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Errors and Labors: Feminism and Early Shakespearean Comedy

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"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...

(This entire section contains 3959 words.)

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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 amaiden 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 have been more sexist than the text. Dash is also refreshing in her analysis of the critical tradition, demonstrating how the Princess has been consistently ignored or underestimated by writers who take it for granted that Rosaline, who is Berowne's amorous partner, must also be his intellectual foil. Such critics then prove, to their own satisfaction, that Rosaline does not seriously rival Berowne in this area, conveniently ignoring the princess, who arguably does.

There is a slight problem of essentialist naivety in these discussions, as when Dash writes that "the exchange between [the Princess] and Boyet illustrates the dramatist's remarkable insight into the mind of a woman and his ability to create, as Pope observed, characters as 'Individual as those in Life itself."6 Nevertheless it is true that even at the end of the play these women remain independent, at least temporarily, refusing the men the closure of immediate marriage.

A male feminist critic, Peter Erickson, has explicitly contrasted the ending of Love's Labor's Lost with that of As You Like It, where the men's control is reaffirmed and the women are rendered nonthreatening. In that play, Rosalind explicitly submits to male power, saying to both her father and her husband "To you I give myself, for I am yours" (5.4.116-17). Moreover, the Epilogue reminds the audience that the performer of the heroine's role is not really a woman at all: as Erickson puts it, "Not only are women to be subordinate; they can, if necessary, be imagined as nonexistent."7 The formal awkwardness of the ending of Love's Labor's Lost perhaps renders it aesthetically inferior to As You Like It, but from the viewpoint of sexual politics the later play does not represent an unqualified advance.

The ending of The Comedy of Errors is significant among the early or middle comedies due to the prominence of the mother. Feminist and other critics have recently explored some of the missing mothers in Shakespeare in essays such as Coppélia Kahn's "The Absent Mother in King Lear"8 and Stephen Orgel's "Prospero's Wife."9 Kahn has also written on The Comedy of Errors in her book Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare, where she focuses on the identity crisis in the play and its relation to the sea:

In [The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night], the fear animating the identity crisis is the fear of losing hold of the self; in psychoanalytic terms, the fear of ego loss. Often it is expressed as the fear of being engulfed, extinguished, or devoured in the sea or in some oceanic entity.10

Another psychoanalytic critic, Ruth Nevo, explores the same idea, finding the sea an:

archetypal symbol of vicissitude in human life—yes; but "oceanic," it will be recalled, was Freud's term for those fantasies of merging, union and dissolution which are rooted in yearnings for the primal symbiosis of infant and mother.11

Both critics quote the words of Antipholus of Syracuse:

I to the world am like a drop of water, That in the ocean seeks another drop, Who, falling there to find his fellow forth (Unseen, inquisitive), confounds himself. So I, to find a mother and a brother, In quest of them (unhappy), ah, lose myself.


Antipholus' search for his mother represents a nostalgia for a lost state of bliss—the undifferentiated union of mother and child. The fantasy of merging with another human being is also a nightmare of losing one's own identity. The ultimate reunion with the identical twin (as also in Twelfth Night) both satisfies the longing for a return to some kind of original union and reestablishes individual identity by resolving the confusions that have built up.

There is a curiously strong emphasis on the act of giving birth both at the beginning and at the end of The Comedy of Errors. In the opening scene, Egeon describes how he had been obliged to leave his wife when she was "almost at fainting under / The pleasing punishment that women bear" (1.1.45-46) and how she subsequently became "A joyful mother of two goodly sons" (50), adding

That very hour, and in the self-same inn. A mean woman was delivered Of such a burthen male, twins both alike.


In the final scene, the Abbess, revealing herself to be the long-lost mother, celebrates:

Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail Of you, my sons, and till this present hour My heavy burthen [ne'er] delivered.


However, the actual dramatic role of the mother here is to criticize her daughter-in-law, Adriana, and especially to tell her that her husband's blatant infidelity is her own fault—indeed that her jealousy may have driven him mad. She interrogates Adriana at some length, leading her on to incriminate herself by admitting to a more extreme form of jealous behavior than she has in fact practiced. This is perhaps the most remarkable example of the double standard in the entire canon: is it possible to imagine someone scolding Othello in this way and telling him that he should have put up with his wife's infidelity quietly?

