The Comedy of Errors

The Comedy of Errors
Poster for a 1879 production on Broadway, featuring Stuart Robson and William Crane

The Comedy of Errors is one of William Shakespeare's earliest plays. It is his shortest and one of his most farcical comedies, with a major part of the humour coming from slapstick and mistaken identity, in addition to puns and word play. 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.



Key plot elements are taken from two Roman comedies of Plautus.

From Menaechmi comes the main premise of mistaken identity between identical twins with the same name, plus some of the stock characters such as the comic courtesan. In Menaechmi one of the twins is from Epidamnus; Shakespeare changes this to Ephesus and includes many allusions to St Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians.

From Amphitryon he borrows the twin servants with the same name, plus the scene in Act 3 where a husband is shut out of his house while his wife mistakenly dines with a look-alike.

The frame story of Egeon and Emilia derives from Apollonius of Tyre, also a source for Twelfth Night and Pericles, Prince of Tyre.

Date & text

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 10 June 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."[1] The play was not published until it appeared in the First Folio in 1623.


  • Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus
  • Egeon (or Ægeon), a merchant of Syracuse
  • Emilia (or Æmilia), his lost wife, now Lady Abbess at Ephesus
  • Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, twin brothers, sons of Egeon and Emilia
  • Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse, twin brothers, bondmen, each serving his respective Antipholus
  • Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus
  • Luciana, her sister
  • Luce, maid to Adriana, sometimes mistaken for Nell (Antipholus of Ephesus's obese kitchen-maid and Dromio of Ephesus's wife)
  • Balthazar, a merchant
  • Angelo, a goldsmith
  • Courtesan
  • First merchant of Ephesus, friend to Antipholus of Syracuse
  • Second merchant of Ephesus, to whom Angelo is in debt
  • Doctor Pinch, a conjuring schoolmaster
  • Gaoler, Headsman, Officers, and other Attendants

Plot summary

The twin Dromios in a Carmel Shake-speare Festival production at the Forest Theater in Carmel, CA. September, 2008

Due to a law forbidding the presence of Syracusian merchants in Ephesus, elderly Syracusian trader Egeon faces execution when he is discovered in the city. He can only escape by paying a fine of a thousand marks. He tells his sad story to the Duke. In his youth, he married and had twin sons. On the same day, a poor woman also gave birth to twin boys, and he purchased these as slaves to his sons. Soon afterwards, the family made a sea voyage, and was hit by a tempest. Egeon lashed himself to the main-mast with one son and one slave, while his wife was rescued by one boat, Egeon by another. Egeon never again saw his wife, or the children with her. Recently, his son Antipholus of Syracuse, now grown, and his son’s slave Dromio of Syracuse, left Syracuse on a quest to find their brothers. When Antipholus of Syracuse did not return, Egeon set out in search of him.

Solinus, Duke of Ephesus, is moved by this story, and grants Egeon one day to pay his fine.

That same day, Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in Ephesus, searching for his brother. He sends Dromio of Syracuse to deposit some money at The Centaur (an inn). He is confounded when the identical Dromio of Ephesus appears almost immediately, denying any knowledge of the money and asking him home to dinner, where his wife is waiting. Antipholus, thinking his servant is making insubordinate jokes, beats Dromio.

Dromio of Ephesus returns to his mistress, Adriana, saying that her "husband" refused to come back to his house, and even pretended not to know her. Adriana, concerned that her husband's eye is straying, takes this news as confirmation of her suspicions.

Antipholus of Syracuse, who complains "I could not speak with Dromio since at first I sent him from the mart," meets up with Dromio who now denies making a "joke" about Antipholus having a wife. Antipholus begins beating him. Suddenly, Adriana rushes up to Antipholus and begs him not to leave her. The Syracusans cannot but attribute these strange events to witchcraft, remarking that Ephesus is known as a warren for witches. Antipholus and Dromio go off with this strange woman, to eat dinner and keep the gate, respectively.

Antipholus of Ephesus returns home for dinner and is enraged to find that he is rudely refused entry to his own house by Dromio of Syracuse, who is keeping the gate. He is ready to break down the door, but his friends persuade him not to make a scene. He decides, instead, to dine with a Courtesan.

