Karl F. Zender, University of California, Davis
What should Isabella do, in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure? Should she yield up her body to Angelo's will, in the hope of saving her brother's life? Or should she refuse Angelo's demand, thereby preserving her chastity? Anyone who believes that these questions have been relieved of their difficulty by modern refinements in sexual morality need only pose them, in a non-directive fashion, to a class of undergraduates. Responses will almost certainly divide between the two options; and students will not choose their positions along any easily discernible demographic lines. Female students will urge Isabella to accede, male students to resist, and vice versa; and a similar lack of unanimity will reveal itself among self-professed liberals and conservatives, well-to-do students and not-so-well-to-do, young and old. Cold and remote as the concepts of chastity and honor may sometimes seem to modern readers, the dilemma that Isabella faces retains its troubling ambiguity. What should she do? Live chaste and brother die? Or stoop her body to abhorred pollution?
Having named these options, it is now the intention of this essay to decline the choice between them. Measure for Measure would not be a very interesting (or troubling) play if such a choice could clearly and definitively be made; and the history of twentieth-century criticism of the play is littered with the wrecks of attempts to do so. The aim here is instead to call into question the terms of the choice itself—as indeed Isabella herself does, when she becomes convinced that Angelo is serious in his demand. "I will proclaim thee, Angelo, look for't," she says. "Sign me a present pardon for my brother, / Or with an outstretch'd throat I'll tell the world aloud / What man thou art." This third option, of public denunciation, is clearly one of the goals of the play's action: for Isabella to be heard in her "true complaint," in her call for "Justice! Justice! Justice!" (5.1.25-26), is a necessary precondition to such degree of comic resolution as Measure for Measure finally achieves. Yet when first announced, the option disappears almost as quickly as stated. Isabella quails in the face of Angelo's smug "Say what you can: my false o'erweighs your true," lamenting "To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, / Who would believe me?" and instead choosing to try to "fit [Claudio's] mind to death" (2.4.169-71, 186).
The reason Isabella gives for this decision, that no unbiased authority exists to listen to her denunciation, only partly satisfies. Although the return of Duke Vincentio in Act 5 provides an answer for the question "To whom should I complain?" that is lacking in Act 2, the quickness with which Isabella relinquishes her initial threat suggests the existence of an internal motive as well, a desire not to speak similar to the one she evinces when Lucio calls her forth from the convent and when she first meets Angelo. Also, the circumstance in which Isabella finally does denounce Angelo is emotionally even more demanding than the one in Act 2, since it requires that she assert a "vile conclusion"—the "gift of [her] chaste body / To [Angelo's] concupiscible intemperate lust" (5.1.98, 100-1)—that in fact did not occur. So by what process of growth does Isabella move from initial silence to later speech, from the agony of an impossible choice to activism? And what are the limits of this movement? Is it increased or diminished in scope by the silence into which she lapses at the end of the play, the one in which she twice fails to respond to the Duke's proposal of marriage?
In seeking answers to these questions, it will be helpful if we first consider the relation between genre and character in Measure for Measure—between, that is, the play's status as a romantic comedy of a peculiar sort and the radical polarization its characters exhibit on issues of sexual morality and social governance. Calling Measure for Measure a romantic comedy of course runs counter to a central tendency in modern Shakespearean criticism, which has long sought some alternative genre—problem comedy, tragicomedy, tragedy manqué—to which to assign the play. But if we think of Measure for Measure as descending from such plays as Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It and Twelfth Night, then one observation immediately suggests itself: Measure for Measure is the last romantic comedy, the last play before the late romances in which marriage is presented as a more-or-less adequate resolution for the social and psychological dilemmas explored in the body of the play. And as the last romantic comedy, Measure for Measure seems self-consciously retrospective in mood and structure, as if Shakespeare were calling into question certain underlying assumptions of the genre and asking how their disavowal might affect character and dramatic action and the possibility of a romantic denouement.
