Shakespeare Notebook 2023: “The Comedy of Errors”

The Comedy of Errors is generally regarded as a highly successful but ultimately inconsequential Shakespeare play. I had the pleasure of seeing an outdoor production in 2017, and people were rolling on the lawn in laughter. The speech describing the fat kitchen-wench is one of too-few comedic Shakespeare passages that produce hilarity when simply read.

A slightly expanded version Wikipedia’s abridged synopsis will serve well enough if you’re unfamiliar with the play: set in the Greek city of Ephesus, The Comedy of Errors tells the story of two sets of identical twins who were accidentally separated in a shipwreck shortly after birth. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse (named after their lost siblings, whom Antipholus’ father thought lost at sea), arrive in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of their twin brothers and namesakes, Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus. When the Syracusans encounter the friends and families of their twins, a series of wild mishaps based on mistaken identities lead to wrongful beatings, a near-seduction, the arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus, and false accusations of infidelity, theft, madness, and demonic possession.

Many regard Errors as the first play in which Shakespeare truly demonstrated mastery of form–which somewhat puts pay to W.H. Auden’s comment regarding The Taming of the Shrew that “Shakespeare is not a writer of farce.”[1] Errors is a textbook farce, and gloriously well executed. Its plot is based on the Roman play Menaechmi by Plautus, which tells a similar story of a set of identical Syracusan twins. Shakespeare, however, ups the ante–in part because the play was likely first performed for lawyers at the inns of court, and so had to be dreadfully clever. Shakespeare introduces two sets of twins, one-upping Plautus and wowing his original, grammar school educated crowd. This is surely what Ben Jonson had in mind when he wrote his commendatory poem about Shakespeare in 1623: “The merry Greek, tart Aristophanes,/Neat Terence, witty Platus, now not please,/But antiquated and deserted lie.”

And yet the cleverness of the farce, as well as the play’s early dating, serve to make it, in the mind’s of many, a play with little profundity. It is simply the young Shakespeare showing off, albeit hilariously so. Thankfully (to my mind at least), modern scholars have begun to find more to appreciate in the play. I’d commend, for example, Emma Smith’s lecture in her Approaching Shakespeare series.

What worthwhile reflections are there to be made, then, when we consider The Comedy of Errors from the perspective of the Protestant tradition?

The Augustinian Self in Shakespeare?

The driving device of the plot is the case of mistaken identity, and this conceit serves the theme of self discovery.

Antipholus of Syracuse is, in fact, explicit upon his arrival in Ephesus that his search for his long-lost twin and mother is also a search for himself:

I to the world am like a drop of water 
That in the ocean seeks another drop
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive–confounds himself.
So, I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.

This is, of course, a paradoxical thought: whilst alone, Antipholus is lost and confounded to himself. He can never know who he is as an individual if he has no knowledge of his mother and twin. The fact that Antipholus seeks a twin, not merely a brother, is key too: out there, somewhere, is another man with the same face and, it will emerge, the same name–the two things which usually most serve to mark us out as individuals. Their circumstances will differ, certainly, but that is accidental. What really makes them different? Auden links this somewhat imprecisely to the philosophical distinction between existence and essence (i.e. between the fact that a thing is, and the fact of what a thing is).[2]

This idea of one’s individual identity being inseparable from one’s relation to a larger whole comes out elsewhere when Adriana (Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife) berates Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband’s regular absence from the home and apparent philandering. She takes up the image of the solitary water drop again:

How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it, 
That thou art then estranged from thyself?
Thy self, I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self’s better part.
Ah, do not tear away thyself from me,
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.”

Her point: separating yourself from your wife is about as easy as retrieving a single drop of water from the ocean. The “self” from which Antipholus of Ephesus is estranged is his wife, because a man’s wife is his self, since the two are one flesh. Antipholus of Syracuse is lost to himself without his mother and brother; Antipholus of Ephesus (although he doesn’t appreciate it) is lost to himself without his wife.

Yet the idea of being “estranged from thyself” does apply more broadly. The mistaken identity serves to estrange both Antipholuses (Anthipholi?) from themselves. Antipholus and Dromio Ephesus are shut out of their house because, apparently, they are already there, with Adriana (Ephesus’ wife) having taken in their Syracusan twins. They are refused at the door by Dromio of Syracuse:

ANTIPHOLUS OF EPHESUS   What art thou that keep’st me out from the house I owe? 
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE The porter for this time, sir, and my name is Dromio.
DROMIO OF EPHESUS O, villain, tho has stol’n both mine office and my name

Here, the Ephesian twins become truly estranged from themselves–because they are apparently already at home. The focus is on Antipholus, as the high-status character, but in typically Shakespearean fashion, the point is driven home in the following scene by low-status Dromio of Syracuse, who is mistaken for his brother by the amorous, unattractive kitchen-maid. This drives Dromio to the edge:

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE   Why, how now, Dromio, where run’st thou so fast? 
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE   Do you know me, sir? Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?  

