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How does the language of commerce complicate the comedy in The Comedy of Errors?

JH Discusses..

The theme of commerce forms part of a network of patterns which interweave to form the structure of The Comedy of Errors. The value of things and people is a primary concern of the action of the play. Images of value are formed by the language used in the play and counterpoint, complicate and inform its verbal and physical comedy. Most of the action – all in some productions(1) – is set in a marketplace, filled with traders and merchants whose demands create a distinctly darker tone to the comedy. It is a world where everything has a value, and can be bought or sold.(2)

The Comedy of Errors is based on mistaken identity(3) and the search for the other self, the missing twin. Shakespeare complicated this basic plotline with themes of time, commerce and witchcraft, which pulse beneath the comedy adding tension, anxiety and an element of desperation. The play is full of words relating to finance and commercial affairs; the word money occurs twenty-six times, more than in any other work by Shakespeare, and monetary units – guilders, angels, ducats, gold and marks, proliferate. The mistaken identity plot revolves around a golden chain, money and a ring and confusions over them, and arching over the play is the idea of the commercial value of a human life.

Act 1, scene 1 (1,1) forms the frame for the action. The first words spoken are by a merchant, Egeon, and this comedy opens with a rhyming couplet about death. The play is set against the background of a trade war between Ephesus and Syracuse and the penalty exacted on any Syracusean caught in Ephesus. Egeon has been caught and the price set on his life is one thousand marks – a sum of money that will resonate through the play. His story echoes the themes of separation, loss and commerce that are prominent in the play, as money and trade were the cause of his leaving home and wife. She joined him abroad and it was on their way back that the shipwreck which separated the two sets of twins occurred, eventually motivating one Antipholus to go in search of the other, then Egeon in search of him. The Duke, moved by his story, gives him until five o’clock to raise the money for his life. Time is another major theme of this play, intertwining with Money to form the two constants against which the action of the plot unfolds. The merchant of 1,2 has no time to accompany Antipholus of Syracuse(4) around the town due to a business meeting where he hopes to make a profit; later, in 4,2, Dromio of Syracuse(5) personifies Time as a ‘bankrupt’ a ‘thief’ and a ‘debtor’,(6) and as the clock ticks inexorably towards five o’clock, when a man’s life is forfeit to one thousand marks, Time and Money form a dark undercurrent against which the comedy becomes increasingly frenetic.

The play moves, in 1,2, to the present tense, the now, after its concern with the past in 1,1, and the money needed to redeem Egeon’s life is immediately referred to by a merchant talking to Antipholus(S) who has just arrived in Ephesus,(7)

There is your money that I had to keep.” (1,2 L8)(8)

along with a warning of the danger he is in if caught. Later in the scene Antipholus(S) names the amount, the exact value of his father’s life:

Where is the thousand marks thou hadst of me.” (L81)

The first mistake in identity occurs because Antipholus(S) sends his Dromio to place the money safely at their lodging, and due to the merchant abandoning him for urgent business elsewhere. Just as the pressures of commerce caused the initial separation of the twins now that, and his anxiety for the safety of his money(9) isolate Antipholus(S) and create the possibility for the wrong Dromio of Ephesus(10) to mistake his master.

As Antipholus(S) wanders around the town, ‘perusing the traders’ who are obviously part of the tourist attractions of Ephesus, Dromio(E) enters and the real comedy of mistaken identity begins – with a dialogue focused on money.

Where have you left the money that I gave you?” (1,2 L54)

The exchange lasts for fifty-two lines, with sixteen references to money as Antipholus(S) demands with increasing anxiety of the bewildered, wrong Dromio the whereabouts of his gold. It ends with Dromio(E) punning on the monetary term ‘marks’, synonymous with ‘marks’ of a beating(11), moving the dialogue forward to talk of his mistress, and then ending the encounter, leaving Antipholus(S) to worry about his apparent monetary loss. His thoughts of cheating lead into anxious speculation about witchcraft(12) and loss of identity(13), until by the end of his speech the return to thoughts of money seem to comfort and anchor him in the real world, freeing him to act.(14) Money becomes a fixed point in a shifting world, a signifier of his worth and reality as a person. The results of this first mistaken encounter reverberate and are extended into 2,1, when the women of the play appear.