This tendency toward generic self-criticism reveals itself in the way Shakespeare adapts stock elements of romantic comedy to the darker world of Measure for Measure—in his redefinition of the role of the clown, and of the function of masquerade, and of the motif, first identified by Northrop Frye, of a circular journey into and out of a "green world." In his re-use of each of these elements, Shakespeare mounts a deliberate assault on the optimistic world-view of the earlier comedies. The transition from Puck to Touchstone to Feste to Pompey Bum, for example, reveals a progressive naturalization of the figure of the clown and a consequent growing skepticism about his ability to function as an intermediary in the romantic action. From Puck, a quasi-divine embodiment of belief in the natural felicity of romance, in the idea that "Jack shall have Jill; / Naught shall go ill" (3.2.461-62), Shakespeare's clowns descend by distinct stages into social reality and economic necessity. The last step in this progression is from Feste's uncertain status as a member of Olivia's household and his continual need to cadge money to Pompey's identity as "a bawd, a wicked bawd" (3.2.18). Here the clown's relation to any natural cycle of regeneration is entirely severed, and Pompey's statements about the inevitability of human sexual activity—"Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?" (2.1.227-28)—echo Puck's only as parody echoes serious belief.
Similar considerations apply to masquerade and to the motif of the circular journey. An overview of the romantic comedies reveals a gradual change in Shakespeare's representation of the impediments to romance. The external obstacles—resistant parents and worldly misfortune—of Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It come to be replaced by the more problematic interior restraints, mental and moral, of Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure. Accompanying this shift is a change in the function of disguise, until in Measure for Measure the relaxed and playful masquerade of the earlier plays disappears entirely. Here Duke Vincentio, the central authority of the play, not the young lovers, engages in physical masquerade; and the self-deception for which masquerade is an analogue changes its meaning as well, moving from the relatively innocuous affectations of the young lovers in Midsummer Night's Dream to the more deeply-rooted delusions of Orsino and Olivia in Twelfth Night and the radical lack of self-knowledge of Angelo and Isabella. So also with the motif of the circular journey, which in Measure for Measure reduces to an echo of its former self. In this play of locked and enclosed settings, nature itself comes to be locked away, in the "moated grange" wherein "resides [the] dejected Mariana" (3.1.265-66) and the "garden circummur'd with brick" (4.1.28) of the intended assignation. And the only real journey in the play situates the action of the fifth act outside the city walls, thus permitting a reentry into a (dubiously) regenerated Vienna.
At the heart of this series of transformations is a challenge to the organicist view, endemic in the earlier comedies, of the relation between liberty and restraint. Near the end of Measure for Measure, in her appeal to Isabella for help in pleading for Angelo's life, Mariana says, "They say best men are moulded out of faults, / And, for the most, become much more the better / For being a little bad. So may my husband" (5.1.437-39). Mariana here expresses a version of what C. L. Barber calls "the saturnalian pattern" of Shakespearean comedy—the belief that a beneficent rhythm of release and constraint governs human libidinal energy, producing in social terms an oscillation between "holiday" and "everyday" and in psychological terms a movement from the "foolish wisdom" of prudential self-regard to the "wise folly" of passionate exuberance and romantic commitment. But Mariana's affirmation of this pattern is hard-won. In a world where "corruption boil[s] and bubble[s] / Till it o'errun the stew" (5.1.316-17), where "Liberty plucks Justice by the nose, / The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum" (1.3.29-31), the notion of an organic rhythm of release and constraint has been supplanted by a nearly all-out war between amoral naturalism on the one hand and asceticism on the other.
The most important effect of this breakdown in belief is internal, on the characters' understanding of themselves and of each other. Both the naturalists and the ascetics—Lucio, Claudio, and Pompey in the one group, Angelo, Isabella, and Duke Vincentio in the other—lack faith in the mixed, middle form of existence Mariana affirms. Claudio's early speech about the effects of "liberty," for example—made in reply to Lucio's "Whence comes this restraint?"—entirely fails to assert any beneficent relation between the terms he and Lucio use. For Claudio, "surfeit" leads to "fast," "scope" to "restraint," in a fashion less like that of holiday to everyday than that of sin to punishment. "Our natures do pursue," he says, "Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die" (1.2.116-22). Yet because this pursuit of self-destructive pleasure is understood as "natural," a fatalism attaches to Claudio's (and Lucio's and Pompey's) libertinism. "Grace is grace, despite of all controversy," says Lucio to the First Gentleman; "as, for example, thou thyself art a wicked villain, despite of all grace" (1.2.24-26).
