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Measure for Measure

Sexuality sounds a complex and insistent note throughout this play about marriage, celibacy, ungoverned lust, and unsanctioned love, and this issue has influenced recent criticism of Measure for Measure. Modern commentators have examined the influence of Elizabethan and Jacobean thought regarding human sexuality on the play's structure and characterization, its treatment of power, justice, and mercy, and the reconciliation of opposites implicit in the play's title.

Ralph Berry (1976-77) describes the structure of Measure for Measure as split into two worlds: the illicit underworld which "exists for the free gratification of impulses controlled or suppressed elsewhere," and the overworld which "is founded on government, restraint, morality, shame … discipline." While articulating the play's "doctrine" or lesson of shared guilt and mercy, Ronald Berman (1967) contends that the "Letter of Paul to the Romans … illuminate[s] both the sensuality and the righteousness of the [play's] protagonists." Similarly, W. L. Godshalk (1970) remarks that such opposite forces as "mercy and justice, … chastity and sexual license" are at work in the play, and restates the title as "measure must oppose measure," asserting that these forces move toward a fragile balance in Act V when the characters realize that sexual desire, "one manifestation of human love," is a weakness shared by all of them, and that—in theory at least—marriage turns this weakness into strength by combining the chastity of monogamy with the fulfilled desire of the marriage bed. On the other hand, Mario DiGangi (1993) challenges this solution when he observes that marriage is simply male-dominated Vienna's attempt to control female sexuality by applying laws to female sexual desire and pregnancy. Marcia Riefer (1984) and Amy Lechter-Siegel (1992) share DiGangi's scepticism, arguing, in the first instance, that the play loses its status as a comedy and, in the second instance, that the Duke retains his absolute control of the state when he coerces Isabella into marriage rather than permitting her sexual autonomy or condoning her views on chastity and justice.

Sexuality is an important part of characterization in the play. Katharine Eisaman Maus (1995) offers a general discussion of how desire operates in the play as an influence on the characters' inward and outward lives. More specifically, Karl F. Zender (1994) argues that Isabella's initial views on chastity are "sado-masochistic," while David Thatcher (1995) sees Isabella's concept of "natural guiltiness" as valid and well-meant but not as justification for granting her brother clemency. With regard to the Duke's deputy, Angelo, Harry V. Jaffa (1981) asserts that Angelo is a strict but reasoning dispenser of the Duke's moral code who rebels "against the authority he has hitherto represented" once his lust for Isabella overtakes him.


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Ronald Berman (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Law," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1967, pp. 141-50.

[In the following essay, Berman reviews the representative criticism regarding Measure for Measure and applies Pauline doctrine to the central issues of this "problem" play: reality versus the ideal, justice versus mercy, and the difficulty of making a clear distinction between good and evil.]

Coleridge found Measure For Measure "painful … disgusting … horrible", ignoring Dr. Johnson's detached appreciation of Shakespeare's "knowledge of human nature". Mrs. Jameson's saccharine idealization of Isabella opened the way for the "melting tenderness" and "tremulous sensibility" of William Winter (The Wallet of Time) and other virginophiles. The reaction of the present century to Isabella was predictable: Charlton noted drily that the lady was a hussy (Shakespeare's Comedies ) and Quiller-Couch added in his New Cambridge edition that her chastity was "something rancid". When the criticism of Shakespeare became more thematic and symbolic it was...

(This entire section contains 7591 words.)

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found by G. W. Knight that the play was a reworking of the Gospels;1 Roy Battenhouse argued that it was a dramatic paradigm of the Atonement.2 In an essay of great penetration R. W. Chambers connected the view of human nature in this play to that of the romances. The world of Measure For Measure is, he noted, not evil but weak.3 In picking up once again the theological skein Miss Elizabeth Pope called for a survey of Renaissance moral doctrines, and interpreted the drama in the light of homilies, sermons, treatises, and codes of law. She concluded that the play opposed religious mercy to mere secular justice.4 Clifford Leech found in the play "a morality-framework, much incidental satire, a deep probing into the springs of action, a passionate sympathy with the unfortunate and hardpressed."5 Yet once more in "The Precise Angelo" D. J. McGinn asserted the theological motif. He claimed—wrongly I think—that the play sets off "Shakespeare's sympathy with Roman Catholic institutions" and his presumptive hostility to Calvinism.6 Nevill Coghill dispatched the conception that the play revealed Shakespeare's "despair" and returned to the seminal account of W. W. Lawrence (Shakespeare's Problem Comedies) in reminding the reader that the "onestringed fiddles of allegory" could not account for its complexity. He accounted with exactness for the joy of the play's ending.7 Finally, a debt of gratitude is owed to R. M. Smith, who refused to be cajoled out of the evident truth of that the play is in fact a comedy.8 Never did the idea of res ipsa loquitur prove to mean so little.

Measure For Measure has been well accounted for in its substance by Lawrence, Chambers, Miss Pope, Miss Lascelles (Shakespeare's Measure For Measure), Leech and Coghill—and by those unnamed others who have pointed out the complex workings of theme and character, ideal and earthly reality. I propose only that whatever "doctrine" there is in the play depends on certain Pauline ethical and psychological formulations. The Letter of Paul to the Romans does not "explain" this complex play, but it does illuminate both the sensuality and the righteousness of the protagonists. Romans does not furnish a scheme that simplifies; in fact it points to things unresolvable in the natural condition. In a sense that is its importance; it furnishes the "problem" of a problem play.

The "Quintessence and perfection" of the Bible needs no further description of its place in Elizabethan culture than that of William Haller:

Let us … fasten our attention upon the popular sermons and tracts which the preachers offered to the common public.… First of all, we muste, they urged the people to base their understanding of the word of God upon Paul's Epistle to the Romans. If one began one's study of scripture at that point, William Perkins advised, and then went to the gospel of John, one had the key to the whole. Thomas Draxe is still more specific and more eloquent. The Epistle to the Romans, he says, is like to nothing less than paradise itself … rather it is the tree of life in the midst of the garden.9

Appealed to universally by Anglican and Puritan the book was a source of more than moral or political doctrine. Its sense of human nature was central to the Elizabethan experience. It is psychologically the book of the Old Adam—the "offending Adam" whom Shakespeare envisioned "whipp'd" out of his eternal prince. It is preeminently the book which formulated for the Renaissance the great debate of soul and body.

Hardin Craig reminds us that Bacon thought of the "nature and condition of men" as "full of savage and unreclaimed desires". The man of the Renaissance was fallen man, whose nature was such that "when he would do good evil was present with him and sure to prevail" (The Enchanted Glass). F. P. Wilson's idea of Elizabethan and Jacobean begins with reason "overwhelmed" and knowledge "darkened" in human nature. But these general observations may be supplemented by a theologian's insight. Reinhold Niebuhr's essay on "Sin as Sensuality" is especially relevant. There he writes of Romans as the epitome of the Pauline-Augustinian theological tradition and as the natural source for Reformation moral psychology.10 The term "lust" used by Bacon—and by Sanderson, Burton, Shakespeare and others—he characterizes, in the general sense that Luther did, as the love of self expressed in the pursuit of sensuality. It reflects the primal sin of rebellion. In any estimate of Shakespeare's precise Angelo this is of central importance: the pursuit of Isabella involves for Angelo the rejection of God (certainly of godliness) and the service of the "cunning enemy" (II.iii.162 f.). It is important to recall that he does not love but only desires her. Sexual "lust" in Niebuhr's understanding of Reformation logic is the furthest "extension of selflove" because it rejects the being of the other, and asserts only the ego. There is another point of view which is expressed in the great Christian self-examinations: the "fire of lust" in Donne's fifth Holy Sonnet, like that of Augustine's Confessions, is the cause of having "worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator".11 In the light of the moral psychology of the Pauline tradition it might be suggested that Shakespeare's Vienna is a place of more than one kind of prostitution.

Shakespeare's Vienna is a more complicated place than first seems likely. In the most direct and important sense it is simply the dramatic world of the play. But it is also a place in which ideas encounter each other; it is a place in which a concept of human nature is given explicit form. And it should, I think, be interpreted within a historical context. In seriousness and in parody this city of Vienna is a paradigm of the Christian body politic. Its affairs put into dramatic form explicit issues raised by Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin among others. These center on the revelation in the sensual life of the unresolvable conflict between actuality and ideal. The historical ironies brought out are especially noteworthy. Pompey's cascuistry, for example, is both frivolous and historically meaningful:

Escal. How would you live, Pompey? by being a bawd? What do you think of the trade, Pompey? is it a lawful trade?

Pom. If the law would allow it, sir.

Escal. But the law will not allow it, Pompey; nor it shall not be allowed in Vienna.

Pom. Does your worship mean to geld and splay all youth of the city?

Escal. No, Pompey.

Pom. Truly, sir, in my poor opinion, they will to't then. If your worship will take order for the drabs and the knaves, you need not to fear the bawds.

Escal. There are pretty orders beginning, I can tell you: it is but heading and hanging.

Pom. If you head and hang all that offend that way but for ten year together, you'll be glad to give out a commission for more heads: if this law hold in Vienna ten year, I'll rent the fairest house in it after threepence a bay.12

It seems that the devil can quote scripture—or at least the Fathers of the Church. Sherwin Bailey notes that medieval theologians "found it difficult not to concede that the harlot was in some sense indispensable to the well-being of the body politic."13 He points to Augustine's De ordine: "What can be called more sordid, more void of modesty, more full of shame than prostitutes, brothels, and every other evil of this kind? Yet remove prostitutes from human affairs, and you will pollute all things with lust" (pp. 161-162). Aquinas refers to this passage, and in the Summa states that prostitution is "like the filth in the sea, or the sewer in a palace. Take away the sewer, and you will fill the palace with pollution; and likewise with the filth.… Take away prostitutes from the world, and you will fill it with sodomy."14 Luther is certainly closer to the discussion of Elizabethan morality—yet he too is forced to recapitulate the argument licitam turpitudinem. His Letters of Spiritual Counsel offer an elaborate analysis of sexual behavior vis àvis the political community. Throughout the "Counsel in Questions of Marriage and Sex" he asserts the horrors of prostitution: prostitutes are sent by the evil spirit to destroy men's morals by lust and their bodies by disease. But his furious declaration, "If I were a judge, I would have such venomous, syphilitic whores broken on the wheel and flayed …"15 was to be tempered by realism. For when the city of Halle, just four months after this was recorded, sent to Luther to ask whether the town bordellos should be closed, he reluctantly answered: "I still believe that for the present, until the gospel is more firmly rooted and the weeds are choked out, it is desirable to be patient with this matter. It may cause injury to the good if this evil is eradicated prematurely" (p. 294). I think it very much to the point to mention this here, and not merely because it is per se comical for morality to be parodied in the month of a bawd. What is important is the insight of these Christian thinkers into the very mixed human condition. They would exert the law only as dictated by their insight into the terrible impasse between that law, human and divine, and the will. And this, I think, is the central meaning of Measure For Measure, even when that meaning is supported by the lowly Pompey. Comedy has a variety of spokesmen of truth. The problem Shakespeare deals with is both symbolical and historical; he brings to bear on it not the legal but Pauline solution. "My stuff is flesh, not brass", George Herbert wrote, "my senses live." Lucio puts the matter in more pragmatic terms: "The vice is of a great kindered; it is well allied: but it is impossible to extirp it quite, friar, till eating and drinking be put down."

When Pompey turns from procurer to gaoler he says "I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession." Rash, Caper, Dizy, Deep-Vow, Copper-Spur, Starve-lackey, "Drop-heir that killed lusty Pudding", Forthright, Shoe-tie, "wild Half-can that stabbed Pots" form the human milieu of the drama. They and forty more, Pompey says, are "all great doers in our trade." We apprehend in them, in Mistress Overdone, Pompey himself, and Barnardine a picture (however parodic) of those given up "in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies". Pauline thought furnishes at the same time a condemnation and, unavoidably, at least an intellectual sanction for their behavior. Paul's trenchant statement "the law is spiritual; but I am carnal" has comical as well as tragical possibilities—Falstaff, at least, has been heard to paraphrase this before. This furnishes not only the doctrine of the play but its dramatic principle. It operates most seriously in the awakening of Angelo first to sin and then to repentance.

The short and rapid first act presents Lucio, the gentlemen of the Court, Mistress Overdone, Pompey, and Claudio. These form the world to be overshadowed by Angelo. It is a weak and sensual world, but a world, as Lucio says, in which "Grace is grace, despite of all controversy." If we were to make a moral register of this world we would find on the debit side that the events are immoral and the sentiments indecent. Its protagonists speak of syphilis as an acceptable part of the human condition and of prostitution as the ultimate nexus between human beings. They fail apparently to understand the nature of love, of trust, and certainly of legality. But they have a sense of proportion in things legal and sometimes even in things moral. Most important, they have an extraordinary insight into their own nature and human nature in general. It is an insight stripped of illusion and sanctimoniousness. They know of the "sanctimonious pirate" and the Ten Commandments; they know of the dark relationship of dukes and kings; they know that they are levelled and united by the sensual disease; they know that, come reform or not, "good counsellors lack no clients", a change of place need not imply a change of heart; they know that Authority, like the will of God (Romans ix:15-18) can

Make us pay down for our offence by weight The words of heaven; on whom it will, it will; On whom it will not, so; yet still 'tis just.

They know—and this is of great importance—that human nature is weak and that the devil is in the flesh:

                   Our natures do pursue, Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die.

They know that "for a name" the new power may fill the state with either tyranny or eminence. They know that "dialect" and "art" move men when innocence or guilt will not. In short what they know, while not admirable, is not to be despised: they are wise while corrupt and tolerant in the disposition of judgment.

The play only gives the appearance of being made up of antitheses. We are constantly tempted to find in these structural expedients moral meanings. Angelo, or Lust, is contrasted to Isabella, or Purity. Our triumphant choice of Isabella avoids, however, the thorny issue of her personality. Pride, after all, is a sin no less than lust. The Duke, or Rule, is opposed to Pompey, or Misrule. We find, to our satisfaction, that the Duke is morally superior. But we find to our consternation that Pompey is a good deal more honest. Critics have never really been able to make a case for absolute oppositions in this play, whether they conceive of it as being structured in terms of man against woman, letter against spirit, or evil against good. That is why it is important to see, for example, that in any "dialectic" in Measure For Measure Claudio and Lucio do not represent simply sensuality, and that Angelo does not represent simply the unpleasant literalness of secular law. Even before our conception of Claudio is broadened by our discovery of his imagination and before our conception of Angelo is fixed by our discovery of his fraudulence, we find that they bring out complex moral and psychological ideas. Claudio, for all his weakness, is aware of something that has eluded Angelo all his life: he knows that men are by nature corrupt. Angelo is not simply a combination of lecher, hypocrite, and hanging judge; before being any of these he has been a more serious offender against Reformation ethics. He has imputed to himself freedom from sin. The first two acts of Measure For Measure show the extent of Angelo's lapse into righteousness.

Herbert knew that he was flesh, not brass, and this knowledge was the first step toward his salvation. But Angelo, who is "precise",

               scarce confesses That his blood flows, or that his appetite Is more to bread than stone.

Lucio, who is enlightened in the sense that he understands his own corruption, surmises that Angelo is

                 one who never feels The wanton stings and motions of the sense But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge.…

These are not praises but accusations. The pride of Angelo, brought out with great effect in the following scenes (II.i.ii) consists of his denial of his participation in the "nature and condition of men". It is ironic in the extreme that the man who denies sin will be driven to use the metaphors of "temptation" and "fall" to understand himself.

In Romans vi Paul says with great force, "I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations." This is central to his vision of man, a vision which involves a constant internal battle. The service of God is no easy one for the Pauline mind; he sees man as "captive to the law of sin" even while he delights in the law of God. Self-examination is his advice, not self-praise. For the literalist he has special contempt: virtue is a "matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal". How, we may ask, does Angelo stand revealed in the light of Pauline thought, which stops not at law but reaches to nature? He begins his course of justice by asserting the letter of the law: the only alternatives he sees are that law must be either a dupe or terror of the commonwealth. Escalus puts the case in terms of the universal limitations of nature, a concept repeated throughout the play:

       Let but your honour know, Whom I believe to be most strait in virtue, That, in the working of your own affections, Had time cohered with place or place with   wishing, Or that the resolute acting of your blood Could have attain'd the effect of your own   purpose, Whether you had not sometime in your life Err'd in this point which now you censure him, And pull'd the law upon you.

But Angelo's response reveals his incredible pride in being outside of frailty:

'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, Another thing to fall.

It is with considerable irony that he is made to say,

When I, that censure him, do so offend, Let mine own judgement pattern out my   death.

We are meant to consider the idea of guilt, which is of course not only a matter of law. And we are meant to anticipate also the problem of judgment itself: "Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself." Escalus says "forgive us all!" at the close of this judgment: it is a plea that Angelo finds inapplicable to himself. Yet we ought never to lose sight of the comic implications; immediately after this Angelo is confronted by Froth and Pompey, who are described as "precise villains" because they are "void of all profanation in the world that good Christians ought to have." Elbow, like Dogberry, speaks better than he knows.

It will not, I hope, be thought tendentious if I propose that when Isabella faces Angelo we can see at its clearest the Pauline morality of the play. The law that Paul denigrates is the foundation of Angelo's moral sense. Isabella opens by rephrasing the statement "blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven". But Angelo cannot conceive of life without logic, and he asks the fatal question, "condemn the fault, and not the actor of it?" The dialectic of love and law has rarely been so clearly and antagonistically presented. When Paul Tillich discussed the influence of Paul in The Protestant Era he found the Christian ethic explicable only in the sense that "love is above law". The reason, he notes, "for the extremely profound struggle of Paul and Luther against the "Law" and for their insistence on the mortifying consequences of the law and the vivifying power of love" is that law depends eventually on ideology and thus on power. We must never lose track of the word "will" used so often by both Angelo and Isabella, for it shows us that this finally determines the concept of "law". The guilt of Angelo then is more complex than appears: the "law" exists only as he interprets it.

When Isabella invokes the mercy which, in the gospels and in Romans plays so large a part in the nature of God, she reinforces her plea twice with specific Pauline allusions:

If he had been as you and you as he, You would have slipt like him.

                              Alas, alas! Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once; And He that might the vantage best have took Found out the remedy. How would you be, If He, which is the top of judgement, should But judge you as you are?

The words of Paul to those who pass judgment are many and explicit. One of his statements seems to be quite directly involved here: "Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?" Isabella's plea that Angelo be "like man new made" is itself part of the burden of Paul's plea for "renewal" and "transformation". The mercy she begs for is a gift—for "all the souls that were were forfeit once" before the law. And the meaning of Paul is manifested "apart from law", for "all have sinned", and are justified only by "grace as a gift". For the third and last time she offers Angelo the question of Paul:

                          Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth   know That's like my brother's fault.

With this last formulation he finds unwilling enlightenment. The Fall is reenacted in his discovery that the "sense breeds" with "temptation". The rhetoric of temptation and fall with which the scene ends indicates his Fall into the human condition. "Like man new made" he has been offered salvation—but it is like the Old Adam that he perversely obtains tragic knowledge. In this paradigm of the Fall the "cunning enemy" whose existence he cannot doubt has captured his will, and brought him to a new sense of what he is. Augustine's On Marriage and Concupiscence connects the sexuality of the Fall to a new sense of revelation of the self to the self: "When the first man transgressed the law of God, he began to have another law in his members which was repugnant to his mind; then he felt evil of disobedience when he experienced in the rebellion of his own flesh a most righteous retribution recoiling on himself. For it certainly was not just and right that obedience should be rendered by his servant, that is, his body, to him who had not obeyed his own Lord and Master." His subject, it is clear, is Romans vii: 13-24, which, it seems to me, is also the subject of the confrontation of Angelo with Isabella.

The first confrontation began with the words "law" and "will" on his lips; it ended in a rhetoric of another kind with the image of carrion rotting in the sun. When they meet again we see the change in Angelo revealed in the sensual power—and ugliness—of his new rhetoric. His prayers now seem to be "empty words" but his passions are apprehended by him in sensual, concrete terms:

         … Heaven in my mouth, As if I did but only chew his name; And in my heart the strong and swelling evil Of my conception.

He knows now the burden of which Shakespeare wrote elsewhere:

             … lust Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame, Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust, Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight, Past reason hunted, and no sooner had Past reason hated.

He knows now the difference between "form" and "blood". When he says "Blood, thou art blood" he acknowledges his nature—although for the purpose of allowing it the "sweet uncleanness" which obsesses him. His remarkable lines,

       I have begun, And now I give my sensual race the rein: Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite …

Indicate not that he acts by will now, but that he is acted on by it. This is the yielding by consent, of which Paul speaks, of the "members to sin as instruments of wickedness". From being one of Paul's "slaves of righteousness" Angelo has become the slave of "sharp appetite". It is interesting to note that he speaks to Isabella in terms of "yielding up thy body to my will". The Elizabethan reader of Romans vi: 12 would apprehend the irony.

The third and fourth acts have their own riches, but they do not have very much of Angelo. The "doctrine" of the play is, as is quite proper, left behind for a time as the play concerns itself with the encounters of the Duke and his subjects. In these events there are discoveries of a different sort; yet the inner man is still revealed, sometimes remorselessly, sometimes comically. So, by the way, is the inner woman. In this very mixed human condition a bawd can speak truth, a virgin rejects lust for pride, and the power of virtue is asserted by the act of nature. Each protagonist faces a different idea of the law, which offers to him mutually impossible alternatives. Honor and life are opposed, honesty and deception are united. Through the eyes of Pompey and Lucio life is made to appear as a succession of inexorable fatalities. The logic of Lucio is to find in acceptance the answer to nature; his function is to parody Christian toleration. Thus the disease of Mistress Overdone (a disease which is omnipresent, both materially and symbolically in this play) leads him to say with mock piety,

Why, 'tis good; it is the right of it; it must be so: ever your fresh whore and your powdered bawd: an unshunned consequence; it must be so.

The imprisonment of Pompey elicits

Well, then, imprison him: if imprisonment be the due of a bawd, why, 'tis his right. &

In him law reaches a fatal reduction—not to charity, but to indifference. Barnardine serves this purpose as well: he carries the moral indifference of Lucio to the point of moral stultification. "Insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal", Barnardine has already suffered a kind of death. He, Angelo, and Lucio are more alike than may first appear: their sensual corruption leads to what Luther called "corruption of the heart". Considered in more cold and analytic terms, all three have evaded the responsibility of the Christian self. They have done so in varying degrees, their lapses are viewed sometimes in the light of tragedy and sometimes in that of comedy—but they have not been moved by either conscience or love. Romans, like Measure For Measure, is profoundly concerned with awakening a sense of consciousness in man. Without this sense of identity it is possible eventually to sink to the level of a Barnardine, who is both literally and symbolically insensible. The importance of the play's last scene lies in its description of Angelo's escape from this brutalized state.

The last scene has already been well studied, and I do not wish to put this scene or any other part of the play into a Procrustean bed of interpretation, so that I close by simply noting some of its themes. As to its complexity: this seems to be intentional, giving scope to the issues of affairs that are themselves hopelessly complex. Certain things are left unresolved because to resolve them would be to reduce the scene from drama to mythology. The ending, I would say, is qualifiedly happy. It is important to be left with some doubts, to see, for example, Lucio and Barnardine presumably unredeemed: that is the way of human nature. The Duke is devious because he is not a "god-figure" but a man, and men cannot always choose their means. The note of irony is prominent because life, in the sense of this play, is itself ironic. The scene begins with the Duke stating ambiguously that Angelo's "justice" will bring "requital", and that his "desert" is secure from oblivion. With the accusation of Isabella the victim now invokes the law, and "justice, justice, justice, justice" rings in the ears of the judge. When she says that she seeks "redemption of the devil" there is perhaps more literal truth revealed than intended. Her accusation of Angelo transposes in some detail Paul's accusation of the false judges in Romans ii:21-23. Adultery, theft, and hypocrisy furnish the rhetoric of both attacks; both are directed toward those who presume that they are above the human condition. It is no use conducting a detailed exegesis of this scene and hoping to find in it an absolute paraphrase of Paul. But I suggest that the underlying doctrinal seriousness and the force of its allusions prevent this scene from being merely the unmasking of an Elizabethan Tartuffe. Its accomplishments are manifold. In it we see the revelation not only of guilt, but the vital Pauline revelation of the self to the self. Angelo acknowledges, in a different sense than he ever first intended, that blood is blood:

I should be guiltier than my guiltiness, To think I can be undiscernible.…

It is the answer to the query of Paul in Romans ii to those who were righteous in the law alone. When Isabella cries "let him not die", the dialectic of guilt and justice turns suddenly into that of guilt and mercy. She vanquishes not only justice, but pride, giving "as a gift" the "acquittal and life" described in Paul's basic and continual metaphor of law.


1 G. W. Knight, "Measure For Measure and the Gospels", The Wheel of Fire (London, 1930), pp. 73-96.

2 R. W. Battenhouse, "Measure For Measure and the Christian Doctrine of Atonement" PMLA, LXI (1946), 1029-59.

3 R. W. Chambers, Man's Unconquerable Mind (London, 1939), pp. 277-310.

4 E. M. Pope, "The Renaissance Background of Measure For Measure", Shakespeare Survey 2 (1949), pp. 66-82.

5 Clifford Leech, "The 'Meaning' of Measure For Measure", Shakespeare Survey 3 (1950), pp. 66-73.

6 D. J. McGinn, "The Precise Angelo", Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies (Washington, 1948), pp. 129-140.

7 Nevill Coghill, "Comic From in Measure For Measure", Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955), pp. 14-27.

8 R. M. Smith, "Interpretations of Measure For Measure," Shakespeare Quarterly, I (October 1950), 208-218.

9 William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (New York, 1957), pp. 86-87.

10 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York, 1955), I, 228-240 passim.

11 This and further quotations from Romans from the Revised Standard Version.

12 This and further quotations from Shakespeare from the Hardin Craig edition of the Works (1951).

13 D. Sherwin Bailey, The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Thought (London, 1959), p. 161.

14 Quoted by Bailey, pp. 161-162. See pp. 161-231 passim for detailed discussion of Medieval and Reformation doctrines on the sexual relationship as it affects the individual and the community.

15 Martin Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel, ed. T. Tappert (Philadelphia, 1955), p. 293.

Alvin Kernan (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The King's Prerogative and the Law," in Shakespeare, the King's Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613, Yale University Press, 1995, pp. 50-70.

[In the following excerpt, Kernan discusses aspects of Measure for Measure that Shakespeare may have specifically crafted in order to address a principle concern of his theater troupe's new patron, King James I: the relation of the monarch to the law of the land.]

Modern audiences have found Measure for Measure a difficult, complex play, and it has long been known as one of Shakespeare's "dark comedies," or one of his "problem plays." Interpretation has been busy over the years, and the lenient Duke who turns the enforcement of the laws over to "the prenzie Angelo" has been said to figure everything from God leaving humans the freedom to work out their own salvation, to the Freudian ego—the scene is Vienna—withdrawing from the psychic conflict and leaving the id (the sexual instincts that are so pronounced in Vienna) and the superego (the puritanical Angelo) to confront each other directly, as they do in analysis. But whatever modern ingenuity has found in the play, on the night after Christmas at Whitehall in 1604 it must have seemed to most of the audience a witty, fast-paced, and bawdy comedy, a romp almost, with lots of good low-humor scenes in brothel and jail, a wonderful malapropistic clown—"Peter Elbow and it please your honor"—a clever intrigue plot, and such sophisticated moral puzzles as whether the heroine's maidenhead was of greater value than her brother's life.

Shakespeare, as usual, had borrowed and improved his story of a lenient duke, who, finding it impossible to enforce the laws, has turned his authority over to his deputy, the puritanical Angelo, and his assistant, the elderly Escalus, and left the city. Angelo, a man so cold he was said to urinate ice water, condemns Claudio to death for getting his fiancée, Juliet, with child, but he is smitten with Claudio's sister, the virginal Isabella, and offers her her brother's life in return for sex. Isabella refuses and Claudio's death seems certain, when the duke reenters in disguise and arranges for the lady of the fascinating name, Mariana of the Moated Grange, who had once opened her chaste treasure to Angelo only to be abandoned by him, to substitute for Isabella in the darkness. The "bed trick" deceives Angelo, but he reneges on his word and requires Claudio's head sent to him instantly. The duke, however, arranges for the head of a pirate who has opportunely died that day to be substituted for Claudio's, and then resumes his old identity. In a big final scene he reveals the truth, punishes the wicked, and plights in marriage everyone in sight, including himself to the frigid Isabella.

While writing, at Prince Henry's command, his History of the World in the Tower, Raleigh observed that "whosoever, in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth" (Works, II, lxiii). The players knew the force of this remark only too well from their recent experience with Gowrie, where they had learned the hard way what James had earlier made emphatically clear in print: it was out of bounds to represent directly onstage a living monarch or his undisguised interests. But it was possible to get at these matters obliquely, and this they immediately proceeded to do in Measure for Measure, where they opened up onstage the primary concern of their royal patron at that moment, the relation of the ruler to the law.

Duke Vincentio of Vienna was not King James I of Great Britain, but everyone in the original audience would have noticed that they shared a number of personality traits, problems with the law, and ways of transcending the law to achieve justice. Most personally, both disliked the crowds who pressed around great ones and pulled at their persons and clothing on public occasions. James made no bones about his feelings on this matter, perhaps because of his terror of assassination, as well as of the endemic plague, and there had been a bad scene during the procession through London the previous spring in which the King's Men had marched. When his councillors urged the necessity of, if not "pressing the flesh" like a modern politician, at least showing himself to his people, James exclaimed furiously that he would pull down his breeches and show his arse to the throngs that were pressing for a glimpse of him. His phobia worsening, James would in later life issue a proclamation expressing "our high displeasure and offence at the bold and barbarous insolency of multitudes of vulgar people" (Law, II, 61). Duke Vincentio is not so vehement, but he takes care when giving his city over to the governance of Angelo to remark that

                       I love the people, But do not like to stage me to their eyes; Though it do well, I do not relish well Their loud applause and aves vehement.                                      (1.1.67)

His concern is stated even more tactfully a few scenes later where we hear of a loving people "subject to a well-wish'd king," who

                    in obsequious fondness Crowd to his presence, where their untaught   love Must needs appear offence.                                       (2.4.27)

If, watching the play, the king saw something of himself in the stage duke's dislike of crowds, he could have also recognized some of his own problems with the administration of the law in Vincentio's difficulty in providing justice to his people. James often said that he was too lenient in dealing with malefactors; in addition, he must have known that some of his magistrates were untrustworthy, and he must have grimaced feelingly at the difficulty of administering the law through instruments as fallible as the stage constable Peter Elbow, who gets everything so confused that it is impossible to untangle it sufficiently to get it wrong: "If it please your honor, I am the poor Duke's constable, and my name is Elbow. I do lean upon justice, sir, and do bring in here before your good honor two notorious benefactors.… Precise villains they are, that I am sure of, and void of all profanation in the world that good Christians ought to have" (2.1.47).

But the problems with the law in 1604 after the fiasco at Winchester extended far beyond an inefficient police force to more basic problems of corrupt hanging judges, merciless statutes, and human nature itself. Measure for Measure picks up all these major issues. About the need for the law there is no question in the play. Human nature is fallen as far in Shakespeare's Vienna as in James Stuart's kingdom. At the very bottom of the human heap is Barnardine, a hardened criminal, who spends his days in jail drinking. He refuses to allow himself to be executed, no matter how reasonably his betters explain to him that the greater good of society requires his death. This is the old Adam that Freud called id: "A man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep, careless, reakless, and fearless of what's past, present, or to come; insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal" (4.2.142). When his jailers nervously try to force him out of his cell in order to execute him, they encounter something very resistant and very primitive; "He is coming, sir, he is coming; I hear his straw rustle," says the turnkey hopefully, but Barnardine refuses to die that day, or any other.

The rest of the population of the jail, which like those in our modern penal system seems to hold a large part of the citizenry, is less desperate but morally not much better than Barnardine: "Here's young Master Rash, he's in for a commodity of brown paper and old ginger.… Then is there here one Master Caper, at the suit of Master Three-pile the mercer, for some four suits of peach-color'd satin, which now peaches him a beggar. Then have we here young Dizzy, and young Master Deep-Vow, and Master Copper-spur, and Master Starve-lackey the rapier and dagger man, and young Drop-heir that kill'd lusty Pudding, and Master Forth[r]ight the tilter, and brave Master Shoe-tie the great traveller, and wild Half-can that stabb'd Pots, and I think forty more" (4.3.4).

Shakespeare's Viennese, resembling Freud's in this as in other ways, are as incurably sexual as they are foolish, venal, and violent. Those not in jail are to be found for the most part in whorehouses, associating with drabs, knaves, and bawds. There is Lucio the whoremaster, Pompey Bum the tapster cum pimp, and the ultimate "John," Master Forth, who gives his business to the whore Kate Keepdown and to Mistress Overdone the brothel keeper, married nine times and overdone by the last. Even a nice young man like Claudio beds Juliet before marriage. The puritanical judge Angelo has seduced Mariana, and Isabella's icy chastity, rather than preserving virtue, raises an untutored lust. It is indeed the "bawdy planet" that one of Shakespeare's characters styles it in a later play.

James had little to learn from his players about the failings of human nature in Edinburgh, London, or Vienna, but Calvinist that he was, he must have been struck by the play's startling image of original sin:

             Our natures do pursue Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.                                     (1.2.128)

Shakespeare's view of human nature is, however, broader than Calvinist theology. It is not just that humanity in Measure for Measure is tainted with sexuality from birth; people also have a love affair with life, and a fear of death, so deeply instinctive as to overwhelm all abstract considerations of morality and honor. Claudio's instinct for self-preservation is more eloquent but no less fundamental than Barnardine's. When Claudio's sister, Isabella, comes to him in death row, to tell him with loathing about Angelo's offer to exchange his life for sex, she expects a heroic response and a big speech about death before dishonor. But in a travesty of the courage with which a hero like Raleigh eventually died on the scaffold in 1618 (first testing the edge of the ax with his thumb), Claudio, facing death, has some very real doubts about the weight of his sister's maidenhead when set in the scales against his own oblivion: "Sure, it is no sin; Or of the deadly seven it is the least." Death by contrast is, after all, so final, so complete:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot; This sensible warm motion to become A kneaded clod; …             … 'tis too horrible! The weariest and most loathed worldly life That age, ache, [penury], and imprisonment Can lay on nature is a paradise To what we fear of death.                                      (3.1.117)

In the face of the voracity of human appetites and the overwhelming fear of death, the law seems necessary but futile. Willy-nilly, human beings will, as one of Shakespeare's clowns had said, "hearken after the flesh," and Pompey Bum says equally truly when he tells Escalus what would be required to control sex in old Wien: "Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?" (2.1.230). Good-natured tolerance such as the duke used in the old days results only in liberty that "plucks Justice by the nose," but the law is too savage to be strictly applied. The Viennese law punishing adultery by death is the kind of ridiculous, inhuman law that regularly appears at the beginning of comedy, where it blocks the young lovers for a time from marrying the persons of their choice. But it also represents, in an almost literal way, the tendency of early modern legal systems to make of very human slips felonies punishable by death. The law overcompensated, then as now, for its difficulties in enforcing statutes by the excessiveness of its penalties.

Not only is the law too cruel to be applied to fallible human beings, those who administer it are inescapably, in modern police-speak, "perpetrators," hypocritical, self-seeking, ignorant, and corrupt. Angelo is a no-nonsense, law-and-order type, brushing away, as the law of his time did, all extenuating circumstances, running a court where mercy tempers justice not in the slightest.

In the end justice in the play comes not from the law but from the disguised duke, who, working obliquely (in something like the manner James also preferred), uses a series of tricks to bring about if not absolute justice then at least a comic ending. He cuts through the legal tangle not only with his perspicacity, good judgment, and clever machinations but by the use of mercy, the virtue suggested by the play's title, which ultimately derives from Christ's words in the Gospel of Matthew, that read in Shakespeare's Geneva Bible, "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again."

But the power of the monarch still has its limits. What the duke can do by the exercise of his judgment and his absolute powers is captured in the kind of marriages that he arranges onstage at the end of the play. The duke himself is to marry the cold Isabella, who would rather go back to the convent; the hypocritical, ruthless, and unrepentant Angelo is paired with the doting Mariana; the fashionable man-about-town Lucio is tied to the whore Kate Keepdown. Only the marriage of Claudio to the pregnant Juliet offers some hope. This is the best that the duke's mercy and absolute power can achieve, and while the marriages are better than the death and depravity that threatened for a time, the ending of the play is obviously far from ideal.

Measure for Measure puts onstage, through the exaggerations of the comic lens, a justification of the king's justice and the dangers of the law that the Raleigh trial had made scandalously clear at Winchester. The criminal law inspired terror, with harsh arbitrary statutes inconsistently enforced. It was administered by corrupt judges and merciless prosecutors, who arranged public spectacles of bloody executions pour encourager les autres. Only the king's justice, coming from an absolute ruler like the duke or James, who operates above the law, penetrates all pretenses, is concerned for all the people, and is able to temper strictness with mercy, can turn leaden law into something that vaguely resembles golden justice. It may not have worked at Winchester, and the House of Commons may have been skeptical about the king's superiority to the law, but the king's players could make it, almost, work on the stage.

Opposition And Balance

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W. L. Godshalk (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Measure for Measure: Freedom and Restraint," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. 6, 1970, pp. 137-50.

[In the following essay, Godshalk examines the reconciliation of opposing forces suggested by the play's title, contending that this balance is achieved only tenuously through the betrothals in Act V.]

Although Measure for Measure is a play full of ambiguity,1 its title has received a just share of explication,2 and one suspects that most of its meaning has indeed been measured by the interested scholars and critics. At first glance, it suggests the Hebrew injunction against excessive punishment: "An eye The for an eye, & a tooth for a tooth" (Matthew, v.38).3 The revenge should not exceed the enormity of the original crime. Further, the title may also allude to Christ's comments on judgment: "IVdge not, that ye be not iudged. For with what iudgement ye iudge, ye shalbe iudged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you againe."4 Read thus, "measure for measure" becomes a plea for merciful judgment and charity among men. Through exegesis, this reading suggests the doctrine of Original Sin, that all men by the very nature of their conception into the human condition are sinful. Man must consequently judge his fellow man with mercy, for all share the same original guilt. As Lear says, "None does offend, none, I say, none" ( 172). Proverbially, one may be reminded by the title of the command to "fight fire with fire." One deceit must be dealt with by another deceit, and so on. To change the idea slightly, one force must be opposed by an equal and opposite force. Measure must oppose measure. Although all of these aspects of the title have a relevance to the working out of the play's action, the present study will emphasize only two: the opposition of forces and their final resolution in the acceptance of Original Sin.

The dramatic conflicts of the play are built around several opposing forces, mainly in the form of ideals or intellectual concepts. Mercy and justice, appearance and reality, chastity and sexual license, and the basic opposition of life and death, all are part of the general pattern of the play, and Shakespeare rings the changes on their various aspects.5 However, as L.C. Knights has indicated,6 on the thematic level the basic conflict is between freedom and restraint; and certainly the other oppositions of the play may be subsumed under this one. Justice is a restraint imposed from without, by an external authority; it is a limitation on complete freedom of action. Its opposite, mercy, like grace, is a free gift; or, as Shakespeare says in another place, "The quality of mercy is not strain'd." Appearance may be seen as a restraint on truth, while reality is a freedom from falsehood. Chastity implies restraining one's sexual drives and their direction; it is sexual selectivity. On the other hand, complete freedom of sexuality quickly degenerates into mere sexual license. And, of course, life suggests freedom of movement, and death may be equated with final constraint, the end of all earthly freedom.

As we can see from these simplified verbal equations, freedom cannot always have a plus value, nor can restraint always be regarded as a human evil. Restraint may be the result of human reason and inner virtue as well as something imposed arbitrarily from without; and freedom, with all its connotations of the ideal, may be a destructive force. It is this paradox embodied in the opposition of freedom and restraint that Shakespeare uses in Measure for Measure. The resolution of the conflict, toward which the play builds, is founded on both inner acceptance and social involvement. Realizing their place in the human community, the major characters reach a stasis in which freedom and restraint are equally balanced.

