“One of these men is genius to the other,/And so of these, which is the natural man,/And which is the spirit? Who deciphers them?”

The Comedy of Errors

Act Five

By Dennis Abrams


Act Five:   Confronted by a crowd (OK, a mob) of people attempting to arrest them,

Act V, scene iAct V, scene i, Angelo, Lady Abbess, Courtezan, Duke, Aegeon, Antipholus, and Dronio of Syracuse, etc. Painting by John Francis Rigaund.

Antipholus and Dromio S make a mad dash for the nearest priory.  Demanding her husband back from the Abbess, Adriana is busy attempting to persuade the Duke – who has arrived with Egeon on the way to be executed – to intervene when…Antipholus and Dromio E appear, having actually escaped.  The Duke is attempting to make sense if it all when the Abbess enters with Antipholus and Dromio S.  After much confusion, the Abbess recognizes Egeon as her long-lost husband (surprise!), and the twins’ identities are at last revealed.  The day’s events are unscrambled and made sense of; Antipholus S proposes to Luciana; Egeon is reprieved; and the two Dromios leave the stage hand in hand.

And so, happy endings abound.  And in a final act that brings to mind the madcap confusion that ends almost every great farce, from The Importance of Being Ernest to certain episodes of television’s Frasier, misunderstandings are straightened out, confusions are ended, and the proper people are all happily paired off.  What more could one want?  Let’s take a look at a few different perspectives:


From Tony Tanner:

“From here on [acts 4-5], the confusion becomes worse confounded – or better, from the point of view of comedy.  It is comic, as the errors and perplexedness of other people can be (in this play, almost uniquely, the division between complete knowledge for the audience, and total ignorance and obliviousness for the participants, is maintained until about a hundred lines from the end.  There is here no plotter or ‘practicer’ on stage – no Richard III, Don Juan, Iago, Iachimo; no Rosalind, Portia, Viola, Helena, Hamlet, Oberon, Prospero – mediating between us and the characters).  But there are potentially serious results as well.  Relationships are threatened, and the sense of individual isolation increased, as assumptions cease to be shareable, and mutuality fades and fails.  The trust on which the commerce of the city depends is threatened, as promises are seemingly broken, words not kept, contracts not honoured, goods not delivered, debts not paid.  Apparently, that is.  For this is a world in which appearances become increasingly unreliable.  There is the sense of a small community moving towards chaos – and a corresponding increase in the explosions of rage and violence (more of the tiger than the phoenix for a while).  The Antipholus brothers move towards a condition of complete paranoia – Antipholus S. becomes convinced that he is a town of ‘fiends’ and ‘witches’; and Antipholus E is bundled away and locked up as, as it were, certifiably insane (premonitory shades of the treatment of Malvolio).  By the time he has broken free, and the other Antipholus taken refuge in the priory, the turmoil is total.  Well might the Duke say – ‘I think you all have drunk of Circe’s cup’ – and well may Adriana cry out – ‘I log to know the truth hereof at large.’

At this point, the ‘unfolding’ begins; for once the twins are seen together, errors are explained, and clarification spreads rapidly.  It is a dazzled moment for the onlookers, who seem to be seeing double and begin to wonder which is which, and who is who, and indeed, what is what?  Individual identity itself seems to shimmer unsteadily.  Ontology wobbles.  The Duke reasons:

One of these men is genius to the other;

And so of these, which is the natural man,

And which the spirit?  Who deciphers them?

[My note:  Is that the main question of the play?  I think Tanner is on to something here:]

This is, perhaps, the main question of the play; a question which, in one ‘deciphering’ way and another, Shakespeare never stopped asking – which, what, finally is the ‘natural man; which and what the ‘spirit?’

But before all that happens, Shakespeare has reintroduced the romance element, or the frame narrative, and this deserves some comment.  There has been, throughout the day of the play, a constant awareness of time (and much bantering about it), as we move inexorably towards five o’clock, the appointed hour for the execution of Egeon.  Everything and everyone converges on this place and this time, which occasions the first ‘recognition’ as Egeon sees what he takes to be his lost son, Antipholus E.  But is the wrong Antipholus who, understandably, does not recognize his father.  This provokes a lament of true pathos from the father:

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.

