Until I know this sure uncertainty, I’ll entertain the offered fallacy.

And next, a Shakespeare play I knew nothing about until now – in fact, I forgot all about The Comedy of Errors and was ready to leap straight into Love’s Labour’s Lost, until I pulled out my trusty Oxford Shakespeare where it was. The Comedy of Errors is a madcap slapstick comedy based on mistaken identities of two sets of twin brothers long lost to one another, the events unraveling over just one day. It has been one of the less popular/less commonly performed Shakespeare plays – not sure why, for it is hugely entertaining.

Syracuse and Ephesus are at war, and it is a punishable offense for any Syracusan to enter Ephesus. One Egeon, an old merchant, is caught there nonetheless. Before he is sent to be executed, he pleads mercy with the most extraordinary tale:

He once had a wife Emilia he loved dearly. They had twin sons they, for reasons unknown, called both Antipholus. While they were staying in an inn, another woman there gave birth to twin boys, and because she was very poor, Egeon bought these boys, both called Dromio, from their parents. Emilia wanted to return home, and so they started their journey; their ship was soon wrecked in a storm, and Emilia with one Antipholus and one Dromio was separated from Egeon and the other Antipholus and Dromio. Much later, as a young man, Antipholus left to search for his brother and was never heard of again. Egeon then went to search of them both, and that’s why he is now in Ephesus.

The Duke shows mercy – sort of – to Egeon. Rather than immediately sentence him to death as is the law, he gives him till next day to raise a bail instead; should he fail, he will be executed.

Unknown to Egeon, Antipholus S has arrived in Ephesus with Dromio S. He meets Dromio of Ephesus, mistaking him as his own servant, and this mistake sets off the chain of events that follows – the two masters, never in the same place at the same time, keep giving orders to each other’s servants, angering people (including Antipholus E’s wife Adriana), losing money, necklaces, ropes, diamond rings, wooing wrong women and getting wooed by them in turn, wounding up in prison and fleeing, until everyone is convinced that Antipholus E and Dromio E are bewitched and possessed. An exorcist is brought in, and Antipholus E and Dromio E captured. While they are safely locked away, the other two are seen on the street, and forced to seek sanctuary in the abbey. This whole scenario rests on the idea that the Ephesians know Antipholus E and Dromio E, but are not aware of their twins’ arrival in town.

The moment of Egeon’s execution comes, and as the Duke brings him along the streets, the women appeal to the Duke to release Antipholus S from the Abbey. Before that happens, Antipholus E frees himself and makes an appearance, recounting his version of the day’s events; Egeon recognises him as his son, but he doesn’t know him. The abbess however recognises Egeon as her long lost husband, and finally the misunderstanding is sorted – Antipholus S comes out and meets his brother. Antipholus E offers to pay their father’s bail, but the Duke pardons him on the face of this fantastical series of events, Antipholus E reconciles with his wife and Antipholus S becomes engaged to Luciana, and Egeon and Emilia are rejoined. This leaves the two Dromios, who decide that as they came to the world together, they will go forward “hand in hand, not one before the other”. It is the happiest of all endings for all involved.

It is a play with essentially one joke that keeps getting more and more elaborate; there is no deeper meaning, no profound lesson in this play, but the feel-good factor is high. The background is set well, and the story that follows – oddly enough – works. This play also has unusually straightforward ending for a Shakespeare comedy – there is no uneasiness, no reservation about it. The brothers accept one another, husbands and wives are reunited, even the bit pointless Luciana given a shot at putting her theories about how a wife should be like to test.

Unlike in most plays, Shakespeare sets the scene fairly specifically – the action is to take place on a street, along which there are three houses: Antipholus E’s house, a brothel, and a priory. The set up in itself is pretty madcap, and in the play there are many opportunities for fantastical physical comedy.

Comedy_Errors

Is it any good?

It’s fabulous. It may not be profound, but it is genuinely very, very funny. The text is good, there are some excellent speeches, and lots of fast, witty dialogue, and somehow the plot never gets overwhelmingly complicated.

Fun fact

Ephesus (which is in Turkey) and Syracuse (which is in Sicily) have never been at war with each other.

What say thou?

I love this perfectly nonsensical Act II discussion about whether it’s dinner time yet:

Antipholus S:
I’ll make you amends next, to give you nothing for
something. But say, sir, is it dinner-time?

Dromio S:
No, sir; I think the meat wants that I have.

Antipholus S:
In good time, sir; what’s that?

Dromio S:
Basting.

Antipholus S:
Well, sir, then ’twill be dry.

Dromio S:
If it be, sir, I pray you, eat none of it.

Antipholus S:
Your reason?

Dromio S:
Lest it make you choleric and purchase me another
dry basting.

Antipholus S:
Well, sir, learn to jest in good time: there’s a
time for all things.

Dromio S:
I durst have denied that, before you were so choleric.

Antipholus S:
By what rule, sir?

Dromio S:
Marry, sir, by a rule as plain as the plain bald
pate of father Time himself.

Antipholus S:
Let’s hear it.

Dromio S:
There’s no time for a man to recover his hair that
grows bald by nature.

Antipholus S:
May he not do it by fine and recovery?

Dromio S:
Yes, to pay a fine for a periwig and recover the
lost hair of another man.

Antipholus S:
Why is Time such a niggard of hair, being, as it is,
so plentiful an excrement?

Dromio S:
Because it is a blessing that he bestows on beasts;
and what he hath scanted men in hair he hath given them in wit.

Antipholus S:
Why, but there’s many a man hath more hair than wit.

Dromio S:
Not a man of those but he hath the wit to lose his hair.

Antipholus S:
Why, thou didst conclude hairy men plain dealers without wit.

Dromio S:
The plainer dealer, the sooner lost: yet he loseth
it in a kind of jollity.

Antipholus S:
For what reason?

Dromio S:
For two; and sound ones too.

Antipholus S::
Nay, not sound, I pray you.

Dromio S:
Sure ones, then.

Antipholus S:
Nay, not sure, in a thing falsing.

Dromio S:
Certain ones then.

Antipholus S:
Name them.

Dromio S:
The one, to save the money that he spends in
trimming; the other, that at dinner they should not
drop in his porridge.

Antipholus S:
You would all this time have proved there is no
time for all things.

Dromio S:
Marry, and did, sir; namely, no time to recover hair
lost by nature.

Antipholus S:
But your reason was not substantial, why there is no
time to recover.

Dromio S:
Thus I mend it: Time himself is bald and therefore
to the world’s end will have bald followers.

Antipholus S:
I knew ‘twould be a bald conclusion:
But, soft! who wafts us yonder?

Best character?

Egeon and the Abbess together.

DVD

The Globe on Screen version from 2014 with Simon Harrison and Matthew Needham as the two Antipholuses and Brodie Ross and Matt Doherty as the two Dromios. I loved it, but the critics were at the time divided, some enjoying its slapstick antics, others finding them merely tedious (I personally think that if you find this too slapsticky, you may have misunderstood the play in the first place).

 

 

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