The Mystical Meaning of The Comedy of Errors

The Mystical Meaning of The Comedy of Errors

Kenneth Chan

 

The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s nascent works. It demonstrates that Shakespeare, even from his inception as a playwright, has already crystallized his intent to deliver profound messages through his plays. All of Shakespeare’s plays are meticulously crafted to convey deep messages to humanity, with the meaning of each play instilled in us—at times, subconsciously—through our emotional involvement in the drama. The Comedy of Errors clearly displays this quality, an initiatic quality akin to learning from direct experience.

While many view The Comedy of Errors as an early farce by the bard, Shakespeare actually injects it with an astonishing new dimension. He frames the entire play within two scenes quite foreign to the genre. These scenes grimly focus on a man being condemned to die for merely being a “Syracusian.” Thus, with almost alarming artistic originality, Shakespeare provides an ominous backdrop to the comedy, and effectively transforms it from a mere farce into a powerful message for humanity.

The real “error” highlighted in The Comedy of Errors is not that of mistaken identity. It is something deeper. The real error—that the play focuses on—is our distorted perception of reality. This flawed perception obscures the spiritual truth of our universal oneness, and instead conjures up a shattered world of separation, conflict and turmoil.

The actual error, highlighted in the play, is in our mistaking the artificial labels—that we bestow upon ourselves—as being inherently real. While labels may be needed for communication, we unfortunately bestow them with a property that labels do not possess. We treat labels as inherently real entities that truly exist on their own right, rather than as mere names artificially assigned by us. This mistake perverts our lives and destroys the experience of our transcendent unity.

In The Comedy of Errors, the labels “Syracusian” and “Ephesian” are considered, by our deluded perception, to be inherently real. So real, in fact, that one’s life can be forfeit for merely possessing the wrong label!

While The Comedy of Errors does barely escape a tragic end—courtesy of extraordinarily fortuitous circumstances in the play—the situation in real life may not be as fortunate. The message in the play is thus a crucial one, and Shakespeare characteristically conveys its meaning by making us live through it. Our propensity for mistaking our artificial labels as being inherently real has dire consequences in the real world, and in The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare makes us experience the potential harm of this critical flaw in our thinking.

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Act I Scene 1

The Comedy of Errors begins with the dramatic entrance of Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse, bound in chains and under sentence of death—a penalty he incurs for being a Syracusian found inside the city of Ephesus. He speaks his woe to Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus:

Egeon   Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall,

         And by the doom of death end woes and all.

Duke   Merchant of Syracusa, plead no more.

         I am not partial to infringe our laws;

         The enmity and discord which of late

         Sprung from the rancorous outrage of your Duke

         To merchants, our well-dealing countrymen,

         Who, wanting guilders to redeem their lives,

         Have seal’d his rigorous statutes with their bloods,

         Excludes all pity from our threat’ning looks

We learn from the Duke that a conflict between Syracuse and Ephesus has led to a reciprocal bloody decree of death to any of the adversaries’ citizens found within their opposing cities. As a result, Egeon of Syracuse now faces the death penalty for venturing into Ephesus.

Egeon is thus to die in Ephesus for no crime other than merely possessing the wrong label “Syracusian.” If we look beyond the mundane to the deeper spiritual reality, we will realize, however, that any label of this nature is not inherently real. It is an artificiality invented by man and neither defines a person nor his identity—something that Shakespeare proceeds to demonstrate through the entire play.

Egeon, upon the request of the Duke, now reluctantly relates how he came to be in Ephesus. Born in Syracuse, Egeon made his wealth through prosperous trade voyages to Epidamnum. During a stay at Epidamnum, his wife, Emilia, gave birth to two identical twin boys who were indistinguishable by appearance. At that time, Egeon also bought another pair of identical twin boys from an exceedingly poor family, and raised them as servants to attend to his own two sons.

