Shakespeare knows something the characters don't know, and he carefully crafts this play so that the players stay out of the loop for as long as possible. The confusion builds circles around itself to the degree of total frustration. Shakespeare masterfully manipulates the characters’ language and he's sly about the content of their speech. As a result, the characters say just enough to seem familiar, but not enough to reveal to one another that they're actually strangers. Shakespeare practically acts as puppeteer, having his characters dodge and dart around the actual circumstances, and he's unapologetic about his tight control.
In addition to the title, The Comedy of Errors has all the elements of a Shakespearean comedy – there’s a conflict, some resolution, confusion is cleared up, families and lovers get reunited, and it’s also funny. Still, The Comedy of Errors is often dismissed as a farce, which is defined as a short work (and this is actually Shakespeare’s shortest) that is based on utterly unbelievable premises and solely designed to evoke laughter (as compared to bringing up deep, dramatic points or conflicts). Our vote is that this play is a comedy, not a farce, and Harold Bloom, Shakespeare scholar and professor, agrees with us. The Comedy of Errors may be based on some ridiculous principles, but so is A Midsummer Night's Dream, and practically everyone takes it seriously.
Our stance is that the entire Egeon subplot, if played correctly, elevates the whole play above a farce, and even makes the work a tragicomedy (literally a mixture of comic and tragic elements). Egeon’s plight is serious, but it avoids being melodramatic because of Egeon’s beautiful speech during what should be his death scene, when he thinks this son doesn’t recognize him. Egeon’s shadow falls over the whole play. His imminent execution has the special distinction of being the subject of the opening lines, and his release allows the whole resolution of the play to seem complete. His would-be tragedy puts the comic action of the play into perspective, balancing its light with darkness. His possible death allows Shakespeare to place something meaningful at stake in the play’s resolution. This meaningful conclusion (as opposed to just a random one that occurs pell-mell) is more in line with Shakespeare’s other comedies, and allows the work to conclude by threading together comic revelation with salvation from tragedy.
Though it is one of many comedies Shakespeare wrote, The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s only play that has "comedy" explicitly in the title. Interestingly, the conceits of this play are so many and so improbable that it’s often argued to be a farce rather than a true comedy. In a normal comedy, the plot and situations are usually a stretch, but rarely utterly unbelievable. A farce, on the other hand, is simply meant to inspire laughter, and its premises are completely absurd. The plot line for The Comedy of Errors revolves around two sets of identical twin boys, both born at the same hour, separated for more than two decades, and coincidentally meet at the same place, on the same day. To make the situation even more unbelievable, the site of the serendipitous reunion happens to be the same location of their missing mother and father (who have also been separated from each other).
While The Comedy of Errors seems to have all the elements of a farce, Shakespeare asserts that it is a more serious play by deliberately putting "comedy" in the title. Shakespeare’s insistence that it’s actually a comedic work demands that we read it with greater scrutiny. Like many of his comedies, deeper issues (death, loss, isolation, etc.) are addressed alongside the slapstick antics and hi-jinks of misunderstanding. Therefore, this play’s title is simultaneously an admission and an invitation: Shakespeare knows he’d put together a silly piece, but he’s also challenging the viewer or reader of the play to be looking out for deep issues and dangerous problems.
The play is set in the bustling Greek city of Ephesus, which serves as a crossroads of sorts for all sorts of trade and activity. The geographical setting of a busy city is an ideal place for all the characters to coincidentally collide. Within the city, the play takes place in three central locations: the mart (or marketplace), the area surrounding E. Antipholus’s house, and the area surrounding the priory. The three-part setting leads to interesting staging for the play. Often, the play is predicated upon having inside and outside spaces, so characters can all be in the same space, but not see each other, while all players remain visible to the audience. Sometimes the stage is designed as a "triptych," where all the points of the play are visible at one time, even if they’re not all being used. This is an important aspect of Shakespeare’s decision to have this play conform to the three classical unities of time, place, and action. The Comedy of Errors is one of two Shakespeare plays that employs the unities (the other being his final play, The Tempest), and because the unities of time and action are in play, the unity of place can feature centrally as well, with the most important parts of Ephesus laid bare to the audience.
