Follow TV Tropes


Theatre / The Comedy of Errors

Go To

As the play is Older Than Steam and most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.

"We came into the world like brother and brother;
And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another."
Dromio of Ephesus, V.i

A comedy (of errors) by William Shakespeare, based on an even older play by Plautus. It chronicles the misadventures of two sets of long-lost identical twins, with the same name, as they get mistaken for one another. It's also one of the only Shakespearean plays that follow the Classical Unities— unity of time, unity of place, and unity of story. note  It's also his shortest play.

Aegon, a merchant from Syracuse, has just been arrested by the Duke of Ephesus and is set to be executed unless he pays the Duke a sizable fine. Hoping for mercy, Aegon tells the Duke about his life before his arrest: He was married to a woman named Emilia, and together had twin boys. The new parents acquired a set of poor twins to serve as valets for when their children became adults (this was Shakespeare's own idea, not found in Plautus' Menaechmi), but soon after the family was separated by a shipwreck. Aegon survived, with his Antipholus and the valet Dromio. Years later, Antipholus and Dromio left Syracuse to find their long-lost brothers, and when they didn't return, Aegon set off to find them himself, only to get arrested in Ephesus. The Duke is touched by the story, and grants Aegon a one-day extension on the fine (and execution).

Meanwhile, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse (this'll become important later) finally arrive in Ephesus. Antipholus sends his servant off to pay for a hotel, and then things get confusing. See, Antipholus and Dromio's brothers are alive and well and living in Ephesus, and, in fact, they have the same names as their brothers. Emilia, apparently, wanted to name them after their siblings. The obvious occurs: Dromio of Ephesus wanders on stage, and when Antipholus of Syracuse asks if he's secured the inn, he has no idea what he's talking about. Believing Dromio of Ephesus is teasing him, Antipholus of Syracuse beats him. The confusion continues with Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse, and the Ephesians' various lovers. Repeat for two-to-three hours, adding bawdy jokes, accusations of infidelity, and money-transfers when appropriate. Everything ends happily, with the brothers, parents, and lovers all reunited.

Incidentally, a "comedy of errors", lower-case letters, is a humorous play that involves mistaken identity and has a happy ending. This delivers in spades.

While not as popular as Shakespeare's A-list, Comedy of Errors is still performed today. It was adapted into a Rodgers and Hart musical, The Boys from Syracuse, and into a 1988 movie, Big Business, starring Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler (as the gender-flipped pairs of twins). There is also a famous but (until YouTube) hard-to-find 1987 production by the juggling troupe The Flying Karamazov Brothers, which begins with the famous line... "In Syracuse, you dress in a tie. In Ephesus, you JUGGLE OR DIE!"

