The Comedy of Errors
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
Another merchant needs the money Angelo owes him so that he can go on his business trip to Persia, so he asks for the necessary “guilders” (IV.i.4). In the first scene of the play, the currency was “marks,” and elsewhere we’ll hear of “ducats” and “sixpence.” These “errors” are either Shakespeare’s carelessness, or their effect is to generalize space and time (Garber 165). Angelo has to wait until 5:00 for Antipholus to pay up for the gold chain. Antipholus of Ephesus enters and tells his Dromio to go buy a rope so he can go after and whip his wife and her associates. Dromio goes off saying to himself, “I buy a thousand pound a year! I buy a rope!” (IV.i.20-21). Hank Whittemore has pointed out the implications here of Oxford’s £1000 annuity and “office” [“A Year in the Life: 1586.” Shakespeare Matters 2.4 (Summer 2003): 27-33]. Dromio may be implying that he is purchasing an annuity of a thousand poundings or beatings.
Naturally, this Antipholus, who had ordered the chain but did not receive it, refuses to pay Angelo who says, “This touches me in reputation” (IV.i.71) and has Antipholus arrested. Angelo is also arrested for reneging on his debt. Then the Syracuse Dromio shows up and tells Ephesian Antipholus that he has booked passage aboard a ship. This Antipholus just wanted a rope! He tells Dromio to get bail money from Adriana: “Give her this key, and tell her, in the desk / That’s cover’d o’er with Turkish tapestry / There is a purse of ducats; let her send it” (IV.i.103-105) — another glimpse of aristocratic domestic life.
Luciana reports Antipholus’ odd and amorous behavior to Adriana, who rails but is concerned for him and articulates her possessive strategy:
Ah, but I think him better than I say,
And yet would herein others’ eyes were worse:
Far from her nest the lapwing cries away;
My heart prays for him, though my tongue do curse.
Dromio enters and reports the arrest: Antipholus is in “Tartar limbo, worse than hell” (IV.ii.32) — a comic mixture of afterworlds (Asimov 177).
Note this exchange between Syracusan Dromio and Adriana concerning the item for which Antipholus was arrested: “A chain, a chain! Do you not hear it ring?” “What, the chain?” “No, the bell, ’tis time that I were gone” (IV.ii.51-53). Eva Turner Clark identifies this as alluding to Sir Christopher Hatton, the “affected pribble” who was probably “inordinately proud” (Ogburn and Ogburn 113) of a gold bell and chain given to him by Queen Elizabeth at a 1571 tournament at which Oxford excelled over all others and was awarded a tablet of diamonds (Clark 18; cf. Ogburn 583). In any case, after some quibbling about Time, Adriana gives Dromio the bail money requested.
Antipholus of Syracuse reviews the strange events of the day:
There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend,
And every one doth call me by my name:
Some tender money to me, some invite me;
Some other give me thanks for kindnesses;
Some offer me commodities to buy.
Even now a tailor call’d me in his shop,
And show’d me silks that he had bought for me,
And therewithal took measure of my body.
Sure these are but imaginary wiles,
And Lapland sorcerers inhabit here.
“This is the kind of thing the Earl of Oxford was accustomed to” (Ogburn and Ogburn 113), especially in the 1570s when he was a young “prince of power.” The “Lapland sorcerers” reference is to the “ill-defined area” in the arctic north, blurred with notions of Finnish culture (Asimov 177-178).
Dromio of Syracuse arrives with the bail money, and of course Antipholus knows nothing of this. A Courtesan enters, demanding a gold chain in exchange for the ring she gave him. Shakespeare pared down this character’s role considerably from his Plautus source (Garber 168). Antipholus thinks she must be a demon and exits. The Courtesan ruminates, “Now out of doubt Antipholus is mad, / Else would he never so demean himself” (IV.iii.81-82). She swapped a ring for the promised chain, but will tell his wife that “He rush’d into my house, and took perforce / My ring away. This course I fittest choose, / For forty ducats is too much to lose” (IV.iii.94-96).
Dromio of Ephesus has bought a rope and knows nothing about bail money when Antipholus of Ephesus asks about it, so Antipholus beats this Dromio some more. Adriana brings Doctor Pinch to exorcise Antipholus’ demonic possession: “Good Doctor Pinch, you are a conjurer, / Establish him in his true sense again” (IV.iv.47-48). [Garber thinks this character was inspired by Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale (171).] Dromio of Ephesus confirms Antipholus’ claim that they were both locked out of the house earlier. Everyone thinks everyone is crazy and the Doctor pronounces the two insane, ordering that they be locked in a dark room (IV.iv.94), as in Twelfth Night. The Ephesian Antipholus rails against Adriana:
Dissembling harlot, thou art false in all,
And art confederate with a damned pack
To make a loathsome abject scorn of me;
But with these nails I’ll pluck out these false eyes
That would behold in me this shameful sport.
Detected in this outburst is the kind of bitterness one sees in Oxford’s poems such as “Loss of Good Name” (Clark 19-20). Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus are bound and taken off to prison.
A moment later, Adriana and Luciana see Antipholus and Dromio again (this time the Syracusans, of course) and fear that they are now escaped lunatics. They run away. Antipholus of Syracuse is more determined than before to flee this crazy town tonight.
The characters in the play, in the face of the strange occurrences with which they are continually being confronted, keep declaring that they must be dreaming, that things are bewitched, that some sorcerer must be at work behind the scenes. In the aggregate these allusions amount almost to an apology to his audience by the author, an admission that a psychological or metaphysical explanation is demanded to reconcile with reality the unreal conventions of the stage. (Goddard, I 27)