Behind the Comedy
The Comedy of Errors
What a silly play. Laugh-out-loud funny, of course, but so silly. Charming and very likable, yes, but so silly. “Could this actually be the only simple, funny, good-hearted and straightforward play that Shakespeare wrote?” I asked myself while reading it.
Silly me. Shakespeare never wrote a simple or straightforward sentence in his life. I should know that by now.
So yes, The Comedy of Errors is silly and very funny but so much more and it doesn't take a rocket scientist (or whatever the literary equivalent might be) to see it. As Professor Bloom puts it, there are many aspects of the play that “belie our usual first impression of The Comedy of Errors as a purely rambunctious farce” (p. 23). (By the way, I'm very happy to report that not only did I find Bloom's chapter on The Comedy of Errors very entertaining and enlightening but I also agreed with him this time.)
Of interest then, in no special order:
- Antipholus of Ephesus isn't very nice.
- Dangerous times when a merchant can be put to death simply for arriving in a town – parallel to the budding cutthroat capitalism of Shakespeare's time?
- Funny for us, yes, but scary for the poor individuals involved – total strangers claiming all kinds of strange things about you? People you've known for years not recognizing you and claiming not to have just dealt with you a few minutes ago?
- Power conflict between church and state.
- Casual violence against one's servants.
- Restraint on wives.
In other words, I could write a book. Lucky for all of us, I must limit myself to a short text. So I've chosen my favorite – resistance to the inequalities of society. Adriana's protests against the behavior of her husband (and others). The Dromios' protests against the Antipholuses' violence.
Let's look first at Adriana, one of Shakespeare's most interesting women. She is married to Antiphlus of Ephesus and loves him quite matter-of-factly. She is distressed by his infidelities, she is unhappy by what she perceives as his diminishing love for and attraction to her and she is deeply distressed by what seems to be his madness. What is interesting to see is that while the unwitting Antipholus of Syracuse is unfailingly polite and kind to this (to him) totally unknown woman, the real husband Antipholus of Ephesus is unpleasant, impatient, overbearing and finally violent.
Adriana has cause for complaint even before the twin confusion begins. We meet her in Act Two while she frets to her unmarried sister Luciana about her husband being late for dinner. Luciana replies complacently that it's his right to come and go as he pleases – he's the man. Adriana retorts sharply, “Why should their liberty than ours be more?” This is one of those radical rallying cries of women that pop up all over literature. Compare this for example to Eve's cry to God, “For inferior who is free?” in John Milton's Paradise Lost – the significance of which is at best given no more than passing mention, at worst ignored completely by scholars. I see it as a key question. Adriana loves Antipholus, yes, but she won't put up with just anything. To Luciana's ultraconservative platitudes about males of all species being masters of their females and waiting patiently for straying husbands to return, Adriana points out that, “this servitude makes you to keep unwed,” - implying that all men don't want wimpy wives – and further that
...if thou live to see like right bereft,
this fool-begged patience in thee will be left (Act 2.1).
The note in the Norton edition helps us understand her to mean that if Luciana found herself “similarly deprived of rights” she would abandon such foolish thoughts.
In the next scene Adriana confronts the man whom she believes to be her husband and speaks to him in a monologue “full of honest declarations of need and love” with words of “unusual power and wrath” (Early and Keil, p. 22). Not realizing that he indeed doesn't recognize her, she believes he does and sees the distance that has come between them of late:
Ay, ay, Antipholus, look strange and frown:
Some other mistress has thy sweet aspects.
I am not Adriana, nor thy wife.
The time was once when thou unurged wouldst vow
That never words were music to thine ear,
That never object pleasing in thine eye,
That never touch well welcomed to thy hand,
That never meat sweet-savoured in the taste,
Unless I spake, or looked, or touched, or carved to thee.
How comes it now my husband, O how comes it
That thou art estrangéd from thyself? - (Act 2.2)
She goes on to ask him how he would react if she were unfaithful to him:
Wouldst thou not spit at me, and spurn at me,
And hurl the name of husband in my face,
And tear the stained skin off my harlot brow,
And from my false hand cut the wedding ring,
And break it with a deep-divorcing vow? (Act 2.2)
There is no question in Adriana's mind, his reaction to her if she had been unfaithful is what she is feeling now.
She calls herself a “vine” to his “elm”, indicating that she is an appropriately submissive wife but soon says:
Come, come, no longer will I be a fool
To put the finger in the eye and weep... (Act 2.2)
In other words, yes, she's unhappy and angry but enough is enough, it's time for dinner so come on!
Their dinner together does not mend things. Why, Shakespeare doesn't show us, unfortunately, because it would have been funny to see poor Antipholus of Syracuse trying to deal with an angry, loving wife he'd never seen before. What we do see in Act 3.2 is his falling in love with Luciana who is chiding him for not treating his wife right. In other words, though Luciana thinks Adriana should wait patiently for her lord and master, she sternly admonishes Antipholus of Syracuse to at least be kind to Adriana even if he married her for her money or if he loves someone else:
If you did wed my sister for her wealth,
Then for her wealth's sake use her with more kindness;
Or if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth:
Muffle your false love with some show of blindness.
Let not my sister read it in your eye.
Be secret-false. What need she be acquainted?
