Study Guide

The Comedy of Errors Identity

By William Shakespeare

Identity

EGEON
There had she not been long but she became
A joyful mother of two goodly sons,
And, which was strange, the one so like the other
As could not be disdnguished but by names. (1.1.49-52)

This is a little foreshadowing – the boys are different only in name (which is tricky, because if they can’t tell you their true names, how are you supposed to tell them apart?). Anyway, much of the play’s misunderstanding will come about because the two pairs of twins share names. This contributes to the notion that their senses of identity are incomplete without their counterparts.

EGEON
But here must end the story of my life;
And happy were I in my timely death
Could all my travels warrant me they live. (1.1.137-139)

Egeon’s life is worthless without his family – he’d be happy to greet death if it meant his children lived. It seems that his family’s happiness and survival are central to his own identity and self-worth. Without knowing they’re OK, he might as well not live.

S. ANTIPHOLUS
Farewell till then. I will go lose myself,
And wander up and down to view the city. (1.2.30-31)

S. Antipholus talks about losing himself in the city – it’s taken lightly as a figurative phrase, but it is literally what will and does happen. His identity will be lost from him as soon as he enters into the world of his brother.

S. ANTIPHOLUS
He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself. (1.2.33-40)

Identity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s tied up in what we think of others, what others think of us, and is only partly satisfied by what we think of ourselves. It’s clear that rather than trying to assert an identity, S. Antipholus is seeking an identity outside of himself.

ADRIANA
His company must do his minions grace,
Whilst I at home starve for a merry look.
Hath homely age th' alluring beauty took
From my poor cheek? Then he hath wasted it.
Are my discourses dull? Barren my wit?
If voluble and sharp discourse be marred,
Unkindness blunts it more than marble hard.
Do their gay vestments his affections bait?
That's not my fault; he's master of my state.
What ruins are in me that can be found
By him not ruined? Then is he the ground
Of my defeatures. (2.1.92-103)

Adriana’s identity is tied to E. Antipholus’s perception of her. Her worth as a wife and as a person is directly affected by how much he values her. If he no longer loves her, it’s a tragic blow to her sense of self. Her deep worry seems to suggest that in Adriana’s own eyes, her only worth is as a wife to E. Antipholus (not as an individual with value independent of her relationships to others).

ADRIANA
How ill agrees it with your gravity
To counterfeit thus grossly with your slave,
Abetting him to thwart me in my mood. (2.2.179-181)

It’s interesting that Adriana calls Dromio a "slave." S. Antipholus has done it before, but Adriana’s upset that S. Antipholus seems to be conspiring with his "slave" against her. She seems to be rankling at the fact that Antipholus’s duty to her doesn’t trump what she sees as goofing off with their servant. Essentially, her identity is cast by the terms of her relationship to E. Antipholus.

S. DROMIO
I am transformèd, master, am not I?
S. ANTIPHOLUS
I think thou art in mind, and so am I. (2.2.207-208)

Adriana seems so sure of the identities of both S. Dromio and S. Antipholus that they have decided to go along with her. This strange woman seems to know them better than they know themselves, and a false identity seems to be better than no identity at all.

E. DROMIO
O villain, thou hast stolen both mine office and my
   name!
The one ne'er got me credit, the other mickle
   blame. (3.1.64-67)

It’s funny that E. Dromio accuses S. Dromio of stealing his identity, as actually they both share the same identity (as bondsmen to one of the two Antipholi). More importantly, they both suffer from the same ailments under the Antipholi – neither receives much credit, and both get much blame and beating. While the Antipholi are mistaken for each other (and are treated very differently as a result), the Dromios receive basically the same treatment whether they are seen as an S. or an E. Dromio.

S. ANTIPHOLUS
Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak.
Lay open to my earthy gross conceit,
Smothered in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words' deceit.
Against my soul's pure truth why labor you
To make it wander in an unknown field?
Are you a god? Would you create me new?
Transform me, then, and to your power I'll yield.
But if that I am I, then well I know
Your weeping sister is no wife of mine,
Nor to her bed no homage do I owe.
Far more, far more, to you do I decline. (3.2.35-46)

S. Antipholus, for the first time, speaks joyously of his lack of identity, perhaps because he sees in Luciana some way to remedy it. He’s willing to give himself over and ask this woman to redefine him. Apparently, she may be able to accomplish this with her divine power, or more realistically, her love. Moreover, it’s interesting that S. Antipholus does assert that he knows himself enough to be sure that he’s not Adriana’s husband. There are different levels of self-knowledge, and while S. Antipholus has some cursory knowledge of himself, what he lacks is deep understanding, and he looks to Luciana to accord that to him.

S. DROMIO
Faith, stay here this night. They
will surely do us no harm; you saw they speak us
fair, give us gold. Methinks they are such a gentle
nation that, but for the mountain of mad flesh that
claims marriage of me, could find in my heart to
stay here still, and turn witch. (4.4.162-167)

It seems S. Dromio would happily "go native," even if it means forgetting himself. S. Antipholus, by contrast, would rather not be one of these crazy enchanted people, even if it means passing up the opportunity to have a definite identity (as a crazy enchanted person).

E. DROMIO
Nay, then, thus:
We came into the world like brother and brother,
And now let's go hand in hand, not one before
   another. (5.1.438-441)

The Dromios seem to set the stage for what will happen after the play; having identified their other halves, they have a lot to learn about each other. It seems that though the confusion isn’t over, the fun and discoveries have only just begun.

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