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Sanctifying the Bourgeoisie: The Cultural Work of The Comedy of Errors

Sanctifying the Bourgeoisie: The Cultural Work of The Comedy of Errors

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154  Chapter Four



completely nonurban world of vast, stable, inherited, and, presumably, landed

wealth.

In Errors, on the other hand, there is no representation of aristocratic or

nonurban life. The Duke in the play is a figure conceived in terms of juridical

power rather than social status. The Comedy of Errors gives us, uniquely in

Shakespeare, a world of merchants—every one of whom is honest, generous,

and admirable. The mistaken identity plot is perfect for such a vision, for conveying, as Eric Auerbach would say, “this view of things”; it allows Shakespeare

to attain maximal dramatic energy without the need to put into the plot either a

malicious or a manipulative character. Despite the city of Ephesus’s supposed

reputation for being “full of cozenage,” there is not a single lie or deception,

not a single crooked, devious, or dubious business or monetary dealing in the

play. Contracts are honored, and it is a matter of shame not to do so. Money in

. For the positive evocation of mercantile shipping, and of wealth in Merchant, see Mark Van

Doren, Shakespeare (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1939), 79–87, esp. 80, built on by C. L. Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), chap. 7, esp. 170–72. For some of the complexities

that the economic issues bring into Merchant, see, inter alia, W. H. Auden, “Brothers and Others,” in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (see chap. 3, n. 20), 218–37.

. Anne C. Christensen in “‘Because their business still lies out a’ door’: Resisting the Separation of the Spheres in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors,” Literature and History 5 (1996): 19–

37, notes that “the action of Errors depends on the bustle of monetary trade, and thus Ephesus

resembles Tudor London” (19), and that Shakespeare’s play highlights “market activities” in

a way that his source does not (21). In “The Comedy of Errors: A Modern Perspective,” Arthur

F. Kinney recognizes the commercial nature of the social world depicted in the play, and the

closeness of this world to that of early modern London (see The Comedy of Errors, ed. Barbara

A. Mowat and Paul Werstine [New York: Washington Square Press, 1996], 179–93, esp. 183–85.

Peter Holbrook’s useful effort to place the genre of the play in the actual social world of Shakespeare’s time—Errors as showing that Shakespeare could “do” the classics—largely ignores the

social world represented in the play (“Class X: Shakespeare, Class and the Comedies,” in Dutton and Howard, A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, 3:67–89, esp. 74–79).

. See Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans.

Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), 29. I owe my awareness of the

closeness of my approach here to that of Auerbach to the dissertation of my student Rana Choi.

In The Invention of Suspicion: Law and Mimesis in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), Lorna Hutson also stresses the absence of intrigue in the

play (150–57).

. Quotations of the play, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Comedy of Errors, ed.

R. A. Foakes (see chap. 1, n. 44); hereafter identified by the editor’s name. For “They say this

town is full of cozenage,” and reference to “cheaters” and “mountebanks,” see the soliloquy by

Antipholus of Syracuse that ends the first act (1.2.97–105). Martin Van Elk’s attempt to con-



Sanctifying the Bourgeoisie  155



the play is neither filthy nor corrupting. No one is self-conscious about it, and

no one is either greedy or miserly. It is taken as perfectly normal not to cheat

and to expect not to be cheated. One might think that in presenting such a context, Shakespeare is merely celebrating the secular or responding to the spirit

of Roman comedy (Plautus’s Menaechmi is the major source for Errors). But

we will see that the play reminds us that to establish the “secular” as a positive

realm involves competition with a religious perspective that would demonize

or at least subordinate this realm. My argument is that in Errors, Shakespeare

presents a consciously humanist and Protestant conception of what, following

Max Weber, we might call “inner-worldly” holiness.

The “frame” story establishes the context. The geopolitical setting of the

play is a war that seems to be based on a commercial rivalry. The “envy and

discord” that has arisen between the polities of Syracuse and Ephesus derives

from what the Duke of Ephesus calls the Duke of Syracuse’s “rancorous outrage” directed “[t]o merchants, our well-dealing countrymen” (1.1.5–7). The

epithet here seems to mean something like “both prosperous and upright”

(doing well and doing good; doing well by doing good?). The enmity between

the cities not only arises from an attack on merchants, but is officially decreed

