Wifely Conversion in
The Comedy of Errors: Representation of Female Sacredness in Post-Reformation England *
- Author: Hwang Su-kyung
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 19, Issue3, p155~176, 31 Dec 2011
This essay primarily discusses the character of the Abbess in
The Comedy of Errorsas an embodiment of the Protestant ideal for sacred women. She seems free from the conventional anti-Catholic accusation of hypocritical and deceptive Catholic clergy, and the transition of her religious and feminine identity to one of a faithful and productive housewife is an option ideally suggested by Protestant reformers for single women in post-Dissolution England. However, her “wifely conversion” is hardly sanctioned,for it is accompanied with a hypocritical, though only somewhat offensive, disguising of one’s true identity, and the ultimate goal of companionate marriage seems to be too hard to reach for women, who were considered to be corporeal, emotional, and immature by the same reformers. Her return to the family is not warmly welcomed, and her stage presence loses its due elegance when the corporeal duty of her symbolic pregnancy calls to mind the contradiction of her male body beneath. The vested Abbess on stage represents the intersection of contemporary antipathy toward Catholics, actors, and women, which demonstrates the representational crisis that Elizabethan theaters could not but face, the impossibility of staging the image of a sacred female saint, either Catholic or Protestant.
William Shakespeare , The Comedy of Errors , Abbess , Nun , Transvestism , Religion , Anti-Catholicism , Anti-theatricality
When Isabella, a nun-to-be in Shakespeare’s
Measure for Measure, stubbornly resists surrendering to Angelo’s indecent proposal to sleep with him in return for her brother’s life, Angelo argues that she should be what she is, which is “a woman.” Angelo asserts that “women are frail” (2.4.133) and that Isabella should take the gender role she is born with, and show that she is no more than a sexual object for men. The destined livery she needs to put on is the role of woman, not nun’s habit 2 , supposedly asexual, but unexpectedly sensual. Her “unnatural” intellectual ability to argue against Angelo’s hypocritical suggestion is useless as it would not elevate her to a spiritual being but makes her “none,” which makes an irreverent pun with “nun” (Fleissner)3. As noted by Katherine Eisaman Maus, one of the editors of Norton Shakespeare, Isabella’s “nun’s habit marks her as taboo” (2024), which sexually arouses Angelo, as Isabella’s sexual attractiveness is often indebted to her religious identity as a nun-novice, a female option manifesting her sexual unavailability, rather than her religious devotion.
The idea that nun’s sexual unavailability ironically provokes even the most austere mind is in the same line with anti-Catholic rhetoric that condemns Catholic monasticism for breeding social corruption rather than contributing to a community’s spiritual welfare. The sexual attraction that Isabella presents for the male protagonists, Angelo and the Duke, involves a homosexual dimension, too, as the officially declared asexuality of nuns conveniently overlaps with in-between sexuality of boy actors on stage. Both Catholic nuns and boy actors were regarded as sexually attractive, but unavailable for marriage and reproduction, which, ironically, contributed to their sexual appeal. Isabella in nun-novice’s habit has a potential to expose her transvestite identity whenever her sexuality is challenged on stage. Angelo’s angry but almost desperate line of “Be that you are. / That is, a woman. . .By putting on the destined livery” (2.4.134-35,138), expresses his uncomfortable anxiety about falling for a sexually unavailable female of nun-to-be status, or a boy, equally unavailable and definitely not a woman.
Contrary to Isabella, who has been received relatively weighty critical attention for her religious and female identity, the Abbess in
The Comedy of Errors, a middle-aged nun who turns out to be the mother of the Antipholus twins, has had her critical significance disregarded, other than as a deus ex machinewho solves the major dramatic conflict caused by mistaken identities in the end. However, I would like to argue the need to pay attention to the sexuality and religious propensity of the Abbess, who projects contradictory images of asexuality and irresistible sexuality: as a keeper of the Abbey and a mother of twin brothers, and also as a vestment-wearing “celibate” nun on the outside with male body underneath. Her rather smooth transition from a religious authority to a domestic female role of wife/mother reflects Protestant understanding of female sacredness, which, in turn, demonstrates the self-contradictory attitudes of many early modern English subjects towards Catholicism, theatricality, and sexuality.
