Comedy of Errors
The Identity of Adriana in The Comedy of Errors
The Comedy of Errors, written by William Shakespeare and first performed by 1594, largely deals with the concept of identity, from the farcical mistaken identities of twins Antipholus and Dromio, to the roles of the women around them. In an exploration of accepted gender norms, readers can easily note that the key women in the play-Adriana, Luciana, and Emilia, draw or have been conditioned to draw their sense of self from the men that surround them. However, in a key exception, Adriana, Antipholus’s wife, spends much of the play in a continued anguish, questioning and defying her role as wife, as she fears that her absent husband has begun to seek the company of other women. As a result of her outspokenness, it can be said that unlike the other women mentioned in the play, who strictly adhere to traditional gender roles, Adriana seeks to challenge her place in marriage through continuous and deliberate questioning of the power disparities and the place of adultery in marriage, but ultimately reverts to her assigned societal role as a traditionally submissive wife.
Early on in the play, we observe Adriana’s confused behavior toward her husband and her radical ideas of relationships, claiming that both man and woman should have equal standing in marriage. When, in Act 2, Antipholus fails to arrive home in time for dinner, Adriana quickly begins to criticize the comparative freedom of men in reference to their female counterparts, discussing the independence and power disparity in marriage; “ADRIANA Why should their liberty than ours be more?…. /LUCIANA O, know he is the bridle of your will./ADRIANA There’s none but asses will be bridled so.” (2.1.10-15). Here, she progressively defines gender norms, claiming that she does not want to be controlled by her husband, punning on the world bridle, used as a description of Antipholus’s reign over Adriana’s freedom, to which she sarcastically replies that only animals accept such a severe restriction on free-will. The word bridle is also connotated with the word bride, which falls into par with the theme of marriage being discussed. To this, her sister Luciana replies with a traditional response on the sovereignty of man in relation to woman,; LUCIANA Why, headstrong liberty is lash’d with woe. There’s nothing situate under heaven’s eye But hath his bound, in earth, in sea, in sky: The beasts, the fishes, and the winged fowls, Are their males’ subjects and at their controls: Men, more divine, the masters of all these, Lords of the wide world and wild watery seas, Indued with intellectual sense and souls, Of more preeminence than fish and fowls, Are masters to their females, and their lords: Then let your will attend on their accords. (2.1.15-25) However, it us unclear whether this speech illustrates what she truly believes, or whether she is simply regurgitating what she has been conditioned to think. Through this standpoint on obedience, Luciana describes men as Gods, as stressed with the word “divine”, with everything under “heaven’s eye” in their hands, from land (“in earth, in sea, in sky”) to ultimately “fish and fowls” and women falling in the same category. She claims it is the duty of women, as God’s creation and as men’s subordinates, to serve their husbands as they would a deity, following the natural order of life to which they have been prescribed. This idea follows the creationist concept of Adam and Eve in terms of the man’s wider “intellectual sense and soul”, which allows him to command “their females” and control their fate as a God would. Thus, this standpoint challenges Adriana’s views on her relationship, reverting to an antiquated idea of women divining their identities and sense of purpose from their respective men. At the same time, like Adriana claims, we cannot take her advice in full seriousness, as she puts “They can be meek that have no other cause” (2.1.33). Because Luciana is unwed, Adriana feels that she cannot fully empathize with her sister’s marital woes. However, in this exchange, it is still very evident that a disparity between the two exists; while Luciana seeks to draw her self-worth and sense of meaning from men, Adriana challenges this notion and outwardly questions her sister’s ideas.
Furthermore, in the next scene, when Adriana confronts Antipholus of Syracuse, she continues her subordination of female subservience and challenges the idea that men are the sole head and body of the family unit. In the following quote, upon meeting him in the marketplace, she laments to him of his absence at home and the lack of love on his part she feels is responsible: ADRIANA ….That, undividable, incorporate, Am better than thy dear self’s better part. Ah, do not tear away thyself from me! For know, my love, as easy mayest thou fall A drop of water in the breaking gulf, And take unmingled that same drop again, Without addition or diminishing, As take from me thyself and not me too. (2.2.121-128) In this passage, Adriana claims that she and Antipholus are “undividable, incorporate” in one unifying whole, stressing the togetherness of the marital bond which links herself and Antipholus permanently. Her analogy of their marriage as inseparable as a drop of water links Antipholus of Syracuse’s earlier statement in which he says that “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.” (1.2.35-38). In saying this, he regards his missing mother and brother as the drops of water linked inseparably to himself, as water bonds to water, so he feels that family bonds to family. With “the ocean” as a metaphor for a world swarming with many people, he in this way relates the difficulty of his task in discerning another “drop”, or person, among millions. Antipholus for this reason “confounds himself” as does Adriana, both seeking to fill a gap in a family or relationship that they feel has been fractured. Although the man Adriana speaks to in this scene is in reality not her husband, but is actually her brother-in-law, it is interesting to observe this repetition of a quest for identity, in which two unrelated individuals talk about their sense of self and connection to others in a parallel way.
Just as Antipholus of Syracuse bemoans the fact that finding his family in this strange city is as easy as discerning a single drop of water in an ocean, as does Adriana warn her ‘husband’ that tearing himself away from her would be akin to misplacing a single drop of water in the ocean and fishing out the same one later again. In a sense, this can be interpreted as the completion of a broken half in that as Antipholus of Syracuse before searched for his missing family, Adriana has completed it him as her “dear self’s better part”, claiming that as his wife, she is the other half of himself he seeks. Unknownest to himself, Adriana is the family member he longed to find, completing the blood-bond he had lost before at the time of the separation of his family. This metaphor of a drop of water talking about the unity of family thus links Antipholus’s search for his father and brother to Adriana’s search for her husband; she views her marriage to Antipholus as a blood-bond as strong as that of parental kinship. In a succeeding monologue in the same scene, Adriana continues her idea of marriage as mutualistic; ADRIANA Come, I will fasten on this sleeve of thine: Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine, Whose weakness, married to thy stronger state, Makes me with thy strength to communicate: (2.2.172-175) This quote continues to support her verse of the woman and man both providing for each other and bringing equally to the relationship. Adriana suggests that like an elm and vine, she “fastens” to Antipholus for support, not dependence. She claims that his “stronger state” gives her strength, and vice-versa. However, because she embodies weakness, and he strength, she reverts to ancient ideas about marriage in terms of female submission and dependence. Although she seeks to be an equal in her relationship, conditioned ideas about her behavior prevail and she becomes desperate to continue to be a benefactor of her husband’s love and attention. Although throughout the play she struggles with her desire to have a voice and give, rather than take orders from her husband, ultimately her weakness is literally married to his strength as man and as lord as in reality. This highlights the important theme in the text of Adriana’s progressive ideas of the role of women in marriage; through her speeches to Luciana and her continuous nagging of her husband, Adriana does not give off an image of a shrewish and jealous wife but rather one that instead desperately seeks equal influence in her relationship. Her character is unique to the play because unlike the other women portrayed, Adriana’s sense of self is not dictated by men. For example, Emilia the Abbess, upon losing her family, retreats to a life of solitude away from the company of men. In contrast, it can be said that Adriana’s attitudes and fate are not solely reliant on men, as are her counterparts. She seeks to be loved and appreciated almost on the same grounds as a man would, a quality especially exclusive here in reference to the other women who surround her, who seek only to be molded by rather than to act in shaping others.
