Comedy of Errors has been traditionally critiqued as a comical unfolding of laughable incidents. However, closer examination of the text reveals that the root of the plot and the contexts demonstrated in the drama associates closely with the politics involved in the church-state discourse. Shakespeare has used the form of a parody to reveal the political controversies of the English Church through the forceful presence of the ecclesiastical elements in the text of the drama.
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Hence, The Comedy of Errors may present itself as a ludicrous, and for many absurd domestic plots, but underneath the garb of simplistic confusion is the historical discourse of the time, so subtly presented by Shakespeare. I believed The Comedy of Errors is not simply a farce but rather a profound meditation on the matter of church-state political discourse in England. In a way, I believe, Shakespeare delineates the reason of the “error” in the drama on the ideologies and policies of Counter- Reformation.
Parody is a medium through which writers often employ to demonstrate the political and social issues. Parody by its very nature has to employ an implicit discourse and leaves it to the reader to interpret the background context hidden behind the narration. In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare employed a foundation of Plautine comedy to present a coded ecclesiastical message in the drama. A few tropes used by Shakespeare to demonstrate the church-state controversy were the setting of the drama in Ephesus, use of slapstick comedy to demonstrate conformist and non-conformist attitude, the conflict of unfaithfulness in domestic as well as church life, and most importantly turning political conflicts in terms of sexual and domestic conflict.
The domestic conflict between Adriana and her husband and their supposed conduct of infidelity suggests a division in denomination in domestic life as has been observed the tendency of the reformist movement to adjudge the Roman Catholic Church as the adulterous partner of the anti-Catholics. Therefore, the code that Shakespeare uses in Error is signifying Adriana as the church maintaining the tradition of representing a chaste woman as the true Church and the corrupt woman as the Roman Catholic Church. The idea rests chiefly in the anti-Catholic contention. Here Shakespeare does not demonstrate Adriana as the shrewd wife, but one who is fearful and deeply hurt.
This is the creation of the myriads of coincidences, confusion, and misunderstandings presented skillfully by Shakespeare in the play. This confusion leads to emotional and/or physical pain for all and the situation remains unresolved until the abbess takes them inside the church and identifies all to be members of one family that included the Ephesians (insiders) and the Syracusans (outsiders). In this incident, the issues are both domestic and marital relations as well as those between the church and the state and the church members. In a way their revelation of their true self was a process of reevaluation, Shakespeare uses the style of a parody to devalue the nature and tone of the church-state conflict and proposes a more tolerant attitude towards the dissenters in order to cultivate unity.
Shakespeare’s use of suspicion and domestic violence led to the misunderstandings and coincidences in the play that parodies the inefficiency in human reasoning and the skeptical thinking of the age on politics and religion. Historically since the English Reformation into the 17th century, a well established belief existed among the Anglicans that Protestantism was the knowledgeable pillar of Christianity while Catholicism was the superstitious and emotional beliefs of the ignorant populace. Shakespeare actually Christianizes the Plautine plot and subtly infuses his religious concerns.
One prominent conflict in the play arises from the conflict between Ephesians and Syracusans that indicates the conflict between England and the Continental Europe in term of religion. Therefore, the conflict is not only shown inside the state but also with the other, foreign, states. The death penalty on the Syracusan merchant on encroaching the land of Ephesians may have been an indication towards the 1586 Elizabethan Act that proclaimed death penalty of even the presence of a catholic priest or Jesuit in England.
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The use of identical twins is a classical concept employed by Shakespeare two show the perceived “otherness” of the Catholics living in England in the 16th century and the twin brothers indicated the ingrained status of the Catholics in England. The Catholics often were found to be a part of a large Protestant family tree, and therefore, separating these two parts was to cut away a family and the threat of separating them was common during the time. The threat of Catholicism in England lay in this undrawn line between the Protestants and the Catholics where the former lay well embedded in the societal construct and separating the two was a difficult task without disturbing the composition of the latter.
Therefore, the similarities of the twins represented the sameness of the Catholics with the Protestants in early modern England. Therefore, Shakespeare uses the twins and their characters – outsider and insider, faithful (as the Ephesians) and disloyal (as Syracusans), the advantaged and the disadvantaged (the slaves) – that helped in blurring the line towards Catholicism in England. In another way, the twins born of the same parents but separated by fate and then found themselves in a whirlwind of confusing events can be said to a personified parody of the situation of the Catholic and the Protestant church.
However, the most definite example of Shakespeare’s indicative Protestant-Catholic divide in the play is changing of the original Plautine play wherein the abode of Ameilia is changed from a pagan temple to a Catholic Abbess. Shakespeare actually shows the abbess as the venue or locus of reconciliation of the prevalent divide between the Catholics and the Protestants. Historically the monasticism of the Catholic Church has been a point of bitter attack by the Protestant England on the stage. In showing the abbess of the Catholic Church as the ultimate reconciliatory in the whole confusion of the play demonstrates that Shakespeare wanted to indicate to the English audience that instead of violent retribution to the other religious half, the Protestants should embrace the inclusiveness of the Catholics.
Though he demonstrates this message in Errors distinctly, Shakespeare also underplays this message of divisionism and possible solution in the garb of human skepticism, suspicion, and follies. The play ends in more irrationalism as the Abbess with distinct illogical conduct identifies the separated as one family and with solely the faith on God that she reunites the family as atypical of counter-Reformation movement. In the end of the play, Shakespeare, through a myriad and nonsensical journey of slapstick comedy, brings forth the message of union between the two churches of Christianity.