Measure for Measure
For further information on the critical and stage history of Measure for Measure, see .
Often identified as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," Measure for Measure begins on a serious note, drawing audiences in with its focus on the moral dilemmas of its major characters. By the second half of the play, however, the tone shifts to a comic one, which distances audiences from the characters and their plights. This discordance is one of the issues that makes the play "problematic." Another such issue is the play's stance on law, justice, and mercy. In analyses of these themes, critics are unable to agree on what message Shakespeare intended to convey. Often, such discussions focus on the characters of the Duke and Angelo, who, as governmental leaders, are in a position to interpret the law and dispense justice and mercy. Other topics of modern critical debate include the role of sexuality in the play, as well as Shakespeare's use of substitutions in the play.
In examining the inconsistencies in Measure for Measure, A. D. Nutall (1968) states that the "Grand Inconsistency" of the play is that "between the ethic of government and the ethic of refraining from judgement." Nutall examines Angelo and the Duke as rulers and heroes and maintains that it is possible to view Angelo as a good Machiavellian ruler, who retains a certain integrity throughout the play. The Duke, Nutall argues, is frivolous and cannot be taken seriously as a satisfactory hero. In exploring the attitudes of the Duke and Angelo regarding the law and its application, N. W. Bawcutt (1984) claims that Measure for Measure presents a dual image of the law, in which the law is ignored without consequence but may suddenly mete out harsh punishment with a certain arbitrariness. Mercy, Bawcutt demonstrates, is similarly presented in a variety of ways, whereas justice and the law are relatively indistinguishable from one another.
Other critics focus on how specific aspects of the law are treated in Measure for Measure. Margaret Scott (1982) reviews the play's vague law against fornication and cautions against approaching the play through the examination of Elizabethan marriage contracts. Jonathan (1985) studies the regulation of sexuality in the play, suggesting that, as in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, such regulation was a reaction of the State against the fear of anarchy.
In examining the apparent structural inconsistencies between the two halves of the play, Herbert Weil, Jr. (1970) argues that if the falling action of the play is viewed as light comedy, even farce, then the action does in fact "fit into a comprehensive design." Weil maintains that through the comic subplot involving Lucio, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone, Shakespeare prepares the audience for the comic reversals of the second half of the play. Furthermore, Weil suggests that Shakespeare deliberately altered his sources in order to engineer the audience's disappointment resulting from the failure of the action to resolve the characters' moral dilemmas. The purpose of this alteration, Weil asserts, was to highlight, through Shakespeare's parodying of the melodrama of his sources, the limitations of comic form and devices. At the same time, Shakespeare "stretches [comic conventions and implausible devices] into new possibilities." Like Weil, T. A. Stroud (1993) emphasizes the importance of the play's comic substructure, arguing that the comic plot initiated by Lucio was intended to balance, (and nearly does so, according to Stroud), the "quasi-tragic plot initiated by Angelo." Stroud stresses that an analysis of this doubling or balancing could resolve "some of the widespread critical dissatisfaction with this play." In her analysis of Measure for Measure as tragicomedy, Harriett Hawkins (1972) outlines some of the major discrepancies between the first and second half of the play and describes it as "a magnificent failure." Hawkins states that the most pervasive problem of the play is "that the memory of the characters, their speeches, and their conflicts between mutually exclusive moral alternatives simply cannot be revoked by the theatrical intriguing of a Duke. . . . "
The sexual relations between men and women play a major role in Measure for Measure. Kathleen McCluskie (1985) contends that the dilemmas in the play and the sexuality of its female characters are conceived of in entirely male terms: Mistress Overdone is a bawd, Juliet is obviously pregnant, and Isabella, in her nun's habit, denies sexuality. Only Mariana's position is ambiguous, since she is not a maid, widow, or wife. The organization of the second half of the play is designed to rectify this problematic status, McCluskie argues, and to reinstate Mariana within the male prescribed sex roles. Susan Carlson (1989) on the other hand, maintains that the play offers a "fragile" and "unusual" alternative to male dominated sexuality. This alternative, according to Carlson, is simply "the acknowledgement of qualities, options, and relations for both men and women not sanctioned by the standard sexual politics." In the end, Carlson notes, the possibility for the existence of this alternative, which challenges the play's male order, is eliminated.
In Measure for Measure, characters are repeatedly substituted for one another. Alexander Leggatt (1988) reviews some of these substitutions: Mariana for Isabella in the bed-trick, Angelo for the Duke, Barnardine for Claudio, and Ragozine for Barnardine. The critic maintains that the substitutions in the play either fail to achieve their intended purpose or are in some other way unsatisfying, concluding that the substitutions are both "revealing" and "fascinating" but incomplete. Additionally, Leggatt states that Shakespeare did not deliberately write an imperfect play in order to highlight the imperfections of his art. Hutson Diehl (1998) directly challenges Leggatt's view, insisting that this is indeed what Shakespeare has done. Diehl argues that Shakespeare explores, through the use of substitutions, the power and limitation of theatrical representation, and that in doing so, he creates a dissatisfaction in the audience's response to Measure for Measure. By creating this dissatisfaction, Diehl explains, Shakespeare uses the theater for "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." Through Measure for Measure, Diehl concludes, Shakespeare inspires in his audiences a sense "of the infinite space that separates them from the divine."
A. D. Nutall (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "Measure For Measure: Quid Pro Quo?," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. IV, 1968, pp. 231-51.
[In the following essay, Nutall examines the inconsistencies and "ethical collisions" in Measure for Measure. In particular, the critic scrutinizes the ethics of government and judgment and contrasts Angelo 's moral character with that of the Duke.]
Some people seem to have little difficulty in understanding Measure for Measure; for example, Professor Wilson Knight. His summary of the play's theme is at once lucid and deeply attractive: "'justice' is a mockery: man, himself a sinner, cannot presume to judge. That is the lesson driven home in Measure for Measure."1 It is difficult not to respond gratefully to this thesis, which exalts the loving prostitute above the censorious prig, charity of heart above Olympian pride of intellect. If mankind is frail, then we, as part of mankind, are frail, and the proper response to our situation is not judgement, but love. Further, Professor Knight's thesis is not only inherently attractive; it also accords well with the main movement of the plot, which is from judicial retaliation to forgiveness and harmony. Again, it attaches itself closely to certain passages in the play—passages which derive their beauty from their enormous moral power:
How would you be
If He, which is the top of judgement, should
But judge you as you are? O, think on that,
And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
Like man new made.
But man, proud man,
Dress'd in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd—
His glassy essence—like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angles weep. . . .
Within the world of Measure for Measure Professor Knight's thesis exalts, say, the forgiving Duke high above the frigid Angelo, which would seem to be very good sense, since the Duke is obviously the hero and Angelo the villain.
Unobviously, however, the situation is quite otherwise. If we allow ourselves to look at all hard at the play, a shadowy structure of a disturbingly alien shape becomes visible under the comedy surface. One thing we can learn quite quickly is, for example, the fact that Angelo is, on a modest computation (as Swift would say) worth about six Dukes. One begins to suspect that the whole trouble with Professor Knight's account is its very smoothness. It is occasionally salutary to ask oneself "If I had never read or seen Measure for Measure, but knew it only from Professor Knight's essay, what sort of idea of the work would I have? What surprises would I get when I turned to the play itself? In what ways would the real experience of Measure for Measure differ from the experience Professor Knight had led me to expect?" I think it is fair to say (and this goes not just for Professor Knight's account but also for the varying interpretations of Roy Battenhouse, Nevill Coghill and even F. R. Leavis)4 that Shakespeare would give such a reader a much rougher ride than he had looked for. The first thing he would learn from a virgin text is that Measure for Measure is a jagged play.
It is also a highly dialectical play, perhaps the most audaciously metaphysical of all Shakespeare's dramas. In Measure for Measure Shakespeare (who had after all trained himself on such stories asthat of The Comedy of Errors) wove a plot of astonishing ingenuity. As long as this play is treated as a work of abstract art, it will be found as smooth as your mistress's glass. So considered, its primary characteristics are intricacy and celerity. The principal idea (of vicarious action) is worked out in a very pretty sequence of variations meeting in a final resolution. For example, one may hear the theme in brilliant accelerando if one traces that strand of the plot which brings Lucio into contact with the Duke. In III.ii. Lucio slanders the Duke to the Friar, not knowing that the Duke and the Friar are one and the same person (though he seems to know that the Duke has disguised himself). Then, at V.i.130f., he slanders the Friar to the Duke, not knowing—again—that they are the same person. Thus Lucio's fertility in slander is frustrated by the Duke's fertility in subterfuge. The variety of the Duke's appearances cancels out the variety of Lucio's mendacity, leaving a single net offence—the slander of a prince.
