The Comedy of Errors: Full Book Summary

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      The Comedy of Errors is one of William Shakespeare's earliest plays, believed to have been written between 1592 and 1594. It is his shortest and one of his most farcical, with a major part of the humor coming from slapstick and mistaken identity, in addition to puns and wordplay. The Comedy of Errors (along with The Tempest!) is one of only two of Shakespeare's plays to observe the classical unities. It has been adapted for opera, stage, screen and musical theatre.

      The Comedy of Errors tells the story of two sets of identical twins that were accidentally separated at birth. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, arrive in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of their twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus.

      When the Syracusans encounter the friends and families of their twins, a series of wild mishaps based on mistaken identities lead to wrongful beatings, a near-seduction, the arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus, and accusations of infidelity, theft, madness, and demonic possession.

      The play contains a topical reference to the wars of succession in France which would fit any date from 1589 to 1595. William Warner's translation of the Menaechmi was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on June 10, 1594, and published in 1595.

      Warner's translation was dedicated to Lord Hunsdon, the patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. It has been supposed that Shakespeare might have seen the translation in manuscript before it was printed - though it is also true that Plautus was part of the curriculum of grammar school students. Charles Whitworth, in his edition of the play, argues that The Comedy of Errors was written: "in the latter part of 1594." The play was not published until it appeared in the First Folio in 1623.

      Aegeon was a merchant of Syracuse, which is a seaport in Sicily. His wife was Aemilia, and they were very happy until Aegean's manager died, and he was obliged to go by himself to a place called Epidamnum on the Adriatic. As soon as she could Æmilia followed him, and after they had been together some time two baby boys were born to them. The babies were exactly alike; even when they were dressed differently they looked the same.

      And now you must believe a very strange thing. At the same inn where these children were born, and on the same day, two baby boys were born to a much poorer couple than Aemilia and Aegean; so poor, indeed, were the parents of these twins that they sold them to the parents of the other twins.

      Aemilia was eager to show her children to her friends in Syracuse, and in treacherous weather, she and Aegean and the four babies sailed homewards. They were still far from Syracuse when their ship sprang a leak, and the crew left it in a body by the only boat, caring little what became of their passengers.

      Æmilia fastened one of her children to a mast and tied one of the slave-children to him; Aegean followed her example with the remaining children. Then the parents secured themselves to the same masts, and hoped for safety.

      The ship, however, suddenly struck a rock and was split in two, and Emilia, and the two children whom she had tied, floated away from Aegean and the other children. Emilia and her charges were picked up by some people of Epidamnum, but some fishermen of Corinth took the babies from her by force, and she returned to Epidamnum alone, and very miserable. Afterward she settled in Ephesus, a famous town in Asia Minor.

      Aegean and his charges were also saved; and, more fortunate than Emilia, he was able to return to Syracuse and keep them till they were eighteen. His own child he called Antipholus, and the slave-child he called
Dromio; and, strangely enough, these were the names given to the children who floated away from him.

      At the age of eighteen, the son who was with Aegean grew restless with a desire to find his brother. Aegean let him depart with his servant, and the young men are henceforth known as Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse.

      Let alone, Aegean found his home too dreary to dwell in, and traveled for five years. He did not, during his absence, learn all the news of Syracuse, or he would never have gone to Ephesus.

      As it was, his melancholy wandering ceased in that town, where he was arrested almost as soon as he arrived. He then found that the Duke of Syracuse had been acting in so tyrannical a manner to Ephesians unlucky enough to fall into his hands, that the Government of Ephesus had angrily passed a law which punished by death or a fine of a thousand pounds any Syracusan who should come to Ephesus. Aegean was brought before Solinus, Duke of Ephesus, who told him that he must die or pay a thousand pounds before the end of the day.

      You will think there was fate in this when I tell you that the children who were kidnaped by the fishermen of Corinth were now citizens of Ephesus, whither they had been brought by Duke Menaphon, an uncle of Duke Solinus. They will henceforth be called Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus.

      Moreover, on the very day when Aegean was arrested, Antipholus of Syracuse landed in Ephesus and pretended that he came from Epidamnum in order to avoid a penalty. He handed his money to his servant Dromio of Syracuse, and bade him take it to the Centaur Inn and remain there till he came.

