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Family and Marriage in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors

Comedy of Errors – Family and Marriage

Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is a madcap romp of mistakes and misadventures, wrapping together two Plautine comedies sauced with Scripture and Renaissance poetry. Yet the tangled web of estranged family that Shakespeare weaves holds significant differences from any of his originals, pointing to ideas about family and marriage that Shakespeare no doubt held, and was to develop further in later works.

Plautus’ Menaechmi yields a basic framework for Shakespeare’s plot: two long-separated brothers mistaken for one another. Yet Plautus’ two brothers differ markedly in attitude: one is “gay, generous, and fun-loving,” the other “shrewd, calculating, and cynical” (Kinko, p. 10). Shakespeare’s Antipholi seem as confused as their Menaechmi relations, but more interchangeable in general temperament. Plautus’ Amphitryon provides the idea of doubling servants as well as masters, but these are duplicates by divine action: one set are disguised gods fully aware of the situation, the other confused mortals. So why the device of like-behaving mortal twins? Perhaps it is in the family members Shakespeare adds — Egeon, Aemilia, Luciana — that we discover the motives for his adaptations.

One of the main themes of Shakespearean comedy is that of the new community: thus the stereotypical round of marriages that is a given for almost any comic Act V. Here we have only one new marriage, between (Syracusan) Antipholus Erotes and Luciana, the restoration of happiness to (Ephesian) Antipholus Sereptus and formerly shrewish Adriana, and the renewal of Egeon and Aemilia’s long-sundered wedding bonds (taken and developed from Gower’s Confessio Amantis). But the characters begin the play almost wholly sundered from community: Egeon has long lost both wife and half his progeny, and abandoned his known son for a seven years’ search; Antipholus Erotes seems blithely unaware of his father’s presence in town, so complete is their separation; even Antipholus Sereptus is estranged from his wife Adriana, not enjoying the fruitful state of marriage that must be the lot of comic characters. They are all awash in a capitalist society of business and bonds, with little room for generosity but much for the Officer, debtors’ prison, and harsh laws against Syracusan foreigners that even the Duke cannot overturn.

Here St. Paul enters the fray, with the prescriptions of his Epistle to the Ephesians (!): “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.

The Outsider in Don Quixote and Frankenstein

Regarding the seeds of creativity that produced her Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

paraphrases Sancho Panza, explaining that “everything must have a beginning.” She and

Percy Shelley had been reading Don Quixote, as well as German horror novels, during

the “wet, ungenial summer” and “incessant rain” of their stay with Lord Byron at Villa

Diodati in Geneva in 1816. In his introduction, Maurice Hindle notes the connection

between the two fictional madmen:

Both Don Quixote and Frankenstein start out with the noble intention of

helping their fellow creatures, but their aspirations are doomed by their

pursuit of a „single vision,. one that takes them further and further away

from satisfying the moderate needs of the community, and nearer and

nearer to a personally tragic denouement. (Frankenstein xxxviii)

Society, too, must have had its beginning, but theorists from Hume to Marx to Darwin

and writers such as Shelley and Dostoevsky may never solve the question of whom or

what came first: the individual or the community? One thing seems clear: whether via

sensational impressions, inductive reasoning, or common sense, the individual cannot

long survive without meaningful inclusion within the larger group of humanity. From

childhood, we recognize the profound hurt that comes from exclusion from the majority,

and this alienation, in Marxian parlance, can lead to an antagonistic position toward

society, as dramatized in both Frankenstein.s “monster” and Dostoevsky.s Underground

Man. The monster proclaims in his agony that he is “malicious because I am miserable,”

and he is miserable, no doubt, because he is not merely alone but shunned from society

(147). Shelly.s creation is in part deri…

… middle of paper …

…arles. “The Origin of Species.” From Modernism to Postmodernism: An

Anthology. Expanded 2nd Edition. Ed. Lawrence Cahoone. Blackwell Publishing.


Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Notes From Underground.” The Norton Anthology of World

Masterpieces: The Western Tradition 7th edition Vol. 2. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New

York, NY. 1999.

Hume, David. “A Treatise on Human Nature.” From Modernism to Postmodernism: An

Anthology. Expanded 2nd Edition. Ed. Lawrence Cahoone. Blackwell Publishing.


Marx, Karl. Manifesto of the Communist Party: “Bourgeois and Proletarians.” From

Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Expanded 2nd Edition. Ed.

Lawrence Cahoone. Blackwell Publishing. 2003.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Maurice Hindle.

Penguin Books. U.K., 2003.

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