So one pole of the play is, we may say, technical neatness. The other is, of course, metaphysical disorder. Thus the effect of the play may be expressed by describing it as having the tempo and intervals of a minuet worked out in a sequence of violent discords. For example: it is likely that the substitution of Mariana for Isabel in Angelo's bed is one of the elements in the plot which we owe to Shakespeare alone. The episode illustrates very clearly the double character of ingenuity and discordancy which I impute to the play as a whole. On the one hand it is expert comedy-plotting, a dramatic structure in itself intricate and mirroring other elements in the play, as for example the Friar-Duke-Lucio relationship I have just described. Isabel is a lady who has dedicated her virginity to God. She expresses herself as willing to give anything to save her brother's life. Angelo then turns the tables on her by asking for the one thing she feels she cannot give. In effect, the Duke's delegate strives to usurp the place of God in Isabel's life (for she is betrothed to God). But Angelo is (or was) betrothed to Mariana. Thus Isabel is able, by breaking faith with Angelo, to keep her faith with God. The venial sin of Mariana in sleeping with her betrothed formally echoes the venial sin of Claudio who slept with his and so began the whole chain of events. The stratagem of Isabel and the Duke mathematically cancels out the stratagem of Angelo, who is brought to commit the very crime for which he had sentenced Claudio. Angelo's attempt at usurpation is countered by another usurpation (Mariana's); and the double falsehood issues in a strange propriety. Thus we have a peripeteia within a peripeteia. What could be more elegant?
And yet, as we watch it happen, what could be more appalling? How can Isabel who so imperiously denounced her brother's action—"There is a vice that most I do abhor, / And most desire should meet the blow of justice . . ." (II.ii.29-30)—assent with such sprightly readiness to the suggestion that Mariana perform the self-same action—"The image of it gives me content already . . ." (III.i.260). Note that Shakespeare could, had he wished, have made this much more comfortable for us. He could easily have caused Isabel to argue from the first that Claudio in effect committed no sin with Juliet.5 This would have had the further consequence of making Isabel's duet with Lucio (in which they together try to divert the harsh purpose of Angelo) altogether more harmonious. But Shakespeare preferred to show us an Isabel forced by vicissitude into strange company, into what is almost an unholy alliance. Theoretically, she is really (as Mary Lascelles saw6) much closer to Angelo than to Lucio. Both are ethical precisionists. Both abhor the confusion of charity with indulgence, of licence with true mercy. Yet Isabel must plead against an insinuating counterpoint from Lucio which almost amounts to a parody of her argument. Certainly, the episode comes off more smoothly in Whetstone. But who prefers Whetstone's scene to Shakespeare's?7
That the play is full of ethical collisions, not to say inconsistencies, needs little labour to show. Isabel not only turns, in the words of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch,8 from a saint into a bare procuress; she also lets down the Christian historicist critic. Thus in her early clash with Angelo we are told that anyone who thinks Isabel ought to submit to Angelo is the victim of a modern prejudice; that it could never have occurred to an Elizabethan that there could be anything vicious in fidelity to a vow of chastity. What's supernatural is supernatural. What's natural is only natural. And then, when all our learning has been lavished in defence of her supernatural dedication, she marries the Duke. Of course, such a defence of the automatically over-riding status of Isabel's vows was always bad history of ideas.9 Raymond Southall has shown how the distinction between social and spiritual grace formed the material of open controversy in the sixteenth century—that is, if I have correctly understood the opening sections of his essay.10 J. W. Lever has an interesting quotation from Tyndale on the pride of Lucrece, "which pryde god more abhorreth than the whordome of any whor." More could be added from Erasmus.11 Indeed Lever has observed that the affirmation of specifically "natural"12 values is a commonplace of humanism. To bring the argument nearer home we might observe that in the source-stories both of Cinthio and Whetstone the Isabel-figure actually does the inconceivable thing; she yields, and yet remains the heroine. If a Shakespearean voice is wanted to show that people could think unfavourably of chastity, there is Parolles—"virginity is peevish, proud, idle, made of self-love . . ." (AWW,I.i.149). Or, if Parolles disgraces the witness box, it must be granted that the Duke, in the present play, distinguishes plainly enough between an introverted preoccupation with one's own virtue and an outward-turned beneficence in his words to Angelo at I.i.29:
Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
These are dangerous sentiments to leave lying about in the neighbourhood of Isabel.
Of course I am aware that answers can be made to all these points; and, in particular, that Isabel can readily be cleared of the charge of simple egoism. I can even agree with E. M. Pope that the dominant feeling of the time would endorse Isabel's refusal to yield to Angelo.14 I only submit that for a play as dense in texture as Measure for Measure to register a "dominant feeling" is not enough. We must be receptive to the presence of varying undermeanings. To assimilate the present scene to the basic tenets of the Elizabethan World Picture (which I begin to think was as real an entity as the Twentieth Century World Picture—imagine a critic three hundred years hence operating on, say, Muriel Spark, with that) is to empty the scene of stress. As it stands, the collision of values is immense. A crack runs rapidly across the scorched earth; the direct love of God is split from the love of neighbour. The two basic commands of the Gospels of which George Herbert wrote: "O dark instructions; eV'n as dark as day!"15 prove, after all, not wholly perspicuous. There once appeared an ecclesiastical cartoon which showed a little monk praying fervently while his superior angrily shouted "Are you going over my head?" Fabula docet. As soon as we learn how to enter into a direct relationship with God, our relationship with the world can be viewed as a distraction. As long as one's love of God is naturally discharged by love of one's neighbour, Isabel's dilemma is impossible. Only with the birth of the monastic ideal and of the notion that I can love God best if I withdraw from my neighbour's society, does it become possible. Only then can God and my neighbour become rivals. In Measure for Measure God has two rivals for the love of Isabel, one loved and one detested but who working together are almost dangerous—namely Claudio and Angelo. Certainly Isabel's situation is ill described as egoism under attack. She cannot forget her own honour for the sake of Claudio since she has pledged that honour to God. If the reader feels something preposterous in this high piled metaphysical structure—something reminiscent of, say, Graham Greene, I am inclined to agree with him. I fancy Shakespeare felt it too; after all, he created the ironic witness Lucio and even Isabel cannot keep it up. But the metaphysical terror, though wafer-thin, is real.
Isabel's marriage, then, is as inconsistent as her attitude to sexual intercourse between engaged persons. But this is of small importance compared with the Grand Inconsistency of the whole play—namely the inconsistency between the ethic of government and the ethic of refraining from judgement. But having named this conflict I propose to postpone its discussion. It may profitably be left to germinate for a while in the reader's consciousness.
I have suggested a discrepancy between the "technical" smartness of this play and its ideological discordancy. The application of this distinction to, say, the character of Angelo is straightforward. Its effect is greatly to weaken the force of the plain man's argument against him, already cited: "Angelo is the technical villain; therefore it makes good sense to hold that he is contemptible." Isabel is the technical heroine, but she is not permitted to survive unmarked. Perhaps a correlative dispensation is extended to Angelo.
To begin from what is generally accepted: we all know better than Hazlitt now. Angelo is not a common hypocrite. Isabel is at her very best when she says of him16
I partly think
A due sincerity govern'd his deeds
Till he did look on me.
The tone of this is subtle. It represents an effort of objectivity. It also expresses a kind of bewilderment. Isabel is finding that she has not really understood what happened, does not really understand Angelo. And indeed it is a question whether he is intelligible at all. His loneliness is so nearly complete.
His first words in the play—
Always obedient to your Grace's will,
I come to know your pleasure
—are perhaps faintly ridiculous. But the speech should be so delivered as to defeat an incipient risibility in the audience by its sheerly factual character. It is a part which should be played with a complete insensitivity to social overtones, and a complete attention to radical meaning. As the figure of Angelo moves before us we find a certain note struck again and again. It is the fundamental idea of the play—vicariousness—but in Angelo it finds its most intricate and powerful expression.
Angelo is, in the inherited story of the play, a deputy, the Duke's Vicar. But Shakespeare has extended this notion to color the very essence of Angelo. He is in himself a sort of surrogate human being. The Duke, gazing at Angelo on his first appearance, observes that the virtue of so excellent a man requires and merits public exercise. The sentiment is ordinary enough. But also present in the speech is the merest hint of a much more radical—indeed, a philosophical—idea, namely that virtue is essentially a matter of behaviour, that the man whose virtue is invisible cannot meaningfully be said to be virtuous at all. It is a speech I have already touched on:
Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, 'Twere all alike
As if we had them not.
The Arden editor notes that this passage echoes language used elsewhere by Shakespeare of procreation. It also recalls Ulysses' philosophical exhortation of Achilles (though the similarity is in thought and style rather than in vocabulary):
. . . no man is the lord of anything . . .
