Shakespeare’s dextrous comedy of two twin masters and two twin servants continually mistaken for one another is both farce and more than farce. The Comedy of Errors examines the interplay between personal and commercial relationships, and the breakdown of social order that follows the disruption of identity, until the nightmarish cross-purpose dialogue ends in harmonious reunion.
The play is set in Ephesus, a city where anyone who is from Syracuse will be executed, unless he can pay the ransom. Egeon, who is from Syracuse, is arrested accordingly; he explains to the Duke that he is looking for his lost family. He and his wife Emilia had identical twin sons (both called Antipholus), but in a shipwreck Egeon and one son were separated from Emilia and the other. The son who grew up with Egeon, Antipholus of Ephesus, set off to search for his lost brother, accompanied by his servant Dromio of Ephesus, who had similarly lost a twin.
Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus have also arrived in Ephesus where, unknown to them, their twin brothers both live. Antipholus sends Dromio away on an errand, and the two sets of twins become muddled up. A jeweller presents the newly-arrived Antipholus with an expensive chain, and then pursues the native Antipholus for payment. The wife of Antipholus of Ephesus mistakes the stranger for her husband, and locks her real husband out of the house. Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love with the woman everyone else thinks is his sister-in-law. Both masters beat each other’s servants regularly for their apparent disobedience – the two Dromios try to obey the apparently contradictory instructions of a single master.
Eventually, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse take refuge in a priory. The Duke arrives with Egeon, who is going to be executed. Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, having just escaped arrest, also arrive. The Abbess of the priory brings out Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, and the confusion is cleared when the Abbess herself is revealed to be Emilia, Egeon’s long lost wife and the mother of the Antipholuses. Egeon is reprieved, and Antipholus of Syracuse proposes to his brother’s sister-in-law.