Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2845
T. S. Dorsch
SOURCE: "Introduction," in The Comedy of Errors, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 12-18.
The Comedy of Errors is not only very good theatre, it is also very good reading. It is a finely-balanced mixture of pathos and suspense, illusion and delusion, love turned bitter and love that is sweet, farce and fun. The fun begins in the second scene with the entry of the Syracusan pair and is sustained with great verve and vivacity through the next three acts. It arises from the farce of mistaken identity which is the stuff and substance of the play—from all the improbabilities that result from the use of two pairs of identical twins who in the course of a single day repeatedly encounter people whom they know they know, but do not know. "If we are in for improbability," said Dowden, "let us at least be repaid for it by fun, and have that in abundance. Let the incredibility become a twofold incredibility, and it is none the worse." The fun is of course greatly increased by our knowledge of everything that the characters in the play do not know. Even if Shakespeare did not at all times make clear in the dialogue who is who, we should know from his looks and voice who is speaking to whom. One would suppose that no producer in his senses would put on the stage two pairs of actors who could not be told apart. The only possible surprise for us is the advent of the Abbess in the final episodes, and that should not be much of a surprise, for we have learnt from romances that if a wife disappears at the beginning she is more likely than not to reappear at the end.
The keynotes of the play are illusion and delusion. The Abbess and Aegeon are the only persons who are not wholly deluded by appearances, and even they are so far deceived as not to know that all their family are alive and well, and close at hand in Ephesus; and Aegeon is, naturally enough, bewildered when he is unexpectedly faced by two sons who cannot be told from each other even by a wife and two personal slaves. The illusion, like the fun, begins in the second scene when the visiting Antipholus is accosted by a slave whom he knows to be his own Dromio, who precipitately tells him that his dinner is spoiling and he must hurry home, and who emphatically denies that he has in his keeping money that Antipholus has entrusted to him. Newly arrived in Ephesus, he has been thinking about his long and seemingly hopeless quest, and has felt that he is:
like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
After his encounter with the wrong Dromio he recalls having been told that Ephesus:
is full of cozenage,
As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many suchlike liberties of sin.
The Roman-style comedy of misunderstanding is teasingly haunted by moral implications owed to the distant echoes of St. Paul. The phrase "liberties of sin" could not have come from Plautus, and suggests that those who fall under the spells of Ephesus are in need of spiritual conversion as well as material enlightenment. The mind of Antipholus of Syracuse remains "changed" until the end of the play. A little later in the day, when Adriana claims him as her husband, he is led to wonder whether he was married to her in a dream from which he is not yet awake (2.2.173-4). His Dromio, too, is struck with a horrified wonder:
This is the fairy land. O spite of spites,
We talk with goblins, owls, and sprites.
So it continues. He wonders whether he is "in earth, in heaven, or in hell." When Dromio brings him money to save him from the imprisonment with which his brother is threatened, he knows that he is wandering "in illusions" (4.3.36), and when, immediately after this, he is greeted as an old friend by the Courtesan, he know that she is the devil (43), and Dromio agrees that she is at least "the devil's dam."
All the other figures in the farce are similarly bemused by error. The Duke thinks that they "all have drunk of Circe's cup." Antipholus of Ephesus in all his encounters thinks the wrong to be the right person. His wife more than once believes the other Antipholus to be her husband (as does Luciana), not only when she is entertaining him in her home, but even at the very end. "Which of you two did dine with me today?" she asks (5.1.369). Luciana is surprised, and not a little shocked, when she is so warmly and elegantly courted by her brother-in-law, as she supposes Antipholus of Syracuse to be; perhaps, nevertheless, she enjoys a little quiet fun in hearing him, and in reporting him to her sister--nothing in this play is to be taken too seriously. Strangely, we are not told at the end that she is to be a wife--she and Antipholus would make a gentle and happy pair. In the theatre the swiftness of the action allows us no time to wonder at all these mistaken beliefs and weird occurrences; everywhere, as Johnson says, "Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful."
Most of Shakespeare's comedies contain pathos, separations within families, or potential tragedy. The Comedy of Errors is no exception. In strong contrast to Plautus's jaunty prologue, Shakespeare opens with the pathetic figure of Aegeon, standing in peril of his life. Although at the back of our minds we know from the title and from our reading of romances that in the end all will be well, we must, while he is before us, feel deeply for Aegeon as he tells his woeful story, and is told that, unless someone can within the day find a thousand marks to redeem him, he must die—just as we feel deeply for the later heroines who must suffer deprivation or banishment or cruelty before they are brought to happiness—Rosalind or Viola or Hermione. The pathos returns briefly in the final scene, together with a touch of suspense, when Aegeon is led in with the Headsman, and again when he is bewildered by the sudden appearance of his long-lost wife and son. These moments are in keeping with all the earlier improbabilities, but they are not farcical. That they follow so hard upon the binding of the one Antipholus and the narrow escape of the other from being locked up as a madman makes the final reunion all the happier. That the close of the play should be placed in the hands of the slaves is a final incidence of fun, and, in this particular play, entirely appropriate.
It is commonly said that in farce situation is everything, characterisation little or nothing. Shakespeare knew better. In Johnson's phrase, he drew his characters, like his scenes, "from nature and from life." To every one of his characters he gave an individuality of his own and a distinctive voice; it is a skill that enlarges farce into comedy.
The Dromios are not, as is often said, as like as two peas. Dromio of Ephesus is the more sprightly, and the more in command of all the tricks of language that make for the comic and the witty. His opening lines are the first irruption in the play of high comedy, not only for their shock-effect on the recently-arrived Antipholus, but also in their masterly display of the rhetorical device called anadiplosis, by which words at the end of one line are picked up at the beginning of the next. As an introduction to Dromio, to his idiom, to the treatment that a slave expects to receive, and to the spirit of the play, the whole speech is worth quoting:
Returned so soon? Rather approached too late.
The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit.
The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell;
My mistress made it one upon my cheek.
She is so hot because the meat is cold.
The meat is cold because you come not home.
You come not home because you have no stomach.
You have no stomach, having broke your fast.
But we that know what 'tis to fast and pray
Are penitent for your default today.
This playing upon words is characteristic of his voice, and, like all witty slaves, he has at his disposal a fund of proverbial wisdom. His Syracusan twin is less voluble, less ebullient; his comedy (apart from his drubbings) is more dependent on puns and proverbs. However, he shows some spirit when he is barring the entry of the Ephesians into their own house, and when he is describing Nell (3.2.77-130).
Nor are the Antipholuses, except in their appearance, alike. Weary with travel and sorrow, Antipholus of Syracuse is quiet and despondent, though quick enough, at the contrariness of slaves, to flare into anger and strike blows. When not harassed, he is gentle and courtly, given to railing ladies 'fair dame' or "gentle mistress," and he is eloquent in his wooing—we must hope Luciana in the end said yes. The other Antipholus is more robust, ready to smash down a door (though his own) if it keeps him from his dinner. He feels a little henpecked, and is ready to seek comfort from a woman who is not his wife and to ask his goldsmith to make his excuses for him. He is embroiled in the same kinds of confusions as his twin, but reacts to them by beating slaves and not by sinking into dismay and despair; he is, or thinks he is, secure in his knowledge of Ephesus, and his knowledge that he knows everyone who needs to be known. He has for many years been held in high favour by the Duke, and is, in the opinion of his fellow citizens,
Of very reverend reputation, ...
Of credit infinite, highly beloved,
Second to none that lives here in the city.
He is a man of substance. He lives in a large house of two storeys ("Husband, I'll dine above with you today," says Adriana), probably with a balcony (see pp. 23-4 below), and has, for Shakespeare's purposes in 3.1, six maidservants in addition to his slave and a kitchen-maid.
The women of the play stand out more vividly than the men. The two who might have been twins—how thankful we are that they are only sisters—are more clearly differentiated than the pairs who really are twins. Adriana is temperamental; she nags her husband to the last, even complaining of him to the Abbess, but wails at great length when in exasperation he sometimes goes off to find congenial company elsewhere—after all, she keeps a good house and is herself faithful. She needs to be taught a lesson or two by her more even-tempered sister. In her worse moments she thinks Antipholus to be:
deformed, crooked, old, and sere;
Ill-faced, worse-bodied, shapeless everywhere;
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind,
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind.
When she thinks he is going to be put in jail or a madhouse, she rushes to his help and calls him "gentle husband." Naughty as he is, she loves him dearly, as indeed she has from the beginning, if too possessively; even her sharpest railings have come from her mouth, not her heart, as she has shown in her dialogue with Luciana at the end of 2.1, and, in so many words, in 4.2.18, 28. She will, we trust, when she has been shown her own faults, behave better in the future.
Luciana is somewhat given to preaching (as is the Abbess, but then that is her vocation) and at the same time a very agreeable and pleasantly-spoken young woman, as she was when played by Francesca Annis, with Judi Dench beside her as a not too querulous Adriana. She is of course disconcerted when Antipholus woos her so fervently, thinks that perhaps he is mad, but after her first sermon does little to stop him, and can scarcely be said to chide him as she chides Adriana. She is as anxious about her brother-in-law's welfare as her sister, and would be incapable of reviling him, as Adriana does. The gentle Antipholus knows what he is saying when he addresses her as "Sweet mistress."
From Dromio's graphic portrait we know all we want to know about Nell— globose, sweaty, red nose, bad of breath. Out of Plautus's courtesan Erotium Shakespeare fashioned someone entirely new. Erotium is exactly what the word courtesan means, what would at one time have been called a gold-digger, ready to clutch at cloaks or bracelets or "brass." Shakespeare's unnamed Courtesan is different. Of course she likes being given presents (who doesn't?) and would not have her own costly jewellery go astray, but she can scarcely be said to be rapacious, even if she is as much concerned for her lost baubles as for what appears to be Antipholus's madness. She is good company, '"f excellent discourse, Pretty and witty; wild, and yet, too, gentle" (gentle in both the modern sense and in the usual Elizabethan sense of "well-bred," though Antipholus of Syracuse thinks otherwise)—just the kind of girl a sensible man would look for if he had a nagging wife. Her wildness is not seen, and there is no vice in her. Shakespeare chose to celebrate the loves and marriages of nice young women rather than fornication.
All the lesser figures contribute something. Doctor Pinch, Plautus's medicus new-apparelled, can be quickly disposed of; it is enough to quote Antipholus of Ephesus:
one Pinch, a hungry, lean-faced villain,
A mere anatomy, a mountebank,
A threadbare juggler and a fortune-teller,
A needy, hollow-eyed, sharp-looking wretch,
A living dead man—
a magnificently Shakespearean vignette. We may note in passing that, although in his introductory stage direction he is called a Schoolmaster, in the dialogue he is always addressed, referred to, and in his pretentious way behaves, as a conjurer.
Another moment of exquisite comedy is provided by the officious and boldly-spoken Jailer; he has had the Ephesian pair carried off to prison, and is rounding off the case, when he is suddenly confronted by Antipholus of Syracuse (yet once more taken for his twin) and Dromio, with rapiers in their hands. Let the situation speak for itself:
LUCIANA God, for thy mercy, they are loose again!
ADRIANA And come with naked swords. Let's call more help
To have them bound again.
JAILER Away, they'll kill us!
Exeunt omnes [apart from Antipholus S. and Dromio S.], as fast as may be, frighted,
The devil-witch-courtesan, now apparently at one with Adriana, is one of those that run away as fast as may be. For the first time Antipholus and Dromio feel they have the upper hand of the terrifying creatures that beset them. "I see these witches are afraid of swords," Antipholus drily comments, and at last Dromio "could find it in [his] heart to stay [in Ephesus] still, and turn witch." He is disposed to join what St. Paul called "the users of curious crafts."
There remains a very important character, the Abbess. She, "a virtuous and a reverend lady," is a splendid figure, a woman of great authority and, we must feel, or commanding presence; for the most part of few words, and those always to the point and peremptory. "Be quiet, people," she says as she comes in upon a brabble, and tumult turns to mere clamour; a little later, firmly, "Whoever bound him; I will loose his bonds." She will not kow-tow to the Duke, as the sisters do; her power is as great as his. She will have no nonsense, has no patience with nagging wives and tells them so; Adriana has to put up with a severe scolding from her. It does not take this competent and formidable woman long to straighten out all the entanglements of the day; chaos gives way to order, confusion of mind to practical good sense. The Bible has taught her, as it has (at times) taught Luciana, to see clearly. Shakespeare wittily conjoins the idea he found in Acts 19.26, that the whole city of Ephesus was "full of confusion," with the epitasis, or thickening of the plot, in Roman comedy. The Abbess offers proper Pauline counsel to those who come to hear her, and she is the dea ex machina who resolves the play's complications in its catastrophe. It is she who, in her final words, "After so long grief, such nativity," sums up the theme of regeneration with which the play is brought to its conclusion. We rejoice with her when, after the long years, her husband and her sons are restored to her, and we wish that we could celebrate with her at her well-organised "gossips' feast"....
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10555
[In the following essay, Freedman explores the concept of identity (primarily as it is evidenced in the characters of Aegeon and the Antipholi) in the play, integrating such discussions as what she sees as the plot's three-part structure, the centrality of monetary and marital debts (and their intersection), and the importance of redemption.]
Virtually every good critical introduction to The Comedy of Errors apologizes for the play. Shakespeare was a mere youth, so the story begins, when he wrote the work, "still without too much to say about love, politics, or human nature." The generic conventions of farce provided their own peculiar restraints, since farce is a kind of drama "that not even Shakespeare could extend beyond somewhat narrow limits." Repeatedly, the reader is warned not to waste time searching for latent meanings in the text. Rather, we are advised to be grateful for what we do have: a "superb farce," a "pure comedy of event." We may value it as an "assimilation and extension of Plautine comedy," for its "symmetry and near flawlessness of ... plot," or finally, for its rich "harmonic structure" of interrelated themes and patterns of imagery, but we should never expect this "primitive" to stand up to Shakespeare's mature comedies. Or so the story goes.
One cause of all this genial patronage appears to be an intriguing problem in criticism. Critics have been unable to resolve two major issues central to an understanding of the play as a meaningful unity: first, the purpose of the farcical confusion of the twins' identities in the main plot, and second, its relation to their father's progress in the frame plot from separation to reunion with his family, and from crime and debt to redemption. The main plot, derived from Plautus' Menaechmi and Amphitruo, is generally considered a random "rearranging [of] human puppets" in an essentially static situation, and is often compared to the farcical confusion of the four lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Critics frequently regard its opening and conclusion as arbitrary. One critic maintains that "the confusion is really the result of accidental circumstances and is as accidentally cleared up"; another muses that "the arabesques of absurdity in The Comedy of Errors might: continue indefinitely." While it is granted that each character is, at least, forced to confront the horror of mistaken identity, it is equally observed that "no one learns more about himself or his neighbor as a result of the errors." Since "in no other play ... is the purpose of the confusion less apparent," the work is thought to reflect a vision of a meaningless universe, its intent "no more and no less than the sheer merriment of controlled confusion."
The purpose of the frame plot, adapted from Apollomie of Tyre, has been less easy to dismiss, though it has proven equally obscure. Critics complain that the frame plot is poorly integrated into the rest of the play, or they weakly defend the way it humanizes the farce and "contributes an emotional tension ... to what would otherwise have remained a two-dimensional drama." While studies of the play's themes and patterns of imagery have demonstrated its artistic unity, such approaches have failed to prove the frame plot intrinsic to the play or the main plot purposive.
To explain the relationship of Errors' main plot and frame plot, we must accept Shakespeare's focus on a specific context for the farcical confusion of the twins' identities, and decipher its significance. Bracketing the twins' confusion are two problems—Egeon's debt and his Syracusan son's search for a familial identity—and their resolutions, Egeon's redemption and his son's rebirth into a familial identity. The confusion of the twins, then, is not the problem which the play solves, just as the play's resolution is not "simply a recognition of who, physically, is who." The confusion of identity is instead a necessary step in the recreation of identity, a problem-solving device through which the frame plot is fulfilled. When we consider The Comedy of Errors in the context of problem-solving techniques in Shakespearean comedy, what appears as a disjunctive double plot is revealed as a fully integrated three-part structure.
In The Comedy of Errors, where a secondary romance plot frames the farce, we can perceive the rudimentary beginnings of the three-part structure which Shakespeare was to employ in his later comedies. The introductory scene of the play in which Egeon, while searching for his lost family, is doomed by Ephesian law to the by sundown unless he can raise an unlikely sum of money, corresponds well to the harsh world of law, the cruel and problematic reality with which so many of Shakespeare's romantic comedies commence. The main plot's nightmarish Ephesus corresponds to the improbable, fantastic, dream-like realm of the imagination, familiar to us as a second stage in Shakespearean comedy, and perhaps best described as an example of the "second world" in fiction; an explicitly imaginative or fictional world within a work which purports to imitate reality. While The Comedy of Errors doesn't shift to a fantastic setting inhabited by characters capable of magical action, when Antipholus of Syracuse enters Ephesus and confusion begins, the town suddenly appears fantastical. By not removing the play's action to a magical island or forest, Shakespeare stresses the essence of nightmare: the imagined fulfillment of repressed fears and desires in everyday reality. Thus, while the irrational events in the main plot appear to us as plausible and subject to rational explanation, the events remain fantastic and horrifying to the characters. Antipholus of Syracuse's bewildered cry, "Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell? / Sleeping or waking? mad or well advised?" (II. ii. 211-12) echoes many other Shakespearean descriptions of an essentially imaginative world. The play's conclusion, in which Egeon's problems are astonishingly solved, corresponds to the customary third phase resolution: a return to a world of law now tempered by mercy, a world of reality enriched by imaginative insight.
In such imaginative worlds as the wood outside of Athens or the Forest of Arden, the dramatic stage set before Christopher Sly or Prospero's stage and island, the customary laws of dramatic reality are suspended in favor of dreamlike, imaginative action which gives expression to the plays' problems and makes solutions possible. The functional relationship of second world to first world is the relationship of the imagination, whether in the form of dream, drama, or play, to reality. The second world is an adaptive mechanism through which problematical situations can be submitted to personal, creative re-enactment, control, and mastery.
One example of this problem-solving activity in the early comedies is the transformation of characters from the frame plot into dream-like characters equipped with superhuman powers to overcome their problems. For example, Christopher Sly's problems with the domineering alehouse wife in the introductory framework of The Tamng of the Shrew are mastered in the main plot through lie fictional Petruchio, the fantastic woman tamer in a play performed before Sly. In the frame plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus has not yet conquered his Amazonian queen on the battlefield of marriage, whereas he has a chance to do so through the magical actions of the fairy king Oberon in the play's major plot. A more complex mode of problem-solving in the comedies is the decomposition of a major frame plot character into multiple, contradictory attitudes which are personified in the main plot, thus enabling an intrapsychic dialogue to ensue in the play's second world. We see this device in the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind and Orlando combat their own pessimism through the figure of Jaques, and their romantic idealism through the characters of Phebe and Silvius, before they are prepared to enter into marriage and return to society. The principle of the hero's decomposition into quasi-allegorical characters as a problem-solving device may be traced from Shakespeare's early comedies to such diverse plays as Henry IV, Part One, King Lear, and The Tempest.
The disjunctive double plot of The Comedy of Errors is the prototype of the tripartite comedies that follow, and functions according to the same problem-solving strategies. First, the main plot dramatizes a psychological space; characters are idealized or dissociated internalized objects, whose speech and actions are coded in the symbolic language of dream. Second, the relationship of main plot to frame plot, like that of second world to first world, is the relationship of creative experience to everyday reality. The main plot's function is adaptive; it restates, in symbolic form, the problem posed in the frame plot and provides a model for its solution. The complex mirroring structure of Shakespearean comedy often enables clarification of an original problem only through its restatement in the second world. Hence it is difficult at first to recognize that the actions of Egeon's sons restate and resolve his problems. One must be adept at reading backwards and forwards, equating all the problems stated until a common denominator is found which stresses the context of the frame plot (e.g., Egeon's debt equals his crime equals Antipholus of Syracuse's problem of familial division equals that which is solved by the confusion of the twins' identities). Read in this manner, The Comedy of Errors no longer appears to be a random and senseless farce of mistaken identities, but a carefully orchestrated psychological drama in which dissociated parts of the self are meaningfully united. The twins, as allegorical representatives of Egeon's divided state, connect main plot and frame plot issues and provide a way to resolve them. The farce of mistaken identities and punishment in the confrontation of debts doubles as a complex drama of self-redemption.
The Comedy of Errors dramatizes the nightmare of a sudden, inexplicable disjunction between personal and communal accounts of one's identity. Those who are most familiar proclaim one a total stranger, whereas strangers evince a mysterious familiarity. Out of this confusion of the familiar and the strange grows that sense of the unheimliche which we translate as "uncanny." In Freud's famous paper "The Uncanny," he argues that the unheimliche is what was once heimliche, home-like, familiar, and maintains that the uncanny "can be traced back without exception to something familiar that has been repressed." This explains, Freud states, "why the usage of speech has extended das heimliche into its opposite das unheimliche; for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old—established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression." It is this experience of familiarity-in-strangeness which characterizes each twin's perception of the day's errors and Egeon's nightmare of non-recognition at the play's close. A recent production of Errors underlined this sense of the uncanny at the climax of the play's mistaken identifications. Egeon's pathetic query:
Not know my voice! O time's extremity,
Hast thou so cracked and splitted my poor tongue
In seven short years, that here my only son
Knows not my feeble key of untuned cares?
(V. i. 307-10)
was delivered to a winking, snickering crowd, and at each piteous lament the uncomprehending townspeople laughed the louder.
Egeon attempts to be logical about this curiously disjunctive experience and to explain phenomena that the play attributes to a fantastic comedy of errors. However much the Ephesian crowd may laugh at his attempts, the Shakespearean critic should not; for if the fantasy presented here endures, as theatrical history attests, then it must convey an archetypal experience which has significant psychological if not physical validity. Egeon's accusation that change, or "Time's deformed hand," is the logical culprit of the mix-up of identities, ties into the theory of a repression of the familiar, and may provide the source of the uncanny experience that The Comedy of Errors presents.
