The Comedy of Errors
The Comedy of Errors Rules and Order Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Act.Scene.Line). Line numbers correspond to the Riverside edition.
Merchant of Syracuse, 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 seal'd his rigorous statutes with their bloods,
Excludes all pity from our threat'ning looks.
For, since the mortal and intestine jars
'Twixt thy seditious countrymen and us,
It hath in solemn synods been decreed,
Both by the Syracusians and ourselves,
To admit no traffic to our adverse towns;
Nay, more: if any born at Ephesus
Be seen at any Syracusian marts and fairs;
Again, if any Syracusian born
Come to the bay of Ephesus-he dies,
His goods confiscate to the Duke's dispose,
Unless a thousand marks be levied,
To quit the penalty and to ransom him.
Thy substance, valued at the highest rate,
Cannot amount unto a hundred marks;
Therefore by law thou art condemn'd to die. (1.1.3)
The play commences with a display of the harshness of law and order. In complete contrast to the order and clarity of this law-bound introduction, the action in the play that follows is rather farcical. But actually, the decree that Syracusian merchants are condemned to death is a little arbitrary (or at least as arbitrary as the Syracusian Duke demanding the death of Ephesian merchants). This kind of whimsy is inherent in the law in Ephesus, so we glimpse the fact that law is not the be-all and end-all in the play. Some greater force than law and order ultimately will prevail.
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. (1.1.142)
The Duke seems to admit that justice and the law are not exactly commensurate. It’s clear that what’s right in Egeon’s situation is not following the law, but the law is what the Duke will choose anyway, regardless of whether it’s just. Why does he do that?
Therefore, merchant, I'll limit thee this day
To seek thy help by beneficial hap.
Try all the friends thou hast in Ephesus;
Beg thou, or borrow, to make up the sum,
And live; if no, then thou art doom'd to die. (1.1.150)
This is pretty ridiculous – any just law shouldn’t have a price tag to out-buy it. It’s clear that the law isn’t inherently just – it might have more to do with keeping order (or retaliating against Syracuse) than any real moral principle.