Commentary by Maria Rioux
Aegeon’s pain at the outset of the play is so great and his story so poignantly told, that we cannot completely forget his plight throughout the comic scenes that follow. The references to time in almost every scene that follows are a reminder that the clock is ticking—time, for Aegeon, is running out. This unlikely mix of both comic and tragic elements serves to render the play neither a true comedy nor a real tragedy. The play ends happily, complete with the prospect of marriage between Lucianna and Antipholus S. and Dromio E. and the kitchen maid, weighing the scales in favor of comedy.
Changes in Characters: It is interesting to note the changes in the Duke. At the outset he is the servant of the state, the hand of justice,
“Merchant of Syracuse, plead no more….”
who will uphold the law despite the fact that doing so conflicts with his own judgement.
“Hapless Aegeon, whom the fates have marked to bear the extremity of dire mishap! Now, trust me, were it not against our laws, against my crown, against my dignity, which princes, would they, may not disannul, my souls should sue as advocate for thee.”
This laying aside of personal perspective to uphold the laws of the state is noble and good; without law there is anarchy. Unjust laws must be changed through legitimate means. On the other hand, even just laws must be tempered with mercy (and there is definitely some question whether this could be termed a just law!).
At the close of the play the Duke has softened:
“Yet once again proclaim it publicly; If any friend will pay the sum for him, he will not die; So much we tender him.”
Here we find the Duke, working within the constraints of the law that binds him,
affording Aegeon every opportunity to escape his fate. If mercy can be had, the Duke will gladly give it. Lastly, the sum is to be paid by the twin sons, but the Duke makes one more leap: the sum is rejected, and mercy is complete.
“It shall not need; Thy father hath his life.”
Again, Adrianna at the outset is independent and forceful:
“Why should their liberty than ours be more?”
“There’s none but asses will be ridden so.” Note: reference to servitude; Dromio makes numerous references to being an ass.
At the close of the play, after the Abbess “did betray me to my own reproof “, she is docile, solicitous, and reconciliatory.
“Whom I made lord of me and all I had.”
“To fetch my poor distracted husband hence. Let us come in that we may bind him fast, and bear him home for his recovery.”
Love: familial, romantic, and Divine.
We begin the play with all the main characters apart from those they love. Aegeon has lost his wife and two sons, and later his two remaining sons. One interesting physical image is the use of perfectly identical twins to stress the strength of familial bonds. These bands, in the end, prove so strong that they are able to reunite a family after many years and difficult journeys.
Antipholus S. left his father, and when he lands on Ephesus finds that he must “lose himself” as well. He is more than alone. (Initially, he does have Dromio, but loses him directly, to be replaced by Dromio E. who only serves to add to his feelings of confusion and loss of identity.)
“He that commends me to mine own content commends me to the thing I cannot get. I to the world am like a drop of water that in the ocean seeks another drop; Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself:So I, to find a mother and a brother, in quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.”
Antipholus E. has been separated from both his parents, is estranged from his wife, and loses his brother in the same way that Antipholus S. loses his.
At the close of the play all these matters are resolved:
Aemelia and Aegeon are reunited with both their sets of twin sons; Antipholus E. is reconciled to his wife; Antipholus S. is about to marry Lucianna (thus creating an even stronger bond with his brother).
The same imagery applied in the case of familial love is seen again when we are speaking of romantic love.
“Ah, do not tear away thyself from me! For know, my love, that easy as mayst thou fall a drop of water in the breaking gulf, and take unmingled thence that drop again, without addition or diminishing, as take from me thyself, and not me too.”
Adrianna beautiful expresses the truth of married love: they are no longer two, but one, and to try to tear the one from the other is as impossible (and as painful) as to withdraw that one drop from the pounding surf.
“There once was time 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 the hand, that never meat sweet-savored in thy taste, unless I spake, or looked, or touched, or carved to thee.”
If that isn’t a delightful description of how lovers feel about the beloved, I don’t know what is.