So also with the way the two groups of characters view each other. Lucio's comment to Isabella, "I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted / By your renouncement, an immortal spirit, / And to be talk'd with in sincerity, / As with a saint" (1.4.34-37), is sometimes taken to be ironic. But the speech is better understood straight, as a reflex of the rigid, black-and-white separation Lucio makes between those of his party and those of the other. This rigidity helps to explain how Lucio can describe Angelo, in all sincerity, as "a man whose blood / Is very snow-broth; one who never feels / The wanton stings and motions of the sense" (1.4.57-59). And it also helps to explain the attitudes of the members of the ascetic party in the first half of the play, where a tendency toward black-and-white moral distinctions produces Angelo's naive assumption that sensual indulgence can be controlled by destroying houses of prostitution; Isabella's profound distaste for "Seeming, seeming!" (2.4.149); and Duke Vincentio's belief that his "own bringings-forth" will manifest him as "a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier" even to the "envious" (3.2.141-42).
Yet however deeply the two groups of characters polarize experience, attempting to segregate vice from virtue, libertinism from asceticism, the play itself does not endorse their efforts. In the absence of a relaxed, comic belief in "a little bad" leading to "much more the better," the interrelation between vice and virtue returns as nightmare. This Angelo discovers in the intense soliloquy he delivers after his first encounter with Isabella. His sudden insight into the presence of desire in himself threatens his understanding of his identity; but even more threatening is the linkage he discovers between desire and virtue. "From thee," he says, "even from thy virtue! / … can it be / That modesty may more betray our sense / Than woman's lightness?" (2.2.162, 168-70). Angelo retreats almost immediately from the vertiginous implications of this question. For the space of a single sentence, he contemplates placing a positive construction on the relation between Isabella's "modesty" and his aroused "sense," asking "What, do I love her, / That I desire to hear her speak again? / And feast upon her eyes?" But he then reverts to his former certainty, viewing his new sensation not as a morally neutral fact of experience—an enticement to court-ship, say—but as a "temptation that doth goad [him] on / To sin in loving virtue" (2.2.177-83).
Angelo would rather view himself as a sinner than experience uncertainty about the location of the boundary between vice and virtue. But the question he raises cannot so quickly be dismissed by anyone with a mind more open than his. If modesty may more betray one's sense than woman's lightness, and no positive, comic construction can be placed on this fact, then Angelo's entire conception of vice as segregable and extirpible—of repression as an answer to immorality—is cast into doubt. This is so because vice reveals itself in this construction less as an objectively definable set of behaviors than as the process of transgression. However securely virtue is locked away, either psychically or physically, vice will batten upon it, for vice constitutes itself, continually calls itself into being, by violating the boundary between itself and virtue. "These black masks," says Angelo, "Proclaim an enciel'd beauty ten times louder / Than beauty could, display'd" (2.4.79-81). "Nay, I knew not sinne," says St. Paul, "but by the Law: for I had not knowen lust, except the Law had said, Thou shalt not lust."
Shakespeare's challenge to romantic convention thus produces, in the first half of Measure for Measure, a tragic conception of the relation between liberty and restraint, vice and virtue, in which the interdependence of the paired terms can neither be avoided nor accepted. The central action of the remainder of the play is an attempted movement back toward a comic understanding of this interdependence; and the agency of this movement is the moral and emotional education of Isabella. Certainly Isabella is not morally culpable in the same fashion as Angelo, and a strong case could be made in support of her rejection of his demand, even were her brother to die. Yet many students of the play, sympathetic with Isabella in her plight, nonetheless detect a want of feeling in the way she makes her decision. In his introduction to the Arden edition of Measure for Measure, J. W. Lever speaks of "sudden slips from level to level, landslides of the soul which transform zealot into lecher and saint into sadist." The terms Lever uses apply to Angelo, not to Isabella. But the process he describes occurs in her as well, where it takes the form of a "slippage" from a hypersensitive fear of ridicule and a temperamental affinity for withdrawal and silence to a devotion, erotic in its intensity, to death.
The most notorious example of this slippage is the speech in which Isabella expresses her preference for death over dishonor. "Were I under the terms of death," she says, "Th'impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I'd yield / My body up to shame" (2.4.100-4). This speech, with its sado-masochistic overtones, expresses an orientation evident throughout Isabella's speeches and actions in the middle scenes of the play. "What a merit were it in death to take this poor maid from the world" (3.1.231-32) she exclaims, when she first hears of Mariana's abandonment by Angelo; and she exhibits a similar preference for death over life in her pleas for and to Claudio. Her first heartfelt plea for her brother is not that he should be allowed to live indefinitely but that "He's not prepar'd for death" (2.2.85), a concern she returns to twice more. And when she visits Claudio in prison, she hopes to find in him a preference for "a perpetual honour" over "a feverous life"—a life which she characteristically defines slightingly, as consisting of only "six or seven winters more" (3.1.74-76).