Consider, for example, the meaning of the Syracusan twin's experience. What is the meaning of a fantasy in which one is continually recognized, literally "known again" as someone else? While a logical explanation would be to posit the existence of another person who looks like oneself, a physical twin, the status of the main plot as a second world suggests the viability of a psychological twin. For the only self that looks like oneself and is not oneself, that can be remembered or "known again" by others, is a part of the self which has been lost or denied in time, a part of the self with which one no longer identifies. To the extent that the former self is repressed, we have a situation in which others "know one again" as another and one does not remember them: one is no longer who one was. Pirandello focuses on this problem of recognition in Six Characters in Search of an Author, when the Father complains of the Daughter's ability to freeze him into a past self with which he no longer identifies:
So we have this illusion of being one person for all, of having a personality that is unique in all our acts. But it isn't true. We perceive this when, tragically perhaps, in something we do, we are as it were suspended, caught up in the air on a kind of hook. Then we perceive that all of us was not in that act, and that it would be an atrocious injustice to judge us by that action alone, as if all our existence were summed up in that one deed. Now do you understand the perfidy of this girl? She surprised me in a place, where she ought not to have known me, just as I could not exist for her; and she now seeks to attach to me a reality such as I could never suppose I should have to assume for her in a shameful and fleeting moment of my life.
From this perspective, the Syracusan can represent a present persona confused with a past, denied persona—a part of the self with which he no longer identifies.
Yet it is this dissociated persona which the Syracusan must seek in his quest for wholeness, and which he has inadvertently found in the gaze of the Other.
Antipholus of Ephesus's experience presents a necessarily complementary but distinctly different fantasy: the perceptions of a past persona when it finds itself replaced by its double in the present. Rather than being mistaken for another, Antipholus of Ephesus is simply denied as himself, and by the very people he knows best. Bewildered at the widespread rejection he encounters, he imagines conspiracy and revenge to be its cause. Yet the actual situation is far more serious; not only are the doors of his home shut upon him, but so are the doors of his entire world. Antipholus of Ephesus is faced with the startling fact that his life is going on quite well without him—but with another version of himself in the starring role.
Again change is the logical cause of mistaken identities, yet for the Ephesian twin the community as "mirror" continues in time, along with one persona of the individual, while the persona which would be recognized has somehow escaped "time's deformed hand." A more contemporary version of this fantasy is Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," the well-known story of a henpecked husband who returns home after an afternoon's nap only to learn that twenty years have mysteriously slipped by:
Strange names were over the doors—strange faces at the windows—everything was strange. Hs mind now misgave him; he began to doubt whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched. Surely this was his native village, which he had left but the day before. There stood the Kaatskill mountains—there ran the silver Hudson at a distance—there was every hill and dale precisely as it had always been.
A twenty years' sleep may appear improbable and fantastic, but its logical psychological equivalent is a suddenly awakened twenty-year-old self which must confront the reality of the present. For Rip Van Winkle, as for Antipholus of Ephesus, that confrontation includes not only the horror of being shut out of one's world, but the insidious sense that one has been successfully replaced by one's double. In both situations, the double is a younger—because newer—version of the self; in Rip Van Winkle's case, it is his son who replaces him. In answer to his forlorn request:—"Does nobody here know Rip Van Winkle?"—the following conversation ensues:
"Oh, Rip Van Winkle!" exclaimed two or three; "oh, to be sure! that's Rip Van Winkle yonder, leaning against the tree."
Rip looked, and beheld a precise counterpart of himself as he went up the mountain; apparently as lazy, and certainly as ragged. The poor fellow was now completely confounded. He doubted his own identity, and whether he was himself or another man. In the midst of his bewilderment, the man in the cocked hat demanded who he was, and what was his name.
"God knows," exclaimed he, at his wit's end; "I'm nor myself—I'm somebody else—that's me yonder—no—that's somebody else got into my shoes—I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they've changed my gun, and everything's changed, and I'm changed, and I can't tell what's my name, or who I am!"
We could accept that this double is indeed Rip Van Winkle's son, as the story tells us, were it not that twenty years cannot pass by in one nap. And we could accept that Antipholus of Ephesus and his Dromio are simply replaced by identical twins, were it not that twins are not identical within. These fantastic stories in which disjunctive selves and worlds meet are valid on a psychological level; the son, the twin brother, are simply metaphors for what has been termed the "second self in time." Finally, there is a motive for Rip Van Winkle's prolonged absence which is curiously similar to Egeon's and Antipholus of Ephesus's: a nagging wife at home, and hence a marital identity from which the husband is tempted to escape.
What we are dealing with, then, is a temporal disjunction as the cause of identity confusion. Total recognition depends upon two parties remaining the same; lack of recognition occurs when neither party remains the same. Mistaken or disjunctive recognition occurs when one person has changed so drastically that be bears no resemblance to his former self—as Egeon fears he has changed physically or as we might posit he has changed psychologically. A change in time, and hence in self-concepts, can also account for the birth and confusion of the Antipholi. Either one identifies with the past and is disturbed that others in the present have forgotten who one was (Antipholus of Ephesus), or one identifies with the present and is disturbed that others relate only to a self with which one no longer identifies (Antipholus of Syracuse). What if one were to shift rapidly back and forth in one's identification with each of these perspectives? Egeon's attempt to recover home, wife, and a marital identity lost in a tempest long ago can account for just such a complex and uncanny fantasy.
When the action of the storm separated Egeon from his former life, the Ephesian twin was, literally, that part of Egeon which was lost. The Syracusan twin was the part of Egeon which remained with him to the present time. Accordingly, the Ephesian twin's distinguishing characteristics are those which differentiated Egeon's former life from his present one. Antipholus of Ephesus, like the former Egeon, is the settled, respectable citizen. Antipholus of Syracuse is the present image of his father—an unhappy sojourner. The Ephesian twin is ensconced in a familial situation, complete with nagging wife; the Syracusan is a free bachelor, seeking the domestic stability which Egeon has lost. Antipholus of Ephesus is a pragmatic businessman, recalled in Egeon's description of his former life to Duke Egeon (I. i. 39-43). Antipholus of Syracuse is the impractical romantic, hazarding all in an apparently bootless journey, much like his "hopeless and helpless" father. The Ephesian homebody is commonly accepted as the elder of the two, befitting the representative of Egeon's past, whereas the travelling Syracusan is the newer and hence younger identity. Finally, only Antipholus of Ephesus has no knowledge of his brother: as the "pre-tempest" persona, he feels unified and secure in himself. Antipholus of Syracuse, as the "post-tempest," dissociated persona, knows of his brother and seeks his identity in unity with him. Thus the woefully divided brother lodges at the Centaur, mythological symbol of self-division, and seeks symbolic death and rebirth through imagined union with his double at his lodging, the Phoenix.
This allegorical schema clarifies the relationship of the mix-up of the twins' identities in the main plot to Egeon's problem in the frame plot. The tempest which divided Egeon from his wife divided his past and present, marital and single identities as well, represented by Egeon's separated twin sons. Antipholus of Ephesus is Egeon's long-lost marital identity, Antipholus of Syracuse is Egeon's present persona, willing to lose himself to find himself in reunion with his brother. The Ephesian community's mistaken identification of the Antipholi enables their proper identification with each other. Thus, out of the mistaken identifications of the traditional comedy of intrigue Shakespeare fashioned a complex psychological drama of self-integration.
We can see how the play works as a psychological drama in which a long-lost marital identity is sought, "mistakenly" identified with, and ultimately recovered. Curiously enough, however, that self-division, depicted in the division of Ephesus and Syracuse, is associated with crime and unpaid debts. Self-recovery is depicted as dependent upon the payment of a series of debts, and self-integration is associated with release from crime and debt. It is a little recognized fact that the situation which functions to confuse the twins is not simply the mistaking of one for the other, but the two being so mistaken that one is recurrently debited or credited for the transactions of the other. Only when we discover the nature and validity of the debt can we explain the crime for which Egeon is arrested in the frame plot, its relation to the farcically mistaken punishment of the twins in the main plot, and its role in the miraculous redemption of Egeon by both Abbess and Duke at the play's close. Only through a close examination of the play's debts can we understand the role of the assumption, punishment, and forgiveness of debts in this comic drama of self-redemption.
There is hardly one scenario in The Comedy of Errors which is not concerned with debts. Egeon's search in the play's romantic frame plot has led to an actual, although apparently meaningless, monetary debt upon which his very life depends. Charged with crossing the forbidden boundary between the hostile cities of Syracuse and Ephesus, Egeon must raise an exorbitant sum of money or die at sundown. Inasmuch as we never learn the cause of the two cities' "mortal and intestine jars," the crime of crossing from Syracuse to Ephesus has no significance for us. And since Egeon has had no means of learning of this law in advance, he is innocent of criminal intent. Although we see no more of Egeon until the play's end, his two sons are repeatedly placed in similar situations of indebtedness.
Antipholus of Syracuse no sooner enters Ephesus than he is led by the device of mistaken identities to believe that he has lost all his money. Having just learned of the precarious state of Syracusans in Ephesus, Antipholus of Syracuse fears that he will incur the debt which, unknown to him, his father has contracted. His financial situation is no sooner clarified than he is mistakenly accused of marital neglect by his sister-in-law, Adriana, who claims of him the obligations of husband to wife. The substitution of marital for monetary indebtedness is significant; it leads to the first possibility of redemption in the play. Antipholus of Syracuse follows Adriana to his brother's home, where he is promised a full dinner and Adriana's forgiveness. The first pattern that emerges, then, is the association of Egeon's monetary debt with his son's potential monetary debt, in turn equated, through replacement, with a mistaken marital debt, which is promptly discharged. That Egeon's debt is acquitted through such acts leads us to question the purely monetary content of the frame plot debt as well as the mistaken nature of the debts in the main plot.
Antipholus of Ephesus's far more troubled route leads from marital to monetary indebtedness, neither of which is resolved until the play's end. We first meet him imploring Angelo, a goldsmith, to manufacture excuses and a gold chain for his wife to explain his absence from home. The acquittal is forestalled and the Ephesian's indebtedness compounded when he returns home to locked doors, only to discover that another man is paying his marital debts within. In revenge, he asks Angelo to deliver the gold chain to a courtesan with whom he will dine instead. But Angelo mistakenly presents the chain to Antipholus of Syracuse. Presented with the bill, Antipholus of Ephesus refuses payment and is promptly arrested for debt. The horror of indebtedness is underlined by the repeated failure of his attempts at bail. He mistakenly sends his brother's slave to Adriana for bail, and the slave mistakenly brings the money to his own master. His own slave returns not with bail but with the rope that was earlier required of him. Thus Antipholus of Ephesus remains helplessly in bondage, anxiously awaiting gold to redeem him, exactly fulfilling his brother's earlier fears and confronting his father's fate. The pattern here, then, is an exact reversal of Antipholus of Syracuse's misfortunes. Just as the Syracusan twin progresses from fear of actual monetary debt to payment for a mistaken marital debt, so his brother moves from fear of an actual marital debt to payment for a mistaken monetary debt. The play's initial comparison of Antipholus of Syracuse's indebtedness with his father's is also paralleled by the comparison of Antipholus of Ephesus's indebtedness with Egeon's at the play's climax. This complex pattern suggests far more than thematic harmony; it implies the essential equivalence of the three characters and their three debts.
The plot reaches a climax when Antipholus of Syracuse is again placed in debt, this time to the courtesan for the chain promised her by his brother in return for her ring. Monetary and marital debts are joined in this final image of the chain (or alternately, the ring) due a woman. The chain, like the ring, is valued both for its intrinsic monetary value and as a symbol of marital bonds. This final debt suggests the equivalence of the marital and monetary debts accrued throughout the play and hence their general validity. At this point in the plot Antipholus of Ephesus is released from the law only to be bound at home; Antipholus of Syracuse, mistaken for his brother, escapes all debts as he dashes into the Priory, and his brother escapes from his bonds at home as well. All at last meet before the Duke and Egeon, at which point the errors are clarified, Egeon is released from debt, and his family is reunited.
The series of debts of differing content and validity may be reduced to one certain, identifiable debt. The three debtors are equated through the allegorical reading of the twins as symbolic representatives of Egeon. The three debts are equated through the unity of the double plot; if the twins' confrontation of debts in the main plot effectively discharges their father's debt, then they must all be confronting the same debt. This reasoning is further substantiated by the play's curious pattern of redemption, according to which one debt is replaced by, and discharged through, a debt of differing content and validity throughout the play. There is a single, valid debt being paid off here—but what? Marital debts are paid off by money, and marriage discharges monetary debts. Is Egeon's debt marital or monetary? Insofar as all the monetary debts in the play are related to payment for marital debts, we must accord the marital debts priority. The ubiquitous chain which causes such a fuss is Antipholus of Syracuse's present to his wife, an excuse for his absence from home. If the chain cannot be paid for, however, neither can the marital debt be paid; the horror of financial obligations is here directly associated with the horror of unmet marital obligations. Egeon's obscure monetary debt is also associated with specific marital obligations, since he is charged with crossing from Syracuse to Ephesus, symbolic terms for his own single and marital identities. The debt owed in Ephesus is the debt owed one's wife, the debt that must be confronted if Egeon is to recover his past.
The play's marital debts lead back to Egeon's history and to the theme of identity as the monetary debt cannot. Adriana, the play's spokeswoman for neglected marital obligations, "mistakenly" confronts Antipholus of Syracuse with this debt:
How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it,
That thou art then estranged from thyself?
Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self's better part.
Ah, do not tear away thyself from me!
(II. ii. 118-23)
Adriana describes her husband's neglect of her in terms of his own self-estrangement. Their shared marital identity ("thou" or "me") which is "undividable" and "incorporate" has been denied by him in favor of a more attractive single identity ("thyself"). To separate from one's wife, then, is to divide oneself in two, to deny the half of one's self associated with one's wife and to deprive her of her rights in the other half. Yet it is Egeon who has been separated from his wife and hence divided into marital and single identities. It is Egeon's attempts to recover his past, to reintegrate a denied marital identity (Antipholus of Ephesus) left with his wife, that are prevented by Adriana's and the Duke's demands: payment of the remaining, present, single identity (Antipholus of Syracuse) denied Adriana. Hence separation is equated both with self-division and with crime and debt, while reunion is equated with self-integration and the payment of debts.
At the point of death, Egeon is ordered to relate the story of his wanderings. He begins with his married life, and the question of Egeon's "hap" or happiness in his marriage is crucial. It can easily escape notice that the cruel fate which serves to separate husband and wife merely duplicates actions previously ascribed to Egeon's will. Egeon tells us that he was responsible for his separation from his wife, led on by the call of business. He appears to have desired to maintain that divorce, despite his protests to the contrary. He is careful to note that it was his wife, not he, who made provisions for her to follow him (a common fate of heroines in Shakespearean comedy), terms her pregnancy "pleasing punishment," and finally admits that he was unwilling to return home with her: "My wife ... / Made daily motions for our home return. / Unwilling I agreed" (I. i. 58-60).
That unwillingness may explain Egeon's curiously passive acceptance of obstacles to his return home. When confronted with "A doubtful warrant of immediate death" (I. i. 68) in the form of a ship-tossing tempest, Egeon tells us it was a fate which he "would gladly have embraced" (I. i. 69), were it not for his family's pleas for rescue. Yet rescue of a different sort is provided, for the storm not only prevents Egeon's return home, but serves to separate husband and wife once again. Fate functions here as a disowned aspect of Egeon's will, undoing his wife's efforts to retrieve her husband and remain with him, and restoring the prior marital separation which Egeon had enforced. The woeful tale of a "helpful ship ... splitted in the midst" (I. i. 103), of fortune's "unjust divorce" of a family (I. i. 104), of a man "severed from my bliss" (I. i. 118), is a highly elaborated and very well disguised fantasy of a man's desire to cut himself off from his previous life.
Egeon's story is the missing link which turns an arbitrary plot into a meaningfully directed fantasy. His denial of his marital identity and obligations explains his mysterious offense. It explains the use of twin sons, divided selves, to represent him. Finally, it reveals the twins' confrontation of debts throughout the play as a means of working through and resolving that original problem. The validity of the marital debt explains the apparently arbitrary harassment of an innocent man as a meaningful submission of a guilty self to the attacks of its own superego. The action of this punitive conscience is purposive as well. An acknowledgement of marital debts and a submission to self-punishment for their denial are necessary steps towards the resumption of Egeon's marital identity. Egeon's curious acceptance of harsh Ephesian punishment, and Antipholus of Syracuse's willingness to "entertain the offered fallacy" of being no less than the object of Adriana's sharp lectures on marital neglect and her threats of vengeance, are the first clues to this superego punishment in the play. With, the haunting figures of Luce, the Police Officer, and Dr. Pinch, these incarnations of a punitive conscience become grotesque caricatures, nightmarish phantoms. The sense of indebtedness, like Luce herself, is blown out of all proportion. She is the literal embodiment of the monstrous extent of Egeon's guilt and the dreadful capacity of the self for self-punishment.
That such morally punitive action should be transformed into farce is not surprising; farce derives humor from normally unacceptable aggression which is made acceptable through a denial of its cause and effect. The apparently cost-free nature of aggression in farce leads it to be characterized as a comedy of the id, yet if we distinguish between the libidinal transgressions of individual characters, and the punitive aggressive action of plots against those characters, a radical reconception of farce is possible. In The Comedy of Errors, as in most farces, the absurdly punitive aggression of the plot is well-disguised superego aggression. Normally unacceptable aggression is directed against the self, but made acceptable through a denial of its meaning. The actual cause of this play's obsessive punishment—Egeon's marital debt—is displaced; only the mistake, the unexpected confusion of the twins' identities, is blamed for the play's aggressive action. The effect of that aggression is similarly denied. Dromio may complain of his beatings or Antipholus of Ephesus of his treatment by cruel Dr. Pinch, but as these actions are senselessly delivered, so they are senselessly received. No one is harmed and all is forgotten in the flurry of events. The fast pace, complexity, and extraordinary subject matter of the plot further contribute to this general distortion of the sense of reality, vital to our humorous acceptance of unacceptable fantasy.
Through the genre of farce, Shakespeare transformed a private nightmare of self-punishment into a public vehicle for the pleasurable release and gratification of aggressive imputes. Equally important, farce provided an acceptable means of confronting wrongs and a pattern in which forgiveness could be won: a way of mastering, as well as releasing, feelings of guilt and aggression. The play works out the marital debt in its progression from Egeon's separation from his wife, through his son's confrontation of marital debts, to his final release from bondage and reunion with his wife. This pattern is paralleled as Antipholus of Syracuse and Luciana move from a state of aversion to marriage, to mutual love and the promise of marriage. Finally, there is a corresponding assumption of guilt for marital mishap on the wives' parts, as both Adriana and Emilia learn to accept, or at least confront, the separation of husband and wife: first, through Emilia's stay at the convent, where, as Adriana complains, the Abbess enacts "the separation of husband and wife"; next, through Emilia's lectures on the sins of possessiveness and jealousy in marriage, which draw from Adriana and admission of guilt. Both episodes work to provide the forgiveness and acceptance of marital separation necessary for the final reunion.
In its first recorded performance, on December 28, 1594, The Comedy of Errors was presented as a Christmas play for the customary Christmas revels at Gray's Inn. It was therefore perhaps not surprising to its audience that the play's theme of debts should be contained within the larger and more significant theme of redemption. Indeed, in Aristotelian terms the play may be reduced to the imitation of a single action: to redeem.
The simplest meaning of "to redeem" is "to regain or recover" something lost, whether material or immaterial. This activity is given complex comic treatment in Dromio of Syracuse's parody of learned arguments, in which he proves that there is "no time to recover hair lost by nature" (II. ii. 101-02), and at the climax of the play, where he labors to convince Adriana that "The hours come back!" (IV. ii. 55). The comic treatment of "recovery" is actually related to a more precise sense of "redeem"—"to save time from being lost"—and points to the play's major concern with the recovery of what time has stolen, "As if time were in debt" (IV. ii. 57).
Egeon's attempt to recover what has been lost in time, to redeem his past, is thwarted at the very beginning of the play. The reason given by the Duke for his arrest appears arbitrary and unrelated to his struggles:
since the mortal and intestine jars
'Twixt thy seditious countrymen and us,
It hath in solemn synods been decreed,
Both by the Syracusians and ourselves,
To admit no traffic to our adverse towns:
Nay more, if any born at Ephesus
Be seen at Syracusian marts and fairs;
Again, if any Syracusian born
Come to the bay of Ephesus, he dies,
His goods confiscate to the Duke's dispose,
Unless a thousand marks be levied,
To quit the penalty and to ransom him.
(I. i. 11-22)
The jarring towns of Ephesus and Syracuse find their only correlation in this text in the characters of Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, yet these characters are not enemies. Only as the twins in turn represent Egeon's contradictory personae does this interdict have meaning. The forbidden boundary between the two towns and the penalty for crossing it would seem to represent the precariousness of a split identity. If the Syracusan persona meets the Ephesian, one or the other must be destroyed, for one cannot maintain two identities simultaneously. A way out of this dilemma is provided by the thousand-mark debt, which would seem to permit the coexistence of both identities and their ultimate integration. Yet how?
This brings us to a second sense of the word "redeem" which is really a qualification of the first. "To redeem" literally means "to buy back," to recover only "by payment of the amount due, or by fulfilling some obligation." Egeon's desire to recover his past marital identity demands his recovery of neglected marital obligations as well. He can only recover that identity by confronting those debts; therefore, one can only cross from Syracuse to Ephesus if one is prepared to pay a debt.
Egeon would seem to be prepared—psychologically if not financially. For if the solution to the problem of self-estrangement is for the present single self to confront and identify with the past marital self and its obligations, then this explains why Antipholus of Syracuse enters Ephesus, is reprehended by Adriana for neglected marital obligations, and dutifully returns home with her. Adriana's mistaken identification makes possible a meaningful psychological association. It permits the single self's assumption of a past marital identity while simultaneously maintaining its own identity. It also enables a return to one's wife and the long-due fulfillment of marital obligations. Antipholus of Ephesus is equally identified with his brother; forced upon the past are the trappings of the present, particularly its guilt. So Antipholus of Ephesus is forced into situations of debt for which he is not responsible. Through the device of mistaken identity, Shakespeare makes each twin simultaneously confront both personae; only through their mutual identification is a sense of self-continuity and, hence, self-integration possible. The play's development may be charted as the movement from a rigid, repressive sense of identity in the frame plot, through the main plot's temporary state of madness in which ego boundaries dissolve in encounter, to a new sense of self in which past and present are integrated.
