source of metaphors for dramatic structure, but detached from homiletic piety or belief. I would argue, finally, with Stephen Greenblatt (1985: 181), that what we have at work in Shakespeare's plays—even in such a densely biblical one as this early comedy—is something closer to what C. L. Barber (1980: 196) termed “post-Christian.”24 What a critic of Shakespeare needs to do is, first, to recognize the complex workings of such networks—an interpretive labor which requires summoning all of the resources of this “great code”—but then, as a second interpretive moment, or divergent critical path, to examine what is being done both through this structure and beyond it.


  1. For other echoes of the Epistle to the Ephesians in this play's shifting to Ephesus of Plautus's Epidamnum, see R. A. Foakes (1962: xxix, Appendix I), Geoffrey Bullough (1957: 1, 9); and Richmond Noble (1935: 107-109). Its Ephesus also recalls that of Paul's “wanderings” in Acts 19.

  2. The edition of The Comedy of Errors used throughout here is The Riverside Shakespeare (Evans et al. 1974).

  3. On early modern English “dilation” as deferral or delay as well as amplification, and on its use as the term for reprieve from a “doom,” see Parker (1987: 8-35).

  4. See Virgil's Aeneid I.753-756, and the opening of Book II, with T. W. Baldwin (1944, II: 485-87). Aeneas's speech was a stock early modern example of amplified or dilated discourse, one which Shakespeare would use again for the request to Othello that he might “all” his “pilgrimage dilate” (Othello I.iii.153).

  5. Egeon's narrative—frequently condemned by critics as tedious, dramatically unworkable, and hence a sign of “early Shakespeare”—seems to me to involve instead a deliberate exploitation of the tension between narrative and dramatic traditions, a juxtaposition stressed later in the alternation of “show” and “tell,” dumb show and the quintessentially narrative figure of Gower, when the Apollonius story that forms the basis of Egeon's tale returns in Pericles. This juxtaposition of dramatic “show” and narrative “tell” is also stressed in the scene of the Dumb Show in Hamlet, a play whose own dramatic spectacle or show ends with the promise of an ensuing narrative to be provided by Horatio/oratio. See Parker (1993: 60-95). My argument about such moments in Shakespeare—from The Comedy of Errors, to Hamlet and Othello, to The Winter's Tale, Pericles, Cymbeline and Henry VIII—is that narratives that are frequently criticized as dramatic mistakes (Egeon's, for example, or the one told by Othello to the Senate) are, on the contrary, very often part of such subtle Shakespearean juxtapositions of “show” and “tell,” of what can be put on stage, before the eye, and what is available only through the ear or by report.

  6. Periphrasis is traditionally a linguistic “long way round.” See Puttenham (1970 [1589]: 203), on “Periphrasis, or the Figure of Ambage.”

  7. See also Isaiah 13: 6; Deuteronomy 32: 35; Joel 1: 15; Zephaniah 1: 7; Ezekiel 12: 23; Joel 2: 1; Matthew 3: 2, 4: 17, 10: 7; Mark 1: 15; Luke 21: 31; Philippians 4: 5; 2 Thessalonians 2: 2; Revelation 22: 10. Romans 13: 12—“The night is past, & the day is at hand: let us therefore cast away the workers of darknes, and let us put on the armour of light” (1560 Geneva Bible version, used in subsequent references)—is a text particularly suggestive of the relation of this sense of an end “at hand” with the movement from darkness to light suggested in the “Luciana” and “Luce” of this Comedy.

  8. See respectively Fraunce (1969 [1588]: 27), and Puttenham (1970 [1589]: 267). Dromio's punning on “marks” in these same scenes (I.ii.82-86; II.i.61) is one of the standard examples of such amphibology or double speech. See also Peacham (1954 [1577]), under “Amphibology”: “whether he mente a marke in mony, or a marke about the head or shoulders I know not.”

  9. See here the text of Ephesians in the Bishops' Bible (1585), the Vulgate's “alienati,” and the 1560 Geneva Bible's “aliantes from the communewelth of Israel.” This passage is also part of the Epistle for St. Thomas Day in The Booke of Common Prayer, 1559.

  10. On the chiasmic or crossed placing of the sets of twins on the mast, underlined by the rhetorical chiasmus (χ) of “Fixing our eyes on whom our care was fix'd” (1.i.84), see Parker (1987: 78-79).

  11. On the appeals to Jacob and Esau in contemporary debates over primogeniture, see Parker (1992: 191-192).

  12. See Revelation 21: 10-27 and the wife whose price is “far above the pearles” (Proverbs 31: 10), with the contrast between Wisdom and the harlot of Proverbs 7. For the “dilation” of Israel, prefigurative of that of the Church or New Israel in the period of the dilatio patriae or enlarging of Christendome before Apocalypse, see the Vulgate texts of Exodus 34: 24 (“dilatavero terminos tuos”); Deuteronomy 19: 8 (“dilataverit Dominus Deus tuus terminos tuos”); Isaiah 54: 2 (“Dilata locum tentorii tui”); and their in malo counterpart, the dilation or enlargement of Israel's “harlotries” (Isaiah 5: 14, “hel hath inlarged it self;” “Propterea dilatavit infernus animam suam”), “harlotries” associated with a “sorceress” and “whore” (Isaiah 57: 3), and committed behind “doors” (Isaiah 57: 8-9: “Behind the dores also and the postes hast thou set up thy remembrance: for thou […] didest enlarge thy bed—dilatasti cubile tuum—& make a covenant betwene thee and them […] and didst humble thy selfe unto hel”). See also Syracusian Antipholus's “Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?” (II.ii.212), and Parker (1987: 9) on Donne's Holy Sonnet #179, which exploits the link between this harlotry and the potentially “erring” Church. In the passage in Isaiah 54: 2 that commands the redeemed harlot Israel to enlarge or dilate (Vulgate, dilata) her “tentes,” the “husband” of Israel also compares his promise to her to the promise that there shall be no second flood (Isaiah 54: 9, “For this is unto me as the waters of Noah: for as I have sworne that the waters of Noah shulde no more go over the earth; so have I sworne that I wolde not be angrie with thee”).

  13. On Rahab the redeemed harlot of Jericho whose name, according to the Church Fathers, is the Hebrew equivalent of dilatio, prefigurative of the Church which expands to take in both Gentiles and Jews in the reprieve before Last Judgment “Doom,” see Parker (1987: 8-9).

  14. The text of 1 Peter 3: 20-21 (which is prefaced by reference to Christ's preaching “unto the spirits that were in prison” in line 19, glossed as a reference to the descent into Limbo) further elaborates on those in this prison: “20. Which were in time passed disobedient, when once the long suffring of God abode in the daies of Noe, while the arke was preparing, wherein few, that is, eight soules were saved in the water. 21. To the which also the figure that now saveth us, even Baptisme agreeth (not the putting awaye of the filth of the flesh, but in that a good conscience maketh request to God) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” For the baptisms of water and of fire, see Matthew 3: 11; Luke 3: 16; Acts 1: 4-5; and 2 Thessalonians 1: 8. The space between the baptism of “water,” figured by Noah's Flood, and the baptism of “fire” or the Spirit is precisely the threshold period of “dilation” or deferred “doom” before the “marriage” to be celebrated in the Apocalypse. Typologically, it is also a new space of wandering in the wilderness, as the placing of Dante's Purgatory as a journey between “water” and “fire” makes clear.

  15. See Acts 12: 7 and 12: 15, with the whole of the story in Acts 12: 1-17. The term for this daimon or double in the Vulgate text of 12: 15 is also angelus. The Geneva 1560 version of Acts 12: 15 is “But they said unto her, Thou art mad. Yet she affirmed it constantly, that it was so. They said they, It is his Angel.” “Angel” is also the term in the corresponding Bishops 1585 text. That Peter, imprisoned by Herod, is also “bound with chains” (Acts 12: 6) means that this story continues to have resonances throughout the final acts, in the binding and imprisonment of Ephesian Antipholus.

  16. Ephesians 1: 13-14 speaks of the space between being “sealed with the holie Spirit of promes” at Pentecost and the final apocalyptic “redemption of the possession purchased,” a language of “debt” and “redemption” assimilated here to the Ephesian marketplace.

