Identity Struggles in William Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" and "Twelfth Night"

Essay, 2019

10 Pages, Grade: 1,3


“I know not which is which” (V.i.365) exclaims the Duke of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors when he is confronted with two sets of identical male twins, namely Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse as well as Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse. Similarly, when the twins Viola and Sebastian finally appear on stage together in Twelfth Night, Sebastian's devoted companion Antonio poses the question: “Which is Sebastian?” (V.i.222). In both plays, the presence of twins causes confusion, as friends and lovers are unable to distinguish their beloved one from the sibling mirroring their appearance. Moreover, the twins themselves are unaware that their respective counterparts are in town, which creates feelings of bewilderment and disorientation, some of which lead to identity conflicts.

The following essay focuses on issues of identity experienced by Egeon and the Antipholi twins in The Comedy of Errors and Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. After a brief introduction of the term 'identity' and the motif of the double, similarities and differences concerning the plays' depiction of identity struggles will be analyzed by looking at the themes of separation and union, familiarity and strangeness as well as disguise and transformation.

The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English offers three definitions of 'identity'. The term may describe “who or what somebody/something is”, “the characteristics, feelings or beliefs that distinguish people from others”, and “the state or feeling of being very similar to and able to understand somebody/something” (Hornby, “Identity”). Interestingly, the second definition focuses on elements which distinguish people from another, while the third one emphasizes features which unite them. Consequently, 'identity' can be understood as the sum of one's sense of disunity and unity with others. Both of these perceptions may inspire negative and positive emotions in an individual: A sense of disunity can be experienced as a feeling of uniqueness, but also of isolation; a sense of unity can inspire notions of acceptance and belonging, but it can also create the negative feeling of lacking individuality. In his essay “Notes toward the Definition of 'Identity'”, Akeel Bilgrami suggests that there is a subjective and an objective identity: “Your subjective identity is what you conceive yourself to be, whereas your objective identity is how you might be viewed independently of how you see yourself.” (5, emphasis in original) Even though Bilgrami focuses on political issues, this distinction is important for the discussion of The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, because the characters in these plays experience a discrepancy concerning the personal and the public reception of their identity (Ashby 1255), which means that there is a temporary disaccord between their subjective and objective identity.

The identical-looking twins in Shakespeare's comedies can be interpreted as doubles, or doppelgängers, of each other. According to Chava Schwarcz, a character whose appearance is mirrored by another person appears as early as in the second century B.C. in Plautus' romantic comedies (3). Some of these Plautine comedies – in particular the play Menaechmi – are among the sources for The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night (Lothian and Craik xlvii). The term 'doppelgänger' is generally used to describe a character who physically resembles another figure, which is why this figure may be confused with their 'doppelgänger' or even replaced by it (Schwarcz 3). Furthermore, the term can also refer to one person who appears in two manifestations (3). In Plautus' and Shakespeare's works, the chief function of doubles in the form of twins is a comical one. However, themes such as madness (3/4) and the possible loss of identity (8) accompany the comical effect, adding a more serious layer to The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.

In the first scene of The Comedy of Errors, the audience encounters Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse, who is sentenced to death by the Duke of Ephesus because Syracusan merchants are not allowed to enter the city of Ephesus (I.i.3-25). Egeon could avert his death sentence by paying a thousand mark fine (I.i.21), but “the extremity of his situation is the lack of anyone to pay it” (Nevo 23). He is isolated and alone. Before Egeon is taken into custody, he tells his life story which provides the necessary background for the play's plot: Many years ago, and far away from their home in Syracuse, Egeon and his wife Emilia had two twin sons, “the one so like the other / As could not be distinguished but by names.” (Comedy, I.i.51/52) At the same place and time, a poor family also had “male twins, both alike” (I.i.55) and they were purchased by Egeon as future servants for his sons. When the family attempted to return home to Syracuse by boat, a storm caused turbulences and the “ship was splitted in the midst” (I.i.102). When the ship was divided in two symmetrical halves, the traveling family was also split in two equal parts, leaving each parent with one twin of each pair of twins. The tempest thus unsettled each family member's sense of belonging by “fractur[ing] their identities as twins and members of a greater family unit” (Weinberg 210).

