The Allegory of Egeon in The Comedy of Errors

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      In terms of the direct plot, Egeon's plight seems to serve only as a framework for the rest of the play The Comedy of Errors, with his tragic family story providing a background but bearing little impact on the action. That is, the plot revolves around the mere fact that one twin is in the home city of the second twin and the confusion surrounding their identities; S. Antipholus's search for his brother is mentioned only by S. Antipholus himself in a few passing asides, such that the reason for and the basic existence of the search are almost irrelevant. However, Barbara Freedman, in her essay "Egeon's Debt," has interpreted the plot as presenting an allegorical explanation of the psychic process Egeon necessarily undergoes in seeking a reunion with his family.

      Freedman begins by noting the various shortcomings Egeon reveals about himself in the introductory scene, when he relates his tragic story to the duke. Egeon allowed himself to be drawn away from his wife for a full six months by overseas business obligations, as his factor, or agent, had died. Evidently with no assistance from her husband, Egeon's wife then traveled to join him. After the birth of their sons, his wife alone wished to return home; Egeon agreed to go but was in fact ''unwilling." Once the storm confronted them with the possibility of death, Egeon would "gladly have embraced" that death, perhaps because he was being forced into a strictly domestic situation that he did not care for. Indeed, although he tells his story in a matter-of-fact tone that leaves the reader sympathizing with his misfortune, he is at least guilty of largely neglecting his wife for the sake of his business. With this understanding of Egeon's past, the personal circumstances of the two twins seem to bear greater relevance. Freedman notes, "When the action of the storm separated Egeon from his former life, the Ephesian twin was, literally, that part of Egeon which was lost. The Syracusan twin was the part of Egeon which remained with him to the present time." Thus, in E. Antipholus the audience sees precisely the person Egeon was before the shipwreck: a man rooted in a domestic situation, respected in his community, and, generally speaking, focused more on his commercial activity than on his marital partnership. S. Antipholus, on the contrary, is a wanderer in search of his twin - in a sense, in search of his own self - just as Egeon is now wandering in search of the life he lost when he was separated from his wife.

      Freedman proceeds to demonstrate that beyond the essence of the brothers circumstances, the allegory is manifested in the play's consistent focus on indebtedness. Egeon's fate can be conceived of as featuring both a marital debt, in that he owes his wife the attention and affection that he neglected to give her, and a monetary debt, as he becomes obligated to either pay a fine for appearing in Ephesus or face the death penalty. Both sons, in turn, undergo experiences with both types of debts, in somewhat inverse manners: "Just as the Syracusan twin progresses from fear of actual monetary debt to payment for a mistaken marital debt, so his brother moves from fear of an actual marital debt to payment for a mistaken monetary debt." Thus, in that one debt is essentially a mirror image of the other, they can together be understood as symbolic of the father's debts, just as the twins are mirror images of each other and, in the context of the allegory, are symbolic of the father. In summing up the importance of this allegory to an understanding of the play as a whole, Freedman declares, "Egeon's story is the missing link which turns an arbitrary plot into a meaningfully directed fantasy."

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