As a result, in a final segment of character development, Adriana is made is realize the errors of her ways in her treatment and demands of her husband, and reverts to a hybrid version of both her own and Luciana’s ideas of women in marriage. When in the last Act, Adriana comes to the Abbess where her husband is hiding to plead his return to home, the Abbess refuses to release him, claiming that she will tend to his ‘madness’ as it was Adriana’s nagging that drove him insane; ABBESS And thereof came it that the man was mad. The venom clamours of a jealous woman Poisons more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth. (5.1.68-70) She likens Adriana’s codependent behavior as the “venom” that has poisoned her husband, to which Adriana resignedly agrees, claiming that “She did betray me to my own reproof” (5.1.90). As a result, Adriana cannot complete her epiphany-like ascension to independence of mind and self, she accepts that her shrewish behavior was inappropriate, and as a result drove her husband to madness. Even though the Abbess, who is depicted as all-knowing and unforgiving, is incorrect in her diagnosis of Antipholus, who hides in the monastery not in consequence of insanity but as a place of refuge from the jail and from the quack Doctor Pinch, her attitude toward Adriana nonetheless is a reflection of the society that has shaped her views of relations between men and women. As a result, Shakespeare’s deus ex machina maneuver here nicely ties up the closing Act of the play and resolves all present tension, as is the way with most of his comedies. However, he flops the dynamic turning point of Adriana’s character development; instead of acting as a paragon of free-will and modern ideas of marriage, she reverts to Luciana’s understanding of obedience, and her marital problems instantly vanish.
As is evident throughout the play, Shakespeare employ’s Adriana’s character as more than the typical shrewish wife found in his other comedies, here, she questions her role as a woman and as a wife in relation to her husband through speeches comparing their relative independence and the unequal roles in their relationship. What’s more, her worries are universal to that of all women-she wonders if her husband is adulterous, if she has become ugly, if he no longer finds her attractive, and the like, anxieties that are not vain or temperamental, but instead valid human concerns. Through her dynamic nature, Shakespeare gives Adriana life and a sense of believability, refreshing as much of the play functions solely on a major suspension of disbelief. However, by reverting to the ‘happy-ending’ device, he robs his heroine of possible salvation and conflict resolution other than blame for her husbands ‘madness’, again reinforcing the seminal idea in the text that women are defined by the actions of men and not vice-versa. Ultimately, Adriana’s behavior is restricted by a man, as are all of the other women in the text, an inescapable fate wedged uncomfortably around the walls of this comedy.
Works Cited Shakespeare, William, and Frances E. Dolan. The Comedy of Errors. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.
Depiction of Adriana vs. Wife in The Comedy of Errors and The Brothers Manaechmus
The Comedy of Errors, written by William Shakespeare, is mirrored to a major extent by Plautus’s play The Brothers Manaechmus, both of which deal with the issue of separated twins who find themselves in the same town and are mistaken for each other. However, although Shakespeare draws his work off of the basic plot structure of Plautus’s ancient Roman text, it is evident that he takes liberties to further develop main characters and diverge from specific scenarios of the original comedy. Following close reading, a major disparity between the two evidently lies in the difference of depiction of the wives of the lost twins: Adriana in The Comedy of Errors and the Wife in The Brothers Manaechmus. Through analysis of the confused confrontation between ‘husband’ and wife, the intervening third-parties in the forms of the Abbess and the Old Man, and the verbal abuse they are subject to at times of their husband’s madness, it is evident that Shakespeare molds the three-dimensional and likeable character of Adriana from that of the Wife, depicting her as sympathetic, rather than shrewish.
In both Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and in Plautus’s The Brothers Menaechmus, a foreign twin (Antipholus of Syracuse/Menaechmus II) is confusedly interrogated by his brother’s wife, during which she accuses him of failing to recognize her, and chides his unfaithful behavior. However, it can be said that the two interactions deviate from each other as evident in the diction between man and wife presented in both texts. While Adriana does accuse her husband of neglect as does the wife of Menaechmus I, she offers herself up and reminds him of their vows as husband and wife. In this context, she addresses his suspected adultery when she meets him in the marketplace; ADRIANA I am possess’d with an adulterate blot; My blood is mingled with the crime of lust: For if we too be one and thou play false, I do digest the poison of thy flesh, Being strumpeted by thy contagion. Keep then far league and truce with thy true bed; I live unstain’d, thou undishonoured. (2.2.139-145) Adriana claims that her marriage to Antipholus has rendered them not two separate entities, but instead joined them in unity as an inseparable whole, evident when she asserts that “we two be one”. In saying this, she suggests that their marital bond has melded their two bodies into one, using this analogy to demonstrate to Antipholus that would he become adulterous, her blood would too become “mingled with the crime of lust”, “an adulterate blot” on her purity a result of his wrongdoing. More literally, she implies that by sleeping with other women, namely the Courtesan, he will bring sexually transmitted diseases into their bedroom, proof of his “adulterate blot” settling in her skin, and bringing shame upon her in society. She thus pleads to him to remain true to her so as to protect her reputation by “keep[ing]…far league and truce with thy true bed”. She claims that that this will allow her to “live unstain’d” and will preserve his own honor as well. Thus, in her appeal, Shakespeare leads the audience to sympathize with Adriana, who is forced to bear the brunt of both her husband’s adultery, which is translated as both emotional and societal shame, as well as physical disease. Shakespeare here alludes to the fact that the wives of adulterous men also became victims of disease spread from their husband’s affairs, an additional burden they were forced to carry. This is important because Adriana acknowledges this while pleading to Antipholus, and nonetheless vows to stay true to him.
However, in contrast to Adriana, the Wife uses far less amiable and noble language in speaking to her confused ‘husband’. Even though she initially believes that he has come to return the dress stolen from her and given to Erotium, she calls him a “shameless, brazen, wicked man” (1.713), and in anger, asks him how “You dare to mutter, you dare to speak a word to me?” (1.711) when he asks for her identity. However, the key disparity between her behavior and that of her Shakespearean counterpart is highlighted when she responds to Menaechmus calling her a “female dog” (1.718) after she accosts him: WIFE I simply can’t endure all this disgracefulness- I’d even rather live my life….a divorceé Than bear the brunt of this disgracefulness of yours. (1.719-721) In saying that she would “rather live…life….a divorceé” by ending her marriage to Menaechmus, her response is seminal here in that it strikes a stark contrast between that of Adriana. Unlike the Wife, who creates an easy escape for herself by resorting to divorce, Adriana reminds her husband of their marital vows and their resultant incorruptible bodily separation. Unlike the former, she does not verbally abuse or threaten to leave her husband because of his unfaithfulness, but instead pleads for him to return to her. This difference is important here in that in changing her response, she is characterized as loving and co-dependent, rather than shrewish and short-tempered, as Plautus depicts his female antagonist here. This is highlighted when the Wife implies that she would rather carry the societal shame of divorce “Than bear the brunt of this disgracefulness”, in reference to Menaechmus’ adulterous behavior. As a result, it can be said that Shakespeare’s reflection and alteration of The Brothers Menaechmus forges an alternate depth of Plautus’ Wife and paints her in a way that is more dependent and three-dimensional. Perhaps for this reason, readers do not root for the Wife, who lacks even a name other than a sign of her ownership by her husband, and is static in her continuous berating and scheming. On the other hand, it may be incorrect to judge her actions so crudely given that her qualms toward her husband are very material; she knows that he has stolen her dress and given it to his lover Erotium, something that her husband has outwardly lied about. In contrast, Adriana only suspects that Antipholus has missed dinner for the company of another woman, while in reality he was delayed by the Goldsmith, from whom he had ordered a necklace to be made for her. Although Antipholus is suggested to have had prior illicit relations with the Courtesan, his faults do not lie as deep at that of Menaechmus’ do, who openly steals from the Wife. As a result, it can be said that the Wife differs in her relationship to her husband in that in response to the confusion, she threatens to leave him, while Adriana warns her husband of the societal shame of his adultery, and reasserts the bodily significance of their marriage.
