Measure for Measure (Vol. 33)
Measure for Measure
For further information on the critical and stage history of Measure for Measure, see SC, Volumes 2 and 23.
Sexuality sounds a complex and insistent note throughout this play about marriage, celibacy, ungoverned lust, and unsanctioned love, and this issue has influenced recent criticism of Measure for Measure. Modern commentators have examined the influence of Elizabethan and Jacobean thought regarding human sexuality on the play's structure and characterization, its treatment of power, justice, and mercy, and the reconciliation of opposites implicit in the play's title.
Ralph Berry (1976-77) describes the structure of Measure for Measure as split into two worlds: the illicit underworld which "exists for the free gratification of impulses controlled or suppressed elsewhere," and the overworld which "is founded on government, restraint, morality, shame … discipline." While articulating the play's "doctrine" or lesson of shared guilt and mercy, Ronald Berman (1967) contends that the "Letter of Paul to the Romans … illuminate[s] both the sensuality and the righteousness of the [play's] protagonists." Similarly, W. L. Godshalk (1970) remarks that such opposite forces as "mercy and justice, … chastity and sexual license" are at work in the play, and restates the title as "measure must oppose measure," asserting that these forces move toward a fragile balance in Act V when the characters realize that sexual desire, "one manifestation of human love," is a weakness shared by all of them, and that—in theory at least—marriage turns this weakness into strength by combining the chastity of monogamy with the fulfilled desire of the marriage bed. On the other hand, Mario DiGangi (1993) challenges this solution when he observes that marriage is simply male-dominated Vienna's attempt to control female sexuality by applying laws to female sexual desire and pregnancy. Marcia Riefer (1984) and Amy Lechter-Siegel (1992) share DiGangi's scepticism, arguing, in the first instance, that the play loses its status as a comedy and, in the second instance, that the Duke retains his absolute control of the state when he coerces Isabella into marriage rather than permitting her sexual autonomy or condoning her views on chastity and justice.
Sexuality is an important part of characterization in the play. Katharine Eisaman Maus (1995) offers a general discussion of how desire operates in the play as an influence on the characters' inward and outward lives. More specifically, Karl F. Zender (1994) argues that Isabella's initial views on chastity are "sado-masochistic," while David Thatcher (1995) sees Isabella's concept of "natural guiltiness" as valid and well-meant but not as justification for granting her brother clemency. With regard to the Duke's deputy, Angelo, Harry V. Jaffa (1981) asserts that Angelo is a strict but reasoning dispenser of the Duke's moral code who rebels "against the authority he has hitherto represented" once his lust for Isabella overtakes him.
Ronald Berman (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Law," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1967, pp. 141-50.
[In the following essay, Berman reviews the representative criticism regarding Measure for Measure and applies Pauline doctrine to the central issues of this "problem" play: reality versus the ideal, justice versus mercy, and the difficulty of making a clear distinction between good and evil.]
Coleridge found Measure For Measure "painful … disgusting … horrible", ignoring Dr. Johnson's detached appreciation of Shakespeare's "knowledge of human nature". Mrs. Jameson's saccharine idealization of Isabella opened the way for the "melting tenderness" and "tremulous sensibility" of William Winter (The Wallet of Time) and other virginophiles. The reaction of the present century to Isabella was predictable: Charlton noted drily that the lady was a hussy (Shakespeare's Comedies) and Quiller-Couch added in his New Cambridge edition that her chastity was "something rancid". When the criticism of Shakespeare became more thematic and symbolic it was found by G. W. Knight that the play was a reworking of the Gospels;1 Roy Battenhouse argued that it was a dramatic paradigm of the Atonement.2 In an essay of great penetration R. W. Chambers connected the view of human nature in this play to that of the...
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Opposition And Balance
W. L. Godshalk (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Measure for Measure: Freedom and Restraint," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. 6, 1970, pp. 137-50.
[In the following essay, Godshalk examines the reconciliation of opposing forces suggested by the play's title, contending that this balance is achieved only tenuously through the betrothals in Act V.]
Although Measure for Measure is a play full of ambiguity,1 its title has received a just share of explication,2 and one suspects that most of its meaning has indeed been measured by the interested scholars and critics. At first glance, it suggests the Hebrew injunction against excessive punishment: "An eye The for an eye, & a tooth for a tooth" (Matthew, v.38).3 The revenge should not exceed the enormity of the original crime. Further, the title may also allude to Christ's comments on judgment: "IVdge not, that ye be not iudged. For with what iudgement ye iudge, ye shalbe iudged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you againe."4 Read thus, "measure for measure" becomes a plea for merciful judgment and charity among men. Through exegesis, this reading suggests the doctrine of Original Sin, that all men by the very nature of their conception into the human condition are sinful. Man must consequently...
