illustration of two halves of a smiling face with the title The Comedy of Errors displayed between them

The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Slavery, English Servitude, and The Comedy of Errors

Maurice Hunt, Baylor University

Both critics and editors of The Comedy of Errors reveal a notable uncertainty over the social status of the Dromio brothers. Taking their cue from the designations of Shakespeare's text, they refer to the twins sometimes as slaves, sometimes as servants, and occasionally as bondmen. Their uncertainty would perhaps be unimportant were physical violence not an issue. The Comedy of Errors is remarkable for the extent of the physical beatings given the Dromios as well as for the commentary on it. This is especially true when the pertinent episodes are compared with their sources in Plautus' Menaechmi and Amphitruo. The rough treatment of the Dromios and their ambiguous servant/slave status reflect similar features of Elizabethan servitude. In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare constructs the Dromios so as to condense the potential slavishness of sixteenth-century English service. The playwright's focus on de facto slavery widens to encompass the institution of marriage and the individual's ordering of his or her inner faculties. Implicitly Shakespeare poses a dramatic question: do the reunions and festive releases celebrated at the end of The Comedy of Errors include a remedy for slavery, whether of the social, marital, or existential variety?

Assembling the relevant passages into a whole reveals the emphasis Shakespeare gives past and present beatings of the Dromios. In the first major error of the play, Dromio of Ephesus mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for his master and urges him to hurry home to his cooling dinner and his angry wife, Adriana. Antipholus of Syracuse's bafflement increases when this Dromio professes ignorance of the money that Antipholus gave the other Dromio for safekeeping. Because Dromio of Syracuse often jests to relieve his master's melancholy, Antipholus of Syracuse imagines that Dromio of Ephesus is joking: "I am not in a sportive humour now: / Tell me, and dally not, where is the money?" (1.2.58-59).1 Dromio replies in terms of the beating he expects to receive: "I from my mistress come to you in post; / If I return I shall be post indeed, / For she will scour your fault upon my pate" (1.2.63-65). Dromio of Ephesus' anxiety stems from a blow he received earlier that afternoon. "The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell," he informs Antipholus of Syracuse; "My mistress made it one upon my cheek; / She is so hot because the meat is cold" (1.2.45-47).2 Household beatings apparently are a customary part of Dromio of Ephesus' life. When Antipholus of Syracuse, exasperated over Dromio of Ephesus' repeated denial of any knowledge concerning the disputed "thousand marks," threatens to "break that merry sconce of yours" (1.2.79), Dromio darkly jests:

I have some marks of yours upon my pate; Some of my mistress' marks upon my shoulders; But not a thousand marks between you both. If I should pay your worship those again, Perchance you will not bear them patiently.


Most Elizabethans would have regarded Dromio's final utterance as ominously subversive: the man threatens to beat his master. That Dromio makes this threat obliquely in the context of punning jests does not lessen its seriousness. One might object that the Dromios' jests accompanying threats of beating prevent auditors from taking the characters' physical abuse as a serious issue of The Comedy of Errors. Rather than insulating the play from a troubling topic, the Dromios' jokes represent their habitual strategy for coping with their resentment over their ill-treatment. Freud did, after all, confirm for the twentieth century a fact that Shakespeare intuitively grasped—that disruptive puns mask a good deal of aggression, even...

(This entire section contains 2472 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

hostility. Eamon Grennan claims that the Dromios, "as perpetrators of puns, repeatedly compensate for their social bondage by their linguistic freedom. Doing so they draw attention to the counterpoint between the conventional fixity of society, which victimizes them, and the natural fluidity of language, which is their weapon of comic revenge."3 The linguistic anarchy resulting from the Dromios' puns substitutes for the social revolution traditionally desired by subjugated men and women.

Antipholus of Syracuse defuses the inflammatory charge of Dromio's joke by reminding him of his abject social status: "Thy mistress' marks? what mistress, slave, hast thou?" (1.2.87). Despite textual references to the Dromios as servants, they are typically called slaves in The Comedy of Errors.4 T. W. Baldwin noted that, "for the ancients, 'Dromo is a slave's name in Terence, Lucian, and in a comedy extracted by Athenaeus.' Dromo appears in Lucian's Timon as the 'Stock name for a slave.'"5 Grown angry, Antipholus of Syracuse beats the slave Dromio: "What, wilt thou flout me thus unto my face / Being forbid? There, take you that, sir knave" (1.2.91-92). "What mean you, sir? for God's sake hold your hands," a fearful Dromio replies: "Nay, and you will not, sir, I'll take my heels" (1.2.93-94). Shakespeare's initial identification of the Dromios as slaves occurs within the context of physical violence. Antipholus of Syracuse's "I'll to the Centaur to go seek this slave" (1.2.104) echoes two verses later in Adriana's remark "Neither my husband nor the slave return'd" (2.1.1). The repeated emphasis upon the Dromios' status as slaves immediately after the beating of act I fixes the sociopolitical value of subsequent thrashings in the play.

Returning to his mistress Adriana, Dromio of Ephesus stresses his bodily abuse:

Adr. Say, didst thou speak with him? knowst thou his mind?Eph. Dro. Ay, ay, he told his mind upon mine ear, Beshrew his hand, I scarce could understand it.Luc. Spake he so doubtfully, thou couldst not feel his meaning?Eph. Dro. Nay, he struck so plainly I could too well feel his blows; and withal so doubtfully, that I could scarce understand them.


Adriana equates this beating with the condition of slavery. When Dromio of Ephesus complains—"So that my errand due unto my tongue, / I thank him, I bare home upon my shoulders; / For in conclusion, he did beat me there"—she commands "Go back again, thou slave, and fetch him home" (2.1.72-75). Dromio's reply evokes a Christian context that doctrinally repudiates the corporeal violence associated with slavery:

Eph. Dro. Go back again, and be new beaten home? For God's sake, send some other messenger.Adr. Back slave, or I will break thy pate across.Eph. Dro. And he will bless that cross with other beating; Between you I shall have a holy head.


Dromio of Ephesus' repetition here of his earlier phrase "for God's sake" (1.2.93) and the wordplay latent in his notion of blessing a "cross"—a crucifix/an inscribed wound—"with other beating" strengthen the ironic Christian frame for negatively appraising his master's thrashing of him. "Am I so round with you, as you with me, / That like a football you do spurn me thus?" Dromio painfully questions; "You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither; / If I last in this service you must case me in leather" (2.1.82-85).