The main problem with this orientation is its youthfulness. The erotic longing with which Isabella invests the idea of death, and the alacrity with which she invokes death as a solution for peoples' problems, suggests that she understands it not as physical reality but as metaphor—as a limit term for the desire for withdrawal from the world of which her entry into her novitiate is the initial expression. "The sense of death is most in apprehension" (3.1.77) she says to Claudio, as a way of arousing in him a willingness to die. But her statement applies as well to herself, in that her youthful "apprehension" of death as a ready-made solution for life's woes causes her to lack an empathetic "sense" of the extremity of her brother's situation. Had Claudio "twenty heads to tender down / On twenty bloody blocks, he'd yield them up" (2.4.179-80), she says, as if his execution were simply an infinitely repeatable fantasy solution to her dilemma, not an irreversible physical fact. Also, the intensity of her affection for death arises in part from the acuteness of her fear of public humiliation. She reveals an adolescent sensitivity to insult in her first appearance on stage, when she says to Lucio, "Sir, make me not your story" and "You do blaspheme the good, in mocking me" (1.4.29, 38). And the situation Angelo creates exacerbates this sensitivity, since a failed attempt at public denunciation will cause her, as he shrewdly points out, to "stifle in [her] own report, / And smell of calumny" (2.4.157-58).
It is understandable, then, that Isabella should hope to find a corresponsive allegiance to death in Claudio and that the disappointment of this hope should produce the savage tirade with which she concludes their encounter in the prison scene. And it is also understandable that the transformation Isabella undergoes in the remaining scenes of the play should focus on her attitudes toward death and public humiliation. "The vile conclusion," she says, in her fifth-act denunciation of Angelo, "I now begin with grief and shame to utter" (5.1.98-99); and the words "grief and "shame" are here invested with full dramatic intensity. The source of the first of these feelings is clear enough; but the depth of the grief Isabella experiences as a result of the supposed execution of Claudio nonetheless deserves emphasis. "Nay, dry your eyes," and "Command these fretting waters from your eyes," says Duke Vincentio in the scene where he tells Isabella that Claudio has been executed (4.3.127, 146). This emphasis on weeping, which is seconded by Lucio's "I am pale at mine heart to see thine eyes so red" (4.3.150-51), underscores the nature of the education Isabella is receiving relative to the reality of death. From her unpitying statements to Claudio in the prison scene—"I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death; / No word to save thee"; '"Tis best that thou diest quickly" (3.1.145-46, 150)—she here arrives at a visceral knowledge of the reality of loss.
More intricate and more interesting is the movement Isabella undergoes in relation to the experience of shame. Isabella's share in the moral rigidities of the opening world of the play consists, as we have noted, in repugnance at the idea of "seeming." Desirous of the moral clarity of "a more strict restraint" (1.4.4), lacking in experience with men, deferential to authority, she wishes appearance to be congruent with reality and truth with fact. This desire carries forward into the preparations for the fifth-act denunciation, when Isabella tells Mariana, "To speak so indirectly I am loth; /I would say the truth … / … yet I am advis'd to do it, / He says, to veil full purpose" (4.6.1-4). But despite her desire for frankness and clarity, Isabella finally does speak indirectly, even to the extent of publicly asserting the existence of a rape that in Act 2 she was neither willing to endure nor to denounce. Where in Act 2 she remains silent largely out of fear of being accused of calumny, she here accepts the likelihood, even if only momentary, of greater public obloquy. And she does this while supposing that Claudio is dead, a fact that lends to her speaking out a particular poignancy, since the choice she claims to have made, of "sisterly remorse" over "honor" (5.1.103), is exactly the one she did not make when she believed that Claudio's life depended upon it.
In effect, then, Isabella has undergone an education in the bearableness of shame, when endured in the service of a worthwhile purpose. If we ask who brings this education about, the overall answer is of course Duke Vincentio, whose purpose in pretending to Isabella that Claudio has died is "To make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected" (4.3.109-110). But a more immediate, and emotionally more influential, source of Isabella's transformation is Mariana. As has often been noted, the role that Duke Vincentio assigns to Isabella in bringing about the "bed trick" is not entirely dictated by plot considerations alone. Isabella performs two tasks in creating the encounter between Mariana and Angelo: she goes to Angelo and "answer[s] his requiring with a plausible obedience" (3.1.243-44), and she informs Mariana of the plan. Only the first of these tasks necessarily requires her participation, since broaching the matter to Mariana is something Duke Vincentio could do as well as she—particularly since he had earlier assured Isabella, "The maid will I frame, and make fit for his attempt" (3.1.256-57).
