The comedy of errors may possibly be the very first play Shakespeare wrote, perhaps even as early as 1589.
It is a complete farce, and it is adapted from a play named Menaechmi, written by the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus about 220 b.c. If we assume that the events in Plautus' play reflect the time in which it was written (although Plautus borrowed the plot from a still earlier Greek play) we can place the time a century and a half after that of Dionysius of Syracuse. It is for that reason I place this play immediately after The Winter's Tale.
Plautus' play Menaechmi tells of the comic misadventures of twin brothers separated at birth. One searches for the other and when he reaches the town in which the second dwells, finds himself greeted by strangers who seem to know him. There are constant mistakes and cross-purposes, to the confusion of everyone on the stage and to the delight of everyone in the audience.
Shakespeare makes the confusion all the more intense by giving the twin brothers each a servant, with the servants twins as well. The developments are all accident, all implausible, and-if well done-all funny.
Merchant of Syracusa.. .
The play begins seriously enough in Ephesus. Solinus, Duke of Ephesus, appears onstage, with Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse. The title "Duke of Ephesus" is as anachronistic as "Duke of Athens" (see page I-18) and with even less excuse, since there never was a Duchy of Ephesus in medieval times as there was, at least, a Duchy of Athens.
There is hard feeling between Ephesus and Syracuse, to the point where natives of one are liable to execution if caught in the territory of the other. The Syracusan, Egeon, caught in Ephesian territory, stands in danger of this cruel law. The Duke says, obdurately:
Merchant of Syracusa, plead no more;
I am not partial to infringe our laws.
– Act I, scene i, lines 3-4
In the time of Plautus, the Greek city-states were as logically the scene of romantic comedy as were the Italian city-states in Shakespeare's own time. In both cases, the city-states were in decline but lingered in a golden afterglow.
Syracuse was no longer as great as it had been under Dionysius. It lived rather in the shadow of the growing Roman power, with which it had allied itself in 270 b.c.
In the course of the Second Punic War, fought in Plautus' middle age, Rome looked, for a while, as though it were going to lose, when the Carthaginian general Hannibal inflicted three spectacular defeats upon it between 218 and 216 b.c. Syracuse hastily switched to the Carthaginian side in order to be with the winner, but this proved to be a poor move.
Rome retained sufficient strength to lay siege to Syracuse and, after more than two years of warfare, took and sacked it in 212 b.c. Syracuse lost its independence forever. Plautus may have written Menaechmi in the last decade of Syracusan independence, but even if he wrote after its fall, it is not hard to imagine him as seeing it still as the important city-state it had been for the past five centuries.
For the other city, Plautus did not use Ephesus (as Shakespeare does) but he could have. Ephesus is a city on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. Asia Minor fell under the control of various Macedonian generals after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 b.c., but individual cities flourished and retained considerable powers of local self-government. Indeed, Ephesus, in Plautus' lifetime, was geographically part of the kingdom of Pergamum, which made up the western third of the peninsula of Asia Minor. The city was at the very peak of its wealth and its commercial prosperity.
Of course, neither was in a position to carry on petty feuds with each other, and there is no historical basis for the opening situation in the play-but that is just to get the story moving.
To Epidamnum.. .
Duke Solinus points out that the penalty for being caught in Ephesian territory is a thousand marks. In default of payment of the fine, Egeon must be executed.
Egeon seems to think death will be a relief and the curious Duke asks why. Egeon sighs and begins his tale. In Syracuse, he had married a woman he loved:
With her I lived in joy, our wealth increased
By prosperous voyages I often made
– Act I, scene i, lines 38-41
Epidamnum (or Epidamnus) was a Greek city-state on what is now the coast of Albania; on the site, indeed, of Durres, Albania's chief port.
Epidamnum is, actually, the other city used by Plautus, in place of Shakespeare's Ephesus, and in a way it is more suitable. Epidamnum is three hundred miles northeast of Syracuse; Ephesus twice as far; and one might suppose that the nearer neighbors two cities are, the more likely they are to quarrel.
Epidamnum became Roman in 229 b.c., so that Plautus was writing the play not long after the end of the city's independence.
Why did Shakespeare switch from Epidamnum to Ephesus? Perhaps because Ephesus was far more familiar to Christians. Two centuries after Plautus' death it became one of the centers of the very early Christian church. One of the letters in the New Testament attributed to St. Paul is the Epistle to the Ephesians.