A third, fourth, fifth, and sixth definition of "redeem" may be brought together to explain the climax of the play: "to ransom, liberate, free (a person) from bondage, captivity or punishment"; "to rescue, save, deliver"; "to free from a charge or claim"; and [of God or Christ] "to deliver from sin and its consequences." Adriana releases Antipholus of Ephesus from monetary debt, thereby symbolically freeing him of his marital debt, yet the play refuses to let him off so easily. He is released only to be bound by one Pinch, an exorcist, to undergo a mock purgation of his sins. Although one sort of redemption (to deliver from sin) appears to be substituted for another (to ransom), in another, quite vivid sense, the plot is denying a much longed-for release and merely continuing its guilty pattern of bondage and punishment. With Pinch's entry, the guilty conscience in control of the punitive plot becomes vividly evident and threatens to run amok. Yet Antipholus of Ephesus's cruel bondage actually serves to emphasize the finality of his ensuing release. The self is finally freed from the superego's sadistic action as Antipholus of Syracuse escapes from his bonds and revenges himself upon this pinching, punishing parasite.
The final release from self-punishment for unmet obligations is paralleled at this point in the play in Antipholus of Syracuse's actions. While his brother is attacking Pinch at home, Antipholus of Syracuse, with his Dromio, enters the marketplace with drawn rapier, frightening away Adriana and the Officer, who have threatened to bind him as well. The final mastery over self-punishment and the attendant release which characterizes this last part of the play are also represented by Antipholus of Syracuse's fortuitous escape into the Priory at this point, where neither the law nor Adriana can get at him.
The escape into the Priory heralds a new sense of release from bondage: a Christian sense of redemption which prevails to the end of the play. Just as Christian redemption is associated with a movement from father to son, from law to mercy, from bondage to freedom, from separation to reunion, and from death to rebirth, so this movement is paralleled in the text and completed at the end of the play as Egeon's sons are freed from bondage, Egeon's separated family is reunited, he is released from the penalty of death, and that death itself is replaced by his sons' symbolic rebirth. Shakespeare's decision, at the play's close, to change the twins' age from twenty-five to thirty-three, the sacred number of the years of Christ's life, further associates their rebirth with Christian redemption. As Adriana concludes:
Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail
Of you, my sons; and till this present hour
My heavy burden ne'er delivered.
The Duke, my husband, and my children both,
And you the calendars of their nativity,
Go to a gossips' feast, and go with me;
After so long grief such Nativity!
(V. i 402-08)
Or as the apostle Paul witnesses:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8.22-24)
A final sense of "redeem"—"to restore or bring into a condition or state"—is thus exemplified at the play's end. Yet the sons who are freed, united, and adopted by the father in The Comedy of Errors are reborn in a secular as well as a religious sense; their recovery presents a reorganization and rebirth of the self. The play demonstrates how one redeems (recovers) oneself through redeeming (making payment for) one's debts in a complex process whereby one can redeem ("go in exchange for") one's alter-ego, and how one is thereby redeemed (released) from bondage only to share in the fruits of redemption as rebirth.
Shakespeare's association of the process of self-integration with Christian redemption may owe less to Elizabethan psychology, or even to the occasion of the play's famous Gray's Inn performance, than to the exigencies of literary form: the Christian morality play provided an obvious model for a symbolic drama of intrapsychic events. Although the morality play parallels are too extensive to be convincingly presented here, let me briefly suggest some connections. The play's grim opening, with a common man in bondage for sin, facing death, and despairing of mercy, presents a conventional portrait of natural, unredeemed man, corresponding to the Mankind figure of the morality plays. The conclusion, in which Egeon's wife emerges from the Priory in time to save him, Egeon is released from bondage, and his sins are forgiven by a merciful judge, completes the morality-patterned action from sin to Christian salvation. The main plot of the twins dramatizes the symbolic, psychological journey of the self towards the goal of redemption, centering on acts of sin and penance, including the conventional temptation and regeneration provided by the contrasting vice (the courtesan) and virtue (Luciana) figures. The twins serve as symbolic equivalents of Egeon's and Everyman's divided, contrary state, and are sharply differentiated to suggest the warring earthly and heavenly elements in Everyman's nature. The Ephesian brother's worldly interest in material and physical pleasures is throughout contrasted with the piety of his younger brother. The neglected marital identity, like the sinful aspect of man, is presented as being in need of redemption, and the single identity is associated with a spiritual agent, willing to undergo penance to redeeem its fallen counterpart.
The twins, then, can be understood on three different levels: as long-lost brothers in a family, as dissociated parts of the self, and as warring earthly and heavenly elements in the nature of Everyman. The action of the play is similarly threefold. On one level, the play is a conventional romantic comedy moving from separation, through bewilderment, to reunion and harmony of familial members and lovers. On another level, it follows a psychological formula from repression through confrontation to an integration of parts of the self. Finally, on a third level, the play's action follows a morality pattern from self-division and bondage, through penance, to redemption...
A fourth reading of the twins and of the action of the play is provided by one of Shakespeare's sources: Paul's letter to the Ephesians. The story of the apostle Paul has long been accepted as a model for the play. No other source includes such elements as years of wandering, a shipwreck, the Aegean (Egeon?) and Adriatic (Adriana?) seas, Syracuse, Corinth, Ephesus and its demonic magic, revenge taken upon evil exorcists, and a conflict between law and mercy, between bondage and redemption. The significance of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, however, has yet to be noted fully. The letter's primary message, for which Paul is being held prisoner, is a call for the union of two hostile nations, Gentiles and Jews, in the body of Christ:
For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end ... For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles (Ephesians 2.14-3.1).
The imagery which Paul uses—of the creation of "one new man in place of the two," of one body in which two hostile people are joined in peace and harmony--may have suggested to Shakespeare the idea of using Paul's story to depict the unity of two hostile identities within one man, one body. Shakespeare retains the two hostile nations in Syracuse and Ephesus, and joins them in the body of one common father, Egeon, by equating the two nations with the two sons and equating the two sons, in turn, with two aspects of Egeon. Thus Egeon is imprisoned for trying to unite the separated sons or selves named after these nations instead of, like Paul, the nations themselves. Interestingly enough, Paul's letter has never been cited as a source in this context, despite the fact that no other source for the play has been found which connects the frame plot of the prisoner and the main plot of the separated brothers whom the prisoner has sought to unite. No other source presents a traveller imprisoned for crossing a "dividing wall of Hostility," seeking to redeem the separated stranger, attempting to "create in himself one new man in the place of the two." Finally, no other source also associates the denial of marital identity with self-estrangement—or, stated more positively, identifies one's union with and love of one's wife with the unity and love of oneself: "Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself ... For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one" (Ephesians 5.28-31). Here, as in The Comedy of Errors, external relationships are conceived of as internalized; one's wife is envisioned as a part of oneself, whom one rejects at the cost of self-hatred and self-division.
The Comedy of Errors is a surprisingly rich and complex comedy, working simultaneously on various levels and in various directions. Perhaps the best way, finally, to contain the play is to summarize briefly its view of identity. Actually, the play offers us at least three different conceptions of identity. Two of these definitions correspond to the contradictory configurations of the self embodied by the twins, while the final definition is one that resolves and integrates the former two.
The most prominent conception of identity in the play is Adriana's. According to her view, one's sense of identity is dependent upon significant relationships in one's past. What we would call the self is a composite of internalized others or relationships with others. As a sum of identifications with others, identity appears to be purely interpersonal, fixed and irreversible:
For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.
(II. ii. 124-28)
Yet Adriana's view of identity only partially applies to Egeon's quest. Antipholus of Ephesus, the long-lost married brother, the long-denied marital identity, is a part of Egeon which must be accepted, yet it is only one aspect of a more complex self-image. The flaw in Adriana's argument is manifest in her language. According to Adriana, there is no "thyself," no sense of identity separable from one's identification with others. Yet her language simultaneously acknowledges a self separable from her, just as the play acknowledges an Antipholus of Syracuse separate and different from an Antipholus of Ephesus.
The contradiction in Adriana's language is the conflict of the play: the simultaneous and interdependent existence of two mutually exclusive self-concepts. Egeon's identity is not simply the sum of his past identifications with others; it is equally an agency capable of some autonomy. Antipholus of Syracuse is also an essential part of Egeon, born in Egeon's denial of the past, nurtured and sustained apart from home and wife. While this single Syracusan identity is bound to Egeon's former self, it nonetheless remains radically different from it. And, while Egeon is willing to hazard this new-forged persona to retrieve and reintegrate his former self, he is unwilling, if not unable, to abandon it. He explains his delay in seeking the son left behind, "whom whilst I labored of a love to see, / I hazarded the loss of whom I loved" (I. i. 130-31), and then relates how he followed Antipholus of Syracuse in the boy's search for his twin.
It would be as foolish to assert that Egeon's identity is found through the actual restoration of past relationships with others as it would be to assert that it is found in their denial. Egeon has neither set out in search of his beloved Emilia, his "bliss," nor does he mention ever having a desire to do so, despite the twenty-five years that they have spent in apparently needless separation. When Emilia finally does make an appearance at the play's end, Egeon's words to her are a request for his son. It is only Antipholus of Ephesus that he "labored of a love to see," and only himself (Antipholus of Ephesus) that he hazarded himself (Antipholus of Syracuse) for. Further, were Egeon truly to find himself in the renewal of past relationships, then this would be tantamount to denying his single, Syracusan identity and equating the resolution of the identity crisis with its annihilation. Rather, Antipholus of Syracuse loses himself to find himself in relationship to his past, not in total, self-destructive acquiescence to the past. Egeon seeks his identity in the relationship of his present to his past, not in the denial or elimination of either.
In its most basic sense, identity is the perception of self-continuity: the identification and integration of various self-concepts. Shakespeare employs the comic formula of mistaken identity in The Comedy of Errors to resolve a problem of self-dissociation. In the confusion of the Ephesian with the Syracusan twin, Egeon's past and present, marital and single personae are united. By the play's conclusion change is perceived as growth instead of self-division, and duality and contradiction give way to self-continuity. The twin Dromios conclude the comedy with a humorous re-enactment of the play's conflict and solution. Debating upon the subject of which brother should rightly exit through the stage door first, they finally come to an agreement: for the future, they decide, the two will "go hand in hand, not one before another" (V. i. 427-28).
SOURCE: "Egeon's Debt: Self-Division and Self-Redemption in The Comedy of Errors" in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 10, No. 3, Autumn, 1980, pp. 360-83.
[In the following brief excerpt, Weller explores how Antipholus of Syracuse ultimately fails in his search for the "confirmation and completion of his identity" in his twin brother. Not only is their reunion "diminished" by the second pair of twins, the Dromios, but more importantly, the "priority of corporate identities" takes precedence over personal identities. Weller uses Paul's letter to the Ephesians to show how solidarity subsumes selfhood.]
.... The problems which the discovery, or recovery, of the self may raise announce themselves very conspicuously in The Comedy of Errors, in which one twin voyages the Mediterranean in search of the other, the brother and mirror image from whom he has been separated since infancy. The object of his search is also, one might say, himself, refracted through otherness, or a figure who is at once self and its representation. However, Antipholus of Syracuse seeks the confirmation and completion of his identity in the very form which in other fictions has figured as a subversion of the self, a Doppleganger. If the label is too redolent of nineteenth-century German romanticism, the phenomenon and the psychological dislocations it implies are less historically specific. Not every encounter of twins in Renaissance texts questions the integrity and uniqueness of the self, but unlike Viola and Sebastian, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus cannot be said to be complementary personalities. The union of male and female attributes which is doubly signalled by the weddings and the reunion of the twins at the end of Twelfth Night is absent from The Comedy of Errors. Either each Antipholus is already self-sufficient, or their face-to-face encounter, a multiplication of nullities, can accomplish nothing. The self-important sense of metaphysical crisis which the brothers might feel at their moment of mutual encounter is diminished by the repetition of their situation between their twinned servants, the Dromios, who tilt uncanniness towards comedy.
It is not, however, only the doubling of the deuteragonists which tugs against the notion of a wholly distinct personal existence. The familial embrace with which the community of Ephesus eventually receives and reassembles the scattered members of Egeon's household intimates the priority of corporate identities over the single and limited life of the individual consciousness. Such union and reunion is of course a romance motif, but it is strengthened in the Christian context which both the play's allusive texture and the events of its resolution imply, since the supranational community of the church, as constituted by the particiation of all Christians in a common creed rather than in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, is not only the most inclusive and enveloping form of fellowship which Shakespeare knew, but the one which least particularizes its members. Within it, each person belongs not as a whole but as a part. To be a member of a family or even of a society is to accept some constraints on one's autonomy, to be a member of a body is to have no true possibility of autonomy. "For we are members of [Christ's] bodie, of his flesh, and of his bones." St. Paul's language in the Epistle to the Ephesians reawakens the metaphorical sense of membership, atrophied in common usage, but for Paul the language is more than metaphorical. The continuity of our bodies with Christ's is physical; as the gloss of the Geneva Bible points out, we "are not onely joyned to him by nature, but also by the communion of substance, through the holie Gost and by faith: the seale and testimonie thereof is the Supper of the Lord."
The point, here at least, should be not so much that Shakespeare was attentive to the intricacies of Pauline discourse or even that he performed an extraordinary intertextual exercise in conflating the concerns of works as disparate as Plautus' Menaechmi and St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians. Rather, in Paul's exposition of the Christian community Shakespeare found a version of selfhood so overshadowed by the imperatives of solidarity that it represents a complete alternative and challenge to the selfhood which the character in search of definition hopes to achieve. Antipholus of Syracuse is, or hopes to be, literally self-regarding—he wants to be able to look at himself as mirrored in his brother. Measured by a Christian standard, he may be morally self-regarding as well ...
SOURCE: "Identity and Representation in Shakespeare," in ELH, Vol. 49, No. 2, Summer, 1982, pp. 345-46.
Gail Kern Paster
[In the following excerpt, Paster argues that "only by attending to the nature of the urban environment ... can the play's deep concern wth the ambiguities of personal and civic identity become fully revealed." She explores this idea primarily through commentary on Aegeon and his twin sons; specifically, how their personal identities are called into question in the social environment in which they find themselves.]
.... The Comedy of Errors, The Merchant cf Venice, and Measure for Measure come together by presenting urban environments faced with fundamental dilemmas, paradoxical situations whose implications call the idea of any normative urban community into severe question. In each, the city is confronted with the self-imposed necessity of enforcing a law whose consequences are so clearly inhuman that they can only make mockery of a city's reason for being. The particular logic of the comic action appears to require the city to dismantle itself, either by enforcing a monstrous law or by refusing to. Although the procedure for resolving the comic impasse differs from play to play, the end result is always to reconstitute the city for a greater inclusiveness largely achieved by means of redefinition and conversion ...
In the three comedies that are the subject of this chapter ... the social implications of individual behavior and circumstance are everywhere to be found, even in The Comedy of Errors. One of the first issues to be broached in all three plays is the noticeable tension between social identity and individual experience. Particularly apparent in Errors is the potential conflict between two different, separately valued kinds of identity. The first of them is clearly historical and public: a captive man is led onstage by his enemies to receive his sentence. The unnamed Syracusan merchant seems to be a political victim, forfeit for belonging to the wrong group. The relentless symmetry of this twin-filled play starts here, where the Syracusan citizen finds an enemy duke bent on using him to complete a pattern begun by "the rancorous outrage of your Duke / To merchants, our well-dealing countrymen" (1.1.6-7). No other identity but the citizenship that dooms him (as it would doom his mirror-image, the Ephesian caught by a duke in Syracuse) would seem relevant here. Yet the duke's curiosity about a man who would trade life at home for death abroad allows the merchant to construct a powerful personal identity that so commands sympathy and pity that the desire to kill the stranger is transformed into the desire to save a fellow man. Egeon's implausible romantic story of shipwreck and separation serves not only structurally as exposition but also thematically as the creation of a personal identity that throws the predominance of his civic identity into question. The two identities could hardly be more distinct, the one betokening anonymity, hostility, and death and the other individuality, sympathy, and life.
Not only is the emotional disparity of the two identities troubling in this context; so also is the duke's obligation to divorce sympathy from judgment and see citizenship as identity. Egeon will not return to the stage until well into Act th, but we do not forget his situation ... because his brief ambivalent experience of the two faces of Ephesus is played out in full by his twin sons. One finds himself an outcast in his own city, the relationships comprising his identity in collapse, and the other finds a mysteriously rich civic identity where none exists ...
By complicating social identity so early in all three plays, Shakespeare highlights the relation of the individual to a specific social environment. More important, perhaps, the environment in each case seems to contain a hazard—as yet unclear—from which the characters will not escape. Thus the wandering Antipholus no sooner steps onstage in Ephesus than he is warned to conceal his citizenship. In The Merchant of Venice, imagery of risk and jeopardy is all the more ominous because of Antonio and Bassanio's expressions of confidence in self and Fortune. The duke in Measure for Measure withdraws from his city in a haste so precipitate that it "leaves unquestion'd / Matters of needful value" (1.1.54-55). In each case, characters register a marked degree of interest either in the nature of the urban environment they are about to experience or in the power that they feel able to exercise over it. When Antonio makes no question of his power to raise money for Bassanio, we expect danger.
Admittedly, interest in their environment is not unusual in dramatic characters. What is unusual in Shakespeare is that these en
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[In the following excerpt, McDonald first surveys previous criticism on the play regarding its classification as a farce and its position in Shakespeare's canon. He notes that critics have tended to "elevate" the play above the "vulgar" level of farce in explaining its meaning (although its farcical elements are obvious) because it is sometimes perceived as a source of "embarrassment" in the canon. McDonald then examines "how meaning comes about in farce" through the play's "theatrical complexity," concluding that the play should be examined for what it is—a farce and a "source of wonder."]
Zeus's sexual lapses notwithstanding, gods are not supposed to be indecorous, and a characteristic of modem Bardolatry has been its insistence on Shakespeare's artistic dignity, particularly his attachment to the approved dramatic forms. The popular image of Shakespeare as the embodiment of high culture, the author of Hamlet and certain other tragedies, as well as a very few weighty comedies, is merely a version of a bias that also, if less obviously, afflicts the academy. What I am talking about is a hierarchy of modes, or, to put it another way, genre snobbery. That tragedy is more profound and significant than comedy is a prejudice that manifests itself in and out of the Shakespeare Establishment: in the impatience of undergraduates who, taking their first class in Shakespeare, regard the comedies and histories as mere appetizers to the main course, the tragedies; in Christopher Sly's equation of "a commonty" with "a Christmas gambol or a tumbling trick"; in the disdain of the tourist at the Barbican box office who, finding Othello sold out, refuses a ticket to The Merry Wives of Windsor; in the decision of that Athenian student to preserve his notes from Aristotle's lecture on tragedy but not to bother with the one on comedy.
If there is a hierarchy of modes, there is also a hierarchy within modes: de casibus tragedy is less exalted than Greek, for example. So it is with the kinds of comedy, and the play to which I shall address myself, The Comedy of Errors, rests safely in the lowest rank. Farce is at the bottom of everyone's list of forms, and yet Shakespeare is at the top of everyone's list of authors. Thus, the problem I mean to examine is generated by competing hierarchies. Most literary critics have little occasion to think about farce, and those who concern themselves chiefly with the creator of texts such as Macbeth and Corialanus do their best to avoid the form. For many years the earliest comedies were treated unapologetically as farces and Shakespeare was praised, if mildly, for his skill at contriving such brilliant and pleasing trifles. But the need to preserve his association with higher things has led in the last three or four decades to a revision of this opinion. It seems inappropriate that the cultural monument known as Shakespeare should have anything to do with a popular entertainment that we connect with the likes of the Marx brothers (Groucho and Harpo, not Karl and Moritz). Criticism resists a Shakespeare capable of wasting his time on such a trivial form.
My purpose is to suggest that Shakespeare could be "bad," but my definition differs somewhat from those of most of the other contributors to this volume. Rather than re-examine texts that may have been overvalued or seek to locate weaknesses in dramatic technique, I shall argue that Shakespeare's taste was not invariably elevated and that certain plays are less "significant" than others (or at least that they signify different things in different ways). By addressing myself to what is and is not considered "Shakespearean," I claim an interest in one of the fundamental issues of this collection: canonicity. A work like The Comedy of Errors must be deformed if it is to conform to that category known as Shakespearean comedy—as a farce it is noncanonical—and such misrepresentation demands a rejoinder.
The first part of this essay surveys the evasions that critics have devised for treating Shakespeare's efforts in farce, with concentration on the dodges applied to Errors. The remainder, a straightforward study of that play's theatrical action, proposes to identify the playwright's strategies for the production of meaning in farce. In light of the concerns of this volume, to contend that Errors succeeds not as an early version of a romantic comedy or as an allegory of marriage but as an out-and-out farce is risky, for such an argument looks like yet another defense of the artistic experiments of a novice and thus seems to exemplify the very Bardolatry that many of these essays vigorously dispute. In fact, however, my aim is to establish Shakespeare's delight in and commitment to a dramatic form that has become infra dig. To recognize such a bent is to augment our sense of Shakespeare's actual range. We whitewash our subject by refusing to admit his attraction to farce and declining to explore his talent for it.
Suspicion of farce has fostered two main critical maneuvers, here summarized by Barbara Freedman: "The first is represented by that group of critics who know that Shakespeare never wrote anything solely to make us laugh, and so argue that Shakespeare never wrote farce at all ... The more popular critical approach, however, is to agree that Shakespeare wrote farce, but to consider Errors (as well as Shakespeare's other predominantly farcical plays) to be nonsensical insofar as they are farce." To begin with the first group, its members are undaunted by Shakespeare's demonstrable choice of classical or Italian farces for source material: in such cases he may be seen "transcending the farce which a lesser writer might have been satisfied to make," and thus the form is mentioned so that it can be dismissed.
The most familiar and pernicious tactic of those who would dissociate Shakespeare from the vulgar category is to discuss the early plays as precursors of the mature style, as seedbeds, that is, for ideas and methods that will flower in the later comedies and even in the tragedies. (In fact, hothouses would make a better simile, since the ideas and methods are found blooming in the early play itself by the time the critic finishes.) A. C. Hamilton, for example, asserts that The Comedy of Errors provides a foundation for the later comedies by revealing "their basis in the idea that life upon the order of nature has been disturbed and must be restored and renewed through the action of the play." Hamilton's reticence to detect inchoate forms of particular dramatic themes from later works is not shared by Peter G. Phialas, who identifies "certain features of structure and theme, and even tone, which anticipate significant elements of Shakespeare's romantic comedies." Specifically, "The Comedy of Errors, though in the main concerned with the farcical mistakings of identity, touches briefly a theme of far greater significance, the ideal relationship of man and woman." This anticipatory practice amounts to reading the career backward: a play is conditioned by what follows it, and its distinctive qualities may be underrated or deformed. The prophetic approach tends to manifest itself in and to merge with the second defensive strategy.
