Applause for Plautus
Shakespeare didn’t invent mistaken identity gags, he just improved upon them. He borrowed the idea of twin brothers separated at birth from the Roman playwright Plautus’s play Menaechmi. Shakespeare ups the ante by adding in a second set of twins to add to the bedlam.
Shakespeare uses the concept of time to up the stakes in this play. The play takes place during the course of a single day (the only other play in the canon to do that is The Tempest). Threatened with death at the start of the play Egeon (the twins’ father) has to come up with ransom money in just a few hours. There are more references to time – time quickly running out – than in any of Shakespeare’s other plays.
Short and Sweet
This is Shakespeare’s only play with the word “comedy” in the title. It is also his briefest play with just a little over 1900 total lines (depending on which edition you use).
This play is expertly structured. Shakespeare plays with the theme of mistaken identity in nearly every scene. It’s kind of amazing how many variations he’s able to create. Each layer of mayhem builds upon the one before it until it bursts into a grand finale.
Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?
The Comedy of Errors is one of the few plays by Shakespeare that is populated with almost entirely middle-class characters. It gives us glimpse into the workings of a town filled with merchants, jewelers, courtesans, law enforcement, and clergy.
A Mobius Strip of Twins
Films, operas, musicals, literary works have all taken inspiration from this play. The 1938 Rodgers and Hart musical The Boys from Syracuse was inspired by The Comedy of Errors. The Lily Tomlin/Bette Midler film Big Business also borrows liberally from the play.
Stranger than Fiction
Recently, there was a feature in The New York Times about two sets of identical twins, mixed up and separated at birth, who accidentally learned about each other and met for the first time as adults. Read The Mixed Up Brothers of Bogota.
Solinus, Duke of Ephesus
Egeon, a merchant from Syracuse
Antipholus of Syracuse
Antipholus of Ephesus
Dromio of Syracuse, attendant to Antipholus of Syracuse
Dromio of Ephesus, attendant to Antipholus of Ephesus
Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus
Luciana, Adriana’s sister
Nell, Adriana’s kitchen-maid
Balthazar, a merchant
Angelo, a goldsmith
Doctor Pinch, a schoolmaster and exorcist
Emilia, an abbess from Ephesus
What’s the Story?
Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse, has twin sons both named Antipholus, to whom he has given twin servants both called Dromio. The family is split up in a shipwreck in which Egeon’s wife and one of each of the sets of twins is lost. Some years later, Antipholus of Syracuse sets out with Dromio of Syracuse to find their lost brothers.
When the play opens, master and servant have landed in Ephesus. Egeon has also arrived there following a long and fruitless search of his own for his lost wife and son. Syracuse is at war with Ephesus, and Egeon finds himself under arrest and condemned to death if he does not raise a substantial ransom by the end of the day. The lost Antipholus and the lost Dromio are also in Ephesus, where they have lived for some years after the shipwreck.
So the whole family with the exception of Egeon’s wife is now, unbeknownst to one another, all in the same city at the same time. With everyone in Ephesus, it is not long before each Dromio runs into the other Antiphoulus. And since no one knows to whom he is talking, the relationships become hopelessly entangled.
Antipholus of Ephesus is married to Adriana, whom he appears to neglect. Antipholus of Syracuse is mistaken by Adriana for her husband, and to make things worse, he shows an interest in Adriana’s sister, Luciana. And Luciana is horrified that her sister’s husband is trying to make love to her.
This wild romp of mistaken identities leads to a dinner with the wrong husband, the arrest of one of the Antipholus brothers for insanity and debt, the execution of Egeon, and the arrival, in the nick of time, of an abbess who turns out to be his long-lost wife.
In the end, all parties are brought together, including the two sets of twins, and day’s adventures are unraveled. Antipholus of Syracuse renews his interest in Luciana. Egeon is pardoned, and Adriana and her husband are reconciled. Everyone gets what they want, including the Dromios, who are reunited.
You Heard It Here First
The following words and phrases appeared in print for the first time in The Comedy of Errors
- ‘Tis high time
- Something in the wind
- To gossip
- To hurry