Furthermore, upon trouble between ‘husband’ and wife in both The Comedy of Errors and in The Brothers Menaechmus, an intervening third-party appears to scorn the wife, either in the form of the Abbess, a nun in the town of Ephesus, or the Old Man, the father of the Wife. These meetings are paralleled in both texts in that outside characters accuse the respective wives of wrong-doing toward their husbands, effectively silencing them. In The Comedy of Errors, the Abbess attributes Antipholus’ madness as a consequence of Adriana’s nagging in regard to his evident adultery. She claims that: ABBESS The venom clamours of a jealous woman Poisons more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth. It seems his sleeps were hinder’d by thy railing, And therefore comes it that his head is light. (5.1.69-72) In accusing Adriana of making Antipholus’ “head…light” with talk of wrongdoing, the Abbess suggests that his madness stems from the “venom” of Adriana’s jealousy. She believes that this jealous “poison” has penetrated him as might a bite from a “mad dog’s tooth”, and prevented him from sleeping, thus explaining his strange behavior. In response to this, Adriana encroaches the Abbess to release her husband, softened by promises to care for him in his time of illness: ADRIANA I will attend my husband, be his nurse, Diet his sickness, for it is my office, And will have no attorney but myself; And therefore let me have him home with me. (5.1.98-101) She claims that as his “nurse”, Adriana will make it her “office”, or duty as wife, to see that Antipholus is cured of his madness. She comes to the Abbess not in complaint but to retrieve him into her own care, illustrating her desire to remain with Antipholus despite any his misbehavior, shedding light on the loyal and forgiving nature of her character. However, even though the Abbess is incorrect in her diagnosis of Antipholus, who hides in the monastery as a place of refuge from the quack Doctor Pinch, her attitude toward Adriana nonetheless is a reflection of the society that has shaped her views of the rights and wrongs of relations between men and women.
Furthermore, this scene is mirrored in the text of The Brothers Menaechmus, in which the Old Man, even before arriving to the scene of conflict, prophesies the cause of the trouble in saying that: OLD MAN Well, that’s how it always is with big-dowry wives, They’re fierce to their husbands, they order their lives. But then sometimes the man is…let’s say…not so pure. There’s limits to what a good wife can endure. (1.766-769) With this song, he implies the nagging behavior of his daughter toward her husband to be typical of rich women (“…that’s how it always is with big-dowry wives”), indicating that the Wife believes that her large dowry grants her the right to be demanding of her husband (“They’re fierce to their husbands, they order their lives”). As with the Abbess, there is a note of blame here, but it is soothed by his acknowledgement that there are “limits to what a good wife can endure”. This thus illustrates the different ways in which the respective societies of Shakespeare and Plautus treated the concept of marriage, in that for Adriana, her marital bond to Antipholus is all-consuming and eternal. In contrast, for the Wife, her bond to her husband is forged by monetary ties and can be easily severed, an idea reinforced by the Old Man in his speech. Approaching the couple, his daughter, the Wife, tells him of her husband’s expenditures, and her attempts to control his affairs and boozing, claiming that she wants to abandon her husband and return home to her family: WIFE I’ve done nothing wrong, dear Father, you can be assured of that But I simply can’t go on and live with him in any way. Consequently-take me home. (1.779-782) In saying this, her behavior again marks a deep disparity between herself and Adriana; rather than caring for her sick and evidently mad ‘husband’, she opts to drop him (“Consequently-take me home”) and return to live in her father’s house, claiming that she is blameless in this situation as she has “done nothing wrong”. While Adriana selflessly comes to the Abbess to return her husband to their home and care for him, the Wife her wants to be taken home herself, mirroring a disgruntled child, rather than a wife dealing with a difficult husband. For the Wife, marriage is not the unbreakable bond Adriana sees it to be, but instead a temporary arrangement able to be severed at the presence of inconvenience. For her, she and Menaechmus I do not share a unified body and soul; it is evident that she feels his wrongdoing is exemplary of his poor character, and that alone, with no other reflection or blame in herself. By refusing to take responsibility for her husband’s actions, the Wife can also be interpreted in a more feminist light; unlike the co-dependent Adriana, she is not willing to tolerate Menaechmus’ abusive behavior. This disparity again sheds a divide between the two women, differing in their solutions to their fragmented relationships.
Upon hearing the Wife’s complaints, her the Old Man chides her, defending Menaechmus I in saying that her unhappiness with her husband’s behavior will not change despite her qualms: “Thanks to all your diligence, I promise you, he’ll love her more.” (1.791). He goes on to say that: OLD MAN …Look, you’re quite well dressed, well jeweled and well supplied with food and maids. Being well off, woman, why, be wise, leave well enough alone. (1.801-802) These cautionary words strike a chord with the speech of the Abbess, as the Old Man here too advises the Wife to wean her jealous behavior and to let things be (“Being well off, woman, why, be wise, leave well enough alone”). Accusing her of “blaming blameless men” (1.805), like the Abbess, he does not sympathize with the plights of the wronged woman, instead blaming Menaechmus’ erratic behavior on her jealousy. Thus, both the Old Man and the Abbess ignore the pleas of the women, showcasing their mutual lack of compassion in regard to the men’s adultery and abusive behavior.
Following these squabbles throughout both texts of The Comedy of Errors and The Brothers Menaechmus, another match between the two occurs during the fits of assumed madness seen with both Antipholus of Ephesus and Menaechmus II. Upon being held by Doctor Pinch, the speech of Antipholus aligns very closely with that of Menaechmus II, for whom the Old Man sends the Doctor following his crazed threats to kill those around him. Throughout these scenes, both men attack and blame their wives, as seen when Antipholus of Ephesus condemns Adriana for claiming that Dromio did not come to her for Antipholus’ bail: ANTIPHOLUS Dissembling harlot, thou art false in all; And art confederate with a damned pack To make a loathsome abject scorn of me: But with these nails I’ll pluck out these false eyes That would behold in me this shameful sport. (4.4.102-6) In his rage, he threatens to “pluck out these false eyes”, which he feels so wrongfully accuse him of a wrongdoing he has not committed. Calling Adriana a lying “harlot”, he places the fault of his promiscuity and of his arrest on her shoulders. Likewise, this is directly paralleled with the case of Menaechmus, who when confronted by the Old Man, begins to verbally abuse both father and daughter, calling the wife “a very rabid female dog” and her father “a goat who reeks of garlic”: MANAECHMUS II …On the left I’m guarded by a very rabid female dog. Right behind her is a goat who reeks of garlic, and this goat has Countless times accused a blameless citizen with perjury. (1.838-840) As in The Comedy of Errors, Menaechmus II threatens to “Take some hotly blazing torches, [and] set this woman’s eyes on fire.” (1.841), using the promise of violence to rid himself of the Wife. Thus, it is clear that both he and Antipholus employ verbal abuse in treatment of their respective wives.
Overall, it is evident that in comparison to The Brothers Menaechmus, Shakespeare diverges from the given content to a major extent in The Comedy of Errors, employing Plautus’s bare storyline to create more dynamic characters and to reflect upon key social issues. This is especially significant in the case of his Adriana versus Plautus’s Wife, the former of which is read as more dependent and devoted to her marriage, as seen through her attempts to plead her husband’s return and to retrieve him from the Abbess, caring for him in his time of ‘madness’. However, although both Antipholus and Menaechmus verbally abuse the women when they are ‘mad’, and engage in adulterous behavior, the main disparity between the two lies in that Adriana willingly forgives her husband and is dedicated to the unity of her marriage, unlike the Wife, who demands divorce and begs for her father to take her home. This difference is important because it allows the reader to treat Adriana like a protagonist, despite retaining a certain aspect of shame at her anger toward her husband’s behavior, as seen in the Abbess’ chiding. Likewise, although we read the Wife as the villain, the play does to an extent justify the Wife’s desire to leave her husband by depicting his stealing and adultery, but nonetheless portrays her as unlikeable. By developing these characters to such an extent, Shakespeare grants his leading woman a sense of humanity and likeability, which is especially significant in tracing the treatment of women in society over the course of the time period during the publication of the two plays.
Works Cited Plautus, Titus Maccius., and Erich Segal. Four Comedies. Oxford: Oxford U, 1996. Print. Shakespeare, William, and Frances E. Dolan. The Comedy of Errors. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.
