Today’s hotly contested debates about “sanctuary cities” would feel very familiar to someone living in Shakespeare’s London. In this piece, which is part of a larger forthcoming book project titled Shakespeare’s Sanctuary Cities, I argue that Shakespeare is fascinated by the dramatic possibilities inherent in an asylum space situated on the fault line of a jurisdictional battle. A refuge site sits between life and death. At the same time, Elizabethan sanctuary was a contradictory swirl of concepts: something both holy and debauched, something at the same time archaic and unpredictably present. Shakespeare’s use of a sanctuary in The Comedy of Errors is not a simple endorsement of Christian mercy. It is rather a deeper reflection on genre and possibility: comedy is predicated on some escape valve from accumulating conflicts and obligations, while tragedy is ultimately insulated from such releases. Shakespeare creates an asylum episode in this play different from anything in Plautus or Gower, his main sources. The abbey, which jealously defends its sanctuary rights, is a space allowing for recognition and reintegration after long sequences of confusion and chaos. But it is also, I argue, a site for further potential misreadings. The sanctuary in Shakespeare’s play does not provide perfect resolutions. The sanctuary’s Abbess arguably bungles the play’s moral. But in the end, this imperfection is not only vastly preferable to tragedy’s irreversible misunderstandings, it is also a sign of Shakespeare’s nuanced unpacking of a generative social and spatial concept.
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