Mikhail's Reviews > The Comedy of Errors

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare
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Oct 02, 09

bookshelves: plays

Every marriage has a private and public dynamic, both of which dilute the individual spouses’ identities. In William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, the private dynamic of Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana’s marriage relies heavily upon the constant struggle to determine with whom the power lies; whereas the public dynamic relies upon the placement of shame. Both of these elements—power struggles and shame—contribute to the constrictions emplaced upon both E. Antipholus and Adrianna’s individual identities. So preoccupied are they with the matters of validation and perception, that they find themselves stunted in their personal evolution.
Ironically enough, it is only through the dialogues between Adrianna and her sister, Luciana, that the audience is allowed a glimpse into the private mechanics of Adrianna’s marriage; it is during these conversations that both sisters’ share their opinions on male dominance. “[Antipholus’s:] master of my state./ What ruins are in me that can be found,/ By him not ruined?... A sunny look of his would soon repair,” (Shakespeare; 2. 1. 95-97, 99). Adriana admits that whatever state she may ever find herself in, be it a ‘ruined’ one, or any other, it is due to Antipholus that she feels that way. “Sister, you know he promised me a chain,” Adriana says, speaking of a chain that is not only literal, but also symbolic of the captivity, the restraint, that Antipholus holds over her. A person can only move so far with a chain locked to them; they could grow only so much before finally succumbing to a state of arrested development. Furthermore, it is the person that has entrapped you in that chain—of course—that holds sway over your actions, over your personality. Adrianna’s identity is at the whim of her captor—Antipholus.
Or so it seems.
Be it advertently or inadvertently, Adrianna is capable—from time to time—at dropping her subservient-wife shtick and taking on the matriarchal role in her marriage. “Come, come, no longer will I be a fool./ To put the finger in the eye and weep... Husband, I’ll dine above with you today,/ And shrive you of a thousand idle pranks,” (Shakespeare; 2. 2. 204-205, 208-209). Adriana is admitting to committing herself to theatrics, putting her ‘finger’ in her ‘eye and weep[ing:];’ she forced the tears, the hysteria. She was a ‘fool’ to do so, to reduce herself into a role that is, by all means, servile compared to the strong-willed person she has the potential to be. Immediately after shedding herself of her dependent performance, Adrianna flips the tables on her faux husband—Antipholus of Syracuse, who might as well be her spouse—and places herself in the seat of authority; for it is she who will ‘shrive’—listen and cleanse—Antipholus of his ‘thousand idle pranks.’ Adrianna is perpetually vacillating from helplessness to self-determination, blurring the lines that would help define the identity that she wishes to draw for herself; it is the endless back-and-forth battle for autonomy between her husband and her that creates this particular difficulty, that keeps her from moving forward, and constraining her to a life of little agency.
Power disputes, of course, may also lead to bouts of shame as well as public humiliation, especially in Shakespeare’s time when it was common knowledge, of the Biblical sense, that men were supposedly superior to women—hence the inability for women to share a stage with men. Balthasar, a friend of E. Antipholus, had initially responded to E. Antipholus’s banishment from his own home as follows: “Plead of [Adrianna’s:] part some cause to you [E. Antipholus:] unknown” or else “a vulgar comment will be made on of it…for slander lives upon succession,/ For ever housed where it gets possession,” (Shakespeare; 3. 1. 91, 100, 105-106). Balthasar’s first utterance is on the staining topic of shame, which, according to him becomes a man’s ‘succession’ and lives past the day that man dies. It is with these words that E. Antipholus finally subdues his rage, packs away his true emotions, and turns a wandering eye towards his mistress. He would rather suppress his natural reaction, his anger—“And, in despite of mirth, mean to be merry”—and turn to merriment, that emotion he is so disinclined towards. All for the sake of saving face.
Luciana, who sincerely believes in the wife’s inherent purpose to deign herself into virtual servitude upon wedlock, argues that the role of a husband seeking extramarital pleasure is to make women “believe,/ Being compact of credit, that [husbands:] love [their wives:];” husbands are not to be “thy own shame’s orator,” (Shakespeare; 3. 2. 10, 21-22). In other words, if you are cheating on your wife, “do it by stealth,” Luciana argues, “Muffle your false love with some show of blindness” in order to keep from bringing a crimson flush to yours and you wife’s cheeks (Shakespeare; 3. 2. 7-8). A husband must discard himself of all honesty, not only towards his wife but himself as well, and remember not to forget “a husband’s office;” for that is what marriage is, according to Luciana, a job of sorts (Shakespeare; 3. 2. 2). People are never the same person that they pose to be at their jobs; they are more guarded, fencing their truths, their pasts, their friends and loved ones away from their office life. Luciana believes, in a way, that Antipholus should do the same with his own wife; he should clothe himself in an insulated husk and never bare his true self to Adrianna, just to make sure that she remains happy and avoids embarrassment. Antipholus must break his convictions, shatter them and sweep them under the rug, bear whatever potential mortification he may have secretly caused, and keep himself molded to the occupation of ‘good husbandry.’ And like with any job that is out there, there is very little wiggle room; a job is constricting for it lays out a set of parameters for you to follow, for you to contain yourself within. You may make a budge here, or a twist there, but you will never be able to lunge or sprint about; you are stuck to the rules that cage you. And so is Antipholus, caged by the bars that shame and marriage bequeaths its victims.
Certain duties and obligations are expected from those that are married; they owe it to their spouse to always have the other in their mind, to consider their feelings as they would their own, and tiptoe about the institution in a state of never-ending cautiousness. For marriage certainly is like an ‘elm’ dressed in a ‘vine,’ both feeding off the other, sustaining one another off the sustenance of the other’s life force (Shakespeare; 2. 2. 175). Ultimately, this entangled dependency causes for limitations upon the individual now that two people, a man and his wife—or, as today goes, a man and his husband—live as one, expelling much of that which made the individuals what they formerly were. Concessions must be made, performances must be had, identities must shrivel and change, or so this is how marriage is presented in The Comedy of Errors.

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