(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 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...

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Opposition And Balance

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6659 words.)

Language And Structure

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6327 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6878 words.)

Sexual Politics And Power

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 13320 words.)

Justice, Mercy, And Morality

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 22860 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1352 words.)