1All quotations from the play are taken from Measure for Measure in The Norton Shakespeare,edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine E. Maus, and Andrew Gurr in1997. 2The following discussion on Isabella’s role will be based on the assumption that she was staged in nun novice’s habit. There are critics like Andrew Gurr and Jean McIntyre who argue that Isabella wearsa gentlewoman’s garments instead of a nun’s habit, but based upon the textual clues, the stage presence of Isabella in religious vestments has been accepted in scholarly criticism. 3Robert F. Fleissner argues, while discussing Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, that “none” was homophonic with “nun,” and the none/nun wordplay would have sounded irreverent enough to cause the elimination of the play from the Valladolid Folio by a Jesuit.
The Abbess in
The Comedy of Errorsrepresents a Catholic vocation of nun staged in post-Reformation English theater more than fifty years after the dissolution of convents in 1539. Rather than stage friars, the representation of Catholic nuns on stage was one of the rare spectacles that theaters alone could provide, as some liturgical vestments for male priests survived the Reformation and were worn in the Church of England. Catholic male priests on stage were customarily subject to Protestant satire, but nuns on stage seem to have been relatively free from the Protestant cultural strategy of building up a stereotype of the deceptive and hypocritical Catholic clergy. The Abbess is not supposed to be hypocritical, but rather honest and sacred, perhaps more so than any other character in the play, but her sacred portrayal on the sixteenth century English stage should be reconsidered with the contemporary anti-Catholic discourse on vested priests, which is closely intertwined with Elizabethan misogyny.
One of the negative connotations that Protestants attached to Catholicism was its effeminacy in relation to idolatry, illiteracy, and carnality. While identifying Protestantism as masculine, patriotic, honest, and logocentric, Catholicism is sided with effeminacy, often negatively associated with deceptiveness, foreignness, and vulnerability to physical, visual, and sensual affects. Arthur Marrotti asserts that “women and Catholicism were both feared as intrinsically idolatrous, superstitious and carnal,” (4) and Regina Buccola points out that Protestants feminized Catholicism for all its emphasis on so-called female elements: ornaments, artifice, costuming, and cosmetics (144). Frances E. Dolan also argues that illiterate and unlearned women were considered prone to convert to Catholicism (27).
The dichotomy of Catholicism as feminine vice and Protestantism as masculine virtue is captured in the visual image of the Whore of Babylon, a female, sensual, and monstrous anti-Christ identified as the Pope. This metaphor chosen by Protestant reformers to describe the popish anti-Christ accentuated both its femininity and its sexual promiscuity. Combined with public distrust of priests’ sworn celibacy in monasteries, celibate appearance masking disorderly sexual desire was one of the conventional suspicions Protestants leveled against the Catholic clergy. While formulating Catholicism as feminine and Protestantism as masculine, Protestant reformers readily depicted vested Catholic clergy as “men in women’s clothes,” another analogy often adapted to refer players on the early modern Elizabethan stage. The “unnatural” sexuality of Catholic clergy had been overtly criticized by Protestant reformers until it became an integral part of the conventional Protestant rhetoric, and the reproduction of the image was theatrically much more effective when it coincided with the tradition of boy actors.
Although all sorts of female characters might, arguably, be revealing of the contemporary interests in transvestism intertwined with religious polemics, women in religious dramas or religious women characters would betray the most obvious pictures to analyze. Lewis Wager’s explicitly Protestant play,
The Life and Repentaunce of Marie Magdalene, has a female protagonist who progresses from corruption to redemption. As the portrayal of Mary Magdalene ranges from the most blamable to the most admirable, the play provides a schoolbook description of negative and positive femininity from the Protestant perspective. Hill-Vásquez argues that the pre-converted Mary Magdalene is “markedly feminine and markedly Catholic” (176), and represents “the misguided, sensually driven Catholic player, playgoer, and worshipper” (186). Mary Magdalene’s redemption is to leave behind the immature femininity and to pursue the manly faith of Protestantism, which is visually displayed through her costume changes. Mary Magdalene deserts her exquisite feminine dresses and returns to stage “sadly appareled.” Although it is not clear how penitently Mary Magdalene was actually dressed, 4 her symbolic “nudity” deprived of her “covetous and unnatural style” might not be simply read out or gazed upon as asexual or non-corporeal when she washes Christ’s foot with her hair, “Thinking all other clothes thertoouer vile” (2. 1906) (Badir 13-16).5 In addition to the physical proximity and bodily contact that signify Mary Magdalene’s disturbing corporeality, Patricia Badir argues, the contemporary audience might not be able to ignore the fact that she is actually played by a boy actor “sadly appareled,” and the “undressed” Mary Magdalene is still covered up to conceal a real naked body beneath (19). If discouraging sexual promiscuity and extoling Protestant virtue are the missions that Wager attempts to complete, he chooses a hard subject, and he finds an even harder medium of theater to convey the message.