Now know my voice!  O, time’s extremity,

Hast thou so cracked 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 note:  Mere farce?  And how great a line is “Though now this grained face of mine be hid/In sap-consuming winter’s drizzled snow…”]

Time’s deforming and ‘defeaturing’ hand works more slowly than the ‘magic’ or ‘miracle’ of metamorphosis.  But ‘time’s extremity’ is as powerful a force as there is in Shakespeare’s world, and it is a crucial point, both here and in all that is to come, that time can prove to have a reforming, a refeaturing hand, as well.  As Egeon soon discovers when the Abbess appears.

The Abbess, just prior to her final appearance, has taken the chance to trick Adriana into confessing her own shrewishness, for which the Abbess blames the ‘madness’ of Adriana’s husband:

And therefore came it that the man was mad.

The venom clamors of a jealous woman

Poisons more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth.

Adriana accepts the way she has been manoeuvred into self-accusation – quite meekly:  ‘She did betray me to my own reproof.’  But it is an important last touch – bearing in mind Shakespeare and ‘shrews’ – that her erstwhile critical sister speaks up in her defence.  Thus Luciana:

She never reprehended him but mildly,

When he demeaned himself rough, rude, and wildly.

Why bear you these rebukes and answer not?

Adriana may have to curb her tongue a little; but rough, rude Antipholus will have to mend his ways – reform, indeed – to become a proper husband.

And now the Abbess can reclaim her husband – old Egeon – along with their two lost sons, who now stand before them.  The family is thus magically, ‘miraculously’ reunited; and what better site for such a wonder than the precincts of the priory or abbey (Temple).  (It is interesting that when Antipholus E. now offers to pay the ransom for his father’s life, the Duke answers:  ‘It shall not need, thy father hath his life.’  Such effortless remission was not possible at the start; but in the new atmosphere of mercy and reconciliation, inflexible sentences can melt away – the comedy has finally worked to ‘disannul’ the law.)   The Abbess, Emilia as wife and mother, invites all into the abbey – nobody locked out this time, everybody include in:

And all that are assembled in this place,

That by this sympathized one day’s error

Have suffered wrong, go, keep us company,

And we shall make full satisfaction.

Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail

Of you, my sons, and till this present hour

My heavy burden ne’er delivered.

The Duke my husband, and my children both,

And you the calendars of their nativity,

Go to a gossip’s feast, and joy with me

After so long grief such nativity.

By now, the Antipholuses and the Dromios have sorted themselves out, identities have been re-secured, names are properly affixed, people are seeing straight again, and on all sides, relationships are being established, reaffirmed, and rediscovered – ‘traffic,’ in every sense, is beginning to flow again between Syracuse and Ephesus.  The Abbess summons them all to a new christening, or ‘gossips’ feast’ (gossip, from ‘godsibb’ – godparent or sponsor at a baptism), to celebrate ‘such nativity.’  [My note:  The word “gossip” as a verb is used for the first time by Shakespeare.]  This is not birth, but rebirth – she says she has been ‘in travail’ for thirty-three years for this second delivery of her children (the insistence by Antipholus S. at the beginning that ‘In Ephesus I am but two hours old,’ unknowingly suggests that this is a place where he might be ‘born again’.)  This is, then, effectively the rebirth and renewal of the whole community.  There is nothing of all this in Plautus, and if this is indeed Shakespeare’s first comedy [My note:  And that’s a BIG ‘if”] it is truly remarkable how many of the themes and preoccupations of his later work be here, thus early, broached – how promptly, as it were, he staked out his dramatic territory.”


And a brief note on the play’s chronology:  According to the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, “Although this debt to classical farce has inclined some scholars to see the play as apprentice work from the very start of Shakespeare’s career, stylistic tests confirm a dating around 1594, with rare vocabulary placing it between The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet and its heavy use of rhyme placing it early in the lyrical period initiated by Venus and Adonis.”  Or, to put it another way, it fits well into the order in which we’re reading the plays.


