The Comedy of Errors

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The Comedy of Errors



The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, quite possibly his first. It was written sometime between 1589 and 1594, although it was not printed until 1623, when it appeared in the First Folio. The Comedy of Errors also happens to be Shakespeare's shortest play; it has some 1,756 lines. All of the remaining plays number at least 2,000 lines.

The primary source of the play is an ancient drama called the Menaechmi, by Plautus, a Roman comic playwright. From the Menaechmi Shakespeare took his central plot, which revolves around "errors," or mistakes of fortune, involving identical twin brothers. Shakespeare also borrowed from Plautus's Amphitryon, particularly for the episode involving Antipholus of Ephesus being locked out of his home. To these basic elements Shakespeare added additional scenes and characters, most notably another set of twins, who are servants to the twin sons of Egeon. The story of Egeon—his separation from his wife and one of the twin sons—is also a departure from the Roman play. Shakespeare gave greater voice to the primary female characters in the play (and thus to issues of gender and the relationships between men and women), especially to Adriana, who is merely a shrewish "Wife" in Plautus's play; Shakespeare also downgraded the role of an unnamed Courtesan. Critics tend to agree that Shakespeare greatly expanded on the generally one-dimensional, stereotypical characters in Plautus's play. Shakespeare's selection of Ephesus for the play's setting has been noted as a significant alteration, indicating that Shakespeare certainly relied on Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, as found in the Bible, for the development of certain aspects of the plot. In her essay, "Egeon's Debt: Self-Discovery and Self-Redemption in The Comedy of Errors," the critic Barbara Freedman observes, "No other source includes such elements as years of wandering, a shipwreck, the Aegean (Egeon?) and Adriatic (Adriana?) seas, Syracuse, Corinth, Ephesus and its demonic magic, revenge taken upon evil exorcists, and a conflict between law and mercy, between bondage and redemption."

There was a scarcity of commentary on The Comedy of Errors prior to the nineteenth century. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the first to discuss the play as a unified work of art, asserting that it was a farce and therefore should not be judged by the standards applied to comedy. Some critics view it as an apprentice work, since it was written so early in Shakespeare's career. Few critics argue that the play displays the full range of Shakespeare's dramatic talent. Many commentators have seen fit to closely examine the play's genre—its "identity" as a tragedy, farce, comedy, or a combination of these—and the way in which it explores the issues of identity, love, and marriage. While some consider The Comedy of Errors to have been produced so early in Shakespeare's career as to merit little recognition, the play has many assets—some more obvious than others—and will continue to entertain audiences and readers alike for centuries to come regardless.


Act 1, Scene 1

The Comedy of Errors begins in Ephesus, where the duke, Solinus, is punishing Egeon for having trespassed on Ephesian soil. Solinus explains that since the Syracusian duke punished Ephesian merchants simply for doing business in Syracuse, Solinus has decided to likewise punish Syracusian merchants for simply appearing in Ephesus. As such, Egeon, a merchant from Syracuse, must either pay a penalty of one thousand marks—which he does not have—or be put to death.

When asked by Solinus why he had come to Ephesus, Egeon explains his woeful tale: some eighteen years ago, in Epidamnum, his wife bore him sons, and, coincidentally, an impoverished woman gave birth to her own twin sons in the same inn at the same hour. Since the poor woman could not care for her children, Egeon purchased them as servants for his own children. Later, when Egeon, his wife, and the four young children were sailing back to Syracuse, they came upon rough waters and had to resort to tying themselves to the ship's masts. As two other vessels were coming upon them, their ship was split apart by a "mighty rock," such that the wife, one son, and one servant were separated from Egeon, the other son, and the other servant. When the son raised by Egeon reached the age of eighteen, he grew curious enough about his long-lost brother and mother to wish to travel in search of them, in the company of his servant. Egeon also left in search of the family members and had ended up in Ephesus after "five summers" of travels elsewhere. The duke, taking pity on Egeon, gives him leave to seek the thousand marks needed to buy his freedom from friends in Ephesus—but Egeon has only that very day to obtain the sum.

Act 1, Scene 2

At the marketplace, the son who has been traveling, known as Antipholus of Syracuse (and referred to as S. Antipholus), is finishing a deal with a Merchant, who warns S. Antipholus that he should deny his Syracusian origins, as just that day a merchant from Syracuse was arrested and will be executed. S. Antipholus sends his servant, Dromio of Syracuse (referred to as S. Dromio), to take the money he has just received to their lodgings, the inn known as the Centaur. When S. Dromio departs, S. Antipholus makes plans to meet the Merchant again later that evening.

Dromio of Ephesus (to be referred to as E. Dromio) then arrives and begins telling S. Antipholus about how late he is for dinner; the audience can immediately understand that this Dromio believes he is talking to Antipholus of Ephesus (to be referred to as E. Antipholus). S. Antipholus, in turn thinking that E. Dromio is S. Dromio, imagines that his servant is jesting and demands to know what he did with the large sum of money—one thousand marks—that he had been entrusted with. E. Dromio, however, denies that he has any more marks than the ones he is given when he is beaten. Angered by what seems a sustained jest, S. Antipholus indeed beats E. Dromio, who flees. S. Antipholus then announces that he will return to the Centaur to find out what has become of his money.

Act 2, Scene 1

At the Phoenix, the home of E. Antipholus, Adriana and Luciana are discussing Adriana's husband's absence. Luciana advises her sister to be patient and obedient in the extreme, noting that among all animals, the males are the masters of the females. Adriana objects, declaring that within a marriage she ought to have a certain degree of control; Adriana notes that Luciana is only able to advise so much obedience because she is not married herself. Still, Luciana insists that when she marries, she will learn obedience and be patient even if she knows her husband to be cheating on her.

E. Dromio then enters to inform his mistress, Adriana, that he has just come from her husband, who denied that he even had a home or a wife there. E. Dromio notes that he was beaten by Antipholus, who repeatedly demanded to know about his gold, of which E. Dromio knew nothing. Adriana grows upset with E. Dromio, threatening to beat him and demanding that he depart again to find her husband. Adriana then laments at length about her certainty that her husband is cheating on her. She wonders if he looks elsewhere because she has lost her beauty; she also declares that if she has lost her beauty, she has lost it only because her husband is no longer as kind to her as he used to be. Luciana tries to calm her sister, but Adriana is too sorrowful.

Act 2, Scene 2

S. Antipholus, walking through the marketplace, remarks that he has just discovered that S. Dromio has indeed safely stored the gold at the Centaur. S. Dromio then enters, and S. Antipholus demands that he explain the jest from earlier, when Dromio denied all knowledge of the gold. S. Dromio then denies that he ever made any jests, eventually earning a beating from the angered S. Antipholus. S. Antipholus explains to S. Dromio that he should never jest when his master is not in a jesting mood. The two then start speaking of dinner and of the relationship between a man's wit and the amount of hair on his head.

Adriana and Luciana then arrive, with Adriana immediately launching into a plaint toward S. Antipholus, whom she thinks is her husband. She reminisces about the time when he truly cherished her; she notes that like a drop of water from a gulf, she cannot be separated from him; and she points out that if she were to commit adultery, he would be greatly angered and indignant. She concludes by imploring him to be faithful to her. S. Antipholus professes that he has only been in the town of Ephesus for two hours and that he hardly even understands what people are talking about there. Luciana then notes that they had sent Dromio to speak with him about dinner earlier, of which S. Dromio knows nothing. S. Antipholus, then, imagines that S. Dromio must be conspiring against him along with these women, as Dromio—E. Dromio, actually—had indeed spoken to him earlier about coming home for dinner. S. Dromio, however, denies having ever spoken with Adriana—and Adriana then imagines that Antipholus and Dromio are trying to fool her; at this point she tells S. Antipholus that she is like a vine to his elm, such that he is utterly dependent on her. In an aside, S. Antipholus wonders what is going on and supposes that he may as well go along with the "fallacy," that is, that he may as well join Adriana for dinner. After S. Dromio declares that they must be in a "fairy land," and likewise wonders what is happening, Adriana bids Dromio and Antipholus to finally come home. Indeed, S. Antipholus will dine with Adriana at their home, upstairs, while S. Dromio guards the gate.

Act 3, Scene 1

Antipholus of Ephesus is leading E. Dromio, Angelo, and Balthazar to his home, where he intends to gain favor with the two businessmen by entertaining them at dinner. On the way, E. Antipholus mentions that his wife is "shrewish" whenever he is late and that Angelo, the goldsmith, should assert that he was busy buying something for her. He also mentions that E. Dromio could ruin his story, as E. Dromio claimed to have met him in the marketplace earlier. Indeed, E. Dromio confirms that he received a beating at Antipholus's hand.

When they arrive at the home of E. Antipholus, E. Dromio calls out to gain them entry, only to hear S. Dromio respond rudely, turning them away. S. Dromio declares that Dromio is his name and that he is the porter, and E. Dromio asserts that his office has been stolen by a counterfeit who is using his name. Luce, the cook, then appears above and also speaks rudely to E. Dromio, as she believes that everyone belonging to the household is already inside. Adriana appears to speak with Luce and to hear E. Antipholus call her his wife—but she cannot see him and also believes him to be an impostor, as S. Antipholus is inside.

When the women return inside the house, E. Antipholus declares that he will use force, if necessary to gain entry, asking E. Dromio to fetch him a crowbar. However, Balthazar interrupts to suggest that he refrain from resorting to force, as such an act could ruin his reputation; Balthazar notes that his wife certainly has some reason or another for keeping him out, and he should return later to hear her explanation. E. Antipholus concedes and declares that they will go to the Porpentine—and out of spite Antipholus will give the Courtesan there the chain that he had planned to give to his wife. As they exit, Angelo parts from them to get the chain.

Act 3, Scene 2

Luciana is speaking with S. Antipholus, counseling him to be more cunning with regard to his character around Adriana. Specifically, Luciana tells Antipholus that if he is cheating on his wife, he should make more of an effort to deceive her, to at least make her feel as though he still loves only her. S. Antipholus professes that he understands nothing of what she is saying, as Adriana is most definitely not his wife—and that he is in fact enamored of Luciana herself. Luciana protests that he is being ridiculous, as he must love only his wife, but S. Antipholus insists that he is interested in Luciana alone.

When Luciana leaves to get Adriana, S. Dromio appears to lament that he is being claimed by a woman named Nell (who is understood to be Luce, from act 2, scene 2). He is especially upset by this situation because Nell is quite obese, as his exaggerated comments regarding her girth indicate. S. Dromio makes a number of insulting comparisons between nations and parts of her body. When Nell proves able to tell Dromio about the various marks on his body, he begins to think she is some sort of witch. S. Antipholus then suggests to S. Dromio that he go wait by the harbor; if a seaward wind comes along and a ship is sailing out, S. Dromio should find S. Antipholus in the marketplace, and they will leave immediately. When S. Dromio leaves, S. Antipholus declares his own belief that they are among witches—but also that he will regret leaving Luciana.

Angelo then appears and insists upon giving S. Antipholus the chain that E. Antipholus had ordered. S. Antipholus eventually accepts and tries to pay for it then rather than later, so as not to accidentally cheat the man, but Angelo departs without accepting. S. Antipholus notes that only in such a strangely wonderful place would people bestow random gifts upon him.

Act 4, Scene 1

In the marketplace, a Merchant is demanding the repayment of a debt from Angelo, the goldsmith; the Merchant has summoned an Officer to arrest Angelo if he cannot repay the debt. Angelo notes that he simply needs to obtain the money from E. Antipholus, who owes him the cost of the chain. E. Antipholus then arrives, having just left the Courtesan. E. Antipholus orders E. Dromio to fetch him a rope, with which Antipholus plans to physically punish his wife and any other people responsible for locking him out of his house. Angelo then meets E. Antipholus and demands the sum he is owed, but E. Antipholus remarks that he does not have the money with him and that he will not pay, regardless, until he actually receives the chain. Angelo insists that he already gave him the chain (which S. Antipholus received), leaving both men greatly confounded.

As no one is giving him the money that he is owed, the Merchant has the Officer arrest Angelo; in turn, Angelo, whose reputation will be harmed, has the Officer arrest E. Antipholus, who is likewise greatly offended. S. Dromio then arrives to inform Antipholus that he has found passage for them on a ship that is soon to depart. E. Antipholus is confounded by S. Dromio's uttering such nonsense—and also by S. Dromio's failure to bring a rope. Still, as he has been arrested, E. Antipholus promptly sends S. Dromio to fetch money from Adriana.

