The Comedy of Errors | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Comedy of Errors | Symbols


The Chain

In Act 2, Scene 2 Adriana mentions a gold chain her husband (Antipholus of Ephesus) has promised her. As the play proceeds, this chain not only "links" the major characters together, but comes to carry a different meaning for each of them. For Adrania this chain represents yet another way in which Antipholus has defaulted on the promises of his marriage: the fact that he has not delivered it serves as proof that he does not really love her after all.

Antipholus of Ephesus takes a much less romantic view of the chain, as evidenced by his decision (in Act 3, Scene 1) not to give it to Adriana after all. The chain is costly—Angelo demands 200 ducats as payment—and in giving it to the courtesan, Antipholus shows how impulsive he can be when provoked to anger. Antipholus seems to regard the chain as a "spite token," something he can withhold from his wife, rather than as a "love token" for the courtesan, whom he sees as good company but not as a serious love interest. The purchase of the chain also connects Antipholus to the Ephesian merchant community, and to the system of borrowing and credit the merchants use to conduct business. When he refuses to pay Angelo in Act 4, Scene 1 the delicate gold chain figuratively transforms into a pair of shackles that bind him in the city jail.

Finally, for Antipholus of Syracuse, the chain is a symbol of the strange magic of Ephesus, a "golden gift" bestowed on him by a stranger. When presented with the chain by Angelo in Act 3, Scene 2 Antipholus briefly wonders if Ephesus is as bad a place as he previously thought. He reverts to his old way of thinking almost immediately, when the courtesan confronts him (Act 4, Scene 3) and demands the chain back.

The Ring

In Act 4, Scene 3 another piece of jewelry is introduced: a diamond ring given by the courtesan to Antipholus of Ephesus. This ring ultimately says more about the courtesan's personality than it does about her relationship to Antipholus.

Wedding rings were fairly common in Elizabethan England and are occasionally referred to elsewhere in Shakespeare: in The Merchant of Venice, Portia gives such a ring to her husband Bassanio in order to test his loyalty. For Adriana, as for Portia, the wedding ring is a symbol of marital fidelity: in Act 2, Scene 2 she suggests her ring would be cut off "from [her] false hand" if Antipholus suspected her of being unfaithful. The use of diamond rings for engagements and weddings, however, was largely restricted to the aristocracy; the mass marketing of such rings is a 20th-century invention. In other words, the fact that the courtesan's ring has a diamond on it does not necessarily infuse it with marriage symbolism. The ring does, however, represent a substantial financial commitment on the part of the courtesan, who gives its exact market value in Act 4, Scene 3: "forty ducats is too much to lose."

The courtesan's dealings with Antipholus—with the ring as centerpiece—show she is at heart a practical and unsentimental woman: she gives him a forty-ducat ring because she hopes to "trade up" to a 200-ducat gold chain. When she realizes she is unlikely to receive any costly jewelry from Antipholus, she immediately goes to his house seeking a refund. Thus, the ring symbolizes a practical bond.

The Rope

As his friends, family, and servants all know, Antipholus of Ephesus has a short fuse. The rope he buys in Act 4, Scene 1 symbolizes the dark side of his temper, which has grown steadily harder to control since the opening of Act 3. Antipholus of Syracuse is frightened by the strange scenes he witnesses and chalks them up to witchcraft; Antipholus of Ephesus, in contrast, is enraged. He believes his wife and servants are conspiring to play a malicious joke at his expense.

After he is locked out of doors in Act 3, Scene 1 Antipholus vows revenge, which he intends to get by beating his wife and servants soundly. To this end (one of several "rope puns" used in the play), he sends Dromio of Ephesus to procure a length of rope to serve as a whip. Dromio, well aware of his master's anger management issues, tries to make light of the situation by claiming he is going to buy "a thousand pound a year" (i.e., a thousand poundings, or beatings, a year). But, Dromio's easygoing humor cannot mask Antipholus's cruel intentions.

The fact that Antipholus ends up being bound by rope—rather than beating others with it—serves as an example of poetic justice, and, on the plot level, prevents him from doing serious harm to his wife and sister-in-law. By the time he escapes from his bonds, however, Antipholus is even more furious than before. He trades away the rope, which is painful and degrading but at least nonlethal, and proceeds to torment Doctor Pinch with fire and sharp instruments. Chafed (perhaps literally) by the rough treatment he has received, Antipholus of Ephesus has truly reached the end of his rope.

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