Study Guide

The Comedy of Errors Themes

  • Isolation

    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.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. How is S. Antipholus isolated? Is he more isolated from his lost family, or his notion of self? Is there anyone in the play to whom he relates as familiar? What role does S. Dromio play with regard to S. Antipholus’s isolation? Luciana? E. Antipholus?
    2. Is Egeon a believable character? Is he isolated, or has he just been abandoned? What’s the difference?
    3. Does E. Antipholus feel isolated? How do we describe his relationship to his wife Adriana, and his long-lost brother? Does it seem like anything is resolved for E. Antipholus once he’s reunited with his family at the end of the play? Why or why not?
    4. The play is predicated upon the split of the six members of Egeon’s inner circle – how does each deal differently with his or her separation? Does the separation cause isolation for each of them? How else can their separation be interpreted?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. S. Antipholus seems to suffer throughout the play as a result of isolation. Is his suffering self-inflicted? Why does he think Luciana can rescue him from his suffering? Why does he abandon her so quickly? Is he one of those guys that will always feel that he is suffering?
    2. Does Adriana really seem to suffer at the hands of a faithless husband, or does her husband suffer more for her shrewish nagging? Is marriage just a prolonged act of suffering for both parties?
    3. Do the Dromios suffer? Is the violence against them from their masters realistic or farcical? Do the Dromios think they suffer? If they do, why do they bear their lot so patiently?
    4. Why does Egeon’s suffering bookend the play (beginning with his death-sentence, and ending with his near-execution)? Why is it important that suffering is the framework for this play if it’s supposed to be a comedy?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Family

    1. Is family actually important to the individual characters in the play, or is it just a conceit that provides a basis for the action of the play? What does "family" mean to the characters? For the characters that profess to care about their family, is it really the family they care about, or is it just a proxy for something else?
    2. Describe the relationship between Adriana and Luciana. How does Luciana’s interaction with S. Antipholus make you feel about Luciana’s relationship to her sister? Do you think she reacted appropriately to S. Antipholus’s attention? Does she give him advice that may be helpful to her sister? Does she do the right thing by being honest with her sister?
    3. How does familial love compare to romantic love in this play? Is one held up as more important than the other? Are the two mutually exclusive? In the end, is it more important to the Antipholi that they’ve gotten their love lives straightened out or that they’ve found their brother and parents?
    4. In the end, is the reuniting of the family a satisfying resolution? Does it even matter, given that half of the family wasn’t even on a find-the-whole-family kind of quest? What does the play’s resolution signify?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. How does the appearance v. reality theme function in this play? The play seems to be based on the notion that reality is not always as it appears. Can any appearances be trusted in the play? Are any appearances deliberately misleading, or is everything just the consequence of misunderstandings?
    2. S. Antipholus goes looking for his brother, but when they get together (and throughout the course of the play) it seems the men don’t really have much in common. Is their identical appearance enough to sustain a relationship?
    3. For the play to be performed on stage, Dromio and the Antipholi must appear to be identical. What are some ways to deal with this difficulty?
    4. Adriana immediately faults her diminished appearance from age as the reason her husband might go philandering. Is appearance an important part of her marriage? Is it fair for Adriana to say her looks have been ruined by the usage of her husband? Does this issue get resolved in the play?

    Chew on This

    The characters in The Comedy of Errors use appearances as an excuse to not look harder for a more complex truth.

  • Identity

    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.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Throughout the whole play, S. Antipholus struggles with his identity. When he finds Luciana, he pleads with her to create him anew, and to teach him about himself. Do you consider this a cop-out in the search for identity? Does it undermine all of the personal struggles S. Antipholus has had up to this point?
    2. What are the most important factors in how characters identify themselves in this play? Do we get the sense that everyone besides S. Antipholus is sure of their personal identities? Does anyone question who they are as a result of all the confusion surrounding identity?
    3. Are the women in the play realistic characters? How do they define themselves? Is it fair to say their identity is discussed (even among themselves) only in relation to the men of the play? Do the women consider themselves as important beyond these relationships?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Do S. Antipholus and S. Dromio seem to excuse all the strange stuff they find in Ephesus as the natural result of a supernatural setting? Do they ever fear the supernatural, or do they conquer the strangeness around them by understanding it to be supernatural?
    2. Adriana’s entrance with the "exorcist," Dr. Pinch, seems rather abrupt. Does Adriana really think her husband is possessed or insane? What evidence does she have of this? What evidence do we have (if any) that Adriana might have other motivations?
    3. How does the supernatural function alongside dreams and madness in The Comedy of Errors? Do they all share the same role? Are they all convenient excuses for the strangeness of Ephesus? How do characters relate to themselves and others differently because of what they perceive to be supernatural forces, dreams, or madness?
    4. Is there actually any element of the supernatural in the play? Is Shakespeare mocking how often life’s little absurdities get chalked up to greater-than-natural causes, whether divine or hellish? Does Shakespeare treat the supernatural as reasonable or foolish in the play?