While Egeon and the two boys in his charge returned to Syracuse, he never discovered what happened to the rest of his family. When he recalls his protégés' decision to search for their lost siblings after their eighteenth birthday, it becomes clear that each of them is “[r]eft of his brother, but retained his name” (Comedy, I.i.127). This means that, although the brothers could “not be distinguished but by names” (I.i.52), they carry the same names. Shakespeare does not offer an explicit explanation for this (Leggatt 3), but it is implied that Egeon renamed his remaining son and servant after the boys he lost: “Egeon's trauma leads him to seek a revival of his twins, if not in body, then in name.” (Weinberg 212) This is significant because names are an important element of one's sense of self. If 'Antipholus' and 'Dromio' were originally solely the names of the Ephesians, the Syracusans might “never [be] able to fully 'know' themselves” (213). In any case, the names do not only belong to the Syracusans but also to their vanished siblings, which may have caused an intensified identification with their respective lost brother. It may even have led to them perceiving themselves as two parts of the same being. As mentioned in the introductory paragraphs, this is a possible manifestation of the double motif. In her essay “Egeon's Debt: Self-Division and Self-Redemption”, Barbara Freedman follows this line of thought further and argues that the Antipholi twins can be interpreted as “allegorical representatives of Egeon's divided state” (365).

The Syracusan men have dedicated several years of their lives to the search for their brothers (Comedy, I.i.131), but it seems that the Ephesians are “unaware that they exist or ha[ve] forgotten all about them” (De Sousa 151). Antipholus of Ephesus, especially, may have repressed his past because he has not only suffered the loss of a father and a brother. He and Dromio of Ephesus were also separated from Antipholus' mother by “rude fishermen of Corinth” (Comedy, V.i.358) moments after the tempest. Most likely, the Syracusan survivors were told stories about their siblings by Egeon, which may have inspired the hope of retrieving the “collective unit to anchor them […] [and thus] to find a part of [themselves]” (Weinberg 213), possibly restoring their fractured sense of belonging. In contrast, for the Ephesian Antipholus, life in Ephesus is “the only life he fully 'knows'” (218). Nonetheless, he “has become a prosperous merchant like his father” (De Sousa 150), maybe because he unconsciously remembers Egeon's profession. Other than his occupation and the presence of Dromio, there is no trace of the past in his life. He has married a rich woman called Adriana and is comfortable in the city he calls home – until his twin brother appears and Antipholus of Ephesus experiences displacement. This “farcical premise” (Winckler 7) of two pairs of twins “spend[ing] one day in [Ephesus] without being aware of each other's presence” (7) forms the play's main plot of mistaken identity which is framed by Egeon's incarceration and looming death.

When Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in Ephesus, “the normal intercourse of life becomes bizarre and unsettling” (Leggatt 10) for him, as the Ephesians treat the stranger with familiarity. He considers dreaming (Comedy, II.ii.185), magic (II.ii.169/170) and madness (II.ii.216) as possible reasons for this strangeness. Interestingly, he does not wonder if he could have found the place in which his brother resides. Instead, the Ephesian locals, and especially Adriana, present their point of view with such certainty that he “doubt[s] his own sense of identity” (Weinberg 215). In expressing suspicions about dangerous magic, he also voices a dread of losing his sense of self: “They say this town is full of cozenage / […] / Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind / Soul-killing witches that deform the body” (Comedy, I.ii.97-100). While the incidents of mistaken identity are funny from an audience's perspective, they cause a character like Antipholus of Syracuse to fear for his body and soul (Leggatt 2). Shortly after expressing an anxiety about losing himself, he questions whether he even knows himself, wondering whether he might be “[k]nown to these, and to [him]self disguised” (Comedy, II.ii.217). As a reaction to this identity struggle, he intends to leave Ephesus as soon as possible (IV.iv.157/158), probably with the intent to reenter places in which his subjective, personal identity is in accord with his objective, public one.

