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The Comedy of Errors /

A Modern Perspective: The Comedy of Errors

By Arthur F. Kinney

Reading The Comedy of Errors is a great deal of fun—both up close, for the slapstick and the puns, and from further back, where we can watch, sometimes in awe, the sheer juggling act of events spinning out of mistaken identity, certain that the whole improbable set of circumstances will come crashing down at any moment and constantly surprised it does not. The form of this play—among Shakespeare’s earliest—represents the round or catch, the most popular song forms of his time, which took a single line or idea and kept building on it through repetition and variation. At the same time, reading The Comedy of Errors is, at least at first, a matter of unending confusion; with twin Antipholuses and Dromios on the stage, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish them, to keep the players straight and in proper position and relationship to each other. The confusion runs deep, beginning with the first scene.

Egeon’s forced and painful narrative, the beginning of the story, is torn by confusion (or, perhaps, by errors). Egeon tells the Duke that he and Emilia can distinguish their own sons only by name (52), yet the sons have the same name, and the twins they buy to serve the sons also share a single name (57). Emilia’s “incessant weepings” (70) cause Egeon to seek a way to save his family (74), yet Emilia manages to do it (78–79) only to see the storm dissipate (89). Now, in calm waters, the ship nevertheless crashes on “a mighty rock” (101). There are, of course, still greater conundrums in this only apparently simple play. Why does Solinus pronounce a sentence and then suspend it for a day? Why don’t the twins—at least Antipholus of Syracuse, who is, after all, searching for his twin—think that the presence of a twin might be the cause of the strange events he encounters? And how could his mother live for more than a decade in the same town as her son and his servant and not know of it? The play must have seemed especially appropriate for its presentation on December 28, 1594, at Gray’s Inn in London, when, we are told, the night was also marked by such “Throngs and Tumults, Crowds and Outrages” that it soon became known as the “Night of Errors.”

But these are not proper questions to ask of farce. From the widespread study of Plautus’s farces in the Elizabethan grammar schools, many Elizabethan playgoers would know that this kind of play is based in absurdity of plot, and also, by convention, in stylized action and stock characters, and in physical pranks and punishments that evoke laughter instead of pity. Shrewish wives, feckless husbands, flirtatious courtesans, and slaves constantly quarreling with their masters were all the stuff of Plautus, and particularly of his Menaechmi, one of his most popular plays with Elizabethans and one which has so much in common with The Comedy of Errors that Menaechmi is regarded as a source for Shakespeare’s play. In Menaechmi, two twins are separated at birth and when one later arrives at the home of the other in Epidamnus, many of the people the stranger encounters—including his twin’s wife and servant, a courtesan, and a mountebank pretending to be a doctor—confuse the two men. Both plays center on the wrong twin coming to dinner and on a gold chain meant for the wife given in retaliation to the courtesan; but in the end, Plautus’s twins are so enamored of each other—rather like Shakespeare’s Dromios at the end of his play—that they decide to travel together and they auction off all the goods of the twin in Epidamnus, including his wife! In each work, the reductive, mechanical quality of events leads to a shameless series of unlikely coincidences, thus supplying a certain mathematical economy of plot. But in Shakespeare’s play alone, the twin Antipholuses are given twin Dromios, troping an extended crisscrossing (or chiasmus, according to the popular rhetorical handbook of the period by George Puttenham) in which the strangers and aliens from Syracuse get a wife, a dinner, and a warm welcome, and the inhabitant twins of Ephesus are made strangers and aliens who are abused, exorcised, and punished.

Since appearance alone is what counts in these plays, in Shakespeare as in Plautus, individual identification or personality is usually eradicated, at least until the final scenes.1 Characters are governed by a single trait so that they appear quite one-dimensional; Plautine (and Shakespearean) farce thus draws upon the Greek notion of character, according to which superhuman forces stamp and direct human behavior in a singular and predictable way.2 For the Elizabethans, too, social and family relationships often dictated behavior rather than individual choice or talent. Luciana’s advice to her sister Adriana concerning marriage (2.1.15–25) and to Antipholus of Syracuse (3.2.1–30), echoing almost verbatim conventional sermons of the time, is a reliable index to the Elizabethan culture for which Shakespeare was writing. But this was also a culture at the beginning of transition, and many current social historians of the period now argue that with a shifting economy—from the fixed duties in feudalism to the more fluid ones in a nascent capitalism—many men and especially women were beginning to become aware of what might set them apart in a shifting and competitive world.3 Centuries before Freud—in characters like Hamlet or Othello or Macbeth or even like Romeo or Juliet—individual consciousness was given emphasis.

