Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

‘Urging Helpless Patience’: Domesticity, Stoicism, and Setting in the Comedy of Errors

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

‘Urging Helpless Patience’: Domesticity, Stoicism, and Setting in the Comedy of Errors

Article excerpt

The Comedy of Errors is a play in which violent passions threaten domestic order. Shakespeare adapts his plot from Plautus'sMenaechmi, but far from being a mirror image of the source, Shakespeare's departures from the Roman farce are what reveal his own play's affective depth. Reducing the role of the Courtesan in favour of focalizing the citizen twin's previously unnamed wife, Shakespeare expands the farce into a far deeper domestic drama of jealousy and false appearances. The affective register of this play unites Galenic medical theory and Christian Stoicism, an early modern reshaping of the classical philosophy to reinforce Christian values. These ideologies meet in Shakespeare's Ephesus, relocated from Plautus's Epidamnum to draw on the setting's associations with Paul's Letter to the Ephesians. Shakespeare's original character of the Abbess serves as the play's voice for Paul's message of domestic unity through Christian Stoicism, preaching that a wife can overcome feelings of insecurity and isolation through patience and acceptance of her passive social role. By exploring how these points of adaptation gesture towards looking inward to find the means of overcoming violent passions, I uncover a deeper affective register underpinning Shakespeare's early farce.

Humanism recovered Stoicism for use in early modern England. The classical philosophy conceives of the passions as 'error' on account of the affective energy man directs towards ideas or actions that he is powerless to change.1 In this play, characters 'err' by allowing themselves to be overcome by violent passions in the face of adversity. Gilles D. Monsarrat, author of Light from the Porch: Stoicism and English Renaissance Literature, reinforces this spirit of resignation, stating: 'Stoicism is a philosophy for adversity, or rather for happiness in spite of adversity'.2 The philosophy privileges reason over passion, advocating for a discipline in which the man controls the passions, rather than the passions controlling the man. Shakespeare was introduced to Stoicism in grammar school, learning oration and rhetoric while studying Latin sources of this philosophy, including Cicero and Seneca. The school of thought became all the more popular with Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius's widely-read On Constancy in Times of Public Calamity, which was published in Latin in 1584 and translated into English by Sir John Stradling in 1595. Founding the school of 'Neo-Stoicism', the tract was popular on account of its synthesis of Stoic morality with Christianity, in which the more pagan aspects of the classical philosophy, such as encouraging empowerment over death through suicide, were reduced.3 Through the humanist retrieval of Stoicism epitomized by Lipsius, Christ's passion came to signify the 'supreme instance of his patience', rendering patient resignation an 'eminently Christian virtue'.4 Rather than stemming from pride over adversity as in the classical philosophy, Neo-Stoicism finds its greatest weapon in faith in Christ's God-given purpose to endure and overcome suffering.

Problematically, both classical Stoicism and continental Neo-Stoicism were philosophies written by men and addressed to men. In On Anger, Seneca reveals this gender bias:

Bad temper achieves nothing imposing or handsome. On the contrary, I think it the mark of a morbid unhappy mind, aware of its own weakness, to be constantly aching, like sore sick bodies which groan at the slightest touch. Anger is thus a particularly feminine and childish failing. 'But men, too, get it.' Yes. For men, too, can have feminine and childish characters. (1.20.3)5

This philosophy characterizes the "feminine" as easily overwhelmed by violent passions and suggests the male sex's unique ability to overcome these ostensibly baser human impulses. Neo-Stoicism, too, concerns itself with man's social and political role, not giving advice to women but rather using women as examples of being dominated by the passions:

He said not that we should weep and lament, but die for our country. …

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