In The Comedy of Errors, Egeon plays the doting father of the lost twins. The man only appears in the first and final acts, but Egeon is incredibly important as a device to frame the action of the play. Though the play is a comedy, Egeon grounds the action in tragedy. He opens the play in a very grave position: He’d welcome death if it would free him from his woes, which are many. Egeon’s death sentence (which isn’t revisited until his final would-be death scene) casts a shadow over the rest of the action of the play, which is otherwise very merry. In the bulk of the play, silly things happen, and all the misunderstandings seem inconsequential enough, but the central action is bookended by the fairly dire situation of Egeon.
It seems Egeon can only function briefly in the play because he is such a tragic figure. He has lost both of his children, the servant boys he was intending to raise, and his wife, and we get the sense (from the stories of his travels) that he has wandered the world unsuccessfully seeking out his family as a reason to live. If we had to pity him throughout the whole play, it would detract from the mirth we should feel as we follow the comical errors of the main players. Still, when it comes time to have a resolution, Egeon’s character reminds us of how serious the issues in the play are – isolation, loss, suffering, nihilism, and aging are all central to appreciating Egeon. Egeon’s presence elevates the play to a kind of tragicomedy, adding dimensions that otherwise would be entirely missing.
One final note of interest on Egeon is how he is played in performance. Some productions deny the play any gravity. Accordingly, Egeon’s plight, which is really rather serious, is often made to seem comical by presenting him as a doddering, senile, and melodramatic old man. While the play has enough slapstick to float it as a frothy work, taking Egeon’s speeches seriously opens up a new breadth to the action. Life (as the play) may be really silly at times, but it’s the big grave questions (as they are presented by Egeon) that make it meaningful. We think Shakespeare might’ve agreed with us on this one – he gave Egeon some of the most moving and thoughtful speeches of the play, in spite of the fact that the guy does lack face-time.