Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s shortest play and one of his funniest. It tells the story of two sets of twin brothers who were separated at birth while sailing on the Mediterranean Sea with their parents during a tempest. The play begins 25 years after the shipwreck. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant Dromio of Syracuse arrive in Ephesus, searching for their long-lost twin brothers. By chance, their twin brothers Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant Dromio of Ephesus live in the city.
The sets of twins, however, do not immediately reunite with one another, but rather incur much confusion and suffering due to mistaken identities. Both Dromios are beaten by their masters for not obeying orders that the other had received. Antipholus of Ephesus is arrested because he denies having received from the goldsmith a golden chain that Antipholus of Syracuse actually received. Many other such comical slapstick incidents occur before both Antipholuses and Dromios appear in the same place, and their true identities are revealed to both themselves and the citizens of Ephesus.
Although the play is farcical, it treats a serious philosophical topic – that of identity. A man’s identity is fashioned by two things – his own self-perceptions and the perceptions that others have of him. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant Dromio allow the perceptions of others to influence their senses of identity. The men discuss the loss of identity that they both experience after encountering the citizens of Ephesus who mistake them for their twins. Dromio: “I am transformed master, am not I?” Antipholus of Syracuse: “I think thou art in mind, and so am I.”
Antipholus of Ephesus, on the other hand, does not allow the perceptions of others to influence his sense of self. When a priest tries to cast the devil from Antipholus’ body, he yells, “Peace, doting wizard, peace! I am not mad.” Rather than allow others to dictate who he is, Antipholus of Ephesus confidently asserts his own identity, despite the numerous contrary assertions of others.
A man who is unconfident about his identity, will believe other’s perceptions of him. Others will determine his identity. Others will determine his happiness. Others will determine his value. A man, on the other hand, who is confident about his identity, will determine his own identity, happiness, and value. Thus, in a farcical comedy, Shakespeare emphasizes the serious Ancient Greek aphorism inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – Know Thyself.
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.
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.
No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip; she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.