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Measure for Measure

Often identified as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," Measure for Measure begins on a serious note, drawing audiences in with its focus on the moral dilemmas of its major characters. By the second half of the play, however, the tone shifts to a comic one, which distances audiences from the characters and their plights. This discordance is one of the issues that makes the play "problematic." Another such issue is the play's stance on law, justice, and mercy. In analyses of these themes, critics are unable to agree on what message Shakespeare intended to convey. Often, such discussions focus on the characters of the Duke and Angelo, who, as governmental leaders, are in a position to interpret the law and dispense justice and mercy. Other topics of modern critical debate include the role of sexuality in the play, as well as Shakespeare's use of substitutions in the play.

In examining the inconsistencies in Measure for Measure, A. D. Nutall (1968) states that the "Grand Inconsistency" of the play is that "between the ethic of government and the ethic of refraining from judgement." Nutall examines Angelo and the Duke as rulers and heroes and maintains that it is possible to view Angelo as a good Machiavellian ruler, who retains a certain integrity throughout the play. The Duke, Nutall argues, is frivolous and cannot be taken seriously as a satisfactory hero. In exploring the attitudes of the Duke and Angelo regarding the law and its application, N. W. Bawcutt (1984) claims that Measure for Measure presents a dual image of the law, in which the law is ignored without consequence but may suddenly mete out harsh punishment with a certain arbitrariness. Mercy, Bawcutt demonstrates, is similarly presented in a variety of ways, whereas justice and the law are relatively indistinguishable from one another.

Other critics focus on how specific aspects of the law are treated in Measure for Measure. Margaret Scott (1982) reviews the play's vague law against fornication and cautions against approaching the play through the examination of Elizabethan marriage contracts. Jonathan (1985) studies the regulation of sexuality in the play, suggesting that, as in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, such regulation was a reaction of the State against the fear of anarchy.

In examining the apparent structural inconsistencies between the two halves of the play, Herbert Weil, Jr. (1970) argues that if the falling action of the play is viewed as light comedy, even farce, then the action does in fact "fit into a comprehensive design." Weil maintains that through the comic subplot involving Lucio, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone, Shakespeare prepares the audience for the comic reversals of the second half of the play. Furthermore, Weil suggests that Shakespeare deliberately altered his sources in order to engineer the audience's disappointment resulting from the failure of the action to resolve the characters' moral dilemmas. The purpose of this alteration, Weil asserts, was to highlight, through Shakespeare's parodying of the melodrama of his sources, the limitations of comic form and devices. At the same time, Shakespeare "stretches [comic conventions and implausible devices] into new possibilities." Like Weil, T. A. Stroud (1993) emphasizes the importance of the play's comic substructure, arguing that the comic plot initiated by Lucio was intended to balance, (and nearly does so, according to Stroud), the "quasi-tragic plot initiated by Angelo." Stroud stresses that an analysis of this doubling or balancing could resolve "some of the widespread critical dissatisfaction with this play." In her analysis of Measure for Measure as tragicomedy, Harriett Hawkins (1972) outlines some of the major discrepancies between the first and second half of...

(This entire section contains 1003 words.)

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the play and describes it as "a magnificent failure." Hawkins states that the most pervasive problem of the play is "that the memory of the characters, their speeches, and their conflicts between mutually exclusive moral alternatives simply cannot be revoked by the theatrical intriguing of a Duke. . . . "

The sexual relations between men and women play a major role in Measure for Measure. Kathleen McCluskie (1985) contends that the dilemmas in the play and the sexuality of its female characters are conceived of in entirely male terms: Mistress Overdone is a bawd, Juliet is obviously pregnant, and Isabella, in her nun's habit, denies sexuality. Only Mariana's position is ambiguous, since she is not a maid, widow, or wife. The organization of the second half of the play is designed to rectify this problematic status, McCluskie argues, and to reinstate Mariana within the male prescribed sex roles. Susan Carlson (1989) on the other hand, maintains that the play offers a "fragile" and "unusual" alternative to male dominated sexuality. This alternative, according to Carlson, is simply "the acknowledgement of qualities, options, and relations for both men and women not sanctioned by the standard sexual politics." In the end, Carlson notes, the possibility for the existence of this alternative, which challenges the play's male order, is eliminated.

In Measure for Measure, characters are repeatedly substituted for one another. Alexander Leggatt (1988) reviews some of these substitutions: Mariana for Isabella in the bed-trick, Angelo for the Duke, Barnardine for Claudio, and Ragozine for Barnardine. The critic maintains that the substitutions in the play either fail to achieve their intended purpose or are in some other way unsatisfying, concluding that the substitutions are both "revealing" and "fascinating" but incomplete. Additionally, Leggatt states that Shakespeare did not deliberately write an imperfect play in order to highlight the imperfections of his art. Hutson Diehl (1998) directly challenges Leggatt's view, insisting that this is indeed what Shakespeare has done. Diehl argues that Shakespeare explores, through the use of substitutions, the power and limitation of theatrical representation, and that in doing so, he creates a dissatisfaction in the audience's response to Measure for Measure. By creating this dissatisfaction, Diehl explains, Shakespeare uses the theater for "the project of reforming human behavior even as he acknowledges the limits of that project and distances his theater from the extremist views of radical Puritanism." Through Measure for Measure, Diehl concludes, Shakespeare inspires in his audiences a sense "of the infinite space that separates them from the divine."

Law And Justice

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A. D. Nutall (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Measure For Measure: Quid Pro Quo?," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. IV, 1968, pp. 231-51.

[In the following essay, Nutall examines the inconsistencies and "ethical collisions" in Measure for Measure. In particular, the critic scrutinizes the ethics of government and judgment and contrasts Angelo 's moral character with that of the Duke.]

Some people seem to have little difficulty in understanding Measure for Measure; for example, Professor Wilson Knight. His summary of the play's theme is at once lucid and deeply attractive: "'justice' is a mockery: man, himself a sinner, cannot presume to judge. That is the lesson driven home in Measure for Measure."1 It is difficult not to respond gratefully to this thesis, which exalts the loving prostitute above the censorious prig, charity of heart above Olympian pride of intellect. If mankind is frail, then we, as part of mankind, are frail, and the proper response to our situation is not judgement, but love. Further, Professor Knight's thesis is not only inherently attractive; it also accords well with the main movement of the plot, which is from judicial retaliation to forgiveness and harmony. Again, it attaches itself closely to certain passages in the play—passages which derive their beauty from their enormous moral power:

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.


But man, proud man, Dress'd in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd— His glassy essence—like an angry ape Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As makes the angles weep. . . . 



Within the world of Measure for Measure Professor Knight's thesis exalts, say, the forgiving Duke high above the frigid Angelo, which would seem to be very good sense, since the Duke is obviously the hero and Angelo the villain.

Unobviously, however, the situation is quite otherwise. If we allow ourselves to look at all hard at the play, a shadowy structure of a disturbingly alien shape becomes visible under the comedy surface. One thing we can learn quite quickly is, for example, the fact that Angelo is, on a modest computation (as Swift would say) worth about six Dukes. One begins to suspect that the whole trouble with Professor Knight's account is its very smoothness. It is occasionally salutary to ask oneself "If I had never read or seen Measure for Measure, but knew it only from Professor Knight's essay, what sort of idea of the work would I have? What surprises would I get when I turned to the play itself? In what ways would the real experience of Measure for Measure differ from the experience Professor Knight had led me to expect?" I think it is fair to say (and this goes not just for Professor Knight's account but also for the varying interpretations of Roy Battenhouse, Nevill Coghill and even F. R. Leavis)4 that Shakespeare would give such a reader a much rougher ride than he had looked for. The first thing he would learn from a virgin text is that Measure for Measure is a jagged play.

It is also a highly dialectical play, perhaps the most audaciously metaphysical of all Shakespeare's dramas. In Measure for Measure Shakespeare (who had after all trained himself on such stories asthat of The Comedy of Errors) wove a plot of astonishing ingenuity. As long as this play is treated as a work of abstract art, it will be found as smooth as your mistress's glass. So considered, its primary characteristics are intricacy and celerity. The principal idea (of vicarious action) is worked out in a very pretty sequence of variations meeting in a final resolution. For example, one may hear the theme in brilliant accelerando if one traces that strand of the plot which brings Lucio into contact with the Duke. In III.ii. Lucio slanders the Duke to the Friar, not knowing that the Duke and the Friar are one and the same person (though he seems to know that the Duke has disguised himself). Then, at V.i.130f., he slanders the Friar to the Duke, not knowing—again—that they are the same person. Thus Lucio's fertility in slander is frustrated by the Duke's fertility in subterfuge. The variety of the Duke's appearances cancels out the variety of Lucio's mendacity, leaving a single net offence—the slander of a prince.

So one pole of the play is, we may say, technical neatness. The other is, of course, metaphysical disorder. Thus the effect of the play may be expressed by describing it as having the tempo and intervals of a minuet worked out in a sequence of violent discords. For example: it is likely that the substitution of Mariana for Isabel in Angelo's bed is one of the elements in the plot which we owe to Shakespeare alone. The episode illustrates very clearly the double character of ingenuity and discordancy which I impute to the play as a whole. On the one hand it is expert comedy-plotting, a dramatic structure in itself intricate and mirroring other elements in the play, as for example the Friar-Duke-Lucio relationship I have just described. Isabel is a lady who has dedicated her virginity to God. She expresses herself as willing to give anything to save her brother's life. Angelo then turns the tables on her by asking for the one thing she feels she cannot give. In effect, the Duke's delegate strives to usurp the place of God in Isabel's life (for she is betrothed to God). But Angelo is (or was) betrothed to Mariana. Thus Isabel is able, by breaking faith with Angelo, to keep her faith with God. The venial sin of Mariana in sleeping with her betrothed formally echoes the venial sin of Claudio who slept with his and so began the whole chain of events. The stratagem of Isabel and the Duke mathematically cancels out the stratagem of Angelo, who is brought to commit the very crime for which he had sentenced Claudio. Angelo's attempt at usurpation is countered by another usurpation (Mariana's); and the double falsehood issues in a strange propriety. Thus we have a peripeteia within a peripeteia. What could be more elegant?

And yet, as we watch it happen, what could be more appalling? How can Isabel who so imperiously denounced her brother's action—"There is a vice that most I do abhor, / And most desire should meet the blow of justice . . ." (II.ii.29-30)—assent with such sprightly readiness to the suggestion that Mariana perform the self-same action—"The image of it gives me content already . . ." (III.i.260). Note that Shakespeare could, had he wished, have made this much more comfortable for us. He could easily have caused Isabel to argue from the first that Claudio in effect committed no sin with Juliet.5 This would have had the further consequence of making Isabel's duet with Lucio (in which they together try to divert the harsh purpose of Angelo) altogether more harmonious. But Shakespeare preferred to show us an Isabel forced by vicissitude into strange company, into what is almost an unholy alliance. Theoretically, she is really (as Mary Lascelles saw6) much closer to Angelo than to Lucio. Both are ethical precisionists. Both abhor the confusion of charity with indulgence, of licence with true mercy. Yet Isabel must plead against an insinuating counterpoint from Lucio which almost amounts to a parody of her argument. Certainly, the episode comes off more smoothly in Whetstone. But who prefers Whetstone's scene to Shakespeare's?7

That the play is full of ethical collisions, not to say inconsistencies, needs little labour to show. Isabel not only turns, in the words of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch,8 from a saint into a bare procuress; she also lets down the Christian historicist critic. Thus in her early clash with Angelo we are told that anyone who thinks Isabel ought to submit to Angelo is the victim of a modern prejudice; that it could never have occurred to an Elizabethan that there could be anything vicious in fidelity to a vow of chastity. What's supernatural is supernatural. What's natural is only natural. And then, when all our learning has been lavished in defence of her supernatural dedication, she marries the Duke. Of course, such a defence of the automatically over-riding status of Isabel's vows was always bad history of ideas.9 Raymond Southall has shown how the distinction between social and spiritual grace formed the material of open controversy in the sixteenth century—that is, if I have correctly understood the opening sections of his essay.10 J. W. Lever has an interesting quotation from Tyndale on the pride of Lucrece, "which pryde god more abhorreth than the whordome of any whor." More could be added from Erasmus.11 Indeed Lever has observed that the affirmation of specifically "natural"12 values is a commonplace of humanism. To bring the argument nearer home we might observe that in the source-stories both of Cinthio and Whetstone the Isabel-figure actually does the inconceivable thing; she yields, and yet remains the heroine. If a Shakespearean voice is wanted to show that people could think unfavourably of chastity, there is Parolles—"virginity is peevish, proud, idle, made of self-love . . ." (AWW,I.i.149). Or, if Parolles disgraces the witness box, it must be granted that the Duke, in the present play, distinguishes plainly enough between an introverted preoccupation with one's own virtue and an outward-turned beneficence in his words to Angelo at I.i.29:

Thyself and thy belongings Are not thine own so proper as to waste Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.


These are dangerous sentiments to leave lying about in the neighbourhood of Isabel.

Of course I am aware that answers can be made to all these points; and, in particular, that Isabel can readily be cleared of the charge of simple egoism. I can even agree with E. M. Pope that the dominant feeling of the time would endorse Isabel's refusal to yield to Angelo.14 I only submit that for a play as dense in texture as Measure for Measure to register a "dominant feeling" is not enough. We must be receptive to the presence of varying undermeanings. To assimilate the present scene to the basic tenets of the Elizabethan World Picture (which I begin to think was as real an entity as the Twentieth Century World Picture—imagine a critic three hundred years hence operating on, say, Muriel Spark, with that) is to empty the scene of stress. As it stands, the collision of values is immense. A crack runs rapidly across the scorched earth; the direct love of God is split from the love of neighbour. The two basic commands of the Gospels of which George Herbert wrote: "O dark instructions; eV'n as dark as day!"15 prove, after all, not wholly perspicuous. There once appeared an ecclesiastical cartoon which showed a little monk praying fervently while his superior angrily shouted "Are you going over my head?" Fabula docet. As soon as we learn how to enter into a direct relationship with God, our relationship with the world can be viewed as a distraction. As long as one's love of God is naturally discharged by love of one's neighbour, Isabel's dilemma is impossible. Only with the birth of the monastic ideal and of the notion that I can love God best if I withdraw from my neighbour's society, does it become possible. Only then can God and my neighbour become rivals. In Measure for Measure God has two rivals for the love of Isabel, one loved and one detested but who working together are almost dangerous—namely Claudio and Angelo. Certainly Isabel's situation is ill described as egoism under attack. She cannot forget her own honour for the sake of Claudio since she has pledged that honour to God. If the reader feels something preposterous in this high piled metaphysical structure—something reminiscent of, say, Graham Greene, I am inclined to agree with him. I fancy Shakespeare felt it too; after all, he created the ironic witness Lucio and even Isabel cannot keep it up. But the metaphysical terror, though wafer-thin, is real.

Isabel's marriage, then, is as inconsistent as her attitude to sexual intercourse between engaged persons. But this is of small importance compared with the Grand Inconsistency of the whole play—namely the inconsistency between the ethic of government and the ethic of refraining from judgement. But having named this conflict I propose to postpone its discussion. It may profitably be left to germinate for a while in the reader's consciousness.

I have suggested a discrepancy between the "technical" smartness of this play and its ideological discordancy. The application of this distinction to, say, the character of Angelo is straightforward. Its effect is greatly to weaken the force of the plain man's argument against him, already cited: "Angelo is the technical villain; therefore it makes good sense to hold that he is contemptible." Isabel is the technical heroine, but she is not permitted to survive unmarked. Perhaps a correlative dispensation is extended to Angelo.

To begin from what is generally accepted: we all know better than Hazlitt now. Angelo is not a common hypocrite. Isabel is at her very best when she says of him16

I partly think A due sincerity govern'd his deeds Till he did look on me.


The tone of this is subtle. It represents an effort of objectivity. It also expresses a kind of bewilderment. Isabel is finding that she has not really understood what happened, does not really understand Angelo. And indeed it is a question whether he is intelligible at all. His loneliness is so nearly complete.

His first words in the play—

Always obedient to your Grace's will, I come to know your pleasure


—are perhaps faintly ridiculous. But the speech should be so delivered as to defeat an incipient risibility in the audience by its sheerly factual character. It is a part which should be played with a complete insensitivity to social overtones, and a complete attention to radical meaning. As the figure of Angelo moves before us we find a certain note struck again and again. It is the fundamental idea of the play—vicariousness—but in Angelo it finds its most intricate and powerful expression.

Angelo is, in the inherited story of the play, a deputy, the Duke's Vicar. But Shakespeare has extended this notion to color the very essence of Angelo. He is in himself a sort of surrogate human being. The Duke, gazing at Angelo on his first appearance, observes that the virtue of so excellent a man requires and merits public exercise. The sentiment is ordinary enough. But also present in the speech is the merest hint of a much more radical—indeed, a philosophical—idea, namely that virtue is essentially a matter of behaviour, that the man whose virtue is invisible cannot meaningfully be said to be virtuous at all. It is a speech I have already touched on:

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.


The Arden editor notes that this passage echoes language used elsewhere by Shakespeare of procreation. It also recalls Ulysses' philosophical exhortation of Achilles (though the similarity is in thought and style rather than in vocabulary):

. . . no man is the lord of anything . . . Till he communicate his parts to others; Nor doth he of himself know them for ought Till he behold them form'd in the applause Where they'Re extended; who, like an arch reverberates The voice again, or like a gate of steel Fronting the sun, receives and renders back His figure and his heat.

(Troilus and Cressida, III.iii.115-123)

Angelo is the man suggested by the philosophizing of Ulysses; in himself nothing, pure function (at ll.ii.39 he actually uses the word "function" of himself). The Duke forthwith appropriates his identity: "be thou at full ourself" (I.i.43). The purely instrumental status of Angelo is repeatedly brought to our notice:

Whether the tyranny be in his place, Or in his eminence that fills it up, I stagger in.

(I.ii. 152-154)

I have on Angelo impos'd the office.


How will you do to content this substitute . . . ?


Lord Angelo dukes it well in his absence.


Through all the proliferating substitutions of the play, Angelo remains (so to speak) the supreme vicar. Yet he has his own kind of solidity (and it is a moral kind).

Professor Coghill makes much17 of his refusal personally to sift the evidence in the case of Froth and Bum—

This will last out a night in Russia When nights are longest there. I'Ll take my leave, And leave you to the hearing of the cause; Hoping you'Ll find good cause to whip them all.

