A Comedy of Errors

A case of mistaken identity

The first anonymously recorded performance of A Comedy of Errors was at Gray’s Inn on the 28th December 1594 so the play must have been written earlier but never registered at the Stationer’s Office. From the irregularities naming the dramatis personae it must have been copied from William Shakespeare’s manuscript who must have worked from the Latin original and not William Warner’s English translation (1595) as often quoted by several biographers. It was probably written around the same time as the poem Venus & Adonis (1590) and composited by Ralph Crane. The Oxfordian academic, Charlton Ogburn (The Mysterious William Shakespeare) suggests that there was an earlier play entitled “The Historie of Error” which was written by the Earl of Oxford and performed at court in 1577. On closer examination its’ literary or dramatic sources, its context in the 1623 canon and the stage performance are shrouded in mystery and chronological confusion. Although the Roman comic dramatist Maccius Plautus cites Epidamnum as the location Shakespeare decided to set the play in Ephesus, an early Christian colony and inspired by his version called “Menæchmi” (250-184 BC – The Twins) with additional material from Amphitruo. An English translation from the Latin of this play by William Warner was available in 1595 which is perhaps too late as a source for Shakespeare’s own play. In any case it is generally presumed that Shakespeare had a moderate grasp of Latin and Greek. A Latin edition of Plautus was made available by Dionysus Lambinus in 1576 so this might have been the original source for Shakespeare but not for George Gascoigne’s “Supposes” (published 1566; enacted 1567) from which evolved an idea for Taming of the Shrew. As I have previously pointed out George Gascoigne and John Lyly worked hand in glove with Edward de Vere so that it is not mere coincidence that Lyly’s “Mother Bombie” (1594) contains certain “Terentian” similarities, eg; the name of a servant named Dromio. A Comedy of Errors echoes some of George Gascoigne’s ideas in “Supposes” which has already been discussed in Part I of my book Shakespeare’s Qaballah. According to the academic J.M. Robertson this play is an evolution of a previous play entitled “The Historie of Error” enacted 1577 with traces of the authors Kyd, Marlowe or Greene. However, Shakespeare’s version is distinguished by the skilful and ingenious use of blank verse, quatrains, couplets, doggerel, and prose. Therefore an emerging Shakespeare was attempting to outshine and dazzle his contemporaries and make his mark as a dramatist and poet among an educated or enlightened audience.
Shakespeare also emulated the unusual plot or narrative adding another set of twins, master and servant from Amphitruo which made the text and performance even more complex and confusing for the actors and audience. For example, the names of the characters change from Merchant to Egeon, then Merchant of Syracuse or Father and the titles of Antipholus of Syracuse (Erotes) that of Antipholus of Ephesus as Antipholus (Surreptus) while the Dromio twins are differentiated elsewhere as E. Dromio and A. Dromio. This was the fifth play of the 1623 Folio, the first four prepared from the author’s original manuscripts with stage directions by Ralph Crane who was known to be a very methodical scribe. However, the text of Comedy of Errors contains several confusing abbreviations and errors that may be down to the work of two different compositors working from an original author’s manuscript. The name Erotes was employed by Shakespeare from the original Erraticus (meaning mad or eccentric), while the term Surreptus remained meaning “snatched or secreted away”. The general meaning of these names however is citizen and traveller (civis et advena).