Act 4, Scene 2

In front of the Phoenix, Luciana is telling Adriana about how S. Antipholus had professed to have fallen in love with her. Upset that her husband should have scorned her so, Adriana insults him at length, then admits to still having feelings for him. S. Dromio then arrives to demand the money on behalf of E. Antipholus. When the ladies inquire about Antipholus, S. Dromio notes that he had been arrested for nonpayment of a debt. Luciana fetches the money, and S. Dromio runs off with it.

Act 4, Scene 3

In the marketplace, S. Antipholus observes how everyone in the town seems to know him somehow. S. Dromio then arrives to hand him the money—but S. Antipholus objects that he had asked him for no money. S. Dromio inquires about the officer and where he might have gone, but S. Antipholus fails to understand. S. Antipholus then asks whether they might soon depart by sea, and S. Dromio points out that he told Antipholus earlier of a ship, but Antipholus had expressed no interest, so they had missed it.

The Courtesan then arrives, greets Antipholus by name, and asks whether the chain he holds is the one that he had promised her earlier. S. Antipholus and S. Dromio alike then both wonder if the Courtesan is perhaps the devil, in the form of a "light wench." S. Antipholus calls her a sorceress and tells her to leave, but she only demands the ring of hers that Antipholus had worn at dinner. At last certain that the Courtesan is some sort of witch, S. Antipholus and S. Dromio flee. The Courtesan, thinking Antipholus must be insane, resolves to go to his house and tell Adriana that he had stolen her ring, as the Courtesan does not wish to lose it.

Act 4, Scene 4

As E. Antipholus is being led away by the Officer, E. Dromio returns to give him the rope. When E. Antipholus asks about the money he had sent for, E. Dromio declares that he knows nothing about it; E. Antipholus then grows angry and beats E. Dromio. The Officer urges E. Antipholus to calm down, but he continues verbally abusing E. Dromio, who laments that he has long been subject to beatings at the hand of his master.

As Adriana, Luciana, and the Courtesan arrive with a doctor named Pinch, E. Antipholus continues to beat E. Dromio—providing evidence of E. Antipholus's suspected madness. The women declare that he indeed looks ill, and when Pinch tries to take his pulse, E. Antipholus strikes him. Pinch then attempts to exorcise Satan from E. Antipholus; Antipholus dismisses the man, declares that he is sane, and asks his wife to explain why he had been locked out at dinnertime. Adriana insists that he dined at home, leaving E. Antipholus and E. Dromio to insist that they had been locked out as well as taunted by the kitchen maid.

As the women and the doctor begin to wonder if E. Dromio has also been infected with madness, E. Antipholus and Adriana relate their respective roles in the fetching of the money by S. Dromio—which E. Dromio knows nothing about. Pinch insists that both men must be mad, and when E. Antipholus threatens to assault Adriana, several men appear to bind E. Antipholus. E. Antipholus pleads with the Officer, who asserts that E. Antipholus is in his charge and cannot be taken by the others. Adriana then offers to go with the Officer to repay the debt, and E. Antipholus and E. Dromio are taken away by the doctor.

The Officer tells Adriana that the money is owed for a golden chain, which she knows nothing about. The Courtesan then mentions that after E. Antipholus had taken her ring, she met him holding the chain in question. S. Antipholus and S. Dromio suddenly appear with drawn swords, provoking the Officer and the women to flee. S. Antipholus is glad that the witches fear their weapons, and despite S. Dromio's suggestion that they remain in that "gentle nation" after all, S. Antipholus insists that they depart immediately.

Act 5, Scene 1

Angelo is apologizing to the Merchant while assuring him that Antipholus is held in very high regard in Ephesus. S. Antipholus and S. Dromio then arrive, and Angelo sees that the chain is indeed around S. Antipholus's neck. Angelo questions him, and S. Antipholus declares that he never denied having the chain. The Merchant, who earlier heard E. Antipholus deny having the chain, grows angry; he and S. Antipholus argue and eventually draw swords.

Adriana, Luciana, and the Courtesan then arrive with the intention of binding S. Antipholus and S. Dromio, who flee into the Priory. The Abbess then comes out to ask about the commotion; Adriana demands that the Abbess turn over her husband, as she wants to treat her husband. The Abbess asks of the recent trouble and concludes that Antipholus has only been maddened by Adriana's jealous nagging. The Abbess then declares that she will not deny Antipholus sanctuary there and that she will herself use potions and prayers to try to cure him.

Adriana resolves to ask the duke for assistance, and he presently enters with Egeon, who is to be executed. Adriana tells the duke how she had bound her maddened husband and how he had consequently escaped and was being protected by the Abbess. The duke summons the Abbess, but a Messenger then arrives to tell Adriana that E. Antipholus and E. Dromio have escaped their bonds and were harming the doctor. Everyone is confused, as they believe Antipholus and Dromio to be inside the Priory—but E. Antipholus and E. Dromio indeed then appear.

E. Antipholus relates all that he has suffered to the duke, a wartime friend of his. While Adriana and Luciana claim that he had dined at home, E. Antipholus insists that he had been locked out, which E. Dromio and Angelo confirm. E. Antipholus then explains all that had occurred that day from his perspective, speaking of the missing chain, of Dromio's failure to bring the money, and of the doctor's efforts at exorcism. As they all relate what they know about the chain, the duke begins to wonder at how extraordinary the situation seems.

Egeon then finally speaks up, as he believes that E. Antipholus must be his son S. Antipholus. However, both E. Dromio and E. Antipholus profess to having never seen Egeon, who imagines that they simply do not recognize him because they have not seen him for seven years. As the duke confirms that E. Antipholus has not been to Syracuse in the last twenty years, the Abbess enters in the company of S. Antipholus and S. Dromio. The Abbess then tells Egeon that she is Emilia, his long lost wife, and that she had been separated from E. Antipholus and E. Dromio soon after the shipwreck, as the two infants were taken by fishermen from Corinth. E. Antipholus then confirms that he had originally been brought to Ephesus from Corinth. Adriana determines that S. Antipholus was the man with whom she dined, and Angelo sees that S. Antipholus is the one who has the chain. E. Antipholus offers to pay the duke to free Egeon, but the duke releases Egeon without accepting the money. E. Antipholus then returns the ring to the Courtesan.


  • Among the various televised versions of The Comedy of Errors is one directed by James Cellan Jones in 1983, which was produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation.
  • Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers created a musical based on The Comedy of Errors entitled The Boys from Syracuse. A film version was directed by A. Edward Sutherland in 1940, and was produced by Universal Pictures.

The Abbess announces that they will hold a festive gathering to celebrate the reunion of all the family members. After a last instance of confusion, when S. Dromio mistakenly addresses E. Antipholus, the Antipholus brothers exit, leaving the Dromio brothers to wonder which of them is older and should lead the other; they at last decide that they will walk side by side, "not one before another."



The wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, Adriana first appears mourning her husband's absence from dinner and wondering whether he has lost his romantic appreciation for her. Luciana counsels her to be patient and allow E. Antipholus as much liberty as he wants, but Adriana insists that she cannot always make her own desires and needs be of secondary importance. When the two sisters find S. Antipholus in the marketplace, Adriana pleads and manages to persuade her husband's twin to "come home" for dinner. Adriana is later told by Luciana that S. Antipholus was professing his love for Luciana. While despairing, Adriana nonetheless sends bail money through S. Dromio to her true husband (which he never receives). After being visited by the Courtesan, Adriana brings Doctor Pinch to cure her husband of his seeming insanity, and when he is taken home, she goes off seeking to pay her husband's debt. After more confusion at the Priory, Adriana is told by the Abbess, Emilia, that she needs to nag her husband less if she wishes to have a harmonious relationship with him.

Although the plot of The Comedy of Errors revolves around the actions of the brothers Antipholus, Adriana is perhaps the play's most profound and intriguing persona. Where the emotional affectations of the other characters remain fairly static throughout (S. Antipholus is nearly always confused, E. Antipholus is usually angry, etc.), Adriana vacillates between reminiscing fondly over the love she and her husband used to share, growing sad over his frequent absences, and getting angry at his supposed infidelities. In that she seems to be demanding no more than equality between herself and her husband—indeed, she asks her sister, "Why should their liberty than ours be more?"—Adriana can be viewed as a prototypical feminist. When Luciana counsels her to be patient and obliging toward her husband, Adriana passionately resists, essentially declaring that she refuses to be submissive toward any man, including her husband. In that E. Antipholus not only intentionally seeks out an untruthful explanation for his lateness on this day, but also frequents the Courtesan enough to make his wife jealous, Adriana seems wholly justified in trying to assert herself in the relationship. To some audience members and readers, the Abbess's lecture of Adriana in the fifth act may seem unnecessarily reproachful.

Nevertheless, Adriana certainly has minor flaws that contribute at least to her own happiness, if not to her husband's waywardness. While Luciana's general outlook on marriage seems to be oppressively conservative, she also tries to persuade her sister to be more independent: in particular, she denounces Adriana's "self-harming jealousy." And Adriana certainly allows her jealousy to carry her away, to the point of believing that her husband must be cheating on her. The play does not clearly indicate whether the husband has ever been unfaithful, how often he is late for dinner, or how often he wrongs Adriana in other ways; as such, Adriana's despair may seem extreme. In turn, when she believes her husband is in love with Luciana, she thoroughly curses him—then concedes that she was saying things she did not truly think or feel. Thus, the genuineness of her emotional reactions at other times may be called into doubt. Another question left unclear by the play is how often Adriana has such jealous outbursts, particularly in the presence of her husband. Overall, while Adriana certainly reacts strongly to the extreme circumstance brought about by the unknown presence of her husband's twin, the reader cannot necessarily conclude that she behaves this way under ordinary circumstances, and opinions regarding Adriana's larger role in her marriage may justifiably vary widely.


Angelo is a goldsmith who is hired by E. Antipholus to make a gold chain for Adriana. When E. Antipholus, Angelo, and Balthazar are refused entry at the home of E. Antipholus, E. Antipholus sends Angelo to finish the chain and bring it to him. However, Angelo ends up bringing the chain to S. Antipholus. When Angelo needs to pay off a debt, he seeks payment from E. Antipholus, who never received the chain and refuses to pay—Angelo is then arrested and has E. Antipholus arrested in turn.

Antipholus of Ephesus

Also known as E. Antipholus, he is the twin brother of Antipholus of Syracuse, son of Egeon and Emilia, husband of Adriana. E. Antipholus is a well-known, well-respected merchant in the city of Ephesus. He understands that his wife wants him to be home for dinner, but he nevertheless prioritizes business, such that she suspects him of cheating on her. When he is locked out of his home, as Adriana is dining with S. Antipholus, he grows angry and goes to dine at the Courtesan's instead. He also asks Angelo to finish the chain he ordered for his wife, so that he can give it to the Courtesan instead. When Angelo seeks payment for the chain, which he gave to S. Antipholus, E. Antipholus refuses to pay for it and gets arrested. As the confusion has left E. Antipholus seeming somewhat maddened, Adriana hires Pinch to cure him of his illness—but E. Antipholus only strikes at Pinch in public, then tortures Pinch after escaping from bondage at his home. When E. Antipholus shows up outside the Priory, within which S. Antipholus is hiding, he explains everything that has happened to him that day, and Egeon mistakes him for his other son. Upon the arrival of S. Antipholus, the confusion is eventually cleared.

E. Antipholus can hardly be described as anything but a negative force in the play. He is demonstrably violent, and with little provocation; when he is truly upset by his confinement by Pinch and the others, the extent of his violent reaction actually does indicate that he may be mentally unstable, and not just as a result of the day's occurrences. (Of course, the fact that The Comedy of Errors is so extensively farcical perhaps accounts for the cartoonish hair burning.) E. Antipholus does almost nothing to gain the sympathy of the reader in the course of the play, and only his final long speech, in which he rationally relates the day's many errors, indicates that he has been suffering anything beyond a schoolboyish frustration. An actor may endow E. Antipholus with decent emotions during this final scene, but his dialogue indicates little to no sentiment—he addresses not a single word to his long-lost brother before they exit together. E. Antipholus may perhaps be viewed as the epitome of the businessman, essentially purchasing, of all things, time away from his wife in the form of a gold chain.