  17. Multiple allusions such as the description of the alien Antipholus as “In Ephesus […] but two hours old” (II.ii.148) suggest echoes of the newly baptised as a “new creature” (2 Corinthians 5: 17) and a “stranger in the city.” Other passages recall the theological imagery of baptism as a wedding to the Bridegroom Christ, as movement from the Old Man to New, as an exorcism or casting out of Satan, as a casting off of “error” and the fallen Adam's “coates of skinnes” (Genesis 3), and as the return of the Prodigal Son. For this baptismal imagery, see Daniélou (1979: 19-26, 72). When one of the servant Dromios complains of his “marks” as forming a “cross” (“And he will bless that cross with another beating” [II.i.79]), there is also an echo of the “mark” of the “cross” (Daniélou 1979: 54ff.) placed on the forehead as a baptismal sign or “seal” of the promise of final “redemption” (as in Ephesians 1: 14). This link is especially suggestive when we recall that this “mark” was traditionally also the mark of slaves or servants and that a text such as Galatians 6: 17, for instance (“I beare in my bodie the markes of the Lord Iesus”), could easily be linked with Ephesian Dromio's complaints of the “marks” his own “tardy master” places on him. For the social implications of the juxtaposition in this play of the radical biblical tradition of the “high” brought “low,” from medieval religious drama, with the Latin comedic model associated with the new elites, see John D. Cox (1989: 67, 80).

  18. See Thomas Marc Parrott (1949: 107), with J. Isaacs, quoted by E. C. Pettet (1949); Marc Van Doren (1939: 33); and G. B. Harrison (1948: 271). Barbara Freedman reviews criticism of the play that dismisses it as inconsequential farce in both an article (1980: 360-361), and in her more recent Staging the Gaze (1991: 81-83), in the context of a powerful discussion of its disjunctions and its resistance to structures of “mastery.”

  19. See, for example, Henry V (II. Chorus. 31-32): “we'll digest / Th'abuse of distance; force a play,” where “force” (related to “farce”) means “cram” or “stuff.”

  20. Leggatt (1974: 3) cites Adriana's speech on the marriage bond in Act II, dislocated when its addressee (the wrong Antipholus) responds uncomprehendingly “Plead you to me, fair dame?” (II.ii.147) and confesses himself “As strange unto your town as to your talk” (149).

  21. On the importance of this play's urban setting, see Gail Kern Paster (1985: 186-194).

  22. For criticism of the play which stresses, though very differently, this divergence, see E. M. W. Tillyard (1965: 71), and Barbara Freedman (1991: 78-113).

  23. See, for example, Harold Brooks's conclusion (1961: 66-67) that “Adriana's envy of a husband's status contravenes principles of order that for Shakespeare and orthodox Elizabethans extended through the whole cosmos,” and that “revolt against a wife's place in the cosmic hierarchy is the original source of discord in Adriana's marriage.”

  24. On the problem of analogy in relation to Frye, see Terence Cave (1988: 281)


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Baldwin, T. W. (1944) William Shakspere's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke. 2 Vols. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Barber, C. L. (1980) “The Family in Shakespeare's Development: Tragedy and Sacredness.” In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays. Eds. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Brooks, Harold (1961) “Themes and Structure in The Comedy of Errors.” In Early Shakespeare. Eds. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris. London: Edward Arnold.

Bullough, Geoffrey (1957) Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cave, Terence (1988) Recognitions: A Study in Poetics. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Cox, John D. (1989) Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Crewe, Jonathan (1982) “God or the Good Physician: The Rational Playwright in The Comedy of Errors.Genre 15 (1-2): 203-223.

Daniélou, Jean (1979) The Bible and the Liturgy. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books.

Evans, G. Blakemore et al. (eds.) (1974) The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Foakes, R. A. (ed.) (1962) The Comedy of Errors. London: Methuen.

Fraunce, Abraham (1969 [1588]) The Lawyers Logicke. Menston: Scolar Press.

Freedman, Barbara (1980) “Egeon's Debt: Self-Division and Self-Redemption in The Comedy of Errors.English Literary Renaissance 10 (3).

———(1991) Staging the Gaze. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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

———(1971) The Critical Path. Bloomington/London: Indiana University Press.

Greenblatt, Stephen (1985) “Shakespeare and the exorcists.” In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Eds. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman. New York/London: Routledge.

Harrison, G. B. (ed.) (1948) Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc.

Helgerson, Richard (1976) The Elizabethan Prodigals. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.

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

Levin, Harry (ed.) (1965) The Comedy of Errors. New York: NAL Penguin, Signet Classic.

Noble, Richmond (1935) Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge. New York: Macmillan.

Parker, Patricia (1983) “Anagogic Metaphor: Breaking Down the Wall of Partition.” In Centre and Labyrinth: Essays in Honour of Northrop Frye. Eds. Eleanor Cook, Chaviva Hosek et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press: 38-58.

———(1987) Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property. London/New York: Methuen.

———(1992) “Preposterous Events.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (2): 186-213.

———(1993) “Othello and Hamlet: Dilation, Spying, and the ‘Secret Place’ of Woman.” Representations 44: 60-95.

Parrott, Thomas Marc (1949) Shakespearean Comedy. New York: Russell and Russell.

Paster, Gail Kern (1985) The Idea of the City in the Age of Shakespeare. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press.

Peacham, Henry (1954 [1577]) The Garden of Eloquence. Ed William G. Crane. Gainesville: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints.

Pettet, E. C. (1949) Shakespeare and the Romance Tradition. London: Staples Press.

Puttenham, George (1970 [1589]) The Arte of English Poesie. Ed. Baxter Hathaway. Np: Kent State University Press.

Sanderson, James L. (1975) “Patience in The Comedy of Errors.Texas Studies in Literature and Language XVI (4).

Tillyard, E. M. W. (1965) Shakespeare's Early Comedies. London: Chatto & Windus.

Van Doren, Marc (1939) Shakespeare. New York: Doubleday.

Woodbridge, Linda (1984) Women and the English Renaissance: Renaissance Literature and the Nature of Womankind 1540-1620. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Alvin Klein (review date 24 June 2001)

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SOURCE: Klein, Alvin. Review of The Comedy of Errors.New York Times (24 June 2001): NJ11.

[In the following review, Klein considers Brian B. Crowe's 2001 The Comedy of Errors for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival an excessive farce short on style, but enjoys a few poignant moments in the production.]

One of the reassuring things about The Comedy of Errors, revived once more at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival after a mere eight years, is that you are not expected to understand anything about it. Forget your brain; attend to your heart.

The play has been a puzzlement, one would daresay, ever since Shakespeare wrote it. That could have been in 1590, give or take a few birth years, depending on where you look it up, or which maven you ask.

The many who argue with the many others who believe this is really Shakespeare's first play have concerns that are substantive, not merely statistical. The plot is so craftily convoluted, more so than in some later comedies, it is hard to believe this is a beginner's work.

At least that's how some scholarly arguments go. But then, how to account for a plot full of errors—not by design, as the title prescribes, but in details that confuse or contradict.

Granted, this peculiar play has been dismissed as a youthful indiscretion, Shakespeare's only work without a thought or idea to hold on to. But the search for who we really are, which is at the core of a story about identical twin brothers with identical servant/clowns, is deep enough for reflection, not to mention the unbeatable devices of a father-and-sons reunion and a husband-and-wife rediscovery after more than 20 years.

That The Comedy of Errors is still off and running in 2001 may be all that matters. One suspects that it was a festival choice on the basis of a good gimmick: the availability of a recent Off Broadway sendup, Bomb-itty of Errors, a hip-hop, rap verse musical. That version, in a touring production, scheduled for the festival's second space, was to have coincided, more or less, with the real thing on the main stage. But rights to present the streamlined show were withdrawn.

Of course, The Comedy of Errors is an eternal dare to directors desperately seeking shtick and to actors who, but naturally, live to show it off. And that's just where they err in the festival staging here.

The precision that farce demands is not seen, only people bumping into people (yes, on purpose yet purposelessly). Behold a forlorn servant/clown falling down, passing out, shrieking and cackling, running up and down the aisle. And at the beginning of each of the two acts, the self-conscious, characterless parade of an ensemble seems to want to tell us there is a comedy tonight. But where is the flair, where is the style?

From all this, to paraphrase Shakespeare, some blessed power does not deliver us. Throughout, one wonders how on earth this could be Shakespeare's shortest play (as some say it is). Oddly but happily, Brian B. Crowe's staging works when it comes to the play's emotional payoff. Thanks to Clark Carmichael (one of the lost brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus), William Metzo (his elderly father Egeon) and Corinne Edgerly (an abbess, who is really Emilia, Egeon's long-lost wife), all ends well, though it's been a bumpy night.

Mr. Carmichael's breathless, bravura monologue late in the second act, is a fine, showy display. With her commanding presence and regard of language, Ms. Edgerly offers a fleeting brush with the grand manner. And Mr. Metzo's poignant rendering of a lost, wandering life, is persuasive enough to prove how Shakespeare, at any stage, deepened farce.

In the end, the joyous coming together of all the misunderstood, the maligned and the just plain mixed-up, bestow lovely moments of real exuberance. Mr. Crowe might have risen to the occasion far sooner had he trusted the heart of the play, instead of pandering to its obvious invitation to excess.

Early and late, short or long, Shakespeare knew just where and why to send in the clowns.

Ann C. Christensen (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: 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.

[In the following essay, Christensen approaches The Comedy of Errors as a mercantile comedy that dramatizes tensions between the gendered spheres of public/commercial and private/domestic.]

