The Comedy of Errors An Ohio Shakespeare Festival Production Guide

"What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?"
"Until I know this sure uncertainty, I'll entertain the offered fallacy."

Where and when are we?

Historical context.

We do not know exactly when this play was written or first performed. Actually, most of our knowledge of Shakespeare comes from our best educated guesses. But we do know that a production was mentioned in Palladis Tamia by Meres in 1598, which means it had to have been first performed before that date. Shakespeare seems to have based Comedy of Errors on the Roman play Menaechmi by Plautus, which was translated into English verse by William Warner and published in 1595. We can therefore assume that Shakespeare's play was written somewhere between 1595 and 1598.

Menaechmi.

Shakespeare very likely based Comedy of Errors on this play by Roman writer Plautus (c. 254-184 B.C.E.). Menaechmi is one of around 130 plays written by Plautus (and we thought Shakespeare was prolific!), which, of course, concerns twins. In Plautus' play, there is only one set of twins: Menaechmus of Syracuse and Menaechmus of Epidamnum. (See more about the connections between Comedy and Menaechmi on the next page.)

Syracuse & Ephesus.

Shakespeare's conceit that no travel is admitted between the towns of Syracuse and Ephesus seems to be mostly his creation--there's no real historical evidence of that embargo. (Take note: while he kept the reference to Syracuse, Shakespeare changed Epidamnum to Ephesus probably because his audiences would have been more aware of the existence of Ephesus. He knew his audiences and catered to them.) But even the city-states Plautus writes of (Epidamnum and Syracuse), though not necessarily always friendly, were not at war. There is no evidence that visitors from the other city would be killed on site.

Painting credit: Robinson and Crane as the two Dromios

Shakespeare's Version

The Freelancer.

Shakespeare wrote Comedy of Errors in 1595 (again, probably--as with most facts about Shakespeare, this date is an educated guess). At that point, he was still working as a freelance playwright. Soon after, Will would become the resident playwright for the Lord Chamberlain's Men. In fact, Comedy was probably one of his last freelance texts, because not long after, he was writing Love's Labour's Lost for the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

Twins times two, but not much new.

Definitely, definitely Shakespeare lifted a good chunk of his plot from Plautus's The Menaechmi. Translated title: The Brothers Menaechmus. Here are just a few of the similarities between the two texts:

  • Twins separated as children.
  • When they are grown, Menaechmus of Syracuse (yup--same Syracuse) sets out in search of his brother. He arrives in Epidamnum (wait--did you say Ephesus?), unaware that his twin brother is there also.
  • Menaechmus E has a "shrewish" wife and unhappy marriage.
  • There is a prostitute next door that Menaechmus E is involved with, and he gives her his wife's mantel in retaliation for being locked out of his house. (Sorry, mantel? Did you mean chain?)
  • Eventually, the confusion between the two Menaechmi causes the town to think him mad.

We could go on and on. Yes--it's basically the same story. But to be fair, Shakespeare did a better job telling it. And borrowing plots from other playwrights was really not that unusual in Shakespeare's day. Copyright laws were not a thing like they are today.

Plautus' original play makes use of many stock Roman characters, such as the mischievous courtesan, the comic servant, the domineering wife, and the quack doctor. One can easily see that these stock characters made it into Will's play (the courtesan, Dromio, Adriana, and Doctor Pinch, respectively). However, Shakespeare did make some considerable alterations to the original story. He introduced a sister to the wife (Luciana) and significantly lessened the role of the courtesan. The most important plot alteration he made was to add the second set of twins (the Dromios). Because if one set of twins is funny, two sets must be doubly funny. Again, to be fair, he was right.

Another possible source that Will pulled from: Amphitruo, which may have inspired Act 3, Scene 1 (that's the one where Antipholus E beats on the door and no one will let him in to dinner).

An improbable fiction.

The conventions of comedy allow an audience to accept that totally identical twin brothers could be constantly mistaken for each other by all the other people in the town. Oh, they just happen to be wearing the exact same clothes even though they haven't seen each other in decades? Sure, why not? They have the exact same names as one another? Makes sense to me! It's funny and this is a comedy, so the story checks out.

