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The Comedy of Errors

William Shakespeare

Study Questions

Overall Analysis

Review Questions

Compare and contrast the characters of the Antipholus brothers

Antipholus of Syracuse is arguably the strongest character in the play, since he is the only figure to whom Shakespeare grants an interior life. He describes himself early on in the story as unhappy and plagued by feelings of incompleteness--sentiments that drive his quest for his missing family members. Antipholus of Ephesus, by contrast, feels no such sense of incompletion: While the Syracusan brother is a questing figure, his Ephesian twin is well satisfied with his lot in life. He is an established figure, rather than a wanderer, with a wife, a home, a business, and an important place in the community. His outrage at having his identity questioned and his comfortable life turned upside-down is understandable, then, but since anger rather than good humor is his defining emotion during the play, he is a less appealing character than his brother. His treatment of his Dromio is also less sympathetic: While both slaves are frequently beaten, Dromio of Ephesus seems to have the worst of it, since the sense of humor that Dromio of Syracuse uses to mitigate his master's propensity for violence is largely absent in the angry, humorless Antipholus of Ephesus.

Discuss the perspectives on marriage offered in The Comedy of Errors.

The central marriage in the play (aside from the long-separated Egeon and Emilia) is that of Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus--and it does not seem to be a happy one. Other characters--the Abbess and Luciana, specifically--locate the blame in the jealousy of Adriana, who is, indeed, portrayed as the kind of violent, shrewish woman often found in English dramas of the period (including Shakespeare's own The Taming of the Shrew). Still, the playwright's sympathies seem to lie more with the volatile Adriana than with her simpering sister or the platitude-spouting Abbess, both of whom mouth conventional marital wisdom of the era--and both of whom are wrong about the root of Adriana's husband's "madness." They say that Adriana has been too jealous and driven her husband insane with her bullying and prodding, when it is a woman's place to be docile; in fact, her husband's odd behavior has nothing to do with her and is the result of highly improbable circumstances. Many critics have argued that far from supporting Luciana and the Abbess in their condemnations, Shakespeare is satirizing perspectives on marriage that would soon be out-of-date even in his era.

Discuss the role of magic in the play.

There is frequent discussion of enchantment in The Comedy of Errors: Antipholus of Syracuse notes that Ephesus is well-known for its witches and sorcerers, and he blames the peculiar events of the day on enchantments. By the final scenes, other characters seem to have come to the same conclusion--Adriana has summoned an exorcist to remove evil spirits from her husband, and the Duke of Ephesus himself declares, upon seeing the twins together, that the supernatural must be at work. But, in fact, everyone is wrong, and there is a perfectly natural (if improbable) explanation for everything that has transpired. In this sense, The Comedy is the antithesis of later plays, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which enchantment plays a dominant role in the plot. The inhabitants of Ephesus believe that they are enchanted, but events actually serve to debunk their superstitions. The role of magic is embodied, in fact, not by a real sorcerer but by the fraudulent, ridiculous Doctor Pinch, whose presence suggests that wizardry is nothing but ludicrous fakery.

Discuss the role of setting in the play.

Analyze how the threat of tragedy--Egeon's execution--impacts the humor in the play.

Compare the way the different women are portrayed in the play.

Discuss the role of the Dromios and their relationships to their masters.

Discuss the part played by material things--money, jewelry--in the action.

Analyze the portrayal of authority in the master-slave relationship and in the character of the Duke of Ephesus.

Discuss the ending and the resolution of the various "problems" that face the characters.

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