On a sea voyage home to Syracuse, a fearsome storm arose, and a subsequent shipwreck tore apart the happy household into two groups. Emilia, together with one son and one of the servant boys, were rescued by fishermen of Corinth, while Egeon, with the other son and servant boy, were picked up by another boat and taken to another city. Thus were the family broken into the two parties that have been lost to each other since.

Halfway through his narration, Egeon breaks off, protesting that it is too painful for him to continue.

Egeon   … O, let me say no more;

         Gather the sequel by that went before.

Duke   Nay forward, old man, do not break off so,

         For we may pity, though not pardon thee.

The Duke’s statement raises this question: Why not pardon? This dramatic pause in Egeon’s tale is designed to evoke exactly this response from the audience. Is the Duke’s man-made law more important than a man’s life, particularly the life of one guilty of no crime other than being at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong label?

Labels are not inherently real. We are not born with a label engraved on our body, and no part of a man’s body inherently links him to his label. Yet in the real world, we even kill because of a person’s label. This delusion of mistaking the label as being inherently real obscures the underlying reality, a reality that Shakespeare tries to convey to us through the play.

Egeon continues his tale and we learn that, at the age of eighteen, his son together with his attendant left him to seek their respective lost brothers. Over the last five years, through Greece and the bounds of Asia, Egeon himself has also been searching for his sons, a quest that finally lands him in Ephesus and into his current predicament. After hearing Egeon’s tale, the Duke responds thus:

Duke   Hapless Egeon, whom the fates have marked

         To bear the extremity of dire mishap;

         Now trust me, were it not against our laws,

         Against my crown, my oath, my dignity,

         Which princes, would they, may not disannul,

         My soul should sue as advocate for thee.

The key point here is this. The Duke’s own feelings run against the very property he has imposed upon the label “Syracusian”—the property that those bearing this label are to die if found in Ephesus. As the Duke’s own feelings suggest, the property attached to the label could easily have been very different, and that means that the assigned property is not inherent in the label, but merely imputed upon it. Here, then is an echo of the problem incessantly portrayed in Much Ado About Nothing—namely, the imputation of a quality upon an object that is not inherent to it.

To compound the error, the label “Syracusian” is now, in turn, arbitrarily assigned to Egeon, an attribute that is also not inherent in him. “Syracusian” is nothing but a mere label, an artificiality that is not inherently real. We now have a contrived property imputed upon a label that is itself another contrived property imputed upon a person. Thus we have an error piled upon another error, which is the real nature of the “comedy of errors” that the play’s title refers to. The horror of it all is that these artificialities are now about to lead to the death of a man!

In an effort to ease his own misgivings concerning the tragic situation, the Duke does, in the end, allow one concession:

Duke   But though thou art adjudged to the death,

         And passed sentence may not be recalled

         But to our honour’s great disparagement,

         Yet will I favour thee in what I can.

         Therefore, merchant, I’ll limit thee this day

         To seek thy hope by beneficial help;

         Try all the friends thou hast in Ephesus,

         Beg thou or borrow to make up the sum,

         And live. If no, then thou art doomed to die.

Thus the countdown begins. Egeon has only until sunset to procure a ransom of a thousand marks to save his life, a task he deems impossible. His precarious situation forms the ominous backdrop for the rest of the play, and we are reminded, on numerous occasions, of the passage of time and thus, indirectly, of how Egeon’s hours are inexorably running out.

There is great irony in Egeon’s predicament. He is condemned to die because of his label “Syracusian”—an artificiality that, in our deluded perception of its inherent reality, leads us to a mistaken world of separation and conflict. The irony is that this predicament has befallen him while he is on a quest of unification (of his lost family), a process which concurs with the underlying transcendent reality of nonseparation.

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Act I Scene 2

The scene now shifts to yet another Syracusian venturing into Ephesus. Antipholus of Syracuse (the son of Egeon), together with his bondsman, Dromio, has just arrived in the same quest of unification with their lost brothers. They are warned by a fellow merchant of the danger they face in Ephesus and are advised to conceal their “Syracusian identity.”