    Chew on This

    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 and Femininity

    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.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Does Shakespeare represent women fairly in this play? Are women merely objects that represent different stances on marriage, or are the women realistically portrayed? Is Shakespeare’s portrayal of women sympathetic to or accepting of women’s subservient societal roles?
    2. Do the women in The Comedy of Errors view marriage differently from Shakespeare’s other heroines? How are their views the same? Does Shakespeare side with one view of marriage in this play?
    3. S. Antipholus is constantly around women in the play, but we don’t see E. Antipholus on stage with women until he is confronted by the accusatory mob they’ve formed to deal with his alleged mental instability. How does their respective relationship to women define each of the Antipholi?
    4. The female characters of the play seem to differ wildly from each other, whether in social status or outlook. (Adriana is a wife; the Courtesan is, well, a courtesan; the Abbess is a holy woman; and Luciana is an idealistic, unmarried woman.) Is there any notion that they have some female solidarity in spite of their differences? What do we make of them traveling in a group at the end of the play?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Luciana represents an ideal view of marriage in which a wife patiently bears her husband’s flaws and mistreatment. Does Luciana think her view is realistic or practicable? How does Luciana account for the fact that she isn’t married? Do we get a hint that even she knows she must change her views on marriage in order to get married?
    2. Why does S. Antipholus offer to marry Luciana? Does he actually love her, or would he just be using her in marriage to find his own identity? How does her response reflect what she thinks of his marriage proposal?
    3. Is marriage in the play presented as an equal partnership? Think of all the play’s couples – how do their relationships deal with the compromises marriage demands of both genders? Do partners seem to be willing to compromise for each other? Do partners use or manipulate each other?
    4. Adriana and E. Antipholus’s marriage is definitely less than ideal, and Egeon and Aemilia’s marriage nearly ended in disaster. At the end of the play, S. Antipholus is still trying to marry Luciana, but we don’t actually see the marriage occur. Is Shakespeare suggesting marriage is not a panacea, or a cure-all way to resolve things? Is he suggesting that S. Antipholus’s marriage to Luciana wouldn’t solve any of S. Antipholus’s actual problems?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Duty

    1. E. Antipholus, though he doesn’t seem elated to have found his long lost twin, almost immediately offers up the ransom for his long lost father. Does E. Antipholus just see family as one of the many duties he has to take care of? Does he think of his duty as a labor of love, or just a job?
    2. Why do the Dromios put up with so much abuse? What do they see as their real duty to the Antipholi? Do they perform this duty because they’re bondsmen, or maybe out of love, or just because they don’t know anything else? Is the devotion of the Dromios realistic, especially given their treatment by the Antipholi?
    3. Does S. Antipholus have a duty to anyone but himself? Is he the play’s only character that operates entirely for his own ends, and not because of complicated relationships with others?
    4. Luciana counsels S. Antipholus to keep his love for her secret from his Adriana (his "wife"), instead of chiding him for having adulterous feelings. Still, she tells her sister about the incident. How do we explain this? Is Luciana torn between her perceived duty to not criticize men, and her familial duty to her sister?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Rules and Order

    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.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. The Duke frames the play with his presence as the voice of order in the first and last scenes. Is the law, and it’s perceived ability to bestow order, supposed to organize the play? What does it mean that in both scenes the Duke doesn’t carry out the law to the full extent (when he refuses to kill Egeon)?
    2. Are law and order presented realistically or parodied in this play? Does Ephesus strike us as an orderly place, or is it dictated by rules of some other forces?
    3. How does justice relate to law and order in the play? Is there any suggestion that an ordered society is a just society? Is Ephesus, because of its disorder, a decidedly unjust society?
    4. E. Antipholus and Adriana both decide to appeal to the Duke in search of resolution, though he’ll satisfy neither of them ultimately. If the law is so constantly impotent, why do the characters bother deferring to its authority?

    Chew on This

    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.