Put simply, this way of thinking involves deepening the farces, exposing their profundity. It has become the preferred means of protecting Shakespeare against his own immature tastes or the vulgar demands of his audience, and it has attracted some eloquent and powerful advocates. Derek Traversi, for example, unites the two critical defenses, seeing Errors as both serious in itself and important in its tonal prefiguration of the later work. He emphasizes "the deliberate seriousness of the story of Aegeon, which gives the entire action a new setting of gravity, a sense of tragic overtones which, elementary though it may be in expression, is yet not without some intimation of later and finer effects." In other words, the play is profound but not too profound.
That the dignifiers succeeded some time ago in making this serious position canonical is apparent in the following passage from R. A. Foakes's Introduction to the New Arden edition, published in 1962:
These general considerations may help to illustrate the particular quality of The Comedy of Errors. The play has farcical comedy, and it has fantasy, but it does more than merely provoke laughter, or release us temporarily from inhibitions and custom into a world free as a child's, affording delight and freshening us up. It also invites compassion, a measure of sympathy, and a deeper response to the disruption of social and family relationships which the action brings about. Our concern for the Antipholus twins, for Adriana and Luciana, and our sense of disorder are deepened in the context of suffering provided by the enveloping action. The comedy proves, after all, to be more than a temporary and hilarious abrogation of normality; it is, at the same time, a process in which the main characters are in some sense purged, before harmony and the responsibility of normal relationships are restored at the end. Adriana learns to overcome her jealousy, and accepts the reproof of the Abbess; her husband is punished for his anger and potential brutality by Doctor Pinch's drastic treatment; and Antipholus of Syracuse is cured of his prejudices about Ephesus. Behind them stands Egeon, a prototype of the noble sufferer or victim in later plays by Shakespeare, of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, and of Pericles, central figure in a play which uses more profoundly the story on which Egeon's adventures are based.
A variation of this argument is found in Harold Brooks's much-cited essay, which associates Errors not with a farce such as Supposes but with a recognition play such as the Ion or The Confidential Clerk.
Those who see Shakespeare as "transcending" farce must consent to a divorce between the "serious" issues that they elect to stress and the main business of the play. In other words, the critics analyze delicate sentiments while the characters knock heads. The discovery of gravity requires great emphasis on the frame story of Egeon, or Adriana's matrimonial laments, or the wooing of Luciana. Brooks candidly declares the incongruity between his emphasis and Shakespeare's: "The Comedy appeals first and foremost to laughter, as is obvious at any performance. I have dwelt on its serious themes and strands of romance because it is these that student and producer are prone to discount." One might respond that student and producer would in this case be taking their cue from the author, who was himself prone to discount the serious themes and strands of romance at this stage of his career. We should question critical means that seek to convert the early comedies into something other than they are.
The Comedy of Errors is a superlative example of dramatic farce, a simple form of comedy designed chiefly to make an audience laugh. Freedman points out that farces are almost always characterized by an "insistence on their own meaninglessness, an insistence which by no means should be accepted at face value." In other words, to regard the play as a highly developed form of farce is not to outlaw ideas. Mistaken identity is at the heart of The Comedy of Errors, as Antipholus of Syracuse explains in the final moments: "I see we still did meet each other's man, / And I was ta'en for him, and he for me, / And thereupon these errors have arose" (5.1.388-90). This basic formula is the source of pleasure and of meaning in the farcical comedy. My goal is to increase, if only slightly, our sense of how meaning comes about in farce, and my method for doing so is to concentrate on what an audience sees and hears in the main action. It seems reasonable to conclude—and worth pointing out, given the critical history of the text in question—that dramatic significance ought to proceed as much from the essential as from the ancillary features of a text.
To err is human, and one way of describing the imperfect condition of our experience is to say that we inhabit a state of division, of disunity, of separation from God, from nature, from one another. Lest this seem too portentous a beginning for a discussion of a farcical comedy, let me hasten to say that splitting (of ships, of families, of other human relations) is one of the most important of the play's patterns of action. In one sense, of course, the plot or The Comedy of Errors is founded on the natural division of twinship, for nature has split a single appearance into two persons. In the source play, Plautus exploits the confusion inherent in this division by geographically separating the Menaechmus brothers, and Shakespeare has increased, the complexity of the original plot, as everyone knows, by doubling the twins. What is less familiar is his tactic of making the normal avenues of reconciliation into obstacle courses laid with traps and dead ends. Virtually all comedy represents characters' attempts to overcome their isolation through marriage or reconciliation, with farce throwing the emphasis on the amusing difficulties involved in such efforts. Marriage, systems of law, commerce, language—all these are forms of communion or institutions through which people seek or give satisfaction, social instruments and (implicitly) comic means for joining human beings in a happy and fruitful relation.
And yet, for all their value, these means are naturally imperfect and likely to collapse under various pressures, either of accident or human will or their own liability to misinterpretation. When they break down, the confusion that frustrates the characters delights the audience. To a great extent, the comedy of Errors arises from the number of barriers Shakespeare has erected and the ingenuity with which he has done so. The greatest obstacles arise in the principal characters' relations with their servants, in the arena of commerce, and in the realm of speech itself. Shakespeare generates amusing conflict by exaggerating the forces that separate people and by weakening the media that connect them.
The presence of four men in two costumes leads first to the attenuation of the normal bonds between servant and master and between husband and wife. From the twin Sosias in Plautus's Amphitruo, Shakespeare creates in the Dromios a pair of agents, go-betweens who link husband to wife or customer to merchant. They are extensions of their masters' wills, instruments by which each of the Antipholuses conducts business or gets what he wants. In the farcical world of the play, however, the will is inevitably frustrated as these servants become barriers, sources of confusion, gaps in a chain of communication. For Antipholus of Syracuse, lost in a strange, forbidden seaport, his one sure connection, his "bondman," seems to fail him. This treatment of the twin servants, moreover, is representative of Shakespeare's method with other characters, including Adriana, Luciana, and the Courtesan. Although the females are often said to contribute to the play's Pauline analysis of proper marriage, their primary value is as comic troublemakers. Adriana's eloquence and Luciana's charm make the two women memorable, to be sure, but they are hardly complex. Adriana's main function is to doubt her husband, to rail against his neglect, to chase him in the streets, to enlist a conjurer to minister to him; Luciana's role is to attract Antipholus of Syracuse and thereby to fuel her sister's rage.
The disintegration of personal bonds is accompanied by the weakening of the multiple commercial connections. Although the thematic importance of debts is familiar enough, it is also relevant that many of the play's amusing confrontations are grounded in thwarted commercial exchanges. Ignoring the maxim that it is best to eliminate the middleman, Shakespeare has added a host of them. Angelo the Goldsmith, Balthazar, and the First and Second Merchants are all Shakespearean inventions— businessmen, literal agents who exist to get in the way. Each functions as an additional barrier separating the twin Antipholuses, as another hedge in the maze at the center of the comedy. The Second Merchant, for instance, appears only twice and exists for no other reason than to make demands and increase the comic pressure: he has been patient since Pentecost and now needs guilders for a journey; he presses Angelo to repay the sum; Angelo must seek payment from Antipholus of Ephesus who, not having received the chain for which the money is demanded, refuses to accommodate him. In short, this importunate stranger is unnecessary: Angelo might have pursued compensation on his own initiative.
In the critical rush to find "meaning" or "tonal variety" in the addition of Luciana, Egeon, and Emilia, the structural value of the lesser auxiliary figures may be overlooked. Their untimely or mistaken demands for payment increase the confusion on the stage and damage the ties that connect them to their fellow citizens. Adriana joins the line of claimants when she tries forcibly to collect the love owed her by her husband, and her vocabulary indicates that Shakespeare has established an analogy between marital responsibilities and the cash nexus.
The setting of the comedy, as the occupations of the secondary figures remind us, is mostly the street, or "the mart," and from the beginning we observe that the business of the street is business. Most of the confrontations between characters and much of the dialogue concern the physical exchange of money or property, and other personal dealings are figured in financial terms. Egeon is a Syracusan trader unable to make the necessary financial exchange—a thousand marks for his freedom—and this fine or debt seems to have resulted from a protracted trade war. Many years before, after a period in which his "wealth increas'd / By prosperous voyages," Egeon had found himself separated from his wife by his "factor's death, / And the great care of goods at random left" (1.1.41-42). Now without family or funds, the insolvent businessman leaves the stage, whereupon Antipholus of Syracuse enters with an Ephesian merchant who tells him of the stranger's plight—"not being able to buy out his life"—and warns the young traveler to conceal his identity "lest that your goods too soon be confiscate." The citizen then returns Antipholus's bag of gold and pleads the need to pay a business call: "I am invited, sir, to certain merchants, / Of whom I hope to make much benefit" (1.2.24-25). He leaves Antipholus to his "own content, ... the thing [he] cannot get."
This endearing soliloquy is usually said to prefigure the theme of self-understanding in the later comedies, but what is less often said is that Antipholus analyzes his dilemma in terms of self-possession: he fears that in seeking to recover his family he will "lose" himself. At the end of the same scene he frets about the loss of his treasure, worrying that Dromio "is o'er-raught of all [Antipholus's] money" and recalling the city's reputation for "cozenage," "cheaters," and "mountebanks."
The bag of gold that Antipholus gives to Dromio to deliver to the inn is the first in a list of theatrical properties that provoke farcical contention. The initial dispute occurs with the entrance of Dromio of Ephesus, to whom "the money" demanded can only be the "six-pence that I had o' Wednesday last, / To pay the saddler for my mistress' crupper"; the "charge" is not a bag of gold but a command "to fetch you from the mart"; the "thousand marks" are not coins but bruises administered by master and mistress. As Antipholus of Syracuse worries about fraud, Dromio of Ephesus reports the misunderstanding to his mistress in a speech whose opposing clauses suggest the nature of the impasse: ""Tis dinner time,' quoth I; 'my gold,' quoth he." The metal becomes a metaphor at the end or the first scene of Act II, when Adriana speaks of reputation as a piece of enameled gold (2.1.109-15), and thus Shakespeare uses it to link the end of the scene with the beginning of the next: Antipholus of Syracuse enters puzzling over the bag of money, apparently not lost at all, whereupon his own Dromio enters, denies any knowledge of the recent dispute over the gold, and earns a beating. The pattern of confusion thus established with the thousand marks is repeated in squabbles over control of a chain, a ring, a dinner, a house, a spouse, a bag of ducats, a name, a prisoner, and a pair of strangers seeking sanctuary.
The vocabulary of these disputes is almost invariably the parlance of the marketplace: Antipholus of Ephesus and his business cronies politely debate the relative value of a warm welcome and a good meal ("I hold your dainties cheap, sir, and your welcome dear"); Nell "lays claim" to the Syracusan Dromio; to the Courtesan, "forty ducats is too much to lose"; the Officer cannot release Antipholus of Ephesus for fear that "the debt he owes will be required of me"; Antipholus of Ephesus is known to be "of very reverend reputation, ... / Of credit infinite"; Dromio of Ephesus, declared mad and tied up, describes himself as "entered in bond" for Antipholus; and when die Abbess sees Egeon in Act V, she offers to "loose his bonds, / And gain a husband by his liberty." The great scene before Antipholus's house (3.1) becomes a dispute not just over property but over ownership of names and identity. In their efforts to get paid or to pay others back for wrongs suffered, characters often speak of "answering" each other:
Eph. Ant I answer you? Why should I answer you?
Angelo. The money that you owe me for the chain.
The merchants become enraged when their customers refuse to answer them with payment; Adriana is furious that her husband will not return a favorable answer to her requests that he come home to dinner; Antipholus of Ephesus will make his household answer for the insult of locking him out; and neither Antipholus is able to get a straight answer from either of the Dromios. This financial use of "answer" links cash to language, the most complicated and potentially ambiguous medium of all.
Exploiting the pun as the linguistic equivalent of twinship, Shakespeare creates a series of verbal equivalents for the visual duplications of the action. Initially, it seems to me, his practice is to please the audience with repeated words and images: most obviously, he develops the conflicts by ingeniously employing the language or commerce. The normal give-and-take of business activity and family life is impaired by the mistakings of the action, and when the members of the household take Antipholus of Ephesus for a troublemaker in the street, his Dromio describes him as having been "bought and sold." The "loss" of one's good name or "estimation" is risky in this world of commerce, as Balthazar explains: "For slander lives upon succession, / For ever housed where it gets possession" (3.1.105-6). Adriana's anger at her husband leads Luciana to charge her with possessiveness, and then when Antipholus of Syracuse confesses that Luciana,
Possessed with such a gentle sovereign grace,
Of such enchanting presence and discourse,
Hath almost made me traitor to myself,
(3.2.158-60; italics mine)
the diction of ownership ("possessions") is cleverly modulated into that of witchcraft and madness ("possession"). This ambiguity pays its most amusing dividends when Doctor Pinch attempts to exorcise the demons from Antipholus of Ephesus:
I charge thee, Satan, hous'd within this man,
To yield possession to my holy prayers,
And to thy state of darkness hie thee straight;
The problems of confused identity and the loss of self-control are soon compounded by the question of freedom of action. The Dromios' lives are not their own, as they reiterate in complaining that, as slaves, they are not adequately rewarded for service. These various senses of bondage—to service, to customers, to wives, to the law, to business commitments (the Second Merchant is "bound to Persia"), to a rope—reinforce each other, especially in the last two acts, as the lines of action intersect:
Egeon. Most might duke, vouchsafe me speak a word.
Haply I see a friend will save my life,
And pay the sum that may deliver me.
Duke. Speak freely, Syracusian, what thou wilt.
Egeon. Is not your name, sir, called Antipholus?
And is not that your bondman Dromio?
Eph. Dm. Within this hour I was his bondman, sir;
But he, I thank him, gnawed in two my cords.
Now I am Dromio, and his man, unbound.
Egeon, expecting to be set at liberty, is mistaken, bound by the limitations of his senses. And here Dromio, the "freedman," steals from his master the privilege of response. As mistakes are exposed and corrected, Shakespeare relies upon the commercial vocabulary that has served him from the beginning: Antipholus of Syracuse wishes "to make good" his promises to Luciana; when Antipholus of Ephesus offers to pay his father's line, the Duke pardons Egeon and restores his freedom and self-control ("It shall not need; thy father hath his life"); and the Abbess offers to "make full satisfaction" to the assembled company in recompense for the confusion of the day.
Words offer a way of resolving the divisions that the play explores, but at the same time they entail enormous possibilities for error. Given the present critical climate, some remarks about the unreliability of language are to be expected, but if words are included among the other media of exchange that Shakespeare has chosen to twist and complicate, then such a conclusion seems less fashionable than useful. Shakespeare almost from the beginning expands the wrangling over who owns what to include a series of battles over words and then significance. The two Dromios again offer the sharpest illustrations of such cross-purposes, usually in their interchanges with their masters. In the first meeting of Antipholus of Syracuse with Dromio of Ephesus, the shifts in meaning of "charge" and "marks" I have already cited represent the struggle for control of meaning that underlies the farcical action. Both servants are adept at shifting from the metaphorical to the literal:
Adr. Say, is your tardy master now at hand?
Eph. Dm. Nay, he's at two hands with me, and that my two ears can witness.
When Antipholus of Syracuse threatens Dromio of Syracuse, "I will beat this method in your sconce," the servant resorts to linguistic subversion: "Sconce call you it? So you would leave battering, I had rather have it a head; and you use these blows long, I must get a sconce for my head, and insconce it too, or else I shall seek my wit in my shoulders" (2.2.34-39).
Yet the servants can speak highly figurative language as well: both describe the arresting officer in metaphors so elaborate that they baffle the auditors (4.2.32-40 and 4.3.12-30). Some of the verbal excursions resemble vaudeville turns, particularly the banter between the two Syracusans on baldness, and such jests represent verbal forms of what happens dramatically in the main action. In showing that "there is no time for all things," Dromio of Syracuse jestingly disproves an indisputable axiom, just as the errors of the main plot raise a challenge to the reality that everyone has accepted until now. This is more than what Brooks deprecatingly calls "elaborations of comic rhetoric."
The struggle over what words signify quickens as the characters sense that reality is slipping away from them. The locking-out scene (3.1) depends for its hilarity on the stichomythic exchanges between those outside (Dromio and Antipholus of Ephesus) and those inside Dromio of Syracuse and Luce, and later Adriana). The contestants, particularly those in the security of the house, manipulate meanings and even rhyme and other sounds as they taunt the pair trying to enter, for possession of the house is apparently an advantage in the battle of words. The Dromios' attitudes toward language are almost always playful and subversive, so that even at their masters' most frustrated moments, the servants take pleasure in twisting sound and sense, as in Dromio of Ephesus's puns on "crow" ("crow without a feather?"; "pluck a crow together"; and "iron crow").
The trickiness of language can cause characters to lose the direction of the dialogue:
Adr. Why, man, what is the matter?
Syr. Dm. I do not know the matter; he is
rested on the case.
Adr. What, is he arrested? tell me at whose suit?
Syr. Dm. I know not at whose suit he is arrested well;
But is in a suit of buff which 'rested him, that can I tell.
Will you send him, mistress, redemption, the money in his desk?
Adr. Go, fetch it, sister; this I wonder at,
That he unknown to me should be in debt.
Tell me, was he arrested on a band?
Syr. Dm. Not on a band, but on a stronger thing;
A chain, a chain, do you not hear it ring?
Adr. What, the chain?
Syr. Dm. No, no, the bell, 'tis time that I were gone,
It was two ere I left him, and now the clock strikes one.
Rhetorically, the key to this passage is antanaclasis: Dromio wrests a word from Adriana's meaning into another of its senses, as with "matter" (trouble and substance), "case" and "suit" (both meaning case in law and suit of clothes), "band" (bond and nuff). The ambiguous pronoun reference in "hear it ring" illustrates the power of words to entrap: Adriana and the audience need a moment to adjust as Dromio abruptly shifts the focus from his narrative to the present.
Just as words are apt to slip out of their familiar senses, customers or husbands or servants seem to change from moment to moment. Dialogue and stage action illustrate the limits of human control as characters try to react to these confusing turns of phrase or of event. Antipholus of Syracuse, offered a wife and a dinner, can be flexible: "I'll say as they say" (2.2.214). But words may conflict with other words and realities with other realities, as the Duke discovers in seeking the undivided truth: "You say he dined at home; the goldsmith here / Denies that saying. Sirrah, what say you?" (5.1.274-75). Conflicts of personal identity, of contracts, of words, of stories, all make the truth seem elusive and uncertain.
Shakespeare's strategy of breaking the integuments that bind human beings to one another accounts for much of the mirth in Errors and for much of the significance as well. By interfering with familiar and normally reliable systems of relation—master to servant, wife to husband, customer to merchant, speaker to auditor—the dramatist achieves the dislocation felt by the characters and the "spirit of weird fun" enjoyed by the audience. There is, moreover, an additional verbal medium that Shakespeare has twisted to his own use, that of the play itself. The ironic bond between playwright and spectator, that relation which Shakespeare inherited from Plautus and cultivated throughout the first four acts and by which he assures us that we know more than the characters know, is suddenly abrogated when the Abbess declares her identity at the end of the fifth act: we have thought ourselves superior to the errors and assumptions of the ignorant characters, but we too have been deceived. Emilia's reunion with her husband and sons completes the comic movement of the action. This is farce, so the emphasis throughout is on the delights of disjunction; but this is also comedy, so the drama moves toward a restoration of human ties and the formation of new ones. Sentiment asserts itself in the final moments, of course, but Shakespeare does not overstate it, and the shift from pleasure in chaos to pleasure in order need not jar. The confusion must end somewhere, and it is standard practice for the farceur to relax the comic tension by devising a mellow ending to a period of frenzy.
Shakespeare attempted to write farce in The Comedy of Errors, and he succeeded. Certain effects and values are missing from this kind of drama: there is no thorough examination of characters, no great variety of tones, no profound treatment of ideas, no deep emotional engagement. But farce gives us what other dramatic forms may lack: the production of ideas through rowdy action, the pleasures of "non-significant" wordplay, freedom from the limits of credibility, mental exercise induced by the rapid tempo of the action, unrestricted laughter—the satisfactions of various kinds of extravagance. Indeed, farce may be considered the most elemental kind of theater, since the audience is encouraged to lose itself in play. This is bad Shakespeare in the sense that the young dramatist was content with an inherently limited mode; the play is notTwelfth Night. Its value is in its theatrical complexity. And yet the boisterous action does generate thematic issues. To admit that Shakespeare willingly devoted himself to farce is to acknowledge a side of his career too often neglected or misrepresented. That the author of King Lear was capable of writing The Comedy of Errors should be a source of wonder, not embarrassment.
SOURCE: "Fear of Farce," in "Bad" Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, edited by Maurice Charney, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988, pp. 77-89.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5461
Peter G. Phialas
[In this excerpt, Phialas argues that Shakespeare's use of the concept of romantic love in The Comedy of Errors sets the stage for its function as the "chief structural principle" of his later romantic comedies. Although, Phialas argues, love and marriage are not treated in any great depth and there is not much that is especially memorable about the relationship between men and women in the play, the fact that Shakespeare addresses such issues is significant in and of itself far more so than the theme of mistaken identity.]
.... In The Comedy of Errors, it is clear, [Shakespeare] ... essayed to express, however briefly and obliquely—by placing side by side conflicting points of view—an idea concerning love and wedded happiness. The wooing of Luciana by Antipholus of Syracuse, and her own views about marriage, are juxtaposed with the contrasting attitudes of Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus. And thus the protestations of love addressed to Luciana by Antipholus of Syracuse serve as a counterpoint to the mutual recriminations and to the strain and unhapplness of the married pair. Although the idea which the dramatist is trying to express never achieves explicitness, and although the relationship of Luciana and her Antipholus remains unresolved, what is of great significance is that here in a farce, in what may well have been his earliest comedy, Shakespeare introduces the chief structural principle of his romantic comedies: the juxtaposition of attitudes toward love and toward the ideal relationship of man and woman.
