Places: The Comedy of Errors

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1623

First produced: c. 1592-1594

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Farce

Time of work: First century b.c.e.

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Ephesus

*Ephesus Comedy of Errors, The (EF-ah-sas). Ancient Greek port city in Asia Minor that was later the capital of Roman Asia; it is now an archaeological site near Smyrna in Turkey. Elizabethans were familiar with Ephesus from the New Testament, and as an ancient seaport and location of the temple of Artemis (Diana to the Romans), which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The commercial pagan center for the cult of Diana became a place of Christian conversion in the first century.

While St. Paul was living in Ephesus, he wrote his Epistle to the Ephesians, which makes strong statements about marriage and domestic relations–themes that are at the core of Shakespeare’s play. St. Paul described Ephesus as a place of sorcery and exorcists–a description that match’s the play’s depiction of the city as a “town full of cozenage” with “sorcerers” and “witches.” It is an apt location for the farcical confusions that arise from the twin masters (Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus) and twin servants (Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus); Doctor Pinch tries to exorcise Satan and cure madness. In contrast, Aegeon accepts the enmity between Ephesus and Syracuse and his sentence of death. Only humility and submission to God’s will suffice in a world of human errors.

The play features four locations within Ephesus: the houses of Antipholus of Ephesus (Phoenix), the courtesan, and the Priory; and the street–a fluid space for the frenetic encounters in which identities are mistaken as all assume acquaintance and prior actions. The setting was especially effective on Elizabethan stages, which had large open spaces with two pillars, entry doors, and an upper stage.


*Syracuse. City in southeast Sicily founded by Greeks in the eighth century b.c.e. At the time in which this play is set, Syracuse and Ephesus were enemies and it was forbidden for citizens of one land to journey to the other–a point around which the play’s plot revolves. The penalty for the crime was execution or a payment of a thousand marks. Aegeon, a merchant of Syracuse who has recently traveled to Ephesus, is to be put to death because he cannot raise the thousand marks.

BibliographyBaldwin, Thomas Whitfield. On the Compositional Genetics of “The Comedy of Errors.” Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1965. Likens Shakespeare to the Dromios, awed by their change from the rural to the urban.Berry, Ralph. Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Discusses the “dark underside” of the play, which enriches and compliments the comedy. Argues that Aegeon may be more important to the plot structure than he seems to be.Colie, Rosalie L. Shakespeare’s Living Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. Colie sees the plays as experiments with the craft of writing plays. Discusses Shakespeare’s improving on Plautus.Dorsch, T. S., ed. The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. This edition features a comprehensive introductory essay, with a brief look at history, sources, characters, and plot.Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare’s Early Comedies. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1965. One of the most noted of Shakespeare’s commentators points out that Shakespeare probably did not read the Roman original for the play; the commentator focuses on a translated manuscript.
Categories: Places