The Comedy of Errors is an early play by William Shakespeare. It is his shortest play, and one of his most farcical: while some of its humor derives from puns and wordplay, a large part comes from slapstick and mistaken identity. The Comedy of Errors is distinctive for observing the classical unities. The only other Shakespeare play to do this is The Tempest.
The plot is based on Roman comedy: the Menaechmi, and to a smaller extent, the Amphitruo, of Plautus. It concerns the identical twins Antipholus of Ephesus (in Asia Minor) and Antipholus of Syracuse (in Sicily), and their respective identical twin servants, Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse. When Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse visit Ephesus, the local people confuse them with their resident twins. As the two sets of twins appear in different places at inconvenient times, the "errors" of mistaken identity give rise to a number of humorous situations.
The Duke of the Anatolian city of Ephesus is about to execute Egeon, an aged merchant from Syracuse, because of a law that all Syracusans visiting Ephesus must pay a fine, or else be executed. Egeon says that he looks forward to his death, since his life has been nothing but sorrow. He explains that as a young man, he married and had twin sons. The same day his twins were born, he discovered a poor woman who had also just given birth to twin boys, and he purchased these children to be slaves to his sons. Soon afterward, the family had to make a sea voyage, during the course of which they came upon a violent tempest. After his sailors abandoned him and took off with the lifeboat, Egeon lashed himself to the main-mast with one son and one slave, while his wife lashed herself to the mizzen with the other children. They rode out the storm and saw two caravels approaching when a rock suddenly split their raft in two. The wife and the children with her were rescued by one boat, and Egeon and his children were rescued by the other. The boats could not catch up with each other, and Egeon never again saw his wife and the children with her.
Eighteen years later, Egeon's son and his slave decided to search for their brothers. But when the son did not return, Egeon grew worried and set out in search of him; this is the reason he has come to Ephesus.
The Duke takes pity on Egeon, and gives him the rest of the day to try to obtain the money he needs to avoid execution.
That same day, Egeon's son Antipholus of Syracuse is in Ephesus as part of his search for his brother. He sends his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, on an errand to deposit a certain sum of money at "the Centaur, where we host." He is confounded when Dromio of Ephesus reappears shortly afterwards, denying any knowledge of the money and asking him to come home to dinner, where his wife is waiting and growing impatient. Antipholus beats Dromio until he runs away, and grows enraged, especially when informed that he has a wife. He goes to check on the safety of his money.
Dromio of Ephesus returns to his mistress, Adriana, and tells her that her "husband" refused to come home, and even pretended not to know her. Adriana has already been worried that her husband's eye is straying, and this news only confirms 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 of Syracuse, who denies making a joke about Antipholus having a wife. Antipholus beats him. Suddenly, Adriana rushes up to Antipholus and begs him not to leave her. The Syracusans can only 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 locked out of his own domicile. He is ready to break down the door, but then decides to have dinner with a Courtesan he knows, instead.
Inside the house, Antipholus of Syracuse discovers that he is very attracted to Adriana's sister, Luciana. 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," which leads to a series of vulgar puns. (Ireland is said to be in Nell's "buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.") 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 Adriana for locking him out, then is accosted by Angelo, who asks to be reimbursed for the chain. Antipholus denies ever seeing it, and is promptly arrested. Dromio of Syracuse enters and announces that he has booked passage on a ship for himself and his master. Antipholus, confused, sends him back to Adriana's house to get money for his bail. After completing this errand, Dromio mistakenly delivers the money to Antipholus of Syracuse. The Courtesan then enters, spies Antipholus wearing the gold chain, and says he promised to give it to her.
The Syracusans deny this charge and flee, while the Courtesan resolves to go to Adriana and tell her that her husband is insane. Dromio of Ephesus returns to the arrested Antipholus of Ephesus with the rope that he was sent to buy a few scenes previously. Antipholus is infuriated because he thinks Dromio spent all the bail money on a rope. Adriana, Luciana, the Courtesan, and a conjurer named Doctor Pinch enter. Pinch tries to exorcise the Ephesans, who protest that they are not mad; but since their story of the day's events does not match Adriana's, she thinks they are insane. The Ephesians are bound and taken to Adriana's house, as a "cure" for madness.
The Syracusans enter, carrying swords, and everybody runs off for fear that they are the Ephesans, out for vengeance after somehow escaping their bonds.
The Syracusans encounter Angelo again, followed by Adriana, who attempts to bind them. They take sanctuary in a nearby priory. The Abbess of the priory refuses to release the Syracusans.
The Duke and Egeon enter, on their way to Egeon's execution. Adriana begs the Duke to force the Abbess to release her "husband." A messenger from Adriana's house runs in and announces that the Ephesans have broken loose from their bonds and tortured Doctor Pinch. Everyone is confused, especially when the Ephesans enter and ask the Duke for justice against Adriana, who shut their doors against them, arranged for Angelo to ask for money without producing the chain, and hired Doctor Pinch. The Duke realizes that no two versions of the story are the same, and resolves to ask the Abbess what happened.
Egeon then asks the Ephesans if they recognize him, their father, but obviously they have never met him. Suddenly, the Abbess enters with the Syracusan twins. She explains that not only are the two sets of twins reunited with Egeon, but that she is Egeon's wife and mother to the twins. After the shipwreck, fishermen snatched the children from her, and she became a votaress of the local cloister (took religious vows).
The Duke immediately pardons Egeon. All exit into the abbey to sort out the events of the day, and celebrate the reunification of the family. The Dromios have the final word, as one tells the other, "There is a fat friend at your master's house... She now shall be my sister, not my wife" and they declare "let's go hand in hand, not one before another."
William Warner's translation of the Menaechmi was entered in the Stationers' Register on June 10, 1594. A performance of The Comedy of Errors by "a company of base and common fellows" is recorded in the Gesta Grayorum (Gray's Inn Guestbook) as taking place in Gray's Inn hall on December 28, 1594. The play contains a topical reference to the wars of succession in France which would fit any date from 1589 to 1594.
Although the primary goal of The Comedy of Errors is entertainment, an astute reader or director can also find deeper themes within it; appearance versus reality, time, coincidence and love are some of the themes found within the literary work. The play is also concerned with questions of identity and how a person may become known by others through appearance, by name, or through individual actions and choices.
Because of the confusing events that happen to them, both the Syracusan and Ephesan twins think they have gone insane at different points in the play. Madness is a major theme in Shakespeare's mature works Hamlet and King Lear, and The Comedy of Errors proves that Shakespeare was interested in it much earlier in his career.
The Comedy of Errors also proves that even the lightest farce gains emotional resonance when grounded in seriousness. Because the play opens with an old man about to be executed, there is a slight shadow cast over all the funny events that follow. Many farces are ultimately "pointless," but Egeon's pardoning and the reunited family gives The Comedy of Errors a happy, not just a humorous, ending.