The Comedy of Errors - Investigation on the lost & found theme in Shakespeare's shortest play

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

26 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. Main Part
1. The play
1.1. First publication
1.2. Form and structure
1.3. The plot
1.4. The reception
1.5. The sources
2. The lost and found theme
2.1. Egeon
2.2. Antipholus of Syracuse
2.3. Antipholus of Ephesus
2.4. Adriana and Luciana
2.5. Emilia
2.6. Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus
2.7. Goldsmith, Merchant, Courtesan

III. Conclusion

IV. References

V. Appendix

List of abbreviations:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The abbreviations are not constantly used, but only out of stylistic reasons.

I. Introduction

During my research for this paper I learned that, in comparison to the other Shakespearian plays, The Comedy of Errors has been only relatively little reviewed and criticized. The play ranks with Love’s Labours Lost and The Two Gentlemen of Verona to the so-called Early Comedies, and therefore some scholars deem the style not as refined and as perfect as in Shakespeare’s later plays. Some even consider the play not to be written by the master himself but to be “the work of an inferior playwright, a bookish exercise, or an apprentice piece”[1], which was only lectured by Shakespeare. They say that the play is an adaptation to Menaechmi by Plautus, but without its intensity, because the main focus lies on the comical elements of the play while Plautus stresses the tragedy in the story. Therefore The Comedy of Errors is often seen in a very limited dimension.

In this paper I will show that The Comedy of Errors is more than simply a poor adaptation of the ancient Plautine material and that “there is more substance to the play than the obvious noisy surface action, which seems often to have absorbed critics’ attention, to the exclusion of everything else.”[2]

“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.“[3]

(Antipholus of Syracuse)

This quote is probably the best-known of the whole play and represents one of the main themes of the play. All the characters seem to be on a constant search for someone or something they have lost. After a short introduction to the play, its reception and its sources, the main focus of the paper will lie on the investigation of the lost and found theme in The Comedy of Errors. This aspect will be enlightened from different angles and from the perspective of the play’s characters. The direct search for a person will be analyzed as well as the seeking for love, harmony, family and identity.

II. Main Part

1. The play

1.1. First publication

The Comedy of Errors (CoE) is one of Shakespeare’s plays with uncertain origin. There is no source which proofs when exactly Shakespeare wrote it, but it must have been between 1591 and 1594 and thus it is one of his earliest plays. CoE was not published until 1623 in the First Folio[4] edition. So one can expect numerous changes from the original version to the version officially published about 30 years later. Nonetheless the version in the First Folio, which probably derived from the Foul Papers[5] , was the basis for all the subsequent editions of the play.

1.2. Form and structure

Form and structure are typical for Shakespeare. CoE is a five-act-play written in verse and prose. According to the situation on stage and to the characters the language differs greatly. Every character speaks in his/her own register or changes it with the communication partner. E.g. Antipholus of Syracuse talks differently to his slave Dromio in his position as a master in contrast to the way he speaks to Luciana, who he falls in love with.

“(…) and the result is a mixture of styles that goes much deeper than changes from prose to verse, or the varying of metres. It is a mixture of different ways of viewing the world, of which different dramatic styles are ultimately a reflection.”[6]

CoE is definitely the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays. While in the longer plays Shakespeare sometimes treats time as his imagination allowed, in CoE he stuck to the unity of place and time according to the rules of Aristotle which say that “the action of the play needed to be confined to one place and to occur within the time span of no more than a single day”[7]. During the performance of CoE the spectators experience the story of the twins in (in modern terms) real time. The set does not change like it does in other plays, bit it stays at Ephesus. Therefore the spectators can focus their attention completely on the farcical story.

1.3. The plot

Egeon, a[8] merchant of Syracuse, is caught in the city of Ephesus and accused of having ignored the law by stepping on Ephesus grounds, because the two cities are on bad terms with each other. The Duke Solinus, who is a very merciful man, offers Egeon to pay the amount of “a thousand marks”[9] and then be a free man again. Egeon tells him the story of his life: Over 20 years ago he travelled home to Syracuse from Epidamnum by ship. He was accompanied by his wife and his baby twin sons, who were both named Antipholus because they were so much alike. There was also another pair of twin boys, both called Dromio, whom Egeon had bought as slaves for his sons. Unfortunately the family was separated by shipwreck in a violent storm. Egeon managed to rescue one Antipholus and one Dromio. His wife disappeared with the other two boys. After 20 years the Antipholus (in the play called Antipholus of Syracuse (AoS)) who was rescued by his father decided to search for his mother an his twin brother without the agreement of the father. He went off with his servant Dromio (DOS). Later the father decided to travel, too, in order to look for his lost family. On his way he unfortunately entered Ephesus, was caught and brought to the Duke.

