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The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare

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*Ephesus (EF-ah-sas). Ancient Greek port city in Asia Minor that was later the capital of Roman Asia; it is now an archaeological site near Smyrna in Turkey. Elizabethans were familiar with Ephesus from the New Testament, and as an ancient seaport and location of the temple of Artemis (Diana to the Romans), which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The commercial pagan center for the cult of Diana became a place of Christian conversion in the first century.

While St. Paul was living in Ephesus, he wrote his Epistle to the Ephesians, which makes strong statements about marriage and domestic relations—themes that are at the core of Shakespeare’s play. St. Paul described Ephesus as a place of sorcery and exorcists—a description that match’s the play’s depiction of the city as a “town full of cozenage” with “sorcerers” and “witches.” It is an apt location for the farcical confusions that arise from the twin masters (Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus) and twin servants (Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus); Doctor Pinch tries to exorcise Satan and cure madness. In contrast, Aegeon accepts the enmity between Ephesus and Syracuse and his sentence of death. Only humility and submission to God’s will suffice in a world of human errors.

The play features four locations within Ephesus: the houses of Antipholus of Ephesus (Phoenix), the courtesan, and the Priory; and the street—a fluid space for the frenetic encounters in which identities are mistaken as all assume acquaintance and prior actions. The setting was especially effective on Elizabethan stages, which had large open spaces with two pillars, entry doors, and an upper stage.


*Syracuse. City in southeast Sicily founded by Greeks in the eighth century b.c.e. At the time in which this play is set, Syracuse and Ephesus were enemies and it was forbidden for citizens of one land to journey to the other—a point around which the play’s plot revolves. The penalty for the crime was execution or a payment of a thousand marks. Aegeon, a merchant of Syracuse who has recently traveled to Ephesus, is to be put to death because he cannot raise the thousand marks.

Modern Connections

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The Comedy of Errors is believed by many scholars to be Shakespeare's first play. (Some argue it may have been written as early as 1589). Many elements of the play seem unbelievable and are deliberately contrived for their comic effect. The confusions of identity in the play turn on the highly unlikely possibility that each pair of twins, the Antipholuses and the Dromios, would have the same name. It is also highly unlikely that the abbess could have lived so many years in Ephesus unaware of the presence, in that city, of her son, Antipholus of Ephesus. And it is improbable that Aegeon and Antipholus of Syracuse would simultaneously end up in Ephesus. More importantly, Antipholus of Syracuse never speculates that people in Ephesus might be mistaking him for his twin brother, a brother for whom he has been diligently searching. As the title of the play suggests, the play is a comedy and, perhaps, is not meant to be taken at all seriously. But Shakespeare's selection of Ephesus for the setting points to a more serious element in the play and underscores a stark contrast between Elizabethan and modern conceptions about the "truth" or "reality" of experience.

Ephesus was a place long associated with witchcraft and sorcery, most notably in St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians. Antipholus of Syracuse alludes to that witchcraft and sorcery on...

(This entire section contains 747 words.)

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several occasions. When Dromio of Ephesus mistakenly calls him home to dinner, unaware that Antipholus of Syracuse has just entrusted Dromio of Syracuse with a fair amount of gold, he says, upon the Ephesian Dromio's exit,

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 … (I.ii.97-100)

He is constantly amazed that the citizens of Ephesus give him gifts, invite him to dinner, and seem to know him through supernatural means. His suspicions about witchcraft culminate in his confrontation with the courtezan, a lewd woman who presumes some intimacy with him. He cries, "Avaunt, thou witch!" (IV.iii.79), and he and Dromio flee in fear.