This play contains examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer:
    • Nell the kitchen wench, an unseen character, is enamoured of Dromio of Syracuse; he does not return the affection. In what might be an Older Than Steam subversion, though, Dromio of Ephesus does.
    • Antipholus of Syracuse towards Luciana—but only because she thinks he's her brother-in-law and she's not about to betray her sister. Once she learns he's a different Antipholus, she's more than happy to love him back.
  • Always Identical Twins: The cause of all the trouble, although ironically it's an Informed Attribute in most productions. There are a few way productions have managed to portray this:
    • Some productions get around this by simply having the twins played by the same actor. Done right, this can create a whole new level of comedy, though it requires the use of Fake Shemps for the twins in the resolution (for example, the 2013 New York Public Theater version).
    • It may seem impossible, but a series of quick changes and a set made of doors can go a long way, making the final scene even more ridiculous and hilarious. See Sean Graney's production at The Court Theatre (2010)
    • At least one production used, essentially, character lookalike muppets for the final scene, along with prerecorded lines. It made the ending just that much more absurdly hilarious.
  • As You Know: Luciana reminds Adriana that she herself is unmarried when they first appear.
  • Blunt "No": Antipholus of Ephesus answers Lucianus' request to be with "his" wife with a rare one-word Shakespeare line: no. It also acts as a delayed rhyme to Lucianus' last full sentence, emphasizing it even further.
  • Broken Record: Dromio of Ephesus repeats everything he said to his master (although unbeknownst to him it was his master's twin brother) back to Adriana and tells her after each quote that the master said "My gold." He does this four times in a row, with three lines in the same structure and a fourth broken up by a long self-quote by Dromio.
  • Butt-Monkey: Both Dromios. Each one is beaten whenever they run into the wrong Antipholus. Or when one Antipholus demands an update on a task he sent the other Dromio to do. Or when Adriana and her sister send him to fetch Antipholus and he gets the wrong one... or when Dromio of S meets Dromio of E's fiancĂ©e.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Anglican plays are like modern horror movies in that when you get an exorcist, you have to get a Catholic speaking Latin. The Anglican Church had abolished Latin Rites in favor for English ones, so the only clergy is represented by a Roman Catholic in this play. This isn't necessarily flattering, though, since other characters call him a sorcerer, a fortune-teller, and a fraud.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The Antipholuses and Dromios are in the same city, run into the same people, and even enter the same buildings... just never, ever at the same time. Also, the Abbess who runs the insane asylum is the twins' mother.
  • Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon: After escaping the asylum, A. of Ephesus sends a messenger to tell Adriana he plans to scorch her face and disfigure her for her misdeeds.
  • Dead Guy Junior: The reason we have two Antipholuses and two Dromios. They're not exactly common names! (It's hard to tell, though, since most Shakespeare play characters are Aerith and Bob to modern ears at best, and would be more so if people didn't to this day regularly name their children after characters in Shakespeare.)
  • Double In-Law Marriage: At the end, Antipholus of Syracuse gets together with Luciana, Antipholus of Ephesus' sister-in-law.
  • Eagleland: One of the earliest type 1 versions comes when Dromio compares the bejeweled nose of Nell to the great riches of America.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The 'comedy of errors' was a common, recognizable stock plot at the time of writing. It'd be a bit like baldly titling something Coming of Age Story today.
  • Female Misogynist: Luciana thinks women are meant to be obedient to men and insults her sister for complaining about her flaky husband. The sister is having none of it, calling her a hypocrite for being unmarried, a cuckold for advocating obeying an unfaithful husband, and so servile that no man would marry her anyway.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Adriana is so jealous of her husband's hypothetical mistress that she rationalizes his twin brother's total ignorance of her as an attempt to cover up his affair. Luciana calls her out on this.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Naturally, given the author. Examples include D. of Ephesus saying that he will have a hol(e)y head after being smacked around by Adriana and her sister and D. of Syracuse saying that he found Ireland on Nell's buttocks, "by the bogs".
  • Identical Stranger: With the justification that while they are strangers to each other, the two Antipholuses and Dromios are actually twins with the same name. No one manages to tell the two apart in the play (including the wife of an Antipholus) except Aegon.
  • Intimidating Revenue Service: Exaggerated Trope. Dromio says that the time went from 2 PM to 1 PM after he talked to a tax collector because even time itself is afraid of having its debts collected.
  • Love at First Sight: A. of Syracuse isn't at all interested in his "wife" Adriana when she calls him to bed after dinner. He's instantly smitten with Luciana instead.
  • The Masochism Tango: Antipholus of Ephesus and his wife. He calls her a shrew and she's annoyed by his flippant ways, to say nothing of his deciding to beat her with a rope. Part of this is from the mistaken identities, but from Antipholus' remarks to his friends when introduced and Adriana's complaints to her sister, they're already prone to arguing.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Adriana rationalizes all the absurd behavior of "her husband" by assuming he doesn't love her anymore and is covering up an affair. All of the absurdity she notices is a result of the Twin Switch, but unbeknownst to her and the audience, her husband is seeing a courtesan at the same time!
  • Mistaken for Insane: By the end of Act IV, Adriana is so astonished by Antipholus's behavior that she thinks a demon is driving him mad and hires an exorcist to cure him.
  • Noodle Incident: Dromio is apparently jumped on by Nell and harassed in a scene we never see or get a lot of context for. (The Karamazov Brothers do show her chasing Dromio around the set frequently—she's doublecast with the Duke.)
  • One-Steve Limit: Avoided, much to the chagrin of the characters (and the audience trying to figure out who's who).
  • Opening Monologue: Aegon gives most of the show's exposition about the backstory of the twins in a single very long monologue in the play's first scene.
  • Pair the Spares: Adriana's sister Luciana, who declares at the beginning that she is unmarried, winds up with Antipholus of Syracuse.
  • Predatory Prostitute: Antipholus and Dromio make a big deal that the Courtesan may as well be the Devil and that it is self-evident by her profession that she's going to Hell.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Duke. He sympathizes with Aegon's plight and actually gives him an opportunity to find help before the Duke is forced to carry out judgment. He shows up at the end to straighten out the confusion, and when everything is resolved with Aegon's sons happily offering to pay the fine he refuses to take it.
  • Rhyming with Itself: Luciana and Antipholus of Syracuse have a rhyming back-and-forth where each seems to rhyme "sister" with "sister." The thing is, these lines are so short ("Thy sister's sister" and "Thy sister") that they can be said quickly enough to keep the rhythm before Antipholus drops the real rhyme ("Why you call me love? call my sister so? / No.")
  • Seeking Sanctuary: The foreign Antipholus and Dromio hide from their twins' angry friends and family inside an abbey, whose abbess guards them and prevents anyone from entering in to take them away.
  • Separated at Birth: The two sets of twins are split in twain during a storm at sea. One twin from each set is saved by fishermen from Ephesus along with Emilia, while another is left to return to Syracuse with Aegon. Everyone from Syracuse is aware of this situation, but since the fishermen separated Emilia and the kids with her, the characters from Ephesus have no idea about their respective twins.
  • Shared Identity: The basic premise is that a set of master and servant land in a strange city—where each has an identical twin with the same name, also master and servant. The titular errors are the result of confusing the twins from these pairs.
  • Significant Name Overlap: the two Dromios and the two Antipholuses.
  • She Who Must Not Be Seen: Nell from the kitchen never appears, but is described in detail as bizarrely and impossibly hideous by Dromio. (Not all productions adhere to this; in the Karamazov version she was given some lines of her own.)
  • Shout-Out: The scene with Nell, the spherical kitchen maid, on whose body the brothers point out countries, is similar to a scene in Lysistrata, where a peace treaty is drawn on a woman's naked body.
  • Snub by Omission: Dromio describes at length the hideous features of Nell that remind him of awful countries, but when asked if any part of her reminded him of the Netherlands, he doesn't give them the time of day because of how gross their corresponding part must be.
  • Taking the Veil: Emilia did this, believing her husband dead. No, the ancient Greeks did not have convents. Ask Shakespeare if he cared.
  • Toilet Humor: The Ephesian Antipholus starts slinging insults with the Dromio keeping him out of his house and descends into threatening to fart through his face.
  • Too Dumb to Live: In at least one production, for the benefit of the audience keeping track, the Syracusans wear green and the Ephesians wear blue. No one in the cast notices.
  • Twin Switch: Frequently, since the whole premise is that more and more people get upset at Antipholus and Dromio for things their identical twin did. The twins themselves have no idea what's going on or what anyone is talking about.

Alternative Title(s): Comedy Of Errors