The Comedy of Errors, Act V
Shakespeare has plenty to do in the 400-odd lines of Act V. The general confusion needs to create a crisis before we can have our happy ending – in this case, perhaps an equivocal, unsatisfying one, but more on that later.
Antipholus (S) finally shrugs off his baffled but essentially good-natured acceptance of his mysterious treatment in Ephesus, although I still think he is REactive, not PROactive. Either way, feeling his honour has been slighted by the understandably frustrated Second Merchant, we find the stakes dramatically increased within 35 lines of the Act’s opening:
‘ANTIPHOLUS (S): Thou art a villain to impeach me thus!
I’ll prove mine honour and mine honesty
Against they presently, if thou dar’st stand.
2 MERCHANT: I dare, and do defy thee for a villain! They draw. (V.i.29-32)
Unreconstructed Renaissance males that we are (I’m including you, here), we might think that the arrival of the play’s women would be the tipping point at which civilisation is restored and the whole mess cleared up. But no. What we get is more confusion. I’m left unsatisfied by the Abbess – on the one hand she tells Adriana:
‘ABBESS: You should for that have reprehended him.
ADRIANA: Why, so I did.
ABBESS: Ay, but not rough enough.’ (V.i.57-58)
and then quickly contradicts herself with the memorable aphorism:
‘The venom clamours of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth.’ (V.i.68-70)
… and an unseemly spat between the women brews, based on the Abbess’ unwillingness to permit poor Adriana from removing her husband from Sanctuary. At this stage, my sympathy for our loyal, under-appreciated wife is increasing.
‘I will attend my husband, be his nurse,
Diet his sickness, for it is my office’ (V.i.98-99)
He doesn’t deserve her. And she definitely doesn’t deserve HIM.
The stage is getting crowded now, embroiling even the Duke (when he arrives with the doomed Egeon in tow) in this spaghetti-bowl of confusion, statement and contradictory counter-statement. At his entrance, I hear a second dissonant note.
It’s simply this: how can Egeon not react to the mention of Antipholus’ name when Adriana opens her petition to the Duke? Again, this is a point in the play that I’m curious to see staged – for me, he either needs to be distracted and so not hear the name, or there needs to be some suppressed reaction. When recognition finally hits Egeon:
‘Unless the fear of death doth make me dote,
I see my son Antipholus and Dromio’ (V.i.195-196)
the red pen came out, scribbling ‘60 lines too late!‘ in my Arden’s margin. On the page, this just doesn’t work for me.
Getting our entire cast on stage is completed with the arrival of the practically rabid Antipholus (E), and when the two sets of twins are on stage together the Gordian knot is quickly sliced. Egeon is pardoned (interestingly, without money changing hands – despite the Duke’s intractable insistence in Act I), and the three separated couples (Egeon/Emilia, the two Antipholuses and the two Dromios) are reconciled. So far, so good.
And in a final act I found unsatisfying overall, I appreciated the way the cast left the stage: like a football manager substituting the man-of-the-match with two or three minutes to go. Shakespeare reverses the technique to allow us to applaud the pairs who have entertained us, the cast vacating first, then the Antipholus brothers leaving, so that the Dromios can take their well-earned bows. (I noted, though, that the two sisters didn’t get their own farewell)
But. Before the curtain falls, there are some unsatisfying narrative outcomes for some of our characters.
First, Luciana, who I firmly predicted a wedding for in Act II. Certainly, when Antipholus (S) turns to her, saying:
‘What I told you then
I hope I shall have leisure to make good’ (V.i.374-375)
… we might infer this as a proposal. I can’t quite say ‘I told you so‘, though. It would have been satisfying, perhaps necessary for her to accept. Instead, what we get is an ambiguous, silence which recalls Isabella in Measure for Measure. She leaves the stage with her sister and the rest of the cast, not her putative husband …
There’s something not quite right about the Dromios‘ respective fates, either. Reading and re-reading the Act, Dromio (E) appears to have been freed by his master:
‘Within this hour I was his bondman, sir,
But he, I thank him, gnawed in two my cords;
Now am I Dromio, and his man, unbound.’ (V.i.289-291)
Not only that, but it seems that he’s going to wed his ‘fat friend’, the maid. Finally, Dromio (S), wifeless and still a bondman, defers to his brother as his ‘elder’, perhaps because his brother is now a free man? Again, I looked more than once at this quote from his master, Antipholus (S):
‘I am your master, Dromio.
Come, go with us; we’ll look to that anon.’ (V.i.411-412)
hoping the ‘that’ referred to would be a consideration of his freedom. Instead, I can’t escape the inference that it’s his master’s goods, embarked on a vessel for their escape. Dromio (E) has taken the majority of the beatings in the play, and deserves his freedom. But in a comedy, the difference in the twins’ treatment jars.
Finally, Adriana’s end is possibly the worst of all. There’s no sense of reconciliation with her husband, a man who we are again reminded, thinks nothing of committing violence against her:
‘He cries for you and vows, if he can take you,
To scorch your face and to disfigure you.
Hart, hark! I hear him mistress; fly, be gone!’ (V.i.182-184)
Instead, remarkably, Antipholus seems to do nothing more than declare an honourable draw with his mistress. When he returns the ring and tells the Courtesan:
‘much thanks for my good cheer’ (V.i.392)
there is an air of finality, of farewell, about that relationship. Significantly though, he doesn’t speak to his wife, and nor is the chain explicitly given to her. In fact, neither sister speaks for the final 50-odd lines, and the Courtesan gets a line AFTER they do. I don’t think we can over-analyse this. What, if anything, has changed for poor Adriana? Nothing – there is nothing but the slightest hint that her husband might be nicer to her (or at least, faithful) in the future …
Finishing the play and reflecting on the ending took me back to the Introduction. Kent Cartwright amplifies the simplistic formula I had reduced Comedies to for my students:
comedy looks hopefully towards the future. Marriage in comedy stands for the possibility, if not always the fact, of happy outcomes; it constitutes the social symbol for joy in the gift of life.
Comedies typically end with the possibility of joyful marriage, and that prospect can swell the genuine and well-earned euphoria of reunion and closure. Joy dominates Errors’ conclusion, yet, as in later plays such as Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare leaves, towards marriage, a sense of business unfinished. Only time will tell.
Perhaps I should be pleased by what I decided was a distinctly ‘atypical’ ending. But it seems uneven, and from a Marxist or Feminist point of view, inequitable. No weddings, except symbolically or in potentia. No funerals. And the joy Cartwright refers to tempered by arbitrary and less than blissful endings for characters who deserved better at Shakespeare’s hands.
It was this uneven treatment that left me unsatisfied by a play that was wonderfully slick and funny in its early stages …
Kent Cartwright (ed.), in William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors (Arden Third Edition), (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2017)