A Study Guide
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Table of ContentsType of Work Composition and First Performance Publication Sources Setting Characters Plot Summary
Conflicts Tone Themes Plotting and Characterization Climax Hyperbole and Humor Rhyming Lines
Figures of Speech Role of Religion Study Questions and Essay Topics Complete Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010, 2011..©
William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors is a stage comedy with elements of farce and burlesque. It is sometimes classified as a "comedy of intrigue" or a "comedy of situation." The latter, like the modern TV situation comedy, relies heavily on mix-ups and sometimes slapstick. With approximately 16,250 words, The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare's shortest play.
Shakespeare based the plot on The Menaechmus Twins, by the Roman playwright Plautus (254?-184 BC), and possibly, Amphitruo, by the same author.
Once upon a time, Aegeon says, his wife gave birth to twin boys in Epidamnum (in present-day Albania) during one of Aegeon’s business trips to that city. Aegeon then purchased another pair of twin sons from a poor woman. These twins were to be the slaves of his own sons. When he and his wife were sailing back to Syracuse with the quartet of boys, a storm wrecked their ship. Two other ships came to the rescue. One, bound for Epidaurus, Greece, picked up Aegeon, one son, and one slave boy. The other picked up his wife and the other two boys. Aegeon says he saw it sail away in the direction of Corinth, Greece. Thus, each set of twins was split up and carried off in different directions.
Eighteen years passed. Antipholus, the son rescued with Aegeon, then embarked on a search for his lost twin brother, accompanied by his slave, Dromio. However, when Antipholus did not return, Aegeon embarked on a search for him. After five years, the search took Aegeon to Ephesus—and to his present sorry circumstances. After hearing this tale, the duke expresses sympathy but says he cannot change the law. Aegeon must beg or borrow the required sum.
Meanwhile, unknown to Aegeon, Antipholus has just arrived in Ephesus, still looking for his brother. After a merchant informs him of the penalty imposed against visiitors from Syracuse, Antipholus declares that he is from Epidamnum in order to avoid arrest. Antipholus has come to the right place, for his twin brother is indeed in Ephesus with the second slave—and a wife, Adriana. Here is where the play turns into a “comedy of errors,” for the brother of Antipholus is also named Antipholus, and the brother of Dromio is also named Dromio. Of course, no one in Ephesus is aware that there is one Antipholus who looks exactly like another Antipholus and one Dromio who looks exactly like another Dromio.
Antipholus of Syracuse sends Dromio of Syracuse to an inn called the Centaur, where they are to lodge and deposit a bag of gold. Dromio is to remain there until Antipholus arrives after scouting the city. Bemoaning the seemingly impossible task of finding his brother, who could be anywhere on earth, Antipholus says, “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop” (1.2.37-38). Dromio of Ephesus comes on the scene. Taking him for his own Dromio, Antipholus asks him why he has returned so soon from the Centaur. Dromio of Ephesus, of course, takes Antipholus of Syracuse for Antipholus of Ephesus and tells him he is late for supper, saying:
The meat is cold because you come not home;Antipholus inquires about the money that was to be deposited. Believing Antipholus is referring to sixpence he used to pay for a crupper (a leather strap that attaches a horse’s tail to the saddle), Dromio of Ephesus says he gave the money to a saddler. Antipholus thinks Dromio is jesting and demands to know where the gold is. Dromio says he knows nothing of gold. When Antipholus strikes him, the slave returns home. There, Adriana scolds him for returning without her husband (Antipholus of Ephesus).
After Dromio of Syracuse returns from depositing the gold, he denies having called his master to supper. By this time, both men think Ephesus is bewitched. Antipholus of Syracuse observes:
They say this town is full of cozenage,Then Adriana appears with her sister Luciana. When Adriana scolds the bewildered Antipholus for not returning to supper, he denies knowing her. Adriana then hauls him off to her home. While Antipholus of Syracuse is dining with Adriana, Dromio of Syracuse guards the door.
Antipholus of Ephesus then arrives for supper with his slave and two guests, Angelo, a goldsmith, and Balthazar, a merchant. But they can’t get in because the door is locked. So Antipholus of Ephesus takes his party for dinner to the house of a pretty courtesan. He plans to give her a gold chain intended for his wife and tells Angelo, who made the chain, to fetch it. Meanwhile, Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love with Luciana and tries to woo her. However, she rejects his advances, believing that he is her brother-in-law. (Remember, Luciana is the sister of Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus.) At the same time, Dromio of Syracuse falls prey to the clutches of a greasy kitchen maid who means to marry him. Thoroughly convinced now that Ephesus is a city of witchery, Antipholus of Syracuse decides to leave town and sends Dromio to inquire about a ship. When Angelo returns with the chain, he gives it to the wrong Antipholus (Antipholus of Syracuse).
