For shame!: Outsized insults in The Comedy of Errors

Men: How far we haven’t come.

During the Utah caucuses last month, a super PAC supporting presidential candidate Ted Cruz attacked his Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, with an advertisement featuring a nude photograph of Trump’s wife, Melania. In keeping with a long-evidenced pattern of misogyny, Trump responded by retweeting photographs that suggested Cruz’s wife, Heidi, is less attractive than Melania.

Little has changed, it seems, in 400 years: Not even the great William Shakespeare was above shaming women on the basis of their looks, if his The Comedy of Errors is any measure. But at least he left us with some memorable wordplay, I suppose.

In his plays, the Bard is constantly exploring the theme of identity. Masters disguise themselves as servants, women as men. Noblemen dress as kings on the battlefield, kings as commoners. Characters put on plays within plays, which only men could perform on the Elizabethan stage.

Identity is already slippery enough in Shakespeare’s drama, but in The Comedy of Errors, it’s downright illusory. In this comedy, all hell – and hilarity – breaks loose as estranged twin brothers, both named Antipholus, and their servants, both named Dromio, get variously mistaken for one another after one pair, which has been living in Syracuse, ends up in Ephesus, where their counterparts call home.

Confused yet? That’s the point.

At one point, Luciana, sister to the Ephesian twin’s wife, Adriana, mistakenly pleads with the Syracusan Antipholus over the marital havoc the confusion has wreaked. Antipholus is baffled, naturally, as is his servant, who has himself been confused by his counterpart’s wife, Nell, a cook. But Dromio is largely disturbed, however, because Nell is a “wondrous fat marriage,” as he so kindly puts it (3.2.92).

This insult is only the beginning. Egged on by his master’s questions, Dromio continues to describe Nell in a passage whose color rivals the meanest ‘yo mama so fat’ taunts on the schoolyard and the cheapest late-night punchlines about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s waistline. But Antipholus and Dromio don’t just manage to denigrate women and persons of weight. They also develop a clever, though all too cruel, conceit that snipes at a number of nationalities as well:


DROMIO OF SYRACUSE. Nell, sir. But her name and three-quarters –that’s an ell [yard] and three-quarters – will not measure her from hip to hip.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE. Then she bears some breadth?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE. No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip. She is spherical, like a globe. I could find out countries in her.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE. In what part of her body stands Ireland?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE. Marry, sir, in her buttocks. I found it out by the bogs.


DROMIO OF SYRACUSE. I found it by the barrenness, hard in the palm of her hand.


DROMIO OF SYRACUSE. In her forehead, armed and reverted, making war against her heir [punning on “hair,” which is losing to venereal disease].


DROMIO OF SYRACUSE. I looked for the chalky cliffs [teeth], but I could find no whiteness in them. But I guess it stood in her chin, by the salt rheum that ran  between France and it.


DROMIO OF SYRACUSE. Faith, I saw it not, but felt it hot in her breath.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE. Where America, the Indies?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE. O, sir, upon her nose, all o’er embellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich aspect to the hot breath of Spain, who sent whole armadas of carracks to be ballast  at her nose.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE. Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE. O, sir, I did not look so low…(3.2.107-136).

Interestingly, this deprecatory geography lesson is Shakespeare’s only reference to the Americas.

At least the Bard manages to be far more artful in his strong language than Trump, and, with all of the comedy’s radical instability of identity, perhaps Shakespeare is actually challenging sexist fat-shaming. Enh, these defenses stink of some wondrous fat mansplaining – which certainly isn’t helping men, not to mention women, come any farther.

For more on Shakespeare’s strong language, see my previous posts on The Taming of the Shrew, Henry V, and Antony and Cleopatra.

3 thoughts on “For shame!: Outsized insults in The Comedy of Errors

  1. rossmurray1 April 6, 2016 / 4:16 pm

    Think about the comedy structure there for a sec. It’s a list. How do you end a list? By announcing the list has ended (“I did not look…”) while simultaneously adding one more jab (“…so low”). We’re still using that structure today! Amazing. And funny.


    • John Kelly April 6, 2016 / 5:44 pm

      I didn’t think of it in the way before. Thanks for pointing that out! Yet another layer, Mr. Shakespeare.


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