Later beatings of the Dromios match early pummelings both in their extent and magnitude. Dromio of Syracuse receives his twin's painful reward when he denies knowledge of having spoken of a mistress and dinner to his master (2.2.7-62). "Think'st thou I jest?" Antipholus of Syracuse exclaims, "hold, take thou that, and that" (2.2.23). Beaten, Dromio cries, "Hold sir, for God's sake" (2.2.24), repeating the Christian talisman for the third time in the play. "Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season," Dromio laments, "When in the why and the wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason" (2.2.47-48). Dromio of Ephesus finds only in the welts left by blows a language of protest equal to his bewilderment. "That you beat me at the mart I have your hand to show," he tells Antipholus of Ephesus: "If the skin were parchment and the blows you gave were ink, / Your own hand-writing would tell you what I think" (3.1.12-14). Concerning the sixteenth-century Spanish practice of branding Aztec slaves, the Franciscan monk Motolinia wrote, "They produced so many marks on their faces, in addition to the royal brand, that they had their faces covered with letters, for they bore the marks of all who had bought and sold them."6 Similarly Vasco de Quiroga noted, "They are marked with brands on the face and in their flesh are imprinted the initials of the names of those who are successively their owners .. . so that the faces of these men who were created in God's image have been, by our sins, transformed into paper" (p. 137). Admittedly, the comic structure of The Comedy of Errors cannot easily support the tragic weight of these facts. Nevertheless, the slavish Spanish practice and resulting commentary on it provide the closest contemporary analogue to Dromio of Ephesus' transformation of his slave's body into a book indicting its insensitive inscribers. In the Dromios' reiterated pleas to the Antipholus twins to hold their hands "for God's sake," Shakespeare's play reproduces the tension in the Spanish commentary between the injustice of slavery and Christian precept. Antipholus of Ephesus' unfeeling reply to the implied question of what the "hand-writing" on Dromio's body makes him think is the terse remark, "I think thou art an ass" (3.1.15)—an animal ordained to bear. "Marry, so it doth appear," Dromio sadly agrees, "By the wrongs I suffer and the blows I bear; /I should kick, being kick'd, and being at that pass, / You would keep from my heels, and beware of an ass" (3.1.15-18) Once again, the slave's final utterance sounds the muted note of rebellion.

As regards the beatings of the Dromios and their arresting complaints, the variations that Shakespeare plays upon his sources are significant. The slave Messenio is never beaten in Plautus' Menaechmi. In fact, his master Menechmus Sosicles gratefully frees him at play's end for having proved that Menechmus Epidamnum is his long-lost brother. In Amphitruo, the slave Sosia complains about his hard life and he is eventually beaten.7 But the administrator of the thrashing is not his master Amphitryon but the god Mercury, who has disguised himself as Sosia in order to help Jupiter seduce Amphitryon's wife Alcmena. Plautus never dramatizes a master's physical abuse of his slave.8

Antipholus of Ephesus administers the final beating of a slave in The Comedy of Errors when his own Dromio brings him a rope's end instead of money for the master's bail (4.4.8-37). In reply to Antipholus' enraged judgment "Thou art sensible in nothing but blows, and so is an ass," Dromio of Ephesus soberly generalizes the disturbing impression of the unjust treatment of slaves in this play: "I am an ass indeed; you may prove it by my long ears. I have served him from the hour of my nativity to this instant, and have nothing at his hands for my service but blows. When I am cold, he heats me with beating; when I am warm he cools me with beating; I am waked with it when I sleep, raised with it when I sit, driven out of doors with it when I go from home, welcomed home with it when I return, nay, I bear it on my shoulders as a beggar wont her brat; and I think when he hath lamed me, I shall beg with it from door to door" (4.4.25-37). Dromio's conclusion resonates with a significance far larger in its implications than the meaning of the local thrashings that the slaves receive for their several errors of mistaken identity. Nevertheless, the physical violence that the audience has witnessed and the many threats that it has heard justify both the seriousness and the length of Dromio's complaint.

These impressions challenge the different attempts of commentators to integrate the beating of the Dromios and the requisites of comedy. Gwyn Williams believes that Antipholus of Syracuse's occasional contact with Dromio of Syracuse saves the master's sanity, enabling him "to work off some of his mental anguish in the physical drubbings he administers."9 For many critics, the beating of the Dromios drains off potentially tragic emotions, keeping the play a light comedy. In this vein Ruth Nevo argues that the Dromios, "fated to miscarry and constantly belaboured by their irate masters, function to defuse by laughter the dire personal threat of traumatic non-entity, or total chaotic non-being."10 "Even the beatings of the Dromios are not excessive," Alberto Cacicedo pronounces, "given Antipholus' position in a foreign and, as he has been warned, hostile town."11 For William Babula, masters pounding slaves in The Comedy of Errors illustrate the anxious side effect of the single element present in all of the play's characters—their fear of destructive change.12 When critics seek motivation for the beatings in the makeup of character rather than in the imagined requirements of genre and dramatic ambience, they generally note references in the play to the choleric humours of the Antipholus twins.13

Harry Levin has judged that the number of beatings that the Dromios receive "is a matter of farcical convention rather than social custom."14The Comedy of Errors has often been termed a farce; and farce, as Eric Bentley has reminded us, "is notorious for its love of violent images."15 By this logic, Shakespeare's decision to become a farceur committed him to representing physical violence, essentially non-meaningful abuse. J. Dennis Huston has asserted that the characters of The Comedy of Errors "entertain us by threatening and inflicting upon one another violence that does not hurt," while Barbara Freedman has maintained that the Dromios, "well-meaning but thickheaded . . . are the true butts of farce—doomed to be beaten but never to know why."16 "By status the Dromios of Shakespeare's play are the slaves of Latin comedy," Kathleen Lea notes, "but in behavior and misfortunes they are the servants of the Commedia dell'arte . . . beaten as regularly as any Zanni."17

In these accounts farcical convention fully explains the abuse of the Dromios. Nevertheless, contrary to Levin's opinion, analysts of farce generally agree that farce and social custom are inextricably linked. David Wiles has claimed that "Plautine farce is conceived as myth," as a "collective creation which allows the community to sound out possibilities and impossibilities created by the social code."18 This sounding out as a rule entails social criticism. Jessica Davis has demonstrated that farce represents "the continual impulse to rebel against convention," which according to Bentley is frequently the rigid, imprisoning institution of puritanical marriage.19 Farce may function best, Leslie Smith concludes, "in a repressive or convention-ridden society."20 Albert Bermel asserts that from Aristophanes to Chaplin, farce has always possessed the "power of revelation," the force of illuminating social satire and political commentary. Comparing farce to comedy, Bermel argues that the didactic power of farce originates in its distorted picture of life as "more bitter, more cruel, more downright unfair."21 Concerning existential and social injustices, "the dislike that farce arouses has stronger components of violence and contempt. Therefore, [farce] more tellingly reflects and echoes the corruption, treachery, hypocrisy, brutality, and injustices of life."22


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

All this is to say that the beating of the Dromio brothers in the farcical Comedy of Errors may amount to contemporary social commentary. "Beaten at nearly every turn of the plot by the contending Adriana and Antipholi, the besieged Dromios," according to Donna Hamilton, "literalise the language of violence .. . not evenhandedly (Adriana suffers no injury) but in such a way as to display hierarchy senselessly victimizing the disempowered."23 In other words, the beating of the Dromios may represent Shakespeare's veiled criticism of certain Elizabethan social injustices. Hamilton, however, believes that the physical abuse in The Comedy of Errors allegorizes "the language of violence that had become a staple of the puritan and anti-puritan tracts and treatises" of the Marprelate controversy (pp. 59-85). Nevertheless, interpretation in this respect does not need to be so symbolically specific. The physical abuse of servants and their virtual enslavement were widely remarked features of late Elizabethan life. The mistreatment of the Dromios in The Comedy of Errors calls attention to common inequities of Shakespeare's age.