For Elizabethan playwrights, it might be easier to present sexually ambiguous witches and promiscuous whores than to stage a chaste and honest female saint unavoidably impersonated by boy actors. John Anson explains how the legends of female saints, especially those who disguised themselves as men, satisfy male readers and audiences with the imaginary female presence in the male-dominated space of monasteries and how their final sacrifice, which compensates for the guilt that male readers might feel, is inevitable to keep the sacred community pure (30). From the Protestantperspective, female transvestism, just like Mary Magdalene’s divestments, can be received somewhat positively, as the individual’s efforts to remove her former femininity ultimately correspond to the aim of embracing masculine Protestantism. It was the same expectations Elizabethan people might have toward Queen Elizabeth, the most sacred presence in England, to leave her femininity behind and to assume the male vocation successfully, unlike “the monstrously feminine and feminizing Catholic reign of Mary Tudor” (Hill-Vásquez 185). As lenient as Elizabethan people were, at least on a metaphoric or fictional level, to the issue of female transvestism, they were harshly critical of male transvestism, as a man in woman’s clothes suggests a degradation to a more corporeal presence arousing homosexual erotic desire and the regression to a more immature, prepenitent, Catholic state. For boy actors, whose profession could not avoid the hostile charge of male transvestism, the most challenging job was to take the role of sacred women and to earnestly express their saint-like chastity and spotless honesty.
It might be the character of the Catholic nun for an Elizabethan audience that embodies the meta-dramatic dilemma that boy actors cannot avoid as men in women’s clothes, declaring oneself to be asexual or chaste, but subject to criticism for encouraging homosexual as well as heterosexual desires. Mostly due to their religious identity accompanied by compulsory celibacy, Catholic nuns on stage, more than any other transvestite female characters, could hardly escape from the meta-dramatic dimension of the plays, presenting nun’s habits as costume, and swearing chastity as performance, which consequently thwart the audience’s sympathetic identification with the character and their complete absorption in the play. Their presence on stage suggests the combination of contemporary negative values derived from femininity, homosexuality, Catholicism, and theatricality, which limit their representation to be sincerely spiritual or heroically tragic.
4Badir suggests that Wager’s Mary might have followed “the convention of performing public penance en chemise or in loose undergarments” (13). 5All quotations from the play are taken from the Mary Magdalene in Reformation Biblical Drama in England: An Old-Spelling Critical Edition edited by Paul White, New York: Garland Pub, 1992.
The Comedy of Errorsbetrays an exceptionally moral world, where all human relationships are well believed to be based on trust. With the strangely flat characters and no vice to complicate their relationships, Shakespeare develops a drama of misunderstandings, or “errors” that would lead to catastrophic violence between families and cities if not resolved in time. In the beginning and the ending of the successive misconceptions is the Abbess, the mother of the twins and the wife of Egeon. The Abbess demonstrates the strange coexistence of celibacy and fecundity as a strict keeper of the sanctioned abbey and a mother of twins, but the transition is rather smooth and viewed hospitably as her hidden identity helps solve the major problem in the play. Her assumption of the contradictory roles of mother and Abbess is nothing absurd or disgraceful in the play, and her return to the secular female role of mother and wife is portrayed as a natural process, even a sacred choice to make. The play rarely displays any overt religious propensity, especially any conventional anti-Catholic prejudices. The character of the Abbess subtly avoids acerbic anti-clericalism as she is not stereotypically hypocritical or promiscuous. In addition, her traditional healing method of “wholesome syrups, drugs and holy prayers” (5.1.105)6 might sound ineffective and superstitious, but so might the schoolmaster Pinch’s “holy prayers” to expel “Satan, hous’d within this man” (5.1.49-50). The satire of exorcism in the play is directed to radical Puritan exorcists as well as Catholic ceremonial practices (Dijkhuizen 57). Instead of coinciding with conventional anti-Catholic stereotypes, the Abbess demonstrates Protestant understanding of female sacredness, glorified with pregnancy, motherhood, and domesticity, but unavoidably undermined by contemporary misogyny dismissing female corporeality as inferior, immature, and secular.
