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The Comedy of Errors | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Comedy of Errors | Themes


Mistaken Identity

The "errors" of the play's title are almost entirely the result of mistaken identity: nobody can tell the Antipholus twins apart, and nobody even notices there are two different Dromios until Act 5. This device raises the question: how well does anyone know anybody? At the most basic level, the identical twins serve as a means of setting up comic coincidences, culminating in the festive recognition scene at the play's end. In performance the potential for misrecognition is often heightened by giving matching costumes to each pair of twins. Sometimes the audience is helped along by telltale details: the two Dromios, for example, may wear different-colored hats or vests. Even though the Dromio twins are much alike in character, their taste in love is opposite. No two can ever be exactly alike in all things.

For the first four acts of the play, the characters assume there is only one Antipholus in town. Dromio of Syracuse assumes both Antipholi are actually his master, Antipholus of Syracuse, and almost everyone else assumes they are interacting with Antipholus of Ephesus. This creates a kind of feedback loop, where the behavior of the Antipholus twins gradually convinces the other characters something is wrong with "the Antipholus they know": he is cheating on his wife, or losing his mind, or trying to scam his way out of paying for jewelry. In Act 2, Scene 2, for example, Adriana confronts Antipholus of Syracuse about "his" coldness and inattentiveness. He treats her as a stranger, since, as far as he is concerned, she is one. After enough rounds of such misrecognition, Antipholus of Ephesus is jailed, Antipholus of Syracuse is running through the streets with a sword, and everyone else is confused and terrified. The Antipholus twins are two men with very different personalities, but the Ephesians perceive a single man with wildly inconsistent mood swings and serious memory problems. The audience, however, will easily discern the personality differences between the twins—one kind and loving, the other violent, uppity, and angry—making it clear identity and disposition are more complex than appearances.

Family Ties

Mistaken identity is what keeps the play going, but the desire to reunite a family is what starts it all off. Egeon is so eager to find his lost son and wife. He has spent five years searching for them, even risking his life to visit the forbidden city of Ephasus. Antipholus of Syracuse, likewise, has devoted several years of his life to tracking down his long-lost family; in Act 1, Scene 2 he waxes melancholy about not being able to do so. Antipholus of Ephesus, in contrast, was essentially orphaned after the Corinthian fishermen took him away from his mother. He has never seen his father and does not know he has a twin—let alone that his twin has come to town seeking him. The character who feels a deficit and a loss in his life, Antipholus of Syracuse, is more of a lover and a "good guy" than his complacent twin, who tends to pontificate, roar, and carouse, showing in effect how longing softens and having hardens.

The Syracusians' long, discouraging search might be expected to lead to a big emotional payoff in Act 5, Scene 1 when the family is finally brought together. Not all of the characters, however, are equally delighted by the outcome. Certainly, Emilia is overjoyed to learn both her sons are alive; she likens her longing for them to labor pains, a "heavy burden" that is finally "deliverèd" when she sees them again. Egeon is similarly surprised by the news, but he is recovering from the harrowing prospect of being executed and, perhaps for this reason, does not have much to say. The Antipholi are even less enthusiastic: they barely speak to each other, and the stage directions call for no embrace. This is strange, given how much Antipholus of Syracuse has sacrificed for the mere possibility of a reunion with his family. However, it is implied more emotional connection will ensue—family ties will form—as all of the characters head toward a celebratory feast. In the end it is the Dromios who best exemplify the concept of a fraternal bond. The last 10 lines of the play indicate they have become fast friends: they are genuinely delighted to have found one another and joke about determining who is the older brother. Their decision to go to the feast "hand in hand, not one before another" suggests these two will get along just fine.

The Supernatural

Ephesus, it seems, has a reputation for magic. Beginning in Act 1, Scene 2 Antipholus describes the city in gloomy, haunted terms, as a haven for

Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguisèd cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many suchlike liberties of sin.

One by one the other characters are gradually sucked into Antipholus of Syracuse's supernatural beliefs. Dromio of Syracuse, taking his cue from his master, comes to see Adriana and possibly Luciana as witches who have learned his name through magical means. Adriana, in turn, begins to believe her husband is possessed by evil spirits, especially after the courtesan describes his strange behavior in Act 4, Scene 3. These wild suppositions add a frantic air to the play, since Antipholus of Syracuse does not want to stay in a town full of sorcerers, and Adriana does not want her demonically possessed husband to languish in jail without her help. Even the duke, who is the closest thing to a consistent voice of reason in the play, gets caught up in the witch hunt: when he first sees the two Dromios, he suggests one of them must be a magical doppelganger of the other.

The real explanation, as the audience already knows, is much simpler: the Dromios are twins, as are the Antipholi. However, because nobody knows both pairs of twins are in town until Act 5, the supernatural theories have plenty of time to multiply. Every mention of witches, sorcerers, or devils underscores the essential dramatic irony of The Comedy of Errors, since what is evident to the audience (it's twins!) seems like a profound and disturbing mystery to the play's characters.

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