‘What is habitual and domestic is seldom recorded. Only in a time of crisis are the dispositions of the household likely to be described.’1


The Comedy of Errors represents Shakespeare's first picture of a mercantile household—one troubled by identity confusion, lost parents, missing brothers, marital neglect, jealousy, and sour business deals. With its uncertainty about identity, and its debates about intimacy and distance in the household and the marketplace, and in its concerns for the permeable boundaries of exchange, Shakespeare's farce offers us a palimpsest of tensions emerging alongside urbanization and capitalist social formation. Set in the eastern Mediterranean port town of Ephesus, the action of Errors depends on the bustle of monetary trade, and thus Ephesus resembles Tudor London. The family reunion-cum-gossips' feast closing the play represents a momentary reconciliation between the commercial and the domestic spheres struggling for dominance throughout the five acts, and, more broadly, it conveys a stabilising moment in the uneven transition toward the spatial and ideological separation of the spheres engendered in part by the advent of capitalism. Yet, the ritual power of the communal meal is limited in the Shakespearean canon; able only to harmonize the exigencies of mercantile and domestic life in the ‘sixth-act’, the off-stage ritual meal balances rather than transfigures these differences.2 Indeed, the hopeful gossips' feast gives way to such meals as the suppers full of horrors in Macbeth and Titus Andronicus, where hosts murder would-be guests and/or force them into cannibalism; the teasing banquets offered by Timon of Athens and Prospero, which lure their recipients with the promise of nurture only to produce empty or disappearing dishes; and the critically contested wedding banquet closing The Taming of the Shrew, where ‘jarring notes’ may disrupt the harmonious closure.

The Comedy of Errors illustrates the gendered competition regarding the functions of the domestic and the commercial spheres, which the play depicts as distinctly gendered and spatially separate, yet mutually constitutive. The husband-merchant of Ephesus appears divided between his home-life and his work, with his business associates and ‘the mart’ thematically and structurally opposing his wife and their home. C. L. Barber and Richard Wheeler suggest that Errors afforded Shakespeare a way to manage his own experience of division—between his roles as country husband, father, and son, on the one hand, and as a successful urban professional, on the other:

the young dramatist has split himself into a stay-at-home twin, married and carrying on in a commercial world … and into a wandering, searching twin for whom the world of Ephesus, including the situation of marriage, is strange.3

Setting to one side Wheeler and Barber's biographical approach, one infers that the sense of conflicting duties was probably common for the newly urbanized and increasingly mobile class of professional men in early modern London. Douglas Bruster, for example, argues that the propertied urban merchants gained in literary representation a ‘special reputation for anxiety’.4 In its double plots, and in its distinct discourses of home and trade, this early comedy dramatizes the competing demands within and between the commercial and domestic spheres—a conflict which playwrights continued to explore on the Jacobean stage.5

The dining table (metaphorically speaking), where the meaning of meals and mealtime is hotly debated, constitutes one crucial arena in which this competition plays itself out. Indeed the restoration of identity and the resolution of the plot devolves from Adriana's question, ‘Which of you did dine with me today’? (V.i.370).6 For Adriana, the neglected and disgruntled wife, a family that eats together stays together or, more pertinently, sleeps together. She therefore identifies meals at home with domestic harmony, even associating the physical structure of their dwelling with her body: private, enclosed, nurturing.7 But, because her husband conceptualizes time and space in commercial terms, Adriana must remind him to spend time and eat meals with her at home. On more than one occasion, she sends her servant Dromio to fetch him ‘from the mart, / Home’ (I.i.75; IV.ii.64), eventually pursuing him herself, accosting his brother by mistake (II.ii.110 ff), and finally defying both state and church in her quest to keep him at home in her care. Adriana so believes in the prophylactic nature of her household that she blames the day's madness on her husband's absence from home where, had he ‘remain'd until this time, / [he would be] Free from these slanders and this open shame’ (IV.iv.66-67).

But the modern bourgeois notion of home as safe haven was neither established in Elizabethan society nor uncontested on the Shakespearean stage. The play surges forward by Antipholus of Ephesus's (hereafter, following speech tags, Antipholus E.) refusal to identify himself with home, and by the comic clashes between household and mart, inside and outside, local and stranger. Dorothea Kehler attributes the husband's centrifugal movement to his experiences of claustrophobia and boredom at home.8 However, a more primary struggle for domestic power and authority—a struggle to define the meanings of home, food, and family—informs those feelings. Adriana's husband wants to use their domicile to entertain business associates; so when he is unintentionally denied entry, he spurns the home and meal altogether and uses a public tavern for both business and pleasure. For spite, Antipholus E. ‘eats out’ with a courtesan and ‘keep[s] not his hours’ (III.i.2). Delinquency from meals conveys his neglect of spousal duties. This conflict has as cultural ancillary the gradual shift in early modern England from manorial socio-economic organization to that of nascent capitalism.9 The differences between the masculine world of commerce and law and the feminine domestic environment articulate themselves over the contested cultural form of ‘dining’. The Comedy of Errors registers a historical moment of social transition and dislocation within the not-yet distinct public and private spheres. Forcing oppositions between desire and profit, leisure and work, women and men, Shakespeare explores contemporary anxieties attending the development of the separation of the spheres.


As if to domesticate the problems of Epidamnum for his London audience, Shakespeare reshaped his source, the Plautine comedy The Menaechmi, by highlighting market activities, which Plautus either omits or depicts incidentally. For example, in Plautus's play not until the last act do we learn the location of the twins' separation: at ‘Tarentum, at a great mart’.10 In contrast, Egeon's narrative on the loss of his family frames the subsequent action, is both protracted and repeated (by Emilia), and has everything to do with mercantile ventures. The Duke's opening speech concerns money, trade, and conflict: the regulation of ‘traffic’ between Syracusa and Ephesus, the ‘marts and fairs’, the confiscation of ‘goods’, and the ‘amount’ or ‘rate’ of the prisoner's ‘substance’ (I.i.15, 17, 20, 23). For his part, Egeon blames his commercial activities for the disaster of his family: with the death of his ‘factor’ or agent ‘[the] great care of goods at random left, / Drew me from the kind embracements of my spouse /’ (41-43). Further emphasizing the role of the market, directors often stage these speeches in the marketplace where Egeon is apprehended.11 As Geoffrey Bullough notes, Elizabethan playgoers knew about mercantile disasters: ‘To a Tudor audience aware of the enmities between city states in Italy and elsewhere and the perils of sea-traders, Egeon's predicament was no romantic fancy. Shipwrecks were as common in life as in romances’.12

Furthermore, Shakespeare identifies both twins and their father (and a host of secondary characters) as merchants, whereas Plautus's local twin is a ‘Citizen’, detained from dining by his attendance at Session of Court, never appearing in the mart at all; and the traveling twin's only employment is to find his brother rather than to conduct business. But, in the Shakespearean play, Antipholus E. ceaselessly makes deals for chains, rings, ropes, and meals, while his brother takes advantage of the harbor to restock his ship. Shakespeare's relatively greater interest in economic transactions appears, too, in his dramatization of the buying and selling of gifts in the marketplace to account for Antipholus E.'s tardiness at meals, whereas the Roman husband procures his gifts to the courtesan from his wife's closet, thereby obscuring actual economic transactions. Shakespeare's alterations thus heighten the tensions working under nascent capitalism—tensions that inform the separation of business from home-life.

Errors dramatizes these tensions in part through the invitations to dine, and the service, avoidance, and consumption of meals which generate the action. At the heart of several exchanges, which incidentally help to give the play its slapstick effect, lies the charged question of who dined with whom over the course of the chaotic day. This enigma marks another departure from the source play in which Erotium, the concubine of the local twin, and not the unnamed wife, prepares the dinner and entertains the wrong guest. This difference, coupled with the fact that Shakespeare gives the wife (but not the courtesan) a name, a more rounded character, and a case against her husband establishes the domestic as well as the economic foundations of the conflict.

Each ‘side’ of the divide employs a different lexicon, the one primarily concerning domestic comfort and duty, the other concentrating on money and trade. Thus, Dromio E. summarizes the dialogue between himself and the Antipholus whom he believes late for dinner:

When I desir'd him to come home to dinner,
He asked me for a thousand marks in gold.
‘Tis dinner time’, quoth I. ‘My gold’! quoth he.
‘Your meat doth burn’, quoth I. ‘My gold’! quoth he.
‘Will you come’? quoth I. ‘My gold’! quoth he.
‘Where's the thousand marks I gave thee, villain’?
‘The pig’, quoth I, ‘is burn'd’. ‘My gold’! quoth he.
‘My mistress, sir—’ quoth I. ‘Hang up thy mistress!
I know not thy mistress. Out on thy mistress’!