(“in solemn synods”) to take the form of a mutual commercial ban—“To admit no traffic to our adverse towns”—and the temptation to go to the other

city is seen in commercial terms, in terms of attending the other city’s “marts

and fairs” (1.1.15–17). The “stranger” Antipholus, Antipholus of Syracuse, in

announcing how he intends to spend his first hour in Ephesus, states that he

will not only view “the manners of the town” and its “buildings,” but also “peruse the traders” (1.2.12–13). The “hapless” figure whose plight provides the

frame of the play is a “merchant of Syracusa”—in the Folio, his speech heading

throughout the scene, although we know his name (Egeon, given in line 140),

nect the play to the Elizabethan rogue (“cony-catching”) pamphlets founders, as he periodically acknowledges, on what he rightly calls “Shakespeare’s choice to make misidentification

unintentional,” in “Urban Misidentification in The Comedy of Errors and the Cony-Catching

Pamphlets,” Studies in English Literature 43 (2003): 333; see also 337 and 339.

. See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–5), trans. Talcott

Parsons (1930; New York: Scribner’s, 1958), esp. chap. 3.

. The best gloss on the line that I have found is “Honest-trading; more generally, civil or

well-behaved,” in The Norton Shakespeare (see chap. 3, app. 2, n. 10), 690. The Folger edition

sees the richness of the phrase, but is oddly diffident: “Well-behaved, perhaps with reference to

business dealings” (The Comedy of Errors, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine [New York:

Washington Square Press, 1996], 6).

. As Foakes (4) points out, “traffic” is a synonym for trade.



156  Chapter Four



is some variant of merchant (“Marchant,” “Mer,” or “Merch”)—and he is an

entirely sympathetic character.10 Even the Duke who is sentencing him to death

finds him so. The character who apprises the stranger Antipholus of the situation between the cities, and therefore the danger to Antipholus as a Syracusan,

is another merchant, an Ephesian who apparently does not care about the official “enmity and discord” between the cities.11 This merchant is not only kindly

in warning Antipholus, but is also—for no plot reason whatever—explicitly

presented as completely honorable and trustworthy. His speech ends with the

line: “There is your money that I had to keep” (1.2.8).12 This merchant leaves

the scene (and the play) with a description of his own plan for the afternoon,

a plan in which the social and the mercantile mingle, and in which economic

gain is presented in a term that seems to transcend the economic, and that suggests public as well as private gain: “I am invited, sir, to certain merchants, / Of

whom I hope to make much benefit” (1.2.25–26).

10. For the Folio text of the play, I have used The First Folio of Shakespeare, prepared by

Charlton Hinman (New York: Norton, 1968).

11. Although this character is designated “First Merchant” in all modern editions that I know

of, in the Folio, after his first speech (where he is designated only as “Mer.”), he is designated

as “E.Mar.” This is obviously “Ephesian Merchant,” and I am not sure why Foakes professes

uncertainty on the matter (12). The New Cambridge edition of Errors, ed. T. S. Dorsch, revised

and with a new introduction by Ros King (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004),

takes note of this merchant’s indifference to the enmity (63).

12. This financial trustworthiness extends to the servants in the play as well. The (large

amount of ) money that the Ephesian merchant gives back to Antipholus (of Syracuse), Antipholus gives to his Dromio, who explicitly calls attention to the possibility of dishonesty that

he is rejecting. When Antipholus tells him to “Get thee away,” the Syracusan Dromio says,

“Many a man would take you at your word, / And go indeed, having so good a mean” (1.2.17–18).

Foakes (13) notes that T. W. Baldwin glossed “mean” here as “means,” that is, wealth. Despite

the worries that the encounter with the wrong Dromio has raised in Antipholus of Syracuse

(1.2.54, 70), and despite the final line of the scene (“I greatly fear my money is not safe”), at the

beginning of the next scene, we are immediately assured by this Antipholus, “The gold I gave

to Dromio is laid up / Safe” (2.2.1–2). Dromio of Ephesus is, presumably, similarly trustworthy—since the other Dromio, mistaken for him, is entrusted with money (4.3.63)—although the

Ephesian Dromio is not, as the “errors” develop, actually entrusted with any. While Douglas

Bruster, Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1992), notes the anxiety that Antipholus of Syracuse suffers with regard to his money

(74), and Shankar Raman, “Marking Time: Memory and the Market in The Comedy of Errors,”

Shakespeare Quarterly 56 (2005): 176–205, notes that in Errors, as in the Florentine libri da

famiglia, “monetary transactions seem surrounded by the possibility of deception and fraud”

(200), neither of them acknowledge that, in the play, such anxiety is unfounded, and that the

“possibility of deception and fraud” never materializes.