Contrary to this experience, everything that used to be familiar to the Ephesian Antipholus becomes strange to him. As Ruth Nevo notes: “If it were not so funny, [ The Comedy of Errors ] would read like a schizophrenic nightmare” (22) for all parties involved, but especially for the Ephesian Antipholus. “Rather than being mistaken for another, [he] is simply denied as himself, and by the very people he knows best” (Freedman 367), first and foremost by his wife Adriana. Having mistaken the Syracusan twin for her husband, she takes him home for a meal and her actual spouse is denied entry to his own house (Comedy, II.ii. 36-65). It is not only his estate and family which are at stake, but also his reputation and his profession, which becomes evident when he is arrested for a debt caused by his twin (IV.i.79). In addition to “the horror of being shut out of one's world [there is also] the insidious sense that one has been successfully replaced by one's double” (Freedman 368). Dromio of Ephesus faces a similar, but less austere, identity conflict, when he learns that there is a servant in Adriana's house who “has stol'n both [his] office and [his] name” (Comedy, III.i.44). While the identity struggle of Antipholus of Syracuse drives him to prepare his flight from town, Antipholus of Ephesus is soon considered unreliable and mad by his fellow Ephesians. On the orders of Dr. Pinch, he and his servant are bound and locked in a dark room (IV.iv.95). Seemingly forsaken by everyone they know, they experience feelings of disunity, distress and isolation in a city which previously evoked a sense of belonging.

Egeon faces a suffering similar to that of his Ephesian son, when he and the Duke stumble upon the Ephesian twins at the end of the play. He mistakes them for their Syracusan counterparts and asks: “Why look you strange on me? You know me well.” (V.i.295) Like Antipholus of Ephesus, Egeon is treated like a stranger by people he considers to be familiar, when his son answers “I never saw you in my life till now” (V.i.296). For a brief period, Egeon thus believes his isolated position confirmed, before the play's ending explains all incidents of confusion. “[T]reated [first] as an impostor” (Nevo 33) and then as mad by his wife, friends and creditors, Antipholus of Ephesus suffers the most severe identity crisis of the characters. Nonetheless, all three male family members and the two Dromios question their sense of self throughout the play. In the end, it is through the reappearance of Egeon's wife Emilia that “the whole family's individual identities are recovered” (30). Egeon's sense of disunity gives way to feelings of unity after he is officially reinstated as husband and father of two. Once the presence of the Syracusans is publicly revealed, the discrepancy between the twins' subjective and objective identity decreases. They regain their adult sense of self which is rooted in Ephesus and Syracuse, but they have also recovered the “collective unit to anchor them” (Weinberg 213) with the possibility of overcoming their childhood trauma of separation. Hence, the confusion of identity has led to the recreation of such (Freedman 363), which is also suggested by the image of rebirth (Comedy, V.i.395-408). While the ending seems to resolve the issues of identity created by the plot, “[i]t is clear enough that not all of Antipholus [of Ephesus'] problems stem from the fact that his brother is in town” (Leggatt 9, emphasis added). His marital issues with Adriana may have been heightened by the plot of mistaken identity, but they have existed before and can be assumed to continue since nothing indicates the opposite (Ornstein 33).

As this analysis of The Comedy of Errors has shown, mistaken identity and the motif of the double are primary aspects of the play. In Twelfth Night, these topics are also explored, but other themes connected to identity come into focus as well (Leggatt 3), which will become clear in the following paragraphs.

