The Comedy of Errors
By Dennis Abrams
Act One: Ephesus and Syracuse are at war and Egeon (a native of Syracuse) faces the death penalty for having entered Ephesus illegally. Interrogated by the Duke, Egeon reveals that he is on a quest: he and his wife Emilia had identical twin sons (both, one would think somewhat confusingly, named Antipholus), each of whom was given a slave (also twins, both also somewhat confusingly named Dromio), but the family was split up for years following a shipwreck: Egeon and the younger Antipholus (plus one of the Dromio twins) being separated from Emilia and the other two twins. Years later, Antipholus of Syracuse (Antipholus S) went looking for his twin brother, but never returned – and now Egeon has arrived in Ephesus in search of them both. Touched by Egeon’s story, the Duke decides to delay his execution. Coincidentally, Antipholus S has ALSO landed in Ephesus with HIS servant Dromio. Left alone, Antipholus S bumps into the other Dromio (who of course lives there), and is mistaken for his twin Antipholus of Ephesus (Antipholus E), while Antipholus S mistakes Dromio of Ephesus (Dromio E) for his OWN Dromio, (Dromio S), setting up a chain of transposed and confused identities that dominates the rest of the play.
Duke of Ephesus.
Egeon, an old merchant from Syracuse
Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, Egeon’s twin sons.
Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse, twin servants of the two Antipholuses
Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife
Luciana, Adriana’s sister
Nell, Adriana’s kitchen-maid
Angelo, a goldsmith; and Balthasar, a merchant
Doctor Pinch, a schoolmaster and exorcist
A Merchant from Ephesus, Antipholus of Syracuse’s friend
A second Merchant, Angelo’s creditor
Emilia, an abbess from Ephesus
One reviewer, after seeing a 1962 production of The Comedy of Errors at the Royal Shakespeare Company, exclaimed, “However can you stage such a conglomeration of improbabilities?” The eighteenth-century editor George Steevens declared that “in this play we will find more intricacy of plot than distinction of character.” William Hazlitt held that “This comedy is taken very much from the Menaechmi of Plautus, and is not an improvement on it. Shakespeare appears to have bestowed no great pains on it, and there are but a few passages which bear the decided stamp of his genius…The curiosity excited is certainly very considerable, though not of the most pleasing kind,” while Samuel Coleridge appeared to dismiss it by saying that it was “in exactest consonance with the philosophical principles and character of farce,” seemingly calling it a mere farce, even though this is the only play of Shakespeare’s the actually has the word “comedy” in the title. Why has the play had difficulties being taken seriously? Is it in part due to its extreme brevity (at 1800 lines, it’s Shakespeare’s work by far, and half the length of, let’s say, Richard III) – does that somehow mean that it’s just lightweight entertainment?
Fortunately, the play’s reputation has risen over the last few years, because, in my opinion, the play is actually quite brilliant. Obviously influenced by the Roman dramatist Plautus, whose witty, unsentimental and often brittle comedies had a huge impact on drama in Renaissance England (it’s important to remember, I think, the period in which Shakespeare was writing), The Comedy of Errors represents a sudden and rather abrupt change of gear from the brutal and harsh worlds of the Henry VI cycle, Titus, and Richard III. What Plautus was known for was his skill in intricate plotting and diverting devises. Menaechmi, upon which Errors is based, is a spectacular example: it concerns a merchant who has twin sons, Menaechmus and Sosicles. When Menaechmus is stolen as a young child, Sosicles is renamed “Menaechmus” in memory of his absent twin, before growing up and resolving to find his brother. Sosciles/Menaechmus eventually arrives in the right place, Epidaurus, but understandably creates a great deal of confusion – first with the real Menaechmus’s mistress, then his wife and father-in-law, all of whom mistake him for the man they know. Chaos of course ensues, until the twins are eventually reunited and all is resolved.