Here, ‘dinner’ and ‘gold’ carry the conflict of the play, expressing what appear to be mutually exclusive perspectives. While Dromio, the spokesperson for the domestic enclave, talks concretely of the burnt roast and angry mistress, Antipholus S. can only repeat, ‘My gold’!

The play's central issues of dining, time, and money punctuate the first meeting between the visiting Antipholus and his servant's twin. This encounter also shows how the ‘private’ life of home impinges upon and is affected by the ‘public’ life of commerce—how the two spheres, like the brothers and the states they trade for, are inextricably linked. Dromio E. describes the impact on the family of the master's absence:

The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit;
The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell—
My mistress made it one upon my cheek;
She is so hot, because the meat is cold,
The meat is cold because you come not home:
You come not home, because you have no stomach:


Along with marking the confusion over lost gold and cold meat, Dromio E. delineates the ideological and spatial opposition beneath the scene: ‘My charge was but to fetch you from the mart / Home to your house … to dinner’ (74-75).

While the play sets up such opposition between husbands and wives, the worlds of trade and home, it ultimately insists upon their ever-shifting interrelations. No definite hierarchy emerges; instead the demands of business and family alternately and farcically interfere with each other. So as we might expect, the Antipholi and their male associates—merchants, the goldsmith, and city magistrates—appear in public scenes and talk in terms of economic exchange and legal sanctions, while women converse inside, their talk focusing on ‘private’ topics such as marriage and family, as in Act two, scene one, when Adriana and Luciana discuss ‘troubles of the marriage bed’ (27), and in the beginning of Act five, when the Abbess catechizes Adriana about wifely duty.13

However, these discourses are not discrete: the men's business in the mart sustains the household economy, while the household, through both consumption and (re)production, fuels the mart. Similarly, the opposing settings—borrowed from Plautus: the mart or public square and ‘the house of Antipholus of Ephesus’, where Adriana frets as the spit turns—coexist in a mutually constituting relation. For example, Adriana delivers her most moving speech about the sanctity of marriage at this public thoroughfare (II.ii.109-145), while their home, the Phoenix, apparently ordinarily entertains merchants, its threshold the site of a ‘public scene’. Nor is the family dwelling totally distinct from the shop, but sits ‘above’ the business (II.ii.206)—an arrangement resembling the situations of sixteenth-century urban tradesmen.14 The two other loci, the Porpentine, where the courtesan serves her clients, and the Abbey, where the action is resolved in Act five, provide symbolic syntheses of public and private, being both private residences and crossroads of community.

Domestic space in Errors open up possibilities for community. While the more centripetal, domestic values espoused by the wives seem large enough to accommodate commercial interest in the name of the family romance, the husbands' business ‘errors’ or wanderings cause the division of families.15 Both parents and married children are separated directly or indirectly because of business trips. Egeon reports that his ‘prosperous voyages’ ‘drew me from the kind embracements of my spouse’, while she, though pregnant, joins him abroad, ‘daily’ urging their return home (I.i.40, 43, 59). Because of Egeon's mercantile obligations, the family has been separated once; whence wife and children too had left their home initially. Moreover, on the return voyage, which Egeon ‘unwillingly’ undertook, as he himself admits, a shipwreck separates them again. Like his grandfather from whom Egeon inherited the family business, and like Egeon before him, Antipholus E. seems to find embarking on ‘prosperous voyages’ to the mart more compelling than home-cooked meals. In certain instances, then, business forges a wedge within families: the ‘“husband's office” [is] neglected in pursuit of his prospering business’.16

Despite the seeming incompatibility of loyalties to work and home, duplicate ‘errors’ in fact reunite the family, resolving confusion and clearing debts. The play constitutes economic, public, and civic bonds in relation to private, affective ties; and the interdependence of the ‘separate spheres’ everywhere inflects the action. For example, Adriana and Antipholus E.'s marriage is apparently a state project: not only in as much as marriage is a public institution, but also because the Duke's ‘important letters’ (V.i.138) had arranged the match.17 Out of a sense of both civic and personal debt, the Duke had recommended Antipholus:

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


In a similar recognition of the personal investment in and exchange value of ‘service’, Antipholus E. invokes his military career:

Even for the service that I long since did thee,
When I bestrid thee in the wars, and took
Deep scars to save thy life; even for the blood
That I then lost for thee, now grant me justice.


All sorts of quids pro quo entangle personal and impersonal identifications: the merchants are all friends who employ credit and exchange money for goods; the courtesan does not give her man a gift token, but rather trades her ring for a gold chain of equal value; Adriana expects some recompense for her ‘housewifery’; the right amount of money can buy Egeon out of legal trouble. Thus, personal and ‘official’ business operate on similar terms.18

Nonetheless, Shakespeare portrays affective bonds more favorably than economic bonds because the former allow greater flexibility and humanity than the latter. By granting some foundation to Adriana's mistrust of her husband, Shakespeare portrays her far more sympathetically than Plautus's ‘Mulier’, who is simply an unreasonable shrew. Furthermore, Adriana's plight contrasts the profit-minded paranoia which drives the merchants. It is not an invisible hand that guides macro-economy, but the long arm of the law. The enmity between the state and Syracusa frames the action and provides the model for civilian interaction: in Ephesus men do not enjoy each other's trust for long; rather, they are bound by contracts, the inflexibility of which creates mutual suspicion among partners and a hasty reliance upon public officers to settle disputes.19 The legal code in Ephesus is firm: it requires the Duke to ‘exclude all pity’ in the execution of Syracusans; it ensures that the responsibility for unpaid debt devolve upon the officers in charge of debtors (IV.iv.114-15); and it makes former friends enemies when contracts seem to be dishonored. The fact that the ‘chain’ which binds Balthazar, Angelo, the goldsmith, and Antipholus is credit not trust, when measured against Adriana's loyalty, compromises the humanity of mercantile associations. In a telling pun, Antipholus E. queries Angelo: ‘Belike you thought our love would last too long / If it were chained together’ (IV.i.25-6). As a catalyst to the recognition scene, the merchant exacts his due from Angelo, warning, ‘Or I'll attach you by this officer’. In turn, Angelo remarks: ‘just the sum I do owe to you / Is growing to me by Antipholus’ (IV.i.6,7-8). As he hires the officers to arrest (the wrong) Antipholus, the goldsmith vows, ‘I would not spare my brother in this case’ (IV.i.77)—a hyperbole especially suited to this play abounding in brothers. Similarly, master turns on servant when he ‘greatly fear[s his] money is not safe’ (I.ii.105).

In contrast to the litigious sphere of trade, the domestic sphere in Ephesus generally keeps problems inside, as if respectful of the private nature of its commitments. For example, from the local Dromio's first speech, we imagine Adriana pacing at home, in ‘fast[ing] and prayer’ while awaiting her husband's return. Driven outside only reluctantly by the accretion of impatience, uncertainty, and jealousy, she initially eschews the public sphere and prefers to bypass the law and the Abbess in administering punishment, justice, or a cure for her husband's putative madness. When she snares her dinner companion in Act two, scene two, Adriana locks him in tightly: ‘Dromio, keep the gate. / … Sirrah, if any ask you for your master, / Say he dines forth, and let no creature enter. / … Dromio, play the porter well’ (205, 208-10). Similarly, both the Abbess and Luce, the kitchen wench of Adriana's house, stand as sentinels to defend their respective households from intrusion. Even the courtesan, that ‘public woman’, shows discretion in stating her grievance: when she perceives herself cheated by Antipholus, she consults his wife in the matter rather than an officer (IV.iii.87-91).

Adriana clearly exemplifies the home/body. Some critics identify her as the play's spokesperson for Protestant companionate marriage.20 The private family meal she offers, according to Joseph Candido, ‘serves as a convenient social vehicle for the larger issue of forgiveness, and her insistence on privacy metaphorically links confidential family matters with the … regenerative power of the confessional’.21 This spiritual dimension of housewifery is nonetheless underpinned by its material basis—the furnishing of nourishment and safety, which Adriana feels uniquely qualified to provide. At first, rather than invoke the impersonal and dehumanizing legal system to ‘cure’ her spouse, Adriana orders him ‘safe convey'd / Home to my house’ (IV.iv.122-23), a wish repeated in her confrontation with the creditors and the Abbess (V.i.35, 92). But later, when physically threatened by him she hires an exorcist and then concedes to law, begging the Duke to intercede in the matter of her husband's return home. Of course, as a woman, she would lack recourse in the law within ‘the late Elizabethan “sex/gender system”’ that Ephesus replicates.22 Nor does Shakespeare provide a family outlet for Adriana's redress: unlike Plautus's ‘Mulier’, who calls in her father to arbitrate, Adriana relies on her own resources and hired help. Her conception of the nuclear family—a haven safe from creditors as well as from the interventions of church and state—reflects the transition toward the separate spheres ideology. That the play elsewhere undermines this idealization of the bourgeois domicile further underlines the uneasy coexistence of ideologies and social practices. The relationship between home and marketplace is continually renegotiated in the play, as it was in Elizabethan society.

