The Comedy of Errors Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Ephesus

*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

*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

(Shakespeare for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 3,727 words.)