In the play the locus classicus of the conflict between the forces of freedom and restraint is in the second scene. Lucio, catching sight of the officers carrying Claudio to jail, asks him: "Whence comes this restraint?" (I.ii.116). Claudio answers:

From too much liberty, my Lucio. Liberty, As surfeit, is the father of much fast; So every scope by the immoderate use Turns to restraint.                                 (I.ii.177-120)

Claudio's point is that license, excessive liberty, leads inevitably to imprisonment, an excessive form of restraint, and further that this proposition is true in every case, that the amount of freedom is always balanced by the amount of restraint. Beneath this general proposition of moral law, however, lurks the question of whether the reverse is also true: does excessive restraint lead to excessive freedom? In any case, Claudio's present restraint is hardly attractive, for it is imposed harshly from without. It is restraint in its most overt form: captivity.

The thematic problem of restraint is also present beneath the subtle texture of the first scene. The duke gives his final instructions to Angelo obliquely by assuming that Angelo already conforms to the tenets propounded:

   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.                                               (I.i.29-35)

By introducing the element of "heaven," the duke indicates a Biblical allusion in the lines, possibly to Luke, xi.33 (or to similar passages in Mark, iv.21, Matthew, v.15, and Luke, viii.16): "No man when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a priuie place, neither vnder a bushell: but on a candlesticke, that they which come in, may see the light." In explaining the significance of the Biblical passage, Alexander Cruden suggests that "candles" are symbolic of "the reasonable soul, which is as a light set up in man by God, " or of "The gifts and graces which God bestows on men, which are not given them only for their own sakes, but for the good of others also."7 Cruden's commentary is applicable to the Shakespearean passage, where "torchers" are substituted for "candles."

But Duke Vincentio immediately turns from the imagery of light to that of banking. Nature becomes a "thrifty goddess" (I.i.38), who lends man her excellences only as a "creditor" demanding both "thanks and use" (I.i.39-40). Following the allusion to the parable of candles, the present passage suggests the similar parable of talents in Matthew, xxv.27: "Thou oughtest therfore to haue put my money to the exchangers, and then at my comming should I haue receiued mine owne with vantage." The money should have been invested at a good rate of interest. It is important to note that the two parables deal rather strikingly with the problem of undue or unusual restraint: the hiding of a candle and the hoarding of money. Both practices are seen as bad, for the restraint renders the light and the money useless. The moral seems to be that gifts freely given by heaven should be freely used by man. Although the duke indicates that he is wasting his advice on the virtuous Angelo (I.i.40-41), the passage sounds as if it were an admonition to the deputy. Seen in this light, the duke's words raise a question in the playgoer's mind concerning the quality of Angelo's restraint.

Speaking more candidly to Friar Thomas in the third scene, the duke confirms our suspicions:

    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.(I.iii.50-53; cf. I.iv.57-58)

The duke's purpose is to see "what our seemers be" (I.iii.54), to look behind the facade of respectable constraint. From the duke's point of view, Angelo's selfrestraint is excessive and therefore questionable. Consequently, Angelo stands in partial contrast to Claudio: excessive restraint to excessive freedom. Of course, as we first meet them in the play, both are types of restraint: Claudio externally restrained, Angelo internally. Nevertheless, Claudio is restrained only because he has been excessively free.

The varieties of restraint, however, have not yet been exhausted, and the playwright seems bent on presenting a wider spectrum. The duke himself is not free from a certain restraint, a certain reticence, which in some of its aspects leads to less than desirable results. In the first scene, the playgoer is given the first indication of this facet of the duke's character:

I'll privily away. I love the people, But do not like to stage me to their eyes: Though it do well, I do not relish well Their loud applause and Aves vehement;

Nor do I think the man of safe discretion That does affect it.                                          (I.i.67-72)

From one point of view, the duke may be seen as condemning an unrestrained exhibitionism; but from another, he is indicating his own retiring nature. Of course, the duke is not under oath at this point, and we later learn that there is an unvoiced reason for his wanting to slip away "privily." Nevertheless, his conversation with Friar Thomas in scene three seems to confirm the truth of his earlier profession of reticence:

My holy sir, none better knows than you How I have ever lov'd the life remov'd, And held in idle price to haunt assemblies, Where youth, and cost, witless bravery keeps.                                      (I.iii.7-10)

Unfortunately, the duke has not been able to involve himself in the common life of his people; instead, he has "ever loved the life removed." Although we are not given the full explanation for his restraint, we may surmise two things. First, the duke is "A shy fellow" (III.ii.127), as Lucio says, one not socially oriented; and second, this lack of social involvement has led to his neglect of public duty. He confesses, using the ducal third person:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws, The needful bits and curbs to headstrong   weeds,8 which for this fourteen years we have let slip.                                   (I.iii.19-21)

Through his own restraint, the duke has countenanced public license; and, for the moment at least, he seems to suggest that external restraints must be imposed to correct the situation. If we may generalize provisionally, it would appear that too much restraint in the ruling power leads invariably to too much liberty in the people: measure for measure.

The duke's scene with Friar Thomas is balanced by Isabella's with the nun Francisca. If the duke has "ever loved the life removed," Isabel is prepared to espouse the same kind of life, but in the most strict of orders, the "votarists of Saint Clare," the female Franciscans. The scene opens with a discussion of liberty and restraint, Isabel asking, "And have you nuns no farther privileges?" (I.iv.l). To which Francisca asks in return: "Are not these large enough?" (I.iv.2). Isabel assures her that indeed they are, and that she spoke "not as desiring more, / But rather wishing a more strict restraint" had been placed upon the sisters (I.iv.3-5). It appears that Isabel is expressing an honest desire, and in her wish for external bondage, she is a central figure in the tension between liberty and restraint. As we have suggested at the beginning of this paragraph, Isabel resembles the duke; but she also has affinities to the "precise" Angelo, who does not wish to confess that his blood flows, and further to her brother Claudio, who is under strict constraint from without. Isabel embodies certain aspects of each of the other three. Her desire for authoritative restraint, however, may indicate something about her character, and, subsequently, about all characters who wish for excessive restraint. Those who demand and seek the curbs of external force may simply be those who are most unsure of their ability to restrain themselves. Isabel's solicitude for greater restrictions may not be the words of a self-confident saint, one who has the makings of a Christian martyr,9 but rather the words of a young girl who is yet untried in the sweat and dust of the arena, one who fears that she is not internally of the same mettle as the martyrs. She feels that she needs all the external support that the discipline of the Clares can give her. If we accept this interpretation, provisionally at least, of Isabel's words and actions, it follows that restraint need not be a sign of moral courage or of the dominance of reason. It may possibly be a sign of inner fear and uncertainty.

The play begins, then, on this note of restraint: Claudio is restrained by law; Angelo, by some inner motivation; the duke, by dislike of public applause and confrontation; Isabel, by overtly religious motives. And, we may note, each of these restraints leads to separation and to isolation. Claudio is separated from Juliet, and both are imprisoned; the duke has lost contact with his people; Isabel is cutting herself off from society in general; and finally and most completely Angelo is separated from common humanity. Lucio describes him as

    a man whose blood Is very snow-broth; one who never feels The wanton stings and motions of the sense; But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge With profits of the mind, study and fast.                                    (I.iv.57-61)

Angelo is a kind of secular monk who has insulated himself from the natural urges of man. But the point, as we can see from the schematic picture we have drawn, is that each of the major characters exhibits a facet of restraint and that restraint leads to isolation. Apparently the movement of the play will be away from this initial isolation and toward some kind of freedom.

And yet, the type of freedom observable in the first act seems even less desirable than restraint. Sexual freedom has become license. It is most grossly pictured in the bawdy jesting of Lucio and his two gentlemen friends, and in Mistress Overdone and Pompey. The jokes and witticisms of Lucio and the young men about town are peculiar in that the element of healthy sexuality is completely absent. The emphasis is on disease. The First Gentleman suggests that Lucio is "pilled" with a pun on "peeled," that is, bald because of syphilis, and all "for a French velvet," a whore (I.ii.32-33). Lucio, in his turn, suggests that the First Gentleman has an oral infection (I.ii.35-37). With a series of puns (e.g., dolours/dollars), the young men continue their diseased jesting. "How now," the First Gentleman asks Mistress Overdone, "which of your hips has the most profound sciatica?" (I.ii.54-55).10 To be sure, young men tell bawdy jokes and jest with each other about sexual matters, but the content of their jesting is usually both lusty and healthy.

After the young bloods withdraw, the sexual innuendo is kept going by Pompey with the assistance of Mistress Overdone, whose occupation and physical condition are indicated by her name. Pompey intricately puns on "done," "trout," "river," "maid" (the young of a fish), "seed," with sex as his dominant theme. Both he and his mistress are clearly professionals, and Mistress Overdone is concerned that Angelo's strictness will lead to her undoing: "What shall become of me?" (I.ii.97). Pompey, however, tells her with a significant wink that, "though you change your place, you need not change your trade" (I.ii.99-100). It is his professional opinion that the restraint of law will never extirpate the human capacity for sexual incontinence. At this point, Pompey and Overdone exeunt while Juliet and Claudio with their guards and Lucio enter. Discussing sexual liberty with Lucio, Claudio observes:

   Our natures do pursue, Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.                                  (I.ii.120-122)

With a possible pun on "die" as sexual consummation, he seems to indicate by his simile that sexual freedom is our "proper bane," a poison most appropriately ours. The imagery of poison joins, as it does in Hamlet, quite easily with the imagery of disease. Nevertheless, in a shift of emotion, Claudio goes on to explain that Juliet "is fast my wife, / Save that we do the denunciation lack / Of outward order" (I.ii.136-138). Their sexual relationship is, according to him, only by the slightest hair illegitimate.

The function of this scene is threefold. First, using mainly lesser characters, it sets up a picture of freedom to contrast with the restraint of the major characters. Having set up this contrast, the scene further suggests that, just as in restraint, there are different types of freedom. There is the urbane licentiousness of the young gallants, which is immediately contrasted with the professional sexuality of the pimp and the whore, which in turn is juxtaposed to the comparative innocence of Claudio and Juliet. Though each group has abused its freedom of action, certainly Pompey and Mistress Overdone deserve much more than Claudio and Juliet to be stripped and whipt. That the comparatively innocent are the only ones to be punished perhaps indicates that the external restraining power, "the demi-god, Authority" (I.ii. 112), can also be abusive. Neither restraint nor freedom is good in and of itself. Finally, the pervasive disease imagery, connected with the sexual flaw, is indicative of a universal taint. In part, man is always a creature of appetite, passion, and unreason; and, if we may use the Christian concept hinted at in the title of the play, man is plagued by the Original Sin of Adam. In effect, all men are guilty: in Adam's fall, we sinned all. And if in nothing else, mankind is bound together in common guilt. Shakespeare uses the sexual sin particularly because it is most in evidence. Many go through life without murdering or even stealing, but few manage to live without some touch of incontinence.

It is toward the realization of this concept of universal guilt that the play progresses, and this realization carries with it certain lessons which the dramatis personae finally learn. The educator of the play is Duke Vincentio, who like most teachers learns a great deal from those he teaches; and the chief students are Isabel and Angelo, although Claudio too learns something about true freedom in life.11

Our analysis of this educational process may begin with Angelo. The prenzie Angelo has cut himself off from the roots of society, as we have seen, by his inordinate restraint. When Escalus suggests that Angelo may also share the common flaw of men, he proclaims his superiority:

'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, Another thing to fall.…

When I that censure him do so offend, Let mine own judgement pattern out my   death, And nothing come in partial.                             (II.i.17-18, 29-31)

Although he recognizes the rule of "measure for measure" in the retaliatory sense, he denies the kinship of sin and hints, with pride, that his own restraint will preserve his purity; he has no need for mercy or grace. Later, the duke informs Isabel that Angelo's restraint has not always been so admirable. After Mariana lost her dowry, Angelo "left her in her tears, and dried not one of them with his comfort: swallowed his vows whole, pretending in her discoveries of dishonour: … and he, a marble to her tears, is washed with them, but relents not" (III.i.225-230). Such restraint, such lack of human sympathy is hardly a virtue.

It is Isabel who forces Angelo to the realization that he is like other men. As Isabel is brought to argue,12 in all innocence, that mercy should be shown toward those who commit the "vice that most I do abhor" (II.ii.29), so Angelo is tempted and falls through "this virtuous maid":

 Never could the strumpet With all her double vigour, art and nature, Once stir my temper: but this virtuous maid Subdues me quite. Ever till now When men were fond, I smil'd, and wonder'd  how.                                   (II.ii.183-187)

His words echo those of Valentine, caught in the conventional Troilus situation, the mocker mocked; but the implications here are darker and deeper. Angelo has now come to understand the vulnerability of selfimposed sainthood and the susceptibility of all men to sin. By the time of his next meeting with Isabel (II.iv), Angelo's restraint has vanished altogether, and he has given himself to sensuality. Our earlier question, "does excessive restraint lead to excessive freedom?" seems to be answered, by his actions, in the affirmative. He ends the confrontation with Isabel by announcing, "And now I give my sensual race the rein: / … Redeem thy brother / By yielding up thy body to my will" (II.iv.159, 162-163). In a rather ironic, perverted manner, Angelo has joined the community of man in its common sinfulness and shared sense of guilt.

Nevertheless, though Angelo has the self-realization of his sinful nature, he decides to hide the reality beneath the mask of social respectability:

 O place, O form, How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit, Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser   souls To thy false seeming! Blood, thou art blood. Let's write good angel on the devil's horn— 'Tis not the devil's crest.                                           (II.iv.12-17)

The heraldic motto, "good angel," will serve to hide the reality of the "devil's crest," which Angelo is putting on. He becomes, in essence, a dramatic example of the parable of the whited sepulchre.

As Angelo begins to feel the effects of Original Sin formerly unknown to him because he had remained untempted, Isabel is drawn in a parallel fashion from the seclusion of the convent to involvement in the human situation. The motivating factor is the public disclosure of her brother's sexual incontinence; her concern is to save him from execution. Initially she approaches Angelo with the disclaimer:

There is a vice that most I do abhor, And most desire should meet the blow of  justice; For which I would not plead,                                  (II.ii.29-31)

admitting that she is "At war 'twixt will and will not" (n.ii.33). It is a little more than apparent that Isabel feels herself above—or at least, isolated from—this common human failing. Her first plea for her brother's life is extremely brief:

I have a brother is condemn'd to die; I do beseech you, let it be his fault, And not my brother.                                      (II.ii.34-36)

When Angelo points out the illogic of condemning "the fault, and not the actor of it" (II.ii.37), she immediately gives way. Only Lucio's pressure—"To him again, entreat him" (II.ii.43)—causes her to renew her plea. Growing in intensity, her following plea is aimed more at human frailty, than, as one might expect it to be, at the virtue of the merciful judge:

Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit   once, And He that might the vantage best have took Found out the remedy. 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.                                   (II.ii.73-79)

Her reference to Original Sin in the first line is apparent; all men are sinful, and therefore must rely on the mercy of God, granted through the mediation of Christ. She continues:

 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.                                 (Il.ii. 137-142)

Since we are all conceived in sin, judge not that you be not judged. Her arguments awake in Angelo a sense of sin, but unfortunately his mercy lies dormant. One of the functions of the scene, of course, is to bring Angelo to this awareness of guilt and of the common bond of human frailty. But by contrast the scene also reveals Isabel's lack of insight into her own situation; for her arguments concerning human faultiness may apply to her as well as to Angelo or Claudio. She too participates in the common weakness but in this scene, Angelo understands that much better than she.

In the second conference with Angelo, however, she comes much closer to acknowledging her own weakness. From her initial statement, "There is a vice that most I do abhor," Isabel arrives at a different feeling. When Angelo tells her that fornication is equivalent to murder in the roll of sins, she replies: " 'Tis set down so in heaven, but not in earth" (II.iv.50). She now seems to understand the import of her own maxims: that frail man cannot be justified by his own works, and that man, limited as he is, cannot make absolute distinctions. Later in the scene, she even seems to accept her own innate frailty:

  Nay, call us ten times frail; For we are soft as our complexions are, And credulous to false prints.                                (Il.iv.127-129)

Though Isabel has come a long way in self-realization, her education is not yet complete.

Angelo's reaction to her arguments is antinomian: if man is weak and sinful, and God is merciful, then man can sin with impunity. Isabel's objection to his position is orthodoxly Christian: wilfully to sin is to deny divine mercy and to chance damnation. Still, Isabel is not completely self-assured, and she hurries to gain Claudio's support in her decision to sacrifice his life for her virginity and, according to her view, to save her soul. Although Claudio in principle agrees with her attitude, through fear he finally pleads:

Sweet sister, let me live. What sin you do to save a brother's life, Nature dispenses with the deed so far That it becomes a virtue.                                (III.i32-135)

The lines are reminiscent of Isabel's own distinction between the realms of nature and grace, " 'Tis set down so in heaven, but not in earth"; nevertheless, her reaction to her brother's plea is violent: "O, you beast! … Die, perish!" (III.i.135, 143). She is herself unable to give her brother that mercy, that forgiveness of human weakness that she strenuously begged from Angelo.13 Her last words to Claudio here, " 'Tis best thou diest quickly" quickly" (III.i.150), underline her inability to understand his desire to live at all costs. Her insensitive reaction to his plea seems to reinforce the idea that her seeking the restraint of the convent was a sign of inner uncertainty. At this point in the play, her position is unenviable, since she has the security of neither the convent nor her own inner convictions; her unrestrained invective against her weak brother is hardly attractive. However, her involvement in the Mariana affair, at the direction of the disguised duke, enables Isabel to make a final adjustment. At last, she is freely able to participate in the necessities of human frailty; no longer does she feel so insecure that she must viciously attack any challenge to her preconceived moral or religious ideals.

Variously seen as a fairy tale grafted on a realistic play or as an immoral story with its origins in folklore,14 the Mariana affair is symbolically important. With the play's pattern of freedom and restraint, the first three acts can hardly be classified as realistic in the modern, critical sense. And the bed-trick, as it is called, is the turning point in resolving the initial tension between freedom and restraint. That the Mariana affair is immoral, we may grant, but with the qualification that we change the adjective to "sinful." With the word "sinful" in mind, the significance of the episode may be explored.

Until this point in the play, the disguised duke has remained almost aloof, his only action being the spiritual care of Claudio. He has been the isolated duke of dark corners who disappeared at the beginning, and his decision to effect the bed-substitution is his breaking of this initial restraint. He has committed himself to action. That the action is, in a sense, "sinful" is of the utmost importance, for it thus acknowledges the duke's community with his people, a community of human frailty. By planning the Mariana affair, the duke becomes in legal terminology an accessory before the fact; and he thus shares the guilt of his deputy, Angelo. By setting up the situation, by lying to Angelo, Isabel also becomes a partner in the sin. Although they remain physically pure, both the duke and Isabel symbolically share the sin of Angelo and Mariana in the illicit bed, as they recapitulate the act of Claudio and Juliet. But Angelo's vice is put to good use in two ways: to make him participate in the human condition he had despised and thought himself aloof from, and to bring about a marriage that should have taken place, marriage being the restraining bond which lies between the unnatural restraint of the former Angelo and the unrestrained sexuality so prominent in the city at large. In other words, the gateway to repentance and salvation seems to be the realization of temptation and sin. Self-knowledge is not gained in isolation. And thus in arranging the manner of Angelo's fall—o felix culpa—the duke is also arranging for his reintegration into communal life and all that that means.

Of the three couples, all have taken part to some extent in the same act, and when all are equally guilty, who can assert his own righteousness? The question lies behind the duke's ironic speech to the Provost. Angelo's "life is parallel'd"

Even with the stroke and line of his great   justice. He doth with holy abstinence subdue That in himself which he spurs on his power To qualify in others: were he meal'd with that Which he corrects, then were he tyrannous; But this being so, he's just.                                   (IV.ii. 77-83)

The duke seems to expect that Angelo will not be tyrannous, that the lesson of his own weakness will teach him to deal mercifully with others. Unfortunately, it is the duke who must now learn a lesson. Though a man may privately acknowledge his own sinfulness, he may publicly act as if he were spotless; a man may be a hypocrite. The duke quickly realizes that Angelo's flaw must be made public, and further, that his own abstinence from publicity, his isolation from his people, has been a mistake. He now knows that the final resolution of his problem and the problems of the people involved must be open to view; the social and communal aspects of sin and repentance must be emphasized. All concerned must realize the common bond of humanity.

The final scene with its public trial, where both Angelo and Isabel are tried, brings the lessons of the Mariana affair home to all the participants. By the open trial, of course, the duke implicitly acknowledges that his earlier attitude (I.i.68-72) is wrong; a monarch must "stage" himself in the eyes of his people: the trial is as much a "play," with the duke as director, as anything else. Through public shaming, Angelo is brought to his knees in repentance:

I should be guiltier than my guiltiness To think I can be undiscernible, When I perceive your Grace, like power  divine, Hath looked upon my passes. Then, good  prince, 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.                                  (V.i.365-372)

The phrase, "like power divine," does not need to suggest, as Mr. Coghill feels, that the duke is an allegorical figure representing God;15 but it does indicate that the duke has acted like God in seeing into Angelo's sinful actions. By extension, the phrase also points to the idea that in the eyes of God all men are guilty, that no man may legitimately assert his own righteousness. Seeing his trespasses in the light of day, Angelo cannot bring himself to ask for mercy or grace. He seems to feel that measure must be met with measure, that he must die for his sin.

This time encouraged by Mariana rather than Lucio, Isabel again begs for mercy from an apparently stern judge:

 Most bounteous sir: Look, if it please you, on this man condemn'd As if my brother liv'd. I partly think A due sincerity govern'd his deeds Till he did look on me. Since it is so, Let him not die.                                    (V.i.441-446)

It is significant that here Isabel does not dissociate herself from the vice condemned and that she acknowledges her part in Angelo's licentiousness. She has been his temptress. Her inner certainty, gained in the course of the play, is now strong enough so that she is able to understand her own involvement in the natural condition and to forgive human frailty. Therefore, she no longer requires the restraint of an external authority, such as a convent; and she is able to accept the world as it is and to live in it.

The tension between freedom and restraint, apparent at the beginning of the play, is resolved by the movement from restrained isolation to a sense of community. In the end, the characters have come together in their recognition of a common failing. Sexual desires, one manifestation of human love, have forced each character to descend from his pedestal. In the course of the descent, mercy, life, and the realities of human weakness have all been emphasized. As a symbol of social involvement and commitment, marriage is the resolving state. Angelo and Mariana are wed; Claudio and Juliet are reunited; the duke commands Lucio to marry the wronged Kate, and he himself says to Isabel, "Give me your hand and say you will be mine" (V.i.490). In the freedom of married love, and in the restraints of marital chastity and continence, the characters realize an equipoise. They are both bound and free. The multiple marriages are symbolic, as often at the end of a Shakespearean play, and suggest perfectly the final unity. Within marriage, the characters of the play find the balanced state of life which they have, perhaps unconsciously, been seeking.

But the balance is precarious. Angelo craves death more readily than mercy. Lucio sees his marriage to Kate as death, whipping, and hanging rolled into one union. For all his importunity, the duke receives no words of love from Isabel. Keeping these facts in mind, we cannot assert that there is any great likelihood that the married couples will live happily ever after. In a sense, marriage is only one solution, at best temporary, for a recurring human problem. As the play ends, we have a feeling that continuing adjustments will be necessary for the characters—if we may project them into an imaginary future—in maintaining that delicate balance between freedom and restraint.


1 The inherent ambiguity may be reflected in the diversity of critical opinion, which is surveyed by Gordon Ross Smith, "Isabella and Elbow in Varying Contexts of Interpretation," IGE, 17 (1965-1966), 69-74; by David L. Stevenson, "Design and Structure in Measure for Measure: A New Appraisal," ELH, 23 (1956), 256-278; by Robert M. Smith, "Interpretations of Measure for Measure" SQ, 1 (1950), 208-218; and by J. C. Maxwell, "Measure for Measure: A Footnote to Recent Criticism," Downside Review, 65 (1947), 45-59. The text used is Measure for Measure, ed., J. W. Lever (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), which has a thorough and valuable introduction. Ernst Leisi's Old-Spelling and Old-Meaning Edition (New York, 1964), and Rolf Soellner and Samuel Bertsche's Measure for Measure: Text, Source, and Criticism (Boston, 1966), have also been consulted.

2 See, e.g., Paul N. Siegel, "Measure for Measure: The Significance of the Title," Shakespeare Quarterly, 4 (1953), 317-320, and Elizabeth Marie Pope, "The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey, 2 (1949), 66-67.

3 Cf. Exodus, xxi.24; Leviticus, xxiv.20; Deuteronomie, xix.20. The text used here is The Bible (London, 1583), Geneva version (STC 2136). The Beza-Tomson New Testament (1586) gives a long note to Matthew, v.38-39, citing the parallel passages listed above.

4Matthew, vii. 1-2, the Beza-Tomson New Testament (1586). In a marginal gloss to Matthew, vii.2, parallel passages are cited: Luke, vi.37-38; Romans, ii.l; Corinthians, iv.3; Mark, iv.24. The explanatory marginal gloss on Romans, ii.1 should be quoted because it provides an analogue to Angelo's actions: "He Paul conuinceth them which would seeme to be exempt out of the number of other men, because they reprehende other mens faultes, and sayeth, that they are least of all to be excused, for if they were well and narrowly searched (as God surely doeth) they themselues would be founde guiltie in those things which they reprehende, and punish in other; so that in condemning other, they pronounce sentence against themselves."

5 This proposition will not go unquestioned. See, e.g., Howard C. Cole, "The 'Christian' Context of Measure for Measure," JEGP, 64 (1965), 430, who sees the play as a satirically humorous examination of the duke's credentials.

6 Lionel C. Knights, "The Ambiguity of Measure for Measure," Scrutiny, 10 (1941-1942), 222-223. His interpretation differs from the one offered here, and he concludes that the play has an inartistic ambiguity. He is answered by F. R. Leavis, pp. 234-247. See also and

7 Alexander Cruden, A Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testament (London, 1889), s.v. "candle." Cf. the Beza-Tomson marginal gloss on Luke, xi.33: "Our mindes are therefore lightned with the knowledge of God, that we should giue light vnto others, and therefore our chiefest labour ought to be to pray for that light." The gloss on Matthew, xxv.l uses the image of the torch: "We must desire strength at Gods hand, which may serue vs as a torche while we walke through this darkenes" (of the world?).

8 Lever (I.iii.20) amends to "headstrong jades," following Theobald's "steeds." "Weeds" is inserted from the First Folio.

9 Raymond Wilson Chambers, Man's Unconquerable Mind: Studies of English Writers, from Bede to A. E. Housman and W. P. Ker (London, 1952), pp. 277-310, contends that Isabel is saint-like. This influential essay was first delivered as a lecture to the British Academy.

10 I.e., as a result of syphilis. See the notes in Lever and in Leisi on this entire passage, and also Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (London, 1956) under the appropriate words.

11 Warren D. Smith, "More Light on Measure for Measure," MLQ, 23 (1962), 309-322, also emphasizes the dynamic quality of the principal characters, but goes on to contrast their dynamism with the static minor characters. His point seems well taken.

12 Anthony Caputi, "Scenic Design in Measure for Measure," JEGP, 60 (1961), 423-434, in a very good discussion of scenic patterning in the play, underlines the pattern of informal debates (p. 425). He feels that each of the debates is between a spokesman for civilization and a spokesman for the natural condition who has a strong sense of man's imperfections (p. 426).

13 Warren Smith, "More Light," p. 315, aptly comments that Isabel is willing to sell her brother's life for her chastity, while Claudio is just as willing to sell her chastity for his life. Both are extremely selfish; and the playgoer must find it very difficult, at this point, to judge between them.

14 Robert H. Wilson, "The Mariana Plot of Measure for Measure," PQ, 9 (1930), 341-350, suggests a revision, with the Mariana episode added in imitation of All's Well. R. W. Chambers, p. 279, compares the Joseph and Leah story (Genesis, xxix.25). For the folk element, see, e.g., Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Bloomington, Ind., 1955), IV, 450-451 (s.v. Impostures, K1900-K1999). The "bed-trick" is discussed by G. K. Hunter, ed., All's Well That Ends Well (London, 1959), pp. xliv-xlv, who notes that it was used throughout English Renaissance drama and that Shakespeare uses it with a difference. Although most recent critics judge the episode on esthetic rather than moral grounds, Hardin Craig, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1961), p. 834, finds the story "bad."

15 Nevill Coghill, "Comic Form in Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey, 8 (1955), 14-27, esp. 21, also notes a testing pattern in the play.

Language And Structure

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Ralph Berry (essay date 1976-77)

SOURCE: "Language and Structure in Measure for Measure," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, Winter, 1976-77, pp. 147-61.

[In the following essay, Berry examines language and structure in Measure for Measure.]


The structure of Measure for Measure is expressed through a dual location system not found elsewhere in Shakespeare. It is usual for Shakespeare to oppose geographic locations, each symbolizing and generating a complex of values: thus, court and country, Egypt and Rome, Venice and Belmont. Even in plays where the dual setting scheme is less apparent, a change of milieu does hold its significances: Hamlet's abortive journey to England evidently signals a change of mental direction. All these instances involve geographic change, 'travel' in its customary sense, for the protagonists. Measure for Measure is unique: it is set within the boundaries of a single city, Vienna,1 yet presents an opposition between the underworld, whose control mechanism is prison, and the overworld. It is, schematically, an upstairs-downstairs play in which the structural alternations are vertical. All the conventionally identifiable scene settings—nunnery, grange, a public place, 'Vienna,' courtroom, prison—conform to this principle. And these settings present as dramatic realities the energies of Measure for Measure.

This governing idea encompasses a complete society, a community whose values are fully realized in the dramatist's selection of material. The overworld is founded on government, restraint, morality, shame, discipline; its main representatives are the Duke, Angelo, Isabella, Escalus. The underworld exists for the free gratification of impulses controlled or suppressed elsewhere; its leading citizens are Pompey and Mistress Overdone. Between these worlds is an iron grid, the law of the land. And that barrier is in effect impassable save to men about town and officers of the law. This is no organic society, no Navarre in which Costard can exchange ruderies with a lady of the court. The leading proof of the social divide is Lucio. Shaw observed of him long ago:

Lucio is much more of a gentleman than Benedick, because he keeps his coarse sallies for coarse people. Meeting one woman, he says humbly, 'Gentle and fair: your brother kindly greets you. Not to be weary with you, he's in prison.' Meeting another, he hails her sparklingly with 'How now? which of your hips has the more profound sciatica?' The one woman is a lay sister, the other a prostitute. Benedick or Mercutio would have cracked their low jokes on the lay sister, and been held up as gentlemen of rare wit and excellent discourse for it.2

Shaw is technically in error here (the 'sciatica' greeting is spoken by First Gentleman: doubtless Shaw's memory of a production betrayed him), but right in substance. Lucio makes a sharp distinction between the two worlds that he moves in, and his speech signals the change unmistakably. With his male friends, with Pompey, with the backstairs Friar, his language is prose. It is fluid, inventive, bawdy, malicious. With Isabella, and with the Duke in the final scene, his language is verse: decent, restrained, rather unctuous. 'I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted' reflects the pedestal on which the virtuous woman is placed. Simply, Lucio distinguishes between being on his best behaviour (in the overworld) and indulging himself. The verse-prose switches of Lucio are one way of identifying the inner characteristics of Vienna; another is the role of Juliet. Her only speaking scene is II.iii, and this is entirely superfluous to the general needs of the action. It appears therefore as an emblemscene, whose function is to present a speaking picture of sin and shame, the pregnant Juliet. The Duke's judgment is society's 'As that the sin hath brought you to this shame' (II.iii.31), and Juliet's submission is a perfect acceptance of the social imperative: 'I do repent me, as it is an evil, / And take the shame with joy' (35-6). Evil, which in this society is conceived primarily in sexual terms, is above all detectable in pregnancy. But until then it is veiled, prohibited, surmised.

We grasp, then, a society in which vertical communication between its two main divisions is at all times difficult. The body politic appears imperfectly aware of the functioning of its separate parts. So much is apparent in a notable characteristic of Vienna's citizens, evasion or euphemism. Claudio finds it impossible to answer directly to his friend's enquiry 'What's thy offence, Claudio?' (I.ii.138-9). Lucio, after trying 'murder' and 'lechery,' has to come out with the truth himself, in the wake of Claudio's involved explanation: 'With child, perhaps?' Shame dominates Claudio,3 and he is thankful to acquiesce in Lucio's wording of the matter: 'Unhappily, even so' (160). It then becomes Lucio's problem to break the same news to Isabella, and he succumbs to the same psychological difficulties. His first attempt is indeed direct:

For that which, if myself should be his judge, He should receive his punishment in thanks: He hath got his friend with child.                                     (I.iv.27-9)

But his follow-up is largely circumlocution:

             Fewness and truth, 'tis thus: Your brother and his lover have embrac'd; As those that feed grow full, as blossoming time That from the seedness the bare fallow brings To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry.                                      (I.iv.39-44)

Two points here. 'Fewness and truth' is sheer window-dressing, for the unctuous tautology of the imagery is scarcely redeemed by the pun on 'husbandry.' These lines amplify the earlier statement but add nothing. Then, 'lover': Lucio discreetly refrains from naming the guilty one. Isabella guesses Juliet anyway, and Lucio confirms the guess after a hesitation, but he would not otherwise have identified her. There is a resistance to openness in this society; it is secretive, evasive, euphemistic.4 This is seen clearly in the caricature of its mores that the underworld supplies. The trash apes gentility, and Pompey finds it necessary to excuse a notorious allusion: 'Sir, she came in great with child; and longing, saving your honour's presence, for stewed prunes … ' (II.i.91-2). Pompey, evidently, feels it keenly when Escalus extracts from him his unfortunate surname. I suggest, then, that language, reflecting the prevailing spirit of Vienna, imparts a distinctive concern with tabu and propriety.

It is an easy progression, then, to arrive at an estimate of the dramatic forces in Measure for Measure. The dual location system, allied to the observed characteristics of Viennese society, figures a dialectic of liberty and restraint, freedom and imprisonment. So much is obvious: but the dialectic is not, of course, a simple matter of debating oppositions, of Angelo versus Pompey. Rather, what emerges is a total play which presents a completely synthesized account of the dialectic. J.I.M. Stewart's excellent commentary on Othello is suggestive here:

I conjecture, then, that at certain cardinal moments in the play when poetically received Othello and Iago are felt less as individuals each with his own psychological integrity than as abstractions from a single and, as it were, invisible protagonist.5

Similarly, the characters in Measure for Measure can easily be comprehended as representing inclinations on a liberty-restraint scale; but the human and dramatic truth of the characters depends upon the proposition that these contrary impulses co-exist in the same mind. Thus, we become aware that these impulses are not merely present in a single intense encounter (Isabella-Angelo) but animate the entire play, impelling or inhibiting the dramatis personae in any line they take. Claudio and Juliet are as conscious of guilt as previously eager for each other; Abhorson and Pompey have an equal taste for respectability ('he will discredit our mystery'); the contradictions of Angelo need no catalogue. Measure for Measure forces upon us a continuous awareness of the dialectic, until we perceive the play ultimately as nothing else: that is, that the apparatus of prison and overworld is simply a physical model for the mental forces that animate the play. Self-indulgence, self-repression, self-knowledge are the primary concerns of this play.


It is clear that we are circling around the entire question of the sexual element in Measure for Measure, and indeed that the restraint-freedom dialectic can be discussed in terms of the Freudian mental model. We have then to appraise this sexual element. Eric Partridge, in his pioneering study, found that 'Measure for Measure and Othello are Shakespeare's most sexual, most bawdy plays.'6 Reasonable as this judgment appears, it suggests a possible confusion of categories: 'sexual' is not the same as 'bawdy.'7 The bawdy in Measure for Measure comprises the linguistic territory of Pompey and Lucio, with help from Elbow. I regard it as the actualization of tendencies present elsewhere, the covert, latent sexuality that permeates the entire piece. 'Sexual' I prefer to employ in its wider sense, as a description of impulses of desire and repression that tend towards, but may stop short of the threshhold of, sexual congress.8 The nature of these impulses is unremittingly probed through the action and language of Measure for Measure.

Nothing need be said of the plot, save that it is based to a degree not found elsewhere in the canon on the fact of the sexual act. The comedies are broadly concerned with love as a value associated with sexuality. So, too, is Othello, since the tragedy stems from a sense of betrayed love. Measure for Measure does not examine love, other than by inference. It rests on the state's will to interdict all extra-marital congress. And from this central fact emerges a certain symbolism. First and most obvious is the matter of beheading. We have it on Freud's authority that beheading occurs frequently in dreams as a substitute for castration; it is a psychoanalytic commonplace.9 But we scarcely need the later authority, since the play presents, in its own terms, beheading as an associate of castration. The beheading of Claudio is an explicit punishment for the sexual act. Pompey, as usual, provides the bawdy-variant of the issue: 'Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?' (II.i.242-3) The answer, in symbolic language, is 'yes': that is exactly what the law intends. Pompey's line is the play's only explicit reference to castration, but this deep sense of the punishment's objective pervades the play. It is perhaps most effectively confirmed in Isabella's 'There is a vice that most I do abhor, / And most desire should meet the blow of justice' (II.ii.29-30).

Again, consider the symbolism of Angelo's gardenvineyard. As J.W. Lever points out, 'No mention of a garden assignation appears in the sources': it is an imaginative addition by Shakespeare. Lever goes on to note that ' "garden houses" in the suburbs were associated with secret love trysts.'10 To this local association one can add the general and permanent symbolic values. Freud lists 'gardens' as 'common symbols of the female genitals'11 and this accords very well with the immediate and specific associations of Angelo's trysting-place. The luxuriant, secretive garden-vineyard of Isabella's description (IV.i.28-36), with the culminating reference to the 'heavy middle of the night,' generates strongly sexual overtones. These are clarified into Mariana's later claim 'in's garden house, / He knew me as a wife' (V.i.229-30). 'Garden,' in this play, carries suggestions that unite Freud and the historian of Elizabethan usage.

Less obvious but worth nothing is the by-play with 'key.' Clearly (a point one has sometimes to make concerning the more enthusiastic psychoanalytic commentators) there must be occasions in literature when the object is permitted to be itself alone, sans symbolism. Agreed, but Shakespeare does impart a sense of special importance to 'key' here. The Nun, hearing Lucio outside, reacts immediately:

It is a man's voice. Gentle Isabella, Turn you the key, and know his business of   him; You may, I may not; you are yet unsworn.                                    (I.iv.7-9)

In dramatic context the opening of a door to a man is viewed as a potentially sexual act; the key mediates the process, and to Isabella is entrusted control. Those who resist Freud's formulation (key = penis)12 at this point may find more convincing the later episode, in which Isabella receives from Angelo the keys to his vineyard and inner garden. Since the purpose of the transaction is overtly sexual, the resonance of this line is formidable: 'That makes his opening with this bigger key …' (IV.i.31). Always, in Measure for Measure, it is the force of the action itself that imparts sexual energy to situations and allusions which (in another play) would be relatively innocent. It is, however, through the play's language that the most extensive documentation of its sexual concerns can be made.


The language of Measure for Measure reflects in diffused but fully realized form the concerns of the play. That which is repressed, that which forces itself upwards towards consciousness, that which is known: these are the elements that language, no less than dramatic structure, must convey. It is above all a matter of vocabulary. We are concerned with words that impart a hierarchy of meanings, meanings that fall easily into a higher and lower division. And this is not the same as the general multiplicity of meanings found everywhere in Shakespeare, nor is it the simple trick of double entendre that every Jacobean playwright has at his fingertips. Broadly, the language of Measure for Measure tends to crystallize into a lower—essentially, a sexual—implication, as well as the higher sense in which it is formally employed.