      In less than ten minutes he was met on the Mart by Dromio of Ephesus, his brother's slave, and immediately mistook him for his own Dromio. "Why are you back so soon? Where did you leave the money?" asked Antipholus of Syracuse.

      This Dromio knew of no money except sixpence, which he had received on the previous Wednesday and given to the saddler; but he did know that his mistress was annoyed because his master was not in to dinner, and he asked Antipholus of Syracuse to go to a house called The Phoenix without delay.

      His speech angered the hearer, who would have beaten him if he had not fled. Antipholus of Syracuse then went to The Centaur, found that his gold had been deposited there, and walked out of the inn.

      He was wandering about Ephesus when two beautiful ladies signaled to him with their hands. They were sisters, and their names were Adriana and Luciana. Adriana was the wife of his brother Antipholus of Ephesus, and she had made up her mind, from the strange account given her by Dromio of Ephesus, that her husband preferred another woman to his wife. "Ay, you may look as if you did not know me," she said to the man who was really her brother-in-law, "but I can remember when no words were sweet unless I said them, no meat flavorsome unless I carved it"

"Is it I you address?" said Antipholus of Syracuse stiffly. "I do not know you."

      "Fie, brother," said Luciana. "You know perfectly well that she sent Drornio to you to bid you come to dinner"; and Adriana said, "Come, come; I have been made a fool of long enough. My truant husband shall dine with me and confess his silly pranks and be forgiven."

      They were determined ladies, and Antipholus of Syracuse grew weary of disputing with them, and followed them obediently to The Phoenix, where a very late "mid-day" dinner awaited them.

      They were at dinner when Antipholus of Ephesus and his slave Drornio demanded admittance. "Maud, Bridget, Marian, Cecily, Gillian, Ginn!" shouted Drornio of Ephesus, who knew all his fellow servants' names by heart.

      From within came the reply, "Fool, dray-horse, coxcomb, idiot!" It was Drornio of Syracuse unconsciously insulting his brother.

      Master and man did their best to get in, short of using a crowbar, and finally went away; but Antipholus of Ephesus felt so annoyed with his wife that he decided to give a gold chain which he had promised her, to another woman.

      Inside The Phoenix, Luciana, who believed Antipholus of Syracuse to be her sister's husband, attempted, by a discourse in rhyme, when alone with him, to make him kinder to Adriana. In reply, he told her that he was not married, but that he loved her so much that, if Luciana were a mermaid, he would gladly lie on the sea if he might feel beneath him her floating golden hair.

      Luciana was shocked and left him, and reported his lovemaking to Adriana, who said that her husband was old and ugly, and not fit to be seen or heard, though secretly she was very fond of him.

      Antipholus of Syracuse soon received a visitor in the shape of Angelo the goldsmith, of whom Antipholus of Ephesus had ordered the chain which he had promised his wife and intended to give to another woman.

      The goldsmith handed the chain to Antipholus of Syracuse, and treated his. "I bespoke it not" as mere fun, so that the puzzled merchant took the chain as good-humoredly as he had partaken of Adriana's dinner. He offered payment, but Angelo foolishly said he would call again.

      The consequence was that Angelo was without money when a creditor of the sort that stands no nonsense, threatened him with arrest unless he paid his debt immediately. This creditor had brought a police officer with him, and Angelo was relieved to see Antipholus of Ephesus coming out of the house where he had been dining because he had been locked out of The Phoenix. Bitter was Angelo's dismay when Antipholus denied receipt of the chain. Angelo could have sent his mother to prison if she had said that, and he gave Antipholus of Ephesus in charge.

      At this moment up came Dromio of Syracuse and told the wrong Antipholus that he had shipped his goods, and that a favorable wind was blowing. To the ears of Antipholus of Ephesus, this talk was simple nonsense. He would gladly have beaten the slave, but contented himself with crossly telling him to hurry to Adriana and bid her send to her arrested husband a purse of money which she would find in his desk.

      Though Adriana was furious with her husband because she thought he had been making love to her sister, she did not prevent Luciana from getting the purse, and she bade Dromio of Syracuse bring home his master immediately.

      Unfortunately, before Dromio could reach the police station he met his real master, who had never been arrested, and did not understand what he meant by offering him a purse. Antipholus of Syracuse was further surprised when a lady whom he did not know asked him for a chain that he had promised her. She was, of course, the lady with whom Antipholus of Ephesus had dined when his brother was occupying his place at table. "Avaunt, thou witch!" was the answer which, to her astonishment, she received.