It is not common knowledge that slavery, strictly defined, was proposed several times during the Tudor period and in fact briefly implemented on two occasions. The Edwardian Vagrancy Act of 1547 made branding and slavery the punishment for sturdy beggary.24 Moreover, under the Vagrancy Act of 1572, Justices of the Peace could banish incorrigible rogues from England or condemn them to unending servitude in the galleys (p. 166). Still, something in the English temperament made undisguised, institutionalized slavery repugnant. The Act of 1547 was thought to be too severe and was repealed within two years of its passage. (In 1557, however, civil disorder provoked interest in reviving the statute condemning vagabonds to slavery.)25 Likewise, evidence that JPs availed themselves of the slavery clause of the Act of 1572 is virtually nonexistent, even though the penalty remained on the books. Englishmen such as Sir George Peckham argued that American Indians taken in war should be made slaves.26 Yet the English never adopted the early sixteenth-century Spanish practice in this respect. What is remarkable here is not so much that English statutes of slavery were proposed and then either repealed or neglected as that in the sixteenth century they were repeatedly formulated and that the ancient practice was so often on people's minds.

If slavery, strictly defined, did not become part of Elizabethan life, virtual de facto enslavement did. Of special interest is the custom among the English gentry and aristocracy of child-giving and fosterage. Patricia Fumerton has shown that both natural and foster parents thought of children in this system as essentially material gifts that could avert clan warfare and promote political alliances and stability.27 Fostered children were also thought of as investments that might reap future monetary rewards for both offspring and natural parents (in skills or arts learned, in potential mates met, in prime social connections made).28 In this sense, the materialized child is a personally unrecompensed worker for a master's profit (the foster and especially natural parent's)—a condition that at least one eminent Elizabethan poet likened to slavery. Fumerton has demonstrated that in Book VI of The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser allegorically criticizes fosterage in the tragedy of the shepherds captured by brigands: "Here the individual is not subsumed in a larger whole but lost in a murky confusion of 'things.' Here living beings are not passed along in an expanding circle of exchange but treated in a selfrestricting cycle of profit: sold as 'slaves . . . for no small reward, / To marchants, which them kept in bondage hard, / Or sold againe' (6.10.43)" (pp. 63-64). It will be recalled that in The Comedy of Errors Egeon speaks of having bought the Dromios as infants to serve his sons, "for their parents were exceeding poor" (1.1.56-57). Through the conceit of impoverished parents selling their children (illegal in Elizabethan England), Shakespeare joins a chorus criticizing the abuse of labor inherent in fosterage.

Virtual enslavement also resulted from the uniquely English practice of placing children, generally from the time they were twelve or thirteen to the age of twenty-one or even twenty-four, in other people's homes to act as servants. According to Keith Wrightson, teenaged servants gained valuable working experience, enjoyed opportunities to save which might never come again, and as they reached their 20s had the chance to look out for opportunities for permanent settlement and marriage.29 Shakespeare's alternative references to the Dromio slaves as servants—see note 4—invited Elizabethans to think of these characters as closely bound attendants.30 In this respect John Lyly's Mother Bombie (1590, publ. 1594) set a precedent. In this comedy Lyly conflates slavery and English servitude in the character Dromio, who has been regarded as either an inspiration for or an analogue to his namesakes in The Comedy of Errors. Lyly's Dromio is essentially a pageservant (he is listed as a "boy" in the play's dramatis personae). But Dromio's master Memphio implies that he is a slave when he says that the boy will be "forever set at liberty" if he can arrange a marriage between Memphio's son and Stellio's daughter (1.1.79-82).31 Dromio confirms this impression when he declares that his fellow page Risio's "knavery and my wit should make our masters that are wise fools, their children that are fools beggars, and us two that are bond free" (2.1.6-8). As the OED makes amply clear, a sixteenthcentury synonym for "bondman" was "slave." Both A. Harriette Andreadis and Violet Jeffrey have noted the incongruity of slave-keeping in rural Rochester, the English setting of Mother Bombie.32 For Andreadis, Dromio's bondman status "seems a deliberate attempt on the part of the dramatist to maintain an aura of Romanness" in a play partly inspired by the comedies of Plautus and Terence (p. 21). While this explanation may suffice for Lyly (whose veiled social commentary does not address proletarian injustices), it fails to account satisfactorily for Shakespeare's blending of service and slavery in his Dromios. Despite Wrightson's definition of the benefits of sixteenth-century English service, Elizabethan servitude and husbandry approached the condition of slavery and could on occasion be confused for it. Lyly's placing a slave named Dromio in an English setting may have simply made Shakespeare more aware of the slavishness of English servitude.

Dromio of Ephesus' summary speech of physical abuse refers to service, not slavery: "I have served him from the hour of my nativity to this instant, and have nothing at his hands for my service but blows" (4.4.28-30). The only commentator on The Commedy of Errors to broach this dimension of the play is Wolfgang Riehle, who states that "there is also a grim reality (and a 'corrective' purpose) behind the comic confusions between the Antipholi and the Dromios. These servants have good cause to fear that their masters may 'break' their 'pates,' because as Thomas Platter observed [in 1599]: 'England is the servant's prison, because their masters and mistresses are so severe.' The Elizabethan physician Dr. Napier mentions in his notebooks the tragic misfortune of a servant whose 'pate' was indeed broken by his master, whereupon he fell into a state of madness from which he never again recovered."33 E. M. W. Tillyard considered Antipholus of Syracuse's beating of his Dromio as one of several "very human touches" that make farce and romance recognizable as ordinary life in a small English town.34 Elizabethan and Jacobean records reveal that the community could be any town in England. They indicate the contemporary relevance of the pervasive violence against slavishly held servants in The Comedy of Errors.

If slavery is defined as labor without material recompense, then many English servants were basically enslaved. Annual contracts between the paterfamilias and a servant placed in his household called for the paying of wages above and beyond room and board. Nevertheless, these wages were often either never paid or outrageously shorted. Ann Kussmaul has shown that farmers in Shakespeare's age "docked shillings, even six-pences, to deny servants their settlements."35 Because the "minimum age for which wages were specified in Quarter Sessions assessments varied from ten to twenty for men, and from twelve to sixteen for women," very young servants might never receive wages for their labor (p. 37). Servants often collected no annual wages until they completed their multiyear term of service (p. 38). Even then, the number of cases that Susan Amussen has tabulated wherein "the concerns of villagers are evident in their response to masters who withheld wages or belongings at the end of a servant's employment" indicates the slavishness of English servitude.36 Compounding this problem were the conspicuous neglect and physical abuse suffered by many youthful servants.

Kussmaul quotes the servant Richard Mayo's complaint of being "'laid in some cold out-house, or meanest Loft, of a Poor Cottage, to have the leavings of coarse fare there'" (p. 40). Amussen has chronicled through case studies the often fatal plight of neglected servants: "Sara Patrick of Wickmere demanded an inquest when her daughter, Rebecca Russells, who had been a servant of William Hower and his wife, was found dead after being 'hardly kept.' . . . In 1610, William Childerhouse of Saham Toney had gone to the house of John Tennant at the request of William Wright and reported that, 'about Christmas time last past .. . he did see William Wright's daughter being the said Tennant's servant laid in a barn in a little straw covered with flaggs, the said servant at that time very sick of the Pox . . . And it seemed to him and to many .. . at that time that the said Wright's daughter was very carelessly looked to and provided for by . . . her said Master.'"37 Since (by Wrightson's conservative estimate) eighty-five percent of servants in Shakespeare's age were illiterate (pp. 190-91), court records of physically abusive masters rather than letters and diaries testify to the sexual exploitation and beating of servants. If one judges the larger number of complaints that were never written down by those forced into court by sympathetic neighbors and, on occasion, by the aggrieved servant him-or herself, violence against servants was fairly common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.38 William Marshall's horsewhipping "a 'puny' lad" can stand for a depressing host of other examples of masters' cruelty (Kussmaul, p. 46). One could object that my argument tends to normalize social pathology, that the claim that Elizabethan servants were abused and virtually enslaved comes almost exclusively from our knowledge of the prosecution and correction of these conditions. Certainly many English servants were well-treated (although the figure is impossible to estimate). Yet the sheer number of reports of abuse and the logic that would support a far greater total of unreported cases of violence imply a problem of significant social magnitude. Original audiences of The Comedy of Errors almost certainly included servants—and perhaps some enlightened masters—for whom the beating of the Dromios was not a laughable subject.

