Study Guide

The Comedy of Errors Rules and Order

By William Shakespeare

Rules and Order

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 sealed 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 levièd,
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 condemned to die. (1.1.3-25)

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. (1.1.142-145)

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 help.
Try all the friends thou hast in Ephesus;
Beg thou, or borrow, to make up the sum,
And live. If no, then thou art doomed to die.— (1.1.150-154)

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.

You'll cry for this, minion, if beat the door down.
                                              [He beats the door down.]
What needs all that, and a pair of stocks in the
   town? (3.1.91-93)

Luce, the kitchen maid, appeals to law and order (in the form of the town stocks). She thinks law and order will solve whatever trouble is currently being stirred up by the seemingly crazy men outside. Again, it’s evidence that law and order fall short of being able to deliver justice and right all wrongs.

Consent to pay thee that I never had?—
Arrest me, foolish fellow, if thou dar'st.
ANGELO [to Officer]
Here is thy fee. Arrest him, officer. [Giving money.]
I would not spare my brother in this case
If he should scorn me so apparently.
OFFICER [to E. Antipholus]
I do arrest you, sir. You hear the suit.
I do obey thee till I give thee bail.
[to Angelo] But, sirrah, you shall buy this sport as
As all the metal in your shop will answer.
Sir, sir, I shall have law in Ephesus,
To your notorious shame, I doubt it not. (4.1.75-86)

E. Antipholus, though he’s in a rage, submits to the law. Even though justice is not being served by the law, Angelo’s invocation of law and order is strong enough to pull E. Antipholus into line. E. Antipholus also seems OK submitting to the officer. This is probably because E. Antipholus is confident that he can use the channels of the law (like bail) to get what he sees is justice. It’s clear that law in Ephesus doesn’t serve justice – it can be manipulated to other ends.

Complain unto the Duke of this indignity.
Come, go. I will fall prostrate at his feet
And never rise until my tears and prayers
Have won his Grace to come in person hither
And take perforce my husband from the Abbess. (5.1.117-121)

Though all evidence points to the incompetence and inefficacy of Ephesian law, the women turn to it to get E. Antipholus back. The law (and the Duke’s good sense) is once again held up as the factor that might lead to the play’s ultimate resolution.

Why, what an intricate impeach is this!
I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup. (5.1.277-278)

The Duke, who is supposed to be the arbiter of law and order, and able to make sense out of confusion, declares that this situation is all madness. He alludes to the sorceress Circe of The Odyssey who transforms all the men to pigs by making them drink from her cup. "Their [the pig men’s] minds were unchanged, but their body’s, voices and heads were all swinish" (The Odyssey, Book X). All who drink Circe’s potion think everyone else is crazy, but that they themselves are perfectly sane. That does sound like the situation afoot in Ephesus. Even the law can’t sort this one out. It seems all is lost.

One of these men is genius to the other.
And so of these, which is the natural man
And which the spirit? Who deciphers them? (5.1.343-345)

Once again, law and order fail to save the day. The Duke, who should be the most sensible man in the city, decides that the root of the problem resides in the supernatural. He has no explanation to order the strange and sudden appearance of two sets of twins, and so he defaults into the same explanation of the supernatural everyone else used for the whole play. The Duke decides one man is "genius to the other," meaning something of an attendant spirit that was identical to a person, and believed to follow that person around though their life. No other explanation seems to fit their notion of order in Ephesus.

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