Till he communicate his parts to others;
Nor doth he of himself know them for ought
Till he behold them form'd in the applause
Where they'Re extended; who, like an arch reverberates
The voice again, or like a gate of steel
Fronting the sun, receives and renders back
His figure and his heat.
(Troilus and Cressida, III.iii.115-123)
Angelo is the man suggested by the philosophizing of Ulysses; in himself nothing, pure function (at ll.ii.39 he actually uses the word "function" of himself). The Duke forthwith appropriates his identity: "be thou at full ourself" (I.i.43). The purely instrumental status of Angelo is repeatedly brought to our notice:
Whether the tyranny be in his place,
Or in his eminence that fills it up,
I stagger in.
I have on Angelo impos'd the office.
How will you do to content this substitute . . . ?
Lord Angelo dukes it well in his absence.
Through all the proliferating substitutions of the play, Angelo remains (so to speak) the supreme vicar. Yet he has his own kind of solidity (and it is a moral kind).
Professor Coghill makes much17 of his refusal personally to sift the evidence in the case of Froth and Bum—
This will last out a night in Russia
When nights are longest there. I'Ll take my leave,
And leave you to the hearing of the cause;
Hoping you'Ll find good cause to whip them all.
It is, however, doubtful whether there is anything discreditable in the delegation of this tedious business to Escalus. Physical chastisement has acquired in modern times an added character of traumatic outrage and thus Angelo's parting words may shock a present-day audience where they would earn a sympathetic laugh in a Jacobean theatre. Nevertheless, the line retains a distinctly unpleasant force, which is principally located in the word "hoping." A certain relish of anticipation is implied. Perhaps we might say that this is the first faint sign in Angelo of the lust which will destroy him. But the real tenor of the speech is missed if we stop here. There is a further phrase in the line which, coming from the lips of Angelo, has the power to check and channel the suggestion of "hoping": I mean the phrase "good cause." At the very moment when Angelo's blood quickens, his grip tightens on the law. Although the tension of this speech is so gently hinted and so soon over, it is really present and foreshadows the later development of Angelo. Our dominant impression is still that of a hollow man, a sort of lay-figure. But as the play progresses we see that there persists in Angelo, even through the usurpation of his own soul by lust fully revealed and irresistible, a kind of integrity.
Which is more than can be said for the Duke. The Duke is a ruler who has let things slide. In order to restore good order in Vienna he appoints a substitute who will bear on his shoulders all the odium of renewed severity. This is the Grand Substitution of the play at the purely political level.
For this play is profoundly political. Roy Battenhouse described it (but without any consciousness of paradox) as "a Mirror for Magistrates founded on Christian love."18 We can now look a little more closely at the conflict I have already alluded to—the conflict between the ethic of government and the ethic of refraining from judgement.
Anyone who has read through Cintino's tale and Whetstone's two-part play can watch for himself the growth of a serious and rebarbative preoccupation with legal utility in the transplantation of this story from Italy to England.19 Mary Lascelles has noted how the law in Cinthio has the status of a purblind dotard guarding an orchard from children among whom it is a point of honour to rob the trees; whereas in Whetstone we find a Tudor reverence for law itself with criticism reserved for defects in its administration. It seems doubtful whether Whetstone realized what a formidably un-Christian ethical force he had released by honouring human law in such a context. Indeed, to men who were seriously concerned with the ordering of institutions, the revolutionary morality of Matthew, vii, Mark, iv, and Luke, vi (the Scriptural sources for the title of this play) presented grave difficulties. Elizabeth Marie Pope has brilliantly shown what sort of effect these passages had on the magisterial mind.20 For example she quotes Calvin and William Perkins to the effect that such Biblical texts should not lead a man to condone open and serious wrong. Attempts were made to resolve the difficulty by distinguishing between the actions of a private individual and the actions of the state. Private citizens may—indeed, should—be as Christian as possible, but judicial clemency is "limited in practice to considerations of ordinary common sense."21
But what then of the Prince, who, in his own person, is the State? Presumably he should not indulge a promiscuous clemency. Of course the Prince who condemns does so not in his own name but as the minister and vicar of God.22 This in a way reproduces the dual morality of those Scriptural passages which lie behind the title "Measure for Measure." For example, in the verses from Matthew, vii we are told to refrain from judgement, not because judgement must be transcended by love, but "that ye be not judged."23 In Mark, iv the over-riding context of divine retribution is even clearer. So the Prince qua man has no duty save to love and forgive his fellow creatures, but as God's substitute he must hunt out and punish the malefactor.
If we press hard on the argument, the ruler might appear to be metaphysically in a cleft stick. As the bloodless instrument of God's will he must perform actions which in a human creature count as sins; his office is eschatologically a millstone round his neck, for the obligation it confers is an obligation to sin.
There is, of course, a short way to resolve this difficulty. The only disquieting thing about it is that if we adopt it we come near to absolving Angelo of guilt in his treatment of Claudio. Thus we may point out that to say X does such and such a thing in the name of Y means that Y, not X, bears the responsibility for the action. Thus God, not the Prince, bears the responsibility for official executions. Now Angelo certainly condemns Claudio in the Duke's name. So whose is the responsibility now? It may be replied that this is sheer sophistry since the Duke never authorised Angelo to do that But is it? The Duke was fully aware of Angelo's character. Hence, indeed, his appointment as substitute. The Duke wants Angelo for the job just because he will condemn people like Claudio. And to condemn the Claudios of Vienna is not just politically imprudent; it is too dirty a job for the Duke's squeamish conscience. Would not this reformation of justice seem more dreadful in yourself than in a deputy? Asks Friar Thomas:
I do fear, too dreadful.
Sith 'Twas my fault to give the people scope,
'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them do: for we bid this be done,
When evil deeds have their permissive pass,
And not the punishment. Therefore indeed, my father,
I have on Angelo impos.'d the office;
Who may in th'Ambush of my name strike home,
And yet my nature never in the fight
To do in slander
There are two arguments here: the first is straight Machiavelli: delegate unpopular actions. We need not look far in The Prince for an analogue to the Duke of Vienna:
the province was a prey to robbery, assaults, and every kind of disorder. He [Cesare Borgia], therefore, judged it necessary to give them a good government in order to make them peaceful and obedient to his rule. For this purpose he appointed Messer Remirro de Orco, a cruel and able man, to whom he gave the fullest authority. This man, in a short time, was highly successful in rendering the country orderly and united, whereupon the duke, not deeming such excessive authority expedient, lest it should become hateful, appointed a civil court of justice in the centre of the province under an excellent president, to which each city appointed its own advocate. And as he knew that the harshness of the past had engendered some amount of hatred, in order to purge the minds of the people and to win them over completely, he resolved to show that if any cruelty had taken place it was not by his orders, but though the harsh disposition of his minister. And having found the opportunity he had him cut in half and placed one morning in the public square at Cesena with a piece of wood and bloodstained knife at his side. The ferocity of this spectacle caused the people both satisfaction and amazement.24
But to be sure, the Duke of Vienna pardoned Angelo.
Of course, to show that a character is Machiavellian is not ipso facto to prove him a villain.25 The idea that a ruler should delegate odious offices is Aristotelian and was referred to with approval by Erasmus26 before it was adopted by Machiavelli. Mario Praz has shown27 how Machiavellian principles were implicitly approved by Thomas More, Montaigne and Spenser. Mary Lascelles notes28 that the ideal governor in Elyot's The Image of Governaunce (1541) is allowed to use subterfuge to ensure a just outcome. There is a whole essay to be written round what might be called the "White Machiavel" in Shakespeare. Such an essay might begin from Sonnet 94 ("They that have power to hurt") and end in a discussion of the supreme White Machiavel, Prince Hal. W. H. Auden has already pointed out29 that one style is common to the soliloquies of Iago and Hal. Plainly, any writer with as strong an interest as Shakespeare's in government could not long escape seeing the bitter duties of a prince whose care for his people was more than sentimental. But have we a White Machiavel in Measure for Measure? I think perhaps we have, but the Duke is not he.
The good Machiavellian ruler, if we allow him to be saveable at all, is saved by his resolute dedication to a good end. No such powerful direction is discernible in the tergiversations of the Duke. Certainly, he preserves the luxury of a technically uncorrupted conscience; certainly he ensures that the laws are reinforced, even if he proceeds by his orgy of clemency at the close to undo all the good achieved. Note that we can approve his behaviour at the end of the play only at the cost of condemning his behaviour at its outset. A man can play football or cricket; but he cannot score goals with a cricket bat. At whichever end of the ethical spectrum you begin, you will never make a satisfactory hero of the Duke. I suspect that the essential frivolity of his nature really shows itself in the speech with which he ends I.iii—
Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with Envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows; or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone. Hence shall we see
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.