The world of
The Comedy of Errorsbetrays an ideal world for merchants, where contracts and money are honored, deception and disguise do not interfere with fair dealings, and outward appearance and apparel never misinform. All the characters stick to what they are supposed to be, never pretending to be someone else, never contriving illegally to get more benefits or advantage, and never suspecting anybody to be deceptive. The only character who plans to deceive somebody is the Courtesan, who lies that Antipholus has “rush’d into my house and took perforce / My ring away” (4.3.91-92). Her motive, however, is no less than to recover her property, and her lie does not create much deviation from the main plot accusing Antipholus of Ephesus of being a madman. Even her “little” lie explains her character of “courtesan,” a socially ill-reputed status alienated from “normal” marriage life, matching her “habit of a light wench” (4.3.48). In this honest world of merchants, all the dramatic conflicts are suggested not by crimes or sins but by errors and mistakes, and to resolve the sense of loss and guilty feelings, the characters seek a subject to blame as scapegoat, which begins from the random violence on the Dromio servants, and finally rests on the play’s representation of woman, “guilty-sinful woman,” embodied in the character of Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus (Freedman 96).
The role of females, especially of wives, gets weighty attention throughout the play, which soon leads to reflection on contemporary religious polemic. The way Adriana treats her husband is often discussed and criticized by other female characters, such as her sister Luciana and the Abbess. In addition to Luciana’s relevantly mild, suggestive criticism, the Abbess harshly rebukes Adriana for making her husband mad with “The venom clamours of a jealous woman / Poisons more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth” (5.1.70-71). The Abbess finally concludes that Adriana’s “jealous fits / Hath scared thy husband from the use of wits” (5.1.86-87). Although it turns out that her husband is not mad and Adriana is also a victim of the confusing dramatic plot, David Mann argues that the condemnation of the Abbess is allowed to stand with her authority “both of being a Good Wife and of resolving the plots,” and it reflects that the contemporary society was not lenient on wives’ shrewishness (21). The critical eye on Adriana shows the contemporary patriarchal values imposed on women, and it also suggests heightened public expectations about the role of “good wife.” Richard Strier points out that the scene of the Abbess confronting Adriana originates from a conflict between “Catholic and Protestant sanctity, holy place and holy (secular) ‘office’” of wife (30). The Abbess’s institutional authority to confine a husband apart from a wife in order to complete “A charitable duty of my order” (5.1.109) conflicts with Adriana’s claim as a wife to take care of her husband in her own way. The tight dramatic tension is built between a Catholic religious authority and a secular office of ordinary wife, considered “holy” enough for Protestants. However, the tension soon disappears when the Abbess herself turns out to be a wife, and it seems that she appears ready to resume the role, ormore accurately speaking, seems to have always been a wife faithful to her husband rather than a celibate nun.
When the Abbess reveals herself as a wife in the final act, it is supposed to create the most dramatic moment of the play, resolving all the misunderstandings, ending the confusing anxieties, and launching a feast to celebrate it. Although it would not have affected the main plot, the identity switch from the Abbess to Emilia, or the convergence of the two contradictory identities, is dramatic enough to entertain the audience. It is apparent that she voluntarily resumes the role of wife when, with reference to Egeon, she claims that she “will loose his [Egeon’s] bonds / And gain a husband by his liberty” (5.1.340-41), and asks Egeon to “speak unto the same Emilia” (5.1.346). The transition is sudden but definitely not forced; it is welcomed, voluntary, and actually long expected by the Abbess herself. Her sacred vocation is soon reduced to her external appearance when she accounts for her current position as just the “fortune that you see me in” (5.1.362), a role forced upon her by circumstance. Her wish to be called as “the same Emilia” and to “gain a husband” demonstrates the continuation, rather than the rupture between, the roles of wife and the Abbess. Without a moment of hesitation, she willingly takes the role of wife, and her last speech confirms her long expectation to recover the secular role despite retreating into the abbey. Inviting everybody to the abbey for a feast, she uses a pregnancy metaphor to describe her joyful family reunion: “Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail / Of you, my sons, and till this present hour / My heavy burden ne’er delivered” (5.1.402-04). Although it certainly is not an appropriate, but almost weird, image to describe a celibate nun, no one in the play argues against her blasphemous confession that she has not been completely separated from her secular self while living as the bride of Christ in the abbey. The two identities, once considered contradictory, now converge into the character of the Abbess, Emilia, not polemically, but rather optimistically suggesting a different “sacredness.”
