Female Spectators and "The Comedy of Errors"


Compared to the precedents in Plautus, this script pays serious and sympathetic attention to its female roles: the seemingly misused wife, Adriana, laments the sexual double standard which her husband seems to exploit when his twin is courting her sister. There is great deftness in Shakespeare's handling of this situation since male spectators can dismiss the censure because the husband is not guilty of the main charge. However, he does, in resentment at his wife's unintelligible hostility, turn to the consolations of the prostitute, which may validate his wife's attack on male promiscuity for female spectators; but even the Courtesan is presented humanely. The play also comically develops many other dramatic ironies, which flatter the audience via its superior knowledge to the personae on stage. Moreover, the play transcends farce in suggesting how instable the sense of human identity may be in general, and how limited are human powers of perception socially. This stress on the volatility of reality is reinforced by the plot's location in Ephesus, cited in the Acts of the Apostles as one of the most mysterious and exotic environments in the Levant, because its powerful cult of Diana evokes the supernatural potentialities of the Great Earth Mother. In this the city serves as a catalyst of unexpected emotions comparable to the Green World which provides the context of psychological mutation in other Shakespearean comedies. As usual, Shakespeare's location of his plots establishes a meaningful setting for his psychological concerns, like Venice and Vienna in later comedies.

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