(ILL 133-136)

It is, however, doubtful whether there is anything discreditable in the delegation of this tedious business to Escalus. Physical chastisement has acquired in modern times an added character of traumatic outrage and thus Angelo's parting words may shock a present-day audience where they would earn a sympathetic laugh in a Jacobean theatre. Nevertheless, the line retains a distinctly unpleasant force, which is principally located in the word "hoping." A certain relish of anticipation is implied. Perhaps we might say that this is the first faint sign in Angelo of the lust which will destroy him. But the real tenor of the speech is missed if we stop here. There is a further phrase in the line which, coming from the lips of Angelo, has the power to check and channel the suggestion of "hoping": I mean the phrase "good cause." At the very moment when Angelo's blood quickens, his grip tightens on the law. Although the tension of this speech is so gently hinted and so soon over, it is really present and foreshadows the later development of Angelo. Our dominant impression is still that of a hollow man, a sort of lay-figure. But as the play progresses we see that there persists in Angelo, even through the usurpation of his own soul by lust fully revealed and irresistible, a kind of integrity.

Which is more than can be said for the Duke. The Duke is a ruler who has let things slide. In order to restore good order in Vienna he appoints a substitute who will bear on his shoulders all the odium of renewed severity. This is the Grand Substitution of the play at the purely political level.

For this play is profoundly political. Roy Battenhouse described it (but without any consciousness of paradox) as "a Mirror for Magistrates founded on Christian love."18 We can now look a little more closely at the conflict I have already alluded to—the conflict between the ethic of government and the ethic of refraining from judgement.

Anyone who has read through Cintino's tale and Whetstone's two-part play can watch for himself the growth of a serious and rebarbative preoccupation with legal utility in the transplantation of this story from Italy to England.19 Mary Lascelles has noted how the law in Cinthio has the status of a purblind dotard guarding an orchard from children among whom it is a point of honour to rob the trees; whereas in Whetstone we find a Tudor reverence for law itself with criticism reserved for defects in its administration. It seems doubtful whether Whetstone realized what a formidably un-Christian ethical force he had released by honouring human law in such a context. Indeed, to men who were seriously concerned with the ordering of institutions, the revolutionary morality of Matthew, vii, Mark, iv, and Luke, vi (the Scriptural sources for the title of this play) presented grave difficulties. Elizabeth Marie Pope has brilliantly shown what sort of effect these passages had on the magisterial mind.20 For example she quotes Calvin and William Perkins to the effect that such Biblical texts should not lead a man to condone open and serious wrong. Attempts were made to resolve the difficulty by distinguishing between the actions of a private individual and the actions of the state. Private citizens may—indeed, should—be as Christian as possible, but judicial clemency is "limited in practice to considerations of ordinary common sense."21

But what then of the Prince, who, in his own person, is the State? Presumably he should not indulge a promiscuous clemency. Of course the Prince who condemns does so not in his own name but as the minister and vicar of God.22 This in a way reproduces the dual morality of those Scriptural passages which lie behind the title "Measure for Measure." For example, in the verses from Matthew, vii we are told to refrain from judgement, not because judgement must be transcended by love, but "that ye be not judged."23 In Mark, iv the over-riding context of divine retribution is even clearer. So the Prince qua man has no duty save to love and forgive his fellow creatures, but as God's substitute he must hunt out and punish the malefactor.

If we press hard on the argument, the ruler might appear to be metaphysically in a cleft stick. As the bloodless instrument of God's will he must perform actions which in a human creature count as sins; his office is eschatologically a millstone round his neck, for the obligation it confers is an obligation to sin.

There is, of course, a short way to resolve this difficulty. The only disquieting thing about it is that if we adopt it we come near to absolving Angelo of guilt in his treatment of Claudio. Thus we may point out that to say X does such and such a thing in the name of Y means that Y, not X, bears the responsibility for the action. Thus God, not the Prince, bears the responsibility for official executions. Now Angelo certainly condemns Claudio in the Duke's name. So whose is the responsibility now? It may be replied that this is sheer sophistry since the Duke never authorised Angelo to do that But is it? The Duke was fully aware of Angelo's character. Hence, indeed, his appointment as substitute. The Duke wants Angelo for the job just because he will condemn people like Claudio. And to condemn the Claudios of Vienna is not just politically imprudent; it is too dirty a job for the Duke's squeamish conscience. Would not this reformation of justice seem more dreadful in yourself than in a deputy? Asks Friar Thomas:

I do fear, too dreadful. Sith 'Twas my fault to give the people scope, 'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them For what I bid them do: for we bid this be done, When evil deeds have their permissive pass, And not the punishment. Therefore indeed, my father, I have on Angelo impos.'d the office; Who may in th'Ambush of my name strike home, And yet my nature never in the fight To do in slander


There are two arguments here: the first is straight Machiavelli: delegate unpopular actions. We need not look far in The Prince for an analogue to the Duke of Vienna:

the province was a prey to robbery, assaults, and every kind of disorder. He [Cesare Borgia], therefore, judged it necessary to give them a good government in order to make them peaceful and obedient to his rule. For this purpose he appointed Messer Remirro de Orco, a cruel and able man, to whom he gave the fullest authority. This man, in a short time, was highly successful in rendering the country orderly and united, whereupon the duke, not deeming such excessive authority expedient, lest it should become hateful, appointed a civil court of justice in the centre of the province under an excellent president, to which each city appointed its own advocate. And as he knew that the harshness of the past had engendered some amount of hatred, in order to purge the minds of the people and to win them over completely, he resolved to show that if any cruelty had taken place it was not by his orders, but though the harsh disposition of his minister. And having found the opportunity he had him cut in half and placed one morning in the public square at Cesena with a piece of wood and bloodstained knife at his side. The ferocity of this spectacle caused the people both satisfaction and amazement.24

But to be sure, the Duke of Vienna pardoned Angelo.

Of course, to show that a character is Machiavellian is not ipso facto to prove him a villain.25 The idea that a ruler should delegate odious offices is Aristotelian and was referred to with approval by Erasmus26 before it was adopted by Machiavelli. Mario Praz has shown27 how Machiavellian principles were implicitly approved by Thomas More, Montaigne and Spenser. Mary Lascelles notes28 that the ideal governor in Elyot's TheImage of Governaunce (1541) is allowed to use subterfuge to ensure a just outcome. There is a whole essay to be written round what might be called the "White Machiavel" in Shakespeare. Such an essay might begin from Sonnet 94 ("They that have power to hurt") and end in a discussion of the supreme White Machiavel, Prince Hal. W. H. Auden has already pointed out29 that one style is common to the soliloquies of Iago and Hal. Plainly, any writer with as strong an interest as Shakespeare's in government could not long escape seeing the bitter duties of a prince whose care for his people was more than sentimental. But have we a White Machiavel in Measure for Measure? I think perhaps we have, but the Duke is not he.

The good Machiavellian ruler, if we allow him to be saveable at all, is saved by his resolute dedication to a good end. No such powerful direction is discernible in the tergiversations of the Duke. Certainly, he preserves the luxury of a technically uncorrupted conscience; certainly he ensures that the laws are reinforced, even if he proceeds by his orgy of clemency at the close to undo all the good achieved. Note that we can approve his behaviour at the end of the play only at the cost of condemning his behaviour at its outset. A man can play football or cricket; but he cannot score goals with a cricket bat. At whichever end of the ethical spectrum you begin, you will never make a satisfactory hero of the Duke. I suspect that the essential frivolity of his nature really shows itself in the speech with which he ends I.iii—

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. Hence shall we see If power change purpose, what our seemers be.

Is it too curious to detect in this speech a certain relish of anticipation? Is there not a slight shifting of ground from the opening scene in which the Duke professes his trust in, and grave respect for, the ascetic probity of Angelo? Is there not the merest shadow of a Lucio-like sneer at the chastity of Angelo? It is Lucio who echoes the Duke's language at Liv.57-58—"a man whose blood / Is very snowbroth." Again it is a matter of exclusive alternatives. If we welcome the mocking tone of these lines, then we must surely reject as priggish the grave eulogy at I.i.26-40. As Clifford Leech has observed,30 the Duke cannot both be testing a suspected nature and tightening up the administration of Vienna by the most reliable means to hand. But perhaps this is too dubious an instance to hang an entire interpretation on. A surer index is the Duke's unblushing readiness to hear confessions (and talk about them afterwards). The priestly disguise holds no embarrassment for him: "I have confess'd her, and I know her virtue" (V.i.524). The Duke in Measure for Measure is, at the political level, at best an off-white Machiavel, incongruously elevated to the position of Presiding Genius. At the metaphysical level he is, perhaps, mere Machiavel.

The bare mention of Machiavelli, however, raises the ethical question of ends and means. Ought we to perform an action in itself wicked in order that a greater good may come of it? This question is fundamental in Measure for Measure, and I fancy that in raising it I have reached the point at which I can no longer even hope for unanimity in the responses of readers. Christian opinion is itself divided on the point. On the one hand there is the tender-minded view, as expressed by the Thomist Jacques Maritain (writing on Machiavelli); moral conscience, he says "is never allowed to do evil for any good whatsoever."31 On the other hand Hilaire Belloc took up the tough-minded position when he defined sentimentality as the inability to see that the end justifies the means. I suppose most modern Englishmen implicitly assent to the proposition that the end justifies the means. Any clergyman, for example, who allows the possible existence of a just war thereby ranges himself with Belloc and against Maritain.32 The Elizabethans, with their fear of anarchy, were, I think, a little quicker to see this than we. Having assembled my apparatus I must set it to work. According to the terms elaborated we may find in Measure for Measure two fundamental ethical views, tender and tough, of which the first must be subdivided into two further sections. Let us label them Ia, Ib and 77.

Ia may be expressed as follows: No man who is not himself perfect has the right to judge a fellow creature. Man can only forgive and exercise charity. For example:

Isabel 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.


Compare also II.ii.75f., IV.ii.81-83. Persons who hold to this opinion tend in practice to believe that the end cannot justify the means. The connection between these two notions is not immediately obvious. My own guess is that both stem from a powerful awareness of the supernatural authority of God and a correspondingly low estimate of man. To such a mind ethics tends to consist of a series of God-given imperatives. These imperatives cannot be appraised or placed in order of value by merely human intelligence. Ours not to reason why. This granted, man's right to ethical judgement is no greater than the child's right to judge the proficiency of his schoolfellow in, say, French prose composition. And to form projects involving the considered subjection of means to ends involves a similar assumption of Olympian authority. View Ia almost certainly lies behind the repulsion Escalus feels at Angelo's account of the law as a scarecrow, which if left unchanged will become the object of contempt (II.i.lf). Note that if we side with Escalus here we place ourselves in opposition to the Duke whose loving state-craft is very fairly represented by Angelo's words. But we are growing accustomed to these uncomfortable choices. Such then is ethic Ia; the high Christian variant of the tender view.

Ib is on the contrary, low and non-Christian, though still, of course, tender. It goes something like this: anybody without a bit of generous vice in him isn'T properly human. The sexual appetite is in itself good; it is of the heart, and heart is more than head. This has a very twentieth-century flavour but is certainly present in Measure for Measure—most obviously in the "low" dialogue of the play, though the implied collision of values is never so clearly expressed as by Escalus in his rueful comment on Angelo's austere judicial conduct:

Well, heaven forgive him; and forgive us all. Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.


The same ethical collision is asserted "from below," as the Arden editor noticed, in the comic misplacings of Elbow:

But precise villains they are, that I am sure of, and void of all profanation in the world, that good Christians ought to have.

(II.i.54-5 6)

To hammer the point home Escalus is here given a "Here's a wise fool" response. Isabel, after she has been battered down from her high Christian position, has recourse to the low-tender view: "'Tis set down so in heaV'n, but not in earth" (II.iv.50).

Ethic II, the tough-minded one, has much less power (it will be noticed at once) to give us warm feelings. To begin with, it is white Machiavellianism. Ends (in this fallen world) justify means; to resist this is to lapse into sentimentalism; of course none of us is perfect but of course we must judge; the man who is willing to abolish the police force in order to luxuriate in a private orgy of conscience is less merciful than the magistrate who administers the law in the interests of the community. This ethic is impersonalist, pragmatic and anti-sentimental. Above all it is the ethic of Angelo. Ethic II yields no passages of moving poetry, as e.g. Ib does, in Lucio's "blossoming time" speech at I.iv.40f. That, I suspect, may be part of the point. Its ugliness and inaccessibility are correlative with the ugliness and inaccessibility of Angelo himself. It is supported "from below" by the dramatist, but in a manner appropriate to its nature. All the scenes in which the corruption of Vienna is conveyed work on its behalf. For, observe, human sexuality in Measure for Measure has two faces, one fair and one (from which Professor Wilson Knight appears to have averted his eyes) very foul indeed. Anyone who thinks of this play as a simple celebration of the procreative processes should read through, say, III.ii.

Now concerning these rival ethics I should like to put what might well be thought an indecorous question. Which of them, as argument, cuts deepest? Wood cuts butter; so Isabel cuts through the simple monster of ferocity she takes Angelo to be. Steel resists wood, so the real Angelo meets and parries every ethical thrust Isabel can produce from all the warmth of her heart and her understanding. In order to obtain a fair hearing for Angelo I must ask the reader to consider the moral questions before him not as if they were in a romance (where we should all applaud indiscriminate clemency without a moment's compunction) but as if they were a part of real life. Measure for Measure deserves no less. Now, do we really think that because none of us is perfect so no one should judge—that is, in hard terms, there should be no law-courts, no penal system, no juries, no police? Certainly judges are imperfect, but equally certainly it is a job that someone has to do. Men of tender conscience may preserve their charity intact, but only so long as others are willing to tarnish theirs a little.

Angelo grants at once that those who judge are not themselves free from sin. This may mean that they lack, at the metaphysical level, a "right" to judge, but it certainly does not mean that they cannot, at the practical level, do it:

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. . . .


The naked intelligence of this transfixes the naive casuistry of the Duke's evasion of guilt at I.iii.36-40.

Of course Angelo is only half a man. He is, until invaded by terrible desire, pure intellect. But it may be salutary to remember how much less human beings can be, even than that. Angelo's lust is moved, strangely, and terrifyingly, by Isabel's virtue (II.ii.162, 168-70, 174-75, 180-84). It is as if he discovered that he was a pervert who could be stimulated only by manifest goodness in another person (note, once more, the conceptual audacity of Measure for Measure: those lines dispose finely of that slovenly abstractness of mind which defines love as a passion directed at the soul and lust as a passion directed at the body).

So Angelo falls. But notice how, as a dialectician, he is still in a manner secure. Nothing has happened to overthrow his original position. He had always been enough of a realist to know that among the jurors there might be one guiltier than the defendant. The conclusion is clear, and Angelo never shirks it. He is now himself properly the victim of the superhuman law.

For Angelo's view of the law is naturally impersonalist:

It is the law, not I, condemn your brother; Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son, It should be thus with him.


This must always have been coldly shocking but perhaps a Jacobean audience would be quicker than we to think of Junius Brutus who condemned his own sons—to connect Christian sin with Roman virtue. Certainly the notion of an heroic suppression of humanity would be alien even then, but not perhaps entirely inaccessible.

The most invidious action of Angelo's is perhaps his going back on the promise to release Claudio. At this point in the play Angelo has descended into hell and it would plainly be absurd to defend its morality, yet a sort of consistency may persist even here. Consider it for a moment from the point of view of a white Machiavel. Remember that you are committed to the thesis that a strict administration of the law is in the best interests of the people, and that these interests have an overriding claim upon the conscience of the administrator. Suppose, then, the administrator finds himself drawn by a purely personal entanglement to remit the normal course of law—what ought he to do? Clearly, on such principles, he should disregard his personal commitment in deference to the general. He should pull himself together and exercise strict authority according to the law.

In fact however, the reason Angelo gives in his soliloquy is much less creditable than this. He says that he is afraid that Claudio, if allowed to live, may take vengeance on the ravisher of his sister. That at least is the most natural way (and, let us confess, the right way) to take this speech. Yet there is an awkwardness in the expression which seems to betray the presence of a contrary idea, struggling for admission. The line are these:

He should have liV'd; Save that his riotous youth, with dangerous sense, Might in the times to come have ta'en revenge By so receiving a dishonoured life With ransom of such shame.


The crucial word is "By." Read without any awareness of context, that "By" would most naturally be taken as following closely on "have ta'en revenge." The meaning of the whole sentence would then be: "He should have been allowed to live, except that, if he had, his youthfully riotous nature might subsequently have taken a kind of revenge on him, by accepting a life of dishonourable vice, since that life had been bought in so shameful a way." The sentiment would then be parallel to that of Angelo's earlier speech at II.ii. 101-105. It might be objected that such a reading places an odd interpretation on "receiving," but the objection could not be sustained for long. Compare for example, Twelfth Night, III..iv. 199-200, "I know his youth will most aptly receive it,—into a most hideous opinion" ox Henry VIII, II.iv. 168, "My conscience first receiV'd a tenderness." No, the real difficulty is that there is a much more probable interpretation—the one I have already stated—available. The only problem facing the orthodox interpreter is the word "By." This difficulty is not dispelled by citing instrumental uses of by such as "By this Lord Angelo perceives he's safe" (V.i.492). What is rather needed is a causative use of by. This, though very rare, appears to be possible Shakespearean English: for example:

. . . the remembrance of my former love Is by a newer object quite forgotten.

Two Gentlemen of Verona, II.iv. 196-197

To show that a causative use of by is possible is, I think, to clinch the orthodox case. But to prove that an expression is possible is not to prove it normal. One can still legitimately feel that the sentence is oddly put together, that the thought is subject to a certain strain. It may be significant that by a trifling change of perspective a different, yet in one respect a consistent picture of Angelo's motivation emerges.

Whichever view is uppermost in Angelo's mind, his grip on it is uncertain. His next words betray unhappiness and bewilderment:

Would yet he had liV'd. Alack, when once our grace we have forgot, Nothing goes right; we would and we would not.


Where, then, does this leave us? The judgement of the law must be imposed (all agree to that, except perhaps Lucio and his associates). To the question: Who shall impose the law since none of us is perfect? Angelo and the Duke return different answers. Angelo's answer is that men must sink their individuality in the law; that men must judge according to the law, and, when they err, submit to the same law; if it seems grotesque that a man should sit in judgement on other men, one should remember that the judge also is subject to the same rules. The Duke's answer is: Get someone else to do it.

This brings us back to the Duke's speech of explanation at I.iii.34f. I said that there were two arguments in this speech, the first being the Machiavellian thesis that unpopular actions should be delegated, according to the example of Cesare Borgia. The second argument I have yet to discuss. At first sight it looks more respectable.

Sith 'Twas my fault to give the people scope. 'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them For what I bid them do.