For the great mass of Elizabethan laborers, the Statute of Artificers of 1562/63 and related legislation created employment conditions resembling slavery. Sixteenthcentury English workers could not freely dispose of their labor unless they owned property valued at 40 shillings per annum, stood to inherit property worth at least this value, or owned goods appraised at £10. Craft masters might ask for and compel the labor of persons under age thirty who had completed apprenticeship in a trade. Persons between the ages of twelve and sixty without an agricultural holding who were neither bound apprentices nor practitioners of a craft could be forced to work as farm laborers, even by householders with only half a plowland in tillage.39 Refusal to do so entailed the punishment for vagrancy—whipping. Those compelled to labor had to accept badly deflated wages controlled to the taskmaster's advantage by Justices of the Peace.40 In 1572, Kussmaul notes, parishes began to bind the children of beggars as apprentices until they were twenty-four, in the case of men, and eighteen in the case of women (p. 166). Laborers were required to work from five in the morning until seven or eight at night from mid-March to mid-September; during the rest of the year, they were forced to work from daybreak to nightfall. Only two-and-a-half hours a day could be taken for eating, drinking, and rest.41 Furthermore, it was stipulated that workers could not leave their employment without their employer's written consent. While the Statute of 1562/63 and associated legislation were designed to benefit England by insuring an adequate supply of corn and foodstuffs and by eliminating the evils of idleness and vagrancy (which were thought to be the sources of social unrest and outright rebellion), they in effect enslaved tens of thousands of needy men, women, and children. Despite D. C. Colman's claim that the regulations of the Statute were either ignored or sporadically enforced,42 both Kussmaul and Amussen argue that their enforcement in the sixteenth century was more uniform than has been supposed.43 The oppressive conditions of Elizabethan service and husbandry make the bondage and ill-treatment of the Dromios realistic elements in a comedy of illusions.

If the Dromios are slaves of their masters' passions, then the masters themselves must in one sense be considered slaves—slaves of their emotional selves. R. A. Foakes implies as much when he asserts, "each Dromio applies the term 'ass' in relation to the beatings he is made to suffer, and to the way he is made to seem a fool; but the idea of being a beast operates more generally in the play, reflecting the process of passion overcoming reason, as an animal rage, fear, or spite seizes each of the main characters" (p. xlv). By this criterion, most of the characters of The Comedy of Errors, especially Antipholus of Ephesus, are slaves at one impassioned moment or another. Enslaved to his baffled anger over his wife's, courtesan's, and bondman's incomprehensible replies to his commands and explanations, Antipholus of Ephesus in his rage appears mad (and thus a candidate for binding). Bound, he is reduced to a slave's status (graphically suggested by Dromio's binding at the same time as his master's). In this case Shakespeare translates an inner bondage into a stage image suggestive of actual slavery.

Judged by Foakes's criterion, almost every important character in Shakespeare's plays could be called a "slave of passion." The phrase complicates the analysis of slavery in The Comedy of Errors, partly because it introduces the notion of figurative rather than literal enslavement (and risks confusing the two ideas). Calling a Shakespeare character a "slave of passion" evokes the specter of a sixty-year-old critical approach to Shakespeare's tragedies identified with Lily Campell.44 Nevertheless, in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare does extend his exploration of slavery from the literal to the figurative, and a shift in methodology becomes necessary to register this expansion. Thus far, the methodology of this essay could be called New Historical; in what follows it becomes formalistic. Still, literary history provides a ground for formal analysis of figurative enslavements in The Comedy of Errors. Throughout the English Renaissance writers such as Thomas Rogers, Thomas Wright, and Robert Burton used the terms "service" and "slavery" as metaphors for the relationship between reason and the passions in ways not described by Campbell.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Concerning the passion named Oblectation ("a certain binding, or inclination of the mind, to a pleasure gently and sweetness mollifying the mind"), Rogers remarks in The Anatomie of the Minde (1576) that "with this vice was Sardanapalus so brought into slavery, that he could not be one minute without pleasure."45 As regards Envy, Rogers judges that "not only those two lights and examples of vertue, Themistocles, and Aristides were brought into misery, but also the whole state of Athens into perpetuali slavery" (p. 46). In The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Burton concludes that "we are slaves and servants the best of us all. . . . Alexander was slave to feare, Caesar of pride, Vespasian to his money . . . Heliogabalus to his gut, and so of the rest. Lovers are slaves to their mistresses, rich men to their gold, Courtiers generally to lust and ambition, and all slaves to our affections, as Evangelus well discourseth in Macrobius, and Seneca the Philosopher, assiduam servitutem extreman & ineluctabilem, he calls it, a continuali slavery, to bee so captivated by vices, and who is free?"46 Even as sixteenthand seventeenthcentury writers used forms of the word "slavery" to describe passion's rule of reason, so they carefully employed the word "service" to denote passion's proper subordination. "Hereupon the Philosophers and Fathers," Wright notes in The Passions of the Mind (1601), "perceiving what commodities these passions afforded to a virtuous soul, with divers similitudes declared their service. .. . By this Discourse may be gathered that Passions are not only not wholly to be extinguished . . . but sometimes to be moved and stirred up for the service of virtue, as learnedly Plutarch teacheth."47

These and other passages in Elizabethan and Jacobean texts undergird Shakespeare's depiction of figurative self-enslavement in The Comedy of Errors. As a rule, this kind of enslavement in Shakespeare's plays requires a catalyst outside the self. Othello becomes a slave of passion when he allows himself to become the debased and eventually dehumanized agent for effecting another's will—Iago's. This causal relationship is instructive. When characters in The Comedy of Errors such as Adriana and Egeon get caught in social institutions wherein their agency in conforming to another's will makes them feel dehumanized, they act like slaves, becoming the victims of their own rage or sorrow. In their operation in the play, patriarchal marriage and rigorous, talionic law transform characters into figurative bondmen and bondwomen.

Doctrinally the wife's subordinate role in patriarchal marriage involves servitude, not slavery. When Luciana portrays the male-dominated natural hierarchy forming a rationale for patriarchal marriage (2.1.15-25), Adriana shrewdly retorts, "This servitude makes you to keep unwed" (2.1.26). Yet Adriana's marriage is far from ideal, and she pointedly articulates the slavishness lurking in the wife's servitude. Luciana's reminder that "A man is master of his liberty" (2.1.7) prompts Adriana to ask, "Why should their liberty than ours be more?" (2.1.10). Already feeling unjustly constrained, Adriana is told that her husband "is the bridle of your will" (2.1.13). When she replies, "There's none but asses will be bridled so" (2.1.14), she invokes one of the play's metaphors for enslavement. In Act 3, Dromio of Syracuse fearfully explains that Nell, the greasy kitchen wench, has claimed him as her betrothed husband: "To conclude, this drudge or diviner laid claim to me, called me Dromio, swore I was assured to her, told me what privy marks I had about me, as the mark of my shoulder, the mole in my neck, the great wart on my left arm, that I, amazed, ran from her as a witch" (3.2.138-43). Dromio's words comically make explicit a troubling aspect of Adriana's marriage to Antipholus of Ephesus, that of the spouse as no more than material goods laid claim to. Even as slaves may be known and valued by the marks upon them (the scars of whippings usually), so wives may be (although theirs are mainly congenital). Such marks determine contested ownership in both cases. The material transferability of Adriana is underscored by her recollection that Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus, "made" Antipholus "lord of me and all I had" by means of "important letters" (5.1.137-38).48 The proprietary marks on the wife's body threaten to become slavish realities when enraged Antipholus of Ephesus commands his Dromio to buy a rope by which he will whip her for having locked him out of his house (4.1.15-18). At this moment, Adriana's condition approaches that of her slave Dromio.