      Meanwhile, Antipholus of Ephesus waited vainly for the money which was to have released him. Never a good-tempered man, he was crazy with anger when Dromio of Ephesus, who, of course, had not been instructed to fetch a purse, appeared with nothing more useful than a rope. He beat the slave in the street despite the remonstrance of the police officer; and his temper did not mend when Adriana, Luciana, and a doctor arrived under the impression that he was mad and must have his pulse felt. He raged so much that men came forward to bind him. But the kindness of Adriana spared him this shame. She promised to pay the sum demanded of him, and asked the doctor to lead him to The Phoenix.

      Angelo's merchant creditor being paid, the two were friendly again, and might soon have been seen chatting before an abbey about the odd behavior of Antipholus of Ephesus. "Softly," said the merchant at last, "that's he, I think."

      It was not; it was Antipholus of Syracuse with his servant Dromio, and he wore Angelo's chain round his neck! The reconciled pair fairly pounced upon him to know what he meant by denying the receipt of the chain he had the impudence to wear. Antipholus of Syracuse lost his temper, and drew his sword, and at that moment Adriana and several others appeared. "Hold!" shouted the careful wife. "Hurt him not; he is mad. Take his sword away. Bind him—and Dromio too."

      Dromio of Syracuse did not wish to be bound, and he said to his master, "Run, master! Into that abbey, quick, or we shall be robbed!"

      They accordingly retreated into the abbey.

      Adriana, Luciana, and a crowd remained outside, and the Abbess came out, and said, "People, why do you gather here?"

      "To fetch my poor distracted husband," replied Adriana.

      Angelo and the merchant remarked that they had not known that he was mad.

      Adriana then told the Abbess rather too much about her wifely worries, for the Abbess received the idea that Adriana was a shrew, and that if her husband was distracted he had better not return to her for the present.

      Adriana determined, therefore, to complain to Duke Solinus, and, lo and behold! a minute afterward the great man appeared with officers and two others. The others were Aegean and the headsman. The thousand marks had not been found, and Aegean's fate seemed sealed.

      Ere the Duke could pass the abbey Adriana knelt before him, and told a woeful tale of a mad husband rushing about stealing jewelry and drawing his sword, adding that the Abbess refused to allow her to lead him home.

      The Duke bade the Abbess be summoned, and no sooner had he given the order than a servant from The Phoenix ran to Adriana with the tale that his master had singed off the doctor's beard.

"Nonsense!" said Adriana, "he's in the abbey."

"As sure as I live I speak the truth," said the servant.

      Antipholus of Syracuse had not come out of the abbey, before his brother of Ephesus prostrated himself in front of the Duke, exclaiming, "Justice, most gracious Duke, against that woman." He pointed to Adriana. "She has treated another man like her husband in my own house."

Even while he was speaking Aegean said, "Unless I am delirious, I see my son Antipholus."

      No one noticed him, and Antipholus of Ephesus went on to say how the doctor, whom he called "a threadbare juggler," had been one of a gang who tied him to his slave Dromio, and thrust them into a vault whence he had escaped by gnawing through his bonds.

      The Duke could not understand how the same man who spoke to him was seen to go into the abbey, and he was still wondering when Aegean asked Antipholus of Ephesus if he was not his son.

      He replied, "I never saw my father in my life;" but so deceived was Aegean by his likeness to the brother whom he had brought up, that he said, "Thou art ashamed to acknowledge me in misery."

      Soon, however, the Abbess advanced with Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse.

      Then cried Adriana, "I see two husbands or mine eyes deceive me;" and Antipholus, espying his father, said, "Thou art Aegean or his ghost." 

It was a day of surprises, for the Abbess said, "I will free that man by paying his fine, and gain my husband whom I lost Speak, Aegean, for I am thy wife Aemilia."

The Duke was touched. "He is free without a fine," he said.

      So Aegean and Æmilia were reunited, and Adriana and her husband reconciled; but no one was happier than Antipholus of Syracuse, who, in the Duke's presence, went to Luciana and said, "I told you I loved you. Will you be my wife?"

      Her answer was given by a look, and therefore is not written.

      The two Dromios were glad to think they would receive no more beatings.

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