From Garber:

One of the great structural clevernesses of this play is that the mode of farce leads the audience to have confidence in its own superior knowledge:  we know there are two sets of twins, and we even know which is which.  But there is of course one great secret kept from the audience, and from the readers of the First Folio, which contained no list of dramatis personae.  The fact that the Abbess is Egeon’s wife, and the mother of the two Antipholuses, is revealed for the first time less than a hundred lines before the end of the play.  The whole of the long act is one scene, and it ends in a series of revelations, recognitions, and failures of recognition.

Repeating the gesture of the play’s first scene, the Duke proclaims that his prisoner, Egeon, can be ransomed ‘if any friend will pay the sum.’  The Duke’s own compassion has been stirred, and he is looking to escape the enforcements of the too-harsh law.  ‘He shall not die, so much we tender him.’  Egeon sees, or thinks he sees, his son of Syracuse in the audience, and appeals to him for rescue, but is denied.  ‘I never saw my father in my life,’ says Antipholus of Ephesus.  And at this point, so dire a moment for Egeon, the Abbess enters, having taken under her protection at the priory the two men who came to her seeking sanctuary, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse.   On the stage are all the key players, whom the action and staging have so artfully kept separate.  Now the play’s language returns to the spirit of wonder that animates the genre of romance.  In fact, the pattern of this early comedy anticipates many of the key gestures of the late romances Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest:  the family reunion, the theme of losing and finding, some revelations dramatically anticipated by the audience and others that will come as a surprise to them, and the presence of a wise figure of experience – the Abbess in this play, Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, Cerimon in Pericles – who presides over the theatrical denouement.  All are hallmarks of Shakespearean romance.

Although it is based on an old Roman comedy, The Comedy of Errors includes among its characters an abbess, who inhabits a priory probably marked with the sign of a cross.  Antipholus of Syracuse casually emphasizes his strength of his irreligious feeling by saying, ‘as I am a Christian, answer me’.  We have already observed the importance of Saint Paul and his Letter to the Ephesians, both for the change of scene from Plautus’s Epidamnum to Ephesus and for some of the play’s sentiments about the relations between husbands and wives, masters and servants.  The Christian overlay of this classical story becomes especially important toward the close when the scapegoated Egeon is pardoned by the Duke rather than ransomed according to the letter of the law;

A of E:

These ducats pawn I for my father here.


It shall not need.  Thy father hath his life.

The word ‘nativity,’ which of course can mean merely ‘birth,’ begins to suggest its specifically Christian associations when the Abbess announces the imagistic ‘rebirth’ of her sons (since they have been restored to her); the ‘gossips’ feast’ of which she speaks is a christening event for godparents (‘gossips’), and the period of thirty-three years she mentions – which many editors have seen as evidence of bad mathematics, in adding up the years since the shipwreck – is the traditional age of Christ at his death, and therefore, according to Thomas Aquinas, the ‘perfect’ age that all mankind would ultimately attain after death:


Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail

Of you, my sons, and till this present hour

My heavy burden ne’er delivered

The Duke, my husband, and my children both,

And you the calendars of their nativity,

Go to a gossips’ feast, and joy with me.

After so long grief, such festivity!

The comic reunion of the two Dromios, which artfully lowers the tone from high romance at the close, ends on a note of ‘brotherhood’:

Dromio of E:

We came into the world like brother and brother,

And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.

A common gesture at the end of a stage play, the exit on a rhyming couplet, here reconfirms on the level of action the tension – and ultimate harmony – between ‘brother’ and ‘another.’  Facing the audience, claiming their applause, they, too, are emblems of brother love, and a living enactment of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews:

‘Let brother love continue…Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.  Marriage is honourable in all…’

Marriage – or the promise of marriage – is the hallmark of dramatic comedy, bondage often the prelude to freedom.  The Comedy of Errors maps in clear and recognizable terms a pattern that we will find throughout Shakespeare:  losing is finding, confusion the path to sanity; the stern edicts of the law may give way to mercy; and madness and dream offer a path to transformation.”


Interesting, the source of the word ‘gossip’:  The word is from Old English godsibb, from god and sibb, the term for the godparents of one’s child or the parents of one’s godchild, generally very close friends. In the 16th century, the word assumed the meaning of a person, mostly a woman, one who delights in idle talk, a newsmonger, a tattler.[4] In the early 19th century, the term was extended from the talker to the conversation of such persons. The verb to gossip, meaning “to be a gossip”, first appears in Shakespeare.