On this theme, I very speculatively wonder if a line later in Act 3, Scene 1 is a reference to Plato’s famous (and oft-misunderstood) description of man as “a featherless biped”:

DROMIO OF EPHESUS   I pray let me in 
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Ay, when fowls have no feathers and fish have no fin.

Famously, Diogenes the Cynic, upon hearing Plato offer this definition at the Academy, threw a plucked chicken into the conversation declaring “Behold, Plato’s man!” The question seemingly up for debate in Errors is “what is a man?”, and the locking-out of Act 3, Scene 1 is perhaps the most important scene for the development of that question, so my spider-sense tingles upon seeing a reference to a featherless fowl here.

This all feels rather Augustinian–to be a confounding mystery to yourself, a stranger in your own life, locked out of your own inner sanctum whilst a version of yourself you struggle to recognise lives your life. Augustine writes in the Confessions “I became a great enigma to myself and I was forever asking my soul why it was sad and why it disquieted me so sorely. And my soul knew not what to answer me” (4.4.9, Sheed trans.). Errors perhaps demonstrates that it is all too easy to attempt to find self-knowledge in our accidental circumstances. When these crumble, where are we to find ourselves? For Augustine, the answer is in God–and God is found through us turning inward and finding him already present to our souls.

There’s no hint of such a Godward turn in Errors–self-knowledge seems to be found in community and in one’s shared station with others. We’ve seen this in Adriana’s comments on marriage, and it is obviously present in the eventual reunion of the brothers (as well as of Emilia and Egeon, the parents of the Antipholi). The closing lines of the play sums this point up well, as the two Dromios try to decide whether they should draw straws for which is the older brother:

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE   We’ll draw cuts for the senior, till then, lead thou first. 
DROMIO OF EPHESUS   Nay then, thus: 
We came into the world like brother and brother, 
And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another. 

I don’t think Shakespeare is necessarily contradicting Augustine here, as if he is positing self-knowledge as ultimately only found in other human beings as opposed to God. Perhaps he is simply considering the question from a different angle, a more political one. Yes, our hearts are restless until they find rest in God, and yet man is necessarily a social and political creature, and so perhaps The Comedy of Errors is better paired with The City of God than Confessions.

None of this is especially Protestant in reflection, but Augustine is as much a part of the Protestant tradition as he is the Romanist one. Needless to say, though, questions of individual v. corporate identity were no small concern of the Reformation, given the revolutions which took place in understandings of one’s personal need for justification, questions of the freedom of Christian conscience, and other such things. Had I more time, I’m sure bringing Errors into closer dialogue with Luther (an Augustinian, of course) would provide some fruitful reading.

Marrying Nuns

One markedly Protestant feature of Errors, however, is that it ends with a married nun.

It emerges that the abbess of the priory in Ephesus is none other than Emilia, the long-lost mother of the Antipholi. In the final scene, she is reunited with Egeon, her husband. And, so it appears, their marriage bond still stands, despite Emilia having been in holy orders for decades. Seeing Egeon bound (him being under arrest for being Syracusan), she declares:

Whoever bound him, I will loose his bonds, 
And gain a husband by his liberty. 

Yet Emilia’s bonds are loosed also, as she is apparently reprieved of her religious vows. I am sure there was some torturous medieval canon law for what exactly to do if this unlikely situation ever arose, and so perhaps it would have been entirely kosher in medieval Europe for a nun or monk to be relieved of their vows if a long-lost spouse reemerged (and perhaps Shakespeare’s original audience of lawyers would have been well aware of such). However, the flavour of this scene would have been inescapably Protestant when staged in the 1590s. Yes, plenty of folk in the middle ages knew that nuns and monks were engaged in hanky-panky and oftentimes effectively living in common law marriages, but the closing scene of Errors provides us with an explicit, legal, and recognised marriage for a nun–an inescapably Protestant gag. What’s more, the whole thing is seemingly legitimated by the secular authority of the Duke of Ephesus, with no recourse to any ecclesiastical authority:

EMILIA   Renowned duke, vouchsafe to take the pains 
To go with us into the abbey here, 
And hear at large discoursed all our fortunes. 
All all, that are assembled in this place, 
That by this sympathised one days error 
Have suffered wrong, go, keep us company, 
And we shall make full satisfaction. 
Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail 
Of you, my sons, and till this present hour 
My heavy burden ne’er delivered. 
The duke, my husband, and my children both, 
And you the calendars of their nativity, 
Go to a gossips’ feast, and joy with me, 
After so long grief, such festivity. 

What you have here seems to be the venerable estate of marriage and family trumping the obligations of religious vows, all with the benevolent endorsement of the Christian magistrate–in the abbey, no less! And there are few things more Protestant than that.

  1. W.H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Kirsch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 63.

  2. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, 26.

*Image Credit: Pexels


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