Shakespeare knew what he was doing when he set The Comedy of Errors in Ephesus. In fact, he uses the setting to reveal a theme that may go unnoticed behind all the laughter: a debate about marriage. The young woman watching The Comedy of Errors in Shakespeare’s day would have had a difficult task ahead of her: dissecting the play’s stance on the roles of women and men in marriage and weighing it against what she heard from the pulpit.
Shakespeare’s audience would have known by heart the homilies featured in their English Bibles from the book of Ephesians, comprised of a letter St. Paul addressed to the people of that city during his time in prison. A significant portion of the letter addresses how marriage should work. Paul charges wives with being submissive to their husbands. On the other hand, he directs husbands to love their wives. Obedience on the part of the wife, according to Paul, is the key to peace in the household. Paul says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife. . . . Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:22–23 and 5:25). He goes on to describe how a husband’s love will ‘purify’ a woman if he loves her “as [his] own body,” caring for her as such (Ephesians 5:28). It is because of these verses that marriage vows from the time (and some even to this day) charge women “to obey” their husbands and men only “to love” their wives.
It can come as no surprise, then, that a huge inequity existed between men and women in Shakespeare’s day, a fact to which the playwright draws attention through his leading ladies, Adriana, Luciana, and the Abbess.
Adriana acts as the voice of the modern woman in the play, asking, “Why should [men’s] liberty than ours be more?” (2.1.10). Luciana answers by citing the Great Chain of Being, a contemporary idea that drew a vertical line from Gods and angels to kings, men, and animals, in that order. Luciana calls men “more divine” and “the master of all” God’s earthly creatures (2.1.20). Therefore, Luciana reasons, women had best accept and even celebrate their roles as servants to the will of men. This is also when Luciana references Ephesians. She cites Paul by saying that men “are masters to their females, and their lords. Then let your will attend on their accords” (2.1.24–25). Adriana quips, “This servitude makes you to keep unwed” and mocks Luciana’s parroting of the scriptures as an inexperienced maiden, rather than a world-wizened wife (2.1.26). She predicts that when Luciana becomes a bride, she, too, will complain of her own husband’s lordship over her.
Soon thereafter, Luciana plays the part of the judge again, condemning Adriana’s impatience when Antipholus does not appear for dinner (2.1.91). Adriana counters her again with reason, turning Luciana’s logic against her. If Antipholus is her master, then her agony as a neglected wife is her husband’s fault. She cries, “What ruins are in me that can be found by him not ruined?” (2.2.101–102). Adriana shows herself to be a loving, though jilted, partner. She protests that she could be the wife Luciana prescribes if only Antipholus would give her “a sunny look” (2.2.104).
Adriana repeats these sentiments to her supposed husband when Antipholus of Syracuse appears. She declares herself to be a “drop of water in the breaking gulf” that is Antipholus, inseparable from him (2.2.137). She reminds him of a happy time in their marriage, and marvels that they cannot be that way again. When this fails to have the desired effect, she throws light on the inequality between men and women when it comes to fidelity in the time period. Adriana dares Antipholus to imagine his emotional state should he hear that Adriana had given her attention to another man, even going so far as to conjure up imagery of her proposed “licentious[ness]” (2.2.142). She justifies her own rage at his inattention by predicting that Antipholus would immediately renounce their marriage and seek revenge. This is a radical speech because Adriana challenges the status quo. Men in Shakespeare’s day were allowed their dalliances on the side as long as they were relatively discreet, a fact even Luciana confirms. Women, on the other hand, were wholly their husband’s property. Any hint of infidelity could be met with the severe punishments Adriana describes, leaving a woman defamed and destitute.
The Abbess, the spiritual authority who appears at the end of the play, seems to find a balance between Adriana’s fierce independence and Luciana’s parroting of St. Paul. She instructs Adriana to keep her husband in check, declaring that Antipholus of Ephesus became mad with rage because she did not do “enough” to reprehend him when “some love . . . drew him oft from home” (5.1.56). She goes on to say that “The venom clamors of a jealous woman poisons more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth,” meaning that Adriana’s “jealous fits hath scared [her] husband from the use of wits” (5.1.71–72, 5.1.88–89). Like her contemporaries, she puts responsibilities upon wives, condemning envious rages, but unlike some of her contemporaries, she gives the wife significant power, almost like the checks and balances of our present-day American government. Adriana recognizes her fault in jealously lashing out at Antipholus but also accepts the mantle of agency the Abbess lays on her, trying to prove she had done her duty. Luciana backs her up, saying Adriana “never reprehended him but mildly” (5.1.90).
Where, then, does Shakespeare himself fall on the spectrum? What would he have wished young women (and men) entering marriage to take away from his comedy? I argue that Shakespeare calls for balance as a means to peace, which makes him ahead of his time as a commenter on marriage. It is noteworthy that the Abbess gets the final word as a church leader and that she leaves that position at the close of the play to return to her long-lost husband and marriage. Marriage, then, is shown in a good light—a desirable state. It would be a mistake, however, to look at Shakespeare’s marriages—and marriages in the modern day—as without complications. Marriage is still an institution rife with debate. The “Error” would be in ignoring this fact both as an audience member and a future husband or wife.