Two identical boys dressed in green shirts and tights.

Two Dromios from the frontispiece to "Tales from Shakespeare", McLoughlin Brothers, 1890. Wikimedia Commons.

I must confess that I chose The Comedy of Errors as my Christmas read because I am pushed for time and it’s short (Shakespeare’s shortest play, in fact). Yet it’s oddly appropriate for the festive season, being a play in which a family is difficult (painful, even) but ultimately comes together in reconciliation and peace. Above all, the play’s chief satisfaction (delayed until the very end) is seeing the pairs of Antipholus brothers and their servants mirroring each other in front of Shakespeare’s astonished cast.

The plot is as follows: the merchant Egeon has come from Syracuse to Ephesus in search of his missing sons, but the Duke condemns him to death (as Syracusians are not permitted in the country). Egeon pleads for his life, describing a shipwreck that separated his twin boys and their servants (also twins). The Duke gives him a reprieve of one day to try to raise a sum of money to purchase his life.

Meanwhile, Egeon’s son, Antipholus of Syracuse, arrives (unknown to anybody) at Ephesus with his servant, Dromio, and conceals his identity to avoid arrest. At another house nearby, his long lost brother, Antipholus of Ephesus, is living with his wife, Adriana, and their servant, Dromio. Adriana complains to her sister, Lucia, that she is ignored by her husband, while Dromio finds himself on the end of repeated beatings from both parties.

The play’s action hinges on mistaken identities, where the sins of one brother and his servant are visited on the other pair – with hilarious consequences – and there are also two comic subplots involving lovers (Antipholus of Syracuse falls for Lucia and Dromio of Syracuse is pursued by Nell: a gargantuan kitchen-wench whom we never meet). Finally, it takes the Abbess, Emilia, to reunite the lost pairs, thus bringing the family together and giving Egeon the means to escape his death sentence.

The play frequently utilises rhyme – a somewhat surprising choice until you realise that rhyming couplets represent a kind of mirroring, a completion, that sits nicely with Shakespeare’s themes of splitting up and pairing together. It was also written in close proximity to Richard II – another play written in rhyme (as opposed to blank verse). It respects the classical unities, occurring on one day, in the same place. This is not a given with Shakespeare’s plays but The Comedy of Errors is a fairly conventional farce.

Or is it? Aside from splitting and disunity, there are themes of witchcraft and devilry (evil forces which are symbolically defeated by the Abbess, Emilia, at the play’s close). Another important theme is time, which is symbolised by the old merchant, Egeon. Earlier in the play we have a set of extended jokes about baldness, all inspired by the “plain bald pate of Father Time himself” (Act II, Scene II), but in the final scene, the twins’ father appears to take on the mantel of Father Time, though less comically:

Egeon: Not know my voice? O time’s extremity,
Has thou so crack’d and splitted my poor tongue
In seven short years, that here my only son
Knows not my feeble key of untun’d cares? (Act V, Scene I).

I love the fact that his tongue is “crack’d and splitted” like the shipwrecked boat in which his twin sons and their servants were separated.

For me, the heart of the play is Antipholus of Syracuse’s observation that: “there’s a time for all things” (Act II, Scene II). This statement echoes Ecclesiastes 3:1-8: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… ” and stands as a kind of central tenet (the human experience encompasses many extremes – all things, good or evil, will pass). Yet, while Shakespeare gives us pairs of similar things, the Bible provides pairs of opposites “time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…”) The Comedy of Errors shows us plenty of mistakes and disharmony, but in the comic universe, time heals all wounds.

One final thought: there are very few requirements either for set or props in this play but the two props which are mentioned – a diamond ring and a gold chain – seem to me to represent sex and marriage. Think of the bawdy jokes in The Merchant of Venice about Nerissa’s ring, and then consider that the courtesan in The Comedy of Errors gives her ring away and then complains:

A ring he hath of mine worth forty ducats,
And for the same he promis’d me a chain (Act Iv, Scene IV).

But, as the plays shows, the chain (marriage) is hardly a picnic either.

There are some strikingly dark elements in The Comedy of Errors when you start looking at it, as well as synergies with Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale. But those will have to wait for another day because, as the play puts it, “Time is a very bankrupt, and owes more than he’s worth to season” (Act IV, Scene II). There’s just never enough time to do everything you want to do, is there?