This is the story of a stranger in a strange land. His name is Antipholus and with his servant Dromio – visitors to Ephesus from Syracuse – he is forced to face a sequence of unpredictable and inexplicable events before, through a further sequence of improbable co-incidences, everything finally makes sense.
Antipholus of Syracuse is an innocent abroad, and unexpected things can happen – though not often on this scale – in unfamiliar surroundings. But he is not the only one to be affected by the surreal sequence of events the play describes. Another character, also called Antipholus, a local resident, finds his routines suddenly disrupted and his relationships in shreds because of events that similarly make no sense.
This second Antipholus – the Ephesus version – has a servant of his own. Naturally, his name is also Dromio, and he too is confronted with an abruptly altered reality that confounds his expectations of what life is about. Both have to cope as best they can with the confusion that descends on them until the closing act of the play, when everything is explained and it all starts to add up.
But they are not alone among local residents to face the blizzard of inexplicable challenges that suddenly descends on Ephesus. The local Antipholus is married, and his wife Adriana is also confronted with the inexplicable when, for various reasons, she needs reassurance. And her sister Luciana is a similarly unwilling participant in the new reality that suddenly disrupts their once-comfortable lives.
Happily, perhaps, we don’t need to share the collective bewilderment of these six characters – and several others – because the playwright, with characteristic consideration for his audience, keeps us well aware of what his characters are going through right up until the last act. Till then, dramatic irony maintains our hold on a reality elusive to those whose fortunes we follow – if not with a belly-laugh – at least with a wry smile.
“The Comedy of Errors” announces in its title that none of this should be taken too seriously. But I wonder. At times there’s an element of dystopia about events spiralling out of control for reasons that make no sense, and more than once, Antipholus of Syracuse ascribes his ordeal to forces of evil, while Antipholus of Ephesus responds with anger, his wife with sorrow and her sister with outrage at events delivered by what we might call the new normal.
Good to know that none of this can happen in real life. But again, one wonders. Elizabethan England had its own hand of unpredictable and often hostile events to cope with: the aftermath of the Reformation, with its destruction of what once mattered most; the Spanish Armada and the imminent prospect of war on English soil; the invasion of the plague, and the sudden deaths of ten per cent of London’s population. Perhaps the real difference between the events detailed in “The Comedy of Errors” and those that Shakespeare and his contemporaries lived through is that at least in the play, it does all make sense in the end.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
Aegeon, a merchant of Syracuse, believes his impending execution will end his unhappiness.
Solinus, Duke of Ephesus, insists the law must be followed and Syracusian merchants executed.
So “Unless a thousand marks be levied”, Aegeon (who is worth only one hundred) will have to die.
He remembers the birth of his twin sons and the adoption of two other twins “to attend my sons”.
But while being rescued in a shipwreck he was parted from his wife, one son and one adopted boy.
At eighteen, five years ago, his remaining son and adopted boy went in search of their brothers.
Solinus sympathetically gives the hapless Aegeon one day to raise the money to forestall his death.
Act One Scene Two
Antipholus of Syracuse is advised to disguise his origins to avoid the same fate as the “merchant”.
He tells Dromio to take his money back to the guest house while he engages in some sight-seeing.
Antipholus of Syracuse reflects on his misery, resembling “a drop of water” seeking another drop.
Dromio of Ephesus, mistaking Antipholus for his brother, rebukes him for being absent from home.
Antipholus asks about the whereabouts of the gold, to be met with denial that any such gold exists.
Ignorant of these “thousand marks”, Dromio complains of the marks left on him by his mistress.
Antipholus reflects that his money doesn’t seem safe in a town full of “Dark-working sorcerers”.
Act Two Scene One
Adriana is worried about the whereabouts of her Antipholus but Luciana counsels subservience.
Dromio of Ephesus returns to describe his earlier unsuccessful encounter with the wrong Antipholus.
He says Antipholus admitted he knew of “no house, no wife, no mistress”, and beat him violently.
Light-heartedly comparing himself to a football, Dromio is despatched to “fetch thy master home”.
Adriana discharges on her husband’s neglect of her, revealing her suspicion that his eye has strayed.
He has promised her a gold chain, but as this has not materialised she is left to “weeping die”.
Act Two Scene Two
After his anxieties in 1.2, Antipholus of Syracuse confirms that his gold is safe where he is staying.
He mistakenly berates his Dromio with the answers he received from Dromio of Ephesus in 1.2
Dromio of Syracuse is bewildered by this attack, mistakenly imagining his master is in a “merry vein”.
