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The Comedy of Errors /

Reading Shakespeare's Language: The Comedy of Errors

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static” intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are not, and, worse, some of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth century. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of The Comedy of Errors, for example, you will find the words embracements (i.e., embraces), plainings (i.e., crying), hap (i.e., good fortune), and defeatures (i.e., marred features). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In The Comedy of Errors, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that we still use but that we use with a different meaning. In the opening scenes of The Comedy of Errors, for example, the word wanting has the meaning of “lacking,” default is used where we would say “offense,” heavier is used where we would say “more sorrowful,” happy where we would say “fortunate,” and doubtful where we would say “dreadful.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In the opening scene of The Comedy of Errors, for example, Shakespeare creates a world of violence and harsh judicial punishment with such words as fall (i.e., death, destruction), doom (i.e., judgment, sentence), outrage (i.e., violence), mortal and intestine jars (i.e., deadly conflicts); and then, in Egeon’s story, a world of sea trade and shipwrecks, with words like deep (i.e., ocean), small spare mast (i.e., a piece of timber for a jury-rigged mast), with such nautical terminology as making amain (i.e., coming at full speed) and borne upon (i.e., thrust upon by the wind), and with references to factors (i.e., agents) and goods at random left (i.e., goods left untended). The language of the play’s second scene creates the city of Ephesus as a center of commerce and trade with such words as the mart (i.e., the open marketplace), o’erraught (i.e., cheated), cozenage (i.e., deception, fraud) and as a city famous for witchcraft and sorcery/trickery with references to sorcerers, witches, jugglers, and prating mountebanks.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things although the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. In reading for yourself, do as the actor does. That is, when you become puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Look first for the placement of subject and verb. Shakespeare often rearranges verbs and subjects (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he,” or instead of “I would go” we find “Would I go”). In The Comedy of Errors, when Egeon says “There had she not been long,” he is using such a construction. Shakespeare also frequently places the object or the predicate adjective before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him” we might find “Him I hit,” or instead of “It is black” we might find “Black it is”). Egeon’s “Those, for their parents were exceeding poor, / I bought” is an example of such an inversion, as is his “A league from Epidamium had we sailed.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. (Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) Take, for example, Egeon’s “the incessant weepings of my wife, / Weeping before for what she saw must come, / And piteous plainings of the pretty babes, / That mourned for fashion, ignorant what to fear, / Forced me to seek delays for them and me.” Here, the compound subject (“weepings of my wife” and “plainings of the pretty babes”) is separated from the predicate (“Forced me to seek delays”) first by a line of description about the wife (“Weeping before for what she saw must come”) and then by a line about the crying babies (“That mourned for fashion, ignorant what to fear”). Or take the Duke’s lines: “Hapless Egeon, whom the fates have marked / To bear the extremity of dire mishap, / Now, trust me, were it not against our laws, / Against my crown, my oath, my dignity, / Which princes, would they, may not disannul, / My soul should sue as advocate for thee.” Here, the “normal” construction “Hapless Egeon, were it not against our laws, my soul should sue as advocate for thee” is interrupted by the insertion of several parenthetical phrases and clauses. In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (e.g., “the incessant weepings of my wife and piteous plainings of the pretty babes forced me to seek delays”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.

Locating and rearranging words that “belong together” is especially necessary in passages that separate basic sentence elements by long delaying or expanding interruptions. When the Duke tells Egeon the reason why mercy is being withheld (“The enmity which sprung from the rancorous outrage of your duke excludes all pity from our threatening looks”), he uses such an interrupted construction:

The enmity and discord which of late

Sprung from the rancorous outrage of your duke

To merchants, our well-dealing countrymen,

Who, wanting guilders to redeem their lives,

Have sealed his rigorous statutes with their bloods,

Excludes all pity from our threat’ning looks.


Embedded within the larger interrupted construction of these lines is a smaller example of such a construction, as the phrase “merchants who have sealed his statutes with their bloods” is itself expanded by two descriptive interrupting phrases.

In many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In his later plays, Shakespeare uses omissions both of verbs and of nouns to great dramatic effect. In The Comedy of Errors omissions are rare and seem to be used primarily for the sake of speech rhythm. For example, in Egeon’s “Yet this my comfort: when your words are done,” the omission of the word “is” after “this” allows a regular iambic pentameter line to be created.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only three kinds of wordplay, puns, metaphors, and similes. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings (or on a single word that has more than one meaning). Much of the farcical comedy of The Comedy of Errors depends on puns and related kinds of wordplay. The twin Dromios serve their masters in roles close to that of the professional Fool—that is, they attempt to entertain, amuse, and distract through wordplay. When, for example, Antipholus of Syracuse meets Dromio of Ephesus in 1.2, Dromio delivers his message to Antipholus in words that involve a series of puns:

I from my mistress come to you in post;

If I return, I shall be post indeed,

For she will scour your fault upon my pate.


