Study Guide

The Comedy of Errors The Supernatural

By William Shakespeare

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The Supernatural

Upon my life, by some device or other
The villain is o'erraught of all my money.
They say this town is full of cozenage,
As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguisèd cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many suchlike liberties of sin. (1.2.98-105)

This experience with E. Dromio is S. Antipholus’s first hint that something is amiss in Ephesus. S. Antipholus’ immediate conclusion is that sorcery and witchcraft are to blame. Does this seem like a reasonable conclusion, or is it merely a plot device?

How can she thus, then, call us by our names—
Unless it be by inspiration? (2.2.177-178)

Again, S. Antipholus is quick to chalk up the strangeness of Adriana knowing he and Dromio’s name to "inspiration" (meaning divination or clairvoyance). This is rather surprising, considering that S. Antipholus did come to Ephesus to look for a twin brother, and, if that were the case, shouldn’t his first assumption be that Adriana is married to his twin? Regardless, S. Antipholus seems to have accepted that he’s come to a magical place. With that premise, nothing that follows seems particularly strange and S. Antipholus has no reason to look for logical answers to the strange situations that befall him.

To me she speaks; she moves me for her theme.
What, was I married to her in my dream?
Or sleep I now and think I hear all this?
What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?
Until I know this sure uncertainty
I'll entertain the offered fallacy. (2.2.192-197)

S. Antipholus is certain he is dreaming, or was dreaming when he married this woman. This dream-state is an echo of all the supernatural stuff he assumes is afoot in Ephesus. Again S. Antipholus seems to use the supernatural as an excuse to avoid looking at a more complex reality.

O, for my beads! I cross me for sinner.
This is the fairy land. O spite of spites!
We talk with goblins, owls, and sprites.
If we obey them not, this will ensue:
They'll suck our breath, or pinch us black and blue. (2.2.199-203)

Like his master, S. Dromio clearly believes in supernatural forces, but is less comfortable succumbing to sorcery. Rather than let all of this seeming witchcraft roll over him (like S. Antipholus does), S. Dromio cries out and appeals to his rosary (which, if this is set in the pre-Christian era, is one of the play’s many playful anachronisms). How is it that S. Dromio and S. Antipholus believe that sorcery is the cause of their problems in Ephesus but E. Dromio and E. Antipholus never resort to this sort of strange reasoning?

   O, Sir, I did not look so low. To
   conclude: this drudge or diviner laid claim to me,
   called me Dromio, swore I was assured to her, told
   me what privy marks I had about me, as, the mark
   of my shoulder, the mole in my neck, the great wart
   on my left arm, that I, amazed, ran from her as a
And, I think, if my breast had not been made of
   faith, and my heart of steel,
She had transform'd me to a curtal dog, and made
   me turn i' th' wheel. (3.2.153-163)

S. Dromio’s romantic connection with Nell serves as a foil to S. Antipholus’s connection with Luciana. Both feel they’re being bewitched, but while S. Antipholus describes his enchantment in the romantic terms of mermaids and songs, S. Dromio’s enchantment is darker, and involves dogs. It’s a reminder that the supernatural is all about perspective – one man’s evil bewitching is another man’s lovely enchantment.

There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend,
And every one doth call me by my name.
Some tender money to me; some invite me:
Some other give me thanks for kindnesses;
Some offer me commodities to buy.
Even now a tailor call'd me in his shop
And showed me silks that he had bought for me,
And therewithal took measure of my body.
Sure, these are but imaginary wiles,
And Lapland sorcerers inhabit here. (4.3.1-11)

S. Antipholus shows some strength of spirit by choosing not to bask in the good treatment he’s been getting in Ephesus. Though he’s being treated kindly, it doesn’t sit well with him that people really seem to think he is who he’s not. Even if the seeming magic at hand has good consequences, it’s still not real, so he chooses to reject it.

Good Doctor Pinch, you are a conjurer:
Establish him in his true sense again,
And I will please you what you will demand.
Alas, how fiery and how sharp he looks!
Mark how he trembles in his ecstasy.
PINCH [to E. Antipholus]
Give me your hand, and let me feel your pulse.
E. ANTIPHOLUS [striking Pinch]
There is my hand, and let it feel your ear.
I charge thee, Satan, hous'd within this man,
To yield possession to my holy prayers,
And to thy state of darkness hie thee straight.
I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven. (4.4.51-61)

This is all rather hilarious. Throughout the entire play, the supernatural has seemed a dark and mysterious force in Ephesus, but actually, when this guy who’s supposed to be a conjurer shows up, he’s clearly viewed as an innocuous old quack. Adriana seems as foolish as S. Antipholus to believe in all of this stuff, and though Pinch takes himself very seriously, that’s all the more reason we don’t take him seriously. In case it wasn’t clear before, Pinch’s character shows us that relying on explanations like magic is ludicrous. Also, this is where E. Antipholus finally smacks around somebody that deserves it.

Be patient; for I will not let him stir
Till I have us'd the approvèd means I have,
With wholesome syrups, drugs, and holy prayers,
To make of him a formal man again.
It is a branch and parcel of mine oath,
A charitable duty of my order.
Therefore depart, and leave him here with me. (5.1.106-112)

Again we see there are many sides to the supernatural – the Abbess equates her holy prayers with her wholesome syrups. This whole healing of madness is all a matter of perspective, whether done by a witch doctor, a wife, or a holy woman.

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