For the leading British English playwright, many of William Shakespeare’s works relied on non-English sources and were set overseas. The Comedy of Errors, probably written in about 1594, is a good example, drawing as it does on Menaechmi by Plautus, and set in Ephesus, although perhaps not the same as the city of New Testament fame.
While this play has enjoyed periodic revival and remains quite popular, it has been painted only seldom, and then either for Boydell’s SHakespeare Gallery or to illustrate a printed edition. Given its plot, you may not be surprised that so few visual artists have tackled it.
Ephesus and Syracuse are at war, and the Syracusian merchant Egeon has been sentenced to death for entering Ephesus. He explains to the Duke of Ephesus that long ago his wife Emilia had borne him identical twin sons, for whom they had bought identical twin slaves of the same age. Each set of twins had been given the same names, but he and his wife, and each pair of twins, had become separated in a shipwreck.
Francis Wheatley’s The Rescue of Aemilia from the Shipwreck from 1795 shows two fishermen rescuing the mother and her twin infants into their boat, rather than separating them.
When his remaining son and his servant had reached the age of eighteen, they had gone in search of their mother, brother and his servant, and Egeon went after them. Now, five years later, he is returning home after a fruitless search. The Duke gives him the rest of that day to raise the ransom of a thousand marks to save himself from execution.
For the sake of clarity, in this summary I’ll refer to Egeon’s twin sons as Antipholus(S) and (E), according to whether they’re the twin from Syracuse or Ephesus; similarly, I’ll refer to their servants as Dromio(S) and (E).
This frontispiece to an 1890 illustrated edition of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare is one of many to show the twins together. Most show the Dromios, rather than their masters the Antipholi.
Antipholus(S) and his servant Dromio(S) arrive in Ephesus, and the servant is sent to secure his master’s money in their lodgings. Soon afterwards Dromio(E) arrives, mistakes Antipholus(S) for his own master, and calls him home to dinner. Thinking this is his own servant having a joke, Antipholus(S) is upset and drives him away with his blows, then goes to check on the money himself.
Dromio(E) goes home, where his master’s wife sends the servant back to fetch Antipholus(E). Meanwhile, Antipholus(S) discovers that his money is safe, and mystifies his own servant by telling him off for his earlier joking. Then the wife of Antipholus(E) meets them both, presumes that they’re her husband and his servant, and invites them back to eat. Although they’re puzzled how she knows their names, they accept.
Antipholus(E), his servant Dromio(E) and their two guests arrive at their house to find they’re locked out, so go to eat with a courtesan. Out of spite, Antipholus(E) decides to give a gold chain intended for his wife to the courtesan instead. Inside the house, Luciana, the unmarried sister of the wife of Antipholus(E), tells Antipholus(S) to behave better towards his wife, but he responds by making advances towards Luciana, who goes to fetch Adriana, the wife. Dromio(S) is alarmed to discover that a fat kitchen-maid thinks she is engaged to him. Antipholus(S) and his servant decide to flee Ephesus, but as they’re looking for a ship to carry them, Dromio(S) is given the gold chain intended for Antipholus(E).
The goldsmith who gave Dromio(S) the chain meets a merchant who has just been arrested for his debts. The goldsmith owes that merchant the same sum of money that Antipholus(E) owes him for the gold chain originally intended for the latter’s wife, now in the possession of Dromio(S). Antipholus(E) turns up, sends his servant to buy rope with which to whip his servants for locking him out, then tells the goldsmith off for not delivering his gold chain. Believing that he has already done so, the goldsmith has Antipholus(E) arrested for debt. Dromio(S) tells Antipholus(E) that he has found a ship for them to escape Ephesus, but Antipholus(E) sends Dromio(S) back to his house for money to pay off the debt and avoid his imprisonment.
J Coghlan’s watercolour of A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene i from 1816 shows Antipholus(E) with an officer of the law and Dromio(E) holding a length of rope.
The wife of Antipholus(E) gives Dromio(S) the money her husband needs.
This 1827 engraving after an original painting by Henry Perronet Briggs shows Dromio, Adriana and Luciana.
When Dromio(S) returns, he meets his own master; surprised that he’s not in jail, the servant give him the money. Just as they’re about to leave to join their ship in the harbour, the courtesan meets them. Seeing the gold chain around the neck of Antipholus(S), she demands it, or the return of the diamond ring she gave Antipholus(E) during dinner. Antipholus(S) is convinced that she’s a witch, and the courtesan is equally sure they’re mad, which she decides to tell the wife of Antipholus(E).
Under arrest for debt, Antipholus(E) explodes with rage when Dromio(E) returns not with the money but a length of rope (and this may be the correct reference for Coghlan’s watercolour above). Adriana, her sister Luciana, the courtesan and an exorcist named Dr Pinch then arrive to confirm that Antipholus(E) is insane. The exorcist tries but fails to remove his devils. When Antipholus(E) asserts his sanity, he asks his wife why she locked him out, but she insists that they dined together. He then attacks her physically, and with his servant has to be restrained with the ropes and carried back home. When Adriana is trying to find out what happened, Antipholus(S) and Dromio(S) turn up with their swords, forcing everyone to flee, believing that the lunatics had escaped.
The goldsmith and merchant are discussing the problem of Antipholus(E) when Antipholus(S), still wearing the gold chain, and Dromio(S), turn up and deny having received the chain. They’re just about to fight when Adriana, her sister, the courtesan and others arrive to try to recapture the lunatics. Antipholus(S) and his servant seek sanctuary in a nearby priory, whose abbess insists that she will nurse them back to health, away from his wife’s constant reproaches about his infidelity.
Adriana is incensed and threatens to take the matter to the Duke of Ephesus, who arrives on his way to take Egeon to be executed. Adriana stops the Duke and pleads with him to exercise his authority and return her husband. She’s interrupted by news of the escape of Antipholus(E) and Dromio(E), who shortly arrive and appeal to the Duke for justice.
As they’re all trying to make sense of what has happened, Egeon asks Antipholus(E) to pay his ransom, but the latter denies him. The Abbess then brings Antipholus(S) and Dromio(S). This reveals their identities, including the two pairs of twins, and the Abbess, who turns out to be Egeon’s long-lost wife Emilia. She and Antipholus(E) explain that they had originally been rescued by Corinthian fishermen, and only came to Ephesus later. Antipholus(E) offers to pay his father’s ransom, but the Duke frees Egeon without payment. With all debts settled, Emilia invites them all to a long-delayed christening party for her twin boys. Last to leave are the Dromio twins, who are confused as to which is the senior, so walk off hand in hand.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.