Shakespeare as we’ve seen follows the same basic plot, while greatly increasing the implausibility of the tale by creating a matching pair of servants for his Antipholus twins. (All four, it seems, were born on the same night and in the same place). But where Plautus concentrates on the comic misunderstandings that drive his plot, Shakespeare’s characters are not mere ciphers, but fleshed-out people. Antipholus of Syracuse enters the play obviously tormented by grief, convinced that he will never be able find his long-lost brother. “He that commends me to mine own content,” he begins,
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.
Like another unhappy Shakespearean twin, Viola in Twelfth Night, Antipholus describes the pain of being alone – and while later in the play Antipholus will indeed “lose himself” much more thoroughly than he realizes, at this point the tone is tragic, not comic.
Indeed, considering that it is a ‘comedy,’ sadness often threatens to take of the central narrative; what Egeon describes as ‘this unjust divorce of us,’ the shipwreck that splits apart his family forces Egeon, just like his Syracusan son, to be a wanderer:
My youngest boy, and yet my eldest care,
At eighteen years became inquisitive
After his brother, and importuned me
That his attendant – so his cause was like,
Reft of his brother, but retained in his name –
Might bear him company in the quest of him;
Whom whilst I laboured of a love to see,
I hazarded the loss of whom I loved.
“Love” and “hazard” are in a way forced together: love of family condemns Egeon – as well as Antipholus and Dromio – to the life of a nomad.
Indeed, Egeon’s very existence seems to be a counterbalance to the comic giddiness of the rest of the play. And while in Plautus the twins’ father is barely mentioned, Shakespeare drew upon the tale of Apollonius of Tyre, another much-wronged hero forced into a quest for his family (and the main source for the later play Pericles), to create for his play a father ready to risk all for his sons. In fact, Egeon is prepared to risk death: the entire play hinges, it seems, on the fact that he has been given only a few hours to live, so if the play is to have a happy ending, it needs to be secured with in that time.
And actually, the concept of “time” is a primary occupation of this shortest of all Shakespeare’s plays: Errors contains more references to time – and to time swiftly running out – than any other drama of Shakespeare’s. But it is not there as merely a propellant for the farce: Egeon’s wait on Death Row hangs over the action: it is the potential for tragedy that threatens to change this “Comedy” into something all together different.
From Marjorie Garber, a closer look at Act 1, Scene 1 – the Duke and Egeon:
“Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Comedy of Errors begins with an inflexible law and the human dilemma caused by the law’s impersonal enforcement. Because of a history of enmity between Ephesus and Syracuse, the play proposes, the laws of the two cities prohibit travel between them. (‘To admit no traffic to our adverse towns.’ If any citizen of one is found in the other, he is bound to die, and his goods are to be confiscated, unless he is ransomed with a payment of a thousand marks. So declares the Duke of Ephesus, as he enters the stage with his prisoner, the old man Egeon, a merchant from Syracuse. ‘I am not partial to infringe our laws,’ says the Duke, with dispassionate dignity. Indeed, like many Shakespearean dukes in the dark opening scenes of comedies, this Duke is the law; his role is to enforce it. ‘Therefore by law thou art condemned to die,’ he tells Egeon.
Egeon, for his part, is already reconciled to death, as we learn in the first lines of the play, and again after he hears the Duke’s decree…Why is Egeon so resigned, so half-in-love with death? He explains his life story, at the Duke’s invitation, in a characteristic speech of dramatic exposition, setting out all the details of his past in a speech that is over a hundred lines long, and packed with romance, adventure, and tragedy.
Born in Syracuse, happily married, he thrived as a merchant, making increasingly frequent trips to Epidamnum in pursuit of business matters. On one of these trips his pregnant wife joined him, and she soon became a ‘joyful mother of two goodly sons,’ identical twins. By chance a poor woman at the same inn gave birth to two sons on the same night, and Egeon bought them as servants to attend his own children. But when his wife grew eager to return home, and he, although ‘unwilling,’ agreed, the family was caught in a shipwreck and sundered by ‘the always-wind-obeying deep.’