Is it too curious to detect in this speech a certain relish of anticipation? Is there not a slight shifting of ground from the opening scene in which the Duke professes his trust in, and grave respect for, the ascetic probity of Angelo? Is there not the merest shadow of a Lucio-like sneer at the chastity of Angelo? It is Lucio who echoes the Duke's language at Liv.57-58—"a man whose blood / Is very snowbroth." Again it is a matter of exclusive alternatives. If we welcome the mocking tone of these lines, then we must surely reject as priggish the grave eulogy at I.i.26-40. As Clifford Leech has observed,30 the Duke cannot both be testing a suspected nature and tightening up the administration of Vienna by the most reliable means to hand. But perhaps this is too dubious an instance to hang an entire interpretation on. A surer index is the Duke's unblushing readiness to hear confessions (and talk about them afterwards). The priestly disguise holds no embarrassment for him: "I have confess'd her, and I know her virtue" (V.i.524). The Duke in Measure for Measure is, at the political level, at best an off-white Machiavel, incongruously elevated to the position of Presiding Genius. At the metaphysical level he is, perhaps, mere Machiavel.
The bare mention of Machiavelli, however, raises the ethical question of ends and means. Ought we to perform an action in itself wicked in order that a greater good may come of it? This question is fundamental in Measure for Measure, and I fancy that in raising it I have reached the point at which I can no longer even hope for unanimity in the responses of readers. Christian opinion is itself divided on the point. On the one hand there is the tender-minded view, as expressed by the Thomist Jacques Maritain (writing on Machiavelli); moral conscience, he says "is never allowed to do evil for any good whatsoever."31 On the other hand Hilaire Belloc took up the tough-minded position when he defined sentimentality as the inability to see that the end justifies the means. I suppose most modern Englishmen implicitly assent to the proposition that the end justifies the means. Any clergyman, for example, who allows the possible existence of a just war thereby ranges himself with Belloc and against Maritain.32 The Elizabethans, with their fear of anarchy, were, I think, a little quicker to see this than we. Having assembled my apparatus I must set it to work. According to the terms elaborated we may find in Measure for Measure two fundamental ethical views, tender and tough, of which the first must be subdivided into two further sections. Let us label them Ia, Ib and 77.
Ia may be expressed as follows: No man who is not himself perfect has the right to judge a fellow creature. Man can only forgive and exercise charity. For example:
Go to your bosom,
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That's like my brother's fault. If it confess
A natural guiltiness, such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother's life.
Compare also II.ii.75f., IV.ii.81-83. Persons who hold to this opinion tend in practice to believe that the end cannot justify the means. The connection between these two notions is not immediately obvious. My own guess is that both stem from a powerful awareness of the supernatural authority of God and a correspondingly low estimate of man. To such a mind ethics tends to consist of a series of God-given imperatives. These imperatives cannot be appraised or placed in order of value by merely human intelligence. Ours not to reason why. This granted, man's right to ethical judgement is no greater than the child's right to judge the proficiency of his schoolfellow in, say, French prose composition. And to form projects involving the considered subjection of means to ends involves a similar assumption of Olympian authority. View Ia almost certainly lies behind the repulsion Escalus feels at Angelo's account of the law as a scarecrow, which if left unchanged will become the object of contempt (II.i.lf). Note that if we side with Escalus here we place ourselves in opposition to the Duke whose loving state-craft is very fairly represented by Angelo's words. But we are growing accustomed to these uncomfortable choices. Such then is ethic Ia; the high Christian variant of the tender view.
Ib is on the contrary, low and non-Christian, though still, of course, tender. It goes something like this: anybody without a bit of generous vice in him isn'T properly human. The sexual appetite is in itself good; it is of the heart, and heart is more than head. This has a very twentieth-century flavour but is certainly present in Measure for Measure—most obviously in the "low" dialogue of the play, though the implied collision of values is never so clearly expressed as by Escalus in his rueful comment on Angelo's austere judicial conduct:
Well, heaven forgive him; and forgive us all.
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.
The same ethical collision is asserted "from below," as the Arden editor noticed, in the comic misplacings of Elbow:
But precise villains they are, that I am sure
of, and void of all profanation in the
world, that good Christians ought to have.
To hammer the point home Escalus is here given a "Here's a wise fool" response. Isabel, after she has been battered down from her high Christian position, has recourse to the low-tender view: "'Tis set down so in heaV'n, but not in earth" (II.iv.50).
Ethic II, the tough-minded one, has much less power (it will be noticed at once) to give us warm feelings. To begin with, it is white Machiavellianism. Ends (in this fallen world) justify means; to resist this is to lapse into sentimentalism; of course none of us is perfect but of course we must judge; the man who is willing to abolish the police force in order to luxuriate in a private orgy of conscience is less merciful than the magistrate who administers the law in the interests of the community. This ethic is impersonalist, pragmatic and anti-sentimental. Above all it is the ethic of Angelo. Ethic II yields no passages of moving poetry, as e.g. Ib does, in Lucio's "blossoming time" speech at I.iv.40f. That, I suspect, may be part of the point. Its ugliness and inaccessibility are correlative with the ugliness and inaccessibility of Angelo himself. It is supported "from below" by the dramatist, but in a manner appropriate to its nature. All the scenes in which the corruption of Vienna is conveyed work on its behalf. For, observe, human sexuality in Measure for Measure has two faces, one fair and one (from which Professor Wilson Knight appears to have averted his eyes) very foul indeed. Anyone who thinks of this play as a simple celebration of the procreative processes should read through, say, III.ii.
Now concerning these rival ethics I should like to put what might well be thought an indecorous question. Which of them, as argument, cuts deepest? Wood cuts butter; so Isabel cuts through the simple monster of ferocity she takes Angelo to be. Steel resists wood, so the real Angelo meets and parries every ethical thrust Isabel can produce from all the warmth of her heart and her understanding. In order to obtain a fair hearing for Angelo I must ask the reader to consider the moral questions before him not as if they were in a romance (where we should all applaud indiscriminate clemency without a moment's compunction) but as if they were a part of real life. Measure for Measure deserves no less. Now, do we really think that because none of us is perfect so no one should judge—that is, in hard terms, there should be no law-courts, no penal system, no juries, no police? Certainly judges are imperfect, but equally certainly it is a job that someone has to do. Men of tender conscience may preserve their charity intact, but only so long as others are willing to tarnish theirs a little.
Angelo grants at once that those who judge are not themselves free from sin. This may mean that they lack, at the metaphysical level, a "right" to judge, but it certainly does not mean that they cannot, at the practical level, do it:
I not deny
The Jury passing on the prisoner's life
May in the sworn twelve have a thief, or two,
Guiltier than him they try. . . .
The naked intelligence of this transfixes the naive casuistry of the Duke's evasion of guilt at I.iii.36-40.
Of course Angelo is only half a man. He is, until invaded by terrible desire, pure intellect. But it may be salutary to remember how much less human beings can be, even than that. Angelo's lust is moved, strangely, and terrifyingly, by Isabel's virtue (II.ii.162, 168-70, 174-75, 180-84). It is as if he discovered that he was a pervert who could be stimulated only by manifest goodness in another person (note, once more, the conceptual audacity of Measure for Measure: those lines dispose finely of that slovenly abstractness of mind which defines love as a passion directed at the soul and lust as a passion directed at the body).
So Angelo falls. But notice how, as a dialectician, he is still in a manner secure. Nothing has happened to overthrow his original position. He had always been enough of a realist to know that among the jurors there might be one guiltier than the defendant. The conclusion is clear, and Angelo never shirks it. He is now himself properly the victim of the superhuman law.
For Angelo's view of the law is naturally impersonalist:
It is the law, not I, condemn your brother;
Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,
It should be thus with him.
This must always have been coldly shocking but perhaps a Jacobean audience would be quicker than we to think of Junius Brutus who condemned his own sons—to connect Christian sin with Roman virtue. Certainly the notion of an heroic suppression of humanity would be alien even then, but not perhaps entirely inaccessible.
The most invidious action of Angelo's is perhaps his going back on the promise to release Claudio. At this point in the play Angelo has descended into hell and it would plainly be absurd to defend its morality, yet a sort of consistency may persist even here. Consider it for a moment from the point of view of a white Machiavel. Remember that you are committed to the thesis that a strict administration of the law is in the best interests of the people, and that these interests have an overriding claim upon the conscience of the administrator. Suppose, then, the administrator finds himself drawn by a purely personal entanglement to remit the normal course of law—what ought he to do? Clearly, on such principles, he should disregard his personal commitment in deference to the general. He should pull himself together and exercise strict authority according to the law.