Time as a set piece functions interestingly, too – the play all occurs in the space of one day, from morning (when Egeon is sentenced to die) to sunset (when his execution should be carried out). The miracle of exposition (or explanatory speech) fills us in on everything that’s happened before – Egeon explains the history of his family – without showing us the actual action. Still, by relying on explanation, and not actual flashbacks or scene changes, we see a lifetime take place over the course of a day.
Timing is tricky in the play, though, so don’t be fooled. Egeon says his son left when he was eighteen, and Egeon says he’s wandered Asia for five summers; but when he meets E. Antipholus (thinking he’s S. Antipholus) he says the boy has been gone for seven years. When Aemilia arrives, she adds that it’s been 33 years of travails for her, which might be her referring to her whole life as a travail, or simply another example of the play’s inaccuracies. So, Egeon’s missed one of his sons for 23 to 25 years, and the other for 5 to 7 years, and Aemilia’s missed both her children for who-knows-how long (and Adriana must be older than her husband, unless women aged more dramatically way back when).
Regardless, it’s been a long time, and for all of that lost time to be resolved and tied up in the course of one day takes some pretty remarkable set-work on Shakespeare’s part. Shakespeare even points out the strangeness of this timing in the scene between S. Dromio and Adriana in Act 4 Scene 2. S. Dromio jokes that hours are moving backwards, and we can imagine that with so many years to resolve, how the hours move (and even how the years have moved) towards this resolution is less important than the fact that the resolution finally occurs.
Because the conceit of the play is so complicated, Shakespeare had to have characters speak directly to each other, but in an indirect way, so they don’t get to the heart of all the confusion until the play’s resolution. Characters are often very wrapped up in their own issues, and therefore are more prone to be consumed by their own thoughts than to listen critically to what others are saying. Even when there is straight talk, it gets lost in the confusion of the situation. The style in which the characters speak is the only thing that saves the play from being utterly confusing. The characters are obtuse enough that their veiled speech could make sense in a variety of situations. Their content is not often relevant to their conversation partner, but it's usually sharp and clever enough that they could be thought to be punning or otherwise joking around. There's enough playfulness in what is said – especially between the each master-and-servant duo – that the confused character often dismisses the confusing messages because of the light way in which they’re communicated. This veiled style of speaking allows the interactions to occur on different levels, one of which makes sense to each conversation partner, even if it doesn't make for coherent conversation.
Water imagery occurs all over the play, starting with Egeon’s initial speech about the storm. This is a disorderly affair of water separating families, so it’s only natural that water should be a symbol of separation throughout the play. Twice we hear characters powerfully describe their isolation as though they were drops of water: S. Antipholus seeks for his family as though he were a drop of water in the ocean (1.2.35), and Adriana says it would be as easy to separate her from her husband as to capture a single drop of water again after you’d dropped it into a gulf (2.2.126).
There are ample tears, streams, and oceans traversed to get to the climactic point of the play – Egeon has been separated by the seas from his family, and Adriana has sworn to throw her tears at the feet of the Duke so he’ll be moved to bridge the gap between her and her husband. Throughout the play, S. Antipholus is constantly trying to get back on the water to escape the town of Ephesus. Interestingly, at the very end of the play, there’s a very deliberate notification of S. Antipholus having his goods pulled off the boat sailing out of Ephesus. He, his brother, and the Dromios are getting off the water and heading onto solid ground. It’s as if, for the first time, everyone’s pulling down their sails and setting down some roots together in a stable place. The land (and the play’s end) turns out to be hopeful (if a bit dry).
The word money occurs 26 times in this play, more than any of Shakespeare’s other plays, though The Comedy of Errors is his shortest. Ephesus is a bustling city of merchants, and commerce is central to what goes on there – money underpins many of the actions, but it serves as more than a plot device. Usually, money is thought of as a liberating object, but in this play, money functions as an object and aim of bondage. By the end of the play, both Egeon and his son, E. Antipholus, are jailed for the sake of money. Justice is less important than ransom, or at least that’s how it seems until the miracle of the separated twins comes out. The men win their liberation not by money, but through truth.
