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Errors and Labors: Feminism and Early Shakespearean Comedy

(Shakespearean Criticism)

"Errors" and "Labors": Feminism and Early Shakespearean Comedy

Ann Thompson, Roehampton Institute

Most feminist critics have simply ignored The Comedy of Errors and Love's Labor's Lost: the bibliographies on these plays in the pioneering anthology, The Woman's Part (1980), are minimal,1 and the number of items specifically devoted to them in the Garland Annotated Bibliography of Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism (1991) is still very low.2 On one level, feminist critics are simply perpetuating the general critical neglect of the earliest works in the canon, whatever the genre, which is disappointing in itself if one had entertained hopes that something genuinely new was happening in Shakespeare criticism. It is indeed quite baffling that plays like Titus Andronicus and the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy have not attracted more attention, with their strong but demonized women (Tamora, Joan of Arc, Margaret). The only exception amongst the early comedies has been, predictably enough, The Taming of the Shrew, which has been rediscovered and reread with, as it were, a vengeance.

I do not propose to attempt to appropriate The Comedy of Errors and Love's Labor's Lost for feminism, nor to attack them for not making themselves available for this kind of appropriation. Rather, my emphasis is on how these texts raise issues that are of real interest to feminist critics. One part of my project is to collect and survey such work as has been done so far. The other part is to consider lines of investigation that might be undertaken in the future.

A particular reason for critical neglect in the case of Errors an inconstant throughout the play by the mistaken-identity plot, while the men in Love's Labor's Lost are ridiculed in the same way in the scene (5.2.79-483) where they make love to the wrong (masked) ladies. In both plays (again, as in the other comedies and in Romeo and Juliet), the men make extravagant vows or declarations of affection that are treated skeptically by the women. In 3.2 of The Comedy of Errors, Luciana rejects the advances of Antipholus of Syracuse, reminding him of his marriage vows to her sister (which were of course made by Antipholus of Ephesus). In Love's Labor's Lost, all four young men begin by vowing not to see women at all, but they quickly break their vows and resort to sophistry for "some salve for perjury" (4.3.285). Not surprisingly, they have difficulty at the end in convincing the women that they are serious.

There are some specific feminist discussions that are relevant here. Deborah T. Curren Aquino has argued that the women in the early plays, though not yet dominant forces like Rosalind in As You Like It, possess highly developed survival skills that make them more adaptable and resourceful than the men.3 She concentrates especially on their verbal skills, demonstrating how the women in Love's Labor's Lost outsmart and outmaneuver the men, while Adriana at the end of The Comedy of Errors reasons logically with the Duke, in contrast to her emotional, irrational husband. Aquino also argues that the female characters are more practical and more efficient.

Irene G. Dash, in a chapter on Love's Labor's Lost in her book Wooing, Wedding and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays, specifically champions the Princess as a strong, self-assertive woman: "original in her thinking, she is unafraid and undominated".4 She points out that this character has been the victim of editorial and stage tradition: Pope cut many of her lines in his 1723 edition, and Johnson in 1765 voiced a general disapproval:

In this play, which all editors have concurred to censure, and some have rejected as unworthy of our poet, it must be confessed that there are many passages mean, childish, and vulgar; and some which ought not to have been exhibited, as we are told they were, to a maiden queen.5

It was this 'vulgarity' (of which I shall have more to say below) that led to the part of the Princess being much abbreviated on stage; as elsewhere in her book, Dash proves the stage tradition to...

(The entire section is 3,959 words.)