This proves to be of little problem because there really is no such thing as a “Syracusian identity.” It is merely a label and this label clearly cannot distinguish these Syracusians from the Ephesians. The whole comedic situation of the play is, in fact, dependent on exactly this fact—that there is no inherent difference between Syracusian and Ephesian. The entire farcical situation is thus aimed at making us experience exactly this point.

Shakespeare wants us to realize that it is our delusion—that these labels are inherently real—that conjures up a world of separation and conflict. This distorted perception is a tragic illusion that conceals the underlying transcendent reality of universal oneness, a condition hinted at by Antipholus in the following passage:

Syr. Antipholus   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.

There are many levels of meaning in Antipholus’s statement that he loses himself. The direct meaning is that he gets unhappily distracted by his desperate quest to be united with his lost family. He is, however, about to “lose himself” in another way—by losing his “identity” in the ensuing farcical confusion of mistaken identity. At a deeper level, however, “losing himself” refers to the loss of separation between the self and others. This underlying state of nonseparation is also suggested by the first two lines of the passage above—we are all actually like water in water; at a profound spiritual level, there is no inherent demarcation between us.

The real comedy now begins when Antipholus of Syracuse encounters Dromio of Ephesus, and they mistake each other for their respective twin brothers. Antipholus of Syracuse had earlier sent his Dromio with his money to the inn for safekeeping. Dromio of Ephesus, on the other hand, is on an errand to bring his master home to dinner.

Syr. Antipholus   What now? How chance thou art return’d so soon?

Eph. Dromio   Returned so soon? Rather approached too late.

         The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit;

         The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell, …

Here is the first reminder of the passage of time, and hence of the countdown facing Egeon who has till sunset to procure the ransom needed to save his life.

The Ephesian Dromio proceeds to complain about Antipholus not returning home for dinner, while Antipholus responds by demanding to know where his money is. The ensuing confusion between the Syracusian Antipholus and the wrong Dromio is true farcical theatre, and eventually earns Dromio of Ephesus an unwarranted beating at the hands of his master’s twin brother.

The point of the whole episode, though, is to impress upon us that there is really no distinction between Syracusian and Ephesian. They easily pass for each other. Yet, a man has been sentenced to death merely for having the label “Syracusian” instead of the label “Ephesian.”

This bizarre situation suggests that our perception of the world may be deluded: we impute an unwarranted reality onto our labels and this distorts our perception of the truth. Thus, in the real world beyond the theatre, we may also be functioning under a fog of illusion, a condition akin to that Antipholus suspects he may have been trapped in:

Syr. Antipholus   They say this town is full of cozenage,

         As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,

         Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,

         Soul-killing witches that deform the body,

         Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,

         And many suchlike libertines of sin.

Although Antipholus’s confusion is actually caused by mistaken identity, we are no less caught in a similar web of illusion if we allow our labels to obscure our perception of the underlying truth—the truth of our universal oneness. 

The idea that our life in the “real” world is not our true state of being is a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare frequently suggests that our lives are akin to a stage performance, an act not representative of our true state of being. Because of our mistaken perception of the world, we often live our lives in a state of delusion, a state we desperately need to awaken from.  

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Act II Scene 1

The scene next shifts to the home of the Ephesian Antipholus where his wife, Adriana, is in conversation with her sister, Luciana. Adriana is complaining to her sister about her husband, Antipholus, who has still not returned for dinner even though it is now two o’clock. Luciana, however, has some rather marked views concerning the roles of husband and wife.

Luciana   Good sister let us dine, and never fret;

         A man is master of his liberty;

         Time is their master, and when they see time,

         They’ll go or come; if so, be patient, sister.

Adriana   Why should their liberty than ours be more?

Luciana   Because their business still lies o’door.

Adriana   Look, when I serve him so, he takes it ill.

Luciana   O, know he is the bridle of your will.

