Our comedy begins at the Ephesian marketplace, where poor Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse, begs the Duke of Ephesus, Solinus, to end his troubles by taking his life.
Solinus notes to the audience that this is not a case of randomness. Apparently, the Duke of Syracuse recently put down some harsh rules regarding visiting merchants of Ephesus. Many of the foreign merchants have been killed because they are unable to pay the fine for entering Syracuse.
The folks of Ephesus are rightly peeved about this, and both states have mutually agreed to not do any trade with the other. In fact, if any Ephesians show up in Syracuse, or any Syracusians show up in Ephesus, they’re automatically sentenced to death, and all their goods are forfeit to the Duke of the offended country. Thus, Duke Solinus says Egeon must die. This situation is serious.
Of course, there’s a monetary loophole. Egeon can get out of the death sentence by paying a thousand marks. Duke Solinus, however, comments that Egeon looks like he isn’t even worth 100 marks (which is kind of a messed up thing to say).
Egeon doesn’t get on his high horse about class discrimination, though. Instead, he seems pretty eager to get his life over with, which piques Duke Solinus’s curiosity. Solinus then asks how and why Egeon left Syracuse for Ephesus.
Egeon declares his grief to be unspeakable, and then immediately begins to talk about them. Egeon wants to clear up that he does not want to die because of some heinous crime he’s committed. Rather, his death wish is kind of a natural result of grief, which he’s had a lot of in his life. He’ll even tell you about it, in great length and detail.
Egeon was born in Syracuse, and lived comfortably there with his wife. He made a lot of money traveling between Syracuse and Epidamium as a merchant. When his agent died, he had to stay in Epidamium and take care of business himself. Egeon’s wife, who was pregnant at the time, decided to go with him.
Egeon’s wife soon gave birth to identical twin boys, who looked so similar that their names were their only distinguishing feature. As literary devices would have it, a poor woman staying at the very same inn, during the very same hour, happened to also give birth to identical twin boys. Because she was too poor to raise the babies, she sold her children to Egeon, who wanted to raise the boys as companions and attendants for his twin boys.
Egeon’s wife then started to nag him, saying they should all go home. But, as soon as the family got on the ship to head back to Syracuse, a terrible storm rolls in, threatening to kill everyone. The wife and babes wept, the sailors abandoned ship and ran off in Egeon’s lifeboat, and it seemed that nothing could save them.
Egeon’s wife, worried for the younger of the twins, tied him and one of the servant twins to a small spare mast. Egeon did the same with the other two older boys. Then, Egeon and his wife guarded either end of the mast, each with their respective pair of babies (one son and one servant kid for each parent). When the storm started to calm, the family saw two ships approach – one from Corinth, the other from Epidaurus.
To make the situation even more of a logic puzzle, Egeon’s boat ran into a big rock. The boat was torn in two, separating the two parents (with their respective pair of separated twins). The wife and two babies were rescued by the Corinthian ship, while Egeon and his two boys were picked up by the other. Sadly, the ship that Egeon was in was slow, and headed for home instead of catching up with the ship from Corinth. Thus, Egeon never saw his wife, younger twin son, or his servant ever again.
Egeon explains to the Duke that when his son and servant turned eighteen, they got itchy to find their long lost twin brothers, and left Egeon alone. (Note that, thinking the other boys were gone, Egeon gave his son and the servant the names of their missing brothers, which will ensure some hilarity later on.)
Egeon’s son and servant have been gone for five summers, in which time Egeon has roamed around the farthest reaches of Asia trying to find both lost sets of boys. His travels finally brought him to Ephesus. He knows that he risks death by entering Ephesus, but would rather risk death than not look for the boys here. Thus he’s lost a wife and two sets of kids, but has acquired a loneliness that’s priceless.
The Duke basically says to him, "I can’t bend the rules, so you’re still sentenced to die." Still, he gives Egeon one day to try to raise the 1,000 marks for his bail by begging and borrowing from the folks of Ephesus. Duke Solinus then sends a fairly hopeless Egeon off with the jailer.