Sanctifying the Bourgeoisie  157



These, however, are only hints. The evocation of happy bourgeois life primarily enters the play through the presentation of the at-home Antipholus

(Antipholus of Ephesus) and the representation of his experience—even when

he is not the one having it. Shakespeare’s fictional world of commercial (ReÂ�

naissance?) Ephesus corresponds remarkably precisely to many features of the

actual world of Elizabethan business depicted by a recent social-economic historian.13 The first time that we meet Antipholus of Ephesus, at the beginning of

act 3, scene 1, he is coming home somewhat late for dinner—the socially crucial

midday meal—in the company of two friends whom he has invited to dine with

him.14 The friends are both identified as commercial types, “Angelo the Goldsmith” and “Baltha[za]r the Merchant” (F).15 There is no suggestion that this

is exactly a “business dinner,” but Antipholus’s home is also his shop, “The

Phoenix” (1.2.75), and the two functions seem to blend together.16 Anne Christensen notes that the family dwelling being above the business is “an arrangement resembling the situations of sixteenth century urban tradesmen”; to this

should be added Craig Muldrew’s observation that because of the generally

“low intensity of business” (in the sense of number of transactions), Elizabethan

shopkeepers could spend a great deal of time “mixing business and hospitality.”17 The normal explanation for Antipholus not coming home for dinner

would be that “some merchant” has invited him instead: “And from the mart

he’s somewhere gone to dinner” (3.1.4–5). Antipholus of Ephesus certainly

13. I am referring to Craig Muldrew’s The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and

Social Relations in Early Modern England (New York: Palgrave, 1998). This chapter could be

seen as an exemplification of many of Mudrew’s views, but I would prefer to see my chapter and

Muldrew’s book as providing independent confirmation for a similar picture of the ideals (and

in his case, some of the realities) of Elizabethan commercial and social life, since my analysis

was worked out before I had consulted his book. I believe Ted Leinwand first sent me to Muldrew—for which I am, obviously, grateful.

14. On the status and function of the midday meal, see Joseph Candido, “Dining Out in

Ephesus: Food in The Comedy of Errors,” in The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, ed. Robert

S. Miola (New York: Garland, 1997), 206–8, and the references there given.

15. Interestingly, “the merchant” of Ephesus (like that of Venice) is introduced to us as, for

unexplained reasons, “sad” (3.1.19). Curtis Perry notes that even in his younger days, Egeon, the

commercial traveler, was oddly ready to embrace death at the first “tragic instance” he experienced. See “Commerce, Community, and Nostalgia in The Comedy of Errors,” in Money and the

Age of Shakespeare: Essays in the New Economic Criticism, ed. Linda Woodbridge (New York:

Palgrave, 2003), 39–51, esp. 42.

16. Foakes’s note on “The Phoenix” as a business establishment is helpful (16).

17. Christensen, “â•›‘Because their business still lies out a’ door,’â•›” 24; Muldrew, Economy of

Obligation, 93.



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does not, contra one recent critic, have “the mistaken belief that the private and

public sides of social existence can be separated from one another.”18

Muldrew also argues for the importance of humanism to mid- and lateTudor conceptions of business and of civil life,19 and the verbal exchanges between the merchant-friends in Errors are a textbook model of humanist dialogue and graciousness. Antipholus of Ephesus pretends to doubt his ability

to be properly hospitable: “[P]ray God our cheer / May answer my good will,

and our good welcome here” (3.1.21). Balthazar, in good humanist fashion,

values the intention over the realization: “I hold your dainties cheap, sir, and

your welcome dear.” Antipholus, as the host who will be providing whatever

“cheer” there is, then makes the materialist point that, as Hamlet says, “one

cannot feed capons so”: “A table full of welcome makes scarce one dainty

dish”(we know that, as they are speaking, “[t]he capon burns, the pig falls off

the spit” [1.2.44]—perhaps manifesting the humanists’ “new appreciation for

pork”).20 Balthazar, as the nonmaterialist merchant-guest, disparages the importance of mere food: “Good meat, sir, is common; that every churl affords”

(poverty does not seem to occur to these people). Antipholus continues to

disparage mere words, and this set-piece dialogue ends with each of the interlocutors getting off one final good line. As in any well-developed humanist

dialogue, both sides acquit themselves well:

bal: Small cheer and great welcome makes a merry feast.

eph. ant: Ay, to a niggardly host, and more sparing guest.