Adriana   There’s none but asses will be bridled so.

Luciana   Why, headstrong liberty is lashed with woe.

         There’s nothing situate under heaven’s eye

         But hath his bound in earth, in sea, in sky.

         The beasts, the fishes, and the winged fowls

         Are their males’ subjects, and at their controls;

         Man, more divine, the master of all these,

         Lord of the wide world and wild watery seas,

         Indued with intellectual sense and souls,

         Of more pre-eminence than fish and fowls,

         Are masters to their females, and their lords:

         Then let your will attend on their accords.

This is part of the thematic resonance that Shakespeare establishes in this play. In a similar way to the Duke imputing artificial values onto the label “Syracusian,” we now see Luciana imputing her artificial values onto the labels of husband and wife. In neither case are these values inherent in their labels.

Here is also an echo of the double error that the Duke is guilty of, with regards to the labels “Syracusian” and “Ephesian.” The first error is the imputation of an artificial value upon a label, and the second error is the imputation of the label upon a person and thinking that the label is an inherent thing belonging to that person. Both the Duke and Luciana have imputed values upon a label and then imputed the label upon a person. And they have both tried to impose their imputed values upon others. The Duke does this to the extent that he imposes a death sentence merely for the possession of the “wrong” label!

While both the values and the labels are merely imputed things, they are nonetheless often imposed upon others. Adriana’s response to Luciana’s attempt to do this is certainly appropriate:

Adriana   This servitude makes you to keep unwed.

Luciana   Not this, but troubles of the marriage bed.

Adriana   But were you wedded you would bear some sway.

Luciana   Ere I learn love, I’ll practise to obey.

Adriana   How if your husband start some other where?

Luciana   Till he come home again I would forbear.

Adriana   Patience unmoved! no marvel though she pause;

         They can be meek that have no other cause.

         A wretched soul bruis’d with adversity,

         We bid be quiet when we hear it cry;

         But were we burden’d with like weight of pain,

         As much, or more, we should ourselves complain;

Adriana’s response does make it clear that Luciana’s values are not inherent in the labels of husband and wife, but are merely artificially imputed values. Her comment is also significant in another way: we often impose artificial rules and values without due consideration; should we ourselves become the victims of these same rules, we may well abandon them.

Likewise, the Duke’s claim that the dignity of his laws, crown, etc., requires him to condemn Egeon, emphasizes that the imputed values are not inherently real. The real test for the appropriateness of such rules is to place ourselves in the shoes of those victimized by them and experience what it is like. Laws that contradict nature are often deemed dignified until we ourselves become victim. Of particular relevance here is the Duke’s law concerning Egeon. If the Duke were in Egeon’s shoes—if he himself were condemned to die for merely possessing the wrong label—it would be hardly conceivable that he would continue upholding statutes of this kind.

In the midst of Adriana’s conversation with Luciana, the Ephesian Dromio returns. He recounts to his mistress his eventful encounter with the Syracusian Antipholus, whom he had mistaken for his master. He informs Adriana of the beating he received, and of Antipholus’s denial of wife and home.

An agitated Adriana again despatches Dromio—despite his ernest protestations—to fetch Antipholus home. She then pours out her grievances to her sister, stating that if Antipholus no longer finds her appealing, it is nonetheless he who had been responsible for her state.

Adriana   What ruins are in me that can be found

         By him not ruin’d?

Adriana then tells of a chain that Antipholus promised her, and how she would rather have Antipholus remain faithful than to receive the gift. She continues:

Adriana   I see the jewel best enamelled

         Will lose his beauty; yet the gold bides still

         That others touch, and often touching will,

         Where gold, and no man that hath a name

         By falsehood and corruption doth it shame.

This passage has caused much confusion among critics. It has often been regarded as corrupt and a number of attempts have been made to tinker with the wording in order to make some sense out of it. Actually, the words reflect the central message behind the whole play and need no alteration.

