During Shakespeare’s time, marriage was a male-dominated institution. A wife’s legal rights were essentially nil, a husband had every social advantage, and thus a woman’s status and happiness were based on her husband’s behavior. The cruelty of this plight is articulated by Antipholus’s wife, Adriana, in The Comedy of Errors:
Whilst I at home starve for a merry look:
Hath homely age th’ alluring beauty took
From my poor cheek? Then he hath wasted it.
Are my discourses dull? Barren my wit?
If voluble and sharp discourse be marr’d,
Unkindness blunts it more than marble hard.
(II, i, 87–93)
This excerpt reflects diverse emotions. Adriana communicates possessiveness, but she also needs to be loved. She fears that her husband has lost interest in her, but she knows that she still has much to offer him. She does not seek to rule her roving spouse, but she does desire his time, attention, and love. She feels bitter at his ill treatment, but is eager for his pleasure with her to be revived. Most important, Shakespeare makes us feel sympathy for Adriana’s predicament—indeed, for the predicament of all wives.
Although Adriana’s complicated expression of frustration appears in one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, the issues it raises may be found in many of Shakespeare’s plays, in which the portrait of marriage is more complex. Two general themes emerge: (1) women characters are often forced to accept men who are far less worthy they are; and (2) the most admirable couples are joined in a subtle balance of responsibility, affection, and authority.