Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens during the play
- Because of a feud between the cities of Ephesus and Syracuse, Duke Solinus (of Ephesus) condemns Egeon (a merchant from Syracuse) to death.
- Egeon recounts the story of his life:
- Twenty-five years earlier, he and his wife, Emelia, had twin sons (both named Antipholus) who were attended by twin servants (both named Dromio).
- On a sea voyage, a storm separated Egeon, one son, and one servant from Egeon’s wife, the other son, and the other servant.
- Eighteen years later, Egeon’s son left Syracuse with his servant to search for his lost brother.
- When his son did not return, Egeon left Syracuse to search for Antipholus but wandered for years before being arrested by Duke Solinus in Ephesus.
- The Duke grants Egeon one day to secure a ransom.
- Unaware of his father’s situation or location, Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant Dromio arrive in Ephesus.
- Unknown to both Egeon and Antipholus of Syracuse, the other Antipholus lives in Ephesus with his wife Adriana, her sister Luciana, and his lifelong servant Dromio.
- Antipholus of Syracuse sends Dromio to secure their lodging.
- Adriana sends her Dromio to fetch her husband home to dinner.
- Confusions, mistaken identities, beatings, arrests, and errors ensue.
Dr. Ralph's Brief
1. When was the play first peformed?
One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors may have appeared on stage as early as 1592.
2. Where was the play first performed?
Probably at James Burbage’s outdoor playhouse, the Theatre, north of the city wall. In 1594 Shakespeare’s company performed the play in the Banqueting Hall at Grey’s Inn as part of an entertainment for the law students there. Things went badly: the crowded event got out of control, and the production was “confounded.” Grey’s Inn Hall still survives, and if you visit it (by arrangement with the Porter), you will see the kind of room that Shakespeare’s company converted into the Blackfriars Playhouse.
3. How does the play fit into Shakespeare’s career?
Written around the same time as Henry VI, Part 3, The Comedy of Errors came early in Shakespeare’s career, and it shows an initial interest in classical comedy. Here, but adding a second set of twins, he doubles the trouble of Plautus’s Menechmus.
4. How is this play like Shakespeare’s other plays?
Shipwreck, separated twins, linguistic clowns, men who need to grow up, women who help them, and a big reunion at the end – all of it is here in one of his earliest plays.
5. How is this play unlike other Shakespeare plays?
The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s shortest play and, with The Tempest, one of only two that obeys the classical rules of unity of time (action takes place in one day) and unity of action (action takes place in one location).
6. What do scholars think about this play?
Although the play is popular with audiences, scholars admire it for little more than its clockwork plot and find its characters more two dimensional than those in Shakespeare’s other plays.
7. Is there any controversy surrounding the work?
Ben Jonson objected to the play because finding one set of actors that look like twins is hard enough, and this play calls for two such sets. Sadly, some directors, afflicted with a Jonsonian literal mindedness, miss the point as well and cast a single actor for each set of twins. I would have such vandals whipped.
8. What characters should I especially look out for?
Perhaps because I saw Judi Dench play the part, I have always thought Adriana a character of great depth.
9. What scene should I especially look for?
Act Three, scene one, in which Antipholus of Ephesus finds himself locked out of his own house, is the play’s tour de farce.
10. What is the language like?
The two Dromios take delight in making bad Elizabethan jokes. The higher characters speak in regular iambic pentameter verse, and the lovers rhyme. Easy stuff.