At one point, though, Egeon had had to make a long stay at Epidamnum, and after six months his wife followed him there, although she was nearly at the point of giving birth. In Epidamnum she was delivered of twin sons in an inn where a lowborn woman was also being delivered of twin sons. Egeon bought the lowborn twins as slaves for his own sons.
They then made ready to return home, but were caught in a bad storm not far off Epidamnum. When the ship was deserted by its crew, Egeon's wife tied one child and one servant child to a small mast and Egeon tied the other child and the other servant child to another mast. For security, they tied themselves to masts as well and waited for the ship to be driven to land.
What's more, rescue seemed close:
The seas waxed calm, and we discovered
Two ships from jar, making amain to us;
Of Corinth that, of Epidaurus this.
– Act I, scene i, lines 91-93
Corinth was located on the narrow isthmus that connected the Peloponnesus to the rest of Greece. This favored position gave it a footing that placed it on the sea, looking east toward Asia Minor and also looking west toward Italy. Throughout Greece's history it remained one of its most important cities and one of its most prosperous parts. In Plautus' lifetime it was the wealthiest city in Greece. That prosperity was destroyed for a century when Roman forces, for inadequate reasons, sacked it in 146 b.c., a generation after Plautus' death.
Epidaurus was a Greek city-state on the eastern shores of the Peloponnesus, only twenty-five miles from Corinth. It would spoil the effect of the story to have two ships come from such closely spaced cities.
Fortunately, there is another Epidaurus (or, in this case, Epidaurum), which is located on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, some 130 miles up the coast from Epidamnum. That gives us our picture. The wrecked ship, not far from Epidamnum, is being approached by a ship from Epidaurus, sailing from the north, and by another ship from Corinth, sailing from the south.
Before the rescuers can reach the ship on which Egeon and his family are adrift, that ship hits a rock and is split in two. Egeon, with one son and servant child, is picked up by the ship from Epidaurus; his wife, with the other son and servant child, is picked up by the ship from Corinth. The two ships separate and the family is permanently split in two.
… farthest Greece
Egeon and his half of the family return to Syracuse, but the other half of the family has proceeded to some destination unknown to him and he never hears of them again.
Egeon's son and his servant, once grown, want to try to find their twins. They leave on the search, and after they are gone for a period of time, Egeon sets out in his turn to find them:
Five summers have 1 spent in farthest Greece,
Roaming clean through the bounds of Asia,
And coasting homeward, came to Ephesus,
– Act I, scene i, lines 132-34
"Greece" had a broader meaning in ancient times than it has today, and "Asia" a narrower one. Greece (or "Hellas" as the Greeks, or Hellenes, themselves called it) was the collection of the thousand cities of Greek-speaking people, whether those cities were located on the Greek peninsula proper or elsewhere. From Massilia (the modern Marseilles) on the west, to Seleucia on the Tigris River on the east, all is "Greece." Egeon had thus been searching not just Greece proper but wherever the Greek tongue was spoken.
As for Asia, this term was applied in Roman times (and in the New Testament, for instance) not to the entire Asian continent in the modern sense, but to the western half of Asia Minor only, the territory of the kingdom of Pergamum actually. Egeon, scouring Asia Minor, would naturally return to Syracuse by way of Ephesus, the largest city of the region.
The Duke is affected by the sad story, but insists that it is either a thousand marks or death.
… stay there, Dromio…
Egeon and his listeners get off the stage and now the coincidences begin, for his son and servant, the very ones for whom he is searching, have just landed in Ephesus; while his wife and other son and servant, for whom the first son and servant are searching, have been in Ephesus all the time. The entire family is in the same city and no one guesses it till the very end of the play, although that is the obvious and only way of explaining the extraordinary things that are to happen.
Indeed, everyone is extraordinarily obtuse, for the merchant who has brought the Syracusan son to Ephesus warns him:
Therefore, give out you are of Epidamnum,
Lest that your goods too soon be confiscate.
This very day a Syracusian merchant
Is apprehended for arrival here,
– Act I, scene ii, lines 1-4
Does the son ask who this Syracusian (a countryman, after all) might be? No, for if he does, the plot is ruined. The events can only follow if no character in the play ever sees the plainest point, and the audience must co-operate and accept the obtuseness for the sake of its own pleasure.
The son has a supply of money with him which he orders his servant to deposit for safekeeping at the inn where they are to stay:
Go bear it to the Centaur, where we host,
And stay there, Dromio, till I come to thee;
– Act I, scene ii, lines 9-10
It is stated by Egeon, but not explained, that both servants bore the same name. This is necessary since even if the twins' faces were alike, the confusion could only be complete if their names were alike too. This identity in names passes the bounds of the credible, yet it must be accepted or else all must be given up.