Through the presentation of the Abbess, the play proposes a Protestant type of “sacred” woman, not necessarily a virgin, but a faithful and productive wife. Strier explains that the play, more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, celebrates bourgeois life and presents a Protestant conception of “inner-worldly holiness” (17). Contrary to Catholicism’s ostentatious “holiness,” the dramatic world reveals sacred “secularity,” defining married life as more sacred than celibate convent life, supporting a wife’s authority for a sick husband over the institutional authority of the Abbess. Since the forced closing of convents and monasteries in 1539, women had been stripped of an opportunity to live in all-female communities, to receive higher education, to practice spiritual leadership, and, most of all, to live unbound to the duties of wife and mother. Instead of removing holy vocations as a way of life for women to choose, reformers preached the sacredness of daily “ordinary” life, and “holy” motherhood and marriage (Stjerna 33). As the Reformation forced more than religious conversion to the “unmarried full-time religious women,” their search of a new calling and new home in secular world was not smooth as seen in the case of Emilia.
The dissolution of the abbeys engendered the problem of a large population of placeless single women, and their economic poverty was radically aggravated. Natasha Kordaargues that the increased number of single women ranging from widows to never married and lifelong single women became the responsibility of the state when there was no longer the option of abbeys.7 Pre-dissolution nuns become a social burden to relocate in the patrilineal system of post-Reformation England, and marriage is an ideal option that Protestant society provides to the nun-to-bes and ex-nuns, not much welcomed, but no alternative options remain. Emilia’s easy transition to the role of wife, her insistence upon having been a wife all through the thirty-three years of ascetic convent life, and lastly, the festive public acceptance of her, are all ideally Protestant. The play does not depict the Abbess as a woman in Catholic religious vocation from an anti-clerical perspective, but as a wife located in an unusual situation, with no choice but to undertake convent life for protection of her marital fidelity. Her territorial authority over the abbey reminds one of Adriana’s over her mansion of Phoenix. Adrianna controls the admittance to her house, directing Dromio to “let no creature enter” (2.2.210), while she finally dines with Antipholus of Syracuse, mistaking him for her husband. Similarly, the Abbess, to keep the same Antipholus in the abbey, firmly rejects Adrianna’s admittance, declaring “not a creature enters in my house” (5.1.93). As keeper of the house that they take charge of, both women show domestic authority in controlling their space, which demonstrates a Protestant interpretation of female sacredness transferrable from religious vocations to the office of ordinary housewife.
To embrace the ex-nuns in patriarchy’s limited system of marriage and motherhood, and to fulfill the successful companionate marriage that Protestants idealized, expectations for a “good wife” might well be heightened to the level of impossibility. The Protestant ideal of female sacredness is self-contradictory as it cannot dismiss “often despised” female corporeality, the ability to attract male suitors, and to conceive offspring. In addition to Adriana often being criticized for being shrewish, the Abbess herself, who confidently speaks up against Adriana, chiding her negligence of wifely duty, fails to meet the expectations of a “good wife.” While Egeon reveals his past stories, he describes how he was married to “a woman happy but for me / And by me happy” (1.1.37-38), and how she became “A Joyful mother of two goodly sons” (1.1.50) through “the pleasing punishment that women bear” (1.1.46). With a happy marriage and joyful motherhood, Egeon describes Emilia to be following the most blessed path for females. Soon, however, Egeon does not hesitate to attribute his misfortune to her lack of wifely virtue. Egeon explains that his early departure for home and the unfortunate encounter with the storm were due to the fact that “My wife, not meanly proud of two such boys / Made daily motions for our home return,” although he was “Unwilling”(1.1.58-60). He continues to blame his wife for not being supportive when facing “a doubtful warrant of immediate death,” although “myself would gladly have embraced” that fate (1.1.68-69). Remembering “the incessant weepings of my wife / Weeping before for what she saw must come” (1.1.70-71), Egeon describes Emilia to have been weak-minded, emotional, cowardly, and immature in dealing with critical situations. In his description, Emilia is not much different from Adriana, whom Emilia herself condemns for having “scared thy husband from the use of wits” (5.1.87). In her marital relationship, the Abbess seems to have beenunqualified to be an exemplary wife as an ideal companion, and shrewish Adriana just embodies her past self, if Antipholus in Ephesus reflects young Egeon before the storm as Barbara Freedman suggests (“Egeon’s Debt,” 369).