That is to say, it is not only imprudent for me to enforce the law personally, it would also be immoral; I should be a tyrant in so switching from indulgence to rigour. That this argument is slightly more poisonous than the other appears on a very little reflection. For the Duke is switching from indulgence to rigour. Such a process is hard on the more sentimental sort of conscience, and the Duke is struggling to keep his untroubled by wrapping it in a tissue of evasions. Angelo would say at once that if rigour is really what is required then no tyranny but rather benevolence is involved in its exercise (as he argues to Isabel at II.ii.101-105 105 that there is a more genuine mercy in the enforcement of the law than in its neglect). But the Duke's intelligence, unlike Angelo's, is cunning rather than comprehensive. Morals to him are not contextual. Every action is intrinsically good or bad. To release a prisoner is to be charitable. Actually to prosecute a prisoner is uncharitable. Such an atomistic view of morals rapidly breeds what might be called meta-ethical situations. Thus, it is uncharitable suddenly to change course and enforce the law (that is basic ethics) but somehow it seems as if that is what ought to be done (meta-ethics!). The contextual view of an Angelo, whereby ends justify means, instantly resolves this dilemma, of course. But which view does God incline to, the atomistic or the contextual? The thunderingly simple commands in the Gospels, urged with such power by Isabel, suggest that God is more than half an atomist, and, by implication, that the eschatological structure of the universe will reflect an atomistic ethic. In plain terms they suggest that a man who does not perform charitable actions (like releasing criminals)—for whatever reason—is a sinner, and may go to Hell.

It is, of course, a primitive ethic, but it is deeply embedded in the ritual comedy-story of the play. To perceive its presence is to learn that the Duke is not merely a political Machiavel; he is also (so to speak) a metaphysical one. The device which saves his reputation also preserves his soul. Certain kinds of practical virtue (being technical sins) are beneath the saintly charity of the Duke, so someone else must be found as a surrogate. This situation is exactly paralleled by Isabel's adoption of Mariana as her substitute.

The idea of substitution is paramount. One might map it with reference to two poles, Machiavelli in the south and Christ in the north. For, as Roy Battenhouse saw, the Grand Deception of the Atonement moves beneath the surface of the drama just as certainly as does the bloody subterfuge of Cesare Borgia. It is explicitly conveyed in some of the most moving words of the play:

Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once, And he that might the vantage best have took Found out the remedy.


If we contemplate the structure of the Atonement for a while, we may be willing to draw the last, and most terrifying, lesson from this play. Mankind lay groaning under a burden of sin, of which the wages are death. The Son of God took these sins away from us, bore them on his own shoulders, and by his death on the Cross, discharged our debt. Thus Christ, by taking our sins, was the supreme substitute.

Battenhouse, with some difficulty, sought to identify the God of the Atonement with the Duke. This can be done as long as we restrict our attention to God the Father—as long, that is, as we ignore the cardinal fact of substitution, which above all else connects Measure for Measure with the Atonement. Suppose we ask, who, in this play, most obviously corresponds to the figure of Christ? It is not surprising that this question has been avoided. The answer is both unthinkable and only too plain.

There is a story33 by Jorge Luis Borges about a certain theologian of the city of Lund who began by suggesting that Judas played the noblest part in the drama of the Crucifixion in that it was he who shouldered the necessary burden of sin—and ended by arguing that Judas was the real Christ. Readers who find this story just silly will probably be unwilling to follow me further. For I wish to suggest that the Doctrine of Atonement which underlies Measure for Measure is closer to that of Nils Runeberg of Lund than it is to that of Irenaeus or Anselm; that it is, in short, a critical version. After all, Shakespeare borrowed nothing which he did not change.

One element in the traditional doctrine which is obstinately unclear is the phrase "took upon his shoulders our sins." How could this be, since Christ was without sin? Of course one can deal with the phrase by saying that it simply means that Christ took upon his shoulders the consequences of our sins. But as soon as one substitutes this account one gets the feeling that something has been lost—that the central mystery of Christ's incarnation has been removed. If God really became man, if the crucifixion really involved the voluntary self-humiliation of God, then—we feel—"took upon his shoulders our sins" must bear a slightly stronger sense. But then we are confronted once more by the first difficulty. The good Christian cannot say that Christ became a sinner just like the rest of us. It is too much to require of God that he should deny his nature.34

Yet that is what is required of Angelo. In the atonement of Measure for Measure the implications of vicarious guilt are followed out to the very end. Angelo takes on his shoulders the necessary sins of human judgement. But in the morality of this comedy there is no such area of uncertainty as we found in the Christian doctrine of the Atonement. Angelo, unlike Christ, really sins. His hands do not remain clean.

Under the pressure of Shakespeare's genius the figure of the atoning sufferer begins to take on the lineaments of his anthropological ancestor, the scapegoat. Thus, while I must plead guilty to introducing the bete noire of present day criticism, the Christ-figure, yet Angelo is certainly a Christ-figure with a difference. For he is also a Devil-figure. We are now in a position to account for the strange resonance of Isabel's cry in the last scene—"You bid me seek redemption of the devil" (V.i.30). Angelo is at once a Redeemer and the polluted. Earlier in this essay I was forced to acknowledge (for what it was worth) that Angelo at the close of the play is forgiven by the Duke. At the civil level this must be seen as a mitigation of the Duke's Machiavellianism. But the Duke is also, as we have seen, a metaphysical Machiavel. And I am not sure that, at this level, his forgiveness of Angelo is not his finest stratagem. It had always been a necessary consequence of Angelo's view of law that that administrator should desire for himself, if found guilty, the same punishment he would impose on others:

When I that censure him do so offend, Let mine own judgement pattern out'My death, And nothing come in partial.


Angelo (how different, here, from Hazlitt's arch-hypocrite!) is absolutely consistent on this point when the crisis comes:

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.


Angelo's plea to cut short his own inquisition is no sort of evasion, for he knows that he is unmasked. In such circumstances he can scarcely hope that the knowledge of his crimes will be kept from the populace. His proposal is not a trial in camera but a full confession from the guilty party. Further, the paradoxical description of punishment as "grace" is not just a verbal flourish. It expresses a paradox in rebus.

I crave death more willingly than mercy; 'Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it.


Again, the word "deserving" is not mere rhetoric. Angelo is pleading for justice. The ending of Measure for Measure is really not very like the ending of The Winter's Tale or Cymbeline. For Angelo the Duke's indulgent benevolence does not confer felicity; rather, it perpetuates his anguish. Any producer who has Angelo leave the stage at the close of the play in a state of happy tranquillity simply does not know his business. The fact that Angelo's eye quicknes when Claudio is produced alive will bear another construction than that which the Duke places on it ("By this Lord Angelo perceives he's safe," line 492). If Angelo were preoccupied with his own safety he would have responded differently to Isabel's pleas on his behalf (441-75). The play leaves him in a state of torture, mitigated only by the fact that Claudio is not, after all, dead. The lines I quoted are the last Angelo is given. He longs to discharge his debt, to rest his burden. The Duke makes sure that he carries it to the end.

What, then, of the Duke? Just as Angelo is both Christ and Devil, so the Duke is both the Heavenly Father and supremely contemptible. Critics have joyously pounced on the lines which deify him:

. . . your Grace, like power divine, Hath looked upon my passes.


and have forthwith become enmeshed in the difficulties which ensue. It is no part of my case that Angelo does nothing vile. On the contrary it is essential to it that he does. But I do want to say that the play gives him immense moral stature. Similarly with the Duke; I will not trouble to argue that he is not the hero, the presiding genius, the Prospero of the play. According to the Atonement structure I discern in it, he occupies the position of the Father. But I do want to say that he is utterly wanting in moral stature. Why else does Shakespeare repeatedly subject him to a kind of minor humiliation at the hands of the low persons of the play (see II.ii.89-92 and V.i.520-21)? Why else is he so utterly transcended (it is the only word) by Barnardine? Johnson's religious instinct was sure when he recoiled35 from that awful Ciceronian consolation which the Friar-Duke churns out over the head of the suffering Claudio. According to the Runebergian heresy God the Father is a very odd character.

The whole of this argument concerning Angelo has, of course, a limited scope. I have tried, in a manner, to "account for" the mysterious resonance of Angelo's character by showing that the evil he does has its place in a necessary scheme of redemption. But not all the evil Angelo does can be accounted for in this way. The theory is readily applicable to Angelo's sin of harsh and presumptuous judgement (in Professor Knight's view the cardinal sin of the play). It does not apply at all to Angelo's sin against Isabel. It was no necessary part of his duties as redeeming scapegoat to fall victim to lust (though certain psychologists might see it as one of the hazards of the job). That is why I have been unable to claim for my scheme any higher status than that of a "substructure." If I am asked what is the relation between substructure and superstructure in this play, my reply must be "ragged and uncertain."

I certainly do not wish to suggest that Angelo and I are of one mind on questions of morals. He is (forsooth!) too illiberal for me. Yet I prefer his belief in the essential benevolence of the law to such liberalism as the Duke purveys.

At the beginning of this essay I expressed dissatisfaction with those critics who make Measure for Measure sound like a naive morality play. I now find myself concerned lest, in my reaction, I have fallen into the far grosser error of making it sound like something by Bernard Shaw.36 Curiously, the charge of making it sound like Graham Greene frightens me far less. The ingenious structure of Machiavellian redemption, of substitution and atonement which I discern in this play is only an element in a larger whole. There is an exploratory reverence, a diffidence before the indefinitely recessive humanity of the persons of the play, which excludes all Shavian facility. Yet if the play has a fault it is perhaps a Shavian one. The vertiginous paradoxes with which the dramatist assaults his audience are achieved at some cost to reality. For example, we are led to suppose that the duties of government place man in a simple dilemma; either he must punish all, or he must forgive all. Some glimmerings of a third, less dramatic course appear in the person of Escalus but that is all. A great part of the tension of the play consists in the clash of theoretic absolutes.

Yet no play of Shakespeare is so moving in its assertion of concrete fact. The imminent death of Claudio and his fear entirely transcend the theoretic extravagance of Isabel. I am aware that in saying this I may offend some historicist critics who will tell me that to the Jacobean mind death was unreal compared with becoming a nun. I can only ask such readers to listen to the verse. The poetry given to Isabel works as hard for Claudio as it does for her:

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.


Let the historicist have his say: "Taken in their context, the lines clearly mean that even a giant feels at death no more pain than a beetle does." Of course. But is it pure accident that the common reader has always taken it to mean just the opposite?


1"Measure for Measure and the Gospels," in his TheWheel of Fire, the 1964 reprint of the 4th edition of 1949, p. 76.

2 All references to Measure for Measure are to the Arden Edition of J. W. Lever, 1965. All other Shakespearean references are to W. J. Craig's three volume Oxford Edition of 1911-12.

3 W. M. T. Dodds noticed this twenty years ago in an admirable, if one-sided, article, "The Character of Angelo in Measure for Measure," MLR, XLI (1946), 246-255.

4 Roy W. Battenhouse, "Measure for Measure and Christian Doctrine of the Atonement," PMLA, LXI (1946), 1029-1059; Nevill Coghill, "Comic Form in Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey, VIII (1955), 14-27; F. R. Leavis, "Measure for Measure, " in his The Common Pursuit (London, 1962), pp. 160-172.

5 So plead the Isabel-figures Epitia and Cassandra in the sources. See Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1958), II, 422, 452-453.

6 See her Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, 1953, p. 65.

7 One is tempted to answer here, "Professor Coghill does." At least, the part of Lucio was pruned away from II.ii. when he helped to produce the play for the BBC in 1955. See J. W. Lever's Arden Edition of Measure for Measure (London, 1965), p. lvii.

8 The New Cambridge Shakespeare Measure for Measure (London, 1961),

9 "Measure for Measure and the Protestant Ethic," Essays in Criticism, XI (1961), 10-33.

10 In his Arden Edition, pp. lxxx-lxxxi; J.C. Maxwell has argued that this quotation is irrelevant because Lucretia's situation is quite unlike Isabel's; see his "Measure for Measure, 'Vain Pity' and 'Compelled Sins,'" Essays in Criticism, XVI (1966), 253-255. Nevertheless, Tyndale's observation remains perfectly good evidence for the modest claim that chastity could, at this period, be regarded as springing from pride.

11 See for example "Courtship," "The Girl with no Interest in Marriage" and "The Repentant Girl" in The Colloquies of Erasmus, trans. CR. Thompson (Chicago, 1965), pp. 86-98, 99-111, 111-14.

12 Arden Edition, p. lxxiii.

13 Again, noted by Lever, ibid., p. lxxiii.

14 See her "The Renaissance Background of Measurefor Measure," Shakespeare Survey, II (1949), 66-82.

15 From "Divinitie," in The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford, 1941), pp. 134-135.

16 See Hazlitt's Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, first published in 1817, in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe after the edition of A. R. Waller and Arnold Glover (London, 1930), VI, 346.

17Op. cit., p. 19.

18 Battenhouse, op. cit., p. 1059.

19 Lascelles, op. cit., p. 59.

20 Pope, op. cit., pp. 68, 69.

21Ibid., p. 75.

22Ibid., p. 69.

23 The strong context of unmasking villainy together with.the presence of the injunction not to hide one's light under a bushel (possibly echoed in the Duke's speech to Angelo at I.i. 26f.) suggest that of the four Scriptural loci it may be Mark that was dominant in Shakespeare's mind at the time of writing Measure for Measure.

24 Machiavelli, The Prince, the translation by Luigi Ricci revised by E. R. P. Vincent (London, 1935), pp. 31-32.

25 Aristotle, Politics, v.11 (1315a).

26 Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince (first published 1516), trans. L.K. Born (New York, 1936), p. 210.

27 Mario Praz, "Machiavelli and the Elizabethans," Annual Italian Lecture of the British Academy, 1928, p. 10. The essay is reprinted in Proc. Brit. Acad., vol. XIII.

28 Lascelles, opcit., p. 100.

29 W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand (London, 1963), pp. 205-206.

30 "The Meaning of Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey, HI (1950), 66-73.

31 Jacques Maritain, "The End of Machiavellianism" [first published in The Review of Politics, IV (1942)] in Machiavelli: Cynic Patriot or Political Scientist?, ed. De Lamar Jensen (Boston, 1960), p. 93.

32 It may be objected that my account reduces Maritain's position to absurdity; that fighting Hitler would not count as doing evil for the sake of good since fighting Hitler is itself good. Of course it is perfectly possible to give an ethical description of an action with reference to its purposive context, but to do so is to reject any open consideration of the question of ends and means. As soon as we re-admit the distinction we shall see that such an objector (just because his ethical assessment of actions is conditioned by their ends) belongs with the tough-minded faction. And, naturally, to the tough-minded, Maritain's position is absurd.

33 "Three Versions of Judas," in his Ficciones (Buenos Aires, 1962), pp. 151-157. My attention was drawn to this story by my colleague Gabriel Josipovici.

34 The relevant passages in the New Testament do not make the matter any simpler: "Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses," Matthew, viii.17; "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree . . . ," 1 Peter, ii.24; "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin," 2 Corinthians,V.21. Augustine (Enchiridion, chap. XLI, in Migne's Patrologia Latina, vol. XL) raises the question whether there is adequate textual authority for the view that Christ sinned, and rejects it. Writing against the Manichaeans who shrank from the notion that Christ really died on the cross, Augustine stresses the element of curse, says that a curse is the fruit of sin but nowhere concedes that Christ actually sinned (Contra Faustum Manichaeum, XIV.4, in Migne, vol. XLIII). It was left to the more extravagant theologians of the Reformation to draw the most disturbing conclusions from this language; Luther, in his 1535 Lectures on Galatians, strenuously affirmed that Christ on the cross was the accursed of God, and guilty of all sins (III. 13; in Luther's Works, ed. J. Pelikan and W. A. Hauser [Saint Louis, Mo., 1963], XXVI, 287-290; in D. Martin Luthers Werke, [Weimar, 1883-1921], XL, 448-452). Calvin, likewise, is not content to say that Christ accepted our punishment, but wishes to add that, in a manner, he accepted our guilt: "This is our absolution, that the guilt, which made us obnoxious to punishment, is transferred to the person of the son of God," Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.xvi, in John Allen's translation (Philadelphia, 1935), I, 460. See also J. S. Whale, The Protestant Tradition (Cambridge, 1955), pp. 76-80. John Donne speaks as a good Anglican when he describes the Redemption as Christ's humiliation (The Sermons of John Donne, ed. E. M. Simpson and G. R. Potter [Berkeley, Cal., 1953], VI, 341.)

35 See Johnson's note on the lines; in the Augustan Reprint Society's Johnson's Notes to Shakespeare, ed. A. Sherbo, (Berkeley, Cal., 1956), p. 35.

36 Shaw's comments on the Atonement are, in fact, not wholly irrelevant. He held that Christ may have bewitched Judas into betraying him. See the Preface to Androcles and the Lion, in Prefaces by Bernard Shaw (London, 1934), p. 545.

Margaret Scott (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "'Our City's Institutions': Some Further Reflections on the Marriage Contract in Measure for Measure," in ELH, Vol. 49, No. 4, Winter, 1982, pp. 790-804.

[In the essay below, Scott discusses how the law against fornication is viewed and applied in Measure for Measure, demonstrating that throughout the play the audience is shown that the situation of Angelo and Mariana is greatly similar to that ofJulietta and Claudio. However, Scott maintains, both the Duke and Isabella fail to recognize these similarities.]

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

(II. i. 23-26)

It might seem that these lines, taken from their context, have done much to shape some recent critical approaches to Measure for Measure. There has been a widespread, if wistful, conviction that a jewel exists to be found, that a single shining solution to the long-canvassed problems of the play's interpretation lies ready for the taking. There has also been a marked anxiety that this jewel might be missed, trodden beneath layers of forgotton knowledge and decayed assumptions, and never thought of. No other of Shakespeare's plays has provoked more anxious fossicking among extrinsic and sometimes extraneous materials.

Predictably, the most common source of solutions, or, at least, of that which might be said to furnish "the problem of a problem play"1 has been the Bible.2 "To Shakespeare," Arthur C. Kirsch reminds us, "the Bible was not simply an eschatological document but a revelation of human as well as divine truths, and it is precisely the relationship between the two that Measure for Measure is about."3 Some commentators have passed beyond Matthew's rendering of the Sermon on the Mount or St. Paul's epistle to the Romans to a survey of contemporary religious doctrine.4 Features of Puritan thought, such as the Ramist "disjunctive syllogism"5 or the Calvinist championing of individual conscience against authority6 or, contrariwise, "Shakespeare's sympathy with Roman Catholic institutions"7 have all been presented as important keys to meaning.

