In almost every way being a twin is paradoxical. I am ‘identical’ to my brother, but we are unique because we are twins. And I both enjoy and despise this uniqueness in our identicalness. While I cherish the possibilities for making conversation and playing tricks, I detest being seen as a complete duplicate of my brother. This makes me feel as if I belong in a freak show, though the audience that twins draw lacks the tact of most freak-show audiences. Instead of merely gazing at us in wonder, people ask questions. The first is invariably: ‘How do they [sic] tell you apart?’ Usually, before my brother or I can answer, an eager acquaintance will intervene, and get us to open our mouths and show our teeth – like horses on an auction block. Finding a difference, they can then reassure themselves that we are two distinctly different people and, moreover, that the difference is quite apparent: that their previous inability to distinguish between us was due simply to careless observation. They can convince themselves that we are not identical – only as alike as most brothers.
People who are unfamiliar with twins must undergo this process because their notions of identity do not allow for twins. They would like to believe that, like snowflakes, all humans have a unique appearance, and that this appearance corresponds to a unique personality. It is the ability of twins to subvert such notions that interests Shakespeare in The Comedy of Errors. The two Antipholuses and the two Dromios confuse everyone because the Ephesians insist that only one identity can correspond to one external appearance. Moreover, not even Antipholus or Dromio of Syracuse, who are actually searching for their twins, ever consider that their facades can front for two different identities. This brings me to my answer to the question ‘How do they tell you apart?’ Usually, I say smugly: ‘Well I wouldn’t know, I’ve always been able to tell us apart.’ It’s not that funny, but it is true. That’s why it is difficult for me to believe that Antipholus of Syracuse never considers that he is being mistaken for his twin. Of course, the explanation given is that Ephesus is full of sorcery: ‘There’s none but witches do inhabit here.’ These witches create a world where Antipholus thinks mistaken identity is normal. And Shakespeare seems to endow Ephesus with double identities wherever possible. Adriana’s cook is called both Nell and Luce; the abbey is a sanctuary, but just behind it lies ‘the place of death and sorry execution’; the currency is of three sorts – guilders, marks and ducats; the courtesan with whom Antipholus of Ephesus intends simply to dine is at first ‘of excellent discourse’ but later is a devil. Nothing is as it seems; nothing can be accurately labelled. And if nothing can be identified, identity and the ability to distinguish between different identities is nothing.
This may represent an ideal of Shakespeare’s, who was the father of twins, though of different sex. There is nothing more frustrating for parents than mistaking their own twins. They feel guilty and at the same time awed that they cannot distinguish between two humans of their making. It would be a relief for them if the need to distinguish between their twins was eliminated. It seems to me that Shakespeare (who may have written this play in 1589, when his twins were at most four and perhaps still very much alike) is creating a world where the need to distinguish is absent. The most poignant moment of the play comes when Aegeon fails to recognise Antipholus of Ephesus as his long-lost son and confuses him with Antipholus of Syracuse:
Not know my voice! O time’s extremity,
Has thou so cracked and splitted my poor tongue
In seven short years that here my only son
Knows not my feeble key of untuned cares?
Aegeon’s plight is different from that of my parents: they, having raised us together, would realise their mistake almost immediately. But when I have met people who were acquainted only with my brother their insistence that I was he has been as strong as Aegeon’s. Shortly before writing this, I encountered a classmate of my brother’s from Northwestern University. I had played in a rugby match at Sussex University and was sitting in the bar afterwards when a player from the other team approached. He asked me in an American accent if I was called Rob. I replied that I wasn’t, but that I had a twin brother of that name who went to Northwestern. To my surprise, he replied: yes, he thought he remembered me from the rugby team. I said: no, he didn’t know me, he knew my brother. He looked at me with an ‘I-don’t-know-why-you’re-persisting-with-this-joke-about-being-a-twin-if-you-don’t-want-to-talk-to-me-just-say-so’ look and asked me, a little tentatively, what I thought of the standard of rugby over here. I almost asked: ‘Are you a god? Would you create me new?’ My identity was finally restored when I produced a picture of my brother and me together. He was completely amazed, and would not stop apologising for the rest of our conversation – which wasn’t long.