The Course of Law: The Legal System in The Merchant of Venice and The Comedy of Erros
William Shakespeare includes a Duke to represent the utmost authority figure in many of his plays. In The Comedy of Errors and The Merchant of Venice, both Dukes hold complete control—or, at least, what they perceive to be complete control—over their respective regions. Shakespeare uses these two characters to show how “authority” is oftentimes an illusion, and that, ultimately, everyone, including the Dukes, are impotent to the law. While the Dukes enforce and ostensibly create the law, they are still subject to its rigid rules. Shakespeare presents the legal system as static and fundamental to society: a Duke neglecting to enforce the law would “Much impeach the justice of his state,” causing pandemonium to ensue (Merchant III, 3, 29). Although the Dukes often do not agree with it—for moral, social, and legal reasons—they “cannot deny the course of law” (Merchant III, 3, 26). To this end, Shakespeare shows his audience that even the highest authority figures are not above the law.
Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus, spends the majority of The Comedy of Errors reluctant to carry out the law. After Egeon recounts his life story, Solinus swells with pity, declaring: Now trust me, were it not against our laws— Which princes, would they, may not disannul— Against my crown, my oath, my dignity, My soul should sue as advocate for thee (Comedy I, 1, 142-145).
Even though Solinus desperately wants to pardon Egeon, he cannot risk breaking the law and setting a precedent for future Syracusians who travel to Ephesus. From a moral standpoint, Solinus knows that freeing Egeon is the just action, which is why punishing the old man is such a hardship on the Duke. Solinus displays his strong set of ethics when he permits Egeon to live until sundown, allowing for the possibility of someone paying his ransom at the last minute. Going further, when Solinus is walking Egeon to the execution site, he calls out to his people, “Yet once again proclaim it publicly,/If any friend will pay the sum for him,/He shall not die; so much we tender him” (Comedy V, 1, 131-133). Shakespeare makes it clear that Solinus does not want to go through with the execution—so clear, in fact, that it is arguably his defining characteristic—illustrating the idea that even if a Duke abhors a law on a moral level, he still must enforce it.
The Duke of Venice also grapples with the concept of morality when enforcing his laws. Instead of internally struggling with meting out the law, however, the Duke of Venice projects his ethical standards onto other people. After Shylock demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh, the Duke says, “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?” (Merchant IV, 1, 88). In turn, Shylock points out the hypocrisy of the Duke, saying “You have among you many a purchased slave,/Which—like your asses and your dogs and mules—/You use in abject and in slavish parts/Because you bought them” (Merchant IV, 1, 90-93). Shylock’s critique stretches beyond this one incident: the Duke enforces the law without complaint when it favors him, but once one of his friends is in danger, he starts rhapsodizing about morality. This suggests that the Duke is not so much concerned with morality than protecting the people he associates with. The first half of act IV, scene one—where it seems inevitable that Shylock will kill Antonio—demonstrates the Duke’s powerlessness in the face of the law. Just the fact that the Duke, a noted anti-Semite, asks Shylock for mercy shows how desperate he is to help Antonio.
Social status also bleeds into both Dukes’ enforcement of the law. In Act V, scene 1 of Comedy, Solinus will not even entertain Adriana’s claim that the Abbess committed a crime. Solinus relies on his preconceived notions of Abbesses—that they are women of religion, and thus entirely incapable of wrongdoing—to judge Adriana’s assertion. He declares, “She is a virtuous and reverend lady./It cannot be that she hath done thee wrong” (Comedy V, 1, 135-136). Immediately thereafter, Solinus reveals his predilection for Antipholus of Ephesus, saying to Adriana:
Long since they husband served me in my wars, And I to thee engaged a prince’s word, When though didst make him master of thy bed, To do him all the grace and good I could. (Comedy V, 1, 162-165)
Solinus does eventually pardon Egeon, but not until it is revealed that Egeon is Antipholus of Ephesus’s father. More importantly, Antiphons of Ephesus offers to pay Egon’s ransom. Even without Solinus’s kindness—which, again, evidences his affinity for Antiphons of Ephesus and his social biases—Egeon would have been set free with his son’s money. In this regard, Solinus is not breaking the law, he is merely helping out a friend. The Duke of Venice uses similar logic when meting out Shylock’s punishment for attempting to murder Antonio. Although the state of Venice is entitled to half of Shylock’s estate, the Duke shows mercy and willingly reduces the penalty to a smaller fine. This favor is arguably more beneficial to Antonio, though, than it is to Shylock. The Duke essentially allows Antonio to choose Shylock’s punishment. After Antonio insists that Shylock “presently become a a Christian” and “record a gift/Here unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter,” the Duke immediately agrees, saying, “He shall do this, or else I do recant/The pardon that I late pronouncèd here” (Merchant IV, 1, 382-385; Merchant IV, 1, 386-387). This shows how the Duke—so long as he is in accordance with the law—will show preferential treatment to his friends. This further emphasizes his powerlessness with, and lack of knowledge of, the law.
Going further, Shakespeare suggests that the two Dukes are fairly poor at carrying out their duties. Although Solinus claims that he is “not partial to infringe our laws,” he allows Egeon to live for the remainder of the day (Comedy I, 1, 3-4). This circumnavigation of the law is exacerbated by the fact that Egeon does not object to his death sentence. Indeed, he seems comforted by the inevitability of death, saying, “Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall,/And by the doom of death end woes and all” (Comedy I, 1, 1-2). Solinus reveals his distaste for the law easily, and his motivation for delaying the execution is entirely internal. He lets subjective opinion rule in what should otherwise be an objective decision.
The Duke of Venice is more than just poor at carrying out his duties—he is flat out inept. The Duke only has a vague understanding of the law, even though he enforces it. After trying—and failing—to appeal to Shylock’s humanity, the Duke acquiesces and reluctantly admits defeat, ready to say goodbye to Antonio. Portia’s shrewdness is the only reason that Antonio is spared from Shylock’s knife. She manages to uphold the contract while still 1, preserving Antonio’s life—a feat that the Duke could not accomplish—saying, “Prepare thee to cut off the flesh./She thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more/But just a pound of flesh” (Merchant IV, 1, 322-324). She also has a familiarity with arcane Venetian laws. This further reinforces the idea that the Duke’s authority is an illusion. The most powerful person in The Merchant of Venice is not the Duke, but Portia, because she is the only character who thinks like a lawyer. To this end, Shakespeare is suggesting that knowledge begets power. Even the most unassuming character in the play—an heiress, for example—can command the most authority in the room.
Solinus and the Duke of Venice are ostensibly the two most powerful characters in their respective plays, but, in actuality, they are at the mercy of the law, just like everyone else. They do not rule over their domains, the law does. Shakespeare depicts these two Dukes as useless, hollow authority figures, showing that power is rooted in more than just status.
