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The Comedy of Errors

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This article is about the Shakespearean play. For the more general term, see Comedy of errors.

The Comedy of Errors is an early play by William Shakespeare, written between 1592 and 1594. It is his shortest play, and one of his most farcical: while some of its humor derives from puns and wordplay, a large part comes from slapstick and mistaken identity. The Comedy of Errors is distinctive for observing the classical unities. The only other Shakespeare play to do this is The Tempest.


Key plot elements are taken from two Roman comedies of Plautus.

From Menaechmi comes the main premise of mistaken identity between identical twins with the same name, plus some of the stock characters such as the comic courtesan. In Menaechmi one of the twins is from Epidamnus; Shakespeare changes this to Ephesus and includes many allusions to St Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians.

From Amphitruo he borrows the twin servants with the same name, plus the scene in Act 3 where a husband is shut out of his house while his wife mistakenly dines with a look-alike.

The frame story of Egeon and Emilia derives from Apollonius of Tyre, also a source for Twelfth Night and Pericles, Prince of Tyre.

Date, Peformance, Publication

The play contains a topical reference to the wars of succession in France, which would fit any date from 1589 to 1594. Willaim Warner's translation of the Menaechmi was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on June 10, 1594, and published in 1595. Warner's translation was dedicated to Lord Hunsdon, the patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. It has been supposed that Shakespeare might have seen the translation in manuscript before it was printed — though it is also true that Plautus was part of the curriculum of grammar school students.

Charles Whitworth, in his edition of the play, argues that The Comedy of Errors was written "in the latter part of 1594."[1]

Two early performances of The Comedy of Errors are recorded. One, by "a company of base and common fellows," is mentioned in the Gesta Grayorum ("The Deeds of Gray") as having occurred in Gray's Inn Hall on Dec. 28, 1594. The second also took place on "Innocents' Day," but ten years later: Dec. 28, 1604, at Court.[2]

The play was not published until it appeared in the First Folio in 1623.

More than a century later, an adaptation called See If You Like It was staged at Covent Garden (1734). Drury Lane mounted a production in 1741, in which Charles Macklin played Dromio of Syracuse — in the same year as his famous breakthrough performance as Shylock. Frederic Reynolds staged an operatic version in 1819, with music by Mozart and Arne. Various other adaptations were performed down to 1855, when Samuel Phelps revived the Shakespearean original at Sadler's Wells Theatre.[3]


  • Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus
  • Egeon (or Ægeon), a merchant of Syracuse
  • Emilia (or Æmilia), his lost wife, now Lady Abbess at Ephesus
  • Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, twin brothers, sons of Egeon and Emilia
  • Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse, twin brothers, bondmen, each serving his respective Antipholus
  • Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus
  • Luciana, her sister
  • Luce, kitchen-maid to Adriana, also referred to as Nell (“a mountain of mad flesh that claims marriage of me” -- Dromio of Syracuse)
  • Balthazar, a merchant
  • Angelo, a goldsmith
  • Courtesan
  • First merchant of Ephesus, friend to Antipholus of Syracuse
  • Second merchant of Ephesus, to whom Angelo is in debt
  • Doctor Pinch, a conjuring schoolmaster
  • Messenger
  • Gaoler, Headsman, Officers, and other Attendants


Act I

The Duke of the Anatolian city of Ephesus is about to execute Egeon, an aged merchant from Syracuse, because of a law that all Syracusans visiting Ephesus must pay a fine, or else be executed. Egeon says that he looks forward to his death, since his life has been nothing but sorrow. He explains that as a young man, he married and had twin sons. The same day his twins were born, he discovered a poor woman who had also just given birth to twin boys, and he purchased these children to be slaves to his sons. Soon afterward, the family had to make a sea voyage, during the course of which they came upon a violent tempest. After his sailors abandoned him and took off with the lifeboat, Egeon lashed himself to the main-mast with one son and one slave, while his wife lashed herself to the mizzen with the other children. They rode out the storm and saw two caravels approaching when a rock suddenly split their raft in two. The wife and the children with her were rescued by one boat, and Egeon and his children were rescued by the other. The boats could not catch up with each other, and Egeon never again saw his wife and the children with her.

Eighteen years later, Egeon's son and his slave decided to search for their brothers. But when the son did not return, Egeon grew worried and set out in search of him; this is the reason he has come to Ephesus.

The Duke takes pity on Egeon, and gives him the rest of the day to try to obtain the money he needs to avoid execution.

That same day, Egeon's son Antipholus of Syracuse is in Ephesus as part of his search for his brother. He sends his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, on an errand to deposit a certain sum of money at "the Centaur, where we host." He is confounded when Dromio of Ephesus reappears shortly afterwards, denying any knowledge of the money and asking him to come home to dinner, where his wife is waiting and growing impatient. Antipholus beats Dromio until he runs away, and grows enraged, especially when informed that he has a wife. He goes to check on the safety of his money.

Act II

Dromio of Ephesus returns to his mistress, Adriana, and tells her that her "husband" refused to come home, and even pretended not to know her. Adriana has already been worried that her husband's eye is straying, and this news only confirms her suspicions.

Antipholus of Syracuse, who complains "I could not speak with Dromio since at first I sent him from the mart," meets up with Dromio of Syracuse, who denies making a joke about Antipholus having a wife. Antipholus beats him. Suddenly, Adriana rushes up to Antipholus and begs him not to leave her. The Syracusans can only attribute these strange events to witchcraft, remarking that Ephesus is known as a warren for witches. Antipholus and Dromio go off with this strange woman, to eat dinner and keep the gate, respectively.


