April. Again. Somehow. In between the income tax all-nighter and explaining to the young people how the Easter Bunny rose from the dead on the 3rd day to lay chocolate eggs, join me for an interval of birthday cakes and ale. I’m celebrating Shakespeare’s 455th with an early, jokey, morally dicey play: The Comedy of Errors.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Twins is funny. MORAL: Adoption is a choice, too.”
What happens in The Comedy of Errors
Egeon, a man from Syracuse, goes to Ephesus. There’s a law against travelling between Syracuse and Ephesus. He gets arrested and sentenced to death.
He tells the arresting Duke the story of coming to Ephesus to look for his lost son. Years ago, Egeon and his wife had twin boys. They bought another pair of twin infant boys. Bought. As slaves.
Critical sidebar: Enslaved Africans had been in England for about 30 years when The Comedy of Errors was written (sometime around 1589). Queen Elizabeth I profited from slavery — although, unbelievably, she is supposed to have expressed a hope that the Africans would not be enslaved without first giving their free consent. Shakespeare doesn’t make a meaningful distinction between servants and slaves in The Comedy of Errors, basically giving the two Dromios the same level of independence as paid servants. Some scholars have guessed that was because he was afraid to criticize the queen, but he was not always silently complicit on the subject of slavery in later plays. There’s a good post on The World of Will blog about his treatment of slavery in The Merchant of Venice.
So back to the Egeon family. Egeon and his wife named both their sons Antipholus and both their slaves Dromio. Because it’s definitely easier to have two sets of twin boys in your household if you give them the same two names.
The family went to sea and got shipwrecked and separated. Egeon, one son, and one slave were rescued by one ship. A different ship rescued his wife and the other two boys.
Eighteen years went by. Egeon’s Antipholus-and-Dromio set went to search for Antipholus’s lost twin brother. Egeon later went himself to search for the boys, only to get arrested in Ephesus. Now we’re up to date.
Unknown to anybody else, Egeon’s Antipholus-and-Dromio duo arrives in Ephesus. The other Antipholus is already living in Ephesus with his wife Adriana and the other Dromio, but nobody knows that.
Aaaannd let the funny errors commence.
Antipholus of Syracuse meets Dromio of Ephesus on the street. Dromio tries to get Antipholus to go “home” for dinner. Antipholus abuses the Dromio he thinks he knows.
Adriana locks her real husband out of their house because she is already there with his confused twin, Antipholus of Syracuse. All twins are identical in Shakespeare, including the brother-sister variety. See Twelfth Night for details.
Antipholus of Ephesus refuses to pay for a gold chain he ordered because he never received it, it having been delivered to his twin by Ye Olde Amazonne Prime and probably left in full view on the porch to be opened by enterprising passers-by. The goldsmith has Antipholus of Ephesus arrested. Antipholus of Ephesus blames Dromio of Syracuse, the Dromio he thinks he knows, and beats him.
Adriana is convinced that “her” Antipholus and Dromio have lost their minds. She has them tied up and takes them to her friendly neighborhood exorcist.
She encounters Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse and thinks they’ve escaped from having their mortal souls extracted via their nostrils or what have you. The pair from Syracuse hide in a convenient abbey, legitimately fearing the worst.
In the meantime, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus do escape from the exorcist. They arrive at court to petition the Duke just as Egeon is about to be executed.
Egeon sees his son and thinks he is saved, but Antipholus of Ephesus hasn’t seen his father since he was a child and doesn’t recognize him.
Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse come out of hiding in the abbey and see the other two twins.
The abbess reveals that she has been living in disguise and is actually Egeon’s wife.
The twins sort out their stories. The Duke lifts Egeon’s sentence. The family units are all reunited.
I discovered the completely excellent Shakespeare Birthplace Trust while researching The Comedy of Errors. Prepare to lose the whole rest of your day.