Study Guide

The Comedy of Errors Women and Femininity

By William Shakespeare

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Women and Femininity

Why should their liberty than ours be more?
Because their business still lies out o' door. (2.1.10-11)

Luciana accepts that a woman’s place is inside the home, but Adriana doesn’t concur that men should have more freedom in their actions than women. Luciana seems more submissive and accepting of what she sees as feminine duty than Adriana. They provide two different perspectives on male/female relations, and thus are two different kinds of women.

Why, headstrong liberty is lashed with woe.
There's nothing situate under heaven's eye
But hath his bound, in earth, in sea, in sky.
The beasts, the fishes, and the wingèd 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,
Endued with intellectual sense and souls,
Of more preeminence than fish and fowls,
Are masters to their females, and their lords.
Then let your will attend on their accords. (2.1.15-25)

Luciana subjugates women under men in the "great chain of being," and seems to have rationalized that this is the way it is in the whole animal kingdom. It seems she defines women as necessarily subject to men’s whims, but she doesn’t give us a hint of whether she thinks this situation is just or not. From her talk, we’re not even sure if she considers the ethics of this situation, or merely accepts it as reality.

Why, mistress, sure my master is horn mad.
Horn mad, thou villain?
I mean not cuckold mad.
But sure he is stark mad. (2.1.58-61)

Adriana rankles when she thinks Dromio’s suggesting that she’s cuckolding her husband. When E. Dromio says "horn-mad," he’s referring to the rage of a horned beast of the field, basically saying his master is being crazy like an animal. Adriana thinks his "horn-mad" is a reference to a cuckold’s horns, which were a symbol of a long-suffering husband. It’s interesting that all of Adriana’s actions and complaints point towards her being shrewish, but she has a strongly negative reaction even to the suggestion that this might be the case.

Ay, ay, Antipholus, look strange and frown.
Some other mistress hath thy sweet aspects.
I am not Adriana, nor thy wife.
The time was once when thou unurged wouldst vow
That never words were music to thine ear,
That never object pleasing in thine eye,
That never touch well welcome to thy hand,
That never meat sweet-savored in thy taste,
Unless I spake, or looked, or touched, or carved to
   thee. (2.2.120-129)

This is an interesting description in light of the earlier conversation between Adriana and Luciana about men being their own masters. It seems Adriana enjoyed being in the driver’s seat, dictating E. Antipholus’s preferences. When she criticizes him at first, it’s not for his faithlessness, but because she’s not receiving the undivided attention she’d grown accustomed to. It’s not only as E. Antipholus’s wife that she expects this attention, but because that’s how she thinks a beloved woman is treated. (Marriage seems subordinate to the special role she crafted for herself as a woman in the relationship with E. Antipholus.)

Come, I will fasten on this sleeve of thine.
Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine,
Whose weakness, married to thy stronger state,
Makes me with thy strength to communicate. (2.2.184-187)

Adriana is showing that while she seems to be being shrewish, she’s just subordinating herself to her husband again. These lines echo what Ovid wrote in the Metamorphoses, "…if that the vine which runs upon the elm had [not] the tree to lean unto, it should upon the ground lie flat" (xiv. 665-666, trans. by Arthur Golding, 1567). This interpretation allows us to think of Adriana not as a vine choking an elm, but rather as a vine who leans upon the elm for support. Psalm 128:3 is also alluded to here, as it reads: "Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house." The idea is that Adriana’s husband should not only not be constrained by her, he should prosper by her company.

I know a wench of excellent discourse,
Pretty and witty, wild and yet, too, gentle.
There will we dine. This woman that I mean,
My wife—but, I protest, without desert—
Hath oftentimes upbraided me withal;
To her will we to dinner. [to Angelo] Get you home
And fetch the chain; by this, I know, 'tis made.
Bring it, I pray you, to the Porpentine,
For there's the house. That chain will I bestow—
Be it for nothing but to spite my wife—
Upon mine hostess there; (3.1.158-168)

That E. Antipholus intends to give this chain necklace to the Courtesan (to spite his wife) allows for an easy contrast between the Courtesan and Adriana. E. Antipholus lists off all the great traits of the Courtesan, but he has yet to praise his wife. (We haven’t heard many good things from Adriana about her man either.) The wife – as the object of marriage – is set up in contrast to the Courtesan – the object of no-strings-attached companionship and sex. These are two different kinds of women that get different kinds of attention, and are judged by different standards.

