Aegon, a merchant from Syracuse, is found in Ephesus. The penalty for any merchant from Syracuse found in Ephesus is death unless he can pay an exorbitant fee. The Duke of Ephesus asks Aegon why he came to Ephesus despite knowing the penalty.
Aegon explains to the Duke that he was searching for his son in Ephesus. Thirty years prior his wife gave birth to identical twin sons, both named Antipholus. On the day of their birth Antipholus purchased identical twins boys from a poor family who couldn't afford to feed the boys, both named Dromio. On the way home their ship was destroyed and Aegon lost his wife, one son and one slave. He has been searching for his family ever since. The Duke, moved to pity, gives Aegon a one day reprieve from death on the very slim chance that someone might be willing to pay his bail.
On that day Antipholus of Syracuse (the son raised by Aegon) comes ashore to search for his family (Aegon has been searching for his family for the past seven years and hasn't been in Syracuse since) alongside his servant Dromio. They are mistaken for their identical counterparts who live in Ephesus. A series of misunderstandings results (Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love with the sister of his brother's wife among other shenanigans) in a series of hijinx until the identities are resolved at the very end and everyone lives happily ever after.
This 5 minute YouTube puppet re-enactment does a surprisingly excellent job of summarizing the main elements of the story.
This is suspected to be Shakespeare's first comedy; the first recorded performance was done in 1594 (1). The mistaken identity motif gives this play a real "sitcom" quality. Like a sitcom you simply need to accept the ludicrous premise and enjoy the silliness that ensues.
Or at least that is what I initially anticipated before I saw the play. I thought that this was Shakespeare's first foray into comedy and as such I shouldn't expect something deeper than a slapstick comedy involving a crazy premise. I enjoyed watching the performance and was entertained as I let my brain kind of shut off.
But when I read the play I noticed that there are deeper themes that Shakespeare was starting to explore.
Credit, Trust and Identity
The concept that really struck me was how people did business with Antipholus of Ephesus. As a merchant he had earned tremendous goodwill throughout the town. People trusted him to the point where a local merchant was willing to give Antipholus a golden necklace with the promise of payment later in the day.
Unfortunately the merchant gave the necklace to the wrong Antipholus. When the merchant asked for payment from the correct Antipholus, who had not received the expected necklace and so refused to pay for the necklace, the merchant had Antipholus arrested.
This question of trust kept coming up. People trusted Antipholus and so they gave him (or the person that they thought was him) things. But upon the first potential breach of that trust the people were willing to arrest Antipholus or, in the case of his wife, have him committed to a kind of insane asylum.
There are some deep questions to explore here:
- Why was trust, that presumably had been earned over decades, so easily shattered by one day's events? What does the fragility of trust suggest about our relationships?
- Given that the law was that a merchant of Syracuse must be put to death if they can't afford a steep bail that would suggest that something happened between these two city states that completely shattered the trust between these two nations. Money was the only means by which these two nations could interact because there was no trust - even the Duke himself was not able to go above this law.
The idea that people wouldn't be able to tell these two men apart because they looked identical raised another set of interesting questions:
- To what extent are our personalities the result of our environment versus our genetics? Obviously Shakespeare couldn't have spoken about DNA but there is interesting evidence out there looking at twins who had been separated at birth who have made very similar life choices (2). The question of nature and nurture is gently touched on.
- The twins seem fairly generic in character; to the point where they appear to be indistinguishable from one another for most people. Are they one dimensional characters because they needed to be one dimensional characters for the purposes of this comedy? Or are they one dimensional characters because they were not connected to their family? That separation at birth cost them all significantly. Is Shakespeare suggesting something about family and completeness? Would it be fair to imagine that these characters go on to become more complete and whole once they reuinite?
These issues have great potential to be explored, even in a funny way. But Shakespeare seemed content to not give them more than a surface examination. It's like he stumbled onto deep questions but didn't know how to address them within the confines of a comedy.
This isn't a criticism of Shakespeare (who the hell am I to do that?) so much as me anticipating reading his later comedic works and how he handles the human issues that are explored with greater depth down the road. One of the many things I have appreciated about Shakespeare is his ability to find the truth of the human condition and address it equally well in comedy and in tragedy. Reading a Comedy of Errors is like reading the work of an up and coming writer who you just know has lots of great potential based on this first work.
The conceit of the play is silly - even if I can accept the idea that someone would name give their kids the same name why would their twin servants also have the same name?
Keeping tabs on which Dromio and which Antipholus was on stage was annoying. It was much easier when watching the play to keep tabs on who is who but with the reading it was more difficult.
Marry, he must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil
(Act IV, Scene III)
I'm a big fan of witty one liners and this one really caught my eye. I could see a line like this in a great detective novel; maybe something Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade might say. The idea that you need to keep your distance if you're going to dine with the devil is nicely encapsulated in this one liner. I love reading a line or two in a Shakespeare play that sound like they could have been written less than a century ago; it is a testament to the timeless value of his work.
I enjoyed this play far more than I initially thought I would. I was somewhat turned off by the idea of reading about two twins identically named. To discover greater depth than I anticipated was a pleasant surprise.
While I'm not sure I would re-read this particular play I would happily watch this play performed anytime. I haven't watched a movie of the performance but there was a lovely staging of the play that I found on YouTube that I definitely recommend watching - well worth the 97 minutes it takes.
(1) Dates and Sources for Comedy of errors; Royal Shakespeare Company: https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-comedy-of-errors/dates-and-sources
(2) What Twins Can Teach Us About Nature vs. Nurture