We can begin with the act of government. It is on four occasions imaged as the action of riding a horse, itself the most potent of symbols of sexual activity:13

Or whether that the body public be A horse whereon the governor doth ride, Who, newly in the seat, that it may know He can command, lets it straight feel the  spur …                                    (I.ii. 163-6)

That is Claudio's account. The Duke has

We have strict statutes and most biting laws, The needful bits and curbs to headstrong  jades …                             (I.iii. 19-20)

Angelo adds to the cluster with 'And now I give my sensual race the rein' (II.iv.160), and the Duke rounds it off with

He doth with holy abstinence subdue That in himself which he spurs on his pow'r To qualify in others.                                    (IV.ii.84-6)

The proposition is that government expresses a subdued sexual satisfaction for the governor, though the Duke is careful to state a rationale for his sense of the image. 'Satisfaction,' then, becomes a word less than fully innocent, and we notice that it is used only by Angelo and the Duke (twice each). It tends towards OED sense 5, 'The action of gratifying (an appetite or desire) to the full … ' and its occurrences are worth quoting in order:

ANGELO (to Escalus) Let us withdraw together, And we may soon our satisfaction have Touching that point.                                     (I.i.81-3)

DUKE (to Isabella) I would by and by have some speech with you: the satisfaction I would require is likewise your own benefit.

(III.i. 155-7)

DUKE (to Isabella) … give him [Angelo] promise of satisfaction.


ANGELO (to Provost) For my better satisfaction let me have Claudio's head sent me by five.

(IV.ii. 126-7)

These passages demonstrate the 'hierarchic' principle of meanings that I have proposed. (1) is innocent, since 'satisfaction' means 'resolution of doubt'; (2) suggests fulfilment of (undisclosed but legitimate) wish; (3) means sexual satisfaction; and (4) a gratification of totally illegitimate desires. The doubt which the action progressively throws on 'satisfaction' surely culminates in the Duke's injunction to Angelo, 'And punish them to your height of pleasure' (v.i.240). And these meanings are strengthened by the ambivalences of 'act.' Claudio, in a passage of early importance, has

                and, for a name, Now puts the drowsy and neglected act Freshly on me.                                   (I.ii. 173-5)

The play is on the legal (government) and sexual senses. The prime meaning, via 'neglected,' evidently relates the statement to the law. But 'drowsy' creates a sexual dimension, and the passage's secondary meaning appears as 'blames me for a careless ("neglected") and sleepy act.' ('He hath but as offended in a dream,' as the Provost observes, II.ii.4: Partridge thought the phrase especially worthy of citation as euphemistic.14) Shakespeare repeats the play on 'act' via Lucio: 'He … hath pick'd out an act / Under whose heavy sense your brother's life / Falls into forfeit…' (I.iv.62-6). 'Heavy' perhaps attracts the transferred sense of 'sleepy' (of 'the heavy middle of the night,' IV.ii.35). 'Act' is coloured by the near presence of 'law' and 'statute,' yet carries the sexual possibility, to which 'sense' contributes. 'Act' has in Measure for Measure the effect of associating the action of government with the sexual impulse.

The dramatic tendency of these passages is to question the purity of the Duke's motives. And this challenge is sustained elsewhere, sharply or insidiously. We are, for instance, led towards viewing Angelo as the Duke's agent in the fullest sense. Even in the opening scene the sexual vibrations are easily detectable. 'Pregnant' (line 11) is not, in this play, an innocent metaphor, and the Duke's account of his policy is striking:

             … we have with special soul Elected him our absence to supply; Lent him our terror, dress'd him with our   love, And given his deputation all the organs Of our own power.                                      (I.i. 18-22)

Again, 'But I do bend my speech / To one that can my part in him advertise … ' (I.i.41-2). It is not necessary to press the interpretation that Angelo is acting out the concealed desires of his master; it is sufficient to note the linguistic cruxes that direct us to think along these lines. One of the sharpest hints occurs very late, when Angelo protests that his accusers are 'But instruments of some more mightier member / That sets them on' (v.i.237-8). Member has the general sense of 'a part of organ of the body,' but the OED allows special sanction to 'privy member.'15 In any case the word is coloured by its one previous application, by Pompey of all people: 'Your whores, sir, being members of my occupation' (IV.ii.39), after which it might seem a scholarly reservation even to admit of an additional, higher sense. No word retains its innocence after Pompey has used it.

A curiously reversed process occurs with motion. We noted with 'satisfaction' a progressive deterioration of moral status, from resolution of doubt to desire. Now with 'motion,' the final occurrence attempts to wrest it from an established meaning. The Duke, in his closing speech, has

                 Dear Isabel, I have a motion much imports your good …                                   (V.i.531-2)

'Motion' can only mean 'proposal' here; it is clearly a sense of the utmost propriety, not unreminiscent of our modern sense of formal debate. Yet we have to recall its three previous occurrences:

LUCIO        one who never feels The wanton stings and motions of the sense …                                      (I.iv.58-9)

CLAUDIO This sensible warm motion…                                                        (III.i.120)

LUCIO And he is of a motion generative …                                                      (III.ii.l18-19)

The speakers define the word. For Claudio, l'homme moyen sensuel, it is life itself, the movement of the body and its desires. For Lucio 'motion' is the lusts of the flesh. Here the history of this word suggests in microcosm Lucio's scene with the disguised Duke (III.ii), in which the ducal motives and sexual inclinations are consistently slandered. Malicious or not, Lucio's function is to set up doubts in the audience which the Duke's rebuttal cannot entirely dismiss. (Indeed, his 'I never heard the Duke much detected for women,' III.ii.129-30, seems a classic instance of the Freudian slip.) When, therefore, the Duke employs 'motion' to describe his initiative towards Isabella, the word is already devalued.

'Know' is the easiest instance of this tendency. As all agree, Measure for Measure is much concerned with self-knowledge: the Duke's 'Pattern in himself to know' (III.ii.277) and Angelo's 'What art thou, Angelo?' (II.ii.173) suggest that for both the action is a journey into the interior of self.16 But I want to emphasize the importance of 'know' in the final scene. It is heavily stressed in the Mariana-Duke passage (eight times in 27 lines, V.i.187-213), especially in Mariana's

Who thinks he knows that he ne'er knew my body, But knows he thinks that he knows Isabel's.                                    (V.i.203-4)

The point of this word-play is given to Lucio to dramatize:

DUKE Know you this woman? LUCIO Carnally, she says.                                       (v.i.213-14)

A very old dual sense of 'know,' this: yet Shakespeare insists on the point, and wrings a laugh out of it too. He will not let the dual sense escape here; yet in Much Ado, a comedy of romance that exploits 'know' consistently, he excludes the carnal sense.17

In fine, a central cluster of words can be shown to have tendencies towards higher and lower meanings. It is unnecessary for me to analyse at length the word which bears the weight of the entire linguistic and dramatic enterprise, sense, since this has been accomplished in William Empson's classic study in The Structure of Complex Words. 'Sense' occurs on twelve occasions, with the general meaning of 'reason,' 'decent feeling' on the one hand, and 'sensuality' on the other. The representative passages are:

LUCIO The wanton stings and motions of the   sense …                                                          (I.iv.59)

ANGELO She speaks, and 'tis such sense That my sense breeds with it.                                                        (II.ii.141-2)

DUKE Her madness hath the oddest frame of   sense …                                                          (V.i.61)

DUKE Against all sense you do importune her.                                                          (v.i.438)

Though the possibilities here are much more complex than with the other terms discussed, the word exhibits the general dualism I have argued for, and I accord with Empson's conclusion: 'the performance with the word sense is made to echo the thought of the play very fully up to the end.'18 The term verges on homograph, for 'sense' must cover a wide range of mental and physical activity. In its division between sexual and rational/sensibility meanings, it corresponds to the dual location structure and to the dialectic of freedom-restraint. 'Sense,' even more than the other terms we have considered, contains the genetic code of the play.


Language is character, and we can move from the vital areas of the play's language to the characters who speak it. Claudio is a convenient beginning. Early in the play he says of Isabella:

                  For in her youth There is a prone and speechless dialect Such as move men; beside, she hath   prosperous art When she will play with reason and   discourse, And well she can persuade.                                  (I.ii.187-91)

Lever remarks: 'There is an undercurrent of irony in the equivocal words "prone," "move," and "play," all capable of suggesting sexual provocation.'19 Precisely: and Lever's observation applies as cogently to the preceding 'Implore her, in my voice, that she make friends / To the strict deputy; bid herself assay him.' But the real point is that this passage is so entirely typical of the play; the leading characters all express themselves in this mode, with its undercurrent of sexuality. Isabella's own language combines an underlying awareness of sexuality with an overt determination on chastity. Her opening words are a commitment to self-restraint: 'I speak not as desiring more, / But rather wishing a more strict restraint' (I.iv.3-4). And her address to Angelo places the intensity of her commitment beyond question:

There is a vice that most I do abhor And most desire should meet the blow of  justice …                                   (II.ii.29-30)

Still, the repressed sexuality of her temperament is very clear in

Th'impression of keen whips I'd wear as   rubies, And strip myself to death, as to a bed That longing have been sick for, ere I'd yield My body up to shame.                                    (II.iv.101-4)

Her scene with Claudio (III.i) has a strong erotic tension. The progression is interesting:

ISABELLA In such a one as, you consenting to't, Would bark your honour from that trunk you  bear, And leave you naked.                                    (III.i.71-3)

CLAUDIO              If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride, And hug it in mine arms.                                         (83-5)

ISABELLA Is't not a kind of incest, to take life From thine own sister's shame?                                       (139-40)

The allusions intensify. 'Incest,' the culminating word, presents Isabella's yielding to Angelo as a symbolic congress with her brother. The psychological reality here appears as extreme revulsion, tinged with a certain awareness of the erotic charge in 'incest.'20 I am not, of course, proposing a full-dress psychoanalytic interpretation of Isabella based on a supposed regard for her brother, in the manner of The Duchess of Malfi and A King and No King. One could as well pursue the implications of her exchange of names with Juliet, 'By vain though apt affection' (I.iv.48). I suggest rather that there is in her an undischarged sexual tension that reveals itself in the erotic element in her language. To the obvious instances can be added her retort to Angelo, 'I would to heaven I had your potency, / And you were Isabel!' (II.ii.67-8), for potency contains the same suggestions. It is true that the OED does not give 'possessing sexual power' for 'potency'; but this is a word impossible to separate completely from its fellow, potent and impotent, in the seamless web of language, and these terms undoubtedly admit the sexual implication at the time of Measure for Measure. It is clear, as one reviews the six instances of 'potency' and twenty of 'potent' in Shakespeare, that the uppermost sense is of temporal power. But Antony and Cleopatra has 'And gives his potent regiment to a trull' (, and the OED cites 'impotency' with the sexual sense from 1594. Isabella's wish, then, expresses itself through a term already tinged with what, in the later history of the language, was to become the strong implication of male (and female) sexual capacity. In sum, Johnson's celebrated comment on Isabella's late flash of sexual vanity ('I partly think / A due sincerity govern'd his deeds / Till he did look on me,' v.i.450-2),

I am afraid our varlet poet intended to inculcate that women think ill of nothing that raises the credit of their beauty and are ready, however virtuous, to pardon any act which they think incited by their own charms,21

appears less an intrusion of eighteeth-century cynicism than a sound perception that Isabella's self-knowledge—and hence, sexual awareness—has been growing throughout the play. This speech is her last, and combined with her silence towards the Duke's overtures is the formal culmination of the state of awareness she has reached by the end of Measure for Measure.

Angelo's thoughts and actions are specifically directed towards the sexual act, and as such they require little commentary. Even so, it is striking that the language in which he expresses his inclination is so often veiled, allusive, suggestive. It is as though he finds difficulty in admitting the extent of his propensity, even to himself; and in this sense his language is indeed an amplification of the wondering 'What art thou, Angelo?' For instance, 'And in my heart the strong and swelling evil / Of my conception' (II.iv.6-7) projects the physical implications of conceive, while holding nominally to the mental sense. (The further, glancing possibility that conception is evil may help the actor.) The same physicality looms in

This deed unshapes me quite, makes meunpregnant And dull to all proceedings. A deflower'd   maid! And by an eminent body that enforc'd The law against it!(IV.iv.23-6, italics added)

The first line and a half convey a mental state, yet the impression is as much of detumescence as of depression; it is a plain case of post coitum omne animal triste est. Again, his first reaction to Isabella contains the lines:

                 Having waste ground enough Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary And pitch our evils there?                                     (II.ii. 170-2)

The play is on evil, which means 'privy' also. This repellent symbolism for the sexual act takes up, via 'corrupt,' the 'carrion' idea in line 167 of the same soliloquy. But above all sex is a 'temptation' (182), and the 'hook' image with which Angelo expresses the thought,

O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint, With saints dost bait thy hook!                                    (II.ii.180-1)

parallels strikingly Isabella's sense of the situation:

                    O perilous mouths, That bear in them one and the self-same   tongue Either of condemnation or approof; Bidding the law make court'sy to their will, Hooking both right and wrong to th'appetite, To follow as it draws!                                    (II.iv. 172-7)

Both Angelo and Isabella perceive each other as a dangerous adversary, as a tempter. Since it is impossible to be tempted by what one does not wish, it is the play's function to delineate the source of this profound attraction.

The Duke focuses the play; as, on standard Shakespearean form, we should expect. Shakespeare has an abiding sense of the ways in which a community is symbolized in its ruler: the fever-stricken John as emblem of England's internal war, Richard the ravening boar, the strong-willed but uncomprehending Prince of Verona. A ruler generates, reflects, and exemplifies the values of his realm. Commentators and directors have varied widely in their perception of the Duke as a semi-religious figure, God's Viceroy,22 and as an 'unctuous fraud.'23 It seems clear, as one reviews the general linguistic pattern of Measure for Measure, that the issue is not best stated in direct moral categories at all, as fraud versus holy man. It is a matter of the human mind coming to terms with itself. Our experience of the Duke is analogous to his speeches in the opening scene, which move from a bafflingly contorted and obscure syntax to a clear, easily flowing style. The early part is concerned with giving an account of himself, the latter with giving orders. So the movement from shadow to clarity is contained even in the opening; and we retain this sense of the Duke at the close.

Much of what has already been cited applies to the Duke, is indeed spoken by him. I select a few crucial passages to amplify the sketch of him that has emerged. The Duke, ever ready—until the final scene—to disclaim any sexual interest has an early denial: 'Believe not that the dribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom' (I.iii.2-3). (Whatever can be said of 'dribbling' as 'falling wide / short of the mark,' the underlying phallic possibility remains.) This brief challenge and parry is amplified into the Lucio-Duke episode of III.ii. 'The Duke,' as Vickers observes, 'sees himself in that divine Renaissance triplicity: "a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier" ';24 Lucio sees an aged roué: the composite image is the play. Now nothing in the entire action vexes the Duke so much as Lucio's scandal-mongering. His immediate reaction is fierce; the only real punishment he hands down at the end is to Lucio; and in an intervening scene, àpropos of nothing at all, he launches into the following:

O place and greatness! millions of false eyes Are stuck upon thee; … thousand escapes of   wit Make thee the father of their idle dream …                                       (IV.i.60-4)

It is a fascinating reference to the tendency of humanity to project fantasies upon the great (cf Jonson's scurrilities to Drummond of Hawthornden on the subject of Queen Elizabeth).25 The dramatic impression so insidiously conveyed is that there is something to it. Lucio's 'I' am a kind of burr; I shall stick' objectifies an impulse of the drama. And after all, the 'complete bosom' is pierced by the final scene.

What, then, are we to make of the 'pattern in himself to know' address? Its primary characteristic is an archaic form and broad allusion: it appears as an Everyman monologue as much as a soliloquy. On the principle that all speeches in mature Shakespearean drama are compatible with a naturalistic psychological explanation, I propose that we regard the soliloquy as a kind of incantation. The speech, an expanded sententia, is a reminder to himself of his role. The Duke is stating, for the purposes of self-rectification, the acknowledged premises on which a ruler should proceed. Even so, 'weed my vice and let his grow' is decidedly arresting. I can see little point in a critical sanitizing of 'my vice' as 'Everyman's.' The suggestion is obvious and immediately available in the theatre. That, if you like, is the unacknowledged premise. The Duke appeals to a past tradition as the guardian of his persona.

On this approach, then, we can see the final scene as a public exorcisement by the Duke of impulses in himself. After 'We do condemn thee to the very block / Where Claudio stoop'd to death' (v.i.419-20), the Duke enacts Angelo, as Mariana and Isabella kneel to him. The key line then becomes, 'I find an apt remission in myself (503), surely a vector that indicates the Duke's share in the flawed humanity of his realm. As for the proposal to Isabella, Sachs's commentary here is suggestive:

As Angelo's wedding parallels on a higher level the enforced marriage of Lucio, so performs the Duke, in a legitimate and honourable way, the crime which Angelo attempted in vain.26

Recent stage practice, we can note, has fully grasped that Measure for Measure's ending is not a bland churching, a slice of the higher kitsch.27 We remain, in the text's own terms, with a marked lack of response to a truly surprising psychological dénouement. Why not accept the Duke's late conversion to marriage as the key fact of the drama, and read it backwards from there?

That concludes the analysis. I add a postscript: the play, from the same perspective, can be thought of as Barnadine's. One of the great images of Measure for Measure is of Barnadine, that unregenerate life-force, rising up from the ground to assert his own shameless existence. I am aware that a trap-door is not essential to the staging here; and Hosley, in his survey of plays designed for original performance at the First Globe playhouse, has shown that Measure for Measure did not require a trap-door.28 The Folio direction in IV.iii is simply 'Enter Barnadine.' But the directors who have preferred the trap-door entrance have, I think, the root of the matter. Invulnerable to the censor, this figure of the mental underworld forces himself up into the play's consciousness to announce: 'I swear I will not die today for any man's persuasion.' Nor does he; nor does what he represents.


References are to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed Hardin Craig and David Bevington (Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman 1973).

1 We need not quibble as to whether Mariana's grange is formally situated outside the city limits, or merely in the outskirts.

2 Edwin Wilson, ed, Shaw on Shakespeare (New York: Dutton 1961), p 142.

3 His opening line is 'Fellow, why dost thou show me thus to th'world?'

4 The tendency crystallizes in two dwellings. Mariana's grange is moated; Angelo's house has a walled garden, outside a vineyard (also walled, since it has a gate). Each entrance has a lock.

5 J.I.M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare (London: Longman 1949), p 108.

6 Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1968), p 46.

7 This difficulty is not properly faced up to in E.A.M. Colman's recent The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (London: Longman 1974).

8 The definition of 'sexual' in Webster's Third New International Dictionary is simplest: (2b)'… relating to the sphere of behaviour associated with libidinal gratification.'

9 Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers (New York: Basic Books 1959), II, 162.

10 J.W. Lever, ed, Measure for Measure, New Arden Edition (London: Methuen 1965), p 97.

11 S. Freud, The Complete Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, ed James Strachey (New York: Norton 1966), p 158.

12 Ibid.

13 This symbolism is cited in Freud, Complete Introductory Lectures, p 157. Colman (p 211) points out that ten columns of quotation and analogue are cited in J.S. Farmer and W.E. Henley, Slang and its Analogues: Past and Present (repr in 3 vols, New York: Kraus Reprint 1965). Among the most striking parallels in Shakespeare are Henry V, III .vii.45-72, and Antony and Cleopatra, IV .viii.14-16.

14 Partridge, p 39.

15OED gives 'privy member or members, carnal member: the secret part or parts.'

16 There is a useful general discussion in Rolf Soellner, Shakespeare's Patterns of Self-Knowledge (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 1972), pp 215-36.

17 See 'Problems of Knowing' in Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1972), pp 154-74.

18 William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (New York: New Directions 1951), p 284.

19 Lever, p 18.

20 This element, to my observation, has been increasingly played up in recent stage productions, notably in Jonathan Miller's Measure for Measure at the Greenwich Theatre, 1975.

21 W.K. Wimsatt, ed, Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare (New York: Hill & Wang 1960).

22 The locus classicus of this view is G. Wilson Knight's 'Measure for Measure and the Gospels,' in The Wheel of Fire, 4th ed (London: Methuen 1949), pp 73-96.

23 A view advanced (but not endorsed) by Nevill Coghill in 'Comic Form in Measure for Measure, ' Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955), p 15.

24 Brian Vickers, The Artistry of Shakespeare's Prose (London: Methuen 1968), p 327.

25 See Herford and Simpson's Works, I, 142.

26 Hanns Sachs, 'The Measure in Measure for Measure,' The American Imago, 1 (1939-40), p 80.

27 This is true of John Barton's production (RSC, 1969); Keith Hack (RSC, 1974); Jonathan Miller (Greenwich, 1975); and Robin Phillips (Stratford, Ontario, 1975). Three of these productions left Isabella in a state of more or less anguished doubt; one (Miller's) made it plain beyond doubt that Isabella has rejected the Duke.

28 Richard Hosley, 'The Playhouses,' The Revels History of Drama in English, vol III: 1576-1613 (London: Methuen 1975), pp 193-5.


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Karl F. Zender (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Isabella's Choice," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 77-93.

[In the following essay, Zender argues that Measure for Measure is Shakespeare's final romantic comedy and uses the development of Isabella's and Angelo 's characters to support his contention.]

What should Isabella do, in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure? Should she yield up her body to Angelo's will, in the hope of saving her brother's life? Or should she refuse Angelo's demand, thereby preserving her chastity? Anyone who believes that these questions have been relieved of their difficulty by modern refinements in sexual morality need only pose them, in a non-directive fashion, to a class of undergraduates. Responses will almost certainly divide between the two options; and students will not choose their positions along any easily discernible demongraphic lines. Female students will urge Isabella to accede, male students to resist, and vice versa; and a similar lack of unanimity will reveal itself among self-professed liberals and conservatives, well-to-do students and not-so-well-to-do, young and old. 1 Cold and remote as the concepts of chastity and honor may sometimes seem to modern readers, the dilemma that Isabella faces retains its troubling ambiguity. What should she do? Live chaste and brother die? Or stoop her body to abhorred pollution?

Having named these options, it is now the intention of this essay to decline the choice between them. Measure for Measure would not be a very interesting (or troubling) play if such a choice could clearly and definitively be made; and the history of twentieth-century criticism of the play is littered with the wrecks of attempts to do so. The aim here is instead to call into question the terms of the choice itself—as indeed Isabella herself does, when she becomes convinced that Angelo is serious in his demand. "I will proclaim thee, Angelo, look for't," she says. "Sign me a present pardon for my brother, / Or with an outstretch'd throat I'll tell the world aloud / What man thou art."2 This third option, of public denunciation, is clearly one of the goals of the play's action: for Isabella to be heard in her "true complaint," in her call for "Justice! Justice! Justice!" (5.1.25-26), is a necessary precondition to such degree of comic resolution as Measure for Measure finally achieves. Yet when first announced, the option disappears almost as quickly as stated. Isabella quails in the face of Angelo's smug "Say what you can: my false o'erweighs your true," lamenting "To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, / Who would believe me?" and instead choosing to try to "fit [Claudio's] mind to death" (2.4.169-71, 186).

The reason Isabella gives for this decision, that no unbiased authority exists to listen to her denunciation, only partly satisfies. Although the return of Duke Vincentio in Act 5 provides an answer for the question "To whom should I complain?" that is lacking in Act 2, the quickness with which Isabella relinquishes her initial threat suggests the existence of an internal motive as well, a desire not to speak similar to the one she evinces when Lucio calls her forth from the convent and when she first meets Angelo. Also, the circumstance in which Isabella finally does denounce Angelo is emotionally even more demanding than the one in Act 2, since it requires that she assert a "vile conclusion"—the "gift of [her] chaste body / To [Angelo' s] concupiscible intemperate lust" (5.1.98, 100-1)—that in fact did not occur. So by what process of growth does Isabella move from initial silence to later speech, from the agony of an impossible choice to activism? And what are the limits of this movement? Is it increased or diminished in scope by the silence into which she lapses at the end of the play, the one in which she twice fails to respond to the Duke's proposal of marriage?


In seeking answers to these questions, it will be helpful if we first consider the relation between genre and character in Measure for Measure—between, that is, the play's status as a romantic comedy of a peculiar sort and the radical polarization its characters exhibit on issues of sexual morality and social governance. Calling Measure for Measure a romantic comedy of course runs counter to a central tendency in modern Shakespearean criticism, which has long sought some alternative genre—problem comedy, tragicomedy, tragedy manqué—to which to assign the play. But if we think of Measure for Measure as descending from such plays as Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It and Twelfth Night, then one observation immediately suggests itself: Measure for Measure is the last romantic comedy, the last play before the late romances in which marriage is presented as a more-or-less adequate resolution for the social and psychological dilemmas explored in the body of the play. And as the last romantic comedy, Measure for Measure seems self-consciously retrospective in mood and structure, as if Shakespeare were calling into question certain underlying assumptions of the genre and asking how their disavowal might affect character and dramatic action and the possibility of a romantic denouement.3

This tendency toward generic self-criticism reveals itself in the way Shakespeare adapts stock elements of romantic comedy to the darker world of Measure for Measure—in his redefinition of the role of the clown, and of the function of masquerade, and of the motif, first identified by Northrop Frye, of a circular journey into and out of a "green world."4 In his re-use of each of these elements, Shakespeare mounts a deliberate assault on the optimistic world-view of the earlier comedies. The transition from Puck to Touchstone to Feste to Pompey Bum, for example, reveals a progressive naturalization of the figure of the clown and a consequent growing skepticism about his ability to function as an intermediary in the romantic action. From Puck, a quasidivine embodiment of belief in the natural felicity of romance, in the idea that "Jack shall have Jill; / Naught shall go ill" (3.2.461-62), Shakespeare's clowns descend by distinct stages into social reality and economic necessity. The last step in this progression is from Feste's uncertain status as a member of Olivia's household and his continual need to cadge money to Pompey's identity as "a bawd, a wicked bawd" (3.2.18). Here the clown's relation to any natural cycle of regeneration is entirely severed, and Pompey's statements about the inevitability of human sexual activity—"Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?" (2.1.227-28)—echo Puck's only as parody echoes serious belief.

Similar considerations apply to masquerade and to the motif of the circular journey. An overview of the romantic comedies reveals a gradual change in Shakespeare's representation of the impediments to romance. The external obstacles—resistant parents and worldly misfortune—of Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It come to be replaced by the more problematic interior restraints, mental and moral, of Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure. Accompanying this shift is a change in the function of disguise, until in Measure for Measure the relaxed and playful masquerade of the earlier plays disappears entirely. Here Duke Vincentio, the central authority of the play, not the young lovers, engages in physical masquerade; and the self-deception for which masquerade is an analogue changes its meaning as well, moving from the relatively innocuous affectations of the young lovers in Midsummer Night's Dream to the more deeply-rooted delusions of Orsino and Olivia in Twelfth Night and the radical lack of self-knowledge of Angelo and Isabella. So also with the motif of the circular journey, which in Measure for Measure reduces to an echo of its former self. In this play of locked and enclosed settings, nature itself comes to be locked away, in the "moated grange" wherein "resides [the] dejected Mariana" (3.1.265-66) and the "garden circummur'd with brick" (4.1.28) of the intended assignation.5 And the only real journey in the play situates the action of the fifth act outside the city walls, thus permitting a reentry into a (dubiously) regenerated Vienna.

At the heart of this series of transformations is a challenge to the organicist view, endemic in the earlier comedies, of the relation between liberty and restraint. Near the end of Measure for Measure, in her appeal to Isabella for help in pleading for Angelo's life, Mariana says, "They say best men are moulded out of faults, / And, for the most, become much more the better / For being a little bad. So may my husband" (5.1.437-39). Mariana here expresses a version of what C. L. Barber calls "the saturnalian pattern" of Shakespearean comedy—the belief that a beneficent rhythm of release and constraint governs human libidinal energy, producing in social terms an oscillation between "holiday" and "everyday" and in psychological terms a movement from the "foolish wisdom" of prudential self-regard to the "wise folly" of passionate exuberance and romantic commitment. 6 But Mariana's affirmation of this pattern is hard-won. In a world where "corruption boil[s] and bubble[s] / Till it o'errun the stew" (5.1.316-17), where "Liberty plucks Justice by the nose, / The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum" (1.3.29-31), the notion of an organic rhythm of release and constraint has been supplanted by a nearly all-out war between amoral naturalism on the one hand and asceticism on the other.

The most important effect of this breakdown in belief is internal, on the characters' understanding of themselves and of each other. Both the naturalists and the ascetics—Lucio, Claudio, and Pompey in the one group, Angelo, Isabella, and Duke Vincentio in the other—lack faith in the mixed, middle form of existence Mariana affirms. Claudio's early speech about the effects of "liberty," for example—made in reply to Lucio's "Whence comes this restraint?"—entirely fails to assert any beneficent relation between the terms he and Lucio use. For Claudio, "surfeit" leads to "fast," "scope" to "restraint," in a fashion less like that of holiday to everday than that of sin to punishment. "Our natures do pursue," he says, "Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die" (1.2.116-22). Yet because this pursuit of selfdestructive pleasure is understood as "natural," a fatalism attaches to Claudio's (and Lucio's and Pompey's) libertinism. "Grace is grace, despite of all controversy," says Lucio to the First Gentleman; "as, for example, thou thyself art a wicked villain, despite of all grace" (1.2.24-26). 7

So also with the way the two groups of characters view each other. Lucio's comment to Isabella, "I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted / By your renouncement, an immortal spirit, / And to be talk'd with in sincerity, / As with a saint" (1.4.34-37), is sometimes taken to be ironic. But the speech is better understood straight, as a reflex of the rigid, black-and-white separation Lucio makes between those of his party and those of the other. This rigidity helps to explain how Lucio can describe Angelo, in all sincerity, as "a man whose blood / Is very snow-broth; one who never feels / The wanton stings and motions of the sense" (1.4.57-59). And it also helps to explain the attitudes of the members of the ascetic party in the first half of the play, where a tendency toward black-and-white moral distinctions produces Angelo's naive assumption that sensual indulgence can be controlled by destroying houses of prostitution; Isabella's profound distaste for "Seeming, seeming!" (2.4.149); and Duke Vincentio's belief that his "own bringings-forth" will manifest him as "a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier" even to the "envious" (3.2.141-42). 8

Yet however deeply the two groups of characters polarize experience, attempting to segregate vice from virtue, libertinism from asceticism, the play itself does not endorse their efforts. In the absence of a relaxed, comic belief in "a little bad" leading to "much more the better," the interrelation between vice and virtue returns as nightmare. This Angelo discovers in the intense soliloquy he delivers after his first encounter with Isabella. His sudden insight into the presence of desire in himself threatens his understanding of his identity; but even more threatening is the linkage he discovers between desire and virtue. "From thee," he says, "even from thy virtue! / … can it be / That modesty may more betray our sense / Than woman's lightness?" (2.2.162,168-70). Angelo retreats almost immediately from the vertiginous implications of this question. For the space of a single sentence, he contemplates placing a positive construction on the relation between Isabella's "modesty" and his aroused "sense," asking "What, do I love her, / That I desire to hear her speak again? / And feast upon her eyes?" But he then reverts to his former certainty, viewing his new sensation not as a morally neutral fact of experience—an enticement to courtship, say—but as a "temptation that doth goad [him] on / To sin in loving virtue" (2.2.177-83).

Angelo would rather view himself as a sinner than experience uncertainty about the location of the boundary between vice and virtue. But the question he raises cannot so quickly be dismissed by anyone with a mind more open than his. If modesty may more betray one's sense than woman's lightness, and no positive, comic construction can be placed on this fact, then Angelo's entire conception of vice as segregable and extirpible—of repression as an answer to immorality—is cast into doubt. This is so because vice reveals itself in this construction less as an objectively definable set of behaviors than as the process of transgression. However securely virtue is locked away, either psychically or physically, vice will batten upon it, for vice constitutes itself, continually calls itself into being, by violating the boundary between itself and virtue. "These black masks," says Angelo, "Proclaim an enciel'd beauty ten times louder / Than beauty could, display'd" (2.4.79-81). "Nay, I knew not sinne," says St. Paul, "but by the Law: for I had not knowen lust, except the Law had said, Thou shalt not lust." 9


Shakespeare's challenge to romantic convention thus produces, in the first half of Measure for Measure, a tragic conception of the relation between liberty and restraint, vice and virtue, in which the interdependence of the paired terms can neither be avoided nor accepted. The central action of the remainder of the play is an attempted movement back toward a comic understanding of this interdependence; and the agency of this movement is the moral and emotional education of Isabella. Certainly Isabella is not morally culpable in the same fashion as Angelo, and a strong case could be made in support of her rejection of his demand, even were her brother to die.10 Yet many students of the play, sympathetic with Isabella in her plight, nonetheless detect a want of feeling in the way she makes her decision. In his introduction to the Arden edition of Measure for Measure, J. W. Lever speaks of "sudden slips from level to level, landslides of the soul which transform zealot into lecher and saint into sadist." 11 The terms Lever uses apply to Angelo, not to Isabella. But the process he describes occurs in her as well, where it takes the form of a "slippage" from a hypersensitive fear of ridicule and a temperamental affinity for withdrawal and silence to a devotion, erotic in its intensity, to death.

The most notorious example of this slippage is the speech in which Isabella expresses her preference for death over dishonor. "Were I under the terms of death," she says, "Th'impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I'd yield / My body up to shame" (2.4.100-4). This speech, with its sado-masochistic overtones, expresses an orientation evident throughout Isabella's speeches and actions in the middle scenes of the play. "What a merit were it in death to take this poor maid from the world" (3.1.231-32) she exclaims, when she first hears of Mariana's abandonment by Angelo; and she exhibits a similar preference for death over life in her pleas for and to Claudio. Her first heartfelt plea for her brother is not that he should be allowed to live indefinitely but that "He's not prepar'd for death" (2.2.85), a concern she returns to twice more. 12 And when she visits Claudio in prison, she hopes to find in him a preference for "a perpetual honour" over "a feverous life"—a life which she characteristically defines slightingly, as consisting of only "six or seven winters more" (3.1.74-76). 13

The main problem with this orientation is its youthfulness. The erotic longing with which Isabella invests the idea of death, and the alacrity with which she invokes death as a solution for peoples' problems, suggests that she understands it not as physical reality but as metaphor—as a limit term for the desire for withdrawal from the world of which her entry into her novitiate is the initial expression. "The sense of death is most in apprehension" (3.1.77) she says to Claudio, as a way of arousing in him a willingness to die. But her statement applies as well to herself, in that her youthful "apprehension" of death as a ready-made solution for life's woes causes her to lack an empathetic "sense" of the extremity of her brother's situation. Had Claudio "twenty heads to tender down / On twenty bloody blocks, he'd yield them up" (2.4.179-80), she says, as if his execution were simply an infinitely repeatable fantasy solution to her dilemma, not an irreversible physical fact.14 Also, the intensity of her affection for death arises in part from the acuteness of her fear of public humiliation. She reveals an adolescent sensitivity to insult in her first appearance on stage, when she says to Lucio, "Sir, make me not your story" and "You do blaspheme the good, in mocking me" (1.4.29, 38). And the situation Angelo creates exacerbates this sensitivity, since a failed attempt at public denunciation will cause her, as he shrewdly points out, to "stifle in [her] own report, / And smell of calumny" (2.4.157-58).

It is understandable, then, that Isabella should hope to find a corresponsive allegiance to death in Claudio and that the disappointment of this hope should produce the savage tirade with which she concludes their encounter in the prison scene. And it is also understandable that the transformation Isabella undergoes in the remaining scenes of the play should focus on her attitudes toward death and public humiliation. "The vile conclusion," she says, in her fifth-act denunciation of Angelo, "I now begin with grief and shame to utter" (5.1.98-99); and the words "grief and "shame" are here invested with full dramatic intensity. The source of the first of these feelings is clear enough; but the depth of the grief Isabella experiences as a result of the supposed execution of Claudio nonetheless deserves emphasis. "Nay, dry your eyes," and "Command these fretting waters from your eyes," says Duke Vincentio in the scene where he tells Isabella that Claudio has been executed (4.3.127, 146). This emphasis on weeping, which is seconded by Lucio's "I am pale at mine heart to see thine eyes so red" (4.3.150-51), underscores the nature of the education Isabella is receiving relative to the reality of death. From her unpitying statements to Claudio in the prison scene—"I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death; / No word to save thee"; "'Tis best that thou diest quickly" (3.1.145-46, 150)—she here arrives at a visceral knowledge of the reality of loss. 15

More intricate and more interesting is the movement Isabella undergoes in relation to the experience of shame. Isabella's share in the moral rigidities of the opening world of the play consists, as we have noted, in repugnance at the idea of "seeming." Desirous of the moral clarity of "a more strict restraint" (1.4.4), lacking in experience with men, deferential to authority, she wishes appearance to be congruent with reality and truth with fact. This desire carries forward into the preparations for the fifth-act denunciation, when Isabella tells Mariana, "To speak so indirectly I am loth; / I would say the truth & / & yet I am advis'd to do it, / He says, to veil full purpose" (4.6.1-4). But despite her desire for frankness and clarity, Isabella finally does speak indirectly, even to the extent of publicly asserting the existence of a rape that in Act 2 she was neither willing to endure nor to denounce. Where in Act 2 she remains silent largely out of fear of being accused of calumny, she here accepts the likelihood, even if only momentary, of greater public obloquy. And she does this while supposing that Claudio is dead, a fact that lends to her speaking out a particular poignancy, since the choice she claims to have made, of "sisterly remorse" over "honor" (5.1.103), is exactly the one she did not make when she believed that Claudio's life depended upon it.

In effect, then, Isabella has undergone an education in the bearableness of shame, when endured in the service of a worthwhile purpose.16 If we ask who brings this education about, the overall answer is of course Duke Vincentio, whose purpose in pretending to Isabella that Claudio has died is "To make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected" (4.3.109-110). But a more immediate, and emotionally more influential, source of Isabella's transformation is Mariana.17 As has often been noted, the role that Duke Vincentio assigns to Isabella in bringing about the "bed trick" is not entirely dictated by plot considerations alone. Isabella performs two tasks in creating the encounter between Mariana and Angelo: she goes to Angelo and "answer[s] his requiring with a plausible obedience" (3.1.243-44), and she informs Mariana of the plan. Only the first of these tasks necessarily requires her participation, since broaching the matter to Mariana is something Duke Vincentio could do as well as she—particularly since he had earlier assured Isabella, "The maid will I frame, and make fit for his attempt" (3.1.256-57).

When considered in terms of its effect on Isabella's emotional growth, though, Duke Vincentio's assumption that Mariana should hear the proposal from Isabella herself makes perfect sense. The most evident function of this involvement is that it allows Isabella to watch Mariana make a decision about substituting oneself for someone else that is directly opposed to the one she herself has just made. More importantly, Isabella's involvement provides an opportunity to gain insight into the nature of love and shame, and into the power of the one to make bearable the other. One of the ill effects of the moral rigidity pervading the world of the play is a hyper-rationalistic understanding of human emotion, as when Duke Vincentio assumes that Angelo's lustful behavior will arouse sympathy in him toward Claudio. But Mariana stands as a living repudiation of this way of thinking, since Angelo's "unjust unkindness, that in all reason should have quenched her love, hath, like an impediment in the current, made it more violent and unruly" (3.1.240-43). Furthermore, although Shakespeare does not foreground the fact, the bed trick can be expected to arouse in Mariana feelings of shame similar to those that might have been aroused in Isabella by the rape it forestalls; for how might Mariana be expected to feel, making love to a man she loves, while knowing that he thinks he is making love to a woman other than herself? So if Mariana is willing to undergo this experience, the relation between love and shame must be more intricate than the polarity Isabella assumes to exist when she makes her initial decision.18

This education into emotional complexity reaches its culmination in the coup de théâtre of Isabella's kneeling in support of Mariana's plea for Angelo's life. The moral implications of this act—its replacement of the "Old Law" of "death for death / & / & and Measure still for Measure" (5.1.407-9) with the "New Law" of grace and mercy—have been exhaustively analyzed in earlier commentary on the play. Here it remains only to note how Isabella's act of kneeling underscores the play's movement from tragic rigidity to comic flexibility. By joining Mariana in her plea, Isabella engages in an act of empathetic identification parallel to the one Mariana had engaged in by agreeing to participate in the bed trick. And in acceding to Mariana's request, "do yet but kneel by me" (5.1.435), Isabella performs a physical enactment of this identification, one which sharply contrasts with the meaning acts of kneeling had exhibited earlier in the play.