At times the household Adriana supervises nearly spoils Antipholus's mercantile ventures rather than supporting them. Although she possesses intimate knowledge of her husband's book-keeping, as when she admits surprise, ‘That he, unknown to me, should be in debt’ (IV.ii.48), Adriana recognizes that the marketplace poses threats to marital relations. And her husband recognizes the cost of his domestic responsibilities. Notions of family-as-obstacle unfold in Act three, scene one, where a spatial and ideological stand-off transpires concerning the function and government of the household. Antipholus E. and his cronies appear outside his home awaiting hospitable entertainment, while Adriana and her guest (the twin she mistakes for her husband) ‘dine above’ and forbid intrusion. A kind of Lysistradian battle of the sexes with the women and their spoils inside and the men outside trying to get in, the scene forms the climax of the play.23 The ‘heroine’, that operative symbol of domestic authority, is Luce, the enormous kitchen wench betrothed to Dromio E. and feared by his visiting twin (‘She is too big, I hope, for me to compass’ [IV.i.111]). In a long exchange of rhyming threats and retorts, formally extending yet undercutting the content of the men's Ephesian dialogue on ‘welcome’ and ‘cheer’ preceding it, Luce jeopardizes the foundation of her master's identity. She threatens to have him thrown into the stocks (III.i.59-60), and forces the men to ‘part with neither [the cheer nor welcome]’ that the householder had promised (67). Such domestic conduct is decidedly bad for business.

That this disappointed meal gets tangled up in the confusion about mercantile debts shows the deep and materially efficacious connection between men's home-lives and their public estimation in the marketplace. Discussing Adriana's behavior in terms of Antipholus's ‘reputation’, Balthazar reveals the dependence of commercial credit on domestic harmony, warning that ‘[a] vulgar comment … / [a]gainst [Antipholus's] yet ungalled estimation’ would compromise his standing in the community (III.i.100, 102). For his part, Antipholus E. perceives the women's insubordination as a consolidated assault on his power and authority as master of the house, since he promises to punish ‘my wife and her confederates’ for the incident (IV.i.17). Furthermore, the men perceive female unruliness as an affront to domestic order; and they sexually encode this unruliness and associate women with feeding in the play. The husband becomes increasingly convinced that Adriana had feasted and made love to the only man she's seen with—Pinch, the schoolmaster (IV.iv.57-61). Meanwhile Luce's association with the kitchen is inseparable from her massive and threatening body, and the courtesan invites Antipholus S. to ‘mend [his] dinner’ at her place (IV.iii.54).24 His frantic, moralistic refusal of her offer: ‘Avoid, then, fiend! What tell'st thou me of supping’? (IV.iii.60) makes explicit the sexual nature of dining at a woman's table, especially when compared with his earlier quest for male dinner companions (I.ii.23).25 Thus, it seems that men fear women's domestic control and their sexuality, both of which are related to food-provision.26 As we shall see, however, these fears are unfounded: Adriana wants nothing more (or less) than to administer to her husband's needs, fully accepting her proper sphere of the home, while insisting simultaneously on its sanctity and its correspondence with his business life.

The Roman source play offers some insight into this localized fear of ‘feeding and dependency’.27The Menaechmi opens with a statement about the binding effects of hospitality. As the longest speech in the play, its subject becomes a major theme. Peniculus, a Parasite on the table of Erotium (subsidized by Menaechmus, her married lover), conjectures that the way to a man's loyalty is through his stomach. He envisions a prison system based on the provision of meals:28

If then ye would keep a man without all suspicion of running away from ye, the surest way is to tie him with meate, drinke, and ease: Let him ever be idle, eate his belly full, and carouse while his skin will hold, and he shall never, I warrant ye, stir a foote. These strings to tie one by the teeth, passe all the bands of iron, steele, or what metal so ever …29

Having cut this character from his version, Shakespeare disperses his sentiment among the male characters who flee rather than enter the bondage of feeding at women's tables. So Antipholus E. refuses to come home to dinner, while the Syracusan men renounce the women who cook and invite them to meals, calling them variously ‘beastly creature’, witch, devil (III.ii.88, 154; IV.iii.58).

Women as well as men recognize the contractual nature of meals—the ‘strings to tie one’ to the domestic sphere; and this recognition becomes the vehicle for reconciliation in the play. So Luce and the courtesan as well as Adriana and Emilia express desire, power, and protection through dining and food imagery. Adriana's lament for her neglect ranges fully through connotations of feeding, and suggests how crucially food-service defined the domestic on the Shakespearean stage and in early modern society. In language which collapses her self with her home, she complains:

His company must do his minions grace
Whilst I at home starve for a merry look …
But, too unruly deer, he breaks the pale
And feeds from home. Poor I am but his stale.

(II.i.87-88, 100-1)

Adriana uses the metaphor of feeding as loving.30 Punning on ‘grace’ as the prayer before meals and the ‘gracious’ presence Antipholus denies her, Adriana emphasizes both the ritualized nature of meals and the enclosedness of their marriage vows which he ‘breaks’ by dining out. She further acknowledges the reciprocal nature of ‘feeding’ (the verb, like ‘nurse’ and ‘suck’, itself admits both transitive and intransitive definitions): he ‘feeds’ himself and his ego (and perhaps his sexual appetites) abroad, where his largess also ‘feeds’ the company. Meanwhile, he does not ‘feed’ her the recognition (‘merry look’) she needs, nor does he ‘feed’ with her. The first two lines contrast the pub(lic) ‘company’ with ‘I at home’, and construct one version of mart/house, public/private opposition at work in Errors. Finally, punning on ‘stale’ as both whore and unappetizing food, Adriana's metaphor encapsulates the problem: the love/food she offers is no longer appetizing to her husband.31 By breaking the pale herself to fetch her husband, Adriana—unknowingly mirroring her mother-in-law—performs not so much an act of ‘transgression’ as an attempt to construct a home to contain the family.32 Her flight is at once remarkable and understood in the context of the play's farcical action.

The action of the play, which depends on deferring the meeting of characters crossing the same stage at different times, progresses via the presence of real or symbolic boundaries, and a sense of proper place. So, as we have seen, Syracusan merchants are out of bounds in Ephesus, and one's home ought to be off limits to strangers. Throughout her disquisition with Adriana, Luciana appears resigned to the ‘bounds’ that circumscribe each species and sex, and endorses the hierarchy at the top of which reigns ‘Man, more divine, the master of all these’ (II.i.20). Luciana's metaphysics assumes the fixed boundary between men's public roles and women's domestic duties, as she consoles her sister about Antipholus's absence from the meal: ‘Perhaps’, Luciana offers, ‘some merchant hath invited him, / And from the mart he's somewhere gone to dinner’ (II.i.4-5). She continues to argue, ‘Because their [men's] business lies out o' door’, they may enjoy greater ‘liberty’ than their stay-at-home counterparts (11). This line of argument, challenged elsewhere in the play, depends on the separation between inside and outside, home and business—fissures not yet formed, and arguably never fixed in Elizabethan society.33

Angered by the double standard Luciana embraces, Adriana nonetheless endorses a type of gendered separation of the spheres, as her own identity is bound up with domestic issues. Her language borrows heavily from close-to-home imagery: taste, ‘service’, and eating. At one point, she accosts Antipholus S., administering a dose of marriage-tract logic that moves even the wrong audience. She first accuses her ‘husband’ of feeding his ‘sweet aspects’ to another woman. Next, she recalls a past time when they ‘ate’ together:

The time was once when thou unurg'd wouldst vow
That never words were music to thine ear,
That never object pleasing in thine eye,
That never touch well welcome to thy hand,
That never meat sweet-savour'd in thy taste,
Unless I spake or look'd or touch'd or carv'd to thee.


This speech depicts a wife's willing service to a man who is home to appreciate it. The scenario illustrates what Karen Newman calls the ‘special nearness of wives’ in early modern England, their importance in the household economy and their proximity to husbands' affairs which might threaten patriarchal control.34 In medieval and renaissance noble households, the meat carver was not properly a ‘servant’, but, possibly a function of his being entrusted with knives, he held the highest position among servers, and the privilege was often reserved for esteemed friends of the lord. Moreover, because of the nature both of the game to be served and the high occasion, the role demanded great skill and finesse.35 Wives fulfilled this function in middle- and upper-class households of the seventeenth century. ‘When great personages shall visit’ wives were expected to ‘sit at an end of a table and carve handsomely’, as the ninth Earl of Northumberland instructed his son in 1609.36 ‘Let huswife be carver’, Thomas Tusser charges with his characteristic and terse pragmatism.37 In pointing to her own carving duties, then, Adriana aligns herself with this special brand of service, skill, and trust newly designated to middle-class wives. Adriana calls for nothing radically new in their relations but rather aims to reinstate herself as Antipholus' cook, confidante, and server.


