Measure for Measure Infinite Space: Representation and Reformation in Measure for Measure
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

"Infinite Space": Representation and Reformation in Measure for Measure

Huston Diehl, University of Iowa

Measure for Measure is a deeply dissatisfying comedy, so problematic that, as Jean Howard argues, it "puts critics under stress."1 They typically respond by judging, finding fault with the play's structure, the Duke's elaborate manipulations, Isabella's ethical choices, Shakespeare's use of the bed-trick, and, especially, the final trial scene, with its exaggerated theatricality, its failure to effect any real reformation, and its unsettling subversion of the conventional comic ending.2 Identifying a pattern of failed, inadequate, and problematic substitutions in Measure for Measure, Alexander Leggatt, like many other critics, concludes that the play is flawed:

I am not saying that Shakespeare, in order to make a point about the imperfection of his art, deliberately wrote an imperfect play. .. . He seems, however, to have found Measure for Measure a harder struggle than most, and as he faced the gap between conception and embodiment, his imagination generated image after image of representations that are vivid but not quite adequate, and substitutions that are revealing and fascinating but incomplete.3

Taking Leggatt's disclaimer as my starting point, I want to examine Shakespeare's representational strategies in Measure for Measure, and the dissatisfaction they arouse, in order to make precisely the opposite claim. I will argue that Shakespeare deliberately calls attention to the imperfection of his art, and I will show how the inadequacy of the multiple substitutions is a crucial factor in Shakespeare's conception of his drama, producing—not undermining—the play's meaning as well as its peculiar power. What Leggatt attributes to a breakdown in the creative process—resulting in the proliferation of incomplete and inadequate substitutions and the contrived nature of the final revelations—are, I think, better understood as products of the playwright's experimentation with a Protestant aesthetic of the stage.

Shakespearean criticism has long been alert to the play's religious themes, biblical allusions, and theological subtexts. The references to the Sermon on the Mount and to St. Paul; the dramatization of the conflict between law and mercy; the association of the Duke with divine providence; the parodies of the Annunciation and the Last Judgment; the language of grace, ransom, and remedy; the appropriation of such religious genres as hagiography, parable, and contemplatio mortis: scholars have discussed these and many other theological aspects of Measure for Measure, though without arriving at any consensus about how Shakespeare employs this theological material or to what end.4 But to a surprising degree, scholars who focus on the play's religious dimension ignore the contested nature of religion in early modern England, preferring to speak of a universal Christianity in ways that obscure the controversies fracturing the Christian church during the Reformation.5 And critics who take issue with these attempts to read Measure for Measure in terms of Christian themes are much more likely to insist on the play's having a secular or even antireligious nature than to evaluate the historical assumptions about religion that inform such studies.6 Even those new historicists who use Measure for Measure as a key text in their studies of early modern English culture tend to treat religion as a conservative and stable orthodoxy in the service of the state and monarchy.7

But, of course, in post-Reformation England Christianity was in crisis, religious ideology unstable, and theological doctrines vigorously disputed. Even among English Protestants religious beliefs and practices were so much the subject of contentious debate that one of James's first acts as the king of England was to convene in January 1604 a conference of bishops and puritans at Hampton Court to try to resolve some of their long-standing differences and perhaps "to begin a further...

(The entire section is 10,742 words.)