When considered in terms of its effect on Isabella's emotional growth, though, Duke Vincentio's assumption that Mariana should hear the proposal from Isabella herself makes perfect sense. The most evident function of this involvement is that it allows Isabella to watch Mariana make a decision about substituting oneself for someone else that is directly opposed to the one she herself has just made. More importantly, Isabella's involvement provides an opportunity to gain insight into the nature of love and shame, and into the power of the one to make bearable the other. One of the ill effects of the moral rigidity pervading the world of the play is a hyper-rationalistic understanding of human emotion, as when Duke Vincentio assumes that Angelo's lustful behavior will arouse sympathy in him toward Claudio. But Mariana stands as a living repudiation of this way of thinking, since Angelo's "unjust unkindness, that in all reason should have quenched her love, hath, like an impediment in the current, made it more violent and unruly" (3.1.240-43). Furthermore, although Shakespeare does not foreground the fact, the bed trick can be expected to arouse in Marian feelings of shame similar to those that might have been aroused in Isabella by the rape it forestalls; for how might Mariana be expected to feel, making love to a man she loves, while knowing that he thinks he is making love to a woman other than herself? So if Mariana is willing to undergo this experience, the relation between love and shame must be more intricate than the polarity Isabella assumes to exist when she makes her initial decision.18
This education into emotional complexity reaches its culmination in the coup de théâtre of Isabella's kneeling in support of Mariana's plea for Angelo's life. The moral implications of this act—its replacement of the "Old Law" of "death for death / … / … and Measure still for Measure" (5.1.407-9) with the "New Law" of grace and mercy—have been exhaustively analyzed in earlier commentary on the play. Here it remains only to note how Isabella's act of kneeling underscores the play's movement from tragic rigidity to comic flexibility. By joining Mariana in her plea, Isabella engages in an act of empathetic identification parallel to the one Mariana had engaged in by agreeing to participate in the bed trick. And in acceding to Mariana's request, "do yet but kneel by me" (5.1.435), Isabella performs a physical enactment of this identification, one which sharply contrasts with the meaning acts of kneeling had exhibited earlier in the play.
That earlier meaning is succinctly expressed at the end of Act 2, when Isabella speaks of Claudio's supposed willingness to "tender down" "twenty heads … / On twenty bloody blocks … / Before his sister should her body stoop / To such abhorr'd pollution" (2.4.179-82). The comparison Isabella implies here, between Claudio's kneeling and her "stooping," is directly analogous to the choice she faces, as she at this point understands it. In presentday parlance, the question is who is to go down for whom, and in what fashion. And because the notion of stooping or kneeling as a form of female sexual submission receives expression elsewhere early in the play, it lends an air of sexual innuendo (unintended by Isabella) to the kneeling Isabella engages in during her first interview with Angelo. So Claudio's unwillingness to perform the reciprocal act of kneeling at the block understandably produces in Isabella an intense revulsion against stooping, kneeling, going down. "Take my defiance, / Die, perish!" she says, "Might but my bending down / Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed" (3.1.142-44)19
From this rigid, "unbending" anger, Isabella finally arrives at the empathetic kneeling of Act 5. So her physical pliancy in Act 5 forms a visual analogue for her growth into emotional and moral complexity. It also expresses a new-found sociability. Isabella's kneeling in Act 5 is not merely kneeling to (as it had been in Act 2) but kneeling with, in an extended sense of the term. In the highly schematic dramaturgy of the fifth act, Mariana's unveiling, which she refuses to perform "Until my husband bid me" (5.1.172), emblemizes her transition from the cloister-like immurement of the moated grange to matrimony. But as Duke Vincentio's instruction regarding Mariana—"First, let her show her face, and after, speak" (5.1.170)—suggests, her veiled entrance also echoes the scene in the cloister in Act 1, where Isabella was told that as a sworn votarist, "if you speak, you must not show your face; / Or if you show your face, you must not speak" (1.4.12-13). So for Isabella to kneel beside the unveiled Mariana and speak in defense of the preservation of Mariana's marriage—particularly when she still believes Angelo to be responsible for her brother's death—emblemizes her own removal from the cloister and entry into the world. Only a short distance separates this act of kneeling, it would seem, from the later one that Duke Vincentio and Isabella can be imagined to engage in, as bridegroom and bride, in the performance of their nuptials.