In fact however, the reason Angelo gives in his soliloquy is much less creditable than this. He says that he is afraid that Claudio, if allowed to live, may take vengeance on the ravisher of his sister. That at least is the most natural way (and, let us confess, the right way) to take this speech. Yet there is an awkwardness in the expression which seems to betray the presence of a contrary idea, struggling for admission. The line are these:
He should have liV'd;
Save that his riotous youth, with dangerous sense,
Might in the times to come have ta'en revenge
By so receiving a dishonoured life
With ransom of such shame.
The crucial word is "By." Read without any awareness of context, that "By" would most naturally be taken as following closely on "have ta'en revenge." The meaning of the whole sentence would then be: "He should have been allowed to live, except that, if he had, his youthfully riotous nature might subsequently have taken a kind of revenge on him, by accepting a life of dishonourable vice, since that life had been bought in so shameful a way." The sentiment would then be parallel to that of Angelo's earlier speech at II.ii. 101-105. It might be objected that such a reading places an odd interpretation on "receiving," but the objection could not be sustained for long. Compare for example, Twelfth Night, III..iv. 199-200, "I know his youth will most aptly receive it,—into a most hideous opinion" ox Henry VIII, II.iv. 168, "My conscience first receiV'd a tenderness." No, the real difficulty is that there is a much more probable interpretation—the one I have already stated—available. The only problem facing the orthodox interpreter is the word "By." This difficulty is not dispelled by citing instrumental uses of by such as "By this Lord Angelo perceives he's safe" (V.i.492). What is rather needed is a causative use of by. This, though very rare, appears to be possible Shakespearean English: for example:
Two Gentlemen of Verona, II.iv. 196-197
. . . the remembrance of my former love
Is by a newer object quite forgotten.
To show that a causative use of by is possible is, I think, to clinch the orthodox case. But to prove that an expression is possible is not to prove it normal. One can still legitimately feel that the sentence is oddly put together, that the thought is subject to a certain strain. It may be significant that by a trifling change of perspective a different, yet in one respect a consistent picture of Angelo's motivation emerges.
Whichever view is uppermost in Angelo's mind, his grip on it is uncertain. His next words betray unhappiness and bewilderment:
Would yet he had liV'd.
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right; we would and we would not.
Where, then, does this leave us? The judgement of the law must be imposed (all agree to that, except perhaps Lucio and his associates). To the question: Who shall impose the law since none of us is perfect? Angelo and the Duke return different answers. Angelo's answer is that men must sink their individuality in the law; that men must judge according to the law, and, when they err, submit to the same law; if it seems grotesque that a man should sit in judgement on other men, one should remember that the judge also is subject to the same rules. The Duke's answer is: Get someone else to do it.
This brings us back to the Duke's speech of explanation at I.iii.34f. I said that there were two arguments in this speech, the first being the Machiavellian thesis that unpopular actions should be delegated, according to the example of Cesare Borgia. The second argument I have yet to discuss. At first sight it looks more respectable.
Sith 'Twas my fault to give the people scope.
'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them do.
That is to say, it is not only imprudent for me to enforce the law personally, it would also be immoral; I should be a tyrant in so switching from indulgence to rigour. That this argument is slightly more poisonous than the other appears on a very little reflection. For the Duke is switching from indulgence to rigour. Such a process is hard on the more sentimental sort of conscience, and the Duke is struggling to keep his untroubled by wrapping it in a tissue of evasions. Angelo would say at once that if rigour is really what is required then no tyranny but rather benevolence is involved in its exercise (as he argues to Isabel at II.ii.101-105 105 that there is a more genuine mercy in the enforcement of the law than in its neglect). But the Duke's intelligence, unlike Angelo's, is cunning rather than comprehensive. Morals to him are not contextual. Every action is intrinsically good or bad. To release a prisoner is to be charitable. Actually to prosecute a prisoner is uncharitable. Such an atomistic view of morals rapidly breeds what might be called meta-ethical situations. Thus, it is uncharitable suddenly to change course and enforce the law (that is basic ethics) but somehow it seems as if that is what ought to be done (meta-ethics!). The contextual view of an Angelo, whereby ends justify means, instantly resolves this dilemma, of course. But which view does God incline to, the atomistic or the contextual? The thunderingly simple commands in the Gospels, urged with such power by Isabel, suggest that God is more than half an atomist, and, by implication, that the eschatological structure of the universe will reflect an atomistic ethic. In plain terms they suggest that a man who does not perform charitable actions (like releasing criminals)—for whatever reason—is a sinner, and may go to Hell.
It is, of course, a primitive ethic, but it is deeply embedded in the ritual comedy-story of the play. To perceive its presence is to learn that the Duke is not merely a political Machiavel; he is also (so to speak) a metaphysical one. The device which saves his reputation also preserves his soul. Certain kinds of practical virtue (being technical sins) are beneath the saintly charity of the Duke, so someone else must be found as a surrogate. This situation is exactly paralleled by Isabel's adoption of Mariana as her substitute.
The idea of substitution is paramount. One might map it with reference to two poles, Machiavelli in the south and Christ in the north. For, as Roy Battenhouse saw, the Grand Deception of the Atonement moves beneath the surface of the drama just as certainly as does the bloody subterfuge of Cesare Borgia. It is explicitly conveyed in some of the most moving words of the play:
Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once,
And he that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy.
If we contemplate the structure of the Atonement for a while, we may be willing to draw the last, and most terrifying, lesson from this play. Mankind lay groaning under a burden of sin, of which the wages are death. The Son of God took these sins away from us, bore them on his own shoulders, and by his death on the Cross, discharged our debt. Thus Christ, by taking our sins, was the supreme substitute.
Battenhouse, with some difficulty, sought to identify the God of the Atonement with the Duke. This can be done as long as we restrict our attention to God the Father—as long, that is, as we ignore the cardinal fact of substitution, which above all else connects Measure for Measure with the Atonement. Suppose we ask, who, in this play, most obviously corresponds to the figure of Christ? It is not surprising that this question has been avoided. The answer is both unthinkable and only too plain.
There is a story33 by Jorge Luis Borges about a certain theologian of the city of Lund who began by suggesting that Judas played the noblest part in the drama of the Crucifixion in that it was he who shouldered the necessary burden of sin—and ended by arguing that Judas was the real Christ. Readers who find this story just silly will probably be unwilling to follow me further. For I wish to suggest that the Doctrine of Atonement which underlies Measure for Measure is closer to that of Nils Runeberg of Lund than it is to that of Irenaeus or Anselm; that it is, in short, a critical version. After all, Shakespeare borrowed nothing which he did not change.
One element in the traditional doctrine which is obstinately unclear is the phrase "took upon his shoulders our sins." How could this be, since Christ was without sin? Of course one can deal with the phrase by saying that it simply means that Christ took upon his shoulders the consequences of our sins. But as soon as one substitutes this account one gets the feeling that something has been lost—that the central mystery of Christ's incarnation has been removed. If God really became man, if the crucifixion really involved the voluntary self-humiliation of God, then—we feel—"took upon his shoulders our sins" must bear a slightly stronger sense. But then we are confronted once more by the first difficulty. The good Christian cannot say that Christ became a sinner just like the rest of us. It is too much to require of God that he should deny his nature.34
Yet that is what is required of Angelo. In the atonement of Measure for Measure the implications of vicarious guilt are followed out to the very end. Angelo takes on his shoulders the necessary sins of human judgement. But in the morality of this comedy there is no such area of uncertainty as we found in the Christian doctrine of the Atonement. Angelo, unlike Christ, really sins. His hands do not remain clean.
Under the pressure of Shakespeare's genius the figure of the atoning sufferer begins to take on the lineaments of his anthropological ancestor, the scapegoat. Thus, while I must plead guilty to introducing the bete noire of present day criticism, the Christ-figure, yet Angelo is certainly a Christ-figure with a difference. For he is also a Devil-figure. We are now in a position to account for the strange resonance of Isabel's cry in the last scene—"You bid me seek redemption of the devil" (V.i.30). Angelo is at once a Redeemer and the polluted. Earlier in this essay I was forced to acknowledge (for what it was worth) that Angelo at the close of the play is forgiven by the Duke. At the civil level this must be seen as a mitigation of the Duke's Machiavellianism. But the Duke is also, as we have seen, a metaphysical Machiavel. And I am not sure that, at this level, his forgiveness of Angelo is not his finest stratagem. It had always been a necessary consequence of Angelo's view of law that that administrator should desire for himself, if found guilty, the same punishment he would impose on others:
When I that censure him do so offend,
Let mine own judgement pattern out'My death,
And nothing come in partial.
Angelo (how different, here, from Hazlitt's arch-hypocrite!) is absolutely consistent on this point when the crisis comes:
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.
Angelo's plea to cut short his own inquisition is no sort of evasion, for he knows that he is unmasked. In such circumstances he can scarcely hope that the knowledge of his crimes will be kept from the populace. His proposal is not a trial in camera but a full confession from the guilty party. Further, the paradoxical description of punishment as "grace" is not just a verbal flourish. It expresses a paradox in rebus.
