Comedy of Errors

I want to start with Comedy of Errors (Com.) because it is often overlooked in the Shakespeare cannon. I will be addressing two main complaints that are often lodged against this play, and a how this play can work in the 21st century, with the benefit of modern theories in theatre.

The first compliant: “Com. is an early play and therefore Shakespeare is not as mature as he is in his later works.” This is a dreadful argument. First, while it is only his third comedy, it is (according to most scholars) his eighth play. Before Com. you have the entire York tetralogy. And despite what Mr. Bloom would argue, I think that Richard III is a testament to Shakespeare’s maturity. The faults that can be found in some “early works” such as Titus Andronicus and Two Gentlemen of Verona have nothing to do with the fact that they are “early works.” So no more of that.

The second complaint: “Com. is full of flat characters, a stale plot, and is predictable at every turn.” This complaint is at least something to sink our teeth into. I will address these issues in their own right, but summarize here before I go further. Com. is analogous to The Artist: that soon to be winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture – if I’m wrong about that prediction I will eat my hat (NB: my hat may be made out of a Twix bar). Just as The Artist takes us to a time of the silent picture, all the while making it fresh and enjoyable for today’s viewers, so Com. takes us back to the glory days of Roman comedy, while at the same time making it fresh and enjoyable for contemporary and modern viewers/readers. C

Com. begins much like Act 1, scene 2 of The Tempest, or the original Star Wars if you will: that is, Shakespeare clears away all the exposition at the start so we are not bogged down with it during the play. The play takes place is Ephesus, and we learn almost immediately that there is enmity between Ephesus and nearby Syracuse, and that anyone from one city found in the other would be put to death (unless they can pay a certain sum). This is the law: and like the laws in Merchant of Venice or Measure for Measure, it helps keep everyone (including the Duke) in check. So of course we have a hapless Syracuse merchant, Egeon, thrown before the Duke who informs Egeon that he is to be put to death if he cannot produce his bail by this night. Egeon replies:

“Yet this my comfort, when your words are done,

My woes end likewise with the evening sun.” (I.i)

“Go ahead,” he says, “kill me; it will only bring me comfort.” And the Duke takes the bait. “Why/” he asks, which launches Egeon into his life story. In brief it is thus: Egeon and his wife are in an inn and his wife gives birth to two twins, both named Antipholus. At that very moment a poor woman also gives birth to two twins, both named Dromio. Egeon buys the poor woman’s twins and decides that they are to be the servants of his twins – what a nice man. A storm hits them on the way home and Egeon’s ship is torn apart, and everyone is separated. Egeon, one of his sons, and his son’s servants make it back to Syracuse. Years later, Antipholus, goes with Dromio, to find his long lost mother and brother. He does not come back, so Egeon goes looking for his son and that’s why he’s in Ephesus – all that in one speech! So the sentimental Duke starts crying and says how piteous the whole affair is but he is bound by law. He never thinks to offer to pay Egeon’s bail himself. “I wish there was something I could do.” he says fanning himself with money, “but my hands are tied.” So that ends and we don’t see Egeon again until the end of the play.

We quickly learn that not only are Egeon’s Antipholus and Dromio in Ephesus, but the other set of twins are there as well. The remainder of the play is taken up with the exploits of two Antipholi and two Dromios. Antipholus of Syracuse will go tell his Dromio to do something, Dromio leaves, and then Dromio of Ephesus comes and fails to understand what his “master” is talking about, and gets beaten for it. It is pure Roman anarchic comedy, full of slapstick humour and silly plots. This is what angers certain critics and makes the play seem “immature.”

And yet, there are a couple of things in this play that are interestingly Shakespearean, and exist beyond the surface. Some critics will tell you that the Antipholi lack any character to distinguish themselves, that they are placeholders rather than characters. This claim can be made about the Dromios, but it is a lazy reader who says this about the Antipholi. We have two brothers who look the same in every way, but they grew up in completely different circumstances. While we do not learn too much about them as characters it is true, there is a major distinction. Antipholus of Syracuse is very philosophic, likes to ruminate, almost a dreamer character – he might find himself in good company with Orlando, or Sebastian. Antipholus of Ephesus is more like Timon before his fall: he is a businessman who has grown wealthy and established a great reputation in the city. Everyone loves him. But he is also very prone to anger, and far rasher than his twin: although both of them never pass up an opportunity to beat their Dromio. Not only do we have two distinct characters who enter and exit the stage throughout the play, but the way these two characters view Ephesus is wonderful, and provides a completely different perspective for the audience depending on who’s talking. For the businessman of Ephesus, his city is like Venice from Merchant of Venice: a place to buy and sell, and to gain wealth and pleasure.  We do not see him as much as we see Antipholus of Syracuse. Remember, we are dealing with a man who comes to a strange city and is suddenly both recognized and renowned as a great man by people he has never seen. So he starts to think he is in a strange city filled with magic – it’s great. We are thrown between these two versions of the same city as we switch between the two versions of the same man (physically): there is so much happening here beyond “flat characters.”

