Monday, July 29, 2013

Shakespeare notebook: Feminism and The Comedy of Errors

I wrote this piece a month ago on the Public's Comedy of Errors in Central Park. But due to delays first by the press rep & then by the editor, it never got published. However, positive feedback and encouragement from friends and colleagues (plus pride in my own work) have overcome my disappointment. I hope you find it illuminating.]

Emily Bergl, center, shows Adriana's moxie
in the Public's Comedy of Errors
(photo credit: Joan Marcus) 
Recently, I’ve been questioning my overwhelming passion for Shakespeare. How can I square his 17th-century beliefs with my own 21st-century liberal politics? It’s easy to ignore his love of the aristocracy, but much harder to ignore his views of women (to say nothing of, say, Jews or blacks). As titanic and popular as Shakespeare is, I’ve been wondering how relevant he is to the modern New Yorker. In my search for answers, I spoke with Emily Bergl, currently the female lead in The Comedy of Errors at Shakespeare in the Park.
The Comedy of Errors, conveniently, provides an ideal starting point for my inquiry. The farce takes place in Ephesus, a Mediterranean city that devotes itself, like Bloomberg’s Manhattan, to financial success. Its characters are businessmen, traders, and merchants: men who treat out-of-town guests to the luxuries of the city, including dinner (offstage) with an escort. When the long-lost twin of a local broker arrives, the resulting confusions play havoc with his credit and reputation.
Since the play’s setting—a city whose business is commerce and whose measure of success is wealth—so aptly reflects contemporary New York, it dispenses quickly with my anxiety about Shakespeare’s relevance. Additionally, it offers a superb venue for comparing his Elizabethan views with my own principles. Shakespeare seems eager to oblige, since early in the show, he stages a debate over a wife’s proper behavior between Adriana, the broker’s spouse, and her sister, Luciana. Their conversation ends equivocally: Adriana notes it’s easy for her sister to counsel subservience, being unmarried.
Yet historically, critics have assumed the playwright shared Luciana’s view—that women should bow to their husband’s will—and have cast Adriana as a shrew in need of taming. Bergl has a different take: “Adriana’s not really bucking the question of marriage; she’s asking why she should be so powerless and why her husband should have so much freedom.” So Adriana isn’t overbearing so much as independent-minded. But then, too many men (and some women) hear a strong-willed woman questioning the status quo and call her a bitch.
Shakespeare’s reaction is more complex. The key to Adriana, and perhaps a path to reconciliation between his politics and mine, comes halfway through the show. Luciana confesses that Adriana’s husband has just made a pass at her (of course, it was actually his twin). Adriana blasts her spouse, in an exchange worth quoting:
He is deformed, crooked, old and sere,
Ill-faced, worse-bodied, shapeless everywhere,
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind,
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind.
Who would be jealous, then, of such a one?
No evil lost is wailed when it is gone.
Ah, but I think him better than I say,
And yet would herein others’ eyes were worse.
Far from her nest the lapwing cries away.
My heart prays for him, though my tongue do curse.
I love how Adriana can’t commit to her anger because her love overwhelms it. This internal paradox humanizes her, and lifts her above the absurd farce. Bergl does note a problem, though: “In a modern, post-Freudian world, we call that ‘codependent.’ I do think that it’s a theme in Shakespeare that, while he admires deep, all-consuming love, he also recognizes that it can be dangerous.”
Bergl makes what happens next pivotal to her performance. A foolish servant arrives to fetch bail money for Adriana’s husband, who’s been arrested for a large unpaid debt. This sends her out into Ephesus to help her husband. Bergl explains, “The real turning point for Adriana, when she realizes something is definitely wrong, is when her husband is in debt.” Her motivation could even be viewed as an impulse towards partnership, not in domestic arrangements but in financial deals. Not only is Adriana not staying indoors patiently, as her sister had told her to do, but she’s eager to participate in business transactions.
And so the arc of the play bends constantly towards financial themes. Adriana sees her opportunity to act and she takes it—in the parlance of this summer, she “leans in.” As a Shakespeare fan, it’s heartening for me to see a complex female character who embodies such a trendy sensibility.

While that puts my qualms about Shakespeare to rest, it raises further questions in my mind about feminism and capitalism. After all, contemporary New York, like Shakespeare’s Ephesus, is hardly a utopia of enlightened economics and progressive politics. Women may be measured by the same index for success as men. But those standards are financial and competitive, and I have a hard time gauging success solely by wealth. On the positive side, however, there’s a hilarious production of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors in Central Park, and tickets are free.