What Shakespearean Play Is Big Business Based On?

It’s Good To Read
The Comedy Of Errors – William Shakespeare
Author Unknown
July 21, 2018

bette midler, lily tomlin, big business

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This play, based on two identical twins separated at birth, and the circumstances of their accidental reunion, is fully in the standard tradition of Elizabethan plays at that time.

There is a war between the city-states of Syracuse and Ephesus, with those citizens caught behind enemy lines being sentenced to death, unless they can ransom themselves.

Egeon is one such from Syracuse, yet gladly accepts the death penalty (the crime is trespass) as handed down by the Duke of Ephesus. Egeon gives the Duke the sad outline of his life. The Duke gives him a stay of one day, until sunset, to either find the money, or be executed.

Egeon is an old man, weighed down by the actions of his life. Many years ago, he was a successful merchant. While on a visit abroad, his wife gave birth in an inn to identical twin boys. A poor woman staying at the same inn also birthed identical twin boys, and sold them to Egeon to be raised as servants to his children.

On the homeward journey, their ship is hit by a terrible storm. Egeon and his wife each take two boys, one of each set, but get separated when the boat breaks up and sinks. All were rescued, Egeon being taken to Epidaurus, the wife taken to Corinth, and they never saw each other again.

Egeon raised both boys as his own, in Syracuse, giving each the name of their lost brothers. His biological son with Antipholus, the servant is Dromio. For future reference, and to keep the lines from blurring, I’ll call them SA and SD (Syracuse Antipholus and Syracuse Dromius). When they turned eighteen, SA and SD resolve to find their brothers, and leave their father.

Egeon has also spent his time looking for these two, which is how he ended up in Ephesus, world-weary, tired, and hopeless. By coincidence, the two boys have also turned up, and they book into the Centaur, a local hostelry.

While SD is gone, SA is accosted by Dromius of Ephesus (whom I’ll call ED, and his brother is EA, Antipholus of Ephesus). ED mistakes SA for his own master EA, and tries to bring him home for dinner. SA resists, and beats ED so hard that he runs off. EA’s wife (Adriana) becomes furious when ED returns without his master, thinking he is philandering.

SD returns to SA, and receives a beating for trying to make his master a fool. SD is completely confused by his master’s reaction. In the middle of this, Adriana and her sister Luciana approach SA and SD, and reproach them for not coming home to dinner. SA decides to go with them, leaving SD outside their house to stand guard. He locks the gate.

EA finally arrives home, accompanied by ED, a goldsmith named Angelo (from whom he got a necklace for his wife), and Balthazar, a wealthy merchant. SD refuses to let them in, and cannot see them through the bulky gate. As it is impossible to gain entrance, EA and ED decide to have dinner at a courtesan’s house, telling Angelo to bring along the finished necklace during dinner.

Inside the house, SA tries to seduce Luciana, who thinking he is her brother-in-law, is flattered but completely confused, and runs away from him. SD also has found he is married to the kitchen-maid. They make fun of her, comparing her body to countries (Ireland is her buttocks, apparently – “I found it out by the bogs”. America is also referenced!).

Realising something serious is amiss, and that the two women are in fact witches, SA and SD try to find a ship, so they can leave Ephesus. On their way out of the house, Angelo intercepts them and gives SA the necklace. Surprised, but not looking a gift horse in the mouth, SA takes it.

While SA and SD search for a ship, Angelo meets EA in the marketplace and looks for payment. EA refuses, as he has not received it. As Angelo has witnesses, EA is put into debtors prison.

SD, having found a ship, sees EA and tells him they are ready to leave. EA thinks it is ED, and believes he is mad. He sends SD to Adriana for bail, to get him out of prison. Once secured, SD runs back to the marketplace, where he meets SA. SA confusedly refuses the bail money, and just wants to know about the ship.

ED then meets EA, and gets a beating for not getting the bail money from Adriana (he, of course, knew nothing about the request). Adriana arrives, and amid great scenes of confusion and anger, ED and EA are tied up, and brought home to Adriana’s house.

We are almost there – hold on!!