Although Emilia has grown more mature as an Abbess, has learned to be a “good wife,” probably through convent duties, and lastly has demonstrated her change by preaching against the female shrewishness exemplified by Adriana, she is still not an appropriate saintly figure in Elizabethan public theater. In contrast to all the other characters, who are extraordinarily honest and sincere, the Abbess is the only one who has been hiding her true identity under the nun’s habit. The dual identity of nun and wife has been hidden until she finally encounters her husband, Egeon, and is able to resume her “real” identity as a wife. The Catholic vestment of the nun’s habit, not contradicting public expectations, has something to be unmasked although the revelation is not fulfilled through stripping of the garments or humiliating the wearer, but redefining what the garments represent. Elizabethan audiences might be accustomed to the dramatic technique of exposing something contradictory or something “not spiritual” hidden beneath Catholic vestments, and the scene is designed to meet their expectation shaped through Protestant culture.
Not only is the Abbess the only character who reveals something beneath or beyond her apparel, but also the moment of her identity disclosure is the only dramatic “revelation” moment reserved for the audience. As Freedman points out, Shakespeare contrives to give full privilege to the audience about the knowledge of the twins from the beginning, but allows this knowledge to be revealed to the characters only at the conclusion, and this brings about the situation of “We know everything; the text knows nothing - - or so we think” (
Staging the Gaze, 81). The only information for which the playwright does not privilege the audience is that of the real identity of the Abbess, although she first appears in the last act, and hides her “wifely” identity for a relatively short time. Furthermore, her role is not as crucial as a deus ex machinain resolving the dramatic tension complexly established around the existence of twins as is customarily thought. The appearance of Antipholus of Syracuse from the abbey is enough to solve the misunderstandings caused by the identity confusion between the twins, without the confession of the Abbess. The climactic moment showing overlap of Egeon’s emotionridden wife with the strict Abbess, apart from the plot development, might be tailored to entertain the contemporary audience with a mild surprise confirming their long-trained doubt about vested priests. Although the play does not make any blatant statement about the contemporary religious polemic, the dual identity of the Abbess hidden under the nun’s habit, and the way to reveal it to the audience, inherit unfailingly the post-Reformation Protestant rhetoric. The Comedy of Errorsnot only betrays self-contradictory ideals about female sacredness shaped in the reformed English culture, but also undermines the ideal images by producing comic and festive effects, distancing the audience from full assimilation with the characters. The exaggerated simplicity of the overall characters alienates the audience from fully sympathizing with their desperation, and the plot that allows an omniscient perspective for seeing the origin of the entire misrecognitions secondly thwarts the audience from enjoying the virtual experience that theaters usually promise. The Abbess, the only character who deviates from the format of this simple, puppet-show-like comedy with her dual identity and its dramatic revelation, is also not taken seriously enough to be considered dangerous or enlightening to the playgoers and to the characters within the play. When she is revealed to be the very mother of the twins and the wife of Egeon, the response from her children and husband is toosedate to be an anticipated family reunion after thirty-three years’ separation. After the short confirmation of “If I dream not, thou art Emilia,” Egeon hastily questions what happened to his son; “If thou art she, tell me, where is that son / That floated with thee on the fatal raft?” (5.1.353-55). Egeon no longer converses with his wife or expresses his joy at finding her back. The twins are also curt in finally meeting their longlost mother. They never talk to her, never call her mother, but rather focus on figuring out their previous misrecognitions.
