Isolation is the central tenet of The Comedy of Errors. It’s not something the characters talk about explicitly, but it’s the subtext that threads through most of the play and motivates the action. The most important forms of isolation presented are isolation from family and from knowledge of one’s self. Ending isolation is a motivating force for S. Antipholus and his father, Egeon. The main character, S. Antipholus, has been separated from his family, and seemingly, this isolation may be at the root his feelings of isolation from himself. He lacks self-knowledge and is constantly seeking something outside of himself to fill his inner void. On the other hand, Egeon is isolated from his family, which leads him to feelings of hopelessness. There’s also emotional isolation occurring between a married couple when the man seems to be cheating on his wife. The cause and consequence of the isolation differ in each case, but together these variations on the same theme ground the play. All characters who feel isolation expect that ending their solitude (physical or emotional) will lead to happiness. Indeed, overcoming isolation becomes the means to a happy (and comical) resolution of the play.
Isolation is the central tenet of the play, as the play is moved along by each of the characters’ attempts to deal with their isolation.
The Abbess and Egeon deal with their isolation by sacrificing their lives – Aemilia gives up her family life to be devoted to God, and Egeon is literally willing to die after he gives up hope for his lost family. The isolation of the younger generation is nowhere near as grave because they’ve never experienced anything different.
Suffering in The Comedy of Errors oscillates in type between emotional and physical suffering. Both are very present in the play, and all of the characters are long-suffering in one way or another. Adriana and E. Antipholus have a marriage which lacks trust and good communication; Egeon and Aemilia suffer loneliness from being separated from their spouses and children; Luciana suffers in not having a husband; S. Antipholus suffers personally for his self-isolation; and the Dromios are constantly physically beaten, leading them to feel put upon physically and mentally. Each of these kinds of suffering grounds each of the characters in the comedy, which allows them a negative circumstance to overcome in order to find happiness, towards a resolution of the play.
Suffering is farcical in this play, as the action of the play is too silly to exist on the same plane as any deep and meaningful depiction of suffering.
Instead of actual suffering, the play tends towards melodrama, which is highlighted in the same way as the gags of the play. Thus, both suffering and comedy are hyperbolic in this play.
Family in The Comedy of Errors is mostly notable for its absence. Family is important to the characters, and particularly so for Egeon, S. Antipholus, and Aemilia. The theme of family can be seen as the catalyst for other themes: lack of family causes isolation, which leads to suffering. Similarly, the characters seem to expect that a unified family will eliminate isolation and end their suffering. The action of the play is defined by everyone fighting to either regain their family or to maintain it. Though it isn’t expressly articulated as everyone’s aim, the play’s comic resolution relies on the physical reuniting of the families in order to come to a conclusion.
This play is less about the importance of family, and more about the potential destruction caused by not having a family.
Family isn’t important to everyone in the play. In fact, it only really matters to S. Antipholus. E. Antipholus and the Abbess seem to have set up perfectly happy lives for themselves, and even Egeon was content with only having one son.
Appearances are the primary source of the comedy in The Comedy of Errors. Appearances can almost always be relied on to be false in this play – the twins (the Antipholi and the Dromios) are constantly being mistaken for each other, and though their actions and their temperaments differ, they are mostly identified by their appearance, which is a method prone to folly. It’s not only the twins’ physical appearance that matters in the play – Adriana worries that her beauty is waning, leading her husband to no longer care for her, and Egeon is convinced that his son won’t recognize him because he’s physically altered by his miserable state. The theme of appearances, however, extends to the appearance of a situation as well. The situation in Ephesus is so strange that it appears to be of supernatural origin. But what appears to be supernatural intervention is actually just confusion based on appearance (of the twins). Appearance is filtered through different means in the play, but it’s constantly a basis by which characters judge the people around them, and their own situations. The play reaches a resolution only when the characters realize that how things appear does not necessarily reflect on reality.
The characters in The Comedy of Errors use appearances as an excuse to not look harder for a more complex truth.
Much of The Comedy of Errors is about mistaken identity, and the search for true identity. The most significant identity search belongs to S. Antipholus, who feels incomplete for any number of reasons. He seeks to fill the void about who he is by getting a family, a wife, or returning to a familiar place, but ultimately it seems he’s seeking to be defined by things outside of himself. This is particularly dangerous because of the issue of mistaken identity. Characters in the play are so positive about the identity of others that they ignore all the hints pointing to how they’re mistaken. Interestingly, this habit of being mistaken leads some of the characters to question their notions of their own identity.
