The Comedy of Errors
Tools of Characterization
We discussed earlier how unique it is that this play preserves the theatrical unity of place, meaning, everything happens in one spot. While everyone is physically located in the same space, how they relate to that space is an important part of who they are (and thus how they are characterized). Let’s just look at the names of our two Antipholi: Antipholus of Syracuse (who we’ve called S. Antipholus) is actually noted in the stage directions as Antipholus Erotes [of Syracuse]. "Erotes" is thought to derive from erraticus or errans, coming from errantis, which is Latin for "wandering." Basically, Antipholus of Syracuse is the one who has wandered from his home to find his brother, and so he’s literally wandering from location to location. When he arrives in Ephesus, he’s a stranger, as he has no roots in the city (so he thinks) except as a foreigner. S. Dromio, too, is defined by his being a stranger in a strange land; like his master, he’s not familiar with this place, and he’s decided it’s full of whimsy and witchcraft by way of explanation.
While our two men from Syracuse are characterized by being away from home, our Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio are suffering the opposite problem: though they’re in their home, they’re being treated as strangers. Antipholus of Ephesus has the name "Antipholus Sereptus," which is an echo from Plautus’s Menaechmi on which this play is based. Plautus identified the boy who had been lost from Egeon as puer surreptus, or "the boy who had been snatched away." Antipholus of Ephesus was literally snatched away from his parents as a boy, but in the present, he’s having his life in Ephesus snatched away (accidentally) by his brother, S. Antipholus, for whom everyone is confusing him. S. Antipholus is dislocated because he’s physically in a strange place, and S. Antipholus’s appearance has left E. Antipholus to be emotionally dislocated from his place – he’s been forsaken by his wife, wrongly accused by a jeweler, and ultimately bound and jailed like a common criminal in his own home. Though all the characters are actually located in Ephesus, they’re coming at it from vastly different situations and perspectives. Thus, the location means and delivers very different things to each of the characters.
In The Comedy of Errors everyone thinks they can identify their friends or family members by the way they look, but looks are totally deceiving. Characters in the play are constantly addressing the Antipholi and Dromios as if they are the other, because they’re simply judging the men based on how they appear, instead of paying attention their actions and words. Although the Dromios jest and bow much in the same way, if anyone paid any attention to the Antipholi, the difference between them would be immediately apparent. Though S. Antipholus is identical in appearance to his brother, he’s more prone to thought and melancholy, while E. Antipholus is more likely to be found amidst rage and debauchery.
Essentially, though the outward appearances of the boys are identical, Shakespeare is hinting at how the inward reality couldn’t be more different. The players are judged by their physical representation, which it turns out, is no indicator of who they actually are. So, basically, looks can be deceiving.
Family is one of the defining forces of the play – in fact, it’s the purported reason for why S. Antipholus left Syracuse. According to Egeon, it’s almost as if S. Antipholus equated a complete family with having a complete life. S. Antipholus couldn’t be satisfied with Egeon alone (knowing he’s missing a mother and brother), but we reckon that even if he found them, he’d just want everyone back together, so they could be a normal family again. Anyway, what’s really conspicuous about S. Antipholus’s dogged quest for his family is how utterly unperturbed E. Antipholus is about having no family. E. Antipholus has replaced his old family by creating a new family. It seems E. Antipholus has been able to create a full life with his wife and sister-in-law and a busy professional schedule. He has no reflective moments about his new family in the play (though he does threaten to scratch out his wife’s eyes), and he certainly doesn’t long for his old family. He just accepts that they’re out of his life in a matter-of-fact way.
E. Antipholus is thus forward looking, while S. Antipholus operates more using his rearview mirror. S. Antipholus is representative of someone who builds a life out of the foundation of his family (in the past) and E. Antipholus is more about seeing himself as the beginning of a new family (in the future), with himself at the head. Family might be important to both the men, but where they see themselves (and each other) within that notion of family is very different.