Later Angelo demands payment for the chain from the right Antipholus, who says he never received the chain. Angelo has him arrested. Dromio of Syracuse returns to report that he has found a ship, but he tells Antipholus of Ephesus, not Antipholus of Syracuse. The Ephesian, who remains under arrest, then orders Dromio to get money from Adriana to bail him out of jail. However, when he returns with the money, Dromio of Syracuse gives it to Antipholus of Syracuse instead of the jailed Antipholus of Ephesus. After the courtesan shows up and demands the gold chain promised to her, he refuses to part with it. The courtesan then tells Adriana that her husband is mad. Back at the jail, Dromio of Ephesus shows up and is amazed to learn that he is supposed to have bail money. Adriana, Luciana, and the courtesan appear with a Doctor Pinch, who declares the jailed Antipholus insane after feeling his pulse. Adriana then bails her husband out, and he and his slave are led away to be locked up at home.
While Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio are on their way to the ship, Angelo confronts Antipholus and demands the money for the gold chain. Swords are drawn. When Adriana, Luciana, and the courtesan appear, Adriana thinks Antipholus of Syracuse is her husband and orders him and his slave to be bound and taken to her house. They escape into a nearby priory. There, the abbess takes them under her protection.
At this time Duke Solinus is passing by as he accompanies Aegeon to the place of execution. Adriana appeals to the duke for justice. Antipholus of Ephesus and his Dromio appear and they also appeal for justice. When the abbess then produces Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio, all of the astonished company put together the pieces of the puzzle. The abbess, it turns out, is Aegeon’s long lost wife. Antipholus of Ephesus is reconciled with his wife, and Antipholus of Syracuse is betrothed to Luciana. Aegeon receives a pardon from Duke Solinus.
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The main conflicts in the play center on the problems that confront Aegeon and the son he reared (Antipholus of Syracuse) when they arrive separately in Ephesus. First, Duke Solinus tells Aegeon,
If any Syracusian . . .Aegeon lacks such a sum; he has the rest of the day to beg or borrow the money. If he cannot raise it, the Ephesians will execute him.
Meanwhile, after Antipholus and Dromio arrive in Ephesus, Antipholus pretends to be from Epidamnum and avoids arrest. He is unaware that his father is in the same town. He is also unaware that his twin brother (also named Antipholus) and Dromio's twin brother (also named Dromio) are walking the streets of the same city. Utter confusion results when Antipholus of Syracuse encounters Dromio of Ephesus while Dromio of Syracuse is elsewhere--or Antipholus of Ephesus encounters Dromio of Syracuse in the absence of Dromio of Ephesus. The mixups baffle both sets of twins and get them into trouble with authorities. Not until the two sets of twins are in the same place at the same time is the conflict resolved.
Unbending—even obstinate—loyalty brings families together in times of crisis. This serious message underlies the comedy. Aegeon and his son, Antipholus of Syracuse, refuse to give up on their lost family members, even after years of searching for them. In the end, the entire family is reunited.
Importance of Persistence
Persistence pays. Aegeon, Antipholus of Ephesus, and Dromio of Ephesus are all reunited with their loved ones after a long and unrelenting search lasting many years.
Happenstance in Everyday Life
mix-ups are part of everyday life and not
magical or supernatural
occurrences. The Comedy of Errors
features two sets of twins:
(1) Antipholus of Ephesus
Antipholus of Syracuse and (2) Dromio of
Ephesus and Dromio of
Syracuse. Dromio of Ephesus is the slave of
Antipholus of Ephesus, and
Dromio of Syracuse is the slave of Antipholus
of Syracuse. Antipholus
of Ephesus is unaware that he has a twin
brother, Antipholus of
Syracuse. And Dromio of Ephesus is unaware
that he also has a twin
brother, Dromio of Syracuse. Coincidences and
mix-ups occur when all
the twins converge in Ephesus. Antipholus of
Ephesus mistakes Dromio of
Syracuse for Dromio of Ephesus. And Dromio of
Antipholus of Ephesus for Antipholus of
Syracuse. And so on. What is
the meaning of all of these mix-ups?
The Comedy of Errors relies primarily on plot rather than characterization to achieve its effect. What happens next is more important than what a character thinks or feels or says. There is no deep probing of a character's intellect or emotions, no attempt to fathom a character's soul. It is circumstance or situation that counts. However, at least one character, Duke Solinus, undergoes a significant change. At the beginning of the play, he is a rigid legalist who, in spite of his expressed sympathy for Aegeon's plight, is unwilling to bend the law. At the end of the play, he forgives all offenses.