Women in The Comedy of Errors are perceived as property, owned by their husbands and valued on their exclusivity. Luciana speaks of Antipholus(E) marrying Adriana for her wealth,(15) and part of his rage at his wife is the belief that she has become devalued through infidelity. The courtesans of Ephesus sell sex for money and their value is debased as a commodity. The association at 2,1 L57-60(16), of Antipholus(E) with cuckoldry emphasises this commercialisation of sex. According to Bruster(17) (Drama and the Market, p61) the cuckold myth was a dialectical metaphor which translated into images of commercial investment and was a powerful economic trope playing on the notion of the cuckold happy to be kept by the profits of his wife’s infidelity - cuckoldry was also connected to the classical symbol of the horn of plenty.(18)

In 2,1 L61-69, Shakespeare plays comically on Dromio(E)’s encounter with Antipholus(S), with constant repetitions of the word ‘gold’ and a reminder of the significant sum of “one thousand marks in gold”. This repetition intensifies the comedy of the speech, and as the exchange reaches the report of Antipholus(S)’s reaction to “mistress”, moves back into the familial and domestic. As Adriana complains of the shortcomings of her husband, she introduces the motif of the golden chain, (L107)(19) and the possibility of devaluation by use (L110 – 114), a man can also lose value and be shamed, or, using another commercial term, discredited.(20)

In The Comedy of Errors objects come to signify a value in themselves. For Adriana the golden chain becomes not just symbolic of Antipholus(E)’s love, but actually transforms into his actual love and commitment to her, and is identified with her worth and social status. In itself it is emblem of binding – in marriage and in prison. The chain is also used as a device by Shakespeare to complicate the plot structure through indirection as he adds a second layer to its purpose by introducing the unpaid debt of Angelo to the second merchant, which the chain’s price will redeem.(21) As a result of non-payment for it Antipholus(E) is bound, first by the law then physically bound as a madman. The chain can also be seen as a ‘link’ to the action of the framework of the plot,(22) and as an object ‘links’ various characters together, the wife, courtesan, merchant, goldsmith and brother, ‘links’ in a human chain bound together through this object. The motif of the chain is also connected with the rope that Dromio(E) is sent to buy(23) as both bind, but are of a different value, and both are associated with money as the rope makes marks, referring back to Dromio(E)’s pun on the marks of beating.(24) The pun on ‘marks’ is carried even further as Dromio(S) talks of the marks on his body(25) which identify him, taking the analogy further in the network of imagery and double and treble meanings in the play’s structure.

Arrested in the street for apparently reneging on payment for the chain, which had been given to the wrong brother,(26) Antipholus(E) needs money for his bail – a monetary redemption again, (4,2 L46)(27) which, like the chain, goes to the wrong man. The word ‘angel’ that Dromio(S) refers to in 4,3 L19 works on several levels. Angels can be seen in the biblical sense, - as in Acts 12, v 4-11,(28) the apostle Peter is freed from imprisonment by an angel, as the name of a gold coin, and as the goldsmith, Angelo, who is owed money - the word forming a juxtaposition of commerce and freedom.(29)

The golden chain also complicates the plot and the comedy in other ways as Antipholus(E) gives(30) the Courtesan the chain, not Adriana. The Courtesan(31) is a representative of the oldest trade in history(32) so prevalent in Ephesus, and through her another object is brought into the plot, the ring,(33) that she gives in exchange for the promise of the chain. Within the language of commerce Antipholus(E) is exchanging an item of great value, synonymous with his wife, for an item of much less value, the Courtesan. This is the reverse of good business practice, and as he breaks this rule he is also perceived to be breaking a civic rule of trust between businessmen by not only failing to supply the promised money for the chain but also compounding that by his failure to produce the chain in exchange for the ring. (4,3 L68-9, L76-7 and L80-95).(34)

The fear and bewilderment of the Syracusean pair over demands for objects and commitments that they do not have, the ring and marital love, and the donation of objects they do not want, money, chain and wives – all based on ideas of property, darkens the tone of the comedy. The ring is also an emblem of eternity and marriage, an object signifying a non-materialistic value, yet here it is given a monetary value of forty ducats. (4,3 L83) The decision to reclaim her ring ensures that the Courtesan is part of the action of the end of the play, when all the elements of confusion and commerce join together outside the priory where the Syracusean pair have taken refuge. It is five o’clock, and the comic plot is halted with both pairs of brothers absent, allowing the element of romance to reassert itself. Egeon is brought to be beheaded as he is unable to raise the money needed to redeem his life. As all the protagonists gather, the Ephesian Antipholus arrives to demand justice and vengeance and remind the Duke of his debt to him that he is now calling in, the penultimate mistaken identity occurs when Egeon demands recognition from his son and the money to pay for his life and is refused.