Antipholus of Syracuse

Also known as S. Antipholus, he is the twin brother of Antipholus of Ephesus, son of Egeon and Emilia. At the age of eighteen, S. Antipholus goes off to search for his long-lost brother in the company of his servant, Dromio of Syracuse. In Ephesus, S. Antipholus does some business with a Merchant and is then met by E. Dromio, who bids him return "home" to dine with Adriana. S. Antipholus is angered by what seems like a jest carried out by S. Dromio, but he later meets up with his true servant and is reassured. When Adriana finds S. Antipholus in the marketplace, he eventually agrees to dine with her. Later, when Luciana counsels him to be sweeter with Adriana, S. Antipholus finds himself falling in love with Luciana. Nevertheless, the strange goings-on lead him to ask S. Dromio to wait at the harbor and to find him in the marketplace if a ship is leaving. When the Courtesan later addresses him, he becomes convinced that the town is inhabited by witches, and he runs off with S. Dromio. At length, the two seek refuge in the Priory; when they emerge in the company of Emilia, S. Antipholus's mother, the day's confusion is cleared.

While the plot generally revolves around the actions of S. Antipholus—as framed by the plight of his father, Egeon—few commentators would contend that his character merits the most discussion. In general, S. Antipholus simply serves as a vessel of amazement with respect to the strange reception he gets in Ephesus, where everyone knows him by name and has some unexplained concern for him. That is, not counting his initial interaction with a Merchant, S. Antipholus rarely causes any of the play's action himself; rather, things happen to him, or people address him, and he somewhat passively responds to the situation or person in question. The drama surrounding E. Antipholus's being locked out of his house, which serves as the foundation for the remainder of the play's confusion, comes about because S. Antipholus has allowed himself to be swept into the situation by Adriana—and he allows this knowing full well that some "error" has come about. Indeed, S. Antipholus specifically notes that he feels as if he is sleeping and dreaming, suggesting a state of utter passivity and an absence of control.

Beyond the plot in and of itself, and regardless of S. Antipholus's lack of agency, the relationship between his quest for his long-lost brother and his understanding of his identity form the thematic core of the play. This theme is established early on, not only through Egeon's story and the audience's understanding of the bare facts of the situation, but also through S. Antipholus's own words. In his first scene, after he has dismissed S. Dromio and the Merchant exits—leaving S. Antipholus alone on the stage in the first of several such instances—he compares himself, in his search for his brother, to a drop in an ocean in search of another drop. A drop in an ocean, of course, is not truly an individual drop of water. Indeed, in the course of eleven lines in this scene, in reference to his travels, he twice states, "I … lose myself." Thus, S. Antipholus can be understood to lack a feeling of wholeness, and he believes he will only find this wholeness in finding his lost twin brother.


A merchant and business associate of Antipholus of Ephesus, Balthazar dines with E. Antipholus at the Courtesan's when they are refused entry at E. Antipholus's home.


The Courtesan is an acquaintance of Antipholus of Ephesus. When E. Antipholus is refused entry at his house, he goes to dine with the Courtesan. E. Antipholus borrows a diamond ring from her and intends to give her the chain made by Angelo. When the Courtesan finds S. Antipholus, who does not have the ring and fails to give her the chain in return, she concludes that he must be out of sorts. In order to get her ring back, the Courtesan goes to Adriana to inform her that her husband is acting strangely, which leads to Adriana fetching Pinch. The Courtesan then accompanies Adriana until her ring is returned to her.

Dromio of Ephesus

The personal servant of Antipholus of Ephesus, and the twin brother of Dromio of Syracuse, E. Dromio tries to persuade S. Antipholus to join Adriana for dinner and receives a brief beating for his trouble. In the course of the play, E. Dromio relates this incident to Adriana he orders S. Dromio to let E. Antipholus into his home, without success, and he fetches a rope for E. Antipholus after their dinner at the Courtesan's. When E. Dromio brings E. Antipholus the rope but no bail money (which S. Dromio had gone to fetch), E. Antipholus likewise beats him, leading E. Dromio to lament his lot in life. E. Dromio is betrothed to Luce, Adriana's kitchen servant, which leads to additional confusion for S. Dromio. Along with his twin brother, E. Dromio largely serves as a means by which the play's action moves along, with his constant running of errands for the brothers Antipholus. Also, E. Dromio functions as a servile, humble foil to E. Antipholus and his masterly arrogance.

Dromio of Syracuse

Also known as S. Dromio, he is the personal servant of Antipholus of Syracuse, and the twin brother of Dromio of Ephesus. S. Dromio takes his master's money to the inn at which they are staying, the Centaur, then gets beaten when S. Antipholus believes that he had pretended to know nothing about the money. Both Syracusians later go to Adriana's for dinner, with S. Dromio refusing entry to E. Antipholus and E. Dromio. When S. Dromio finds that Luce believes him to be betrothed to her, he complains to S. Antipholus, making many insulting remarks about Luce's size. S. Dromio then waits by the harbor for a departing ship; when he returns, he accidentally tells E. Antipholus about their nearing departure, and E. Antipholus sends him to fetch money from Adriana. He fetches the money, then brings it to S. Antipholus. When the two are met by the Courtesan, they grow convinced that the town is inhabited by witches and flee. They later draw their swords against Adriana and company and ultimately take refuge in the Priory. After they exit and resolve the confusion, S. Dromio and E. Dromio share a brotherly moment. Generally speaking, S. Dromio not only pushes the play's action along, as does his twin, but also provides more comical responses to the strange goings-on than does S. Antipholus. This role is highlighted by his long discourse regarding the physical stature of Luce, who mistakes him for her betrothed, and by comments such as those punningly referring to the Courtesan as a "light wench."


Egeon is a merchant from Syracuse traveling in Ephesus in search of his long-lost son; he has also been away from the son he raised, S. Antipholus, for some seven years. It is illegal for a Syracusian to travel in Ephesus; he must pay a large penalty or be condemned to death. Egeon tells the Duke of Ephesus his tragic tale of family separation, and the duke, sympathetic to his plight, gives him one day to gather enough money to free himself. Egeon appears again in the final scene and believes that E. Antipholus is actually S. Antipholus. When Emilia, his long-lost wife, appears, along with S. Antipholus and S. Dromio, Egeon and his family are at last reunited.

While Egeon's plight serves as the framework for the rest of the play, his appearances are brief, and his character seems to merit little interpretation; he has a problem, and at the end of the play it is solved. On the other hand, one critic has offered a convincing interpretation of the play wherein the greater plot can be understood not just as an actual reunion of Egeon's family but also as an allegorical resolution to the psychic difficulties that brought about the problem in the first place. This allegory is discussed at length in the Style section.


Emilia is the wife of Egeon, and the mother of both S. Antipholus and E. Antipholus. Some thirty-three years earlier, Emilia was separated first from her husband, Egeon, and one son in a shipwreck, then from her other son by the fishermen who rescued them. She becomes an Abbess in Ephesus. She is reunited at the end of the play with her husband, as well as with both of her long-lost sons. Her appearance finally resolves the confusion surrounding everyone's identities. By virtue of her refusal to surrender S. Antipholus and S. Dromio from the refuge of her sanctuary, and by her chastising of Adriana, Emilia amounts to a significant moral force in the play.

First Merchant

The first Merchant appears early in the play doing business with S. Antipholus and warning him to hide his Syracusian origins.


Another officer, referred to in a stage direction as a Jailer, tries to prevent Adriana and Pinch from detaining E. Antipholus, his charge. When Adriana offers to accompany him to pay off the debt in question, the Officer lets them take E. Antipholus away.


Luce is the servant of Adriana who is betrothed to Dromio of Ephesus. Luce supports S. Dromio in refusing E. Antipholus entry at his home. Later, Luce reportedly mistakes S. Dromio for E. Dromio, such that S. Dromio reports back to S. Antipholus with great concern for his livelihood.


The unmarried sister of Adriana, Luciana counsels her jealous sister to suppress her negative emotions and have patience with her possibly adulterous husband. When Luciana in turn counsels S. Antipholus to be more loving to Adriana, S. Antipholus falls in love with Luciana herself. Luciana then tells Adriana about S. Antipholus's affection, greatly upsetting her sister. Luciana supports Adriana as she tries to cure E. Antipholus of his madness.

At first glance, Luciana seems to be something of a model of antifeminism: she seems to find truth in the notion that a woman's place is in the home, and that a wife should be generally subservient to her husband. Luciana implores Adriana to harbor no jealousy over her husband's possible relations with other women, even though E. Antipholus's references to the Courtesan seem to indicate that Adriana's jealousy is justifiable. Later, in her conversation with S. Antipholus, whom she understands to be E. Antipholus, Luciana seems to be dismissing any possible infidelity on his behalf as acceptable, as long as he makes an effort to show affection for his wife.

On the other hand, Luciana could simply be understood as attempting to mediate between her sister and her brother-in-law. She eventually decries Adriana's jealousy not as, say, unwomanly or unbecoming of a wife but as "self-harming"; ultimately, then, her interest seems to lie in Adriana's personal well-being. Also, while she allows for the possibility of E. Antipholus committing adultery, she may simply be wise enough to realize that her counsel is not going to prevent E. Antipholus from slighting his wife. He is obviously antagonistic and perhaps regularly abusive, as evidenced by his frequent beatings of E. Dromio and his declared intent to assault and even "disfigure" Adriana for her actions that day. In this sense, she may simply be a realist. Also, in referring to any possible adultery, in the course of just seven lines she pointedly uses the words "false love," "shame," "disloyalty," "vice," "tainted," and "sin," perhaps in a more subtle attempt to prevent just such adultery from occurring. Overall, then, Luciana can perhaps be understood as primarily an advocate and agent of reconciliation.


One Officer arrests both Angelo and E. Antipholus.


A doctor, or conjurer of a sort, Pinch is brought in to cure E. Antipholus of his supposed madness; E. Antipholus manages to strike Pinch in public, then later as reported by a messenger, to mildly torture Pinch.

Second Merchant

The second Merchant appears later in the play, requesting the repayment of a debt by Angelo. When Angelo cannot get the money from E. Antipholus, this Merchant has Angelo arrested. Later, Angelo and the Merchant come across S. Antipholus, who has the chain that E. Antipholus had denied having. Angered, the second Merchant draws swords against S. Antipholus, who flees with S. Dromio.

Solinus, Duke of Ephesus

After informing Egeon of his transgression—that is, appearing in Ephesus as a merchant from Syracuse—the duke listens sympathetically to Egeon's woeful tale. The duke then grants Egeon the remainder of the day to find the sum needed to buy his freedom. At day's end, as Egeon is being led to his execution, the family is reunited, with the duke serving as a mediator while the confusion is cleared up. The duke then releases Egeon without accepting E. Antipholus's money.



The way the various characters in The Comedy of Errors view their respective identities is perhaps the play's most prominent theme. The central quest for identity, of course, is that of S. Antipholus, whom the audience understands from early on to be seeking himself, to a great extent, in his twin brother; this understanding comes primarily from the speech in the first act in which he compares himself to a drop of water seeking another drop in an entire ocean. Coppélia Kahn views S. Antipholus's definition of identity here as tantamount to a desire to cease to exist: "He envisions extinction—total merger with an undifferentiated mass—as the result of his search." Kahn proceeds to frame this form of negating self-definition in psychological terms: "The image of that one drop falling into a whole ocean conveys the terror of failing to find identity: irretrievable ego loss." In these terms, S. Antipholus's search for identity can be understood as a possible step in the maturational process, whereby an adolescent might test the boundaries of his or her identity by fiercely identifying with someone such as a sibling—with such an identification between twins being especially strong. Kahn concludes, "The irony … is that seeking identity by narcissistic mirroring leads only to the obliteration, not the discovery, of the self." Thus, while S. Antipholus finds his twin, the extent to which he likewise "finds himself" is unclear, as the reunion between the two does not indicate that they share any instinctive connection.

Adriana's conception of her identity is also of great concern and is, in fact, quite similar to that of S. Antipholus, in that she seeks to define herself in relation to another—namely, to her husband. Echoing S. Antipholus's remarks about feeling like a drop in an ocean seeking a particular other drop, Adriana compares herself to a drop of water in a gulf, where the entire gulf is understood to be her husband. A difference between the two conceptions of identity, then, can relate to the extent to which the two characters wish to be merged, in essence, with others: S. Antipholus feels lost in the ocean and seeks to unite himself only with a single other drop, his brother; Adriana, meanwhile, is perhaps perfectly content to be lost in her gulf, her husband, as long as she is never forcibly removed from it. These dual manners of defining the self through others may fairly reflect the play's greater conception of identity, as related by Barry Weller: "The familial embrace with which the community of Ephesus eventually receives and reassembles the scattered members of Egeon's household intimates the priority of corporate identities over the single and limited life of the individual consciousness." That is, the play's conclusion perhaps demonstrates the primary importance of the intersection of identities that is brought about by love.

