The Comedy of Errors | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Comedy of Errors | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The play begins in the city of Ephesus, at the court of Duke Solinus. Egeon, an old Syracusian merchant, has been arrested under a law banning Syracusians from visiting Ephesus. Those violating the ban are sentenced to death unless they pay 1,000 marks—a much larger sum than Egeon has on hand. The duke expresses pity for Egeon but explains it would be unfair of him to bend the law. Although he does not intend to pardon Egeon, he asks the old man to explain why he came to Syracuse.

Egeon tells his story from the very beginning. He says he was born and married in Syracuse but traveled often to Epidamium on business. His wife (later revealed to be named Emilia) followed him—when she was pregnant—on one of his trips and gave birth there to identical twin sons. On the same day a "mean" (i.e., poor) woman gave birth to twin boys of her own. Egeon bought these boys with the intention of raising them as servants to his sons.

At this point Egeon's story takes a tragic turn. On the way home, back to Syracuse, the family was caught in a storm, which sunk their ship. They managed to survive by tying themselves to opposite spars (poles) of the ship's mast. Egeon, one son, and one servant boy were tied to one spar of the mast; his wife, along with the other son and servant, were tied to a small spar used for storms. Then the mast was split in two by a rock, separating the parents and the pairs of twins. A ship bound for Epidaurus saved Egeon's party; Corinthian fishermen rescued his wife and the other two boys.

Eighteen years later, Egeon's son, along with his servant, left Syracuse in search of their lost brothers. With no family left at home, Egeon, too, began traveling from port to port, looking for his wife and his other, long-lost son. He searched for five years, all over Greece and through Asia, finally bringing him to Ephesus on his way back to Syracuse. The duke is moved by this story and agrees to suspend the death sentence for the remainder of the day, so Egeon can try to raise the funds for his release. Egeon, "hopeless and helpless," sees this reprieve as merely delaying the inevitable.

Analysis

The Comedy of Errors is not the most tightly plotted of Shakespeare's plays, but performances can be so energetic and fast-paced it is hard to notice the inconsistencies. In reading over the play carefully, however, a few elements may seem farfetched. For one, Egeon describes his sons as "so like the other" they "could not be distinguished but by names." So what does he do? He gives his identical twin sons the same name, thereby making it impossible to distinguish between the two. Of course the play would be easier to follow if there weren't two identical characters named Antipholus—but then, there wouldn't be much of a plot.

Shakespeare also plays fast and loose with the timeline, beginning with Egeon's long speech in this scene. In rehearsing his sad story for the duke, Egeon suggests his son Antipholus left home at 18; Egeon himself has been wandering for about five years. This would make the Antipholus twins about 23 years old, but in Act 5, Scene 1 a slightly different figure is given: Egeon says he parted from Antipholus "seven years since," making his son 25. In the same scene Emilia will insinuate it has been about "thirty-three years" since the Antipholi were born. However, the age discrepancy has no real effect on the plot.

As the action speeds up, The Comedy of Errors will steamroll right over these minor contradictions. In Acts 3 and 4 the main characters hardly have time to catch their breath, let alone stop and fuss over names and dates. One seemingly small point, however, will become relevant almost immediately. As Egeon tells his tale, he casually mentions that although he himself is from Syracuse, both of his sons were born in Epidamium. Antipholus of Syracuse (the son Egeon raised) is therefore exempt from the ban imposed by Duke Solinus. Thus, he has no qualms about being seen in Ephesus or openly conducting business with its many merchants. If Antipholus felt the need to keep a low profile (e.g., by disguising himself), there would be less chance for the play's comic mishaps to develop.

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