The servants are both named Dromio, which comes from a Greek word meaning "racecourse." It is appropriate, for all through the play each servant is sent racing, now on this errand, now on that, usually coming to grief, for they are forever meeting not their master but their master's twin, without realizing it.
As for the masters, they are both named Antipholus, from Greek words meaning "opposed in balance." They are so alike, in other words, that if each were placed on the opposite end of a balance, the balance would remain unmoved.
In order to identify them in the play, the masters have to be called "Antipholus of Syracuse" and "Antipholus of Ephesus." The servants are "Dromio of Syracuse" and "Dromio of Ephesus."
It is Antipholus of Syracuse who sends Dromio of Syracuse to the Centaur.
.. .as I am a Christian.. .
Dromio of Syracuse runs off and Antipholus of Syracuse explains to the merchant that he is in search of his mother and twin brother. Suddenly Dromio of Ephesus races on the scene. His master, Antipholus of Ephesus, is a married man and dinner at home is waiting for him. Dromio of Ephesus sees Antipholus of Syracuse and begs him to come home.
Antipholus of Syracuse naturally wants to know what home and what dinner Dromio is talking about and why he hasn't stayed at the Centaur and what happened to the money. Just as naturally, Dromio of Ephesus wants to know what money.
Now here is Antipholus of Syracuse madly searching for a twin brother with a twin-brother servant, and here comes what seems to be his servant who obviously is talking about an utterly inappropriate set of events. Ought not Antipholus of Syracuse instantly suspect it as his servant's twin brother mistaking him for his own twin brother?
Not at all. The thought never occurs to Antipholus of Syracuse (or to Dromio of Syracuse) for an instant, even though these cross-purposes multiply. (Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus are more to be excused. They are not consciously looking for their twins and so they are mentally unprepared to consider the twins' existence as explanation for the errors.)
As the cross-purposes continue (and they require each set of twins to wear identical costumes, if any further multiplication of implausibility is required), Antipholus of Syracuse cries out:
Now, as I am a Christian, answer me,
In what safe place you have bestowed my money;
Or I shall break that merry sconce of yours
– Act I, scene ii, lines 77-79
Here, certainly, we depart from Plautus, in whose lifetime Christianity had not yet arisen. -And since Dromio of Ephesus can give no satisfaction, he is beaten.
… war against her heir
The cross-purposes continue and grow worse. Antipholus of Syracuse hastens to the Centaur, finds his money safe there, and calculates it was impossible to have seen Dromio when he had seen him. (Does he suspect? Not on your life!)
In comes Dromio of Syracuse and Antipholus of Syracuse asks him if he has recovered his senses. Dromio of Syracuse naturally doesn't know what he is talking about and denies that he ever denied he had the gold. So he is beaten too. (The Dromios are constantly being beaten for no fault of their own.)
In comes Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, and the wife's sister, Luciana. They accost Antipholus of Syracuse and demand he come home to dinner with them. Antipholus of Syracuse is flabbergasted and suspects witchcraft (he suspects anything and everything but the obvious fact that his twin brother is involved), yet eventually accompanies the two women.
Now, at last, Antipholus of Ephesus appears on the scene, ordering a necklace from a Merchant for his wife. He is further complaining that Dromio of Ephesus (who is with him) is telling some ridiculous story about himself denying that he is married.
Antipholus of Ephesus invites the Merchant home for dinner and when they reach his house they find the doors barred. Voices within insist that Antipholus of Ephesus is an imposter, for the master of the house is within and at dinner. Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse even engage in conversation (with a closed door between) and suspect nothing.
Antipholus of Ephesus, in high rage, thinking his wife is entertaining some lover, decides to take the necklace and give it to a courtesan rather than to his wife.
Indoors, meanwhile, Antipholus of Syracuse is attracted to Luciana, the wife's sister, and she, embarrassed, urges him to be sweet and kind to his wife instead. When she leaves, Dromio of Syracuse enters and tells his master that a fat cook claims him as her husband.
The two of them, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse, begin a satirical (and to our modern ears, cruel) catalogue of the charms of the lady.
Dromio of Syracuse says she is as spherical as a globe and that countries could be located on her. Antipholus of Syracuse begins to test this, in Shakespeare-contemporary manner, all thought of the supposedly Greek background forgotten. Thus he inquires about Ireland and America, though neither was known in Plautus' time.