Love and Marriage

A second theme that is closely linked to the first and that also relates to certain characters' motivations concerns the nature of love and of marriage. This topic is discussed at length by Adriana and Luciana, who give conflicting views of what it means to be married and to be in love. Adriana harkens back to her husband's courtship of her and laments that he no longer gives her the attention he once did. Peter G. Phialas points out that Adriana feels a need to maintain control of her husband's liberty. In this sense, he asserts, "Adriana's concept of love is the right to possess, to receive and own and be master of." This concept is problematic largely in that it leads to her jealousy, which may or may not be well founded but, regardless, bears no positive effect on the relationship. The Abbess, serving as a guiding moral force, duly chastises Adriana for failing to deal well with the situation. Phialas claims that another aspect of Adriana's conception of love that proves problematic is her evident belief that physical beauty plays a central role in attraction; however, Adriana may have formed this conception based on an accurate understanding of her own husband's inclinations toward women in general. In opposition to her sister, Luciana seems to believe that a woman's role in a marriage is to do everything possible to maintain peace. In her view, the degree of love shared by the couple is not of the utmost importance, as she counsels E. Antipholus not to search within himself to find his love for Adriana but simply to "comfort my sister, cheer her, call her wife," as "the sweet breath of flattery conquers strife." Luciana essentially dismisses the notion that the flattery in question ought to be sincere.

Much different perspectives are presented by the men of the play. E. Antipholus's actions seem to indicate that love is simply not a priority for him; rather, business and his association and friendship with other businessmen, are of the utmost importance. S. Antipholus, meanwhile, demonstrates himself to be afraid to discover how a union with a woman would affect his sense of his identity. In particular, in speaking to Luciana he expresses his desire to avoid drowning in Adriana's tears—offering an interesting inversion of the situation he described earlier with regard to his search for his twin, where he was already a drop of water in the ocean. Perhaps, however, this can simply be understood as S. Antipholus's image of what marriage with Adriana would be like; he shows himself to be perfectly amenable to a union with Luciana. S. Dromio offers the most comically negative perceptions of marriage in conjuring the various overwhelming physical images associated with the rotund Luce. As Kahn notes, S. Dromio's conception of Luce's physical presence is similar to S. Antipholus's conception of union with Adriana, as both express fear and confusion when confronted with the notion of being "engulfed."


  • The Comedy of Errors presents a marriage in which the husband seems to prioritize business over his marital relationship, while the wife is relegated to the home. In a report, discuss the extent to which this situation is found in modern times and analyze various other ways that couples arrange their time with respect to both family and business. Use statistics, such as data from the U.S. Census, to illustrate the frequency of different arrangements: make note of how families in your community align with the statistics you find, or how they differ from the statistics.
  • Read Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, which is found in the Bible. Write an essay in which you describe any similarities in theme or content between the epistle and Shakespeare's play. If possible, note ways in which abstract ideas present in the epistle are addressed in the play.
  • Interestingly, Shakespeare provides almost no dialogue between the brothers Antipholus at the close of the play; the confusion is cleared, and they walk off stage. Write a brief additional scene, in verse, presenting a dialogue between the two brothers in which they discuss whatever you choose to have them discuss.
  • Research laws relating to marriage and debt from Elizabethan times. In an essay, describe several Elizabethan laws of particular interest and compare and contrast them with modern American laws. Discuss whether Elizabethan laws or modern laws seem more just.
  • Read any of Shakespeare's later comedies and write an essay in which you compare and contrast the play you chose with The Comedy of Errors. Make note of certain respects in which the play you chose seems to be superior in artistic construction to The Comedy of Errors, which was possibly Shakespeare's first play.

Beyond the individual characters' perceptions, issues surrounding love and marriage are extensively presented through the portrayal of Adriana's relationship to her husband. Specifically, Shakespeare asks a question that Dorothea Kehler notes "is both timeless and peculiarly modern: can love survive marriage?" Indeed, the essence of the situation—that a discrepancy in the levels of affection expressed by husband and wife has led to alienation—has certainly been a subject of discussion ever since the notion of wedding was first conceived. In the marriage in The Comedy of Errors, the imbalance of love between Adriana and E. Antipholus has left Adriana feeling utterly powerless. Her husband is free to roam around and, if he so chooses, to ignore predetermined mealtimes, while she is relegated to simply waiting for him to arrive. Nevertheless, Kehler notes that Adriana wants nothing more than "to subjugate herself in marriage. It is her misfortune that, in a male-dominated society, the possession who becomes possessive is regarded as a shrew." Overall, Adriana and E. Antipholus's problematic situation illustrates just two of the psychological states that can be attained by a couple that has found its way into a less loving partnership than once existed.


Comedy, from Farce to Romance

The Comedy of Errors has widely been interpreted as not just a comedy but a farce; a comedic work that features satire and a fairly improbable plot can be considered farcical. In the nineteenth century, the British poet and scholar Samuel Taylor Coleridge affirmed that the play was in fact the epitome of the genre: "Shakespeare has in this piece presented us with a legitimate farce in exactest consonance with the philosophical principles and character of farce…. A proper farce is mainly distinguished from comedy by the license allowed, and even required, in the fable, in order to produce strange and laughable situations." Coleridge goes on to note that the farce is, in a sense, enhanced by the addition of the second set of twins, the two Dromios, to the two Antipholuses; such a situation is indeed so improbable as to be virtually impossible.

A variety of other factors contribute to the perception of the play as a farce. A spectator or reader might expect S. Antipholus to deduce exactly what is going on, given that the purpose of his journey is precisely a search for his lost twin, but even when he is recognized on the street, he deduces nothing. Only his inability to understand his situation, of course, allows for the play's many other misunderstandings. Indeed, Harry Levin notes that such an abundance of "errors" can be another sign of a play's genre: "Farce derives its name from a French word for stuffing; literally it welcomes the gags and the knockabout business that fill in its contours ad libitum [without limit]." Barbara Freedman relates in her essay "Egeon's Debt" that a certain degree of aggression can be another factor emblematic of farce: "Farce derives humor from normally unacceptable aggression which is made acceptable through a denial of its cause and effect." In Freedman's allegorical reading of The Comedy of Errors, the circumstances of the brothers Antipholus can be attributed to the guilt suffered by the father; as characters within the farce, of course, the twins can only think to inflict their aggressions on other characters—usually the brothers Dromio.

Certain aspects of the play quite distinctly link it with Shakespeare's other comedies or distinguish it from his tragedies. Freedman notes that, as Egeon's condemnation to death constitutes the introductory scene, the play begins with "the harsh world of law, the cruel and problematic reality with which so many of Shakespeare's romantic comedies commence." In turn, at the end of the play, the world of law is re-entered—as marked by the duke's carrying out his official duties—but it has been endowed with a certain degree of mercy as a result of the play's developments; here, the duke grants Egeon his freedom without accepting E. Antipholus's money. Freedman also notes that the setting bears significant resemblances to the settings in other Shakespearean plays such as As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream: "The main plot's nightmarish Ephesus corresponds to the improbable, fantastic, dreamlike realm of the imagination, familiar to us as a second stage in Shakespearean comedy." A key difference, however, is that Shakespeare's other comedies feature worlds that are actually more like dreams than nightmares; The Comedy of Errors, on the other hand, features what Freed-man terms "the imagined fulfillment of repressed fears and desires in everyday reality."

Other commentators have pointed out that the extent of character development is often directly related to genre, and The Comedy of Errors has in fact been widely criticized for its general absence of character development. In his introduction to the play, Harry Levin notes that serious drama is typically endowed with more emotional impact when the characterization is as comprehensive as possible, while with farce, plot often takes precedence over character. Levin goes on to describe the basis of this play's plot—everyone's repeatedly mistaking one twin for another, with masters and servants alike—as "the very essence of the farcical: two characters sufficiently alike, so that each might fit interchangeably into the other's situation, could not afford to possess distinguishing characteristics." That is, this comedy would perhaps be hobbled by too much character development.

A last aspect of the comedy worth considering is the romantic one. As Peter G. Phialas has pointed out, The Comedy of Errors features a number of romantic elements that will be prominent in the playwright's later comedies. Phialas highlights the fact that "Shakespeare introduces the chief structural principle of his romantic comedies: the juxtaposition of attitudes toward love and toward the ideal relationship of man and woman." These notions are explored in the present play through the pairings of Adriana and E. Antipholus and of Luciana and S. Antipholus. Phialas also articulates a more precise view of love that will be seen in more detail in Shakespeare's romantic comedies to come: "He is able here to isolate, obliquely and in the briefest compass, one of the central conceptions of those later plays: that love does not possess, that it gives without needing to receive, for it gives to another self." Thus, overall, The Comedy of Errors, with its interweaving of genres as effective as that of any later play, should be recognized as comedy, farce, and romance alike.

The Arrangement of Awarenesses

One aspect of The Comedy of Errors that distinguishes it from later Shakespearean comedies is the absence of situational understanding on the part of the play's characters. Bertrand Evans goes as far as to say that this aspect of the play is of primary importance: "With neither character nor language making notable comic contribution, then, the great resource of laughter is the exploitable gulf spread between the participants' understanding and ours." Evans notes that almost from the very beginning, the spectator is aware that the father has been condemned to death in the same city in which both of his sons, coincidentally, are present at the time; throughout the play, however, none of the characters are aware of these facts. Thus, the audience is fully aware of the play's "single great secret," while the inhabitants of the play are ignorant, and this contrast produces the majority of the play's comical interactions.

This arrangement of awarenesses among the audience and the characters, then, could not have been more basic, and Evans confirms that it is the simplest of all of Shakespeare's plays. He notes, "In later ones our awareness is packed, often even burdened, with multiple, complex, interrelated secrets, and the many circles of individual participants' visions, though they cross and recross one another, do not wholly coincide." Shakespeare would come to use certain dramatic strategies to establish and reestablish levels of understanding among the audience and the play's characters, particularly soliloquies and asides, wherein a single character can discourse on something without revealing any secrets to any other characters. Indeed, soliloquies and asides are the literary equivalent of narrative descriptions of characters' thoughts. Evans notes that the few short soliloquies in The Comedy of Errors do not reveal any unknown thoughts; rather, they "exploit the speaker's ignorance of what we already know." Shakespeare would also come to habitually plant what Evans termed "practicers" within his plays; these practicers serve to subvert whatever moral or societal order exists by intentionally deceiving other characters. The characters of Iago, in Othello, and Rosalind, in As You Like It, are good examples of such practicers. In a different dramatic respect, Evans notes that in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare did not even provide moments where characters come close to fully understanding the greater situation, as the playwright "risks no dialogue that strikes the unsuspected truth." In later plays, on the other hand, moments of conversational foreshadowing are not uncommon. Overall, then, the singular arrangement of awarenesses in this early play is evident in a number of ways.

The Allegory of Egeon

In terms of the direct plot, Egeon's plight seems to serve only as a framework for the rest of the play, with his tragic family story providing a background but bearing little impact on the action. That is, the plot revolves around the mere fact that one twin is in the home city of the second twin and the confusion surrounding their identities; S. Antipholus's search for his brother is mentioned only by S. Antipholus himself in a few passing asides, such that the reason for and the basic existence of the search are almost irrelevant. However, Barbara Freedman, in her essay "Egeon's Debt," has interpreted the plot as presenting an allegorical explanation of the psychic process Egeon necessarily undergoes in seeking reunion with his family.

Freedman begins by noting the various shortcomings Egeon reveals about himself in the introductory scene, when he relates his tragic story to the duke. Egeon allowed himself to be drawn away from his wife for a full six months by overseas business obligations, as his factor, or agent, had died. Evidently with no assistance from her husband, Egeon's wife then traveled to join him. After the birth of their sons, his wife alone wished to return home; Egeon agreed to go but was in fact "unwilling." Once the storm confronted them with the possibility of death, Egeon would "gladly have embraced" that death, perhaps because he was being forced into a strictly domestic situation that he did not care for. Indeed, although he tells his story in a matter-of-fact tone that leaves the reader sympathizing with his misfortune, he is at least guilty of largely neglecting his wife for the sake of his business. With this understanding of Egeon's past, the personal circumstances of the two twins seem to bear greater relevance. Freedman notes, "When the action of the storm separated Egeon from his former life, the Ephesian twin was, literally, that part of Egeon which was lost. The Syracusan twin was the part of Egeon which remained with him to the present time." Thus, in E. Antipholus the audience sees precisely the person Egeon was before the shipwreck: a man rooted in a domestic situation, respected in his community, and, generally speaking, focused more on his commercial activity than on his marital partnership. S. Antipholus, on the contrary, is a wanderer in search of his twin—in a sense, in search of his own self—just as Egeon is now wandering in search of the life he lost when he was separated from his wife.