The contrast of attitudes is introduced early in the play, in II, i, where Adriana and her sister engage in semi-formal disputation on the relations of husband and wife. Adriana, impatient and jealous, objects to her sister's "fool-begg'd patience," rejects the notion that the man should be master in the home, and wishes to curtail her husband's liberty. She blames him for everything, including her faded beauty, which she erroneously believes has driven him away:
Hath homely age the alluring beauty took
From my poor cheek? Then he hath wasted it. ...
What ruins are in me that can be found
By him not ruin'd? Then is he the ground
Of my defeatures.
(II, i, 89-98)
Later on, believing that her husband had wooed her sister, she calls him
deformed, crooked, old and sere,
Ill-fac'd, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere:
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind,
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind.
(IV, ii, 19-22)
Here, then, is one of the causes of what Luciana calls Adriana's "troubles of the marriage bed." Adriana misconceives the proper basis of her union with her husband. In a startlingly romantic passage she recalls with pain his courtship of her which has now receded into the distant past:
The time was once when thou unurg'd wouldst vow
That never words were music to thine ear,
That never object pleasing in thine eye,
That never touch well welcome to thy hand,
That never meat sweet-savour'd in thy taste,
Unless I spake, or Iook'd, or touch'd, or carv'd to thee.
(II, ii, 115-20)
The attraction she is here said to have held for her husband appears gone, and this loss is precisely what she is lamenting. It should be noted, incidentally, that his courtship had been couched in the exaggerated phrasing of the romantic lover, the hyperbolic idealizing of the sonneteer! And now, she asks,
How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it,
That thou art then estranged from thyself?
Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self's better part.
(II, ii, 121-25)
The conception of "undividable, incorporate" union of lovers seems beyond Adriana's capabilities, and in such passages we may perhaps detect a great deal more of the young dramatist himself than of his character. Nevertheless, what is significant is that Adriana, wooed in the romantic vein by her husband, and perhaps even possessed of the notion of an ideal union with him, misconceives the basis of such a union.
Adriana thinks of love in terms of possession, ownership, mastery. And this is not strange, seeing that the concrete basis of her marriage had been financial, in terms of gold in the form of dowry. And even as she may still control and even repossess that dowry, that is, take back what she has given, she insists also on possession of her husband's liberty, a possession she calls her "right." Adriana's concept of love is the right to possess, to receive and own and be master of, whereas both her sister and Antipholus of Syracuse oppose to that concept their view of love as giving. It might be added here that the financial or commercial attitude towards human relationships is reinforced by the analogous misconception which underlies the Duke's judgment on Egeon:
Therefore, merchant, I'll limit thee this day
To seek thy [life] by beneficial help.
Try all the friends thou hast in Ephesus;
Beg thou, or borrow, to make up the sum,
And live; if no, then thou art doom'd to die.
(I, i, 151-55)
The folly of possessiveness as contrasted with love's giving forms a very small part of the action. But its dramatization here anticipates the much more extensive and meaningful treatment of it in The Taming of the Shrew and especially The Merchant of Venice. In the latter play the contrast between the commercial and human relationships, between gold and love, is at the very center of the play's thought. One passage from it may illustrate the relationship between that later play and The Comedy of Errors, and thus demonstrate the unity and continuity of Shakespearean comedy. Before turning to that passage, let us note that in what may have been his earliest comedy, at least in the one treating of love most briefly, Shakespeare asks, however indirecdy, the question: What is Love? And we should note also that that question, which is to be Shakespeare's continuing concern in the comedies, is most directly asked in The Merchant of Venice. "Tell me where is fancy bred," sings Nerissa while Bassanio, by some considered an ideal lover, contemplates the caskets. Within the song the reply is indirect, offering tentatively what love is not, but a more pertinent answer is given by Portia and Bassanio a moment after he has made his choice. "Fair lady," says he, kissing her, "I come by note, to give and to receive." To which she returns the notes of the ideal:
You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,
Such as I am. Though for myself alone
I would not be ambitious in my wish
To wish myself much better; yet, for you
I would be trebled twenty times myself,
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times
More rich ...
And she adds that she is happy that:
She is not bred so dull but she can learn;
Happiest of all is that her gende spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.
(Ill, li, 150-67)
This surrender of the self to her husband, to her "lord, her governor, her king," is precisely what Adriana rejects in her colloquy with her sister, to which allusion was made above. Though she is aware of the uniting of lovers' identities, she invokes the principle in order to justify her rights of possessing her husband. In the concluding episode she refuses to let anyone minister to him. In this she comes into conflict with Emilia, and a tug-of-war follows the refusal of each to yield to the other the man who has sought sanctuary in the abbey, who happens to be Antipholus of Syracuse, not Adriana's husband. That her concept of love as possession leading to jealousy is unacceptable and indeed dangerous is
enforced upon Adriana by the abbess:
The venom clamours of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dog's toodi ...
The consequence is, then, thy jealous fits
Hath scar'd thy husband from the use of wits. >
(V, i, 69-86)
There is no space in The Comedy of Errors, and perhaps neither inclination nor skill on Shakespeare's part, to pursue in detail the ideal basis for lovers' union and wedded happiness. This he was to do in the romantic comedies which followed. Nevertheless, he is able here to isolate, obliquely and in the briefest compass, one of the central conceptions of those later plays: that love does not possess, that it gives without needing to receive, for it gives to another self. "Gall thyself sister, sweet, for I am thee," says Antipholus of Syracuse to Luciana.
Adriana's other misconception of the ideal union of lovers is the belief that such union is based on external beauty: that her husband has been driven away by her loss of physical attractiveness. That ideal love is not based on external beauty alone is much more directly and forcefully presented in the later comedies. And it is of especial interest to note that a much quoted passage in The Merchant of Venice which rejects the notion of love as possession—which opposes possession and love—likewise rejects love's concern with external beauty. "All that glisters is not gold," the Prince of Morocco is told after choosing the golden casket. But the idea is given direct and unmistakable expression in Nerissa's song as well as in Bassanio's speech which follows it.
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
It is engend'red in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.
(Ill, ii, 63-69)
And on his part Bassanio affirms that "The world is still deceiv'd with ornament," and that external beauty is but
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
T'entrap the wisest.
(Ill, ii, 100-1)
In The Comedy of Errors the idea is viewed from the other side: Adriana fears that she has lost her husband's love because her beauty is gone, and the bitterness of that loss turns into jealousy and vents itself in violent nagging. And that nagging, born of disappointment with the motion and change of things, sends our minds over a half dozen comedies to the tete-a-tete of Orlando and the disguised Rosalind in As You Like It. To his bookish protestations that he will love her "for ever and a day" she replies: "Say 'a day,' without the 'ever.' No, no, Orlando. Men are April when they woo, December when they wed; maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives. I will be more jealous of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen, more clamorous than a parrot against rain, more newfangled than an ape, more giddy in my desires than a monkey." (IV, i, 146-53) The managing of the complex ironies here was quite beyond Shakespeare's abilities when he wrote The Comedy of Errors. Yet there is a palpable contact between the two plays and another instance of the unity of Shakespearean comedy. What puzzles Adriana, what in her own conduct remains beyond her awareness, is for Rosalind the most obvious fact in the nature of things. Both husbands and wives change, but their happiness need not be touched by such changes since tnat happiness should be based on something that remains constant: not outward beauty, not physical attraction, but inner beauty and worth.
The multiple attitudes toward love which are most skillfully woven into the fabric of As You Like It have no place in The Comedy of Errors, Here what we should note is the presence of the master-principle which controls the structure of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, namely the juxtaposition of attitudes toward love represented by different characters. This is a most significant aspect of The Comedy of Errors, a play dealing in the main with matters quite alien to romantic love. And it is certainly surprising to find that Shakespeare, in a severely limited space, could put in such a play so much of what was to be the chief matter of his romantic comedies. The treatment of love and the related motifs which we have noted above is elementary, lacking utterly the incisiveness as well as the ironic dramatization which we find in the later plays. But the fact remains that The Comedy of Errors, though in the main concerned with the farcical mistakings of identity, touches briefly a theme of far greater significance, the ideal relationship of man and woman. And it is here, rather than in the confusions of identity, that we find the element of reflectiveness and concern with something deeper than accident and the surface show of things to which we alluded at the beginning of this chapter. It is true that upon arriving at Ephesus, Antipholus of Syracuse is driven by his strange reception there to question his own identity:
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.
(I, ii, 39-40)
But it is likewise true that he discovers not only his identity but a new and larger self in his love of Luciana. In her, he tells her, he has found
mine own self's better part,
Mine eye's clear eye,
my dear heart's dearer heart,
My food, my fortune, and my sweet hope's aim,
My sole earth's heaven, and my heaven's claim.
(Ill, ii, 61-64)
In these matters, then, The Comedy of Errors prefigures some of the significant features of Shakespeare's romantic comedies. It shows his general predilection for combining multiple actions into mutually qualifying relationships. More particularly, it initiates his custom of enclosing a comic action within a serious or near-tragic framing story or subplot. And most important of all it introduces into a farcical story of classical origin the theme of romantic love and attempts, in elementary fashion, to comment upon that theme by representing contrasted attitudes to it. In so doing, the play employs for the first time in Shakespeare's career the central thematic and structural characteristics of his romantic comedies.
SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors" in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies: The Development of Their Form and Meaning University of North Carolina Press, 1966, pp. 10-17.
[In this excerpt, Kehler notes that Adriana and, her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, "could pass for a well-to-do modern couple headed for divorce." She points out that part of the problem in their marriage is the "inevitable imbalance of love" between them, which is worsened by Adriana's powerlessness to change the situation.]
.... The specific problem Shakespeare explores through the relationship of Adriana and E. Antipholus is both timeless and peculiarly modern: can love survive marriage? C. L. Barber notes [in "Shakespearean Comedy in The Comedy of Errors"] that, unlike Plautus, Shakespeare "frequently makes the errors reveal fundamental human nature, especially human nature under the stress and tug of marriage." Considering Shakespeare's depiction of a marriage "subjected to the very unromantic strains of temperament grinding on temperament in the setting of daily life," Barber concludes of Adriana and E. Antipholus, "No doubt their peace is temporary." Certainly, despite their classical origin, Adriana and E. Antipholus could pass for a well-to-do modern couple headed for divorce. He, successful in business but bored at home, is ripe for more entertaining companionship; she, too much at home and insecure about his attachment to her, becomes impatient and demanding. Although a divorce in law may not be a customary Ephesian alternative, a divorce of hearts within a stifling marriage is universal. In Errors, Adriana and E. Antipholus enact that incipient emotional divorce as a psychodrama whose anagnorisis, if not to them, may yet be intelligible to us.
More than any other character in Errors, Adriana subverts farce. Because we know her more intimately than we do her husband, she lays first claim to our interest. Although most often described as a jealous and possessive shrew, of late she is not without defenders. Marilyn French, in an illuminating reading [in Shakespeare's Division of Experience], sees Adriana's problem as powerlessness created by economic, political, and social structures. But if the key to Adriana's personality and predicament is powerlessness, it is powerlessness of another sort as well. The play focuses on the emotional structure of a marriage, depicting the almost inevitable imbalance of love between spouses—an imbalance often aggravated to the woman's disadvantage by societal conditioning and restrictions—and the plight of a woman dependent on her husband for her sole identity as beloved wife. Byron knew the world's Adrianas: "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart, / 'Tis woman's whole existence" (Don Juan Canto I, st. 194). [In Shakespeare's Comic Rites,] Edward Berry clarifies the generic issue raised by Adriana's emotional isolation and loss of identity, expressed in her neo-Platonic, Pauline speech (II.ji.119-29) on the melding of husband and wife into one soul:
In their explorations of the self, the comedies are in some ways not unlike the tragedies, for in both genres Shakespeare consistently maneuvers his central characters into positions of psychological isolation, leaving them exposed and vulnerable both within and without. While this kind of isolation is conventional in tragedy, in comedy it is unique to Shakespeare.
While a seminal model for the heroines of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, Adriana is also a precursor of Juliet and Desdemona. For all that Adriana is a character in a play long received as farce, her nature and situation are no less tragic than comic, and this duality creates yet another generic complication of Errors.
Powerless over her husband's heart, Adriana grows restive and irritable, questioning the restrictions on women's freedom: "Why should their [men's] liberty than ours be more?" (I.ii.10). When Luciana replies that the husband is the bridle of the wife's will, Adriana asserts, "There's none but asses will be bridled so" (II.i.14). Male supremacy turns marriage into "servitude" (II.i.26). Although for the audience these lines imply a feminist manifesto, for Adriana they seem to hold no more lasting significance than does her threat to break Dromio's pate across. Tormented and confused, Adriana lashes out indiscriminately at all male authority, at E. Antipholus, and at an ineffectual slave; it is not sexual equality she seeks, however much she might profit from it, but only the husband she had in her spring of love:
The time was once when thou unurg'd wouldst vow
That never words were music to thine ear,
That never object pleasing in thine eye,
That never touch well welcome to thy hand,
That never meat sweet-savour'd in thy taste,
Unless I spake, or look'd, or touch'd or carv'd to thee.
What Adriana cannot accept is that the honeymoon is over, that she is no longer all in all to her Antipholus. Institutionalizing desire within marriage frustrates this husband and this wife. While E. Antipholus wards off claustrophobia by lingering on the mart, despite his complaint that "My wife is shrewish when I keep not hours" (I.ii.2), Adriana becomes obsessed with the conviction of her husband's infidelity, assured that to be excluded from two hours of his life is to be excluded from his heart forever. Unable to smile at grief, she becomes, in Luciana's words, one of the "many fond fools [who] serve mad jealousy" (II.i.116). In her company are Othello, Posthumus, and Leontes, who respond to suspected cuckoldry with privileged male fury. The jealous bourgeois wife merely nags, but her situation, like that of her male counterparts, can be seen as the stuff of tragicomedy or tragedy rather than farce. Implicit in Errors is a transgression against the codified genre.
As Adriana's eloquent "nags" reveal her fierce hunger for a caring husband, Luciana's stilted set speech on male rule dwindles in importance, becoming, if not a non-sequitur, a red herring for which critics ill-advisedly have fished:
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;
Man, more divine, the master of all these,
Lord of the wide world and wild wat'ry seas,
Indued with intellectual sense and souls,
Of more pre-eminence than fish and fowls,
Are masters to their females, and their lords:
Then let your will attend on their accords.
Just as Adriana's profound love for E. Antipholus undermines this speech's relevance, so the delineation of the male characters undermines its validity. "Man, more divine" is sadly represented in Errors. Most worthy are the loving but powerless Egeon, and Duke Solinus, who requires a miracle to enable him to tolerate foreign merchants as easily as he does native courtesans. The divinities with whom Adriana has more to do are even less awesome: the mountebank Pinch; the deluded, broken-pated Dromios; and their equally deluded, violent masters. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare bodies forth the principle of male supremacy through characters whose preeminence is dubious; Susan Snyder points out [in The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies] that the Elizabethan audience expected comedy to overturn accepted truths and customs, and [In Shakespeare and the Nature of Women ] Juliet Dusinberre points to those Elizabethan women who rejected the status quo, even to the extent of wearing men's clothes and weapons. Dusinberre notes that both liberated women and Humanist-influenced Puritans sympathetic to women comprised a significant part of Shakespeare's audience. For the more politically, intellectually, and theologically venturesome, Adriana must have evoked more compassion than amusement.
Nevertheless, the traditional interpretation of Act II, scene i reminds us that Adriana's emotional problems are compounded by her social situation: "revolt against a wife's place in the cosmic hierarchy," according to Harold Brooks [in "Theme and Structure in The Comedy of Errors"], "is the original source of discord in Adriana's marriage." In the cosmos as envisaged by men, woman is subordinate; hence, in the social system, she readily becomes a possession. At this Adriana has not balked. By marrying E. Antipholus, Adriana has accepted the authority of both the Duke and her husband, "who I made lord of me and all I had / At your important letters" (V.i.137-38). She revolts not against her place but against lack of love; her longing to be a vine to her husband's elm (II.ii.174-76) reveals her deepest desire: to subjugate herself in marriage. It is her misfortune that, in a male-dominated society, the possession who becomes possessive is regarded as a shrew.
Adriana's error is not refusal to accept male supremacy but the nagging tongue that provides her only relief. Even when she thinks E. Antipholus is courting her sister, she admits, "My heart prays for him, though my tongue do curse" (V.ii.28). She is trapped in a painful cycle. Feeling rejected, she desires her husband all the more desperately, but her incessant recriminations, later confessed to the abbess (V.i.62-67), elicit only further rejection from E. Antipholus. He labels her shrewish and "breaks the pale" (II.i.100), having found "a wench of excellent discourse, / Pretty and witty; wild and yet, too, gentle" (III.i.109-10). "Mad jealousy" prevents Adriana from realizing how self-defeating and absurd is the attempt to moralize another into love. Although a character's blindness is fundamental to farce, Adriana's pain is so keenly felt and lyrically expressed that sympathy undercuts laughter, and the problematic aspects of marriage—and genre—assert themselves. Adriana's inability to comprehend the effect she produces upon E. Antipholus is the psychological reality behind the convention of indistinguishable twins in Errors. She is unable to distinguish her husband from his brother because she no longer knows her husband, having become totally engrossed in her own needs. Errors of physical identity aside, she speaks an emotional truth in her reply to Luciana:
Luc. Then swore he that he was a stranger here.
Adr. And true he swore, though yet forsworn he were.
Adriana mistakes the newcomer for her husband because S. Antipholus is the honeymoon-lover of her heart's desire, like her husband in appearance, unlike him in spirit: sea-fresh, unspoiled by a stale marriage, trailing no minions in his wake. Most pitiful—and certainly at odds with Errors' farcical temper—is our realization, based on Adriana's intelligence, spirit, and capacity for love, that this out-of-control "shrew" must herself once have been "a wench of excellent discourse, / Pretty and witty; wild and yet, too, gentle"—another twin!
Despite her "venom clamours" (V.i.69), Adriana seems singularly restrained and chaste compared to her husband, a chief vehicle of farce in Errors. On stage, E. Antipholus strikes the Dromios (IV.iv.17,42) and Doctor Pinch (IV.iv.51), and attempts to pluck out Adriana's eyes (IV.iv.102). A messenger reports that E. Antipholus beats the maids, singes off Pinch's beard, throws pails of puddled mire on Pinch, encourages E. Dromio to nick Pinch with scissors (V.i.169-77), and vows to scorch and and disfigure Adriana's face (V.i.183). E. Antipholus compounds violence with insensitivity to his wife's feelings; by withholding love and attention he induces a jealousy that is not entirely paranoid. At his first entrance, he asks Angelo to assist him in deceiving Adriana as to his whereabouts (III.i.3-4); more important, his acquaintance with a courtesan would distress a wife as patient as Griselda. Although Luciana tries to allay her sister's fears, secretly she suspects that E. Antipholus wed Adriana for her wealth and that he likes "elsewhere" (III.ii.5-7). Although Shakespeare apparently departs from his sources, making E. Antipholus guilty of thoughtless or spiteful congeniality rather than adultery, French penetrates the underlying fable: "on the mythic level, the play deals with serious disruption: a man neglects his wife for his prostitute." Matthew would have agreed: "whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (5.28). In fact, Shakespeare does not rule out the possibility of E. Antipholus's having committed adultery. Edward Berry suggests that "The ring [which E. Antipholus receives from the courtesan] is an appropriate symbol of the sexual and economic ambiguities in Antipholus's extra-marital relationship." In Errors the distinction between having the name without the game or the name with the game is not so much a matter of substantive moral difference as of genre: if E. Antipholus has fallen only in spirit but not in flesh, the sin is revocable, a comic rather than tragic error. A happy ending, or some semblance of one, remains a contingency.
Luciana's admonition and the intrigue plot collaborate to reveal a means of perhaps achieving that happy ending, if husband and wife allow themselves to be instructed. Luciana's speech on male supremacy misfires, but its introduction does not: "Why, headstrong liberty is lash'd with woe" (I.ii.15). Directed at Adriana, this admonition applies with equal if not greater force to E. Antipholus. Adriana, awash in emotion, has only worsened her situation by abusing the liberty of her tongue as a quick-tempered mistress, contentious sister, and discontented wife. Her husband, abusing the liberty of his eye, has ravaged the marital peace; abusing the liberty of his hand, he is taken for mad. The woe such headstrong liberty has brought them could be alleviated through the self-government endlessly enjoined by Renaissance moralists, through the subjugation of our infected will to our erected wit. To do other is mutual madness. During her exchange with the courtesan, Adriana finds a name for her husband's fault:
Com. How say you now? Is not your husband mad?
Adr. His incivility confirms no less.
Will she realize that she too is guilty of incivility, a concomitant of headstrong liberty, of the will's mastery? Erasmus can tell us whose fault is greater: "Of an evyll husbande (I wyll well) a good wyfe may be mard, but of a good the evyll is wont to be refourmed and mended. We blame wyves falsly. No man (if ye gyve any credence to me) had ever a shrewe to his wyfe but thrughe hus owne defaute" (sig. Diiv). Nevertheless, both the unthinking husband and the neglected, powerless wife suffer, having forfeited contentment by insisting on their own satisfactions.
The plot, undervalued for lacking an intriguer "to make the confusion delightfully purposeful," actually achieves the thematic purpose of forcing E. Antipholus to lose his identity and take on his wife's: serving mad jealousy, he feels what she feels. Thinking himself sexually betrayed—is he projecting his own guilty conscience onto her?—he discovers the pain of being "abused and dishonour'd / Even in the strength and height of injury" (V.i.199-200). In another comedy involving a shipwreck, tradewar, twins, jealousy, and madness, Malvolio, like E. Antipholus, is bound and imprisoned in darkness. The practical joke suits, for in the world of cakes and ale, Malvolio's confusion of ambition with love and his denial of harmless pleasure mark him as insane. Shakespeare first employs this jocular punishment in Errors, with himself, the playwright, rather than his characters, as intriguer. For his incivility E. Antipholus suffers the treatment of a madman. (Adriana is also punished for incivility: betrayed by the abbess to her own reproof and public embarrassment). The plot holds a mirror up to husband and wife, showing them how their headstrong liberty has guided time's deformed hand in writing strange defeatures on their marriage. Of course this couple may prove no more capable of profiting from their lessons than did Malvolio. The play remains curiously open-ended.
