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.