The Vernal Equinox

The play opens with a sentence of death pronounced on the old merchant Aegeon by the Duke of Ephesus, Solinus as a result of some deep enmity between a rival Syracusan family. It seems that when in search of his lost twins and during a violent storm the merchant of Syracuse was forced to put ashore in Ephesus. Where, as a result Aegeon is required to meet a ransom within 24 hours when he confesses to Solinus the prelude to his own tragedy in a personal tale of the loss of his wife and one of his identical twins, again the result of a storm at sea. To complicate matters he has also previously adopted two other identical twins from a poor family which became servants to the family. Eighteen years have elapsed and we witness Aegeon’s surviving twin Antipholus, together with the servant twin Dromio seeking to find their lost twins. In the second scene we witness the arrival of Aegeon’s lost son and the servant twin who lodge in an inn nearby. Antipholus of Syracuse sends Dromio away on an errand of payment for lodgings at the Centaur Inn and he apparently reappears albeit in the guise of the other Dromio, servant to Antipholus of Ephesus who is the lost twin of Aegeon. When asked about the payment for his quarters Dromio confesses his ignorance and is duly beaten. Alluding to this strange mix up Antipholus remembers being told that Ephesus is a place of witchcraft and sorcery. The second act introduces Adrianna, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus and her young unmarried sister Luciana. They are joined by their puzzled servant Dromio of Ephesus who relates his strange encounter with his master and his unjustified beating. In this Antipholus declares he has no lodgings, no wife and no mistress and Adrianna suspects some infidelity on her husband’s part. When Antipholus of Syracuse is joined by his true servant another natural misunderstanding develops when he is informed that his mistress Adrianna awaits his presence at dinner. After much further confusion, between Antipholus and his servant which is resolved when Adrianna enters and forgives her servant’s indiscretion. Antipholus, although still puzzled agrees to dine with Adrianna and her sister in the hope that he might penetrate into the mystery of this affair. In act three we discover that Adrianna’s real husband is arranging the manufacture of a gold necklace for his beloved wife and is delayed for that dinner. When he arrives at the tavern he is denied entrance firstly by the servant Dromio, and subsequently by Adrianna. He then decides to go to a courtesan’s house and instructs the jeweller, Angelo to forward the necklace there instead where it will become a present to a more welcoming mistress. Meanwhile, Antipholus of Syracuse becomes somewhat enamoured of the beautiful Luciana and when he makes his feelings known she is naturally embarrassed. There follows another case of mistaken identity when Dromio of Syracuse is mistakenly identified by a kitchen wench for Dromio of Ephesus. Feeling that matters are getting out of hand Antipholus of Syracuse then decides to leave, only to be confronted by the jeweller Angelo with the necklace who tells him he will call later for payment. Meanwhile, Antipholus of Ephesus rebukes the jeweller for demanding a payment for a necklace never delivered, and instructs his servant to buy a “rope’s end” with which to beat his inhospitable wife Adrianna. The upshot is that Antipholus of Ephesus is arrested for non-payment of the jeweller’s work, and when Adrianna discovers that he has made advances upon her sister totally denounces him as a villain. Dromio of Syracuse then obtains the money, 500 ducats which, although intended as a bail for Antipholus of Ephesus, he unwittingly believes is the money delivered as a ransom for Aegeon. The other servant Dromio then delivers the ropes end to the imprisoned Antipholus, who rightly beats him for his neglect to bring the bail money. Believing her husband is possessed of evil spirits Adrianna employs an physician/exorcist to attend to her husband who together with his servant is bound and carried off. The final scene of the 4th act witnesses Antipholus of Syracuse, together with the servant Dromio with drawn swords prepared to fight their way out of the bewitched capital and find a ship home. Adrianna naturally assumes that her husband has managed to escape. In the final act comprising one long scene the resulting confusions of this web of coincidences and misunderstandings are finally unravelled. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant seek asylum in a nearby abbey, where although Adrianna requests their release from the Abbess is summarily denied. While Aegeon is being carted off for his execution by the Duke Solinus, Adrianna calls upon him for justice. Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant have escaped the exorcism and appear in the milieu also demanding justice from the Duke. All that remains is a full account of the circumstances to fall on the Duke’s ears and the matter is finally cleared up when the equally bewildered Aegeon attempts to talk to Antipholus of Ephesus. Antipholus of Syracuse regenerates his wooing of the beautiful Luciana while the servant and his long-lost twin brother are finally reunited.

The links to my publications on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my own anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


Website: www.qudosacademy.org

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