'Urging helpless patience': Domesticity, Stoicism, and Setting in The Comedy of Errors

Erin Weinberg


The Comedy of Errors depicts a struggle for social unity in the face of violent passions. Shakespeare’s adaptation of the Plautine farce, Menaechmi, is oft considered a comedy of humours, and critics tend to overlook the play’s emotional complexity, on the assumption that Shakespeare based his characters on the two-dimensional “types” used in the Roman source text. To fill this critical gap, my paper will argue that it is the play’s very concern with the classical dichotomies of master-servant and husband-wife that avails it to the early modern paradigm of the emotions as embodied.

In relocating the play’s setting from Plautus’s Epidamnus to Ephesus, Shakespeare alludes to St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, which fittingly introduces the play’s emotional conflict of social disunity on account of violent and conflicting passions. Drawing on critics such as Gail Kern Paster, Wolfgang Riehle, and Joseph Candido, my contribution to this special issue will examine Shakespeare's approach to the play’s conflict as an inroad into the early modern appropriation of the Roman ethos of Stoicism. Shakespeare introduces a Christian brand of Stoicism in which wives and servants must learn to subordinate their passions to those of their masters, calmly enduring their brutality, no matter the perceived injustice. Instead, the play shows, they must resolve the masters’ violent passions by reading their physical features in order to interpret their emotional needs. Introducing the new character of the Abbess, Shakespeare integrates the Roman farce into a Christian ethos. This character resolves the comic tension by preaching a domestic brand of Christianity in which the rewards of Stoicism, learning to subordinate the passions, can be reaped in the mortal realm. While this message hails primarily from Paul’s Letter, the Stoicism that it preaches within the Christian paradigm suggests not a departure, but rather Shakespeare's return to the values of his Roman sources.


Shakespeare; Affect theory; Food in literature; domestic drama

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