An Analysis of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Shakespeare’s shortest and dumbest play, The Comedy of Errors (circa 1594) concerns identical-twin brothers who are separated in a shipwreck and their servants who, incredibly, are also identical twins. The shortest and the dumbest play, yes, and also the most infantile thing the Swan of Avon ever composed. Nauseatingly and horrifically infantile in three senses of the word “infantile”: 1.) It belongs to Shakespeare’s infancy as a dramatist. 2.) It contains scatological humor and slapstick violence. Only stupid people, infant infants and adult infants, find scatological humor and slapstick violence diverting. The comedy is designed for those who find something intrinsically funny about a harlequin being beaten by an unforgiving master. 3.) The play lacks eloquence in the same way that infants lack eloquence.
It is also Shakespeare’s most Aristotelian play, slavishly obeying, as it does, Aristotle’s unities of time and place. The entire comedy takes place uninterruptedly in the span of one day and unfolds at a frenetic velocity. Antipholus of Syracuse comes to Ephesus to find his brother and his mother. There, he is confused with Antipholus of Ephesus. Hilarity ensues.
The comedy has Plautine origins and perhaps owes some of its buffoonery to the Commedia dell’arte. The plot is largely derived from Plautus’s Amphitruo, where a master and his servant are locked out of the house while the wife entertains Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as her husband and his servant, respectively, and the Menaechmi, with its two sets of twins.
A second literary source is likely St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Ephesus was, at the time that St. Paul composed his epistle (circa 100 CE), in the thrall of Artemis (Diana, Goddess of the Hunt). Shakespeare’s audiences would not have been unaware of St. Paul’s condemnation of the witcheries of Ephesus. One can hear resonances of St. Paul’s apotropaisms in Antipholus of Syracuse’s words:
They say this town is full of cozenage; / As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, / Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, / Soul-killing witches that deform the body, / Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, / And many such-like liberties of sin [I:ii].
Shakespeare’s revision lent itself easily to stupid Broadway musicals and even sillier off-Broadway burlesques. The Digital Theatre recently performed a slaphappy version of the play for digital children, and that is the ideal public for this awful play. Add meows and barks and moos and other animal sounds and kitschy songs, and you have a farce.
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A question taxes first-time readers of the erroneous comedy: Why are both of the merchant’s sons given the same name, Antipholus? And why are their servants, who are also twins, given the same name, Dromio?
Aegeon, father to the Antipholuses, describes the event of his wife’s pregnancy and the double birth of his sons:
There had she not been long but she became / A joyful mother of two goodly sons; / And, which is strange, the one so like the other / As could not be distinguish’d but by names [I:i].
If the twins could only be distinguished by their names, why, then, are they both named Antipholus? One explanation is that they were given separate names, but were confused in the storm. Both parents took each twin for Antipholus and Dromio, respectively (what the “other” names are, we will never know).
However, this hypothesis falls to pieces when we consider Aemilia’s story in the one-scene fifth act. She claims that “rude fishermen” from Corinth took “Dromio” and her son from her. They were then brought to Ephesus by Duke Menaphon, uncle to Duke Solinus. “Antipholus of Ephesus” and “Dromio of Ephesus” were infants at the time of their separation from their mother. How, then, does Antipholus know that his name is “Antipholus”? And how does Dromio know that this name is “Dromio”?
There is an even more vexing improbability: Are we credulous enough to believe that both sets of twins would appear in the same town on the same day wearing exactly the same hairstyles and outfits?
Yet another taxing improbability: Antipholus of Syracuse has been searching the world for his brother and his mother. Surely Aegeon told Antipholus of Syracuse that his son is a twin. If the Ephesians greet Antipholus of Syracuse “as if [he] were their well-acquainted friend” [IV:iii], shouldn’t he have been able to figure out that his twin brother is in Ephesus?
The plot is so confusing that it might be helpful to list the confusions:
1.) In the marketplace, Antipholus of Syracuse mistakes Dromio of Ephesus for his own servant. The master asks the servant what the latter has done with his money. The Ephesian Dromio urges Antipholus of Syracuse to come home for dinner and is viciously beaten.
2.) Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus, accuses Antipholus of Syracuse of having “strumpeted” her. The Syracusan Antipholus is uncomprehending, having only been in Ephesus for two hours, and does not know who she is.
3.) Luciana, sister to Adriana, commands the Syracusan Dromio to bid the servants to set the table for dinner. Dromio of Syracuse, of course, has no idea what she means.
4.) Dromio of Syracuse locks out Antipholus of Ephesus (and his servant) from his own home.
5.) Luce (also known as “Nell”), wife to Dromio of Ephesus, mistakes Dromio of Syracuse for her husband.
6.) Luciana is courted by Antipholus of Syracuse. Luciana believes, mistakenly, that Adriana’s husband is flirting with her.
7.) Angelo, Ephesian merchant, gives a necklace to Antipholus of Syracuse, who accepts it with bemusement. Later, Angelo will demand payment for the necklace from Antipholus of Ephesus. Angelo, as it turns out, is in debt and in danger of being imprisoned for his debtorship. (Though “debtorship” does not appear in Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, it was used by George Meredith.)
8.) Aegeon mistakes his Ephesian son for the other, etc.
Ephesus is a town in which everyone is strange to Antipholus of Syracuse. Ephesus is a town in which Antipholus of Syracuse is a stranger to himself. Doubled, he does not know himself. The Comedy of Errors is a prototype to The Tempest: Both plays are about self-alienation and self-loss. Ephesus seems a magical land where no man is his own, where no woman is her own. The play hints at the impossibility of self-ownership and self-mastery:
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].
One drop of water in the ocean in which he nearly drowned, Antipholus of Syracuse is neither unique nor the master of himself. This is why Adriana, the wife of his Ephesian double, asks him: “How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it, / That thou art then estranged from thyself?” [II:ii].
The Comedy of Errors suggests that to be oneself is to be another person, that selfhood is not identity.
Is this why neither Antipholus of Ephesus nor Antipholus of Syracuse seem very happy to meet each other the end of play?
Dr. Joseph Suglia