The most recent full length study of the play, Darryl Gless's Measure for Measure, the Law, and the Convent, contains an exploration of an impressive array of materials belonging to "the play's immediate intellectual background." These range from the familiar biblical passages to the doctrinal writings of "leaders of each of the major divisions of Reformation Christianity" and the antimonastic satire of Chaucer and Jean de Meun. Together, it is claimed, such materials "provide solutions" to virtually all the "vexing questions" that have bedevilled the explication de texte.8 Many of the biblical and doctrinal sources which Gless examines are concerned with law, albeit in the broad sense of divine or natural law, and it is law which Gless sees as "the play's central subject."9 Accordingly, he extends hi s search for solutions into the area of commentary that treats of law in its earthly as well as its divine manifestations. And here, too, though he may range further afield than some of his predecessors, Gless begins his exploration by traversing some well-trodden ground. David L. Stevenson and Peter Alexander are among those who, like Gless, have sought illumination in James i' s Basilican Doron,10 while a number of critics have preceded Gless in his use of the work of the seventeenth-century jurist, Henry Swinburne, consistory judge in the ecclesiastical courts at York and author of the Treatise of Spousals (London, 1686).11

The frequency with which authorities such as Swinburne have been invoked is understandable. For one thing, it is tempting to discover an autobiographical connection between the two marriage contracts in the play and Shakespeare's own experience. Neither Claudio and Julietta nor Angelo and Mariana are married in the presence of a priest before Act V, yet Claudio in Act I speaks of Julietta as his wife, and the Duke assures Mariana that Angelo is her husband "on a pre-contract" (IV.i.72). The ambiguous ties uniting the two couples appear similar to that kind of hand-fast marriage which was widely accepted in Elizabethan England and which may have united Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway before they were married in church. In addition, Alfred H. Schouten points out the pertinency of the case history of Shakespeare's friend, William Russell, who contracted an informal marriage in 1603, shortly before Measure for Measure was written.12 Equally pertinent is the case of Shakespeare's aunt, Agnes Arden, who was recognised as the wife of Thomas Stringer for three months before her church wedding.13

But recourse to Swinburne and other authorities on Elizabethan matrimonial law is also prompted, I suspect, by the beguiling prospect of exactitude. In the midst of its ambiguities Measure for Measure raises what look like specific questions: Would an Elizabethan audience accept Claudio's assertion that Julietta is "fast my wife" (I.ii.150)? What would such an audience make of the Duke's claim that Angelo is Mariana's husband, or of his reference to "a pre-contract" (IV.i.72)? It seems that questions such as these can be readily decided by reference to a contemporary authority, or to a reputable legal history, or even to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It seems, too, that once such questions have been answered it is but a short step to deciding how "just" or "severe" Angelo's verdict on Claudio is meant to appear, and to seeing the Duke, who proposes the bed-trick, and Isabella, who accepts it, in their true colors. What D. P. Harding has called "the central problem"14 of the play—that is, the apparent inconsistency between Isabella's detestation of Claudio's "fornication" and her cheerful acceptance of Mariana's copulation with Angelo—seems within an ace of solution, and, in consequence, at least some of the doubts concerning the total coherence of Measure for Measure as a dramatic structure look very much as though they are to be laid to rest at last.

Unhappily, this apparently ready and easy way to the heart of the play's mysteries has proved to be full of pitfalls, and nothing of great value has emerged from the studies that have followed upon Harding's thoughtful appraisal of the way in which Isabella's attitudes to espoused couples might reflect the inconsistencies of Elizabethan England at large. Yet the nature of the perils involved in approaching Measure for Measure through an examination of Elizabethan marriage contracts is itself of some interest. This paper represents an attempt to identify the more obvious dangers of the method, and to indicate the importance of several features of the play and its background, which, in the widespread enthusiasm for English canon law, have been largely neglected.

The first and most obvious pitfall consists in forgetting that the law of the play is "story-book law."15 Angelo's "drowsy and neglected act" (I.ii.173) against fornication is kept deliberately vague in a way that, say, the Salic Law in Henry V is not. It is fictional law, the like of which has never been enacted in England, nor, so far as I know, in Vienna. It seems reasonable to assume, then, that other subsidiary legislation in the play, including that relating to marriage contracts, is also part of the texture of a world which is in some sense self-enclosed. If it is inapposite to break in upon the world of Shakespearean tragedy with questions about Lady Macbeth's children, then it is perhaps equally futile to inquire the precise form of words used by the betrothed couples before Measure for Measure begins. And Vincentio's Vienna is not even endowed with the limited realism of Macbeth's Scotland, but lies at a greater distance from actuality in the province of romance.

Even in his histories and in those tragedies based upon sources which his age regarded as historically sound, Shakespeare was not primarily concerned to construct a replica of actual events. As everyone knows, he tampered with his Holinshed when he made Prince Hal and Hotspur similar in age, and he never entertained the Jonsonian conviction that the superior status of tragedy depends on its rendering of the kind of truth that emerges from a scrupulous use of Plutarch and Livy.

Whatever the genre of Measure for Measure—"problem play," "dark comedy," "tragi-comedy" or "romance"—it is certainly neither a history nor a fullblown tragedy. It is based on Cinthio and Whetstone, rather than on Holinshed or Plutarch. It may deal seriously with the realities of human depravity and idealism, justice and mercy, or law and conscience, but these realities are not apprehended by a precise and detailed matching up of the characters' experience with either our own or that of the Elizabethan audience. Even where we respond with that intense personal involvement evoked by painfully recognizable feelings and probable or necessary events, the imagination is stimulated much more by expressions of fear or guilt or pride, which convince us that the characters' circumstances are real, than by any specific parallelism with a set of historically verifiable conditions. And, notoriously, of course, the responses which Measure for Measure evokes are variable ones. If part of the play demands the kind of sympathetic participation that characterizes reactions to tragedy, other parts seem to enforce an almost Brechtian detachment of the sort elicited by Prospero's dispensations on his magical island.

This is not the point at which to consider whether or not these different responses are effectively played off against each other or ultimately synthesized. My concern is simply to point out that, since Measure for Measure is not a history play, even of the rather unhistorical Shakespearean kind, it is unlikely to contain much detail which accords specifically with a given historical situation; that apprehension of its realities, tragic or otherwise, is unlikely to depend upon recognition of the kind of authenticity to which a Henry Swinburne can attest; and that, finally, since at least some part of the play is cast in the romantic mode, it is ill-advised to predicate any exact correspondence between Vincentio's world and our own.

Considerations such as these might have done something to temper the dogmatism with which it has been claimed that the characters of Measure for Measure react differently to the two marriage contracts because one is a de praesenti contract and the other de futuro.16 These terms are not, of course, used in the dialogue, but they are easily imported from the English ecclesiastical courts by any commentator who is prepared to assume "a one to one correspondence between the dramatic and social conflicts as if the former were mere wooden replicas of the other."17 Ernest Schanzer has been effectively criticized by J. Birje-Patel for making just such an assumption, but no one, apparently, has challenged Schanzer's conclusions by indicating a further set of considerations which, in their turn, might have lent a more tentative note to "The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure."

The law of Measure for Measure is not only story-book law, it is also, on the face of it, foreign, Roman Catholic law. Anyone dealing in "one to one correspondences between the dramatic and social conflicts" might be expected to recognize that Shakespeare goes to some trouble to make it clear that Vienna, if not much like the city of that name, is certainly not London. There is talk of "the Duke, with the other dukes" coming to "composition with the King of Hungary" (I.ii.1-2), and, much more important, a wealth of detail to remind us that this Vienna is a state still faithful to Rome. There is Isabella, about to enter the cloister; the sister of St. Clair with her exposition of votarists' vows; the friars Thomas and Peter; and the masquerade of the Duke, who not only assumes a friar's habit but also models his conduct so closely on that of a "true friar" that he hears Julietta's confession. One might imagine that the significance of this emphasis on allegiance to Rome would be clear to anyone engaged in a search for historical parallels with the play's law, but, rather oddly, not much account has been taken of the manner in which the Tridentine decree of 1563 had wrought major changes in the marriage law of Catholic nations and so had introduced important differences between this law and that of Protestant states.18

A number of those who have elected to examine the nature of the marriage contracts in Measure for Measure have pointed out that the canon law which was collected and codified in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries recognized the central principle that marriage requires nothing more than the free consent of the parties, expressed in any way sufficient to show their purpose. No banns, no public ceremony, no priest, no witnesses, and no specific form of words (provided they constituted present consent) were necessary to make the marriage valid and indissoluble. The church, of course, frowned upon such irregular unions. The parties rendered themselves liable to the spiritual penalties of penance, and might either be punished for failing to solemnize their union, or at least ordered to do so under threat of ecclasiastical censure. Yet, throughout Christendom, both church and state recognized "the consent of two parties expressed in words of present mutual acceptance" as "actual and legal marriage"19until the sweeping change effected by the Council of Trent. The Council passed a "Tamesti" decree (Sessio XXIV, cap. i, De Reformatione Matrimonii) which stated that whereas clandestine marriages had previously been held valid, though blameworthy, in future all would be deemed invalid unless they were celebrated before a priest and at least two witnesses. The Council, which was, of course, intended to secure the union of Christendom under the See of Rome, destroyed by its decree the uniformly accepted marriage law of Western Europe. The new restrictions were accepted in Roman Catholic states, but were not, of course, received by Protestant nations. In England recognition of the simple marriage of consent continued until Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753.

In a Catholic city after 1563, neither Claudio's union with Julietta nor Angelo's pre-contract with Mariana would have been accepted as valid marriage. If, by indicating the allegiance of his Vienna to Rome, Shakespeare intended to remind his audience of this, then all the debate about whether one couple or both had expressed present consent to marry or whether they had merely agreed to marry in the future becomes not simply injudicious but irrelevant. So, too, of course, do the more complicated arguments surrounding the effects of the consummation of the unions. In England it was held that sexual relations subsequent to a contract by verba de futuro automatically converted the contract into a present, indissoluble one. An English ecclesiastical court in 1604 would have accepted Claudio's claim that Julietta was his wife, though it would have condemned the marriage as blameworthy and irregular. The question of whether the pair had expressed present or future consent before getting into bed would have been set aside, provided that the court was satisfied that there had been some kind of definite agreement to marry. The case of Angelo and Mariana would probably have been viewed in the same way, since the pre-contract by which, according to the Duke, Angelo is Mariana's husband is followed by the night meeting in the garden-house. In the eyes of an English court Angelo's copulation, like Claudio's, would have made the precise nature of his pre-contract irrelevant. An error as to person might have provided Angelo with grounds for subsequent divorce, but would not, presumably, have changed his marital status, once he had known Mariana in the sexual sense.

The inadvisability of this kind of movement out of the play and into the courts would need no further demonstration if it were accepted that Shakespeare set the action of Measure for Measure in a Catholic Vienna in order to remind us that in states still loyal to Rome the hand-fast marriage was no longer valid. Of course, to assume at once that Shakespeare must have known about the Tridentine decree, or that he must have presupposed a knowledge of it in his audience—above all that he must have intended us to see his Vienna as akin to an actual Catholic state in law as well as religion—is to commit exactly the kind of error which has vitiated much of the discussion of the play's marriage contracts, and to fall headlong into the first pitfall that I have described as lying open for all those who insist on treating romantic fiction as historical fact. Yet it remains clear enough that the emphasis laid on Roman Catholicism in the play deserves at least some consideration before the inception of any attempt to solve the legal riddles by appeal to English law and Protestant practice. Moreover, while very little attention has been given to the suggestion that the transfigured marriage law of Catholic Europe is an element in the play's background, the idea has a certain force and merits exploration. If it does not solve all the problems with which Measure for Measure confronts us, it certainly seems to lead us to a point at which we can see what the real problems are.

Arguments concerning Shakespeare's knowledge of affairs and, still more, assertions about what his audience might have been expected to know are, as often as not, mere guesswork. Yet it does not seem especially rash to suggest that many people in Shakespeare's London might have known that the Catholic Church had, for many years, differed from the Church of England in its view of hand-fast marriage. A number of Shakespeare's fellow dramatists had travelled in Europe and there were plenty of Europeans (and Catholics) in London. And it is probable that Shakespeare's audience would be more likely to have grasped one plain fact than to have acquainted themselves with the tangled 3subleties of the law relating to de praesenti and de futuro marriage contracts. The audience would know, I imagine, that one could be married in England without going to church and that the ecclesiastical authorities frowned on such unions, but it seems doubtful that anyone short of Lord Bacon would make sense of Isabella's inconsistency by rehearsing in his mind the kind of arguments that have been advanced by Ernest Schanzer.

When Shakespeare wanted his audience to understand some confusing complexity, he normally explained, as he does in the case of the dynastic claims in Henry VI Part One (II.v) or the English title to the French crown in Henry V (I.ii.35-95); but where there is one clear fact concerning a foreign practice (that Denmark was an elective monarchy, say, or that the Scottish king designated his own successor) we are usually left to attend to the nature of the action and the assumptions of the characters. The English experience is allowed to flow in as a kind of ground swell that directs our attitude to the foreign custom. In the early scenes of Hamlet, for instance, we recognize rather vaguely that in Denmark a king's son has no automatic title to his father's throne, while at the same time feeling that Claudius is already tainted in some sense by the usurpation of which, in England, he would have been guilty. The situation in Measure for Measure seems similar. Here is a Catholic state in which hand-fast marriage is no longer accepted as valid, but an awareness that Claudio could not in England have been punished for fornication flows in under our recognition of foreign difference to deepen our disapprobation of Angelo's severity.

If one watches the play with the effects of the Tridentine decree in mind, then behind Angelo's sudden revival of a law which makes the winked-at transgression a capital offence there lies another layer of events in which the valid, if blameworthy, union has become in the twinkling of an eye the sin of fornication. That atmosphere of moral ambiguity which is the native element of the play grows still more palpable, and the European background becomes the figure of Angelo's new stringency writ large. This background also stands as the emblem of that theme of changed appearance and shifting judgment which underpins the play's demonstration of the fallibility of human justice. "That in the captain's but a choleric word / Which in the soldier is flat blasphemy" (II.ii.131-132) gains added resonance in a world in which Isabella's church has seen a man as a husband one day and as a fornicator the next.20

It has been suggested that Claudio's "odd and inappropriate"21 feelings on his arrest, his mingled shame and self-justification, are to be seen as a reflection of that blend of misapprobation and acceptance with which the hand-fast marriage was regarded in England. 22 But Claudio's attitude becomes rather more comprehensible if we see him as a citizen of a Catholic state in which the Tridentine decree had been received, backed by some draconian local legislation, and then largely ignored. We can then see his conscience as stirred by the knowledge that his church has damned his act as sinful, and his appeal to custom as sustained by his recollection of an older dispensation which the Council's decree and the state's laws have not yet extirpated from the minds of the people.

Whatever their attitude to Claudio's imminent execution, all the characters in the play are sure that he is guilty as charged. Schanzer suggests that Isabella makes no reference to her brother's contract with Julietta because she knows nothing about it.23 But if we are to assume that English law is operative in this Vienna, then it might have occurred to Isabella to enquire whether such a contract, which would make all the difference to her brother's fate, had ever existed. And even if Isabella is to be seen as too "enskied and sainted" (I.iv.34) to give thought to the customary English defence against a charge of fornication, one might expect Escalus, who is as pregnant as any in "our city's institutions and the terms / For common justice" (I.i. 10-11) to give some thought to the matter. Above all, it might be expected that Lucio, who has been told all about the marriage agreement (I.ii.148-156), would mention Claudio's "true contract" when he is egging on Isabella to importune Angelo in Act II. At this stage in the play it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Shakespeare has invoked his Vienna's allegiance to Rome in order to remind us that English Protestant law, while inevitably shaping our responses, cuts no ice at all in Vincentio's state.

Up until Act III, recollection of the Council of Trent's decree does much to make the action of Measure for Measure more explicable and its meanings more resonant. The difficulties arise, of course, with the proposal of the bed-trick. For at this point, as has so often been demonstrated, the Duke and Isabella suddenly change their attitude towards unsolemnized union and accept that, while Julietta is a fornicatress, Mariana will be committing "no sin" (IV.i.73) in copulating with the man she once agreed to marry. Yet in the eyes of the Catholic church both women would, after 1563, have been guilty of fornication. And if the Tridentine view of what constituted valid marriage is accepted in Shakespeare's Vienna, as it seems to be in Claudio's case, then Angelo is just as much a fornicator as the man he has condemned, and the substitution of his affianced bride for the object of his lust cannot in law make the slightest jot of difference.

Recollections of the Council of Trent's decree, then, seem in the end only to make the notorious impasse of Act III-more formidable than ever. There is no longer any hope of proving that the Duke and Isabella see the two pre-contracts differently because there is a real difference between them. Claudio and Julietta's "true contract" may have been de praesenti and Angelo and Mariana's "pre-contract" may have been de futuro, as Schanzer has argued, or the reverse may be true, as Nagarajan has suggested. But if the definition of fornication operative in Vienna derives from Trent, such claims do nothing to solve the riddle of the characters' volte face. We are left confronting a situation in which Angelo's position is ironically similar to Claudio's, and neither the Duke nor Isabella is prepared to recognize the similarity.

But if this is where we are left, it is, perhaps, where we should stand, for there are many elements in the play which operate in the same way as a recollection of the Tridentine decree in prompting us to face the same conclusions. Shakespeare clearly went to some trouble to point up the similarity rather than the difference between the two marriage contracts in the play. Angelo is guilty of more sins than Claudio, but his contract, like that of the man he condemns, forms part of a network of action and language that links sex with money throughout the play. In each case we are told of solemnities delayed because of difficulties in getting hold of the dowry. Both Julietta and Mariana are apparently without parents (and their isolation is made more striking by their appearance in sequestered places, the prison and the moated grange24); Mariana's dowry has been lost at sea, along with her brother Frederick, while Julietta's remains "in the coffers of her friends" (I.ii.154), who are, it seems, unwilling to disburse until they have formed a favorable opinion of their charge's bridegroom.