Freedman proceeds to demonstrate that beyond the essence of the brothers' circumstances, the allegory is manifested in the play's consistent focus on indebtedness. Egeon's fate can be conceived of as featuring both a marital debt, in that he owes his wife the attention and affection that he neglected to give her, and a monetary debt, as he becomes obligated to either pay a fine for appearing in Ephesus or face the death penalty. Both sons, in turn, undergo experiences with both types of debts, in somewhat inverse manners: "Just as the Syracusan twin progresses from fear of actual monetary debt to payment for a mistaken marital debt, so his brother moves from fear of an actual marital debt to payment for a mistaken monetary debt." Thus, in that one debt is essentially a mirror image of the other, they can together be understood as symbolic of the father's debts, just as the twins are mirror images of each other and, in the context of the allegory, are symbolic of the father. In summing up the importance of this allegory to an understanding of the play as a whole, Freedman declares, "Egeon's story is the missing link which turns an arbitrary plot into a meaningfully directed fantasy."


Room and Board

In general, aspects of the historical situation at the time of Shakespeare's writing his play, and the historical period in which the play takes place, bear little relation to the plot. That is, in what was quite possibly his first dramatic effort, Shakespeare seemed to have been executing a sort of exercise in farcical comedy, rather than seeking to make any political or historical statements. Nevertheless, certain aspects of The Comedy of Errors do seem to reflect the changing nature of Elizabethan society. One of these aspects is the significance attributed to the home, particularly by Adriana; the crux of her frustration with her husband is that he fails to fully value the home that she keeps for him. A problem for Adriana, as Ann Christensen notes, is that in Elizabethan times, "the modern bourgeois notion of home as safe haven" was not yet established. That is, Adriana was perhaps ahead of her time in seeking to insulate her home life from her husband's business dealings. Christensen eloquently describes the play's overall relevance with respect to contemporary cultural development: "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."

Christensen explicitly ties the rift between Adriana and E. Antipholus to a particular aspect of home life: "The differences between the masculine world of commerce and law and the feminine domestic environment articulate themselves over the contested cultural form of 'dining.'" Indeed, both Adriana and E. Antipholus voice concerns regarding the other's dining habits: she reminisces about the time when he only ate meat that she carved for him, while he specifically suspects that she had "feasted" with other men in his absence. In this light, the fact that E. Antipholus chooses to dine with the Courtesan after being turned away from his home can be considered a significant act of marital defiance. Christensen points to Adriana's speech at the end of act 2, scene 1—in which she speaks of "starving" at home for loving looks from her husband, while he, like a wild animal, has broken loose to "feed" elsewhere—as evidence of the primary importance attributed to the family meal. Christensen writes, "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."


Directly related to the Elizabethan conception of the home, especially around London, was the extent of England's urbanization. In general, in any society, the context in which the home exists can be understood to bear a substantial impact on the nature of the home itself. The greater the number of people living in a community of a given size, the less space each individual person will be allotted. Thus, one consequence of urbanization could be increased feelings of claustrophobia—perhaps causing some men to feel a greater need to wander around their community, rather than remaining enclosed in their allotted spaces. E. Antipholus's waywardness, then, beyond being a prioritization of business matters over domestic matters, could be interpreted as a demonstration of a masculine response to urbanization.

On the societal level, Gail Kern Paster finds a significant consequence of urbanization to be the institution of laws that, by their fixed nature, cannot discriminate among various instances of criminality. That is, a law is almost always either broken or not broken; when laws are "bent," the perpetrator, not the system of justice, typically does the bending. Paster notes that this inherent property of laws is in effect a small argument against the sheer existence of the urban environment. She states that in The Comedy of Errors and also in other Shakespearean plays, "The city is confronted with the self-imposed necessity of enforcing a law whose consequences are so clearly inhuman that they can only make mockery of a city's reason for being." In this instance, of course, the inhumanity is Egeon's being sentenced to death simply for being poor and for looking for his son in a town that has, unbeknownst to him, banned his presence there. In Elizabethan times, when whipping, dismemberment, and beheading were in wide and public use, the breaking of laws and the punishment of criminals were of the utmost popular interest. As such, Shakespeare's depiction of crime and unjust punishment in ancient times was perhaps intended to stress negative aspects of the ever-increasing impersonality of cities.


The Comedy of Errors, being one of Shakespeare's earliest efforts, is almost universally viewed as inferior to his other plays. Some critics have offered negative reviews of the work not just in relation to his later plays but also in absolute terms—calling, say, the characterization not just worse than in any other Shakespearean drama but simply bad. In the early nineteenth century the literary critic William Hazlitt, in his Characters of Shakespear's Plays, reflected a certain degree of annoyance with the work, declaring with respect to its source, "This comedy is taken very much from the Menaechmi of Plautus, and is not an improvement on it. Shakespear [sic] appears to have bestowed no great pains on it, and there are but a few passages which bear the decided stamp of his genius." Hazlitt goes on to express the opinion that the nature of the situation—two twins being mistaken for each other—simply translates poorly into drama, as on the stage the twins will either be impossible to distinguish or so different as to shatter the illusion of their identicalness, while on the written page their characters fail to substantially distinguish themselves from each other. Hazlitt notes that Shakespeare was simply more virtuous as a creator than as an adapter: "We do not think his forte would ever have lain in imitating or improving on what others invented, so much as in inventing for himself, and perfecting what he invented."


  • 200 b.c.e.: In regions of the ancient Mediterranean Sea, villages and towns are well organized enough to feature marketplaces and bazaars, where commerce is carried out between community members.
    1600: Urbanization in the greater London area, with a population of some 200,000, has led to the rise of more crowded, chaotic marketplaces and wider varieties of businesses.
    Today: London's population has surpassed seven million, and the city dominates the economy of Great Britain.
  • 200 b.c.e.: The marketplace offers a unique union of domestic and business life, with dwellings surrounding the area, making it a central location in which societal interactions occur.
    1600: The constant emphasis of the importance of money has fostered widespread mentalities whereby business can be considered more important than domestic relationships.
    Today: In general, the alienation among peoples and nations brought about by the focus on business, money, and economic development has produced many of the world's most pressing problems, such as global warming.
  • 200 b.c.e.: As with Egeon's situation, laws allow for people to be convicted of crimes that they could not have known they were committing.
    1600: Laws are constructed with considerably more justice, but people are still often tried for crimes under questionable circumstances, such as in cases of heresy against the Church of England.
    Today: In nations such as England and the United States, legal systems are still being refined, with the existence of the death penalty in the United States, for example, being widely debated.

Many critics have given the play a fair degree of respect. The renowned German Shakespearean scholar August Wilhelm Schlegel remarked, with regard to the comically ambitious inclusion of two sets of twins, "If the spectator is to be entertained by mere perplexities they cannot be too varied." Making reference to both actual and possible reinterpretations of Plautus's drama, Schlegel concluded (in direct opposition to Hazlitt), "This is perhaps the best of all written or possible Menaechmi; and if the piece be inferior in worth to other pieces of Shakespeare, it is merely because nothing more could be made of the materials." This view is directly contrary to Hazlitt's opinion of Shakespeare's artisanship, which was that the play was "not an improvement" on Menaechmi.

Some critics have gone as far as to bestow The Comedy of Errors with admiring praise. C. L. Barber argued that the presence of certain profound thematic elements cannot be ignored: "Shakespeare's sense of comedy as a moment in a larger cycle leads him to go out of his way, even in this early play, to frame farce with action which presents the weight of age and the threat of death, and to make the comic resolution a renewal of life, indeed explicitly a rebirth." T. S. Dorsch, in turn, seems to appreciate the play simply as a source of entertainment: "The Comedy of Errors is not only very good theatre, it is also very good reading. It is a finely-balanced mixture of pathos and suspense, illusion and delusion, love turned bitter and love that is sweet, farce and fun." In explicating the allegorical aspects of the plot, as tied to Egeon's plight, Barbara Freedman notes that many critics had reviewed the play negatively owing to their failure to "resolve two major issues central to an understanding of the play as a meaningful unity: first, the purpose of the farcical confusion of the twins' identities in the main plot, and second, its relation to their father's progress in the frame plot from separation to reunion with his family, and from crime and debt to redemption." Indeed, if these issues are not resolved, the play seems little more than a exercise in farce with a few fairly substantial themes; Freedman's explication of what is perceived as the allegorical aspects of the plot, as tied to Egeon's self-redemption, leaves the play looking far more profound.

As did Hazlitt, many critics have offered perspectives on how the presentation of the play in the theater might affect its dramatic power. The French intellectual Etienne Souriau notes that for such a farcical comedy of errors to be swallowed by the audience, the characters who "grope among the shadows and … play blindman's buff with their souls" are almost required to bear themselves in a very particular way: "The danger, in the theater, is to show those souls as too lucid and too sure of themselves, of what they are doing, and of their situation, rather than to show them as too wild and uncertain, proceeding by trials and errors."


Philip C. Kolin

Kolin argues that The Comedy of Errors is unusual among Shakespeare's plays because of the way in which specific locations in the play are related to the transformations of characters. The critic analyzes settings such as the Centaur Inn or the Phoenix Tavern by comparing them to Antipholus of Syracuse, his twin brother Antipholus of Ephesus, and Adriana.

Perplexed by the maddening improbabilities in the last act of The Comedy of Errors, Duke Solinus pronounces what could be the topic sentence of the play: "I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup"(5.1.271). In Ephesus, Circean transformations reputedly turn men into beasts, resulting in demonic possession, the loss of self, and the breakdown of social order. Everywhere individuals lose their identity. Shakespeare incorporates Circean transformations into a strong sense of place. In fact, The Comedy of Errors "is unique among Shakespeare's plays in the way localities are indicated," including being marked by distinctive signs. The names for three of these locations—the Centaur Inn, the Courtesan's Porpentine, and the Phoenix, for Antipholus of Ephesus's house—symbolize the types of transformations that many of the characters undergo. Appropriately, each place is named for a mythic (or fetishistic) animal whose legacy explains a character's unnatural metamorphosis. Previous commentators have contentedly glossed these names only as specific London taverns (the Centaur, the Phoenix) or a brothel (the Porpentine). Yet on the fluid Elizabethan stage, Shakespeare contextualizes his theatrical environment within the larger mythos of metamorphosis.

Xenophobic traveler Antipholus of Syracuse will reside at the Centaur where, with his servant, "we host," and where, he trusts, "the gold I gave Dromio is laid up safe" (2.2.1-2). The name of this inn resonates with portent about Ephesus's reputation for "dark working sorcerers that change the mind / Soul-killing witches that deform the body … And many such-like liberties of sin"(1.2.99-102). Half-man, half-horse, the centaur was represented in Greek mythology as being "bound or ridden by Eros," embodying the lawlessness and lust (see King Lear 4.6.124) that ran amuck in Ephesus. Fearful of being transformed by a wizard's spell, Antipholus of Syracuse could not have chosen a more ill-advised address. Even more relevant, the history of the mythic beast signals the transformations that Antipholus himself will experience in Ephesus. (The centaurs burst upon Pirithous's marriage ceremony and carried off his bride and ravished her, earning the stigma as the despoilers of marriage.) When he is mistaken for his married twin brother Antipholus of Ephesus, Antipholus of Syracuse threatens the marital harmony between Adriana and her lawful husband, whom she locks out of his own house so that she may entertain the twin. The mythic strain of the centaurs, if not their literal intent, haunts Antipholus of Syracuse. Shakespeare asks an audience to see Antipholus as a bewitched centaur-guest. Like the centaurs, Antipholus cannot, when in Ephesus "but two hours old"(2.2.148) precisely pin down what kind of creature he is—married or single (horse or man). "What, was I married to her in my dream?… What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?"(2.2.182-84) he asks after Adriana treats him like a spouse.

Like the Centaur, the Porpentine (porcupine) is linked in Errors to Circean transformations into bestiality. It is to the porpentine sign of the harlot that Antipholus of Ephesus flees after Adriana refuses to admit him. Under an Ephesian spell himself, Antipholus shouts to his servant, "fetch the chain … to the Porpentine, / For there's the house—that chain will I bestow / (Be it for nothing to spite my wife) / Upon mine hostess there"(3.1.115-19). In front of the Porpentine, Antipholus, as the harlot reveals, "rushed into my house and took perforce / My ring away"(4.3.91-92) Soon thereafter, Antipholus is declared mad and summarily restrained. Famous for its barbed quills, signifiers of both tainted sex and violent aggression, the porpentine appropriately becomes the totem animal for Antipholus's transformation from lawful citizen and espoused husband into public threat and enraged cuckold. Antipholus infects his marriage when he gives away his wife's chain (a symbol of their marital bond) and steals another woman's ring, a sign of the conjugal sex act, as Gratiano realizes when at the end of The Merchant ofVenice he vows that "while I live I'll fear no other thing, / So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's [his wife's] ring"(5.1.306-07).