That earlier meaning is succinctly expressed at the end of Act 2, when Isabella speaks of Claudio's supposed willingness to "tender down" "twenty heads & / On twenty bloody blocks & / Before his sister should her body stoop / To such abhorr'd pollution" (2.4.179-82). The comparison Isabella implies here, between Claudio's kneeling and her "stooping," is directly analogous to the choice she faces, as she at this point understands it. In presentday parlance, the question is who is to go down for whom, and in what fashion. And because the notion of stooping or kneeling as a form of female sexual submission receives expression elsewhere early in the play, it lends an air of sexual innuendo (unintended by Isabella) to the kneeling Isabella engages in during her first interview with Angelo. So Claudio's unwillingness to perform the reciprocal act of kneeling at the block understandably produces in Isabella an intense revulsion against stooping, kneeling, going down. "Take my defiance, / Die, perish!" she says, "Might but my bending down / Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed" (3.1.142-44).19

From this rigid, "unbending" anger, Isabella finally arrives at the empathetic kneeling of Act 5. So her physical pliancy in Act 5 forms a visual analogue for her growth into emotional and moral complexity. It also expresses a new-found sociability. Isabella's kneeling in Act 5 is not merely kneeling to (as it had been in Act 2) but kneeling with, in an extended sense of the term. In the highly schematic dramaturgy of the fifth act, Mariana's unveiling, which she refuses to perform "Until my husband bid me" (5.1.172), emblemizes her transition from the cloister-like immurement of the moated grange to matrimony. But as Duke Vincentio's instruction regarding Mariana—"First, let her show her face, and after, speak" (5.1.170)—suggests, her veiled entrance also echoes the scene in the cloister in Act 1, where Isabella was told that as a sworn votarist, "if you speak, you must not show your face; / Or if you show your face, you must not speak" (1.4.12-13). So for Isabella to kneel beside the unveiled Mariana and speak in defense of the preservation of Mariana's marriage—particularly when she still believes Angelo to be responsible for her brother's death—emblemizes her own removal from the cloister and entry into the world. Only a short distance separates this act of kneeling, it would seem, from the later one that Duke Vincentio and Isabella can be imagined to engage in, as bridegroom and bride, in the performance of their nuptials.


But by what warrant do we assume that the marriage of Duke Vincentio and Isabella will ever take place? Silence in a work of literature is by its nature ambiguous, so Isabella's failure to respond to the Duke's twice-repeated offer of marriage can be (and has been) interpreted as either assent or resistance. The difficulty is that both options seem equally plausible (and implausible). The whole thrust of the play toward a comic resolution supports the notion that Isabella's silence should be interpreted as assent; and the close of the play seems to invite a processional exit of couples, married and betrothed, two by two. But this exit, if it occurs, will be headed by a man in a friar's habit and a woman in the habit of a postulant—surely an odd way of intimating that a marriage between the two is in the offing. Also, the comic resolution which this procession purportedly completes exhibits more silences than only Isabella's; for no member of the presumed happy ending speaks to any other member of his or her happiness. Claudio and Isabella do not speak in reconciliation; Claudio and Juliet do not speak to one another at all (if Juliet is in fact even on stage); the newly-wedded Angelo does not speak to Mariana, nor Mariana to Angelo.

Faced with such an interpretative crux, it may be advisable to respond in the same fashion as with Isabella's dilemma in Act 2—that is, by declining to choose between the options. Unlike the earlier situation, though, declining to choose here does not afford the comfort of discovering a third, ameliorative alternative. But this fact may itself be significant, as embodying an impasse Shakespeare had reached at this stage in his career as a writer of romantic comedy. It is a critical commonplace to note that nearly all of Shakespeare's romantic comedies contain a character—Jaques, Malvolio, Don John—whose presence on the periphery of the final festive resolution challenges its completeness. And it is also often noted that the seriousness of the challenge posed by these characters increases as Shakespeare's career advances. Measure for Measure represents a limit beyond which this challenge cannot grow, if a play is to remain comic in form and meaning; for the challenge here is not simply that of a separate figure, who can be ritually or realistically excluded from the final festive harmony. It is instead an irreconciliation inside Isabella and Angelo (and possibly Duke Vincentio) themselves, a division between the ascetic and social sides of their personalities, between their love of "the life remov'd" (1.3.8) and their discovery that "if our virtues / Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike / As if we had them not" (1.1.33-35).

Looming behind this interiorizing of the resistance to an inclusive comic resolution is the larger issue of the fate of asceticism in Shakespeare's age. Where did asceticism go as a way of life, once the monasteries and the nunneries were dissolved? The classic answer to this question, as provided by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is that cloistral asceticism came to be replaced by "ascetic Protestantism"—by an asceticism, that is, that "slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate & [the] daily routine of life with its methodicalness, to fashion [that routine] into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world."20 As a broad-scale description of a sweeping historical change, Weber's assertion still seems essentially valid. But the process Weber describes provides little basis for the continued writing of romantic comedy of Shakespeare's sort, with its celebration of holiday excess and wise folly; for as C. L. Barber says, "the Puritan ethic contrasts all along the line with the sort of 'housekeeping' which went with festive liberty."21

The two central final silences in Measure for Measure—Isabella's and Angelo's—offer symbolic commentary on this closure of romantic possibility. When Duke Vincentio reveals that Claudio is still alive, he says, "By this Lord Angelo perceives he's safe; / Methinks I see a quickening in his eye" (5.1.492-93). The pun here on "quick," as meaning "endowed with life," links Angelo's pardon to the play's general concluding emphasis on renewal of life, as enacted in the pardoning of Claudio and Barnardine and the partial remission of Lucio's sentence. But there is no evidence beyond Duke Vincentio's assertion that this quickening has taken very strong hold on Angelo's mind and personality. In his only speeches of any length after the revelation of his guilt, Angelo twice asks for death as punishment, in a fashion that suggests on obdurate continuation into Act 5 of the attitudes he exhibited in Acts 1 and 2.

"Good prince," Angelo says in the first of these requests, "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" (5.1.368-72). In its failure to express remorse over Claudio's supposed execution and its specification of avoidance of shame as the reason for desiring death, this speech exhibits Angelo's retrogressive stance relative to the sort of moral education Isabella has undergone in the second half of the play, into the reality of loss and the bearableness of shame. And while Angelo's second request for death, with its mention of "my penitent heart" (5.1.473), intimates some degree of moral awakening, it also provides grounds for doubting the completeness of this transformation. The placement of the speech immediately after Mariana's and Isabella's impassioned plea for the preservation of his life reveals an indifference to that plea on Angelo's part; and the conclusion he draws from his new-found feeling of penitence—"I crave death more willingly than mercy" (5.1.474)—suggests a thorough lack of understanding of the breakthrough from the Old to the New Law enacted in the debat between Duke Vincentio, Mariana, and Isabella.

Angelo's final silence, then, offers reasons for questioning the hopefulness of Mariana's "So may my husband." Far from "a little bad" producing "much more the better," Angelo's concluding silence fore-shadows simple continuation, a transference into marriage—into his own, and, by extension, into Protestant bourgeois marriage generally—of the emotional rigidity and sexual tyranny he had exhibited as a bachelor and as Duke Vincentio's substitute.22 Isabella's final silence may at first glance seem more positive, particularly if we read it as resisting the newly-emergent assumption that wifehood was the only social role toward which a woman should aspire. But we should not insist too strongly on the self-affirmative dimension of Isabella's final silence, for if she does not say "yes," neither does she say "no." This essay has consistently depicted Isabella's moral growth as her acquisition of the courage and power to speak. But the final step in this process, in which she would speak on behalf not only of others but of herself—on behalf, that is, of her own temperamental affinity for silence—she does not take. She cannot, and have Measure for Measure remain even remotely a romantic comedy. Not until Cordelia says, "What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent" (1.1.62), will Shakespeare explore this sort of speech, and this sort of silence, and their consequences.


1 For similar observations about the effect of Measure for Measure on undergraduate students, see Melvin Seiden, Measure for Measure: Casuistry and Artistry (Catholic U. of America Press, 1990), pp. 1-2.

2 All citations of Measure for Measure are to the Arden Edition, ed. J. W. Lever (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1965). The quoted passage occurs at 2.4.150-53. Citations of other plays by Shakespeare are to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 4th ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992). A succinct history of the critical controversy surrounding Isabella's refusal to submit, with copious citations, can be found in George Geckle, "Shakespeare's Isabella," SQ 22 (1971): 163-68. Excerpts from important commentaries attacking and defending Isabella appear in George Geckle, ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Measure for Measure" (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), and C. K. Stead, ed., Shakespeare: "Measure for Measure, " a Casebook (London: Macmillan, 1971). In contrast to this history (and to the undergraduate students mentioned above), many presentday scholarly commentators on the play evince little interest in Isabella's dilemma. This is especially true of new historicist and feminist-new historicist commentators, who see concern over the issue as implying adherence to "outmoded" liberal-humanist assumptions about the autonomy of the individual and the importance of individual moral choice. See, e.g., Jonathan Dollimore, "Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure"; and Kathleen McLuskie, "The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure, " in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester U. Press, 1985), pp. 72-87 and 88-108.

3 The literature on the generic affiliations of Measure for Measure is vast. See, e.g., Nevill Coghill, "Comic Form in Measure for Measure, " Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955): 14-27; Murray Krieger, "Measure for Measure and Elizabethan Comedy," PMLA 66 (1951): 775-84; J. W. Lever, Introduction to the Arden Edition of Measure for Measure (cited above), pp. lv-lxiii; Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963); and David Lloyd Stevenson, The Achievement of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" (Cornell U. Press, 1966).

4 Northrop Frye, "The Argument of Comedy," in English Institute Essays, 1948 (Columbia U. Press, 1949); and A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (Columbia U. Press, 1965), pp. 141-45.

5 Cf. Frye, A Natural Perspective, p. 145. See also

6 C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Context, rpt. ed. (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1963). See especially Chapters 1-3.

7 A similar fatalism attaches to Claudio's allusion to Romans 9:15 (and Exodus 33:19), just prior to his speech about liberty: "The words of heaven; on whom it will, it will; / On whom it will not, so; yet still 'tis just" (1.2.114-15). Despite efforts by some critics to rescue this speech for theological orthodoxy, it is better understood as bitterly despairing, the comment of a man who does not dare indict heaven, yet who finds the relation between sin and punishment inexplicable. For a helpful discussion of the interplay between the terms "scope" and "restraint," in Claudio's speech and elsewhere in the play, see Michael Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton U. Press, 1972), pp. 166-68.

8 This rigid separation in outlook also helps to explain Lucio's slander of Duke Vincentio. From Lucio's point of view, advocates of sensual restraint must either be exempt from desire, as he imagines Angelo to be, or they must be hypocrites. He cannot believe that people possessing "sense" might truly wish to restrict its expression, either in themselves or in society.

9 Romans 7:7. I have quoted from the Geneva Bible, the version Shakespeare most likely would have read. A question Angelo poses in the middle of his soliloquy—"Having waste ground enough, / Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary / And pitch our evils there?" (2.2.170-72)—comments ironically on his earlier order that the brothels in the suburbs of Vienna be torn down.

10 The action of the play demonstrates that acceding to Angelo's demand would not have saved Claudio's life. Angelo's response to sleeping with Isabella (as he supposes) is not to pardon Claudio but to advance the time of his execution; and the reason he gives—fear that Claudio "Might in times to come have ta'en revenge" (4.4.28)—shows that denunciation, however unlikely its prospects for success, is always Isabella's only viable option. The problem, of course, is that Isabella does not know in Act 2 what the audience learns in Act 4.

11 Lever, p. lxxiv.

12 See 2.4.39-41 and 2.4.186.

13 Cf. Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (Columbia U. Press, 1965), p. 223.

14 I am indebted to my student, Elizabeth Holland, for this observation.

15 The word "grief occurs only this one time in the play, in contrast to thirty-eight uses of the word "death," eight of them by Isabella. Isabella does not use the word "death" after act 3, scene 1.

16 It should be emphasized that the shame Isabella struggles to confront is not in any way an effect of guilt on her part. A contemporary analogy would be to the experience of rape or incest survivors, who often must overcome a sense of shame and worthlessness before denouncing their attackers. See Ann Wolbert Burgess and Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, Rape: Crisis and Recovery (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979); and Robin Warshaw, / Never Called It Rape (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

17 Duke Vincentio's role in educating Isabella has been the subject of considerable scrutiny by feminist critics, some of whom emphasize its intrusive and manipulative aspect. See Christy Desmet, Reading Shakespeare's Characters (U. of Massachusetts Press, 1992), pp. 144-54; McLuskie, "The Patriarchal Bard" (cited above); and Marcia Riefer, "'Instruments of Some More Mightier Member': The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure," SQ 35 (1984): 157-69. In contrast to this essay, both Desmet and Riefer see the central action of Measure for Measure as a removal from Isabella of the power to speak. For readings emphasizing Mariana's role in Isabella's education, see Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (London: Cambridge U. Press, 1981), pp. 71-107; and Eileen Z. Cohen, "'Virtue is Bold': The Bed-Trick and Characterization in All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure," PQ 65 (1986): 171-86.

18 Cf. Alexander Leggati, "Substitution in Measure for Measure," SQ 39 (1988): 342-59 (especially pp. 347-48).

19 For the association of physical with sexual submission, see Claudio's description of Isabella's youth as a "prone and speechless dialect / Such as move men" (1.2.173-74) and Lucio's statement that when maidens "weep and kneel" (1.4.81) men give gifts eagerly. Lucio's asides during the first encounter between Isabella and Angelo intimate a parallel between argumentative force and sexual arousal; and he urges Isabella to intensify this effect by "kneel[ing] down before him, hang[ing] upon his gown" (2.2.44). That Isabella does in fact kneel can be inferred from her description in Act 5 of the "needless process" of her appeal—"How I persuaded, how I pray'd and kneel'd, / How he refell'd me, and how I replied" (5.1.95-97).

20 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1930), p. 154.

21 Barber, p. 23.

22 Duke Vincentio's parting comment to the newly-weds—"Joy to you, Mariana; love her, Angelo: / I have confess'd her, and I know her virtue" (5.1.523-24)—contains a troubling reminder of Angelo's earlier inability to arrive at a life-enhancing understanding of the relation between sexual desire, sin, and virtue. What good will it do for Angelo to know that his wife is virtuous, if he still considers "most dangerous / & that temptation that doth goad us on / To sin in loving virtue" (2.2.181-83)?

Sexual Politics And Power

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Amy Lechter-Siegel (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Isabella's Silence: The Consolidation of Power in Measure for Measure," in Reconsidering the Renaissance, edited by Mario A. Di Cesare, Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, Vol. 93, 1992, pp. 371-80.

[In the following essay, Lechter-Siegel observes that the Duke marries and effectively silences Isabella at the end of the play because her virginity and ideas represent a threat to his absolute control of the state.]

In Act 1 of Measure for Measure, the novice Isabella first appears on stage in obedience before a religious authority of whom she requests a life of severe asceticism. In Isabella's first major speech, she makes closely reasoned pleas for the Christian principle of mercy. By contrast, in act 5 Isabella appears in supplication before a secular authority and first makes emotional and then poorly reasoned pleas for the secular principles of justice and equity. In the final scene, the novice, who had requested a cloistered life of chastity and severe simplicity, anticipates a public life of marriage and courtly opulence. A character who is first described to the audience as an eloquent and persuasive speaker is, in the final moment of the play, silent.

What transpires between acts 1 and 5 to bring about this reversal? Can we view Isabella as a developing dramatic character whose desires change from the beginning to the end of the play? Many critics imply that we can and argue that this alteration is a happy development brought about under the Duke/Friar's tutelage and testing. Some critics argue that Isabella receives a "moral education": she realizes that she was too severe at the start in refusing so resolutely to show mercy for her brother by sacrificing her chastity.1 Other critics argue that Isabella receives a sexual education: Anne Barton, for example, argues that "beneath the habit of the nun is a passionate girl afflicted with an irrational fear of sex which she has never admitted to herself."2 Similarly, many see the Duke's marriage proposition as a felicitous ending: Bullough notes, "Isabella yields and thereby proves herself too valuable to the world to immure herself in a convent."3

The problem with all these views, it seems to me, is that they are value judgments imposed from outside based on the critic's assessment of moral, or sexually healthy, or socially beneficial behavior and that they do not consider the ending in terms of Isabella's own behavior and expressed desires. If we consider these, there seems to be nothing in the play which leads us to conclude that she gains a new moral or psychic awareness or that her desires change from the beginning to the end. She never considered the concept of mercy to require that she commit a mortal sin, nor does her final plea for mercy at the end encompass that idea. And there is no hint, in word or deed, that Isabella develops any burgeoning awareness of her own sexuality. Finally, in the end, she does not willfully "yield" to the proposition of marriage; rather, in the face of command masquerading as a proposal, Isabella is silent.

Thus, if we cannot see Isabella as a developing dramatic character for whom the ending is a satisfactory resolution, we must look for the function of her character and the significance of the resolution elsewhere. I suggest that we see Isabella less as a character than as a representative of certain ideas. I am in agreement with Marcia Riefer, who has traced the process by which Isabella becomes increasingly directed by the patriarchal control of the Duke until her voice is "literally" lost.4 Riefer persuasively argues that the anomalous ending represents "the incompatibility of sexual subjugation with successful comic dramaturgy."5 I would like both to build on and to shift significantly the focus of that position by arguing that the Duke/Friar represents not generalized patriarchal control, but rather historically specific Jamesian-style control as James I outlines his concept of absolutist authority in the Basilikon Doron. In this context, Isabella can be understood to represent two specific challenges to Vincentio's absolutist position. First, in her adherence to religious authority, Isabella resists the secular control of the state; and second, in her adherence to virginity, she resists the social control of the Duke as both a private and public patriarch.6 Further, as a highly articulate spokesperson ideas, her rhetoric is especially threatening to the state. If we understand Isabella in this way, we can understand her "development" as a process of containment whereby the challenges she represents are eliminated in the play's resolution.

Such a reading is based on already extensive scholarship which argues for the interrelationship of Measurefor Measure, the Basilikon Doron, and James I and which maintains an identification of the Duke/ Friar with King James.7 First, I wish to add to this scholarship by arguing that the Basilikon Doron can be read as James's program for consolidating religious, secular political, and social power and that Measure can be read as a parallel text in which the same program is reproduced. Second, I wish to show how the process of containment is reflected in the Duke's ability to transform and to control Isabella's speech.

James opens the Basilikon Doron with a sonnet which defines his divine right style of rule. It begins:

God giues not Kings the stile of Gods in   vaine, For on his Throne his Scepter doe they swey:                                          (3)8

This idea is echoed again when he urges his son "to know and love that God & for that he made you as a little GOD that sit on his Throne, and rule ouer other men" (12).

James's program for the consolidation of religious, secular political, and social power in a divine right monarch is benignly couched as advice to his son on the proper behavior of a king in his three roles of good Christian, of good ruler, and of model virtuous social being—roles which correlate to the three areas of monarchal power. I would argue that it is by the consolidation of power through the use of these three roles that James attempts to establish his absolutist position, and it is further by the elimination of all challenges to this consolidation that James seeks to sustain this position. The treatise also reflects James's perception of the obstacles to this consolidation and his extreme anxiety over these.

Because the Renaissance notion of sovereignty demanded that all people must obey the sovereign without question unless his demands directly contradicted God's orders,9 it is natural that it was the power of the church (whether Anglican, Protestant, or Catholic) which would pose the greatest threat to a monarch who saw a special divinity in his rule. In the Basilikon Doron, James seems to perceive the challenge to his divine right position coming from two sources: the first threat comes from those who would accuse him of insufficient religiousness; and the second comes from religious leaders who would assert the priority of their authority over the monarch's.

His greatest anxiety is over the Anabaptists who show "contempt for the civil Magistrate," and who advocate that "Christian Princes & be resisted." These kind of men, James writes, "I wishe my Sonne to punish, incase they refuse to obey the Law, and will not cease to sturre up rebellion" (7). The divisiveness created by the Anabaptists furthermore increases the power of the Catholics (Papists) to challenge the authority of the state (7,8). James exhorts his son to suppress the power of church leaders in a language which dramatically conveys both the extent of his anxiety and his absolutist stance: "as well as yee represse the vain Puritaine, so not to suffer proude Papali Bishops & so chaine them with such bondes as may preserve that estate from creeping to corruption" (24) [emphasis mine].

James begins the second book of the Basilikon Doron with an image which marvelously suggests the consolidation of religious and secular control in the person of the king: "But as ye are clothed with two callings so must ye be alike careful for the discharge of them both: that yee are a good Christian so yee may be a good King" (18). "Clothed with two callings" describes the Friar/Duke of Measure who is literally so clothed, and thus by his person contains both appeals to independent religious authority (made by Isabella) and claims of independent secular authority (made by Angelo). The Duke/Friar has not only to contain these competing elements, but also to reintegrate them into society through marriage, and he arranges these marriages through the third role James describes in the Basilikon Doron—his social role as both private and public patriarch of the realm.

In the Basilikon Doron James notes that a good king acts, in relationship to his subjects, "as their naturali father, and kindley Master" (22). In this role, James would undertake the arrangement of marriages as an absolutist strategy of social control in order to consolidate his political position.10 In Measure, Duke Vincentio is, of course, the quintessential arranger of marriages. Also, James's remarks on marriage and the choice of a wife in the Basilikon Doron reflect how the double-edged quality of the new Protestant conception of marriage allowed the private and public patriarch to assume more direct power over women than he previously had. The Protestant marriage gave for the first time in history priority to married chastity over Catholic asceticism and virginity.11 While many have seen this as a happy development for women, others have realized that, to the degree that the power of the priest was diminished, to an equal degree, the power of the family patriarch was increased.12 In the Duke's proposal to Isabella after his dramatic unhooding by Lucio, Shakespeare provides a compelling visual representation of this very transformation from the priority of virginity to the priority of married chastity and of the quite literal transference of power from the priest (or friar) to the husband.

As a natural father, James could claim to be a Father to the realm more convincingly than could Elizabeth claim an analogous personal leadership role before him.

The Duke in Measure for Measure uses marriage in the end to contain all subversive elements in the society, to suppress any challenges to his divine right position, and, in good comedic fashion, to reintegrate everyone back into his society—creating a union directed by a monarch who has gained control through the consolidation of his secular political, religious, and social roles.

Finally, I would like to suggest that in the Basilikon Doron, James perceives the threat to his control expressed through "slander." Those who would accuse him of irreligiousness or question his religious authority he accuses of "famous libels," "iniurious speaches," and dishonorable "inuectiue" against all Christian princes (7) and maintains that the "malicious lying tongues of some haue traduced me" (13). His anxiety is so great that he advises his son, again in absolutist language, that the "remedie" for "vnreuerent speakers" is to "stop their mouthes from all such idle and vnreuerent speeches" (27). Although it is Lucio who most persistently represents the threat of slander, and it is Lucio's mouth which most obviously will not be stopped, Isabella too threatens and eventually does slander Angelo. Because her rhetoric challenges the power of the state, the Friar first directs, then effectively stops, her speech.

To reiterate, I have argued that Isabella challenges the Duke/Friar's absolutist position in two ways. First, by invoking religious authority over secular (in her arguments to the Duke's representative, Angelo), she challenges the secular political control of the state; second, by choosing virginity, she resists the social control of the monarch as patriarch of the realm. Now, I would like to argue that the play enacts the containment of those challenges and that the process of containment can be traced by following Isabella's changing discourse: first, Isabella generates reasoned arguments which challenge the state; next, under the Duke/Friar, her language is directed by the state; and finally, her speech is contained by the state.

In the early scenes of the play, Claudio says of his sister, "she hath prosperous art / When she will play with reason and discourse / And well she can persuade" (1.2.184). The first time we see Isabella she stands before a nun of whom she requires not a lesser, but a stricter restraint within the already strictly ascetic order of St. Clare. Further, we learn in this scene that once Isabella enters the order she must take a vow of silence forbidding her to speak to and be looked upon by men at the same time. Interestingly, while Isabella will freely admit to the imposition of silence in obeisance to religious authority, she will, in the meantime, use her arts of language brilliantly in the next scenes to challenge and inadvertently threaten secular authority.

In her first encounter with Angelo, Isabella challenges his secular authority by using logical appeals which show proficiency in close reasoning and the ability to make clear distinctions. She presses her case by making eight reasoned pleas. Each time she makes an argument based on Christian principles, Angelo counters with an argument based on secular legal authority. Thus, a dialectic movement is set up between these two sources of power. Finally, Isabella audaciously challenges Angelo's position by daring to project herself (woman and novice) into the role of the head of state: "I would to heaven I had your potency, And you were Isabel" (2.2.71). This bold assertion is based on her sense of power as a follower—and perhaps to a certain extent as a representative—of religious authority. In her final pleas, Isabella challenges the very legitimacy of secular authority itself, deploring the tyrannous exercise of power by "proud men dressed in a little brief authority" (2.2.118). Having reminded him that his authority is not absolute (an argument that implicitly interrogates the Jamesian absolutist position), she tells him to look inside himself. This argument inadvertently leads to Angelo's realization that her words have compelled him to love her and to his (quite liberal) loss of control. There is thus a correlation suggested here between loss of sexual control and loss of political control. Both the content and manner of Isabella's speech threatens the control of the representative of the state, and the rest of the play is concerned with containing that threat. Importantly, between Isabella's and Angelo's first and second meetings the Duke/Friar makes a brief appearance which seems to have little dramatic purpose. However, his appearance can function as a visual synthesis of the religious/secular dialectic, and thus it rehearses the ultimate consolidation of religious and secular power in the person of the monarch at the end of the play.

In her second meeting with Angelo, Isabella is forced from the offensive position of challenging secular authority to the rhetorically weaker defensive position of resisting that authority's attempts to possess her sexually. Again, the dialectic is resumed with Angelo invoking the authority of the state in order to propose that Isabella exchange her virginity for her brother's life, while she invokes the religious principle that death is better than eternal damnation. Her integrity of speech is maintained when Angelo suggests she respond in a more "womanly" way; she answers, "I have no tongue but one &" (2.4.139). When Angelo presses further, she threatens slander: "Sign me a present pardon & / Or & I'll tell the world aloud / What man thou art" (2.4.152-85). But Angelo's retort that no one will believe her suggests that the punishment for the slanderer is rhetorical powerlessness: "you will stifle in your own report and smell of calumny" (2.4.158-59). This scene signals the beginning of the process by which Isabella's strength of speech is undermined.

When in the next scene the brother whom she trusts implies that she should submit, her rhetoric breaks down to a vituperative and aggressive hurling of epithets. This change suggests a breakdown of what one critic has called that "strong self constituted by her rhetoric.13 We might assume that Isabella, fleeing from Claudio, is rushing back to the convent when the Duke/Friar suddenly appears before her and bids a word. She responds, "What is your will?" (3.1.152). Humiliated by the forces of secular authority, she is anxious to cleave to religious authority, and when the Friar suggests a plan, she consents: "Show me how good father" (3.3.238). At this point in the play we see not a development of Isabella's personality but a shift in her position from one of powerful and articulate resistance to secular authority to (though unbeknownst to her) submission to it. From now on the Duke/Friar maintains control over Isabella by making her believe Claudio is dead and then by scripting a scenario which requires her to announce publicly that she is a violated virgin—a remarkable request considering both her integrity of speech ("I have no tongue but one") and her vocation of chastity. As Riefer points out, despite Isabella's reluctance "to speak so indirectly" (4.6.1), she gives over rhetorical control when she vows to the Duke/Friar, "I am directed by you" (4.3.137).14

In act 5, Isabella's rhetoric demonstrates a changed relationship to the state. Whereas the use of close reasoning in support of mercy describes her first encounter with Angelo, here she is making a pathetic appeal for justice—the secular principle she renounced in act 1. Regaining her capacity for reasoned argument, however, she presses her charges against Angelo with careful distinctions and analogies once again: "'tis not impossible / But one, the wicked' st caitiff on the ground, / May seem as shy, as grave, as just, as absolute, as Angelo &" (5.1.52-55). Ironically, her strong discourse constitutes slander, and the Duke—consistent with the Jamesian absolutist position—must contain the slander by imprisoning Isabella. This is a very interesting moment, for here we see the Duke constructing a threat to secular authority (in the role consigned to Isabella), and then through his consolidated secular/ religious authority containing that threat. It will be marriage, not imprisonment, that is the final mode of containment; but, I would argue, the imprisonment of Isabella makes the final solution of marriage seem benevolent by contrast.

This same process of constructing the threat in order to contain it occurs again when Vincentio represents himself on stage as the Friar who slanders the Duke. Here he constructs a challenge by religious authority, not only to secular authority (as was the case with Isabella's challenge), but to divine right monarchy. Again a dialectic is played out between the "Friar" and Escalus (5.1.305) in which the Friar claims religious authority is not subject to monarchy ("The Duke / Dare no more stretch this finger of mine than he / Dare rack his own. His subject I am not" [5.1.313-15]). The Friar's challenge, which so compellingly echoes the threats James perceives from churchmen in the Basilikon Doron, is once again contained by Escalus, who accuses the Friar of "slander to the state" and orders his imprisonment.

At this point, Lucio unhoods the Friar to expose the Duke. At last, the consolidation of religious and secular power in the person of the Jamesian divine right monarch is visually represented in this brilliant coup de théâtre. Angelo confirms his divinity: "I perceive your Grace, like power divine" (5.1.369). But what of Isabella to whom he entreats, "Come hither, Isabel, / Your friar is now your prince"? When secular power (embodied in Angelo) was represented as religious power (embodied in the Friar) Isabella bent to its will. But after she cleaved unto religious authority, that authority represented itself once again as divine right absolutist authority. This visual transformation, suggestive of a magician's sleight, brilliantly conveys how Isabella comes under the sway of the state. That she comes under its sway is demonstrated in her final plea for Angelo.

In this plea, Isabella argues for mercy, but instead of grounding this argument on Christian principles as she had earlier, she now grounds it on the secular principle of equity: "His act did not o'ertake his bad intent / And must be buried but as an intent / That perish'd by the way" (5.1.450-54). While secular law makes a distinction between intent and action, theological law does not; an argument by Christ would see Angelo's transgression as a serious violation of God's law. Furthermore, Isabella's argument is illogical, for Angelo did not only intend to engage in illicit sex, but, in sleeping with his fiancée, he actually did the very same thing Claudio did. Isabella's inability to make that distinction, when her forte all along has been the ability to perceive distinctions, represents the final dissolution of that "strong self constituted by her rhetoric.

In the final consolidation of power, the Duke uses the Jamesian social role of patriarch in order to reintegrate his citizens into society through marriage. But the Duke's use of marriage is an absolutist strategy which can be at variance with individual desire. Lucio makes this clear when he tells the Duke, who directs him to marry a whore, that he'd rather be whipped: "Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging" (5.1.522-23). The Duke replies, "Slandering a prince deserves it" (5.2.524). That the imposition of marriage is an absolutist strategy in this play, in contrast to most Shakespearean comedies, is suggested by the fact that of those who are married off in the end, fully half—Angelo, Lucio, and Isabella—do not desire it.

The problematic "deus ex machina" ending which troubles many critics becomes singularly appropriate if the play is understood as one about "ideas" more than about "characters" and about specifically Jamesian ideas—as these are articulated in Basilikon Doron—of consolidating secular political, religious, and social power by ruling (as the Duke/Friar does) in "the stile of Gods." The very contrivance of the ending, wherein the events do not seem to evolve naturally and dramatically from the desires of the individual characters, but rather are imposed from without (by a kind of god from a machine), suggests the very style of authoritarianism and absolutism which, I have maintained, the play is "about."

Isabella's silence at the end of Measure for Measure has provided a challenge for theatrical directors of the play. Jonathan Miller's National Theatre production had Isabella turn away in horror at the Duke's proposal of marriage;15 by extreme contrast, another recent production had Isabella throw off her veil in a celebratory and liberating gesture. While Miller's interpretation is consistent with Isabella's "dramatic character," it contradicts the play's movement toward comic resolution. On the other hand, the second interpretation, while true to the play's movement towards resolution, is so totally contrary to Isabella's character that it altogether lacks dramatic veracity. Shakespeare gives us neither Miller's nor any other response from Isabella. He gives us silence. It is "silence," argues Pierre Macherey, that "the critic must make speak."16 Isabella's silence speaks most convincingly, I believe, as an expression of the Jamesian Duke/Friar's successful containment of voices which challenge his absolutist claims to authority. However, containment does not imply any simple or comfortable acquiescence by those voices. Rather, speechlessness can also be interpreted as a refusal to assent positively to the control of an "other." It is for this reason, I believe, that Isabella's silence reverberates in our minds long after the play is done.


1 Jonathan Dollimore, "Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure," in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds., Political Shakespeare (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), 87. Dollimore, in his footnotes, points to the many critics who see Isabella as too severe in refusing Angelo's bargain.

2 Anne Barton, "Measure for Measure, " in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1974), 546. Barton further argues that finally "Isabella arrives at a newer and juster knowledge of herself."

3 Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1973), 2:416.

4 Marcia Riefer, "Instruments of Some Mightier Member," Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 157-69. Riefer's argument, to which I am indebted, maintains that the Duke assumes the comic role of dramaturgical control previously assumed by females in Shakespeare's comedies and that deprived of this comedic leadership, Isabella comes under the control of the Duke. Riefer's emphasis is on genre.

5 Ibid., 158.

6 For a fuller and more recent discussion of how the choice of chastity represents an "alternative sexuality" to the dominant patriarchal forms represented in the play, see Susan Carlson, "'Fond Fathers' and Sweet Sisters: Alternative Sexualities in Measure for Measure," Essays in Literature 16 (1989): 13-31.

7 For a discussion of how the play reflects James's theatrical style, see Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), 230-39. For a discussion of how the actual language as well as the principles of kingship of the Basilikon Doron are reflected in Measure, see David Lloyd Stevenson, The Achievement of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure " (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966), 134-66 and Elizabeth Pope, "The Renaissance Background in Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey 2 (1949): 66-82. For a discussion of how the play challenges the paternalistic and patriarchal notions set forth in the Basilikon Doron, see 'Talking Back to the King: Measure for Measure and the Basilicon Doron," College Literature 12 (1985): 122-34.

8 See The Political Works of James with an introduction by Charles Mcllwain (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), 3-52. All quotations from the Basilikon Doron will be from this edition, and the page number will follow the quotation in parentheses.

9 Elizabeth Pope, "The Renaissance Background," 71.

10 Leonard Tennenhouse, "Representing Power: Measure for Measure in Its Time," in Stephen Greenblatt, ed. The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (Norman: Pilgrim Books, 1982), 152-53. Tennenhouse compares Elizabeth's attitudes toward arranging marriages with James's.

11 Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975), 3-5, 22-24, 32-33, 41-48, 55.

12 Walter Cohen, Drama of a Nation: Public Theatre in Renaissance England and Spain (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), 188.

13 Dusinberre, 224.

14 Riefer, 164.

15 Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), 71.

16 Pierre Macherey in Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1976), 35.

Mario DiGangi (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Pleasure and Danger: Measuring Female Sexuality in Measure for Measure," in ELH, Vol. 60, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 589-609.

[In the following essay, DiGangi uses the example of Mistress Elbow to emphasize the dubious results of Renaissance efforts to control female sexuality through marriage.]

Despite its initial promise of equity and levity—a balanced title and a Folio classification as a comedy—Measure for Measure delivers what many readers have felt to be a skewed and dismal account of sexual desire. Feminist and psychoanalytic critics, responding to this anti-festive comedy's persistent reiteration of the manifold dangers that accompany sexual unions and desires, have usefully considered how female sexuality in particular is linked to "shame" and "contamination"; treated with "disgust" and "deep distrust"; figured as the "original sin that brings death into the world"; reduced to the "bloody associations" of rape and be-heading.1 Ironically, however, feminist responses may also be inhibited by the very centrality of female sexuality to the play's ideology, the unpleasantness of which leads Kathleen McLuskie, in her trenchant essay "The Patriarchal Bard," to deem the play impenetrable to feminist criticism. Although McLuskie demonstrates the inadequacy of monolithic empirical and psychological approaches to an ideologically informed feminist reading of Measure for Measure, she curbs those interventions (her own and others') that could provide new theoretical paradigms, insisting that

feminist criticism of this play is restricted to exposing its own exclusion from the text. It has no point of entry into it, for the dilemmas of the narrative and the sexuality under discussion are constructed in completely male terms.2

McLuskie specifically regrets the exclusion of "pleasure" that results from reading the text against its sexist grain: to reject its tendentious construction of female sexuality is to refuse "the pleasure of the drama and the text," which "focuses the spectator's attention and constructs it as male."3

Yet, as Jean Howard and Stephen Orgel have persuasively argued, the London theater allowed many women to become desiring spectators despite the fact that it ideologically objectified them as desired spectacles and materially excluded them, as McLuskie notes, from being "shareholders, actors, writers, or stage hands."4 In "Scripts and/versus Playhouses," Howard provocatively asks: "Is it possible that in the theatre women were licensed to look—and in a larger sense to judge what they saw and to exercise autonomy—in ways that problematised women's status as object within patriarchy?"5 Unravelling Stephen Gosson's prescriptions on the female playgoer, Howard stresses the complications that arise in considering the female spectator not only as an endangered object of the male gaze, but as a gazing subject who endangers patriarchal control. Orgel briefly surmises in "Nobody's Perfect" that women enjoyed the "liberating theatrical freedom" not only of attending the London playhouses but also of seeing there the enactment of female liberty in the subjects of "love matches and cuckoldry."6 In his subsequent paper "Call Me Ganymede," Orgel, first questioning the standard notion that women were officially "banned" from the stage, develops this argument regarding the London theaters' pleasurable representations of female power. He finds that "the powerful side of cuckoldry plots from the woman's perspective is the conviction that her sexuality is powerful and attractive, threatening to husbands, and under her own control," and he adduces Portia's and Nerissa's ring trick at the conclusion of The Merchant of Venice as an example of a theatrically constructed "fantasy of female sexual power."7

If we take into account Howard's and Orgel's historicization of the female spectator's pleasure, might we not find that Measure for Measure likewise constructs a position that may elicit a female (or, in our age, feminist) subject's pleasure? Might not that pleasure come precisely from reading oppositionally, with the purpose of discovering the kind of female agency those "male terms" would exclude and restrict? In pursuing such a reading here, I will argue that the relentless definition and manipulation of female sexuality in Measure for Measure is the graphic symptom of male anxiety about female agency: to unravel male-constructed meanings for erotic pleasure, pregnancy, and abortion is to discover a fear of the dangers thought to ensue from a woman's control over her own body. Because it measures the perceived cost of a woman's autonomy in marital and reproductive affairs, Measure for Measure foregrounds female sexual desire only to deny the desirability of seeking pleasure for pleasure's sake. Paradoxically, the central emblem of this dangerous desire is the pleasure-seeking body of a woman who is excluded both from the personae of the drama and from the pages of critical texts: Mistress Elbow.8

Mistress Elbow, as one might well not recall, is the only legal wife in the play. In order to understand the significance of her status, we must first determine what is at stake in play's implicit and explicit allusion to the commonplace Renaissance marital paradigm—maid/wife/widow—whose central space is occupied by Mistress Elbow alone.9 Mariana, who is "nothing," according to the Duke, because "neither maid, widow, nor wife," frustrates but does not subvert the paradigm, as McLuskie notes, for the logic of comedy ultimately maneuvers her into the central slot.10 Nevertheless, in privileging the "coherent maleness" of the maid/wife/widow paradigm to which the Duke heavy-handedly directs (male?) attention, McLuskie loses the opportunity to demonstrate the paradigm's failure as an ideological measuring device.11 As Lucio observes, the Duke's seemingly comprehensive list of female socio-sexual roles is incomplete: "My lord, she may be a punk; for many of them are neither maid, widow nor wife" (5.1.180-81). Likewise, a reading that places pressure on the conventional system can superimpose upon the Duke's tripartite measure of marital status a parallel and more problematic measure of sexuality. What I am calling the measure of female sexuality would account for the number and kind of a woman's sexual partners: the virgin (none), the wife (one/legal), and the whore (more than one/illicit). Following this line of inquiry allows not only the examination of an early modern discourse surrounding and constructing the barren or pregnant female body, but a reexamination, through Mistress Elbow, of the normative category of "wife," the middle term of both systems, as inherently unstable and challenged.