Inside the house, Antipholus of Syracuse discovers that he is very attracted to his "wife"'s sister, Luciana, telling her "train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note / To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears." She is flattered by his attentions, but worried about their moral implications. After she exits, Dromio of Syracuse announces that he has discovered that he has a wife: Nell, a hideous kitchen-maid. He describes her as "spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her". Antipholus jokingly asks him identify the countries, leading to a witty exchange in which parts of her body are identified with nations. Ireland is her buttocks: "I found it out by the bogs". He claims he has discovered America and the Indies "upon her nose all o'er embellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole armadoes of caracks to be ballast at her nose." This is one of Shakespeare's few references to America. The Syracusans decide to leave as soon as possible, and Dromio runs off to make travel plans. Antipholus is apprehended by Angelo, a goldsmith, who claims that he ordered a chain from him. Antipholus is forced to accept the chain, and Angelo says that he will return for payment.

Antipholus of Ephesus dispatches Dromio of Ephesus to purchase a rope so that he can beat his wife Adriana for locking him out, then is accosted by Angelo, who tells him "I thought to have ta'en you at the Porpentine" and asks to be reimbursed for the chain. He denies ever seeing it, and is promptly arrested. As he is being led away, Dromio of Syracuse arrives, whereupon Antipholus dispatches him back to Adriana's house to get money for his bail.

After completing this errand, Dromio of Syracuse mistakenly delivers the money to Antipholus of Syracuse. The Courtesan spies Antipholus wearing the gold chain, and says he promised it to her. The Syracusans deny this, and flee. The Courtesan resolves to tell Adriana that her husband is insane. Dromio of Ephesus returns to the arrested Antipholus of Ephesus, with the rope. Antipholus is infuriated. Adriana, Luciana and the Courtesan enter with a conjurer named Pinch, who tries to exorcise the Ephesians, who are bound and taken to Adriana's house. The Syracusans enter, carrying swords, and everybody runs off for fear: believing that they are the Ephesians, out for vengeance after somehow escaping their bonds. Adriana reappears with henchmen, who attempt to bind the Syracusans. They take sanctuary in a nearby priory, where the Abbess resolutely protects them.

The Duke and Egeon enter, on their way to Egeon's execution. Adriana begs the Duke to force the Abbess to release her husband. Then, a messenger from Adriana's house runs in and announces that the Ephesians have broken loose from their bonds and tortured Doctor Pinch. The Ephesians enter and ask the Duke for justice against Adriana. Egeon believes he has found his own son, Antipholus, who will be able to bail him, but both Ephesians deny having ever seen him before.

Suddenly, the Abbess enters with the Syracusan twins, and everyone begins to understand the confused events of the day. Not only are the two sets of twins reunited, but the Abbess reveals that she is Egeon's wife, Emilia. The Duke pardons Egeon. All exit into the abbey to celebrate the reunification of the family.


For centuries, scholars found little thematic depth in The Comedy of Errors. Its origins in The Menaechmi led many to see the play as a light, farcical work. It was often assumed that Shakespeare was deliberately avoiding the more serious themes of his histories, tragedies or later comedies.

In the eighteenth century the quality of a play was judged by its adherence to the classical unities, as specified by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest were the only two of Shakespeare's plays to comply with this somewhat artificial standard.[2]

Recent scholarship, however, has taken a different view. Particularly notable in the play is a series of social relationships, which, if rooted in a Roman past, acquire special significance in the transition to early modernity that constantly guides Shakespeare's drama. As Eric Heinze has noted, those relationships include dichotomies of master-servant, husband-wife, parent-child, native-alien, buyer-seller, and monarch-parliament. Each relationship is in crisis as it sheds its feudal forms, and confronts the market forces of early modern Europe.[3]


Two early performances of The Comedy of Errors are recorded. One, by "a company of base and common fellows," is mentioned in the Gesta Grayorum ("The Deeds of Gray") as having occurred in Gray's Inn Hall on 28 Dec. 1594. The second also took place on "Innocents' Day," but ten years later: 28 Dec. 1604, at Court.[4]

Artistic features

In the opening scene Egeon delivers by far the longest speech of the play ("A heavier task could not have been imposed"), explaining how the two sets of twins were separated at an early age. At 421 words it is also the longest piece of pure exposition in the canon. Egeon (and also the Duke) are then absent until the final scene.