At the same time AoS enters Ephesus in company of DoS and wonders why everybody is on such friendly terms with him although he is a stranger in town. Immediately, after he has sent his servant away to run some errands the action gets complicated because Dromio of Ephesus (DoE) enters the stage and confuses AoS with his master Antipholus of Ephesus (AoE). This is the first of many misunderstandings and confusions in the play which comprise the comical effect and give the play its title. Adriana, the wife of AoE, deems her brother-in-law to be her husband and accuses him jealously of not being loyal to her. AoS falls in love with Luciana, the sister of Adriana. AoE must not enter his own house for dinner because his wife is dining with the wrong Antipholus, so he thinks she betrays him. A golden chain, which AoE ordered from Angelo, the goldsmith, is due to be paid, but the money vanishes in the course of the confusion. AoS does not understand the whole situation and believes the town of Ephesus to be haunted. Adriana does not understand her “wrong husband’s” behaviour either and begs Dr. Pinch to make an exorcism on AoS. Close to the end AoS and his Dromio take refuge in a priory which is under the leadership of Emilia, the Abbess. In the final act all the characters gather on stage and both twin pairs see each other for the first time. Egeon recognizes his sons, and the whole situation is explained to everybody. In the end even the mother of the twins is found because she is nobody else but the Abbess Emilia. The play culminates in a family reunion, the release of Egeon by the Duke and a happy feast.

1.4. The reception

The first performance of the play is said to have taken place in December 1594 as a private performance in the Gray’s Inn Law School. The actors performed for a very learned audience there, who could fully follow the plot of the play. This first performance entered into history as “The Night of Errors”. There are only few proofs to other performances in the Renaissance but one in 1604 at the court of King James I.

“The next few generations ignored the play, and it was not revived until the eighteenth century, when it was usually adapted, sometimes to make it a more serious or sentimental play, sometimes to add music or additional comic or romantic scenes. Not until the nineteenth century was the play regularly performed in its original state, and even then it was only poorly reviewed.”[10]

In the twentieth century CoE became part of the regular Shakespeare repertoire of many theatres and sometimes had to go through several kinds of modern “face-lifting” because the play was, among other things, revived in form of the musical The Boys from Syracuse in 1938, performed as a piece of slapstick humour in the 1920s and inevitably made into a well-known film production in 1976 starring the Oscar-winner Judy Dench, and into a production for television in 1984 by the BBC. By using the modern medium film several problems which occurred in the past could be solved more easily, because for the casters of theatre productions it was always difficult to find two pairs of similar looking actors or even twins for the parts of the Antipholi and Dromios. Modern make-up techniques and shooting methods helped to a great extend and thus made the play attractive again for those who did not want to run the risk of presenting twins who do not look alike. “Other directors for the stage, by contrast, have experimented with the comedy by casting it against type, even including twins who look nothing like one another.”[11]

1.5. The sources

Without any doubt Shakespeare took some ancient theatre material as model for his play. The most important and also the most obvious is the play Menaechmi by the Roman playwright Plautus in which a merchant of Syracuse loses one of his twin sons, who will later be searched and, after some confusions, found by his brother in the town of Epidamnum where the lost brother had grown up. From this play Shakespeare took his idea for the main plot, although there is far more confusion he added to the original play.

Literary scholars still debate if he worked directly on the Latin text or if he used the English translation by Warner.

“The relation between Warner’s translation and Shakespeare’s play has always been a matter for controversy. Early on, error about the date of the translation confuses the discussion; Theobald, Gildon, and others think it 1515 instead of 1595, and therefore available to Shakespeare during the composition of Errors, usually dated in the early 1590s.”[12]

In case Shakespeare had gotten hold of the translated play he surely would have used it. In this field the opinions differ immensely, too, because some do not think Shakespeare to have any knowledge of Latin, whereas others think he was able to read Latin well. Nonetheless everybody would agree that Shakespeare would have preferred the play in his mother’s tongue.

In Twelfth Night (TN) Shakespeare again picks up the motif of the confused twins in Viola and Sebastian, although the motif here varies slightly because the twin ship is not restricted to uniovular male twins, but to a twin pair of brother and sister, who also look very much alike.

But Shakespeare complicated the plot of CoE by adding a second pair of completely identical twins: the Dromios, who literally serve as the comic element of the play. Their role is the one clowns occupy in other plays, because in their characters comic and tragic elements combine. The addition on a second pair of twins also recalls Plautus, but in this case Shakespeare helped himself with parts of the Plautine play Amphitruo. “This gave him two pairs of twins who could be let loose in Ephesus in such way as to provide an almost infinite number of permutations on the theme of mistaken identity.”[13]

“Whether inspired by Plautus or not, the story of Egeon and Emilia initiates Shakespeare’s habit of opening his romantic comedies with a secondary story or subplot of strife and pain which ends happily at the conclusion of each play.”[14]

The source for this frame motif of a separated family derives from the story of Apollonius of Tyre. “In the story of Apollonius, a husband is separated from his wife for years by ill fortune, and his wife is discovered to have lived as a priestess in a temple (…).”[15] Right at the beginning Egeon tells his sad life story which is the trigger for the play’s action, and again with his story the play is completed.