In Comedy of Errors, things get twice as silly with two sets of twins. This stretches credulity to the breaking point, thus giving us all the elements of farce. Farce is distinguished from comedy through its highly exaggerated and absurd circumstances, and it is also characterized by lots of physical comedy and broad characterization. Will's play does not seek to entertain by way of relatable circumstances or plausible plot devices. On the contrary, it stretches believably to the breaking point and asks the audience to simply enjoy the ride and bask in the dramatic irony of the extreme, improbable situations. By adding an additional set of comedic twins, Shakespeare presents us with the finest example of farce in his canon.

Second (or third) time's the charm.

Because Shakespeare was a human like the rest of us, his work got better and better over time and with experience. True, his earlier works have a little less plot/character sophistication than his later texts, but the man had to start somewhere. And starting with something like Comedy isn't anything to sneer at. It is interesting to note that this play came before other--potentially better--ones because we can see Will start to formulate ideas that worked even better when he tackled them the second time around. The excellently developed use of mistaken twins in Twelfth Night is a direct evolution from Comedy. A few other obvious Shakespeare do-overs throughout his career:

  • The play-within-a-play at the end of Love's Labours Lost versus the play-within-a-play at the end of Midsummer.
  • The cross-dressing Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona versus the cross-dressing Viola in Twelfth Night, and even later, Rosalind in As You Like It.
  • Kate in Taming of the Shrew versus Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. (Full disclosure: this one is debatable)
Rosalind dressed as Ganymede in As You Like It. Painting by Walter Howell Deverell

Discussion Starters

Use these in classroom seminars, as essay prompts, or simply as inspiration for your critical mind.

  1. Discuss the relationships between husband and wife as described and portrayed in this play. Is there a sort of twin-ship that occurs in marriage?
  2. The relationships between the Dromios and the Antipholi are twofold. There is a master-servant aspect to their relationships and a childhood friend aspect as well. Identify moments where each aspect of the relationship is clearly implied. Do we see more of one aspect in the twins from Syracuse versus the twins from Ephesus?
  3. In Ohio Shakespeare Festival's performance, the twins from each town are played by a single actor (i.e. one actor plays both Antipholi, one actor plays both Dromios). Discuss the benefits and the challenges of this casting choice. If you were directing the show, how would you handle the twins' casting?
  4. Discuss the Abbess's speech to Adriana that begins "And therefore came it that the man was mad." In what ways is the Abbess making a fair point? In what ways is she excusing Antipholus's abusive behavior toward Adriana?
  5. Is Antipholus E at all a sympathetic character? Why or why not? Discuss also the different potential audience reactions to this character in 1594 and 2017.
  6. Often times, an author will put his or her own voice more prominently into certain characters. What character or characters do you think share a voice with Shakespeare and why?
  7. You've already learned that much of Shakespeare's script is lifted from a Plautus play. Discuss whether or not that was an appropriate move on Shakespeare's part. Discuss at first from a 1590s perspective and then from a 2017 perspective. Why do we feel differently now?

Painting by C.G. Playter

"This servitude makes you to keep unwed."

marriage issues

It's hard to do Comedy of Errors and not have a conversation about the messed-up marriage between Adriana and Antipholous of Ephesus. In fact, those two are just one in a slew of unhappy long-term relationships in Shakespeare's cannon. Have you ever noticed that Shakespeare's lovers who actually love each other are always in a pre-marriage state? (A few are very newly wed, to be fair.) But the married couples are consistently dysfunctional. (E.g. The Macbeths, Hermione & Leontes, Hotspur & Lady Percy, The Queen & Cymbeline...you get the idea.)

This new love > old love is demonstrated in Comedy with Luciana's and Adriana's respective Antipholi.

What about Amelia and Aegeon, you ask? They are a long-time married couple and they seem pretty happy! True--but they also have been separated for decades. Seems like Shakespeare feels the only way to keep love fresh is to keep it at a distance. It's not hard to make the connection between this and the fact that Shakespeare's own wife lived far away from London in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Sweet Luciana.

