Dromio, Dromio! Wherefore Art Thou Dromio?

The Comedy of Errors, Act V

Way back in Act II, I promised I would return to Adriana and address the fascinating dialogue she has with her sister, Luciana, regarding the nature of marriage.  I do this now both as the fulfillment of a promise and as a prelude to Valentine’s Day and The Taming of the Shrew.

Even farther back – yonder, at the beginning of the year – I broached this subject by meditating on the role of Desdemona in Othello.  Were her actions heroic?  Or those seen all too frequently in modern times by women suffering from battered-wife syndrome?

For three plays running, women – just like in horror films – have been the victims of male violence.  In Othello it was Desdemona, In Titus Andronicus, Lavinia.  In Richard III, Anne.  To borrow an archaic usage, the fairer sex has not been “used” well by men thus far.  But does that make Shakespeare a bad guy?

The worst class I ever endured, bar none, was a core humanities requirement at UCLA.  Throughout the entire semester i sat on my hands, attempting to restrain myself while an angry professor took it upon herself to correct 3000 years of canonical literary domination by men.  While I feel it necessary and vital to widen the discourse and make the Great Conversation available to all, I draw the line when the creative titans  of history – Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare – are subjected to critical assault for perspectives that seem too easy a target from a 21st-Century perspective.

If Shakespeare was a misogynist, then by all means, take him down a peg or three.  But is that really what the texts reveal?  Or his biography?  Peter Ackroyd suggests that if anything, Shakespeare had a strong, resourceful mother who exerted a powerful influence upon the boy and young man.  She taught him by example that women could be confident and clever.

Why else would actresses flock to Shakespeare’s plays – just for the steady work, perhaps?  And yet we so often hear about the complexity of his female characters, the range of expression he offers, especially compared to today’s bimbos and video-game sex kittens.

I’m not claiming to have the answers here.  But it’s certainly a subject that needs to be addressed, not just now for one play, but over the span of the year covering the gamut of Shakespeare’s works – the poems and sonnets as well.  Let’s see what the actual writings convey.  [If you, dear reader, wish to participate in a discussion or pen a guest blog, the forum is yours.]

But as for Adriana and The Comedy of Errors, I must confess that her actions bespeak a complex, complicated woman who seems plenty strong and outspoken in the company of her sister and husband, yet who backs down at a crucial moment when the Abbess confronts her about accepting blame for her husband’s apparent madness.

During the early dialogue in Act II, Adriana expresses vexation at having to wait upon Antipholus to return at his own leisure, while her sister defends this tardiness as the sole prerogative of men.

ADRIANA: Why should their liberty than ours be more?

LUCIANA: Because their business still lie out o’door.

ADRIANA: Look, when I serve him so, he takes it ill. 

LUCIANA: O, know he is the bridle of your will.

ADRIANA: There’s none but asses that will be bridled so.

LUCIANA: 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 winged fowls

Are their male’s subjects and at their controls.

Man, more divine, the masters of all these,

Lord of the wide world and wild, wat’ry seas,

Endued with intellectual sense and souls.

Of more preeminence then fish and fowls,

Are masters to their females, and their lords.

Then let your will attend on their accords.

ADRIANA: This servitude makes you to keep unwed.  

This hardly sounds like a docile, passive woman content to be restricted by her husband!

There are, however, social conventions and expectations that Shakespeare could not avoid.  (This will come up again more prominently in Taming of the Shrew.)  Adriana may back down at the withering accusations of the Abbess, but that doesn’t stop her from taking measures to retrieve her husband from that lady’s care.

She wastes no time trying to bail out Antipholus from his debts.  She directs her men to seize him so he can be taken home and administered to by Doctor Pinch.  And she appeals to the Duke for justice once Antipholus flees (his twin, actually, but it’s hard to keep up) into the Abbey.  In short, she never allows herself to be a victim of circumstances – not even in the backstory when, again, according to the Abbess, she should have meekly tolerated her husband’s alleged affair.

Shakespeare may not be perfect when it comes to his portrayals of women.  He is a bawdy prankster who loves his sexual puns and banter.  But the women he created run the gamut from serving wenches to grieving widows, lusty strumpets to loyal housewives and spiteful queens.  In Othello, it was Iago’s wife, Emilia, who took the bravest action in the drama by standing up for the moral right when others wouldn’t, even knowing it would cost her life.  If Desdemona exemplifies the purest love, then Emilia personifies the most heroic bravery and selflessness.

Argue whatever position you wish about Shakespeare.  But call him a misogynist and I will take you to the mat.

For the record, I earned a C- in that humanities class at UCLA, the lowest in my entire academic career.  By today’s lax standards, that should be regarded as an F.  And I have absolutely no regrets about it whatsoever.

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