Room and Board
In general, aspects of the historical situation at the time of Shakespeare’s writing his play, and the historical period in which the play takes place, bear little relation to the plot. That is, in what was quite possibly his first dramatic effort, Shakespeare seemed to have been executing a sort of exercise in farcical comedy, rather than seeking to make any political or historical statements. Nevertheless, certain aspects of The Comedy of Errors do seem to reflect the changing nature of Elizabethan society. One of these aspects is the significance attributed to the home, particularly by Adriana; the crux of her frustration with her husband is that he fails to fully value the home that she keeps for him. A problem for Adriana, as Ann Christensen notes, is that in Elizabethan times, ‘‘the modern bourgeois notion of home as safe haven’’ was not yet established. That is, Adriana was perhaps ahead of her time in seeking to insulate her home life from her husband’s business dealings. Christensen eloquently describes the play’s overall relevance with respect to contemporary cultural development: ‘‘The Comedy of Errors registers a historical moment of social transition and dislocation within the not-yet distinct public and private spheres. Forcing oppositions between desire and profit, leisure and work, women and men, Shakespeare explores contemporary anxieties attending the development of the separation of the spheres.’’
Christensen explicitly ties the rift between Adriana and E. Antipholus to a particular aspect of home life: ‘‘The differences between the masculine world of commerce and law and the feminine domestic environment articulate themselves over the contested cultural form of ‘dining.’’’ Indeed, both Adriana and E. Antipholus voice concerns regarding the other’s dining habits: she reminisces about the time when he only ate meat that she carved for him, while he specifically suspects that she had ‘‘feasted’’ with other men in his absence. In this light, the fact that E. Antipholus chooses to dine with the Courtesan after being turned away from his home can be considered a significant act of marital defiance. Christensen points to Adriana’s speech at the end of act 2, scene 1—in which she speaks of ‘‘starving’’ at home for loving looks from her husband, while he, like a wild animal, has broken loose to ‘‘feed’’ elsewhere—as evidence of the primary importance attributed to the family meal. Christensen writes, ‘‘Adriana’s lament for her neglect ranges fully through connotations of feeding, and suggests how crucially food-service defined the domestic on the Shakespearean stage and in early modern society.’’
Directly related to the Elizabethan conception of the home, especially around London, was the extent of England’s urbanization. In general, in any society, the context in which the home exists can be understood to bear a substantial impact on the nature of the home itself. The greater the number of people living in a community of a given size, the less space each individual person will be allotted. Thus, one consequence of urbanization could be increased feelings of claustrophobia—perhaps causing some men to feel a greater need to wander around their community, rather than remaining enclosed in their allotted spaces. E. Antipholus’s waywardness, then, beyond being a prioritization of business matters over domestic matters, could be interpreted as a demonstration of a masculine response to urbanization.
On the societal level, Gail Kern Paster finds a significant consequence of urbanization to be the institution of laws that, by their fixed nature, cannot discriminate among various instances of criminality. That is, a law is almost always either broken or not broken; when laws are ‘‘bent,’’ the perpetrator, not the system of justice, typically does the bending. Paster notes that this inherent property of laws is in effect a small argument against the sheer existence of the urban environment. She states that in The Comedy of Errors and also in other Shakespearean plays, ‘‘The city is confronted with the self-imposed necessity of enforcing a law whose consequences are so clearly inhuman that they can only make mockery of a city’s reason for being.’’ In this instance, of course, the inhumanity is Egeon’s being sentenced to death simply for being poor and for looking for his son in a town that has, unbeknownst to him, banned his presence there. In Elizabethan times, when whipping, dismemberment, and beheading were in wide and public use, the breaking of laws and the punishment of criminals were of the utmost popular interest. As such, Shakespeare’s depiction of crime and unjust punishment in ancient times was perhaps intended to stress negative aspects of the ever-increasing impersonality of cities.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007