Antipholus beats him, to which Dromio replies with puns (“basting”) and cheerful repartee.
Adriana arrives, mistaking Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband, begging him not to abandon her.
It is easier, she claims, to separate specific drops of water than it is to “take thee from myself”.
She accuses him of adultery, rebuking him for leaving her to be “strumpeted by thy contagion”.
Antipholus is bewildered by this volley, finding it incomprehensible after a mere two hours here.
Luciana is equally indignant, implicating an equally bewildered Dromio – who denies all knowledge.
Antipholus, confusing two Dromios, adds his voice in support of Adriana to Dromio’s despair.
Antipholus believes he is dreaming while Dromio denounces “fairy land” and fears for the worst.
Adriana calls Antipholus to eat with her, putting Dromio on gate-duty – “and let no creature enter”.
Act Three Scene One
Antipholus of Ephesus asks the jeweller to confirm, if questioned by his wife, that he was at his shop.
He rebukes his Dromio as an “ass”, to which Dromio replies that he should then kick like an ass.
He tries to go into his house but the door is locked and a voice within dismisses his attempt to enter.
The voice identifies itself as Dromio, and his intransigence further enrages the master of the house.
Antipholus makes to break the door down, eliciting a joke from Dromio about breaking wind.
Balthazar, who was to have dined here, counsels caution and posits “some cause to you unknown”.
He praises the “unviolated honour” of Antipholus’s wife, and suggests they go elsewhere for lunch.
Antipholus suggests lunch with “a wench” he calls “Pretty and witty”, of whom his wife is suspicious.
He tells the jeweller to collect the chain he has had made for his wife – it will go to “mine hostess”.
Act Three Scene Two
Luciana mistakenly encourages Antipholus of Syracuse to treat his wife, her sister, more respectfully.
But she adds that if he must betray his wife, he should “do it by stealth” and be “secret-false”.
Antipholus, still believing he is dreaming, asks her “Are you a god?” then denies he is married.
He then reveals that if she encourages him he will “dote” on her, believing that he may have died.
He sings her praises in hyperbolic romantic style, and though she is at first appalled, she softens.
His Dromio arrives, with news that (as Dromio of Ephesus) he is spoken for by the “kitchen wench”.
Weighty, dirty, sweaty and spherical, Nell resembles a globe, complete with individual countries.
He reports that Nell knew him so well, he was so alarmed “that I amazed ran from her as a witch”.
Antipholus decides it is time to cut short their visit to Ephesus: “there’s none but witches … here”.
Antipholus soliloquises he was tempted by Luciana, but sees her beauty as a “mermaid’s song”.
The jeweller appears with the gold chain he has been asked to make, agreeing to be paid later.
Impressed with the city’s generosity, Antipholus is now convinced he must leave “straight away”.
Act Four Scene One
Angelo the jeweller needs money to pay a bill to a departing merchant, and is owed for the chain.
Antipholus of Ephesus is arranging the purchase of a rope to chastise his wife for locking him out.
Angelo requests he pay the fee for the chain to the merchant but he denies he has seen the chain.
Antipholus insists the jeweller take the chain to his wife for payment, but Angelo demands payment.
The merchant calls on an officer to arrest Antipholus, which he does to a barrage of threats.
Dromio of Syracuse, thinking Antipholus his twin, reports he has loaded up a ship ready to depart.
Antipholus is now further confused, reminding Dromio mistakenly that he ordered a rope not a boat.
Issuing instructions for his release – which Dromio begins to understand – he is taken away to jail.
Act Four Scene Two
Luciana mistakenly reports to her sister Adriana that Antipholus of Ephesus has propositioned her.
Adriana insults him brutally (“crooked, deformed” etc), though she admits she’s exaggerating.
Dromio of Syracuse appears in a hurry to collect the purse, and reports Antipholus arrested.
Luciana locates the purse and Adriana despatches Dromio “straight” to have her husband released.
Act Four Scene Three
Antipholus of Syracuse is confused but gratified by the friendly welcome he receives everywhere.
Dromio of Syracuse turns up with “the gold you sent me for” – which Antipholus doesn’t recognise.
When Dromio refers to Antipholus’s arrest – confused again – he concludes “we wander in illusions”.
When a courtesan appears and seems to know him, Antipholus concludes “It is the devil”.
The courtesan asks for her ring back and demands “the chain you promised”, at which they flee.