Throughout this encounter I felt like Sebastian in Twelfth Night, who said: ‘You throw a strange regard upon me.’ I must admit to being as guilty as anyone else of inflicting this strange regard on twins. It always strikes me as funny how similar two twins appear. And, though I hate to admit it, I have no gift for telling them apart: in fact, I think I have more difficulty than others. I can sympathise with both Dromios when, even after the final revelation in front of the abbey, they mistake their masters. My difficulty may stem from a bias of mine: my brother and I have much more discrete personalities, and perhaps appearances, than most twins. We generally agree that I am smarter, at least when it comes to standardised tests, but that he works harder, and that I am more mellow, almost to the point of carelessness, while he is almost arrogant in his need for organisation. In fact, we have always considered ourselves so different that, as a child, whenever I felt my parents favoured my brother I was convinced that I was adopted but he wasn’t.
When I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Comedy of Errors I hoped that the two Antipholuses would turn out to be completely different in personality. They weren’t identical: Antipholus of Ephesus was much more irascible – he bellowed his lines with great force, and it seemed completely in character for him to abandon his wife for a courtesan. Antipholus of Syracuse appeared much more nonchalant, quite willing to accept a chain, a meal and a wife; his desire to leave the sorcery of Ephesus seemed only perfunctory. However, they were not diametrically opposite. According to the programme for the RSC production, a tradition exists in Biblical and mythological literature of polarity between twins: ‘there is a pervasive attitude that one is good and the other evil: usually the first is the hero figure and the second a villainous usurper, who has recourse to magic or sorcery.’ I’m sure my brother would agree with this, for we are always trying jokingly to determine superiority by the order of our births. He claims that I – the latter-born – am a carbon copy, a cheaper reproduction of him. I say that he is but a balsa-wood prototype for the real thing: me. In truth, though, I think he is better-off. I am more suseeptible to acne and to cold sores – and he has never even had one. It’s as if he was born with the lion’s share of the antibodies.
So I was interested in which one of the Antipholus twins was born first. Shakespeare hides the order of their births with ambiguities. At first Aegeon says:
My wife, more careful for the latter-born,
Had fastened him unto a small spare mast
and stayed with him during the ensuing breakup of the ship. Thus the first-born would be Antipholus of Syracuse. But then Aegeon contradicts himself by describing Antipholus of Syracuse as ‘my youngest boy and yet my eldest care’. Stanley Wells writes in the Penguin edition of the play, ‘the inconsistency with line 79 is probably a mere accident,’ but I disagree. It seems unlikely that Shakespeare would forget the order he established only 45 lines earlier. And, more important, he confuses the Dromios’ order of births as well. Just as both sets of twins are indistinguishable in every physical way, so they are indistinguishable in this factual way.
Of course the most radical way in which these twins are identical is their shared name. The first name is all-important to twins. We may not think of ourselves as a pair, but our identities are shaped by those around us – and they need a name to distinguish between us. They remember that ‘Rob has a mole on his neck,’ or ‘there’s a gap in Dave’s teeth.’ It angers me when parents think it cute to name their twins homophonically: Tim and Tom, Dan and Don, Craig and Greg, or Ricky and Dicky. These sets of names are easily confused – and so are the identities they name. Twins with similar names also suffer in sports like American football, where a player’s surname is printed on the back of his shirt. My brother and I felt encumbered by the extra ‘R’ and ‘D’ that we required. But I remember playing a team of which two players were twins with the same initials. They had to sport ‘Tom Willingham’ and ‘Tim Willingham’ on their backs, which made them seem more like insurance salesmen than football-players. Forcing them to reveal their first name was like exposing a weakness: they could no longer maintain the mystique and impersonality necessary to contact sports. Not surprisingly, we beat them easily. I’ve always cherished my individual name, and never failed to feel insulted – even at the age of five – when people, generally friends’ mothers, referred to us simply as ‘the twins’. Some even addressed us as ‘Twins’, which to me is like addressing a multiple amputee as ‘Stubby’. I can’t comprehend the loss of identity which would occur if we were both called Rob or Dave – or Antipholus.
The two Antipholuses are not thought of as a pair because they have been separated for 33 years. This provokes an interesting question. Do twins have richer identities when they are apart? I think the answer is yes. At home, my brother and I share the same friends, listen to the same type of music and have many of the same habits. When we separate to go to college our lives diverge quite noticeably. I’m convinced that if we had attended the same university this divergence either would not have happened at all or would have happened on a much smaller scale. In The Comedy of Errors the demeanours of the twins are different and so are their lives. Yet when they finally meet the two merge completely. So do the Dromios:
We came into the world like brother and brother,
And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.