Study Guide

Measure for Measure

by William Shakespeare

Measure for Measure Essay - Infinite Space: Representation and Reformation in Measure for Measure

Infinite Space: Representation and Reformation in Measure for Measure


"Infinite Space": Representation and Reformation in Measure for Measure

Huston Diehl, University of Iowa

Measure for Measure is a deeply dissatisfying comedy, so problematic that, as Jean Howard argues, it "puts critics under stress."1 They typically respond by judging, finding fault with the play's structure, the Duke's elaborate manipulations, Isabella's ethical choices, Shakespeare's use of the bed-trick, and, especially, the final trial scene, with its exaggerated theatricality, its failure to effect any real reformation, and its unsettling subversion of the conventional comic ending.2 Identifying a pattern of failed, inadequate, and problematic substitutions in Measure for Measure, Alexander Leggatt, like many other critics, concludes that the play is flawed:

I am not saying that Shakespeare, in order to make a point about the imperfection of his art, deliberately wrote an imperfect play. .. . He seems, however, to have found Measure for Measure a harder struggle than most, and as he faced the gap between conception and embodiment, his imagination generated image after image of representations that are vivid but not quite adequate, and substitutions that are revealing and fascinating but incomplete.3

Taking Leggatt's disclaimer as my starting point, I want to examine Shakespeare's representational strategies in Measure for Measure, and the dissatisfaction they arouse, in order to make precisely the opposite claim. I will argue that Shakespeare deliberately calls attention to the imperfection of his art, and I will show how the inadequacy of the multiple substitutions is a crucial factor in Shakespeare's conception of his drama, producing—not undermining—the play's meaning as well as its peculiar power. What Leggatt attributes to a breakdown in the creative process—resulting in the proliferation of incomplete and inadequate substitutions and the contrived nature of the final revelations—are, I think, better understood as products of the playwright's experimentation with a Protestant aesthetic of the stage.

Shakespearean criticism has long been alert to the play's religious themes, biblical allusions, and theological subtexts. The references to the Sermon on the Mount and to St. Paul; the dramatization of the conflict between law and mercy; the association of the Duke with divine providence; the parodies of the Annunciation and the Last Judgment; the language of grace, ransom, and remedy; the appropriation of such religious genres as hagiography, parable, and contemplatio mortis: scholars have discussed these and many other theological aspects of Measure for Measure, though without arriving at any consensus about how Shakespeare employs this theological material or to what end.4 But to a surprising degree, scholars who focus on the play's religious dimension ignore the contested nature of religion in early modern England, preferring to speak of a universal Christianity in ways that obscure the controversies fracturing the Christian church during the Reformation.5 And critics who take issue with these attempts to read Measure for Measure in terms of Christian themes are much more likely to insist on the play's having a secular or even antireligious nature than to evaluate the historical assumptions about religion that inform such studies.6 Even those new historicists who use Measure for Measure as a key text in their studies of early modern English culture tend to treat religion as a conservative and stable orthodoxy in the service of the state and monarchy.7

But, of course, in post-Reformation England Christianity was in crisis, religious ideology unstable, and theological doctrines vigorously disputed. Even among English Protestants religious beliefs and practices were so much the subject of contentious debate that one of James's first acts as the king of England was to convene in January 1604 a conference of bishops and puritans at Hampton Court to try to resolve some of their long-standing differences and perhaps "to begin a further reformation of the Church."8 Yet to illustrate my point, that historical event goes unmentioned in virtually all treatments of Measure for Measure as a play written for or about James even though Shakespeare's 1604 comedy, in staging a conflict between a rigid reformer and a woman intent on entering a strict Roman Catholic religious order, rehearses the extremist views—radical puritan and Catholic—that James sought to suppress at the Hampton Court conference.9 According to Kenneth Fincham and Peter Lake, James used the conference, on the one hand, "to construct and support a common Protestant front against Rome" and, on the other, to contain radical puritanism by "driving a wedge between the moderate and radical wings of Puritan opinion."10

I mention King James's ecclesiastical policy not to argue that Shakespeare advocates or allegorizes it but rather to suggest how fully Measure for Measure engages many of the religious controversies of Jacobean England, exploring theological issues—about monasticism, celibacy, idolatry, auricular confession, merit, righteousness, hypocrisy, reformist zeal, and moral discipline—that trouble and divide James's subjects in the early years of the seventeenth century. Set in the Roman Catholic city of Vienna and featuring a number of characters who are, desire to be, or pretend to be members of the Roman Catholic clergy, the play questions the possibility of achieving either celibacy or a disciplined withdrawal from the world. By using the clerical habit of the friar as a disguise that the Duke puts on and off and eventually discards, the play also demystifies monasticism, perhaps even reinforcing Protestant associations of friars with a fraudulent theatricality, their "humblest habits" with "a false disguise."11 At the same time, the play depicts the very pressing urban problems that preoccupied the Protestant authorities of Jacobean London and critiques the draconian measures proposed by radical puritans to reform human behavior, revealing these measures to be both inhumane and ineffective. It also exposes the moral depravity and hypocrisy of a character associated with these extreme reformist policies—the precise and legalistic Angelo. Thus marking Vienna for its early modern London audiences as a setting simultaneously alien and familiar, papist and puritan, Measure for Measure identifies Isabella's monastic vocation and Angelo's reformist zeal with a false—or counterfeit—righteousness. Angelo's hypocritical and tyrannical behavior, to be sure, is depicted as far more abhorrent than Isabella's idealistic, if excessive, commitment to the rigid rules observed by "the votarists of Saint Clare" (1.4.5). But efforts to read the play as either pro-Catholic or nostalgic for a Catholic past fail to address the ways in which Shakespeare appropriates the representational strategies of English Calvinism, distancing his theater from a fraudulent theatricality widely associated in Protestant England with the Roman Catholic Church while also challenging the vehement antitheatricality of radical Protestants.12