The Comedy of Errors and Plautus
One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (its first recorded performance in December 1594), The Comedy of Errors has frequently been dismissed as pure farce, unrepresentative of the playwright’s later efforts. While Errors may very well contain farcical elements, it is a complex, layered work that draws upon and reinterprets Plautine comedy. Shakespeare combines aspects of these Latin plays with biblical source material, chiefly the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Epistle to the Ephesians. While Menaechmi is the most frequently cited classical source for Errors, Plautus’ Amphitruo is just as relevant an influence; Shakespeare’s treatment of identity and its fragility is derived from this latter work. Of course, there are many other structural and thematic resonances between the three texts: each of the plays, to varying degrees, deal with the issues of identity, violence and slavery, while displaying a keen awareness of aspects of performativity, specifically the figure of the playwright, and the role of the audience.The structural similarities between Comedy of Errors and Plautus’ Menaechmi and Amphitruo are quite clear. In addition to adopting the traditional five-act structure, Shakespeare creates act divisions which comply with the Evanthian and Donatian definitions of comic structure (prologue, epitasis, protasis, catastrophe), and draws upon the classical stock of characters: the senex, servus, parasitus, matrona and meretrix. Of course, this does not mean that Shakespeare is a slavish imitator of all things Plautine. While both of the Roman source plays for Errors begin with a formal prologue, set apart from the first act, Errors instead launches immediately into the first act. This does not, however, constitute an abandonment of the prologue’s essential function. Egeon’s woeful tale provides the audience with the appropriate background to the play, which begins in medias res, thus satisfying the requirements of narratio which constitute the first element of Evanthian and Donatian comic structure. That said, Shakespeare’s prologue differs remarkably from its Plautine counterparts much more integrated with the play as a whole, it is framed by the revelation of Egeon’s imprisonment in Ephesus, and the Duke’s decree that:…if any Syracusian bornCome to the bay of Ephesus, he dies,His goods confiscate to the Duke’s dispose,Unless a thousand marks be levièdTo quit the penalty and to ransom him. The gravity of Egeon’s predicament, and the play’s potential for tragedy, is rendered even more poignant by the senex’s constant grief. In direct contrast, the prologue of Menaechmi is witty, urbane, and very informal. Not only does the speaker slyly mock the audience (“Please listen with your whole attention span; / I’ll tell it in the very fewest words I can” ), he delivers a rather sharp jab to other Roman comic playwrights, who proudly boast of their authenticity and “their fidelity to the Greek models, a practice which evidently had some snob appeal.” Ironically, this jab seves as a basis for the playwright to assert his own authenticity and dramatic authority:I reveal the real locations when I speak to you.This story’s Greekish, but to be exact,It’s not Athenish, it’s Sicilyish, in fact.(10-12).Plautus’ positioning of the prologue’ s speaker is vitally important when considering the very close dynamic that exists between playwright, the actors his agents, and the audience. The play’s numerous asides, while not always aimed directly at the audience, certainly contribute to the sense of complicity and audience involvement. This feeling is heightened later in the play (perhaps out of a need to keep the audience’s attention, which may be flagging) with remarks directed specifically at the viewers, such as Cylindrus’ comment regarding Menaechmus’ behaviour,(embarrassed, to audience)He acts this way a lot with me he jokes around.He can be very funny if his wife is gone.317-318),Peniculus’ outragedThe wine’s been drunk, the parasite left out in the cold.No Hercules, I’m not myself, if not revenged,If I don’t curse him out in style. Just watch me now.(470-472),and Menaechmus II’s plea for the audience’s silence:…everybody, please if that old man returns,Don’t tell him, please, which street I took to get away. (879-880). The numerous songs directed at the spectators (such as that of the doddering father-in-law in lines 753- 774) can only strengthen this bond. In like fashion, the prologue to Amphitruo displays this same preoccupation with audience involvement and influence. Disguised as the servant Sosia, Mercury tells the assembly of his intent to “explain the plot, which underlies / This tragedy.” It is this reference to tragedy which signals the initiation of a close relationship between author/actor and spectator. Upon seeing the audience’s collective frown at the mention of tragedy, Mercury adopts a conciliatory tone, reminding the audience “you know I’m God / And soon can change it” (AMP: 260), and offering to “make / These selfsame verses be a comedy” (AMP: 260). Flattering (more likely leading) the audience, Mercury lights upon a happy medium Ah, yes; I know your mind: and I will make itA tragi-comedy: for it is not rightTo make a play where kings and Gods do speakAll comedy. But since a slave takes partI’ll make it for you tragi-comedy.(AMP: 261)Perpetuating the illusion of the audience’s control over the drama to unfold before them, is Jupiter’s order that There shall be detectives, who shall seeIf any actor has arranged for menTo applaud himself, or to prevent some otherReceiving his applause, that they shall flayHis dress and hide in pieces with a scourge.(AMP: 261)Not only does this give the viewer the feeling of power over the playwright and actor (he/she may decline to support the action by withholding applause), it emphasises the importance of theatre in Roman society, further highlighted by Mercury’s comment that only last year, Jove “came and helped himself” (AMP: 232) the actors who invoked him onstage. The final indication of the audience’s very privileged position in Amphitruo is Mercury and Jove’s decision to bear marks that will signal their true identity and distinguish them from those whose forms they have taken …that you mayDistinguish ‘tween us I will wear a plumeUpon my hat: while with the same intentMy father wears a tassel under his:Amphytrion will not have one: but these marksNo one will see, but only you alone. (AMP: 263)Of course, this position of knowledge is also afforded the Shakespearian audience, but to a much lesser degree, especially when considering Mercury’s later remarks ensuring the spectator is aware of Jupiter’s guarantee that the rift in the Amphytrion/Alcmena marriage will not be irreparable. In The Comedy of Errors, the only assurances we have that the play will end happily are the word Comedy in the title, and the romantic convention of the shipwreck which Shakespeare inserts into Egeon’s narratio, and which will be found later in his other comedy of mistaken identity, The Twelfth Night. Although the audience’s participatory relationship with Comedy of Errors is markedly less significant than that existing in the Plautine plays, this does not translate to a lack of power on the part of the playwright. Indeed, in a play characterised by such intricacy and complexity of plot, so many opportunities for spectator confusion, the playwright must be an authoritative presence. It is this hypothesis which informs Jonathan Crewe’s “God or The Good Physician: The Rational Playwright in The Comedy of Errors” (although we may not necessarily agree with Crewe’s view that “the arbitrariness of the play’s inherited conventions and the farcical character of the comedy of mistaken identity in some measure be redeemed” ). The theoretical knot which Crewe works through in his article is whether the playwright “manifests himself either as a benevolent deity, omniscient and omnipotent, whose good will anticipates the entire course of the play, or as a good physician,’ working through comic conventions to purge melancholy, impart self-knowledge and exorcise psychic demons.” Upon close consideration of the play, it becomes clear that the playwright is both god and physician, he has a dual identity. His divinity, however, is not true divinity. In a work that is almost palimpsestic, drawing upon Plautine, Pauline and Renaissance thought, the playwright becomes the good physician,’ “not so much a controlling figure as a figure who mediates between a given dramatic heritage and its contemporary audience.” While Crewe draws the conclusion that the playwright oscillates between the role of God and Good Physician, it is perhaps more accurate to infer that the playwright is a minor divinity, whose character is both curative/ mediative, and god-like (which has profound consequences for an audience given the illusion of influence):…the playwright’s ability to manipulate and control appearances in the professional theatre an ability of which even the privileged spectators ultimately become victims confers on him a quasi-divinity [….] The masterful control of the play (especially when it seems that everything is out of control), together with the coup de théatre of the ending, establishes the playwright as a figure of divine’ omnipotence. One of Crewe’s arguments for the lack of the playwright’s supreme divinity is that he “stops short of any original act of creation.” While it is undeniably true that the structural/technical similarities between The Comedy of Errors and Plautus’ Menaechmi and Amphitruo extend to Shakepeare’s adoption of key classical figures (the senex- Egeon, the matrona Adriana, the meretrix who in left unnamed), it is equally as clear that Shakespeare does not limit his dramatis personae to this rather meagre allowance. Just as in Amphitruo the servant Sosia is doubled by Mercury-as-Sosia, Shakespeare adds another Dromio. The play also includes the presence of an officer, a jailer, a messenger, the Duke of Ephesus himself, a merchant (Balthasar) and a goldsmith (Angelo). This greater proliferation of characters is a deliberate attempt on Shakespeare’s part, to not only flesh out the conventional trope of mistaken identity,’ but amplify the feelings of bewilderment and confusion which both Antipholi are so obviously assailed by. Shakespeare “nearly triples the incidents of error from seventeen [in Plautus’ Menaechmi] to fifty.” As may be expected from a play whose main concern is the fortunes of two sets of twins, the notion of doubling and doubleness is very important in The Comedy of Errors. Having adopted from Amphitruo the two masters and two servants trope, Shakespeare also proceeds to double the number of female characters found in Menaechmi. The unmarried Luciana acts as a foil to Adriana, whose entire identity is hinged on her status as wife, and the addition of Aemilia/the Abbess renders Egeon’s grief keener, consequently making the ultimate reunion much more