The passage states that the inner beauty and underlying reality is marred by falsehood and corruption. “Where gold, and no man that hath a name” refers to the underlying transcendent reality. This underlying reality is, however, brought to shame by the labelling and false artificialities we attach to them. The phrase “often touching” symbolizes our propensity to spoil the underlying purity by assigning all sorts of contrived and artificial attributes and labels to it.

Thus, while Adriana may be depicting how her outer features are being marred while her inner being remains unchanged, the passage also reiterates the main theme of the play—which is that man, in his pure state, do not have those characteristics artificially imposed on him by labels. The labels are not inherent and do not define him or his identity, a sentiment later echoed by the famous words from Romeo and Juliet:

Juliet   What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

         By any other word would smell as sweet.

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Act II Scene 2

In the next scene, the Syracusian Antipholus meets up again with his correct bondsman, the Syracusian Dromio. Another humorous altercation ensues when Dromio denies ever telling Antipholus of a mistress awaiting him for dinner.

The unfortunate Dromio gets a beating, and Antipholus advises him to “learn to jest in good time,” further adding that “there’s a time for all things.” Dromio, however, denies that there really is a time for all things because “there’s no time for a man to recover his hair that grows bald by nature.” This leads them into a long witty dialogue about Time.

The play marks time with ominous regularity to remind us of the countdown to Egeon’s execution: We are informed in Act I Scene 2 that it is twelve o’clock, in Act II Scene 1 that it is two o’clock, and now we are presented with a long dialogue on Time. The irony is that, amidst all the riotous confusion stemming from the inability to distinguish Syracusian from Ephesian, a man is actually facing execution merely for having the label “Syracusian” instead of “Ephesian.”

At another level, the recurring mention of time throughout the play is also a reminder that we too have limited time to correct our deluded perception of the world; we may well die before we learn to perceive the truth, and thus fail to realize a crucial spiritual principle.

Adriana and Luciana now appear on the scene to confront the Syracusian Antipholus and Dromio. Adriana immediately launches into a long speech on how she and Antipholus are inseparable. Her speech is ernest and passionate, but it is directed at the wrong Antipholus. While Adriana’s misdirected emotional speech is true farcical humor, it also serves to impress upon us that there is no real distinction between being labelled Syracusian or Ephesian. Her words echo those of Antipholus (earlier) that touch on the underlying reality of our spiritual oneness.

Adriana   For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall

         A drop of water in the breaking gulf,

         And take unmingled thence that drop again

         Without addition or diminishing,

         As take from me thyself, and not me too.

The image of our underlying inseparability—like water into water—is again invoked. At a deeper spiritual level, free from all superficial conceptualization and labelling, we are all united within a bond of universal oneness.

Adriana and Luciana then force Antipholus and Dromio back to their home for dinner. The Syracusian Antipholus and Dromio oblige while still in a daze over the confusing events.

Syr. Antipholus   What, was I married to her in my dream?

         Or sleep I now, and think I hear all this?

As in many of his other plays, Shakespeare suggests this question: In the real world, beyond the theatre, are we perhaps also asleep and dreaming? Having a distorted perception of reality is akin to living in a dream world, one that we need to awaken from.

At the end of this Act, Dromio is instructed to lock the door and prevent anyone from entering. This sets the scene for the next chaotic encounter between the twin counterparts in Act III.

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Act III Scene 1

Act III opens with the Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio heading home for dinner in the company of their invited guests, Angelo the goldsmith and Balthasar the merchant. Blissfully unaware that his twin brother had usurped his place at dinner, Antipholus engages in light-hearted banter about how Balthasar’s high regard for his dinner invitation may not be matched by the quality of Antipholus’s food. All this is neatly comic since we know that that very food is even now being eaten by someone else.

Their friendly banter breaks up when Antipholus finds the door to his house barred. Amidst mounting perplexity and annoyance, his attempts to gain entry are rebuffed by the taunts (from behind the door) of the Syracusian Dromio who is under command to keep all visitors out. 