Here, “in post” means “in haste” (like a messenger traveling by post-horse); Dromio picks up the word post in the next line, giving it the meaning of “the tavern post on which charges for drinks were cut or scored” and then builds on that pun in the following line with a triple pun on the word scour, which means “to beat,” but which is pronounced like “score” and which, in the phrase “scour your fault,” means “purge away (your sin).”

To give only one other example from hundreds available in this play: In 2.2, Antipholus of Syracuse confronts Dromio of Syracuse and orders him to behave properly, “or I will beat this method in your sconce.” Dromio replies: “ ‘Sconce’ call you it? So you would leave battering, I had rather have it a ‘head.’ An you use these blows long, I must get a sconce for my head and ensconce it too. . . . ” Dromio takes the word sconce, which Antipholus has used as a slang term for “head,” plays on its meanings as a “fortification” being subjected to battering and as a “protective screen,” and then adds the word ensconce, which means “to shelter behind a fortification.” Such wide-ranging puns are so characteristic of the language of this play—particularly the conversations that involve either Dromio—that the play’s dialogue needs to be listened to carefully if one is to catch all its meanings.

Metaphors and similes are plays on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. When Antipholus of Syracuse is left alone onstage in 1.2, he shares with the audience his feelings of being lost, confused, and unhappy by comparing himself to a drop of water in the sea looking for another drop, expanding on the proverb “as lost as a drop of water in the sea”:

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.


The wordplay here is technically a simile, in that Antipholus explicitly says that he is like a drop of water, but the comparison becomes metaphoric (i.e., the speaker in effect becomes the drop of water) with the word confounds, which means “destroys,” but which carries the meaning of its Latin root, confundere, “to pour together.” Antipholus’s complex emotions are here conveyed quite economically through metaphoric language.

Adriana uses much the same metaphor/simile in 2.2 when she describes to her supposed husband what marriage means to her:

Ah, do not tear away thyself from me!

For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall

A drop of water in the breaking gulf,

And take unmingled thence that drop again

Without addition or diminishing,

As take from me thyself and not me too.


Here, the ocean (“the breaking gulf”) is the marriage, Antipholus is the drop of water falling into the ocean; she argues that once the drop has fallen, it cannot be removed “unmingled.” This is only the first of several metaphors/similes used by Adriana to show, for example, that their bodies are one, or that he is the elm tree and she the ivy twined inseparably around the tree. (The fact that she is speaking to the wrong brother makes the situation wonderfully comic, but does not detract from the interest of her language.)

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. When, in The Comedy of Errors 1.2.8, the merchant says to Antipholus “There is your money that I had to keep” and Antipholus in turn says to Dromio “Go bear it to the Centaur,” it is clear that the merchant gives a purse to Antipholus who then gives it to Dromio. In 2.2.184, when Adriana says to Antipholus “Come, I will fasten on this sleeve of thine,” it is equally clear that she takes him by the arm. At several places in The Comedy of Errors, signals to the reader are not quite so clear. When, for example, Adriana says to Antipholus at 2.2.135 (in a line quoted above) “Ah, do not tear away thyself from me,” it is not at all clear when or how she has attached herself to him; nor is it clear, in 3.1, just when the outraged husband and his servant should begin beating on the door. Dromio urges his master to “knock the door hard” at 3.1.89, but dialogue a few lines earlier (“Well struck! There was blow for blow”) may refer to verbal blows or to physical blows on the door. As editors, we have added stage directions when we feel reasonably sure our suggestions are valid, but readers, directors, and actors will need to use their own imaginations and their own understandings of the scene for their individual stagings.

Especially interesting challenges are offered by 3.1 and by the final scene of the play. In 3.1, it is unclear where—or whether—the characters “inside the house” should appear when they speak, so that the staging of this scene is one of the most problematic in Shakespeare. In the play’s final scene, the interest is primarily in character placement when the two sets of twins are finally onstage together. The miracle of the untangling of the day’s confusions is signaled in the Folio text with the stage direction “All gather to see them” as the second set of twins enters. Most affected by the entrance are Adriana (“I see two husbands, or mine eyes deceive me”) and Egeon (denied by one son, but now hearing the words “Egeon art thou not . . . ?” and “O, my old master.—Who hath bound him here?”) These recognitions are then superseded by the Abbess’s “Whoever bound him, I will loose his bonds / And gain a husband by his liberty.” Proper placement of characters onstage and proper attention to entrances will have a significant effect on the power of the denouement, whether onstage or in our imaginations.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.