Directors who impose a happy ending have a good case. Happiness being preferable to unhappiness, Adriana and E. Antipholus are likely to opt for it; theirs, after all, is a comic world. The audience also opts for the happy ending in comedy. Even in James Cellan Jones's BBC production, which stressed the non-farcical aspects of Errors, the beginning of a reconciliation is suggested as E. Antipholus places the chain about Adriana's neck. After all, Adriana and her husband have been party to a miracle, the reunion of a family sundered for a generation; to blast such unlooked-for joy with self-indulgent discord touches upon sacrilege. Thanks to the miracle of reunion, their nuclear family is now extended: Adriana's isolation turns to a gossips' feast, and E. Antipholus may find wholesome recreation within his enlarged family. Ironic as it is that the only incontrovertibly happy couple has been separated for thirty-three years, even so the advice and example of loving parents may foster civility in their children.
Perhaps most Important as a persuader to civility is the future of S. Antipholus and Luciana. Luciana, who makes no reply to S. Antipholus's proposal (V.i.374-76), had indicated earlier, when she mistook him for her brother-in-law, only that his words "might move" (IV.ii.14, italics added). The psychological reality behind the convention of indistinguishable twins for Luciana—the reason she cannot tell her would-be husband from E. Antipholus—is that, expecting no more of men than that they be "secret false" (III.ii.15), she has little motivation to sift their appearance from their reality. Her commitment phobia, as it were, may be explained by a last act in which errors of identity are clarified but errors in love are not. Luciana's sixth-act response depends on the reflection of her own future that she sees in her sister's and brother-in-law's problematic marriage. Will brother and sister, for the sake of brother and sister, learn to curb their infected wills? After the players have left the stage, will problem comedy resolve to romantic comedy?
Whether Shakespeare's personal experience of marriage accounts for this novel admixture of genres in his first comedy is an intriguing but unanswerable question. His portraits of Kate, Emilia, and Paulina suggest, however, that the stock character of the shrew proved too narrow for Shakespeare's breadth of understanding. Adriana's uncomic potential is released as Shakespeare, unlike earlier writers of shrew plays, considers the causes of shrewishness and the ordeal of a shrew. Such considerations, dictating a more realistic view of personality and marriage, take us beyond the classical pale into something rich and strange. (Later, Shakespeare's sensitivity to the stock Jew will change the generic coloration of The Merchant of Venice.) But whatever causes begot this generic experiment, Errors succeeds. The demons that frighten us the most evoke the most cathartic laughter. The difficulty of sustaining a loving relationship as nuances of feeling inexorably change is just such a demon. The farce of mistaken identities and hallucinatory situations creates the verfremdungseffekt that allows us to laugh when the pain of human isolation brings us closer to tears. Through generic disjunction, Shakespeare demonstrates how complex are the responses an audience can experience when Plautine intrigue bows to genera mista, creating, most notably, a timeless vision of dissonance in The Comedy of Errors we call marriage.
SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors as Problem Comedy," in Rocky Mountain Review of Language & Literature, Vol. 41, No. 4, 1987, pp. 230-36.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5428
Ann C. Christensen
[In the following excerpt, Christensen explores the intersection of the "home" and the "marketplace"—the private and public spheres—particularly through the characterization of Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus. She also show how the two realms are united at the conclusion of the play, when all misunderstandings have been resolved.]
.... The Comedy of Errors illustrates the gendered competition regarding the functions of the domestic and the commercial spheres, which the play depicts as distinctly gendered and spatially separate, yet mutually constitutive. The husband-merchant of Ephesus appears divided between his home-life and his work, with his business associates and 'the mart' thematically and structurally opposing his wife and their home. C. L. Barber and Richard Wheeler suggest that Errors afforded Shakespeare a way to manage his own experience of division—between his roles as country husband, father, and son, on the one hand, and as a successful urban professional, on the other:
the young dramatist has split himself into a stay-at-home twin, married and carrying on in a commercial world ... and into a wandering, searching twin for whom the world of Ephesus, including the situation of marriage, is strange.
Setting to one side Wheeler and Barber's biographical approach, one infers that the sense of conflicting duties was probably common for the newly urbanized and increasingly mobile class of professional men in early modern London. Douglas Bruster, for example, argues that the propertied urban merchants gained in literary representation a 'special reputation for anxiety.' In its double plots, and in its distinct discourses of home and trade, this early comedy dramatizes the competing demands within and between the commercial and domestic spheres—a conflict which playwrights continued to explore on the Jacobean stage.
The dining table (metaphorically speaking), where the meaning of meals and mealtime is hotly debated, constitutes one crucial arena in which this competition plays itself out. Indeed the restoration of identity and the resolution of the plot devolves from Adriana's question, 'Which of you did dine with me today?' (V.i.370). For Adriana, the neglected and disgruntled wife, a family that eats together stays together or, more pertinently, sleeps together. She therefore identifies meals at home with domestic harmony, even associating the physical structure of their dwelling with her body: private, enclosed, nurturing. But, because her husband conceptualizes time and space in commercial terms, Adriana must remind him to spend time and eat meals with her at home. On more than one occasion, she sends her servant Dromio to fetch him 'from the mart, / Home' (I.i.75;IV.ii.64), eventually pursuing him herself, accosting his brother by mistake (II.ii.110 ff), and finally defying both state and church in her quest to keep him at home in her care. Adriana so believes in the prophylactic nature of her household that she blames the day's madness on her husband's absence from home where, had he 'remain'd until this time, / [he would be] Free from these slanders and this open shame' (IV.iv.66-67).
But the modern bourgeois notion of home as safe haven was neither established in Elizabethan society nor uncontested on the Shakespearean stage. The play surges forward by Antipholus of Ephesus's (hereafter, following speech tags, Antipholus E.) refusal to identify himself with home, and by the comic clashes between household and mart, inside and outside, local and stranger. Dorothea Kehler attributes the husband's centrifugal movement to his experiences of claustrophobia and boredom at home. However, a more primary struggle for domestic power and authority—a struggle to define the meanings of home, food, and family-informs those feelings. Adriana's husband wants to use their domicile to entertain business associates; so when he is unintentionally denied entry, he spurns the home and meal altogether and uses a public tavern for both business and pleasure. For spite, Antipholus E. 'eats out' with a courtesan and 'keep[s] not his hours' (III.i.2). Delinquency from meals conveys his neglect of spousal duties. This conflict has as cultural ancillary the gradual shift in early modern England from manorial socio-economic organization to that of nascent capitalism. The differences between the masculine world of commerce and law and the feminine domestic environment articulate themselves over the contested cultural form of 'dining'. The Comedy of Errors registers a historical moment of social transition and dislocation within the not-yet distinct public and private spheres. Forcing oppositions between desire and profit, leisure and work, women and men, Shakespeare explores contemporary-anxieties attending the development of the separation of the spheres ...
The play's central issues of dining, time, and money punctuate the first meeting between the visiting Antipholus and his servant's twin. This encounter also shows how the 'private' life of home impinges upon and is affected by the 'public' life of commerce—how the two spheres, like the brothers and the states they trade for, are inextricably linked. Dromio E. describes the impact on the family of the master's absence:
The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit;
The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell—
My mistress made it one upon my cheek;
She is so hot, because the meat is cold,
The meat is cold because you come not home:
You come not home, because you have no stomach:
Along with marking the confusion over lost gold and cold meat, Dromio E. delineates the ideological and spatial opposition beneath the scene; 'My charge was but to fetch you from the mart / Home to your house ... to dinner' (74-75).
While the play sets up such opposition between husbands and wives, the worlds of trade and home, it ultimately insists upon their ever-shifting interrelations. No definite hierarchy emerges; instead the demands of business and family alternately and farcically interfere with each other. So as we might expect, the Antipholi and their male associates—merchants, the goldsmith, and city magistrates—appear in public scenes and talk in terms of economic exchange and legal sanctions, while women converse inside, their talk focusing on 'private' topics such as marriage and family, as in Act two, scene one, when Adriana and Luciana discuss 'troubles of the marriage bed' (27), and in the beginning of Act five, when the Abbess catechizes Adriana about wifely duty.
However, these discourses are not discrete: the men's business in the mart sustains the household economy, while the household, through both consumption and (re)production, fuels the mart. Similarly, the opposing settings—borrowed from Plautus: the mart or public square and 'the house of Antipholus of Ephesus', where Adriana frets as the spit turns—coexist in a mutually constituting relation. For example, Adriana delivers her most moving speech about the sanctity of marriage at this public thoroughfare (II.ii.109-145), while their home, the Phoenix, apparently ordinarily entertains merchants, its threshold the site of a 'public scene'. Nor is the family dwelling totally distinct from the shop, but sits 'above' the business (II.ii.206)—an arrangement resembling the situations of sixteenth-century urban tradesmen. The two other loci, the Porpentine, where the courtesan serves her clients, and the Abbey, where the action is resolved in Act five, provide symbolic syntheses of public and private, being both private residences and crossroads or community.
Domestic space in Errors open up possibilities for community. While the more centripetal, domestic values espoused by the wives seem large enough to accommodate commercial interest in the name of the family romance, the husbands' business 'errors' or wanderings cause the division of families. Both parents and married children are separated directly or indirectly because of business trips. Egeon reports that his 'prosperous voyages' 'drew me from the kind embracements of my spouse', while she, though pregnant, joins him abroad, 'daily' urging their return home (I.i.40, 43, 59). Because of Egeon's mercantile obligations, the family has been separated once; whence wife and children too had left their home initially. Moreover, on the return voyage, which Egeon 'unwillingly' undertook, as he himself admits, a shipwreck separates them again. Like his grandfather from whom Egeon inherited the family business, and like Egeon before him, Antipholus E. seems to find embarking on 'prosperous voyages' to the mart more compelling than home-cooked meals. In certain instances, then, business forges a wedge within families: the '"husband's office" [is] neglected in pursuit of his prospering business'.
Despite the seeming incompatibility of loyalties to work and home, duplicate 'errors' in fact reunite the family, resolving confusion and clearing debts. The play constitutes economic, public, and civic bonds in relation to private, affective ties; and the interdependence of the 'separate spheres' everywhere inflects the action. For example, Adriana and Antipholus E.'s marriage is apparently a state project: not only in as much as marriage is a public institution, but also because the Duke's 'important letters' (V.i.138) had arranged the match.
Out of a sense of both civic and personal debt, the Duke had recommended Antipholus:
Long since thy husband serv'd me in my wars,
And I to thee engag'd a prince's word,
When thou didst make him master of thy bed,
To do him all the grace and good I could.
In a similar recognition of the personal investment in and exchange value of 'service', Antipholus E. invokes his military career:
Even for the service that I long since did thee,
when I bestnd thee in the wars, and took
Deep scars to save thy life; even for the blood
That I then lost for thee, now grant me justice.
All sorts of quids pro quo entangle personal and impersonal identifications: the merchants are all friends who employ credit and exchange money for goods; the courtesan does not give her man a gift token, but rather trades her ring for a gold chain of equal value; Adriana expects some recompense for her 'housewifery'; the right amount of money can buy Egeon out of legal trouble. Thus, personal and 'official' business operate on similar terms.
Nonetheless, Shakespeare portrays affective bonds more favorably than economic bonds because the former allow greater flexibility and humanity than the latter. By granting some foundation to Adriana's mistrust of her husband, Shakespeare portrays her far more sympathetically than Plautus's 'Mulier', who is simply an unreasonable shrew. Furthermore, Adriana's plight contrasts the profit-minded paranoia which drives the merchants. It is not an invisible hand that guides macro-economy, but the long arm of the law. The enmity between the state and Syracusa frames the action and provides the model for civilian interaction: in Ephesus men do not enjoy each other's trust for long; rather, they are bound by contracts, the inflexibility of which creates mutual suspicion among partners and a hasty reliance upon public officers to settle disputes. The legal code in Ephesus is firm: it requires the Duke to 'exclude all pity' in the execution of Syracusans; it ensures that the responsibility for unpaid debt devolve upon the officers in charge of debtors (IV.iv.114-15); and it makes former friends enemies when contracts seem to be dishonored. The fact that the 'chain' which binds Balthazar, Angelo, the goldsmith, and Antipholus is credit not trust, when measured against Adriana's loyalty, compromises the humanity of mercantile associations. In a telling pun, Antipholus E. queries Angelo: 'Belike you thought our love would last too long? If it were chained together' (IV.i.25-6). As a catalyst to the recognition scene, the merchant exacts his due from Angelo, warning, 'Or I'll attach you by this officer'.
In turn, Angelo remarks: 'just the sum I do owe to you / Is growing to me by Antipholus' (IV.i.6,7-8), As he hires the officers to arrest (the wrong) Antipholus, the goldsmith vows, 'I would not spare my brother in this case' (IV.i.77)—a hyperbole especially suited to this play abounding in brothers. Similarly, master turns on servant when he 'greatly fear[s his] money is not safe' (I.ii.105).
In contrast to the litigious sphere of trade, the domestic sphere in Ephesus generally keeps problems inside, as if respectful of the private nature of its commitments. For example, from the local Dromio's first speech, we imagine Adriana pacing at home, in 'fast[ing] and prayer' while awaiting her husband's return. Driven outside only reluctantly by the accretion of impatience, uncertainty, and jealousy, she initially eschews the public sphere and prefers to bypass the law and the Abbess in administering punishment, justice, or a cure for her husband's putative madness. When she snares her dinner companion in Act two, scene two, Adriana locks him in tightly; 'Dromio, keep the gate. / ... Sirrah, if any ask you for your master, / Say he dines forth, and let no creature enter. / ... Dromio, play the porter well' (205, 208-10). Similarly, both the Abbess and Luce, the kitchen wench of Adriana's house, stand as sentinels to defend their respective households from intrusion. Even the courtesan, that 'public woman', shows discretion in stating her grievance: when she perceives herself cheated by Antipholus, she consults his wife in the matter rather than an officer (IV.iii.87-91).
Adriana clearly exemplifies the home/body. Some critics identify her as the play's spokesperson for Protestant companionate marriage. The private family meal she offers, according to Joseph Candido, 'serves as a convenient social vehicle for the larger issue of forgiveness, and her insistence on privacy metaphorically links confidential family matters with the ... regenerative power of the confessional'. This spiritual dimension of housewifery is nonetheless underpinned by its material basis—the furnishing of nourishment and safety, which Adriana feels uniquely qualified to provide. At first, rather than invoke the impersonal and dehumanizing legal system to 'cure' her spouse, Adriana orders him 'safe conveyd/Home to my house' (IV.iv.122-23), a wish repeated in her confrontation with the creditors and the Abbess (V.i.35, 92). But later, when physically threatened by him she hires an exorcist and then concedes to law, begging the Duke to intercede in the matter of her husband's return home. Of course, as a woman, she would lack recourse in the law within 'the late Elizabethan "sex/gender system"' that Ephesus replicates. Nor does Shakespeare provide a family oulet for Adriana's redress: unlike Plautus's 'Mulier', who calls in her father to arbitrate, Adriana relies on her own resources and hired help. Her conception of the nuclear family—a haven safe from creditors as well as from the interventions of church and state—reflects the transition toward the separate spheres ideology. That the play elsewhere undermines this idealization of the bourgeois domicile further underlines the uneasy coexistence of ideologies and social practices. The relationship between home and marketplace is continually renegotiated in the play, as it was in Elizabethan society.
At times the household Adriana supervises nearly spoils Antipholus's mercantile ventures rather than supporting them. Although she possesses intimate knowledge of her husband's book-keeping, as when she admits surprise, 'That he, unknown to me, should be in debt' (IV.ii.48), Adriana recognizes that the marketplace poses threats to marital relations. And her husband recognizes the cost of his domestic responsibilities. Notions of family-as-obstacle unfold in Act three, scene one, where a spatial and ideological stand-off transpires concerning the function and government of the household. Antipholus E. and his cronies appear outside his home awaiting hospitable entertainment, while Adriana and her guest (the twin she mistakes for her husband) 'dine above' and forbid intrusion. A kind of Lysistradian battle of the sexes with the women and their spoils inside and the men outside trying to get in, the scene forms the climax of the play. The 'heroine', that operative symbol of domestic authority, is Luce, the enormous kitchen wench betrothed to Dromio E. and feared by his visiting twin ('She is too big, I hope, for me to compass' [IV.i.111]). In a long exchange of rhyming threats and retorts, formally extending yet undercutting the content of the men's Ephesian dialogue on 'welcome' and 'cheer' preceding it, Luce jeopardizes the foundation of her master's identity. She threatens to have him thrown into the stocks (III.i.59-60), and forces the men to 'part with neither [the cheer nor welcome]' that the householder had promised (67). Such domestic conduct is decidedly bad for business.
That this disappointed meal gets tangled up in the confusion about mercantile debts shows the deep and materially efficacious connection between men's home-lives and their public estimation in the marketplace. Discussing Adriana's behavior in terms of Antipholus's 'reputation', Balthazar reveals the dependence of commercial credit on domestic harmony, warning that '[a] vulgar comment ... / [a]gainst [Antipholus's] yet ungalled estimation' would compromise his standing in the community (III.i.100, 102). For his part, Antipholus E. perceives the women's insubordination as a consolidated assault on his power and authority as master of the house, since he promises to punish 'my wife and her confederates' for the incident (IV.i.17). Furthermore, the men perceive female unruliness as an affront to domestic order; and they sexually encode this unruliness and associate women with feeding in the play. The husband becomes increasingly convinced that Adriana had feasted and made love to the only man she's seen with—Pinch, the schoolmaster (IV.iv.57-61). Meanwhile Luce's association with the kitchen is inseparable from her massive and threatening body, and the courtesan invites Antipholus S. to 'mend [his] dinner' at her place (IV.iii.54). His frantic, moralistic refusal of her offer: 'Avoid, then, fiend! What tell'st thou me of supping'? (IV.iii.60) makes explicit the sexual nature of dining at a woman's table, especially when compared with his earlier quest for male dinner companions (I.ii.23). Thus, it seems that men fear women's domestic control and their sexuality, both of which are related to food-provision. As we shall see, however, these fears are unfounded: Adriana wants nothing more (or less) than to administer to her husband's needs, fully accepting her proper sphere of the home, while insisting simultaneously on its sanctity and its correspondence with his business life.
The Roman source play offers some insight into this localized fear of 'feeding and dependency'. The Menaechmi opens with a statement about the binding effects of hospitality. As the longest speech in the play, its subject becomes a major theme. Peniculus, a Parasite on the table of Erotium (subsidized by Menaechmus, her married lover), conjectures that the way to a man's loyalty is through his stomach. He envisions a prison system based on the provision of meals:
If then ye would keep a man without all suspicion of running away from ye, the surest way is to tie him with meate, drinke, and ease: Let him ever be idle, eate his belly full, and carouse while his skin will hold, and he shall never, I warrent ye, stir a foote. These strings to tie one by the teeth, passe all the bands of iron, steele, or what metal so ever ...
Having cut this character from his version, Shakespeare disperses his sentiment among the male characters who flee rather than enter the bondage of feeding at women's tables. So Antipholus E. refuses to come home to dinner, while the Syracusan men renounce the women who cook and invite them to meals, railing them variously 'beastly creature', witch, devil (III.ii.88, 154; IV.iii.58).
Women as well as men recognize the contractual nature of meals—the 'strings to tie one' to the domestic sphere; and this recognition becomes the vehicle for reconciliation in the play. So Luce and the courtesan as well as Adriana and Emilia express desire, power, and protection through dining and food imagery. Adriana's lament for her neglect ranges fully through connotations of feeding, and suggests how crucially food-service defined the domestic on the Shakespearean stage and in early modern society. In language which collapses her self with her home, she complains:
His company must do his minions grace
Whilst I at home starve for a merry look ...
But, too unruly deer, he breaks the pale
And feeds from home. Poor I am but his stale.
Adriana uses the metaphor of feeding as loving. Punning on 'grace' as the prayer before meals and the 'gracious' presence Antipholus denies her, Adriana emphasizes both the ritualized nature of meals and the enclosedness of their marriage vows which he 'breaks' by dining out. She further acknowledges the reciprocal nature of 'feeding' (the verb, like 'nurse' and 'suck', itself admits both transitive and intransitive definitions): he 'feeds' himself and his ego (and perhaps his sexual appetites) abroad, where his largess also 'feeds' the company. Meanwhile, he does not 'feed' her the recognition ('merry look') she needs, nor does he 'feed' with her. The first two lines contrast the pub(lic) 'company' with 'I at home', and construct one version of mart/house, public/private opposition at work in Errors. Finally, punning on 'stale' as both whore and unappetizing food, Adriana's metaphor encapsulates the problem: the love/food she offers is no longer appetizing to her husband. By breaking the pale herself to fetch her husband, Adriana—unknowingly mirroring her mother-in-law—performs not so much an act of 'transgression' as an attempt to construct a home to contain the family. Her flight is at once remarkable and understood in the context of the play's farcical action.
The action of the play, which depends on deferring the meeting of characters crossing the same stage at different times, progresses via the presence of real or symbolic boundaries, and a sense of proper place. So, as we have seen, Syracusan merchants are out of bounds in Ephesus, and one's home ought to be off limits to strangers. Throughout her disquisition with Adriana, Luciana appears resigned to the 'bounds' that circumscribe each species and sex, and endorses the hierarchy at the top of which reigns 'Man, more divine, the master of all these' (II.i.20). Luciana's metaphysics assumes the fixed boundary between men's public roles and women's domestic duties, as she consoles her sister about Antipholus's absence from the meal: 'Perhaps', Luciana offers, 'some merchant hath invited him, / And from the mart he's somewhere gone to dinner' (II.i.4-5). She continues to argue, 'Because their [men's] business lies out o' door', they may enjoy greater 'liberty' than their stay-at-home counterparts (11). This line of argument, challenged elsewhere in the play, depends on the separation between inside and outside, home and business—fissures not yet formed, and arguably never fixed in Elizabethan society.
Angered by the double standard Luciana embraces, Adriana nonetheless endorses a type of gendered separation of the spheres, as her own identity is bound up with domestic issues. Her language borrows heavily from close-to-home imagery: taste, 'service', and eating. At one point, she accosts Antipholus S., administering a dose of marriage-tract logic that moves even the wrong audience. She first accuses her 'husband' of feeding his 'sweet aspects' to another woman. Next, she recalls a past time when they 'ate' together.