Moreover, although the mother is present in this scene, the main emphasis is on the reunions of the male twins. Janet Adelman has even argued that both The Comedy of Errors and Love's Labor's Lost are not primarily concerned with marriage at all but with male identities, male bonding, and male friendship, all of which are potentially threatened by women and marriage.13

This threat to male relationships perhaps underlies the wildly shifting attitudes to women displayed by the men in both plays. They veer from worshipping them as quasi-divine beings to despising them as mere sensual animals. Their language about women ranges from romantic lyricism to bawdy innuendo and downright obscenity. This is most obvious in Love 's Labor's Lost when, in 4.3, the men produce extravagant sonnets in praise of their mistresses. Longaville, for example, speaks of the "heavenly rhetoric of [Maria's] eye" (58) and claims,

A woman I forswore, but I will prove, Thou being a goddess, I forswore not thee. My vow was earthly, thou a heavenly love;


On which Berowne comments,

This is the liver-vein, which makes flesh a deity, A green goose a goddess; pure, pure [idolatry].


Nevertheless, Berowne's own subsequent "salve for perjury" is much in the same style, arguing that it is the women who are the true inspiration of all learning:

For when would you, my lord, or you, or you, Have found the ground of study's excellence Without the beauty of a woman's face? From women's eyes this doctrine I derive: They are the ground, the books, the academes, From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire.


For where is any author in the world Teaches such beauty as a woman's eye?


For when would you, my liege, or you, or you, In leaden contemplation have found out Such fiery numbers as the prompting eyes Of beauty's tutors have enrich'd you with?


From women's eyes this doctrine I derive: They sparkle still the right Promethean fire; They are the books, the arts, the academes, That show, contain, and nourish all the world, Else none at all in aught proves excellent.


Yet Berowne has begun the scene with a very negative description of his own experience of being in love, "I am toiling in a pitch—pitch that defiles" (2-3), and has spoken harshly of his choice:

And among three to love the worst of all, A whitely wanton with a velvet brow, With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes; Ay, and, by heaven, one that will do the deed Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard.


The play provides no justification for this attack on Rosaline's morals: it is just assumed (as in The Taming of the Shrew at 2.1.294-96) that a spirited or outspoken woman must be unchaste.

The "war against the affections" undertaken by the men in the opening scene of Love 's Labor 's Lost, although supposedly a general one against "the world's desires" and involving devotion to study as well as abstinence from food and sleep, quickly turns out to focus exclusively on the vows about women and the threat they pose to the all-male utopia. The first item Berowne reads from the paper he is about to sign is "That no woman shall come within a mile of [the] court. .. . On pain of losing her tongue" (1.1.119-24). While women are, as usual, stereotyped as talkative, it is the men's language in this play that is actually out of control—explicitly so at 4.3.270 when, during the competitive praising of mistresses, Berowne says of Rosaline (apparently forgetting her pitch-ball eyes) "I'll prove her fair, or talk till doomsday here."

Of course the utopia is doomed. From the beginning, Costard the "clown" has pointed out "it is the manner of a man to speak to a woman. . . . Such is the simplicity of man to hearken after the flesh" (1.1.209-18). The country wench Jacquenetta finishes the play two months pregnant with Don Armado's child. There seems to be a class differentiation here, with the lower-class characters accepting the basic facts of life in a way the higherclass characters find difficult, but the play does not simply endorse the lower classes. Berowne's own put-down of Rosaline quoted above ends with a class-insult: "Some men must love my lady, and some Joan" (3.1.205). Don Armado is anxious to justify his love by the precedents of "great men" such as Hercules and Samson (1.2.65-76), and Berowne also cites Solomon, Nestor, and Timon (4.3.165-68). Both class and gender hierarchies are evoked by the patronizing analogies of the king and the beggarmaid (1.2.109-17 and 4.1.64-66) and that of Jove turning mortal for love of a woman (4.3.115-18). There is a comparable class differentiation in The Comedy of Errors, where the greasy kitchen wench is a joke and her pursuit of Dromio of Syracuse a parody of courtship. She is "a very beastly creature" (3.2.88), "a mountain of mad flesh" (4.4.154).