Thus recent critics writing in our own time are more keenly concerned with the psychological consequences of a play in which one brother seeking his twin finds himself in a land which is baffling and even threatening. Ruth Nevo, for instance, has written that “If it were not so funny, Shakespeare’s first comedy would read like a schizophrenic nightmare: identities are lost, split, engulfed, hallucinated, imploded. Apparently solid citizens (solid at least to themselves) suffer ‘ontological uncertainty’ in acute forms, wandering about unrecognized by all they encounter.”4 Their individuality, their very selves, are denied them because they fail to arouse the recognition or confirmation in others that we all use for self-identity. Antipholus of Syracuse is warmly received in a strange city; Antipholus of Ephesus is locked out of his own home by his wife, who refuses to acknowledge that he is her husband. Dromio of Syracuse describes the kitchen wench to his master in a way that depersonalizes and deconstructs her, making her nothing more than a global map full of stereotypical prejudices of the day (3.2.97–153). Her explicit grotesqueness sketches in a concentrated way the grotesque events that characterize the play, just as Egeon’s initial sense of estrangement is in due course shared by more and more characters. The puzzling, fragmented world they sense—using the best of their logic only to be defeated by illogical occurrences and responses—eliminates the force of reason, while the pressure of the unexpected robs them of any integrated consciousness. The characters of The Comedy of Errors become not subjects but objects: integers moved by events and by the playwright, like so many chess pieces on a comic chessboard. Rather than feel their concerns, sharing them, we laugh at them.

In a very real sense, then, such depersonalized characters become comic commodities whose purpose, in a metatheatrical expansion of the market setting, is their commercial value as figures of fun. This is, I think, a way in which all of the matters we have been discussing—comic confusion, farcically endless improbabilities, loss of personal freedom and identity—come together. As recent economic historians have demonstrated, the Elizabethan age, in which individualism was just beginning to be awakened, was an age deeply concerned with a new sense of the market and of the marketability of goods, of talents, and even of people.5 “The Prince with his subjects,” one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries writes, “the Master with his servants, one friend and acquaintance with another, the Captain with his soldiers, the Husband and his wife, Women with and among themselves, and, in a word, all the world hoppeth and changeth, runneth and raveth after Marts, Markets, and Merchandising so that all things come into Commerce and pass into Traffic (in a manner) in all times and in all places.”6 While Shakespeare sets the story in Ephesus, the play, performed in London, takes on the features of London itself—the city of trade, the port for sea voyages. One foreigner visiting England in 1592 writes:

London is a large, excellent and mighty city of business, and the most important in the whole kingdom; most of the inhabitants are employed in buying and selling merchandise, and trading in almost every corner of the world, since the river is most useful and convenient for this purpose, considering that ships from France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Hamburg and other kingdoms, come almost up to the city, to which they convey goods and receive and take away others in exchange.7

Another visitor, in 1617, points out that houses in London are “being all built inward, [so] that the whole room towards the streets may be reserved for shops of tradesmen.”8 Seeing a performance of The Comedy of Errors must have caused many in Shakespeare’s first (London) audience to be keenly aware of similarities between London’s own sea traffic and trade and that which brings strangers ashore in Shakespeare’s Ephesus; and Ephesian characters like the goldsmith Angelo, the merchant Balthasar, and the several unnamed merchants might have stepped from the streets outside the theater onto the stage. London guilds in this period, like the guild of goldsmiths or of merchant tailors, controlled the city government as well as its economy, and Steve Rappaport’s study of these guilds shows that they grew astonishingly during this period; the Merchant Tailors’ Guild alone numbered 2,673 freemen.