symmetrical (and introducing the Oedipal dimension in her struggle with Adriana over Antipholus). But the notion of doubleness is also a supremely significant linguistic element in the play. The irony of the characters’ unconscious double-talk (a result of identity confusion) is brilliantly represented by Shakespeare’s selective use of couplets the two most significant examples of this technique (before the final rediscovery) occur in acts two and three. Adriana and Luciana’s discussion of the subjection of the wife in marriage constitutes the first of these examples. The entire scene, bar the interruption of Dromio, is conducted in couplets, emphasising their relationship as siblings, two halves of a biological couple, as well as their “double” (or contradictory) nature Luciana is unwed yet preaches wifely subjection, while Adriana is wed and resents her husband’s freedom. The notion of pairing and doubleness is evident also in Antipholus of Syracuse’s declaration of love for Luciana the abab rhyme scheme of the first, extended speeches is transformed into the aabb couplet form (III.ii.53-70). While heightening the dramatic tension of this scene, the couplets also highlight Antipholus’ perceived doubleness being false to his wife by accosting her sister and his physical doubleness of Antipholus of Ephesus. This technique also serves a solidly practical purpose, as Wolfgang Riehle notes: “the frequent use of couplets in the earlier parts of the play indirectly foreshadows the final reunion of the twin couples.” As Shakespeare is at pains to represent, this final reunion is only achieved as a result of many errors, “mistakes of identity, resolved through recognition.” Loss of identity is an essential part of The Comedy of Errors and is predominantly defined in terms of property and possession. This very mercantile view of the self (subtly implied in the figure of the courtesan) is personified in Antipholus of Ephesus, whose identity (like the other men of Ephesus) “is equivalent to reputation, which is supported by the ability to pay cash at a specified time.” Setting aside, for the moment, the fiscal component of Ephesian male identity, we must look closer at the significance of reputation. When Antipholus finds himself locked out of his own house, he is dissuaded from his first impulse (“Well, I’ll break in” III.i.80) by Balthasar, who argues that this impatient course of action will damage his standing in the community:If by strong hand you offer to break inNow in the stirring passage of the day,A vulgar comment will be made of itAnd that supposèd by the common rout Against your yet ungallèd estimationThat may with foul intrusion enter in And dwell upon your grave when you are dead. (III.i.98-104)The validity of this line of reasoning is confirmed by Antipholus’ acquiescence. His concern for his good name is also alluded to when speaking of the “wench of excellent discourse” (III.i.109). Antipholus makes certain to point out that his imminent trip to the Porpentine is a direct result of his wife’s neglect, and her suspicions of prior infidelity were unfounded:…I will depart in quietAnd in spite of mirth mean to be merryI know a wench of excellent discourse…There we will dine. This woman that I mean, My wife (but, I protest, without desert)Hath oftentimes upbraided me withal.(III.i.107-113) It is also in this scene that we once more hear of the carcanet Antipholus has commissioned from Angelo the goldsmith, an item which represents the way time “becomes an organizing principle in the plot.” It is also the symbol of Shakepeare’s problematisation of identity:The golden chain must be paid for by five o’clock, or the law will ineluctably swing into action…as this monetarized time becomes more active in the structuring of plot, it too contributes to the surreptitious subversion of the solidity of identity. Not only is it no longer a question of who you are and whether you can pay (which will re-establish who you are), but correlatively whether you can pay by a stipulated time. This makes identity (reputation) dependent upon external factors over which even the nominally powerful have no control. Perhaps one of the most disturbing things about the disintegration of Antipholus of Ephesus’ identity is that it is not (as noted above) effected by any action or inaction on his part. The extremity of self-destructive rage he displays in IV.iv.95-109 (“With these nails I’ll pluck out these eyes”) is an attempt to overcome this impotence. Antipholus seeks to gain some degree of control over his troubled self. Similarly, when Adriana is convinced of Antipholus’ adultery, her first instinct is self-annihilation “Since that my beauty cannot please his eye, / I’ll weep what’s left away, and weeping die!” (II.i.112-113). Thus the disintegration of identity is connected with violence. While the violence connected with the identity crises of Antipholus and Adriana is generally self-directed, they actively exert a brutally physical force over the Dromio twins (whose identity trouble is characterised by questions of transformation and usurpation ). The very first time we meet Dromio of Ephesus, he is threatened with a beating (“answer me […] or I shall break that merry sconce of yours” I.ii.77-79) and then receives a beating for his refusal/inability to tell Antipholus of Syracuse the whereabouts of his gold. This is, however, one of the less confronting incidents. Dromio E’s metaphorisation of the skin as parchment which is written on with the ink of blows (III.i.13) is a disquieting reminder of his status as a slave, sold by his parents at birth. This metaphor also bears striking resemblance to the of slave- branding which Maurice Hunt, quoting Vasco de Quiroga, writes of in his “Slavery, English Servitude, and The Comedy of Errors:” “in their flesh are imprinted the initials of the names of those who aresuccessively their owners…so that the faces of these men who were created in God’s image have been, by our sins, transformed into paper.”While a discussion of slavery can be taken only so far in a comedy, Shakespeare has ensured that, “in the Dromios’ reiterated pleas to the Antipholus twins to hold their hands for God’s sake,’ [the] play reproduces the tension […] between the injustice of slavery and Christian precept.” A lesser known fact is England’s own implementation of the slavery of its citizens. The Edwardian Vagrancy Act of 1547 and the Vagrancy Act of 1572 respectively “made branding and slavery the punishment for sturdy beggary [and allowed] Justices of the Peace [to] banish incorrigible rogues from England or condemn them to unending servitude in the galleys.” While Hunt distinguishes between slavery and servitude, the distinction is indeed a nominal one, given the appalling working conditions of English servants during the Elizabethan period. Shakespeare’s determination to represent this is even clearer when we compare his treatment of the Dromio twins to that of the Plautine slaves in Menaechmi and Amphitruo. Although Messenio is aware his physical comfort is contingent upon his obedience, he enjoys a fairly satisfactory relationship with Menaechmus Sosicles, who often directly removes the possibility of his error and subsequent chastising: “If I can hold the cash, it’s best for both of us. / Then you can do no wrong, and I can’t yell at you.” (270-271). Amphitruo’s Sosia is beaten, not at the hands of his master, but the god Mercury, posing as his unfortunate victim. The most important difference, however, between the Shakespearian and Plautine treatment of slavery is that the Dromios, unlike Messenio, are not freed at the conclusion of the play, and the abuse is much more frequent. This is best expressed by Dromio of Ephesus, who has the dubious distinction of receiving far more beatings than his twin:I have served [Antipholus E.] since the hour of my nativity to this instant, andhave nothing at his hands for my service but blows. When I am cold, he heats me with beating; when I am warm, he cools me with beating; I am waked with it when I sleep, raised with it when I sit, driven from doors with it whenI go from home, welcomed home with it when I return; I bear it on my shoulders, as a beggar wont her brat, and I think when he hath lamed me I shall beg with it from door to door. (IV.iv.27-34)The slavery in The Comedy of Errors is not of a purely physical nature, though, it may just as easily be applied to each of the characters in a metaphorical sense. They are all enslaved in one respect or another. Bound to her husband, doomed by patriarchal law to be the subordinate and neglected half of an unequal whole, Adriana is enslaved both to Antipholus in wedlock, to her love for him, and to the jealousy she naturally feels at his disloyalty. Antipholus of Ephesus’ figurative bondage to his rage (“over his wife’s, courtesan’s, and bondsman’s incomprehensible replies to his commands and explanations” ) finally culminates in his literal binding, an experience rendered all the more humiliating by the simultaneous binding of his servant. The final, single-scene act of The Comedy of Errors is devoted to the emancipation of the bound (with the significant exception of the Dromio twins) and to the restoration of the fragile identities which disintegrated throughout the course of the play. Egeon’s freedom, unconditionally granted by the Duke, enables “both Emilia’s release from the long bondage of the priory and the nun’s empty life [as well as] the Antipholus brothers’ freedom from tragedy in their sudden joy.” A gossips’ feast is the celebration of this joy, where both Antipholi are to be symbolically rebaptised, an public reaffirmation of their identities. The final interaction of the Dromio twins (who display a more unrestrained delighted at their reunion than the Antipholi) is glowingly described by Shakespeare, and the couplets with which the play concludes symbolise the pair’s affection for each other and the truly symmetrical nature of the play’s conclusion: “We came into the world, like brother and brother, / And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another” (V.i.424-425). BIBLIOGRAPHYAllison, Sir Robert (trans.): Plautus: Five of his Plays, London: Arthur L. Humphreys, 1914.Crewe, Jonathan V.: “God or The Good Physician: The Rational Playwright in The Comedy of Errors, in Genre, XV (1/2), 1982, pp. 203-223.Dorsch, T.S (ed.): The Comedy of Errors, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.Hall, Jonathan: Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, London: Associated University Presses, 1995Hunt, Maurice: “Slavery, English Servitude, and The Comedy of Errors,” in English Literary Renaissance, 27(1): 31-55, Winter 1997. Miola, Robert S.: Shakespeare and Clasical Comedy: The Influence of Plautus and Terence, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.Riehle, Wolfgang: Shakespeare, Plautus and the Humanist Tradition, Cambridge: D.S Brewer, 1990.Segal, Erich (trans.): Plautus: Three Comedies, New York and London: Harper and Row, 1969.