(The entire section is 6659 words.)
Language And Structure
Ralph Berry (essay date 1976-77)
SOURCE: "Language and Structure in Measure for Measure," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, Winter, 1976-77, pp. 147-61.
[In the following essay, Berry examines language and structure in Measure for Measure.]
The structure of Measure for Measure is expressed through a dual location system not found elsewhere in Shakespeare. It is usual for Shakespeare to oppose geographic locations, each symbolizing and generating a complex of values: thus, court and country, Egypt and Rome, Venice and Belmont. Even in plays where the dual setting scheme is less apparent, a change of milieu does hold its significances: Hamlet's abortive journey to England evidently signals a change of mental direction. All these instances involve geographic change, 'travel' in its customary sense, for the protagonists. Measure for Measure is unique: it is set within the boundaries of a single city, Vienna,1 yet presents an opposition between the underworld, whose control mechanism is prison, and the overworld. It is, schematically, an upstairs-downstairs play in which the structural alternations are vertical. All the conventionally identifiable scene settings—nunnery, grange, a public place, 'Vienna,' courtroom, prison—conform to this principle. And these settings present as dramatic realities the...
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Karl F. Zender (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "Isabella's Choice," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 77-93.
[In the following essay, Zender argues that Measure for Measure is Shakespeare's final romantic comedy and uses the development of Isabella's and Angelo 's characters to support his contention.]
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 demongraphic 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. 1 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...
(The entire section is 6878 words.)
Sexual Politics And Power
Amy Lechter-Siegel (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Isabella's Silence: The Consolidation of Power in Measure for Measure," in Reconsidering the Renaissance, edited by Mario A. Di Cesare, Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, Vol. 93, 1992, pp. 371-80.
[In the following essay, Lechter-Siegel observes that the Duke marries and effectively silences Isabella at the end of the play because her virginity and ideas represent a threat to his absolute control of the state.]
In Act 1 of Measure for Measure, the novice Isabella first appears on stage in obedience before a religious authority of whom she requests a life of severe asceticism. In Isabella's first major speech, she makes closely reasoned pleas for the Christian principle of mercy. By contrast, in act 5 Isabella appears in supplication before a secular authority and first makes emotional and then poorly reasoned pleas for the secular principles of justice and equity. In the final scene, the novice, who had requested a cloistered life of chastity and severe simplicity, anticipates a public life of marriage and courtly opulence. A character who is first described to the audience as an eloquent and persuasive speaker is, in the final moment of the play, silent.
What transpires between acts 1 and 5 to bring about this reversal? Can we view Isabella as a developing dramatic character whose desires...
(The entire section is 13320 words.)
Justice, Mercy, And Morality
Harry V. Jaffa (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Chasity as a Political Principle: An Interpretation of Measure for Measure," in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, Carolina Academic Press, 1981, pp. 181-213.
[In the following excerpt, Jaffa examines the oppositions of chastity and passion, and of mercy versus the rule of law, as they unfold during discussion between Angelo and Isabella.]
Should Claudio have been condemned to death for fornication? We must examine this question seriously, and not merely as an exercise in the willing suspension of disbelief. What we might call "our" point of view is represented within the play, when Lucio exclaims, "Why, what a ruthless thing is this & for the rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a man!" And he seems to speak in the spirit equally of Christianity and of liberal democracy, when he asks,
Would the Duke that is absent have done this? Ere he would have hanged a man for getting a hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing a thousand. He had some feeling of the sport, he knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy.
(III. ii. 123-128)
Lucio's point of view seems however to be out of favor with the Duke, and Lucio is treated with a harshness that distinguishes him from the other sinners at the end of the play. He...
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Adelman, Janet. "Marriage and the Maternal Body: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure." In Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, "Hamlet" to "The Tempest," pp. 76-102. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Argues that the bed-trick in Measure for Measure allows the play to end as a comedy by providing a solution to the "incompatibility between marriage and male desire."
Altieri, Joanne. "Style and Social Disorder in Measure for Measure." Shakespeare Quarterly 25, No. 1 (Winter 1974): 6-16.
Studies Shakespeare's development of contrasting dramatic and linguistic patterns to ascertain the relationship between Measure for Measure and the earlier comedies. Altieri notes that the "discontinuous speech styles," which reflect the fragmented society in Measure for Measure, situate the play at the midpoint between the "social order" of the early comedies and the "metaphysical harmony" of the romances.
Bache, William B. "Measure for Measure" As Dialectical Art. Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Studies, 1969, 66 p.
Considers Measure for Measure a dialectical argument in which Shakespeare demonstrates the proper relationship between the individual and society. Bache examines the play as a learning experience through which all of the...
(The entire section is 1352 words.)