The only other married woman in Errors, Emilia endorses this domestic and meal-centred value system. Although she holds a small part in the playtext, materializing only—and at first anonymously—in the last act and discussed in Egeon's deposition (I.i), this matriarchal presence—mother, wife, abbess—looms large on stage. Like her daughter-in-law, Emilia stands firmly on the side of ‘home’, and, like the young wife, fights for her family's togetherness. Both she and Adriana make a religion out of their ‘service’ in reclaiming or sustaining their menfolk and seem prototypes of the ‘domestic woman’ emerging in eighteenth-century Europe described by Nancy Armstrong.38 Emilia is a sacrificial figure: it is she who ‘(almost fainting under / The pleasing punishment that women bear) / Had made provision’ to follow her traveling salesman to Epidamnum; she who importunes the family's return home.39 Her ‘incessant weepings’ aboard the ship ‘[f]orc'd’ Egeon to arrange for another voyage. Emilia, like Thaisa in Pericles, betakes herself to a religious retreat until such time (in her case, 33 years) as she may be restored to her role as wife and mother. When her own husband wanders, Adriana waits in fasting and prayer—the metaphor suggesting her almost religious devotion to the marriage we see her enact throughout the play.

Both Emilia and Adriana spin out practical theories of marital roles, both employing eating and consuming imagery to establish nurture as vital to the household economy and to the satisfaction of men. We have already examined Adriana's manifesto in her reminiscence of carving; in hers, Emilia acknowledges her skill in simples and medicines—knowledge she ascribes to her religious vocation, but which also fell under the auspices of ‘housewifery’ in the period.40 Their doctrines, along with Luciana's view of marriage, reflect the emergent notion of the separation of the spheres. Luciana, who understands that commercial engagements and world affairs distract men from the hearth, accepts as ‘natural’ the gendered division of labor and leisure, whereas the experienced wives lament this division, blaming ‘other women’ and scolding partners for men's distance from home. In all we note an uneasy recognition that domestic life may not satisfy men, that family matters may be incompatible with the contingencies of mercantile experience.

These problems generate further inquiry by the chief representatives of domestic life, Emilia and Adriana, who share a commitment to providing nurturing homes for their families. As the matriarch interrogates Adriana, each speaker uses the circumstances of Antipholus's dining as an indication of the state of his health and sanity, and as an index of the domestic situation itself. For example, Adriana confesses to ‘urging’ the subject of his fidelity ‘[a]t board’ as well as in bed.41 Emilia chastens this harping habit of Adriana's with proverbial wisdom:

Thou say'st his meat was sauc'd with thy upbraidings:
Unquiet meals make ill digestions;
Thereof the raging fire of fever bred,
And what's a fever, but a fit of madness? …
In food, in sport, in life-preserving rest
To be disturb'd would mad or man or beast.

(V.i.73-76, 83-84)

The repeated emphasis on meals reveals both the mother's concern for her son's well-being and her familiarity with affairs of the hearth, while also reinforcing the centrality of nurture in the domestic economy.

Antipholus' wife and mother compete for the authorship of his cure, each invoking her feminine ‘office’ as justification, demonstrating a struggle for domestic authority between women in different relationships to the man of the house. Perhaps because she knows that Antipholus S. is neither mad nor married, and perhaps because of reawakened maternal duty, the abbess defends her house, her son, and her right to care for him—‘a branch and parcel of mine oath, / a charitable duty of my order’ (106-107). But Adriana voices equal devotion:

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


Adriana again asserts the sanctity of the home in her desire to get him out of the hands of what seem to be strangers. Thus thwarted by the abbess, only at this point does Adriana resort to state aid in the person of the Duke. As we have seen, she has before opted to handle domestic strife privately (‘And I will have no attorney but myself’), while in the commercial world contracts are enforced through officials and surrogates. Her calling upon ‘official’ intervention here to settle the problem heralds the final feast which celebrates the resolution; both unite private and public experience.

The only festive meal hosted by a woman in Shakespeare's canon, Emilia's gossips' feast symbolically celebrates, inter alia, childbirth—an achievement uniquely within the province of women. Not, as in other festive comedies, a wedding feast for the presumably espoused Luciana and Antipholus S., nor a marital reunion banquet, as in the romances, ‘a gossips' feast’ celebrates the delayed delivery of ‘[her] heavy burden’ (406, 403).42 The Duke promises, ‘With all my heart I'll gossip at this feast’ (408). This communal supper not only achieves official endorsement, it also promises that Adriana and Antipholus will at last eat together, and likewise transforms the vexed interrelationship of ‘public’ and ‘private’ haunting the play all along. Not exactly the romantic dinner for two that Adriana had planned, and a far cry from her husband's pub-crawls, the gossips' feast offers the via media between private and public dining. Here, the immediate and extended family, along with city magistrates and merchants, will feast together. With the confusion cleared up, a measure of reconciliation is possible between the young couple, augmented by Emilia's motherly (if bossy) advice to the wife.43

A ‘broken christening’, similar to the ‘broken nuptials’ Carol Neely ascribes to the romances, Emilia's feast consummates the woman's part in all forms of family: her restoration to wifehood, the reunion with her children—now expanded to include Adriana and Luciana—and the rejoining of siblings, including the Dromios for whom she serves as a kind of godmother.44 Emilia feels re-born (‘such Nativity’!) into the family romance, and her feast places wifehood, as well as motherhood and nurture, in the limelight. As social histories of childbirth indicate, from advising their kinswomen and neighbors about aphrodisiacs, to procuring their ‘longings’ during pregnancy, and assisting during and after childbirth, early modern women played principal roles in their community's ‘reproductive rituals’.45 ‘There were … aspects of birth celebrations that were essentially female rituals, in which participants were drawn from a wide social spectrum and united by gender and biological experience’.46 Women's protracted activities culminated in this ritual meeting. Held after and serving as a secular counterpart to the ‘churching’ of the young mother, the gossips' feast ritually acknowledged and ‘socialized’ women's reproductive power as well as their aid along the way.

Emilia's gossips' feast celebrates the newly restored community—its domestic, mercantile, and political components—at the same time as it confirms the unique achievements of women in that community. The feast is centered in private space—the abbey hitherto having been cordoned off from the town—opened up through a ritual which crosses boundaries between public and private, church and state. In the early modern period, the church publicly sanctified marriages, christened babies in baptism, and blessed women in churching—the symbolic reestablishment of the new mother into the public community.47 That the hostess-gossip pointedly invites men—husbands, father, brothers, Duke, merchants—to what was traditionally a private and an exclusively female affair suggests rapprochement between the otherwise gendered and separate spheres, home and commerce. The conclusion recognizes the necessary function of the domestic sphere to regenerate and ritually acknowledge the public life of a community. The meal is associated with the domestic sphere and with women: an elder woman sponsors it; presumably Luce and company will prepare and serve it; and it celebrates women's ‘labor’. In accepting the invitation, the male mercantile community grants that this domestic intervention is as compelling as the ‘intestine jars’ which confront them in their ports, fairs, and marts.


Shakespeare develops in his later plays the conflicts and crossings over between domestic and commercial identities, protocols, and relations so concentrated in The Comedy of Errors. Domestic and erotic ties are perceived as threats to masculine (political and military) campaigns, most notably in the classical tragedies, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Troilus and Cressida in which women's dreams and demands are seen as potent or potential distractions from heroic enterprises. Communal eating retains its symbolic ability to foster and represent harmony elsewhere in the drama, but this promise is usually aborted altogether or otherwise compromised as in Macbeth's haunted banquet, the competitive final wedding feast of Shrew, and the picnic in Arden interrupted by Orlando (As You Like It). Instead, meals show historically specific and ideologically charged forms of conflict and contestation. In Errors Shakespeare comically dramatizes women's sexual, maternal, and social power through their roles in feeding—both in the domestic and in the ‘public’ spheres, which their nurture reveals as inseparable. Here questions about household management and the relative power of men and women—the role of business, the supervision of servants, and the orchestration of meals—are debated and resolved through a restorative meal which resists the separation of the spheres.


  1. Mary Prior, ‘Women and the Urban Economy: Oxford 1500-1800’ in Mary Prior (ed.), Women in English Society 1500-1800, (New York, 1985), p. 97.

  2. Frances Teague argues that feasts in the comedies do not serve conventional festive functions: ‘feasting is rarely comedic but almost always comic’. Shakespeare's Speaking Properties (Lewisburg, 1991), pp. 64, 67.

  3. The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development (Berkeley, 1986), p. 77.

  4. Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1992), p. 67.

  5. Lena Cowen Orlin discusses the conflicts and contradictions between personal and professional obligations in the drama, particularly ‘domestic tragedy’. Private Matters and Public Culture in Post-Reformation England (Ithaca, 1994).

