As the play begins, Solinus, the duke of Ephesus, is leading Aegeon, a merchant from Syracuse, to be executed. Solinus explains that there is great “enmity and discord” between Syracuse and Ephesus, and that there is a law in Ephesus that any Syracusians found in the city are to be executed unless they can pay a fine of a thousand marks. As Aegeon barely has one hundred marks, he is to be executed.
Financial matters are important from the very beginning of the play. For Aegeon, money literally becomes an issue of life or death, due to Duke Solinus’ law.
Aegeon says that he is glad to be executed, as this will end his troubles. Solinus asks Aegeon to explain and tell him why he came to Ephesus. Aegeon says that his grief is unspeakable, but begins to explain. He was born in Syracuse and had a wife. He made a good fortune as a merchant, but when one of his business partners in Epidamnum died, he had to travel to Epidamnum.
Aegeon’s troubles are related to his family, which is of utmost importance to him. However, it is also clear that his profession as a merchant and trader is a significant part of his life, as he tells of his business-related trip to Epidamnum.
His pregnant wife came along, and there gave birth to two male twins, completely identical. At the same time, in the same inn, a poor woman gave birth to two identical male twins, as well. Aegeon bought these twins to bring up as servants for his own sons, and prepared to sail back home with his wife and the two pairs of twins.
It is of course a remarkable coincidence that a random woman should give birth to a pair of twins at the same time, in the same inn, as Aegeon’s wife. These two pairs of twins are completely identical in appearance, which will drive a lot of the action of the play.
Along the way, though, there was a great storm at sea, and Aegeon suffered a shipwreck. Trying to stay alive, Aegeon and his wife both tied themselves to masts of the ship, and each took one of their children and one of the servant twins with them. Fortunately, two ships approached to rescue them. However, a huge rock rent Aegeon’s ship in two, separating him from his wife. One ship rescued him and his pair of children, and the other rescued his wife and her pair of children. The two ships were separated, and Aegeon was separated from his wife.
Aegeon’s life is further influenced by strange coincidences and twists of fate. First, he suffers a shipwreck, then he is rescued. However, his and his wife’s attempt to find safety ends up being a mistake, leading to their separation. Aegeon’s separation from his dear family is the source of his woes.
Aegeon and his one son lived in Syracuse, and when the son turned eighteen, he wanted to travel abroad with his servant in order to find his mother and brother. Aegeon decided to do the same, and traveled all around “furthest Greece” by himself, “roaming clean through the bounds of Asia.” Thus he eventually came to Ephesus.
Aegeon and his son both value their family so much that they are willing to travel all around the Mediterranean in search of their missing relatives, even if it means risking their lives in Ephesus.
Solinus pities Aegeon, but says that he cannot behave contrary to his city’s laws and cannot pardon him. However, he gives Aegeon one day before his execution and tells him that he can try to find friends to pay the 1000 mark fine for him. Aegeon has little hope that he will find anyone to help him and, speaking of himself, says that this will only “procrastinate his lifeless end.”
Solinus takes pity on Aegeon and his sad story, but maintains the law, which effectively puts a monetary value on Aegeon’s life.