The Comedy of Errors Slavery, English Servitude, and The Comedy of Errors
by William Shakespeare

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(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...

(The entire section is 10,795 words.)