Arguably, Luciana's speech about the relationship between men and women is one of the most problematic moments of the play. How in the modern age do we sit and listen to this?

Luciana: A man is master of his liberty. Time is their master and when they see time, they'll go or come. If so, be patient, sister.

Adriana: Why should their liberty than ours be more?

Luciana: Because their business still lies out of door.

Adriana: Look, when I serve him so, he takes it ill.

Luciana: Oh, know he is the bridle of your will...men, more divine, the masters of all these, lords of the wild worlds and wild watery seas, indued with intellectual sense and souls, of more preeminence of fish and fowl, are masters to their females and their lords. Then let your will attend on their accords.

Bernard Bygott and Tess Burgler in Ohio Shakespeare Festival's 2013 production.

It's easy to stop there and say, "Well, Luciana is totally antifeminist and that must be Shakespeare's own voice coming through!" But let's look at Adriana's response before we make that complete judgement.

Adriana: Patience unmoved!...they can be meek that have no other cause. A wretched soul bruised with adversity, we bid be quiet when we hear it cry. But were we burdened with like weight of pain, as much or more should we ourselves complain. So thou, that hast no unkind mate to grieve thee, with urging helpless patience shouldst relieve me.

Adriana is basically saying, "It's pretty easy for you to sit there and tell me to calm down when you don't have to suffer any of this nonsense yourself." Adriana, in this moment, is pointing out a privilege that Luciana enjoys: her freedom. Luciana is unmarried, wealthy, and with no surviving patriarch in the house, lives a fairly independent life. Luciana is all too happy to dole out her peacemaker advice to her sister because, frankly, she doesn't have to deal with the inequity herself. Perhaps it is in this speech of Adriana's where we truly hear Shakespeare's voice. Adriana checks her sister's privilege and in doing so, asks Luciana for a little more empathy in this unfair situation.

Adriana also adds, "But, if thou live to see like right bereft, this fool-begged patience in thee will be left." To which Luciana eventually responds, "Well I will marry one day but to try." This loosely translates to: "Maybe--not my prob now."

The Abbess' mic drop.

The Abbess pulls no punches at the end of the play when she blames Adriana for all of Antipholus' bad behaviors. It's a little (okay, a lot) frustrating to hear.

ABBESS: The venom clamours of a jealous woman poison more deadly than a mad dog's tooth. It seems, his sleeps were hinder'd by thy railing, and thereof comes it that his head is light. Thou say'st his meat was sauc'd with thy up-braidings: 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 have scared thy husband from the use of wits."

Adriana, if you had just let him cheat on you without complaining, he wouldn't feel so bad now and might be nicer to you. Yikes. Let's take a little closer look at this problematic speech.

At the core of her argument, the Abbess tells Adriana that berating someone is perhaps not the best way to get what you want. Solid logic, there. But of course, in this particular situation, there is no getting away from the fact that the Abbess is victim-blaming Adriana. Adriana is asked to change her ways to save her marriage, even though she is not the one straying from home. Maybe we could better stomach this advice if Antipholus of Ephesus was asked to do the same. But the surprise appearance of the missing twins derails the marriage counseling, and Antipholus E never learns this lesson. We can perhaps hope that as his mother, Abbess Amelia, will get back to that train of thought after dinner.

Technically, Antipholus has taken sanctuary in her abbey. She is bound by her oath to protect him against any person who wants to get to him--including his wife. Think of this, too: presumably, Antipholus of Syracuse has just run into the abbey claiming sanctuary from the mad woman outside who is pretending to be his wife. He is right to run from her--that actually isn't his wife!

Elizabeth Inchbald in the role of the Lady Abbess (1806)

None of this can excuse Amelia's somewhat cruel and troublingly misogynistic diagnosis. Frankly, that can't be done. But it's interesting to look at it from all perspectives, don't you think?

Photo credit: Ohio Shakespeare Festival's 2013 production with Benjamin Fortin, Bernard Bygott, Ryan Zarecki, and Geoff Knox.

Wait...who was that?