Antipholus of Ephesus has similar problems. He has lived in that city for many years and has a solid reputation as a businessman. When his friends and colleagues encounter the different demeanor of Antipholus of Syracuse, they conclude that the Ephesian Antipholus is behaving madly. They attribute that madness to possession by evil spirits at the instigation of the witches and sorcerers associated with Ephesus. Adriana believes her husband is possessed and has asked Doctor Pinch, a conjurer, to counteract, with his own kind of sorcery, the demonic spirits troubling her husband. The Ephesian Antipholus vehemently denies that he is possessed and strikes Doctor Pinch. To which the doctor responds,

I charge thee, Sathan, hous'd within this man, To yield possession to my holy prayers, And to thy state of darkness hie thee straight: I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven! (IV.iv.54-57)

Adriana and Luciana, according to the best wisdom of the age for dealing with the possessed, intend to establish Antipholus of Ephesus in a dark vault and allow Doctor Pinch to perform a ritualized exorcism. The abbess, having been told that Antipholus of Syracuse is possessed, will bring him to his senses again "With wholesome syrups, drugs, and holy prayers" (V.i.104). Although the methods of the abbess and Doctor Pinch differ, they both treat madness and possession as a consequence of external manipulation.

Curiously, neither Antipholus of Syracuse nor his twin ever questions his own sanity. Any modern treatment of characters in a similar situation, if it dealt at all with the characters' reactions, would almost certainly focus on internal doubts about sanity and the characters' grasp of an external reality. For Elizabethans, concerns about witchcraft and possession were very real and served, within a religious framework, to explain anything odd or unusual in human experience. Most modern audiences are perhaps more likely to believe in psychological explanations for insanity rather than in witchcraft or demonic possession as causes. The abbess suggests a modern notion of psychological problems when she concludes that Antipholus of Syracuse, whom she believes is Adriana's husband, is troubled by the sharp and persistent tongue of a shrewish wife. Modern audiences would be apt to agree with her explanation and would be much more likely to expect distortions in human experience to be framed in sociological and psychological terms than framed by witchcraft and demonic possession.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Literary Commentary Arthos, John, "Shakespeare's Transformation of Plautus," Comparative Drama 1, No. 4 (Winter 1967-68): 239-53. Discusses how Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors differs from and parallels its predecessor, Plautus's Menaechmus.

Baker, Susan, "Status and Space in The Comedy of Errors," Shakespeare Bulletin 8, No. 2 (Spring 1990): 6-8. Argues that in The Comedy of Errors, the characters repeatedly "encounter sites and situations where the status they're prepared to play is not allowed to them," and these "spatial transgressions, dislocations, and displacements" (instances of mistaken identity) are more than simply confusion.

Barton, Anne, "The Comedy of Errors," In The Riverside Shakespeare edited by J. J. M. Tobin, Herschel Baker, and G. Blakemore Evans, pp. 79-82. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. Provides an overview of The Comedy of Errors by comparing it to Plautus's Menaechmus, noting Shakespeare's additions and changes. Barton notes, for example, that Shakespeare explored more thoroughly the Syracusan Antipholus (the traveling/wandering brother), while Plautus was more concerned with the native brother.

Berry, Ralph, "And here we wander in illusions," In Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form, pp. 24-39. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972. Provides an overview of The Comedy of Errors, arguing that the play should be viewed "as an anticipation of what Shakespeare is to write." Berry discusses the play's classification as both farce and comedy, the problem of identity among the characters, and the significance of the gold chain.

Bevington, David, ed., "Introduction," In The Comedy of Errors, pp. xvii-xxiii. New York: Bantam Books, 1988. Provides a brief overview of The Comedy of Errors, dubbing it a "superb illustration of Shakespeare's apprenticeship in comedy."

Brooks, Charles, "Shakespeare's Romantic Shrews," Shakespeare Quarterly XI, No. 3 (Summer 1960): 351-56. Discusses the characterization of Adriana in The Comedy of Errors and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew as shrewish. Brooks also uses Adriana and Kate to discuss love, courtship, and marriage in Shakespeare's romantic comedies.

Bullough, Geoffrey, ed., "Introduction," In Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, pp. 3-11. New York Columbia University Press, 1957. Provides short but detailed commentary on the sources of The Comedy of Errors.

Charney, Maurice, "The Comedy of Errors," In All of Shakespeare, pp. 3-10. New York Columbia University Press, 1993. Provides an overview of The Comedy of Errors. Charney includes discussion of the classical style of verse in the play.

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. Discusses the "playwright" of The Comedy of Errors as an omnipotent, omniscient divinity versus a healing physician.

