The Comedy of Errors

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Summary

After both being separated from their twins in a shipwreck, Antipholus and his slave Dromio go to Ephesus to find them. The other set of twins lives in Ephesus, and the new arrivals cause a series of incidents of mistaken identity. At the end, the twins find each other and their parents and resolve all of the problems caused earlier.

Identity

One of the key thematic components of Comedy of Errors is it’s focus on the search for identity. This is a theme common in many of Shakespeare’s plays, with identity and misconception often being intertwined. In Othello, misconception and deception were used to explore the isolation of the plays central character. As seen in our section on Othello, an increased use of I is a common feature of plays based on misunderstanding. This section will look at how “I” is used in Comedy of Errors and how this contributes to the theme of identity construction. All data from this section derives from data taken from the Extractor program and analysed through AntConc.

One of the play’s central characters, Antipholus of Syracuse, illustrates the importance of identity when he describes his quest to find his mother and brother in the following way:

“I to the world am like a drop of water That in the ocean seeks another drop, Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself. So I, to find a mother and a brother, In quest of them unhappy, lose myself.” (Act 1, Scene 2)

“I to the world am like a drop of water That in the ocean seeks another drop, Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself. So I, to find a mother and a brother, In quest of them unhappy, lose myself.” (Act 1, Scene 2)

As shown in Figure 1, “I” is consistently used more than “we” throughout each act of the play. Interestingly, both “I” and “we” are more frequently used at the end of the play, with Act 4, Scene 3 having the lowest use of “I” and Act 5, Scene 1 having the highest. The final scene of the play having the greatest use of “I” and “we” makes sense when considering what occurs in this act. The play’s final scene features the most heightened confusion of identity, as well as the ultimate reveal of the twin’s true identity. From this, it makes sense that this scene would have the greatest use of “I” as it is when the reality of the situation is exposed, and their identities is ultimately revealed. Comparatively, the use of “we” being
highest in the final scene also makes the most amount of sense as it this scene ultimately ends with the twins being reunited. This companionship is perhaps best illustrated in the final line of the play, said by Dromio of Ephesus:

“We came into the world like brother and brother, And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.” (Act 5, Scene 1)

Dromio’s final line ultimately illustrates the completion of the quest outlined by Antipholus of Syracuse. The emphasis not to go “one before another” illustrates an acceptance of their new homosocial relationship and an acceptance of their identities by those around them.

Looking specifically at the Antipholus twins (Figure 2), we can see the contrast between the use of “I” by both twins. Interestingly, in the middle acts of the play both Antipholus’ have the greatest uses of “I”, illustrating the confusion around their identity as both twins have to assert their identity against the confusion of the world around them. From this, it is understandable why “I” would be used most frequently during this section. It is also worth considering that both twins do not speak in the same act till act 4, scene 4. Antipholus of Syracuse has the greatest uses of the word “I”, comparatively, which could be argues to illustrate his journey towards self-discovery throughout the play. Antipholus of Ephesus, however, has a greater use of “I” in the final scenes. This makes sense when considering that Antipholus of Syracuse is the imposter, taking the life of his twin which means that in the final scenes it is Antipholus of Ephesus who must defend his identity in order to reclaim it.

The Dromio twins have perhaps the most illustrative example of how the use of “I” can reveal thematic aspects of the text. Unlike the Antipholus twins, both Dromion’s have the highest uses of “I” during the periods where one of them is confused for the other. Though this is similar for the Antipholus twins, the Dromio twins are both servants and thus they have less authority to convince the world of their truth. This is perhaps best illustrated by Dromio of Syracuse’s conversation with Antipholus of Syracuse in Act 3, Scene 2.

“Do you know me sir? Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?” (Act 3, Scene 2)

Here Dromio, instead of asserting his identity against the backdrop of misconception, questions his master to reveal the truth of his identity. Dromio is himself uncertain, unlike the Antipholus twins, and thus his identity becomes the product of his environment. This makes the Dromio twins effectively interchangeable. This also reflects one of the broader explanations of identity in the play. Both twins are the product of their environment, Antipholus of Syracuse is shaped by the quest for his mother and brother, whereas Antipholus of Ephesus is defined by his loveless marriage. This isn’t reflected in the Dromio twins however, but that is more likely a product of their similarity. Both Dromio twins have the same position, as servants, and thus their identities are likely more the product of their position than where they were born. The Antipholus twins, however, appear to be shaped more by their social environment as both long for the homo-social bonding they ultimately find.

The analysis so far has focused solely on the frequency of “I” usage in Comedy of Errors, but not on how “I” is used in the play.

Figure 4 illustrates the most frequent bigram usage between the two central Antipholus twins. From the data presented, a number of interesting observations can be made. For both Antipholus’ the bigram “I’ll” and “I will” are used most which demonstrates, perhaps, the farcical nature of the play. Comedy of Errors is a play in which characters actions drive the narrative, with comedy and tension derive from each character’s perception of reality. As Antipholus of Syracuse is on a journey to find his brother and mother, this may explain his more frequent use of “I’ll” as it is his quest which drives the narrative foreword. Antipholus of Syracuse also uses “I am”, “I know” and “I pray” more than his twin and uses “I think”, “I shall” and “I cannot” when his twin does not. The greater use of “I am” and “I know” is important to consider as these are both declarative statements, and can thus be seen to demonstrate the confusion over Antipholus of Syracuse’s true identity, with “I pray” illustrating his optimism in resolving the play’s central confusion. It is also worth considering the fact that “I cannot” is one of the least frequent “I” bigrams which Antipholus of Syracuse solely uses. Looking at Antipholus of Ephesus, it is worth considering that he uses “I never”, “I did” and “I had” while his twin does not. This illustrates a greater negativity presented by Antipholus of Ephesus, with all the “I” bigrams focusing on the past tense, this perhaps demonstrates the fact he has had his identity stolen by his twin brother.

Comparing this with Egeon, who is not featured in this graph due to his minor role in the play, his bigram usage reflects his lost son, Antipholus of Ephesus. Both “I am” and “I had” are the most frequently used by Egeon. This could be said to illustrate his quest to regain his identity through reuniting his family. Although both twins have “I am” as one of their most frequent bigrams, Egeon does not use “I’ll” or “I will” because he does not push the plot forward, but instead his speech functions more as the framing device/background to the play. The fact that “I had” is also one of the most frequently used words for Antipholus of Ephesus, it could be argued this comparison could illustrate the comparatively similar journeys of both characters. Both father and son attempt to regain their identity by attempting to gain what they have lost, which is their family in both cases.