Antipholus of Ephesus’s Deformity

Antipholus of Ephesus’s Deformity

  Adr.  I cannot, nor I will not hold me still;
My tongue, though not my heart, shall have his will.
He is deformed, crooked, old, and sere,
Ill-fac’d, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere;
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind;
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind. 

The Comedy of Errors, 4.2.17-22

Staging the stigmatization of Richard III changed Shakespeare. He began seeing stigma in specifically theatrical terms, as a scene in which meaning is socially constructed, not given by nature but circulated in culture by men and women involved in an exchange of emotions and ideas, as evident in The Comedy of Errors. Mistaking Antipholus of Ephesus, her husband’s twin brother, for Antipholus of Syracuse, her husband, the beleaguered Adriana drags the wrong Antipholus back home, where he, wanton creature that he is, sees and tries to seduce Adriana’s sister, Luciana. Appalled by Antipholus’s professions of love, believing him to be her brother-in-law, Luciana spurns him and promptly reports his infidelity to Adriana, who is first sad, and then angry. Expressing her anger in the vitriol of stigma, Adriana fumes that her husband’s mind is as deformed as his body, which is surprising to us in the audience because Antipholus is not physically deformed. Notionally, if one Antipholus were deformed, the other would be too. It might be interesting to perform the Antipholi deformed, but this reading is not born out by the rest of the play. Instead, it is fairly clear that Adriana’s account of her husband’s deformity is not accurate at all, is not an interpretation of evidence but an attack against a seemingly lecherous lover, Shakespeare effectively dramatizing the social and emotional origins of stigma. In this case, and in many cases, stigma is not an interpretation aimed at a description of reality but an expression aimed at what the sociologist Erving Goffman calls “impression management.” That is, in The Comedy of Errorsstigma is not analytical but rhetorical. Adriana is not reading Antipholus’s villainy from his deformity. Instead, she is using deformity as a way to articulate villainy. Thus, when Luciana asks Adriana why she is jealous of losing her husband’s love, if he is so awful in both body and mind, Adriana deflates and exhales, “Ah, but I think him better than I say.” There is a difference between “saying” and “thinking” stigma. Indeed, stigma begins as a way of speaking, of coding an offensive action in the identity of the offender, but it can become, if this way of speaking is repeated often enough, a way of thinking, such that one shifts from using deformity as a way to express villainy to reading deformity as a sign of villainy, which is the conceptual slide Shakespeare repeatedly satirized in his representations of stigma.


Stigma in Early English Literature
Physical Deformity in Shakespeare