But by what warrant do we assume that the marriage of Duke Vincentio and Isabella will ever take place? Silence in a work of literature is by its nature ambiguous, so Isabella's failure to respond to the Duke's twice-repeated offer of marriage can be (and has been) interpreted as either assent or resistance. The difficulty is that both options seem equally plausible (and implausible). The whole thrust of the play toward a comic resolution supports the notion that Isabella's silence should be interpreted as assent; and the close of the play seems to invite a processional exit of couples, married and betrothed, two by two. But this exit, if it occurs, will be headed by a man in a friar's habit and a woman in the habit of a postulant—surely an odd way of intimating that a marriage between the two is in the offing. Also, the comic resolution which this procession purportedly completes exhibits more silences than only Isabella's; for no member of the presumed happy ending speaks to any other member of his or her happiness. Claudio and Isabella do not speak in reconciliation; Claudio and Juliet do not speak to one another at all (if Juliet is in fact even on stage); the newly-wedded Angelo does not speak to Mariana, nor Mariana to Angelo.
Faced with such an interpretative crux, it may be advisable to respond in the same fashion as with Isabella's dilemma in Act 2—that is, by declining to choose between the options. Unlike the earlier situation, though, declining to choose here does not afford the comfort of discovering a third, ameliorative alternative. But this fact may itself be significant, as embodying an impasse Shakespeare had reached at this stage in his career as a writer of romantic comedy. It is a critical commonplace to note that nearly all of Shakespeare's romantic comedies contain a character—Jaques, Malvolio, Don John—whose presence on the periphery of the final festive resolution challenges its completeness. And it is also often noted that the seriousness of the challenge posed by these characters increases as Shakespeare's career advances. Measure for Measure represents a limit beyond which this challenge cannot grow, if a play is to remain comic in form and meaning; for the challenge here is not simply that of a separate figure, who can be ritually or realistically excluded from the final festive harmony. It is instead an irreconciliation inside Isabella and Angelo (and possibly Duke Vincentio) themselves, a division between the ascetic and social sides of their personalities, between their love of "the life remov'd" (1.3.8) and their discovery that "if our virtues / Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike / As if we had them not" (1.1.33-35).
Looming behind this interiorizing of the resistance to an inclusive comic resolution is the larger issue of the fate of asceticism in Shakespeare's age. Where did asceticism go as a way of life, once the monasteries and the nunneries were dissolved? The classic answer to this question, as provided by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is that cloistral asceticism came to be replaced by "ascetic Protestantism"—by an asceticism, that is, that "slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate … [the] daily routine of life with its methodicalness, to fashion [that routine] into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world."20 As a broad-scale description of a sweeping historical change, Weber's assertion still seems essentially valid. But the process Weber describes provides little basis for the continued writing of romantic comedy of Shakespeare's sort, with its celebration of holiday excess and wise folly; for as C. L. Barber says, "the Puritan ethic contrasts all along the line with the sort of 'housekeeping' which went with festive liberty."21
The two central final silences in Measure for Measure—Isabella's and Angelo's—offer symbolic commentary on this closure of romantic possibility. When Duke Vincentio reveals that Claudio is still alive, he says, "By this Lord Angelo perceives he's safe; / Methinks I see a quickening in his eye" (5.1.492-93). The pun here on "quick," as meaning "endowed with life," links Angelo's pardon to the play's general concluding emphasis on renewal of life, as enacted in the pardoning of Claudio and Barnardine and the partial remission of Lucio's sentence. But there is no evidence beyond Duke Vincentio's assertion that this quickening has taken very strong hold on Angelo's mind and personality. In his only speeches of any length after the revelation of his guilt, Angelo twice asks for death as punishment, in a fashion that suggests an obdurate continuation into Act 5 of the attitudes he exhibited in Acts 1 and 2.
