Gil asked, oh weeks ago, why the two women in Two Gentlemen of Verona are "vastly superior creatures to the two men?" I propose the following response and question.
First, I expect that what we mean by "superior" here is that they are more constant in their love (not like wavering Proteus), more balanced in their love (not like Petrarchan Valentine and Proteus), and more possessed of wit (the reverse of foolishness) with which to test the validity of their suitors' love.
Second, let's reach back to the previous comedies we've discussed. Perhaps the easiest parallel for our superior women/foolish men question is Love's Labor's Lost. In that play Shakespeare gave us four women vastly superior to the four men who pursue them (after giving up on their oath to avoid them). Gil noted in one of his posts that the men's oath "is artificial, pretentious, mannered, affected, self-deceptive. …Of course, it gives way immediately to necessity, but it takes four more acts for them to discover they must learn who they are …". I don't think Proteus and Valentine are on as much of a journey of self-discovery, but I do think that neither is, at the beginning of the play, completely whole. Proteus, most clearly, learns something by the end of the play. He has loved Julia, jilted Julia, and reclaimed Julia ("Bear witness, heaven, I have my wish forever."). Valentine's love, true from the get-go, must be proved, but he gets off lighter than Berowne et. al. His heroic acts and moral ascendancy, saving Sylvia from a would-be rapist, saving her father from aristocratic brigands, are the stuff of time-constrained TV drama, but both elevate him from sighing lover to serious man.
In Comedy of Errors, we have something slightly different. Adriana and Luciana are less the model women we find in Two Gentlemen of Verona's Sylvia and Julia, or Love's Labor's Lost's Princess and Rosaline, and perhaps a step closer to Kate and Bianca in Shrew. But I would argue that they are still superior to the two Antipholuses. The Ephesian Antipholus is a boor, both inconstant to his wife and prone to over-the-top fits of temper. (Ant: "And did not I in rage depart from thence?" Dro: "In verity you did. -- My bones bear witness.") The Syracusian Antipholus is our somewhat callow Petrarchan lover. When he falls for Luciana, he deifies her, comparing her to "a God," a mermaid, a Siren, all at once. Yet he is like Valentine in that his love cannot be accepted until he has proved himself. The difference between Two Gentlemen of Verona and Comedy of Errors is in the degree of farce, so that Valentine's own actions validate him while Antipholus is validated by the resolution of the farce plot.
[As an aside, I'd like to see a production of Two Gentlemen of Verona played as a full on farce, just to see where that would get us: the letter scenes, Lance and Crab, the rope ladder stuff, the aristocrat thieves, the whizz-bang five-for-a buck forgivenesses at the end. I think the success of a production of this play is not in the lines, but between them.]
I'm not sure what to do with Taming of the Shrew, which seems to me the most balanced comedy in terms of male/female foolishness. So, I'm going to leave it out at this time. Perhaps one of you will take it up in light of what follows. Why are the women of these other comedies superior? Could it be that Julia gives us the answer?
It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds. (5.4.116-117)
Therefore men's inconstancy is the greater blot. And Shakespeare's comedies have provided us, so far, with men who are inconstant of mind. Berowne and friends cannot even keep their own oath. Nor Proteus. The Petrarchan lovers – Romeo, Orsino, Valentine, Antipholus, and our four lack-wits writing bad sonnets in Love's Labor's Lost – are inconstant in that they confuse the ideal of love with the object of love. To begin in Petrarchan mode as Romeo does with Rosaline is to love Love rather than the girl. Love itself, then, becomes the object with which the man is unfaithful to his "true" love. I need lines to support this, but it's what has been scratching at the back of my mind for a while.
Proteus follows Julia's comment, emphasizing this general failing on men's part:
O heaven, were man
But constant, he were perfect; that one error
Fills him with faults, makes him run though all th' sins;
Inconstancy falls off ere it begins. (5.4.118-123)
The comic male, then, is the inconstant male, the imperfect male -- in action, in love, in mind. And this imperfection is put in relief by women's comparable constancy. It would be interesting to read this feminine superiority and constancy (and wit) as Shakespeare-the-feminist. But I wonder if the women's ideal construction in his comedies suggests that they are, more, foils for the men's more dynamic journey and comic presentation? (That's my question.) Are these plays that focus most on the male experience? And if so, is the viewer presented with a comic mirror in order to see in the male reflection anything on a scale from didactic (look on these male fools and mend thy ways!) to pure entertainment (ha ha, she's got him writing a letter to himself!)? Yes, it should be said that comedy consistently provides us something of both, but we do not always take it that way. How many of us sit in front of reality TV and think "arguing like a dim-witted moron with my wife is counter-productive"? Alas, we more likely laugh, and point, and mumble through our mouthful of beer and Doritos: "whatta moron."
Stones. Glass houses. That's entertainment.
[Note A: I have not had room here to make my argument about women's superior wit. I will save that for another day.]
[Note B: The other half of Julia's comment defining women's "blot" is that they "change their shapes." This can be read as a basic shot against the dressing up women do, or to paraphrase Hamlet: God has given them one face, and they make themselves another. But I also like the reading that points to disguise, and here we find Rosalind (of As You Like It), Julia, Viola, Jessica. We are never expected to see these transformations as character flaw. In fact, they are a device by which the woman discovers truth. Interesting.]