(3.1.26–27)

Ben Jonson would have been pleased with this exchange. It shows, like his own

(and Martial’s) epigrams “Inviting a Friend for Supper,” a proper regard for

both material and nonmaterial values.21 Clearly both goodwill and good food

18. Jessica Slights, “The ‘Undividable Incorporate’: Householding in The Comedy of Errors,” in Domestic Arrangements in Early Modern England, ed. Kari Boyd McBride (Pittsburgh:

Duquesne University Press, 2002), 81. Christensen, “â•›‘Because their business still lies out a’

door,’â•›” sees the play as both asserting and resisting this separation. Slights too sees the play as

ultimately rejecting this separation, though her emphasis is on its assertion of it.

19. Muldrew, Economy of Obligation, 132–47.

20. Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press,

2002), 252.

21. Epigram 101, in The Complete Poetry of Ben Jonson, ed. William B. Hunter, Jr. (New York:

Anchor Books, 1963); Martial, epigrams 5.78 and 11.52, in Epigrams, trans. Walter C. Ker, Loeb

Classical Library (1919; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968).



Sanctifying the Bourgeoisie  159



are desirable and, in this context, expected. This is the world that the “errors”

interrupt. The expected experience of hospitality is aborted, and the goldsmith

notes that they have ended up with “neither cheer .€.€. nor welcome.” Balthazar

the merchant, ever wise and witty, observes of “cheer” and “welcome” that

“[i]n debating which was best, we shall part with neither” (3.1.67).

It is worth looking at some other evocations of the normal life of Antipholus of Ephesus. The most striking and lyrical of such evocations occurs at the

beginning of act 4, scene 3, where Antipholus of Syracuse muses on the nature

of the urban experience that he has been having. He is, of course, having the

experience of Antipholus of Ephesus:

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me

As if I were their well-acquainted friend,

And every one doth call me by my name;

Some tender money to me, some invite me,

Some other give me thanks for kindnesses,

Some offer me commodities to buy.

Even now a tailor call’d me to his shop,

And show’d me silks that he had bought for me,

And therewithal took measure of my body.

(4.3.1–9)



This is truly an urban pastoral, and unlike the urban pastoral in act 4, scene 6,

of Coriolanus—“our tradesmen singing in their shops and going / About their

functions friendly”—this vision is not in any way ironized.22 It is a vision in

which “kindnesses” and commercial transactions are completely compatible

and interwoven. Money is “tendered,” money is owed; commodities are offered, appreciated, and individualized. Luxury items are accepted as normal,

as connected to businesses, and as part of happy commercial and social life.23

The experience of all this is weird to Antipholus of Syracuse, but it is part

22. In Coriolanus, this vision is ironized by the military context.

23. For the view that early modern Europeans were happily and eagerly buying manufactured

goods, and did not experience anxiety in doing so, see Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution:

Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2008). De Vries’s study begins slightly later than Shakespeare’s period, and

deals with people perhaps of somewhat lower status than Antipholus of Ephesus and his friends,

but the view it presents is certainly relevant to Shakespeare’s play. De Vries’s view of consumer

behavior complements Muldrew’s view of commercial.



160  Chapter Four



of what it means to be Antipholus of Ephesus.24 This is clearly a picture, as

Stephen Greenblatt says of Duncan in Macbeth, of “what it would be like to

be at home in the world,” but here “the world” in question is commercial and

bourgeois rather than aristocratic.25

But perhaps I am painting too rosy a picture of business transactions in

the play. Act 4 begins with a scene that seems to suggest less amiable business relations. Angelo, the goldsmith to whom the Ephesian Antipholus owes

money for the making of a chain, himself owes money to another merchant

(not Balthazar). This merchant has an “officer” with him to arrest Angelo if he

does not pay the debt. As was normal in the period, apparently, the creditor

has not (as he says) “much importun’d” Antipholus for timely payment, but

at this moment he has a pressing need for his money (4.1.1–4).26 It is probably

significant that this merchant, who thinks that he will need an officer to collect his debt, is not a native of Ephesus.27 In fact, Angelo has a totally plausible