Similarities such as these place the two marriage contracts at the heart of an intricate pattern of parallel and exchange. Parallels between individual scenes which bear upon the Claudio-Julietta and Angelo-Mariana relationships are frequent. There are, for example, the Duke's interviews with Isabella and Mariana in IV.i, in which he cooperates with one in urging the other to give herself to Angelo in order to save Claudio's life. This scene in the moated grange recalls and in some sense reverses both the prison scene in which the Duke urges Julietta. to repent of her fornication, and the scene at the nunnery in which Lucio, the Duke's anarchic parody and opposite, persuades Isabella to emerge from her cloister and "assay the power" she has to soften Angelo (I.iv.70-77). In these scenes, as elsewhere, the contracts and sexual union at large are constantly associated not only with money but also with death. Claudio's getting of "his friend with child" (I.iv.29) leads to the death sentence; Angelo proposes to Isabella that she yield up her maidenhead to save her brother's head; death caused Angelo to deny his bond with Mariana, the existence of which makes possible the substitution of one maidenhead for another on the very night that, in the prison, the head of the dead pirate Ragozine is substituted for that of Claudio.25 In Act V Angelo and Claudio both excape the block to marry their brides, while Lucio stands poised between a whore and a halter. This association of sex with death penetrates the comedy in which Pompey turns from bawd to executioner, and it permeates the language of the play at every level—from Claudio's likening of men in their sexual passion to "rats that ravin down their proper bane" (I.i. 132) and Isabella's vow that she would "strip myself to death, as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I'Ld yield / My body up to shame" (II.iv.101-103), through to Pompey's punning on the "mysteries" of painting and hanging (IV.ii.37-41).

The linking of sex with a death which is, in the event, held at bay for all but the pirate, Ragozine, is in turn part of a complex structure of language and action in which almost any character or any act can change its complexion according to the bias or the acuity of the perceiver, and in which any quality may become the associate or even the propagator of its contrary. Death may be "the best of rest" (III.i.17) "That makes these odds all even" (III.i.41), or it may be "To lie in cold obstruction and to rot" (III.i.119); it may be the arbitrary penalty exacted "for a name" (I.ii.172) or the just punishment that deters those left alive from "future evils" (II.ii.92-99). The act of copulation may be "most mutual entertainment" (I.ii.157), "full tilth and husbandry" (I.iv.44), "sweet uncleanness" (II.iv.53), "abhorr'd pollution" (II.iv. 182), "a merriment" or "a vice" (II.iv. 115). The thief may stand in the dock or sit on the jury, the fornicator lie condemned in his prison or sit in judgment in his palace, the jewel may be taken up or trodden underfoot. The Duke may be Vincentio or a friar; the first may be abused as "a very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow" (III.ii.140) or defended as "a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier" (III.ii.147), while the second may be an "unreverend and unhallow'd Friar" (V.i.306), a "bald-pated, lying rascal" (V.i.354), or "a man divine and holy" (V.i.144).

Similarly, the same sun that makes the carrion putrid makes the violet fragrant (II.ii. 165-168), and the devil "to catch a saint" uses a saint to bait his hook (II.ii. 180-181). The showing of Claudio to the world (I.ii.119) for the crime of "loving" Julietta (II.iv.141) leads on to the secret lust of Angelo, while at the night meeting in the garden-house, deceit, disguise, and substitution become the "crimes," which, "making practice in the times," draw forth the "ponderous," "substantial" (III.ii.274-277), and open dispensation of justice in the final scene.

The two marriage contracts must, I think, be seen as typical elements in these ambivalent structural patterns. They supply both the supreme parallel in the play and twin links in that sequence of exchange and substitution in which the altered aspect of reality rests always in the eye of the beholder. If, then, we insist on turning Shakespeare's Vienna into the ecclesiastical courts at York, and seek to prove an essential difference between Angelo's "pre-contract" and Claudio's "true" one, we are tearing a whole web of meaning from the support upon which it is built.

Anxiety to save Isabella's face and the Duke's by suggesting that, because Angelo's contract is different from Claudio's, his copulation is somehow less culpable, has led to still more perverse violations of meaning. Angelo is urged over and over again to recognize a Claudio in himself. Escalus enquires whether, "Had time cohered with place or place with wishing" (II.i.l 1), the deputy might not have "Err'd in this point which now you censure him" (II.i.15). Isabella harps on the same string:

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


The phrase "weigh thy brother by thy self (Il.ii. 127 and V.i.l 11) rings through the play until in Act V the Duke in sentencing Angelo to death—an Angelo for a Claudio—declares: "Like doth quitlike, and Measure still for Measure" (V.i.413). Certainly, as Isabella points out, Angelo does not succeed in forcing an unwilling virgin to his will (V.i.453). Neither he nor Claudio is guilty of rape. But if the two are not both guilty of fornication, if Angelo is not, in the end, revealed as having engaged in the same sequence of consent and copulation as the man whom he condemns, then much of the play's irony is blunted and its coherence impaired.

If we do accept that the two marriage contracts are of the same kind,26 then the Duke, who views them differently, becomes rather less than "power divine" (V.i.371) and Isabella, who accepts the Duke's guidance, becomes capable of self-deceit or at least of a willingness to be misled.27 Yet this is not to consign the play once more to the realm of cynicism and dark comedy from which it has been gradually recovered. The Duke, as everybody knows, tells a great number of lies and, from the start, seems to go darkly to work in the belief that the most devious of means are justified by their ends. I suggest that he is also the play's prime example of that inconsistency in perception and judgment which, in Measure for Measure, is everywhere apparent, and which, in Vincentio himself, is ironically counterpointed by his resentment of Lucio's new and scurrilous portrait of "the old fantastical Duke of dark corners" (IV.iii.157).

Against the background of a Catholic, post-Tridentine Vienna, the Duke's adjustment of his view of the unsolemnized union stands out sharply, yet his inconsistency is, of course, no foreign vice and remains a pertinent comment on the confused and shifting attitudes to hand-fast marriage—and much else—in Elizabethan England. But, in the end, the Duke is more remarkable for his virtues than for his faults. The mercy with which he eventually judges in Act V reminds us that fallible man has no warrant for the kind of dogmatic legalism exemplified by an Angelo and discernible, albeit in less significant form, in much of the discussion that has surrounded the marriage contracts in Measure for Measure.


1 Ronald Berman, "Shakespeare and the Law," Shakespeare Quarterly, 18 (1967), 142. All citations of Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

2 See especially R. W. Battenhouse, "Measure forMeasure and the Christian Doctrine of Atonement," PMLA, 61 (1946), 1029-59, and G. W. Knight, "Measure for Measure and the Gospels," in his The Wheel of Fire (London, 1930), 73-96.

3 Arthur C. Kirsch, "The Integrity of Measure for Measure" Shakespeare Survey, 28 (1975), 91.

4 Notably, Elizabeth M. Pope, "The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure" Shakespeare Survey, 2 (1949), 66-82.

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

6 William John Roscelli, "Isabella, Sin and Civil Law," The University of Kansas City Review, 28 (1962), 215-227.

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

8 Gless, (Princeton, 1979), pp. ix-xi.

9 Gless, p. 35.

10 David L. Stevenson, The Achievement of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (Ithaca, 1966); Peter Alexander, "Measure for Measure: A Case for the Scottish Solomon," Modern Language Quarterly, 28 (1967), 478-488.

11 These include A. D. Nuttall, "Measure for Measure: The Bed-Trick," Shakespeare Survey, 28 (1975), 51-56; Ernest Schanzer, "The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey, 13 (1960), 81-89; J. Birje-Patel, "Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure" Shakespeare Studies, 5 (1969), 106-111.

12 Alfred H. Schouten, "An Historical Approach to Measure for Measure," Philological Quarterly, 54 (1975), 68-84. For further information concerning Russell's marriage see William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (London, 1951), p. 286, and Leslie Hotson, 7, William Shakespeare (London, 1937), pp. 137-40, 203-10.

13 For further details of Agnes Arden's marriage see J. S. Smart, Shakespeare: Truth and Tradition (London, 1928), pp. 60-61.

14 D. P. Harding, "Elizabethan Betrothals and Measure for Measure," JEGP, 49 (1950), 156.

15 The phrase is A. D. NuttalPs. In his illuminating article on the bed-trick, he shows that he is well aware of this particular pitfall.

16 Schanzer argues that the contract between Claudio and Julietta is de praesenti and that between Angelo and Mariana de futuro. S. Nagarajan takes the opposite view in "Measure for Measure and Elizabethan Betrothals," Shakespeare Quarterly, 14 (1963), 115-119.

17 Birje-Patel, 106.

18 Peter Alexander makes reference to the Tridentine decree and admits that in a Vienna inhabited by monks and nuns, "one might have expected to find marriage practiced in accordance with the regulations laid down by the Council of Trent." But he concludes that the Duke nonetheless "conducts matters as if he were in the Scotland of James' day" (486). The decree is also noted by Karl P. Wentersdorf in "The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure: A Reconsideration," Shakespeare Survey, 32 (1979), 129-144. But Wentersdorf goes on to claim: "Except for the severity of its statute making fornication a capital offence, the fictional Vienna of Measure for Measure undoubtedly reflects the laws, customs, and thinking of Shakespeare's England" (143).

19 Sir William Scott's judgment in the famous case of Dalrymple v. Dalrymple (2 Hagg. Con. Rep.54), quoted in Howard W. Elphinstone, "Notes on the English Law of Marriage," The Law Quarterly Review, 5 (1889), 48. Other useful modern commentaries on the canon law relating to espousals, and to the effects of the Tridentine decree on European legislation, are: James Bryce, "Marriage and Divorce Under Roman and English Law," in Select Essays in Anglo-American Legal History (London, 1968), III, 782-833, and especially 809-812; R. H. Hemholz, Marriage Litigation in Medieval England (Cambridge, 1974), pp. 25-74; Joseph Jackson, The Formation and Annulment of Marriage (1951; 2nd ed., London, 1969), pp. 10-19. Pollock and Maitland, The History of English Law (1895; 2nd ed., Cambridge, 1968), II, 368-385, provides an authorative discussion of the canonical doctrine of marriage, but does not deal with the Tridentine decree or its effects.

20 Karl P. Wentersdorf has pointed out that the decree did not invalidate hand-fast marriages contracted before 1563 (133). But this means only that a man who had had sexual relations with his hand-fast wife before the promulgation of the decree was still regarded as a husband, whereas if he did exactly the same thing for the first time a day later he was regarded as a fornicator.

21 L. C. Knights describes Claudio's attitude in this way in "The Ambiguity of Measure for Measure," Scrutiny, 10 (1942), 225.

22 Schanzer, 82.

23 Schanzer, 86.

24 I am indebted to E. A. M. Colman for pointing out that certain of Shakespeare's other young heroines are without parents (Olivia, Beatrice, the Helena in All's Well) and that almost all, apart from Juliet, are without mothers. While, as Professor Colman suggests, this may have been brought about by a need to restrict cast size, in Measure for Measure and elsewhere, Shakespeare can turn the exigencies of theatrical life to dramatic profit.

25Jan Kott makes some useful comments on the substitutions in the play in "Head for Maidenhead, Maidenhead for Head: The Structure of Exchange in Measure for Measure" Theatre Quarterly, 8 (1978-79), 18-24. Yet Kott's conclusions on the "corrupted law and corrupted sex" of Shakespeare's Vienna are unnecessarily pessimistic.

26Several of those who have concerned themselves with the de praesenti v. de futuro issue have come eventually to the same conclusion. See, for example, Roscelli, who decides that both contracts are of the de praesenti variety. Others, who have avoided embroilment in English canon law, have also pointed to the similarity of the two agreements and their sequels. William Empson makes the point with his usual trenchancy: "What the Duke urges Mariana to do ('He is your husband on a pre-contract; To bring you thus together is no sin') can only be distinguished, if at all, by a technicality from what Claudio is to be killed for doing ('she is fast my wife . . . ')." See The Structure of Complex Words, p. 282.

27 Peter Alexander defends Isabella by reminding us that the Duke is disguised as a religious figure and that Isabella is eager to submit to the discipline of a religious order. He claims, moreover, that the Duke has "a natural air of authority" which would have its effect on the young novice. See "Measure for Measure: A Case for the Scottish Solomon," 483. This may all be true, but it does not alter Isabella's readiness to deal in double standards; she, like everyone else in the play, needs to recognize the force of her own appeal to Angelo. Since man can never see with the clarity of heavenly vision, mercy becomes him better than severity.

N. W. Bawcutt (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "'He Who the Sword of Heaven Will Bear': The Duke Versus Angelo in Measure For Measure" in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 37, 1984, pp. 89-97.

[In the essay that follows, Bawcutt explores the distinctly different attitudes of the Duke and Angelo toward the law and how it is applied in Vienna, arguing that it is oversimplifying the matter to state, as critics often do, that Angelo personifies the Law while the Duke stands for Mercy.]

'Law', 'Mercy', and 'Justice' are three of the main concepts repeatedly used in Measure for Measure. There are no simple deductions to be made from this fact: the meaning of the play cannot be summed up as a kind of mathematical equation, Law plus Mercy equals Justice. The words themselves are not presented unambiguously. 'Law' is usually qualified by adjectives implying that Viennese law is harsh by its very nature—'strict statutes and most biting laws' (1.3.19), 'The hideous law' (1.4.63), 'The angry law' (3.1.201)—but there is also a series of striking, sometimes faintly ludicrous, images suggesting that the law is despised and ineffective. Law is like 'An o'er-grown lion in a cave / That goes not out to prey' (1.3.22-3) or the 'Threatening twigs of birch' (1.3.24) used to whip children; if not applied effectively it will be like the motionless scarecrow that the birds of prey regard as 'Their perch, and not their terror' (2.1.4), or will 'Stand like the forfeits in a barber's shop, / As much in mock as mark' (5.1.319-20). The result is a paradoxical double image; the law can frequently be ignored with impunity, but may suddenly and unpredictably inflict savage punishment, with a kind of arbitrariness that is half accepted and half resented, as in the opening speeches of Claudio.

'Mercy' also is qualified in a variety of ways: 'Lawful mercy' (2.4.112) is quite different from the 'devilish mercy' (3.1.64) offered by Angelo to Isabella. For Escalus, too much mercy does more harm than good:

Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so; Pardon is still the nurse of second woe.


In its personified form mercy sometimes behaves very unlike the gentle creature we might expect it to be:

Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd.


This would make mercy swear and play the tyrant.


The very mercy of the law cries out Most audible, even from his proper tongue: 'An Angelo for Claudio; death for death.'


The term 'justice' is not sharply distinguished from 'Law', especially in the first half of the play, and when, in the concluding trial scene, Isabella calls for 'justice! Justice! Justice! Justice!' (5.1.26) against Angelo, 'A murderer . . . an adulterous thief, / An hypocrite, a virgin-violator' (5.1.41-3), it is clear enough that at this point in the scene, whatever may happen afterwards, she wants him to be severely punished.1 (And we should perhaps bear in mind that many readers have regarded the final mercy shown to Angelo as very far from doing justice to his particular case.)

If the terms themselves are probed and examined in the course of the play, and sometimes overlap and sometimes oppose each other, this is all the more reason for not treating the play allegorically and assigning one abstraction exclusively to a single character. Three of the most important characters—Claudio, Isabella, and Angelo—are tormented by divided loyalties and impulses, a turmoil so vividly presented that it is surely impossible to see any of them as a static personifcation. It is natural enough that we should compare the Duke to Angelo—both are judges and administrators faced with complex legal problems—but it seems a little too easy to say, as so many critics do, that Angelo stands for the Law, rigidly applied, while the Duke represents Mercy. It is not false, but it is an over-simplification. The differing attitudes of the two men towards the law and its application need a more thorough examination than has been made so far, and this will involve a consideration of certain words used in the play which tend to be overlooked, such as 'severe' and 'severity', and the group consisting of 'Tyrant', 'Tyranny', and 'Tyrannous'.

Rather than work through the play consecutively, I want to begin in the middle and work outwards. The Duke learns of Angelo's attempt to blackmail Isabella in act 3, and when left to himself at the end of that act he meditates, in the light of Angelo's behaviour, on the duties of a ruler. This passage in couplets has almost always been treated unsympathetically. As recently as 1922 Dover Wilson was willing to endorse the common view that the lines were a spurious interpolation,2 and even those who accepted them as genuine were often puzzled by their presence and felt obliged to devise some ingenious theory to account for their existence. A good example is provided by Mary Lascelles: 'One conjecture remains permissible; at some performance, Shakespeare's play was given in two parts, a pause intervening, and on this occasion it was judged prudent to remind the audience, on renewal of the performance, of the theme and situation.' 3 But there is not a scrap of evidence to support this, and even if we regard Measure for Measure as a kind of two-part play the section in couplets is surely as much an epilogue to Part I as a prologue to Part II.

There is no need to swing to the other extreme and regard the passage as the very core and centre of the play, the neglected key which will unlock the secret meaning of Measure for Measure. It is not great verse, and none of its lines embed themselves in the mind like 'Man, proud man, / Dress'd in a little brief authority' (2.2.118-19) or 'Ay, but to die, and go we know not where' (3.1.117). It is written in a condensed and elliptical style which sometimes leads to obscurity, and parts of it may betextually corrupt, though most of the editorial tinkering inflicted on it has surely been quite unnecessary. Even so, we do not have to agree with Rosalind Miles that 'The Duke is only making appropriate sententious noises to close a climactic movement of the play.' 4 I prefer to assume that Shakespeare himself wrote the passage, intended it to occur at this particular point, and expected his audience to treat it as a necessary part of the play, demanding full and sympathetic attention.

J. W. Lever's analysis of the structure of the passage seems basically right to me. 5 It is plausible that a couplet has dropped out between lines 267 and 268; if so, the passage originally consisted of twenty-four lines which can be divided into four sections, each of six lines or three couplets. The first section is a generalized statement on the qualities required in a good ruler, while the second is a rebuke to Angelo for failing to show those qualities. The third section is a puzzle, especially if a couplet is missing. Lever feels that the Duke is 'Asking how Angelo's abuses are to be rectified' and asserts that the 'Idle spiders' strings' in line 268 are an allusion to 'The Renaissance commonplace . . . that the laws were like spiders' webs which caught the small flies but let the big insects break through'. To my mind the image is rather that of a heavy load or weight pulled along by threads which are as flimsy as a spider's web. The four sections of the Duke's meditation seem to alternate between the general and the particular: the first and third sections are generalizations applicable to all men, the second and fourth are specifically about Angelo. The third section could perhaps be interpreted, with allowance for textual deficiencies, as the Duke's recognition in general terms that a guilty hypocrite can make important consequences follow from totally spurious appearances. In the final section the Duke decides to turn Angelo's own weapons against him: deception will be used to counter deception.

The Duke's meditation opens with a couplet that editors rarely discuss in any detail:

He who the sword of heaven will bear Should be as holy as severe.