The courtesan reflects that Antipholus is mad, and determines to inform his wife of his behaviour.
Act Four Scene Four
Antipholus of Ephesus tells the Officer he’ll pay soon, but Dromio of Ephesus brings rope not money.
Antipholus beats him, at which Dromio complains he has received nothing but beating from birth.
Adriana arrives with Dr Pinch – but when he tries to take his pulse, Antipholus beats him too.
When Antipholus complains he was shut out of his house, Adriana replies “you dined at home”.
Dromio of Ephesus confirms his master’s account that “your doors were lock’d and you shut out”.
Further doubts about who collected the “purse of ducats” since Dromio claims “I received no gold”.
Antipholus makes to attack his wife but is restrained, then disdains Dromio: “Out on thee, villain!”
He is taken away, leaving only the women behind when suddenly Antipholus of Syracuse appears.
The women flee, and while Dromio praises the “gentle nation”, Antipholus orders an urgent exit.
Act Five Scene One
Angelo says Antipholus of Ephesus has behaved “dishonestly” but has an excellent reputation.
When Antipholus of Syracuse appears sporting the gold chain, Angelo asks him to explain himself.
Confusion leads to threats of violence and they have drawn their swords when Adriana appears.
Antipholus and Dromio take refuge in a nearby Priory, bringing the Abbess out to investigate.
Adriana reports her husband has been “different” this week, but particularly ill “this afternoon”.
Adriana believes his eye has wandered, which the Abbess thinks requires a “rough” reprimand.
Adriana protests she denounced his behaviour – which the Abbess believes explains his “fever”.
Adriana and the Abbess argue over who should take care of Antipholus when the Duke appears.
He has come to witness the public beheading of the Syracusian merchant Aegeon from Act One.
Adriana intervenes to recount this morning’s events and ask him to have her husband released.
Solinus agrees to help before news comes of further outrages confusingly committed elsewhere.
Antipholus of Ephesus arrives to beg for help against his wife and is recognised by Aegeon as his son.
Adriana denies his accusations, but Antipholus narrates the day’s events, including imprisonment.
Angelo the jeweller reports he was wearing the missing chain when he took refuge in the Priory.
Amid much confusion, Aegeon addresses Antipholus of Ephesus as his son, thinking he’s of Syracuse.
The Abbess reappears with Antipholus of Syracuse, and now Adriana perceives “two husbands”.
Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse immediately recognise Aegeon from “seven short years” ago.
The Abbess reveals herself to be Aegeon’s long-lost wife and the mother of two missing sons.
She explains that after the shipwreck that divided her from Aegeon, her son was taken from her.
The Duke leads the efforts to resolve the confusion, while Antipholus of Syracuse flirts with Luciana.
Aegeon is forgiven, and the Abbess invites one and all to make sense of the “Thirty-three years”.
The brothers Antipholus leave together, while Dromio of Ephesus notes “I am a sweet-faced youth”.
As so often in Shakespeare’s work, dramatic irony is among the most prominent techniques he uses to engage the audience in this play. This technique is as central to the comedies as to the tragedies. Here the audience knows that in this city there are two versions of Antipholus and two of Dromio – a pivotal fact unknown to the characters themselves. As ever in Shakespeare, dramatic irony is a reminder that human beings often operate on the basis of incomplete information. So the genuine horror felt by Antipholus and Dromio at what is happening to them – “This is the fairy land”, as Dromio observes. “O spite of spites!” – is played for laughs by the playwright.
It is rare for Shakespeare to open a play with a lengthy recapitulation of the back-story. It happens in “The Tempest” – and there’s evidence in that play that the author half-expects the audience to get restive. Here Aegeon’s story is detailed but speedily explained, and the pay-off (he has a single day to raise a thousand marks to avoid execution) is immediately intriguing. There are a number of other similarities with “The Tempest”: shipwrecks, strangers in a strange land, concluding reunions, unity of time and place etc. “The Comedy of Errors” is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, “The Tempest” his last.
Aegeon’s appearance in the opening scene is followed by four acts in which he is notable for his absence. By the middle of the closing scene of the play, it will look to audiences with long memories that he is not returning (others will have forgotten about him altogether). Yet – spoiler alert – he does return in something close to triumph at the play’s end, thus connecting with the mainstream narrative what looked at first like a sub-plot.
