Playing in the City
From Ephesus to Shakespeare’s London, where does The Comedy of Errors truly take place?
The Comedy of Errors pivots round the Greek port city of Ephesus, and what happens when two unlikely tourists from Syracuse arrive there. But the location is not all that it seems. In fact, throughout this play, Shakespeare challenges the audience’s sense of a fixed and clear fictional location, and in doing so invites his audience to project their own urban experience onto the stage action in playful ways. As The Comedy of Errors unfolds, we see much of the lively town of Ephesus, full of the trickery and confusion Antipholus fears, but also full of bustling urban life, trading, socialising, drinking in taverns.
When the tourist Antipholus of Syracuse in lands in Ephesus, he warns us about this port city:
‘They say this town is full of cozenage – […]
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks
And many such – like liberties of sin.
The play tells the story of long-lost twin brothers and their chance, confusing and comedic encounter in Ephesus. But the confusion of this play lies not only in its plot, but in many ways in its setting too. Because while we are told the play’s action unfolds in the Greek city of Ephesus, actually characters seem to exist in a thinly veiled representation of Shakespeare’s London. For sixteenth-century audiences, what they saw on stage was a fictionalised version not of a Greek city, but of their very own urban home.
Shakespeare lets us in on this sense of Ephesus as a veiled London with two small but significant references. Lots of the play’s action circulate around two locations: the Porpentine inn, and merchant Antipholus’s house, the Phoenix. These are significant because both were London locations familiar to Shakepeare’s audiences. The Porpentine was, in fact, a famous London inn situated on the south bank of the river Thames, walking distance from the Globe. When Antipholus of Ephesus tells Angelo the merchant to meet him at the Porpentine, where he is dining (3.1.116), and in other mentions throughout the play, Londoners were placed right in the heart of the play’s slippery confusion over location. Similarly, Antipholus’s house is called the Phoenix, which was a famous shop in Lombard Street, a crucial trading district in Shakespeare’s London. Our Greek hero is in a South London boozer, just down the road; his home is named after a famous north London shop…. Ephesus is London, London is Ephesus.
In the past, critical consensus has been that Shakespeare, unlike his contemporaries like Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton or Thomas Dekker, did not write about London. City comedy was a developing genre of the time, plays set explicitly in seventeenth century London, teeming with geographic specificity and familiar urban characters. Notably, as Anne Barton writes, ‘Shakespeare is almost unique among Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatist in that he never availed himself of London as a setting’; Barton continues: his comedies ‘bypass the teeming life’ of cities and represent ‘evasions of the urban’ (1978: 160). Did Shakespeare write any city comedies set in London? No. But perhaps this is the wrong question to ask, or rather a too simplistic question.
Shakespeare’s plays are not as dense with geographic specificity of London, as other playwrights’ canons are, but the city is ever present, an oblique shadow. And The Comedy of Errors is a prime example of that shadow. The Porpentine inn, the Phoenix shop make that shadowing very clear. But, in addition, it is easy to imagine London audiences seeing themselves and their contemporaries represented in traders like Antipholus of Ephesus or Angelo the goldsmith. And we can understand how Londoners would pick up on urban language and concerns that they heard beyond the walls of the theatre, especially when characters are arrested by the sheriff’s officer for debt and threatened with imprisonment. By placing concerns with money, trade, crime in an urban setting, Shakespeare encourages his audiences to project their city onto the stage in front of them. And so, Ephesus is London, London is Ephesus.
‘To ask whether a place is set in London or not, is a city comedy or not, is not the right question.’
As Douglas Bruster argues, ‘for critics to locate one group of plays in London and another elsewhere fails to acknowledge the temporary power of certain locative metaphors and themes in Renaissance drama, and fails to recognise the slipperiness of settings and locales’ (33). ‘Slipperiness’ is totally the right word for The Comedy of Errors, punctuating its Greek setting with London locations. And actually, this veiled version of London, the shadowing of the great city, gets us to the heart of the joyous slipperiness of Shakespearean theatre, where location often changes moment by moment, let alone scene by scene; and where the stage and the actors are always playful, and in dialogue with the audience, sharing in-jokes, working together to create a story and a location, never letting them quite forget who and where they are. A Greek hero in the local boozer…