The Comedy of Errors | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Comedy of Errors | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

As Angelo and the second merchant are discussing the day's bizarre events, Antipholus of Syracuse comes onstage, accompanied by Dromio of Syracuse. The merchant, who has missed his chance to sail because of Antipholus—actually because of Antipholus of Ephesus, not Syracuse—begins quarreling with him about the chain. The two men draw swords and are about to duel when Adriana rushes in and breaks up the fight. Dromio of Syracuse and Antipholus of Syracuse retreat to a nearby abbey.

Adriana and the two merchants try to follow the Syracusians into the abbey, but the abbess comes out and demands to know what is happening. She interrogates Adriana about her husband's state of mind and finds out about Antipholus's "unlawful love" for the courtesan. The abbess blames Adriana for Antipholus's madness and refuses to send him away from the abbey until he is "brought ... to his wits again." Adriana decides to take the matter to the duke, who, as it happens, is on his way to preside over Egeon's execution.

Interrupting the grim procession, Adriana entreats the duke for justice. Her husband, she explains, has temporarily lost his mind, but she wants to care for him at home rather than leaving him in the abbey. The duke agrees to hear her case. A messenger bursts onto the scene to announce Antipholus and Dromio have escaped and are now torturing Pinch. At just that moment, Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus appear, causing the messenger to flee.

Now, it is Antipholus of Ephesus's turn to plead with the duke. He tells of his suffering, beginning with being locked out of his house (Act 3, Scene 1) and ending with his house arrest by Pinch (Act 4, Scene 4). The women and merchants give conflicting, confusing testimony about Antipholus's whereabouts and actions, leading the duke to pronounce them all "stark mad." Egeon steps forward to recognize Antipholus as his son, but this only deepens the confusion because Antipholus of Ephesus does not recognize Egeon as his father (Antipholus of Syracuse, who would recognize Egeon, is in the abbey).

Finally, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse come out of the abbey, and all is made clear. The two pairs of twins are joyfully reunited, and the abbess reveals herself as Egeon's long-lost wife Emilia. Floored by these revelations, the duke pardons Egeon on the spot, and Emilia invites everyone into the abbey for a celebratory feast. The Dromios, who are last to leave the stage, try to puzzle out which of them is the elder brother. Ultimately, they decide it doesn't matter: they will go to the party "hand in hand, not one before another."

Analysis

This scene delivers the long-expected happy ending, but only after an uneasy confrontation between Adriana and the abbess. The exchange between the two women continues a pattern from Act 2, Scene 1 in which Luciana tried to instruct Adriana in proper wifely behavior. Here, the abbess begins her interview with Adriana by telling her she should have berated Antipholus more assertively for his suspected infidelities. She was not "rough enough," and if she had been more forceful, this whole unpleasant madness episode might have been avoided.

With this bit of victim blaming the abbess baits Adriana into admitting she did chide her husband—at which point the abbess turns around and says Adriana must have chided him too much. The abbess now lays into Adriana with a long speech about the ill effects of female jealousy, concluding, "Thy jealous fits / Have scared thy husband from the use of wits." There is a kernel of truth in this accusation, but not in the way the abbess intends: Adriana's "jealous fits" (more charitably, her passionate attempts to save her marriage) did scare Antipholus of Syracuse, because he had no idea who Adriana was. If he has now lost his wits, it is because he is in a strange town where everyone seems to be eerily familiar with him.

Notably, all of this transpires before the abbess (i.e., Emilia) realizes she is Antipholus's mother and thus Adriana's mother-in-law. For now, the abbess is operating under the assumption Adriana is a perfect stranger and Antipholus is merely an otherwise innocent young man with a wandering eye. In other words, the abbess is not attempting to defend Antipholus because he is her son. Still, if this is how the abbess presumes to treat a stranger, Adriana's relationship problems may be far from over once the family reunites.

As the grand finale approaches, Shakespeare sounds the theme of "supernatural Ephesus" one last time. The "errors" have now grown so confusing that, by the time the twins are revealed, even the sober duke suspects some kind of evil magic must be at work. When confronted with the two Dromios, he declares, "One of these men is genius to the other" and proceeds to ask "which is the natural man / And which the spirit?" A genius, in classical and medieval usage, was a spirit who followed or attended on a person from birth, or in some cases haunted a specific place. The duke is using the word to suggest one of the Dromios is a spirit masquerading as a man.

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