Separation and Unity as Themes That Create Order in The Comedy of Errors
Shakespearian comedies often address the widely-accepted notion in Elizabethan England that suggested that order and balance should prevail both in the world and in performed representations of the world, even if the form of the plays often employed a sense of comic disorder. Social, noble, and spiritual hierarchies are described through language and events in nearly all of Shakespeare’s work, although the methods by which he created structure in his plays differs. In many of the comedies, including Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure, Shakespeare uses comedy caused by situations that are chaotic or confusing to reveal an underlying order within the universe. The Comedy of Errors, one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, does exactly this in several ways. He establishes order not by the events (many of the scenes are confusing for both audience and characters), but by enforcing a structure in which themes are perfectly balanced. Specifically, this play uses a recurring balance between unity and separation to suggest that, even in a fictional world that is highly illogical, an underlying sense of order fuels the plot. References to unity and separation are constant from the play’s beginning to end: the idea of unity is described through acts of or references to tying, fastening, confining, union, marriage, and binding while the idea of separation is described through untying, divorcing, releasing, freeing, losing, or cutting off.
A close analysis of The Comedy of Errors reveals that Shakespeare’s choice of plot, character development, and language is used to create a direct balance between the recurring themes of unity and separation. The events of the play are fueled directly by separation and unity, with a lost father, Egeon, recalling the memory of a shipwreck that separated him from his twin sons and his desire to be reunited with them. The twins’ separation from one another and lack of knowledge about the other creates much of the tension within the play, and their uniting at the end leads to a regaining of order. In an essay exploring the specific symbols that suggest the motifs of binding and freeing, Richard Henze suggests that “this is a play of fate, and it is in the very special sense that fate is the gravitational pull of society that draws men together if they had once been separated,” (36). It is this “fate” that creates order in the world the Shakespeare is portraying, and it is the reuniting of separated characters that creates a sense of satisfaction and structure. It is not only the overarching events of the play that are guided by the acts of uniting and separating, however: action on a very small scale follows this structure as well. For example, Vincent Petronella discusses in his essay, “Structure and Theme through Separation and Union in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors,” how both of the Antipholus’s are used to portray a balance of separation and reuniting. Antipholus of Ephesus complains about his husbandly bonds and his unity with his wife at the beginning of the play because, as he explains, he wishes to dine with a prostitute without having to ask his wife’s consent. In Act III scene I, he finds himself physically locked out of his house, his wife having mistaken his twin brother, Antipholus of Syracuse, for him. He is suddenly helplessly separated from the bonds of marriage and the life that he had previously wished to be free from, (Petronella, 483). The freeing-binding theme continues with Antipholus of Ephesus when his wife, Adriana, orders him to be bound under the assumption that he has gone mad: “O,bind him, bind him, let him not come near me,” (IV.iv. 106). This quote also offers a balance between separation and unity— she wishes him to be bound to keep him separate from herself. The balance of Egeon and his sons being separated and then reunited, restoring order, as well as Antipholus of Ephesus’s wish to be released from the unity of marriage, his separation from his life, and his reuniting with his wife at the end describe a level of order that Shakespeare employed using the themes of separation and unity. Action and plot devices, however, are not the only references to the balance between separation and unity: Shakespeare also discusses these themes through symbols and direct language.
The Comedy of Errors has two specific symbols that seem to recur in the play, both in dialogue and action, almost to a point of absurdity: the chain and the rope. Several arguments can be made about the symbolism behind the objects, but according to Henze, the themes of separation and unity offer a solid option. He argues that both objects relate directly to unity and separation on several levels. The most obvious level of pattern between the chain and rope and the themes of unity and separation suggests that the physical use of both could be seen as an act of binding, restricting, or holding. The rope, Henze argues, represents the more physical aspect of unity while the chain, meant as a gift for Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife, was meant to represent a stronger unity in their marriage and within the community. Henze suggests that the chain, while not necessarily a physical symbol, can be referred to as a “social” symbol. After being locked out of his house, however, Antipholus promises to give the chain to the hostess of the Porpentine: “That chain will I bestow/ (Be it for nothing but to spite my wife)/ Upon mine hostess there,” (III.i.117-119), which shows a breaking of unity in the marriage and a separation, emotionally, from his wife. The chain then falls into many different hands throughout the course of the play, creating what Henze explains should be viewed as a type of union within the community. He writes that the chain can be viewed “as a symbol of social bonds that consistently performs its symbolic function. It draws Antipholus S. into society and marriage, never gets into the prostitute’s (hostess’s) hands, and finally helps rejuvenate Antipholus’ and Adriana’s marriage,” (38). Further, Adriana actually orates that she views the chain as a representation of her husband’s truthfulness in their marriage. “Where gold; and no man that hath a name,/ By falsehood and corruption doth it shame,” (II.i.112-113). She is suggesting that a gift made of gold from a man translates into a clean relationship, because “no man that hath a name” would bring corruption or shame to the precious gift (Henze, 39). There are numerous other, smaller symbols within The Comedy of Errors that arguably reinforce the balance between unity and separation, but of them, I believe that the rope and the chain are the most significant. Symbols and plot that suggest separation, unity, and the importance of the balance between them are not the only ways in which Shakespeare reinforced this point: in fact, the language of the dialogue could actually be considered to have the most extensive trace of separation and unity.