In 1734, an adaptation called See If You Like It was staged at Covent Garden. Drury Lane mounted a production in 1741, in which Charles Macklin played Dromio of Syracuse – in the same year as his famous breakthrough performance as Shylock. In the 1980s, the Flying Karamazov Brothers performed a unique adaptation of this play at Lincoln Center; it was shown on MTV and PBS. The Regent's Park Open Air Theatre are due to be staging a new production of the play as part of their 2010 summer season, directed by Philip Franks.

In 2011 the Comedy of Errors will be performed as part of the 21st Anniversary celebrations of the staffordfestivalshakespeare one of the largest outdoor Shakespeare festivals in Europe. The show at Stafford Castle between 23 June and 29 July 2011 features one of the highest performance values in theatre and an all weather outdoor grandstand.


On 27 December 1786, the opera Gli Equivoci by Stephen Storace received its première at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The libretto, by Lorenzo da Ponte, follows the play's plot fairly closely, though some characters were renamed.[6]

Frederic Reynolds staged an operatic version in 1819, with music by Henry Bishop supplemented with some songs by Mozart and Arne. Various other adaptations were performed down to 1855, when Samuel Phelps revived the Shakespearean original at Sadler's Wells Theatre.[7]


The play has been adapted as a musical at least three times, first as The Boys from Syracuse with a score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, then as a West End musical that won the Laurence Olivier Award for best musical in 1977, and in 1981 as Oh, Brother! with a score by Michael Valenti and Donald Driver. A hip-hop musical adaptation, The Bomb-itty of Errors, won 1st Prize at HBO's Comedy Festival and was nominated opposite Stephen Sondheim for the Best Lyrics Drama Desk Award in 2001.


The film Big Business is a modern take on A Comedy of Errors. Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin star in the film as two sets of twins separated at birth, much like the characters in Shakespeare's play. Indian cinema has made three films based on the play, Do Dooni Char starring Kishore Kumar, Angoor, starring Sanjeev Kumar and Bhrantibilas (1963 film) starring Uttam Kumar.


The popular TV show The X-Files features an episode called "Fight Club", the story of which heavily parallels many elements from this play.

  • In the Yes Prime Minister episode "The Patron of the Arts" Prime Minister James Hacker complains that "they [the National Theatre] set The Comedy of Errors in Number 10 Downing Street".



  1. ^ Charles Walters Whitworth, ed., The Comedy of Errors, Oxford, Oxford University press, 2003; pp. 1–10.
  2. ^ Bloom, Harold (2010). Marson, Janyce. ed. The Comedy of Errors. Bloom's Literary Criticism. New York: Infobase. p. 57. ISBN 978-1-60413-720-0. "It is noteworthy that The Comedy of Errors and Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest, are the only two plays that strictly adhere to the classical unities." 
  3. ^ Eric Heinze, '"Were it not against our laws": Oppression and Resistance in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, 29 Legal Studies (2009), pp. 230 – 63
  4. ^ The identical dates may not be coincidental; the Pauline and Ephesian aspect of the play, noted under Sources, may have had the effect of linking The Comedy of Errors to the holiday season—much like Twelfth Night, another play secular on its surface but linked to the Christmas holidays.
  5. ^!/event.php?eid=127609727310886
  6. ^ Holden, Amanda; (editor), with Kenyon, Nicholas and Walsh, Stephen. The Viking Opera Guide. London: Viking. p. 1016. ISBN 0-670-81292-7. 
  7. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p.112.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Comedy of Errors — Comedy of Er|rors, The a humorous play by Shakespeare about two sets of ↑identical twins (=two children born to the same mother at the same time, who look exactly the same) . There are many confusing and amusing situations because the other… …   Dictionary of contemporary English

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