Mischief And Mayhem In A Comedy Of Errors
A Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and probably his first comedy. Much like the more serious of Shakespeare’s plays, this story has a major theme of madness and insanity. It is the story of twin brothers separated by a ship wreck at a young age and one’s quest for the other. The brothers, both named Antipholus, have their own slaves who are also twins, both named Dromio. In Antipholus of Syracuse’s search from his brother, he unknowing finds himself in the same town as the other Antipholus in Ephesus. Since the men and their slaves look the same as their counterparts, the townspeople of Ephesus believe that the lad from Syracuse is his twin. Due to the fact that so many confusing events happen to both sets of twins, they all believe they have gone insane. Throughout the play disorder runs through the streets of Ephesus and it is not until the brothers find one another at last, that the city can be turned right-side-up once again.
The story begins with Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse and the father of both Antipholus’, searching for his long lost wife as well as his son, whose left in search of his family. Egeon’s town is at odds with Ephesus and upon entering the city his is immediately arrested and condemned to death for violating the law forbidding him to come to Ephesus. The Ephesian Duke, Solinus, is unwilling to bend the rules of his society and feels that he must follow liberty rather than common decency.
“Merchant of Syracuse, plead no more;
I am not partial to infringe our laws:
The enmity and discord which of late
Sprung from the rancorous outrage of your duke
To merchants …
Excludes all pity from our threatening looks.”
(Act I, Scene I, Lines 3-10)
He tells Solinus of his tragic parting with his wife and one of his sons and of his fruitless search for them. The Duke is intrigued by his story and instead of condemning him to immediate death, he gives Egeon one day to raise one thousand marks, the price that will save him from execution. This task, however, seems to bring even more despair because it seems to be impossible. He states,
“Hopeless and helpless doth AEgeon wend,
But to procrastinate his lifeless end.”
(Act I, Scene I, Lines )
Egeon’s helplessness and unoptimistic attitude provides the audience with insight into the disorder of the play.
When Antipholus of Syracuse enters Ephesus with his slave Dromio, he does not meet the same fate as his father. He is warned of his status by a local merchant and does not reveal his identity as a man of Syracuse. He does not know that he is in the city where his mother and brother reside so is baffled when he is treated as though he belongs, rather than as an outsider. Shortly after checking into an inn Dromio of Ephesus runs into Antipholus S. and, mistaking him for his master, orders him to return home for dinner. Antipholus S, also mistaking Dromio E. for his slave, becomes impatient and in his confusion he eventually slaps the slave who flees. While wandering the city later Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, sees Antipholus S. and his Dromio mistakes him for her husband and his slave.
“Plead you to me, fair dame? I know you not:
In Ephsus I am but two hours old,
As strange unto your town as to your talk;
Who, every word by all my wit being scann’d,
Want with in all one word to understand.”
(Act II, Scene ii, Lines )
When he claims to have no idea who she is, Adriana accuses him of infidelity and becomes more furious when he continues to claim the he does not know her. He finally relents and returns to her home, hoping that it will allow him to get a better grasp on the situation. However, while there more confusion breaks out when the real Antipholus E. returns home to find that his wife will not admit anyone to the house, believing that her husband is already inside with her. Enraged at his wife’s actions. Antipholus of Ephesus decides that he will go find a courtesan and dine with her instead.
Meanwhile, inside the house the mayhem continues when Antipholus of Syracuse is left alone with Adriana’s sister Luciana. Antipholus S. finds her to be intriguing and decides to confess his love to her.
“ O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,
To drown me in they sister’s flood of tears:
Sing, siren, for theyself and I will dote:
Spread o’er the silver waves they holden hairs,
And as a bed I’lll take them and there lie,
And in that glorious supposition think
He gains by death that hath such means to die:
Let Loe, being light, be drowned if she sink!”
(Act III, Scene ii, Lines )
However, she still thinks that he is her sisters husband and finds the idea of loving him appalling so she leaves the house. Having been rejected and already scared by the city, he decides that he should probably leave before anything else happens. But before he can take action on his thoughts he is approached by the town goldsmith who, also mistaking him to be Antipholus of Ephesus, gives him a gold chain and tells him that he will collect the payment later that day. Unfortunately, later that day the goldsmith catches up with the real Antipholus of Ephesus who refuses to make payment on the item claiming to have never received it. Angelo, the goldsmith, demands he make the payment and when Antipholus E. continues to refuse, he has him arrested. Dromio of Syracuse witnesses the arrest and reports back to Adriana that her husband has been arrested and needs money. Still harboring feelings for him, despite his strange behavior, Adriana gives the slave money and sends him to save her husband from prison.
On the other side of the city, Antipholus of Syracuse continues to be mistaken as his brother. Most of the townspeople thank him for a good deed he performed for them and are polite and friendly, until he runs into the courtesan that the other Antipholus shared the previous meal with. They get into an argument as she claims that he has her ring and he continues to state that he does not know what she is talking about.
“Now, out of doubt Antipholus is mad,
Else would he never so demean himself.
A ring he hath of mine worth forty ducats,
And for the same he promised me a chain:
Both one and other he denies me now.
The reason that I gather he is mad,
Besides this present instance of his rage,
Is a mad tale he told to-day at dinner,
Of his own doors being shut against his entrance.”
(Act IV, Scene iii, Lines )
Even the courtesan has recognized that he is not himself and believes him to be going mad. Fed up with his behavior she decides to go tell his wife of her husbands theft. Meanwhile, Antipholus of Ephesus becomes enraged when he encounters his Dromio who does not have the money to get him out of jail. He is on the border of assaulting the slave when his wife and her sister show up with a doctor who is planning to perform an exorcism on him to get rid of the strange behavior that he has been exhibiting. The doctor proclaims that both the master and his slave are mad and they are both bound and forced back to Adriana’s house who promises to get her husband out of a debt.
It is not until the final act of the play that some of the confusion is solved and order is restored in Ephesus. Now five o’clock, Egeon has run out of time to raise his one thousand marks and goes looking for the duke to tell him the news. Adriana seeks the due too, in hopes that he will pardon her husband if he just pays off his debt. However just as the duke agrees to help mediate the problems between the two, Antipholus of Ephesus and his Dromio burst into the room and demand that Adriana be arrested for locking him out of his home then locking him up. The duke sends for the Abbess to help straighten things out. Egeon sees Ephesian Antipholus and greets him happily, believing him to be the son that he raised, rather than his long lost one. Antipholus E has never seen the man before in his life. But before Egeon can solve his confusion the Abbess enters with Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio. As commotion pursues, the Abbess sees Egeon and reveals herself to be his wife, Emilia, and clarifies that the two men are their twin sons who were separated as babies. “Whoever bound him, I will loose his bonds
And gain a husband by his liberty.
Speak, old AEgeon, if thou be’st the man
That hadst a wife once call’d AEmilia
That bore thee at a burden two fair sons:
O, if thou be’st the same AEgeon, speak,
And speak unto the same Aemilia!”
(Act V, Scene i, Lines )
Once this realization is made the rest of the confusion is also solved and everything begins to fall into place. Antipholus of Ephesus’ debt is paid and the Duke gains a heart, letting Egeon go with no payment made, declaring him to be pardoned. And the play ends with the two Dromios meeting at least and embracing each other like brothers.
Although this is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, it falls into place thematically with the rest of the comedies that he wrote later in his life. This play begins with a noble quest with good intentions but it soon turns into a madly confusing and entertaining trail of mistaken identity and forbidden attractions. But as with all of Shakespeare’s comedies, the disorder of the story will yield to order by the last act and, as they say in the movies, “they all lived happily ever after.”