Nearly every major speech within the play uses imagery of binding, marriage, separation, loss, and freeing, especially during moments of major plot development. The explanation of the separation of the twins from there father is not only suggestive of the themes because of the plot, but also because of the language Egeon uses to describe the wreck. His wife and himself, he explained, “Fast’ned ourselves at either end the mast/ And, floating straight, obedient to the stream,/ Were carried toward Corinth, as we thought,” (I.i.86-88). This idea of fastening, or tying themselves with ropes, to the masts of the broken ship, balances directly with the actual action, the separation of parents from children. Egeon further explains that, while the two boys were bound to different masts, each with one of the servants (both named Dromio). The boys and their father were separated, then, with each bound to another person. This balance is interesting and traceable throughout the rest of the play. For example, Dromio of Ephesus uses terms that reflect unity and binding of himself to his master, Antipholus of Ephesus, when Antipholus is accused of being possessed: “Master, I am here ent’red in bond for you,” (IV.iv.124). This theme of brotherly bond and unification can be considered a part of the balance between separation and unification. The Antipholuses and Dromios are open about their compassion for one another, having been companions since the shipwreck, Antipholus of Ephesus travels to Syracuse to try and regain his lost brother, while Egeon also found himself in Syracuse, trying to be reunited with his sons. The satisfaction created by the unification of the family (including the mother, Aemilia) is recognized in the last few lines of the play, spoken by Dromio of Ephesus: “Nay, then thus:/ We came into the world like brother and brother;/ And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another,” (V.i.424-426). The last lines of a Shakespearian play hold much significance, and I would argue that this follows that pattern directly. The themes of separation and reunion, which were constantly used in the plot development, symbols, and language of The Comedy of Errors, makes its final appearance here. The final unification of the brothers (“hand in hand”) after an entire play fueled by separation and confusion, aligns with one of the conventions of Shakespearian comedies: the idea that the end of the play will bring an ordered solution and reveal the balance of forces. By using the themes of separation and unity throughout the play, Shakespeare was able to use themes to create a sense of order and structure within a world that seemed to have none.
An essay of this length is incapable of discussing the vast number of references to the themes of unity and separation within the play, but I hope to have touched on some key evidence that suggests that Shakespeare’s use of plot, symbols, and language work to express those themes. Further examples include the conversation between Luciana and Adriana addressing the role of the husband in a marriage and their ability to bind his wife to her duties: “O, know he is the bridle of your will… There’s not but asses will be bridled so,” (I.ii.13-14), which suggests a type of bond and unity that Adriana wishes to be separated from, and Antipholus of Syracuse’s announcement that he had decided to “lose himself,” in his search for his family: “I to the world am like a drop of water/ That in the ocean seeks another drop,” (I.ii.35-36), which suggests that he is simultaneously separating himself from his life while uniting with the rest of society, or the rest of the drops in the ocean. This creates the balance between separation and unity that Shakespeare used as a mode to create an underlying structure in the play.
The movement of the plot, the recurring symbols within the physical stage directions and the dialogue, and the language used by the characters suggests a balance between unity and separation. The separation of the family at the beginning is remedied by the unification of the family at the end, the attempt to break from bonds and be separated (from a marriage, from society, or from physical bonds) results in a desire for reuniting, and the language throughout the play at in the last lines suggests that a loss or a separation at the beginning has resulted in a reuniting of characters with their families, the society, and themselves. These balanced themes of separation and unity work to create an underlying order and structure that Shakespeare and his audiences believed existed, even in a play that appears to directly refuse order.
Henze, Richard. “The Comedy of Errors: A Freely Binding Chain.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol.
22, no. 1, 1971, pp. 35–41. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2868761. Petronella, Vincent F. “Structure and Theme through Separation and Union in
Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” The Modern Language Review, no. 3, 1974, p. 481. EBSCOhost, proxy1.wagner.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/ login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.3724185&site=eds-live.
“Disfigure” Dissected: A Close Reading of The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew
Within The Comedy of Errors by the venerable William Shakespeare, there comes a hectic bit in the first scene of the fifth act whereupon a lowly messenger brings disturbing news to Adriana: “Mistress, upon my life I tell you true / I have not breathed since I did see it / He cries for you and vows, if he can take you / To scorch your face and to disfigure you” (5.1.180-4). The usage of the word ‘disfigure’ within this specific passage strikes particular intrigue as it is being used to describe the supposed malicious intent of the aforementioned messenger’s master, thus meriting further dissection of said word.
‘Disfigure’ is primarily Latin in origin, with the root word being ‘figura,’ which translates unquestionably to ‘figure.’ The Oxford English Dictionary cross-references ‘figura’ with ‘figure’ as “the form of anything as determined by the outline; external form; shape…” (“Disfigure”). Due to the widespread utilization of ‘figure’ throughout literature as well as everyday conversation, the exact age of the word ‘figura’ remains a mystery to this day. Usage of ‘disfigure’ as a verb gained prominence through the old French word ‘desfigurer,’ which eventually took on the form of ‘disfigure’ that we see within modern English. One can also find similar varieties of this word in Spanish and Italian.
Digging further into the meaning of ‘disfigure,’ the intent of the verb is “to mar the figure or appearance of, destroy the beauty of; to deform, deface” (“Disfigure”). ‘Disfigure’ shares similar meaning as well as old French etymology with the word ‘damage.’ To damage something is “to do or cause damage to; to hurt, harm, injure; now commonly to injure (a thing) so as to lessen or destroy its value” (“Damage”). The primary difference between the two words is that ‘damage’ refers specifically to harm and injury whereas ‘disfigure’ could potentially be utilized in both a physical and metaphorical sense. This raises an interesting point regarding the quoted passage from The Comedy of Errors. Specifically, the text refers to someone who allegedly desires to “scorch [Adriana’s] face and disfigure [her]” (5.1.184). With the use of ‘scorch,’ one has a blunt reference to physical marring, which could lead a reasonably observant reader to deduce that the application of ‘disfigure’ after ‘scorch’ could have more of a multifaceted, if somewhat malicious meaning. Seeing as ‘disfigure’ can reference defacing or defilement, Shakespeare’s usage of it in the text could very well be taken as a hint that the person whom the messenger is warning Adriana about could possess intent to rape her or otherwise mar her character on a level far more vicious than just physically burning her face.
Another slightly similar, Shakespearean utilization of ‘disfigure’ can be found in The Taming of the Shrew with Grumio telling Hortensio: “… [Petruccio] will throw a figure in [Katherina’s] face and so disfigure her with it” (1.2.111). What should catch the eye of even the casual reader is the utilization of ‘figure’ and ‘disfigure’ within the same sentence. Here we have the passage referring to ‘figure’ as a figure of speech while ‘disfigure’ is used to suggest that said figure of speech will be used as a means of degrading Katherina by way of an acid-tongued insult. This draws reference to an earlier point raised as to how the word ‘disfigure’ can have meaning beyond that of physical injury or impairment.
Referring to the online Shakespeare Concordance, ‘disfigure’ is used only once within The Comedy of Errors and once in The Taming of the Shrew, these usages being in the passages cited throughout this essay. One could fairly easily ascertain from these relatively sparse applications of ‘disfigure’ that Shakespeare for the purpose of highly specific inflection, namely the degradation of two female characters. Why the female characters are being singled out in these instances draws into the light the idea that to ‘disfigure’ something can be interpreted as the idea of the destruction of beauty, namely the effeminate beauty of these aforementioned female characters by means both physical and mental. Ipso facto, Shakespeare’s placement of ‘disfigure’ within The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew is delivered with the sharpness of a cruel, calculated witticism.
Pulling apart sentences and boiling words down to their individual shades of meaning can aid spectacularly in garnering a clear, profound understanding of a given text, author, and perhaps even time period. While some might initially cast off the word ‘disfigure’ as a reference to the physical macabre, delving into The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, one can find that this curious word contains inferences to both physical desecration and mental degradation. Though the usage of ‘disfigure’ in these texts is directed at female characters, the intent of this essay is to make an observation as opposed to paint William Shakespeare as outright misogynistic given that the time in which the referenced plays were written considerably predates most modern feminist thought. Whether one is a merely casual or highly critical reader, it is nothing if not imperative to read for more than face value, to explore sentences for multitudes of meaning, and to dissect words down to their most precise insinuation and application. Works Cited
“Concordance of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.” Open Source Shakespeare, George Mason University, www.opensourceshakespeare.org/concordance/. Web. 1 September 2017.
“Damage, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 1 September 2017.
“Disfigure, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 1 September 2017.
Shakespeare, William. “The Comedy of Errors.” The Norton Shakespeare Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 3rd ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. 792. Print.
Shakespeare, William. “The Taming of the Shrew.” The Norton Shakespeare Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 3rd ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. 370. Print.