This is an early instance of the characteristic Shakespearean storm, an event-in-the-world that had its counterpart in actual sixteenth century storms, often devastating to the seafaring English nation of travelers, merchants, and explorers – but which is also a recurrent dramatic theme, from this early play through Othello and King Lear to the play aptly named The Tempest, that marks a turmoil both inside and outside the minds and psyches of the major characters. For Egeon and his wife and young family, this storm, which seems to be external and physical, marks and records a sundering of the family, and also a split within Egeon, the tale-teller, himself.
Egeon names this turn of events to the Duke – and the listening audience – succinctly: it is tragedy, a ‘tragic instance of our harm.’
His wife bound her younger son to one end of a mast, and with him one of the servant-twins, and the husband bound the other son and servant to the other end. But before they could be rescued by approaching ships, their own vessel hit a rock: ‘Our helpful ship was splitted in the midst.’ And like the ship, the family was divided (‘this unjust divorce of us,’ Egeon calls it) to be separated, as he believe, forever. The father, o ne of the sons, and the son’s attendant returned home to Syracuse, while the mother and the other son and attendant were taken up by fishermen and borne away. And when at age eighteen Egeon’s remaining son grew ‘inquisitive’ about his lost brother, the son – and servant – departed on a quest to find them. Egeon, left behind, longed for the company of both the known and the unknown son, and he has just spent the last years journeying in quest of them. Now bereft of family, Egeon would die ‘happy,’ he says, if he only knew that his children were alive:
But here must end the story of my life,
And happy were I in my timely death
Could all my travels warrant me they live.
This is a long story, but it is worth telling at length here, because every piece of it will return in some guise in the remainder of the play. Although for Egeon these events constitute a ‘tragedy,’ in formal generic terms this set piece is a ‘romance,’ a fairy-tale-like adventure of shipwreck, loss, and ultimate rediscovery and reunion – comparable, for example, to the plots of later plays that have been termed romances by critics (Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest) and to the tale of his adventures that Othello tells Desdemona. Like many other inset tales in the plays (we could look ahead not only to Othello but also to the Ghost’s tale in Hamlet) it contains, in little, the mythic story of the play to follow. Again like many other inset tales, Egeon’s story contains a number of terms that, in their resonant doubleness, will haunt the rest of the dramatic action: words like ‘happy’ (joyous but also lucky, or accidental, by chance), ‘travel’ (in the period, same as ‘travail,’ suffering or work), and ‘divorce’ (a separation or disunion, but with disquieting echoes of the more specific echoes of the more specific meaning, a dissolution of marriage – a loaded term since the notorious ‘divorce’ of Queen Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, from Catherine of Aragon.)
Thus, for example, ‘divorce’ in the marital sense will be evoked explicitly by Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, in act 2, when she accuses a man she thinks is her husband of infidelity, and imagines what he would do were the circumstances reversed (‘Wouldst thou not…from my false hand cut the wedding ring,/And break it with a deep-divorcing vow?’) the man she so accuses is, of course, not her own husband, but his unknown identical twin, Egeon’s other son, landed by ‘hap,’ or chance, in Ephesus on the same day as the father. The ‘divorce’ of Egeon and his wife by the storm at sea – but also, perhaps, by his confessedly ‘unwilling’ decision to return home – is made parallel to the marital discord of the son he lost all those years ago. Even Adriana’s phrase ‘deep divorcing’ echoes the ‘always-wind-obeying deep’ of the original storm in Egeon’s story. Once again – and this will be characteristic of the structure of The Comedy of Errors – an event in the physical world corresponds to something with the minds, spirits, and behavior of the dramatic characters, and this correspondence is deftly hinted at from the very beginning. The storm takes place inside these characters as well as around them, despite the fact that they seem to have little ‘psychology’ or inwardness in the sense that we will come to expect from later Shakespeare plays. The depth of this play lies in its surface.”
Our next reading: The Comedy of Errors, Acts Two and Three
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.