The death sentence that is passed on Aegeon in the first scene has its origins in the bitter enmity between Syracuse and Ephesus. Several questions arise: why have two city-states at opposite ends of the Mediterranean fallen out so badly? Why are they maintaining their conflict even though Solinus, Duke of Ephesus, seems to think it’s excessive? Why is Aegeon risking his life taking what seems like a vanishingly small chance on finding his son here? Why is Antipholus of Syracuse apparently unaware of the fact that he’s in enemy territory? And why does Dromio of Syracuse know so little about relations between the two cities that, at the end of 4.4, he says “methinks they [the Ephesians] are such a gentle nation”?
It does seem rather extraordinary that two port cities at opposite ends of the Mediterranean (Syracuse is in Sicily, Ephesus in modern Turkey) could have fallen into such tension with one another that trade is punishable by execution. Nonetheless that is the background to the play, making Antipholus of Syracuse’s casual tourism in 1.2 all the more spirited. Still, the entire play is based on the improbable, and to quibble over details like trade relations is perhaps to miss the point. Or as Coleridge put it, these events may not be probable, but they are possible.
A surprising number of Shakespeare’s plays feature the sea – even when it is geographically inaccurate for them to do so (as in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “The Winter’s Tale”). Allowing for the fact that there remain to this day significant gaps in Shakespeare’s chronology, nonetheless it must be doubtful whether he ever saw the sea in person. Born in Stratford and living in London, there is no obvious reason why he should have done. Nonetheless, late-Elizabethan England was increasingly conscious of its waters, and Shakespeare’s plays often reflect this.
When her husband fails to return for lunch, Adriana sees his absence as further evidence of what she already suspects: that “his eye doth homage otherwhere”. In the process she reveals her anxieties about her marriage, sensing her waning beauty is to blame. This depiction of an unhappily-married woman is rare in Shakespeare, for the reason that married women are curiously thin on the ground in his plays. The critic Harold Bloom suggests that the happiest marriage in Shakespeare is the Macbeths’. Happier than Shakespeare’s own, perhaps.
The majority of 3.2 is a tale of two relationships spliced into the same scene for contrast. At first the increasingly seductive Luciana magnetises the bewildered Antipholus of Syracuse so effectively that he is close to falling in love, and the language of their conversation anticipates the first encounter of Romeo with Juliet, which it evokes. Next, Dromio reports his encounter with Nell, whose charms are less beguiling. But for all the contrast, both visitors agree that escape is the best policy.
When Antipholus of Ephesus is asked by Angelo the jeweller in 4.1 for payment for the chain (which he has not, of course, so much as glimpsed), he becomes understandably angry. Angelo insists that the law of the land must be followed: “Sir, sir, I will have law in Ephesus,” he exclaims. Antipholus, by contrast, addresses him not as “sir” but as “sirrah”: “But, sirrah,” he threatens, “you shall buy this sport as dear / As all the metal in your shop” – meaning you’ll pay for this outrage. The contrast between “sir” and “sirrah” is a matter of hierarchy and politeness, the latter being a term of address for an inferior, particularly used for servants, but also, as here, to insult.
Act Four Scene Three is a good example of the confusions at the heart of this play. When Luciana reports to Adriana that Antipholus has propositioned her, both naturally believe the guilty party is Antipholus of Ephesus – and they have every right to be angry. In practice, her suitor was Antipholus of Syracuse, and he had every right to speak as he did. When Dromio of Syracuse arrives to collect the purse, confusion intensifies. He believes that the man arrested is Antipholus of Syracuse (so he tells him about the ship ready to depart) whereas it is Antipholus of Ephesus, while both Adriana and Luciana are right about who has been arrested – but wrong about Dromio.
Critics have been quick to praise the elaborate stage-craft evident in this play – particularly striking given that this is one of Shakespeare’s earlier works. One serious challenge for the playwright from the start has been how much information to give away to the audience – bearing in mind that the characters themselves have been lost in a fog of confusion. Hitherto the audience has been kept well-informed as Shakespeare exploits dramatic irony to the full. But he still needs to keep a rabbit in his hat for the climax. The final scene gives him the chance to unravel and explain the plot when he introduces Emilia, the Abbess (or leader) of the Priory, and then brings Aegeon back from the play’s opening scene to forge unexpected connections with the intervening events of the play.
Some critics argue that, with its single narrative, this play is something of an outlier in Shakespeare’s canon. But the reappearance of Aegeon in Act Five reminds the audience that looming over the farcical confusions of the play has been the dark cloud of his impending (and cruel) execution. Has the audience forgotten this prospect, dismissing it as irrelevant to the main plot? If so, the fifth act will come as a surprise – just as the author intends. Incidentally, it is a sobering reflection on Tudor England that beheading was regarded (among those about to be executed) as something of a privilege, granted by the monarch as a favour: Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, the Earl of Essex. There were plenty of worse ways to go in Shakespeare’s day.