It is crucial to maintain the analytic distinctness of these two "measures," even while noting their areas of overlap or intersection. We then realize that, before her marriage, Mariana threatens order not only because she disrupts the maid/wife/widow paradigm, but because she simultaneously and equivocally occupies the sexual position of "wife" in the virgin/wife/whore paradigm. Juliet, before she legally becomes a wife, occupies the sexually charged space between "wife" and "whore." And Isabella occupies the space of resistance and loss between "virgin" and "wife"—a space that is collapsed by the apparently seamless passage from "maid" to "wife." Such ideological gaps between fixed, normative roles and shifting, unruly sexualities are smoothed over by Carol Thomas Neely's argument that "women are defined and contained through their place in the marriage paradigm. & These roles are in turn defined by the mode of sexuality appropriate to them: virginity for maidens, marital chastity for wives, and abstinence for widows."12 Because it attaches an "appropriate" sexuality to the marital roles through which women are always already defined, this formulation does not acknowledge that the marital paradigm, with its chronological progression of essential roles in which the "wife" can never be a "maid" or "widow," itself obscures the resistances that Mariana, Isabella, and Juliet pose to its containing and defining strategies—the resistances posed in the overlapping and contested spaces between virgin and wife, between wife and whore.

As the only wife in the play, Mistress Elbow most powerfully and paradoxically represents the unruly resistance within marital sexuality: the possibility of the wayward wife, who is at once promiscuous (like the stereotypical widow), and, as I hope to show, opposed to fertility (like the maid). The logic of comedy may require that Isabella, Mariana, and Juliet progress from their unstable marital roles and sexualities into the nominally stable marital role and sexuality of the "wife." Yet Mistress Elbow demonstrates that such a resolution is fictive, for she provokes, instead of dispelling, the anxieties that surround and interpret (Juliet's) active sexual desire on the one hand and (Isabella's) virginity on the other. Since female sexuality in Measure for Measure is tendentiously "read" through specific bodily characteristics, the "gross characters" inscribed in Juliet's pregnant, ideologically whorish body reveal "all the effect of love" and incite others volubly to evaluate all the causes. Isabella's virginal body, by contrast, allows others (and herself) only veiled, sublimated, allusions to a deferred sexuality that will blossom with ripe time. I will assess the male anxieties that construct Juliet's and Isabella's bodies before demonstrating how they converge to construct Mistress Elbow's equivocal body, which, absent and silent, is the cipher onto which various meanings for female sexuality are projected, and through which feminist criticism can make the crisis of marriage intelligible. I begin with a reading of Juliet's indelibly pregnant body, the first text from which differently-interested readers—the bawds, Claudio, Duke Vincentio, Angelo—disseminate the signifiers of female sexuality.

Preparing us for the dramatic procession in which Claudio and Juliet are publicly humiliated, Mistress Overdone and Pompey initiate a central concern of the play: the observation and classification of the woman through her body, which is "credulous to false prints" (2.4.129). Pregnant, marked with the prints of sexual intercourse, Juliet's excessive body is, appropriately, read cumulatively: male judgments of what her belly reveals—sexual appetite, uxorial docility, ethical and theological shame, legal infraction—amass charges of culpable agency and carnal passivity. When Mistress Overdone asks if Claudio has gotten a "maid with child by him," Pompey deftly responds, "No: but there's a woman with maid by him" (1.2.84-85). Mistress Over-done is sensitive to how sex has altered the (former) maid's body; Pompey insists on naming her new status as the specifically non-maiden, and "woman" is all he has available to him. Juliet's intermediate marital status may confer no fixed name, but her body sufficiently indicates the sexuality which has marred her reputation. Lisa Jardine notes that due to the absence of effective contraception, "sex and pregnancy went hand in hand in the Renaissance imagination"; hence, "the pregnant woman is the Renaissance image of female sexuality."13 Moreover, the popularity in England of a Galenic view of conception produced, according to Angus McLaren, "a common culture of procreational knowledge in which women's sexual pleasure was seen both by laymen and doctors as necessary for fecundity."14 The pregnant woman is therefore an image of her own fulfilled sexuality, her belly an eloquent narrative of her illicit desires.15 Juliet's expressive body, which is both the ritual object of public scrutiny and the subject of Claudio's discourse, explains the silence of her tongue.

Even as he insists that their relationship is "mutual," Claudio reigns in Juliet's expressive and expansive sexuality when he reclaims her body as his personal property. Retaining the liberty of speech denied Juliet, who only later and under the Duke's prompting admits that her sinful act was "mutually" committed (2.3.27), Claudio defends his sexual indiscretion by insisting that "she is fast my wife" (1.2.136). He resents not only the law's regulation of his sexuality but its usurpation of his rights as a true husband who "upon a true contract& got possession of Julietta's bed" (1.2.134-35). As a husband, he would indeed have control of his wife's property, including her bed, but his legalistic use of synecdoche reduces Juliet's loose sexual energies to the status of an object that can be bound "fast" to the conjugal bed. Peter Stallybrass observes that "woman" is produced as a property category in early modern England not only in such legal discourse, but also in economic discourse, as "the fencedin enclosure of the landlord."16 For example, as the spokesman of the conservative aristocracy in Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl, Sir Alexander pronounces upon the occasion of his son's marriage that "the best joyes, / That can in worldly shapes to man betide, Likewise, / Are fertili lands, and a faire fruitfull Bride."17 Likewise, if Lucio's description of Juliet's impregnation invokes what Marjorie Garber calls a "fruitful and productive value of sexuality" otherwise absent in the play, it also casts Claudio in the role of the laborer who produces fair fruit from fertile lands:18

Your brother and his lover have embrac'd, As those that feed grow full, as blossoming  time That from the seedness the bare fallow brings To teeming foison, even so her plenteous  womb Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry.                                     (1.4.40-44)

Though Juliet at first resembles one who satiates herself with food, she is finally shown to provide the "bare" material upon which male sexual labor generates the female labor of childbirth. The pander in Pericles clearly exposes the violent overtones of this commonplace view of female passivity when he threatens to rape Marina: "An if she were a thornier piece of ground than she is, she shall be ploughed" (Pericles, 4.6.136-37). Juliet is a less thorny piece of ground and Claudio is a gentler plower, but he similarly considers the female body as the available site of male inscription: "The stealth of our most mutual entertainment / With character too gross is writ on Juliet" (1.2.143-44).19 While "gross" is relevant in that it means large letters, clear evidence, or ripe fruit, it also associates the woman's reproductive body with the un-controllably grotesque body of an unruly Falstaff, "a gross fat man" (1 Henry IV, 2.4.486).20 Despite the pleasure, then, that Juliet may have experienced in her sexual "entertainment" with her lover, both Lucio and Claudio, by stressing her body's compliance to male instrumentality, attempt to control its boundless sexuality.

Given Claudio's putative dominance in erotic agency, it is ironic that the Duke finds Juliet more blameworthy for the couple's sexual indiscretion. Even though Juliet has apparently done no more than passively express Claudio's "husbandry," the Duke requires her to acknowledge a greater share of guilt in the pregnancy. By disguising himself as a religious father and addressing Juliet as a daughter, the Duke can re-establish the authority of the paternal birchrod, previously "more mock'd than fear'd" (1.3.27). He succeeds in this project by encouraging Juliet to confess her legal infraction as an ethical and theological one: a "most offenceful act" (2.3.26). When he asks, "Repent you & of the sin you carry?" (2.3.19), the Duke equates the content of Juliet's protruding belly with the illegal act that caused it; her offending body thereby becomes an index of her moral and spiritual degeneration. She avows her repentance and her willingness to "bear the same most patiently" (2.3.20). As Lisa Jardine astutely remarks, Juliet will "bear it—carry it to term, support the shame, and give birth in the pain which is woman's punishment for the concupiscence she acquired at the Fall."21 And doubtless, she is "groaning" in prison with the pain of her labor (2.2.15).22 Because both Duke Vincentio and Juliet accept the ideology which posits a woman's chastity as her essential virtue, they agree that Juliet's sin is of "heavier kind" than Claudio's (2.3.28), despite the fact that the law will punish him more severely, with death. Furthermore, Escalus, Lucio, and the Provost all regard Claudio's fornication as a trifle, which merely proves that he has natural masculine instincts. Juliet, however, is always said to have ruined her reputation: she must bear the unequal weight of social censure for the mutual action in which Claudio left his impression on her heavy body.

The Duke's focus on Juliet's unborn child as a "sin" implies that even after their marriage, in which Claudio is instructed to "restore" his wronged wife (5.1.522), her reputation will be stained with a child unlawfully begotten if not unlawfully bom. Angelo, legally precise in his categorization, describes Juliet in neither the Provost's class terms as "gentlewoman" nor the Duke's disturbingly physical terms as "fair one" (2.3.10, 19), but as the "fornicatress" (2.2.23), thus investing her far-from-airy nothing with a local habitation and name, (which Pompey was unable to do). The punitive zeal which seeks Claudio's death seeks to overwrite Juliet's reputation with gross characters. Therefore, the Provost's claim that Juliet has "blister'd her report" by "falling in the flaws of her own youth" (2.3.11-12) shows more than his mastery of metaphor. His image of a painful imprint on the body aligns Juliet with another "fallen woman": the prostitute who was branded on the forehead by the state or who carried the syphilitic blister.23 Consequently, Juliet's body shares the "shame" imputed to the common body of the whore (2.3.36), if not the actual mark impressed upon it.

Through the example of Juliet, one sees that patriarchal ideology constructs two positions for active female sexuality: either its confinement within the "outward order" of formal marriage (1.2.138), or its whorish transgressiveness, which threatens marital values. On the other hand, the virgin is threatening for her very lack of sexuality, for her denial of normative sexual functions and gender roles. If Juliet can be identified as a "fornicatress" by the blossoming of her womb, then the true virgin, the unplucked rose, can also be recognized by outward signs. Thus Lucio addresses Isabella: "Hail, virgin, if you be—as those cheek-roses / Proclaim you are no less" (1.4.16-17). While the deceptiveness of appearances is an anxiety which the play—and playing itself—brings sharply into focus, Isabella's unsullied hue convinces Lucio that she indeed is a virgin. But against what standard is Lucio quantifying and measuring her virginity? What would it mean to be proclaimed "less" than a virgin?

Angelo's attempt to define Isabella's sexuality provides a significant answer. In contrast to the corporeal language used to identify Juliet, Angelo's language profits from a rich use of the essential ideological verb "to be," which appears seven times in the first three lines of Angelo's demand that Isabella submit to his desires.24 In his exasperation at Isabella's refusal to understand the exchange he offers her, Angelo bluntly articulates the burden of her sexual destiny:

Angelo:                     Be that you are, That is, a woman; if you be more, you're none. If you be one—as you are well express'd By all external warrants—show it now, By putting on the destin'd livery.Isabella: I have no tongue but one; gentle my lord, Let me entreat you speak the former language.                                  (2.4.133-39)

According to Angelo's logic, being more than a woman is taking womanly chastity to its extreme of virginity, which paradoxically thrusts her past the boundaries of dependent womanhood into the realm of the self-sufficient saint. Angelo's corrective requires that she act more like the "woman" her appearance proves she "is" and less like the virgin that in making her more than a woman, makes her less human.25 For both Lucio and Angelo, the category "virgin" is more rarified than that of "woman," making the maid an "immortal spirit" instead of an impressionable piece of flesh (1.4.35). David Sundelson argues that in this scene of "female potency" Angelo "fears that Isabella may really be a man."26 Far from this, however, Angelo's doubt, discovered in his evasive grammar, reveals an anxiety about female autonomy (as the super-feminine virgin) and its threat to male desires for ownership and control.

Isabella tempers this meditation on female ontology by asserting the honesty of her tongue, which metonymically proclaims her sexual "honesty" or chastity. Her simple reply that she has "no tongue but one" further implies that Angelo's slippery discourse reveals more about his own hypocrisy than about her need to "be one" woman. Ending the guessing game, but still hiding his larger meaning in equivocal language, Angelo commands: "Plainly conceive, I love you" (2.4.140). To be "a woman," Isabella must conceive, become pregnant. If she will show her essential femininity "plainly" (or, punning on the French plein, "fully"), she needs to exhibit more "external warrants" than mere attire and complexion. In an earlier speech on the nature of justice (2.1.17-31), Angelo uses "pregnant" in its sense of "obvious," a usage deriving from the Latin premere, to press. That Juliet's pregnant body registers "pregnant" evidence of pressing makes her subject to the Duke's fornication law. By requiring Isabella to become pregnant, Angelo directs her into a similar position of sexual lucidity he can understand and manipulate.

Unlike Angelo, Duke Vincentio understands Isabella all too well; instead of battering her with essentialist definitions of "woman," he works underhandedly to transform her virginal body into a womanly one. The Duke's ostensible aim in arranging the bed-trick is to have Mariana express "all th'effect of love" (5.1.198), the condition that we see in Juliet, and that Angelo yearns to see in Isabella. But because he conceals his desire more carefully than does Angelo, the language of the Duke's interchange with Isabella is loaded with double entendre that hides personal interest under the cloak of fatherly beneficence:

Duke: The maid will I frame, and make fit for his attempt. If you think well to carry this as you may, the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof. What think you of it?

Isabella: The image of it gives me content already, and I trust it will grow to a most prosperous perfection.

Duke: It lies much in your holding up.


Strangely here, but not in light of the Duke's later proposal to Isabella, the language of pregnancy is ascribed to her part in the deceit: if she can "carry" and "hold up" her part, his idea will "grow" to a successful end, Impressed its "image" giving her "content," or substance.27 Impressed by his authority, Isabella reactively takes up the Duke's sexual puns in what may be considered a passive, and therefore "prone and speechless dialect" (1.2.173). What the Duke offers in return for her prone complicity in his plot is a supine sexual position—'"Tis well borne up," he later assures her (4.1.48). In the context of this suggestive passage and the later one in which Isabella promises to meet Angelo "[u]pon the heavy middle of the night" (4.1.35), "doubleness" may refer not only to the advantage accruing to each woman's honor, but to the swelling of her belly. Likewise, "benefit" may refer to this double belly's being well made (L. bene + facere) by the man for whom her frame has been made "fit," producing "perfection" (L. per + facere). Recalling Elbow's misplacement of his "two notorious benefactors" for "malefactors" (2.1.50-52), the equivocal language of this passage blurs the distinction between the legal malefaction of Claudio and Juliet and the moral benefaction of the Duke, given his intentions to fit Isabella to his own attempt. The Duke himself realizes the suspiciousness if not the culpability of his plan. In asking the provost to leave, the Duke anticipates an accusation of sexual motive and defensively proffers his disguise as a guarantee of his good intentions: "Leave me a while with the maid; my mind promises with my habit no loss shall touch her by my company" (3.1.175-77). No loss, but perhaps a tangible gain.

As the Duke's interpellation of Isabella through metaphors of growth indicates, female sexuality becomes intelligible (hence manageable) not only by the identification of the virginal or the whorish body, but also by the measurement of that body's movement along a temporal scale. Women accomplish a physiological progression through three stages, which are analogous to stages of botanical growth: the young "fresh" virgin becomes the "ripe" wife and/or the old "rotten" whore. In the different but parallel economy of the brothel, the epithet "fresh" is reserved for the healthy and young, "rotten" for the diseased and experienced.28 Lucio refers to "your fresh whore and your powdered bawd; an unshunned consequence; it must be so" (3.2.57-58). The young prostitute inevitably becomes the old bawd with powdered hair, who soaks in a sweating-tub that resembles the beef-powdering tub. More generally, Shakespeare's whores are punningly called "hoar" or merely "old": Lucio refers to Kate Keepdown as "the rotten medlar," a fruit rotten before ripe (4.3.171-72).29

Given the above constructions, the language of "fit time" or "ripeness" which in several of Shakespeare's plays is connected with Christian patience and trust in providence has special figurative relevance in Measure for Measure, regarding the age of marriage and term of pregnancy. Ripeness refers to marriageable age for a young woman; Juliet Capulet will be "ripe to be a bride" at sixteen years of age (Romeo and Juliet, 1.2.11). When Isabella conventionally addresses the heavens, "Keep me in patience, and with ripen'd time / Unfold the evil which is here wrapt up / In countenance" (5.1.119-21), she is unaware that her words apply to her own ripeness to be plucked by the Duke in his comic finale. Even more problematic, because decidedly anticomic, are the text's images of abortion, the fatal delivery of unripe fruit. In a treatise called The Byrth of mankynde, the physician Thomas Raynalde describes abortion (miscarriage) in these terms: "Aborcement or untimely birth is, when the woman is delyvered before due season, and before the fruite be rype."30 His metaphor of the woman's biological time as a harvest recalls Lucio's ploughing image, in which "blossoming time" brings the "bare fallow" to "teeming foison" (1.4.41-43); the connection is significant since ideology makes biological reproduction and nur-turing the woman's "natural" role in the socio-economic system. It is worth noting in this regard that Mariana had a brother who "miscarried" at sea, thus losing her marriage dowry and her opportunity to participate in the processes of marriage and reproduction (3.1.210). The image of Juliet as a ploughed field bursting with life equates the productivity of female generative labor with that of economic labor; conversely, the image of the shipwreck as a miscarriage equates the untimely destruction of the "perished vessel" with that of the fetus in the aborting female vessel (3.1.217).31

The play's allusions to abortion repeatedly evoke the unnaturalness of denying or disrupting this reproductive economy. Oddly, however, most of these allusions are associated with men—Angelo and the Duke—whose legal power to kill is linked to women's unique power to abort. The effect of the homology between female and male control over life is not to empower the men (by their appropriation of "the feminine") but to indict them for their association with a monstrously destructive prerogative. Whereas in Love's Labor's Lost Berowne compares an "abortive birth" to the unseasonable appearance of a rose in winter or snow in May (Love's Labor's Lost, 1.1.104), Angelo goes further in figuring illegitimate children as "evils" that must be aborted before they are "hatch'd." He praises the newly-awakened law which:

                         like a prophet Looks in a glass that shows what future evils, Either new, or by remissness new conceiv'd, And so in progress to be hatch'd and born, Are now to have no successive degrees, But ere they live, to end.                                 (2.2.95-100)

Angelo's law will destroy those who "coin heaven's image / In stamps that are forbid" as easily as he could stamp out the life of a fertilized egg (2.4.45-46). Calling the deputy a "motion ungenerative" and an "ungenitured agent" (3.2.108, 167-68), Lucio implies that he has neither genitor nor genitals, that he represents a freakish rupture in a procreational chain. Angelo himself articulates in the language of abortion the self-destructive consequences of his supposed rape of Isabella: "This deed unshapes me quite; makes me unpregnant / And dull to all proceedings" (4.4.18-19). Through its corruptness, the act by which he impregnates another is not life-affirming but annihilating: it destroys his honor, his "grace," and his unified subjectivity—"Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not" (4.4.32).

In Angelo's sterile legalism the product of sex is death, but sex and death are conflated in the Duke's original law and in the means for fulfilling it, the executioner Abhorson. David Sundelson, among others, comments on the components of "his highly suggestive name ('abhor,' 'whore,' 'whoreson')," but not on the fact that the entire name is a virtual homonym for "abortion."32 In his Breviarie of health, for instance, Andrew Boord uses the almost identical form "abhorsion."33 The Renaissance pun on "to die" as the moment of sexual climax is anthropomorphized in Measure for Measure: the former bawd who facilitated sexual unions must as executioner's aide destroy "fornicators"; conversely, the executioner himself is symbolically associated with the destruction of the product of sexual union.34 If the literal execution of the law is figured as abortion, then the Duke's obsession with "fit time" can be seen as a desire to deflect attention away from the abortive, deforming justice of his "most biting laws" onto his theatrically deferred display of mercy (1.3.19). Assuring Mariana that his bed-trick will grow to a prosperous conclusion, the Duke echoes the harvest metaphor with which Lucio announced Juliet's pregnancy: "Our corn's to reap, for yet our tithe's to sow" (4.1.76). By withholding certain information which he then dispenses at carefully engineered moments, the Duke establishes himself not as the guarantor of an evil law "by remissness newconceiv'd" but as the one figure who can reveal truth in ripe time.

That abortion is figuratively linked in Measure for Measure with costly destruction and with an unnaturally harsh law that measures out untimely death for sexual activity indicates what is at stake in a wife's regulation of and responsibility for her "ripe time." Far from being the rational choice of a woman who desires to control her fertility, abortion is intelligible only as the consequence of the dangerous desires of a pregnant wife, Mistress Elbow. Named after a bodily joint, Mistress Elbow is the pivot on which turn the male anxieties directed at the fertility of Juliet's body and the infertility of Isabella's body. Her pregnant body, like Juliet's, is legible as a signifier of sexual desire, but Mistress Elbow's threateningly misplaced sexuality leads her to seek pleasure in a dangerous place promoting "fornication, adultery, and all uncleanliness," including, I would argue, abortion.

The copiousness of the whore and the barrenness of the virgin are presented as ideological counters in Measure for Measure, against which the exclusive closure of the chaste wife ("won" by and "one" for the husband) should be posited as the ideal measure. Although the wife's only doubleness should come from the stamp of the single man, the play's only wife generates a crisis of sexual and linguistic doubleness, indeterminacy, and "misplac[ing]" (2.1.87):

Elbow: My wife, sir, whom I detest before heaven and your honour—

Escalus: How? Thy wife?

Elbow: Ay, sir: whom I thank heaven is an honest woman—

Escalus: Dost thou detest her therefore?

Elbow: I say, sir I will detest myself also, as well as she, that this house, if it be not a bawd's house, it is pity of her life, for it is a naughty house.

Escalus: How dost thou know that, constable?

Elbow: Marry, sir, by my wife, who, if she had been a woman cardinally given, might have been accused in fornication, adultery, and all uncleanliness there.

Escalus: By the woman's means?

Elbow: Ay, sir, by Mistress Overdone's means; but as she spit in his face, so she defied him.


Despite his misplaced readings of his wife's misplaced body, Elbow manages to affirm that the "woman's means" is Mistress Overdone's intermediary or bawd, Pompey; but as Frankie Rubinstein notes, Escalus's vague query carries a more general meaning.35 The "woman's means" may be synonymous with what the Bawd of Pericles calls "the way of womenkind" (4.6.141), the inherent feminine wantonness that marital sexuality may actually encourage. For instance, a flustered Isabella deduces from her brother's behavior ("a kind of incest") her mother's infidelity to her father, whose blood could not have produced "such a warped slip of wilderness" (3.1.138, 141). She displaces her disgust at illicit familial sexuality away from both men and onto the untrustworthy mother.36 The irrational mother is also targeted when Pompey connects Mis-tress Elbow's being "great with child" with her "longing & for stewed prunes," which were commonly served in brothels (2.1.88-89).37 And his bawdy description of Froth's "cracking the stones" of the two remaining prunes reveals a crude male view of what pregnant women want (2.1.107). In response to the justice's exasperated attempt to determine "what was done to Elbow's wife, once more?" Pompey asserts, "Once, sir? There was nothing done to her once" (2.1.138-40). Elbow may indeed be anxious to know what his wife did with Froth, a name Rubinstein glosses as both "semen," and (from "frot") sexual rubbing, but Pompey answers equivocally, implying that nothing was done to her at all or that nothing was done to her merely once, but rather, repeatedly.38 Pompey appropriately expresses his innuendo by a grammatical construction known as "negative pregnant," which the OED defines as "a negative implying also an affirmative." Seemingly denying that anything was done to Mis-tress Elbow, he in fact affirms that something was done to her.

In this scene, male suspicion and misunderstanding of female sexuality translates the expansiveness of pregnancy into moral negativity. The wife's being "great-bellied" proves that something was done to her at least once, but also makes her susceptible to the charge that nothing was done to her only once: she was either "respected" (that is, suspected) with her husband before marriage (2.1.172), or "overdone" by Froth after marriage. Though the justices' interrogation cannot determine what the wife wanted or what Froth did, Mistress Elbow's presence in a bath-house brothel merely confirms the recklessness imputed to the pregnant woman. Elbow claims that his wife was discovered in a "hot-house" run by Mistress Overdone (2.1.65).39 J. W. Lever, who believes that Overdone ran a travern, takes Elbow's claim as "a mere gag." However, Lever concedes that bath-houses "were notoriously blinds for houses of ill fame; hence the word 'stews,'" and he cites Jonson's Epigram 7, "On the New Hot-House," in support of this connection (2.1.65n):

Where lately harbour'd many a famous whore, A purging bill, now fix'd upon the dore, Tells you it is a hot-house: So it ma', And still be a whore-house. Th'are Synonima.

Given this corroboration and Elbow's manifest anxiety, it seems unlikely that Elbow is making a "gag" about the brothel, which is euphemistically described as a "common house" and a "tap-house," but never called a "tavern" (2.1.43, 206). Furthermore, the allusions to stewed prunes and the sweating "tub" (3.2.55), the suggestive names "Overdone" and "Froth," and the Duke's complaint that he has seen "corruption boil and bubble / Till it o'errun the stew" all add weight to the reading of the brothel as a bath-house (5.1.316-17). Mistress Elbow's presence in a hot-house would be especially threatening because, according to Thomas Raynalde, pregnant women should "exchewe much bathing or going to the hot houses in their teemyng, for that may do hurt three wayes": the extreme heat can variously work to force the child out of the womb prematurely.40 Because of an irrational maternal desire for stewed prunes—a "thirsty evil"?—Mistress Elbow risks not only her and her husband's reputations, but the life of their unborn child.

Moreover, another reading could see Mistress Elbow's seemingly reckless visit to the stews as an informed and deliberate decision. In an examination of birth control practices in early modern England, Angus McLaren concludes that married women employed several methods and justifications for abortion: they "were not passive in relation to their fertility; they wanted to control it and were willing to go to considerable lengths to do so."41 Fearful of such autonomy, Andrew Boord refuses to list certain purgatives in his treatise lest any "light woman" willfully use them to induce abortion.42 Such light women are the objects of Ben Jonson's satire in Epicoene, in which the following exchange takes place between the inquisitive young wife and the leader of the amazonian Collegiates:

Epicoene: And have you those excellent receits, madame, to keepe your selves from bearing of children?

Haughty: O yes, Morose. How should we maintayne our youth and beautie, else? Many births of a woman make her old, as many crops make the earth barren.43

The passage is striking in that Haughty uses the botanical metaphor of women's time to link ripeness directly to sterility—too much fertility accelerates barren aging—while she blithely articulates the double threat of a self-imposed barrenness: its interminable justification (feminine vanity) and its immediate availability. As long as city wives are vain about their appearance, the passage implies, so long will such "excellent receits" be in demand. Like Jonson's presentation of the domineering Haughty, Shakespeare's presentation of Mistress Elbow, dangerous in either her feverish irrationality or her cold calculation, provides ammunition for male fears about a woman's power in pregnancy.44

The sole depiction of conjugal relations within the play, the scene concerning Mistress Elbow adds the wife to the virgin and whore as a focus of male anxiety about female sexuality. The marriage itself, a microcosm of all the marital problems the play treats, violates on several counts the ideology of the Elizabethan "Homily on Matrimony," which held that the "original beginning of matrimony & is instituted of God, to the intent that man and woman should live lawfully in a perpetual friendly fellowship, to bring forth fruit, and to avoid fornication."45 In this marriage, the fruit of the union risks untimely delivery, the wife is implicated in fornication, and the husband's parapraxis that he "detest[s]" his wife reflects ironically on the "friendly fellowship" they are supposed to maintain. If the intermediate position of the betrothed creates confusion, so does the marriage towards which the betrothed, and the logic of comedy, move. Constructed as the scene of a sexual ripeness that must be controlled, marriage becomes the unstable middle term between the self-repressed sexuality of maidenhood and the publicly-monitored sexuality of prostitution. The ripe wife is uneasily situated between the rottenness of the over-sexed prostitute and the barrenness of the childless maid.

Previous criticism is clearly mistaken, then, in relegating Elbow and his wife to the harmless irrelevancy of a bawdy "subplot." Since this scene of conjugal discord accentuates and epitomizes those issues of female sexuality that permeate the entire play, its concerns significantly inform the four marriages of the comic finale. Because none of the couples which crystallize at the end demonstrate mutual affection and commitment, they are no more the heralds of a renewed, redeemed society than Elbow and his wife. Instead, like the Duke's unanswered matrimonial "motion" to Isabella (5.1.532), the motion of the final scene constitutes a deferment of resolution, a suppression of the dangers of unsanctioned pleasure through an institution which poses dangers of its own.

The four women who become wives at the play's end move from their marginal positions along the virgin (none)/wife (one)/whore (more) spectrum into the central, nominally stable, position. Yet the problems this transition brings are not limited to the lack of compatibility and mutuality the couples demonstrate. The dialogue concerning Mistress Elbow strongly implies that marriage displaces male anxiety about female sexuality away from the virgin and whore figures onto the wife-mother figure itself. Each woman occupying the normative position of "wife" may be economically and legally subject to her husband ("one"/"won"), but her sexuality—as Luce Irigaray would have it, the "sex which is not one"—slips away from his control. It is precisely the play's harsh focus on what Irigaray affirmatively calls the "multiplicity of female desire," the plurality of female sexuality, that opens the way for a feminist reading of female pleasure and the dangers it poses to male rule.46

As a result of the unruliness of the wife's sexuality, the "fit time" of comic marriage activates a new measure of sexual suspicion that demonizes women's time. At one pole, the wife, emulating the whore's promiscuity, escapes the husband's control through her excessive pleasure. Here, the ripeness of time becomes the ripe womb that certifies not only the husband's sexual stamp but the wife's sexual pleasure, and her likely search for further gratification. The double belly, a double signifier of avaricious gastronomic and libidinal appetites, compels Mistress Elbow to satiate its hunger for "stewed prunes," a signifier of food and sex. In other words, Juliet's pregnant body signifies her ability to satisfy her own desires—"as those who feed grow full," says Lucio—rather than her obligation to express and fulfill Claudio's "husbandry." At the other pole, the wife, emulating the virgin's barrenness, defies the husband's control through her dangerous autonomy. Here, the anticipation of fit time becomes the woman's power to truncate life in abortion. Ignoring the authority of both physician and husband, Mistress Elbow enters a hot-house "before due season," an action which could lead to premature birth. As for the main couple of the comic finale, there's at least reason to surmise that Isabella will be particularly open to suspicions of this nature, given that her history of homosocial independence and cherished virginity suggests her likely resistance to marriage and pregnancy. And the Duke, for his part, is particularly liable to suspect such behavior, considering his past experience in observing and circumventing the abortive deeds of an "unpregnant" subordinate.


I borrow my title from the collection of essays edited by Carole S. Vance entitled Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (London: Pandora, 1989). The essays arose from the Scholar and the Feminist DC conference, "Towards a Politics of Sexuality," held on 24 April 1982 at Barnard College.

This essay has immeasurably profited from the patient and incisive readings of David Scott Kastan and Jean E. Howard.

1 The quotations come respectively from Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), 101, and "Constructing Female Sexuality in the Renaissance: Stratford, London, Windsor, Vienna," in Feminism and Psychoanalysis, ed. Richard Feldstein and Judith Roof (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1989), 225; Richard Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), 96 and 114; Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992), 87; Meredith Skura, "New Interpretations for Interpretation in Measure for Measure," Boundary 2 7 (1979): 52. Many psychoanalytic critics of the play have discussed how sexuality is feared, loathed, regulated, and ultimately linked with corruption and death. Skura notes that sex "threatens only the males with death," and "is always a trap" for them (51). Wheeler examines how imagery presents sexual impulses as "self-devouring and self-contaminating" (109). Neely posits that "the first half of the play moves towards the substitution of death for sexuality," until, following the Duke's lecture to Claudio, "sexuality is substituted for death, marriages for executions" (Broken Nuptials, 99); in "Constructing Female Sexuality" she finds that the play represents male sexuality as "unrestrainable and degrading," and female sexuality as "paradoxically essential and fatal, voluntary and enforced, central and subordinated" (225 and 229). Adelman, who believes that, to the Duke, "sexual touch per se is abominable and beastly," traces characters' effacement of and disgust at "sexual origin and maternal dependence" (87-88). Dollimore, a cultural materialist, argues that the State constructs a negative view of sexuality: "Diverse and only loosely associated sexual offenders are brought into renewed surveillance by the State; identified in law as a category of offender (the lecherous, the iniquitous), they are thereby demonised as a threat to law" ("Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure," in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield [London: Manchester Univ. Press, 1985], 73).

2 Kathleen McLuskie, "The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure," in Political Shakespeare (note 1), 97.

3 McLuskie (note 2), 97 and 96. My critique here resembles that of Lynda E. Boose: "To be a feminist in McLuskie's terms is to renounce completely one's pleasure in Shakespeare and embrace instead the rigorous comforts of ideological correctness. & If Shakespeare can be accused of participating in the reification of patriarchy by his reproduction of it, then surely McLuskie has here likewise participated in the reproduction of—if not the production of—the feminist exclusion upon which she insists" (724). See "The Family in Shakespeare Studies; or—Studies in the Family of Shakespeareans; or—The Politics of Politics," Renaissance Quarterly 40 (1987): 707-42.

4 McLuskie, 92.

5 Jean E. Howard, "Scripts and/versus Playhouses: Ideological Production and the Renaissance Public Stage," in The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Valerie Wayne (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), 225.

6 Stephen Orgel, "Nobody's Perfect: Or, Why did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?" in Displacing Homophobia: Gay Male Perspectives in Literature and Culture, ed. Ronald R. Butters, John M. Cium, and Michael Moon (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1989), 19.

7 Stephen Orgel, "Call Me Ganymede: Shakespeare's Apprentices and the Representation of Women," unpublished conference paper, 13 and 14. I would like to thank Professor Orgel for making this paper available to me.

8 In "Measure for Measure, New Historicism, and Theatrical Power," Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 328-41, Anthony B. Dawson accords unusual attention to Mistress Elbow. He notes that she "is defined chiefly by her desire for stewed prunes, but that simple desire leads to a tangle of contradictory and vagrant meanings" (336). I agree with his assessment that Mistress Elbow challenges stable meaning, but not with his feeling that her challenges are tonally "comic," as opposed to the "more threatening" epistemological and political challenges offered in the Angelo-Isabella scenes.

9 For a thorough discussion of this paradigm in the literature of the period, see Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984), especially 84 and chapter 9. Carol Thomas Neely asks "what room for maneuvering there was within these definitions of women" in Shakespeare's society and in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Measure for Measure ("Constructing Female Sexuality" [note 1], 213).

10Measure for Measure, 5.1.178-79. All references to Measure for Measure are from the Arden Edition, ed. J. W. Lever, (New York: Routledge, 1988), and will be subsequently given in the text. References to other plays will be from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking-Penguin, 1977).

11 McLuskie (note 2), 97.

12 Carol Thomas Neely, "Constructing Female Sexuality" (note 1), 213.

13 Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press-Morningside, 1989), 130-31. Dorothy McLaren ("Marital Fertility and Lactation 1570-1720," in Women in English Society 1500-1800, ed. Mary Prior [New York: Methuen, 1985]) shows, however, that women could increase intergenesic intervals by breastfeeding. While prolonged lactation generally lead to lower fertility, the "extent to which this was consciously controlled is not known" (43).

14 Angus McLaren, Reproductive Rituals: The Perception of Fertility in England from the Sixteenth century to the Nineteenth Century (London: Methuen, 1984), 21. In this regard see chapter five ("Sexuality and Conception") of Audrey Eccles, Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Croom Helm, 1982); and Thomas Laquer, "Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology," Representations 14 (1986): 1-41.

15 In a reading of characters' "attempts to make the flesh word" against the "pervasive refusal of the flesh to acquiesce in the imagination's plots and compacts," Ronald R. Macdonald ("Measure for Measure: The Flesh Made Word," Studies in English Literature 30 [1990]: 265-82) similarly sees the "mute spectacle" of Juliet's pregnant body as "more eloquent finally than any of the sermons and bookish theories offered by other characters in the play" (279).

16 Peter Stallybrass, "Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed," in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), 127.

17The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1958), 3:5.2.202-4.

18 Marjorie Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1981), 131.

19 In "The Politics of Style: Discourses of Law and Authority in Measure for Measure," Style 16 (1982): 22-37, David Aers and Gunther Kress posit that lower class characters use a kinetic discourse—"verbal, concrete, active, I centered" (33)—to challenge authority, while the language of the powerful is static, "marked by a prevalence of nominal forms," "agentless passives," and synecdoche (32). Aers and Kress consider Claudio's speech heavily static with its nominals ("stealth," "entertainment," "characters") and passives ("is writ on Juliet"). Their conclusion accords with my argument about Claudio's relationship to Juliet: "Here the experience of (sexual) love is pressed into the forms of the static, alienating discourse, with ugly results: human love is presented in terms of Contracts, possession of a bed, which seem of the same order as denunciation of outward order, or propagation of a dower" (35).

20 In a psychoanalytic reading of the Henriad, Valerie Traub ("Prince Hal's Falstaff: Positioning Psychoanalysis and the Female Reproductive Body," Shakespeare Quarterly 40 [1989]: 456-74) argues that Falstaff "represents to Hal not an alternative paternal image but rather a projected fantasy of the preoedipal maternal whose rejection is the basis upon which partriarchal subjectivity is predicated" (461). She notes that Falstaff's body, with its "increasingly feminized" belly (463), demonstrates the grotesque corpulence and openness that early modern societies attributed to the maternal body.

21 Jardine (note 13), 133.

22 Keith Wrightson notes in English Society: 1580-1680 (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1982) that "death in childbed was common enough. Quite apart from the risk of death, suffering in childbirth could be appalling in an age lacking either anaesthetics or gynecological sophistication, and in which the aid of the village midwives could be as much an additional danger as a help" (105).

23 See Frankie Rubinstein, A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and Their Significance, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1989), 26. Compare Joseph Swetnam, The Araignment of Lewd, idle, froward and unconstant women: or, the vanitie of them; chuse you whether (London, 1615): "Againe, Lust causeth you to doe such foule deedes, which makes your foreheads for ever afterwards seeme spotted with blacke shame and everlasting infamy, by which meanes, your graves after death are closed up with times scandali" (sig. Elv).

24 I am thinking here of Aers's and Kress's (note 19) claim that in the static discourse of power "the verb to be appears frequently, in ideologically prominent speeches" (32).

25 In "Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure" (Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis [New York: Routledge, 1988]), Jacqueline Rose finds in Angelo's statement "the more and less that the woman becomes when she fails to contain for the man the sexuality which she provokes" (97).

26 David Sundelson, "Misogyny and Rule in Measure for Measure" Women's Studies 9 (1981): 83-91, especially 85-86.

27 Elizabeth Sacks also discusses in Shakespeare's Images of Pregnancy (London: Macmillan, 1980) the sexual imagery of this and other passages in the play. Her method, however, which depends upon locating "literal" and "figurative" images of pregnancy in Shakespeare, leads to this unhelpful appraisal of Measure for Measure: "[It] portrays the world realistically, devoid of illusions, as its equivalent spiritual and physical terminology makes quite clear" (61).

28 See Pericles, where "fresh ones" must replace those whores who "with continual action are even as good as rotten" (4.2.10-11). Also, As You Like It: "And so, from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, / And then, from hour to hour we rot and rot" (2.7.26-27).

29 See Rubinstein (note 23), 177.

30 Thomas Raynalde, The Byrth of mankynde, otherwise named the womans booke (1545; London, 1560), folio 82, sig. N5r.

31 For a discussion of beliefs about and images for pregnancy and miscarriage in early modern Europe (especially France), see Jacques Gélis, History of Child-birth: Fertility, Pregnancy and Birth in Early Modern Europe, tran. Rosemary Morris (Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press, 1991). Chapter five, "The Body in Pregnancy," examines botanical metaphors for fetus and womb; chapter sixteen, "The Falling of the Flower," deals with miscarriage, and chapter seventeen, "The Unripe Fruit," with premature birth.

32 Sundelson (note 26), 84.

33 Andrew Boord, The Breviarie of health: wherin doth folow, remedies, for all maner of sicknesses & diseases … (1547; London, 1598), page 7, sig. A7V.

34 Many critics have noted the play's "literalization of the pun that identifies death and orgasm" (Adelman [note 1], 87). No critic, to my knowledge, has connected this central pun to abortion/Abhorson.

35 Rubinstein (note 23), 156.

36 Jacqueline Rose (note 25) similarly reads Isabella's fantastic reconstruction of her "mother's sexual crime" (108). Adelman (note 1) discusses this scene at length, concluding: "Threatened by identification with the mother who can exist for her only as a site of corruption, Isabella responds by invoking the protective image of a pure father who can serve as a buffer between her and the maternal legacy that both Angelo and Claudio bid her to assume" (97).

