Measure for Measure The Homoeroticism of Duke Vincentio: Some Feeling of the Sport
by William Shakespeare

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The Homoeroticism of Duke Vincentio: Some Feeling of the Sport

(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Homoeroticism of Duke Vincentio: "Some Feeling of the Sport"

Carolyn E. Brown, University of San Francisco

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure has been a source of critical contention for centuries. Rosalind Miles, for example, claims that the play "holds today an unassailable position as chief 'problem'" among Shakespeare's plays that have been labeled as such.1 David Lloyd Stevenson argues that part of the complexity and the discomfort of the play derives from Shakespeare's "forcing us to adjust to a level of apprehension of motives for human actions which lie far deeper than we are usually willing to go."2 While all of the protagonists are psychologically intricate, it is the enigmatic Duke Vincentio whose motives require and yet seem to defy the deepest probing and who, consequently, has contributed to earning Measure for Measure the unenviable designation as the most outstanding problem play of Shakespeare. Don D. Moore claims that Duke Vincentio is "probably the most controversial Duke in all of Shakespeare."3 His governmental decisions and administration of justice evoke critical debate and consternation. But what is equally disturbing for critics is his sexual nature and the sexual nuances of his actions, which have resisted critical explanation.

Although critics have long seen Measure for Measure as focusing on the relationship between mercy and justice in effective rule, the play has also been shown to be about sexuality. In fact, some critics argue that it is the predominant concern of the play. Marilyn French, for example, argues that "it is not just authority (justice) which is tried in Measure for Measure: it is sexuality itself that is on trial."4 Eric Partridge calls Measure for Measure, along with Othello, "Shakespeare's most sexual, most bawdy plays."5 Derek Traversi notes that the play shows a "preoccupation with the flesh"; Robert Rogers concurs by claiming that the play is "well stoked with libidinal fire."6

To help us probe the sexual motives of his psychologically complex protagonists—Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke—Shakespeare parallels them, creating what critics have called a "triumvirate," who share striking similarities.7 They can be evaluated by "measuring" one against the other. Angelo and the Duke, in fact, betray so many similarities that they have been viewed as doubles.8 All three, for example, live religiously austere, almost reclusive lives, devoted to cerebral and meditative pursuits; they find sexual vices abhorrent and believe the perpetrators of such "sins" should be subjected to the "blow of justice" (II.ii.30); and they attempt to suppress or "rebate and blunt" (I.iv.60) their fleshly desires until they are defunct.9 Yet despite the protagonists' dedication to sexual abstinence, the play focuses on the passions, one of the main themes being the impossibility of eradicating the libido. The play illustrates that it is "impossible to extirp [carnality] quite" (III.ii.98) and that "blood, thou art blood" (II.iv.15). Shakespeare creates a subtext in his protagonists, one in which they harbor an undeniable sexual nature beneath the saintly surface. Their unsuccessful repression creates an erotic undercurrent in the characters and a battle between virtuous intentions and sometimes unconscious lurid desires: the "so learned and so wise" "slip so grossly, both in the heat of blood / And lack of temper'd judgement afterward" (V.i.468, 470-71). Marvin Rosenberg describes the phenomenon as a "saintlike, angelic seeming that covers healthy, passionate, sometimes frightening mortal impulses."10 Angelo himself describes the conflict as "heaven [being] in my mouth" and "in my heart the strong and swelling evil / Of my conception" (II.iv.4, 6-7). The play, then, studies the incongruity between ideal and reality, between virtuous seeming and flawed humanity, as Shakespeare allows us to probe "what may man within him hide, / Though angel on the outward side" (III.ii.264-65).

The subtext of a disturbed sexuality that lies...

(The entire section is 14,597 words.)