Although The Comedy of Errors, undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s early plays, anticipates his later comedies and romances, such as The Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night, and The Taming of the Shrew, it is, nonetheless, a play that clearly stands on its own. Granted, The Comedy of Errors requires its audience to stretch considerably the willing suspension of disbelief. The “shipwrecked and separated at birth” motif that drives the plot and provides the comedy does give one pause. In addition, the audience is required to keep track of, sort out, and sustain its credulity about the following:
—two masters (twins);
—two servants to the two masters (also twins);
—both masters having the same name (Antipholus);
—both servants having the same name (Dromio);
—finally and incredibly, the coincidence of master and servant from Syracuse docking in Ephesus, where reside not only the other master and servant, but also, unbeknownst to everyone, including the audience, resides their mother (currently an abbess) and now their father, who has just landed at Ephesus .
Well, it does give one pause. The challenges for the director to make the play coherent to the audience are great; finding two actors enough alike to be mistaken one for the other by the other characters could be a casting nightmare. Yet, most scholars of Shakespeare find such good comedy and such poignant drama in this play that it is considered among Shakespeare’s best, despite these contrivances.
Drawn from, among other sources, a farce by the Roman playwright Plautus, who himself drew from a Greek farce, now lost, Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors goes beyond the physical comedy that embodies farce to the often brooding element of disaster and poignancy that hovers around the edges of all his comedies. Although not abandoning the farcical and comical nature of the play, this article explores those serious boundaries within which the comic action takes place.
For example, unlike its Roman counterpart, the very present threat of Egeon’s death casts its shadow over the comedy that ensues from the beginning of the play to the final act. Egeon, father of the twin Antipholuses, resides in Syracuse. Upon his arrival in Ephesus, however, he is immediately sentenced to death for the mere reason that he is from Syracuse, and the two cities are declared enemies. The duke, bound by the laws that demand this death sentence, does modify that sentence upon hearing Egeon’s plaintive report of his five years’ wandering in search of his son, who left Syracuse to search for his brother. Yet, the duke’s announcement that he will give Egeon the day to come up with the thousand marks that will stay his execution is hardly a victory. Egeon believes he knows no one in Ephesus; for him, the extra hours granted him are useless, and he anticipates his death: “My woes end likewise with the setting sun” (1.1.28; all quotes from the play are from William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, London: Penguin Book, 1972).
As we switch from the death sentence to the almost surreal quality of mistaken identities of both master and servant, however, it may seem easy to forget the opening scene and its foreboding. Quite possibly, the audience puts any concern about Egeon aside as he disappears from the action and as the comedy becomes more rollicking with each encounter where the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio are taken for their Ephesian counterparts--and vice versa. But the play itself really won’t let the audience forget the brief amount of time allotted to Egeon. Even during the episode in which the baffled Antipholus of Syracuse is bade by the Ephesian servant Dromio to come home to lunch we hear “The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell” (1.2.45). At the very beginning of Act 2, Adriana frets that her husband, Antipohlus of Syracuse, has not returned for lunch; by now, “Sure . . . it is two o’clock” (2.1.3). After Antipholus of Ephesus is arrested, claiming not to have the chain for which he owes Angelo money (he doesn’t have it, of course; Angelo mistakenly gave it to the twin from Syracuse), Dromio (it’s not important which one) implores Adriana to hasten to post her husband’s bond: “time comes stealing on by night and day” (4.2.59). As the comedy moves toward the final scene, we are well aware of the hour as the second merchant announces the pending arrival of the duke for the execution, since “the dial points at five” (5.1.18). Amidst all the confusion, chaos, and laughter, then, time, the thief has been moving surely toward the hour of execution for Egeon.
Yet, after all, it is a comedy—not a tragedy—of errors. Between acts one and five we have ample opportunity to enjoy the classic cases of Shakespearean mistaken identity, and doubly so. Farce, of course, relies on the visual as well as on that indispensable technique of drama, dramatic irony, wherein the audience knows more than the characters on the stage. The two Dromios are constantly punished for not carrying out their masters’ orders, when, in fact, they believe they have meticulously done so. Antipholus of Syracuse finally gives in to Adriana’s insistence that he is her husband and agrees to dine with her; in the meantime the Ephesian Antipholus arrives at his own home for dinner but Adriana will have none of it, since her husband, she believes, is already at home dining. And so on. The audience is well aware that all the chaos and confusion will be untangled in the final act, so we do have permission, so to speak, to sit back and enjoy these confusions.
Shakespearean scholars nevertheless find a seriousness and depth even to the farcical elements of this play. Several scholars have drawn attention to the assault on identity that both sets of twin face as their world becomes unknowable and unpredictable. Dromio of Syracuse best expresses this identity crisis when he exclaims to his (real) master: “Do you know me sir? Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?” (3.2.73, emphasis mine).
The loss of community and family, the search for the self and in the case of the twins, the other self, and the challenge to the identity that occurs when one twin is mistaken for the other bear looking into. What is the effect, other than comic, when a person is so thoroughly mistaken for someone else? When a father believes he has lost both sons and a wife? When years are spent searching for completeness?
The most frequently quoted line from The Comedy of Errors speaks to this dilemma. As Antipholus of Syracuse enters Ephesus he is greeted with warmth by the citizens, especially the first merchant, who wishes him contentment. The Syracusan ruminates: “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” (1.2.35-38).
Stanley Wells, in his introduction to the Penguin edition of The Comedy of Errors, looks at the power of the water imagery, especially appropriate, he says, since the family was lost at sea: Of the Syracusan Antipholus, Wells states, “He will not merely give up his own concerns while seeking his brother, but will also, by being treated as if he were someone other than he really is, be made to feel that he has lost his own identity” (29). Similarly, R.A. Foakes focuses on the serious theme: “The play has farcical comedy . . . but it does more than merely provoke laughter. . . . It also invites compassion, a measure of sympathy, and a deeper response to the disruption of family and social relationships which the action brings about” (“Serious Themes: The Comedy of Errors,” Readings on the Comedies [San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997], 86).
Coppélia Kahn, however, points to the positive result of identity lost and found: “Identity [in the play] grows through time and through loss, confusion, and challenge. Errors are part of a process whereby youth grows into and out of the family to find itself” (“The Providential Tempest and the Shakespearean Family,” Representing Shakespeare, ed. Murray M Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn [Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1980], 225). Surely at the end of the play, when the entire family is reunited and Egeon’s death sentence commuted, the elements of comedy and melancholy have blended with those of romance: the missing are found, the dead revived, the family restored, and identity is once more intact. Perhaps it is fitting that the twins who have the last word are the Dromios. After all, it is they who have physically suffered from all the master/servant mixups. To conclude The Comedy of Errors with a brief and trifling conflict about which of the twins is older--and therefore has the privilege of exiting first--certainly provides the restoration of the social order required at the conclusion of classic comedy.