(This essay argues that The Comedy of Errors is unusual among Shakespeare’s plays because of the way in which specific locations in the play are related to the transformations of characters. The critic analyzes settings such as the Centaur Inn or the Phoenix Tavern by comparing them to Antipholus of Syracuse, his twin brother Antipholus of Ephesus, and Adriana.)
Perplexed by the maddening improbabilities in the last act of The Comedy of Errors, Duke Solinus pronounces what could be the topic sentence of the play: ‘‘I think you all have drunk of Circe’s cup’’(5.1.271). In Ephesus, Circean transformations reputedly turn men into beasts, resulting in demonic possession, the loss of self, and the breakdown of social order. Everywhere individuals lose their identity. Shakespeare incorporates Circean transformations into a strong sense of place. In fact, The Comedy of Errors ‘‘is unique among Shakespeare’s plays in the way localities are indicated,’’ including being marked by distinctive signs. The names for three of these locations—the Centaur Inn, the Courtesan’s Porpentine, and the Phoenix, for Antipholus of Ephesus’s house—symbolize the types of transformations that many of the characters undergo. Appropriately, each place is named for a mythic (or fetishistic) animal whose legacy explains a character’s unnatural metamorphosis. Previous commentators have contentedly glossed these names only as specific London taverns (the Centaur, the Phoenix) or a brothel (the Porpentine). Yet on the fluid Elizabethan stage, Shakespeare contextualizes his theatrical environment within the larger mythos of metamorphosis.
Xenophobic traveler Antipholus of Syracuse will reside at the Centaur where, with his servant, ‘‘we host,’’ and where, he trusts, ‘‘the gold I gave Dromio is laid up safe’’ (2.2.1–2). The name of this inn resonates with portent about Ephesus’s reputation for ‘‘dark working sorcerers that change the mind / Soul-killing witches that deform the body … And many such-like liberties of sin’’(1.2.99–102). Half-man, half-horse, the centaur was represented in Greek mythology as being ‘‘bound or ridden by Eros,’’ embodying the lawlessness and lust (see King Lear 4.6.124) that ran amuck in Ephesus. Fearful of being transformed by a wizard’s spell, Antipholus of Syracuse could not have chosen a more ill-advised address. Even more relevant, the history of the mythic beast signals the transformations that Antipholus himself will experience in Ephesus. (The centaurs burst upon Pirithous’s marriage ceremony and carried off his bride and ravished her, earning the stigma as the despoilers of marriage.) When he is mistaken for his married twin brother Antipholus of Ephesus, Antipholus of Syracuse threatens the marital harmony between Adriana and her lawful husband, whom she locks out of his own house so that she may entertain the twin. The mythic strain of the centaurs, if not their literal intent, haunts Antipholus of Syracuse. Shakespeare asks an audience to see Antipholus as a bewitched centaur-guest. Like the centaurs, Antipholus cannot, when in Ephesus ‘‘but two hours old’’(2.2.148) precisely pin down what kind of creature he is—married or single (horse or man). ‘‘What, was I married to her in my dream?… What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?’’(2.2.182–84) he asks after Adriana treats him like a spouse.
Like the Centaur, the Porpentine (porcupine) is linked in Errors to Circean transformations into bestiality. It is to the porpentine sign of the harlot that Antipholus of Ephesus flees after Adriana refuses to admit him. Under an Ephesian spell himself, Antipholus shouts to his servant, ‘‘fetch the chain … to the Porpentine, / For there’s the house—that chain will I bestow / (Be it for nothing to spite my wife) / Upon mine hostess there’’(3.1.115–19). In front of the Porpentine, Antipholus, as the harlot reveals, ‘‘rushed into my house and took perforce / My ring away’’(4.3.91–92) Soon thereafter, Antipholus is declared mad and summarily restrained. Famous for its barbed quills, signifiers of both tainted sex and violent aggression, the porpentine appropriately becomes the totem animal for Antipholus’s transformation from lawful citizen and espoused husband into public threat and enraged cuckold. Antipholus infects his marriage when he gives away his wife’s chain (a symbol of their marital bond) and steals another woman’s ring, a sign of the conjugal sex act, as Gratiano realizes when at the end of The Merchant of Venice he vows that ‘‘while I live I’ll fear no other thing, / So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s [his wife’s] ring’’(5.1.306–07).
The most evocative and sustaining reference to transformation through a symbolic animal occurs at the Phoenix, Antipholus’s house, where much of acts 2 and 3 takes place and where many of the errors originate. Shakespeare often invokes the phoenix—the legendary bird that dies in its own funeral pyre, only to rise from the ashes reborn—to represent immortality through love relationships (see, for example, ‘‘Sonnet 19’’ and ‘‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’’). R. A. Foakes limits the significance of this animal too narrowly, however, in Errors: ‘‘The image of this mythic bird … is appropriate to the story of Antipholus and Adriana, whose love is finally renewed out of the break-up of their marital relationship.’’ The phoenix also augurs well for the Abbess’s other son, Antipholus of Syracuse who, like his twin, at first quarrels with, but then is united with, his (intended) mate, thanks to a phoenix-like experience.
Accusing his servant of madness for claiming that their ‘‘house was at the Phoenix’’ (2.1.11), Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love there with Adriana’s sister Luciana, of whom he asks: ‘‘Are you a god? Would you create me new / Transform me then, and to your power I’ll yield’’(3.2.38–40). Although Luciana is at first incredulous that Antipholus of Syracuse, whom she believes is her brother-in-law Antipholus of Ephesus, would try to court her (‘‘What are you mad that you do reason so?’’ ), she does indeed transform him into a new creature by fulfilling his dream of marrying her (5.1.376). Like the self-perpetuating phoenix, Antipholus of Syracuse must die to the old man he was (his brother’s twin), to become the new man he is (his brother’s twin). This is the paradox of the phoenix myth, as well as the secret to solving the maddening confusions in The Comedy of Errors.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007
Philip C. Kolin, ‘‘Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors,’’ in The Explicator, Vol. 56, No. 1, Fall 1997, pp. 5–8.