Qitts, John P., " The Comedy of Errors," In The Shattered Glass: A Dramatic Pattern in Shakespeare's Early Plays, pp. 13-21. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968. Discusses how the characters in The Comedy of Errors are incapable of seeing "beyond the mirror of identical twins, to see any further than outward semblances."

Elliott, G. R., "Weirdness in The Comedy of Errors," University of Toronto Quarterly IX, No. 1 (October 1939): 95-106. Discusses how The Comedy of Errors is an example of "structural excellence" and a "beautifully carved gem" through its romantic and comic "weird light."

Felheim, Marvin, and Philip Traci, "The Comedy of Errors," In Realism in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies: "Oh Heavenly Mingle," pp. 13-28. Lanham, MD. University Press of America, 1980. Explores realism in The Comedy of Errors. The authors discuss the importance of "middle-class objects" in the play—the rope, gold chain, and ring--as well as the centrality of the concepts of order, balance, and time.

Foakes, K A., ed., "Introduction," In The Comedy of Errors, pp. xi-lv London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1962. Discusses the play in three parts through a technical introduction (arguments and hypotheses regarding the play's text, date, sources, and its staging), a critical introduction (in particular, the problem of classifying the play's genre), and a stage history.

Freedman, Barbara, "Errors in Comedy: A Psychoanalytic Theory of Farce," In Shakespearean Comedy, edited by Maurice Charney, pp. 233-43. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980. Argues for a "re-evaluation of Shakespearean farce in light of a psychoanalytic theory of the dynamics of meaning in farce." Freedman also analyzes myriad definitions of farce and offers her own.

———, "Reading Errantly: Misrecognition and the Uncanny in The Comedy of Errors," In Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy, pp. 78-113. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991. Explores such issues as the text and reader's level of awareness in The Comedy of Errors, how the "reading process is implicated in the principles of identity and repression," and why the instances of mistaken identity in the play are not as important as the "misrecognitions ... that occur because of the play of character itself."

French, Marilyn, "Marriage: The Comedy of Errors," In Shakespeare's Division of Experience, pp. 77-81. New York Summit Books, 1981. Briefly discusses the feminine and masculine "principles" in The Comedy of Errors and argues that Shakespeare was deliberate in having the marriage relation take center stage in the play, and argues that the play "is devoted to the ends of the in-law feminine principle."

Garton, Charles, "Centaurs, the Sea, and The Comedy of Errors," Arethusa 12, No. 2 (Fall 1979): 233-54. Discusses Shakespeare's creation of the name "Antipholus" for the twin sons of Aegeon and argues that this name "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."

Girard, Rene, "Comedies of Errors: Plautus—Shakespeare—Moliere " In American Criticism in the Post-structuralist Age, edited by Ira Konigsberg, pp. 66-86. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981. Discusses the use of identical twins in several of Shakespeare's plays, including The Comedy of Errors, as well as in the work of Plautus and Moliere. Girard notes that in The Comedy of Errors, the use of the twins "constitutes a source of misunderstanding structurally identical with the ones caused by mimetic desire and endowed with the same dramatic possibilities."

Greenblatt, Stephen, "The Comedy of Errors," In The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, pp. 683-89. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. Provides a very brief overview of The Comedy of Errors. Includes comparisons between Shakespeare's play and its forebear, Plautus's Memeachmu, as well as discussion of the loss and reacquisition of identity in the play.

Hamilton, A. C., "The Early Comedies: The Comedy of Errors," In The Early Shakespeare, pp. 90-108. San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1967. Argues that in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare emphasizes plot above all else—"the plot expresses his idea of comedy and becomes the soul" of the play.

Hasler, Jorg, "The Comedy of Errors," In Shakespeare's Theatrical Notation: The Comedies, pp. 132-34. Bern: A. Francke AG Verlag, 1974. ] Examines briefly the final exit of The Comedy of Errors.

Hennings, Thomas P., "The Anglican Doctrine of the Affectionate Marriage in The Comedy of Errors," Modern Language Quarterly 47, No. 2 (June 1986): 91-107. Argues that the Anglican doctrine of affectionate marriage establishes the "normative pattern of the marital roles" in The Comedy of Errors.