plan for payment; he will get the money from Antipholus of Ephesus, who

owes him “just the sum” (4.1.7) that is in question. This will allow Angelo, as

he explains to the merchant, to be able to act perfectly in this world—that is,

with both probity and graciousness: he will be able to “discharge my bond,

and thank you too” (4.1.13). The transaction should work out not only with

no need for legal enforcement but with complete goodwill. When first given

the gold chain, Antipholus of Syracuse offers to pay instantly lest something

go awry if he delays; instead of simply accepting the chain and walking away

rejoicing, he offers eagerly, even importunately, to pay for it: “I pray you sir,

receive the money now” (3.2.175). Angelo takes Antipholus (of Ephesus, as he

thinks) to be joking in suggesting that he needs to pay up on the spot: “You are

a merry man, sir: fare you well” (3.2.177).28 This is not the way things are done

24. On weirdness, see G. R. Elliott, “Weirdness in The Comedy of Errors,” University of

Toronto Quarterly 9 (1939): 95–106; reprinted in Miola, Critical Essays, 57–70.

25. Greenblatt, “In the Night Kitchen,” 28 (see chap. 3, app. 2, n. 42).

26. On “the willingness to tolerate unpaid debts for long periods of time before going to law,”

see Muldrew, Economy of Obligation, 200.

27. For evidence that this merchant is non-native, see Foakes’s comment (61n). Matthew

Steggle points out that the officer evokes the fear of punishment for debt, a fear that haunts the

urban world of this play as an alternative to its normal workings—and as a reminder of one of the

darker aspects of the commercial world of contemporary London (“Arrest for Debt in The Comedy of Errors,” Shakespeare Association of America [SAA] seminar paper, Bermuda, 2005).

28. Andrew Zurcher’s claim that Angelo here “fears he would be dishonouring his patron” in

suggesting that he is worried about being paid seems to me to be on the right track but to imply

a misleading level of anxiety. Angelo’s response is lighthearted, not nervous or fearful. Zurcher



Sanctifying the Bourgeoisie  161



in Ephesus. When the true Antipholus of Ephesus does not receive the chain,

he says to Angelo, “Belike you thought our love would last too long / If it were

chain’d together, and therefore came not” (4.1.25–26). This is indeed joking

and sarcastic, but it is striking that he speaks of their “love.” Antipholus of

Ephesus is fully willing to pay for the chain; he does not have the cash on him,

but tells Angelo: “[W]ith you take the chain, and bid my wife / Disburse the

sum on the receipt thereof ” (4.1.37–38). Everything is straightforward, honest,

and good-humored. No one wishes to cheat anyone or to avoid either payment

or delivery. When the “errors” manifest themselves here, and Angelo insists

that he has already delivered the chain, Antipholus of Ephesus is indignant to

be accused of nonpayment: “You wrong me much to say so” (4.1.66).

This is a world where lack of complete transparency in business dealings

is considered almost unthinkably dishonorable, a matter, as Angelo says, of

“shame” (4.1.85). When, at the beginning of the fifth act, Angelo is asked (by

the nonresident merchant) to describe Antipholus of Ephesus’s status in the

city, Angelo mentions the excellence of Antipholus’s “reputation” and that he

is “highly belov’d.” But I have skipped over the phrase that comes between

“reputation” and “belov’d”—Antipholus, Angelo says, is of “credit infinite.”

And just in case Angelo’s merchant interlocutor might be under the impression that the goldsmith is speaking of “credit” only in a general sense, Angelo

states that Antipholus’s word “might bear my wealth at any time” (5.1.4–8).

And the other Antipholus is as straightforward and honest as everyone else in

the play. We have already noted that he offers to pay for the chain as soon as

he has received it; he is horrified to be accused of denying that he has received

the chain. “Who heard me to deny or to forswear it,” he asks (5.1.25), and

he upbraids Angelo’s creditor for bringing such a charge against him. “Thou

art a villain to impeach me thus,” he asserts, using technical legal language

(5.1.29). He draws his sword (or rapier) to defend “mine honour and mine

honesty”—the bourgeois as well as the aristocratic code, “honesty” as well as

“honour.”29 As Muldrew has demonstrated at length, “credit” in the period

seems to me mistaken in seeing “a heavy penumbra of distrust” in the play’s portrayal of commercial relations. See “Consideration, Contract and the End of The Comedy of Errors,” in Shakespeare and the Law, ed. Paul Raffield and Gary Watt (Oxford: Hart, 2008), 26–27. Antipholus

of Syracuse’s anxiety is understandable, but it is, unsurprisingly, general, and has nothing in

particular to do with commercial relations.