Alas, poor women, make us but believe,
   Being compact of credit, that you love us.
Though others have the arm, show us the sleeve;
   We in your motion turn, and you may move us.
Then, gentle brother, get you in again.
   Comfort my sister, cheer her, call her wife.
'Tis holy sport to be a little vain
   When the sweet breath of flattery conquers strife. (3.2.23-30)

Luciana admits women are easily deceived, but in the same breath reveals that women enjoy being gullible. In her immediately preceding speech, Luciana had said it’s better to trick women and keep them happy than to tell them the unhappy truth. In the quote here, it seems Luciana might be asserting that women participate in men’s deceptive games by willingly "believing" the deception. At least in Luciana’s opinion, women would rather have flattery (even if it’s deceitful) than hear the awful truth.

What claim lays she to thee?
Marry, sir, such claim as you
would lay to your horse, and she would have me as
a beast; not that I being a beast she would have me,
but that she, being a very beastly creature, lays
claim to me. (3.2.90-95)

Here’s an unusual instance where there’s no gloss over the fact that in love, women claim as much ownership over men as men tend to claim over women. Adriana has tried to justify her possessiveness of E. Antipholus as the feelings of a good wife, but there’s a hint that her feelings aren’t really that different than Nell’s ownership claims over her man.

Satan, avoid! I charge thee, tempt me not.
Master, is this Mistress Satan?
It is the devil.
Nay, she is worse, she is the
devil's dam, and here she comes in the habit of a
light wench. And thereof comes that the wenches
say 'God damn me'; that's as much to say 'God
make me a light wench.' It is written they appear
to men like angels of light. Light is an effect of fire,
and fire will burn; ergo, light wenches will burn.
Come not near her. (4.3.49-59)

S. Antipholus is quick to see the supernatural (as usual), but S. Dromio seems to recognize that the real danger of this woman is that she’s a woman. Lately, it seems women have been bringing nothing but trouble to S. Dromio. It’s interesting that he teases that woman is the "devil’s dam" (or the devil’s mother), which is even worse than her being the devil. Whether her evil is supernatural or practical is immaterial – she’s evil. If she’s a supernatural devil, she’ll burn in hell. If the Courtesan is a natural devil (i.e., a prostitute), she’ll burn just as well.

To none of these, except it be the last,
Namely, some love that drew him oft from home.
You should for that have reprehended him.
Why, so I did.
Ay, but not rough enough.
As roughly as my modesty would let me.
Haply in private.
And in assemblies too.
Ay, but not enough.
It was the copy of our conference.
In bed, he slept not for my urging it;
At board, he fed not for my urging it.
Alone, it was the subject of my theme;
In company, I often glancèd it.
Still did I tell him it was vile and bad.
And thereof came it that the man was mad.
The venom clamors of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dog's tooth.
It seems his sleeps were hind'red by thy railing,
And thereof comes it that his head is light.
Thou say'st his meat was sauced with thy
Unquiet meals make ill digestions.
Thereof the raging fire of fever bred,
And what's a fever but a fit of madness?
Thou say'st his sports were hind'red by thy brawls.
Sweet recreation barr'd, what doth ensue
But moody and dull melancholy,
Kinsman to grim and comfortless despair,
And at her heels a huge infectious troop
Of pale distemperatures and foes to life?
In food, in sport, and life-preserving rest,
To be disturb'd would mad or man or beast.
The consequence is, then, thy jealous fits
Hath scar'd thy husband from the use of wits. (5.1.55-89)

This is very tricky business on the Abbess’s part. She lures Adriana into incriminating herself as a shrew, and then insists shrewish women get what they deserve. Like Luciana, the Abbess values a man’s comfort over a woman’s suspicions. Also, there’s no talk of the pact between husband and wife; just the glib notion that men are men, and should be left alone by women to do as they please.

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