There was, most historians agree, a Calvinist consensus within the national church under King James, who sought at the beginning of his reign to win over moderate puritans "through the incorporation of evangelical Calvinism into the Jacobean establishment."13 Indeed, Patrick Collinson asserts that "Calvinism can be regarded as the theological cement of the Jacobean church . .. 'a common and ameliorating bond' uniting conformists and moderate puritans."14 But although Calvinism is the cement that binds together different factions of the Jacobean church, various segments of the population appropriated and adapted it to their own needs and interests—"consumed" it in Michel de Certeau's sense of this word.15 Calvinism was employed in the service of competing authorities and rival political factions and invoked to achieve a range of multiple and even conflicting goals, not all of them religious in nature.

A case in point is the battle over the legitimacy of the stage. As literary scholars have frequently noted, anti-theatricalists often draw upon Calvinist distrust of theatricality in their attacks on the stage, tapping into their Protestant readers' deepest anti-Catholic sentiments by aligning the London theaters with the "false" ceremonies, "idolatrous" spectacles, and "cunning" theatricality of the Roman Church.16 But apologists for the stage also appropriate basic tenets of Calvinist theology to wield against their opponents, a phenomenon that has for the most part been ignored in the critical literature. In his refutation of Stephen Gosson's Schoole of Abuse, Thomas Lodge, for example, counters Gosson's point that Plato banished the poets from his republic by accusing Plato of idolatry, thus attempting to undermine Plato's authority by associating him with the "idolatrous" Roman church; he also insists that poetry is a gift from God, an argument that Calvin and his followers repeatedly use to justify certain kinds of art.17 Lodge is just one of many writers who appropriate Calvinist arguments and tropes to defend the stage. They charge the anti-theatricalists with employing Roman Catholic modes of interpretation, argue that the stage exposes rather than produces the fraudulent kind of theatricality Calvinism distrusts, and apply Calvinist notions of the conscience to their theories of dramatic art.18

Shakespeare, I suggest, participates in these efforts to legitimate the theater by aligning it with the moderate Calvinism of the established English church. At the same time, he raises provocative questions about the challenge of knowing, judging, and reforming in a Calvinist universe. In a sustained exploration of the power and limits of representation, including his own theatrical representations, Shakespeare formulates an aesthetic of the stage that marks and preserves the gap between the sign and the thing signified, arouses and frustrates the desire to know directly and fully, and compels his audiences to confront both the inadequacy of all human knowledge and their own imperfect judgment. By eliciting an enabling kind of dissatisfaction in Measure for Measure, he claims for the theater the project of reforming human behavior even as he acknowledges the limits of that project and distances his theater from the extremist views of radical puritanism.


Rather than assume that Shakespeare's play is flawed because the substitutions staged in the course of Measure for Measure are inadequate or incomplete, I propose to examine its pattern of substitutions in terms of Calvin's insistence that the physical world is itself a representation. English Calvinists encourage the faithful to discern in the visible world signs of another truer and more real world, to find in the transient present images of a permanent future, and thus to see how the world they inhabit mirrors (however imperfectly) the divine. Calling the created world "painted tables, by which al mankinde is provoked and allured to the knowledg" of God, Calvin argues that "God doth in the mirror of...

(The entire section is 3016 words.)


Scholars interested in Shakespeare's treatment of the law in Measure for Measure have examined English ecclesiastical and civil laws pertaining to marriage, adultery, and fornication in some depth, but they generally ignore Reformation theories of the law and, in particular, Calvin's emphasis on the epistemological function of the law. And yet Shakespeare seems far less interested in details of the English legal system—one critic calls the law of Vienna "story-book law"36—than in exploring the relation between law, broadly defined, and the problem of knowing and judging. Central to his play's inquiry into the law, I suggest, is a Calvinist insistence that self-knowledge can be achieved only by...

(The entire section is 2022 words.)


Inasmuch as the Duke's theater seeks to initiate an internal reformation in its spectators by arousing dissatisfaction with the self, it conforms to the kind of art approved by Protestant theologians. Although they condemn as idolatrous images and plays that seduce, dazzle, and trick the beholder, the English reformers routinely defend art that "provoke[s]" us "to consider ourselves . . . and to condemn and abhor our sin," that serves as "stirrers of men's minds," and that enables its viewers "to remember themselves, and to lament their sins"; and they approve of art that awakens the conscience and nurtures moral self-examination.50 In his defense of the stage, written a few years after Shakespeare's...

(The entire section is 4139 words.)