The tangle of confusions is unravelled against the background of commercial transaction, the Abbess will loose he husband from the bonds of captivity to rebind him as a husband, the chain is located and will therefore presumably be paid for enabling Angelo to clear his own debt, the purse of ducats returned to Antipholus(E) and immediately offered by him in payment for Egeon’s life.(35) The Duke grants Egeon his life without cost, but in the midst of rejoicing the courtesan brings the focus of the play back to the material by demanding her ring.

Duke: “It shall not need. Your father hath his life.

Courtesan to Antipholus(E): “Sir, I must have that diamond from you.” (5,1 L392-3)

Even in the midst of reunion and redemption, the demands of commerce remain a constant.

The play concludes with the last confusion of identity, again involved in property, when Dromio(S) asks the wrong master if he should rescue his goods from the ship. Put right as to which is his master, the Antipholus twins exit, leaving the stage and the last lines of the play to the Dromio brothers.

The language of commerce pervades The Comedy of Errors to such an extent that it is impossible to disentangle it from the play to stand alone as a separate theme. Words relating to money, value, trade, business and property resound through almost every speech. The words themselves contain different meanings, the actual sense compounded by double and triple complications, such as the gold chain, an object of value that also signifies a symbol of binding and is further, the signaller of love, status and commitment. The value of the materialistic market is set against the intrinsic values of the non-materialistic world within the patterns of themes and images, and the resulting conflict complicates the comedy of the play. The characters, merchants, traders, the courtesan, and goldsmith, are nearly all involved in commerce. Ephesus, a renowned commercial centre, almost becomes a character in itself, and the marketplace is the stage for the action. Money and trade are the prominent motifs of a play that explores the new ideas of the emerging market culture of Elizabethan London. The idea that money could buy anything and could be made out of nothing through interest(36) was new and fascinating, but mixed with it was the fear of the devaluing of a man - as his material value came to represent his worth in society, (4,4 L4-6)(37) - and the spectre of debt.

In itself, the theatre was part of this new commercial culture, moving away from the great religious mystery cycles to selling its plays and performances by actors to a public paying for the commodity of entertainment.(38) In the world of The Comedy of Errors a mans life was valued at a bag of gold and the importance placed on money feeds the comedy. Although the discovery of the misplaced objects - tokens, chain, ring and gold coins - helps to unravel the plot, their function lies not only in their monetary value but in their emotional and narrative value as a form of identity for their owners. As these objects become part of the theme and the action of the plot, they almost become characters in themselves.(39) The audience receive the comedy of the play on two levels, the physical and the verbal, but the intricate patterning of themes and imagery with the language of commerce dominating the exchanges, create a tension between the comic situation and the underlying fear, anxiety and bewilderment of the characters. The anxiety is transmitted to the audience through the conflict of comedy with the threat of impending death within a set time limit. Shakespeare, in allowing time to set up this network of patterns informing the play in parallel with the initial grim commercial demand of money for life, enriches the

experience of his audience. The happy ending of The Comedy of Errors lies in payment of debts and return of property – of all sorts. It is a play of chiaroscuro, and the language of commerce, as part of the thematic pattern of its darker elements, very definitely complicates the comedy of its action.


Agnew, J.C. Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theatre in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Bruster, Douglas. Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare, Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture 1, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Dekker, Thomas. The Gull’s Hornbook, Imprinted at London for RS,1609. (This edition ed. R.B. McKerrow, London, Alexander Moring Ltd, The De La More Press, 1905.)

McDonald, Russ. Shakespeare and the Arts of Language, Oxford Shakespeare Topics (gen. eds. Peter Holland and Stanley Wells), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

Parker, Patricia. Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context, (Chapter 2, ‘The Bible and the Marketplace), University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors, ed. Charles Whitworth, The Oxford Shakespeare, (gen. ed. Stanley Wells), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Various. The Holy Bible, Revised Version, (New Testament, The Acts of the Apostles), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


(1) William Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors, directed by Trevor Nunn, RST, 1976, recorded on video by ATV Network Ltd, 1976, rerecorded by Renaissance Classics, Polygram Video, 1992.

(2) This concern with the material, with value and with commerce foreshadows the later ‘city’ comedies of Jonson, Marston and others.

(3) Plautus play ‘Menaechmi’ was the source for ‘The Comedy of Errors’.

(4) Referred to as Antipholus(S)

(5) Referred to as Dromio(S)

(6) 4, 2, L57. “Time is a very bankrupt, and owes more than he’s worth

to season.

