One of my current projects is the compilation of a magazine designed to preview our Actors’ Renaissance Season. I’ll be talking a lot more about that project when it’s nearer to completion, but for the time being, I’m working on my own contribution — an article on The Comedy of Errors. I’ve chosen to focus on the things in the play which are surprising, despite it being, in many ways, Shakespeare’s least original and most traditional play.
The idea for this article came out of an activity in the study guide I prepared for the play. We’ve retooled a section that used to be called “Viewpoints,” which was initially a rather vague catch-all for things that didn’t fit into other categories. The section is now “Perspectives,” and its purpose is to help connect the dots between the world of the play, Shakespeare’s world, and the modern world. In researching this portion of the study guide for The Comedy of Errors, I went looking for different commentaries on marriage in early modern Europe. A lot of what I found was precisely the kind of misogynistic and paternalistic dictate-from-on-high which we’re often led to believe represents the monolithic opinion of all societies pre-dating suffrage or the sexual revolution. Consider the following examples:
Erasmus: The Institution of Marriage: “Maintaining a Harmonious Relationship” (1526) : “Thus the girl needs to be told by her parents to be obliging and compliant towards her husband and, if he should upset her, to give him the benefit of the doubt, or at least put up with it. She must not rush headlong into recrimination and arguments, nor flounce out of the house: in time, when life together has bred intimacy between them, it will ensure that things that upset her at first will now amuse her, and that what once seemed intolerable will prove very easy to bear. … “However, although there must be mutual respect, both nature and scriptural authority lay down that the wife should obey her husband rather than the opposite. Paul recommends love and gentleness to husbands: ‘You men,’ he says, ‘love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. But what does he prescribe for the women? Obedience and submissiveness.”
Michel de Montaigne: “On Friendship” (1580) : “As for marriage, not only is it a bargain to which only the entrance is free… but it is a bargain commonly made for other ends. There occur in it innumerable extraneous complications which have to be unraveled, and are enough to break the thread and disturb the course of lively affection”
Francis Bacon: Essays (1597) : “There was never proud man thought so absurdly well of himself as the lover doth of the person loved; and therefore it was well said, That it is impossible to love and be wise. … He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly, the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from unmarried or childless men. Which both in affection and means have married and endowed the public.”
I think it helps to remember, though, that these opinions were as likely (and perhaps moreso) to be prescriptive, the fruit of wishful thinking, as they were to be descriptive of the reality of early modern marriages. After all, Erasmus, a Catholic priest, never married. However enlightened this humanist’s views were in many respects, on the the subject of marital harmony, he may not have been fully qualified to offer his opinion. Montaigne rarely saw his wife, and his essays indicate dissatisfaction with the state of marriage, which he seems to have considered useful primarily for procreation, and therefore necessary but regrettable. Francis Bacon suffered a jilting in his youth, and when he later married, he became so estranged from his wife that he wrote her out of his will. Are these really men whose advice on wedded bliss we want to be taking as representative of the whole of society?
Probably not — and a little more digging unearths some viewpoints markedly different from the paternalistic chorus. I thoroughly enjoyed the viewpoint of Dutch historian Emmanuel Van Meteran, who observed of English wives in 1575:
“Wives in England are entirely in the power of their husbands, their lives only excepted… yet they are not kept so strictly as they are in Spain or elsewhere. Nor are they shut up, but they have the free management of the house or housekeeping. … They go to market to buy what they like best to eat. They are well dressed, fond of taking it easy, and commonly leave the care of household matters and drudgery to their servants. … All the rest of their time they employ in walking or riding, in playing at cards or otherwise, in visiting their friends and keeping company, conversing with their equals (whom they term, gossips) and their neighbors, and making merry with them at childbirths, christenings, churchings and funerals.”
Granted, Van Meteran was describing the life of the gentry and the wealthy merchant class in London, the set amid which he had traveled and lodged, rather than the life of your average country swain, but that sounds like a pretty good life to my modern ears. It also sounds not unlike what we see of marriage in The Merry Wives of Windsor or in many early modern city comedies. I think Nell from The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Madge from The Shoemaker’s Holiday, or any of the gossips in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside would find Van Meteran’s description entirely appropriate.