Thanks to Shakespeare's way with words, it's actually fairly easy to keep track of which twin is which in each scene. Nice job, Will! But we agree that the concept can seem a little intimidating. Here are some helpful images and tips:

They're twins, but they aren't identical in every way.

Antipholus of Syracuse, a stranger to the town, is more kindly spoken and patient than his twin.

Dromio of Syracuse, a stranger to the town, is more lighthearted and free than his twin. (Not surprising, when we notice that his master is less handy and less prone to anger.)

Antipholus of Ephesus is well established in the town and tends to be grumpier and more heavy-handed than his twin

Dromio of Ephesus has lived in the town most of his life. And since he has a grumpier master, he tends to be more put-upon and frustrated than his twin.

We also find the below graphic helpful.

Painting: The Rescue of Amelia from the Shipwreck by Francis Wheatley (1747–1801)

Fun Facts and Links

A quick list of interesting facts.

  • The Comedy of Errors was adapted into the hip-hop musical The Bomb-itty of Errors in 2001.
  • The Comedy of Errors is one of only two Shakespearean plays that adhere to Aristotle’s three classical unities of drama – action, time and space. The other? His final play: The Tempest.
  • The correct plural of “Antipholus” is “Antipholi.”
  • Both inns/pubs mentioned in the play are named after mythical creatures: the Centaur and the Phoenix. After all, the Syracuse twins think the town is full of witchcraft!
  • The Kyogen of Errors was a Japanese language production of the play put on in 2001 by the Mansaku Company of Japan. "Kyogen," meaning literally "mad words," is a theatre movement known for down-to-earth, comic style. At certain parts of the play, the audience was asked to shout out: "Ya-ya-hoski-ya!" That translates to "How complicated!"
  • Sir Francis Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world in 1580, when Shakespeare was just 16 years old. Keep that in mind when we hear jokes about globes in this play, written in 1595(ish).
  • Will borrows liberally from Plautus's The Menaechmi. The one significant change? He added another set of twins (the Dromios), because that's, like, twice the fun.
  • This is Shakespeare’s shortest play, with a mere 14,071 words. Compare that to Hamlet at 30,557 words.

Fun resources

Mya Gosling's "Good Tickle Brain" comics

This screamer-song borrows it's title from Will's play, and it's easy to see a few similar themes in the lyrics: "I’ve been here before am I losing my mind? / Look at me, tell me I’m crazy / We’re in danger / Follow me and you’ll see things are not what they seem..."

Plot summary in 1:30:

#justshakespearethings

Interesting to note that the Twelfth Night twins, Viola and Sebastian, are also separated by a shipwreck.

Painting credit: John Austen

Many of the above "fun facts" were generously provided to Ohio Shakes by the Delaware Shakespeare Festival.

List of Characters

  • Duke Solinus--the Duke of Ephesus who gives Aegeon one day to raise the fee to save his life.
  • Aegeon--father of the Antipholi, who has come to Ephesus illegally in hopes of finding his lost sons.
  • Antipholus of Ephesus--one of two separated twins; he is a wealthy merchant of Ephesus, married to Adriana, and has a bad habit of cheating on his wife. This Antipholus is a little rougher around the edges than the other
  • Dromio of Ephesus--one of two separated twins; he is servant to Antipholus of Ephesus. This Dromio has a more combative relationship with his master than does the other.
  • Antipholus of Syracuse--one of two separated twins; he is in Ephesus looking for his twin. This Antipholus tends to be more friendly and patient than his twin.
  • Dromio of Syracuse--one of two separated twins and the servant of Antipholus of Syracuse; he is in Ephesus looking for his twin. This Dromio has a more friendly relationship with his master.
  • Adriana--wife to Antipholus of Ephesus, and not too happy about that fact lately. Luciana is her sister.
  • Luciana--Adriana's sister, and eventually, the love interest of the other Antipholus.
  • Luce--a servant in Adriana's house.
  • Balthazar--a merchant of Ephesus.
  • The Courtesan--has a previous relationship with Antipholus of Ephesus.
  • Doctor Pinch--a sort-of witch-doctor
  • Angelo--a goldsmith.
  • Amelia (the Abbess)--a Roman Catholic abbess, who (spoiler alert) turns out to be Aegeon's long-lost wife.
  • Nell--often not appearing on stage and only referenced by Dromio, a servant in Adriana's house.

