Study Guide

The Comedy of Errors Family

By William Shakespeare

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My wife, more careful for the latter-born,
Had fast'ned him unto a small spare mast,
Such as sea-faring men provide for storms.
To him one of the other twins was bound,
Whilst I had been like heedful of the other.
The children thus dispos'd, my wife and I,
Fixing our eyes on whom our care was fixed,
Fast'ned ourselves at either end the mast (1.1.78-85)

There’s no way Egeon’s wife could have anticipated their separation, but still she chooses to separate the twins by time of birth, rather than put each boy with his brother. There are two ways to look at this: either her concern for the younger boys (both her son and servant) trumped her concern over her actual family, or that she looked at the younger Dromio as part of her family, too, and was as careful with him as she would be of her son. It’s a bit of evidence that the Dromios are equalized with the sons of Egeon, and are some of the only family each other have.

My youngest boy, and yet my eldest care,
At eighteen years became inquisitive
After his brother, and importuned me
That his attendant—so his case was like,
Reft of his brother, but retain'd his name—
Might bear him company in the quest of him,
Whom whilst I labored of a love to see,
I hazarded the loss of whom I loved. (1.1.124-131)

Family appears to be an important value to Egeon’s son, considering he goes off in search of his brother. However, there’s no discussion of the fact that Egeon’s son abandons the family he knows (his father) to chase after the family he doesn’t know. This is the first hint that Egeon’s son’s quest might be about more than family. His quest seems to include some search for himself, which can only be made complete by finding his other half. Egeon notes, interestingly, that he, too, was willing to sacrifice what the little family he had left; for love of his son, he let the young man leave him and pursue his quest.

Why call you me 'love'? Call my sister so.
Thy sister's sister.
That's my sister.
It is thyself, mine own self's better part, (3.2.62-66)

This is a really interesting reflection on marriage and family. Luciana identifies with her sister, Adriana, as family, but S. Antipholus notes that by accepting him as a husband, Luciana would be becoming part of him (and thus part of his family). The question is whether one must betray one’s familial love for the possibility of romantic love – giving up one family for the creation of another.

EGEON. Not know my voice! O time's extremity,
Hast thou so crack'd and splitted my poor tongue
In seven short years that here my only son
Knows not my feeble key of untuned cares?
Though now this grainèd face of mine be hid
In sap-consuming winter's drizzled snow,
And all the conduits of my blood froze up,
Yet hath my night of life some memory,
My wasting lamps some fading glimmer left,
My dull deaf ears a little use to hear.
All these old witnesses—I cannot err—
Tell me thou art my son Antipholus. (5.1.318-329)

This is a really beautiful passage. Egeon, in the midst of all of this madness, is able to pierce through the chaos with an earnest plea about the meaning of family. His grievous loss puts all of the hullabaloo into perspective. To add gravity to the situation, Egeon is on his way to his own execution over a son he would die for. He thinks he’s now found that son, only to be faced with the fact that this son apparently doesn’t recognize him. For Egeon, the love of his family is worth living and dying over. The beauty of Egeon’s words and the depth of his feelings elevate this part of the play above the goofy plotline.

I never saw my father in my life.
But seven years since, in Syracuse, boy,
Thou know'st we parted. But perhaps, my son,
Thou sham'st to acknowledge me in misery. (5.1.330-333)

Heartbreaking. Egeon has been pushed so far that he doesn’t even think of the possibility that this is his long lost son – after so much grief, such a happy possibility hardly seems a possibility at all. Rather, Egeon worries that for his son, love of family comes second to maintaining one’s reputation.

Egeon, art thou not, or else his ghost?
O, my old master.—Who hath bound him here? (5.1.348-349)

S. Dromio seems more thrilled than Egeon’s own son to find him again. Is the bond between master and servant stronger in this play than the bond between blood relations? It’s also worth noting here that the Antipholi don’t seem terribly excited (or, at least, don’t explicitly address feeling excited) in the text. In contrast, the Dromios immediately start affectionately joking with each other. What’s up with that?

Your goods that lay at host, sir, in the Centaur.
S. ANTIPHOLUS [to E. Antipholus]
He speaks to me.—I am your master, Dromio.
Come, go with us. We'll look to that anon.
Embrace thy brother there. Rejoice with him. (5.1.423-426)

Though the two Antipholi give no apparent show of joy at meeting each other, S. Antipholus makes clear that he knows this is a joyous occasion. Again, the Dromio boys serve as the softer, sweeter version of a brotherly relationship.

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