Women of all classes are identified with "flesh," the body, sexuality—what Lear is later to call "the sulphurous pit" (4.6.128). In The Comedy of Errors, they are also seen as witches and devils: the Courtesan is addressed as "Satan" by Antipholus of Syracuse, who tells his servant she is worse than the devil—"she is the devil's dam" (4.3.48-51). They subsequently call her "fiend" and "sorceress" (64-66)—this is again reminiscent of the way Kate is demonized in The Taming of the Shrew (for example, at 1.1.66, 105, 121-25). The supposed threats to male identity of enchantment and physical transformation are also specifically associated with women at the end of The Comedy of Errors, when the Duke says "I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup" (5.1.271).

The other way that women turn men into beasts is of course through infidelity: they give them cuckolds' horns. This is an obsessive theme in both tragedy and comedy in this period. Coppélia Kahn points out that it depends on three things:

First, misogyny, in particular the belief that all women are lustful and fickle; second, the double standard, by which man's infidelity is tolerated, while woman's is an inexcusable fault; and third, patriarchal marriage, which makes a husband's honor depend on his wife's chastity.14

The Comedy of Errors contains Shakespeare's longest and most explicit discussion of the double standard. In 2.1, Adriana, whose husband is being unfaithful to her, asks, "Why should their [that is, men's] liberty than ours be more?" (10), to which her sister Luciana replies with a general chain-of-being argument:

The beasts, the fishes, and the winged fowls Are their males' subjects and at their controls: Man, more divine, the master of all these, Lord of the wide world and wild wat'ry seas, Indu'd with intellectual sense and souls, Of more pre-eminence than fish and fowls, Are masters to their females, and their lords: Then let your will attend on their accords.


This is the same appeal to cosmic/civic order (as opposed to theological decree) used by Kate at the end of The Taming of the Shrew. Later in the scene, Luciana, like the Abbess in 5.1, scolds Adriana for her "selfharming jealousy" (102) and advises patience. When Luciana is courted by Antipholus of Syracuse, whom she takes for Adriana's husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, she accepts the double standard while rejecting his advances:

If you did wed my sister for her wealth, Then for her wealth's sake use her with more kindness: Or if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth, Muffle your false love with some show of blindness:


Tis double wrong, to truant with your bed, And let her read it in your looks at board:


Feminist critics have differed in their use of this material. Juliet Dusinberre cites the debate as evidence that in real life women were arguing for their rights within marriage,15 while Lisa Jardine sees Adriana's articulateness in defense of women as ironically underlining the actual helplessness of a wife: when the wronged wife does (albeit unwittingly) finally shut her husband out of the house, he sends for a "rope's end" to beat her with (4.1.16).16

Another relevant aspect of women-as-flesh is the whole issue of verbal obscenity in these plays. People who encounter Shakespeare as readers of edited texts are to some extent protected from the high level of obscenity in his work by squeamish editors who have traditionally passed over certain phrases or simply labeled them "double entendres " or "sexual equivoques" without further explanation. Similarly, in the theater, audiences have been protected by cuts justified in the past by propriety and in the present by obscurity. As Irene Dash says of the chief heroine in Love's Labor's Lost, "the remarkably outspoken Princess [is] infrequently heard."17 Unlike their editors and producers, Shakespeare's female characters are frank and direct about sex: the Princess and her women in Love's Labor's Lost, twice described as "mad wenches" (2.1.257 and 5.2.264), give as good as they get in terms of bawdy repartee, despite occasional criticisms, as when Berowne says to Rosaline "Your wit's too hot" (2.1.119), or when Margaret comments to Boyet and Costard "Come, come, you talk greasily; your lips grow foul" (4.1.137).

Nevertheless, verbal obscenity is most likely to be directed against women in these plays, given the association between the female and sexuality in general. Without quite descending to the reductionism of Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona ("This shoe with the hole in it is my mother" [2.3.17-18]), both plays seem obsessed with the physical aspects of sex and with female genital parts: women constitute a "lack," both in the Freudian sense and as a literal absence from the Elizabethan stage. The itemized or fragmented blazon, or catalog of a woman's physical beauties, is parodied in the description of the kitchen maid in The Comedy of Errors (3.2), where both the master (supposedly in a state of romantic infatuation with Luciana) and the man relish the comedy of listing the woman's "parts" in increasingly grotesque physical detail, much as the qualities of Launce's mistress are cataloged in 3.1 of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The extravagant eulogy of women's eyes in 4.3 of Love's Labor's Lost (quoted above) follows on from the fantasy elaborated by Longaville, Dumaine and Berowne:

Long. Look, here's thy love, my foot and her face see.Ber. O, if the streets were paved with thine eyes, Her feet were much too dainty for such tread!