Like patriarchal marriage, talionic law can enslave both agent and victim. That the Ephesus of the play is a fallen city is implied by Egeon's opening speech: "Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall, / And by the doom of death end woes and all" (1.1.1-2). Ephesians and Syracusans are essentially slaves in that their lives may be bought and sold. When Ephesians, "wanting guilders to redeem their lives" (1.1.8), died in Syracuse, Solinus and the synod of Ephesus retaliated in kind, making execution the penalty for any Syracusan caught in their city, "unless a thousand marks be levied / To quit the penalty and to ransom him" (1.1.21-22). Elizabethans most likely detected the eye-for-an-eye spirit of Old Testament Law informing the codes of Shakespeare's Ephesus and Syracuse. Since Egeon's "substance, valued at the highest rate, / Cannot amount unto a hundred marks" (1.1.23-24), he is condemned to death. Egeon basically becomes a slave when he is converted into material goods and cruelly "sold" (to death) when he is found lacking. But this occurs only because Ephesians and Syracusans have generally become slaves to talionic legalism and the compounded passion of hatred that it engenders.

In one of his dramatic sources, Plautus' Amphitruo, Shakespeare could have seen how the world view of a society potentially enslaves its members. In Plautus' comedy Sosia suggests that the gods enslave anyone who does not dutifully worship them.49 Sosia connects a slave's beating not with his master's irascibility but with his own impiety:

It's a beating for me. Damn, if I haven't gone and completely forgot to thank the gods for my safe arrival. Now I'm really in the soup. If the immortal gods decide to give me my just desserts, then I'm really done for, my face would be pounded to a pudding, seeing how ungrateful I've been and after all they've done for me.

(p. 46)

Mercury later beats Sosia partly because the god resents having been compelled to turn himself into a slave. Concerning his disguise as Sosia, Mercury laments, "Yesterday I was free and genial; / Today, alas! I am a menial" (p. 46). Plautus adopts a conventional ancient perspective when he depicts a god slavishly using a mortal because Jupiter is slavishly using the lesser deity. But it is in completely stealing mortal identities that the Plautine gods most slavishly use men and women. By assuming Amphitryon's identity to satisfy his lust for Alcmena, Jupiter not only abuses Amphitryon's wife, begetting the child Hercules; the god also underscores the fact that the husband is a slave in the sense that he has no ownership of the self or its products. This degrading condition potentially applies to any mortal whose being a god may wish to appropriate and, under that guise, selfishly deceive another person. In this sense ancient men and women were the gods' slaves. Not even the most intimate details of identity were spared. Jupiter has even duplicated Amphitryon's scar on his right arm (pp. 98-99).50 These are the implications in Plautus' Amphitruo that accentuate the suggestion in The Comedy of Errors that the metaphysical principles of a community can figuratively enslave its members.

Does Shakespeare resolve the problem of slavery in The Comedy of Errors? In the Menaechmi, the slave Messenio, shouting "Io Tryumphe," receives his freedom for having proved to his master Menechmus Sosicles that Menechmus Epidamnum is his twin brother.51 Likewise, the following words of Dromio of Ephesus concerning his master suggest his enfranchisement: "Within this hour I was his bondman, sir, / But he, I thank him, gnaw'd in two my cords; / Now I am Dromio, and his man, unbound" (5.1.289-91). Dromio's punning jest turns upon the difference between bondman (slave) and unbound man (servant), but neither Antipholus brother in the remaining dialogue of the play explicitly liberates his slave. Significantly, Dromio of Ephesus speaks the play's final words, which convey the idea of human equality: "We came into the world like brother and brother, / And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another" (5.1.425-26). But Dromio directs these words to his twin, not to his master; and the Dromios have had to wait their turn to exit as the lowest denominators in a social hierarchy that privileges Duke Solinus, Emilia the Abbess, and Egeon to depart first; the Antipholus brothers second; and the menial Dromios alone last of all (5.1.403-26). The ending of The Comedy of Errors reflects the typical Shakespearean strategy of a radical idea suggested within the endorsement of a conventional social paradigm.

For Aristotle, slavery was with few exceptions an irremediable condition, since slaves by nature lack reason—humankind's defining trait: "'those, therefore, who are as much inferior to others as are the body to the soul and beasts to men, are by nature slaves. . . . He is by nature slave who. . . . shares in reason to the extent of apprehending it without possessing it ([Politics] 1254b)."'52 By this measure, the Dromios exuberantly qualify for enfranchisement, for their clever punning jests, in which they often get the better of their masters, depend for their coining on the quick faculty of reason. Dromio of Syracuse's puns, delivered in an exchange with his master (2.2.35-109), transparently reflect a syllogistic, even Scholastic, method and work to "erode the conventional master-slave relationship" (Grennan, pp. 67-68). At the end of this raillery, the bedazzled, slower-witted Antipholus of Syracuse has forgotten his rage against Dromio. As the sixteenthcentury wore on, the question for European colonizers of the New World was whether supposedly natural slavery violated New Testament teachings about the brotherhood of all men and women.53 That the problem was resolved in favor of Christianity decades before the writing of The Comedy of Errors is relevant to our analysis of this play.

Recently Arthur Kinney, drawing upon the motifs and dramaturgy of the miracle and morality plays, has documented the pervasiveness of Christian ideas in The Comedy of Errors.54 James Sanderson pointed toward Kinney's exegetical reading when he argued that Patience is a virtue whose cultivation by the characters of The Comedy of Errors "helps make possible .. . the creation of a right understanding of oneself and others, and the eventual enjoyment of those ministrations of a benign Providence which . . . brings clarification out of bafflement, happiness out of adversity, life out of death" (p. 605). It is true that forms of the words "patience" and "impatience" occur in the context of all three beatings of the Dromios. But patience is not a virtue expressly voiced by the Antipholus brothers at play's end. If Shakespeare suggests a Christian solution to the problem of slavery in The Comedy of Errors, certain ideas in Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, another major source of Shakespeare's play, hold more promise.