"Good prince," Angelo says in the first of these requests, "No longer session hold upon my shame, / But let my trial be mine own confession. / Immediate sentence, then, and sequent death / Is all the grace I beg" (5.1.368-72). In its failure to express remorse over Claudio's supposed execution and its specification of avoidance of shame as the reason for desiring death, this speech exhibits Angelo's retrogressive stance relative to the sort of moral education Isabella has undergone in the second half of the play, into the reality of loss and the bearableness of shame. And while Angelo's second request for death, with its mention of "my penitent heart" (5.1.473), intimates some degree of moral awakening, it also provides grounds for doubting the completeness of this transformation. The placement of the speech immediately after Mariana's and Isabella's impassioned plea for the preservation of his life reveals an indifference to that plea on Angelo's part; and the conclusion he draws from his new-found feeling of penitence—"I crave death more willingly than mercy" (5.1.474)—suggests a thorough lack of understanding of the breakthrough from the Old to the New Law enacted in the debat between Duke Vincendo, Mariana, and Isabella.
Angelo's final silence, then, offers reasons for questioning the hopefulness of Mariana's "So may my husband." Far from "a little bad" producing "much more the better," Angelo's concluding silence foreshadows simple continuation, a transference into marriage—into his own, and, by extension, into Protestant bourgeois marriage generally—of the emotional rigidity and sexual tyranny he had exhibited as a bachelor and as Duke Vincentio's substitute.22 Isabella's final silence may at first glance seem more positive, particularly if we read it as resisting the newly-emergent assumption that wifehood was the only social role toward which a woman should aspire. But we should not insist too strongly on the self-affirmative dimension of Isabella's final silence, for if she does not say "yes," neither does she say "no." This essay has consistently depicted Isabella's moral growth as her acquisition of the courage and power to speak. But the final step in this process, in which she would speak on behalf not only of others but of herself—on behalf, that is, of her own temperamental affinity for silence—she does not take. She cannot, and have Measure for Measure remain even remotely a romantic comedy. Not until Cordelia says, "What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent" (1.1.62), will Shakespeare explore this sort of speech, and this sort of silence, and their consequences.
1 For similar observations about the effect of Measure for Measure on undergraduate students, see Melvin Seiden, Measure for Measure: Casuistry and Artistry (Catholic U. of America Press, 1990), pp. 1-2.
2 All citations of Measure for Measure are to the Arden Edition, ed. J. W. Lever (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1965). The quoted passage occurs at 2.4.150-53. Citations of other plays by Shakespeare are to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 4th ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992). A succinct history of the critical controversy surrounding Isabella's refusal to submit, with copious citations, can be found in George Geckle, "Shakespeare's Isabella," SQ 22 (1971): 163-68. Excerpts from important commentaries attacking and defending Isabella appear in George Geckle, ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Measure for Measure " (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), and C. K. Stead, ed., Shakespeare: "Measure for Measure, " a Casebook (London: Macmillan, 1971). In contrast to this history (and to the undergraduate students mentioned above), many presentday scholarly commentators on the play evince little interest in Isabella's dilemma. This is especially true of new historicist and feminist-new historicist commentators, who see concern over the issue as implying adherence to "outmoded" liberal-humanist assumptions about the autonomy of the individual and the importance of individual moral choice. See, e.g., Jonathan Dollimore, "Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure"; and Kathleen McLuskie, "The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure," in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester U. Press, 1985), pp. 72-87 and 88-108.
3 The literature on the generic affiliations ofMeasure for Measure is vast. See, e.g., Nevill Coghill, "Comic Form in Measure for Measure, " Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955): 14-27; Murray Krieger, "Measure for Measure and Elizabethan Comedy," PMLA 66 (1951): 775-84; J. W. Lever, Introduction to the Arden Edition of Measure for Measure (cited above), pp. lv-lxiii; Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963); and David Lloyd Stevenson, The Achievement of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" (Cornell U. Press, 1966).
4 Northrop Frye, "The Argument of Comedy," in English Institute Essays, 1948 (Columbia U. Press, 1949); and A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (Columbia U. Press, 1965), pp. 141-45.
5 Cf. Frye, A Natural Perspective, p. 145. See also
6 C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Context, rpt. ed. (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1963). See especially Chapters 1-3.
7 A similar fatalism attaches to Claudio's allusion to Romans 9:15 (and Exodus 33:19), just prior to his speech about liberty: "The words of heaven; on whom it will, it will; / On whom it will not, so; yet still 'tis just" (1.2.144-15). Despite efforts by some critics to rescue this speech for theological orthodoxy, it is better understood as bitterly despairing, the comment of a man who does not dare indict heaven, yet who finds the relation between sin and punishment inexplicable. For a helpful discussion of the interplay between the terms "scope" and "restraint," in Claudio's speech and elsewhere in the play, see Michael Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton U. Press, 1972), pp. 166-68.
