Egeon’s Story

Act 1 Scene 1 – Key Scene

In this scene Egeon is facing a death sentence for being in Ephesus illegally. Duke Solinus asks him why he has come when he knows the penalty. The story he tells is extraordinary, not only because it is a tragic tale which moves the Duke to pity, but it cleverly sets up the entire plot and adds a framing device to the play. It also makes the play more dramatic by giving a deadline for everything to happen. It is a tricky scene for any actor to deliver such a large amount of text and it is important to look at how Shakespeare uses language to make the speeches dramatic, interesting and moving.

Take a look at an extract from this scene and watch it in performance here. Using the following steps, remember to look at it line by line and if you’re looking at the scene for the first time don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look
    Take a look at the scene. Who has the most lines? Are they using prose or verse? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.
    At length the sun, gazing upon the earth,
    Dispersed those vapours that offended us,
    And by the benefit of his wished light
    The seas waxed calm
    , and we discoverèd
    Two ships from far, making amain to us,
    Of Corinth that, of Epidaurus this.
    But ere they came — O, let me say no more!
    Gather the sequel by that went before.


    And the sea turned calm in the sunlight we had wished for

    Guess what comes next, based on what happened before.

    Nay, forward, old man; do not break off so,
    For we may pity, though not pardon thee.

    What is it about Egeon’s speech and the language that he uses that makes the Duke want to hear more of the story?

    O, had the gods done so, I had not now
    Worthily termed them merciless to us;

    For ere the ships could meet, by twice five leagues,
    We were encountered by a mighty rock,
    Which being violently borne up upon,
    Our helpful ship was splitted in the midst;
    So that, in this unjust divorce of us,
    Fortune had left to both of us alike,
    What to delight in, what to sorrow for.

    Her part, poor soul, seeming as burdened
    With lesser weight, but not with lesser woe,
    Was carried with more speed before the wind,
    And in our sight they three were taken up
    By fishermen of Corinth, as we thought.

    If the gods had pitied us then, I wouldn’t be calling them merciless now.

    About thirty nautical miles

    As we were split apart from each other, my wife and I were also left with split fortunes - things to be happy about and things to be sad about.

    These are long speeches to start a play, especially a comedy. How can the actor playing Egeon keep the audience interested? How does Shakespeare help them?

  • Watch
    Read the scene aloud, and think about how you would act out this scene. Which words would you make stand out, and how would you show the emotion of the scene? Then, watch the video and see the actor in rehearsal making these decisions, then acting out the scene in performance. What do you think of their choices? What do they tell you about the character?
  • Imagine
    Explore some images from past versions of The Comedy of Errors at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for the opening scene feel right to you?