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More important than the setting, from the audience's perspective, is the background information: the conflict between Syracuse and Ephesus that threatens Egeon's life and Egeon's tragic and fantastic family history. The story of the two pairs of twins, who the audience will quickly identify as the Antipholi and Dromios, grants the viewers information that is unavailable to the characters, who grope ignorantly through the mists of mistaken identity that fill the play. We laugh, knowing that there are two masters and two slaves and, thus, understanding how the various mix-ups come to be. But for the unfortunate participants in the farce, there is only confusion at what seem to be supernatural events.
This contrast between the audience, who know they are watching a comedy, and the characters, who have no such privileged information, hints at a deeper understanding of the nature of comedy. While The Comedy of Errors is clearly a slapstick affair, in which nearly every scene is played for laughs, the grim opening and later confusion reminds us of the threat of tragedy that often hangs over Shakespeare's comic plays. Certainly, as Egeon catalogues the fantastic woes that have befallen him, he does not see himself as a player in a farce. The threat of his impending execution provides the play with a dark undercurrent to the comic scenes that follow. But while a tragedy moves from order into disorder, from life into death, a comedy reverses the order. So, the play begins with Egeon's grim statement, "proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall, / And by the doom of death end woes and all(I.i.1-2)," but moves toward an ending in which the forces of disorder and destruction are overcome by the forces of reconciliation and renewal.
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