Antipholus of Ephesus returns home for dinner and is enraged to find that he is rudely refused entry to his own house. He is ready to break down the door, but his friends persuade him not to make a scene; he decides to dine with a Courtesan and present her with a chain.

Inside the house, Antipholus of Syracuse discovers that he is very attracted to Adriana's sister, Luciana. She is flattered by his praise, but objects that the rightful object of such attention is her sister. After she exits, Dromio of Syracuse announces that he has discovered that he has a wife: Nell, a hideously obese kitchen-maid. He describes her as "spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her," which leads to a series of bawdy puns. (Ireland is said to be in Nell's "buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.") The Syracusans decide to leave as soon as possible, and Dromio runs off to make travel plans. Antipholus is apprehended by Angelo, a goldsmith, who claims that he ordered a chain from him. Antipholus is persuaded to accept the chain, and Angelo says that he will return for payment.

Act IV

Antipholus of Ephesus dispatches Dromio of Ephesus to purchase a rope so that he can beat Adriana for locking him out, then is accosted by Angelo, who asks to be reimbursed for the chain. Antipholus denies ever seeing it, and is promptly arrested. Dromio of Syracuse enters and announces that he has booked passage on a ship for himself and his master. Antipholus, confused, sends him back to Adriana's house to get money for his bail. After completing this errand, Dromio mistakenly delivers the money to Antipholus of Syracuse. The Courtesan then enters, spies Antipholus wearing the gold chain, and says he promised to give it to her.

The Syracusans deny this charge and flee, while the Courtesan resolves to go to Adriana and tell her that her husband is insane. Dromio of Ephesus returns to the arrested Antipholus of Ephesus with the rope that he was sent to buy a few scenes previously. Antipholus is infuriated because he thinks Dromio spent all the bail money on a rope. Adriana, Luciana, the Courtesan, and a conjurer named Doctor Pinch enter. Pinch tries to exorcise the Ephesans, who protest that they are not mad; but since their story of the day's events does not match Adriana's, she thinks they are insane. The Ephesians are bound and taken to Adriana's house, as a "cure" for madness.

The Syracusans enter, carrying swords, and everybody runs off for fear that they are the Ephesans, out for vengeance after somehow escaping their bonds.

Act V

The Syracusans encounter Angelo again, followed by Adriana, who attempts to bind them. They take sanctuary in a nearby priory. The Abbess of the priory refuses to release the Syracusans.

The Duke and Egeon enter, on their way to Egeon's execution. Adriana begs the Duke to force the Abbess to release her "husband." A messenger from Adriana's house runs in and announces that the Ephesans have broken loose from their bonds and tortured Doctor Pinch. Everyone is confused, especially when the Ephesans enter and ask the Duke for justice against Adriana, who shut their doors against them, arranged for Angelo to ask for money without producing the chain, and hired Doctor Pinch. The Duke realizes that no two versions of the story are the same, and resolves to ask the Abbess what happened.

Egeon then asks the Ephesans if they recognize him, their father, but obviously they have never met him. Suddenly, the Abbess enters with the Syracusan twins. She explains that not only are the two sets of twins reunited with Egeon, but that she is Egeon's wife and mother to the twins. After the shipwreck, fishermen snatched the children from her, and she became a votaress of the local cloister (took religious vows).

The Duke immediately pardons Egeon. All exit into the abbey to sort out the events of the day, and celebrate the reunification of the family. The Dromios have the final word, as one tells the other, "There is a fat friend at your master's house... She now shall be my sister, not my wife" and they declare "let's go hand in hand, not one before another."


This section may contain original research or unverified claims.
Please help Wikipedia by adding references. See the talk page for details.

Although the primary goal of The Comedy of Errors is entertainment, an astute reader or director can also find deeper themes within it; appearance versus reality, time, coincidence and love are some of the themes found within the literary work. The play is also concerned with questions of identity and how a person may become known by others through appearance, by name, or through individual actions and choices.

Because of the confusing events that happen to them, both the Syracusan and Ephesan twins think they have gone insane at different points in the play. Madness is a major theme in Shakespeare's mature works Hamlet and King Lear, and The Comedy of Errors proves that Shakespeare was interested in it much earlier in his career.

The Comedy of Errors also proves that even the lightest farce gains emotional resonance when grounded in seriousness. Because the play opens with an old man about to be executed, there is a slight shadow cast over all the funny events that follow. Many farces are ultimately "pointless," but Egeon's pardoning and the reunited family gives The Comedy of Errors a happy, not just a humorous, ending.

Artistic Features

In the opening scene Egeon delivers by far the longest speech of the play ("A heavier task could not have been imposed"), explaining how the two sets of twins were separated at an early age. At 421 words it is also the longest piece of pure exposition in the canon. Egeon is then absent until the final scene.


  1. ^ Charles Walters Whitworth, ed., The Comedy of Errors, Oxford, Oxford University press, 2003; pp. 1-10.
  2. ^ The identical dates may not be coincidental; the Pauline and Ephesian aspect of the play, noted under Sources, may have had the effect of linking The Comedy of Errors to the holiday season—much like Twelfth Night, another play secular on its surface but linked to the Christmas holidays.
  3. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p.112.


  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

See also

  • Angoor, a 1990 Urdu language adaptation of the Comedy of Errors story.

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
The Comedy of Errors
  • Comedy Of Errors – plain vanilla text from Project Gutenberg
  • The Comedie of Errors – HTML version of this title.
  • Virtual tour of Gray's Inn Hall – a 360 degree panorama of the hall where the play was once performed (select "Interior" from the menu on the left)
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