Such a commercial revolution must have had a pronounced effect. The “property fetish” that has been seen as the basis of English common law in the period suggests that the gold chain that is disputed in The Comedy of Errors was just the sort of acquisition that Londoners themselves focused on; both identity and status depended increasingly on one’s material goods. Because the society was more and more cognizant that what one was was largely determined by what one owned, the chief emphasis in The Comedy of Errors on possessions, on being possessed (by marriage, witchcraft, or grace), and on being dispossessed unites the play’s Ephesus with Shakespeare’s London. The dramatist Thomas Dekker even likens the poet’s playhouse to the Royal Exchange, a place of trade in central London: “The Theater is your Poets Royal-Exchange, upon which their Muses (that are now turned to Merchants) meeting, barter away that light commodity of words.”9

In the earlier part of the sixteenth century, plays were usually staged in the market squares of towns and villages throughout England; what changes in Shakespeare’s time is that the market has become the setting and even the theme of plays. The business of The Comedy of Errors is business. Many of the speeches are about the exchange of money or property; personal relationships are figured in financial terms. Plautus’s Roman market of Epidamnus is changed to Shakespeare’s bustling Mediterranean seaport of Ephesus. Additional merchants are added to the cast. Every character in the play has some good or service to sell or trade. Credit and value are central to thought and conversation. (The word gold and its compounds occur thirty times, far more than in any other Shakespeare play.) Gold objects and gold pieces—chains and rings, ducats, marks, guilders, and angels—are the chief props of the play.

There is little in The Comedy of Errors that resembles Jean-Christophe Agnew’s characterization of feudal economy as based on use-value. (In an economy based on use-value, one pays money or invests in goods that are used and used up.) There is much in the play, however, that matches the economy that Agnew identifies as emergent in early modern Europe, an economy based on exchange-value—an economy, that is, in which one exchanged something for something else, such as a penny for admission to a play.10 This new economy may be caught explicitly in the frequent exchanges of the Antipholuses and their Dromios, in Adriana as wife first to one Antipholus and then, by error, to the other. Materialism informs the premises of the play and commerce its actions. As a playwright, Shakespeare, too, is materialistic and commercial; he capitalizes on Plautus’s Menaechmi, taught to schoolboys, changing their Latin-grammar-school text into his own dramatic property. Even the title may warn us of this transaction: in the play, error moves beyond merely mistake to take on the financial overtones of miscalculation.

The Comedy of Errors begins with a merchant who has neglected his duties as a husband and father to attend to his commercial ventures, guilty of leaving a pregnant wife to attend to business. Duke Solinus, in fact, addresses Egeon by his apparent occupation rather than by name:

Merchant of Syracusa, 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, 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.


At just the point when he tries to take up the responsibilities of husband and father, Egeon is arrested as a merchant arriving at a forbidden port. He is made the victim of an unexplained trade war. Even so, if he can find enough money, he can buy his freedom (21–24). What at first seems a story about a father seeking his lost son becomes a financial account in which the overriding mercantile system commodifies an individual. Agnew cites Marx as the economic historian who first identified the late sixteenth century as the era when money became a liquid medium with the power “to split the exchange transaction into two mutually indifferent acts: exchange of commodities for money, exchange of money for commodities; purchase and sale.”11 Putting a price on Egeon’s life extends and complicates the idea and power of business transactions in the trafficking of the Elizabethan age.

The second scene also begins with a merchant, this time a businessman of Ephesus instructing Antipholus of Syracuse, newly arrived in town, how to protect his property: “Therefore give out you are of Epidamium, / Lest that your goods too soon be confiscate” (1.2.1–2). Antipholus obeys, sending Dromio with his thousand marks—just the amount Egeon is searching for, linking the merchant and the money—to an inn, a place of business called the Centaur. But this friendly merchant will do no more for the stranger, declining to eat with him: “I am invited, sir, to certain merchants,” he says, putting investments in money before investments in friendship; “My present business calls me from you now” (1.2.24, 29). Almost at once Dromio of Ephesus appears; it is the first moment of mistaken identity. But recognition of “his” servant is not what provokes Antipholus of Syracuse; rather, “Where have you left the money that I gave you?” he asks (54). When Dromio pleads ignorance, Antipholus becomes agitated and beats him. After Dromio has fled, Antipholus grows more certain of Dromio’s guilt—“The villain is o’erraught of all my money” (99)—and more anxious about his own well-being, being dispossessed—“They say this town is full of cozenage” (100). The first act ends with Antipholus’s wail: “I greatly fear my money is not safe” (108).

The style in which Dromio of Ephesus reports his encounter with Antipholus of Syracuse ridicules Antipholus’s obsession with gold:

When I desired him to come home to dinner,

He asked me for a thousand marks in gold.