37 Jacques Gélis (note 31) describes the dangers that the mother's irrational "cravings and imaginings" were believed to pose to the unborn child (53-58).

38 Rubinstein (note 23), 106.

39 The OED's primary sense for "hot house" is "a bathing-house with hot baths, vapour-baths, etc."; the second sense is "a brothel."

40 Raynalde (note 30), folio 85, sig. N8r. On the various precautions recommended for reducing the chances of "spontaneous abortion," see Linda A. Pollock, "Embarking on a rough passage: the experience of pregnancy in early-modern society," Women as Mothers in Pre-Industrial England, ed. Valerie Fildes (New York: Routledge, 1990).

41 McLaren (note 14), 111. See his chapter, "Abortion as birth control," which attempts to demonstrate, "first, that concerns for health and family well-being could have led many to contemplate abortion; second that there existed a wide range of techniques that were believed to be effective in precipitating miscarriages; and third that the concept of 'quickening' permitted women to consider the action as legitimate. For these reasons we have to conclude that abortion played a far more important role in the regulation of fertility in past generations than has usually been believed" (111). Dorothy McLaren (note 13) argues that rich women who desired to breastfeed, perhaps to reduce their fertility, may have had to negotiate or battle their decision with husbands and friends (27-28).

42 Boord (note 33), sig. A8r.

43Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1954), 5:4.3.57-61.

44 A striking parallel to the male anxieties inscribed in the mistrust of Mistress Elbow's sexuality appears in Carol Smith-Rosenberg's account of the abortion movement in Victorian America. In their anti-abortion campaign, male physicians of the AMA constructed a mythic figure of the "autonomous bourgeois wife, [who] by rejecting the domestic and maternal role bourgeois men had constructed for her" deceived both husbands and doctors. "The AMA linked doctor and husband as the equally wronged and innocent parties. The aborting wife, in contrast, was unnaturally selfish and ruthless" (236). In the AMA ideology, as in Andrew Boord, "the mother was potentially lethal and insane; only the male physician could protect the male fetus" (242). I thank David Scott Kastan for drawing to my attention Smith-Rosenberg's Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985).

45 "An Homily on the State of Matrimony," in Certain Sermons or Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1908), 534.

46 Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, tran. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), 30.

Justice, Mercy, And Morality

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Harry V. Jaffa (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Chasity as a Political Principle: An Interpretation of Measure for Measure," in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, Carolina Academic Press, 1981, pp. 181-213.

[In the following excerpt, Jaffa examines the oppositions of chastity and passion, and of mercy versus the rule of law, as they unfold during discussion between Angelo and Isabella.]

Should Claudio have been condemned to death for fornication? We must examine this question seriously, and not merely as an exercise in the willing suspension of disbelief. What we might call "our" point of view is represented within the play, when Lucio exclaims, "Why, what a ruthless thing is this & for the rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a man!" And he seems to speak in the spirit equally of Christianity and of liberal democracy, when he asks,

Would the Duke that is absent have done this? Ere he would have hanged a man for getting a hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing a thousand. He had some feeling of the sport, he knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy.

(III. ii. 123-128)

Lucio's point of view seems however to be out of favor with the Duke, and Lucio is treated with a harshness that distinguishes him from the other sinners at the end of the play. He is sentenced to marry the woman whom he has reportedly got with child, after which he is to be whipped and hanged. At the last, however, his other "forfeits" are remitted, and only the sentence of marriage remains. Since marriage is the same sentence imposed by the Duke on Angelo (not to mention Claudio, and, finally, himself), it would not seem to be disproportionately severe. Nonetheless, Lucio protests.

Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging.

To which the Duke retorts,

Slandering a prince deserves it.                                        (V.i.528-530)

We cannot help thinking, however, that the slander that the Duke was putting down, in sentencing Lucio to marriage, was not merely personal to himself. As a ruler, the Duke will no longer countenance, or allow the opinion to spread that he countenances bastardy, or the getting of bastards, as a gentlemanly sport.

Lucio, however, did not think that he was slandering the Duke when he declared him to be one instructed in mercy. In a Christian society, no praise of a ruler is more potent than that of being merciful. Consider Isabella's testimony.

No ceremony that to great ones 'long— Not the king's crown, nor the deputed sword, The marshal's truncheon, nor the judge's   robe— Become them with one half so good a grace As mercy does.                                 (II.ii.59-63)

Lucio's explanation of the Duke's mercifulness, although in itself hardly complimentary, is nonetheless consistent with a view of human nature as fallen, that runs throughout the play. For with the exception of the Duke, all the leading characters see themselves as St. Paul sees himself, when he declared himself "captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members" (Romans 7:23). This is even true of Isabella, who, at the gate of the nunnery of St. Clare, complains to Sister Francisca that she wishes "a more strict restraint" than that provided by the rules of that exceptionally strict order. This lust for restraint is the obverse of her Pauline belief in captivity to the law of sin. Certainly none of the other characters seems to have any conception of a "complete bosom." As we shall see shortly, even the most respectable Escalus thinks that only chance and circumstance separate the apparently strictest virtue from mere incontinence. But the Duke means something different by a bosom proof against temptation: he means a character so habituated in right action, that it is incapable of being tempted. He puts us in mind of Aristotle's gentleman, who does not even have a sense of shame, so far removed is he from the possibility of shameful things. And this reminds us of that strangest of all the revelations that accompanies the apocalyptic ending of the play: the discovery (in IV. v) of a circle of the Duke's friends, of whose existence we have had no previous inkling. They are Flavius, Valentius, Rowland, Crassus, and Varrius. Only Varrius appears on stage, although he does not speak. He is sent to the others, "to bid them bring the trumpets to the gate," for the Duke's entrance into the city in his proper person. "Valentius" reminds us of "Valentino," the name borne by Cesare Borgia in the Romagna.

These names—except for Rowland—have an ancient Roman sound, and remind us of ancient virtue. They—and the Duke's "complete bosom"—remind us in particular of magnanimity, or greatness of soul, as celebrated in the fourth book of the Nicomachean Ethics. The great-souled man, according to Aristotle, is one to whom "nothing is great." That is, nothing is great in comparison with himself, and his own virtue. The contemplation, and admiration, of that virtue is so pleasant to him, that he cannot be tempted to do anything inconsistent with it. Of course, to a Christian, nothing is as great as the megalopsychos is to himself, except God. Greatness of soul is but another name for that pride which is the opposite of Christian humility. Christian humility is however consistent with that opinion—notably as expressed by Escalus (but also by Isabella)—by which the greatest human virtue is still susceptible to temptation. The Christian, conscious of his own weakness, needs the grace of God to safeguard his virtue; the Aristotelian gentleman anticipates the need for such grace by the satisfaction he takes in the sense of his own impregnable superiority.

Nothing is more indicative of the Duke's classicism—which sets him apart from all the other characters (all, that is, except the silent Romans)—than the manner in which he performs his "priestly" functions. He visits the condemned Claudio in prison, ostensibly to bring him Christian comfort, on the eve of his execution. But in the speech in which he exhorts him to prepare for death, there is not a word, not a hint, of Christian doctrine. There is no suggestion of personal salvation in a Christian sense. He is merely taught how to reason well about the vanity of human desires. He is taught that nothing is either good or bad, except as thinking makes it so. The art of living well is then the art of thinking well, since thought can make one's fate desirable, whatever that fate turns out to be. Claudio is indeed taught "learning to die," and learning to die becomes identical with learning to live. It is Socratic sophistry at its best; the kind, no doubt, that Socrates himself went to school with the sophists to learn, in the Euthydemus. 'To sue to live," Claudio declares at end of the Duke's speech, "I find I seek to die/ And, seeking death, find life" (III.i.42-44). But this life that he finds, by seeking death, has nothing to do with personal immortality. The reasoning to which the Duke subjects Claudio is moreover eminently materialistic. He tells him, "Thou art not thy-self,/ For thou exist'st on many a thousand grains of dust" (III.i.19-21). However, the conclusion is not only Socratic but in the form of one of the most familiar of Socratic paradoxes. At the same time we should notice that the Duke's appeal to a materialist metaphysics is also Biblical: man is formed from dust, and to dust returns. By extracting this Socratic conclusion from a Biblical premise, the Duke gives a demonstration that is all the more impressive, of the power of unassisted human reason.

The argument against Claudio's execution is first made by Escalus, in conversation with Angelo.

Let but your Honor know, Whom I believe to be most strait in virtue, That in the working of your own affections, Had time cohered with place or place with   wishing, Or that the resolute acting of your blood Could have attained the effect of your own   purpose, Whether you had not sometime in your life Erred in this point which now you censure   him, And pulled the law upon you.                                    (II.i.8-16)

Later, Isabella briefly repeats the substance of this argument to Angelo.

If he had been as you, and you as he, You would have slipped like him, but he,  like you

Would not have been so stern.                                    (II.ii.64-66)

Because of universal moral weakness, those in authority are no better than those they are called upon to judge. The thesis of Matthew 7, "Judge not, that ye be not judged," becomes then an argument against all political punishment, and hence against all government. Angelo quickly and sensibly points this out.

You may not so extenuate his offense For I have had such faults, but rather tell me When I that censure him do so offend, Let mine own judgment pattern out my death, And nothing come in partial.                                   (II.i.27-31)

The idea of law implies the idea of law enforcement. For the law to go unenforced, because those who enforce it might at some time also be law-violators, is absurd. Here however we are confronted with something that seems on its face to be an absurd law: a law making illicit sexual intercourse a capital offense.

In his interview in the monastery with Friar Thomas, the Duke says that

We have strict statutes and most biting laws, The needful bits and curbs of headstrong   steeds, Which for this fourteen years we have let   slip. &                                   (I.iii. 19-21)

This law would seem to be the representative par excellence of such "needful bits and curbs." The conception of such a law—which seems absurd to us in its severity—compels us to remember what lies at the root of the idea of law, which requires the domestication of eros by nomos. As we have noted, Aristotle, in the first book of the Politics, characterizes the political community as a collection of families. Except as it is a collection of families, it does not become a collection of citizens. A citizen is not an "individual," an abstract entity imbued with "rights" which inhere in him as a "person." (We may observe parenthetically that "individual" and "person" both abstract from the distinction between male and female.) He is the representative of a family, if not the head of a family. And all members of families have genders. It is this that makes the polity a complex, and not a homogeneous entity. Although a political community is composed of a number of citizens and families, it cannot be identified by the numbers of those citizens or families: they are distinguished by their qualities. They constitute something more than, and different from, an aggregate. One of the reasons that Aristotle gives for the necessity of the political community, is that the power of the family is insufficient for the government of the family. The needs of the family transcend the resources of the family. Hence the polity or regime comes to sight, in its foundation, as an exercise of collective familial authority. This is why Lincoln at Gettysburg spoke of "our fathers" bringing forth a new nation. We thus see a supreme political action characterized as a supreme act of paternal power. Sexual promiscuity can thus be seen as striking at the very root of the idea of paternal power—of patriotism—and hence at the ground of authority. To derive authority from paternity, paternity itself must not be unlawful.

It is given to Angelo, more than to any other character in Measure for Measure, to express the foregoing view of fornication. Ironically, he does so at the very moment when his own soul has succumbed. The evil he does not want is what he does—or at least attempts. In this he appears almost to impersonate St. Paul, in Romans 7:19.

Ha! Fie, these filthy vices! It were as good To pardon him that hath from nature stolen A man already made, as to remit Their saucy sweetness that do coin Heaven's   image In stamps that are forbid. 'Tis all as easy Falsely to take away a life true made As to put metal in restrained means To make a false one.                                   (II.iv.42-49)

Fornication and murder are here equated: the unlawful getting, and the unlawful taking of life, are looked upon as virtually two aspects of a single crime. This is achieved by a figure of speech drawn from the idea of coinage. God's creation of man in his own image makes those who generate children "coiners" of "Heaven's image." And those who do so outside the law become false coiners. We are reminded that the coining of money has always been regarded as one of the chief prerogatives of sovereignty. (In the United States Constitution of 1787, to coin money and regulate its value, is one of the powers of the United States; and it is a power specifically prohibited to the individual states. This is one of the principal indications of where sovereignty lay in the more perfect union.) Traditionally, money was stamped with the image of the sovereign. To make this stamp without authority was more than forgery or theft. It was usurpation, and hence treason, and for this reason was always a capital offense. Fornication, as a kind of false coinage of citizens, becomes more than a private action. Lucio thinks that the Duke would sooner pay for the nursing of a thousand bastards, than hang a man for getting a hundred. But no ruler can be indifferent to whether his subjects are or are not born under the laws by which he rules. It is by no accident or perverse whim that "bastard" is such a term of opprobrium, however unfair it may seem that the sins of the parents should be visited upon the heads of the children. Bastards, not being proper members of families, do not properly inherit. They do not share in those rights of property generated by the family, the protection of which may be called the first object of government. The full dimension of bastardy, as an alien and enemy thing, is revealed to us by Edmund, in King Lear. The bastard, like the slave, has an inherent interest in overthrowing the regime which excludes him from its rights and privileges. We should mention, however, that in King John Shakespeare reveals another, and more attractive possibility of bastardy. In this case, however, the hero deliberately renounces legitimacy, to be known as the King's bastard, which is, to say the least, a very special kind of bastardy. Isabella, however, shares Angelo's—and the Duke's—view, when, in a passage already noted, she says that she had rather that her brother died by the law, than that her son should be unlawfully born.

With the exception of Lucio (and Pompey) no one seriously questions that fornication ought to be an offense, or even that it ought to be a capital offense. Lucio himself calls it "transgression" and "vice," but thinks that one cannot "extirp it quite & till eating and drinking be put down" (III.ii.9-10). Pompey, of course, merely thinks that he is "a poor fellow that would live." As a supplier of the necessities (as he thinks of them) of young gentlemen, he does not see why he is more to blame than purveyors of food and drink. He does not see why he should be held responsible for venery more than the others are for gluttony or drunkenness. In his failure to comprehend the distinction between the "mean" of virtue and the "extreme" or "excess" of vice, he is a reflection—in more ways than one—of his "betters." He knows that his occupation is unlawful, but does not understand why.

The commission that the Duke gives Angelo in the opening scene is not nominally one to establish or institute the puritanical and tyrannical regime that in fact follows. Angelo is given the discretion

So to enforce or qualify the laws As to your soul seems good.                                    (I.i.66-67)

This means that the soul of the judge, rather than the soul of the laws, will be revealed by the manner in which the law is enforced. This is how the Duke will "practice his judgment with the disposition of natures." The severity of the law is merely hypothetical. It need not be as severe as Angelo would make it, nor as lax as it has been under the Duke. Escalus has this in mind when he says to Angelo,

Let us be keen, and rather cut a little, Then fall, and bruise to death.                                           (II.i.5-6)

(The figure of speech refers to the manner of execution in ancient Rome, when the condemned man was hurled from the Tarpeian Rock. See Coriolanus III.iii.103.) One of the strange features of the play is that the debate over Claudio's fate turns entirely—with the exception of this one suggestion by Escalus—upon whether he should be executed or pardoned. No middle ground is given serious consideration. We divine from the Duke's speeches in his private conversation with Friar Thomas, that he anticipates what will happen. The laws will be enforced in a manner both tyrannical and necessary for their authority. The force or vigor of this tyranny will come from an asceticism which is but suppressed lust. The city will however be cured of the secret tyranny within it at the same time that it will be cured of dissoluteness. The extremes will cure each other, "measure for measure," to re-establish the mean. In so doing, the city will be re-founded.

The foregoing helps to explain why, although in theory mercy and justice may be distinct, in practice they may become indistinguishable. Escalus, although a pleader for Claudio's pardon, can find no good or sufficient argument to support that plea. Yet Isabella, out of love for her brother, pleads for his life.

             Good, good my lord, bethink you, Who is it that hath died for this offense? There's many have committed it.                                     (II.ii.87-89)

But the reply, given the premises, seems irrefutable.

The law hath not been dead, though it hath   slept. Those many had not dared to do that evil If the first that did the edict infringe Had answered for his deed.                                        (II.ii.90-93)

But Isabella—prompted by Lucio (that man of mercy)—pursues her demand. Pity and mercy now assume a form that stands in opposition to justice. "Yet show some pity," she pleads (II.ii.99). But Angelo will not—yet—be moved from his ground. Pity and justice, he declares, cannot be dissevered. He says that he most shows pity when he shows justice:

For then I pity those I do not know Which a dismissed offense would after gall, And do him right that, answering one foul   wrong, Lives not to act another.                                (II.ii.101-104)

However, when, a few moments before, Angelo had declared that Claudio was "a forfeit of the law," Isabella had replied with the following speech, perhaps the most memorable of the play.

                              Alas, alas! Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once, And He that might the vantage best have took Found out the remedy. How would you be If, He, which is the top of judgment, should But judge you as you are? Oh, think on that, And mercy then will breathe within your lips, Like man new-made.                                   (II.ii.72-79)

We must not allow the breath-taking beauty of these lines to overcome our own "top of judgment," and permit their reasoning to go unexamined. It is not Claudio's soul which the law is claiming as forfeit. Isabella elsewhere declares that the death of the body is nothing fearful. Rather than give her body up to shame, she says, she would "strip [herself] to death, as to a bed / That longing have been sick for" (II.iv.102-103). And she will tell Claudio himself that

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.                                    (III.i.78-81)

The death of the body is then but a momentary pang, but the soul lives, or dies, forever. Claudio's execution, so far from forfeiting his soul, may consist better with its eternal welfare than—in Isabella's own words later in the play—"a feverous life" of "six or seven winters" more. By Isabella's theology, the condemned criminal himself is then better off who, in Angelo's words, "answering one foul wrong,/Lives not to act another."

Isabella's speech is one of the most notable invocations of Pauline theology in the literature of the West. This is, we might say, born-again Christianity with a vengeance, notwithstanding the relentless refusal of the poet actually to name the non-vindictive "top of judgment," nor to describe the actual "remedy" that "He" found out. We cannot therefore pretend not to notice that, within the play, the Duke himself, in disguise, will be the top of judgment, of Angelo, of Claudio, and of Isabella herself. The entire play is an instrument for practicing that discovery of "the disposition of natures" which will enable a more than merely human justice to prevail. Isabella appeals to the principle of divine revelation, presumably to correct and perfect the imperfect human administration of justice. In fact, her appeal is such as would render any administration of justice impossible. Let us, for the moment, take Isabella's exhortation at face value. She is saying, in effect, that every judge, before every judgment, should first examine the purity of his own soul. Since, however, every soul is presumed to be tainted with original sin, every soul is defective. Recognizing this, and recognizing that he himself needs God's pardon, every judge should pardon every criminal! As Angelo had pointed out to Escalus, and as he again points out to Isabella—at the outset of their first interview—this would make the judge's "the very cipher of a function" (II.ii.39). Every judge would pardon every criminal, because there would not be any judge sufficiently pure in soul to exercise judgment.

Isabella's plea to Angelo, to spare her brother's life, because God had spared a guilty world, makes no sense in terms of the logic of political life. Hitherto, Angelo has represented a kind of Aristotelian reasonableness, however extreme the action he finds necessary. Lechery is too general a vice, precisely because no one has believed that the laws against it would be enforced. The time has passed when cutting a little, instead of bruising to death, will serve. The Duke tells this to Friar Thomas in their interview; and Isabella concedes the point when she says that there is one vice which she most wishes to meet the blow of justice. Isabella's argument—apart from its theological reference—is then a plea for favor for Claudio, simply because he is her brother and she loves him. At the outset of the interview with Angelo, she confesses that she is "At war 'twixt will and will not." She wills that the law against fornication be enforced, but she wills that it not be enforced against Claudio! Finally, she is driven to declare that to enforce it is tyrannical. "So," she says to Angelo,

  you must be the first that gives his sentence, And he, that suffers. Oh, it is excellent To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant.                                    (II.ii.106-109)

But is not Isabella being unfair to Angelo? Angelo has been given a task of cleaning out Augean stables. Certainly this takes a Herculean, a giant's strength. Yet we know—from no less an authority than the Duke—that the beginning of the reform of the city will necessarily appear tyrannical. Indeed, there will be no external or visible difference between a tyrannical and a non-tyrannical beginning of reform. The first falling of the "blow of justice" will appear to be, and indeed will be, arbitrary. It will be arbitrary, because there is no reason why that first blow should fall on one rather than another, of those "many" that have committed this offense. Yet, if there is to be a rule of law, one where crime and punishment are justly and reasonably and surely proportioned to each other, the blow must fall somewhere upon someone. For cities to be reformed—or founded—arbitrariness must, so to speak, take the lead. Arbitrariness therefore underlies non-arbitrariness.

Isabella says that it is excellent to have a giant's strength, but tyrannous to use it like a giant. But what does it mean to be a giant, and who can have such strength? The answer of course is that the power that transforms man into citizen brings the "giant" city—or political community—into existence. It is the political community which enormously enhances the power of man. If the political community becomes what it is by nature intended to become—a partnership in virtue—then it is indeed good. If it becomes tyrannical—if it is separated from that virtue which it is intended to enhance and perfect—then it becomes something terrible. The tyrannical giant is then the lawless city: for anarchy and tyranny are twins. Aristotle says that the man who first united men into the political community—the first founder of a city—was the greatest of benefactors. (Literally, "the greatest cause of good things": Politics, 1253a21.) We cannot help noticing that, according to the Bible, the man who first founded a city was Cain. That both Cain and Romulus slew their brothers is, more or less, the fundamental perception underlying the Machiavellian teaching. And it is, we might say, a rebellion against this Machiavellianism, which underlies Isabella's revolt against the necessity that her brother be killed in order that Vienna be reformed.

Having told Angelo that it is excellent to have a giant's strength, but tyrannous to use it like a giant, Isabella pursues the theme of the absurdity of political authority.

                   Could great men thunder As Jove himself does, Jove would ne'er be   quiet, For every pelting, petty officer Would use his Heaven for thunder. Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven, Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous   bolt Split'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man, Dressed in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he's most assured, His glassy essence, like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high Heaven As make the angels weep—who, with our   spleens, Would all themselves laugh mortal.                                 (II.ii.l10-123)

Certainly this speech is one of the great exposures of the pretensions of men in authority. One is reminded of Gogol's Overcoat, and the mixture of crude despotism (to those beneath them in the hierarchy of authority) and crude obsequiousness (to those above them) exhibited by nineteenth-century Russian bureaucrats. But there is an eternal bureaucracy, transcending boundaries of time or space, which is inherent in the idea of political authority. When Angelo declared to Isabella that

It is the law, not I, condemn your brother. Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son, It should be thus with him. &                                 (II.ii.80-82)

he was appealing to that principle which is mankind's chief defense against the false pretensions arising from political authority. That defense is the rule of law, which Angelo—up to this point—is attempting to re-establish.

After Angelo has fallen, after he has become that rebel against the authority he has hitherto represented, he looks upon the law in a different light, as is evident from the speech wherein he writes good angel on the Devil's horn:

When I would pray and think, I think and   pray To several subjects. Heaven hath my empty   words, Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue, Anchors on Isabel. Heaven in my mouth, As if I did but only chew His name, And in my heart the strong and swelling evil Of my conception. The state, whereon I   studied, Is like a good thing, being often read, Grown sere and tedious. Yea, my gravity Wherein—let no man hear me—I take pride, Could I with boot change for an idle plume Which the air beats for vain. O place, O form, How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit, Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser   souls To thy false seeming! Blood, thou art blood.                                    (II.iv.1-15)

We here see that Angelo—after the fall—accepts Isabella's thesis concerning the absurdity of human political authority. Angelo had studied the state, and had taken himself and his duties with utmost seriousness—something now impossible, since his passions now run in a different channel. In the opening scene we heard the Duke commending Escalus as the gravest student of "the nature of our people," and of the "city's institutions, and the terms of common justice." Yet Escalus, who is moreover possessed of the "science" of government, commends Angelo as being worthiest to undergo the "ample grace and honor" of bearing the Duke's authority in his absence. Until Angelo's virtue and honor fall before Isabella's assault, we do not know anything genuinely discreditable about him, whatever the suspicions of others (notably the Duke). It is true that the Duke's suspicions prove to be wise ones. But in his stringent devotion to the execution of the law Angelo is just, and not a hypocrite. When, at the end of the third act, Escalus tells how he had labored to the utmost extremity for Claudio's life, and labored in vain, he concludes wryly that

my brother Justice have I found so severe that he hath forced me to tell him he is indeed Justice.                                     (III.ii.265)

Remembering Escalus' qualifications, we can see that this is at least as much a tribute as a reproach. The element of compulsion indicated in "he hath forced me" suggests also that Escalus could never have restored the authority of the law, as Angelo is doing. He is indeed doing the Duke's dirty work, like Remirro de Orco. Angelo, moreover, shows his integrity at the very end of the play. He had said at the outset that there must not be any partiality in justice. When Mariana and Isabella plead for his life, he himself declares that he craves death "more willingly than mercy./ 'Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it" (V.i.481-482). He does not whine, but considers himself exactly as he had hitherto considered Claudio. Left alone he would (like Lucio!) have been executed rather than married! In the scene in which the Duke arranges the bed-trick, we learn that Angelo had been betrothed to Mariana, and had jilted her when her brother perished with her dowry. This behavior, which is held up to our scorn, was not, however, unjust. The proposed marriage, although respectable and conventional, was not (at least on his part) a love match. When Mariana was unable to perform her part of the contract, it was broken off. Law, according to Aristotle, is reason unaffected by desire. And Angelo—before this great speech of Isabella, is precisely a man of reason unaffected by desire. His nonerotic character evokes our contempt. But that may be because we moderns instinctively prefer love to law, and nature to convention. In any event, Isabella awakens something in him that he had not hitherto suspected was there. Before, he says, when men were "fond" he smiled, and wondered how. Isabella, as we shall see, transforms him from a man of reason and law, into one of passion and nature.

Let us now return to Isabella's speech against authority. In it she strangely conflates Christian and pagan theology. Although—perhaps out of puritanical fastidiousness—she will not speak directly of the Biblical God, or of His Son, she does speak of "Jove" by name. He is the chief of the Olympian Gods, called "Zeus," in Greek. The "Z" becomes "D" when Zeus is declined, and hence the name is cognate with the Latin "Deus." "Jove" is a contraction of "Jupiter," itself the result of the contraction of "Deus Pater." "Jove" is then the Father of gods and men, known above all for his philoprogenitiveness. Isabella says that it is good that men in authority cannot thunder, since if they could they would do so constantly. As a result, Jove would have to thunder constantly, in order to be heard. She means by this that the administration of justice is properly a divine, not a human, function. Jove (or Heaven) is merciful, she says, because it splits "the unwedgeable and gnarled oak" and not "the soft myrtle." By this she means it strikes down the hardened and incorrigible wrongdoers while sparing the innocent and thus is merciful, because infallibly just. This, we note, is an argument remarkably different from the one she had made in behalf of Claudio, since there is no question of Claudio's guilt under the human law by which he is condemned. (An example of an unwedgeable and gnarled oak in the play would be Barnardine, the man who cannot be executed, because he will not be. One wonders why the lightning has never struck him!)

Isabella's attack on the possibility of human justice is absolute and uncompromising. We must, however, examine the reasoning of this attack on reason and law. We are obliged to notice what Isabella has apparently forgotten, that Jove (or Zeus) was famed for nothing more than for his fornications. Indeed, thunder and lightning were supposed to be manifestations of his sexual activity. According to legend, Semele, being prompted by the jealous Hera (in disguise), who revealed to Semele the identity of her lover, demanded to be loved by him in propria persona. As a consequence, she was struck by Jove's lightning-bolt, and turned into a cinder. However, the embryo was snatched from her womb, and carried to term in his father's thigh, eventually to join the ranks of the gods. But Isabella also forgets that the oak was supposed to be sacred to Jove, and not an object of his thunderbolts. She is correct, however, in supposing that lightning does strike oak trees. In Aristophanes' Clouds, Socrates subverts the piety of Strepsiades by pointing this out to him. Isabella does then revert to a kind of prephilosophic paganism, in believing that the lightning discriminates among its targets, and as such is the just instrument of divine justice. This she contrasts with human authority which, she says, is most ignorant of that of which it is most assured. We hear in this assertion an echo of Socrates' examination, in Plato's Apology of Socrates, of the politicians and the poets. Yet her piety is more akin to that of the politicians and poets than is Socrates'. Still, her antinomianism has something in common with the regime of philosopher-kings in the Republic. She, like Socrates, finds no genuine authority in any rule other than the perfect rule. Her notion of perfect rule would appear to be that dispensed by the gods, whereas his would appear to be that of philosophers. The practical result in both cases is to undermine any reasonable—but imperfect—human government.

In denying that man can know what he needs to know in order to be a minister and executor of justice, Isabella caricatures, not only Platonism, but the tradition of the Bible. According to that tradition, man is made in the image of God. Alone among the creatures, he is governed, not by instinct or natural necessity, but by his own will. It is man's duty to conform his will to that of God, but God has given him understanding for this end. It remains God's will that man's obedience be voluntary. Of course, man will be rewarded and punished according to his deserts by God. But this will be done according to that judgment which is denominated "last." Such a judgment does not obviate the necessity or propriety of human officers and human judges to enforce human law. "Judge not, that ye be not judged," refers to the Last Judgment. It still leaves us the duty, in Lincoln's words, to be firm in the right, as God gives us to see the right. This has reference of course to the execution of the human law. Isabella's doctrine would leave the Last Judgment as the First Judgment. Government would be impossible. Anarchy would ensue.

According to the same Biblical tradition, man's being made in the image of God, leads properly to the Imitatio Dei, as a legitimate human endeavor. Again, we turn to the authority of Abraham Lincoln, who often cited the verse, "Be ye perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect." This did not mean, Lincoln said, that any human being could be as perfect as God. It meant that in striving towards the divine perfection, human life was improved, and human beings made better and happier than they otherwise might be. But it is precisely this point of view that Isabella rejects. She compares man imitating God, to a monkey imitating man. In aspiring towards God, she implies, he becomes a beast. Man, "dressed in a little brief authority," conjures a grotesque figure moping and mowing before a mirror, admiring his "glassy essence." According to Isabella's metaphysical physiology (now leaving the world of Jove behind her, a world of laughter and fornication), angels, lacking spleens inter alia, cannot laugh. They weep, she says, at this human imposture, even as she will weep for Claudio. But the angry ape, seen in his true absurdity, is properly an object of scorn, contempt, and laughter. With this, as we shall see, she will have fatally undermined Angelo's self-respect, along with his belief in his duty to the law. We are reminded, finally, that apes—or monkeys—were, like Jove, notable for their lecherousness.

Isabella's speech is the dialectical turning point of play. It is here that Angelo begins his transformation. That shrewd observer, Lucio, perceives this.

Oh, to him, to him, wench! He will relent He's coming, I perceive't.                               (II.ii. 123-124)

Lucio's words prove bawdier than even he intends them to be. Under his encouragement, Isabella returns to the attack: her next two speeches, although punctuated by Lucio's and the Provost's asides, are dramatically un-interrupted, and are therefore essentially continuations of the previous speech. Here is the first:

We cannot weigh our brothers with ourself. Great men may jest with saints, 'tis wit in   them, But in the less foul profanation.                                             (126-128)

And again:

That in the captain's but a choleric word Which in the soldier is flat blasphemy.                                      (130-131)

At this point, Angelo responds, asking,

Why do you put these sayings on me?                                          (133)

Until this point, all of Angelo's speeches to Isabella have been simply repetitions of the death sentence, or restatements of the reasons for the death sentence, followed by the repetition of that sentence. Now he asks a question. He no longer knows his own mind; or, perhaps we should say, he discovers a different mind within himself. Isabella, now sensing the change already sensed by Lucio, drives home her argument.

Because authority, though it err like others, Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself That skins the vice o' the top. 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.                                     (134-141)

Angelo then speaks—but only aside, and to himself (and us):

She speaks, and 'tis Such sense that my sense breeds with it. Fare   you well.                                      (141-142)

This is indeed a "farewell" to the Angelo who has hitherto occupied the stage. It is not however a farewell to Isabella, but rather the beginning of a "come hither," not for well but for ill. The "sense" that his breeds from hers, will be a new birth, but one that will be diabolic rather than angelic. Angelo will in fact concede that he has no further right to execute Claudio. He will say to himself, in the soliloquy which follows,

Oh, let her brother live. Thieves for their robbery have authority When judges steal themselves.                                      (175-177)

Lashed by Isabella's antinomianism, Angelo looks within his heart, and does indeed find there—and not only there—"the strong and swelling evil" of his "conception." Now he embraces the principle of the argument that originally Escalus, and then Isabella, had brought against his legal rationalism. Before he had argued that if judge or jury prove corrupt, let them be tried and punished too. From the argument that all the guilty should be punished, he now goes over to the other side, with the conclusion that none should be! Now, from the premise (which was also Escalus's and Isabella's) that thieves have authority from judges he will proceed to the further inference, that judges have authority from thieves. Or, to put it more bluntly, that judges of fornication have authority from fornicators ! If he ought not to condemn Claudio, because there is guilt in his heart, then why should he not act the guilt of which he is already convicted? If the corruption of "natural guiltiness" levels mankind, then the distinction between the will and the deed disappears. Earlier, he had replied to Escalus,

'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, Another thing to fall.                                                 (II.i.17-18)

But that distinction itself has fallen before Isabella's onslaught. The result is however different from the one she intended or expected.

Isabella has, unknown to herself, seduced Angelo. The seduction has been begun by convincing him that he has no right to execute Claudio. He now believes that neither he nor Claudio should, or indeed can, be lawfully punished for fornication. However, that is because he no longer believes in the idea of law, or the rule of law. He thinks that it is indeed "excellent to have a giant's strength." But he also thinks that it is excellent to use it like a giant. It may be tyrannous to do so, but it is foolish not to do so! We can recognize in Angelo's new position, the attack by Glaucon, in the second book of the Republic, on justice, as something conventional but not natural. Glaucon's thesis is not merely that justice is conventional, but that it is the good of the weaker. The stronger—the giants—are entitled by nature to the objects of their desire. It is against nature to share "equally." The logical result of Isabella's antinomianism is that justice—and the rule of law—have no basis in nature or reason. There can be no just punishment, and hence there can be no unjust action. This would have been the conclusion of Isabella's argument, but for one thing: she believes in final rewards and punishments. Isabella is a kind of Augustinian. There may be a city of the revealed God, but to that there corresponds no earthly city to be ruled by "the laws of nature and of nature's God."

Isabella is now perceived as a saint by Angelo who, as we shall see, accepts her theological premises. Before examining Angelo's consciousness of Isabella's sainthood, we must notice, however, that it was anticipated by Lucio. When Lucio first greets her at the nunnery gate, he calls her

           a thing enskied and sainted, By your renouncement, an immortal spirit, And to be talked with in sincerity, As with a saint.                                 (I.iv.34-37)

But Isabella's saintliness is based upon "renouncement." Her chastity is that of the vestal, not that of the matron. In her conversation with Sister Francisca about the rules of the order of St. Clare—which was famous for its austerity—she complains about their rules, as one

   rather wishing a more strict restraint Upon the sisterhood. &                                            (I.iv.4-5)

These rules, as we learn, make virtually all intercourse between the nuns and men impossible. Isabella, before she is snatched from this vocation, was a refugee from the discipline of virtue no less than from the city. Virtue belongs to the city, the good earthly city. But she does not believe in the possibility of either virtue or the city. For her, as for Augustine, the former is at best but splendid vice.

Angelo, we repeat, now sees her as a saint. For the first time in his life, his lust is aroused, and he finds it over-powering. At first, he cannot understand why. Above all, he cannot understand why her purity should attract him rather than the earthier attractions of other women.

            Can it be That modesty may more betray our sense Than woman's lightness? Having waste   ground enough, Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary, And pitch our evils there?

                      What is't I dream on? O cunning enemy, that to catch a saint With saints dost bait thy hook! Most   dangerous Is that temptation that doth goad us on To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet, With all her double vigor, art and nature, Once stir my temper, but this virtuous maid Subdues me quite.                       (II.ii.168-172, 179-186)

Angelo speaks of the strumpet's "double vigor." But the strumpet's paint does not add vigor to nature: rather is it a substitute for nature's defect. The aim of the "cosmetic" art is to produce the illusion of nature in place of nature. Angelo had in fact been repelled by the spuriousness of the strumpet's attractions. Unable to share the coarser taste of a Lucio, he did not patronize Mistress Overdone, or Pompey, or Kate Keepdown. In his own way, Angelo had retreated into the law, and the state, whereon he had studied, as Isabella had retreated to (or towards) the nunnery. The art of the strumpet has in fact repelled his more fastidious taste. Believing that strumpets or strumpetry are the proper objects of sexual desire, he has been deluded into believing that he lacked such desire, or that to suppress such desire was an easy thing. This, we might add, was Lucio's opinion of Angelo as well. Both Angelo and Lucio thought that "study and fast" played a larger role in the formation of his character than they actually did.

Isabella's antinomianism has for the time being, at least, destroyed Angelo's moral sense. She has persuaded him that he is naturally guilty, and his passion now turns—naturally—towards forbidden fruit. Angelo wonders at himself. Why is he attracted to Isabella? Why must he "raze the sanctuary" of her virginity and chastity, having, as he says, "waste ground enough" elsewhere? He sees himself the object of a "cunning enemy." Of course, Angelo refers here to the Devil, the same that Macbeth called "the common enemy of man" (III.i.69). Macbeth, we know, sells his "eternal jewel," meaning his immortal soul, to this gentleman, for the crown. He does so because, as he speculates,

                     If the assassination Could trammel up the consequence, and catch, With his surcease, success & We'd jump the life to come.                             (I .vii.2-4 , 7)

That is to say, Macbeth considered that if he was assured of success in his enterprise of murdering Duncan, and usurping the kingship, he would be willing to say, in effect, "to Hell with Hell." That close student of Macbeth, Abraham Lincoln, in his Temperance Address, observed that "Pleasure to be enjoyed, or pains to be endured, after we shall be dead and gone, are but little regarded. &" Lincoln was reflecting here precisely upon the terrors of "the day of judgment." And most students of criminal jurisprudence have concluded that incontinence and incorrigibility in human conduct are best met by punishment that is swift and sure. Great punishments that are far off, and uncertain, are little counted; certainly they are much less counted than punishments that are relatively mild, but thought to be very near and inescapable.

There is however particular irony in Angelo's discovery of a "cunning enemy." The plot, we know, is from the outset arranged by the Duke. Angelo, in the bed-trick, falls into the Duke's trap. The Duke suborns the Provost to postpone Claudio's execution because, as he tells the Provost, now "Claudio & is no greater forfeit to the law than Angelo who hath sentenced him" (IV.ii. 166-168). The Duke, referring to "his judgment with the disposition of natures," flatters the Provost, saying,

my ancient skill beguiles me, but in the boldness of my cunning I will lay myself in hazard.

(IV.ii. 164-166)

The diabolic cunning is the Duke's "ancient skill" in judging human character. The Devil turns out, then, to be the Duke playing God. Angelo has fallen in love with a saint, because his pride in his own virtue has kept him aloof from any lesser attachment. It is nevertheless Isabella's antinomianism which underlies, and indeed drives Angelo to, the paradox of "sin in loving virtue." For surely, if there is a sin in loving virtue, there must also be a sin in not loving it. Had he not loved virtue, he might have loved the strumpet. Love of the strumpet, means love of the low, of the meretricious as well as the illicit. But love of virtue, or at least that virtue represented by saintliness, is too high for the law, since it is too high for the flesh, or for nature. Angelo's saintly love of the high should have been consummated on the level of the spirit, transcending the body, and transcending the law. Saints, like harlots, are united with their lovers outside the bounds of marriage or the law. But Angelo is a man of the law. It is the state, not the soul, that he has studied. He says that the strumpet, with all her double vigor, art and nature, never stirred him. But he mistakes strumpetry and himself. He is clearly mistaken in thinking that health, youthful beauty, and chastity are less vigorous in their attractions, than the unchastity and cosmetic art of the prostitute. Comparing himself to those who were "fond," he smiles and wonders how. That is to say, believing that prostitutes are much more attractive than good girls, he thinks that his own weak appetite for strumpets constitutes an immunity to the temptations of sex. And he has preened himself in this belief. So it is not surprising that, in being exposed to a chaste beauty, he is attacked on his blind side. He has no defense precisely because he no longer believes in the authority of the law, which represents that middle ground between the prostitute and the saint. In a sense, Angelo is taking a proper revenge upon Isabella: she has destroyed his dignity as a judge; he will do the same to her saintliness. She has put him on a level with fornicators; he will treat her as a prostitute. Here too we find a measure for measure.