29. On honor in the period, see Mervyn James, “English Politics and the Concept of Honour, 1485–1642,” in Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1986), 308–415; on the different valence of “honesty,” see Joshua

Scodel, The English Poetic Epitaph: Commemoration and Conflict from Jonson to Wordsworth



162  Chapter Four



was both a financial and a moral term, and the two meanings were intimately

interrelated: one’s reputation for honesty and reliability was crucial to one’s

business and social standing.30

Even the character “Courtesan” in this play seems to be an upright citizen.

She is a direct descendant of Erotium in Menaechmi, but she does not play

nearly as important a role in Shakespeare’s play as Erotium does in Plautus’s.

The Courtesan figures in Shakespeare’s plot as an object of sexual jealousy

for Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife, but, as this Antipholus insists—in a context in which we are pretty clearly intended to believe him—he has been accused “without desert” (3.1.112). Plautus’s Erotium is presented as a kind of

sex goddess (or at least she strikes the infatuated at-home Menaechmus as

such); her first appearance on stage is heralded with the astonishing line by

Menaechmus, “Oh, see how the sun is dimmed beside the radiance of that

lovely body” (oh, solem vides / satin ut occaecatust prae huius corporis candoribus).31 In Shakespeare, the first thing that Antipholus of Ephesus says about

the Courtesan is that she is “a wench of excellent discourse” (3.1.109). This

precedes the mention of her being “pretty”—an observation that is immediately balanced by “and witty” (3.2.110). This might mean that she is to be seen

as a cortigiana rather than merely a prostitute, an unconscious revival, as Wolfgang Riehle (following Burckhardt) puts it, of “the tradition of the cultivated

hetairai of Menandrian comedy,”32 but in the play, the Courtesan, despite her

designation, seems less a courtesan than the proprietress of an inn, “the Por(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), chap. 5, “Praising Honest Men: Social and Religious

Tensions in the Mid-Seventeenth-Century Epitaph.” On rapiers versus swords here and elsewhere in the play, see the updated New Cambridge Comedy of Errors (52). The ambiguity about

the weapon matches the class ambiguities.

30. This is a major thesis of Muldrew’s book (Economy of Obligation, 34–49, et passim).

31. Plautus, The Brothers Menaechmus, in The Pot of Gold and Other Plays, trans. E. F. Watling

(London: Penguin, 1965), 109 (translation slightly emended: “body” for “person”); for the Latin,

see Menaechmi: The Two Menaechmuses, in Plautus, trans. Paul Nixon, Loeb Classical Library

(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1917), 2:382 (lines 179–80). See also Wolfgang Riehle,

Shakespeare, Plautus and the Humanist Tradition (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1990), 57.

32. Riehle, Shakespeare, Plautus and the Humanist Tradition, 58. See Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance, 2:394 (see intro., n. 2): “Even the intercourse with courtesans seems

to have assumed a more elevated character, reminding us of the hetairae in classical Athens.” On

the complexities of the figure of the cortigiana, see Margaret F. Rosenthal, The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice (Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1992).



Sanctifying the Bourgeoisie  163



pentine” (3.1.116). Obviously, these roles can run together (as, perhaps, they do

in Mistress Quickly), but Errors seems to insist not only on Antipholus’s lack

of sexual involvement with the Courtesan, but also on her status as the “hostess” of the Porpentine (3.1.119). Her business does not, at least primarily, seem

to be that of selling herself.

The Courtesan’s other function in the plot is in relation to the chain that

tracks and generates so many of the “errors’ in the play.33 The gold chain was

originally commissioned, with great insistence—it was “bespoke .€.€. [n]ot

once, nor twice, but twenty times” (3.2.172)—by Antipholus of Ephesus for

his wife, but after being barred from his own house for dinner, he decides to

“bestow” the chain on the Courtesan instead (3.1.117).34 This would seem to

be a fairly direct parallel to the valuable dress which, in Plautus, the at-home

Menaechmus gives to Erotium, but even here the differences are striking. In

Plautus, this Menaechmus has, with great delight in his own cleverness—he

is wearing the dress under his cloak—stolen the dress from his wife to give to

his “girl” (ad scortum fero); his wife’s resentment over this theft of a valuable

from her is a major issue in Plautus’s play.35 In Shakespeare, as we have seen,

the decision to give the chain to the Courtesan is a reaction to the locking-out

scene, as is Antipholus of Ephesus’s purchase of a “rope’s end” with which to

scourge his wife and her “confederates” (4.1.16–17). Adriana knows that the

chain is being made for her, but she asserts that she values Antipholus’s fidelity

