The Comedy of Errors
OK, this may seem a little far from Shakespeare, but bear with us for a second; we’re setting something up. If you saw any of the previews over the last couple of years for historical romantic comedies like Becoming Jane or Pride and Prejudice (the one with Keira Knightley, not the awesome BBC miniseries), you know that advertisers have decided that the best way to sell women in Ye Olde Englande to a modern audience is to bill them as "ahead of their time" – headstrong, opinionated women wanting to marry for love instead of family duty. Any Harlequin Romance writer knows that, to attract a contemporary audience to a woman character from before 1900, the author cannot make her old-fashioned, because it’s tough for a lot of modern readers to identify with a lady who really is just as quiet, obedient, and dutiful as her society might have expected her to be. This is pretty much the problem facing Luciana, one of the two primary women characters in The Comedy of Errors.
The thing is, Luciana’s sister Adriana totally upstages her all the time: Adriana storms onto the scene in Act I mad as hell at her husband for spending all his time with the Courtesan – and, literally, stepping out on her. Adriana has all the best lines: "Why should [men’s] liberty than ours be more?" and (again, on the subject of dutiful women) "There’s none but asses will be bridled so!"
But next to this outspoken lady (dare we say Adriana’s ahead of her time?), there’s meek Luciana, who tries to soothe her sister with the line, "[men] are masters to their females, and their lords" – and fat chance that’s going to work on Adriana’s righteous rage. If Adriana’s an early campaigner for women’s rights, Luciana is out there lobbying for the men, assuring her sister that when "[Luciana] learns love, [she]’ll practice to obey" her husband. We find it kind of hard to identify with her when she claims that, if she had a cheating husband, she would wait patiently "until he comes home again." It basically sounds like she’s advocating for a doormat model of womanhood that some modern audiences could find pretty difficult to swallow.
So, Act I has this pitched argument between the two sisters, with Adrianna standing for equality of the sexes (at least in marriage) and Luciana arguing for a definite order – men on top, women subservient. Fast forward to Act III, when Luciana finally reappears, and we get to see a second dimension of her character. The man whom she and Adriana have mistaken for Adriana’s husband, (but who is, in fact, S. Antipholus) proposes marriage to Luciana.
So this poor woman, who has confessed to fears of "the marriage bed" but who really wants to get hitched, gets a proposal – from the man she thinks is her brother-in-law. To Luciana’s credit, she doesn’t hesitate for a second to refuse him: "And may it be," she reproaches him, "that you have quite forgot/ A husband’s office?" She scolds him for being so obvious about cheating on Adriana ("Keep it on the down low!" she seems to be arguing). When Antipholus of Syracuse keeps insisting that he loves her, and that he doesn’t owe Adriana a thing, Luciana immediately goes to tell her sister that he’s been trying to hook up with her.
Of course, it's S. Antipholus who proposes to Luciana, not is E. Antipholus who’s married to her sister, so they can finally get engaged when all has been revealed. But here’s the thing about Luciana: that sense of duty to men that she preaches in the first act is still with her in the fifth act. However, it's totally secondary to the responsibility she feels to her sister, which leads her to confess Antipholus’s advances even though she’s really attracted to him. So Luciana may believe wholeheartedly in obedience to her husband, but she’s willing to give up a man’s proposal for the sake of her sister’s happiness. That hierarchy she set up earlier, with man above woman? Well, above that, for Luciana, is family loyalty – and that’s pretty hard not to like, for modern and old-fashioned audiences alike.