3) The concept of mistaken identity in “Comedy of Errors” and “Twelfth Night”

As mentioned before, the ploy of mistaken identity is the main device behind the plot of the two Shakespearean comedies “Comedy of Errors” and “Twelfth Night”. Both plays deal with twin characters whose identity is mistaken by one or more of the characters in the play. Shakespeare obviously used the Plautine comedies as a source in his writings of both comedies. Furthermore, we can also account that he used his early comedy “Comedy of Errors” as a source for “Twelfth Night”, because of the use of the twins and the mistaken identity in the plot. Although the major difference is that the twins in “Twelfth Night” are not completely identical since they are a boy and a girl. With this he takes the basic concept deeper than he has before, since a twin girl is not likely to be mistaken for her twin brother. This only happens because she has chosen to disguise herself into a man. Anyhow, identical twins or not, their resemblance is also used as a device in the plot, just as in “Comedy of Errors”.

In the small town of Ephesus, the town people constantly mistake one Antipholus and Dromio for the other, which results in multiple situations of confusion starting at the very beginning of the play. The confusion already arouses at the second scene of the first act when Antipholus of Syracruse asks his slave Dromio of Syracruse to go and hide his money in the Centaur where they are staying. After a short while Dromio’s twin brother Dromio of Ephesus runs in to Antipholus of Syracruse and bids him to go home for dinner where his wife is awaiting him. Of course Antipholus of Syracruse has no idea what he is talking about and just plainly asks him where he has left the money he gave him. Dromio of Ephesus however, does not know anything about any money and keeps insisting that his mistress wants Antipholus to come home for dinner to which Antipholus slaps him.


“ E. DROMIO: I pray you jest, sir, as you sit at / dinner. / I from my mistress come to you in post; / If I return I shall be post indeed, / For she will score your fault upon my pate. / Methinks your maw, like mine, should be your / clock, / and strike you home without a messenger.
S. ANTIPHOLUS: Come, Dromio, come, these jests are out of season; reserve them till a merrier hour than this. Where is the gold I gave in charge to thee?
E. DROMIO: To me, sir? Why, you gave no gold to me.” (I,2, 62-72)

Another important situation in which the characters of the play mistake one Antipholus for another is the scene in which Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife, walks into Antipholus of Syracruse in the street asking him why he is behaving so irrationally to which Antipholus replies that he does not even know her. Both are extremely confused, but Adriana still bids him to come to dinner and he agrees to it with the oft quoted words: “Am I in earth, in heaven, or in / hell? Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advis’d? / Known unto these, and to myself disguis’d! / I’ll say as they say, and persevere so, / And in this mist at all adventures go.” (II, 2, 211-15)

In “Twelfth Night” the confusing situations for the other characters with the identity of the disguised Viola – as a man called Cesario –only start arising near the end of the play, when her twin brother Sebastian arrives at the premises of Olivia. Of course, Viola herself knows that her identity is being mistaken because she is aware of the fact that she has deliberately disguised herself as a man. She knows this, but the other characters don’t. She finds herself in difficult situations, especially when Viola falls in love with her not knowing that she is a woman, and this arises inner questions of identity with Viola herself. However, the confusing situations her mistaken identity causes with the others only start when Sebastian comes into the same environment as Viola. Olivia, in the belief that Sebastian is actually Cesario, asks him to marry her and Sebastian, who is completely confused since he has never seen Olivia before, accepts the proposal overwhelmed by her beauty. But of course, Sebastian is not Cesario.

“ OLIVIA: Whither, my lord? Cesario, husband, stay.
DUKE: Husband?
OLIVIA: Ay, husband; can he that deny?
DUKE: Her husband, sirrah?
VIOLA/CESARIO: No, my lord, not I.” (V,1, 138-143)
It has already become clear that the concept of mistaken identity is not entirely similar in both plays. The use of the device of mistaken identity, in which a character is supposed to be someone other than himself by one or more of the other characters, can be of two different ways. Sometimes the error of mistaking someone for someone else is purely fortuitous, and sometimes it is the result of intentional disguise. In the “Comedy of Errors”, the errors are purely fortuitous, nature alone has conspired to ridicule human complacency, for out of the sea, that Shakespearean symbol of the mysterious and the uncontrollable, come two doppelgangers. In “Twelfth Night” however, Viola intentionally disguises herself as a man and takes on the name of Cesario. She also has a twin brother, who gets mistaken for Cesario but only at the end of the play. She actually is a woman, disguised as a man, and the rest of the characters mistake her for being a man. In either case, this unlikely expansion of a classical formula is a nightmare for the victims but fun for the audience, who sit like Gods on Olympus, and laugh with the ignorance of these petty human beings on the stage. In actual life, however, it is far more likely to be deceived by an intentional false disguise than that of a fortuitous mistake, for the latter one is more likely to be cleared up, if not by a close look at clothes and facial expressions, then at least by a few conversations with the person in question.  Of course, when we think about the clothes and lifestyle of the Elizabethan upper class, with its artificiality of dress (which left almost no part of the body its natural shape), the wide use of face-painting and grotesque wigs, masks and veils, we can safely say that they must have hindered a proper recognition. As Shakespeare keeps on striving towards the perfection of this theatrical device of mistaken identity, we observe that his comedies of the second period, including “Twelfth Night” represent a greater realism: the mistakes are all intentional disguises. As far as possible, we are also made to feel that these deceptions would have probably succeeded in real life as well. Something else worth mentioning, is that in “Twelfth Night” Viola disguises as a boy and therefore has to dress like one. However, in Shakespeare’s times women were not allowed to perform on stage in the world of theatre. So, Viola’s part was in those times already played by a boy, which makes the disguising aspect a lot more easier than dressing up as Viola since the actor in question just had to dress like a man would usually do. Furthermore, by making the twin girl Viola transform into a man, being something she is not, he sends the message that the sexes are arbitrary. In “Twelfth Night” he alters the identity of a female individual and he uses this disguise, just as he uses the fortuitous error of mistaking identity in “Comedy of Errors”, to heighten irony, develop theme and enhance a comic innuendo.