  6. All subsequent quotations from The Comedy of Errors are taken from the Pelican edition, Alfred Harbage, ed. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, (New York, 1969). Quotations from other Shakespearean plays are taken from G. Blakemore Evans (ed.), The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, 1974). Act, scene, and line numbers will follow in brackets.

  7. The feminization of the bourgeois domicile here is somewhat different from that of the aristocratic lady's chamber on the Shakespearean stage. On the latter see Georgianna Zeigler, ‘My lady's chamber: female space, female chastity in Shakespeare’, Textual Practice 4 (1990), 73-90.

  8. The Comedy of Errors as Problem Comedy,’ Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 41 (1987), 332.

  9. I work from the notion of a mutual ‘shaping power’ between drama and society as expressed by Louis Montrose in ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture: Gender, Power, Form’, in Margaret Ferguson et al. (eds), Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, (Chicago, 1986), pp. 65-87. For discussions of early modern capitalism, see Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theatre in Anglo-American Thought 1550-1750 (New York, 1986) and Ira Katsnelson, Marxism and the City (Oxford, 1992).

  10. Rpt. in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1966), vol. 1, p. 38.

  11. For example, the BBC production directed by James Cellan-Jones (designed by Don Homfray) opens in a piazza, the ground of which is a splendid map of the eastern Mediterranean, where the locals reenact Egeon's story as he tells it (originally transmitted in U.S., 20 February 1984).

  12. Bullough, vol. 1, p. 10.

  13. Thomas P. Hennings has made a similar observation about the men's language. He identifies ‘powerful stage and verbal images and/or oppressive restriction’, including imprisonment, beatings, bindings, strict legality ‘and its concomitant legalese’, financial obligations, and reinforced hierarchy. ‘The Anglican Doctrine of the Affectionate Marriage in The Comedy of Errors’, Modern Language Quarterly, 47 (1986), 94.

  14. See Frank E. Brown, ‘Continuity and Change in the Urban House: Developments in Domestic Space Organization in Seventeenth Century London’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 28 (1986), 558-590.

  15. In her engaging study of ‘The Providential Tempest and the Shakespearean Family’ Coppelia Kahn attributes the play's dominant metaphors for division and loss to the sea and the storm. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn (eds), Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays (Baltimore, 1980), p. 222. In my reading, overseas trade necessitates the fateful voyage, though of course it does not cause the tempest.

  16. Barber and Wheeler, Whole Journey, p. 82.

  17. The matter of the last speeches is a little confusing, but it implies that Adriana had been the Duke's ward, and he had arranged the marriage as a father might, since she has no father in the play.

  18. Barbara Freedman establishes the affinity between the transgressions in the main and frame plots in similar terms. Both Egeon's violation of Ephesian law and the ‘sons’ run-ins with domestic law' are encoded as debts related to women or marriage. ‘Errors in Comedy: A Psychoanalytic Theory of Farce’, in Maurice Charney (ed.), Shakespearean Comedy (New York, 1980), p. 239.

  19. The contentious aspects of the Ephesian marketplace closely resemble those of early modern England, as Jean Christophe Agnew describes them, particularly in the dilemmas about representing emergent social relations:

    The practical problem of how individuals were to represent themselves to one another in the protocontractual relationships of parliamentary politics, mercantile trade, capitalist agriculture, and Protestant orthodoxy brought with it the less immediate but certainly no less obdurate problem of how they were to represent these relationships to themselves.

    Some of the questions early modern merchants faced, and which Errors also poses, surround the construction of the self in trade: ‘What rhetorical devices or forms of address could accommodate the new and unsettling confusion over personal distance and intimacy that perplexed those brought together in commodity transactions?’ Worlds, p. 10.

  20. Hennings places Adriana's stance on privacy solidly within Anglican practice, noting that ‘[t]he intimacy of the Anglican marriage calls for the wife as well as the husband to be a source of spiritual counsel and solace and thereby help replace the Catholic confessor’. ‘Anglican’, pp. 102-103.

  21. ‘Dining Out in Ephesus: Food in The Comedy of Errors’, SEL 30 (1990), 227.

  22. Karen Newman, ‘Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew’, ELR, 16 (1986), 89.

  23. I see significance in Dromio E's hailing only women's names in demanding entry: ‘Maud, Bridget, Marian, Cicely, Gillian, Ginn’ (III.i.31). His brother teases him for ‘conjur[ing] for wenches’ (34).

  24. In Dromio S.'s account of his meeting with Luce (III.ii), he reveals his fears that association with this domestic servant would emasculate him in one way or another: by yielding to Luce's enormous desires, he would become ‘a woman's man’ (I.77), or he'd be put to work in the kitchen himself (I. 144-45). He later tells his brother: ‘There is a fat friend at your master's house, / That kitchened me for you today at dinner’ (V.i.416-17).

  25. Candido rightly observes in the wandering brother an attraction ‘to the security and solidity implied by the shared meal’, yet Candido fails to note the revulsion with which Antipholus S. spurns the courtesan's invitation. ‘He is … an earnest seeker of dining companions, oddly receptive, for example, to the sudden feast thrust upon him by total strangers later in the play, and eager to make a dinner engagement with the first native Ephesian he meets’, ‘Dining’, p. 222.

  26. This fear has been fruitfully explored by psychoanalytic critics who identify the mother with provision and withholding of nurture. See Coppelia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley, 1981), and Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, ‘Hamlet’ to ‘The Tempest’ (New York, 1992). I submit that a version of this fear of dependency operates at the level of culture.

  27. These are Janet Adelman's terms. ‘“Anger's my meat”: Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus’, in Representing Shakespeare, pp. 129-149.

  28. Candido provides a related, but different reading of this speech, noting that it implies ‘the centrality of food and dining in helping to define social relationships in the play’. Peniculus is fettered to Menaechmus via the ‘male umbilical cord’ of meals. ‘Dining’, p. 218.

  29. Rptd. in Bullough, vol. 1, p. 13.

  30. When she later accosts her husband's twin, Adriana again uses eating imagery to describe the marriage union: ‘For, if we two be one, and thou play false, / I do digest the poison of thy flesh’ (II.ii.142-143).

  31. Shakespeare uses ‘stale’ often with this spoiled food pun implied. The OED shows entries denoting something close to our modern usage of the term relating to liquor, mead, and wine (1386, 1586), and regarding food ‘that has lost its freshness; altered by keeping’ (1530, 1550, 1580). Elsewhere, he puns on the two meanings as in Katherina's first line in Shrew; she asks her father, ‘is it your will / To make a stale of me to these mates?’ Karen Newman explores Kate's polysemic ‘linguistic willfulness’, noting her multiple punning on ‘stale’ as laughing stock and prostitute, ‘stalemate’, and mate as husband. ‘Renaissance Family’, p. 90. In another exchange about female sexuality and marriageability, Claudio and Don Pedro present their joint judgment that Hero is a ‘rotten orange’ and ‘a common stale’ (Much Ado IV.i.30, 63).

  32. Kehler anticipates my conclusion: ‘[Adriana] revolts not against her place but against her lack of love’. ‘Problem’, p. 233.

  33. Hennings doubts the critical commonplace which accepts Luciana's manifesto as mainstream for the period. Although she toes the Elizabethan line on ‘wifely obedience’, Hennings finds that the general tenor of her remarks on marriage ‘is inconsistent with the description of a happily married couple found in the current marriage literature, especially with that of the officially sanctioned “Homilie of the state of Matrimonie”’, an institution in its own right (96). As I note in the text, Hennings considers Emilia and Adriana the spokespersons for the Anglican ideal of conjugal affection; the primacy of their views is documented by the fact that Adriana sides with the Abbess and ‘rebukes the contentious Luciana’ in Act five (95).

  34. Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago, 1991), p. 17.

  35. Norbert Elias notes that the master himself or a distinguished guest carved the meat at noble tables. Edmund Jephcott (trans.), The History of Manners, vol. 1 of The Civilizing Process (New York, 1978), p. 97.

  36. Qtd. in Alice Friedman, House and Household in Elizabethan England: Wollaton Hall and the Willoughby Family (Chicago, 1989), p. 50, n. 44.

  37. The Points of Huswiferie in Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry ([1573] rpt. London, 1931), p. 164.

  38. Desire and Domestic Fiction, A Political History of the Novel (New York, 1987).

  39. Bullough and others have noted the significance of Shakespeare's altering the setting from Epidamnum in Plautus' play to Ephesus, where Paul spoke his marriage sermon on wives' submissiveness (vol. 1, pp. 9-10).

  40. See Gervase Markham's chapter on physicke in Michael R. Best (ed.), The English House-wife, (Kingston, 1986). Thomas Tusser includes a separate poem on ‘physicke’ in his Points of Huswiferie, p. 179. Candido makes a similar point about domestic responsibilities in the period. ‘Dining’, pp. 233-237.

