Reft of his brother, but retained his name – COMEDY OF ERRORS, I i


It’s a truism in Shakespeare that if it’s even moderately important for the audience to know, he makes sure it’s said around three times. Theories tend toward practicality here: you can’t expect attentive comprehension from an audience of unruly midday inebriates with one eye out for prostitutes and snacks. And that’s just the nobility – the groundlings were noisy as well.

This makes editing Shakespeare a little easier sometimes – a front-facing, seated audience trained to do its shopping at intermission can usually do with one or two mentions of the fact at hand, so the trimmer can just prune out the least useful instance(s). Unless it’s a mug line, of course. Merch people hate it when you cut out the line they put on the mug.

All that said, there’s an instance in Errors of information sort of sneaking in only once and while I know of no one who gets that upset about missing this detail, every now and then people do bring it up.

To wit: why on earth do the twins all have the same name?

Parents of twins have been known to do the matchy-matchy thing with clothing for a long time, and it’s something twins have been known to continue well into old age even without parental enforcement. But sharing names is a bridge too far.

The easy answer is that they didn’t give the twins the same names. Because that’s a terrible idea.

The Shipwreck

Late in the important expository info loaded – and I mean loaded – into the play’s first scene, Egeon says of the twin he raised that he

At eighteene yeeres became inquisitive

After his brother; and importuned me

That his attendant, so his case was like,

Reft of his brother, but retain’d his name,

Might bear him company in the quest of him…

(Sidebar: the twistily-worded phrase “so his case was like” would roughly translate to “so similar was his situation”.)

And there it is: “retain’d his name,” Egeon says blithely, never to be discussed again, even by the twins when they meet up at the end.

In Shakespeare’s main source for Errors (the italics are important here – his main source for just plain errors was Holinshed. ZING!), Menaechmi by Plautus, this is all laid out nicely by the speaker of a prologue, who says that when news got back to Syracuse of [the broadly different situation that separated the twins in the original], the man raising the “surviving” twin changed the boy’s name to that of his lost sibling – no particular reason is given, but it was likely as a sort of memorial.

That prologue continues with a useful couplet stating (in the Nixon translation in my battered ol’ Loeb copy) “To keep you from going astray later, I herewith forewarn you:/ Both twins have the same name.” Couldn’t ask for more than that. I guess the Romans were drunk, too. Hooda thought?


It’s not clear how this worked in Shakespeare’s Errors. Were the names of the Syracusan pair changed in infancy? Did they choose to do it themselves when the non-servant lad “became inquisitive”? Does anyone really care that much as long as the requisite wackiness ensues?

I suspect the latter is the best answer. As with most of Shakespeare’s comedies, those details didn’t seem very important to him, so we honor them best by steamrolling over them apace and hoping no wiseacre ever makes a living picking the plays apart word by word in the printed form they were never intended to take. Best of luck.

God keepe me from false Friends – RICHARD III, Act III Scene i


Hello, again – it’s hot out there. It’s hot here, anyway. The summer still doth tend like crazy upon my state of Kentucky, where Kentucky Shakespeare’s summer season is here and the time is right, despite the undoubtedly educated opinion of Martha Reeves and both Vandellas, for Shakespeare in the park. There are some majestic (and blessedly shady) trees surrounding the stage, good friends to all of us in the cast.

Cypress and gingko, they are. The trees, not the cast. I like to touch at least one before each show. That’s trickier since the stage redesign has brought all three onto the stage – I have to sneak and do it before we start – but I manage. I’ve lobbied repeatedly for naming them Cordelia, Lavinia, and Rosalind (center, left, and right, respectively) which seems useful, but then I’d have to go into the whole Rosalind-with-a-long-i conversation and I want to put that off until unavoidable.

But doth the summer still tend upon my state, or doth it still tend upon my state? Titania is impressive, no question, and has every right to brag. But the word “still” in that line is tricky. It doesn’t mean “the summer continues to wait on my delicious royalness”. It means “the summer always/continuously  waits on my delicious royalness”. Which is a fine point, but. Still.*

David Crystal (insert my own Shakespeare nerd fanboy noises here) snags a phrase from comparative semantics (faux amis) and in several of his writings calls such words “false friends”. They look familiar, but they’re often misleading.