The sword is a symbolic instrument of punishment—even, presumably, of capital punishment. It is 'Of heaven' and therefore has a divine origin or sanction. 6 This suggests that religion endorses punishment quite as much as it endorses mercy. The implications of the second line are slightly elusive. I take the primary meaning to be that anyone who wishes to wield the sword of justice should be holy in equal proportion to the degree of his severity. There is no condemnation of severity: it follows logically that he may be as severe as he wishes provided that he is correspondingly holy. The couplet is a gnomic utterance that can stand on its own, but it is also a condensation of an exchange between Escalus and the Duke a few lines earlier, where Escalus tells the Duke that he has pleaded in vain for clemency towards Claudio:

I have laboured for the poor gentleman 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.

Duke. If his own life answer the straitness of his proceeding, it shall become him well: wherein if he chance to fail, he hath sentenced himself.


The logic here is quite explicit: if the strictness of Angelo's private life corresponds to his strictness as a judge, his severity will be admirable. If it does not correspond, he ought to receive the same sentence himself.

There is plenty of evidence in the scene leading up to the Duke's meditation to indicate that he has no indulgence whatever to sexual licence. When Pompey is brought in charged with being a bawd, an accusation he makes no attempt to deny, the Duke attacks him furiously for living off the 'Abominable and beastly touches' of prostitutes and their clients (3.2.23), and the Duke's description of prostitution as a 'Filthy vice' (line 22) is a curiously close echo of a phrase used earlier by Angelo to Isabella, 'Fie, these filthy vices!' (2.4.42). When Lucio complains that Angelo 'puts transgression to'T' (3.2.91-2), the Duke defends Angelo ('He does well in'T', line 93), and answers Lucio's suggestion that Angelo might show 'A little more lenity to lechery' (line 94) by asserting the need for harshness: 'It is too general a vice, and severity must cure it' (line 96). This seems to echo or parallel the earlier comments of Escalus and the anonymous Justice at the end of act 2, scene I:

Justice. Lord Angelo is severe.Escalus. It is but needful.


In these exchanges the Duke and Escalus both appear as upholders of severity. The theme becomes overtly comic in the Duke's horror and embarrassment when he himself is casually described by Lucio as a habitual libertine, who 'Would mouth with a beggar though she smelt brown bread and garlic' (3.2.177-8). Pompey and Lucio are both disreputable characters whom the Duke would be unlikely to find congenial, but even in his discussion with the nobly penitent Juliet in an earlier scene he refers to her 'Most offenceful act' three times as a 'sin' (2.3.19-31). If Angelo is to be called a puritan, so too is the Duke.

At first sight the Duke's conversation with Friar Thomas in act 1, scene 3, would seem to prove irrefutably that the Duke approves of severity in certain circumstances. Angelo, we are told, has been put in charge of Vienna in the expectation that he will strictly enforce the neglected laws of the city, so the Duke can hardly blame him if he does precisely that. Here, however, we encounter a difficulty. Friar Thomas is merely a rather clumsy stage device used by Shakespeare to enable the Duke to share his thoughts with the audience without resorting to a soliloquy which would have been over fifty lines long. No other character in the play has any clear idea of the Duke's purposes; both his departure and his return are shrouded in mystery and confusion. As M. D. H. Parker notices, 'Angelo is not told to be rigorous';7 indeed, the formality of the play's opening scene rather conceals the fact that neither Escalus nor Angelo is given a precise indication of how the Duke expects him to behave. Escalus is told that he already knows so much about law and administration that further advice would be superfluous. Angelo is admonished in biblical language not to hide his light under a bushel or bury his talents; he is given exactly the same powers as the Duke, but it is twice made clear that he is totally free to use them as he wishes:

In our remove, be thou at full ourself. Mortality and mercy in Vienna Live in thy tongue, and heart


Your scope is as mine own, So to enforce or qualify the laws As to your soul seems good.

(11. 64-6)

It is hardly surprising that the two men should want to meet in order to clarify their position:

Escalus. A power I have, but of what strength and nature I am not yet instructed.Angelo. 'Tis so with me.

(11. 79-81)

Possibly the written commissions are detailed and specific, but they are not read out to the audience.8 The only way I can put all this together is to assume that the Duke hopes and expects that Angelo will restore strict discipline to Vienna. But he has reservations about Angelo's integrity (see 1.3.50-4), and in order to make a genuine trial of Angelo the Duke must leave him completely free to expose his true nature.

The next four lines of the Duke's meditation help to bring out the implications of the opening couplet:

Pattern in himself to know, Grace to stand, and virtue, go: More nor less to others paying Than by self-offences weighing.


Lever's paraphrase of the first line, 'To know that the precedent for his judgements lies in his own conduct', is curiously muted, as though Lever is reluctant to acknowledge the full force of the line. 'Pattern' here is surely used in OED's sense 1, 'An example or model deserving imitation': if the ruler wants a model of the right sort of human behaviour, he should be able to find it by looking into himself. The next line is a little more specific, if we expand it in the way most modern editors do: 'He must have grace in order to stand, and virtue in order to go'.9 The ruler needs divine grace to keep him morally upright, but by itself this might seem merely passive, so he also needs virtue as an active principle. This helps to lead us forward to the second couplet, which deals with the ruler's attitude when he functions as a judge: he pays out, or inflicts, neither more nor less punishment to others than is determined by weighing up the amount of evil in himself. (It is not, of course, specifically said that the 'paying' refers to punishment, but the reference to 'self-offences' in the next line makes this the most plausible interpretation.)

In this context 'Weighing' clearly has a moral significance, and the concept of assessing or judging other people in terms of ourselves is central to the play. When Isabella tells Angelo, 'We cannot weigh our brother with ourself (2.2.127) her remark appears to mean simply that we cannot judge everybody by a single standard, since those in authority can successfully commit offences which would be punished in ordinary people. It is little more than a piece of worldly wisdom, and Lucio is surprised to find her so shrewd ('Art avis'd o' that?', line 133). But when she urges Angelo:

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

(11. 137-42)

her speech is a turning-point in the play, though its effect is ironically not what she intends. Angelo does look into his bosom, and finds that like Claudio he can feel urgent sexual desire, but the discovery does not prompt him towards sympathy or mercy. In the last scene of the play Isabella's earlier phraseology is picked up by the Duke in his pretended refusal to believe that Angelo could have behaved in this manner:

it imports no reason That with such vehemency he should pursue Faults proper to himself. If he had so offended, He would have weigh'd thy brother by himself, And not have cut him off.


This provides, I think, a useful gloss or expansion of lines 259-60 in the couplet speech at the end of act 3.

It is characteristic of the play, and indeed of Shakespeare's normal dramatic technique, that there should also be comic treatment of the theme. Abhorson the executioner is shocked that he should be expected to use Pompey the bawd as his assistant ('He will discredit our mystery', 4.2.26-7), but the Provost can see nothing to choose between them: 'Go to, sir, you weigh equally: a feather will turn the scale' (11. 28-9).10

Lucio too has his own debased and simplified version of judging others in terms of oneself: as Lucio sees it, Angelo is severe simply because he is quite incapable of having sexual feelings. Lucio wants the Duke to return because the Duke is an old lecher whose experience of begetting bastards would make him more tolerant: 'He had some feeling of the sport; he knew the service; and that instructed him to mercy' (3.2.115-17). A related theme is that of putting oneself in another person's position, of seeing things from the opposite point of view; Isabella, for example, vividly imagines how first her brother and then she herself would have behaved if they had exchanged places with Angelo:

If he had been as you, and you as he, You would have slipp'd like him, but he like you Would not have been so stern.Angelo. Pray you be gone.Isabella. I would to heaven I had your potency, And you were Isabel! Should it then be thus? No; I would tell what 'Twere to be a judge, And what a prisoner.


This can easily be pushed a little further by Shakespeare and treated literally as a plot device of physical substitution, Angelo for the Duke, Mariana for Isabella, and so on.

In the light of all this evidence it surely becomes increasingly clear that the Duke, in terms of his own statements, does not differ from Angelo by advocating mercy, a word he rarely uses and completely omits from his meditation on the duties of a ruler. The difference is rather that the Duke, in contrast to Angelo, believes in a personal or reflexive view of the law: when faced with a prisoner the judge must look into himself, and is disqualified from judgment if he is guilty of the same offence. If, however, the judge has been able to restrain his own tendency to a particular sin, he is perfectly entitled to punish that sin in other people. This attitude clearly emerges in a passage not mentioned so far, when the Duke and Provost are together in the prison at midnight, waiting in the hope that Claudio will be pardoned. The Provost criticizes Angelo ('It is a bitter deputy') but is rebuked by the Duke:

Not so, not so; his 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.


For Isabella, in an earlier scene, tyranny occurs when a ruler exercises his full powers of punishment to their uttermost:

O, it is excellent To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant.


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. The same attitude underlies the Duke's explanation to Friar Thomas of why he has chosen Angelo to reform Vienna instead of himself:

Sith 'Twas my fault to give the people scope, 'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them For what I bid them do: for we bid this be done, When evil deeds have their permissive pass, And not the punishment.


By being excessively lax in the past, the Duke has disqualified himself from exercising severity in the present.

Angelo explicitly rejects the personal view of law at the opening of act 2. His first speech, affirming that the law must be genuinely terrifying and not merely a scarecrow, seems to answtr an off-stage plea from Escalus for mercy towards Claudio. Escalus then tries various approaches, one of which is to suggest, in a rather awkward and tentative fashion, that Angelo himself might have committed the same offence if circumstances had been particularly favourable. In other words, he invites Angelo to put himself in Claudio's position. Angelo is unperturbed: for one thing, he knows perfectly well that he has never committed precisely the same offence as Claudio. In addition, even though some administrators of justice may be corrupt:

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


the fact has no great importance: 'What knows the laws / That thieves do pass on thieves?' (11. 22-3). The tone appears to be contemptuous: 'Why should you expect the law to be at all concerned about the fact that one thief is passing sentence on another?' For Angelo the whole process of the law is impersonal; crimes come to light, are punished by the appropriate law, and that is that. He is merely an agent, 'The voice of the recorded law' (2.4.61), and he feels no personal involvement in the sentence he has passed on Claudio: 'It is the law, not I, condemn your brother' (2.2.80). It is not until Angelo feels desire for Isabella that he makes any move towards the personal view of law: 'Thieves for their robbery have authority, / When judges steal themselves' (2.2.176-7); but the change is not powerful enough to alter his behaviour.

Angelo's conduct is so clearly shown to be wrong by the whole course of the play that it would seem perverse to argue in his defence, but it has to be said that most normal systems of law operate on principles closer to Angelo's than the Duke's. 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. The Duke's insistence that a judge should be aware of his own human fallibility is admirable, but if pushed to extremes can lead to gross injustices. 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.

What is the Duke's response to Angelo's behaviour? The most explicit statement comes in the second section of his meditation at the end of act 3:

Shame to him whose cruel striking Kills for faults of his own liking! Twice treble shame on Angelo,

To weed my vice, and let his grow! O, what may man within him hide, Though angel on the outward side!


The only point here that provokes much editorial discussion is 'My vice' in line 263; opinion is divided between a personal interpretation (the vice created by the Duke's negligence) and an impersonal (the vice of other people in contrast to Angelo's). The personal reading surely fits the context better and is much more powerful. The Duke is angry because the man he chose as his substitute, while busily weeding out the vice for which the Duke feels personally responsible, is simultaneously creating a fresh crop of his own. This brings out the main emphasis of the Duke's complaint: what he objects to is not Angelo's severity but his hypocrisy. It could be argued that 'cruel striking' and 'Kills' to some extent imply that the Duke regards the sentence on Claudio as inherently severe. This may be so, but the way the argument develops suggests that Angelo is cruel not just because he is rigorous but because he is punishing others for his own offences.

The problem of interpreting these lines prompts a question which has important implications, though at first sight it might seem a triviality of the 'How many children had Lady Macbeth?' type. When precisely does the Duke decide to intervene on Claudio's behalf, and why does he do so? It is assumed sometimes that the Duke makes up his mind to rescue Claudio as soon as he hears of Angelo's harsh sentence. For Bertrand Evans the turning-point is the Duke's examination of Juliet (act 2, scene 3): 'This is a crucial interview: if there is a precise point at which the Duke commits himself to the cause, it is here, when he finds Juliet's penitence honest, and, being so, to merit forgiveness.' 11 Evans may be right, but there is nothing in the scene to compel us to think so. The decisive and unmistakable intervention comes in act 3, at the point where Isabella is about to storm out in horror at her brother's willingness to prostitute her body to save his own. The Duke comes forward with a plan for coping with the problem, which must have been thought out beforehand, but he could quite easily have devised it only a few minutes in advance, while listening to the increasingly emotional debate between Claudio and Isabella. Indeed, the device he suggests, the 'bed-trick' substitution of Mariana for Isabella, would have been quite pointless at an earlier stage when Angelo was not lusting after Isabella. The conclusion seems to be that the Duke intervenes only at the point where he discovers that Angelo is a hypocrite who is in no position to condemn others. It might even be true that if Angelo had continued to behave with rectitude, the Duke would have allowed Claudio to go to his death. Of course it is foolish to speculate on what fictitious characters in a work of art might have done in different circumstances: I put it in this way only to bring out the full implications of the issue.

The exact way in which the Duke intervenes has a bearing on the way we respond to his character. The Duke is sometimes seen by those who dislike him as a cold-hearted manipulator, handling human beings rather as an experimental psychologist might treat the rats in his laboratory, subjecting them to unsuspected shocks in an arbitrary way that needs to be justified. It is true that in acts 4 and 5 he frequently allows the other characters to remain ignorant of the truth in a way that might cause undeserved suffering, as when Isabella is told, quite untruthfully, that her brother has been executed. The trial scene in act 5 proceeds for much of its length on assumptions that the Duke knows to be totally false, and he even persuades Isabella, somewhat to her embarrassment (4.6.1-4), to pretend that she has been deflowered by Angelo. Now if we assume that the Duke decides to rescue Claudio and Juliet as soon as he learns of their predicament, it follows that his use of this kind of deception begins virtually as soon as he puts on the robes of a friar, and in particular, that his great speech attempting to reconcile Claudio to death is a kind of sham because he knows perfectly well that Claudio is not going to die. If, however, the Duke does not decide to intervene until Angelo's hypocrisy has been revealed, the interview with Juliet and the speech on death to Claudio can be taken at their face value. Until he overhears the agonized discussion between Claudio and Isabella in prison, the Duke knows no more than anyone else: Angelo might of course change his mind at the last minute, but all the signs suggest that Claudio is going to die,.and the Duke bases his conduct on this assumption.

My argument also applies to an earlier scene in the play, the Duke's account to Friar Thomas in act 1, scene 3, of his motives for putting Angelo in charge of Vienna. It has become increasingly fashionable for sophisticated critics to invoke chapter 7 of Machiavelli's The Prince in this connection. When Cesare Borgia had gained control of the Romagna in Italy, he found it 'Rife with brigandage, factions, and every sort of abuse' through the weak and avaricious behaviour of its previous rulers.

So he placed there messer Remirro de Orco, a cruel, efficient man, to whom he entrusted the fullest powers. In a short time this Remirro pacified and unified the Romagna, winning great credit for himself.

There were, however, dangers in allowing this efficient cruelty to persist too long; the servant's brutalities were making the master unpopular.

Cesare waited for his opportunity; then, one morning, Remirro's body was found cut in two pieces on the piazza at Cesena, with a block of wood and a bloody knife beside it. The brutality of this spectacle kept the people of the Romagna for a time appeased and stupefied.12

We are invited to compare this to Measure for Measure and to see the Duke as a kind of white, or perhaps we should say grey, Machiavellian who tries to avoid unpopularity by getting a subordinate to do his dirty work for him. But there is no evidence that Shakespeare had read a word of Machiavelli or had the slightest admiration for him, and I cannot believe for a moment that Shakespeare would have expected or welcomed the comparison. If there are some similarities between the Duke's behaviour and Cesare Borgia's, there are also striking differences. The Duke's account of his motives for delegating power may not strike us as fully convincing, but it harmonizesso well with his deepest convictions about the way a ruler should behave that there is no need to regard his action as a repulsive duplicity.

I have already emphasized that the ideas discussed so far are not intended to provide a complete interpretation of the play. All the same, it would be natural, and legitimate, to ask whether the way we interpret the Duke's couplet speech at the end of act 3 has any bearing on our response to the second half of the play and in particular to the concluding trial scene which occupies the whole of act 5. When the Duke temporarily hands over his power at the beginning of the play, he has two motives for doing so: one is to test Angelo, the other is to bring about a stricter enforcement of the laws of Vienna. At the end it would seem that the first aim has been accomplished, with a negative result, while the second has been discreetly put aside and is not supposed to be present in the audience's mind. If, however, we take seriously the Duke's idea about personal justice, then his second aim is dependent on his first: the law cannot be enforced with severity if the man brought in to enforce the law proves to be corrupt. The danger of this sort of argument is that it can sound glib, and it must be admitted that the Duke never says anything of the kind explicitly. At the same time, there is nothing in act 5 to support those critics who argue that the play shows us an educative process in which the Duke, or Angelo, or possibly both together, learn that justice needs to be tempered with mercy, that the ideal is some kind of blend or balance. The alternatives at the end of the play are not light punishment and heavy punishment, but rather punishment in general as against mercy and forgiveness. In the opening scene the Duke had said to Angelo: 'Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue, and heart' (1.1.44-5), and the play seems to offer us little between these two extremes, death on the one hand, and forgiveness on the other.

The disparity between the first half of Measure for Measure, up to the Duke's intervention, and the second half is a major critical problem of the play. The first half has an almost tragic intensity as the characters clash with each other in a way that painfully reveals their innermost character. Everything is spontaneous and unpredictable. In the second half, there is a strong sense of intrigue and manipulation: Shakespeare possibly wanted the trial scene in act 5 to have the same dramatic tension as the earlier scenes involving Claudio, Isabella, and Angelo, but in the trial scene there is an air of contrivance, with the Duke as both actor and director in a play-within-the-play. There are of course reasons for this shift of emphasis, even if they do not provide full artistic justification. In all other versions of the story the woman corresponding to Isabella goes to bed with the Angelo-figure, and it is she who complains to the judge's overlord when she realizes she has been duped. Shakespeare did not want his heroine to lose her virginity, so he provides a substitute, but he could hardly make Isabella herself suggest this device or provide her own substitute. Inevitably the Duke takes over as the organizer of the action.

The consequences of Shakespeare's decision may seem unfortunate, but the decision was consciously made. The last section of the Duke's meditation at the end of act 3 helps to prepare us for the intrigue of the last two acts:

Craft against vice I must apply. With Angelo tonight shall lie His old betrothed, but despised: So disguise shall by th' disguised Pay with falsehood false exacting, And perform an old contracting.