33. On the chain as a symbol of the marital bond and of social solidarity in general, see Richard Henze, “The Comedy of Errors: A Freely Given Chain,” Shakespeare Quarterly 22 (1971):

35–41; for the claim that the chain is related to Protestant theological discourse, especially to

William Perkins’s A Golden Chain, or The Description of Theology (1591), see Donna B. Hamilton, Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984), 84.

34. It is interesting to reflect on how richly detailed the “social life” of this chain is in the

play. We know what it is made of, who made it, who commissioned it, why it was commissioned,

and what it cost, as well as who came to have it, how it was finally paid for, and so forth. See The

Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1986).

35. See The Brothers Menaechmus, 107; for the Latin, Plautus, 2:376 (line 130); hereafter

English and Latin page references are cited together, with the English preceding the Latin. For

the wife’s resentment about the dress, see especially The Brothers Menaechmus, 126–27/2:428,

430. In Plautus, we do not know who made this dress, or how it came into being, though we do

that Menaechus bought it for his wife, and what it cost (110/2:386 [line 205]). Anne Christensen

notes that “the Roman husband procures his gifts to the courtesan from his wife’s closet, thereby

obscuring actual economic transactions” (“â•›‘Because their business still lies out a’ door,’â•›” 22).



164  Chapter Four



much more than the material object: “[W]ould that alone .€.€. he would detain,

/ So he would keep fair quarter with his bed” (2.1.106–8).36

It turns out, moreover, that Antipholus of Ephesus does not actually intend

to “bestow” the valuable chain on the Courtesan; he actually intends to trade

her for it. When she (as she believes) confronts him later, she says, “Give me the

ring of mine you had at dinner, / Or for my diamond, the chain you promised”

(4.3.66–67). This is still a diversion of the chain from Antipholus of Ephesus’s

wife, and it is still a good bargain for the Courtesan, since the chain is worth

a good deal more than the ring (it is notable that we are given the exact value

of each—the ring is worth forty ducats (4.3.80, 94), the necklace two hundred

(4.4.132). The Courtesan did not ask for the chain, and when (through the errors) she does not get it, all she wants is her ring back, because, as she sensibly

says, “forty ducats is too much to lose.” Faced with the possibility of loss of her

ring, the Courtesan unhesitatingly resolves to go to Antipholus’s home and

report his bizarre behavior to his wife (4.3.89–92). The Courtesan does redescribe Antipholus’s dinnertime behavior—“He rush’d into my house and took

perforce / My ring away” (4.3.91–2)—and this may qualify her for being “the

only deliberate deceiver” in the play.37 But she might well think him “mad,” on

the basis of the preposterous “tale he told to-day at dinner / Of his own doors

being shut against his entrance” (4.3.85–86), and her motive in redescribing

his behavior is only to recover her property. In the next scene, the wife and the

Courtesan seek Antipholus (of Ephesus) together, and they agree, with the

Courtesan’s story in mind, that he must be mad.38 Antipholus of Ephesus’s

wife describes her husband as “[d]oing displeasure to the citizens” (4.1.142).

The Courtesan is fully in this category. The wife’s belief that her husband

must be mad is based, as she says, on his strange and unwonted “incivility”

(4.4.44)—a very strong negative term in this play (and in the early modern

business world).39 Antipholus of Ephesus is not behaving like a proper citizen;

and he is offending other citizens, other property owners, in the city. He must

36. There is some textual corruption in Adriana’s speech here. See Foakes (25), although the

emendation he accepts has not been adopted by other editors. There is, it should be noted, also

a chain in Menaechmi, but it too was stolen from the wife (line 537).

37. See Laurie Maguire, “The Girls from Ephesus,” in Miola, Critical Essays, 369.

38. Hutson, The Invention of Suspicion, points out how the courtesan’s “little fib” feeds into

the wife’s perception (153).

39. For the significance of “civility”—and the shock of “incivility”—in early modern English

business dealings, see the quotations in Muldrew, Economy of Obligation, 201–2. Camille Wells

Slights, in Shakespeare’s Comic Commonwealths (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993),

recognizes the importance of the term for the play (28).



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