Huston, J. Dennis, "Playing with Discontinuity: Mistakings and Mistimings in The Comedy of Errors." In Shakespeare's Comedies of Play, pp. 14-34. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981. Discusses how Shakespeare "builds a plot of mistaking, self-consciously contrived," in The Comedy of Errors. Shakespeare does this through, for example, the false beginning of the play (where the play appears to be a tragedy or romance, not a "comedy" as the title suggests) and through the characters of Aegeon and the Duke of Ephesus.

Jardine, Lisa, "'As boys and women are for the most part cattle of this colour': Female Roles and Elizabethan Eroticism," In Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, pp. 44-46. Sussex, Eng.: The Harvester Press, 1983. Discusses briefly how The Comedy of Errors "wittily ironises the consequences of the wife's maximised obligations and minimal redress."

Lanier, Douglas, "'Stigmatical in Making': The Material Character of The Comedy of Errors," English Literary Renaissance 23, No. 1 (Winter 1993): 81-112. Discusses self-presentation as it pertains to social rank and class in Elizabethan England; how The Comedy of Errors, "by staging disruptions of identity-effects, is preoccupied with interrogating the curious material logic of Renaissance self-presentation"; and how analyzing the "materiality of Shakespearean character" can facilitate challenging the "traditional notion of Shakespeare's artistic 'development'" and reexamining the early comedies in light of his other work.

Levin, Harry, "Two Comedies of Errors," In Refractions: Essays in Comparative Literature, pp. 128-50. New York Oxford University Press, 1966. Compares Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors with its predecessor, Plautus's Menaechmu.

Macdonald, Ronald R., "The Comedy of Errors: After So Long Grief, Such Nativity," In William Shakespeare: The Comedies, pp. 1-13. New York Twayne Publishers, 1992. Provides an overview of The Comedy of Errors, touching on its origins; its farcical elements; how Shakespeare's use of "doubling" is "part of a larger meditation on the problem of identity, an extreme instance of the play of likeness and difference through which a workable sense of self is finally attained"; and how the play manifests elements of what Freud characterized as an oedipal struggle.

Maguire, Laurie, "The Girls from Ephesus," In The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, pp. 355-91. Points out the many polarities and doublings in the play—characters, events, the nature of Ephesus, marriage, and the master-servant relationship. Maguire also comments on the productions of the play throughout these discussions.

Miola, Robert S., "The Play and the Critics," In The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, pp. 3-38. Provides an introduction to The Comedy of Errors, covering the play's sources; various commentary on the play's genre, characterization, and language; feminist criticism of the play and the New Historicist approach to interpreting the play; and stage and television adaptations of the play worldwide.

Muir, Kenneth, "The Comedy of Errors," In Shakespeare's Comic Sequence, pp. 15-22. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1979. Provides a brief overview of The Comedy of Errors, noting that "Shakespeare was feeling his way for an appropriate form and his varying success is one sign of his immaturity," another sign being the weak characterizations in the play.

O'Brien, Robert Viking, "The Madness of Syracusan Antipholus," Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 3.1-26. Discusses madness in The Comedy of Errors, particularly with respect to the character of Antipholus of Syracuse, as well as Elizabethan conceptions of madness.

Parker, Patricia, "Elder and Younger: The Opening Scene of The Comedy of Errors," Shakespeare Quarterly 34, No. 3 (Autumn 1983): 325-27. Argues that lines 78-85 of The Comedy of Errors have been misinterpreted by previous critics who have concluded that Shakespeare introduced an inconsistency in Aegeon's recounting of the shipwreck that separated his family.

Parrott, Thomas Marc, "Apprentice Work The Comedy of Errors," In Shakespearean Comedy, pp. 100-108. New York Oxford University Press, 1949. Discusses the differences between Plautus's Menaechmu and Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. For example, in Shakespeare's version, there are two pairs of twins, not one, thus increasing the confusion over mistaken identity, the play ends with a reunion of the entire family, and the character of Adriana is "firmly conceived and realistically developed."

Pettet, E. C., "Shakespeare's 'Romantic' Comedies," In Shakespeare and the Romantic Tradition, pp. 67-100. Brooklyn, NY: Haskell House Publishers, Ltd., 1976. Groups The Comedy of Errors with The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor—the "oddities" of Shakespeare's romantic comedies—arguing that it is "clearly distinguished from the majority of Shakespeare's comedies, if not their antithesis as a type of drama." Pettet also provides discussion on The Taming of the Shrew, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the "main body" of Shakespeare's comedies, including Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice.