The time was once when thou unurg'd wouldst vow
That never words were music to thine ear,
That never object pleasing in thine eye,
That never touch well welcome to thy hand,
That never meat sweet-savour'd in thy taste,
Unless I spake or look'd or couch'd or carv'd to thee.
This speech depicts a wife's willing service to a man who is home to appreciate it. The scenario illustrates what Karen Newman calls the 'special nearness of wives' in early modern England, their importance in the household economy and their proximity to husbands' affairs which might threaten patriarchal control. In medieval and renaissance noble households, the meat carver was not properly a 'servant', but, possibly a function of his being entrusted with knives, he held the highest position among servers, and the privilege was often reserved for esteemed friends of the lord. Moreover, because of the nature both of the game to be served and the high occasion, the role demanded great skill and finesse. Wives fulfilled this function in middle- and upper-class households of the seventeenth century. 'When great personages shall visit' wives were expected to 'sit at an end of a table and carve handsomely', as the ninth Earl of Northumberland instructed his son in 1609, 'Let huswife be carver', Thomas Tusser charges with this characteristic and terse pragmatism. In pointing to her own carving duties, then, Adriana aligns herself with this special brand of service, skill, and trust newly designated to middle-class wives. Adriana calls for nothing radically new in their relations but rather aims to reinstate herself as Antipholus' cook, confidante, and server.
The only other married woman in Errors, Emilia endorses this domestic and meal-centred value system. Although she holds a small part in the play-text, materializing only—and at first anonymously—in the last act and discussed in Egeon's deposition (I.i), this matriarchal presence—mother, wife, abbess—looms large on stage. Like her daughter-in-law, Emilia stands firmly on the side of 'home', and, like the young wife, fights for her family's togetherness. Both she and Adriana make a religion out of their 'service' in reclaiming or sustaining their menfolk and seem prototypes of the 'domestic woman' emerging in eighteenth-century Europe described by Nancy Armstrong. Emilia is a sacrificial figure: it is she who '(almost fainting under / The pleasing punishment that women bear) /Had made provision' to follow her traveling salesman to Epidamnum; she who importunes the family's return home. Her 'incessant weepings' aboard the ship 'forc'd' Egeon to arrange for another voyage. Emilia, like Thaisa in Pendes, betakes herself to a religious retreat until such time (in her case, 33 years) as she may be restored to her role as wife and mother. When her own husband wanders, Adriana waits in fasting and prayer—the metaphor suggesting her almost religious devotion to the marriage we see her enact throughout the play.
Both Emilia and Adriana spin out practical theories of marital roles, both employing eating and consuming imagery to establish nurture as vital to the household economy and to the satisfaction of men. We have already examined Adriana's manifesto in her reminiscence of carving; in hers, Emilia acknowledges her skill in simples and medicines—knowledge she ascribes to her religious vocation, but which also fell under the auspices of 'housewifery' in the period. Their doctrines, along with Luciana's view of marriage, reflect the emergent notion of the separation of the spheres. Luciana, who understands that commercial engagements and world affairs distract men from the hearth, accepts as 'natural' the gendered division of labor and leisure, whereas the experienced wives lament this division, blaming 'other women' and scolding partners for men's distance from home. In all we note an uneasy recognition that domestic life may not satisfy men, that family matters may be incompatible with the contingencies of mercantile experience.
These problems generate further inquiry by the chief representatives of domestic life, Emilia and Adriana, who share a commitment to providing nurturing homes for their families. As the matriarch interrogates Adriana, each speaker uses the circumstances of Antipholus's dining as an indication of the state of his health and sanity, and as an index of the domestic situation itself. For example, Adriana confesses to 'urging' the subject of his fidelity '[a]t board' as well as in bed. Emilia chastens this harping habit of Adriana's with proverbial wisdom:
Thou sayst his meat was sauc'd with thy upbraidings:
Unquiet meals make ill digestions;
Thereof the raging fire of fever bred,
And what's a fever, but a fit of madness? ...
In food, in sport, in life-preserving rest
To be disturb'd would mad or man or beast.
The repeated emphasis on meals reveals both the mother's concern for her son's well-being and her familiarity with affairs of the hearth, while also reinforcing the centrality of nurture in the domestic economy.
Antipholus' wife and mother compete for the authorship of his cure, each invoking her feminine 'office' as justification, demonstrating a struggle for domestic authority between women in different relationships to the man of the house. Perhaps because she knows that Antipholus S. is neither mad nor married, and perhaps because of reawakened maternal duty, the abbess defends her house, her son, and her right to care for him—'a branch and parcel of mine oath, / a charitable duty of my order' (106-107). But Adriana voices equal devotion:
I will attend my husband, be his nurse,
Diet his sickness, for it is my office,
And I will have no attorney but myself;
And therefore let me have him home with me.
Adriana again asserts the sanctity of the home in her desire to get him out of the hands of what seem to be strangers. Thus thwarted by the abbess, only at this point does Adriana resort to state aid in the person of the Duke. As we have seen, she has before opted to handle domestic strife privately ('And I will have no attorney but myself'), while in the commercial world contracts are enforced through officials and surrogates. Her railing upon 'official' intervention here to settle the problem heralds the final feast which celebrates the resolution; both unite private and public experience. The only festive meal hosted by a woman in Shakespeare's canon, Emilia's gossips' feast symbolically celebrates, inter alia, childbirth—an achievement uniquely within the province of women. Not, as in other festive comedies, a wedding feast for the presumably espoused Luciana and Antipholus S., nor a marital reunion banquet, as in the romances, 'a gossips' feast' celebrates the delayed delivery of '[her] heavy burden' (406, 403). The Duke promises, 'With all my heart I'll gossip at this feast' (408). This communal supper not only achieves official endorsement, it also promises that Adriana and Antipholus will at last eat together, and likewise transforms the vexed interrelationship of 'public' and 'private' haunting the play all along. Not exactly the romantic dinner for two that Adriana had planned, and a far cry from her husband's pub-crawls, the gossips' feast offers the via media between private and public dining. Here, the immediate and extended family, along with city magistrates and merchants, will feast together. With the confusion cleared up, a measure of reconciliation is possible between the young couple, augmented by Emilia's motherly (if bossy) advice to the wife.
A 'broken christening', similar to the 'broken nuptials' Carol Neely ascribes to the romances, Emilia's feast consummates the woman's part in all forms of family: her restoration to wifehood, the reunion with her children—now expanded to include Adriana and Luciana—and the rejoining of siblings, including the Dromios for whom she serves as a kind of godmother. Emilia feels re-born ('such Nativity'!) into the family romance, and her feast places wifehood, as well as motherhood and nurture, in the limelight. As social histories of childbirth indicate, from advising their kinswomen and neighbors about aphrodisiacs, to procuring their 'longings' during pregnancy, and assisting during and after childbirth, early modern women played principal roles in their community's 'reproductive rituals'. 'There were ... aspects of birth celebrations that were essentially female rituals, in which participants were drawn from a wide social spectrum and united by gender and biological experience'. Women's protracted activities culminated in this ritual meeting. Held after and serving as a secular counterpart to the 'churching' of the young mother, the gossips' feast ritually acknowledged and 'socialized' women's reproductive power as well as their aid along the way.
Emilia's gossips' feast celebrates the newly restored community—its domestic, mercantile, and political components—at the same time as it confirms the unique achievements of women in that community. The feast is centered in private space—the abbey hitherto having been cordoned off from the town--opened up through a ritual which crosses boundaries between public and private, church and state. In the early modern period, the church publicly sanctified marriages, christened babies in baptism, and blessed women in churching—the symbolic reestablishment of the new mother into the public community. That the hostess-gossip pointedly invites men—husbands, father, brothers, Duke, merchants—to what was traditionally a private and an exclusively female affair suggests rapprochement between the otherwise gendered and separate spheres, home and commerce. The conclusion recognizes the necessary function of the domestic sphere to regenerate and ritually acknowledge the public life of a community. The meal is associated with the domestic sphere and with women: an elder woman sponsors it; presumably Luce and company will prepare and serve it; and it celebrates women's 'labor'. In accepting the invitation, the male mercantile community grants that this domestic intervention is as compelling as the 'intestine jars' which confront them in their ports, fairs, and marts ...
SOURCE: "'Because their business still lies out a 'door': Resisting the Separation of Spheres in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors" in Literature and History, 3rd series, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 19-37.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6478
W. Thomas MacCary
SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors: A Different Kind of Comedy," in New Literary History, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring, 1978, pp. 528-34.
[In the following excerpt, MacCary examines Antipholus of Syracuse from a Freudian perspective, in terms of his relationships with Adriana, Luciana, Aemilia, and Antipholus of Ephesus. MacCary notes in particular the significance of both Adriana's and Antipholus of Syracuse's use of the phrase "drop of water" in separate conversations.]
.... If we were to formulate a kind of comedy which would fulfill the demands associated with the pre-oedipal period, it would have many of the aspects which critics find annoying in The Comedy of Errors. The family would be more important than anyone outside the family, and the mother would be the most important member of the family. Security and happiness would be sought not in sexual intercourse with a person of the opposite sex but in reunion with or creation of a person like the person the protagonist would like to become, i.e., his alter ego, or, more correctly, his ideal ego. There would be an ambivalent attitude toward women in the play, because the young child (male) depends upon the mother for sustenance but fears being reincorporated by the mother. Such fears of the overwhelming mother might be expressed in terms of locked doors and bondage, but the positive, nurturing mother would occasion concern with feasting and drinking. There might even be ambivalent situations, such as banquets arranged by threatening women, and ambivalent symbols, such as gold rings or chains, which suggest both attraction and restriction.
How much do we want to know about the pre-oedipal period? Can we really believe that certain conceptions of happiness develop in certain stages and all later experience is related back to these? To what extent is our appreciation of comedy based on our ability to identify with its protagonists? If we answer this last question affirmatively, then we must at least consider the implications of the other two. Most of us do not have twin brothers from whom we were separated at birth, so the pattern of action in The Comedy of Errors cannot encourage us to identify with Antipholus of Syracuse—clearly the protagonist, as I hope to show below—on the level of superficial actuality. There must be a common denominator, and thus the action of the play must remind us, by way of structural similarity or symbolic form, of something in our own experience. If a play has universal appeal, the experience recalled is more likely to be one of childhood than not, since the earliest experiences are not only the most commonly shared, but also the most formative: what we do and have done to us as children shapes all later experience. A good comedy "ends happily," which means it follows a pattern of action which convinces us that we can be happy. Happiness is different things at different periods in our lives, and if the argument on development is accepted, the greatest happiness is the satisfaction of our earliest desires. By this I do not mean that comedy should feed us and keep us warm, but rather that it should cause us to recapture, in our adult, intellectualized state, the sensual bliss of warmth and satiety.
I do not think that many critics today would label The Comedy of Errors a farce and dismiss it as deserving no more serious analysis. The patterns of farce, like all the patterns of action in drama, are appealing for some good reason. Clearly the comic pattern involving mistaken identity appeals to us because it leads us from confusion about identity—our own, of course, as well as the protagonist's—to security. The most effective version of that pattern would be that which presents to us our own fears and then assuages them, so it must speak to us in language and action which can arouse memory traces of our own actual experience of a search for identity. While it is true that this search goes on throughout the "normal" man's life, it is most intense in the early years. When Antipholus of Syracuse likens himself to a drop of water in danger of being lost in the ocean, he speaks to us in terms which are frighteningly real:
He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
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.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.
(I, ii. 33-40)
The image is based on a proverbial expression in Plautus' Menaechmi "neque aqua aquae nee lacte lactis, crede me, usquam similius / quam hie tui est, tuque huius autem" ("water is not to water, nor milk to milk, as like as she is to you and you are to her") (1089-90). From a purely physical comparison, Shakespeare has developed a metaphysical conceit which has vast philosophical implications, but its immediate impact is emotional. The plight of the protagonist is felt almost physically, his yearning for his double accepted as natural and inevitable. Water itself is the most frequent dream symbol for birth, and with the mention of the mother and brother, we are set firmly in the child's world. The brother, in our own experience, is not a brother, but another self, the ideal ego which the mother first creates for us and we strive to assimilate. We are reminded of the Narcissus myth, since water can reflect as well as absorb, and Antipholus of Syracuse seeks himself in his mirror image. The water here, as ocean, is the overwhelming aspect of the mother, the mother from whom the child cannot differentiate himself. She projects to us the image of what we shall become; but it is a fragile image, and if we lose it we risk reintegration with her, reabsorption, a reversal of the process of individuation which we suffer from the sixth to the eighteenth month. Only later, when we have developed a sense of alterity, can we distinguish ourselves from the mother, and her image of us from ourselves.
Plautus, of course, does not frame his comedy of twins with a family romance the way Shakespeare does. Neither mother nor father appears; there is not even any serious romantic involvement for either twin. In fact, the negative attitude toward marriage which spreads through Shakespeare's play derives from Plautus', where the local twin lies to his wife and steals from her, and finally deserts her entirely to go home with his brother. As Shakespeare expands the cast and develops themes only implicit in the Menaechmi, he provides a complete view of the relation between man and wife and clearly indicates the preparation for this relation in the male child's attitude toward the mother. In Plautus we have only one set of doubles, the twins themselves, but Shakespeare gives us two more sets: the twin slaves Dromio and the sisters Adriana and Luciana. We see these women almost entirely through the eyes of Antipholus of Syracuse, our focus of attention in the play. From his first speech onwards it is from his point of view we see the action, and the occasional scene involving his brother serves only as background to his quest: he is the active one, the seeker. We meet the two sisters before he does, in their debate on jealousy, and then when he encounters them, our original impressions are confirmed. They are the dark woman (Adriana, atro) and the fair maid (Luciana, luce) we meet with so frequently in literature, comprising die split image of the mother, the one threatening and restrictive, the other yielding and benevolent. The whole atmosphere of the play, with its exotic setting and dreamlike action, prepares us for the epiphany of the good mother in Luciana, the bad mother in Adriana. Antipholus of Syracuse, who seems to have found no time for, or shown no interest in, women previously, is entranced and wonders that Adriana can speak to him so familiarly:
To me she speaks. She moves me for her theme.
What, was I married to her in my dream?
Or sleep I now, and think I hear all this?
What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?
(II. ii. 183-86)
The extraordinary aspect of his reaction, though quite natural in the context of the play's system of transferences, is that he should take for his dream the strange woman's reality: in other circumstances we might expect him to say that she is dreaming and has never really met him, but he says instead that perhaps he had a dream of her as his wife which was real. She is, then, strange in claiming intimacy with him, but not entirely unknown: she is a dream image, and he goes on to question his present state of consciousness and sanity:
Am I in earth, in Heaven, or in Hell?
Sleeping or waking? Mad or well advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised!
(II. ii. 214-16)
If these women were completely alien to him, had he no prior experience of them in any form, then he could have dismissed them and their claims upon him. As it is, he doubts not their sanity but his own, and wonders whether he dreams or wakes as they persist in their entreaties, suggesting he has dreamed of them before, and not without some agitation.
The exact words of Adriana's address which creates this bewilderment are, of course, very like his own opening remarks. She seems to know his mind exactly, and this makes her even more familiar to him though strange in fact. She takes his comparison of himself to a drop of water and turns it into a definition of married love; this, then, is sufficient to drive him to distraction:
How comes it now, my Husband, oh, how comes it
That thou art then estranged from thyself?
Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
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 mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf
And take unmingled thence that drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself, and not me too.
(II. ii. 121-31)
Most critics would acknowledge the central position of these two passages in the argument of the play, but they do not account for their effectiveness. The impact of the repetition is due to the reversal of the protagonist's expectations. He came seeking his mirror image, like Narcissus, his ideal ego, his mother's image of himself, and finds instead a woman who claims to be part of himself; and she threatens him with that absorption and lack of identity which he had so feared: she is the overwhelming mother who refuses to shape his identity but keeps him as part of herself. In his speech he was the drop of water; in her speech the drop of water is let fall as an analogy, but he becomes again that drop of water and flees from the woman who would quite literally engulf him.
He flees, of course, to the arms of the benign Luciana, she who had warned her sister to restrain her jealousy and possessiveness, to allow her husband some freedom lest she lose him altogether. This unthreatening, undemanding woman attracts Antipholus of Syracuse, and he makes love to her in terms which recall the two drop of water speeches:
Luc. What, are you mad, that you do reason so?
Ant. S. Not mad, but mated; how, I do not know.
Luc. It is a fault that springeth from your eye.
Ant S. For gazing on your beams, fair sun, being by.
Luc. Gaze where you should, and that will clear your sight.
Ant S. As good to wink, sweet love, as look on night.
Luc. Why call you me love? Call my sister so.
Ant. S. Thy sister's sister.
Luc. That's my sister.
Ant S. No,
It is thyself, my own self's better part,
Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer heart,
My food, my fortune, and my sweet hope's aim,
My sole earth's Heaven, and my Heaven's claim.
(III. ii. 53-64)
There is as much difference between Adriana and Luciana as between night and day: Adriana is the absence or perversion of all that is good in Luciana. It is not the difference between dark women and fair women we find in the other comedies—Julia and Sylvia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Helena and Hermia in Midsummer Night's Dream—but much more like the difference in the Sonnets between the dark lady and the fair youth: on the one side we have all that is threatening and corruptive, while on the other there is truth and beauty. Again, all is a dream: Antipholus of Syracuse has seen Luciana before, in dreams, in madness, but then she was indistinguishable from Adriana, the two opposites bound up as one. Now, as if by the dream mechanism of decomposition they are separate, and he can love the one and avoid the other. He has overcome his fear of the overwhelming mother and projects now his image of the benevolent mother upon Luciana.
The relation between these two young women and Aemilia, the actual mother of Antipholus of Syracuse, becomes clear in the climactic scene. He has been given sanctuary in the priory, after having been locked up by Adriana and escaping her; Aemilia emerges, like the vision of some goddess, to settle all confusion. Her attention focuses on Adriana, and she upbraids her son's wife for the mistreatment she has given him. It is a tirade not unlike others in early Shakespearean comedy against the concept of equality and intimacy in marriage. We hear it from Katharina at the end of The Taming of the Shrew and we see Proteus fleeing from such a marriage in Two Gentleman of Verona, as do all the male courtiers in Love's Labors Lost. In the later romances this antagonism between the man who would be free and the woman who would bind him home is equally apparent and more bitterly portrayed; e.g., Portia's possessiveness in The Merchant of Venice and Helena's pursuit of Betram in All's Well. The identification of the threatening woman with the mother in the man's eyes is developed to varying degrees in these different instances—the maternal aspect of Portia is remarkable, as are Helena's close ties to the Countess—but here it is transparent: Aemilia must instruct her daughter-in-law on the proper treatment of her son, and we see this through the eyes of Antipholus of Syracuse: he has finally been able to conquer his fear of losing his identity in his mother's too close embrace because she herself tells him that this is no way for a woman to treat him:
The venom clamors of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dog's tooth.
It seems his sleeps were hindered by thy railing,
And thereof comes it that his head is light.
Thou say'st his meat was sauced with thy upbraidings;
Unquiet meals make ill digestions.
Thereof the raging fire of fever bred,
And what's a fever but a fit of madness?
Thou say'st his sports were hindered by thy brawls.
Sweet recreation barred, what doth ensue
But moody and dull Melancholy,
Kinsman to grim and comfortless Despair,
And at her heels a huge infectious troop
Of pale distemperatures and foes to life.
(V. i. 69-82)
This description of madness reminds us of the mythical monsters Harpies, Gorgons, and Furies—all female, like Shakespeare's Melancholy and Despair—bitch-like creatures who hound men to madness. Clearly this entire race is a projection of male fears of female domination, and their blood-sucking, enervating, food-polluting, petrifying attacks are all related to pre-oedipal fantasies of maternal deprivation. By identifying this aspect of the mother in Adriana, he can neutralize it. Antipholus of Syracuse, then, finds simultaneously the two sexual objects Freud tells us we all originally have: his own benevolent and protective mother and the image of himself in his brother he has narcissistically pursued ...
SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors: A Different Kind of Comedy," in New Literary History, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring, 1978, pp. 528-34.
William C. Carroll
[In the following excerpt, Carroll discusses how Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus undergo "transformation by doubling." Antipholus of Syracuse enters a world (Ephesus) that is unfamiliar to him geographically, but the familiarity with which people greet and address him makes him wonder whether he's gone mad, is experiencing a dream, or whether some external Ephesian force is at work. Antipholus of Ephesus has a similar yet opposite experience—all that is familiar to him is now strange, which angers him and nearly drives him mad. Much of the confusion is due to the "transformations in everyday language" in their conversations with the Dromios and with Adriana and Luciana.]
.... The kind of experience Antipholus of Syracuse undergoes serves as a model of transformation by doubling. He begins the play in what we deduce is an altered state: he has fallen from his customary state to being "dull with care and melancholy" (I.ii.20). This change is unexplained and troublesome, and will be reversed by the end of the play; but melancholy is soon forgotten when madness seems to enter. As he falls into the plot's manifold errors, Antipholus will alternate between two theories to explain what is happening: first, that some force external to him, in Ephesus, deceives his eye and deludes his senses; second, that he has in fact gone mad. The two explanations are by no means exclusive. His long-lost twin, Antipholus of Ephesus, will undergo a similar transformative dislocation, made perhaps even worse because the "familiar" everyday world he has lived in becomes completely strange. He too enters the play already changed—estranged from his wife Adriana, who accuses him (in the person of his brother) of being "strange to me," and taunts him that she has been unfaithful, because he has supposedly avoided her for another:
For, if we two be one, and thou play false,
I do digest the poison of thy flesh,
Being strumpeted by thy contagion,
The ideal of two becoming one, which takes on increasing suggestiveness in the play, marks only an unfortunate dislocation here. Antipholus' reply is confused, and Luciana exclaims, "Fie, brother, how the world is changed with you" (1. 153). The other inhabitants of Ephesus decide more simply that no matter which Antipholus is present, the poor fellow is mad.
As the scene proceeds, Antipholus of Syracuse lights upon a third explanation, that he lives a dream: "What, was I married to her in my dream? / Or sleep I now, and think I hear all this?" (ll. 183-4). He accepts this transformation for the time being, in a spirit of adventure, for something in him sympathetically recognizes that error (in the root sense of wandering) is what his own life has been, and is still the way to new revelation:
What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?
Until I know this sure uncertainty,
I'll entertain the offered fallacy.
Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised?
I'll say as they say, and persever so,
And in this mist at all adventures go.
