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Theatre / The Comedy of Errors

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"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 off 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.


Egeon, 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, Egeon 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. Egeon 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 Karamozov 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.
    • 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 FakeShemps 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.
  • 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 fiancee.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Oh, yes.
    A. of Syracuse: (discussing where countries are on the aforementioned Nell) Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?
    D. of Syracuse: Oh, sir, I did not look so low.
    • The Flying Karamzov Brothers version of this follows this line with everyone in the cast cheering "Author! Author!" And Shakespeare coming out and accepting a bouquet of flowers. Watch here
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Noodle Incident: Nell again, who is never seen, only described briefly. Shakespeare knew he couldn't top what the viewer was probably thinking. (The Karamozov 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).
  • Pair the Spares: Adriana's sister Luciana, who declares at the beginning that she is unmarried, winds up with Antipholus of Syracuse.
  • 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.
  • Separated at Birth: The two sets of twins are parted during a storm at sea.
  • She Who Must Not Be Seen: Nell from the kitchen again. (Not all productions adhere to this; in the Karamozov 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.
  • Taking the Veil: Emilia did this, believing her husband dead. No, the ancient Greeks did not have convents. Ask Shakespeare if he cared.
  • Theme Twin Naming: Twice.
  • Title Drop:
    This purse of ducats I receiv'd from you,
    And Dromio my man did bring them me:
    I see we still did meet each other's man,
    And I was ta'en for him, and he for me,
    And thereupon these errors are arose.
  • 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. The twins themselves have no idea what's going on or what anyone is talking about.

Alternative Title(s): Comedy Of Errors


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