In Ephesians, Paul anticipates Shakespeare's tendency to include statements of equality within a larger affirmation of hierarchy. "Servants, be obedient vnto them that are your masters," Paul admonishes, "according to the flesh, with feare and trembling in singlenesse of your hearts as vnto Christ, Not with service to the eye as men pleasers, but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will, serving the Lord, and not men, And know yee that whatsoever good thing any man doth, that same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And yee masters doe the same things vnto them, putting away threatning: & know that even your master also is in heaven, neither is there respect of person with him" (6.5-9).55 Paul's final command posits universal brotherhood and undermines without overthrowing his tacit acceptance of slavery and its institutionalization in the first part of the passage. (The Geneva Bible's phrase "whether he be bond or free" acknowledges that the literal translation of the first word of the passage is "Slaves" rather than "Servants"). The method resembles the process of Paul's admonition to husbands and wives, the biblical text widely considered to comment authoritatively on the inequities of Adriana's and Antipholus of Ephesus' marriage: "Giving thankes alwayes for all things vnto God even the father, in The Name of our Lord Iesus Christ, Submitting your selves one to another in the feare of God. Wives, submit your selves vnto your husbands, as vnto the Lord. For the husband is the wives head, even as Christ is the head of the Church, and the same is the saviour of his body. Therefore as the Church is in subiection to Christ, even so let the wives bee to their husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church, and gave him selfe for it" (Ephesians 5.20-25). The sacrament of marriage mystically incorporates man and wife in a transformation of patriarchal Christianity.

In a recent study of femininity and English Renaissance drama, Karen Newman denies the message of equality in the above-quoted Pauline text: "throughout the writings on marriage, man is figured as the head, woman as the body; they are one flesh, a Renaissance commonplace. But the union is not equal in that the male term—head, mind, and by analogy here Christ—has a positive value, while the female term has sometimes merely a lesser value, sometimes a more directly negative value. Women are bodies, associated with nature."56 This interpretation ignores several nuances of the biblical text. Paul's admonition, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it" entails a self-sacrificial passion—a love so selfless that the head risks all for the life of the body (of which it is in fact part). As read by Reformation protestants, Paul's admonition "Submitting your selves one to another in the feare of God" implied the mutuality of companionate marriage, a give-and-take in which comforting roles between husband and wife shift often, out of Christian love for the spouse and the daily necessities of married life.57 At the finest moments of married love, the head and the body indistinguishably fuse in a sanctified one flesh—a fact that Adriana clearly understands. Concerning Antipholus of Ephesus' abandonment of her and turning to the courtesan, she rhetorically asks,

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; 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.


Outraged Adriana can perhaps be excused for the one fault in her argument—that she in her married chastity is "better than thy dear self's better part." Essentially, however, her characterization of the one flesh of marriage reproduces the blurred difference in the verses following Paul's central injunctions. "So ought men to love their wives, as their own bodies: he that loveth his wife, loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his owne flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord doeth the Church. For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones" (Ephesians 5.28-30). For later ages, the egalitarian burden of these Pauline passages humanized patriarchal marriage, precluding slavish treatment of the wife, without destroying the Judeo-Christian hierarchical mindset.58

Concerning Adriana's and Antipholus of Ephesus' marriage, Alexander Leggati has judged that "one curious feature of the ending is that, while the problems of the marriage have been thoroughly aired, there is no explicit reconciliation between husband and wife. The director may contrive a forgiving embrace, but nothing in the text requires it."59 (One suspects, however, that the rough physical trials that Antipholus of Ephesus has endured in the course of the play have softened him a bit.) Adriana and Antipholus do not necessarily have to embrace, however, for the radical anti-enslavement message of the Pauline direction on marriage to comment relevantly on The Comedy of Errors. For informed playgoers, pertinent passages in Ephesians operate as a subtext in Shakespeare's play, providing a corrective for the enslavement of servants, spouses, and parts of the self even when dramatic characters do not expressly voice and act out the texts. Plautine comedies like Shakespeare's usually include an adaptation of the cognito of New Comedy, the discovery that a girl is not a slave or courtesan but of higher birth that makes her marriageable. In The Comedy of Errors, the cognito, which is multiplied among Egeon and Emilia the Abbess and their sons and slaves, extends to members of the audience attuned to the resonances of the Ephesian scripture that extensive dramatic allusion has evoked; they discover the source of the mindset for self-enfranchisement and the unslavish treatment of others in an on-going patriarchal society.

Confronted finally with the visual spectacle of identical twins, Duke Solinus, asking which Antipholus brother is "the natural man / And which the spirit" (5.1.333-34), posits the notion of a single two-part organism within a biblical context of the Old and New Adam. His utterance, "One of these men is genius to the other" (5.1.332) essentially amounts to a rhetorical question. Only when he is freed from his enslavement to the natural man, the man of vicious passion and of an eye-for-an-eye, can the spiritual man of grace and charity assume his rightful place of guide. Barbara Freedman has called our attention to an overlooked passage in Ephesians that illuminates this dimension of the play. Alluding to the union of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ, Paul argues, "For he is our peace, which hath made of both one, and hath broken the stoppe of the partition wall, In abrogating through his flesh the hatred, that is, the Law of commaundements which standeth in ordinances, for to make of twaine one newe man in himselfe, so making peace, And that he might reconcile both vnto God in one body by his crosse, and slay hatred thereby" (2. 14-6).60 Such a passage provides a gloss on Shakespeare's suggestion of the reconciliation of warring selves in "one newe man." Initially, this new man is Solinus himself, whose gracious release of Egeon from his enslavement to the lex talionis starts a series of events that include the liberation of other characters from various figurative but nevertheless painfully real bondages. This release occurs because Solinus is moved to free himself from the retributive law of his city. The heartrending spectacle of long-suffering members of Egeon's and Emilia's family rediscovering one another liberates the Duke from an enslaving iron law. Recognizing Egeon, Emilia exclaims, "Whoever bound him, I will loose his bonds, / And gain a husband by his liberty" (5.1.339-40). But only Solinus can annual a secular law. "These ducats pawn I for my father here" (5.1.389), Antipholus of Ephesus proclaims; "It shall not need," Solinus replies, "thy father hath his life" (5.1.390). In terms of my subject, the gratuitousness of Egeon's release is crucial. Deeply moved by what he has seen and heard, Solinus without expectation of reward enfranchises first himself and then Egeon, whose new freedom makes possible both Emilia's release from the long bondage of the priory and the nun's empty life and the Antipholus brothers' freedom from tragedy in their sudden joy. The thirty-three years that Emilia mentions as the term of her travail recalls Christ's traditional age when he was released from the slavery of this life. Providence has managed apparently fortuitous events and errors to promote, even compel, the dissolution of several kinds of figurative enslavement.

Still, providence leaves unaltered the rigid hierarchy of a society in which the Dromios remain slaves and husbands the masters of their wives.61 R. A. Foakes reminds us that Shakespeare's comedies often have as their end "a re-establishment of responsibility among individuals in a society in the light of a test undergone, or a penance endured, or acceptance of moral bondage in the full understanding of what this means" (p. 1). The import of the passages in the Pauline Ephesians that Shakespeare's allusions evoke facilitates for playgoers—if not fully for the characters of The Comedy of Errors—an "acceptance of moral bondage in the full understanding of what [bondage] means" in a patriarchal society. Presumably that involves purging, whenever possible, slavishness from servitude.62


1The Comedy of Errors, ed. R. A. Foakes, The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1962). All quotations are taken from this edition.

2 In "'Time's Deformed Hand': Sequence, Consequence, and Inconsequence in The Comedy of Errors, " Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972), pp. 81-91, Garnnini Salgado remarks that "the servants, in their hithering and thithering and the 'strokes' they collect at either end become veritable travelling clocks being constantly reset" (p. 86). In this view the "strokes" of beating testify to the disruption of the regular "strokes" of time in The Comedy of Errors.

3 Eamon Grennan, "Arm and Sleeve: Nature and Custom in The Comedy of Errors," Philological Quarterly 59 (1980): 150-64, esp. 159.