The most evocative and sustaining reference to transformation through a symbolic animal occurs at the Phoenix, Antipholus's house, where much of acts 2 and 3 takes place and where many of the errors originate. Shakespeare often invokes the phoenix—the legendary bird that dies in its own funeral pyre, only to rise from the ashes reborn—to represent immortality through love relationships (see, for example, "Sonnet 19" and "The Phoenix and the Turtle"). R. A. Foakes limits the significance of this animal too narrowly, however, in Errors: "The image of this mythic bird … is appropriate to the story of Antipholus and Adriana, whose love is finally renewed out of the break-up of their marital relationship." The phoenix also augurs well for the Abbess's other son, Antipholus of Syracuse who, like his twin, at first quarrels with, but then is united with, his (intended) mate, thanks to a phoenixlike experience.

Accusing his servant of madness for claiming that their "house was at the Phoenix" (2.1.11), Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love there with Adriana's sister Luciana, of whom he asks: "Are you a god? Would you create me new / Transform me then, and to your power I'll yield"(3.2.38-40). Although Luciana is at first incredulous that Antipholus of Syracuse, whom she believes is her brother-in-law Antipholus of Ephesus, would try to court her ("What are you mad that you do reason so?" [53]), she does indeed transform him into a new creature by fulfilling his dream of marrying her (5.1.376). Like the self-perpetuating phoenix, Antipholus of Syracuse must die to the old man he was (his brother's twin), to become the new man he is (his brother's twin). This is the paradox of the phoenix myth, as well as the secret to solving the maddening confusions in The Comedy of Errors.

Source: Philip C. Kolin, "Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors," in The Explicator, Vol. 56, No. 1, Fall 1997, pp. 5-8.

Russ McDonald

In the following excerpt, McDonald first surveys previous criticism on the play regarding its classification as a farce and its position in Shakespeare's canon. He notes that critics have tended to "elevate" the play above the "vulgar" level of farce in explaining its meaning (although its farcical elements are obvious) because it is sometimes perceived as a source of "embarrassment" in the canon. McDonald then examines "how meaning comes about in farce" through the play's "theatrical complexity," concluding that the play should be examined for what it is—a farce and a "source of wonder."

Zeus's sexual lapses notwithstanding, gods are not supposed to be indecorous, and a characteristic of modern Bardolatry has been its insistence on Shakespeare's artistic dignity, particularly his attachment to the approved dramatic forms. The popular image of Shakespeare as the embodiment of high culture, the author of Hamlet and certain other tragedies, as well as a very few weighty comedies, is merely a version of a bias that also, if less obviously, afflicts the academy. What I am talking about is a hierarchy of modes, or, to put it another way, genre snobbery. That tragedy is more profound and significant than comedy is a prejudice that manifests itself in and out of the Shakespeare Establishment: in the impatience of undergraduates who, taking their first class in Shakespeare, regard the comedies and histories as mere appetizers to the main course, the tragedies; in Christopher Sly's equation of "a commonty" with "a Christmas gambol or a tumbling trick"; in the disdain of the tourist at the Barbican box office who, finding Othello sold out, refuses a ticket to The Merry Wives of Windsor; in the decision of that Athenian student to preserve his notes from Aristotle's lecture on tragedy but not to bother with the one on comedy.

If there is a hierarchy of modes, there is also a hierarchy within modes: de casibus tragedy is less exalted than Greek, for example. So it is with the kinds of comedy, and the play to which I shall address myself, The Comedy of Errors, rests safely in the lowest rank. Farce is at the bottom of everyone's list of forms, and yet Shakespeare is at the top of everyone's list of authors. Thus, the problem I mean to examine is generated by competing hierarchies. Most literary critics have little occasion to think about farce, and those who concern themselves chiefly with the creator of texts such as Macbeth and Coriolanus do their best to avoid the form. For many years the earliest comedies were treated unapologetically as farces and Shakespeare was praised, if mildly, for his skill at contriving such brilliant and pleasing trifles. But the need to preserve his association with higher things has led in the last three or four decades to a revision of this opinion. It seems inappropriate that the cultural monument known as Shakespeare should have anything to do with a popular entertainment that we connect with the likes of the Marx brothers (Groucho and Harpo, not Karl and Moritz). Criticism resists a Shakespeare capable of wasting his time on such a trivial form.

My purpose is to suggest that Shakespeare could be "bad," but my definition differs somewhat from those of most of the other contributors to this volume. Rather than re-examine texts that may have been overvalued or seek to locate weaknesses in dramatic technique, I shall argue that Shakespeare's taste was not invariably elevated and that certain plays are less "significant" than others (or at least that they signify different things in different ways). By addressing myself to what is and is not considered "Shakespearean," I claim an interest in one of the fundamental issues of this collection: canonicity. A work like The Comedy of Errors must be deformed if it is to conform to that category known as Shakespearean comedy—as a farce it is noncanonical—and such misrepresentation demands a rejoinder.

The first part of this essay surveys the evasions that critics have devised for treating Shakespeare's efforts in farce, with concentration on the dodges applied to Errors. The remainder, a straightforward study of that play's theatrical action, proposes to identify the playwright's strategies for the production of meaning in farce. In light of the concerns of this volume, to contend that Errors succeeds not as an early version of a romantic comedy or as an allegory of marriage but as an out-and-out farce is risky, for such an argument looks like yet another defense of the artistic experiments of a novice and thus seems to exemplify the very Bardolatry that many of these essays vigorously dispute. In fact, however, my aim is to establish Shakespeare's delight in and commitment to a dramatic form that has become infra dig. To recognize such a bent is to augment our sense of Shakespeare's actual range. We whitewash our subject by refusing to admit his attraction to farce and declining to explore his talent for it.


Suspicion of farce has fostered two main critical maneuvers, here summarized by Barbara Freedman: "The first is represented by that group of critics who know that Shakespeare never wrote anything solely to make us laugh and so argue that Shakespeare never wrote farce at all…. The more popular critical approach, however, is to agree that Shakespeare wrote farce, but to consider Errors (as well as Shakespeare's other predominantly farcical plays) to be nonsensical insofar as they are farce." To begin with the first group, its members are undaunted by Shakespeare's demonstrable choice of classical or Italian farces for source material: in such cases he may be seen "transcending the farce which a lesser writer might have been satisfied to make," and thus the form is mentioned so that it can be dismissed.

The most familiar and pernicious tactic of those who would dissociate Shakespeare from the vulgar category is to discuss the early plays as precursors of the mature style, as seedbeds, that is, for ideas and methods that will flower in the later comedies and even in the tragedies. (In fact, hothouses would make a better simile, since the ideas and methods are found blooming in the early play itself by the time the critic finishes.) A. C. Hamilton, for example, asserts that The Comedy of Errors provides a foundation for the later comedies by revealing "their basis in the idea that life upon the order of nature has been disturbed and must be restored and renewed through the action of the play." Hamilton's reticence to detect inchoate forms of particular dramatic themes from later works is not shared by Peter G. Phialas, who identifies "certain features of structure and theme, and even tone, which anticipate significant elements of Shakespeare's romantic comedies." Specifically, "The Comedy of Errors, though in the main concerned with the farcical mistakings of identity, touches briefly a theme of far greater significance, the ideal relationship of man and woman." This anticipatory practice amounts to reading the career backward: a play is conditioned by what follows it, and its distinctive qualities may be underrated or deformed. The prophetic approach tends to manifest itself in and to merge with the second defensive strategy.

Put simply, this way of thinking involves deepening the farces, exposing their profundity. It has become the preferred means of protecting Shakespeare against his own immature tastes or the vulgar demands of his audience, and it has attracted some eloquent and powerful advocates. Derek Traversi, for example, unites the two critical defenses, seeing Errors as both serious in itself and important in its tonal prefiguration of the later work. He emphasizes "the deliberate seriousness of the story of Aegeon, which gives the entire action a new setting of gravity, a sense of tragic overtones which, elementary though it may be in expression, is yet not without some intimation of later and finer effects." In other words, the play is profound but not too profound.

That the dignifiers succeeded some time ago in making this serious position canonical is apparent in the following passage from R. A. Foakes's Introduction to the New Arden edition, published in 1962:

These general considerations may help to illustrate the particular quality of The Comedy of Errors. The play has farcical comedy, and it has fantasy, but it does more than merely provoke laughter, or release us temporarily from inhibitions and custom into a world free as a child's, affording delight and freshening us up. It also invites compassion, a measure of sympathy, and a deeper response to the disruption of social and family relationships which the action brings about. Our concern for the Antipholus twins, for Adriana and Luciana, and our sense of disorder are deepened in the context of suffering provided by the enveloping action. The comedy proves, after all, to be more than a temporary and hilarious abrogation of normality; it is, at the same time, a process in which the main characters are in some sense purged, before harmony and the responsibility of normal relationships are restored at the end. Adriana learns to overcome her jealousy, and accepts the reproof of the Abbess; her husband is punished for his anger and potential brutality by Doctor Pinch's drastic treatment; and Antipholus of Syracuse is cured of his prejudices about Ephesus. Behind them stands Egeon, a prototype of the noble sufferer or victim in later plays by Shakespeare, of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, and of Pericles, central figure in a play which uses more profoundly the story on which Egeon's adventures are based.

A variation of this argument is found in Harold Brooks's much-cited essay, which associates Errors not with a farce such as Supposes but with a recognition play such as the Ion or The Confidential Clerk.

Those who see Shakespeare as "transcending" farce must consent to a divorce between the "serious" issues that they elect to stress and the main business of the play. In other words, the critics analyze delicate sentiments while the characters knock heads. The discovery of gravity requires great emphasis on the frame story of Egeon, or Adriana's matrimonial laments, or the wooing of Luciana. Brooks candidly declares the incongruity between his emphasis and Shakespeare's: "The Comedy appeals first and foremost to laughter, as is obvious at any performance. I have dwelt on its serious themes and strands of romance because it is these that student and producer are prone to discount." One might respond that student and producer would in this case be taking their cue from the author, who was himself prone to discount the serious themes and strands of romance at this stage of his career. We should question critical means that seek to convert the early comedies into something other than they are.

The Comedy of Errors is a superlative example of dramatic farce, a simple form of comedy designed chiefly to make an audience laugh. Freedman points out that farces are almost always characterized by an "insistence on their own meaninglessness, an insistence which by no means should be accepted at face value." In other words, to regard the play as a highly developed form of farce is not to outlaw ideas. Mistaken identity is at the heart of The Comedy of Errors, as Antipholus of Syracuse explains in the final moments: "I see we still did meet each other's man, / And I was ta'en for him, and he for me, / And thereupon these errors have arose" (5.1.388-90). This basic formula is the source of pleasure and of meaning in the farcical comedy. My goal is to increase, if only slightly, our sense of how meaning comes about in farce, and my method for doing so is to concentrate on what an audience sees and hears in the main action. It seems reasonable to conclude—and worth pointing out, given the critical history of the text in question—that dramatic significance ought to proceed as much from the essential as from the ancillary features of a text.


To err is human, and one way of describing the imperfect condition of our experience is to say that we inhabit a state of division, of disunity, of separation from God, from nature, from one another. Lest this seem too portentous a beginning for a discussion of a farcical comedy, let me hasten to say that splitting (of ships, of families, of other human relations) is one of the most important of the play's patterns of action. In one sense, of course, the plot of The Comedy of Errors is founded on the natural division of twinship, for nature has split a single appearance into two persons. In the source play, Plautus exploits the confusion inherent in this division by geographically separating the Menaechmus brothers, and Shakespeare has increased the complexity of the original plot, as everyone knows, by doubling the twins. What is less familiar is his tactic of making the normal avenues of reconciliation into obstacle courses laid with traps and dead ends. Virtually all comedy represents characters' attempts to overcome their isolation through marriage or reconciliation, with farce throwing the emphasis on the amusing difficulties involved in such efforts. Marriage, systems of law, commerce, language—all these are forms of communion or institutions through which people seek or give satisfaction, social instruments and (implicitly) comic means for joining human beings in a happy and fruitful relation.