As I have mentioned before, Shakespeare treats the concept of mistaken identity in a different way in both plays. Whereas he doubles the sets of twins in the “Comedy of Errors” by adding two identical twin slaves, he sticks to just one set of twins in “Twelfth Night”. However, as we analyse “Twelfth Night” we discover that Shakespeare also doubles the concept of mistaken identity, although on a completely other level than in “Comedy of Errors”. By making Viola disguise as a man, he establishes a second kind of mistaking the identity; the other characters in the play mistake Viola for a man. So, on the contrary of “Comedy of Errors”, the characters make two different mistakes in identity, they mistake Viola for a man, and later on they also mistake Sebastian for Viola/Cesario. Being two different kinds of mistaking in identity, both also have completely different consequences. While the mistaking of Viola for a man results only in confusing situations for Viola herself, the mistaking of Sebastian for Viola results in confusion with all the main characters. Because of Viola’s disguise as a man, she finds herself in a lot of difficult situations for her to handle. She falls in love for the Duke Orsino, but can’t reveal her love since he believes she is a man, and in Renaissance times homosexuality was regarded with repugnance and overall was punished by death. When she meets Olivia, this rich and beautiful lady almost immediately falls in love with her. Viola tries to prevent her from it, knowing that she is not a man and she feels terrible for deceiving Olivia in such an emotional way. But, again she can not tell her or else her cover will be blown. She has put on a mask to create another self, pretending to be something she is not, a man. She has to hide her real identity in order to proceed as she wishes in the manly renaissance world and this causes an identity struggle. Also through the character of Viola, being mistaken for a man, Shakespeare is actually telling us that the sexes are arbitrary and that women can just as well do everything that a man can do.

As to the concept of mistaken identity, both plays centre on the twins, whose mistaken identity offers the main element for the plot and theme. However, when we look a little closer at the comedy of “Twelfth Night” we come to realize that the concept of mistaken identity is not only applied to the twins, but also to some of the other characters. Malvolio is fooled into believing that Feste, who is disguised as a preacher, is actually Sir Topas the curate.

“MARIA: Nay, I prithee, put on this gown and this / beard; make him believe thou art Sir Topas the / curate; do it quickly. I’ll call Sir Toby the whilst.
CLOWN: Well, I’ll put it on, and I will dissemble / myself in’t; and I would I were the first that ever dissembled / in such a gown.” (IV, 2, 1- 6)

Also Malvolio himself disguises in new garments in the hopes of winning Olivia and becoming a nobleman. The multiple disguises that occur in the play are all accomplished with the change of garments. Viola dresses up like a man, Feste like a preacher, and Malvolio like a nobleman. The garments in the play are a symbol of the changes in gender as well as in class distinction.
Through these disguises, the play raises questions about our real identity, about what makes us who we really are. Are things like gender and class written in stone or is it possible that they can be altered? As we see, Shakespeare takes the concept of mistaken identity to a much deeper level than in the “Comedy of Errors”. The audience is challenged to think about these questions that are raised, to consider the place of women in society and the ambiguity of gender, whilst in “Comedy of Errors” the device of mistaken identity is used mainly for farce.

In both comedies the mistaking of identity also has an influence on the concept of love. Both Antipholus of Syracruse and Viola fall in love during the play, but they can not pursue their love interest because of their mistaken identity. Antipholus of Syracruse falls in love with Adriana’s sister Luciana and he openly confesses his love to her at their first encounter. But Luciana, thinking that he is his twin brother Antipholus of Ephesus can not accept this love because she believes he is married to her sister. In “Twelfth Night” Viola falls for the Duke Orsino, but it is impossible for her to pursue her feelings since she is pretending to be a man. Due to their mistaken identities, neither one of them sees their love returned because they are mistaken for someone they are not. It is not until the end of the play when their real identity is cleared up that both can be with the people they love and live happily ever after.