Nay, he’s a thief too. Have you not heard men say

That time comes stealing on by night and day?

If a be in debt and theft…………………” (see note 5 below for source reference)

(7) All quotations are taken from William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, ed. Charles Whitworth, gen.ed. Stanley Wells. The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford, The Oxford University Press, 2002.

(8) Merchant in role of banker as well as businessman.

(9) Just as Egeon’s anxiety for his goods and the pressure of commerce had caused the separation of his family, now, paradoxically, it becomes part of the process for reuniting his family.

(10) Referred to as Dromio(E)

(11) “I have some marks of yours upon my pate,

Some of my mistress’ marks upon my shoulders,

But not a thousand marks between you both.” 1,2 L82-4.

(12) The idea of possession in The Comedy of Errors functions not only in the sense of possession of property but also in the sense of being possessed through witchcraft and thereby losing one’s identity, or being transformed into something else.

(13) Two other major themes patterning through the play,

(14) “I’ll to the Centaur to go seek this slave.

I greatly fear my money is not safe.” (1,2 L104-5). Shakespeare’s use of the word slave is also a property term in the context of ownership of a person.

(15) “If you did wed my sister for her wealth,

Then for her wealth’s sake use her with more kindness.”(3,2 L5-6).

(16) “Why, mistress, sure my master is horn mad

…………………………..stark mad.”

(17) Douglas Bruster, Drama And The Market In The Age Of Shakespeare, Cambridge Studies in Renaiassance Literature and Culture, 1. Cambridge. C.U.P., 1992. P.61

(18) The wittol.

(19) “Sister, you know he promised me a chain.” (2,1 L107)

(20) Later, in revenge for what he thinks is his replacement as husband by another man, Antipholus(E) decides to give the chain to another woman, replacing his wife.

(21) Just as the price of 1000 marks will redeem Egeon, this constant reminder adds to the complexity of ‘The Comedy of Errors’ – internal referrals a constant undercurrent of the action.

(22) Egeon is also bound through his failure to pay a certain sum of money, the value of his life. Also the time of 5 o’clock is the time that both debts are due to be redeemed.

(23) 4,1 L15-20.

(24) See note 8 above.

(25) 3,2 L144-49. The term ‘drudge’ denotes sexual activity and also a sense of bondage, perhaps highlighting the Dromios’ position as they were sold as human commodities at birth to be servants to the Antipholi twins.

(26) This also helped the audience as an identifier of which Antipholus was which, as Antipholus(S) probably wore it around his neck from 4,1.

(27) “Will you send him, mistress, redemption – the money in his desk?”

(28) The Acts of the Apostles.

(29) Freedom, in this play, is in fact not free, it has to be paid for.

(30) Not a free gift as he receives the lesser values ring in exchange for it – just as the Courtesan is of a much lesser value as a commodity than his wife.

(31) The businesswoman of the play.

(32) The buying and selling of sex as a commodity referred to earlier.

(33) Another pun on the word ring might involve its shape as an 0, also the symbol of nothing, a bawdy reference in Elizabethan England to the vagina, with the obvious reference to the courtesan’s trade and investing the object with a different type of commercial significance.

(34) L68-9: Courtesan: “Give me the ring of mine you had at dinner,

Or for my diamond the chain you promised.”

L76-7: Courtesan: “I pray you, sir, my ring, or else the chain.

I hope you do not mean to cheat me so?”

L80-95: Courtesan: “Now, out of doubt, Antipholus is mad;


For forty ducats is too much to lose.”

(35) Ironic as it had been originally intended as payment for his own release.

(36) Usury was beginning to have less of a stigma attached to it.

(37) Second Merchant: “How is the man esteemed here in the city?”

Angelo: “Of very reverend rputation, sir,

Of credit infinite, highly beloved.”

(38) Thomas Dekker, The Gull’s Hornbook, ed. R.B. McKerrow, London, Alexander Morning Ltd. 1905. ch. 6, P.159 “The theatre is your poets’ Royal Exchange, upon which their muses, that are now turned to merchants, meeting, barter away that light commodity of words for a lighter ware than words – plaudities……… Players are their factors…… Your gallant, your courtier, and your captain had wont to be the soundest paymasters……….; when your groundling and gallery-commoner buys his sport by the penny, and, like a haggler, is glad to utter it again by retailing.” (Pythagorus also drew the analogy of the theatre and the markestplace.)

(39) An interesting reversal of the idea that men become objects, valued on their monetary worth, as objects become personified as markers of that worth.

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