Slavery, English Servitude, and The Comedy of Errors - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 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


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 5820 words.)