“Shakspere must plot to break his family in the beginning and reunite it at the end of the play. The universal device for the large-scale fractionating of a family was shipwreck. Here Shakspere shows some details from the story of Aeneas, others from the wreck of St. Paul, and doubtless still others from still other literary storms, known and unknown to us.”[16]

Again, one can see the parallel to TN, in which Viola and Sebastian are separated by a shipwreck and can only be reunited at the end of the play.

“As for much of the tone and thematic material of the play, if not any specific plot elements, Shakespeare drew on the New Testament, especially Act 19 and Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. Paul’s experience with the Ephesians inspired Shakespeare to move the action from Plautus’ Epidamnum to the similar but more remote port of Ephesus.”[17]

The influence of the biblical story also becomes obvious in Emilia’s and Luciana’s speeches when they tell Adriana how to behave as a good and loving wife. Luciana’s attitude towards the role of men and women reflects the thinking of Christianity at that time:

“Man, more divine, the master of all these,

Lord of the wired world and wild wat’ry seas,

Indued with intellectual sense and souls,

Of more pre-eminence than fish and fowls,

Are masters to their females, and their lords.

Then let your will attend on their accords.”[18]

In Paul’s Epistle this is expressed as “Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands (…) For the husband is the wife’s head (…).”[19] It is exactly this attitude which makes the difference between Adriana and her unmarried sister Luciana. In his later play The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare picks up this motif again and lets it work between the sisters Bianca and Katherine.


[1] Miola, Robert: “The Play and the Critics” (1997); IN; Miola, Robert L.: The Comedy of Errors – Critical Essays (Garland Publishing: New York & London; 1997; p. 9).

[2] Sanderson, James L.: “Patience in the Comedy of Errors”; IN: Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Volume 16; 1974; p. 604).

[3] Shakespeare, William: “The Comedy of Errors”; IN: Greenblatt, S.: The Norton Shakespeare – based on the Oxford Edition (Norton; OUP: New York & Oxford; 1997; 1.2.35-38).

[4] The First Folio is the earliest published collection of Shakespeare’s plays, appearing in 1623. John Heminge and Henry Condell, both members of the Chamberlain’s Men and its successor the King’s men, published the First Folio and thus they prevented some of Shakespeare’s plays from being lost, because they had not existed in a written form. Among these 18 plays was also CoE. (comp.: Boyce, Charles: The Wordsworth Dictionary of Shakespeare (Wordsworth Reference, Hertfordshire; 1996: “First Folio”).

[5] The notion of Foul Papers refers to “the playwright’s original, unpolished manuscript from which the printers of an early edition of a play might set the type.” (comp.: Boyce, Charles: The Wordsworth Dictionary of Shakespeare (“Foul Papers”).

[6] Leggatt, Alexander: “Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love: The Comedy of Errors” (1974); IN: Miola, Robert L.: The Comedy of Errors – Critical Essays (Garland Publishing: New York & London; 1997; p. 137).

[7] Appelbaum, Robert: “The Comedy of Errors”; IN: Rosenblum, Joseph: The Greenwood Companion to Shakespeare: a comprehensive guide for students (Greenwood Press: Westport, Conn. (USA); 2005; Volume 2: The comedies; p. 315).

[8] I will summarize the plot in order to introduce all the characters which will be analyzed later on.

[9] Shakespeare, William: “The Comedy of Errors” (1.1.21).

[10] Appelbaum, Robert: “The Comedy of Errors”; p. 328.

[11] Ibid.; p. 329.

[12] Miola, Robert: “The Play and the Critics”; p. 5.

[13] Swinden, Patrick: An introduction to Shakespeare’s Comedies (MacMillan: London; 1973; p. 25).

[14] Phialas, Peter G.: Shakespeare’s Romantic Comedies: The Development of Their Form and Meaning (The University of North Carolina Press: USA; 1966; p. 9).

[15] Appelbaum, Robert: “The Comedy of Errors”; p. 318.

[16] Baldwin, T. W.: “Brave New World” (1965); IN: Miola, Robert L.: The Comedy of Errors – Critical Essays (Garland Publishing: New York & London; 1997; p. 102).

[17] Appelbaum, Robert: “The Comedy of Errors”; p. 318.

[18] Shakespeare, William: “The Comedy of Errors” (2.1.20-25).

[19] Appelbaum, Robert: “The Comedy of Errors”; p. 319.

Excerpt out of 26 pages


The Comedy of Errors - Investigation on the lost & found theme in Shakespeare's shortest play
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
Hauptseminar: A Shakespeare Survey: Comedies, Tragedies and Histories
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Comedy, Errors, Investigation, Shakespeare, Hauptseminar, Shakespeare, Survey, Comedies, Tragedies, Histories
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Conny Schibisch (Author), 2006, The Comedy of Errors - Investigation on the lost & found theme in Shakespeare's shortest play, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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