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The Comedy of Errors | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Comedy of Errors | Motifs


Jackasses and She-Asses

The Comedy of Errors is full of allusions to donkeys: as stubborn creatures, as beasts of burden, and as dangerous animals that kick when someone gets too close. Adriana, the first character to invoke this motif, rails against the restrictions of married life: "There's none but asses will be bridled so" (Act 2, Scene 1). In her view only a foolish person or a brute would allow herself to be cooped up at home while her husband runs around with courtesans.

In Act 2, Scene 2 Luciana protests the frightened Dromio of Syracuse has been "changed to ... an ass." She means he is behaving stupidly, but Dromio, true to form, takes the analogy and runs with it. His retort may simply be an allusion to her ordering him about (he knows he is an ass because he is being "ridden" by Adriana), but it may also refer to a widespread folk belief. Supposedly, witches (as Dromio suspects Adriana to be) transformed men into beasts while they slept, then rode them about the countryside, leaving them inexplicably exhausted in the morning. In the next scene (Act 3, Scene 1) Dromio of Ephesus makes a similar observation after Antipholus of Ephesus calls him an ass for telling nonsensical jokes. Dromio of Ephesus agrees he has a lot in common with a donkey:

So it doth appear
By the wrongs I suffer and the blows I bear.

But then he continues the motif with a vague threat:

I should kick being kicked and, being at that pass,
You would keep from my heels and beware of an ass.

Jokes on this topic continue in Act 3, Scene 2, but the highlight comes in Act 4, Scene 4 when Dromio of Ephesus unleashes a half-serious tirade about the abuse he has suffered at Antipholus of Ephesus's hands:

I am an ass, indeed; you may prove it by my long ears [note pun on "years"]—I have served him from the hour of my nativity to this instant, and have nothing at his hands for my service but blows

Ultimately the donkey motif serves to illustrate a broader pattern appearing throughout the play: the Dromios use humor, often of a superficially self-deprecating kind, to vent their anger and make light of their misfortunes. The Antipholus twins may see their servants' antics as asinine, but the Dromios use sarcasm as a means of "kicking" back at their masters.

The Sea

On a literal level, the sea is what drives the main characters apart in infancy and reunites them in adulthood. Decades before the play begins, a storm at sea splits apart the ship carrying the Antipholi, their parents, and the Dromios. They are rescued by two different vessels, which carry them across the Ionian Sea to cities hundreds of miles apart. Later, Antipholus of Syracuse crosses an even larger sea (the Mediterranean) to seek his brother and mother in Ephesus. For Egeon, the Antipholi, and the unnamed merchants in the play, the sea is also a source of prosperity through trade, which is why the second merchant is so eager to wrap up his affairs on land and set sail once more.

However, the sea in The Comedy of Errors is more than a mere backdrop or plot device. The play's characters repeatedly refer to it as a symbol of the vast and turbulent nature of the world in which they live. Antipholus of Syracuse, in his search for his brother, describes himself as "like a drop of water/That in the ocean seeks another drop." Adriana uses a nearly identical image in Act 2, Scene 2 likening herself and her husband to drops of water that unite and intermingle:

For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.

For Adriana, marriage is not merely a union, but a melding of two separate selves. This helps to explain her deep distress at Antipholus of Ephesus's behavior, since his misdeeds affect her not only in practical ways (e.g., a bad reputation) but on a deeply spiritual level. If Antipholus of Ephesus carries on an extramarital affair, then Adriana is not just emotionally wounded, but corrupted: "I am possessed with an adulterate blot;/My blood is mingled with the crime of lust." Because Adriana sees her husband's problems as her own, she is willing to resort to desperate tactics—accosting him in the street and calling for an exorcist—in order to win him back.

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