The Comedy of Errors reaches its climax in the last act when all of the principle characters assemble at the priory and the abbess produces Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio while the other Antipholus and Dromio are standing nearby. All of the astonished company then put together the pieces of the puzzle and the confusion ends. The abbess, it turns out, is Aegeon's long lost wife. Antipholus of Ephesus is reconciled with his wife, and Antipholus of Syracuse is betrothed to Luciana. Aegeon receives a pardon from Duke Solinus.
Hyperbole and Humor
In Act 3, Shakespeare blends hyperbole and metaphor in a hilarious scene in which Dromio of Syracuse laments that a rotund cook is relentlessly pursuing him. After Antipholus of Syracuse asks him to identify her, Dromio says,
Marry, sir, she’s the kitchen-wench, and all grease; and I know not what use to put her to but to make a lamp of her and run from her by her own light. I warrant her rags and the tallow in them will burn a Poland winter; if she lives till doomsday, she’ll burn a week longer than the whole world. (3.2.88)When Antipholus questions him further about her looks, another hyperbole results. Here is the passage:
ANTIPHOLUS: What complexion is she of?Shakespeare then turns the woman into an extended metaphor in which he mocks nations and government policies. Describing her as being so fat that she is as wide as she is tall, Dromio says that “she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.” Here is the rest of the dialogue:
ANTIPHOLUS: In what part of her body stands Ireland?Rhyming Lines
Shakespeare occasionally casts conversations on trivial matters in rhyme, mimicking the sublimity of poetry and thereby further heightening the humor. Here are two examples, both from the first act. In the first example, Dromio of Ephesus and his master, Antipholus of Ephesus, are attempting to enter the latter's home. However, Dromio of Syracuse, who is inside, refuses to open the door.
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: [Within.] Mome, malt-horse, capon, coxcomb, idiot, patch!In the second example, Antipholus of Syracuse flirts with Luciana, who thinks he is Antipholus of Ephesus.
LUCIANA: What! are you mad, that you do reason so?Figures of Speech
Shakespeare's verbal bag of tricks includes a variety of figures of speech that vivify descriptions and observations. Among the passages containing memorable figures of speech are the following. (For the definitions of figures of speech, see literary terms).
Five summers have I spent in furthest Greece. (1.1.134)
He that commends me to mine own content,
For a fish without a fin, there’s a fowl without a feather (3.1.90)
Ill deeds are doubled with an evil word. (3. 2. 21)
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote. (3.2.49)
What to delight in, what to sorrow for. (1.1.107-108)
Against my crown, my oath, my dignity. (1.1.145)
was once when thou unurg’d wouldst vow
And strike you home without a messenger. (1.2.69-70)
Comparison of the stomach (maw) to a clock
nothing situate under heaven’s eye
lives upon succession,
Unkindness blunts it more than marble hard. (2.1.90-91)
Metaphor: comparison of unkindness to a blunting object
Simile: Comparison of the blunting with unkindness to the blunting with marble
Pleasing punishment refers to pregnancy.
A trusty villain, sir. . . . (1.2.21)
But creep in crannies when he hides his beams. (2.2.33-34)
Comparison of the sun to a person
[dress] vice like virtue’s harbinger.
Although Roman Catholicism was banned in England in Shakespeare's time, he presents the Abbess in The Comedy of Errors as a wise and admirable person, perhaps suggesting to the English that the outlawed religion had merit. (Shakespeare himself was reared as a Roman Catholic by devout Roman Catholic parents. )
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Adriana and her sister,
Luciana, express opposing
views on the role of women. Luciana believes
women should submit to the
will of men, who are “Lords of the wide world”
(2.1.23). Write an essay
that examines the role of women in society
1. heir: Henry of
Navarre, or Henry de
Bourbonne-Navarre. In 1584, on the death of
the brother of the King of
France, Henry became first in line to inherit
the French throne.
Because Henry was a Protestant, Roman
Catholics opposed his succession.
Subsequently, the French king and the Holy
League, a Catholic
Organization, forged a treaty banning Henry
from the throne. Henry went
to war against the French and won a crucial
battle in 1587. Later,
after becoming reconciled with the French
king, he acceded to the
throne of France after the death of the king.
In Dromio’s line, the
word heir not only refers to Henry of Navarre
but also to the kitchen
wench’s hair, in a pun.