Usually the way comedy works in Shakespeare is that there is a fool or clown and he uses his wit to outsmart a more stoic character and thus plays jokes for the audience’s delight. How often in Shakespeare do you get honest schtick? I can only think of a few examples where both characters are in on the fun. Com. has probably the best example of schtick, real Abbot and Costello material. The set-up is that the Syracuse Antipholus and Dromio go to the Ephesus Antipholus’ house for lunch. There they meet E. Antipholus’ wife and single sister (who of course S. Antipholus will fall in love with). We also learn that E. Dromio is engaged to the fat kitchen wench. Here is a conversation about the maid.


Then she bears some breadth?

No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out
countries in her.


In what part of her body stands Ireland?

Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.


Where Scotland?

I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand.


Where France?

In her forehead; armed and reverted, making war
against her heir.


Where England?

I looked for the chalky cliffs, but I could find no
whiteness in them; but I guess it stood in her chin,
by the salt rheum that ran between France and it.


Where Spain?

Faith, I saw it not; but I felt it hot in her breath.


Where America, the Indies?

Oh, sir, upon her nose all o’er embellished with
rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich
aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole
armadoes of caracks to be ballast at her nose.


Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?

Oh, sir, I did not look so low. To conclude, this
drudge, or diviner, laid claim to me, call’d me
Dromio; swore I was assured to her; told me what
privy marks I had about me, as, the mark of my
shoulder, the mole in my neck, the great wart on my
left arm, that I amazed ran from her as a witch:
And, I think, if my breast had not been made of
faith and my heart of steel,
She had transform’d me to a curtal dog and made
me turn i’ the wheel. (III.ii)

What is a Shakespeare comedy without drama – what is a drama without drama? The main problem in the play occurs when Angelo the goldsmith makes a chain for E. Antipholus, gives it to S. Antipholus and demands payment of it from whichever Antipholus he happens to be talking to, but neither of them will pay: one claims he never received the chain, the other that he never ordered it. So E. Antipholus is taken to prison and a doctor tries to “cure” him of his madness. In a post-psychology world, the idea of multiple-personality would be played up in what I’m sure would be a Freud type doctor. Antipholus is suffering from committing acts and then having no knowledge of committing the acts (BECAUSE THERE ARE TWO OF THEM!) Just in case you didn’t get it. Of course the tragedy does not last long, and the only one who gets severely hurt in this play is the Doctor no one cares about: he gets his beard burned off by enraged E. Antipholus.

And of course a reunion scene must happen at the very end. Like Twelfth Night nothing could be solved until the twins are both on stage at the same time. E. Antipholus and E. Dromio escape from the prison and end up in front of an abbey, where S. Antipholus and S. Dromio are taking sanctuary. The entire cast (not a very large one) starts to gather on the street. The Duke and Egeon (remember them) arrive for Egeon’s execution, and there is a painful scene where Egeon cries out to E. Antipholus:

“Unless the fear of death doth make me dote,
I see my son Antipholus and Dromio.”

He thinks this is S. Antipholus who he spent years looking for and as a result is about to be executed. And of course, E. Antipholus has never seen this man and denies him the money for his bail. This is the most “tragic” part of the play – but we know that everything will turn out right: and it does.

The Abbess, Amelia, walks out with S. Antipholus and S. Dromio and makes sense of the whole matter. Everyone meets everyone, everything is explained, the bail is paid and what is more is that Amelia (character who does not appear until the last scene) reveals that she is Egeon’s wif and the boys’ mother! A random twist, but it serves a purpose beyond adding to a happy ending. In a play full of predictable plot points, where the comedy relies on dramatic irony, Shakespeare still manages to say “ha! Didn’t see that coming, did you?”

So the play ends, in this wonderful scene where the two Dromios are deciding who should walk before who, and then decide to exit hand in hand beside each other. This is a stark contrast to the two Antipholi who barely acknowledge each other when they finally meet. Shakespeare loves showing how humbleness produces better people. And I guess the Dromios had to get something for all the beating they suffered.

The relation between the characters and the audience is interesting in this play. The audience is both invited into the action and alienated from it at the same time. Due to the heavy reliance on Dramatic irony, we are always in on the joke – we know what the characters do not. And yet for the comedy to “work” we must accept the state of perpetual chaos that this play demands. That is why so many do not like it: they are thinking at every moment “yeah, yeah, we know that there is a confusion of twins and that they will eventually figure everything out: so what?” As an audience member you must create a disconnect between what you know and what you see. The characters do not give a damn what you are thinking: unlike Hamlet, Richard III, or Iago for example. They don’t need you. So a modern director can have a really fun time finding ways to alienate the audience, or to get them to see their insignificance as audience members.

Romeo and Juliet, written very shortly after Com. is a tragedy in which we know how it ends from the start: it’s told to us in the prologue. But it doesn’t affect us too much, for we can still feel the necessary pathos for the lovers. But Com. as a comedy in which we know the end from the start and this does affect us, and if you rely too much on your own knowledge, you will not enjoy this play. But if you can alienate yourself from the action and take it for what it is – it is a wonderful play.

Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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Filed under Comedies, Pre-Hamlet

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