And yet, for all their value, these means are naturally imperfect and likely to collapse under various pressures, either of accident or human will or their own liability to misinterpretation. When they break down, the confusion that frustrates the characters delights the audience. To a great extent, the comedy of Errors arises from the number of barriers Shakespeare has erected and the ingenuity with which he has done so. The greatest obstacles arise in the principal characters' relations with their servants, in the arena of commerce, and in the realm of speech itself. Shakespeare generates amusing conflict by exaggerating the forces that separate people and by weakening the media that connect them.

The presence of four men in two costumes leads first to the attenuation of the normal bonds between servant and master and between husband and wife. From the twin Sosias in Plautus's Amphitruo, Shakespeare creates in the Dromios a pair of agents, go-betweens who link husband to wife or customer to merchant. They are extensions of their masters' wills, instruments by which each of the Antipholuses conducts business or gets what he wants. In the farcical world of the play, however, the will is inevitably frustrated as these servants become barriers, sources of confusion, gaps in a chain of communication. For Antipholus of Syracuse, lost in a strange, forbidden seaport, his one sure connection, his "bondman," seems to fail him. This treatment of the twin servants, moreover, is representative of Shakespeare's method with other characters, including Adriana, Luciana, and the Courtesan. Although the females are often said to contribute to the play's Pauline analysis of proper marriage, their primary value is as comic troublemakers. Adriana's eloquence and Luciana's charm make the two women memorable, to be sure, but they are hardly complex. Adriana's main function is to doubt her husband, to rail against his neglect, to chase him in the streets, to enlist a conjurer to minister to him; Luciana's role is to attract Antipholus of Syracuse and thereby to fuel her sister's rage.

The disintegration of personal bonds is accompanied by the weakening of the multiple commercial connections. Although the thematic importance of debts is familiar enough, it is also relevant that many of the play's amusing confrontations are grounded in thwarted commercial exchanges. Ignoring the maxim that it is best to eliminate the middleman, Shakespeare has added a host of them. Angelo the Goldsmith, Balthazar, and the First and Second Merchants are all Shakespearean inventions—businessmen, literal agents who exist to get in the way. Each functions as an additional barrier separating the twin Antipholuses, as another hedge in the maze at the center of the comedy. The Second Merchant, for instance, appears only twice and exists for no other reason than to make demands and increase the comic pressure: he has been patient since Pentecost and now needs guilders for a journey; he presses Angelo to repay the sum; Angelo must seek payment from Antipholus of Ephesus who, not having received the chain for which the money is demanded, refuses to accommodate him. In short, this importunate stranger is unnecessary: Angelo might have pursued compensation on his own initiative.

In the critical rush to find "meaning" or "tonal variety" in the addition of Luciana, Egeon, and Emilia, the structural value of the lesser auxiliary figures may be overlooked. Their untimely or mistaken demands for payment increase the confusion on the stage and damage the ties that connect them to their fellow citizens. Adriana joins the line of claimants when she tries forcibly to collect the love owed her by her husband, and her vocabulary indicates that Shakespeare has established an analogy between marital responsibilities and the cash nexus.

The setting of the comedy, as the occupations of the secondary figures remind us, is mostly the street, or "the mart," and from the beginning we observe that the business of the street is business. Most of the confrontations between characters and much of the dialogue concern the physical exchange of money or property, and other personal dealings are figured in financial terms. Egeon is a Syracusan trader unable to make the necessary financial exchange—a thousand marks for his freedom—and this fine or debt seems to have resulted from a protracted trade war. Many years before, after a period in which his "wealth increas'd / By prosperous voyages," Egeon had found himself separated from his wife by his "factor's death, / And the great care of goods at random left" (1.1.41-42). Now without family or funds, the insolvent businessman leaves the stage, whereupon Antipholus of Syracuse enters with an Ephesian merchant who tells him of the stranger's plight—"not being able to buy out his life"—and warns the young traveler to conceal his identity "lest that your goods too soon be confiscate." The citizen then returns Antipholus's bag of gold and pleads the need to pay a business call: "I am invited, sir, to certain merchants, / Of whom I hope to make much benefit" (1.2.24-25). He leaves Antipholus to his "own content,… the thing [he] cannot get."

This endearing soliloquy is usually said to prefigure the theme of self-understanding in the later comedies, but what is less often said is that Antipholus analyzes his dilemma in terms of self-possession: he fears that in seeking to recover his family he will "lose" himself. At the end of the same scene he frets about the loss of his treasure, worrying that Dromio "is o'er-raught of all [Antipholus's] money" and recalling the city's reputation for "cozenage," "cheaters," and "mountebanks."

The bag of gold that Antipholus gives to Dromio to deliver to the inn is the first in a list of theatrical properties that provoke farcical contention. The initial dispute occurs with the entrance of Dromio of Ephesus, to whom "the money" demanded can only be the "sixpence that I had o'Wednesday last, / To pay the saddler for my mistress' crupper"; the "charge" is not a bag of gold but a command "to fetch you from the mart"; the "thousand marks" are not coins but bruises administered by master and mistress. As Antipholus of Syracuse worries about fraud, Dromio of Ephesus reports the misunderstanding to his mistress in a speech whose opposing clauses suggest the nature of the impasse: "''Tis dinner time,' quoth I; 'my gold,' quoth he." The metal becomes a metaphor at the end of the first scene of act 2, when Adriana speaks of reputation as a piece of enameled gold (2.1.109-15), and thus Shakespeare uses it to link the end of the scene with the beginning of the next: Antipholus of Syracuse enters puzzling over the bag of money, apparently not lost at all, whereupon his own Dromio enters, denies any knowledge of the recent dispute over the gold, and earns a beating. The pattern of confusion thus established with the thousand marks is repeated in squabbles over control of a chain, a ring, a dinner, a house, a spouse, a bag of ducats, a name, a prisoner, and a pair of strangers seeking sanctuary.

The vocabulary of these disputes is almost invariably the parlance of the marketplace: Antipholus of Ephesus and his business cronies politely debate the relative value of a warm welcome and a good meal ("I hold your dainties cheap, sir, and your welcome dear"); Nell "lays claim" to the Syracusan Dromio; to the Courtesan, "forty ducats is too much to lose"; the Officer cannot release Antipholus of Ephesus for fear that "the debt he owes will be required of me"; Antipholus of Ephesus is known to be "of very reverend reputation,… / Of credit infinite"; Dromio of Ephesus, declared mad and tied up, describes himself as "entered in bond" for Antipholus; and when the Abbess sees Egeon in act 5, she offers to "loose his bonds, / And gain a husband by his liberty." The great scene before Antipholus's house (3.1) becomes a dispute not just over property but over ownership of names and identity. In their efforts to get paid or to pay others back for wrongs suffered, characters often speak of "answering" each other:

Eph. Ant. I answer you? Why should I answer you?

Angelo. The money that you owe me for the chain.


The merchants become enraged when their customers refuse to answer them with payment; Adriana is furious that her husband will not return a favorable answer to her requests that he come home to dinner; Antipholus of Ephesus will make his household answer for the insult of locking him out; and neither Antipholus is able to get a straight answer from either of the Dromios. This financial use of "answer" links cash to language, the most complicated and potentially ambiguous medium of all.

Exploiting the pun as the linguistic equivalent of twinship, Shakespeare creates a series of verbal equivalents for the visual duplications of the action. Initially, it seems to me, his practice is to please the audience with repeated words and images: most obviously, he develops the conflicts by ingeniously employing the language of commerce. The normal give-and-take of business activity and family life is impaired by the mistakings of the action, and when the members of the household take Antipholus of Ephesus for a troublemaker in the street, his Dromio describes him as having been "bought and sold." The "loss" of one's good name or "estimation" is risky in this world of commerce, as Balthazar explains: "For slander lives upon succession, / For ever housed where it gets possession" (3.1.105-6). Adriana's anger at her husband leads Luciana to charge her with possessiveness, and then when Antipholus of Syracuse confesses that Luciana,

     Possessed with such a gentle sovereign grace,
     Of such enchanting presence and discourse,
     Hath almost made me traitor to myself,
     (3.2.158-60; italics mine)

the diction of ownership ("possessions") is cleverly modulated into that of witchcraft and madness ("possession"). This ambiguity pays its most amusing dividends when Doctor Pinch attempts to exorcise the demons from Antipholus of Ephesus:

     I charge thee, Satan, hous'd within this man,
     To yield possession to my holy prayers,
     And to thy state of darkness hie thee straight;

The problems of confused identity and the loss of self-control are soon compounded by the question of freedom of action. The Dromios' lives are not their own, as they reiterate in complaining that, as slaves, they are not adequately rewarded for service. These various senses of bondage—to service, to customers, to wives, to the law, to business commitments (the Second Merchant is "bound to Persia"), to a rope—reinforce each other, especially in the last two acts, as the lines of action intersect:

Egeon. Most might duke, vouchsafe me speak a word.

Haply I see a friend will save my life,

And pay the sum that may deliver me.

Duke. Speak freely, Syracusian, what thou wilt.

Egeon. Is not your name, sir, called Antipholus?

And is not that your bondman Dromio?

Eph. Dro. Within this hour I was his bondman, sir;

But he, I thank him, gnawed in two my cords.

Now I am Dromio, and his man, unbound.


Egeon, expecting to be set at liberty, is mistaken, bound by the limitations of his senses. And here Dromio, the "freedman," steals from his master the privilege of response. As mistakes are exposed and corrected, Shakespeare relies upon the commercial vocabulary that has served him from the beginning: Antipholus of Syracuse wishes "to make good" his promises to Luciana; when Antipholus of Ephesus offers to pay his father's line, the Duke pardons Egeon and restores his freedom and self-control ("It shall not need; thy father hath his life"); and the Abbess offers to "make full satisfaction" to the assembled company in recompense for the confusion of the day.

Words offer a way of resolving the divisions that the play explores, but at the same time they entail enormous possibilities for error. Given the present critical climate, some remarks about the unreliability of language are to be expected, but if words are included among the other media of exchange that Shakespeare has chosen to twist and complicate, then such a conclusion seems less fashionable than useful. Shakespeare almost from the beginning expands the wrangling over who owns what to include a series of battles over words and their significance. The two Dromios again offer the sharpest illustrations of such cross-purposes, usually in their interchanges with their masters. In the first meeting of Antipholus of Syracuse with Dromio of Ephesus, the shifts in meaning of "charge" and "marks" I have already cited represent the struggle for control of meaning that underlies the farcical action. Both servants are adept at shifting from the metaphorical to the literal:

Adr. Say, is your tardy master now at hand?

Eph. Dro. Nay, he's at two hands with me, and that my two ears can witness.


When Antipholus of Syracuse threatens Dromio of Syracuse, "I will beat this method in your sconce," the servant resorts to linguistic subversion: "Sconce call you it? so you would leave battering, I had rather have it a head; and you use these blows long, I must get a sconce for my head, and insconce it too, or else I shall seek my wit in my shoulders" (2.2.34-39).

Yet the servants can speak highly figurative language as well: both describe the arresting officer in metaphors so elaborate that they baffle the auditors (4.2.32-40 and 4.3.12-30). Some of the verbal excursions resemble vaudeville turns, particularly the banter between the two Syracusans on baldness, and such jests represent verbal forms of what happens dramatically in the main action. In showing that "there is no time for all things," Dromio of Syracuse jestingly disproves an indisputable axiom, just as the errors of the main plot raise a challenge to the reality that everyone has accepted until now. This is more than what Brooks deprecatingly calls "elaborations of comic rhetoric."

The struggle over what words signify quickens as the characters sense that reality is slipping away from them. The locking-out scene (3.1) depends for its hilarity on the stichomythic exchanges between those outside (Dromio and Antipholus of Ephesus) and those inside (Dromio of Syracuse and Luce, and later Adriana). The contestants, particularly those in the security of the house, manipulate meanings and even rhyme and other sounds as they taunt the pair trying to enter, for possession of the house is apparently an advantage in the battle of words. The Dromios' attitudes toward language are almost always playful and subversive, so that even at their masters' most frustrated moments, the servants take pleasure in twisting sound and sense, as in Dromio of Ephesus's puns on "crow" ("crow without a feather?"; "pluck a crow together"; and "iron crow").

The trickiness of language can cause characters to lose the direction of the dialogue:

Adr. Why, man, what is the matter?

Syr. Dro. I do not know the matter; he is 'rested on the case.

Adr. What, is he arrested? tell me at whose suit?

Syr. Dro. I know not at whose suit he is arrested well;

But is in a suit of buff which 'rested him, that can I tell.