4 Following Rowe, Foakes in his list of dramatis personae terms the Dromios "servants to the Antipholus twins" (p. 2). Luciana's command, "Dromio, go bid the servants spread for dinner" (2.2.187), makes the nomination seem plausible, as does Dromio of Syracuse's judgment, "Thither I must, although against my will; / For servants must their masters' minds fulfil" (4.1.113-14). Moreover, Egeon calls Dromio of Syracuse his master's "attendant" (1.1.127). Antipholus of Syracuse's repeated reference to his Dromio as a "villain"—1.2.19, 96; 2.2.163; 3.1.6, 43; 4.4.22—conveys the sense of villenage, that is to say, social and economic bondage. Adriana and Egeon name Dromio of Ephesus a "bondman" (5.1.141, 289). Nevertheless, the nine references to the Dromios as "slaves" make this term their primary identifier in The Comedy of Errors.

5 T. W. Baldwin, On the Compositional Genetics of 'The Comedy of Errors" (Urbana, 1965), p. 220. Shakespeare may have been indebted to Terence via John Lyly's Mother Bombie (1590, publ. 1594), in which a bondman named Dromio appears. According to Foakes, Lyly took the name from "Dromo, given to a slave in several of the comedies of Terence" (p. xxi).

6 Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard (1982; rpt. New York, 1984), p. 137.

7 Plautus, Amphitruo, Amphitryon: The Legend and Three Plays, trans. James H. Mantinband (Chapel Hill, 1974), pp. 39-108, esp. 45-46, 50, 57-60.

8 This is the conclusion of Erich Segal, Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus, 2nd ed. (New York, 1987), pp. 138-54. Segal cites Mercury's cuffing of Sosia in Amphitruo as the only certain instance in all of Plautus' plays of a slave's onstage physical abuse (p. 153). In Chapters 4 and 5, "From Slavery to Freedom" (pp. 99-136) and "From Freedom to Slavery" (pp. 137-69), Segal argues that the absence of slave-beating and the manumission of the slave in Plautine drama reveal its Saturnalian nature, its topsy-turvy inversion of the normal orders and tough realities of Roman society (evoked in the comedies by the obsessive talk of beating, torturing, and crucifying slaves [pp. 138-42]). It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare would have been aware of the Saturnalian inversions of Plautus' plays if only because the historiography necessary for recovering the festive context of their performance had not yet been developed.

9 Gwyn Williams, "The Comedy of Errors Rescued from Tragedy," Review of English Literature 5:4 (1964), 63-71, esp. 65.

10 Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London, 1980), p. 28.

11 Alberto Cacicedo, "'A formal man again': Physiological Humours in The Comedy of Errors," The Upstart Crow 11 (1991), 24-38, esp. 28.

12 William Babula, "'If I dream not': Unity in The Comedy of Errors," South Atlantic Bulletin 38 (1973), 26-33.

13 Cacicedo 26. While Cacicedo makes this claim only for Antipholus of Ephesus' character, Wolfgang Riehle, in Shakespeare, Plautus, and the Humanist Tradition (Cambridge, MA., 1990), pp. 59-61, delineates the equally choleric character of Antipholus of Syracuse and correctly describes the similar temperaments of the twin masters. In "Patience in The Comedy of Errors," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 16 (1975), 603-18, James L. Sanderson states that "the pummeling of the brothers Dromio sometimes strikes modern audiences as a not-very-funny comic cliché from a socially primitive era, a cheap ploy to earn guffaws of an unfeeling if not barbaric audience. In reality, however, Shakespeare has charged these attacks with meaning; they are the outward and visible signs of imperfections of character, of lapses from rational control and surrender to the passions in short, manifestations of impatience" (p. 608).

14 Harry Levin, "Two Comedies of Errors," Refractions: Essays in Comparative Literature (New York, 1966), pp. 128-50, esp. 139.

15 Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama (1964; rpt. New York, 1965), p. 219.

16 J. Dennis Huston, Shakespeare's Comedies of Play (New York, 1981), p. 18; Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca, NY, 1991), p. 88. Freedman's claim that the Dromios "never question the angry beatings they receive" (p. 88) simply is not true.

17 Kathleen M. Lea, Italian Popular Comedy: A Study of the Commedia Dell'Arte, 1560-1620 (Oxford, 1934), 2.438.

18 David Wiles, "Taking Farce Seriously: Recent Critical Approaches to Plautus," Farce, ed. James Redmond (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 261-71, esp. p. 269.

19 Jessica M. Davis, Farce (London, 1978), p. 22; The Life of the Drama, p. 229.

20 Leslie Smith, Modern British Farce (Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1989), p. 14.

21 Albert Bermel, Farce: A History from Aristophanes to Woody Allen (1982; rpt. Carbondale, 1990), pp. 44-45.

22 Bermel, p. 45. In the words of this cultural historian, farce satisfies "our desires for political and social leveling" (p. 46).

23 Donna B. Hamilton, Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England (Lexington, 1992), p. 78.

24 Roger B. Manning, Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509-1640 (Oxford, 1988), p. 165. Also see C. S. L. Davies, "Slavery and Protector Somerset: The Vagrancy Act of 1547," Economic History Review 19 (1966), 533-49.

25 Margaret G. Davies, The Enforcement of English Apprenticeship, 1563-1642, Harvard Economic Studies 97 (Cambridge, MA, 1956), p. 4.

26 Loren E. Pennington, "The Amerindian in English Promotional Literature, 1572-1625," The Westward Experience: English Activities in Ireland, the Atlantic, and America 1480-1650, ed. K. R. Andrews, N. P. Canny, and P. E. H. Hair (Liverpool, 1978), pp. 17594, esp. p. 182.

27 Patricia Fumerton, Cultural Aesthetics: Renaissance Literature and the Practice of Social Ornament (Chicago, 1991), pp. 29-66.

28 Miriam Slater, Family Life in the Seventeenth Century: The Verneys of Claydon House (London, 1984), pp. 132-38.

29 Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (New Brunswick, NJ, 1982), pp. 113-14.

30 Shakespeare's various textual names for the Dromios have led critics—in a usually unexamined manner—to refer in their writings to the characters now as servants, then as slaves. This inexactness in analysis is illustrated by Harold Brooks, "Themes and Structure in The Comedy of Errors," Early Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (1961; rpt. New York, 1966), pp. 55-71, esp. pp. 62-63.

31 John Lyly, Mother Bombie, ed. A. Harriette Andreadis (Salzburg, 1975), p. 73.

32 Andreadis, pp. 20-21; Violet Jeffrey, John Lyly and the Italian Renaissance (1928; rpt. New York, 1969), p. 113.

33 Riehle, p. 11. This critic believes that "the ultimate reason for this violence against servants seems to be the extreme political and social conservatism as represented above all by the Protestant William Tyndale who held that like an ox or a horse, a servant is part of a man's possessions" (p. 11, n51).

34 E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Early Comedies (New York, 1965), pp. 55-56.

35 Ann Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 47-48.

36 Susan D. Amussen, An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1988), p. 160.

37 Amussen, pp. 159-61, esp. p. 160. Numerous other case studies of the physical abuse of Elizabethan and Jacobean servants appear in Carl Bridenbaugh, Vexed and Troubled Englishmen, 1590-1642 (1967; rpt. New York, 1968), pp. 90-91; and Michael MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 86-88.