Here are a few you might encounter during the 2018 Kentucky Shakespeare summer season in particular:


This one’s fairly important, one could say, in Othello, and turns up in Errors as well. It has little to do with envy, which is how we commonly use it – “Your vacation pics! I’m so jealous!” – and much to do with suspicion and/or vigilant watchfulness. In Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio finally levels with someone he & Kate have been messing with and says, “Come go along and see the truth hereof,/ For our first merriment hath made thee jealous.” Keep a particular eye out for this one. A jealous eye, even.


Two of the many euphemisms for mental instability our language has provided over the centuries. “Distracted” occurs several times in Errors and it does not mean “having a deficit of attention” but “insane”. “Ditto “mated”, which means something “amazed” or “overcome”, with sort of a sense of temporary insanity, though it retains the modern meaning of “found a romantic partner” as well. This gets played with in Errors, in fact: Luciana asks the twin who’s not her brother-in-law if he’s mad and he, in love with her almost at first sight, responds, “Not mad, but mated.” Later, as the Duke tries to get everyone’s loopy stories to match up, he says he thinks they “are all mated, or stark mad,” that is, “temporarily crazy, or perhaps just all the way there”. The jury is still out when we finish Act V. Those people are not right, none of them. Maybe Balthazar, tops.


In Shakespeare, “compact” (emphasis on the second syllable) means “made of” not “squeezed tightly together like the trash in the Death Star”. Theseus, in a once-famous speech toward the end of Midsummer that now gets cut most of the time, says “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact” – which makes more sense when you know this definition. Think of the Mayflower Compact, if that helps.

Same goes for “framed” – the “made of” meaning hangs on now in the sense of a construction team framing a house. In Othello, Cassio is described (by Iago, so, grain of salt) as “framed to make women false”. I guess it’s a compliment?


This can mean “from” in all the same ways we use, but also has a nice concise one-word easy-to-fit-into-verse sense of “away from” or “far from” – “we are now from home” the emphasis is on being away, not on having come from there. If that makes sense. It’s tricky, but when the actors help, it’s pretty clear.


Falstaff loves this one, and it’s all over Henry IV part 1. It roughly corresponds to our “there it is” or “so be it” or “que sera sera”, “it is what it is” or whatever other cliché we’re using to indicate a fraudulently resigned shrug these days. One of Falstaff’s many idle threats: “If Percy be alive, I’ll pierce him: if he do come in my way, so: if he do not, if I come in his (willingly) let him make a Carbonado of me.” (That’s a piece of meat slashed up for broiling. There’s also a nice play on “Percy” and “pierce”, which would have sounded a lot more like one another 400 years ago; alas, that joke is gone.)


This one often means “in the making” or “afoot” in Shakespeare – “Do you hear aught, sir, of a battle toward?” is somewhere in Lear, I think. At other times it means “docile” or “willing/compliant” and is linked to “froward”, a word meaning the opposite (“stubborn”, “willful”) and one that we don’t use at all anymore. Think “to” and “fro” if that helps.


This is particularly tricky to the ear – “fear” can also mean “fear for”. So when someone says “He was much feared by his physicians” they mean the doctors were worried, not afraid of him. Fear can also mean “doubt”, as in Gertrude’s “Fear me not” to Polonius as he mansplains her relationship to her son to her (he gets a shiv right after, so all is well…).


That should hold us over for now, yes? Usually context (and the inflection of friendly actors) makes this sort of clear, but it pays to have the ears ready.

Now that I think of it, perhaps we could name the trees Martha, Betty, and Rosaland? I don’t think the Vandellas would object.


*It doesn’t mean there’s seasonal moonshine machinery nearby either, but, yes, we are in Kentucky and yes, that’s still (sigh) a thing, though less an issue in these days of trendy home brewing.