Will you send him, mistress, redemption, the money in his desk?

Adr. Go, fetch it, sister; this I wonder at,

Exit Luciana.

That he unknown to me should be in debt.

Tell me, was he arrested on a band?

Syr. Dro. Not on a band, but on a stronger thing;

A chain, a chain, do you not hear it ring?

Adr. What, the chain?

Syr. Dro. No, no, the bell, 'tis time that I were gone,

It was two ere I left him, and now the clock strikes one.


Rhetorically, the key to this passage is antanaclasis: Dromio wrests a word from Adriana's meaning into another of its senses, as with "matter" (trouble and substance), "case" and "suit" (both meaning case in law and suit of clothes), "band" (bond and ruff). The ambiguous pronoun reference in "hear it ring" illustrates the power of words to entrap: Adriana and the audience need a moment to adjust as Dromio abruptly shifts the focus from his narrative to the present.

Just as words are apt to slip out of their familiar senses, customers or husbands or servants seem to change from moment to moment. Dialogue and stage action illustrate the limits of human control as characters try to react to these confusing turns of phrase or of event. Antipholus of Syracuse, offered a wife and a dinner, can be flexible: "I'll say as they say" (2.2.214). But words may conflict with other words and realities with other realities, as the Duke discovers in seeking the undivided truth: "You say he dined at home; the goldsmith here / Denies that saying. Sirrah, what say you?" (5.1.274-75). Conflicts of personal identity, of contracts, of words, of stories, all make the truth seem elusive and uncertain.

Shakespeare's strategy of breaking the integuments that bind human beings to one another accounts for much of the mirth in Errors and for much of the significance as well. By interfering with familiar and normally reliable systems of relation—master to servant, wife to husband, customer to merchant, speaker to auditor—the dramatist achieves the dislocation felt by the characters and the "spirit of weird fun" enjoyed by the audience. There is, moreover, an additional verbal medium that Shakespeare has twisted to his own use, that of the play itself. The ironic bond between playwright and spectator, that relation which Shakespeare inherited from Plautus and cultivated throughout the first four acts and by which he assures us that we know more than the characters know, is suddenly abrogated when the Abbess declares her identity at the end of the fifth act: we have thought ourselves superior to the errors and assumptions of the ignorant characters, but we too have been deceived. Emilia's reunion with her husband and sons completes the comic movement of the action. This is farce, so the emphasis throughout is on the delights of disjunction; but this is also comedy, so the drama moves toward a restoration of human ties and the formation of new ones. Sentiment asserts itself in the final moments, of course, but Shakespeare does not overstate it, and the shift from pleasure in chaos to pleasure in order need not jar. The confusion must end somewhere, and it is standard practice for the farceur to relax the comic tension by devising a mellow ending to a period of frenzy.

Shakespeare attempted to write farce in The Comedy of Errors, and he succeeded. Certain effects and values are missing from this kind of drama: there is no thorough examination of characters, no great variety of tones, no profound treatment of ideas, no deep emotional engagement. But farce gives us what other dramatic forms may lack: the production of ideas through rowdy action, the pleasures of "nonsignificant" wordplay, freedom from the limits of credibility, mental exercise induced by the rapid tempo of the action, unrestricted laughter—the satisfactions of various kinds of extravagance. Indeed, farce may be considered the most elemental kind of theater, since the audience is encouraged to lose itself in play. This is bad Shakespeare in the sense that the young dramatist was content with an inherently limited mode; the play is not Twelfth Night. Its value is in its theatrical complexity. And yet the boisterous action does generate thematic issues. To admit that Shakespeare willingly devoted himself to farce is to acknowledge a side of his career too often neglected or misrepresented. That the author of King Lear was capable of writing The Comedy of Errors should be a source of wonder, not embarrassment.

Source: Russ McDonald, "Fear of Farce," in "Bad" Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, edited by Maurice Charney, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988, pp. 77-89.

Robert Ornstein

In this excerpt, Ornstein briefly discusses the characters of Adriana and her sister, Luciana, both of whom he terms "sympathetically drawn intelligent women." He maintains that Adriana's expectations of her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, are reasonable, and certainly not shrewish. He assesses Luciana as not simply a pious, moralistic woman, but rather one who "knows too much about the world to have any illusions about the way men treat women."

… There is no place in the dramatic world of Errors for Plautus's gluttonous Parasite or for the crass Senex, who is replaced as a sounding board for the Wife's complaints by Luciana, Adriana's sister, and later by the Abbess. The presence of these sympathetically drawn intelligent women radically alters the nature of the dramatic action because Ephesus is no longer a man's world in which women exist as household scolds or harlots, but one in which men and women are equally prominent, and the latter are more interesting and fully developed as dramatic personalities. Refusing to see her marriage as simply a domestic arrangement, Adriana regards the bond between husband and wife as intrinsic as that which links father to child. Indeed, when she speaks of her oneness with Antipholus E., it is with the same metaphor that Antipholus S. uses to describe his impossible search for his brother. For her the marriage vow is like a tie of birth and blood in that her sense of self depends on her husband's love and fidelity and she feels defiled by his adultery:

     For it we two be one, and thou play false,
     I do digest the poison of thy flesh,
     Being strumpeted by thy contagion.

These lines evoke the noblest Renaissance ideal of love—one soul in body twain—and do not allow us to dismiss Adriana's complaints as shrewish jealousy.

The lack of any scene in which Adriana directly confronts her erring husband is striking because her misery and insistence on the inequity of her situation give Errors much of its emotional ballast. First she complains to her sister, then to her husband's twin, and lastly to the Abbess, but her husband is not present to hear any of these speeches. Perhaps Shakespeare feared that any direct confrontation of husband and wife would make the other farcical misunderstandings of the play seem trivial by contrast, and he was not prepared to jettison the farcical supposes that keep his plot moving. And yet he allows Adriana to make a powerful indictment of the double standard that must affect an audience even though her speech is directed to the wrong man—her husband's twin. She protests the conventional attitudes that allow men their casual philandering but condemn an unchaste wife to her husband's pitiless revenges:

    How dearly would it touch thee to the quick,
    Shouldst thou but hear I were licentious,
    And that this body, consecrate to thee,
    By ruffian lust should be contaminate?
    Wouldst thou not spit at me, and spurn at me,
    And hurl the name of husband in my face,
    And tear the stain'd skin off my harlot brow,
    And from my false hand cut the wedding-ring,
    And break it with a deep-divorcing vow?

Although some critics have suggested that Adriana alienated her husband by a jealous possessiveness, she is not the eternally suspicious comic shrew that other dramatists portray. Her manner is never strident or undignified; her requests are never unreasonable. Balthazar, a voice of sanity in the play, speaks of her "unviolated honor," of her "wisdom, / Her sober virtue, years, and modesty"—hardly the attributes of a jealous nag. The worst that Antipholus E. can say of her is that she is shrewish if he "keeps not hours"—that is, if he is not home at a reasonable time. Even Luciana, who at first accuses her sister of "self-harming jealousy," stoutly defends her against the Abbess's intimation that her shrewishness caused Antipholus E.'s derangement. Where Plautus's husband is indifferent to his wife's continual complaints, Antipholus E. seems ignorant of his wife's unhappiness and is guilty, so it seems, of insensitivity rather than habitual infidelity. He is obtuse and quick-tempered, ready to engage in a flyting match with his servants or to tear down the gate to his house with a crowbar, but he is not loutish in the manner of his Plautine counterpart. He intended to give the necklace to his wife and presents it to the Courtesan only when he is locked out of his house. Although he is familiar with the Courtesan he does not boast of her sexual favors to Balthazar. She is, he claims, "a wench of excellent discourse, / Pretty and witty; wild and yet, too, gentle." This circumspect description does not come from the lips of a libertine; Antipholus E. is a successful businessman who uses his wife's mistreatment of him as an excuse for a night on the town. Because he is too coarse-grained and attached to his comforts to spend years in search of a lost brother, one doubts that he would understand Adriana's ideal of marriage even if he heard her pleas.

Antipholus S. is a more interesting character who not only embarks on a hopeless quest for his twin but also demonstrates his romantic temper by falling in love with Luciana at first sight. Like many later romantic heroes he is a rapturous wooer, one who has read many sonnets and knows by heart the literary language of love, the appropriate conceits and hyperboles with which to declare a boundless passion. He protests that Luciana is "our earth's wonder, more than earth divine"; nay, she is a very deity. Like many later heroines Luciana seems wiser than the man who woos her, even though she seems at first priggish in advising her sister to accept her unhappy lot without complaint. A man is master of his liberty, she explains, and his liberty is necessarily greater than a woman's because he is the provider and must be away from the home. To this practical reason, Luciana adds the metaphysical argument that a husband is the rightful bridle of his wife's will because of his superior position in the universe. If Luciana's sermon on order and degree smells a bit of the lamp, it is nevertheless seriously offered, complete with the usual commonplaces about the hierarchy of nature that all animals recognize and obey:

    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.

These high sentences are deflated, however, as soon as they are delivered. "This servitude," Adriana dryly responds, "makes you to keep unwed." "Not this," Luciana says, "but troubles of the marriage-bed." "Were you wedded," Adriana suggests, "you would bear some sway." Luciana's lame response is, "Ere I learn to love, I'll practice to obey," a tacit confession that she will have to school herself to the submissiveness that she claims is natural to women. When Luciana says that she would forbear a husband's wanderings, Adriana loses all patience with such pieties:

    Patience unmov'd! no marvel though she pause [in marrying]—
    They can be meek that have no other cause:
    A wretched soul, bruis'd with adversity,
    We bid be quiet when we hear it cry;
    But were we burd'ned with like weight of pain,
    As much, or more, we should ourselves complain.

Inevitably Adriana has the last word because here as elsewhere in Shakespeare's plays, platitudinous counsel and painted comforts shatter against the hard reality of suffering and anger. Moreover, Luciana is not simply a spokesman for conventional pieties; she knows too much about the world to have any illusions about the way men treat women. When Antipholus S. woos her, she is not horrified even though she thinks him Adriana's husband. Indignant at his advances, she does not, however, threaten to expose his "adulterous" (indeed, "incestuous") lust to her sister and she does not rebuff him with pious sentences. Instead she pleads with him to be circumspect in his philandering and thereby considerate of his wretched wife. She would have him be prudent if he cannot be faithful:

    If you did wed my sister for her wealth,
    Then for her wealth's sake use her with more kindness:
    Or, if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth,
    Muffle your false love with some show of blindness:
    Let not my sister read it in your eye;
    Be not thy tongue thy own shame's orator:
    Look sweet, speak fair, become disloyalty;
    Apparel vice like virtue's harbinger.

On other lips this might seem Machiavellian advice, but Luciana's anger shows through her seeming acceptance of the cynical way of the world. She knows too well the emotional dependence of women on men and their willingness to deceive themselves about their marriages if their husbands will give them half a chance:

     … make us but believe
     (Being compact of credit) that you love us;
     Though others have the arm, show us the sleeve;
     We in your motion turn, and you may move us.

It is remarkable that the pathos of a woman's subservience in marriage should be made more explicit in Errors than any other comedy to follow. The issue is not explicitly resolved in the play, but then Shakespeare never assumes the role of social critic or reformer. On the other hand, the prominence that he allows Adriana, Luciana, and the Abbess in the denouement of Errors makes an important if oblique comment on the relations of women and men….

Source: Robert Ornstein, "The Comedy of Errors," in Shakespeare's Comedies, University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 29-32.

W. Thomas MacCary

In the following excerpt, MacCary examines Antipholus of Syracuse from a Freudian perspective, in terms of his relationships with Adriana, Luciana, Aemilia, and Antipholus of Ephesus. MacCary notes in particular the significance of both Adriana's and Antipholus of Syracuse's use of the phrase "drop of water" in separate conversations.

… 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). 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, 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 estrangôd 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:

Luc. What, are you mad, that you do reason so?

Ant. S. Not mad, but mated; how, I do not know.

Luc. It is a fault that springeth from your eye.

Ant. S. For gazing on your beams, fair sun, being by.

Luc. Gaze where you should, and that will clear your sight.

Ant. S. As good to wink, sweet love, as look on night.

Luc. Why call you me love? Call my sister so.

Ant. S. Thy sister's sister.

Luc. That's my sister.

Ant. S. No,

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 possessive-ness 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….

Source: W. Thomas MacCary, "The Comedy of Errors: A Different Kind of Comedy," in New Literary History, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring, 1978, pp. 528-34.


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The Comedy of Errors