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Royal Shakespeare Company, 1996

The Comedy of Errors

Summary of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors: Antiphonus searches for his long lost identical twin brother, Antiphonus, while his servant, Dromio, searches for his long lost identical twin brother, Dromio. Shenanigans ensue.

Act I

Duke Solinus, ruler of Ephesus, presides over the trial of Egeon of Syracuse, who has been detained on account of his nationality.  Asked why he is now in Ephesus, Egeon explains how he is searching for his lost twin sons and their twin servants. Twenty three years before, Egeon had lost his wife and one of their identical twin sons (along with the boy's slave) in a storm at sea. Egeon had brought up the surviving boy and his slave; but at eighteen, they had gone in search of their lost brothers. Not hearing from them, Egeon had also left home to seek news and has now arrived at Ephesus. Solinus is softened by the story and allows Egeon until sunset to try to raise 1000 marks as a ransom, or else he must die.

I to the world am like a drop of water that in the ocean seeks another drop

— Comedy of Errors, Act 1 Scene 2

Meanwhile, in a nearby marketplace, a merchant has befriended two tourists: Antipholus of Syracuse (Egeon's son) and his servant companion, Dromio. Learning of the ban on Syracusians, they put on local dress before going to explore the town, where, unknown to them, their twin brothers (with identical names) have been living after having been saved from the storm by fishermen who brought them up in Corinth.

Royal Shakespeare Company, 1996
Comedy of Errors, RSC, 1996

Act II

Antipholus of Syracuse is much surprised to be accosted by Dromio of Ephesus, who is angry that his master has not returned home to his wife, Adriana, for dinner. The likeness of the Dromio twins, and also the sons of Egeon, leads to a series of confusions including Antipholus of Syracuse dining with his supposed sister-in-law, and falling in love with her sister, Luciana. His servant, Dromio of Syracuse, refuses to open the door to anyone, including Antipholus of Ephesus, who has returned home with his merchant friends. This exclusion enrages Antipholus of Ephesus and leads him to dine with his friend, the courtesan.

Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?

— Comedy of Errors, Act 2 Scene 2

Act III–IV

A gold chain that had been previously ordered is delivered to Antipholus of Syracuse. The goldsmith’s claim for payment leads to the arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, who refuse to pay for a chain that they did not receive. Adriana, fearing for her husband's sanity, gets the schoolmaster to exorcise him and Dromio (both of Ephesus). While they are under restraint, their Syracusian brothers cause panic in the town, when people think that the Ephesian brothers have somehow escaped. The Syracusian brothers, also frightened, take refuge in a priory, or abbey.

Mask worn by one of the twins in ‘The Comedy of Errors’ in 1962 (Image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company)
Mask worn by one of the twins in ‘The Comedy of Errors’, RSC, 1962

Act V

The sunset hour of Egeon's sentence is soon approaching. The Duke returns, but is stopped by Adriana, who appeals for aid for her husband. The Ephesian twins escape their bonds and arrive to claim justice. Egeon recognises them, or so he thinks, as the boys he brought up in Syracuse. Solinus sends for the Abbess, who appears with the second pair of twins. She further amazes everyone by recognising Egeon. She reveals herself as Emilia, his long-lost wife, who had entered a religious order after surviving the storm and fearing that all her family were dead.

O, grief hath changed me since you saw me last.

— Comedy of Errors, Act 5 Scene 1

When all have told their stories, Antipholus of Syracuse renews his suit to Luciana, the Duke pardons Egeon, and everyone goes to celebrate with Emilia at the temple. The two Dromios joyfully leave the stage hand in hand.

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