Too Much Coincidence Can Be a Bad Thing
Too much coincidence can be a bad thing. People love a good slapstick or physical comedy or a classic case of mistaken identity, but too much of these all together yields an overwrought structure saturated with what become boring devices. A Comedy of Errorsdoes not try to be anything other than what its title claims, and that is perhaps its saving grace. Shakespeare alerts audiences to the hilarity bordering ridiculousness they are about to witness through Egeon, who tells the Duke of Ephesus of his “two goodly sons,/…the one so like the other/As could not be distinguished but by names” (1.1.50-52) and the “male twins, both alike,/…[he] bought and brought up to attend [his] sons” (1.1.55-57). Two sets of twins, each undistinguishable from their counterpart, happen into the same city and “meet each other’s man,/And [each] was ta’en for him, and he for [the other],/And thereupon these errors ar[i]se” (5.1.399-401) that wreak havoc with relationships.
The humor in The Comedy of Errors stems entirely from this situational and dramatic irony. It confuses the characters and results in mishaps; however, with no real tangible consequences these mishaps are merely moments looking for a laugh. Both Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse utilize parallelism and epistrophe that, along with the meter, help create a sense of lyrical comedy to match the physical. When Adriana confronts Dromio of Ephesus about why he did not return with his master, his response is as if from a sitcom:
“When I desired him to come home to dinner
He asked me for a thousand marks in gold.
‘Tis dinnertime,’ quoth I. ‘My gold,’ quoth he.
‘Will you come?’ quoth I. ‘My gold,’ quoth he.
‘Where is the thousand marks I gave thee, villain?’
‘The pig,’ quoth I, ‘is burned.’ ‘My gold,’ quoth he.’
‘My mistress, sir,’ quoth I. ‘Hang up thy mistress!
I know not thy mistress. Out on thy mistress!’
Quoth my master.” (2.1.62-74)
It is almost possible to see Dromio acting the story, gesticulating with the meter. The parallelism lends a comedic element to Dromio’s retelling and indicates that more confusion is to come. From this first interaction other relationships in the play plummet into a series of unlikely circumstances. Adriana confuses Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, and he decides that until he knows otherwise he’ll “entertain the offered fallacy” (2.2.196-197) because she seems to know both he and his servant (2.2.177). Meanwhile, Antipholus of Ephesus returns to find his “doors locked up and [he] shut out” (4.4.75) so he decides to dine with another woman (3.1.158-163), deciding further that “for nothing but to spite [his] wife” (3.1.167) he will give the chain he had made for his wife to his mistress (3.1.166-167) instead. He cannot possibly anticipate what happens next— that Angelo gives the gold chain to the other Antipholus (3.2.184-186), that the courtesan goes to his wife (4.3.94-97), that his wife and the schoolmaster Pinch deem him mad and try to restrain him (4.4.97-99), or that he meets the twin brother previously unknown to him (5.1.343-345, 359-361). The resulting hijinks pile on top of each other until it doesn’t seem possible to add any more. Just when it seems nothing else can happen, that the situation cannot become more unbelievable, the Abbess protecting Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse at the end of the play turns out to be Egeon’s long-lost wife. In another seemingly astounding coincidence, “the parents to these children/[…] accidentally are met together” (5.1.361-362) with their sons. It is a final coincidence that goes too far. The Antipholuses and Dromios confusing each other and being confused as each other by others stretches suspension of disbelief to a spider’s web thread, and this last coincidence breaks that thread. It is the payoff for Egeon’s explanation at the beginning of the play, but one that fails to satisfy.
Another payoff that becomes overworked is when both Dromios are mistaken by their masters and beaten for their pains. The two wonder, “was there ever any man thus beaten out of season,/When in the ‘why’ and the ‘wherefore’ is neither /rhyme nor reason?” (2.2.50-52). As servants caught up in the strange affair, they fall victim to a trope of being beaten for the misunderstandings—misunderstandings that are not theirs alone. Though both Dromios “have served [their Antipholus] from/the hour of [his] nativity to this instant”, they “have/nothing at his hands for [their] service but blows” (4.4.33-35). Continued speech again uses parallelism to clarify and lend comedy to an otherwise unfunny topic as it does in the initial conversation with Adriana. Almost every (if not every) meeting between Dromio and Antipholus once both sets of twins are in the same city is punctuated by a beating, and then Dromio is beaten again when he returns to the other Antipholus. Their witticisms earn them nothing but beatings, and obeying commands earns them nothing but beatings. There is no way for them to avoid physical violence. The constant beatings, which have their time and place as comedic devices due to the situational and dramatic irony involved, quickly become tiresome. They lose all sense of comedy.
Another tiresome, overused and underdeveloped device is Adriana’s role as a jealous, rancorous wife who claims she will no longer be a fool and will “shrive [Antipholus] of a thousand idle pranks” (2.2.216, 221) because “he hath great care to please his wife” (2.1.57), for she knows “his eyes doth homage otherwhere (2.2.109). Adriana therefore demands Dromio return to fetch his master home for dinner near the beginning of the play “or [she] will break [Dromio’s] pate across” (2.1.83). In this her first appearance she appears as a shrewish wife no one would want to go home to, upset her husband is late, upset the dinner is cold because her husband is late, and upset at why her husband is late. To her credit, Adriana confronts Antipholus, though mistaking Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband, and calls him an “adulterate blot” (2.2.151) who defiles her with his own adulterous acts (2.2.153-155). She openly calls her husband “deformèd, crooked, old, and sere,/Ill-faced, worse-bodied, shapeless everywhere,/Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind,/Stigmatical in making, worse in mind” (4.2.21-24), yet “think[s] him better than [she] say[s]” (4.2.27). She criticizes him out of frustration for him always being away and not paying her attention. In this her character proves to be the simplest it can be, depicting her as a needy and insecure woman. There is only a brief opportunity to explore Adriana’s insecurity and anger in conversation with Luciana, but even that does not delve beyond the superficial. It is no more than a venting session to her sister. Her constant criticism is the forefront of her relationship with Antipholus of Ephesus, and only takes a backseat to her jealousy. Such a flat image of a wife and marriage is yet another overdone device that loses any comedy it may have had. It is assuredly nothing more than a shallow tertiary plot device. Like Adriana, the audience “long[s] only to know the truth […] at large” (4.4.153) by the time the antics with both Dromios and Antipholus’ are in full swing.
Too much slapstick, too many questionable tropes, and too many coincidences and confusions of character go too far in The Comedy of Errors, to the play’s detriment.