The Comedy of Errors
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
Angelo the goldsmith is complaining about his lot when the Syracuse pair enter, Antipholus with the gold chain. Sword-fight preparation is interrupted by Adriana, whom the Syracusans flee, taking refuge in the local priory. Adriana wants her insane husband bound and brought home, but the Abbess (played by Wendy Hiller in the BBC production) is more sensitive about the situation:
Hath he not lost much wealth by wrack of sea?
Buried some dear friend? Hath not else his eye
Stray’d his affection in unlawful love–
A sin prevailing much in youthful men,
Who give their eyes the liberty of gazing?
Which of these sorrows is he subject to?
These were more current preoccupations of Oxford, and the “dear friend” may have been the Duke of Norfolk, executed in 1572 (Ogburn and Ogburn 111).
The Abbess nevertheless says that Adriana should have “reprehended him” more forcefully (V.i.57). Adriana responds,
It was the copy of our conference:
In bed he slept not for my urging it;
At board he fed not for my urging it;
Alone, it was the subject of my theme;
In company I often glanced it;
Still did I tell him it was vild and bad.
“Adriana’s jealousy by her own admission goes back a long way” (Smidt 32).But the Abbess does a switcheroo and claims that this was the cause of her husband’s madness. Although perhaps the play serves here as a “corrective, moral comedy” (Wells 55), the Abbess totally set her up!
The venom clamors of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth,
It seems his sleeps were hind’red by thy railing,
And thereof comes it that his head is light.
Thou say’st his meat was sauc’d with thy upbraidings:
Unquiet meals make ill digestions,
Thereof the raging fire of fever bred,
And what’s a fever but a fit of madness?
. . .
The consequence is then, thy jealous fits
Hath scar’d thy husband from the use of wits.
Adriana remains adamant: “I will not hence, and leave my husband here; / And ill it doth beseem your holiness / To separate the husband and the wife” (V.i.109-111). But the Abbess refuses to surrender Antipholus.
As far as the characterization is concerned, Adriana is no doubt the most three-dimensional person in the comedy…. She has a lively imagination … and is given to wild exaggeration…. But one may feel that she has more justification for her jealousy than she is allowed in the end. (Smidt 33)
The Duke of Ephesus enters to attend the execution of Egeon nearby. Adriana makes her case to him, punning unintentionally on “bondman” and “bound” (V.i.141, 145; cf. 289, 291). Here “the metaphoric meets the literal”; are bonds and bounds good or bad (Garber 169)? The Duke acknowledges, “I to thee engag’d a prince’s word, / When thou didst make him master of thy bed, / To do him all the grace and good I could” (V.i.162-164). Shakespeare here “shows familiarity with the ins and outs of royal wardship … [including having a] wife selected for him” (Farina 41).
News arrives that across town, Antipholus and Dromio (of Ephesus) have escaped, and have revenged themselves against Doctor Pinch,
Whose beard they have sing’d off with brand of fire,
And ever as it blaz’d, they threw on him
Great pails of puddled mire to quench the hair;
My master preaches patience to him, and the while
His man with scissors nicks him like a fool….
Soon this Ephesian Antipholus enters with his Dromio. He reports all that has happened to him to the Duke with the crowd listening. No Judge Judy, the Duke is perplexed. Antipholus of Ephesus rails especially about the quack who declared him possessed:
They brought one Pinch, a hungry lean-faced villain,
A mere anatomy, a mountebank,
A threadbare juggler and a fortune-teller,
A needy, hollow-eye’d sharp-looking wretch,
A living dead man. This pernicious slave,
Forsooth, took on him as a conjurer….
In a precursor to the climactic trial scene in the Barbra Streisand movie What’s Up, Doc?, all hell breaks loose with everyone complaining to the Duke. The courtesan interjects, for example, “He … from my finger snatch’d that ring” (V.i.277).
Egeon sees his son and has hope of deliverance from the sentence, but Antipholus of Ephesus of course doesn’t recognize him, so the Duke thinks Egeon is crazy or senile. Egeon refers twice to the “seven years” since last seeing each other (V.i.310, 321), making the Antipholus brothers twenty-five years old, the age Oxford was when traveling.
Finally, the Abbess enters with the Syracusans for the big recognition scene. Seeing two Antipholuses, the Duke wonders,
One of these men is genius to the other:
And so of these, which is the natural man,
And which the spirit? Who deciphers them?
The question could refer to the audience’s key role in experiencing the play (Garber 165). It now comes to light that the Abbess is Aemilia, Egeon’s long-lost wife, who was separated in Corinth from the Antipholus and Dromio she was with all those years ago: after being rescued by some men of Epidamium, “by and by rude fisherman of Corinth / By force took Dromio and my son from them, / And me they left” (V.i.352-354). This clashes with what Egeon had originally said about their Corinthian rescue (Smidt 29).
Resolutions occur rapidly as all recognize the errors and the family is touchingly reunited. So, The Comedy of Errors is “not merely a play of mistaken identity; it is also a story of separation, seeking, and reunion such as Shakespeare was to use many times in his career” (Wells 54).
The Duke will now join them all in the abbey to hear them recount their many adventures (V.i.394f) and “errors” (V.i.389; cf. 398). The Abbess uses the term “nativity” twice (V.i.405, 407). And lastly, “the coldness or dispassionateness of the Antipholuses is striking in contrast to the charming reunion of the Dromios” (Bloom 27), who alone share the final moments of the play. Says the Ephesian to the Syracusan, “Methinks you are my glass” (V.i.418; the word in French is “Verre”).
We came into the world like brother and brother;
And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.
The play ends in this happy cooperative effort.
These two long-suffering clowns have had to sustain numerous blows from the Antipholuses throughout the play, and the audience is heartened to see them go out in such high good humor. (Bloom 27)
And we get an “ultimate harmony” conveyed also in the final rhyming couplet (Garber 173).
“The depth of this play lies in its surface” (Garber 162). “It demonstrates the kind of intellectual mastery required for the composition of a fugue” (Wells 54). Goddard decides that the play “is a product of Shakespeare’s intellect rather than of his imagination,” his ingenuity rather than his genius (Goddard, I 26). The Comedy of Errors “evokes no sense of the inexhaustibility that characterizes Shakespeare’s masterpieces” (Goddard, I 25). And most critics are dismissive or harsh in judgment on the thing. But, a theme does emerge here, albeit in embryonic form — one explored later and repeatedly by Shakespeare: “that our sense of identity does not only come from within but depends, too, upon a high degree of constancy in the reactions of those around us” (Wells 56). And as I say above, a breezy speedy production with a Dromio you want to see smacked around a bit (like Roger Daltrey) works very nicely.
In Oxfordian terms, the example of the twinning, or the “splintered self” (Anderson 125), is explored a bit here. Whether or not the main “error” is marriage into a powerful family — the Cecils — with Autopholus of Ephesus “married to ‘a fond fool’ of an impatient wife, Adriana” (Anderson 124), most of the clearest Oxfordian moments do seem connected to the time in the 1570s surrounding de Vere’s own sea voyage at age 25 (Anderson 125), a key time in his life when it would have been most logical for him to have felt like two separate men.