Should she or shouldn't she? We have concluded that, upon the basis of reason and law, Claudio's execution was certainly justified, paradoxical as that conclusion may seem to our moral taste. It is of course the Duke's judgment as well, as is shown by the fact that, rather than sparing Claudio, he causes him to be "executed," and then resurrects him from the dead.

In the scene in which Angelo demands Isabella's virginity and chastity, in exchange for her brother's pardon, he presents himself, over and over again, as the representative of the law. Of course, he now does this ironically, taunting her with her own thesis, which had denied any moral authority to the law or its representative. "Answer to this," he demands:

I, now the voice of the recorded law, Pronounce a sentence on your brother's life. Might there not be a charity in sin To save this brother's life?

Isabella replies:

                             Please you to do't, I'll take it as a peril to my soul, It is no sin at all, but charity.                                            (II.iv.61-66)

But if she is confident that her demand is not sinful, she must be confident that it carries no peril to her soul. She risks nothing. But his risk is great: as a judge he will be forsworn, since by his own casuistry—which remains uncontradicted—Claudio's execution is required by justice, pity, and mercy (and therefore by the recorded law). Hence Angelo rejoins:

Please you to do't at peril of your soul, Were equal poise of sin and charity.                                                (67-68)

That is to say, unless Isabella does something that imperils her soul, as much as the violation of Angelo's judicial oath risks his, there is no "equal poise" between his sin and charity on the one hand, and her sin and charity on the other. Isabella however remains obtuse through several exchanges, apparently not catching the drift of Angelo's argument. At last he becomes exasperated.

                       Nay, but hear me. Your sense pursues not mine. Either you are   ignorant, Or seem so, craftily, and that's not good.                                                (73-75)

Swiftly, he proceeds to the blunt question. If she could fetch her brother "from the manacles of the all-binding law" by no other means, but to "lay down the treasures of [her] body," what would she do? Here now is the sinful charity he demands of her, in exchange for the sinful charity she has demanded of him. Her answer is that she would do as much for her brother as for herself. She would lay down her life for him, but would not yield up her body "to shame." But, asks Angelo,

Were not you, then, as cruel as the sentence That you have slandered so?

Her reply is:

Ignomy in ransom and free pardon Are of two houses. Lawful mercy Is nothing kin to foul redemption.                                    (109-113)

But here she is attempting to stand on ground that no longer exists. She knows that lawful mercy required Claudio's execution, not his pardon. The mercy that she asks cannot then be lawful. To continue to demand mercy, knowing that it is lawless, is to ask for lawless mercy, and hence sinful charity. If then there cannot be charity in sin, neither can there be charity in mercy. She rejects this conclusion, but is trapped in contradiction, as Angelo points out.

You seemed of late to make the law a tyrant, And rather proved the sliding of your brother A merriment than a vice.                                     (114-116)

She did not actually say that her brother's sliding was a merriment; but calling the law a tyrant—which she did by calling its execution a giant's tyranny—implied the innocence of the action for which Claudio stood condemned. Here Isabella, who is anything but fair-minded (although she has certainly been single-minded), is compelled to concede Angelo's logic.

Oh, pardon me, my lord. It oft falls out, To have what we would have, we speak not   what we mean. I something do excuse the thing I hate For his advantage that I dearly love.                                    (117-120)

Here Isabella abandons her antinomian argument. She attempts to reclaim the ground upon which she has been defeated. She abandons the quest for Claudio's pardon, as she now asks for her own. She has abandoned the struggle to save his life, and now begins the far profounder struggle to save her own chastity. To let her brother die is, as we have already noted, to her "cheaper" and "better." After Angelo has confronted her with the blunt and brutal alternative, she concludes, without hesitation, "more than our brother is our chastity." Her defiance is spirited. But the cause of spirited womanliness, like that of spirited manliness, lies in that conjunction of the two called the family, whence comes patriotism. However, it should be understood—as we have learned from Volumnia in Coriolanus—that this phenomenon arises from mothers no less— perhaps more—than from fathers. In the defense of her chastity, Isabella is driven back to law, the honor of her family, and the city. But the connection between honor and family makes chastity the concern of the matron rather than of the vestal.

Angelo had been the appointed guardian of the law. His legal rationalism proves to be dialectically impregnable. But his dry-souled asceticism is an insufficient foundation for his reason. The passion in his soul, which had been hidden even from himself, is not on the side of his argument. And so his defense of the law crumbles before Isabella's passionate attack. Isabella's defense of Claudio, which fails on the ground of reason, triumphs by reason of its passion. In awakening Angelo's lust, she overcomes his attachment to the law. But her victory is also a defeat. She must retreat to the law at the moment Angelo deserts it. Both together have prepared the way for the Duke's refounding of the city. Angelo and Claudio both stand forfeits of the law. But the Duke will rescue them both. Lechery and asceticism will have corrected each other. Eros and nomos will be harmonized. Isabella, in the defense of her chastity, will have been turned away permanently from the Order of St. Clare. She will now prove the foundation, as well as the instrument, of the Duke's policy.

Katharine Eisaman Maus (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Prosecution and Sexual Secrecy: Jonson and Shakespeare," in Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance, The University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 128-81.

[In the following excerpt, Maus discusses the subversive nature of desire in the world of the play and its influence on the lives of the characters portrayed in the play.]

Sexual Secrecy in Measure for Measure

Like [Ben Jonson's] Epicoene, Measure for Measure treats of the public regulation of sexual behavior in a disorderly urban world. Shakespeare's Vienna, like Jonson's London, defies traditional forms of policing, because an enforceable consensus on sexual morality no longer seems possible to attain. Like Epicoene, too, Measure for Measure reflects contemporary misgivings over the functioning of the ecclesiastical courts. In the early seventeenth century an increasingly influential group of Puritans, disgusted by what they considered the courts' leniency and their preference for mediation over retribution, recommend stiffening punishments imposed for sexual transgressions. Angelo seems zealously to subscribe to the arguments that forty years later, in the Cromwell regime, eventuate in a statute making adultery a capital crime. And Angelo's special animus against Claudio reflects a perennial complaint about the ecclesiastical courts' misplaced priorities, since the courts often fail to deter serious offenders, but come down hard on less insolent sinners who are often easier to locate and to embarrass.1

These marks of current controversies do not necessarily mean, however, that Measure for Measure constitutes an explicit policy recommendation. As Margaret Scott points out, "The law of Measure for Measure is & storybook law"; and it is not at all clear that English customs with regard to the marital precontract, for instance, are imagined to hold in Roman Catholic Vienna.2 In fact, I would argue that like Jonson's, Shakespeare's concerns are more general, more profound, and more closely wedded to his theatrical medium. As we have already seen in the case of Epicoene, the ecclesiastical courts' supervision of sexual conduct poses difficult problems about the relationship between truth and public knowledge, between individuals and communities, and between precepts and behavior. These issues matter to Shakespeare, too; but his notion of what is at stake is substantially different from Jonson's.

While Jonson's fascination with the impotence trial recurs in play after play, Shakespeare's emphasis on explicit sanctions in Measure for Measure is quite atypical. In Shakespeare's earlier comedies, although the connection between sexual desire and its "fulfilment" in marriage often seems less than automatic, marriage remains a recognizable telos as it never is in Jonson's plays. In As You Like It Touchstone succinctly describes the alternatives:

                     Come, sweet Audrey, We must be married, or we must live in   bawdry.                                   (3.395-96)

In As You Like It living in bawdry is not a genuine option, so Audrey and Touchstone march to the altar with the rest of the young couples, despite the implausibility of their union. In Measure for Measure, however, any link between desire and marriage seems to have snapped. No one, with the possible and problematic exception of the Duke, weds unless and until compelled to do so. Elbow is the only husband in the play, and his wife, "whom I detest before heaven," risks being debauched in Mistress Overdone's brothel. Once desire comes unhinged from the institution that is meant to contain and direct it, to make it publicly useful, it begins to seem scandalously subversive of personal and social order. Even Claudio, the would-be bridegroom, speaks the language of destructive compulsion:

As surfeit is the father of much fast, So every scope by the immoderate use Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue,

Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.                                   (1.2.126-30)

It is difficult to imagine Lysander or Orlando censuring his own passion so savagely.

When sexual indulgence is imagined to bring with it turmoil, animalism, even suicide, celibacy can seem a positive relief, certainly the only way to maintain self-respect and to retain the respect of others.3 The three morally ambitious characters in Measure for Measure—Isabella, Angelo, and the Duke—differ from the retrospectively self-reproachful Claudio not in their outlook, but in the energy and consistency with which they translate their principles into action. All three take it for granted that sexuality is dangerous, that their virtue demands sexual continence, and that such continence in turn sanctions their social power. In Measure for Measure, as Barbara Baines writes, "chastity authorizes authority."4 Even those characters whose behavior strays farthest from the ideal of chaste virtue admire that ideal: Lucio, for instance, tells Isabella that her vow of perpetual virginity renders her "a thing enskied and sainted / By your renouncement an immortal spirit" (1.4.34-35). Julietta, pregnant under indefinite circumstances, admits that her sin is "of heavier kind" than Claudio's, and "take[s] the shame with joy" instead of attempting to make a case for herself (2.3.28, 30). Even Pompey Bum admits that his trade "does stink in some sort, sir" (3.2.28). It occurs to no one in Measure for Measure to argue for the social utility of sexual enjoyment. Only Lucio's brief analogy between Julietta's pregnancy and agricultural fecundity even approaches a celebratory tone.

Your brother and his lover have embraced. As those that feed grow full, as blossoming   time That from the seedness the bare fallow brings To teeming foison, even so her plenteous   womb Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry.                                      (1.4.40-44)

In Lucio's formulation, Claudio's desperate "surfeit" becomes the "fullness" of innocent gratification, and appetite not a "ravening down" but a natural impulse that regenerates the abundance upon which it feeds. Attempting to enlist Isabella's support for her brother, Lucio emphasizes the connections between Claudio's behavior and the innocent cycle of bloom and harvest, momentarily recovering the morally less tense and conflicted view of the earlier comedies. Just as a spark intensifies darkness, the effect of these radiant lines in their grim setting is to underscore the prevailing distrust of sexuality by providing a glimpse of a less troubled alternative.

The prevailing idealization of "purity" in Vienna far exceeds communal need. With the important exception of Angelo's harassment of Isabella, the sexual "crimes" the Duke wishes to root out of Vienna are victimless and the city, however seedy, in no real danger of revolution or collapse. Jonathan Dollimore has plausibly argued that the sense of sexual crisis in Vienna, as in Jacobean London, is an ideological screen for an anxiety of a different nature: the real targets of repression are members of the lower classes who might foment rebellion against their "betters."5 But sexual surveillance in Vienna does not merely oppress the proletariat while letting the elite off scotfree. If anything, rather like its English counterpart, it has more severe consequences for better-off people concerned to protect their "good fame." I would suggest that concepts of restraint and transgression, discipline and capitulation, seem indispensable to the upperclass characters not primarily because they provide an excuse to oppress others (although they may indeed provide that excuse) but rather because those terms so profoundly structure the experience of desire in Measure for Measure that in some cases they can come to seem indistinguishable from personality itself.

Once sexual desire is regarded as intrinsically, disgracefully errant, and therefore as subject to public punishment, it becomes by reflex something to hide. The play's numerous enclosures—convent, private study, locked garden, moated grange—are sites congested with sexual desire, actual or rumored, frustrated or enacted. Even the prison is populated by fornicators. Consequently, when Lucio calls Vincentio a duke of dark corners, we recognize instantly that the dark corner metonymizes sexual voracity. Prohibition and concealment, surveillance and inwardness, mutually produce and necessitate one another, in a dialectic that by now ought to seem familiar.

As in Epicoene, then, sexuality seems a particularly troublesome issue because it is double-faced, both importantly public and intensely private. We have already seen how the law of early modern England acknowledges mis doubleness: on the one hand making marriage the basis of weighty familial and social obligations, and on the other hand permitting valid marriages between two people by verbal promise only, without presence of witnesses or consent of parents. In Measure for Measure Claudio and Julietta founder in this legal quagmire.

Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract I got possession of Julietta's bed. You know the lady, she is fast my wife Save that we do the denunciation lack Of outward order.                                   (1.2.145-49)

What is Claudio claiming here? He might be arguing that the contract is "true" only in the sense that it was faithfully undertaken, or he might be claiming, in the stronger sense, that it ought to be acknowledged as valid. His equivocal word "fast" nicely captures the ambiguity of the lovers' situation. If "fast" means "very nearly," Claudio implies that he and Julietta do not consider themselves married until they have undergone a public ceremony. If "fast" means "securely," Claudio is asserting the binding force of the private contract, beside which "the denunciation & of outward order" is a formality that only ratifies what is already the case.

In either case Claudio and Julietta, in "the stealth of our most mutual entertainment," have attempted rather like Jonson's Volpone or Morose to create for themselves an unseen life of bodily pleasure, a life that dispenses with the consent and collaboration of the community. Unlike Jonson's protagonists, however, these lovers do not anticipate keeping their secret indefinitely; they wish only to defer their public commitment until Julietta's kin have come to favor the match. The entirely provisional quality of their clandestine arrangement allows them to remain thoughtless to its implications. Since they have apparently never bothered to justify their conduct to themselves, they are easily brought to repent of their "error" once their union is accidentally made public. Neither Claudio nor Julietta attempts to argue that the existence of a private contract, however "true" or "fast," means that they are innocent of fornication after all.

Angelo's internalization of Vienna's disciplinary regimen is far more complex than Claudio's simple avoidance strategy. Angelo's initial qualification for judicial office is that he possesses, as the Duke says, "a kind of character in thy life, / That to th'observer doth thy history / Fully unfold" (1.1.28-29). "Character" here refers to legible writing, the self made publicly available. Angelo denies himself a private life, apparently everting his entire person to the public gaze. This ambition for transparency seems wholly compatible with the Christian tradition of asceticism. For "we owe to asceticism," as Geoffrey Galt Harpham writes, "the notion that the exemplary self is observable."6 The ascetic everts his inwardness, holding his self-mortification up for display: even when his struggles, his agonies, his triumphs are undertaken in rigorous isolation, they acquire meaning insofar as they are narrated to or witnessed by others, rendered into patterns for others to emulate.

Nonetheless, Angelo's legalistic identification of the true with the publicly available turns out not to be merely impossible, but morally dangerous. It allows him to muddle the relationship between the realm of intention—acts merely contemplated but not executed—and the realm of the secret, which might include deeds as well as intentions. When Escalus, seeking clemency for Claudio, asks Angelo whether he is not himself subject to the same unruly desires, Angelo replies:

Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, Another thing to fall. 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; what's open made   to justice, That justice seizes.                                           (2.1.17-22)

Angelo begins by drawing a distinction between being tempted and actually committing a crime, but his example cuts in another direction, differentiating the known thief in the dock from the unknown thief on the jury. Whereas logic requires him to supply an example of a successfully resisted temptation, Angelo cites a person who really has acted on his temptation, but who merely happens not to have been apprehended. This unintentional but revealing blunder foreshadows the slippage that permits Angelo's sexual harassment of Isabella. His equation of truth with publicity means that the secret act, which is not "open made to justice," may as well never have occurred.

Thus Angelo's pretension to complete visibility turns out to have an escape hatch, as it were, into a hidden room in which he may conceal everything he does not wish to acknowledge to the world. Moreover the secrecy of this hidden place itself arouses Angelo's appetite.

          these black masks Proclaim an enshield beauty ten times louder Than beauty could, displayed.                                    (2.4.79-81)

In his imagination, in other words, the ignominious pleasures of sexual abandon require and are abetted by interdiction and concealment. Angelo's yearning for a clandestine union is simply the flip side of his equally intense yearning for rigid containment. Whereas Claudio desires a woman that happens to be denied him, and sleeps with her in the expectation that their relationship will eventually be legitimized, Angelo desires a woman because she is forbidden, choosing as the object of his passion the most ostentatiously pristine woman in Vienna.

Angelo's behavior is exactly what one would expect of someone who assumes that all sexual expression is tantamount to moral ruin. "I have begun," he tells Isabella, "And now I give my sensual race the run." Once embarked upon such a "race," he imagines, there is no stopping, no limit, no brake. Angelo's phrase recalls an earlier locution of the Duke's, who speaks of "strict statutes and most biting laws / The needful bits and curbs to headstrong jades." In Plato's ancient metaphor, the appetitive part of the soul is a strong but recalcitrant horse which requires, but often escapes, a rider's firm management. Paradoxically but necessarily, the Duke's emphasis on the importance of control mutates easily into Angelo's excuse for capitulation: for if sexuality is essentially antisocial, it cannot be expected to contain and direct itself any more than a horse could be expected to govern itself without bit or bridle. At the same time, Angelo needs constantly to remind himself that Isabella is taboo, that he is defiling her, that his proposition flagrantly violates the rules he has been entrusted to administer.

          Is this her fault, or mine? The tempter or the tempted, who sins most,   ha? Not she; nor doth she tempt; but it is I That, lying by the violet in the sun, Do, as the carrion does, not as the flower, Corrupt with virtuous season.                                     (2.2.162-67)

Angelo quite accurately recognizes that the very awareness of merit that ought to foster his excellence in fact precipitates his disintegration. he struggles to remember, even to exaggerate, the prohibition against which He determines to act, because for him prohibition is aphrodisiac. If he were to rationalize his behavior, or blame it on Isabella, the novice of St. Clare would interest him no more than the devoted, licit Mariana. Therefore Angelo's extraordinarily lucid self-condemnation functions not as an impediment but as a spur, and leads not to penitence but to an increasing moral recklessness. The importance of what Angelo thinks of as "external" controls can hardly be overestimated, both for the rigidity of his principles and for the peculiar liberties he takes with them.

Isabella's asceticism is more rigorous and consistent than Angelo's, for she does not confuse God's unlimited knowledge with the limited perspective of the courtroom. She possesses the subjectively constitutive sense of divine supervision that, as we have seen, so many Renaissance clerics try to cultivate in themselves and in their followers. A number of consequences follow from this vivid conviction of omniscient witness. The first is that in Isabella's case, the bar against sexual transgression must be absolute. There is no nook or cranny undetectable by God within which she might permit herself release. Nor could she acquiesce to Angelo merely in body, retaining the purity of her mind intact: for the purity of her mind is constituted precisely by her refusal to allow space for anything clandestine. In fact, the clandestine is an almost impossible category for Isabella, since worldly reputation, in relationship to which secrecy acquires its meaning, is insignificant to her compared to what God thinks. As she considers Angelo's proposition, it never even seems to occur to her that she might return to her nunnery after a wild night in the locked garden with her good fame unscathed. For good fame, in this sense, is no concern of hers unless it happens to match up with the truth. Similarly, Isabella cannot countenance compromising her primary supernatural allegiance for the sake of secondary, natural ones. Although, of course, it is Claudio's life rather than her own that she proposes to jettison, it is not entirely absurd that Isabella thinks of herself as a kind of martyr, like those saints who renounce spouses, siblings, offspring in order to be burned at the stake, torn on the wheel, or devoured by savage beasts. Like martyrs in the first century or in the sixteenth, she refuses to define herself in terms of her affection for or duty toward her kin.

Yet Isabella's way of coming to terms with Vienna's disciplinary regimen entangles her, too; and the debate about her among Measure for Measure critics reveals how the trap works. Critics who approve of her, like G. Wilson Knight and Muriel Bradbrook, tend to read the play as an allegory in which the function of the characters is iconic. In this scheme Isabella "stands for sainted purity," or "represents and Mercy."35 For such critics, Issabella has no "invard truth" at varience from her superficies, for that kind of inwardness would violate what they understand to be the play's generic conventions. They apprehend Isabella much as she would like to apprehend herself, as a woman with nothing to hide whose very limpidity allows her to reflect a truth outside of, and greater than, herself. Critics who disparage Isabella presume that she is a psychologically complex character, and use that presumption of complexity to attack her. Anne Barton chastises Isabella for an "irrational terror of sex which she has never admitted to herself; Carolyn Brown and Harriet Hawkins for "her subliminal attraction to sexual abuse"; J. W. Lever for her "psychic confusion"; Arthur Kirsch for her "unconscious sexual provocation"; Harold Goddard for her "unplumbed sensual element"; Barbara Baines for her ignorance "of how she, as a subject, is constituted and subjected by her chastity."8

All these critics believe they can detect something about Isabella that she does not, or will not know. If even guilty intentions, according to the New Testament, are culpable, then one way to escape culpability is scrupulously to renounce those intentions. In Isabella's case this disavowal seems to require, however, a massive screening of herself from herself. It is hard to second-guess Angelo, because in his soliloquies he freely admits what he is. Isabella's more stringent version of the ascetic project, by contrast, seems to demand not merely self-denial, or careful conduct before others, but a repression-into-unconscious. Then her conscience can indeed be clear, but only because it is partial. Many Renaissance Christians, especially those of ascetic leanings, devoted themselves to various forms of introspective discipline designed to protect them from committing this error:9 which is, in fact, a more subtle, less witting version of Angelo's mistake. If Angelo might be said to construct a hidden garret behind his public facade, Isabella might be said first to devise one and then contrive to forget where the door is, so that she seems to be mere facade even to herself. For many modern critics, psychoanalytic techniques of undoing this disavowal have seemed called for, because Isabella's denial of her own complexity seems precisely the kind of psychic mechanism that psychoanalysis is designed to expose and reverse. The unexamined assumption of the "therapeutic" view, in sixteenth-century writers like William Perkins or Daniel Dyke as much as in Freud, is that self-knowledge despite its painfulness is invariably ameliorative.

Possibly, however, Isabella's dilemma challenges this notion. A favorite term for her in the criticism is "hysterical,"10 a term for a psychological malady that originally referred to a bodily disorder. A "hyster" is a womb, the secret inner place that, & becomes a corporeal analogy for psychological inwardness in the minds of many male writers in the English Renaissance. Perhaps it is possible to see Isabella's furious resistance to Angelo as a way of protecting her mental virginity, refusing to touch the seal upon her inwardness, in which case her critics' attempts to penetrate beyond or behind her "face value" or "virtuous facade" recapitulates Angelo's scandalous importunity. Of course, however, we cannot help but see that Isabella, insofar as she can be perceived as more than an allegorical abstraction, is victimized by her own principles. In Measure for Measure, then, the ascetic impulse to complete self-display before God or before others ironically but inevitably invites accusations of hypocrisy—not merely, as in Richard III, because the appearance of guilelessness can itself be a studied tactic, but because the residue of anarchic secrecy that attaches to sexual desire can never successfully be exorcised.


1 The problems of selective enforcement, and of difficulty controlling the professional sex trade, were not new: see Richard Wunderli, London Church Courts and Society on the Eve of the Reformation, pp. 49-53 and 81-102, for an account of the early sixteenth-century situation.

2 Margaret Scott, '"Our City's Institutions': Some Further Reflections on the Marriage Contract in Measure for Measure," ELH 49 (1982): 794. For a variety of views of the problems of precontract in Measure for Measure, see Ernest Schanzer, "The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure, " Shakespeare Survey 13 (1960): 81-89; J. Birje-Patil, "Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure, " Shakespeare Studies 5 (1969): 106-11; Harriet Hawkins, "What Kind of Pre-Contract Had Angelo? A Note on Some Non-Problems in Elizabethan Drama," College English 36 (1974): 173-79. For the claim that Shakespeare wished to influence James's policy toward sex offenders, see Donald McGin, "'The Precise Angelo,'" Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. James McManaway, Giles Dawson, and Edwin Willoughby (Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1948), pp. 125-39, and Catharine F. Siegel, "Hands Off the Hothouses: Shakespeare's Advice to the King," Journal of Popular Culture 20 (1986): 81-88.

3 Richard Wheeler makes a similar point in Shakespeare's Development in the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 103 when he describes the "attitudes that imply an ineradicable tension between moral aspiration and an inherently debasing sexual nature."

4 Barbara Baines, in "Assaying the Power of Chastity in Measure for Measure," SEL 30 (1990): 284-98, points out that the social prestige that attaches to chastity in Vienna leads the morally self-conscious characters—Isabella, Angelo, and the Duke—to make a virtue out of sexual renunciation and to value a reputation for celibacy.

5 Jonathan Dollimore, "Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure," Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), pp. 72-87.

6 Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 27.

7 G. Wilson Knight, "Measure for Measure and the Gospels," The Wheel of Fire: Essays in Interpretation of Shakespeare's Sombre Tragedies (London: Oxford University Press, 1930), p. 81; Muriel C. Bradbrook, "Authority and Justice in Measure for Measure," Review of English Studies 17 (1984): 386.

8 Anne Barton, Introduction to Measure for Measure in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 546; Carolyn Brown, "Erotic Religious Flagellation and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure," ELR 16 (1986): 162 (Harriet Hawkins makes a similar argument in "'The Devil's Party: Virtues and Vices in Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978): 104-14); J. W. Lever, Introduction to the Arden Measure for Measure (London: Methuen, 1965), p. lxxix; Arthur Kirsch, "The Integrity of Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975): 96; Harold C. Goddard, "Power in Measure for Measure," in The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1951); Barbara Baines, "Assaying the Power of Chastity," p. 288.

9 Ignatius Loyola, William Perkins, Thomas Cooper, and many others provide members of the various Christian confessions with methods of meditation designed to ferret out and acknowledge recesses of the self the fallen, self-loving individual would prefer not to acknowledge. The most complete discussion I have encountered on this problem, however, is Daniel Dyke's now relatively little-known Mystery of self deceiving, first published in London in 1614. Dyke is interested not only in how and why people can be mistaken about one another, but in why even one's apparently unmediated self-knowledge can be incomplete or uncertain: "Man knoweth his inward thoughts, purposes, and desires, but the frame and disposition of his heart he knows not, nor yet always the qualities of those thoughts, whether they tend, what secret deceit lies, and lurks in them" (p. 312).

10 See, for instance, J. W. Lever, Introduction to the Arden Measure for Measure, p. lxxx; Kirsch, "The Integrity of Measure for Measure," p. 97; Hugh Richmond, Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy: A Mirror for Lovers (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1971), p. 155.

David Thatcher (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Mercy and 'Natural Guiltness' in Measure for Measure" in Texas Studies in Language and Literature, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 264-84.

[In the following essay, Thatcher examines Isabella's concept of "natural guiltiness" and contends that it is not a logical argument for clemency.]

In one of Shakespeare's major sources for Measure for Measure, George Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra (1578), Promos, the judge who corresponds to Angelo, condemns a man for a crime he himself has committed. This condemnation is regarded by the Isabella figure, Cassandra, as compounding one crime with yet another. When Promos propositions her, she is outraged: "And may it be, a Iudge himself, the selfe same fault should vse, / For which he domes an others death, O crime without excuse."1 King Lear, the image of a miscreant in his mind's eye, expresses similar outrage:

Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand! Why does thou lash that whore? Strip thy own   back; Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind For which thou whip'st her.                                  (

Timon offers an acerbic aside on the Poet's planned satire: "Wilt thou whip thine own faults in other men?" (V.i.38-39). Measure for Measure, however, develops this shocked perception of inconsistency into a pervasive legal and moral theme not explicit in Whetstone or any other source. The perceived injustice here—a judge's evaluation of a defendant accused of a crime the judge has (or might have) committed—will be called, after Isabella's term for it at II.ii.140, the "natural guiltiness" plea. First advanced by Escalus and then by Isabella and, most significantly, by Duke Vincentio, the belief that Angelo's awareness of his own culpability should direct him to show mercy toward Claudio is raised, rebutted, urged again, yielded to, and reasserted. Although one editor has claimed that Measure for Measure poses the problem of whether a judge should "condemn a criminal for a crime that the judge himself is guilty of,"2 few critics have given this "problem" any degree of sustained attention.3 I wish to take a somewhat demystifying approach to some complex passages, scrutinizing what I see as the moral, logical, and legal absurdities inherent in this "natural guiltiness" theme and exposing its anomalous position in the constellation of such ambiguous terms as law, justice, pardon, and mercy.

Let us begin with Escalus. After urging mercy on the grounds of equity ("Alas, this gentleman / Whom I would save had a most noble father"),4 Escalus takes another tack, inviting Angelo to ponder whether he might, at some point in his past, have succumbed to sexual temptation and, like Claudio, fathered a child out of wedlock:

Let but your honor know, Whom I believe to be most straight in virtue, That, in the working of your own affections, Had time cohered with place or place with   wishing, Or that the resolute acting of your blood Could have attained th'effect of your own   purpose, Whether you had not sometime in your life Erred in this point which now you censure   him, And pulled the law upon you.5

According to G. Wilson Knight this argument "reflects the Gospel message" in Matthew 5:27-28: "Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart."6 Escalus, however, is not arguing that intention and act are identical in the scales of sin, rather that "natural guiltiness" should prompt mercy. " 'Tis one thing to be tempted," Angelo responds (with what Knight calls "sound sense"), "another thing to fall," implying both that Angelo sees himself as guiltless and that, had he fallen, Escalus's point might have some weight. He offers a placatory concession:

   I not deny, The jury, passing on the prisoner's life, May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two Guiltier [of the same crime?] than him they   try.

The analogy, besides making us wonder why no jury sat on Claudio's case, betrays a number of inexactitudes. For one thing, theft (the word used here to represent any crime) is not, unlike sexual temptation or activity, the result of an instinctual drive. Second, the issue raised by Escalus is not the relevance or irrelevance of latent guilt in members of a jury (whose task is to pronounce guilt or innocence) but the relevance or irrelevance of latent guilt in a civil magistrate (whose task is to impose or mitigate the penalties of the law once the accused is found guilty). Third, by citing the hypothetical case of two persons who have actually committed an act (or acts) of robbery, as opposed to being tempted to, Angelo has shifted the focus from a self-acknowledged temptation to sin (which Escalus is urging him to consider) to an act (or acts) of sin that may have been committed but that cannot be verified. To Angelo's way of thinking, the impossibility, or difficulty, of determining guilt in a juror makes the guilt irrelevant. In Angelo's statement "What's open made to Justice / That Justice seizes," the stress, I take it, falls on "open" and "That." His view is that judicial proceedings can have nothing to do with latent or hidden guilt and that the law must be applied irrespective of the failings of the man who administers it. Angelo introduces a second, and equally suspect, analogy to illustrate the difference between "open" and "hidden":

    'Tis very pregnant. The jewel that we find, we stoop and tak'it Because we see it; but what we do not see We tread upon, and never think of it.

Reminiscent of Leontes's image of the seen/unseen spider in The Winter's Tale (II.i.39-45), the image of the "jewel" (a rather infelicitous symbol of guilt) suggests that we pay no attention to the guilt that we cannot see; what it does not say is what we should do with detected guilt. It has been argued that a distinction should be made "between the pragmatic acceptance of the jury service of sinners and the toleration of known criminals in the seats of judgement."7 But were the jurors' guilt "open," Angelo implies, they would be asked to stand down—and presumably the same would apply to magistrates. It could be argued that Duke Vincentio, in keeping with a play of multiple substitutions, should have stepped in to disqualify and replace Angelo as soon as he had learned of the deputy's intention to abuse his authority—but then, as in the case of Hamlet ("No delay, no play"), there would have been an end to the plot.

The strands in Angelo's "What's open made to Justice / That Justice seizes" need to be teased out further. Does "Justice" refer to the role of a jury or of a magistrate in judicial proceedings? Certainly a jury should be concerned only with the known facts of a case; a magistrate, for his part, is required to take cognizance not only of the known facts that prove guilt but of the known facts (i.e., extenuating circumstances) that might justify leniency. This aside, Angelo's main point is clear, that "justice is an impersonal autonomy which takes no cognizance of the human instruments who are its executors."8 As Angelo later says, in seeking to appease Isabella: "It is the law, not I, condemn your brother" (II.ii.81). Accordingly, Angelo tells Escalus, "You may not so extenuate his offense / For I have had such faults." This is either an admission of guilt (which seems, in the light of II.i.17-18, to be unlikely) or an ellipsis for "even if I had fallen, rather than being merely tempted." Either way the rejoinder is a further instance of nimble sidestepping: Escalus is pleading for clemency rather than trying to make light of ("extenuate" equals lessen) Claudio's offense. A magistrate can, like Isabella, surely show or recommend mercy without suggesting that the offense itself is not a serious one. Angelo concludes, with unconscious irony: "When I, that censure him, do so offend, / Let mine own judgment pattern out my death / And nothing come in partial." As W. M. T. Dodds comments: "Justice is, ideally, so independent of its ministers that Angelo condemning Angelo would be logical, whereas Angelo pardoning Claudio because Angelo is guilty would be absurd" (249). "Angelo condemning Angelo" is not so much a matter of logic as of a belief that the law should not make exceptions—no person is above the law; "Angelo pardoning Claudio because Angelo is guilty" is more than just absurd (though Angelo does not explicitly say so); it is, as I shall argue subsequently, impractical, invidious, and without historical or legal precedent.

Escalus's version of "natural guiltiness" is not, except perhaps implicitly, presented as a moral principle that should prompt mercy—it is more of a tu quoque attempt to startle Angelo into mercy by asking him to put himself in Claudio's position. It is as if he were to say: "How would you like to face the death penalty for such a crime?" Escalus's arguments for clemency are directed solely at Angelo's real or hypothetical "faults," neglecting other and valid grounds for clemency, and for this reason they are not as strong as they might have been. Angelo's arguments and analogies do not, as Dodds claims, "demolish the case which Escalus has put" (249) because they fail to answer it directly. In other words, though he repudiates Escalus's position, he does not satisfactorily rebut it. Escalus's reply, "Be it as your wisdom will," sounds less like a gracious capitulation in the face of reasoned argument than a resigned acquiescence of a subordinate who will not risk antagonizing his superior with further remonstrances.

Like Escalus, Isabella also attempts to strain Angelo to the quality of mercy. She offers reasons, several manifestly sophistical: she asks him to condemn Claudio's fault, not Claudio himself; neither God nor man would disapprove of mercy being shown; if Claudio and Angelo could have changed places, Claudio would have been lenient;9 Angelo should be as merciful as God himself; it is arbitrary that Claudio should be the first, and so far the only, offender to die. In her famous mercy speech, Isabella taunts Angelo with being "Most ignorant of what he's most assured," perhaps a reference to Angelo's unawareness of his own sexual proclivities. Realizing her pleas are falling on deaf ears, Isabella goes on to advance, in a more direct ad hominem fashion and as a desperate last resource, the same argument that Escalus had ventured in vain. Like Escalus, she does not ask for Claudio's death sentence to be commuted, for it is tacitly accepted that the choice is black and white—death or free pardon.10 "Go to your bosom," she implores Angelo,

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 his, Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue Against my brother's life.                                  (II.ii.138-42)

Many commentators link Isabella's words to the Sermon on the Mount (especially to "Judge not, that ye be not judged"), as well as to John 8:7 in which Jesus responds to the Scribes and Pharisees concerning the woman taken in adultery: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."11 Knight is simply "reminded" (86) of the parallel, making no further comments; one editor says it "colours the attitudes assumed"12 in the play, and another enthuses as follows: "As morality, it is one of the glories of Christianity. & [T]he memory [of it] may transmit authority to the Duke's eventual lenience to Claudio, Juliet, and particularly to Angelo."13 Darryl Gless is more explicit, though he confuses moral sanctions with actual behavior:

Every judge who begins with sincere self-judgment will confess such "natural guiltiness" and will consequently forgive his debtors as he expects his own debts to be forgiven. For magistrates, this forgiveness need not result in a dismissed case. It leads instead to a softening of legalistic rigor and, consequently, to an enactment of the New Law's essence.14

Isabella, however, is not seeking mitigation of punishment but free pardon (or mercy, which would have the same result as "a dismissed case"), neither of which Angelo is prepared to give. Harriet Hawkins is, I think, nearer the mark when she says that one can interpret Christ's ruling "to mean that it would be just to stone the woman to death, 'as Moses the law commanded,' so long as the stone-throwers themselves are 'without sin' and stand acquitted by their own consciences."15 It should also be kept in mind that Christ, as in Luke 12:31, declines to be a legal judge (which Angelo cannot do) and he is not being asked to show mercy—his answer is designed to silence those who intended to face him with a dilemma.16

Angelo's punning reply, "She speaks, and 'tis / Such sense, that my sense breeds with it," seems to acknowledge the cogency of the argument that, when it issued from Escalus's mouth, he had flatly if unconvincingly rejected. It could be that Isabella's words, coming from her, have unintentionally prompted the sexual desire (Angelo's second "sense") that, at the time Escalus alluded to it, remained at the level of an unrealized abstraction. At any rate, Angelo does not dismiss the "natural guiltiness" idea as he had sought to rebut her earlier arguments, and so one can suppose she left him under the impression that her parting shot had found its mark—she does not raise the "natural guiltiness" argument again, even in her second interview when Angelo's "pernicious purpose" (II.iv.149), that is, his real as opposed to his presumptive guiltiness, finally dawns upon her. Assuring Isabella he will reconsider Claudio's case, Angelo is left alone to register and digest the shock of his newfound sensuality, and relenting for a moment, acknowledges he has no right to execute Claudio: "O, let her brother live: / Thieves for their robbery have authority / When judges steal themselves."17 At the point of saying, "O, let her brother live," Angelo has not yet sinned, he is only tempted to sin, and thus is not acting in accordance with his earlier statement to Escalus that "'tis one thing to be tempted & / Another thing to fall." Perhaps for "a man of stricture" (I.iii.12) to feel temptation seems like having fallen. Dodds comments on Angelo's apparent change of heart:

It is one of the great touches of this play that Shakespeare makes Angelo so desperate in his longing to escape the temptation of Isabel's presence, that he is willing to abandon the position for which he contended in the argument with Escalus; faced with the alternative of betraying his conception of justice or enduring again the compelling presence of Isabel, he weakens so far as to use almost the very instance that he had before dismissed as irrelevant.


"Almost the very instance," but not quite: to Escalus, Angelo had said, "What knows the laws / That thieves do pass on thieves?" (II.i.22-23). The meaning is uncertain: "A plural subject with a singular verb is frequent in Shakespeare, yet it is not clear whether 'laws' is object or subject of 'knows': so either 'what knowledge has the law of thieves judging thieves' or—more likely—'what do we know of the laws thieves apply to their fellows.'"18 Angelo might be saying that thieves' criminality has, or should have, no influence (especially in the direction of leniency) on the verdicts they reach on their fellow criminals. This is relevant to the mercy issue; the second reference ("Thieves for their robbery &") is not, for what Angelo claims, outrageously if we stop to think about it, is that thieves are justified ("authority" equals "authorization") in stealing if judges do so. It is here that N. W. Bawcutt sees Angelo moving toward "the personal view of law & , but the change is not powerful enough to alter his behaviour." What Bawcutt regards as a "change" (and Dodds as an abandonment of a position), I see as a temporary vacillation on Angelo's part, an aberration occasioned by a moment of emotional stress and relinquished almost at once.

In pleading for Claudio's reprieve, Escalus is no more successful with Duke Vincentio than with Angelo. "I have labored for the poor gentleman," he tells the disguised duke, "to the extremest shore of my modesty, but my brother justice have I found so severe that he hath forced me to tell him he is indeed justice" (III.ii.251-55). The duke replies, with an authority more in keeping with his function as duke than friar: "If his own life answer the straightness of his proceeding, it shall become it well; wherein if he chance to fail, he hath sentenced himself." To paraphrase: Angelo's strictness toward Claudio is justified if Angelo's own life has been strictly virtuous; if not, Angelo will incur the death penalty. If Angelo's crime is regarded as fornication, the duke's words hark back to Angelo's assurance to Escalus that he is prepared to accept the death penalty for a sexual offence (II.i.28-31); if (instead of or in addition to) they refer to his crime in refusing to show mercy, they anticipate Duke Vincentio's measure-for-measure speech in act V.