  41. Although her jealousy aligns her with Othello, Adriana's association of mealtimes with the reconciliation of domestic discord anticipates Desdemona who urges the conciliatory meeting between her husband and Cassio ‘tonight at supper … To-morrow dinner then?’ (III.iii.57-58). Kehler similarly observes: ‘In her company are Othello, Posthumus, and Leontes, who respond to suspected cuckoldry with privileged male fury’. Meanwhile, Adriana's only recourse is her nagging. ‘Problem’, p. 232.

  42. The festive comedies do typically close with fifth-act or looked-to celebrations; however, only in Errors and Merry Wives is the feasting authorized by a woman's voice. None of these endings is altogether conciliatory. After the Pages' mutual tricks backfire, and after they forgive their daughter for her own trick, Mistress Page invites all to ‘sport o'er by a country fire / Sir John and all’ (V.v.229-30). In Shrew, Lucentio calls the couples to their ‘dessert’:

    Feast with the best, and welcome to my house.
    My banquet is to close our stomachs up
    After our great good cheer. Pray you sit down
    For now we sit to chat as well as eat.


    At the end of Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine bespeaks ‘One feast, one house, one mutual happiness’ for two couples whose union was engineered by the women (V.iv.174). Theseus foregoes hunting in order to plan ‘a feast in great solemnity’ (Midsummer Night's Dream IV.i.185). Benedict calls for a dance, at the close of Much Ado, and the Duke hosts the ‘rites’ in As You Like It. The object of Emilia's gossips' feast is clearly unique. For a different view of the meaning of festive eating in Shakespeare, see John Mahon, “For now we sit to chat as well as eat’: Conviviality and Conflict in Shakespeare's Meals’, in John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton (eds), ‘Fanned and Winnowed Opinions’: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins (New York, 1987), pp. 231-248. See also Palmer, Hospitable, and Teague, Speaking.

  43. I grant that this optimistic reading depends upon the imagination of a ‘sixth act’. Kehler emphasizes the ‘problem play’ aspects of Comedy and the open-endedness of the ending, since both Adriana and E. Antipholus remain silent. ‘Problem’, pp. 235-236. See also Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London, 1974), pp. 9, 18.

  44. Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven, 1985).

  45. See Angus McLaren, Reproductive Rituals: The perception of fertility in England from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century (New York, 1984).

  46. Felicity Heal, Hospitality in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1990), p. 81.

  47. McLaren, Reproductive, p. 55.

Bruce Weber (review date 12 July 2002)

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SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. “Making an Exotic Circus of a Shakespearean Farce.” New York Times (12 July 2002): B2, E2.

[In the following review, Weber sees the Aquila Theater Company's 2002 production of The Comedy of Errors as flawed not in its individual performances, but in the undisciplined directorial decisions of Robert Richmond.]

The Aquila Theater Company, an 11-year-old part-American, part-British troupe devoted to reimagining classic plays, is inclined to exuberant stagecraft. In its new production of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, no moment is deemed complete without a bit of fizzy stage business by the actors or a madcap tweak by the director, Robert Richmond. It's the kind of high-energy effort that encourages the audience to hoot and holler and overlook the fact that the rapid-fire stage antics are only intermittently inspired. The show sets the bar of invention high and grows ever more frantic in trying to leap over it.

One of the Aquila's great strengths is space management. And at the East 13th Street Theater (better known as the home of the Classic Stage Company), where the show opened last night, the small stage, with a high ceiling and the audience on three sides, is a perfect fit. In Mr. Richmond's adaptation, the cast has been streamlined to an ensemble of seven. (Each of the play's sets of twins is played by a single actor, despite what the not terribly amusing program would have you believe.) And the production makes elegant use of the vertical space in its design. Mr. Richmond, the Aquila's associate artistic director, and Peter Meineck, the company's producing artistic director, share the credit.

The set is bright with jewel tones, and its main feature is a trio of tall, cleverly constructed collapsible tents. In fact, the production makes an effort to be an exotic circus. It includes belly-dancing, costumery of a vaguely Mediterranean ilk (some excellent fezzes!) and entertaining, archly wrought music by Anthony Cochrane that uses elements of Italian tarantella, folk themes that emanate from Greece, Russia and the Middle East, and the piping good cheer of a calliope.

All of this is appropriate and even fresh in its application to Shakespeare's lively farce about two sets of separated twins (improbably, each pair sharing a name, and each Dromio the servant of an Antipholus). The menagerie also includes two sisters, not to mention a courtesan, a witch doctor, a jeweler and a man under a death sentence (Egeon, the father of the Antipholuses—er, Antipholi?), whose long-lost wife has become an abbess. Indeed, the plot is perhaps Shakespeare's most openly screwy, which is perhaps the best argument for a calculated reserve in staging but is more often perceived as license for the unbinding of directorial giddiness.

Such is apparently the case here. After a promising start, in which the births of the four boys, the indenture of the two Dromios and the storm at sea that separates the various parties is drolly mimed by actors as human marionettes, Mr. Richmond's comic choreography is frenetic but only sporadically engaging. The jokery never really gives the sense that it is attached to a vision of the play, or even that it emanates from the play. Instead you get the idea that Mr. Richmond is using Shakespeare's play merely as a clothesline to air a motley store of ideas.

There are, to be sure, some very well-conceived and very funny set pieces. In one, a three-man negotiation over a necklace becomes a kind of dance with ritual hand signals. In another, a rare instance of a sex joke with some original flair, two modestly endowed women show their insecurity in the presence of a big-breasted courtesan. But increasingly as the play proceeds, a sense of desperation to keep the slapstick pace from flagging sets in, and Mr. Richmond relies more and more on hackneyed ideas. The number of times an actor is startled into a scream can't be counted on two hands.

A clue to what goes awry here are two excellent scenes before intermission. In one, Antipholus of Syracuse (Mark Saturno) woos Luciana (Mira Kingsley), who thinks he is Antipholus of Ephesus, her sister's husband. It's a lovely comic scene because it is underplayed. Mr. Saturno, whose comic persona for Antipholus S. is conventionally nerdy and for Antipholus E. conventionally loutish, is far better as a sincere Shakespearean than a lunatic one; his affinity for pentameter is never more evident than in this scene. And Ms. Kingsley, in a yellow dress and saddle shoes, is delectable here, swooning with pigeon-toed grace.

She is also good in the subsequent scene when she and her sister Adriana discuss the mystery of Antipholus E.'s apparent betrayal. Both Ms. Kingsley and Lisa Carter, who plays Adriana, show what can happen when actors act and are not merely being directed for comic effect.

By this time, Ms. Carter has already exhibited an ease with broad humor; her savage attack on Dromio of Ephesus (Louis Butelli, whose double dose of rubbery clowning wears out its welcome) seems amusingly natural. (She takes a Three Stooges approach to his genitals.) But later, with Mr. Richmond straining for laughs, neither woman can avoid visiting the Laverne-and-Shirley school of comedy. You cringe, after such a vivid start, to see Shakespeare end up in sitcom land.

Further Reading

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Clayton, Thomas. “The Text, Imagery, and Sense of the Abbess's Final Speech in The Comedy of Errors.Anglia: Zeitschrift für Englische Philologie 91, no. 4 (1973): 479-84.

Textual analysis of the Abbess's reunion-crowning speech in Act V, scene i of The Comedy of Errors, emphasizing its imagery of rebirth and spiritual reawakening.

Gibbons, Brian. “Erring and Straying Like Lost Sheep: The Winter's Tale and The Comedy of Errors.Shakespeare Survey 50 (1997): 111-23.

Comparative study of dramatic modes and of such concepts as doubling, identity, and the union of man and wife in The Comedy of Errors and The Winter's Tale.

Kinney, Arthur F. “Staging The Comedy of Errors.” In Shakespeare Text and Theater: Essays in Honor of Jay L. Halio, edited by Lois Potter and Arthur F. Kinney, pp. 320-31. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1999.

Sets The Comedy of Errors within its religious, political, social, and literary contexts as a stage play of the late sixteenth century.

Sellar, Tom. Review of The Comedy of Errors.Village Voice 47, no. 29 (23 July 2002): 58.

Finds Robert Richmond's staging of The Comedy of Errors with the Aquila Theater Company in 2002 too slight and relentlessly silly.

Taylor, Gary. “Textual and Sexual Criticism: A Crux in The Comedy of Errors.Renaissance Drama. n.s. 19 (1988): 195-225.

Contends that a passage spoken by Adriana in Act II, scene i of The Comedy of Errors has been corrupted by editors of the play and points to sexist prejudices within the text.

Wyrick, Deborah Baker. “The Ass Motif in The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 4 (winter 1982): 432-48.

Explicates the epithet “ass” used frequently in Shakespearean drama, particularly in The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream, as “a complex verbal cipher” with numerous symbolic and thematic overtones.


The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 66)


The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 87)