Thus we have a situation directly contradicting the “labelling norm.” A Syracusian—whose label, if revealed, would be his death warrant—is being dined within in comfort, while his Ephesian counterpart is left out in the cold. Their labels—Syracusian or Ephesian—are mere words; without artificially imposing the connotations attached to them, these labels have no effect whatsoever.

Back at the scene, the Ephesian Dromio discovers, soon enough, the name of the person taunting them from behind the closed door.

Eph. Antipholus   What art thou that keep’st me out from the house I owe?

Syr. Dromio   The porter for this time, sir, and my name is Dromio.  

Eph. Dromio   O villain, thou hast stol’n both mine office and my name;

         The one ne’er got me credit, the other mickle blame;  

         If thou hadst been Dromio today in my place,

         Thou wouldst have chang’d thy face for a name, or thy name for an ass.

This last line has puzzled critics for years, and—like Adriana’s closing lines of Act II Scene 1—has prompted many differing alterations in order to make sense out of it. Yet, in line with the central theme of the play, this statement (like Adriana’s earlier statement) in its unaltered form makes good sense.

The Ephesian Dromio is saying that his supposed usurper is a fool to take his place because he had, only today, been beaten like an ass—hence his statement that his usurper has changed “thy name for an ass.” Changing our “face for a name” is another way of saying that we have changed our reality for a mere “label.” The statement thus points out that this act is as stupid as changing “thy name for an ass” and, in fact, reflects the central theme of the play. We distort our perception of the truth when we replace reality with labels, and then consider our labels as the reality.

Back at the scene, the witty altercation across the locked door continues with no sign that Antipholus will be allowed to enter his own home. The exasperated man finally decides to break down the door. Balthasar, however, dissuades him.

Balthasar   Have patience, sir. O, let it not be so!

         Herein you war against your reputation,

Here, Balthasar is being wary of the potential damage to what, effectively, is Antipholus’s label. According to Balthasar, there is, however, cause for concern because people unfortunately do attach too much unwarranted attention to our labels:

Balthasar   If by strong hand you offer to break in

         Now in the stirring passage of the day,

         A vulgar comment shall be made of it,

         And that supposed by the common rout

         Against your yet ungalled estimation,

         That may with foul intrusion enter in

         And dwell upon your grave when you are dead.

         For slander lives upon succession,

         For ever housed where it gets possession.

Here then is a commentary on the connotations that get attached to labels and how persistent they can be. They are prejudices that can remain long after they cease to be true. It is these false connotations that often make our delusion—of mistaking our labels as inherently real entities—so harmful.

In the end, Balthasar’s advice to protect his reputation does convince Antipholus not to break down his door. Antipholus decides instead to dine elsewhere with a courtesan he knows. To spite his wife, he also tells Angelo to bring the chain, originally meant for Adriana, so that he can now bestow it upon this other woman.

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Act III Scene 2

The opening part of this scene highlights one of the main influences labels have on us: it induces us to play roles that the labels fit us into. Within the house, Luciana—thinking that Antipholus’s love for Adriana has waned—advises this wrong Antipholus to falsely play the role of loving husband.

Luciana   And may it be that you have quite forgot

         A husband’s office? Shall, Antipholus,

         Even in the spring of love, thy love-springs rot?

         Shall love in building grow so ruinous?

         If you did wed my sister for her wealth,

         Then for her wealth’s sake use her with more kindness;

         Or if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth,

         Muffle your false love with some show of blindness.

         Let not my sister read it in your eye;

         Be not thy tongue thy own shame’s orator;

         Look sweet, speak fair, become disloyalty;

         Apparel vice like virtue’s harbinger;

         Bear a fair presence, though your heart be tainted;

         Teach sin the carriage of a holy saint,

         Be secret false; what need she be acquainted?