Still, the play does tell us a lot by how money and justice are balanced in this world: the play’s resolution (where justice triumphs over money) comes in one final scene, whereas money has been the star of the show for the entire rest of the play. Money seems to symbolize something about the harsh reality of the world – that is, at the end of the day, business is business. It can break apart families (like Egeon and Aemilia’s so long ago), turn friends against each other (like Angelo the goldsmith against E. Antipholus), and it can also mean the difference between life and death (like it does for Egeon). The resolution at the end of the play (which transcends money by forgiving Egeon’s ransom) is a paltry slip of a thing compared to that much longer lasting message, that whether we like it or not, it’s a material world, full of material people.
Though The Comedy of Errors takes place in a single location, the characters come from all corners of the earth. Though they all happen to currently be in one spot, they do a fantastic job of relating their worldliness by using geography as a motif in the play. Geography symbolizes not only where you are, but where you’ve been and where you intend to go.
Egeon frames the whole play with a discussion of geography. He knows he is a stranger to Ephesus, but he explains that his work took him all over the world, and his traveling life as a merchant once had him held in esteem as a well-respected and wealthy man. He is quick to note that though he is being treated as a common criminal in Ephesus, that’s not actually who he is. The downturn in Egeon’s fortunes coincides with his travels, as he describes spending time "in farthest Greece, roaming clean through the bounds of Asia." He only came to Ephesus as he was heading homeward, and he quickly equalizes Ephesus with any other city by describing it as not unlike "any place that harbors men." To Egeon, the world has simply become a place filled with indistinguishable cities, as each city might hold his children. Equally of interest, as Egeon can find his sons nowhere – Ephesus is as good a place as any to die. Because his children are nowhere to be found in it, the world has become a small and suffocating place for Egeon. What’s important to him is where he’s been, as he doesn’t plan on going anywhere farther.
By contrast, to S. Antipholus, the world sprawls endlessly. What’s important about S. Antipholus is where he imagines himself to be going, and what he thinks can find there: at any corner, he might come upon his brother and mother. Like Egeon, S. Antipholus is committed to searching all over the world for his family, but, unlike Egeon, he hasn’t yet given up. The vastness of the world may be daunting at times, but it is like any great big prospect – it is continually exciting because it is also full of possibility. You’ll note S. Antipholus, though he says, "with long travel I am stiff and weary" (1.2.15) is set to hit the streets in Ephesus and observe what there is to see. If his dad is a weary businessman flying in boring first class, S. Antipholus is an Australian backpacker who finds himself alone in a hostel during a blackout in Amsterdam. Except he’s traveling to "discover himself," so he’s like a singer-songwriter backpacker.
The point is, Egeon and S. Antipholus are very different men. Egeon entered Ephesus and immediately found a death sentence, while S. Antipholus found a city that opened up to him, rich with dinner invitations, willing women, and even gold jewelry. Ultimately, though, enough is enough and S. Antipholus chooses to walk away from all of these things, even though they seem like blessings. Instead, he’s happy to move onto the next place as soon as possible – even though this place seems enchanted (for better or worse). Indeed, S. Antipholus shows his optimism by escaping to another location. Again, the world is as wide as his ship can sail and his money can take him, which is pretty wide.
Finally, there’s a bawdy nod to the fact that knowing one’s geography is a good hint that one knows the ways of the world, or the facts of nature. S. Dromio and S. Antipholus have a good laugh at Nell’s expense by comparing her girth to the breadth of the planet. In this little episode, if we were feeling particularly symbolic, we could talk about how "the mapping of Nell" is a farcical nod to the "woman as uncharted territory in the trope of the feminine mystique," but that might overcomplicate things. For our purposes, the less scintillating and more obvious idea is that women are as easily discovered, conquered, and departed from as any of the locations these young men can be privy to.
Though all works of literature present the author’s point of view, they don’t all have a narrator or a narrative voice that ties together and presents the story. This particular piece of literature does not have a narrator through whose eyes or voice we learn the story.