“ ’Tis dinnertime,” quoth I. “My gold,” quoth he.

“Your meat doth burn,” quoth I. “My gold,” quoth he.

“Will you come?” quoth I. “My gold,” quoth he.

“Where is the thousand marks I gave thee, villain?”

“The pig,” quoth I, “is burned.” “My gold,” quoth he.


Adriana, though, shares this obsession; once Dromio has left, she tells her sister of her own interest in gold—“he promised me a chain,” she says of Antipholus of Ephesus (111) and then compares herself to worn and tarnished gold that has lost its market value:

I see the jewel best enamelèd

Will lose his beauty. Yet the gold bides still

That others touch, and often touching will

Wear gold; yet no man that hath a name

By falsehood and corruption doth it shame.


Her remarks are prescient. In the following act, her husband, returning home late and anxious about his wife’s reproaches, asks yet another merchant, the goldsmith Angelo, to excuse his lateness by explaining that Antipholus has been seeing to Angelo’s manufacture of a necklace for Antipholus’s wife. But Antipholus is treated so badly once he arrives home, being locked out of his house and kept from his dinner, that he takes revenge through other property. Jewelry becomes not a gift of love but a means of punishment. He says to the goldsmith Angelo,

            Get you home

And fetch the chain; by this, I know, ’tis made.

Bring it, I pray you, to the Porpentine,

For there’s the house. That chain will I bestow—

Be it for nothing but to spite my wife—

Upon mine hostess there. Good sir, make haste.

Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me,

I’ll knock elsewhere, to see if they’ll disdain me.


Personal relationships for Antipholus of Ephesus are inevitably business transactions too.

Traditionally, the climax of an Elizabethan comedy occurs in Act 3, but in this play on commodity exchange and capital gains, Act 4 raises the ante with further confusion. Angelo, we learn, is in debt to a merchant about to sail to Persia who needs guilders for his voyage (4.1.4) and, called to account, he turns for credit to his debtor for the chain, Antipholus of Ephesus:

Saving your merry humor, here’s the note

How much your chain weighs to the utmost carat,

The fineness of the gold, and chargeful fashion,

Which doth amount to three-odd ducats more

Than I stand debted to this gentleman.

I pray you, see him presently discharged,

For he is bound to sea, and stays but for it.


Since it is his twin who has the chain, Antipholus of Ephesus resists, and Angelo has him arrested. Dispossessed of the gold chain, Antipholus of Ephesus is now dispossessed of his freedom, and he sends his Dromio home to fetch ransom money. In the parallel scene that follows, Antipholus of Syracuse, suddenly possessed of the chain, refuses to give it to the courtesan, who expects this pledge of payment and who, in turn, demands from Antipholus of Syracuse the ring she gave to Antipholus of Ephesus. When the Syracusan refuses once more, she condemns him to her court of appeals, Adriana. Here too personal pledges are measured in property.

The transactions that the characters in The Comedy of Errors attempt to make, then—their investments, pledges, purchases, and savings—are always susceptible to change. Antipholus of Syracuse is the first to be made aware of this in his sense of instability and incompleteness without his twin:

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.


It is a short route—just one conversation with the wrong Dromio—from his loss of family (which money cannot buy) to a perceived threat to his individual identity:

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,

Disguisèd cheaters, prating mountebanks,

And many suchlike liberties of sin.


But both of these speeches are soliloquies—moments of internal self-reflection in which Antipholus of Syracuse addresses only himself. It may be important to note that Antipholus of Syracuse is the only character in the play who has soliloquies. This is partly because from the first he is alien to the commercial world of Ephesus and the merchant world of his father. These and his later soliloquies (2.2.225–29; 3.2.173–81; 4.3.1–11), scattered rather evenly as a countermelody to the dominant song of capitalism, allow him to achieve the kind of self-consciousness that we have already seen social historians locating precisely in this period of swiftly developing capitalism.