I crave death more willingly than mercy;
'Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it.
Again, the word "deserving" is not mere rhetoric. Angelo is pleading for justice. The ending of Measure for Measure is really not very like the ending of The Winter's Tale or Cymbeline. For Angelo the Duke's indulgent benevolence does not confer felicity; rather, it perpetuates his anguish. Any producer who has Angelo leave the stage at the close of the play in a state of happy tranquillity simply does not know his business. The fact that Angelo's eye quicknes when Claudio is produced alive will bear another construction than that which the Duke places on it ("By this Lord Angelo perceives he's safe," line 492). If Angelo were preoccupied with his own safety he would have responded differently to Isabel's pleas on his behalf (441-75). The play leaves him in a state of torture, mitigated only by the fact that Claudio is not, after all, dead. The lines I quoted are the last Angelo is given. He longs to discharge his debt, to rest his burden. The Duke makes sure that he carries it to the end.
What, then, of the Duke? Just as Angelo is both Christ and Devil, so the Duke is both the Heavenly Father and supremely contemptible. Critics have joyously pounced on the lines which deify him:
. . . your Grace, like power divine,
Hath looked upon my passes.
and have forthwith become enmeshed in the difficulties which ensue. It is no part of my case that Angelo does nothing vile. On the contrary it is essential to it that he does. But I do want to say that the play gives him immense moral stature. Similarly with the Duke; I will not trouble to argue that he is not the hero, the presiding genius, the Prospero of the play. According to the Atonement structure I discern in it, he occupies the position of the Father. But I do want to say that he is utterly wanting in moral stature. Why else does Shakespeare repeatedly subject him to a kind of minor humiliation at the hands of the low persons of the play (see II.ii.89-92 and V.i.520-21)? Why else is he so utterly transcended (it is the only word) by Barnardine? Johnson's religious instinct was sure when he recoiled35 from that awful Ciceronian consolation which the Friar-Duke churns out over the head of the suffering Claudio. According to the Runebergian heresy God the Father is a very odd character.
The whole of this argument concerning Angelo has, of course, a limited scope. I have tried, in a manner, to "account for" the mysterious resonance of Angelo's character by showing that the evil he does has its place in a necessary scheme of redemption. But not all the evil Angelo does can be accounted for in this way. The theory is readily applicable to Angelo's sin of harsh and presumptuous judgement (in Professor Knight's view the cardinal sin of the play). It does not apply at all to Angelo's sin against Isabel. It was no necessary part of his duties as redeeming scapegoat to fall victim to lust (though certain psychologists might see it as one of the hazards of the job). That is why I have been unable to claim for my scheme any higher status than that of a "substructure." If I am asked what is the relation between substructure and superstructure in this play, my reply must be "ragged and uncertain."
I certainly do not wish to suggest that Angelo and I are of one mind on questions of morals. He is (forsooth!) too illiberal for me. Yet I prefer his belief in the essential benevolence of the law to such liberalism as the Duke purveys.
At the beginning of this essay I expressed dissatisfaction with those critics who make Measure for Measure sound like a naive morality play. I now find myself concerned lest, in my reaction, I have fallen into the far grosser error of making it sound like something by Bernard Shaw.36 Curiously, the charge of making it sound like Graham Greene frightens me far less. The ingenious structure of Machiavellian redemption, of substitution and atonement which I discern in this play is only an element in a larger whole. There is an exploratory reverence, a diffidence before the indefinitely recessive humanity of the persons of the play, which excludes all Shavian facility. Yet if the play has a fault it is perhaps a Shavian one. The vertiginous paradoxes with which the dramatist assaults his audience are achieved at some cost to reality. For example, we are led to suppose that the duties of government place man in a simple dilemma; either he must punish all, or he must forgive all. Some glimmerings of a third, less dramatic course appear in the person of Escalus but that is all. A great part of the tension of the play consists in the clash of theoretic absolutes.
Yet no play of Shakespeare is so moving in its assertion of concrete fact. The imminent death of Claudio and his fear entirely transcend the theoretic extravagance of Isabel. I am aware that in saying this I may offend some historicist critics who will tell me that to the Jacobean mind death was unreal compared with becoming a nun. I can only ask such readers to listen to the verse. The poetry given to Isabel works as hard for Claudio as it does for her:
The sense of death is most in apprehension;
And the poor beetle that we tread upon
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.
Let the historicist have his say: "Taken in their context, the lines clearly mean that even a giant feels at death no more pain than a beetle does." Of course. But is it pure accident that the common reader has always taken it to mean just the opposite?
1"Measure for Measure and the Gospels," in his The Wheel of Fire, the 1964 reprint of the 4th edition of 1949, p. 76.
2 All references to Measure for Measure are to the Arden Edition of J. W. Lever, 1965. All other Shakespearean references are to W. J. Craig's three volume Oxford Edition of 1911-12.
3 W. M. T. Dodds noticed this twenty years ago in an admirable, if one-sided, article, "The Character of Angelo in Measure for Measure," MLR, XLI (1946), 246-255.
4 Roy W. Battenhouse, "Measure for Measure and Christian Doctrine of the Atonement," PMLA, LXI (1946), 1029-1059; Nevill Coghill, "Comic Form in Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey, VIII (1955), 14-27; F. R. Leavis, "Measure for Measure, " in his The Common Pursuit (London, 1962), pp. 160-172.
5 So plead the Isabel-figures Epitia and Cassandra in the sources. See Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1958), II, 422, 452-453.
6 See her Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, 1953, p. 65.
7 One is tempted to answer here, "Professor Coghill does." At least, the part of Lucio was pruned away from II.ii. when he helped to produce the play for the BBC in 1955. See J. W. Lever's Arden Edition of Measure for Measure (London, 1965), p. lvii.
8 The New Cambridge Shakespeare Measure for Measure (London, 1961), p.xxx.
9 "Measure for Measure and the Protestant Ethic," Essays in Criticism, XI (1961), 10-33.
10 In his Arden Edition, pp. lxxx-lxxxi; J.C. Maxwell has argued that this quotation is irrelevant because Lucretia's situation is quite unlike Isabel's; see his "Measure for Measure, 'Vain Pity' and 'Compelled Sins,'" Essays in Criticism, XVI (1966), 253-255. Nevertheless, Tyndale's observation remains perfectly good evidence for the modest claim that chastity could, at this period, be regarded as springing from pride.
11 See for example "Courtship," "The Girl with no Interest in Marriage" and "The Repentant Girl" in The Colloquies of Erasmus, trans. CR. Thompson (Chicago, 1965), pp. 86-98, 99-111, 111-14.
12 Arden Edition, p. lxxiii.
13 Again, noted by Lever, ibid., p. lxxiii.
14 See her "The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey, II (1949), 66-82.
15 From "Divinitie," in The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford, 1941), pp. 134-135.
16 See Hazlitt's Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, first published in 1817, in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe after the edition of A. R. Waller and Arnold Glover (London, 1930), VI, 346.
17Op. cit., p. 19.
18 Battenhouse, op. cit., p. 1059.
19 Lascelles, op. cit., p. 59.
20 Pope, op. cit., pp. 68, 69.
21Ibid., p. 75.
22Ibid., p. 69.
23 The strong context of unmasking villainy together with.the presence of the injunction not to hide one's light under a bushel (possibly echoed in the Duke's speech to Angelo at I.i. 26f.) suggest that of the four Scriptural loci it may be Mark that was dominant in Shakespeare's mind at the time of writing Measure for Measure.
24 Machiavelli, The Prince, the translation by Luigi Ricci revised by E. R. P. Vincent (London, 1935), pp. 31-32.
25 Aristotle, Politics, v.11 (1315a).
26 Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince (first published 1516), trans. L.K. Born (New York, 1936), p. 210.
27 Mario Praz, "Machiavelli and the Elizabethans," Annual Italian Lecture of the British Academy, 1928, p. 10. The essay is reprinted in Proc. Brit. Acad., vol. XIII.
28 Lascelles, op cit., p. 100.
29 W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand (London, 1963), pp. 205-206.
30 "The Meaning of Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey, HI (1950), 66-73.
31 Jacques Maritain, "The End of Machiavellianism" [first published in The Review of Politics, IV (1942)] in Machiavelli: Cynic Patriot or Political Scientist?, ed. De Lamar Jensen (Boston, 1960), p. 93.
32 It may be objected that my account reduces Maritain's position to absurdity; that fighting Hitler would not count as doing evil for the sake of good since fighting Hitler is itself good. Of course it is perfectly possible to give an ethical description of an action with reference to its purposive context, but to do so is to reject any open consideration of the question of ends and means. As soon as we re-admit the distinction we shall see that such an objector (just because his ethical assessment of actions is conditioned by their ends) belongs with the tough-minded faction. And, naturally, to the tough-minded, Maritain's position is absurd.