The play begins amidst confusion, as Egeon seeks his lost son and S. Antipholus doesn’t know he’s in the location shared by his whole family. S. Antipholus, S. Dromio, and Egeon are driven by their identical purpose, but because they’re strangers to Ephesus (and it’s dangerous for them to even set foot there), their ends are difficult to attain.
Things become dire in Ephesus. We know Egeon’s death sentence is looming over the whole play, but in the meantime, it seems that Adriana’s lost her faith in marriage, S. Antipholus has lost love (with Luciana), S. Dromio is being haunted by a large woman, E. Antipholus is slandered and jailed, and E. Antipholus is out to murder Adriana. S. Antipholus and S. Dromio have been trying to get out of Ephesus for nearly four acts without success. Everyone has some explanation for why everyone else is acting so strangely, but no one guesses the truth of the matter. The consequences could also be really serious: Egeon might get beheaded; E. Antipholus might kill Adriana (or at least leave her); Adriana loses complete faith in her husband; and S. Antipholus is convinced he’s been enchanted.
The preposterous truth is finally revealed when the Abbess brings the Syracusians face to face with their brothers, and she recognizes Egeon as her own long-lost husband. Not until the separated group is brought facing one another is the conflict cleared up. Even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll all continue to tell one another apart (as the play closes with S. Dromio mistaking E. Antipholus for his S. Antipholus). Most importantly, though, we now know they can get to know one another, which is comforting, if not a total resolution.
Egeon is being a sad sack, and seems to have a life story so miserable that he’d rather die from it than deal with it. The story of his separated family sets the stage for the comic resolution; Egeon’s plight seems to invite the conclusion of all six people being happily reunited.
S. Antipholus is conflicted about his lost family. Not only has he left his father, but he seems unable to locate his brother and mother. He is convinced that in this process of searching for them, he’s lost himself, too. S. Antipholus is further confused by all the people who seem to know him, though he doesn’t know them. This increases his feeling that he doesn’t know himself, and obscures the obvious fact that his long-lost twin is running around in the same city.
E. Antipholus is locked out of his own house, which raises his suspicions about his wife’s fidelity. S. Antipholus has been convinced that he has acquired a wife, and, following Adriana to dinner, realizes he loves her sister, Luciana. In his quest to find his lost self, S. Antipholus sees Luciana as a solution. He imagines she’s some divine creature that can restore meaning to his life. This would be great, except Luciana thinks he’s her sister’s husband, which means she can’t exactly run off with him. Luciana tries to explain the situation to poor Adriana, who only gets more wrapped up in her husband’s apparent betrayal.
E. Antipholus is now convinced that his wife is faithless, and everyone around him is crazy. His wife seems to hate him, and he lunges at her, threatening to pluck out her eyes. Further, Adriana is convinced that E. Antipholus is possessed, and she tries to have him exorcised, which is pretty serious business.
Angelo and the Merchant challenge S. Antipholus’s honor when they suggest that he lied about having the necklace. S. Antipholus is about to battle with the Merchant when he’s interrupted by Adriana, who thinks he’s the escaped E. Antipholus. The confusion reaches a head as she wonders how E. Antipholus could’ve escaped from her house. Things only get worse when the Abbess won’t let Adriana in to get her "husband" and tend to his apparent madness.
With the arrival of the Duke, it seems law and order will prevail. Adriana seeks justice against the Abbess through the Duke, and E. Antipholus seeks justice against his wife. The appearance of the Duke, who is in the midst of carrying out the law against Egeon, shifts the balance away from the madness of misunderstanding to the rigor and order of the law. The Abbess is called on and as she emerges, S. Antipholus and S. Dromio are brought out with her. With the appearance of both sets of twins in the same place, everyone finally realizes the source of all the confusion.
With everyone face to face, the long separated family has been reunited. As this situation becomes increasingly clear, the Duke releases Egeon. E. Antipholus confirms his commitment to his wife; Egeon is reunited with Aemilia; and S. Antipholus restates his offers to Luciana. All the pairs are again matched, but it’s clear from the final lines (when S. Dromio mistakes E. Antipholus for his master) that though the confusion has been pinpointed, it will take a while to actually subside.