The plot of Twelfth Night is the consequence of an event similar to that described by Egeon in the beginning of The Comedy of Errors: During a sea voyage, a tempest causes the ship of Viola and Sebastian to split (Night, I.ii.9) and the twins are separated from each other. Disoriented, Viola arrives in Illyria and assumes that her brother “is in Elysium” (I.ii.4), even though she still hopes he has survived (I.ii.7). Since Twelfth Night features a male and a female twin, it discusses issues such as gender and disguise in addition to the topics of identity conflict and mistaken identity also found in The Comedy of Errors.

As noted by Röll, the role of a Renaissance woman was “defined by the family, especially its male members” (n.p.). The fate of Viola's mother is not explained, but it is mentioned that Viola lost her father at the age of thirteen (Night, V.i.242/243), which indicates that her sense of self was to a large extent forged in relation to her brother (Röll n.p.). Without Sebastian's presence and influence, her identity thus becomes unstable. The shipwreck therefore presents “a turning point in which her previous life and identity are left behind” (n.p.) and “the sea suggests both destruction and new life” (Leggatt 223). Unlike the twins in The Comedy of Errors, the twins of Twelfth Night have taken part in each other's lives up until this point. Feelings of immediate grief and confusion may hence be among the reasons why Viola decides to disguise herself as a man (Moore 166). Although she initially intends to be an eneuch (Night, I.iii.56), she soon becomes Orsino's page Cesario, a companion he values and trusts quickly (I.iv.1-4).

Assuming her brother's gender may be a tool for Viola to deal with her trauma, much like the possible renaming of Egeon's protégés in The Comedy of Errors could have been motivated by Egeon's trauma of loss. However, Viola does not rename herself after her brother. Instead, she calls herself Cesario. There are several theories concerning this choice of name (Hunt 7), but what is important for this essay is that Viola does not adopt the name of her brother which was also the name of her deceased father (Night, V.i.230). Even though Viola publicly occupies Sebastian's masculine space, she becomes more than simply his doppelgänger. In this “free-floating situation” (Röll n.p.), she creates a new persona which is “a synthesis of Viola and Sebastian” (n.p.).

The “hybridity as both male and female” (Moore 171) provides a certain amount of freedom, but it also functions as a barrier (Leggatt 235). In fact, Viola in Twelfth Night is in a similarly isolated position as Egeon in The Comedy of Errors. Like Egeon, Viola has been separated from her last familial relation and has no relatives left who could help her. Unlike Egeon, however, Viola actively heightens the sense of alienation by concealing her actual name, gender and story of origin. As Cesario, she is favored by her employer, the Duke Orsino, and the lady Olivia, but they are unable to truly know her as long as she wears her disguise. Being Cesario prevents Viola from confessing her love to Orsino and it inspires an unrequited love for Cesario in Olivia, all of which causes a feeling of solitude among these three characters (223). It is thus Viola's unique status as Cesario which creates a sense of disunity and disassociation.

Having emerged as “a placeholder for an uncertain identity” (Moore 168), Viola's disguise soon causes severe struggles of identity. The confusion begins after Orsino orders Cesario to “woo [his] lady” (Night, I.v.41), which inspires Olivia's passion for Cesario. Realizing that she has played the male role convincingly, Viola calls herself “the man” (II.ii.24), but she also describes her disguise as “wickedness” (II.ii.26) and refers to herself as a “poor monster” (II.ii.33). These statements may point to the gender hybridity (Moore 171), but they also hint at the fact that the performance of gender and gendered practices “can become a transformative experience” (171). This raises the question whether Viola's subjective identity and her objective identity as Cesario begin to align themselves, thereby slowly erasing Viola's persona as it was before the shipwreck.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Identity Struggles in William Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" and "Twelfth Night"
Uppsala University  (English Department)
MA Course: Perspectives on Shakespeare
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ISBN (eBook)
Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, She's the Man, Comedy, William Shakespeare, Twins, Motif of the Double, Doppelgänger, Identity, Identity Struggles
Quote paper
M.A. Silvia Schilling (Author), 2019, Identity Struggles in William Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" and "Twelfth Night", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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