Their unusual reticence about the presence of Emilia as the mother and wife makes us question their welcoming reception of her to the family, and thus her smooth transfer from religious leadership to her domestic authority. Surely, there is always a possibility that their eventual reconciliation might have been presented nonverbally on stage, and the scene rather presents a performing potential of various theatrical interpretations, just as does the silence of Isabella in the last scene of
Measure for Measure. However, the precarious status of the Abbess revealed in the text is extended to her stage presence, depreciating her motherly as well as clerical sacredness. As the Abbess is not a romantic heroine or a dying martyr, but a middleaged woman encompassing contradictory female categories of wife/mother and celibate nun, the fact that a young boy actor is playing the part might have been acceptably comic, rather than threateningly sexual. Instead of the customary criticism about the fatal sexual attraction as either heterosexual or homosexual, her selfimage as a middle-aged pregnant nun, especially when it is delivered by a boy actor who can never be pregnant, provides a comic and festive relief undermining the Protestant sacredness that is established through the character of the Abbess.
Among the flat characters that never learn about themselves or their neighbor as a result of the errors, the Abbess/Emilia is the only one who confronts contradictory dual identities to choose among domestic wife/mother and religious vocation, and desires to change her social role. She is not overtly attacked, mocked, or criticized with social stereotypes of the hypocritical and promiscuous Catholic nun, but rather leniently depicted authoritatively as a nun keeping the abbey, and as a wife and mother verifying the family relationship. As the contemporary reformed culture sanctions marriage and motherhood instead of sworn celibacy to God, her easy assumption of the past role of wife and mother might be read as a smooth transition to another sacred female role. However, the transition cannot but be accompanied with deliberate disguising of one’s true identity under a nun’s habit. In addition to the Abbess’s mildly offensive hypocrisy, which renders her less than ideal, the Protestant ideal of sacred wife and mother, and their ultimate goal of companionate marriage also seem to be too hard to reach for women who have been considered to be corporeal, emotional, and immature by the same reformers. Her return to the family is not much welcomed by her family members, and her stage presence loses its due elegance, instead producing a comic or weird effect, at best, especially when she tries to reassume the role of wife and mother recalling the corporeal duty of pregnancy. She might not be dangerously sexual, but neither is she invincibly sacred. The vested Abbess on stage loses her religious authority along with domestic authority, and represents the identity crisis of female sacredness: no longer identifiable with a religious vocation in reformed Englandnor defined as a holy symbol of celibacy or marriage and motherhood.
What singles out the Abbess from the other nuns or nun-tobe characters on the sixteenth-century English stage, is her age. The Abbess is presumed to be in her fifties, based on her confession that she spent last thirty-three years in the abbey. She is no longer as young as Ophelia in
Hamlet, exhorted to go to a nunnery to avoid being a breeder of sinners, or Hermia in The Midsummer Night’s Dreamthreatened “to live a barren sister all your life” (1.1.70), as an alternative to a death penalty if she does not obey her father in choosing her husband. Her choice to live a celibate life in convent might not have been an ardent voluntary commitment to a particular religion as shown by Isabella in Measure for Measureor Abigail in The Jew of Malta. Apart from those young, innocent virgin characters whose sexual attractiveness to male suitors often plays a major motivation to choose or to abandon the celibate life, the Abbess’s return to the family reflects the real-life situation that nuns confronted in post-Dissolution England. According to Korda, at the time of Dissolution, the average age of nuns was about forty, and when the legislation released them from the oath of celibacy in 1549, most of them were fifty, too old to consider marriage an option (190). When being a nun was practically not an available option, conceptually a quaint idea, and religiously no longer considered sacred, the Abbess’s “wifely conversion” in The Comedy of Errorsresonates with the solution to social anxiety about sacred women adapted by Queen Elizabeth, who assumed all the contradictory roles on an imaginary level: an authoritative ruler and keeper of the realm, symbolical mother for English people, and metaphoric wife to all her male subjects.
6All quotations from the play are taken from The Comedy of Errors in The Norton Shakespeare,edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine E. Maus, and Andrew Gurr in 1997. 7According to Natasha Korda, “in Holkham in 1600/1, women represented 75 percent of those on poor relief . . . and in Wighton in 1614-5, a staggering 90 percent of all recipientswere women” (178).