What simple thief brags of his own attaint?
'Tis double wrong to truant with your bed,
And let her read in thy looks at board.
...Then, gentle brother, get you in again.
Comfort my sister, cheer her, call her wife...(Act 3.2)
She's changed her tune since Act Two. When Luciana then reports Antipholus of Syracuse's infidelity to Adriana in Act 4.2, Adriana is of course furious and calls her perfidious husband (she believes) all kinds of things:
Deforméd, crookéd, old and sere,
Ill-faced, worse-bodies, shapeless everywhere,
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind,
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind (Act 4.2).
One of Shakespeare's excellent insults, but rather heart-breakingly she says in her next breath, “Ah, but I think him better than I say...My heart prays for him though my tongue do curse.” Neither of the Antipholuses really deserve her, do they?
We see further examples that Adriana is not the rug to be walked all over by her husband that Luciana initially thought wives should be when Dromio of Syracuse comes to get the money to get Antipholus of Ephesus out of jail, put there for not paying for the chain. Her reaction: “This I wonder at, that he unknown to me should be in debt” (Act 4.2), shows that she is involved in the couple's finances (or possibly her finances, according to the quotes above), and doesn't leave it all in his hands. She sends the money immediately and when that doesn't get results she goes to find out what's going on. Though her concern is met with her (real) husband's insults and violence, she doesn't tell him to pay his own damn debts or rot in jail, she says, “I will pay it” (act 4.4). A woman of action, is Adriana.
The confusions continue and they all end up at the priory where Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse take sanctuary. What follows is an odd confrontation between Adriana and the Abbess. This Abbess seems quite powerful, as abbesses tended to be in those days (i.e. in the days when Shakespeare wrote, not necessarily when the play took place, whenever that was). She also seems unfair and arbitrary.
First she tells Adriana that if her husband is unfaithful she “should for that have reprehended him” (Act 5.1). When then Adriana explains that she has, the Abbess haughtily claims that it's Adriana's fault that he's unfaithful because of her “venom clamours of a jealous woman”, “her railing”, her “jealous fits” (Act 5.1). Adriana is stunned into momentary silence and the now plucky Luciana stands up for her:
She never reprehended him but mildly
When he demeaned himself rough, rude and wildly (Act 5.1)
She then asks her sister, “Why bear you these rebukes and answer not?”, showing that she's used to Adriana sticking up for herself. What Adriana replies - “She did betray me to my own reproof” - has evidently been interpreted in different ways, by some scholars to mean that Adriana admits that she was wrong, but by others to mean that the Abbess tricked her into criticizing herself , “and the context (not to mention the rest of the play) establishes that the criticism is not justified” (Thompson, p. 58). My view is that Thompson is right: the Abbess – who we must remember represents the Christian church which diminishes women's role to that of a submissive wife (strange, isn't it, that powerful women so often throughout history, and still, are so virulently against equality for women?) - is quite adamant about insulting Adriana and refusing to let her help her husband, saying that she, the Abbess, is more appropriate. Interestingly enough, it's Luciana, now quite the Amazon, who urges Adriana to appeal to the Duke, bringing this whole conflict into the sphere of the power struggle between the church and the state in a gender twist in which the powerful woman (representing the church and then ending up being the poor sisters' mother-in-law!) oppresses the woman while the powerful man (representing the state) supports her rights, or at least is willing to listen to both sides of the story.
But that analysis is, alas, outside of the scope of this essay. Furthermore I see that as always I've bitten off more than I can chew and thus have no room for the poor Dromios, even though there is a clear connection between the class and gender inequalities. So the Dromios will have to wait until next time.
For now, the conclusion of this essay. In a play that Greenblatt calls “deliciously amusing” (p. 722) and “zany” (p. 717) and Bloom calls “remarkably sophisticated” (p. 21) we find a character of strength and compassion who, as a woman, must deal with “the pervasive, fundamentally inequitable social order” (Greenblatt, p. 722). Which Adriana, though nothing is resolved at the end of the play, does with humor and clear-sightedness in spite of the muddle of the husband/not husband twins.
Shakespeare, Greenblatt points out, is “cannily alert to social inequities” (p. 722). Bloom says, “exuberant fun as it is and must be, this [is] fierce little play” ( p.23). I really knew it all along. It's not silly at all.
The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
Greenblatt, Stephen, “Introduction” in The Norton Shakespeare (see above).
Early, Michael and Philippa Keil. Soliloquy, The Shakespeare Monoligues. The Women. 1988.
Thompson, Ann. “Feminist Theory and the Editing of Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew Revisited”. In Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender. Editor: Kate Chedgzoy. 2001.
BBC, 1983. Director: James Cellan-Jones. Cast: Adriana – Suzanne Bertish; Luciana – Joanne Pearce; Antipholus of Ephesus and of Syracuse: Michael Kitchen; the Dromios – Roger Daltry; the Abbess – Wendy Hiller. Bertish and Pearce do not, unfortunately, take advantage of these two interesting roles. Daltry is surprisingly good as Dromio of Syracuse but a bit vacuous as Dromio of Ephesus. Michael Kitchen is brilliant as both of the twins Antipholus, the nice one and the nasty one.
Seen on stage: no.