8 This rigid separation in outlook also helps to explain Lucio's slander of Duke Vincentio. From Lucio's point of view, advocates of sensual restraint must either be exempt from desire, as he imagines Angelo to be, or they must be hypocrites. He cannot believe that people possessing "sense" might truly wish to restrict its expression, either in themselves or in society.
9 Romans 7:7. I have quoted from the Geneva Bible, the version Shakespeare most likely would have read. A question Angelo poses in the middle of his soliloquy—"Having waste ground enough, / Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary / And pitch our evils there?" (2.2.170-72)—comments ironically on his earlier order that the brothels in the suburbs of Vienna be torn down.
10 The action of the play demonstrates that acceding to Angelo's demand would not have saved Claudio's life. Angelo's response to sleeping with Isabella (as he supposes) is not to pardon Claudio but to advance the time of his execution; and the reason he gives—fear that Claudio "Might in times to come have ta'en revenge" (4.4.28)—shows that denunciation, however unlikely its prospects for success, is always Isabella's only viable option. The problem, of course, is that Isabella does not know in Act 2 what the audience learns in Act 4.
11 Lever, p. lxxiv.
12 See 2.4.39-41 and 2.4.186.
13 Cf. Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (Columbia U. Press, 1965), p. 223.
14 I am indebted to my student, Elizabeth Holland, for this observation.
15 The word "grief occurs only this one time in the play, in contrast to thirty-eight uses of the word "death," eight of them by Isabella. Isabella does not use the word "death" after act 3, scene 1.
16 It should be emphasized that the shame Isabella struggles to confront is not in any way an effect of guilt on her part. A contemporary analogy would be to the experience of rape or incest survivors, who often must overcome a sense of shame and worthlessness before denouncing their attackers. See Ann Wolbert Burgess and Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, Rape: Crisis and Recovery (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979); and Robin Warshaw, I Never Called It Rape (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
17 Duke Vincentio's role in educating Isabella has been the subject of considerable scrutiny by feminist critics, some of whom emphasize its intrusive and manipulative aspect. See Christy Desmet, Reading Shakespeare's Characters (U. of Massachusetts Press, 1992), pp. 144-54; McLuskie, "The Patriarchal Bard" (cited above); and Marcia Riefer, '"Instruments of Some More Mightier Member': The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure," SQ 35 (1984): 157-69. In contrast to this essay, both Desmet and Riefer see the central action of Measure for Measure as a removal from Isabella of the power to speak. For readings emphasizing Mariana's role in Isabella's education, see Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (London: Cambridge U. Press, 1981), pp. 71-107; and Eileen Z. Cohen, "'Virtue is Bold': The Bed-Trick and Characterization in All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure" PQ 65 (1986): 171-86.
18 Cf. Alexander Leggatt, "Substitution in Measure for Measure," SQ 39 (1988): 342-59 (especially pp. 347-48).
19 For the association of physical with sexual submission, see Claudio's description of Isabella's youth as a "prone and speechless dialect / Such as move men" (1.2.173-74) and Lucio's statement that when maidens "weep and kneel" (1.4.81) men give gifts eagerly. Lucio's asides during the first encounter between Isabella and Angelo intimate a parallel between argumentative force and sexual arousal; and he urges Isabella to intensify this effect by "kneel[ing] down before him, hang[ing] upon his gown" (2.2.44). That Isabella does in fact kneel can be inferred from her description in Act 5 of the "needless process" of her appeal—"How I persuaded, how I pray'd and kneel'd, / How he refell'd me, and how I replied" (5.1.95-97).
20 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1930), p. 154.
21 Barber, p. 23.
22 Duke Vincentio's parting comment to the newlyweds—"Joy to you, Mariana; love her, Angelo: / I have confess'd her, and I know her virtue" (5.1.523-24)—contains a troubling reminder of Angelo's earlier inability to arrive at a life-enhancing understanding of the relation between sexual desire, sin, and virtue. What good will it do for Angelo to know that his wife is virtuous, if he still considers "most dangerous / … that temptation that doth goad us on / To sin in loving virtue" (2.2.181-83)?
Source: "Isabella's Choice," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 77-93.