Catching their breath, Adriana and Luciana try to get to the bottom of EA’s debt problem, when SA and SD encounter them. The two men attack the group, which scatters and disappears.

Angelo then re-appears and points out the necklace that he says EA denied receiving. SA says he denied nothing (which is true, but Angelo thinks he is EA). Pride and honor bristle, and they are about to come to blows when Ariana and her group come back. SA and SD take refuge in an Abbey. The Abbess asks the people what is going on, and refuses to cede SA or SD to Adriana, as it is a place of sanctuary.

It is coming close to dusk, and the Duke appears to make good on the sentence handed down to Egeon (the man who really is responsible for all this!). Adriana appeals to the Duke to force the Abbess to give up her husband, but then news arrives that EA and ED have escaped, and are headed to the Abbey.

EA enters the Abbey, and makes his own appeal to the Duke, asking for justice to be served on his wife, who has maligned him. The Duke is caught up in all this and declares it all madness. Egeon then adds his voice, saying that EA is his own son, from Syracuse. EA naturally responds that he has never seen Egeon in his life, which news Egeon takes really badly.

Finally, the situation is resolved, when the Abbess returns with SA and SD. With the four men in the one room, each facing his identical twin, everyone realizes what has happened. SA and Egeon recognize each other, and it is a joyful reunion. In a surprise twist, the Abbess reveals she, in fact, is Egeon’s long-lost wife! SA once again offers to wed Luciana, and the play ends with the Duke forgiving everyone, including Egeon, and they all exit to the Abbey to catch-up on each other’s lives.

Main Characters:

Egeon: He is a tragic figure, having had and lost everything, and is at the point of being executed. There is no joy in his life, until the very end.

Antipholus of Syracuse: Having lost both his mother and brother at an early age, he is possessed by the idea of finding them. He feels like a drop of water in the ocean, looking for another drop, which is a very lonely speech. He is the more developed character of the two brothers and causes confusion in Ephesus. The play centers on his search for his brother.

Antipholus of Ephesus: He is married, seemingly well-established in Ephesus, and is more a man of action and decisions than his brother. He is completely confused by all his familiar and well-known friends and family acting out in bizarre ways, with wild accusations and speeches. At the end, neither of them seem overly-enthused to have found each other.

Adriana: A more rounded character than would be normal in these plays at the time, hers is the experienced practical voice of marriage, compared to her sister’s romantic notions. I think her character is more authentic, speaking to the realities of married life.

Minor Characters:

The Duke: Ultimate arbiter of power, he makes decisions that affect all the characters, but is shown to be a pillar of sense.

The Dromio Twins: These are the comic relief of the play, accepting even beatings with humor, and turning it back on their masters and each other in clever word-play. They have a subordinate relationship with their masters and seem genuinely delighted to finally find their true brother.

Luciana: Meek compared to the towering rage of her sister, she is not a role model for any modern woman, accepting subservient obedience to husband, regardless of his treatment. She is unmarried but wants to be. She only values loyalty to her sister and family above this, which is to her credit.


Appearance v Reality: Everybody mistakes everybody for someone else in the play, people think their own appearance is failing them, but appearance is not substance. For example, the two Antipholus (Antipholi??) are identical but have nothing in common with each other. Appearances cannot be trusted, as they can and do mislead (a theme expanded on in a later play!).

Loneliness and Isolation: SA is truly adrift, and his motivation to find his brother is really a way of finding out who he is. EA may also be isolated, with the suspicions of his wife about him cheating pointing to a potential gap in the openness of the marriage. Egeon is left alone, having lost his wife and one son, and abandoned by his other son. What in their relationship before this point was lacking, that left the two of them adrift from each other?


This play is widely considered to be the first of all Shakespeare’s plays, even though not published until the First Folio in 1623. It was first recorded as performed in 1594.

Fun Facts:

The 1988 comedy Big Business, starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, was based on this play.

It is the shortest of all Shakespeare’s plays.

Famous Everyday Phrase Coined/Popularised:

“Tis high time”

“Time comes stealing”

“Something in the wind”




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