In a moralizing soliloquy after Escalus's exit (III.ii.262-83), Duke Vincentio has some gnomic couplets in which he expresses outrage at Angelo's conduct: "Shame to him whose cruel striking / Kills for faults of his own liking," that is, for punishing (with undue severity?) Claudio for the "fault" he himself is guilty of. In the couplet "Twice treble shame on Angelo / To weed my vice and let his grow," the possessive pronoun "my" is used impersonally or is elliptical for "the vice that I allowed to flourish and that I am now trying to eradicate." Furthermore, the duke avers that the ideal ruler or magistrate ("he who the sword of heaven will bear") should be "as holy as severe,"19 a model of virtue, "more nor less to others paying / Than by self-offences weighing," that is, "punishing or pardoning others in strict accordance with his own imperfections or offenses." Identical to the approach taken by Escalus and Isabella, the duke's view has added weight because, as a soliloquy, it does not aim to persuade others, only to convey a point of view; for all its ponderous sententiousness, it has a kind of choric authority. What might have appeared as an aberration in Escalus and Isabella seems, because of this choric authority, to have been endorsed and elevated, alarmingly, as a kind of official moral of the play.

While in prison confidently awaiting Claudio's pardon, Duke Vincentio, in ironical answer to the Provost's "It is a bitter deputy," replies in tongue-in-cheek defense of the man he, unlike the Provost, knows is no longer holy:

Not so, not so; his life is paralleled Even with the stroke and line of his great   justice. He doth with holy abstinence subdue That in himself which he spurs on his pow'r To qualify in others; were he mealed with that Which he corrects, then were he tyrannous: But this being so, he's just.                                 (IV.iiii.81-87)

Granted, it may be "tyrannous" on Angelo's part "to use his power to gratify the lusts for which he kills Claudio,"20 but Angelo's abuse of authority forms no part of Duke Vincentio's discourse here: the duke is denying that Angelo has been sexually at fault, adding that, if he were, punishing ("corrects") Claudio would be an act of tyranny. As Bawcutt comments, "For the Duke, tyranny is not merely the infliction of harsh punishment; it is the infliction of harsh punishment by someone who is not in a moral position to do so" ("Duke versus Angelo," 94). I discern some ambiguity here: "harsh punishment" could mean severe punishment that is legally sanctioned or excessively severe punishment; "not in a moral position" could mean guilty of the same offense, or guilty of greater offenses. We might wonder, following Kant, whether anyone can ever be said to occupy a moral position (for the duke, total guiltlessness) that would justify the infliction of any punishment.

A messenger arrives, bearing (so the duke and the Provost mistakenly think) Claudio's pardon. Before reading it, the duke has an aside, adopting what I take to be a highly disapproving tone:

This is his pardon, purchased by such sin For which the pardoner himself is in. Hence hath offense his quick celerity When it is borne in high authority. When vice makes mercy, mercy's so extended, That for the fault's love is th'offender   friended.21

Though readily glossed as "the pardoner is as guilty as the one pardoned,"22 the first couplet is not strictly true, as the duke knows: Angelo has not really slept with Isabella, and unlike Claudio, he has not made a woman pregnant out of wedlock. In fact, Angelo has not sinned sexually at all: if, as Duke Vincentio tells Mariana, it is no sin for her to sleep with her "husband on a precontract" (IV.i.72), it cannot be a sin for Angelo to sleep with Isabella. The pardon, the duke mistakenly thinks, is a quid pro quo for what Angelo mistakenly thinks is a violation of Isabella's chastity. The second couplet is ambiguous, its meaning depending on whether we take "offense" to be Claudio's or Angelo's; if Claudio's, the meaning is something like "evil-doers can quickly be pardoned when they are supported by those in authority"; if Angelo's, a possible meaning is "those in authority find it easy to impose their sinful wills." The last couplet might be paraphrased: When mercy is shown to a sinner by a sinful man ("vice") in a position of authority, mercy itself is extended (cf. OED v 6b) beyond its proper limits, including equity, because the sin ("fault") is countenanced ("friended") by a man guilty of the same sin. The first and third couplets offer contradictory explanations of why, as the duke mistakenly assumes, Angelo has pardoned Claudio. Complementary to the first, the third couplet declares, with apparent disapprobation, that the pardon results from Angelo's recognition that he cannot punish a man for a sexual transgression of which he himself is guilty. Duke Vincentio seems to have temporarily reversed his entrenched position on the "natural guiltiness" idea: moments before he was telling the Provost that it would be "tyrannous" of Angelo to "correct" that which he was "mealed" with himself; now he seems to suggest that a pardon on the same grounds is equally unjustifiable—mercy, he implies, should not be "extended" in these circumstances. Thinking clearly for once, he draws a valid distinction between proper and improper mercy, just as Isabella has done in distinguishing between "ignominy in ransom" and "foul redemption," on the one hand, and "free pardon" and "lawful mercy" (II.iv.l10-12), on the other.

In the last act, the duke, in accordance with his warning to Isabella that, practicing "physic / That's bitter to a sweet end," he might speak against her "on the adverse side" (, pretends to reject Isabella's accusations against Angelo, vociferously yet ironically defending Angelo's innocence:

   First, his integrity Stands without blemish. Next, it imports no   reason That with such vehemency he should pursue Faults proper to himself: if he had so   offended, He would have weighed thy brother by   himself, And not have cut him off.                               (V.i.107-12)

Though he knows that Claudio's life may still be saved, the presumed execution of Claudio is used as a proof that Isabella's charges are unfounded. Aware of Angelo's disgraceful conduct toward Mariana, the duke persists in defending Angelo's "integrity" (and does so again at V.i.244-45). He asserts that it would have been irrational of Angelo to be so determined ("vehement") to punish ("pursue") a man guilty of his own faults, and furthermore, that, again in compliance with the "natural guiltiness" doctrine, he would not have done so. Fully aware, as Isabella is and the Provost is not, that Angelo has not acted according to the "natural guiltiness" idea, Duke Vincentio implies that Angelo should have (as well as would have) done so. Angelo is being lulled into a sense of false security.

Mariana enters and states or implies no less than five times that she had replaced Isabella in the garden house. Both the duke (with tactical irony) and Angelo (with unfeigned incredulity) reject her (true) account of events, casting her as the victim or agent of intended subversion. After donning and then doffing his friar's disguise, the duke turns on Angelo, challenging him to find "word, wit, or impudence" to defend himself against the charges ("my tale") about to be leveled. Without pausing to hear what the specific charges are, or to ask why the duke has changed his mind either about Isabella's accusations or Mariana's claims, Angelo confesses his "guiltiness" (V.i.369) for, as he must think, having slept with Isabella. The duke does nothing to disabuse him, ordering him to marry Mariana, the woman, Angelo confirms under questioning, to whom he was precontracted.23 On Angelo's return, the duke tells Isabella that "this new-married man & / Whose salt imagination yet hath wronged / Your well-defended honour" (V.i.402-04) must be forgiven, emphasizing that personal forgiveness and the exigencies of the law are two different matters:

   But as he adjudg'd your brother, Being criminal, in double violation Of sacred chastity, and of promise-breach, Thereon dependent, for your brother's life, The very mercy of the law cries out Most audible, even from his proper tongue, "An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!" Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers   leisure; Like doth quit like, and Measure still for   Measure.24

The entire speech is highly problematic. Like Isabella earlier,25 Duke Vincentio makes baseless allegations. Completely ignoring, as he has consistently done and will continue to do, the issue of Angelo's corrupt abuse of authority, the duke calls him criminal on two counts. The first charge (in itself deserving of the death penalty) is that he has violated Isabella's "sacred chastity." It seems that the duke wants Angelo to think it is Isabella he has slept with, not Mariana—despite the new severity in the laws, Angelo might have argued that it was less of an offense to sleep with a woman to whom he was once engaged, especially if she were complicit with tricking him into her bed. Isabella, however, might be disturbed by the duke's accusation that Angelo violated her, especially since it looks as if Angelo will pay for it: she knows the accusation is untrue, and she knows the duke knows it is untrue. The duke is pretending not to believe what he knows to be true, that Mariana did indeed, as she claimed, "know" Angelo at the garden house in Isabella's stead; the duke is also pretending to accept that her accusations were a plot against Angelo, as Angelo himself claimed (V.i.235-39). Just as the duke conceals the truth from Isabella that Claudio is still alive, he conceals from Angelo his knowledge that Mariana's story is true. The duke's position that it was Isabella with whom Angelo slept seems to be contradicted by his remarks to Mariana after he has sentenced Angelo to death:

Consenting to the safeguard of your honor, I thought your marriage fit; else imputation, For that he knew you, might reproach your   life, And choke your good to come.                                 (V.i.421-24)

This passage refers either to the night Mariana spent with Angelo or, if a contradiction is to be avoided, to some other illicit encounter between them, real or imputed. Is it cynical to suppose that Duke Vincentio, by marrying Angelo off to Mariana, eliminates a possible rival for Isabella's hand?

The second charge is that Angelo did not keep his promise to Isabella to save Claudio from execution in return for sexual favor: though an audience may not feel such a "promise-breach" deserves the death sentence, that is not the way it is viewed in one of Shakespeare's sources, Cinthio's Hecatómmithi (1565).26 The phrase "as he adjudg'd [or condemned] your brother" presumes a connection between Angelo's condemnation of Claudio and Angelo's own criminality, that is, the "natural guiltiness" idea in yet another guise. So there is an implicit third charge: Angelo is guilty because he refused to pardon a man for committing the same crime that he was guilty of, that is, premarital intercourse with a woman he was contracted to marry. We should note that the text never clearly shows that the duke was aware of Claudio's precontract.27

The duke's phrase "Measure still for Measure" usually provokes more editorial and critical genuflections toward the Sermon on the Mount as expressed in Luke 6:38: "With what measure ye mete, with the same shall men mete to you again" or in Matthew 7:1-2: "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." Though the words coincide, and though the word "measure" is a conventional judicial term for dealing out justice, especially "by way of punishment or retribution,"28 the New Testament references are not applicable to what Duke Vincentio says. The duke does not advocate a New Testament view of forgiveness (like that in the Lord's Prayer) but rhetorically adopts "an Old Testament morality of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."29 However, neither morality, nor the Gospel insistence on forgiveness nor the ancient lex talionis idea is relevant in this context, which is a legal one. To say that "the title of Shakespeare's comedy implies that the same law should be enforced against Angelo, which he enforced against others"30 is to say nothing that anyone, even Angelo himself, would dispute. "Like doth quit like" is a distortion: the duke must realize Claudio's offense is at once less grave than Angelo's, for, as Juliet agrees with the dukefriar, the act was "mutually committed" (II.ii.27), and, at the same time, more serious because Juliet is pregnant with an illegitimate child.31 Like the phrase "as he adjudg'd your brother," what "measure for measure" and "like must quit like" imply is that Angelo must die because he was guilty of the same crime for which he refused to spare Claudio, that is, having premarital sex with someone he had contracted to marry. Going one step further than calling such conduct "tyrannous" (IV.ii.86), the duke now thinks it deserving of the death penalty: "He dies for Claudio's death" (V.i.445). Though Angelo is, as he told Escalus, prepared to die for infringing the law he was appointed by the duke to enforce, he is surely not eager to lose his life for failing to abide by the "natural guiltiness" idea that he endeavored to persuade Escalus had no legal weight. What Angelo perhaps does deserve to die for is neither his initial decision, legal if not wholly just, to execute Claudio nor his "promise-breach" that confirmed this initial decision but his intention, which he thought he had fully acted on, to violate a woman wholly in his power. As Gless says, begging some questions, "If Vienna provides laws to punish his abuse of judicial power, or indeed for having intercourse with a 'contracted' spouse, Angelo should be judged according to those laws" (199). However, it is not, as Gless claims, Angelo's judgment of Claudio that prompts Duke Vincentio to impose the death penalty (never does the duke indicate he thinks the judgment illegal or unjust), but Angelo's refusal to show mercy by virtue of his own "natural guiltiness": "He dies for Claudio's death."

Once we detect the pervasive presence of the "natural guiltiness" idea, we also notice that it has burgeoned almost out of control. When informed, earlier in the play, of Angelo's proposition to Isabella, Claudio expressed great surprise at the transformation in Angelo's behavior: "Has he affections in him, / That thus can make him bite the law by th' nose, / When he would force it?" (III.i.108-09). Aware of the inconsistency of Angelo's position, Claudio was more amazed at the revelation of Angelo's emergent sexuality than quick to see and grasp the possibility that it might afford him of pleading for mercy on the same grounds as Escalus and Isabella. Now, when Mariana implores Isabella to kneel with her and beg for mercy, the duke remonstrates, recruiting Claudio as a posthumous disciple of the "natural guiltiness" theory:

Against all sense you do importune her; Should she kneel down in mercy of this fact, Her brother's ghost his paved bed would   break And take her hence in horror.                                    (V.i.435-38)

To the duke's mind, Claudio would be indignant if mercy were to be shown to Angelo when it was not shown to him. Isabella pleads for Angelo on the grounds that "his act did not o'ertake his bad intent" (V.i.453). Hawkins notices the shift in her position: "Angelo's 'natural guiltiness' is deemed of no importance in her legal case for his defence; but it was of the the utmost importance in her moral case for the defence of Claudio."32 Isabella's ingenuous excuse is both dubious as a legal plea and dramatically inconsistent, for only moments before she had admitted that she had yielded to Angelo (V.i.101), and it was on the basis of this admission that the duke charged Angelo with the violation of her chastity.

When Claudio is revealed as being still alive, the duke turns to Isabella and says, unctuously: "If he be like your brother, for his sake is he pardoned."33 Isabella has just admitted (astonishingly in view of her estimate of mercy) that "my brother had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died" (V.i.450-51), but she still does not know, as the duke might, that Claudio had a precontract. What seems to emerge is a totally illogical position on the part of the duke: not only must Angelo be punished for not showing mercy to a guilty Claudio but Claudio must be shown mercy because a (now proven) guilty Angelo did not show it. Bawcutt perceives the illogicality:

A sentence made by due process of law on adequate evidence could hardly be appealed against on the grounds that the judge himself had subsequently been discovered to be guilty of the offence for which he had sentenced the prisoner. The response would surely be that the judge himself must now stand trial, but his verdict need not be overturned.34

In fact, Duke Vincentio does not overturn the verdict (or order a retrial), and cynics might be excused for suspecting that the duke's motive for pardoning Claudio is not altruistic: he does not wish to offend or antagonize the woman to whom he is about to propose. His interest in Isabella is no more a valid reason for pardoning Claudio than Angelo's "natural guiltiness."

Claudio's reprieve from death is immediately presented as a motive for pardoning Angelo: "By this Lord Angelo perceives he's safe." He may be safe if it is to be "an Angelo for Claudio, death for death," yet still, as in the case of his design to violate a vulnerable woman, Angelo intended to break his promise to save Claudio from execution and that might be deemed deserving of some punishment. What is overlooked, in this rapid and perfunctory denouement, is that Angelo has still not been specifically acquitted (unless the duke's "apt remission" extends to everything within its purview) of the crime of "double violation / Of sacred chastity, and of promise-breach." Even after Isabella's defense, Escalus is convinced that Angelo is guilty as charged (V.i.472-75), and Angelo himself still believes it. There is no hint to indicate or explain, either to the audience or to the characters "not in the know," why the duke now accepts Mariana's version of events. Angelo must be extremely puzzled: he still thinks he deserves to be condemned for violating Isabella, and the duke's pardon ("Your evil quits you well")35 is inconsistent in terms of the commission he had been given to curb immorality in Vienna and inexplicable in corrective terms: Why, he must ask himself, does the duke think that marrying Mariana has atoned for the violation of Isabella? Even after marrying her, he still, he says, "craves death more willingly than mercy" (V.i.478). He might have found the duke's pardon less unwelcome had he been assured it was Mariana he had slept with, not Isabella. Angelo does accept the punishment for his supposed seduction of Isabella, seeing the death penalty less as the appropriate legal consequence of his actions than a desirable escape from public ignominy and humiliation.

Despite one lapse from consistency (IV.ii.110-15), it is the duke, then, who is the major advocate of the "natural guiltiness" theory.36 If we sense something unsatisfactory, even preposterous, about this theory, we have at least one reason to question the widespread view that the duke's attitude, unlike Isabella's, "is meant to be ours—his total attitude, which is the total attitude of the play."37 I doubt whether any character in Shakespeare expresses a totalizing viewpoint. Many readers feel sympathy with Lucio because he subverts the duke's often pompous moralizing. Lucio believes that Claudio should be spared because, a libertine himself, he thinks the laws against sex (to him an entirely natural function like eating and drinking) too harsh: he does not want Claudio's life to be "foolishly lost at a game of tick-tack."38 Though he thinks Angelo should be merciful to Claudio, it is from self-interested motives, that is, "for the encouragement of the like [equals fornication], which else would stand under grievous imposition" (I.ii. 190-92). Lucio does not raise the "natural guiltiness" argument—for him, Angelo is a man

   who never feels The wanton stings and motions of the sense But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge With profits of the mind, study and fast.39

Yet he does invoke it to explain why that "flesh-monger," Duke Vincentio, allowed sexual promiscuity to go unchecked: "Ere he would have hanged a man for the getting a hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing a thousand. He had some feeling for the sport; he knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy."40 We may suspect, though we cannot prove, that the malicious Lucio is being untruthful—perhaps the duke was more "detected for women" (HI.ii.122-23) than he admits. Lucio attributes Angelo's intolerance and Vincentio's "lenity towards lechery" (III.ii.98) to what he imagines is their attitude toward sex. Lucio, however, does not take a moral stand: he does not say, as Escalus, Isabella, and the duke at least imply, that a guilty magistrate ought to be merciful—he only charges that the duke's promiscuity predisposed him to mercy.

"Natural guiltiness" may certainly be invoked as a reason for showing forgiveness, but it is totally inappropriate as a criterion for showing mercy.41 From the strictly legal point of view, there are four major objections to the theory: it is absurd, invidious, impractical, and without historical and legal precedent or validity. Let me discuss these in turn.

First, it is absurd because, as a supposed form of equity, it offers no rational justification for showing mercy. Mercy, according to Seneca's De dementia, must always be rational;42 equity can only be invoked when there are reasons "good and sufficient," "honest and conuenient," and it cannot be contrary to "the law of nature & the morali law, or any part of the written word."43 By this token, "natural guiltiness," whether in the form of universal or specific guilt, is an unconvincing reason (far better ones exist) for believing that mercy must have primacy over strict adherence to the letter of the law. It makes no sense to require a modern-day judge who has himself, say, been arrested and fined for a drunken-driving violation, to be lenient to those who appear before him on a similar charge (logically there is no reason why such a judge should not, in such a case, refuse to be lenient); moreover, were the practice to be universally adopted, every judge who showed mercy without giving specific reasons would be automatically suspected of having committed (or been tempted to commit) the same crime of which the defendant stood accused—mercy would then be dismissed as "a reflex of guilt."44

Second, the theory is invidious, creating variable standards: mercy would be dependent on the judge's sense of his own culpability—some offenders would be treated lightly, others not, for the same crime, whereas ideal justice dictates that every person be equal before the impartial law and the rule of precedent, stare decisis. The "natural guiltiness" position can lead to gross injustice:

If you are convicted of a particular offence, the sentence you receive will not depend exclusively on the gravity of your offence, but also on the extent to which the judge has weaknesses of the kind for which you have been convicted. It is as though on each occasion the judge must put himself on trial as well as the prisoner, and in such circumstances there can be no uniformity of sentencing.45

A judge would be acting wrongly to allow personal feelings of sympathy or lack of sympathy to dictate showing or withholding mercy; likewise, he would be wrong to allow a consciousness of personal guilt to influence that decision. Were the "natural guiltiness" argument to gain universal currency, "a thoroughly vicious ruler who acknowledged his own moral turpitude would appear to be the criminal class's best guarantee for a trouble-free life."46

Third, it is impractical: it does not offer a clear guide as to whether to show mercy in individual cases, since, by its logic, all cases are equally deserving of mercy. It would hamper or prevent judge and jury alike from making proper discriminations—if it were adhered to by members of a jury, it would make unanimous verdicts even more difficult to reach.

Fourth, finally, the theory lacks historical and legal precedent; indeed, positive evidence exists that English jurists in the early part of the seventeenth century, such as Sir Edward Coke, would have agreed with Angelo's emphasis on a judge's impartiality.47 If Measure for Measure is to be regarded as a "mirror for magistrates," the "natural guiltiness" theory, as a distorting mirror, can offer nothing but a false reflection.

This reiterated theory, then, which may (for some) be dramatically or rhetorically effective, reveals itself, under close scrutiny, to be a piece of ideological incoherence or obfuscation. Whether in disguise or speaking ex cathedra in his own ducal person (as in his couplets at the end of act III), the duke seems to be embracing a manifestly ludicrous doctrine as an unquestionable moral and legal precept. Escalus and Isabella can be readily exonerated: in both cases their appeal to "natural guiltiness" comprises only one element in their "special pleading," and we are not required to suppose that either of them actually believed in it. After all, they might have been expected to employ any rhetorical strategy that might have facilitated Claudio's reprieve. As for Angelo, he was twice on the brink of surrendering to its allure, once during his second interview with Isabella ("O, let her brother live," II.ii.175) and a second time when he believes he has slept with Isabella and Claudio has been executed on his orders:

This deed unshapes me quite, makes me   unpregnant

And dull to all proceedings. A deflow'red   maid, And by an eminent body that enforced The law against it!                                (IV.iv.22-25)

These rueful lines (together with the remorseful "would yet he had lived!") imply that Angelo might have acted in accordance with the "natural guiltiness" code and/or his promise to Isabella had he not felt his life to be in imminent danger. Nonetheless, Angelo is the only character who, at least initially, dismisses the theory out of hand. We may agree that "the rule of law is impossible when the governors are like Angelo, so inhumane as to be inhuman,"48 recognizing that he is inhumane because some reasons, if not the best reasons, were available to him for showing mercy to Claudio. It is also inhumane ("tyrannous") of him to abuse his political authority to gratify his lust for Isabella. On the other hand, it is not "inhumane" of him to reject, however inadequately, the "natural guiltiness" argument. It is a gross understatement to assert that "most normal systems of law operate on principles closer to Angelo's than to the duke's."49 Surely no system of law operates, at least openly, on principles of "natural guiltiness." Angelo's initial skepticism is, I submit, entirely justified, and he was unwise to waver in it; the fact that the duke clings to an irrational and untenable theory with such obduracy constitutes yet another dimension to the problematics of mercy in this endlessly problematic play.

The issue of "natural guiltiness" strikes to the core of Measure for Measure's "problem play" status, reflecting as it does the nonadequation of the dramatic action to the (supposedly explanatory) intellectual, moral, and social underpinnings of that action. It serves as an index to the play's other generic and characterological incoherencies, throwing into high relief the gap between moral appeal and intellectual rectitude and the space between rhetorical performance and the ideological mystification on which that performance depends.


1 Cited in Measure for Measure, ed. Mark Eccles (New York: MLA, 1980), 321. See also

2The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 39; all references to Measure for Measure and other plays are to this edition.

3 A major exception is N. W. Bawcutt, '"He Who the Sword of Heaven Will Bear' : The Duke versus Angelo in Measure for Measure, " Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 89-97, esp. 94. The center of Bawcutt's discussion is Duke Vincentio's speech at the end of act HI; the apex of mine is the "measure for measure" speech in act V, which Bawcutt does not consider.

4 II.i.6-7. "There is no doubt that, today as yesterday, the situational (social, financial, political, sexual) status of the defendant may have as much to do with the verdict rendered as the personal passions and prejudices of the judge or jury" (Harriet Hawkins, Measure for Measure [Boston: Twayne, 1987], 76). Hawkins also challenges the probity of the "natural guiltiness" view (71-79).

5 II.i.6-16. In Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Kant has a passage that both echoes and illuminates Escalus's position and Angelo's arrogant reply: "[Men] may even picture themselves as meritorious, feeling themselves guilty of no such offenses as they see others burdened with; nor do they even inquire whether good luck should not have the credit, or by reason of the cast of mind which they could discover, if they only would, in their inmost nature, they would not have practiced similar vices, had not inability, temperament, training, and circumstance of time and place which serve to tempt one (matters which are not imputable), kept them out of the way of those vices" (cited in Jeffrie G. Murphy, Retribution, Justice, and Therapy: Essays in the Philosophy of Law [Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1979], 88). See also

6 G. Wilson Knight, "Measure for Measure and the Gospels," in The Wheel of Fire, 4th ed. (London: Methuen, 1949), 86. He adds, "Thus 'justice' is a mockery: man, himself a sinner, cannot presume to judge. That is the lesson driven home in Measure for Measure."

7 Nigel Alexander, Shakespeare: "Measure for Measure" (London: Edward Arnold, 1975), 44.

8 W. M. T. Dodds, "The Character of Angelo in Measure for Measure," Modern Language Review 41 (July 1946): 249. Dodds's point should not obscure the fact that rulers and civil magistrates were expected to be beyond reproach—see Duke Vincentio's comments at III.ii.262-65.

9 "This is hardly a knockdown argument: all Isabella claims, in a useless tautology, is that if Angelo had been Claudio he would have behaved like him" (Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986], 51).

10 The duke's custom, we learn from the duke himself, was either to free prisoners or execute them (IV.ii.135-37). For an instance of commuted punishment, see The Merchant of Venice, IV.i.368-71.

11 Critics also relate "natural guiltiness" to the "mote in the eye" passage in the Sermon on the Mount: "How canst thou say to thy brother: Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou seest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast the beam out of thine own eye first, and then shalt thou see perfectly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother's eye." Again, the analogy with the mercy issue is tenuous and incomplete: Christ's words are not an injunction to refrain from punishing but to refrain from presuming to improve someone else's morals. Angelo is not concerned (or even charged) with improving or reforming Claudio, only with exercising his duty to punish him as a convicted sinner.

12Measure for Measure, ed. J. M. Nosworthy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 32-33.

13 Cedric Watts, Measure for Measure (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 56.

14 Darryl Gless, "Measure for Measure, " the Law, and the Convent (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 110.

15 Hawkins, Measure for Measure, 73.

16 See J. A. McClymont, ed., St. John (Edinburgh: T. C. and E. C. Jack, 1901), 200-01. I think, however, that Knight is correct in seeing an analogy between the duke's words to Pompey, "Go mend, go mend" (III.ii.28) and Christ's "Go, and sin no more," even though the duke is far less gentle in his admonishment.

17 II.ii.175-77. Cf. Promos and Cassandra: "These cunning Theeues, with lawe, can Lordships steale" (cited in Eccles, 349) and: "He fellons hang'd, yet by extorcion, stoale" (cited in Eccles, 360).

18Measure for Measure, ed. Brian Gibbons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 100. See Eccles, 59, for some earlier glosses.

19 "Presumably 'holy in equal proportion to his severity,' implying that he can be as severe as he wishes provided that he has the right degree of holiness" (Measure for Measure, ed. N. W. Bawcutt, [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982], 175).

20 Alexander, 44. Cf. Isabella's use of "tyrannous" at II.ii. 109.

21 IV.ii.l10-15. Cf. "He would have weighed thy brother by himself with Isabella's "we cannot weigh our brother with ourself" (II.ii.127). The duke's "brother" is specifically Claudio, Isabella's "brother" is any "fellow human-being," including Claudio.

22 Gibbons, 156. The "pardoner" must be Angelo, and the "purchaser" Mariana—so thinks T. F. Wharton, who argues that the duke is caught in an inconsistency over the question of Mariana's sin (Measure for Measure, ed. Wharton [Basingstoke: Macmillan Educational, 1989], 78). The inconsistency would vanish, and the parallelism be clarified, if we read the "purchaser" as Angelo and emended "the pardoner" to "the pardoned," that is, Claudio.

23 Earlier in the play, the duke had justified the "bed-trick" stratagem by claiming that if Angelo's "encounter acknowledge itself hereafter, it may compel him to her recompense" (III.i.251-52). If "recompense" means marriage, it is the duke who is doing the compelling here.

24 V.i.402-13. Bawcutt (Measure for Measure, 222) thinks that "the 'violation' was only in imagination." Yet "salt imagination" (i.e., lecherous thoughts or desires) might be thought of as leading to actual sexual intercourse despite Isabella's valiant attempts to guard her honor. "Double violation" could, at a pinch, mean an imagined violation (against Isabella) and a real "violation" (against Mariana), just as "promise-breach" could allude to Angelo's broken promises to Isabella and to Mariana.

25 V.i.37-42. She is correct in thinking Angelo "forsworn" and wrong in thinking him a "murderer," but she knows he is neither "an adulterous thief nor a "virgin-violator." Whether Angelo is a "hypocrite" is a much-debated and still open question.

26 See Eccles, 385.

27 Except that the duke's assurance to the Provost that Claudio "is no greater forfeit to the law than Angelo who hath sentenced him" (IV.iii.160-62) strongly implies he knew of some extenuating factor. Even so, Harriet Hawkins may be mistaken in faulting the duke for "inconsistencies" in his treatment of Juliet's and Mariana's "sin" (The Devil's Party: Critical Counter-Interpretations of Shakespearian Drama [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985], 65-67). As in Angelo's case, not one character privy to the information (Claudio, Juliet, Lucio) actually tells him of the precontract.

28OED, sense 15. Cf. the duke's use of "measure" at III.ii.243-44.

29 Bawcutt, Measure for Measure, 223 (see Exodus 21:23-24 and Leviticus 24:17, 19-20). Bawcutt forgets to add that he does so ironically.

30 See Eccles, 7.

31 Mistress Overdone (I.ii.74-75), Lucio (I.iv.29), the Provost (II.iii.12), and Angelo (II.iv.41-48) seem to think that Claudio's crime, as opposed to an action providing evidence of fornication, is getting Juliet with child. There is no evidence that Mariana is or might be pregnant nor that Isabella would have become so had she slept with Angelo. But see Isabella's words to the dukefriar: "I had rather my brother die by the law than my son should be unlawfully born" (III.i.189-91).

32 Hawkins, Measure for Measure, 76. Several commentators (including Gless, 205-09) have pointed out the sophistry and illogicality of this speech.

33 V.i.492-93. And to Claudio himself: "She, Claudio, that you wronged, look you restore" (V.i.527). The duke knows full well that Claudio did not "wrong" Juliet as cupably as he charges that Lucio "wronged" (V.i.511) Kate Keepdown.

34 Bawcutt, 94. Cf. "the bare fact that a judge who passes a valid sentence happens himself to be guilty of the offense he is punishing cannot conceivably invalidate the sentence; that is a non sequitur if ever there was one" (Harold Skulsky, "Pain, Law, and Conscience in Measure for Measure, " Journal of the History of Ideas 45 [April-June 1964]: 147). Though Skulsky perceives the "natural guiltiness" principle, his comments are suspect because of his insecure grasp of textual meaning(s).

35 V.i.598. Cf. S. Nagarajan in his introduction to the Signet edition: "When Angelo is pardoned, it is because he, like Claudio earlier, is deeply repentant. We must believe that his evil has quit him" (1140).

36 Inexplicably, Skulsky thinks that the duke endorses Angelo's repudiation of it (148).

37 F. R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952), 163.

38 I.ii.193-94. Cf. of Angelo: "What a ruthless thing is this in him, for the rebellion of a codpiece, to take away the life of a man!" (III.ii.115-17).

39 I.iv.58-61. See Watts, "[Angelo's] sexual puritanism is not that of someone who lacks sexual drives but rather that of someone who possesses them but has sought to keep them in check" (96). However, the evidence in the play, as in Lucio's statement, is contradictory.

40 V.i.335-36, III.ii.118-21. Cf. "The duke yet would have dark deeds darkly answered; he would never bring them to light" (III.ii. 176-78).

41 A work by Jeffrie G. Murphy and Jean Hampton, Forgiveness and Mercy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), offers an engaging attempt to clarify two terms mistakenly, as in much Measure for Measure criticism, thought to be interchangeable. Another major confusion is between moral judgment and judicial sentencing (or pardoning).

42 Unlike the other form of mercy of which Seneca disapproves, misericordia, which "looks not at the cause but at the condition" (quoted in M. D. H. Parker, The Slave of Life: A Study of Shakespeare and the Idea of Justice [London: Chatto and Windus, 1955], 51).

43 William Perkins's Treatise on Christian Equity and Moderation (1631), cited in John W. Dickinson, "Renaissance Equity and Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 288.

44 Skulsky, 156.

45 Bawcutt 1982: 94-95.

46 Eagleton, 56.

47 See Skulsky, 148-49.

48 Alexander, 44.

49 Bawcutt, "Duke versus Angelo," 94.

Further Reading

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Adelman, Janet. "Marriage and the Maternal Body: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure." In Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, "Hamlet" to "The Tempest," pp. 76-102. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Argues that the bed-trick in Measure for Measure allows the play to end as a comedy by providing a solution to the "incompatibility between marriage and male desire."

Altieri, Joanne. "Style and Social Disorder in Measure for Measure." Shakespeare Quarterly 25, No. 1 (Winter 1974): 6-16.

Studies Shakespeare's development of contrasting dramatic and linguistic patterns to ascertain the relationship between Measure for Measure and the earlier comedies. Altieri notes that the "discontinuous speech styles," which reflect the fragmented society in Measure for Measure, situate the play at the midpoint between the "social order" of the early comedies and the "metaphysical harmony" of the romances.

Bache, William B. "Measure for Measure" As Dialectical Art. Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Studies, 1969, 66 p.

Considers Measure for Measure a dialectical argument in which Shakespeare demonstrates the proper relationship between the individual and society. Bache examines the play as a learning experience through which all of the characters discover the meaning of human existence, their obligations to themselves, and their duty to society.

Bald, R. C. Introduction to Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare. In William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Alfred Harbage, pp. 400-02. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969.

Introduction that outlines the date, text, and sources cf Measure for Measure. Bald concludes that Shakespeare recognizes human frailty in the play without despairing of mankind.

Barton, Anne. Introduction to Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare. In The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. Blakemore Evans, pp. 545-49. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.

Introduction containing an overview of the date, text, and sources of Measure for Measure. Barton contends that the forced happy ending and the confusion of values in the play reveal Shakespeare's disenchantment with the comic form.

Bowden, William R. "The Bed-Trick, 1603-1642: Its Mechanics, Ethics, and Effects." Shakespeare Studies 5 (1969): 112-23.

Investigates the use and import of the "bed-trick" as a conventional plot device employed by Renaissance dramatists.

Briggs, Julia. "Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks." Essays in Criticism 44, No. 4 (October 1994): 267-314.

Describes the bed-trick in Measure for Measure as a flawed method for bringing the transgressor Angelo "back into the community."

Brown, Carolyn E. "The Wooing of Duke Vincentio and Isabella of Measure for Measure: "The Image of It Gives [Them] Content.'" Shakespeare Studies 22 (1994): 189-219.

Argues that the Duke and Isabella's rejection of a traditional courtship and their uncharacteristic involvement in the bed-trick reveal their own disturbed sexual natures.

Cacicedo, Alberto. '"She Is Fast My Wife': Sex, Marriage, and Ducal Authority in Measure for Measure." Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995): 187-209.

Discusses the play with regard to Renaissance England's ambivalence toward women and the notion of marriage as a necessary evil.

Champion, Larry S. "The Problem Comedies." In his The Evolution of Shakespeare's Comedy: A Study in Dramatic Perspective, pp. 96-153. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Views the problem comedies as carefully constructed experiments in which Shakespeare attempted to control his expanding concept of character and human emotion. Champion describes All's Well and Measure for Measure as intermediate steps in "Shakespeare's comic evolution"; he considers the two plays to be structural failures that contain a "blurring of the comic perspective."

Dollimore, Jonathan. "Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure." In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, pp. 72-87. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Traces the Duke's efforts to "reposition" the citizens of Vienna back into obedience, and describes his fear of social disintegration as partly justified but taken to extremes.

Dusinberre, Juliet. "The Idea of Chastity: Virginity and Virtue." In Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, pp. 20-76. London: MacMillan Press, 1975.

Discusses Shakespeare's notion of feminism; refers to Measure for Measure and in particular Isabella's complex struggle with virtue.

Fisch, Harold. "Shakespeare and the Puritan Dynamic." Shakespeare Survey 27 (1974): 81-92.

Contends that Shakespeare's characterization of Angelo depicts the Puritan abuse of power.

Edwards, Philip. "The Problem Plays (ii)." In his Shakespeare and the Confines of Art, pp. 109-20. London: Methuen & Co., 1968.

Considers Measure for Measure a dramatic failure because it is "not strong enough to bear the weight of the human problems pressed on to it, nor the weight of their religious solution."

Frye, Northrop. "Mouldy Tales." In A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance, pp. 1-33. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.

Argues that Measure for Measure is not an attempt at realism but is rather a "disturbing fantasy" and that the characters must be interpreted in this context.

Garber, Marjorie. "Women's Rites" and "Death and Dying." In Coming of Age in Shakespeare, pp. 116-73, 213-41. London: Methuen, 1981.

Applies Margaret Mead's anthropological findings to Shakespeare's plays, commenting in particular on the obsession with virginity display by Isabella and Angelo.

Gless, Darryl J. "Measure for Measure, " the Law, and the Convent. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979, 282 p.

Examines contemporary political and religious documents as a guide for understanding Measure for Measure. Gless states that the nature of the play is religious, but Shakespeare "appears consistently to have selected and dramatized doctrines that are especially flexible and tolerant of adjustment to particular circumstances."

Hallett, Charles. "Is There 'Charity in Sin'?: Sexual Harassment in Measure for Measure".' Shakespeare Bulletin 11, No. 4 (Fall 1993): 23-6.

Suggests that in the 1990s an actress playing Isabella can focus on the issue of sexual harassment in order to render Isabella's conflict comprehensible to modern sensibilities.

Harvey, A. D. "Virginity and Honour in Measure for Measure and Davenant's The Law Against Lovers." English Studies 75, No. 2 (March 1994): 123-32.

Uses Sir William Davenant's 1662 reworking of Shakespeare's play to suggest that Isabella's defense of her virtue was regarded by earlier audiences as extreme.

Hayne, Victoria. "Performing Social Practice: The Example of Measure for Measure." Shakespeare Quarterly 44, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 1-29.

Examines the play in light of complex legal and social rules regarding marriage in Renaissance England.

MacFarlane, Linda. "Heads You Win Tails I Lose." Critical Survey 5, No. 1 (1993): 77-82.

Discusses the sexual politics at work in the play and the "parcel of assumptions" that the male characters hold concerning women, particularly with regard to Isabella.

McLuskie, Kathleen. "The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure." In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, pp. 88-108. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Argues that Measure for Measure can be interpreted and enjoyed from a male perspective only, and is thus closed to feminist critical assessment.

Rose, Jacqueline. "Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure." In Alternative Shakespeares, edited by John Drakakis, pp. 95-118. London: Methuen, 1985.

Examines the link between aesthetic form and sexuality. Rose refers to Measure for Measure as a "problem" play and to Isabella as a woman possessing too little sexuality.

Rossiter, A. P. "The Problem Plays" and "Measure for Measure." In Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures, edited by Graham Storey, pp. 108-28, 152-70. London: Longmans, 1961.

Defines the problem plays as tragicomedies, and maintains that the Christian ethic intended in Measure for Measure is never fully realized because the quality of the writing "goes thin" and lacks "inner conviction."

Siegel, Paul N. "Measure for Measure: The Significance of the Title." Shakespeare Quarterly 4, No. 3 (July 1953): 317-20.

Claims that "measure for measure" is distributed according to the justice of comedy: punishment is administered, but with mercy.

Welsh, Alexander. "The Loss of Men and Getting of Children: 'All's Well That Ends Well' and 'Measure for Measure.'" Modern Language Review 73, No. 1 (January 1978): 17-28.

Examines the "problematic relations of biology and human society" which the play addresses: namely, desire for sex and procreation versus mistrust of women and reluctance to marry.

Williamson, Marilyn L. "Oedipal Fantasies in Measure for Measure. " Michigan Academician IX, No. 2 (Fall 1976): 73-84.

Presents a psychoanalytical interpretation of the main characters in Measure for Measure, concentrating on the relationship between the "father-figure" (the Duke) and his "children" (the citizens of Vienna). Williamson notes that Shakespeare clearly differentiates between intentions and actions in the play, demonstrating that only actions can be judged.


Infinite Space: Representation and Reformation in Measure for Measure


Measure for Measure (Vol. 49)