Slaves in Comedy of Errors

By Adrian Diaz

One of the key aspects found in the Comedy of Errors is slavery. Two of the more prominent characters, the Dromios, are slaves to the Antipholus’ (Antipholies? Antipholi?) but they don’t act as one would normally think slaves should act. They are dutiful, witty, and also loyal to their masters. They do what they are told, albeit sometimes reluctantly and with a fair amount of sarcasm, they often times talk back to their masters, but most of the time those are in jest. Not only do they act differently, they are also treated abnormally. Throughout the entirety of Comedy of Errors, the Dromios are treated as servants, confidants, best friends, even brothers, but somewhat rarely are they treated how one is to expect how slaves are treated. Even when they are beaten, they often times jest and cry out that the beatings are unwarranted. From a narrative standpoint, making the Dromios slaves, as opposed to simply servants, holds almost no purpose as their position would not have changed, so why then would Shakespeare use the Dromios specifically as slaves?

Well, we must consider the historical context of Comedy of Errors. Being written in either 1592 or 1593, the Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works. At the time of its production, slavery in Elizabethan England was in its infancy. Having started only 30 years prior in 1562 with expeditions led by a merchant named John Hawkins, slavery was still very much new to England. It is very possible that this ambiguous servant/slave relationship is in response to the institution of slavery itself. How despite their status as slaves, the Dromios are still people and should be treated as such.

However, this is where Comedy of Errors becomes somewhat problematic. The institution of slavery had very many wealthy and powerful supporters. Many nobles, politicians, military officers, and merchants were advocates. Among them were Benjamin Gonson, the treasurer of the Navy at the time, Sir Thomas Lodge, the Lord Mayor of London, and most notably Queen Elizabeth I herself. Because of this, Shakespeare had to be careful in how he wrote his slave characters so as not to offend some very powerful patrons. So despite how well the Dromios are often treated, there are numerous instances where they are beaten and talked down upon very much because of their status as slaves. So while Shakespeare acknowledges that slaves are people, he also writes slaves as slaves.

Another explanation of why Shakespeare could have written the Dromios as more companion than slave could have actually been to appease Queen Elizabeth I. While Queen Elizabeth I did undoubtedly  support slavery, her thinking on how the slaves would be acquired was relatively naive. According to portcities.org.uk, Elizabeth expressed “hope that the Africans would not be enslaved without first giving their free consent.” By writing the Dromios as generally happy and well-to-do slaves, it is possible that Shakespeare was attempting to ease the mind of Queen Elizabeth I and reassure her about how slaves were treated.

Sources:

Hunt, Maurice. “Slavery, English Servitude, and ‘The Comedy of Errors.’” English Literary Renaissance, vol. 27, no. 1, 1997, pp. 31–56.

“London and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.” PORTCITIESLondon. Royal Museums Grenwich, 1 Jan. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.
Mabillard, Amanda. The Chronology of Shakespeare’s Plays. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000.

Saera. “Slavery in Elizabethan England.” The World of Will. WordPress, 23 Feb. 2009. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

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