Dum. O vile! Then as she goes what upward lies The street should see as she walk'd overhead.


Women's eyes are impossibly idealized as part of the display of erotic attraction, while men's eyes are devoted to "vile" voyeurism.

Despite the dangers of falling back into the more naive forms of character-criticism, I think there is still a case for feminist critics to explore further the roles allocated to women in The Comedy of Errors and Love's Labor's Lost. We don't need to "identify" with them, or argue that they are "just like real women," in order to analyze the ideology of femininity that is represented within the text by such things as women's function within courtship, the double standard regarding infidelity, and so forth. Similarly, we don't need to treat the plays as documentary dramas about Elizabethan England to allow them to spark off investigations of such relevant social and historical issues as witchcraft, royal marriages, class relations between men and women, and illegitimate births.

We should continue to build on work already done on the reproduction of these texts, both in the theater and in the classroom or study. The editorial tradition might also be investigated, since it too has arguably been more antifeminist than the texts it presents and interprets. It has neglected many of the issues that feminists might be interested in and has at times displayed a casual misogyny in its commentary, especially on obscene passages. Gary Taylor has even argued that sexism has determined male editors' responses to a textual crux in The Comedy of Errors.18 We do, happily, have some feminist criticism of these plays: can we have a feminist production or a feminist edition?


1 Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, eds., The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980). The bibliography lists just one item on The Comedy of Errors, an essay by C. L. Barber published in 1964. It manages three items on Love's Labor's Lost, though one of them dates from 1953.

2 Philip C. Kolin, Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism: An Annotated Bibliography and Commentary (New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1991). In the Play/Poem index, The Comedy of Errors and Love's Labor's Lost have the lowest numbers of references among the comedies, significantly fewer than those to The Taming of the Shrew and (even) Two Gentlemen of Verona.

3 Deborah T. Curren Aquino, "Toward a Star that Danced' Woman as Survivor in Shakespeare's Early Comedies," Selected Papers from the West Virginia Shakespeare and Renaissance Association 11 (1986): 50-61. See also Louis A. Montrose, "'Sport by Sport O'erthrown': Love's Labor's Lost and the Politics of Play," Texas Studies in Language and Literature 18 (1977): 528-52.

4 Irene G. Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 15.

5 Ibid., 15

6 Ibid., 23

7 Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 35.

8 Coppélia Kahn, "The Absent Mother in King Lear," in Rewriting the Renaissance, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 33-49.

9 Stephen Orgel, "Prospero's Wife," Representations 8 (1984); 1-13. See also my own essay "'Miranda, Where's Your Sister?': Reading Shakespeare's The Tempest," in Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice, ed. Susan Sellers (Harvester Wheatsheaf: Hemel Hempstead, 1991), 45-55.

10 Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 197.

11 Ruth Nevo, Shakespeare's Other Language (London: Routledge, 1987), 46-47.

12 There is a discrepancy about dates here. In 1.1, Egeon says that his son left home to look for his brother when he was eighteen years old (1.1.125) and that he himself took up the search after "five summers" (132). In 5.1., he claims he last saw his son "but seven years since" (321). Theobald emended the Abbess's figure to "twenty-five," but modern editors assume these inconsistencies will not be noticed by audiences or even readers, and they therefore leave them alone.

13 Janet Adelman, "Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies," in Shakespeare's Rough Magic, ed. Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985), 73-103.

14 Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate, 121.

15 Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975), 77-82.

16 Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1983), 44-47.

17 Irene Dash, 14.

18 Gary Taylor, "Textual and Sexual Criticism: A Crux in The Comedy of Errors, " Renaissance Drama 19 (1989): 195-225.

Source: "'Errors' and 'Labors': Feminism and Early Shakespearean Comedy," in Shakespeare's Sweet Thunder: Essays on the Early Comedies, edited by Michael J. Collins, University of Delaware Press, Winter, 1997, pp. 90-101.


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