33 "Three Versions of Judas," in his Ficciones (Buenos Aires, 1962), pp. 151-157. My attention was drawn to this story by my colleague Gabriel Josipovici.
34 The relevant passages in the New Testament do not make the matter any simpler: "Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses," Matthew, viii.17; "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree . . . ," 1 Peter, ii.24; "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin," 2 Corinthians,V.21. Augustine (Enchiridion, chap. XLI, in Migne's Patrologia Latina, vol. XL) raises the question whether there is adequate textual authority for the view that Christ sinned, and rejects it. Writing against the Manichaeans who shrank from the notion that Christ really died on the cross, Augustine stresses the element of curse, says that a curse is the fruit of sin but nowhere concedes that Christ actually sinned (Contra Faustum Manichaeum, XIV.4, in Migne, vol. XLIII). It was left to the more extravagant theologians of the Reformation to draw the most disturbing conclusions from this language; Luther, in his 1535 Lectures on Galatians, strenuously affirmed that Christ on the cross was the accursed of God, and guilty of all sins (III. 13; in Luther's Works, ed. J. Pelikan and W. A. Hauser [Saint Louis, Mo., 1963], XXVI, 287-290; in D. Martin Luthers Werke, [Weimar, 1883-1921], XL, 448-452). Calvin, likewise, is not content to say that Christ accepted our punishment, but wishes to add that, in a manner, he accepted our guilt: "This is our absolution, that the guilt, which made us obnoxious to punishment, is transferred to the person of the son of God," Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.xvi, in John Allen's translation (Philadelphia, 1935), I, 460. See also J. S. Whale, The Protestant Tradition (Cambridge, 1955), pp. 76-80. John Donne speaks as a good Anglican when he describes the Redemption as Christ's humiliation (The Sermons of John Donne, ed. E. M. Simpson and G. R. Potter [Berkeley, Cal., 1953], VI, 341.)
35 See Johnson's note on the lines; in the Augustan Reprint Society's Johnson's Notes to Shakespeare, ed. A. Sherbo, (Berkeley, Cal., 1956), p. 35.
36 Shaw's comments on the Atonement are, in fact, not wholly irrelevant. He held that Christ may have bewitched Judas into betraying him. See the Preface to Androcles and the Lion, in Prefaces by Bernard Shaw (London, 1934), p. 545.
Margaret Scott (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "'Our City's Institutions': Some Further Reflections on the Marriage Contract in Measure for Measure," in ELH, Vol. 49, No. 4, Winter, 1982, pp. 790-804.
[In the essay below, Scott discusses how the law against fornication is viewed and applied in Measure for Measure, demonstrating that throughout the play the audience is shown that the situation of Angelo and Mariana is greatly similar to that ofJulietta and Claudio. However, Scott maintains, both the Duke and Isabella fail to recognize these similarities.]
'Tis very pregnant
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take 'T
Because we see it; but what we do not see
We tread upon, and never think of it.
(II. i. 23-26)
It might seem that these lines, taken from their context, have done much to shape some recent critical approaches to Measure for Measure. There has been a widespread, if wistful, conviction that a jewel exists to be found, that a single shining solution to the long-canvassed problems of the play's interpretation lies ready for the taking. There has also been a marked anxiety that this jewel might be missed, trodden beneath layers of forgotton knowledge and decayed assumptions, and never thought of. No other of Shakespeare's plays has provoked more anxious fossicking among extrinsic and sometimes extraneous materials.
Predictably, the most common source of solutions, or, at least, of that which might be said to furnish "the problem of a problem play"1 has been the Bible.2 "To Shakespeare," Arthur C. Kirsch reminds us, "the Bible was not simply an eschatological document but a revelation of human as well as divine truths, and it is precisely the relationship between the two that Measure for Measure is about."3 Some commentators have passed beyond Matthew's rendering of the Sermon on the Mount or St. Paul's epistle to the Romans to a survey of contemporary religious doctrine.4 Features of Puritan thought, such as the Ramist "disjunctive syllogism"5 or the Calvinist championing of individual conscience against authority6 or, contrariwise, "Shakespeare's sympathy with Roman Catholic institutions"7 have all been presented as important keys to meaning.
The most recent full length study of the play, Darryl Gless's Measure for Measure, the Law, and the Convent, contains an exploration of an impressive array of materials belonging to "the play's immediate intellectual background." These range from the familiar biblical passages to the doctrinal writings of "leaders of each of the major divisions of Reformation Christianity" and the antimonastic satire of Chaucer and Jean de Meun. Together, it is claimed, such materials "provide solutions" to virtually all the "vexing questions" that have bedevilled the explication de texte.8 Many of the biblical and doctrinal sources which Gless examines are concerned with law, albeit in the broad sense of divine or natural law, and it is law which Gless sees as "the play's central subject."9 Accordingly, he extends hi s search for solutions into the area of commentary that treats of law in its earthly as well as its divine manifestations. And here, too, though he may range further afield than some of his predecessors, Gless begins his exploration by traversing some well-trodden ground. David L. Stevenson and Peter Alexander are among those who, like Gless, have sought illumination in James i' s Basilican Doron,10 while a number of critics have preceded Gless in his use of the work of the seventeenth-century jurist, Henry Swinburne, consistory judge in the ecclesiastical courts at York and author of the Treatise of Spousals (London, 1686).11
The frequency with which authorities such as Swinburne have been invoked is understandable. For one thing, it is tempting to discover an autobiographical connection between the two marriage contracts in the play and Shakespeare's own experience. Neither Claudio and Julietta nor Angelo and Mariana are married in the presence of a priest before Act V, yet Claudio in Act I speaks of Julietta as his wife, and the Duke assures Mariana that Angelo is her husband "on a pre-contract" (IV.i.72). The ambiguous ties uniting the two couples appear similar to that kind of hand-fast marriage which was widely accepted in Elizabethan England and which may have united Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway before they were married in church. In addition, Alfred H. Schouten points out the pertinency of the case history of Shakespeare's friend, William Russell, who contracted an informal marriage in 1603, shortly before Measure for Measure was written.12 Equally pertinent is the case of Shakespeare's aunt, Agnes Arden, who was recognised as the wife of Thomas Stringer for three months before her church wedding.13
But recourse to Swinburne and other authorities on Elizabethan matrimonial law is also prompted, I suspect, by the beguiling prospect of exactitude. In the midst of its ambiguities Measure for Measure raises what look like specific questions: Would an Elizabethan audience accept Claudio's assertion that Julietta is "fast my wife" (I.ii.150)? What would such an audience make of the Duke's claim that Angelo is Mariana's husband, or of his reference to "a pre-contract" (IV.i.72)? It seems that questions such as these can be readily decided by reference to a contemporary authority, or to a reputable legal history, or even to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It seems, too, that once such questions have been answered it is but a short step to deciding how "just" or "severe" Angelo's verdict on Claudio is meant to appear, and to seeing the Duke, who proposes the bed-trick, and Isabella, who accepts it, in their true colors. What D. P. Harding has called "the central problem"14 of the play—that is, the apparent inconsistency between Isabella's detestation of Claudio's "fornication" and her cheerful acceptance of Mariana's copulation with Angelo—seems within an ace of solution, and, in consequence, at least some of the doubts concerning the total coherence of Measure for Measure as a dramatic structure look very much as though they are to be laid to rest at last.
Unhappily, this apparently ready and easy way to the heart of the play's mysteries has proved to be full of pitfalls, and nothing of great value has emerged from the studies that have followed upon Harding's thoughtful appraisal of the way in which Isabella's attitudes to espoused couples might reflect the inconsistencies of Elizabethan England at large. Yet the nature of the perils involved in approaching Measure for Measure through an examination of Elizabethan marriage contracts is itself of some interest. This paper represents an attempt to identify the more obvious dangers of the method, and to indicate the importance of several features of the play and its background, which, in the widespread enthusiasm for English canon law, have been largely neglected.
The first and most obvious pitfall consists in forgetting that the law of the play is "story-book law."15 Angelo's "drowsy and neglected act" (I.ii.173) against fornication is kept deliberately vague in a way that, say, the Salic Law in Henry V is not. It is fictional law, the like of which has never been enacted in England, nor, so far as I know, in Vienna. It seems reasonable to assume, then, that other subsidiary legislation in the play, including that relating to marriage contracts, is also part of the texture of a world which is in some sense self-enclosed. If it is inapposite to break in upon the world of Shakespearean tragedy with questions about Lady Macbeth's children, then it is perhaps equally futile to inquire the precise form of words used by the betrothed couples before Measure for Measure begins. And Vincentio's Vienna is not even endowed with the limited realism of Macbeth's Scotland, but lies at a greater distance from actuality in the province of romance.