The term originates from the bedroom at the time of childbirth. Giving birth used to be a social (ladies only) event, in which a pregnant woman’s female relatives and neighbours would gather. As with any social gathering there was chattering and this is where the term gossip came to mean talk of others


And finally, from Harold Bloom, a slightly different, much less religious look at the play’s final moments:

“…The recognition scene, Shakespeare’s first in what would become an extraordinary procession, prompts the astonished Duke of Ephesus to the play’s deepest reflection:

One of these men is genius to the other,

And so of these, which is the natural man,

And which the spirit?  Who deciphers them?

Though Antipholus of Syracuse cannot be called his brother’s daemon or attendant spirit, one possible answer to the Duke’s questions might be that the discerning playgoer would locate the spirit in the outlander, and the natural man in the Ephesian merchant.  Shakespeare, who will perfect the art of ellipsis, begins here by giving the two Antipholuses no affective actions whatsoever to their reunion.  The Syracusan Antipholus commands his Dromio:  ‘Embrace thy brother there, rejoice with him,’ but then exits with his own brother, sans embraces or joy.  Doubtless, Antipholus of Syracuse is considerably more interested in pursuing Luciana, just as Antipholus of Ephesus wishes to get back to his wife, house, and commodities.  Still, the coldness or dispassionateness of the Antipholuses is striking on contrast with the charming reunion of the Dromios, with which Shakespeare sweetly ends his comedy:

Syr. Dro.:

There is a fat friend at your master’s house,

That kitchen’d me for you to-day at dinner,

She now shall be my sister, not my wife.

Eph. Dro.:

Methinks you are my glass, and not my brother:

I see by you I am a sweet-fac’d youth

Will you walk in to see their gossiping?

Syr. Dro.:

Not I, sir; you are my elder.

Eph. Dro.:

That’s a question, how shall we try it?

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.

These two long-suffering clowns have had to sustain numerous blows from the Antipholuses throughout the play, and the audience is heartened to see them go out in such high good humor.  When the Ephesian Dromio remarks, “I see by you I am a sweet-faced youth,” we see it too, and the concluding couplet exudes a mutual affection clearly absent in the Antipholuses.  It would be absurd to burden The Comedy of Errors with sociopolitical or other current ideological concerns, and yet it remains touching that Shakespeare, from the start, prefers his clowns to his merchants.”

Robson & Crane Poster 2
The Dromios
Robson & Crane Poster
Robson & Crane Poster 2
Title Page
William Shakespeare

And so we reach the end of our play…what did you think?  Share your thoughts, ask your questions…let’s keep the dialogue going!



My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning:  Sonnet #66

We’ll begin our next play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, towards the end of next week.

Enjoy your weekend.

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7 Responses to “One of these men is genius to the other,/And so of these, which is the natural man,/And which is the spirit? Who deciphers them?”

  1. Eddie C. says:

    Dennis, I’m just getting caught up on the blog, so forgive me if this has already been addressed, but in Act 1, Scene 1, Egeon says that “his” Antipholus and Dromio left in search of their brothers at age 18, and in Act 5, line 310, he says it has been “seven short years” since he has seen his son, making the twins now 25 years of age. And then the Abbess says it has been 33 years! Am I missing something?

  2. Mahood says:

    The youtube clips are a great bonus – you really do get to ‘hear’ the lines…it makes you go back and re-read the text more closely. I enjoyed this particular BBC production…and what an eclectic group of actors: Cyril Cusack, Suzanne Bertish , Ingrid Bergman and Roger Daltrey! amongst others.

    And the character who played Balthazar, David Kelly, passed away recently – February 12th, aged 82 – perhaps best known as Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and the dodgy builder in Fawlty Towers).

  3. Ridg Gilmer says:

    I’m playing catchup as well. I interpreted the Duke’s reference to genius as a derivative of genus – the twins being of the same genetic compsition.
    But I laughed out loud at Dromius S description of the kitchen maid – hilarious!

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