Summary and Analysis
While Angelo the goldsmith explains his predicament to another merchant and explains that Antipholus (normally "of very reverend reputation") has the gold chain, Antipholus of S. and his Dromio enter. Antipholus wears the chain, feels himself defiled as a "villain" by the merchant and Angelo, who accuse him of non-payment, and he prepares to engage in a swordfight to secure his honor. Adriana intercedes when she enters, allowing Antipholus of S. and Dromio of S. to seek refuge in a priory.
The Abbess of the priory calms Adriana, who wants to recapture her "insane" husband and bind him for his own good. In contrast to Dr. Pinch of the previous scene, the Abbess is a sensitive person with the interest of the men seeking sanctuary at heart. She inquires about Adriana's behavior and her husband's behavior, concluding:
And thereof came it that the man was mad.
The venom clamors of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dogs tooth. (68–70)
The Abbess takes it as "a charitable duty of my order" to try to succor Antipholus. Adriana squabbles:
And ill it doth beseem your holiness
To separate the husband and the wife. (110–11)
When the Duke enters on his way with Egeon to "the place of death and sorry execution" where he is to be "beheaded publicly," Adriana pleads with him to force the Abbess to relinquish her "mad" husband.
The confusion compounds itself steadily as a messenger arrives to announce Antipholus's escape in another part of town, where:
My master and his man are both broke loose,
Beaten the maids a-row [in a row], and bound the doctor,
Whose beard they have singed off with brands of fire,
And ever [even] as it blazed, they threw on him
Great pails of puddled mire to quench the hair. (169–73)
Adriana is near hysteria as she hears her "husband's" cry at this very moment within the abbey. She thinks she must be possessed:
Ay me, it is my husband! Witness you,
That he is borne about invisible. (186–87)
Inevitably, Antipholus of Ephesus next enters, begging help from his lord and former commander in battle ("[I] took/Deep scars to save thy life."). All of the facts come to light, as Antipholus of E. describes what has happened (and has not happened, though others think it has) to him this day. The crowd of onlookers can and cannot corroborate what he says. The Duke sums up the situation pointedly "Why, this is strange" — before he sends for the Abbess.
Egeon first sees his salvation at "the eleventh hour" (in this case, when "the dial points at five") in the person of his son, only to have his despair redoubled when Antipholus of E. denies ever having set eyes on him.
Not know my voice! O, time's extremity,
Hast thou so cracked and splitted my poor tongue
In seven short years, that here my only son
Knows not my feeble key [voice] of untuned cares? (305–8)
The Duke takes Egeon at this juncture for a senile and sorrow-crazed old man: "thy eye and dangers make thee dote."
The recognition scene ends the play as the Abbess, Antipholus of S., and Dromio of S. make their entry much to the amazement of all at hand. After the formal recognitions, the Abbess bids them retire:
And hear at large discoursèd all our fortunes;
And all that are assembled in this place,
That by this sympathizèd [shared] one day's error.
Have suffered wrong, go, keep us company,
And we shall make full satisfaction. (394–98)
The disentanglement is rapid, adding to the wonder of the comedy. Egeon's despair deepens before he is redeemed. In the Duke's comment on Egeon's "dotage," Shakespeare is referring to yet another aspect of time and perception: with old age, a special state of consciousness, parallel to "dreams" or "possession," arrives in the form of senility. All of the characters in the play are spellbound by the turn of events, as the entire saga of Egeon's family comes to a happy ending. The only character left out of the euphoria is the quack, Dr. Pinch. The spirit of most of Shakespeare's comedies is joyful at the end, and his first effort is no exception. The just pairings of members of the opposite sex which occupy the last moments of his comedies is not given great emphasis here, though it is clear that the Abbess (Emilia) and Egeon, Antipholus of E. and Adriana, and Antipholus of S. and Luciana are all bound to one another. As a last, brilliant, light touch, Shakespeare allows the confusions to linger on as the Duke says to the Antipholus pair, "Stay, stand apart; I know not which is which," and the two Dromids are left on stage vying for seniority rights among slaves. They decide to decide, appropriately, according to the laws of chance which got them into the fix in the first place: "We'll draw cuts for the senior," says Dromio of Syracuse . . . or is it Dromio of Ephesus?