The answer to one of the questions offers a possible way of dating the play. Antipholus of Syracuse asks about the location of France on the cook's body and Dromio replies: 176 GREEK
In her forehead, armed and reverted,
making war against her heir.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 126-27
The reference must be to Henry IV, who in 1589 had become King of France on the death of his second cousin, Henry III. However, Henry IV was a Protestant and Catholic France (in particular, Catholic Paris) would not accept him. For several years France made "war against her heir."
Henry IV won an important victory at Ivry in 1590 and then in 1593 abjured Protestantism and accepted Catholicism. Between his victory and his repentance, enough of the Catholic opposition was won over to end the war. Since Dromio of Syracuse makes it sound as though the revolt is continuing, one can suppose that The Comedy of Errors was written no later than 1593 and no earlier than 1589.
… the mermaid's song
Antipholus of Syracuse continues to suppose that witchcraft is at work and decides to get out of Ephesus on the first ship. He sends Dromio of Syracuse to locate such a ship.
Antipholus dislikes the woman who claims to be his wife and feels a strong attraction to her sister, which, he suspects, is a specific result of enchantment. He feels he must not give in to all this:
But, lest myself be guilty to self-wrong,
I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 168-69
Here is another example of a reference to the dangerous singing of the mermaids or sirens (see page I-12).
… in Tartar limbo…
The cross-purposes continue. The Merchant from whom Antipholus of Ephesus has ordered a chain meets Antipholus of Syracuse and forces it on him, refusing to take money at the moment, saying he will take it at suppertime. Antipholus of Syracuse plans to be gone from the city by suppertime but the Merchant will not listen.
However, the Merchant unexpectedly encounters a creditor of his own and decides to get the money sooner. This time it is Antipholus of Ephesus he meets, coming from the courtesan's place with Dromio of Ephesus.
This Antipholus sends his servant to buy a rope, with which he intends to chastise his wife and servants for locking him out of the house.
The Merchant asks for his money and Antipholus of Ephesus denies receiving the chain. The Merchant is so enraged at this denial that he calls in the police and demands that Antipholus of Ephesus be arrested.
It is at this point that Dromio of Syracuse arrives with the news that he has located a ship leaving Ephesus. Antipholus of Ephesus knows nothing about a ship and Dromio of Syracuse knows nothing about a rope. Antipholus of Ephesus has no time, however, to worry about this particular cross-purpose. He needs bail and he sends Dromio of Syracuse to his wife's place to get the money.
In delivering the message, Dromio of Syracuse explains to Adriana that his master is in trouble:
… he's in Tartar limbo, worse than hell:
– Act IV, scene ii, line 32
The Greek notion of the afterlife in Hades was a rather gray one. It was a place of shadows where the shades of men and women remained in weakness and forgetfulness; where they suffered no torture but experienced no joy.
Beneath this colorless Hades was Tartarus (see page I-13), which helped inspire later Christian theologians with their notion of hell. In place of the mild Hades itself, Christians imagined a region called limbo at the border of hell. This receives its name from the Latin word for "border" and, like Hades, is a gray place of no punishment and no hope.
We might say, then, that in the Christian sense, hell is worse than limbo, while in the Greek sense, Tartarus is worse than Hades. To say, as Dromio does, that "Tartar limbo" is "worse than hell" is a queer mixture of terms that probably tickled an audience more aware of these theological and classical distinctions than moderns are.
… Lapland sorcerers …
Antipholus of Syracuse, still waiting for news of a ship, still impatient to be gone, marvels at how everyone seems to know him and think highly of him.
Sure, these are but imaginary wiles,
And Lapland sorcerers inhabit here.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 10-11
Lapland is an ill-defined area making up the Arctic regions of Scandinavia and northwestern Russia, inhabited by Lapps, who are the Old World equivalent of the New World Eskimos. They might easily be confused, in Shakespeare's time, with the Finns of Finland, for Lapps and Finns are similar in race and language.
The comment of Antipholus of Syracuse would seem to refer to Finland rather than Lapland, for Finnish mythology is unusual in the emphasis it places on song and magic. Their heroes are magicians rather than strong men, Merlin rather than Hercules. The most famous Finnish literary work is their national epic, the Kalevala, which is pre-Christian in inspiration and the hero of which is the singing magician Wainamoinen.
The apparent enchantments continue. Dromio of Syracuse comes panting in with the money given him by Adriana to bail Antipholus of Ephesus. Dromio of Syracuse hands it to Antipholus of Syracuse, who naturally doesn't know what it is. He asks about the ship instead and Dromio of Syracuse insists he has already given him that news.
