Years ago, the merchant Egeon was sailing with his wife, twin sons and twin servants when a shipwreck divided his family. He, along with one twin son and one servant, was rescued by a passing ship; a separate ship saved his wife and the other twin son and servant. Egeon and his one son and servant settled in Syracuse.
Now an adult, Egeon’s son Antipholus of Syracuse (hereafter Antipholus S.) sets out with his servant Dromio (hereafter Dromio S.) to find their lost brothers. When they fail to return, Egeon began to search for them, his other son and servant and his wife. His search brings him to Ephesus, a town traditionally hostile to Syracuse. Each town has decreed death to any citizen from the rival precinct. Egeon is discovered, and Duke Solinus sentences him to death. Egeon accepts his impending death as a means to end his grief and misery. Hearing this, Solinus extends a one-day stay of execution to allow Egeon to raise bail money to save himself.
Antipholus S. and Dromio S. arrive in Ephesus on the same day as Egeon, and the master sends his servant to put away some money for safekeeping at their inn. Shortly, Dromio of Ephesus (hereafter Dromio E.) runs into the visiting Antipholus. Thinking him his master, he urges him to return home posthaste for dinner. Antipholus S. asks Dromio E. if the money is safe. Confused, the servant denies knowledge of any money, and gets beaten for his pains.
Waiting, as always, for her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus (hereafter Antipholus E.), Adriana and her sister Luciana discuss the plight of married women. Adriana’s servant Dromio E. interrupts and recounts his strange encounter with the man he thinks is his master. Adriana sets out to fetch her husband and encounters the visiting Antipholus and Dromio and brings them home. When the local Antipholus and Dromio arrive home, they find themselves locked out. Enraged, Antipholus E. goes to a Courtesan and promises her the gold chain he’d intended for his wife.
Episodes of mistaken identity continue, following a pattern: The visiting Antipholus receives good fortune while the local Antipholus experiences such misfortune that he feels like a foreigner in his own community.
Antipholus S. courts Luciana, who rejects his advances because she believed he is her sister’s husband. Antipholus E. is arrested for refusing to pay for the gold chain that was mistakenly delivered to his twin brother earlier that day. The Courtesan demands Antipholus S. give her the promised chain. Convinced the town is filled with witchcraft (as is Ephesus' reputation), he and Dromio S. try to escape. They find sanctuary in a nearby priory with the Abbess.
Meanwhile, Adriana, Luciana and the Courtesan hire Dr. Pinch to cure Antipholus and Dromio E. of what they perceive as madness, and the doctor takes the pair away. But they escape and meet their household outside the priory. Duke Solinus enters with Egeon on his way to be executed, and the Abbess appears with Antipholus and Dromio S. The family reunion is completed, which includes a revelation that Egeon’s wife is the Abbess. Solinus pardons Egeon.
The figures in The Comedy of Errors derive from stock characters that originated in Roman comedies and found their greatest expression in Italian commedia dell’arte. Based on fixed social types, many evolved into the favorite archetypal characters of European drama in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here are some of the most popular:
Pantalone is a lecherous, miserly old Venetian merchant. He is most often portrayed as rich and retired. Sometimes he is poor, sometimes a father, other times a bachelor. (Egeon)
Arlecchino, or Harlequin, was the most popular of the comic servants. He is at once witty, insolent, mocking, inept, clownish and emphatically ribald. (The Dromios)
The Inamorato and Inamorata went by many names and had no recognizable traits other than being in love. Typically, they are rational beings under ordinary circumstances; however, being in love thrusts them into states of absurdity marked by jealously, fickleness, vanity, selfishness, self-obsession and excessive passion. (Luciana and Antipholus of Syracuse)
Columbina is servant to the Inamorata and the beloved of Harlequin. She is self-sufficient and possesses a keen and active wit. (Luce and Nell)
Dottore (the doctor) presents himself as a learned man who specializes in everything. At his core, he is pompous and fraudulent. According to Pierre Louis Duchartre in The Italian Comedy, “There is no record in history of any case that Dottore has ever cured.” (Doctor Pinch)
La Ruffiana is often represented as an older woman who is either a current or former prostitute, a mother or a village gossip. On occasion, she has been called a witch. (Courtesan)
An edited version reprinted from OSF’s 2014 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.