The Comedy of Errors
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
The play, ultimately, “explores in a seriously comic way, the proper relationship of husband and wife” (Wells 55), particularly beginning with this scene, where Adriana (Mrs. Antipholus of Ephesus) and her sister Luciana discuss marriage and the sexes. The charitable Luciana tries to calm her married sister: “A man is master of his liberty: / Time is their master, and when they see time, / They’ll go or come; if so, be patient, sister” (II.i.7-9). There “are unmistakable revelations to be found of Oxford’s state of mind during the latter part of 1576” (Ogburn and Ogburn 111); it sounds like Oxford’s assertion to someone like Burghley (Clark 16-17), expressing “his current preoccupation” about his autonomy (Ogburn and Ogburn 111).
Adriana asks, “Why should their [men’s] liberty than our be more?” “Because their business still lies out a’ door” (II.i.10-11), responds Luciana, who continues with the argument from nature:
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.
Much of this sounds like The Taming of the Shrew, and Adriana questions Luciana’s authority.
Their Dromio enters, whimpering about being beaten and accused of stealing 1000 marks by a “horn-mad” Antipholus (II.i.57) — “I mean not cuckold-mad — / But sure he is stark mad” (II.i.58-59). Adriana is angered by Dromio’s reports of Antipholus apparently playing dumb about his domestic life. She delivers a diatribe blaming him for any faults she may have and for her signs of aging:
Hath homely age th’ alluring beauty took
From my poor cheek? Then he hath wasted it.
Are my discourses dull? Barren my wit?
If voluble and sharp discourse be marr’d,
Unkindness blunts it more than marble hard.
Do their gay vestments his affections bate?
That’s not my fault, he’s master of my state.
What ruins are in me that can be found,
By him not ruin’d? Then he is the ground
Of my defeatures. My decayed fair
A sunny look of his would soon repair.
Some Oxfordians have detected here hints of Oxford’s wife Anne suffering as “the Queen was monopolizing him”; “This enabled him to see Adriana’s side” (Ogburn and Ogburn 111).
Luciana’s warnings against jealousy are futile. Adriana is dismayed: “I know his eye doth homage otherwhere, / Or else what lets it but he would be here?” (II.i.104-105). In a confusing passage that may be corrupt, she refers to “no man that hath a name” (II.i.112), and ends the scene in despair. Luciana asks rhetorically, “How many fond fools serve mad jealousy” (II.i.116), and perhaps Oxford was indirectly poking fun at his own “jealous insanity” (Anderson 147).
Antipholus of Syracuse comes upon Dromio his servant and, thinking him the Dromio of the previous encounter, whacks him again for joking around. Dromio is baffled. Antipholus explains:
Because that I familiarly sometimes
Do use you for my fool, and chat with you,
Your sauciness will jest upon my love,
And make a common of my serious hours.
When the sun shines, let foolish gnats make sport,
But creep in crannies, when he hides his beams:
If you will jest with me, know my aspect,
And fashion your demeanor to my looks,
Or I will beat this method in your sconce.
“The speech of Antipholus of Syracuse to Dromio could have been written only from the point of view of an aristocrat” (Ogburn and Ogburn 112). The two go into a vaudeville act, an exchange of quick wit about the subjects of beatings, time, and hair.
Adriana and Lucentia come upon them and think they are the Ephesian pair.
How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it,
That thou art then estranged from thyself?
Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self’s better part.
Ah, do not tear theyself away from me;
For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.
This harks back to Antipholus’ earlier water-drop reference (I.ii.35). Adriana raises the issue of “a deep-divorcing vow” (II.ii.138) — perhaps echoing the “always-wind-obeying deep” (I.i.63) from Egeon’s description of the tempest (Garber 162) — but she insists that his infidelity, since they are married, is hers too:
I am possessed with an adulterous blot;
My blood is mingled with the crime of lust:
For if we two be one, and thou play false,
I do digest the poison of thy flesh,
Being strumpeted by thy contagion.
The Syracusians continue to protest their ignorance, but are baffled: “How can she thus then call us by our names, / Unless it be by inspiration?” (II.ii.166-167). Adriana is insulted: “How ill agrees it with your gravity / To counterfeit thus grossly with your slave, / Abetting him to thwart me in my mood!” (II.ii.168-170). This is something only a “woman of quality” could say (Ogburn and Ogburn 112). Naturally, à la Christopher Sly in the Induction of The Taming of the Shrew, Antipholus remains baffled:
What, was I married to her in my dream?
Or sleep I now and think I hear all this?
What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?
Syracusian Dromio is more superstitious:
This is the fairy land. O spite of spites!
We talk with goblins, owls, and sprites;
If we obey them not, this will ensue:
They’ll suck our breath, or pinch us black and blue.
The pinching bit anticipates The Merry Wives of Windsor and occurs in Lyly’s Endymion (Ogburn and Ogburn 112). It appears also in Antony and Cleopatra. Dromio wonders, “I am transformed, master, am I not?” (II.ii.195), which anticipates A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Allen 62, 235; Ogburn and Ogburn 588), especially when Antipholus says, “If thou art chang’d to aught, ‘t is to an ass” (II.ii.199). “‘Tis true she rides me, and I long for grass” (II.ii.200). [One may be reminded of Hamlet’s “musty” proverb, “While the grass grows” [the beast starves] (III.ii.343-344), which appears also in a 1576 letter from de Vere to Burghley: “I am to content myself according to the English proverb that it is my hap to starve while the grass doth grow” (qtd. in Ward 111; Clark 657; Ogburn and Ogburn 89, 659).]
Prefigures the disorientation of Sebastian in Twelfth Night is that of Antipholus of Syracuse:
Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advis’d?
Known unto these, and to myself disguis’d?
I’ll say as they say, and persever so,
And in this mist at all adventures go.
Despite all the confusion, Adriana and this Antipholus will go home to dine together.