Art credit: "The ship split on a mighty rock." Rhead, Louis, 1857-1926

Glossary of Terms

  • guilders--Dutch coins
  • amain--with full speed
  • disannual--cancel
  • cozenage--cheating (mostly in marriage)
  • "keep fair quarter"--keep the peace
  • course and drift--general meaning of something
  • Sirrah--a term to use when addressing inferiors
  • carcenet--jeweled necklace
  • board--table (dining table)
  • waftage--passage by seas
  • forswore--broke an oath
  • wot--to know

Painting credit: J. Coghlan. “Comedy of errors, IV, 1, Antipholus of Ephesus, an officer and Dromio of Ephesus.” Watercolor drawing, 1816.

Most of the above definitions came from this Utah Shakespeare study guide.

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

Quotes Quiz

Who said it? Test your understanding of the characters and their motivations. Can you identify who said the quotes below?

  1. "A wretched soul, bruised with adversity, we bid be quiet when we hear it cry. But were we burdened with like weight of pain, as much or more would we ourselves complain."
  2. "O, grief hath changed me since you saw me last, and careful hours with time's deformed hand Have written strange defeatures in my face. But tell me yet, dost thou not know my voice?"
  3. "O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note, to drown me in thy sister’s flood of tears."
  4. "A man is master of his liberty. Time is their master and when they see time, they'll go or come. If so, be patient, sister."
  5. "Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me, I'll knock elsewhere to see if they'll disdain me."
  6. "I pray you, sir, my ring, or else the chain: I hope you do not mean to cheat me so."
  7. "How comes it now, my husband, oh how comes it, that thou art then estranged from thyself? Thyself I call it, being strange to me, that undividable, incorporate, am better than thy dear self's better part."
  8. "I am an ass, I am a woman's man, and besides myself."
  9. "I think you have all drunk of Circe's cup!"
  10. "Methinks you are my glass, and not my brother: I see by you I am a sweet-fac'd youth."
  11. "Thy substance, valued at the highest rate cannot amount unto a hundred marks; therefore by law thou art condemn’d to die."
  12. "The consequence is then thy jealous fits have scared thy husband from the use of wits."
  13. "We came into this world like brother and brother. Now let's go hand in hand, not one before another."

Photo credit: The Folger Library

"Methinks thou art my glass and not my brother!"

Character Profiles

Character insight from the OSF Actors.

Check back soon for rehearsal room insight from our:

  • Antipholus
  • Dromio
  • Adriana
  • Luciana

Photo credit (from previous scrolling slide): generously provided by Gamut Theatre Group.

Photo credit current page: Scott Custer, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

Resources and Suggested Reading

  • Deleware Shakespeare Festival: http://delshakes.org/
  • Comedy of Errors Study Guide: http://shakespearestudyguide.com/Comedy.html
  • Bard.org: https://www.bard.org/study-guides/glossary-of-unfamiliar-terms
  • Context at Sparknotes: http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/errors/context.html
  • Royal Shakespeare Company, history: https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-comedy-of-errors/about-the-play/stage-history
  • Theatre History: http://www.theatrehistory.com/british/comedy_of_errors.html
  • Maps and charts: https://www.shakespearetheatre.org/_pdf/first_folio/folio_COE_about.pdf
  • The Folger Library: http://www.folger.edu/
  • The Shakespeare Book. Palffy, Gerogina (editor), Penguin Random House. https://smile.amazon.com/Shakespeare-Book-Ideas-Simply-Explained/dp/1465429875/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490710333&sr=8-1&keywords=the+shakespeare+book
  • The Folger Library's Comedy of Errors. https://smile.amazon.com/Comedy-Errors-Folger-Shakespeare-Library-ebook/dp/B00X4112J0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490710353&sr=8-1&keywords=folger+edition+comedy+of+errors
  • Encyclopdia Britannica "The Comedy of Errors": https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Comedy-of-Errors
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