Friends, we are certainly out of the history plays. While I loved the last eight weeks it was refreshing to read such a light (and short) tale. The plot’s a bit intricate, of course, so hopefully the below makes sense.
In the play, we have two sets of twins: Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse their slaves, Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse. The main takeaway here: if you have identical twins, give them different names. Things will get a bit confusing (and wordy) if I refer to these characters by their full names and where they hail from, so I’ll give them nicknames for clarity: AntE for Antipholus of Ephesus, AntS for Antipholus of Syracuse, DromE for Dromio of Ephesus, and DromS for Dromio of Syracuse. Pretty straightforward, I think.
The play opens with AEgeon (that’s not a misspelling, that’s how his name was spelled in my version of the play) receiving his sentence from Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus. Poor AEgeon is from Syracuse and merchants from Syracuse who enter Ephesus face either paying a 1,000 mark fine or death. Before this he’s put to death since he can’t pay the fine, the Duke asks AEgeon to tell the tale of how he came to be in Ephesus.
AEgeon says that when he was younger his wife gave birth to twin sons, so identical no one could tell them apart. That same day a poor woman also gave birth to twin boys similarly identical to each other. AEgeon and his wife purchased the boys from the woman to be slaves to their sons. Soon after, the family was traveling by sea and their ship fell into a tempest. AEgeon, one of his sons, and one of the slaves were rescued by one ship and his wife, his other son, and the other slave were rescued by another. They never saw each other again.
After many years AEgeon’s son and his slave decided to go on a quest to find their missing brothers. When they did not return, AEgeon became worried and set off after them. And that’s how he came to be in Ephesus. The Duke is moved by AEgeon’s sad tale and gives him an extra day to somehow pay his fine.
Meanwhile, AntS and DromS arrive in Ephesus on their quest. AntS sends DromS to deposit money at an inn but is confused when DromE arrives almost immediately. DromE states that he knows nothing about any money and that AntS must come home to have dinner with his wife. AntS thinks DromE is being insubordinate and beats him.
DromE returns to Adriana, wife of AntE, and tells her that her husband refuses to come home and claimes to have no wife. Adriana takes this as confirmation that her husband is cheating on her.
AntS then meets up with DromS, who denies making any joke about AntS having a wife. AntS beats him. Adriana then rushes up and begs AntS not to leave her. AntS and DromS are confused and attribute this and Adriana’s knowledge of AntS’s body as witchcraft. Still, AntS and DromS head home with Adriana for dinner; DromS is given a strict order to not let anyone enter the house while the rest are occupied with their meal.
Meanwhile, AntE and DromE return home with Angelo and one other to find their house locked. DromS, who’s behind the closed door, states that HE is Dromio and refuses the pair entrance into their own home. AntE’s friends convince him to not break down the door and instead he decides to have dinner with a courtesan, deciding in addition to give the courtesan the chain he had Angelo make for Adriana. Angelo agrees to bring the chain to AntE at the inn where he’ll be eating.
AntS expresses his attraction to Adriana’s sister Luciana, which of course Luciana is horrified by (this is, after all, her sister’s husband and he’s never come on to her before) though she’s also flattered. DromS discovers that Nell, the kitchen-maid, believes him to be her husband and is aghast; Nell is, to put it mildly, not to DromS’s tastes. AndS and DromS decide they need to leave the area as soon as possible and DromS runs off to make arrangements. Just after, Angelo catches up with AntS and convinces him to take the chain he made. Not knowing what to do, AntS takes the chain and Angelo says he’ll stop by later for payment.
Meanwhile, AntE sends DromE to buy some rope so he can beat Adriana for locking him out of his house. Directly after, Angelo approaches AntE and demands payment for the chain. AntE insists that Angelo never gave him the chain and Angelo has AntE arrested. As he’s being led away, DromS catches up with him and AntE tells him to go back to the house to fetch money for his bail, which he does. DromS then catches up with AntS and gives him the money for AntE’s bail.
They’re then approached by the courtesan AntE dined with and promised the chain. She sees the chain around AntS’s neck and states that he had promised it to her. AntS denies it and flees. The courtesan then decides to tell Adriana that her husband is crazy and insist that the ring she gave him (which AntE is wearing) was instead stolen from her.
DromE returns to AntE with the rope he had requested earlier and denies ever being asked to get bail money. AntE is enraged. Adriana, Luciana, the courtesan, and a conjurer named Pinch then enter and the latter tries to exorcise both AntE and DromE. The two are bound and taken to Adriana’s house. Shortly after, AntS and DromS enter with swords drawn and everyone flees in terror, thinking the two possessed men have quickly escaped their bonds and are looking for vengeance. Adriana quickly reappears with reinforcements to rebind the two, but AntS and DromS escape into a nearby Abbey where the Abbess refuses anyone entry to capture them. Adriana resolves to go to the Duke to get his aid.
It just so happens that the duke is nearby with AEgeon, ready to kill the man since he’s unable to get the money for his fine. As Adriana stops him and pleads her case AntE and DromE approach from a different direction, quite obviously not in the Abbey. Everyone is confused and seems to have a different story, some corroborating others. AEgeon asks AntE if he recognizes him as his father but he doesn’t. The Abbess then enters with AntS and DromS and everyone begins to understand their confusion. In addition, the Abbess also ends up being AEgeon’s wife AEmilia (again, my version’s spelling) and the mother of the Antipholoses; it ends up that after she and her two young charges were rescued by the ship another ship came upon them and took the children from her. She had been searching for them but ended up at the Abbey.
In light of this, the Duke pardons AEgeon and the two sets of twins are reunited, as are the parents.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this lighthearted tale, because next week we’re on to something entirely different and much darker with Titus Andronicus.
Points of Interest
I was surprised by how slapstick this play was, but that’s mainly because we’ve come off of so many history plays that were decidedly not slapstick. Still, for such a short play there was a lot of references to beating people in inferior positions. My modern sensibilities were upset.
This was also a very superficial play; there was a lot of wordplay, but otherwise not many layers to the dialogue. No one pretends to be anyone else, they’re just mistaken for someone else, and in the end love triumphs over all the darker aspects of the play.
This play, along with The Tempest, is one of only two plays by Shakespeare that follow Aristotle’s unities that he put forth out in his Poetics. These are:
- Unity of Action – minimal subplots (contrasted with A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
- Unity of Time – action should take place over the course of no more than 24 hours
- Unity of Place – action should take place in a single physical space (no crunching of geography, no traveling from one part of England to another, etc.)
And the play does feel more like a classic Greek play because of it. And now you know.