The play closes in a somewhat surprising way: the brothers Antipholus, having at long last found one another, have almost nothing to say to each other – just a brief dispute (“He speaks to me”) about Dromio of Syracuse. With that curt sign-off they leave the stage. No heart-warming hand-shakes or joyful embraces. By contrast, the brothers Dromio exchange quite touching felicitations, the Ephesus version commenting on his brother’s “sweet-faced youth”, the Syracuse version deferring to his brother’s seniority before they leave the stage “hand in hand”. It’s a charming conclusion, and it’s telling of Shakespeare’s sympathies that it’s the servants not the masters who deliver it.
Characters / Who’s Who
Antipholus of Syracuse is probably the play’s most prominent character, though it’s worth noting that this is a play without a single leading light. Nonetheless, much of what happens is seen through his eyes. At first he is a cheerful tourist in Ephesus, evidently unaware of the conflict with his home town. His cheeriness is a recurrent feature, though his treatment of Dromio leaves much to be desired – not least by Dromio. Still, they have a companionable relationship, at times leavened by humour. His attraction to Luciana is less successful, for reasons beyond his control, and his reaction when he is reconciled with his family – father, mother and brother in one moment – is less than ecstatic.
Dromio of Syracuse is a long-suffering but resilient companion and retainer, high-spirited and cheerful, who entertains his master with his “merry jests” and is genuinely funny in his description of Nell, his brother’s intended. But he also attends diligently to his duties – for example in keeping the door barred in 3.1 – and contributes fully to the happy ending alongside his brother.
Antipholus of Ephesus emerges as the injured party in a marriage that suffers from his wife’s anxieties about his loyalties and engagement. Further injury develops as he falls victim to a sequence of otherwise inexplicable confusions. His moderate reaction to being barred from entering his own house suggests he is capable of tempering his anger and being influenced by others, but when he is arrested for stealing a gold chain he hasn’t seen, his anger is forgiveable. His relations with Dromio of Ephesus are characterised like his brother’s by an over-reliance on physical force.
Dromio of Ephesus, like his brother, is a cheerful retainer with a weakness for a pun (“marks”, “hands” etc), happy to fight his own corner – for example when he is rebuked as an “ass” he replies that perhaps he should kick like one. His contribution to the affirming conclusion (“We came into the world like brother and brother; / And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another”) is pivotal, and entirely in character.
What does Solinus tell Aegeon in 1.1 is the price of his release?
What present has Antipholus of Ephesus promised his wife?
How does Antipholus of Ephesus describe his intended lunch companion?
Where does Nell work?
How much does Antipholus of Syracuse pay for the gold chain?
What does Antipholus of Ephesus instruct Dromio to buy for him?
How does Antipholus of Syracuse describe the courtesan who propositions him in 4.3?
What is the name of the doctor who takes Antipholus’s pulse?
Where do Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse take refuge in 5.1?
How long is it since Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse last saw Aegeon?
In a number of formal ways, “The Comedy of Errors” is an unusual play in the context of Shakespeare’s canon, reflecting, perhaps, the fact that it was written early in his career and has an experimental edge to it.
First, the play has no central character. True, many of the History plays have a similar breadth of perspective – though there is always the monarch of the title to centralise the vision. In the end, Henry VI may not be the most prominent character, but he remains the focus. The same can’t be said of this play, where something like six separate characters share the limelight. The result is that the audience has no single character to identify with.
Second, this a play in which there is relatively little to choose between the leading characters. True, Antipholus of Ephesus is possibly a touch angrier than his brother – a matter of circumstances, one imagines – and Dromio of Syracuse may be slightly more humorous than his twin. But it’s marginal. The critic Emma Smith describes this play as having “flat characterisation”, arguing that differences between characters are down to situation not personality.
Finally, this play is unusual in that the events it describes occupy a single location and a single day. Earlier it was noted that “The Tempest” alone in Shakespeare’s canon shares this discipline, and it is no coincidence that both plays begin with a lengthy back-story that leaves loose ends awaiting solutions. What follows is an intense sequence of events that resolves the outstanding issues. In both cases, the play ends in reconciliation.
In comedy, it has been rightly said, people come together, and in tragedy, they fall apart. In that case, this play is well-named.