Ponytail Shakespeare Read-Through: The Comedy of Errors, Act II
Aha! A single woman in a Shakespeare comedy – what she needs is a HUSBAND, I thought, my Jane Austen goggles firmly on. In this, I was egged on by Kent Cartwright, as I mentioned in writing about Act I, and who colluded with Jane and my previously-held assumptions.
And what a catch Luciana appears to be for our unreconstructed EMP man!
Whilst her married, shrew-like sister complains about her husband’s behaviour, Luciana advocates passivity and the acknowledgement of man’s natural superiority.
A man is master of his liberty. (II.i.7)
Tongue firmly in cheek, I like her already!
Assuming Adriana to be the older sister (and I think we can, because the older sister had to be married first), we have a repeat of the Kate-Bianca relationship in The Taming of the Shrew.
The apparently long-suffering elder girl points out that it’s easy to advocate Patience in marriage when you yourself are a single woman:
‘if thou live to see like right bereft,
This fool-begged patience in thee will be left’ (II.i.40-41)
As in Act 1, Dromio (E) arrives and steals the show with his wordplay. I especially loved the misinterpretation of his complaint that his master is ‘horn-mad’ and his following relation of his conversation with Antipholus (S):
‘Tis dinner-time,’ quoth I; ‘My gold!’ quoth he;
‘Your meat doth burn,’ quoth I; ‘My gold!’ quoth he:
‘Will you come home?’ quoth I; ‘My gold!’ quoth he. (II.i.61-63)
And he’s shortly rewarded with one of the many ‘strokes’ rewarded with a distracting slapstick ‘boing!’ in my Arkangel audio version (it’s a real disappointment in an otherwise brilliant audio series).
Having struck a blow for neglected wives everywhere, Adriana seems exhausted, and surrenders any agency or sense of control over her demeanour and actions. If she’s become shrew-like and unattractive to her husband, she blames it firmly on his apparent treatment of her.
‘What ruins are in me that can be found
By him not ruined? (II.i.95-96)
Chicken and egg, I’d say … I STILL prefer Luciana at this stage!
Back in Queen Margaret‘s heyday in the ‘Contention‘ plays I enjoyed Shakespeare’s use of runs of questions to indicate her indignation, anger and scorn. In scene ii, it’s used to convey and extrapolate the confusion between ‘master’ (6) and ‘servant’ (2). Now it’s poor Dromio (S)‘s turn to take that intrusive ding round the ear. I thought there was some interesting commentary on the acceptable limits of foolery, which we see echoes of in other plays, such as Lear, when Fools are warned not to overstep the mark:
‘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 demeanour to my looks,
Or I will beat this method in your sconce.’ (II.i.30-34)
Mind you, we ought to take into account that there are, after all, a thousand marks at stake – precisely, of course, the sum that Egeon needs by sunset if he is to avoid execution (I haven’t forgotten him, yet).
I detoured, momentarily, to ask myself ‘is there a difference between the two Dromio’s? Are they sufficiently separate characters, or has Shakespeare simply divided the lines between two similarly-dressed players?’ It seems to me that in Act II we do see a few differences. Dromio (E) feels more like the kind of fool we’ve seen in earlier plays, like Launce or Speed in the Two Gentlemen of Verona, whereas Dromio (S)‘s dialogue with his master smacks more of Lear‘s Fool or Feste in Twelfth Night.
When the two sisters arrive towards the end of the act, Adriana and Luciana appear to have swapped roles. The feistiness that Adriana originally showed has completely evaporated, transferred instead to her unmarried sister, who displays some asperity in challenging Antipholus:
‘Fie, brother! How the world is changed with you:
When were you wont to use my sister thus?’ (II.ii.158-159)
and poor Dromio:
‘Why prat’st thou to thyself and answer’st not?
Dromio, thou Dromio, thou snail, thou slug, thou sot.’ (II.ii.199-200)
Is it me, or does that second line sound like ‘O Romeo, Romeo’?
As Luciana’s feisty attractiveness increases, her sister appears all the more pathetic by comparison. Perhaps I’m being harsh on someone who feels her love is unrequited, in fact that she is being cuckolded, but my pity is impaired by the knowledge of what she was like at the beginning of the act. Neither Katherine nor, I think, Bianca, in The Shrew, would have pleaded with their husbands in this way.
‘Be it my wrong, you are from me exempt’ (II.ii.177)
Maybe we need to look to Julia in Two Gentlemen for someone as willing to forgive as Adriana.
The act finishes with the hapless Antipholus (S), the least satisfying of the characters and little more than a foil for the humour, accepting the oddity of the situation and going to dine with this strange woman who seems to worship him to the point of forgiving any ill.
As you do, when you have just landed in Ephesus, which let’s not forget is a town:
‘full of cozenage –
As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks
And many such-like liberties of sin.’ (I.ii.97-102)
Personally, I’d go back to the Centaur, get my thousand marks, and get the hell out of there …
Kent Cartwright (ed.), in William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors (Arden Third Edition), (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2017)