There is a sense in which such a self-consciousness is aware of danger and prompted by interrogations of events and comments that turn the liquidity of human experience into an understanding of—if not an actual appreciation for—wonder and mystery. Confronted by the gift of a dinner prepared by Adriana, the friendship of Luciana, and the gold chain, Antipholus of Syracuse is open to the opportunities life may afford him; having secured material goods without asking, what he seeks is that which surpasses the material. By no longer wishing to possess goods or people, he earns self-possession. By contrast, the other self-conscious character in The Comedy of Errors, Luciana, is more socially conscious, and her self-consciousness rests on communal conventions she would uphold, both in telling Adriana the bases of a successful marriage (2.1.15–25) and in telling Antipholus of Syracuse the need for preserving custom (3.2.1–30). Just as Antipholus of Syracuse in his soliloquies provides a new meaning for use-value—how to use experience for self-education—so Luciana finds a new meaning for exchange-value—the purpose and advantages of counsel.

In Shakespeare’s day, as in our own, tragedy pitted men and women against fate (Romeo and Juliet) or character (Macbeth), while comedy looked at the relationships of people—at families, kinship patterns, friends, communities. What seems to begin as a tragedy in The Comedy of Errors is disrupted into farce by inconsistency and confusion, but the strong undertow in the play is toward restoration, reconciliation, and reunion. The apparent strength of this movement toward a comic ending may be an effect of the play’s comparative brevity and its severely unified setting. Perhaps because the play is Shakespeare’s most economical drama and because here as almost nowhere else save The Tempest Shakespeare is concerned with the unity of time, place, and action, The Comedy of Errors seems to move inexorably toward a kind of closure despite the heightened and disruptive confusions. Beginning with the search for family, which Egeon gives to Duke Solinus as the reason for his present journey, and with the inner thoughts of pilgrimage, which Antipholus of Syracuse speaks only to himself, the play presents a yearning for wholeness, completeness, that only the reunited family at the end can satisfy. The pronounced effect that the reunion of Egeon’s family has on Solinus is testimony to the importance of family integration. So too is the urgency of the Abbess’s public admonition of Adriana (5.1.70–89), combined with her confession that she too must rely finally on “wholesome syrups, drugs, and holy prayers, / To make of him a formal man again” (108–9). We seem to have moved into another level of existence altogether, one informed by trust and belief.

But Shakespeare has a way of confusing and complicating the ends of his plays as well as their beginnings. Here it takes more than the wonder and grace of the twins’ recognition of each other, or of a reunited family, to resolve all of the play’s difficulties. Following the unwinding of misconceptions that have come forth as fast and easily as puns from a Dromio (1.2.62–68), Antipholus of Ephesus attempts a last financial act, an exchange of property (“These ducats pawn I for my father here,” 5.1.402). The final power of the play seems to rest with capitalism. But then Solinus frees Egeon at no cost, as a free gesture. Even so, the force of the marketplace extends beyond the play. In rejoining her family, Emilia gives up her long life of service to the priory for a secular existence with her family. Forsaking the vows and life of an abbess, she (together with the play) reenters the world of commerce and of property. Indeed, the merchant’s family may make a return voyage to Syracuse, encountering once more the sea of fortune.

  1. A modern version which follows the plot but uses only one of Shakespeare’s actual lines is Rodgers and Hart’s musical The Boys from Syracuse, with a book by George Abbott. The play opened in November 1938 on Broadway and ran 235 performances; a revival twenty-five years later ran 500 performances. It is preserved on two CDs: Sony SK 53329 and Angel USA ZDM 7 64695 2.
  2. Related meanings for the word character are “engrave, imprint, or inscribe” as in the character of a person’s handwriting, or “instrument for marking, impress.” See Jonathan Goldberg, Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), pp. 24ff. Goldberg draws specifically on Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
  3. The seminal text is A History of Private Life, gen. eds. Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).
  4. Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (New York: Methuen, 1980), p. 22.
  5. See, for example, Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550–1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Ian W. Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); and Steve Rappaport, Worlds Within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  6. John Wheeler, A Treatise of Commerce: Wherein Are Shewed the Commodities Arising by a Wel Ordered, and Rvled Trade, Such as that of the Societie of Merchantes Adventurers (1601), sig. B2.
  7. Frederick, duke of Würtenberg in 1592 as quoted in F. P. Wilson, Life in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939), p. 84.
  8. Fynes Moryson, Itinerary (1617), quoted in Wilson, Life in Shakespeare’s England, p. 85.
  9. Thomas Dekker, The Guls Horne-booke (1609), sig. E2.
  10. See Agnew, Worlds Apart, p. 53.
  11. Ibid., p. 43.
  12. The psychological effect of this passage is analyzed by Coppélia Kahn in Man’s Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 200–5.