38 See esp. Kussmaul, pp. 44-48. Regarding masters' violence against servants in Shakespeare's age, MacDonald notes that "proving physical abuse must have been difficult, as the severity of the court records suggests. Similarly, a young woman who had been sexually abused had to choose between the disgrace of admitting that she had lost her virginity and her desire for revenge: many of those who were lucky enough not to become pregnant must have preferred silence. Only one of the eight young women whose masters were reported to have abused them is known to have prosecuted her employer" (p. 88).

39 Margaret Davies, p. 273; Christopher Hill, Change and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, MA, 1975), p. 222.

40 According to Hill, the Statute of 1562/3 "had the effect of depressing wages and lowering the status of all wage-labourers in town and country" (p. 222).

41Tudor Economic Documents, ed. R. H. Tawney and Eileen Power (London, 1924), 1, 324.

42 D. C. Colman, "Labour in the English Economy of the Seventeenth Century," Economic History Review 8 (1956), 280-95, esp. 291.

43 Kussmaul, p. 166; Amussen, pp. 48-49.

44 Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (Cambridge, 1930).

45 Thomas Rogers, A Philosophicall Discourse Entitled, The Anatomie of the Minde (1576), p. 7.

46 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Nicholas K. Kiessling, Thomas Faulkner, Rhonda L. Blair (Oxford, 1990), II, 173. Burton also explains that history shows that literal enslavement brings on melancholy and makes the imprisoned morbidly passionate (I, 341-44).

47 Thomas Wright, The Passion of the Mind in General, ed. William W. Newbold (1601; rpt. New York, 1986), p. 101.

48 Antipholus of Ephesus confirms Adriana's words when, speaking to the Duke, he bitterly refers to her as "she whom thou gav'st to me to be my wife" (5.1.198).

49 The following quotations of Amphitruo are taken from the Mantinband text.

50 While this detail is part of the interpolated scene written in imitation of Plautus by the fifteenth-century Cardinal Hermolaus Barbarus, it remains true in spirit to a classical understanding of the gods' ways with mortals.

51The "Menaechmi" of Plautus, trans. William Warner, The Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Volume I, Early Comedies, Poems, "Romeo and Juliet, " ed. Geoffrey Bullough (London, 1957), pp. 13-39, esp. pp. 37, 39.

52 In Todorov, p. 152.

53 This tormenting question was memorably set and conclusively resolved by the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, as John D. Cox explains in Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power (Princeton, NJ, 1989), pp. 1-21. Also see Todorov, pp. 134-39, 160-61.

54 Arthur F. Kinney, "Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and the Nature of Kinds," Studies in Philology 85 (1988), 29-52. But cf. Jonathan V. Crewe, "God or The Good Physician: The Retired Playwright in The Comedy of Errors," Genre 15 (1982), 203-23, esp. 208. Kinney likens the mistreatment of the Dromios to the "knockabout farce" in miracle plays on Cain and Abel, with both these plays and the episodes in The Comedy of Errors providing relief between the "serious treatments of the fall (and 'death') of Adam (needing, like Egeon, to be saved in the person or representative of Christ). . . and the high seriousness in showing how Christ's love conquered travail and sin (as with the increasing seriousness of the final scenes of Shakespeare's play)" (p. 42).

55 Quotations of Ephesians are taken from the 1602 (3rd) edition of The Geneva Bible, ed. Gerald T. Sheppard (New York, 1989).

56 Karen Newman, Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago, 1991), p. 16.

57 Companionate marriages of Reformation protestantism and their new mutuality are described by Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London, 1975), pp. 77-128; by Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge, 1980), pp. 19-20; and by Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven, 1985), pp. 8-10.

58 Nevertheless, in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare subtly qualifies hierarchical thinking, especially as it authorizes the husband's absolute mastery of his wife. Luciana's portrayal of an Elizabethan cosmos in which every creature for the sake of universal order has a master, the wife her husband (2.1.15-25), possesses an authoritative ring. The same may be said for the Abbess' later rebuke of Adriana for usurping her subordinate place by jealously railing against her husband so as to make him vulnerable to the madness of rage (5.1.68-86). (Still, Adriana's rebuke of Antipholus has been in response to a violation of marriage, "Some love [for the courtesan] that drew him oft from home" [5.1.56]. Adriana's "clamours" chiefly take the form of telling her husband that his promiscuity is "vile and bad" [5.1.67]—an evil, in other words. It is surprising—and a bit contradictory—that the head of a religious order should sharply condemn a wife for railing partly meant to be morally redemptive.) Luciana's world picture is exclusively natural; if Elizabethans did not need nurture—all the effects of civilization (such as the egalitarian messages of the sacrament of marriage and the epistle to the Ephesians)—to rectify their fallen natures, Luciana's natural hierarchy might constitute a model worthy of emulation. (If humankind were no more than fish or "winged fowls" [2.1.18], she might have a point relevant to the conduct of its mating). Luciana's unmollified hierarchical thinking underlies her personally discreditable advice to the twin she supposes is Antipholus of Ephesus—that he remain Adriana's master by secretly satisfying his lust for courtesans and so supposedly not paining his ignorant wife (3.2.1-28). Luciana's belief that "We [women] in your motion turn, and you may move us" (3.2.24) recalls, by its allusion to the movement of the spheres, her earlier argument for cosmic hierarchy. Yet heard as part of her morally questionable advice, the opinion and the absolute male mastery in marriage that it entails suffer. Likewise, the Abbess' rebuke in act V is undercut by Luciana's rejoinder, "She never reprehended him but mildly, / When he demean'd himself rough, rude and wildly; / Why bear you these rebukes and answer not?" (5.1.87-89). Obviously Luciana has a double standard: unquestioning compliance to the husband/master's will for wives in general and a considerable egalitarian latitude, subject to negotiation, for herself as imagined wife and for an unhappy wife for whom she cares a great deal. All of these ironies, while not overturning the social hierarchy of patriarchal marriage, validate the humanizing of the model implied in the Ephesian subtext of The Comedy of Errors.

59 Alexander Leggati, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London, 1974), p. 8.

60 Quoted in Freedman, p. 101.

61 Nevertheless, the visually stereotyped slave of the play is neither Dromio twin but Dr. Pinch, "This pernicious slave" (5.1.242) according to Antipholus of Ephesus. "A hungry lean-fac'd villain," "A mere anatomy, a mountebank, / A thread-bare juggler and a fortune-teller, / A needy-hollow-eye'd-sharp-lookingwretch" (5.1.238-41). Dr. Pinch illustrates the worst kind of slavery in the play: bondage to an inflated self-conception based upon the practice of bankrupt arts such as fortune-telling, sorcery, and exorcism. It is the failure of these arts that has wasted Pinch and given him a beggarly appearance. Pinch—not the Dromios—perceptibly typifies the condition of slavery in The Comedy of Errors. Shakespeare thus in act 5 provides a benchmark that allows playgoers to realize that the Dromios are not abject slaves. One senses that the witty play of their minds would always preclude the Pinch kind of enslavement to debilitating egoism and dogma.

62 Richard Strier, David Evett, and Judith Weil improved this paper through their constructive criticisms of an earlier draft, presented at the 1993 Shakespeare Association of America meeting. For another account of slavery in an English Renaissance play, see Carolyn Prager, "The Problem of Slavery in The Custom of the Country," Studies in English Literature 28 (1988), 301-17.

Source: "Slavery, English Servitutde, and The Comedy of Errors," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 31-56.




The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 26)