The Comedy of Errors | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Comedy of Errors | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Elsewhere in Ephesus, Angelo the goldsmith is accosted by an unnamed second merchant, to whom he owes money. The second merchant threatens to have Angelo arrested if the debt is not paid immediately, but Angelo promises he will be able to collect from Antipholus—meaning Antipholus of Ephesus—this afternoon. No sooner is his name mentioned than Antipholus of Ephesus appears. Extremely provoked by the day's events, Antipholus of Ephesus sends Dromio of Ephesus off to buy a rope with which to beat Adriana and the household servants.

Then Antipholus of Ephesus confronts Angelo, charging the goldsmith has failed to appear at the Porpentine to deliver the gold chain to the courtesan. Angelo, who handed the chain over to Antipholus of Syracuse in the previous scene, assumes Antipholus of Ephesus is joking and presents him with a bill for the chain. Antipholus of Ephesus, however, has received no chain, so he refuses to pay.

The merchant, growing impatient, summons an officer to arrest Angelo. Angelo, in response, has the same officer arrest Antipholus of Ephesus for nonpayment. As Antipholus of Ephesus and Angelo hurl insults at one another, Dromio of Syracuse arrives and announces that a ship has put in from Epidamium and is waiting on Antipholus to depart. Antipholus of Ephesus, who has no intention of leaving town, assumes Dromio has gone mad. He asks about the rope, of which Dromio knows nothing. Then, realizing he is about to be hauled off to jail, Antipholus of Ephesus gives Dromio a key and orders him to run home and retrieve money for bail from Adriana. Dromio of Syracuse, now thoroughly perplexed but knowing who Adriana is, shrugs and heads back to the home where he dined earlier—which, unbeknownst to Dromio of Syracuse is Antipholus of Ephesus's house.

Analysis

Act 4 is a flurry of short scenes in which the Antipholi and the Dromios race across Ephesus, barely missing one another in their comings and goings. The previous scene offered a bit of a break from the hectic pacing of Acts 2 and 3, with Antipholus's love speech and Dromio's jokes giving the audience members a chance to catch their breath. In this scene, however, the errors really begin to pile up, and their consequences grow more severe. What was harmlessly funny in Act 3 becomes a serious matter for Angelo, who stands to be imprisoned for debt—and for Antipholus of Ephesus, who is being carted off to jail.

This scene hints at the fragility of the trust between Antipholus of Ephesus and his business associates: each man is willing to call the police if his honor (and thus his creditworthiness in the Ephesian marketplace) is threatened by false testimony. It also shows the ease with which a private citizen could have another arrested in Shakespeare's England: often, reporting an alleged crime under oath was all it took to procure an arrest warrant. Being jailed for debt, as Antipholus of Ephesus is here, was just as serious as it might seem: apart from the harm to one's reputation, a debtor in Elizabethan England could be held indefinitely until arrangements were made with his creditor. This practice was so widespread, in fact, that two of London's 18 prisons (the King's Bench and the Counters) were devoted mainly to detaining debtors. (The other 16 were likewise assigned to different classes of criminal or civil offender.) In the arrest and prison scenes in Act 4, Shakespeare seems to take his cues from contemporary English life rather than from ancient Greek or Roman practices.

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