This encouraged fake role-playing is hypocritical enough, but here it is made doubly ironic because this Antipholus is not even Adriana’s husband; he has only been mistakenly attached with that label.

Shakespeare’s point is this: Our labels follow us like shadows and even moulds our behavior. Antipholus is being asked to do what we commonly do in real life—play the role that our label imposes upon us. Luciana is encouraging Antipholus to follow this widespread behavior.

Shakespeare further increases this irony, and the inappropriateness of this role-playing, by having the Syracusian Antipholus fall in love with Luciana. Antipholus now simply cannot play the role of loving husband to Adriana, and so protests:

Syr. Antipholus   Against my soul’s pure truth, why labour you

         To make it wander in an unknown field?

         Are you a god? Would you create me new?

         Transform me then, and to your power I’ll yield,

         But if that I am I, then well I know

         Your weeping sister is no wife of mine,

         Nor to her bed no homage do I owe;

         Far more, far more to you do I decline;

         O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note

         To drown me in thy sister’s flood of tears;

         Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;

         Spread o’er the silver waves thy golden hairs,

         And as a bed I’ll take thee, and there lie,

         And in that glorious supposition think

         He gains by death that hath such means to die;

         Let love, being light, be drowned if she sink.

This professed love of the Syracusian Antipholus for Luciana emphasizes again the illusory nature of our labels. There is nothing in the labels “Syracusian” and “Ephesian” to prevent a love relationship from developing. Furthermore, what would happen to these labels if a Syracusian weds an Ephesian? Surely these labels cannot now continue to designate the husband and wife as enemies. So do these labels denote anything that is inherently real?

Not realizing, however, that she is talking to the wrong Antipholus, Luciana is aghast at his words, and soon rushes off to fetch her sister. Meanwhile, a highly flustered Dromio bolts in.

We learn the source of Dromio’s agitation and bewilderment when he informs Antipholus that he, Dromio, had just been claimed by a fat kitchen wench, called Nell, for husband. Antipholus and Dromio now embark on a humorous irreverent dialogue that is, nonetheless, still focused on the central issue of his play, i.e. the issue of labels. Here we find Dromio labelling poor Nell’s globular anatomy with the names of different nations.  

Syr. Dromio   …she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.

Syr. Antipholus   In what part of her body stands Ireland?

Syr. Dromio   Marry, sir, in her buttocks; I found it out by the bogs.

Syr. Antipholus   Where Scotland?

Syr. Dromio   I found it by the barrenness, hard in the palm of the hand.

Syr. Antipholus   Where France?

Syr. Dromio   In her forehead, armed and reverted, making war against her heir.

Syr. Antipholus   Where England?

Syr. Dromio   I looked for the chalky cliffs, but I could find no whitenes in them. But I guess it stood in her chin, by the salt rheum that ran between France and it.

This is a focused allegorical scene, which illustrates a technique that is often used by Shakespeare to contribute artistically to the play’s central meaning. It is typical of Shakespeare’s plays that even scenes that seem unnecessary to the main action are there for a purpose. These scenes, in fact, serve as important clues to the meaning of Shakespeare’s plays. If these scenes do not contribute to the main action of the play, in all likelihood, they are there to contribute to its message. The humorous dialogue here—which appears unnecessary to the main action—serves to direct our attention once again to the central issue of the play: the issue of labelling. And Dromio illustrates this practice with great wit using the names of countries as labels.

After hearing of Nell’s strange claim that Dromio is her husband, and fearing that Ephesus is filled of witches, the mystified Antipholus decides to leave the town quickly. He despatches Dromio to the harbour to arrange for their departure. Angelo now enters, bearing the chain that the Ephesian Antipholus had commisioned. Angelo mistakenly presents it to the wrong Antipholus who—although bewildered by the offer—accepts the chain as a gift too good to refuse. This error with the chain soon leads to yet another round of strife and confusion.

 

 

Copyright © 2021. Kenneth K C Chan. All Rights Reserved.

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