Have there ever been two cities in which the inhabitants of City A would be summarily executed if they showed their faces in City B, unless they could pony up a large wad of cash? This is what Shakespeare suggests at the outset of Comedy of Errors, where natives of Syracuse, failing to produce 1,000 marks, forfeit their lives if they show up in Ephesus. From the beginning of Act I to nearly the end of Act 5, Aegeon, the long-suffering Syracuse merchant, is a “dead man walking.” Lucky for him, not only does one of his long-separated twin sons dwell in Ephesus but so does his presumed-dead wife Aemelia, apparently separated and unknown to her nearby offspring. And, as it happens, Aegeon’s long-absent–are you seeing a long-term trend here?–son, the identical twin of the son being sought, has found himself in town as well. Let the fun begin as two sets of twins–masters and slaves–identical in appearance and, explained with utter plausibility, in names, encounter each other. Just make sure that the fun comes to a conclusion before dear old dad has his head separated from his shoulders.
Luckily for dear old Aegeon, once his daughter-in-law stops the executioner’s party in order to petition the duke for redress against Aegeon’s wife, who we only know as a prioress and who has been sheltering the one of Aegeon’s sons to whom she is not married but whom she believes to be her husband–are you with me still?–the whole story can be cleared up. Or luckily for these severely confused pairs of twins, their father happened to come passing by with the Duke at just the right moment to bring some clarity to the day’s “errors.”
And what happens when the entire tale of weirdness brings husband, wife, sons, brothers, and so forth back together? The local brother, Antipholus of Ephesus offers a sack of coins to buy off the executioner only to have the Duke, who had previously sounded like Ahasuerus, constrained to carry out laws that he himself created, declares, “It shall not need; thy father hath his life.” No further explanation, apparently, is needed. Yes, I was about to have your head lopped off, but now that I hear about your family, you’re pardoned. And what about Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse. We now have three Syracusan scofflaws, but that’s okay, so long as everyone gets their jewelry returned.
I am, of course, unfair in this matter. The Comedy of Errors is a farce, not to be taken too seriously. Shakespeare’s comedies routinely worked in mistaken identity and misinterpreted messages, but none of the other comedies stretches credulity this far. Surely I Love Lucy never managed a more elaborately contrived set of plot lines. Regardless, we forgive the bard his excesses for the sake of a two hour’s bit of fun in the theatre.
But then there’s that whole capital-punishment-for-showing-up-in-town thing set aside in such cavalier fashion. Even Coriolanus had his death sentence commuted to banishment. Why does Shakespeare deal so lightly with such weighty matters? I don’t really have an answer for that question. In various comedies, rather serious matters clutter otherwise happy endings–the matters of Malvolio or Shylock come to mind–but I know of no other where something so serious is brushed aside so glibly.