Clearly Angelo will be outwitted—the play will not end tragically—but the 'craft' used to counter his 'vice' will entail disguise and falsehood, so we need not be unduly surprised if the virtuous characters tell lies. The Duke could simply have revealed himself, but this would have brought the play to an abrupt conclusion, and more importantly, Angelo would not have been forced to experience intimately the deception and false appearances he has inflicted on other people. Angelo is thus receiving measure for measure, particularly if we gloss the word 'Measure' according to sense 15 of OED, 'Treatment meted out to a person, especially by way of retribution or punishment'. Those who dislike the second half of Measure for Measure will not be made to change their minds by any analysis, however subtle, of the Duke's meditation at the end of act 3. But if the evidence suggests, to a degree unusual in Shakespeare, that he deliberately and consciously altered the mode of his play, we ought to be cautious before passing judgement on it. Whatever artistic flaws there may be in Measure for Measure, they are not the result of carelessness or inadvertence on Shakespeare's part.


1 Isabella, it is true, knows perfectly well that Angelo has not in fact blackmailed her into sexual submission, but she genuinely believes that he has treacherously executed her brother.

2Measure for Measure, ed. A. Quiller-Couch and J. Dover Wilson, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1922), pp. 139, 141.

3 Mary Lascelles, Shakespeare 's Measure for Measure (1953), p. 104.

4 Rosalind Miles, The Problem of Measure for Measure (1976), p. 180.

5Measure for Measure, ed. J. W. Lever, the Arden Shakespeare (1965), pp. 93-4. All my references are to this edition.

6 The sword is of course a common attribute of justice, but in this context there may be a biblical allusion to the Epistle to the Romans, chapter 13, in which Christians are ordered to obey 'The powers that be'. Part of verse 4 reads as follows in the 1560 Geneva version: 'If thou do euil, feare: for he beareth not the sworde for noght: for he is the minister of God to take vengeance on him that doeth euil.'

7 M. D. H. Parker, The Slave of Life (1955), p. 112.

8 Escalus is ordered not to 'Warp' (diverge) from his commission (line 14), so presumably it gives him detailed instructions.

9 H. C. Hart, in the first Arden edition (1905), suggested that 'And virtue go' could mean 'If his virtue should fail him'. But the combination of 'stand' and 'go', in the senses of 'Keep upright' and 'Walk', seems to be a stock Elizabethan usage; compare a story in Thomas Lupton's Siuqila: Too Good to be True (Part II, 1581) in which a girl spends all night tied to a tree, sig. V2, 'I was neither able to goe nor stande', and V4, 'I vnbound hir, who was so frozen with the cold, that then she could neither go nor stand'. This book contains a version of the Measure for Measure story which may have been known to Shakespeare.

10 This conjunction of 'Weigh' and 'scale' suggests that Lever is right to gloss 'scaled' as 'Weighed as in scales (his moral worth truly estimated)' at 3.1.256, where the Duke claims that Angelo, 'The corrupt deputy', will be 'scaled' if Isabella goes ahead with the bed-trick.

11 Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960), p. 193.

12 Machiavelli, The Prince, translated by George Bull (Harmondsworth, 1961), pp. 57-8.

Melvin Seiden (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "A Trial: Make-Believe Confounds Reality," in Measure For Measure: Casuistry and Artistry, The Catholic University of America Press, 1990, pp. 116-43.

[In the following essay, Seiden analyzes the trial scene in Measure for Measure, arguing that the theatricality, trickery, and game playing of the play's final scene "creates an exhilarating and satisfying climax that the whole play has been designed to achieve. "Furthermore, Seiden states that the Duke 's role-playing in the mock trial "makes a mockery of justice. "]

All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts. (As You Like It, II.vii.l39ff.)

In The Merchant of Venice, written about ten years before Measure for Measure, Shakespeare had discovered the exciting dramatic device of the courtroom trial in which the law, mated, it would seem, to injustice, is ultimately, almost miraculously, brought back into the service of justice. The trial scene in The Merchant of Venice (IV.i) is both melodramatic and sophisticated, raw and crude, psychologically and poetically refined. The tables are going to be turned on Shylock—in E. E. Stoll's memorable phrase, the formula is "the Biter bit"—and it is this powerful formula that controls the development of the action.

Shylock is confident that the Venetian court must grant him the pound of flesh owed him by Antonio's default; Antonio is resigned to his fate, seeing himself as "a tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death" (IV.i. 114-15); Portia, disguised as an attorney, Balthasar, intervenes in the proceedings to support the strict and unyielding law, thus puffing up the confidence of Shylock, who gloats in the self-congratulatory and self-deceived refrain, "A Daniel come to judgment!" (1. 223), but at the point at which all the Christian friends of Antonio, including the duke of Venice, despair of saving the good merchant's life—"You must prepare your bosom for his [Shylock's] knife" (1. 245), says Portia-Balthasar to Antonio, and the surgeon stands by—the action wheels around and the tables are turned on the Jew: "This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood" (1. 306). Portia has used her wit to find a loophole, the legal quibble that will free Antonio and, with structural and moral symmetry,put Shylock's life in jeopardy. To the accompaniment of the second refrain, "O upright judge!

Mark, Jew. O learned judge!" (1. 313), Shylock submits to the humiliating punishments meted out by the court. What seemed at first, a fraudulent trial, a mockery of justice, has been transformed by Portia's ingenious intervention into a victory for compassion and Christian casuistry.

For the first three hundred lines of the scene, the audience, like Antonio's friends, has been terrorized. Shylock's knife presides over these long, tense minutes in which a judicial murder threatens. (The vengeful knife, unlike Hedda Gabler's pistols, must not be used, must be rendered impotent, just as Shylock is stripped naked, defanged, and spiritually emasculated.) In the approximately three-quarters of the scene that passes before Portia executes her stunning reversal, enormous suspense is generated. Anticipatory fear fuels the fire of suspense. In tragedy, such fear turns out to have been all too justified: there is no escape from the consequences of the blunders and misconceptions. In The Merchant, the fear is dissipated in one breathtaking peripety, a U-turn so swiftly and satisfyingly maneuvered that it compensates us generously for the pain of the anger we have felt as Shylock's "merry sport" played itself out.

In the resolutions of Measure for Measure Shakespeare will deploy, but with greater complexity and sophistication, the formal punitive development he had first used in The Merchant of Venice. Preparing Mariana for the trial scene that is to ensue in act 5, scene 1 (, a fifteen-line scene), Isabella warns,

If peradventure He [the Duke] speak against me on the adverse side I should not think it strange, for 'Tis physic That's bitter to sweet end.

(11. 5ff.)

We too are being reassured that no matter how bitter the medicine administered, not only to Angelo but to Isabella and Mariana, the "sweet end" will more than compensate for the pain. Shall we call this an example of crude telegraphing? We can, certainly, but what is remarkable is how brilliantly the scene works despite what might seem the redundant reassurances. In any case, the duke, who makes his entrance at the beginning of act five no longer disguised as a friar, now wears a moral disguise: he plays the role of the gullible and corrupt judge: gullible because he is corrupt, corrupted anew because he is so contemptibly gullible.

The duke begins the scene by bolstering Angelo's confidence with a suave ambiguity:

We hear Such goodness of your justice that our soul Cannot but yield you forth to public thanks, Forerunning more requital.

(V.i. 5ff.)

If we or anyone in the play were in a position to ask Vincendo the question, Did Angelo do wrong in sentencing Claudio to death? he would be hard put, surely, to offer a simple answer.Because "justice" here includes what Angelo has done or tried to do to Isabella and Mariana, the duke utters an ironical equivocation: the irony promises "public thanks" and "requital" that will be the very opposite of what they lead Angelo to expect.

Continuing in the same fashion, the duke "praises" Angelo in florid verse:

Oh, your desert speaks loud, and I should wrong it To lock it in the wards of covefrt bosom When it deserves, with characters of brass, A forted residence 'gainst the tooth of time And razure of oblivion.

(11. 9ff.)'

Irony, surely: the knife lancing the flesh so deftly that the patient, drugged with praise, does not realize that the physician has begun the bloodletting. But something else is happening here, something that complicates and enriches the fork-tongued irony. Caught up in the charade in which Vincentio is convincingly a shameless, colluding crony and a captive judge, we, in a certain way, take him at his word, just as Angelo does, and are goaded into a perplexed sort of resentment. Simultaneously, one might almost say magically, the drama allows us to see that Vincentio is pulling the wool over Angelo's eyes and yet, somehow, is having the wool pulled over his!

There is a superb example of Shakespearean dramaturgical magic that may serve as a model for the duality of audience response we have been describing here. It can be found in the interplay between Gloucester and Edgar when the father, wishing to commit suicide, is lovingly manipulated by his devoted son (King Lear, IV. vi). The "perpendicularly" steep cliffs of Dover are evoked in flashing cinematic images: "crows and choughs that wing the midway air," "fishermen that. . . [a]ppear like mice," a ship's small boat "[diminished too . . . a buoy / Almost too small for sight" (11. 12-20). It is not, however, the Dover cliffs but only a little knoll from which the blind, distraught Gloucester tries to leap to his death. It is a hoax. Edgar knows and we know that it is not true that "hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air, / So many fathoms down precipitating, / Thou'dst shivered like an egg." Edgar, like Vincentio, a good physician and a noble-hearted liar, plays with his father's raw emotions (and our sensory confusions) in order to teach him and us wisdom, to make Gloucester and every member of the audience recognize that "Thy life's a miracle" (1. 55). What is extraordinary is how we are caught up in the illusion that tricks Gloucester: the vertiginous height, the sickening fall, the miraculous reprieve from death. At the same time that we are fully aware that it is a trick, this blind man's leap, and that Edgar's pictures of the "dread summit" are intended to deceive Gloucester, not us, we cannot shake free of the acrophobic dread that Edgar's images evoke and then purge in us. Shakespeare can make use of the irony that inheres in our being in on Edgar's therapeutic ruse yet audaciously play with our fears. The pyrotechnics of special effects in the movies are only more technically but not more artistically accomplished than the verbal trompe l'oeil of Gloucester's suicide leap.

When the duke plays the part of the gull while covertly retaining control as impresario, director, and deft actor in his own miniplay ("The Loyal Duke and His Slandered Deputy"), Shakespeare is using a "special effect" in a way that is almost as daring as the Gloucester-Edgar scene in Lear. [In Measurefor Measure the tense duality of audience response is sustained throughout a long and emotionally turbulent one-scene act. In Lear, Shakespeare's inspired filmflam, like Edgar's, is subordinate to the thematic purpose of effecting a spiritual rebirth in Gloucester. Trickery is a means to a higher end. I shall argue that the tricky game playing in act 5 of Measure for Measure—"theatricality" in the pejorative term of disapproving criticism—creates the exhilarating and satisfying climax that the whole play has been designed to achieve.

Preparing Isabella for the trial, the duke had said, "Accuse him [Angelo] home and home" (IV.iii.148), and so she does, but when she cries out, "justice, justice, justice, justice!" the duke immediately turns her over to the tender mercies of Angelo: "Here is Lord Angelo shall give you justice. Reveal yourself to him" (11. 27-28). Isabella denounces Angelo, and if the passion is more controlled, the eloquence more shapely and stylized than the outbursts aimed at her brother (in III.i), that may in part be because this is a staged trial, a prearranged indictment, the enactment of the duke's contrivance:

That Angelo's foresworn, is it not strange? That Angelo's a murderer, is'T not strange? That Angelo is an adulterous thief, A hypocrite, a virgin-violator, Is it not strange and strange?

(11. 38ff.)

Undoubtedly, the formal, patterned rhetorical structure distances us somewhat from the "content" of the emotion: that altogether genuine and unfeigned indignation that assures Isabella that Angelo is a "virgin-violator," no matter that she is not the violated virgin. The lie would be a moral truth even if Angelo had not possessed Mariana. Though we remind ourselves that this is a mock trial, a simulated perversion of justice, we are caught up in the authentic passion that validates the charge. Five times Isabella repeats the word (or variants of) true in her reply to the duke's "Nay, it is ten times strange":

It is not truer he is Angelo Than this is all as true as it is strange. Nay, it is ten times as true, for truth is truth To the end of reckoning.

(11. 43ff.)

The duke plays his role, that of the credulous judge, with great skill; the judge who relies on appearances is bound to think that such outlandish accusations as these bespeak "the infirmity of sense," a woman "touched with madness." But we, after all, know that Vincentio is playacting the part of a judge both credulous and corrupt. Why then does this knowledge not work to give us a comfortable and comforting reassurance that justice will not be perverted? Why, again, do we respond to this travesty of a travesty of justice as if it were the real thing?2

A clue to the paradox may be found in Isabella's spontaneous and unfeigned denunciation of Angelo earlier in the play. In her first interview with Angelo (in II.ii), Isabella had inveighed against the abuseof power, authority, the office that confers a Jove-like invulnerability upon the officeholder who lords it over those less fortunately franchised:

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. . . .

(11. 118ff.)

Isabella might have used the words of Lear: "See how yond Justice rails upon yond simple thief. . . . Change places and, handy-dandy, which is the Justice, which is the thief?" (King Lear,

There is a perpetually unfair contest between the "simple" soul, the powerless individual who runs afoul of the law, and constituted authority with its overbearing power. Up against socially sanctioned justice, the solitary defendant, innocent or criminal though he or she may be, is always at a disadvantage. This, at any rate, is what might be called the civil libertarian view of legal justice, and it is the view that fires Isabella's eloquent denunciation of "authority [which], though it err like other, / Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself / That skins the vice o' the top" (II.ii. 133ff.).

When, therefore, the duke pretends to discredit Isabella, our residual memory of An gelo's misuse of authority is attached to this corrupt judge, the duke. The presence of Angelo, the genuine corrupter of justice and authority, suggests that the duke's feigning of that role reenacts what has already and truly taken place. The duke plays his part wonderfully well, plays, that is, with nice verisimilitude at being an Angelo. Angelo played badly, played, that is, dishonestly at being a duke. Handy-dandy, which is the ruler, which is judge? Early in the scene, we understand that handy-dandy is indeed the game when the duke says, "Here is Lord Angelo shall give you justice. / Reveal yourself to him" (11. 28ff.).

Isabella tells her story to a disbelieving judge while Angelo stands off to the side in silence. She must tell the indispensable lie that has lodged within it the redemptive truth: how "To [Angelo's] concupiscible intemperate lust . . . [she] did yield to him [her virginity]." There are multiple ironies in the duke's reply; he begins and ends his speech (11. 106ff.) with the premise that she has been "suborned"; the charge she makes against Angelo is so incredible that it must be that "Someone hath set you on. / Confess the truth, and say by whose advice / Thou earnest here to complain" (11. 112ff).

There are a surface irony and a more subtle irony that depend on and intensify the more obvious one. What is most obviously perceived by us is the black humor of the duke's speculating that Isabella must be the tool of "Someone [who] hath set you on." That someone is Vincentio himself; the duke, Isabella, and we know this; only Angelo does not. The director who wants cheap and easy effects (or who does not trust the intelligence of the audience) will encourage his Vincentio to grimace portentously as he speaks these lines—a mistake. It is a mistake not only because it is crude; nudging the audience will obscure the secondary irony. That irony points to what I have called the civil libertarian view of justice. From this point of view, it is the duke and Angelo who collude to subvert justice. Insofar as the duke is convincing, he acts like the kind of judge who has been bribed to bedeaf to the pleas of the weak, the innocent, especially women in a world in which men make, enforce, judge, and corrupt the laws. If the first and admittedly more dramatic irony is comic, the more subtle irony is intellectual and serious. It is an irony that takes Lear's handy-dandy "impertinency" and enacts it in a bitter farce in which the judge (who is guilty of colluding with a powerful malefactor) charges the victim of injustice (Isabella) with precisely his own crime: that is, of having been "suborned" by a nameless co-conspirator.

In dismissing Isabella's charge against Angelo, the duke speculates, "If he [Angelo] had so offended, / He would have weighed thy brother by himself, / And not have cut him off (V.i. 110-11). It's a foursquare, commonsensical argument, and, of course, flatly wrong. It was self-hatred that led Angelo to hasten the execution of Claudio, in order, we might say, to eliminate his doppelgänger. So much for speculative psychology. There is another important point concealed in the duke's hypothesis. If proof were needed at this late stage that Isabella was right to refuse Angelo's offer of a reprieve for Claudio in exchange for her chastity, it is here. Having as he believes had the use of Isabella's body, Angelo orders the immediate execution of Claudio. True, the question posed by Isabella's dilemma is a moral one: Angelo's behavior demonstrates that, had she accepted his proposal, she would nevertheless have failed to rescue Claudio. Capitulation would not have saved his life. An admirably principled moral stubbornness is corroborated by a practical consequence, but we in the audience do not need to make this overt inference when we hear the duke speculate about Angelo's behavior; the duke's plausible but erroneous reasoning will carry us back to those anguished moments when Isabella faced Angelo and then her distraught brother—and made the right choice, we now see.

In her answer to the duke's blockheaded credulity Isabella's language again echoes that of Lear:

Then, O you blessed ministers above Keep me in patience, and with ripened time Unfold the evil which is here wrapped up In countenance!

(11. 1155ff.)

As we have seen, Isabella's denunciation of prostituted "authority" (in II.ii) echoed Lear's shattering insight that "Justice," alas, is more often determined by social and institutional privilege than by disinterested principles of equity, and here in the final moments of the play injustice compounds itself with each new development. The duke is about to have Isabella rushed off to prison: "Shall we thus permit / A blasting and scandalous breath to fall / On him so near us?" (11. 121 ff.). What is being staged in this charade is not merely a powerful political figure protecting a crony. The duke is shielding himself. It's a question of fallout in which the corruption of the underling threatens the more important figure who is the source of the lesser man's power. In our time, cases of self-protecting collusion between big and little fish—in government, medicine, business, the armed services, and indeed academic institutions—can be found in the daily newspaper. A cynic might say that what is shown in Measure for Measure to be an extreme perversion of law and justice is in contemporary life commonplace, a ubiquitous "fact of life."

Now aping the duke's servility with Angelo, Friar Peter colludes with the duke as the mockery of justice continues. Isabella, he claims (1. 140), has "Most wrong-fully accused your substitute." (The word substitute reinforces the idea that Angelo is not only the duke's agent; here in this trial the duke and Angelo are twinned: the duke as corrupt judge does Angelo's dirty work for him, just as earlier the duke had delegated Angelo to do his for him. Friar Peter's substitute is another handy-dandy.) The situation resembles the phenomenon in which ordinary folk support the powerful oppressor and not the powerless victim, not, that is, the person with whom the weak and defenseless ought to feel a natural kinship. Friar Peter is not just "a little man." Symbolically, the church is tainted when Friar Peter jumps on the bandwagon to support the duke and his agent.