In comes the courtesan to whom Antipholus of Ephesus has promised the chain. She sees it around the neck of Antipholus of Syracuse and asks for it. Antipholus answers violently:
Satan, avoid! I charge thee, tempt me not!
– Act IV, scene iii, line 49
The harassed Antipholus of Syracuse, already convinced he is the victim of witchcraft, is sure that the light wench is the devil himself come to tempt him to sin. The exclamation is a form of Jesus' reproof to Satan on the occasion of the temptation in the wilderness. Jesus is then quoted as saying "Get thee hence, Satan" (Matthew 4:10).
(When Shakespeare quotes the Bible, he cannot very well quote the exact wording of the King James version with which we ourselves are so familiar. That version was not published till 1611, some twenty years after The Comedy of Errors was written and nearly at the close of Shakespeare's writing career.)
The courtesan naturally decides he is mad and goes off to warn his wife.
… the kitchen vestal. ..
Meanwhile, Antipholus of Ephesus is still waiting for the bail which Dromio of Syracuse delivered to Antipholus of Syracuse. In comes Dromio of Ephesus with the rope that he had been sent for just before Antipholus of Ephesus had been arrested. Naturally he gets beaten.
Adriana and Luciana arrive now with the courtesan. With them they bring a schoolmaster, Mr. Pinch, whom they hope is wise enough to cure Antipholus of Ephesus of his madness. Antipholus of Ephesus, to whom it seems the rest of the world is mad, is driven to distraction by this.
He insists that, despite his wife's protestations, he had been barred from his own house at dinner. He calls on Dromio of Ephesus to confirm this and for once master and man are on the same side. When Antipholus of Ephesus points out that the very kitchenmaid railed at him, Dromio of Ephesus says:
Certes, she did; the kitchen vestal scorned you.
– Act IV, scene iv, line 76
The vestals were the Vestal Virgins (see page I-33) but this can scarcely be taken to mean that the kitchenmaid was a virgin. In Shakespeare's time, this was scarcely likely if she was over twelve. Apparently it is only a comically high-flown way of saying that she was in charge of the fire, as the vestals were in charge of the sacred fire.
… Circe's cup
But there is further trouble. Antipholus of Ephesus still wants to know where the bail money is and Luciana says she sent it. Dromio of Ephesus denies that he received it or that he was even sent for it, and Antipholus of Ephesus, in his rage, begins to act mad indeed. He and Dromio of Ephesus are seized and dragged away.
In come Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse on their way to the waterfront. The Merchant, who has just had Antipholus of Ephesus arrested, sees him apparently at liberty, with the chain for which he was arrested openly around his neck. There is a fight and Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse escape into a nearby abbey. The Abbess emerges and refuses to let anyone else enter.
But the day is coming to a close. (This play and The Tempest are the only two plays in which Shakespeare kept the action within the bounds of a single day in accordance with the Greek "unities"-see page I-158.) Egeon is being led to his death, since he has not been able to raise the thousand marks he has been fined. Adriana seizes the opportunity to accost the Duke of Ephesus and beg him to persuade the Abbess to release her poor, mad husband.
But Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus have escaped from their own jailers and have come furiously on the scene. Antipholus of Ephesus demands justice against his wife, who, he claims, is conspiring to imprison him after having barred him from his own house.
The Duke, listening to the babble of confusing testimony from all sides, says:
Why, what an intricate impeach is this!
I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup.
– Act V, scene i, lines 270-71
Circe is the name of a sorceress who appears in the Odyssey. She lived on a Mediterranean island and had visitors drink wine from her cup. The drink would turn them into animals, who were then enslaved by her.
Ulysses' men, in the course of their return from fallen Troy, come to Circe's island, drink from her cup, and are changed into swine. Ulysses himself, with the help of an antidote supplied him by Mercury, overcomes her.
The Duke, by this reference to Circe's cup, implies that all about him have lost their ability to reason but are as confused as senseless beasts.
Egeon interrupts to say the man seeking redress is his son Antipholus. But it is Antipholus of Ephesus he indicates and that Antipholus at once denies any knowledge of Egeon. The Duke backs him up, saying he has known Antipholus of Ephesus all his life and that Antipholus has never been in Syracuse. (The Duke is as dull as the rest; he doesn't catch on either.)
It is only when the Abbess emerges with Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse, and the two Antipholuses and Dromios face each other, that all is clear at last. The Abbess turns out, of course, to be Egeon's wife.
All the conflicting events of the day are sorted out; Egeon is liberated; and the play ends in utter happiness. It is even clear that Antipholus of Syracuse will marry Luciana so that the two brothers will also be brothers-in-law.