Mist, water, error: metamorphosis thrives in unstable regions, and it takes some courage to step into "this mist"—here, not the obliviousness of Bottom, but something self-conscious and risk-taking. Antipholus also understands his position as existence in some kind of fiction, wondering at the paradox that he may be "to myself disguised," that he can be not himself and yet know it at the same time.
Both Antipholi are increasingly startled by unexplained transformations in everyday language. Faces are the same, names the same, but nothing fits: S. Antiph.: "How can she thus then call us by our names, / Unless it be by inspiration?" (II.ii. 167-8). His brother's servant echoes him, in a now familiar trope, when he confronts his unseen twin:
O villain, thou hast stol'n both mine office and my name.
The one ne'er got me credit, the other mickle blame.
If thou hadst been Dromio today in my place,
Thou would have changed thy face for a name, or thy name for an ass.
Later, he rudely remarks, "A man may break a word with you, sir, and words are but wind; / Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind" (11. 75-6). Words are but wind (as unstable as water) in this play because Shakespeare has taken special pains to create a symbolic world in which language itself, among other things, is constantly transformed and so "fails" in the strict constructionist sense. Nothing could be more disorienting than a world which precisely resembles the ordinary one except for the fact that customary language no longer operates there. The Antipholi and Dromii believe, alternatively, that they are transformed; that everyone else is transformed; and that their mere words have been mysteriously transformed.
Of all the words that have once been effectual but are now without stable meaning, that ordinarily establish the boundaries of identity, none is more important than one's name:
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend;
And everyone doth call me by my name.
Some tender money to me, some invite me;
Some other give me thanks for kindnesses;
Some offer me commodities to buy.
Even now a tailor called me in his shop
And showed me silks that he had bought for me,
And therewithal took measure of my body.
Sure, these are but imaginary wiles,
And Lapland sorcerers inhabit there.
The method of creating this linguistic and social dislocation—twins with the same name—is quite mechanical, as the play's detractors are always pointing out; but the effects created are anything but mechanical. The linguistic transformations are both cause and effect of the extensive psychological changes. Small wonder that at the end of the play Emilia asks everyone to "Go to a gossips' feast, and joy with me / After so long grief such nativity" (V.i.406-7). These people need not only a re-birth but also the re-naming that a christening party will provide. Antipholus of Syracuse especially needs a new beginning, his last one having failed in all ways:
In Ephesus I am but two hours old,
As strange unto your town as to your talk;
Who, every word by all my wit being scanned,
Wants wit in all one word to understand.
The new names at the gossips' feast will, of course, be the same as they always were, but the people, paradoxically the same outwardly, will change once again. So the gossips' feast is both renewal and repetition, since the names—what started the confusion in the first place--are and are not unique.
As identity and language begin to transform, and comfortably familiar boundaries collapse, the inevitable erotic obligato begins to sound. Pleading for her neglected sister, Luciana succeeds only in making the wrong brother (Antipholus of Syracuse) fall in love with her:
Sweet mistress, what your name is else, I know not;
Nor by what wonder you do hit of mine;
Are you a god? Would you create me new?
Transform me, then, and to your power I'll yield.
But if that I am I, then well I know
Your weeping sister is no wife of mine,
Nor to her bed no homage do I owe;
Far more, far more, to you do I decline.
Like every other Renaissance annotator faced with the powerful combination of woman, water, and metamorphosis, Antipholus next resorts to the legend of the siren to represent his experience:
O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,
To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears.
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;
Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs;
And as a bed I'll take them, and there lie,
And, in that glorious supposition, think
He gains by death that hath such means to die.
Let Love, being light, be drowned if she sink!
Antipholus is not much of an Odysseus to be sure, but the audience knows what he means. The Renaissance fascination with metamorphosis finds a perfect culmination in the related myths of Circe and the sirens—the figure of the female temptress who could transform a warrior into a Gryll or, conversely, a naive young man into a mature and worthy lover. If she was a fleshly temptress for some, she could also be (as for Antipholus) a kind of muse. She might signify lust for Homer or Ovid or the "glorious supposition" of romantic love. This stereotyped double nature—virgin or whore—may be partly seen in Antipholus of Syracuse's two references to the siren. The first, above, is one of rapture. But near the end of the same scene, after a little more thought about his "wife" Adriana and his new love for Luciana, it all seems more difficult:
There's none but witches do inhabit here,
And therefore 'tis high time that I were hence.
She that doth call me husband, even my soul
Doth for a wife abhor. But her fair sister,
Possessed with such a gentle sovereign grace,
Of such enchanting presence and discourse,
Hath almost made me traitor to myself
But, lest myself be guilty to self-wrong,
I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song.
He is already not himself in this situation; but his determination to hang onto his inner self of honor, his last shred of identity, insures that his metamorphosis will remain incomplete. Clearly, the audience recognizes that there is nothing in fact wrong with his love for Luciana; somewhat less clearly, we see that there is something wrong instead with the entire situation. Antipholus of Syracuse will not become someone else, though he is mightily tempted as a way of fulfilling desire; what he doesn't realize is that he has already been transformed into someone else by his situation.
The Plautine convention rarely leads as deeply as Shakespeare is about to take us. He seems, in short, to have rejected the basic assumption that identical twins are identical. For dramatic purposes, the most important fact about identical twins is that they are and must be finally different. If they were completely identical, there would be no play. Their overwhelming similarity allows the playwright to construct a complex transformational situation, but only their difference allows it to come to dramatic life. The situation is a vivid illustration of one we will see again and again: a man resists transformation, though attracted to it; he resists it even though it could never, in human imagination, be easier to accept; and even though he resists it, it still happens. Metamorphosis appears as both change and stasis, then; it manifests itself simultaneously as being (remaining the same) and not-being (the metamorphosed other). The "comic horror" attached "to the notion of the oomplete identity of two human beings," as G. R. Elliot notes, underlies the play's doubling, but like any metamorphosis, which is and is not, absolute identity is only asymptotically approached, and difference, the "is not," is preserved. That Antipholus blames local "witches," finally, reminds us from Murray's accounts that the complicity of the viewing audience (onstage for now) is also required.
Antipholus of Syracuse's existential predicament finds a comic mirror in his servant's. Dromio's transformation similarly derives not only from his situation in Ephesus but also from the power of love:
S. DROMIO. Do you know me, sir? Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?
S. ANTIPH. Thou are Drormo, thou art my man, thou art thyself.
S. DROMIO. I am an ass; I am a woman's man, and besides myself.
That love transforms one, makes Dromio both himself and "besides myself," is by now a commonplace, though Dromio's capture at the hands of Nell (or Luce) seems rather desperate. After his famous comic blazon of her parts ("She is spherical, like a globe. I could find out countries in her'—ll. 114-5), Dromio leaves with the familiar animalistic fears on his mind: "And, I think, if my breast had not been made of faith, and my heart of steel, / She had transformed me to a cuttal dog, and made me turn i' th' wheel" (ll. 146-7). As she is a "globe," so engulfment by her would be a total loss of self, as complete as a drop of water falling into the ocean. As in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the characters in The Comedy of Errors fear the impingement of the animal, and the lowering or abolition of human boundaries. To stop one's ears is all a mariner can do. Not to be oneself, to be an "other," is as much as being an ass or a curtal dog.
As the play progresses and the "errors" multiply, the characters experience more and more transformations through situational changes in vision. Hearing that her husband's brother has wooed Luciana, Adriana begins to find her "husband"
deformed, crooked, old and sere,
Ill-faced, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere:
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind,
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind
This description of course applies to her as well. From the start her shrewishness has been a given from which, we expect, she will be changed by the end of the play. The madness spreads rapidly, for S. Dromio soon describes a simple jailor as "A devil ... a fiend, a fairy ... a wolf ... a hound that runs counter" (IV.ii.32-9). His master sees a routine courtesan as "the devil ... Avoid, then, fiend!" (IV.iii.65-6). But for all its strange occurrences, local eccentrics, and ambiguous reputation, Ephesus is after all a fairly conventional Renaissance city of commerce. The chief citizens are all merchants, and money remains their chief interest. Gold chains (and prompt payment) still take precedence over questions of the supernatural. The courtesan is not a witch but a local merchant herself; the brilliance of the play is to make her both things, depending—and this is crucial—on one's point of view.
The final act of The Comedy of Errors offers a series of contrasting perspectives. Adriana, for example, attributes her husband's sudden transformation to demonic possession (the infamous Dr. Pinch is brought in): "This week he hath been heavy, sour, sad, / And much different from the man he was" (V.i.45-6). Emilia, however, explains his changes as the result of "the venom clamors of a jealous woman ... his sleeps were hind'red by thy railing ... thy jealous fits / Hath scared thy husband from the use of wits" (11. 69-86). The Abbess's version is not necessarily the whole story, though, for S. Antipholus's history shows that melancholy is widespread. Emilia, at any rate, intends to nurse him, like a mother, "With wholesome syrups, drugs, and holy-prayers, / To make of him a formal man again" (11. 104-5), as if he had in fact lost his form; to be normal is to be formal here. As the competing stories are offered, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus suddenly burst in with an hysterical account of their escape from Dr. Pinch. Confusion, accusation, and denial increase, and the Duke resorts, for the third time in the play, to the myth of the sorceress: "Why, what an intricate impeach is this! / I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup" (11. 270-1). At the moment of maximum confusion on stage, when transformations and dislocations have generated the greatest chaos, discovery begins. Appropriately, the discovery must be not only an uncovering of error but also a recovery of lost names, normal perspectives, and secure boundaries to identity.
Egeon ironically initiates the discoveries with still another error: "Is not your name, sir, called Antipholus? / And is not that your bondman Dromio?" (11. 287-8). He is both right and wrong. When E. Antipholus fails to recognize him, Egeon refers to his own transformation as an explanation:
O, grief hath changed me since you saw me last,
And careful hours with time's deformed hand
Have written strange defeatures in my face.
Not know my voice! O, time's extremity,
Hast thou so cracked and splitted my poor tongue
In seven short years, that here my only son
Knows not my feeble key of untuned cares?
(11. 298-300, 308-11)
Time's hand, itself both deformed and deforming, may produce metamorphoses as great as any magic; the ravages of simple mutability, "winter's drizzled snow," can change one as greatly as the pangs of jealousy or the raptures of love. Mutability may slowly achieve what transformation gains in an instant.
In trying to outdo the Plautine conventions, Shakespeare has shown remarkable ingenuity, multiplying the twins, the complex situations, and the consequent errors as much as is dramatically feasible. To engineer the resolution of his complications, Shakespeare need only bring the twins together before everyone, and then neatly "explain" all. but he has other questions on his mind, not to be disposed of mechanically, and so the ending takes some odd turns. With both sets of twins on stage, the following exchange occurs:
ADRIANA. I see two husbands, or mine eyes deceive me.
DUKE. One of these men is genius to the other;
And so of these, which is the natural man,
And which the spirit? Who deciphers them?
S. DROMIO. I, sir, am Dromio; command him away.
E. DROMIO. I, sir, am Dromio; pray let me stay.
This kind of recognition scene is modeled partly on Lylyesque or Italian pastoral drama, as I will argue more fully in discussing the ending of Twelfth Night What stands out here are the rich implications of these lines. Adriana has indeed seen "two husbands," one of them mis-seen as "derformed, crooked, old and sere." The Duke makes the understandable assumption that one of the Antipholi cannot be real, but a "genius" or "spirit," with possibly sinister overtones; only one can be "the natural man." Of course, nature has given us both men--just as she will give us the "natural perspective" at the end of Twelfth Night—but the achievement of this play allows each Antipholus to feel that he has an attendant spirit, or perhaps is himself such a spirit. The Duke's final question, "Who deciphers them?" leads even further. No one on stage can answer him nor do the deciphering, and in fact the Dromii immediately make rival but identical nominal claims and self-assertions, as if to reveal the impossibility of answering the Duke. We might say that only the audience can decipher them, but if the actors are indeed identical twins, as in Komisarjevsky's famous production, and they are dressed the same, then how can the audience ever decipher them? In practice, they will appear as different. But we know they are different chiefly from their asides and what they say in given situations—they are different because they say they are. To "decipher" them is to be able to "read" them in a special way. The difficulty in doing this recurs throughout the final scene:
DUKE. Antipholus, thou cam'st from Corinth first,
S. ANTIPH. No, sir, not I; I came from Syracuse.
DUKE. Stay, stand apart; I know not which is which.
But standing apart won't help much. The crucial difference between them, the key to deciphering them, lies in their language; only that finally marks them apart. If the Antipholi had lost the power of speech, as Lucius and Apuleius do when metamorphosed, then they would have been, for all intents, completely identical. Here is an anomalous case where the retention of speech becomes ironic cause for further transformation. And yet names, and all language, have been revealed as generically susceptible to metamorphosis. To say "I, sir, am Dromio," is to announce and to undermine one's identity at the same time, because our names uniquely mark us and yet do not mark us. Words are but wind—our own breath and the world's.
Shakespeare turns the Plautine conventions back upon themselves, then, and in the process of challenging the tradition raises much larger questions. For the play shows us what it is like—in large part what it must feel like—to be and not to be at the same time. Each man acknowledges his own self, yet feels his own self violated, slipping away, its normal boundaries gone; each experiences the paradoxes of duality. On the one hand, Antipholus becomes Antipholus; on the other hand, Antipholus becomes Antipholus. When Egeon and Emilia speak of their long separation and present reunion, each twin (and certainly the audience) must recall his departure from being into not-being and his return. Amid the other reunions and re-namings in the play, this re-formation of the self is essential.
Even then, the reunion cannot be entirely unambiguous. "I know not which is which," the Duke says even now. "And are not you my husband?" Adriana wonders. Even the life-long servants remain confused:
S. DROMIO. Master, shall I fetch your stuff from shipboard?
E. ANTIPH. Dromio, what stuff of mine hast thou embarked?
S. DROMIO. Your goods that lay at host, sir, in the Centaur.
S. ANTIPH. He speaks to me. I am your master, Dromio.
Still, even S. Antipholus' assertion is ambiguous, for it could refer to either master or either servant. The entire complication of the plot serves to focus our attention on questions of language and intention, specifically on the linguistic loss that so often accompanies metamorphosis and makes it more fearful. It is hardly a coincidence that the inn in question is the Centaur—half man, half animal, yet another example of the metamorphosed human shape.
The doubling of doubles, so baroque in its excess, represents more than a display of mechanical virtuosity on Shakespeare's part. This situational confusion also allows Shakespeare to link speech and identity, and to dramatize how this link may be served, or at least called into question, through metamorphosis. Moreover, if we identify with either Antipholus, or through some fluke of nature happen to undergo a similar experience, we will understand how, in this play at least, metamorphic doubling leads to self-alienation. In a technical sense, the Antipholi are both literally beside themselves and "mad," since the referents of their speech become dislocated from their words, and their own names and identities seem to be appropriated by some Other.
SOURCE: "To Be and Not To Be: The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night" in The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy, Princeton University Press, 1985, pp. 67-79.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1609
[In this excerpt, Ornstein briefly discusses the characters of Adriana and her sister, Luciano, both of whom he terms "sympathetically drawn intelligent women." He mantains that Adriana's expectations of her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, are reasonable, and certainly not shrewish. He assesses Luciana as not simply a pious, moralistic woman, but rather one who "knows too much about the world to have any illusions about the way men treat woman."]
.... There is no place in the dramatic world of Errors for Plautus's gluttonous Parasite or for the crass Senex, who is replaced as a sounding board for the Wife's complaints by Luciana, Adriana's sister, and later by the Abbess. The presence of these sympathetically drawn intelligent women radically alters the nature of the dramatic action because Ephesus is no longer a man's world in which women exist as household scolds or harlots, but one in which men and women are equally prominent, and the latter are more interesting and fully developed as dramatic personalities. Refusing to see her marriage as simply a domestic arrangement, Adriana regards the bond between husband and wife as intrinsic as that which links father to child. Indeed, when she speaks of her oneness with Antipholus E., it is with the same metaphor that Antipholus S. uses to describe his impossible search for his brother.
For her the marriage vow is like a tie of birth and blood in that her sense of self depends on her husband's love and fidelity and she feels defiled by his adultery:
For it we two be one, and thou play false,
I do digest the poison of thy flesh,
Being strumpeted by thy contagion.
These lines evoke the noblest Renaissance ideal of love—one soul in body twain—and do not allow us to dismiss Adriana's complaints as shrewish jealousy.
The lack of any scene in which Adriana directly confronts her erring husband is striking because her misery and insistence on the inequity of her situation give Errors much of its emotional ballast. First she complains to her sister, then to her husband's twin, and lastly to the Abbess, but her husband is not present to hear any of these speeches. Perhaps Shakespeare feared that any direct confrontation of husband and wife would make the other farcical misunderstandings of the play seem trivial by contrast, and he was not prepared to jettison the farcical supposes that keep his plot moving. And yet he allows Adriana to make a powerful indictment of the double standard that must affect an audience even though her speech is directed to the wrong man—her husband's twin. She protests the conventional attitudes that allow men their casual philandering but condemn an unchaste wife to her husband's pitiless revenges:
How dearly would it touch thee to the quick,
Shouldst thou but hear I were licentious,
And mat this body, consecrate to thee,
By ruffian lust should be contaminate?
Wouldst thou not spit at me, and spurn at me,
And hurl the name of husband in my face,
And tear the stain'd skin off my harlot brow,
And from my false hand cut the wedding-ring,
And break it with a deep-divorcing vow?
Although some critics have suggested that Adriana alienated her husband by a jealous possessiveness, she is not the eternally suspicious comic shrew that other dramatists portray. Her manner is never strident or undignified; her requests are never unreasonable. Balthazar, a voice of sanity in the play, speaks of her "unviolated honor," of her "wisdom, / Her sober virtue, years, and modesty"—hardly the attributes of a jealous nag. The worst that Antipholus E. can say of her is that she is shrewish if he "keeps not hours"—that is, if he is not home at a reasonable time. Even Luciana, who at first accuses her sister of "self-harming jealousy," stoutly defends her against the Abbess's intimation that her shrewishness caused Antipholus E.'s derangement. Where Plautus's husband is indifferent to his wife's continual complaints, Antipholus E. seems ignorant of his wife's unhappiness and is guilty, so it seems, of insensitivity rather than habitual infidelity. He is obtuse and quick-tempered, ready to engage in a flyting match with his servants or to tear down the gate to his house with a crowbar, but he is not loutish in the manner of his Plautine counterpart. He intended to give the necklace to his wife and presents it to the Courtesan only when he is locked out of his house. Although he is familiar with the Courtesan he does not boast of her sexual favors to Balthazar. She is, he claims, "a wench of excellent discourse, / Pretty and witty; wild and yet, too, gentle." This circumspect description does not come from the lips of a libertine; Antipholus E. is a successful businessman who uses his wife's mistreatment of him as an excuse for a night on the town. Because he is too coarse-grained and attached to his comforts to spend years in search of a lost brother, one doubts that he would understand Adriana's ideal of marriage even if he heard her pleas.
Antipholus S. is a more interesting character who not only embarks on a hopeless quest for his twin but also demonstrates his romantic temper by falling in love with Luciana at first sight. Like many later romantic heroes he is a rapturous wooer, one who has read many sonnets and knows by heart the literary language of love, the appropriate conceits and hyperboles with which to declare a boundless passion. He protests that Luciana is "our earth's wonder, more than earth divine"; nay, she is a very deity. Like many later heroines Luciana seems wiser than the man who woos her, even though she seems at first priggish in advising her sister to accept her unhappy lot without complaint. A man is master of his liberty, she explains, and his liberty is necessarily greater than a woman's because he is the provider and must be away from the home. To this practical reason, Luciana adds the metaphysical argument that a husband is the rightful bridle of his wife's will because of his superior position in the universe. If Luciana's sermon on order and degree smells a bit of the lamp, it is nevertheless seriously offered, complete with the usual commonplaces about the hierarchy of nature that all animals recognize and obey:
Man, more divine, the master of all these,
Lord of the wide world and wild wat'ry seas,
Indu'd with intellectual sense and souls,
Of more pre-eminence than fish and fowls,
Are masters to their females, and their lords.
These high sentences are deflated, however, as soon as they are delivered. "This servitude," Adriana dryly responds, "makes you to keep unwed." "Not this," Luciana says, "but troubles of the marriage-bed." "Were you wedded," Adriana suggests, "you would bear some sway." Luciana's lame response is, "Ere I learn to love, I'll practice to obey," a tacit confession that she will have to school herself to the submissiveness that she claims is natural to women. When Luciana says that she would forbear a husband's wanderings, Adriana loses all patience with such pieties:
Patience unmov'd! no marvel though she pause [in marrying]—
They can be meek that have no other cause:
A wretched soul, bruis'd with adversiry,
We bid be quiet when we hear it cry,
But were we burd'ned with like weight of pain,
As much, or more, we should ourselves complain.
Inevitably Adriana has the last word because here as elsewhere in Shakespeare's plays, platitudinous counsel and painted comforts shatter against the hard reality of suffering and anger. Moreover, Luciana is not simply a spokesman for conventional pieties; she knows too much about the world to have any illusions about the way men treat women. When Anripholus S. woos her, she is not horrified even though she thinks him Adriana's husband. Indignant at his advances, she does not, however, threaten to expose his "adulterous" (indeed, "incestuous") lust to her sister and she does not rebuff him with pious sentences. Instead she pleads with him to be circumspect in his philandering and thereby considerate of his wretched wife. She would have him be prudent if he cannot be faithful:
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 not thy tongue thy own shame's orator
Look sweet, speak fair, become disloyalty;
Apparel vice like virtue's harbinger.
On other lips this might seem Machiavellian advice, but Luciana's anger shows through her seeming acceptance of the way of the world. She knows too well the emotional dependence of women on men and their willingness to deceive themselves about their marriages if their husbands will give them half a chance:
... make us but believe (Being compact of credit) that you love us;
Though others have the arm, show us the sleeve;
We in your motion turn, and you may move us.
It is remarkable that the pathos of a woman's subservience in marriage should be made more explicit in Errors than any other comedy to follow. The issue is not explicitly resolved in the play, but then Shakespeare never assumes the role of social critic or reformer. On the other hand, the prominence that he allows Adriana, Luciana, and the Abbess in the denouement of Errors makes an important if oblique comment on the relations of women and men ...
SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors," in Shakespeare's Comedies, University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 29-32.
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