“ S. ANTIPHOLUS: No; / It is thyself, mine own self’s better part; / Mine eye’s clear eye, my dear heart’s dearer / heart, / My food, my fortune, and my sweet hope’s aim, / My sole earth’s heaven, and my heaven’s claim.
LUCIANA: All this my sister is, or else should be.
S. ANTIPHOLUS: Call thyself sister, sweet, for I am / thee; / Thee will I love, and with thee lead my life, / Thou hast no husband yet, nor I no wife. / Give me thy hand.
LUCIANA: O, soft, sir, hold you still; / I’ll fetch my sister to get her good will.”
(III, 2, 61-70)

“ VIOLA: She never told her love, / But let concealment, like a worm I’ th’ bud, / Feed on her damask cheek. She pin’d in / thought; / And with a green and yellow melancholy / She sat like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?” (II, 4, 109-14)
Another important aspect we might consider is that Shakespeare handled the ending of both plays differently. The reunion of the Twelfth Night twins was handled with a lot more feeling and intensity than the one in the “Comedy of Errors”. The latter misses all of the breath-taking wonder which accompanies the reunion of the Twelfth Night twins. The long-lost Antipholus brothers are silent, Aegeon and his wife Aemilia exchange formalities, and only the Dromios seem fascinated by their mirror-images. The reunion of Viola and Sebastian is a very intense emotional moment.

“SEBASTIAN: A spirit I am indeed, / But am in that dimension grossly clad / Which from the womb I did participate. / Were you a woman, as the rest goes even, / I should my tears let fall upon your check, / And say ‘Thrice welcome, drowned Viola!” (V, 1, 228-34)

One of the main reasons for this intense, emotional approach of the twin reunion must have lied within Shakespeare’s personal experiences.  Shakespeare was also the father of boy and girl twins, Hamnet and Judith. His son Hamnet died at the age of 11, and it is very possible that Shakespeare might have known then what modern research into twin siblings has indicated, mainly that the death of a twin seems to cause a kind of desolation in its twin brother or sister. This kind of desolation is said to be of a different kind than with the loss of another loved one by death. The surviving twin often tries to compensate for the loss of its brother or sister by attempting to assume his/her identity. Of course, in the “Comedy of Errors” Shakespeare also touches upon the twin’s sense of lost identity when separated.

“ S. ANTIPHOLUS: I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop, / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, / Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself. / So, I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.” (I, 2, 35-40)

We can not say that there is absolutely no emotion involved when the Comedy of Errors twins reunite, especially considering the preceding quote of Antipholus of Syracruse. All we can say is that the reunion in “Twelfth Night” is handled and described with a lot more emotional feeling attached to it. Of course this might have something to do with the fact that the “Comedy of Errors” is a comical farce and that “Twelfth Night” is more a romantic comedy, focussing more on feeling and emotion.


Although both comedies centre on the mistaken identity of twin characters, it should have become clear that this concept is not exactly the same in both Shakespearean comedies.
Shakespeare borrowed the device from the Classics, adapting it to his own means. In the “Comedy of Errors” he is as bold to add a second set of twins, the twin Dromios, to make the whole play even more confusing. He takes this basic concept even deeper with his comedy of “Twelfth Night” where he makes the twins a boy and a girl and bases the theatrical device on intentional disguise. But the ploy of mistaken identity still remains an ideal ingredient for a crowd-pleasing comedy, accounting for multiple humorous situations. Another important element mentioned are the consequences their mistaken identity arouses. Again, Shakespeare treats these in a slightly different way in both plays. In the “Comedy of Errors” Shakespeare lets the anarchy and confusion start at the very beginning of the play, whereas in “Twelfth Night” the other characters only start to get confused close to the end, when Sebastian comes to the scene. But, we can not say that there are no consequences and confusion before Sebastian’s occurrence on the scene. There are, but of a different kind. Viola intentionally disguised herself as a man, which accounts for a number of difficult situations she has to handle, like the one when she realizes she loves Orsino but can not tell him because he believes that she is in fact a man. This change of identity leaves Viola with a lot of inner confusions and fear of how to handle the situations. Of course, at the end everything will be resolved with Sebastian taking over the aspects of Viola’s disguise that she no longer needs to wear. It is he that has actually married Olivia and who is actually male.
The concept of mistaken identity is taken deeper by Shakespeare by his use of intentional disguise. In the “Comedy of Errors” the errors are purely fortuitous, whilst in “Twelfth Night” they are a result of intentional disguise. The latter is far more plausible to happen in everyday life, and therefore we can conclude that “Twelfth Night” presents a greater realism. The use mistaken identity plots makes the character go through a learning process in which he will come to understand himself and his situation a lot better than before. And this is an essential aspect of life…


  1. Introduction
  2. Mistaken indentity in the writings of Memander and Plautus
  3. The concept of mistaken identity in "Comedy of Errors" and "Twelfth Night"
  4. Bibliography
  5. Home