“I am possessed with an adulterous blot; My blood is mingled with the crime of lust; For if we two be one, and thou play false, I do digest the poison of thy flesh…”
Adrianna describes what any would feel having been betrayed by a spouse. She uses physical images so forcefully one can almost touch the aversion one would feel. And yet, later in the play, she loves her husband so deeply she is willing to forgive him. The vow is “For better or for worse” not “For better, maybe a little worse, but definitely not for bad…”
Adrianna is a complex character and also my favorite. She is by turns angry, disgusted, jealous, loving, kind, compassionate and deeply sad. She is, if her husband’s words are to be trusted, unreasonably jealous.
“My wife, —but I protest, without desert—hath oftentimes upbraided me withal.”
Her question “Why should their liberty than ours be more?” is probably a controversial statement for the day. Through the lens of Christian marriage, however, it seems sound, if we are not asking “Why shouldn’t we each be completely free to do as we please?’ That sort of liberty was obviously set aside when one chose to marry. Once married, each works for the good of the other, the family, and the greater glory of God. Neither is independent–the two are one. Neither has time (nor any other good) at his disposal; all things are held in common for the good of the family. To push this one step further, the husband as head of his wife, mirrors Christ as Head of the Church. Christ came to suffer and die that He, the Head, might preserve us, the Body of Christ, or the Church. Lastly, the Master (Christ, and our exemplar) serves for the good of all.
Adrianna says, “Antipholus, my husband, whom I made lord of me and all I had…” . This is possibly my favorite line of the play. It stresses the fact that women are in control of their married lives. It is often through unreflected choices that women find themselves unhappily bound. Men must ask women to marry them. The choice is ours.
The Abbess represents the church. The Duke, who represents Divine love or mercy, affirms her goodness:
“She is a virtuous and a reverend lady: it cannot be that she hath done thee wrong.”
Through her, Adrianna is reconciled to her husband. Through the Duke, Aegeon is reunited with his wife and sons, and rescued from his fate. All is righted. One might say of all the chaos that led to the final resolution that God’s ways are not our ways, but He is good. Aegeon is rewarded not through any personal merit or payment of any debt, but simply for being who he is. It is Divine mercy, sealed with the approval of the Duke. One might make a further point and suggest that here we have the state and the Church ruling as one for the good of all.
Role of Women:
We’ve already spoken of Adrianna at length. Let’s turn to Luciana. She is probably my least favorite character.
“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 males subjects and under his controls: Men more divine, the masters of all these, lords of the wide world and the watery seas, indued with intellectual sense and souls,or more preeminence than fish and fowls are masters to their females, and their lords: Then let your will attend on their accords.”
Adrianna points out two things: this attitude keeps Luciana from wanting to marry(at least she shows some sense) and if Luciana were to find herself in Adrianna’s perceived predicament, she’d be singing a different song. We will add that her reasoning is, by Christian standards, faulty. Men and women are equal in dignity, both being made in the image of God. Women are called to be submissive to their husbands (in all things but sin), just as the Church is submissive to Christ, not because they are less “divine”.
“If you did wed my sister for her wealth, then for her wealth’s sake, use her with more kindness: or if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth.”
“… Look sweet, speak fair, become disloyalty; Apparral vice like virtue’s harbinger; bear a fair presence, though your heart be tainted.”
“Alas, Poor women! make us but believe being compact of credit, that you love us. Though others have the arm, show us the sleeve.”
It is in this exchange that Luciana shows herself to be among the most stupid of women. What puzzles me is that this is the discourse that causes Antipholus to fall for her! Proof, as though it were needed, that men can be compelled by reasons as moronic and shallow as women. Luciana is working for a reconciliation. She wants her sister to be happy. Who would want happiness that is such a shadow of the real thing?
Role of society:
The identity of the individual as defined by the state and society is first seen when Antipholus begins to lose himself after having to hide the fact that he is from Syracuse. We meet it again when Dromio is told to “know my aspect and fashion your demeanor to my looks” by Antipholus. Shortly thereafter Dromio begins to doubt his identity. Again, Adriana measures herself by her husband, to some degree, pointing to the fact that spouses are in some way defined and affected by each other.
“Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine, whose weakness, married to thy stronger state, makes me with thy strength to communicate.”
When spouses no longer know each other, and servants likewise fail to recognize their masters, all is confusion to the point of doubting one’s own identity. We are social animals. Without society, we are, to some extent, lost.