A collection of essays published in 1617 (after Shakespeare’s death, but still within the bounds of relevance for the time period when looking at societal trends) featured women themselves speaking out on the matter, either under their own names or under pseudonyms. The collection was in response to a pamphlet, The Arraignment of Women, which broadly slandered the whole gender, making exceptions only for Lucretia (who killed herself after being raped), Sarah (for calling her husband “Lord”), Susanna (for “creeping on her knees to please her husband”), and the Virgin Mary. The rebuttals are furiously eloquent:
Rachel Speght: “The Worthiness of Women” (1617) : “…for man was created of the dust of the earth, but woman was made a part of man, after that he was a living soul; yet was she not produced from Adam’s foot, to be his too low inferior, nor from his head, to be his superior, but from his side, near his heart, to be his equal; that where he is Lord, she may be Lady.”
‘Ester Sowernam’: “The Weakness of Men” (1617) :”In no one thing men do acknowledge a more excellent perfection in women than in the estimate of offences which a woman doth commit: the worthiness of the person doth make the sin more markable. What a hateful thing it is to see a woman overcome with drink, when as in a man it is noted for a sign of good fellowship. And whosoever doth observe it, for one woman which doth make a custom of drunkenness you shall find a hundred men. It is abhorred in women, and therefore they avoid it; it is laughed at and made but as a jest among men, and therefore so many practice it. Likewise if a man abuse a maid and get her with child, no matter is made of it but as a trick of youth; but it is made so heinous an offence in the maid, that she is disparaged and utterly undone by it. So in all offences, those which men commit are made light and as nothing, slighted over; but those which women do commit, those are made grievous and shameful.”
The first passage struck me because I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that sentiment, slightly reworded, on a bumper sticker. The second made me think of Emilia in Othello, wondering why women suffer more for the same sins men commit so freely.
After reading these passages, I find myself yearning for a full compendium of primary sources on early modern marriage, similar to the one that exists on race. Anyone who would like to take that on as a thesis project or doctorate would have my undying gratitude. There’s just something magnificent about reading the original sources, whether descriptive or prescriptive, and finding out just how varied opinions were. I think history can sometimes get flattened in classrooms, not least to fit time constraints and to hit the main points of education requirements, and so we end up thinking of any society more than a century or so back as much less divergent and pluralistic than it really was.
All of this brings me around to thinking about marriage in Shakespeare. As I said at the top of this post, I’m working on an article on The Comedy of Errors. One of the most surprising things in the play is Adriana, the supposedly shrewish wife. I don’t want to give too much of my article away — because I’m hoping you’ll all buy the magazine — but I focus on the difference between Adriana and the wife in the source material, Plautus’s Menaechmi, who really is the most ill-tempered harpy you can imagine. Adriana, though, not only has just cause to be irked with her husband (who spends his afternoons with a courtesan), but she expresses her supposed jealousy (actually, I think, genuine heartbreak) with some astonishingly beautiful poetry. Her words of censure are nowhere near s violent or caustic as the wife in Menaechmi; she makes a personal appeal to her husband, one that calls on profoundly spiritual language. Certainly the character can be played as a shrew, and the scenes can be played for laughs, but I think that does a disservice to one of the few moments of psychological complexity in a relatively straightforward play.
I’ll leave you with part of Adriana’s speech, which is one of my favorite moments in the play. If you want to know my in-depth thoughts about it, you’ll have to pick up (or read online) a copy of Playhouse Insider when it comes out. For now, I’ll just say this: Shakespeare writes a lot about love, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more genuine, more emotional, or more heart-tugging treatise on marriage anywhere in his works.
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-savor’d in thy taste,
Unless I spake, or look’d, or touch’d, or carved to thee.
How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it,
That thou art thus estranged from thyself?
Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self’s better part.
Ah, do not tear away thyself from me!
For know, my love, as easy mayest thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled that same drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.
–Adriana, The Comedy of Errors, 2.2