Salgado, Gamini, "'Time's Deformed Hand': Sequence, Consequence, and Inconsequence in The Comedy of Errors," In Shakespeare Survey, Volume 25, edited by Kenneth Muir, pp. 81-91. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972. Discusses the importance of the movement of time (public and private time, clock-time, dream-time) in The Comedy of Errors.

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. Argues that The Comedy of Errors is an "Elizabethan hybrid," in its drawing from Plautus and Terence, the English stage and Renaissance thought, and its "multi-leveling of character and narrative tone and superimposition of various layers of dramatic representation on the Latin base."

Slights, Camille Wells, "Time's Debt to Season: The Comedy of Errors, IV.ii.58," English Language Notes XXIV, No. 1 (September 1986): 22-25. Examines one line of The Comedy of Errors, focusing on the interpretation of the word "season."

Smidt, Kristian, "Comedy of Errors?" In Unconformities in Shakespeare's Early Comedies, pp. 26-38. London: Macmillan, 1986. Finds "signs of disturbance" in The Comedy of Errors, indicating that the play was perhaps revised from an earlier, longer version.

Thompson, Ann, "'Errors' and 'Labors': Feminism and Early Shakespearean Comedy," In Shakespeare's Sweet Thunder: Essays on the Early Comedies, edited by Michael J. Collins, pp. 90-101. Newark University of Delaware Press, 1997. Argues that more attention needs to be paid by feminist critics to The Comedy of Errors and Love's Labor's Lost. Thompson reviews some of the feminist literary criticism of the plays, particularly with regard to their primary female characters, and argues for a feminist production of the play.

Vaughn, Jack A., "The Comedy of Errors" In Shakespeare's Comedies, pp. 12-21. New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1980. Provides an overview of The Comedy of Errors. Vaughn includes discussion of the play's classification as a farce and the differences between Shakespeare's version and Plautus's Menaechmi, and he argues that Adriana is a sympathetic, multi-dimensional character, not a shrew.

Von Rosador, K. Tetzeli, "Plotting the Early Comedies: The Comedy of Errors, Love's Labour's Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona," Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 13-22. Discusses the way in which the plot of The Comedy of Errors is one of "repeated evasion or postponement of danger," and that the "calm" after the "turbulence" is usually a result of a beating of one of the Dromios. Von Rosador also examines how Shakespeare avoids formulaic plotting. A discussion of the plots of Love's Labour's Lost and The Two Gentlemen of Verona follows.

Wells, Stanley, "Comedies of Verona, Padua, Ephesus France and Athens," In Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, pp. 52-57. New York W. W. Norton & Company, 1995. Provides a very brief overview of The Comedy of Errors, touching on its staging, its genre classification, and its approach to identity.

Williams, Gwyn, "The Comedy of Errors Rescued from Tragedy," A Review of English Literature 5, No. 4 (October 1964): 63-71. Argues that The Comedy of Errors could have ended up being classified as a tragedy, had not the second pair of twins, the Dromios, been added. These twins "save the play as a comedy," and the farcical instances in the play revolve almost entirely around them.


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Baldwin, Thomas Whitfield. On the Compositional Genetics of “The Comedy of Errors.” Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1965. Likens Shakespeare to the Dromios, awed by their change from the rural to the urban.

Berry, Ralph. Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Discusses the “dark underside” of the play, which enriches and compliments the comedy. Argues that Aegeon may be more important to the plot structure than he seems to be.

Colie, Rosalie L. Shakespeare’s Living Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. Colie sees the plays as experiments with the craft of writing plays. Discusses Shakespeare’s improving on Plautus.

Dorsch, T. S., ed. The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. This edition features a comprehensive introductory essay, with a brief look at history, sources, characters, and plot.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare’s Early Comedies. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1965. One of the most noted of Shakespeare’s commentators points out that Shakespeare probably did not read the Roman original for the play; the commentator focuses on a translated manuscript.




Critical Essays