Even in his histories and in those tragedies based upon sources which his age regarded as historically sound, Shakespeare was not primarily concerned to construct a replica of actual events. As everyone knows, he tampered with his Holinshed when he made Prince Hal and Hotspur similar in age, and he never entertained the Jonsonian conviction that the superior status of tragedy depends on its rendering of the kind of truth that emerges from a scrupulous use of Plutarch and Livy.
Whatever the genre of Measure for Measure—"problem play," "dark comedy," "tragi-comedy" or "romance"—it is certainly neither a history nor a fullblown tragedy. It is based on Cinthio and Whetstone, rather than on Holinshed or Plutarch. It may deal seriously with the realities of human depravity and idealism, justice and mercy, or law and conscience, but these realities are not apprehended by a precise and detailed matching up of the characters' experience with either our own or that of the Elizabethan audience. Even where we respond with that intense personal involvement evoked by painfully recognizable feelings and probable or necessary events, the imagination is stimulated much more by expressions of fear or guilt or pride, which convince us that the characters' circumstances are real, than by any specific parallelism with a set of historically verifiable conditions. And, notoriously, of course, the responses which Measure for Measure evokes are variable ones. If part of the play demands the kind of sympathetic participation that characterizes reactions to tragedy, other parts seem to enforce an almost Brechtian detachment of the sort elicited by Prospero's dispensations on his magical island.
This is not the point at which to consider whether or not these different responses are effectively played off against each other or ultimately synthesized. My concern is simply to point out that, since Measure for Measure is not a history play, even of the rather unhistorical Shakespearean kind, it is unlikely to contain much detail which accords specifically with a given historical situation; that apprehension of its realities, tragic or otherwise, is unlikely to depend upon recognition of the kind of authenticity to which a Henry Swinburne can attest; and that, finally, since at least some part of the play is cast in the romantic mode, it is ill-advised to predicate any exact correspondence between Vincentio's world and our own.
Considerations such as these might have done something to temper the dogmatism with which it has been claimed that the characters of Measure for Measure react differently to the two marriage contracts because one is a de praesenti contract and the other de futuro.16 These terms are not, of course, used in the dialogue, but they are easily imported from the English ecclesiastical courts by any commentator who is prepared to assume "a one to one correspondence between the dramatic and social conflicts as if the former were mere wooden replicas of the other."17 Ernest Schanzer has been effectively criticized by J. Birje-Patel for making just such an assumption, but no one, apparently, has challenged Schanzer's conclusions by indicating a further set of considerations which, in their turn, might have lent a more tentative note to "The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure."
The law of Measure for Measure is not only story-book law, it is also, on the face of it, foreign, Roman Catholic law. Anyone dealing in "one to one correspondences between the dramatic and social conflicts" might be expected to recognize that Shakespeare goes to some trouble to make it clear that Vienna, if not much like the city of that name, is certainly not London. There is talk of "the Duke, with the other dukes" coming to "composition with the King of Hungary" (I.ii.1-2), and, much more important, a wealth of detail to remind us that this Vienna is a state still faithful to Rome. There is Isabella, about to enter the cloister; the sister of St. Clair with her exposition of votarists' vows; the friars Thomas and Peter; and the masquerade of the Duke, who not only assumes a friar's habit but also models his conduct so closely on that of a "true friar" that he hears Julietta's confession. One might imagine that the significance of this emphasis on allegiance to Rome would be clear to anyone engaged in a search for historical parallels with the play's law, but, rather oddly, not much account has been taken of the manner in which the Tridentine decree of 1563 had wrought major changes in the marriage law of Catholic nations and so had introduced important differences between this law and that of Protestant states.18
A number of those who have elected to examine the nature of the marriage contracts in Measure for Measure have pointed out that the canon law which was collected and codified in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries recognized the central principle that marriage requires nothing more than the free consent of the parties, expressed in any way sufficient to show their purpose. No banns, no public ceremony, no priest, no witnesses, and no specific form of words (provided they constituted present consent) were necessary to make the marriage valid and indissoluble. The church, of course, frowned upon such irregular unions. The parties rendered themselves liable to the spiritual penalties of penance, and might either be punished for failing to solemnize their union, or at least ordered to do so under threat of ecclasiastical censure. Yet, throughout Christendom, both church and state recognized "the consent of two parties expressed in words of present mutual acceptance" as "actual and legal marriage"19until the sweeping change effected by the Council of Trent. The Council passed a "Tamesti" decree (Sessio XXIV, cap. i, De Reformatione Matrimonii) which stated that whereas clandestine marriages had previously been held valid, though blameworthy, in future all would be deemed invalid unless they were celebrated before a priest and at least two witnesses. The Council, which was, of course, intended to secure the union of Christendom under the See of Rome, destroyed by its decree the uniformly accepted marriage law of Western Europe. The new restrictions were accepted in Roman Catholic states, but were not, of course, received by Protestant nations. In England recognition of the simple marriage of consent continued until Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753.
In a Catholic city after 1563, neither Claudio's union with Julietta nor Angelo's pre-contract with Mariana would have been accepted as valid marriage. If, by indicating the allegiance of his Vienna to Rome, Shakespeare intended to remind his audience of this, then all the debate about whether one couple or both had expressed present consent to marry or whether they had merely agreed to marry in the future becomes not simply injudicious but irrelevant. So, too, of course, do the more complicated arguments surrounding the effects of the consummation of the unions. In England it was held that sexual relations subsequent to a contract by verba de futuro automatically converted the contract into a present, indissoluble one. An English ecclesiastical court in 1604 would have accepted Claudio's claim that Julietta was his wife, though it would have condemned the marriage as blameworthy and irregular. The question of whether the pair had expressed present or future consent before getting into bed would have been set aside, provided that the court was satisfied that there had been some kind of definite agreement to marry. The case of Angelo and Mariana would probably have been viewed in the same way, since the pre-contract by which, according to the Duke, Angelo is Mariana's husband is followed by the night meeting in the garden-house. In the eyes of an English court Angelo's copulation, like Claudio's, would have made the precise nature of his pre-contract irrelevant. An error as to person might have provided Angelo with grounds for subsequent divorce, but would not, presumably, have changed his marital status, once he had known Mariana in the sexual sense.
The inadvisability of this kind of movement out of the play and into the courts would need no further demonstration if it were accepted that Shakespeare set the action of Measure for Measure in a Catholic Vienna in order to remind us that in states still loyal to Rome the hand-fast marriage was no longer valid. Of course, to assume at once that Shakespeare must have known about the Tridentine decree, or that he must have presupposed a knowledge of it in his audience—above all that he must have intended us to see his Vienna as akin to an actual Catholic state in law as well as religion—is to commit exactly the kind of error which has vitiated much of the discussion of the play's marriage contracts, and to fall headlong into the first pitfall that I have described as lying open for all those who insist on treating romantic fiction as historical fact. Yet it remains clear enough that the emphasis laid on Roman Catholicism in the play deserves at least some consideration before the inception of any attempt to solve the legal riddles by appeal to English law and Protestant practice. Moreover, while very little attention has been given to the suggestion that the transfigured marriage law of Catholic Europe is an element in the play's background, the idea has a certain force and merits exploration. If it does not solve all the problems with...
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Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Substitution in Measure for Measure," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3, Autumn, 1988, pp. 342-59.
[In the essay below, Leggatt stresses that not only is the use of substitutions pervasive in Measure for Measure, but that the substitutions are all problematic in that they fail to achieve the intended ends, or they are in some way unsatisfying. Leggatt concludes that the substitutions, although revealing, are incomplete.]
In the sources that Shakespeare used for Measure For Measure, the heroine gives her own body to the judge in order to save her brother. Shakespeare spares...
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Herbert Weil, Jr. (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Form and Contexts in Measure for Measure" in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 55-72.
[In the essay that follows, Weil studies the apparent discrepancies between the form of the first and second halves of Measure for Measure, arguing that Shakespeare 's design can be viewed as comprehensive only if the play 's falling action "is played in a light comic, often farcical, vein. " Weil maintains that Shakespeare parodies the melodrama of his sources and highlights the limitations of comic conventions, but at the same time "stretches them into new possibilities. "]
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Baines, Barbara J. "Assaying the Power of Chastity in Measure for Measure." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 30, No. 2 (Spring 1990) 283-301.
Argues that the in the play, chastity is clearly aligned with power and that Isabella's situation and "choice" represent cultural, societal values--not simply Isabella's own religious values.
Black, James. "The Unfolding of 'Measure for Measure'." Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973): 119-28.
Analyzes Shakespeare's use of the bed-trick and maintains that the playwright intended "to convey the sense that Mariana in sleeping with Angelo has done something...
(The entire section is 668 words.)