The way the various characters in The Comedy of Errors view their respective identities is perhaps the play’s most prominent theme. The central quest for identity, of course, is that of S. Antipholus, whom the audience understands from early on to be seeking himself, to a great extent, in his twin brother; this understanding comes primarily from the speech in the first act in which he compares himself to a drop of water seeking another drop in an entire ocean. Coppe´- lia Kahn views S. Antipholus’s definition of identity here as tantamount to a desire to cease to exist: ‘‘He envisions extinction—total merger with an undifferentiated mass—as the result of his search.’’ Kahn proceeds to frame this form of negating self-definition in psychological terms: ‘‘The image of that one drop falling into a whole ocean conveys the terror of failing to find identity: irretrievable ego loss.’’ In these terms, S. Antipholus’s search for identity can be understood as a possible step in the maturational process, whereby an adolescent might test the boundaries of his or her identity by fiercely identifying with someone such as a sibling—with such an identification between twins being especially strong. Kahn concludes, ‘‘The irony … is that seeking identity by narcissistic mirroring leads only to the obliteration, not the discovery, of the self.’’ Thus, while S. Antipholus finds his twin, the extent to which he likewise ‘‘finds himself’’ is unclear, as the reunion between the two does not indicate that they share any instinctive connection.
Adriana’s conception of her identity is also of great concern and is, in fact, quite similar to that of S. Antipholus, in that she seeks to define herself in relation to another—namely, to her husband. Echoing S. Antipholus’s remarks about feeling like a drop in an ocean seeking a particular other drop, Adriana compares herself to a drop of water in a gulf, where the entire gulf is understood to be her husband. A difference between the two conceptions of identity, then, can relate to the extent to which the two characters wish to be merged, in essence, with others: S. Antipholus feels lost in the ocean and seeks to unite himself only with a single other drop, his brother; Adriana, meanwhile, is perhaps perfectly content to be lost in her gulf, her husband, as long as she is never forcibly removed from it. These dual manners of defining the self through others may fairly reflect the play’s greater conception of identity, as related by Barry Weller: ‘‘The familial embrace with which the community of Ephesus eventually receives and reassembles the scattered members of Egeon’s household intimates the priority of corporate identities over the single and limited life of the individual consciousness.’’ That is, the play’s conclusion perhaps demonstrates the primary importance of the intersection of identities that is brought about by love.
Love and Marriage
A second theme that is closely linked to the first and that also relates to certain characters’ motivations concerns the nature of love and of marriage. This topic is discussed at length by Adriana and Luciana, who give conflicting views of what it means to be married and to be in love. Adriana harkens back to her husband’s courtship of her and laments that he no longer gives her the attention he once did. Peter G. Phialas points out that Adriana feels a need to maintain control of her husband’s liberty. In this sense, he asserts, ‘‘Adriana’s concept of love is the right to possess, to receive and own and be master of.’’ This concept is problematic largely in that it leads to her jealousy, which may or may not be well founded but, regardless, bears no positive effect on the relationship. The Abbess, serving as a guiding moral force, duly chastises Adriana for failing to deal well with the situation. Phialas claims that another aspect of Adriana’s conception of love that proves problematic is her evident belief that physical beauty plays a central role in attraction; however, Adriana may have formed this conception based on an accurate understanding of her own husband’s inclinations toward women in general. In opposition to her sister, Luciana seems to believe that a woman’s role in a marriage is to do everything possible to maintain peace. In her view, the degree of love shared by the couple is not of the utmost importance, as she counsels E. Antipholus not to search within himself to find his love for Adriana but simply to ‘‘comfort my sister, cheer her, call her wife,’’ as ‘‘the sweet breath of flattery conquers strife.’’ Luciana essentially dismisses the notion that the flattery in question ought to be sincere.
Much different perspectives are presented by the men of the play. E. Antipholus’s actions seem to indicate that love is simply not a priority for him; rather, business and his association and friendship with other businessmen, are of the utmost importance. S. Antipholus, meanwhile, demonstrates himself to be afraid to discover how a union with a woman would affect his sense of his identity. In particular, in speaking to Luciana he expresses his desire to avoid drowning in Adriana’s tears—offering an interesting inversion of the situation he described earlier with regard to his search for his twin, where he was already a drop of water in the ocean. Perhaps, however, this can simply be understood as S. Antipholus’s image of what marriage with Adriana would be like; he shows himself to be perfectly amenable to a union with Luciana. S. Dromio offers the most comically negative perceptions of marriage in conjuring the various overwhelming physical images associated with the rotund Luce. As Kahn notes, S. Dromio’s conception of Luce’s physical presence is similar to S. Antipholus’s conception of union with Adriana, as both express fear and confusion when confronted with the notion of being ‘‘engulfed.’’
Beyond the individual characters’ perceptions, issues surrounding love and marriage are extensively presented through the portrayal of Adriana’s relationship to her husband. Specifically, Shakespeare asks a question that Dorothea Kehler notes ‘‘is both timeless and peculiarly modern: can love survive marriage?’’ Indeed, the essence of the situation—that a discrepancy in the levels of affection expressed by husband and wife has led to alienation—has certainly been a subject of discussion ever since the notion of wedding was first conceived. In the marriage in The Comedy of Errors, the imbalance of love between Adriana and E. Antipholus has left Adriana feeling utterly powerless. Her husband is free to roam around and, if he so chooses, to ignore predetermined mealtimes, while she is relegated to simply waiting for him to arrive. Nevertheless, Kehler notes that Adriana wants nothing more than ‘‘to subjugate herself in marriage. It is her misfortune that, in a male-dominated society, the possession who becomes possessive is regarded as a shrew.’’ Overall, Adriana and E. Antipholus’s problematic situation illustrates just two of the psychological states that can be attained by a couple that has found its way into a less loving partnership than once existed.
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