Spectator Seduction: Measure for Measure
Spectator Seduction: Measure for Measure
Louis Burkhardt, University of Colorado, Boulder
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
—Alexander Pope, "An Essay on Man"
More clearly than any other characters in the play, Angelo and Isabella discover themselves to be puppets of desire. They mediate "righteous" indignation to spectators. With less prominence, Claudio functions as a model-rival to these two characters, although he himself is conspicuously susceptible to models. While both Angelo and Isabella exhibit the full effects of passing judgment, Isabella's role makes the progression from judgment to doubling more perceptible. In addition, two of her speeches comment on the theme of mimetic bondage. While I do not examine the comic characters in this article, many of them, particularly Lucio, undergo mimetic oscillations similar to their graver counterparts. In contrast to these reluctant disciples, Duke Vincentio, who avoids unwanted models, is minimally imprisoned in psychological judgment. He functions rather to turn our attention to the play's spectators and their desires.
Angelo's response to Vienna's antifornication statute marks the undoing of a personality that thrives on overdifferentiating responses.14 What appears as a legal judgment unveils the reciprocity of a moral judgment. The statute Angelo enforces eventually governs him, unleashing forces that transform him from lifelong frigidity to newly awakened concupiscence. This degeneration reveals the underlying moral logic of the play. In his first soliloquy (2.2.162-87), he remarks that his chastity, up to meeting Isabella,...
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Perhaps of all Shakespeare's plays, Measure for Measure causes spectators, both present and past, male and female, to side most intensely with or against its characters. Most spectators have a vested interest in desires that are clustered around activities that begin life (sexuality), degenerate life (compromise and lying), renew life (forgiveness), and end life (death). Moreover, these desires are presented vividly through the characters' dialogue and soliloquies. Except for Duke Vincentio, these characters are not staging desire but instead are desperately struggling with desires, often against their wills and beyond their understanding. This lack of theatricality in the play makes the incarnation of its themes within its characters more insistent. The characters' struggles become ours.22
According to my thesis, the verbal and behavioral doubling that occurs among the characters is mirrored by the emotional doubling that occurs between the characters and Measure's spectators. Unfortunately, the most compelling evidence for "live" doubling is seldom documented, remaining available primarily to those who have led open discussions of the play among students.23 The most available source of evidence is the commentary of literary critics, who, especially through their unresisted asides, supply the most durable evidence of the play's effects. A secondary source, studies of live productions, offers only...
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As I argued in the introduction, Measure succeeds exactly where it fails: it catches spectators in a web of partisan character judgments. Referring to all drama, but particularly to Measure for Measure, Harriett Hawkins writes, "There are certain moments in the drama when most members of any audience—Christian or pagan, Elizabethan, modern, or, for that matter, Greek—are virtually forced to join the devil's party, perhaps without knowing it."32 If the devil is another name for the forces of mimetic desire as they shape humanity, then my analysis wholeheartedly supports Hawkins's description. The harsh commentaries on Angelo, Isabella, and Duke Vincentio indicate reactions in the critics that are similar to those represented by Angelo when, out of all Vienna, he arraigns Claudio. Such reactions are both defensible and precarious. All the above-cited critics mimic on a verbal level the dramatic characters that they oppose. No one is immune to interdividual doubling. Those who enter into character evaluation, no matter their theoretical underpinnings, reveal themselves more deeply than they would like to admit. And, of course, not every impassioned mental event is recorded, especially in post-Bradleyan criticism.
Critical engagement with fictitious characters is a specter that refuses to die in spite of our postmodernist condition.33 For example, Harold Bloom describes two comic characters as "the...
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The magisterial achievement of Measure for Measure is also its nemesis: it provokes intolerance. By mirroring virulent desires in its characters, it mediates similar desires to the offstage spectators (audiences and readers).1 Often, as soon as critics note the intolerance displayed by certain of the play's characters, the critics themselves become intolerant.2 This critical intolerance signals the influential role played by "desire": a category by which I refer to motivational impulses in humans, including forces of repulsion as well as attraction. Desire includes both erotic or binding emotions such as love, pity, and affection and violent or alienating emotions such as fear, hate, and disdain. While the play portrays sexual desire, it privileges intolerance as a dominant form of desire that is both represented in its action and reproduced by its performance. At times, characters and critics alike attempt to eliminate a surplus of desire through the selection of a victim, animate or inanimate. Far from purging spectators of desire according to the Aristotelian ideal, therefore, the play contaminates them with fear and, more often, pitilessness.
One especially useful framework for analyzing this affective power of Measure is provided by René Girard's work on mimesis. While Girard's hypothesis, which extends far beyond the concerns of this article, has been expounded in relation to Shakespeare, it...
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