How others identify each character is as important as how each character identifies himself. For instance, S. Antipholus’s and E. Antipholus’s self-perceptions are ultimately less important than the way other characters perceive them.
The supernatural figures in The Comedy of Errors are purely an excuse to ignore the complexity of reality. There is no single occurrence that cannot be explained by some perfectly natural (if bizarre) reasoning, but characters are quick to point to the fates, dreaming, madness, and general supernatural stuff (devils, sorcery, witchcraft) in order to explain the strangeness of their situations. The supernatural stands in as a convenient explanation for what seems inexplicable, given the implausible truth that under-girds the entire play.
The supernatural functions only as a plot device in the play. No character that attributes anything to the supernatural ever gives a viable reason for doing so. This is only a way to explain the Ephesian strangeness – and move the plot along.
Each character that invokes the supernatural does it as cover up for some personal weakness. Egeon blames the supernatural fates for his miserable condition; S. Antipholus’s inability to deal with and understand his reality leave him quick to jump to some explanation outside of himself; and Adriana would rather believe her husband is possessed than deal with the possibility that he just might not love her anymore.
Women are very present in The Comedy of Errors as vocal forces. Though they have a lot of opinions and many speaking lines, it seems their main reason for existing in the play is to talk about and react to men. Adriana, the play’s most vocal female character, is a strong woman, but she’s undermined by her husband’s faithlessness, which causes her self-doubt. The other women of the play, most notably Luciana, the Courtesan, the Abbess, and even the kitchen maid, Nell, are significant only insofar as they lack the companionship of men. Luciana must learn how to deal with men; the Courtesan and Nell are undervalued by men; and even the Abbess was forced to confine herself to a nunnery when she lost her man. These women don’t seem to know what to do without men, but they don’t know what to do with them, either. While the women are independent characters, they seem relatively incomplete without men to occupy them.
The women in this play derive their importance from the men they’re associated with.
Shakespeare’s treatment of Adriana’s suffering is unprecedented and almost revolutionary in this play. He’s more progressive than expected, given the contemporary theatrical convention of shrewish wives. He’s careful to give Adriana real concerns and real flaws, which is actually flattering to women, as it reflects how they are just as complicated as their male counterparts.
Marriage serves a variety of functions in The Comedy of Errors. It’s the stuff of heartache through separation (as with the separation of Egeon and Aemilia), but staying together in marriage can be as much of a heartache as being kept apart. Adriana and E. Antipholus struggle in a marriage that they value, but have to work hard to keep afloat. Adriana is suspicious of E. Antipholus (given her husband’s fondness for a courtesan), who is quick to fly into a rage against her. Marriage is definitely difficult, and how either gender should operate in marriage is the subject of much conversation. The dominant and only present marriage of the play, between Adriana and E. Antipholus, seems to be managed by careful compromise. A more idealized version of marriage is suggested in the potential match between Luciana and S. Antipholus. Luciana’s main concern is learning to submit, properly and entirely, to her husband, and S. Antipholus is looking for someone to guide him and complete him.
In The Comedy of Errors, marriage is central to having a complete identity, especially given Shakespeare’s emphasis on the message of a couple’s unity as related in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.
The Comedy of Errors presents equality as the ideal relationship between men and women in a marriage.
Duty in The Comedy of Errors is the stuff of wives, husbands, servants, citizens, parents, and children. Basically, everyone owes some duty to someone else, and each struggles to anticipate the others’ needs and do what’s expected. In the most explicit sense, the women and servants are subjected to the men, and it is their duty to serve the men’s needs. Beyond the duty of subordinates, marriage charges men with the duty to be faithful husbands. Egeon, the lost and despairing father, illustrates the duty men have toward their families. Egeon’s inability to protect and keep together his family is enough to make him feel like a worthless man. When characters feel they are not fulfilling their duty, self-doubt and shame result.
Adriana doesn’t actually feel any duty to her husband. She rankles at being a subservient wife, and her decision to have him bound and gagged and locked in the basement "for his own good" is really just her way of getting back at him for what she presumes to be his unfaithful behavior.
Law and order frame the action of the play. Rather than be the foundation for what happens in the play, law and order are significant because of their impotence. The play is about forces greater than law – family, identity, isolation and more are outside the bounds of what’s traditionally dealt with by the law. Law is present, but it is relatively powerless in the face of all the confusion of the play. The law can’t keep marriages together, or reunite families, and as those are the areas where justice needs to be served, the law is inapplicable, though it is present as a powerless force.
Law and order in Ephesus are notable for their impotence.
There is order in Ephesus, it just has nothing to do with the law. All the characters have their own way of ordering the world, and these individual rubrics aren’t codified.