Watching The Comedy of Errors, Battle Abbey, East Sussex
Last night, in the grounds of Battle Abbey, I saw the wonderful Lord Chamberlain’s Men performing Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. It was great fun, two pairs of twins getting into all kinds of confusion. It might seem wrong to analyse such carefree entertainment, but as the dusk drew in, and a creamy moon rose over the action of a hectic day in Ephesus, the effect was so striking that not to give this play some thought seemed disrespectful.
So there I sat in my fold-up chair, pondering on this lovely play while doves cooed from hidden perches in abbey stonework.
The play opens with the arrest of elderly Syracusan trader, Egeon, following the discovery of his unauthorised presence in Ephesus. Syracuse and Ephesus are at war, and strict law forbids Syracusan merchants from entering the city of their rivals. Egeon can only escape a sentence of death by paying a fine of a thousand marks. He then tells his tragic tale to Duke Solinus who sits in judgement on the unfortunate man’s case. In his youth, Egeon explains, he and his wife had twin sons, both called Antipholus. On the day of their birth, a poor woman lacking the means to raise children, also gave birth to twin boys, both called Dromio. Egeon purchased these boys as slaves to his sons. Soon afterwards, the family made a sea voyage, which was hit by a storm. Egeon lashed himself to the main-mast with one son and one slave, while his wife lashed herself to a separate mast with the other son and slave. His wife was rescued by one boat, Egeon by another, which resulted in the boys and their slaves living separate lives in Syracuse and Ephesus. When the Syracuse Antipholus reached adulthood, he decided to set out with his Dromio on a quest to find their twins. When they did not return, Egeon went in search of them, a search which eventually brought him to Ephesus where he now sits at the mercy of the Duke’s judgement. The Duke is so moved by Egeon’s story that he grants him one day to find someone in the city who can help pay his fine. Though this seems like a lost cause, Egeon is unaware that Syracuse Antipholus, pursuing his quest, has just arrived in Ephesus. That’s when the fun begins as the brothers are mistaken for each other by various citizens of the city.
For some reason, as I watched all this, an odd detail from the world of biology popped into my mind, the fact that the most intense competition in nature takes place between similar organisms, as they compete for the same niche. Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse are identical, but their cities are at war. All of the confusion of the play is due to the twins’ similarity rather than their differences. This was an interesting thought on a peaceful summer evening. The world seems particularly divided at the moment, but at the end of the play as confusion is resolved and brothers are reunited, the essential similarity underlying division came to the fore.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop