The Comedy of Errors | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Comedy of Errors | Act 2, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Back on the streets of Ephesus, Antipholus of Syracuse briefly reminds the audience of what has happened so far. Dromio of Syracuse arrives, and Antipholus upbraids him for the nonsensical "jokes" he made in Act 1, Scene 2. Dromio of Syracuse, understandably confused, claims not to have seen Antipholus of Syracuse since he left to drop off the gold. Antipholus of Syracuse thinks this is another prank and proceeds to beat Dromio of Syracuse, who protests he has done nothing wrong. Eventually, Antipholus of Syracuse relents, calms down a bit, and even begins to joke around with Dromio of Syracuse.

Their joking doesn't last for long. Adriana shows up and beckons to Antipholus, who is confused and acts as though he does not know her. He doesn't. Adriana, thinking this Antipholus is her husband, harangues him with a long, passionate speech about adultery and fidelity. She asks why her husband, formerly so loving and considerate, is now treating her as a stranger. Antipholus of Syracuse, who by now is completely baffled, assures Adriana she has the wrong man: he is unmarried and has never set eyes on her before.

Adriana is upset but undaunted, and continues to insist she is Antipholus's wife. Luciana backs up her claims, leading Antipholus of Syracuse to wonder if he has lost his mind after all. Eventually, he surmises he must be dead, dreaming, or under an evil spell. With no clear alternative, he decides to follow Adriana and Luciana home and dine with them.

Analysis

The bewildering misrecognition scene confirms Antipholus's worst fears: he is now certain he is living in some kind of alternate reality or altered state. He runs through a list of frightening possibilities: maybe he's in a nightmare and can't wake up, or perhaps he's going mad. Antipholus of Syracuse even entertains the possibility he has already died, and the Ephesians he encounters are actually illusory spirits from hell. Dromio of Syracuse, meanwhile, is having some serious second thoughts of his own, perhaps because he has been repeatedly clobbered by Antipholus of Syracuse for no apparent reason.

Dromio's behavior in this scene also suggests an unflattering connection between superstition and Roman Catholicism. When he begins to suspect witchcraft, Dromio cries "O, for my beads! I cross me for a sinner." "Crossing" oneself—making the sign of the cross—was a common enough practice in Shakespeare's England, but the rosary was a strictly Roman Catholic devotion. In fact under Elizabeth I, Catholic sacramental—including rosary beads—were treated as contraband, since Anglicanism was the official state religion (and had been since the 1530s). Anti-Catholic propaganda—sometimes satirical, but more often shrill and alarmist—was an increasingly common feature of English literature during Elizabeth's reign; books, plays, and pamphlets often portrayed Catholic priests and bishops as schemers or villains. Dromio of Syracuse's bead-clutching is a relatively mild expression of this trend.

A few lines later Dromio gives voice to another common superstition of Shakespeare's time when he calls Adriana and Luciana "goblins, owls, and sprites" who will "suck our breath, or pinch us black and blue." These were thought to be the punishments inflicted on humans unlucky enough to trespass in the places frequented by fairies. Such figures recur throughout Shakespearean comedy: mischief-making fairies play a major role in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and their pinching of wayward humans is used for comic effect in The Merry Wives of Windsor. (In the final scene of that play, a group of children dressed as fairies torment the cowardly knight Falstaff.)

Lines 60–75 invoke yet another widely held belief, not quite supernatural but still strange by modern standards. When Antipholus and Dromio joke about the overcooked meat, they are playing on the audience's knowledge of humorism, an ancient medical theory still widely adhered to in Shakespeare's time. According to this theory, an individual's personality depended on the balance of fluids, or humors, circulating in his or her body. Food choices were thought to have a strong effect on this balance: eating dry or spicy foods, for example, would lead to an increase in yellow bile, making one choleric (hotheaded and irritable). Since Antipholus of Syracuse is already acting violently, Dromio of Syracuse is understandably worried about what might happen if he eats overcooked meat.

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