Friar Peter is a real friar, and his complicity in injustice is feigned: he has been enlisted into Vincentio's secret plan in act 4, scene 5. But his feigning represents the way in which the church all too often allies itself with the rich, the powerful, and the corrupt. Friar Peter is another "authority" figure; only Isabella and Mariana, mere women, victims, and sex objects, lack any sort of socially sanctioned authority; they can rely only on their own honesty and truth, slingshots to hurl against the heavy artillery of government, judiciary, and now, church, in league against them.

Friar Peter, like the duke, is both gullible dupe and ironist, and when he claims that Isabella has "wrongfully accused" Angelo "who is free from touch or soil with her," he is speaking factual truth, making the assertion, however, in the service of a moral lie, the lie being the implication that it is Angelo, not Isabella, who is the victim of slander. And again, we know perfectly well that Friar Peter is in on the duke's game and is not the corrupt clergyman he impersonates. Even so, this new injustice works on us as if it were genuine and unfeigned; it generates an anger that will have a swift and satisfying catharsis in the developments that follow.

As the next stage of the miniplay unfolds, "Isabella is carried off [to prison] guarded," and Vincendo, still playing the role of credulous judge, says to his confederate, "Do you not smile at this, Lord Angelo?" (1. 163). 3 "Mariana comes forward," presses her claim that Angelo is her husband, and insists that not only is he guiltless of fornication but "I had him in mine arms / With all the effect of love" (11. 197-98) at the time when, supposedly, he was making love to Isabella. After Angelo has explained how and why he jilted Mariana and she again insists, "He knew me as a wife" (1. 230), Angelo begins the speech with which he intends to demolish the plot against him with the remark "I did not smile till now" (1. 233). So this crucial stage in the action is marked by a smile enjoyed at its beginning and a smile repressed at its most intense moment, both signaling a deep and complex irony. To appreciate it fully we must place ourselves in Angelo's position.

When Isabella presses her case against Angelo, he, we can be sure, is in a panic of guilt and fear. It is his word against hers, but he has had the good luck to find support in his claim of innocence from both the duke and Friar Peter. The reputation for rectitude that won him the position of substitute duke serves to discredit the "blasting and scandalous breath" of Isabella's charge. Angelo believes that Isabella speaks the truth; what he does not and cannot know is that Isabella's truth, as far as he is concerned, is a lie. He has just had, therefore, the narrowest of escapes and his pulse races when Mariana comes forward to claim him as wife and lover. Having just miraculously escaped the crime for which (as he believes) he deserves hanging, Angelo now has a stroke of good fortune so stunning it may seem too good to be true; in fact, that is exactly what it is not: Mariana speaks the truth, but he is sure it is a lie.

The corrupt and complaisant gods, he thinks, have delivered to Angelo the best gift a criminal might hope for: a new charge that happens to be false! The expression that blossoms in his face when he begins his demolition of Mariana's (to him) absurd claims is the look of innocence, the smile of a man who has gambled and won, the smile of renewed confidence, the smirk of a born-again sinner, reborn not to faith and humility but to arrogant and scornful righteousness.

I did but smile till now. Now, good my lord, give me the scope of justice. My patience here is touched. I do perceive These poor informal women are no more But instruments of some more mightier member That sets them on.

(11. 233ff.)

Angelo concludes, "Let me have my way, my lord / To find this practice out"; the duke assents: "And punish them to your height of pleasure" (1. 240).

Anthony Brennan does not denigrate Shakespeare's art in the fifth act; to the contrary, he asserts, "Shakespeare was not, however, afflicted by sudden amnesia about how to sew varied elements into a coherent design." 4 Because he admires the dramatic structure of the fifth act, Brennan subjects it to careful and detailed analysis. And though he makes many illuminating points, he fails to recognize the tensions and cross currents at work in Angelo. Commenting on the crucial speech "I did smile till now" (1. 232ff.), Brennan observes, "It is Angelo above all who refuses to learn the lesson ['judge not lest ye be judged'] and his response to Mariana's claim is to ask more assertively for the power of judge, 'The scope of justice.'" Brennan's interpretation is correct but insensitive to the deputy's most urgent concerns. His analysis is more didactic than dramatic. At the point at which Angelo says, "Let me have my way, my lord, / To find this practice out," he believes that Mariana's false claim—and that is what her charge of sexual intimacy indubitably is, he is sure—will turn the tide in his favor. Nothing in the fifth act is more important than the fact that Angelo, at this point, believes that he has the upper hand, is counting his chickens, while we, our confidence sorely tried, ask ourselves when, if ever, the all too convincingly stupid duke will make his move, will "like an o'ergrown lion in a cave . . . [go] out to prey" (I.iii.22-23).

"I'M home free," Angelo tells himself; we understand that, though Shakespeare's supposedly faulty art is too refined to allow Angelo to say any such thing.

The duke, concealed and indecipherable (to Angelo) behind his mark of stupid credulity, has the pleasure of watching his victim puff up like a blowfish. Whose pleasure is more keen: that of the man who thinks he has been blessed with a double portion of good luck and is now untouchable or that of the man who knows that his prey has ensnared himself in an invisible web? (If we recall Iago's pithy "With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio" [Othello,II.i.169], it will also occur to us that Angelo is both spider and fly, or rather an erstwhile spider, soon to discover that he is the fly that has been lured into the trap woven by, shall we say, a superspider?) Angelo, at any rate, will do the smiling, and Vincentio will preserve a grave and sober mien. That way he can savor his pleasure more deliberately, contemplatively.

What about us, we who ache to see Angelo exposed and to have that sickening smile erased from his pinched and unforgiving face? Temporarily, we are left to a dry, pleasureless indignation. When Angelo says that Mariana and Isabella "are no more / But instruments of some more mightier member," (1. 238) the irony is insufficient compensation for our disappointment; again Angelo has emerged without a scratch; and everything in the speech and demeanor of the duke camouflages his true position, his covert pleasure, and his old pledge to Isabella, and therefore to us, that he is part of the "remedy," not one who aids and abets the disease. (To reassure Isabella, Vincentio as friar said, "To the love I have in doing good a remedy presents itself [III.i.203]).

Experiencing the play in the theater, we respond to what the overt duke overtly does and not to the maneuverings of the covert Vincentio. A long time ago (as dramatic time goes) Vincentio, about to go underground in the guise of a friar, had made the promise to "see, / If power change purpose, what our seemers be" (I.iii.54). In the fifth act Vincentio is in every way the equal of Angelo as "seemer," but whereas we are never taken in by Angelo's seeming, having been privy to the terrible split between his public persona and his private agonies as shown in act 2, scenes 2 and 4, Vincentio's seeming tricks us into a kind of hypnotized gullibility. Somewhere in the back of our mind we know perfectly well that he is not stupid, not corrupt, not malleable clay in the greasy hands of Angelo, and not any of the demeaning roles he plays in this mock trial that makes a mockery of justice. Even so, we take his shamming for the reality; we respond, as we must, to his words, not to the subtext. 5 Only in the study are we fully responsive to the duke's camouflaged pleasure as Angelo smiles infuriatingly.

And only in the study are we likely to recall how Vincentio modestly declared, "I love the people, / But do not like to stage me to their eyes" when he took leave of Angelo in act 1, scene 3 (emphasis added). If we want to make Vincentio out to be a supersubtle con man, we might suppose that he professes to be no good at playacting on the political stage all the better to practice the roleplaying so brilliantly enacted here in the fifth act. There is a better way of reconciling Vincentio's earlier demurral with his later and brilliant demonstration of precisely the skill he professes to lack. On the political stage, undisguised and transparently himself, he is shy and diffident. In the fifth act, which is virtually a play within the play, he is disguised, first in the by now familiar and comfortable disguise of the friar, then as precisely the person he is not: a foolish, credulous, and corrupt judge; a political crony; not a sovereign who is solicitous of the well-being of his subjects.

Vincentio's stage metaphor, casual when it is first used, turns out to be a revelation: the too modest and too inward Vincentio has the potentiality to be a fine actor; however, like many another actor, he needs to conceal his own face to do the job. In all likelihood, Vincentio spoke the truth when he described himself as someone who was no good at playing the game of political stagecraft.

In Measure for Measure, as in a Portuguese corrida, there is no need for a literal kill; the creature to be dispatched is sacrificed symbolically. Angelo's smile marks the point at which he commits his last and most grievous offense against us.6 For we are the court of last appeal, and it is our sense of justice, in collaboration with Isabella's and Mariana's, that cries out, and this before Vincentio states the bloodthirsty principle, "An Angelo for a Claudio, death for death!" Angelo does not know that the "boss" who has allowed himself to become Angelo's "stooge" has out-performed him in the cunning business of seeming. Angelo does not know that he has lost everything, but we cannot quite make ourselves believe—never mind all those whispered confidences and promises made byVincentio—that Angelo is going to have the tables turned on him.

The airplane races toward the landing strip. Green swirls and white cubes become trees and houses; the insects are automobiles. You reassure yourself with statistics, prop up your confidence with probabilities. Not until the motors roar into reverse do you believe that you are not going to—indeed that you did not—crash. In the play we have to wait many painful minutes—more than one hundred lines are spoken after Vincentio allows Angelo to "have [his] way" as judge and jury in his own case—before we can truly believe that Vincentio is going to put a stop to the cant, deception, and injustice. Our respite does not come until Lucio "Pulls off the friar's hood and discovers the Duke."

But now Shakespeare introduces a new variation on the theme of justice denied. Vincentio, having allowed Angelo the license "Do with your injuries as seems you best" (1. 257), leaves and returns "in his friar's habit." It is now Vincentio as friar who is to be the victim of blind, prejudiced "justice," but this time there is no feigning by the accuser; he is none other than good, kindly, tolerant Escalus, who, with the best of intentions, denounces this friar, who has had the temerity to criticize Escalus' beloved duke. There is, of course, the comedy of Escalus' not knowing that the friar he attacks (in loyalty to the duke) is the duke. There is the irony that inheres in Escalus' being both wrong and genuine: he does not know that he has been dragged into a labyrinthine struggle between Angelo and Vincentio; he does not pretend (as Vincentio and Friar Peter pretended) to support injustice; Escalus, in his passionate attachment to justice, is guilty of unintended injustice:

Why, thou unreverend and unhallowed friar, Is'T not enough thou has suborned these women To accuse this worthy man, but . . . then to glance from him To the Duke himself, to tax him with injustice? Take him hence, to the rack with him!

(11. 307ff.)

Finally, then, there is the third level of irony: though the friar whom Vincentio has impersonated has indeed been reverend and hallowed, Escalus speaks truer than he knows when he charges that the friar "has suborned these women"; Escalus cannot know that the anonymous friar has suborned them to do good, not to broadcast slander.

Vincentio, still hiding behind the friar's mask, indicts degenerate Vienna: "I have seen corruption boil and bubble / Till it o'errun the stew" (11. 320-21), thus angering again Escalus, who accuses him of uttering "slander to the state." Now a most incongruous trio forms to stand against the truth-speaking friar: both Lucio and Angelo join Escalus in attacking him. An unholy alliance: the man of goodwill, old, somewhat feeble, and a bit too willing to take the establishment's side in the argument; the fantastic, decayed gentleman whose native element is the brothel; the Puritan sinner, a man who only recently has undergone his first encounter with sexual passion and experienced it with all the intensity of an epileptic seizure—three men who have nothing in common except their alliance in the cause of silencing a truth sayer.

Escalus, raging over the insults spoken by Vincentio as friar against Vincentio as duke, says:

Take him hence, to the rack with him! We'll touse you Joint by joint, but we will know his purpose. What, "unjust"!

(11. 312ff.)

There's something of the sputtering, impotent senex in these lines, and they serve as a transition to the overt comedy that follows.

In the next development, Lucio, with shameless sangfroid, makes the friar—Vincentio—the author of those libelous words against Vincentio: "And was the Duke a fleshmonger, a fool, and a coward, as you then reported him to be?" (11. 336-37). Now it is Lucio's turn to march to the shambles. Just as Angelo smiled and smiled at the very moment when he had overreached, so Lucio goes on the offensive at the very moment when he is about to be cut down. "Why, you bald-pated, lying rascal, you must be hooded, must you? Show your knave's visage. . . . Show your sheepbiting face, and be hanged an hour!" (11. 356 ff.). How satisfying to witness Lucio's discomfiture. He "[p]ulls off the friar's hood, and discovers the Duke" and, as he is immediately to learn, uncovers his true fantastic self. But before the duke gets around to sentencing Lucio, he must deal with Angelo; the comedy of the jocose liar is prologue to the grave business of dealing with a shamefaced and self-lacerating liar: Angelo. It may seem like having the sweet before the main course. Perhaps, though, there is a dramatic imperative in Shakespeare's serving up Lucio before Angelo: that way, the edge is taken off our punitive appetite. Having enjoyed the settling of Lucio's hash, we can accept considerably less than an ultimate punishment for Angelo.

Vincentio confronts Angelo as soon as his disguise has dropped: "Hast thou or word, or wit, or impudence, / That yet can do thee office?" (11. 368-69). Angelo lacks Lucio's impudence, that guiltless comic audacity that is never at a loss to improvise reasons, concoct excuses, explain away embarrassments. Angelo will do none of these things. To the contrary, he hastens to judge himself as mercilessly as he has judged Claudio:

O my dread Lord, 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. . . . Immediate sentence then, and sequent death, Is all the grace I beg.

(11. 372 ff.)

What is said of the thane of Cawdor might be said of Angelo: "Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it." The difference between the two men, of course, is that "execution" is done on the disloyal Cawdor, whereas Angelo is to be spared. Angelo has his most impressive moment when, with stolid dignity, he faces his disgrace, does not plead for understanding or pity, and is willing to die. If we can remember that far back—and in the theater it is unlikely that we can—we will recall that Angelo made a promise that here he fulfills. To Escalus he had boasted, "When I that censure him [Claudio] do so offend, / Let mine own judgment pattern out my death. . . . " (II.i.28ff.).If at the time this seemed to us an empty boast, a shrewd debating point, we now know better.

It is hard not to be awed by Angelo's pitiless self-condemnation. Bravery, even if suicidal, is always impressive, and here Angelo shows that he has the courage to accept the justice of his own death. Were he an antique Roman like the disgraced Antony, he Angelo succumbed to the one vice from which he thought himself immune, anesthetized; sexual lust taught him the intolerable truth that he and Claudio were brothers in weakness. But Angelo's weakness, his vulnerable humanity, will never bring him to his knees as Claudio's unmanned him, making him beg, "Let me live." For Angelo life at any cost is contemptible. A disgrace as humiliating as his, therefore, must be paid for by death.

Angelo is not the sort of man for easygoing compromises, shifting opinions, muddling through, and stammering regrets. He was willing to be loathed for his exalted standards of conduct, and he is willing to die for having betrayed those standards. The speedy "sequent death" he asks for may be more bearable than the prolonged recitation of crimes that he may fear he has yet to endure. Do we recall the words of Claudio, "If I must die, / I will encounter darkness as a bride, / And hug it in mine arms" (III.i.83ff.)? Claudio cannot abide by his resolution and falters; Angelo, though perhaps he is not tested as severely as Claudio, never falters. For whatever reasons, Angelo was unable to accept the role of bridegroom, but he has no difficulty imagining himself mated to death.

A dissenting view would insist that it is not strength but weakness that prompts Angelo to embrace death, weakness and sadism. The guilt-ridden, self-despising, sex-denying sickness that makes Angelo a sadist (the psychoanalytical argument might claim) still rages in him, and it is this sadism, turning against itself, that seeks oblivion. We can accept this insight but must not use it to denigrate him, because it is evident that the exceptionally mild punishment meted out to Angelo constitutes a kind of reward for virtues. Many nonpejorative terms suggest themselves to describe these virtues: pride, a sense of honor, absolute and uncompromising principles, a queer but genuine integrity. If we do not recognize what is admirable in Angelo we forfeit the right to be censorious about what is so appalling in his character. If then we grant that Angelo deserves these terms of praise, we can also accept the idea of "sadism" as well. Is criticism that embraces these antinomies guilty of slovenly eclecticism? It is Measure for Measure, not baffled and improvisatory criticism, that embraces contradictions, discontinuities, and incompatible extremes of behavior and belief. In Angelo Shakespeare paints a portrait of a deformed goodness that is repugnant, to be sure. Who could possibly love "this Angelo [who, it is said] was not made by man and woman after this downright way of creation" (III.ii.lllff.)? But who could fail to admire and to respect a man who, like a god, refuses to hear his own voice cry out, "Let me live" and condemns himself to death. Angelo is frightening because he imagines himself standing above the muck and the mire of humanity; Angelo is Isabella's "pelting petty officer"; but he is also a failed "Jove" (IIii.l l 1-12), someone, it is fair to say, who still possesses remnants of his original angelic beauty. In aspiring to perfection he took the greatest risk of all.

In any case, to some contemporary readers it is Duke Vincentio who seems the sadist as he persists in manipulating his puppets in the mock trial that he directs and plays a part in. He continues to conceal from Isabella the crucial fact that her brother lives; he plays cat and mouse not only with Angelo but with the two women as well. Is Vincentio then a cruel god who relishes toying with and tormenting these puny, alltoo-human creatures? And had not Angelo imputed a godlike status to the duke when he addressed him in these words?

O my dread lord, 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.

(11. 372 ff.)

Whether as a fatherly pedagogue or as a sadist, Vincentio seems to be working on Isabella: students and critics often feel that he is working her over. When he turns to her and says, "The very mercy of the law cries out. . . 'An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!'" (11. 412ff), he is putting her to the test. To sharpen the point that Isabella is now on trial, Mariana, told that the imminent execution of Angelo threatens to make her a widow, begs Isabella to add her voice to that of the new bridé in beseeching the duke to spare his life. The woman who was willing to sacrifice her brother's life to the cult of personal chastity now has a second chance to discover her own humanity. Once hard, inflexible, and uncharitable, a changed Isabella somehow finds it in her to judge Angelo's case with the tolerance and sympathy she had denied Claudio.

This point of view is intellectually attractive, and it is surely not wrong. Nevertheless, I shall argue that it is a way of looking at the final moments of the play that obscures the essential dramatic thrust; it is an emphasis that substitutes a doctrinal principle, that Isabella must be tested so that a more mature and womanly woman can emerge, for an exciting and powerful dramatic situation in which Isabella is only one of the parties involved. If we focus on Isabella and the moral problem—will she rise to the occasion and become a compassionate woman?—we point the critical spotlight, in fact, on the wrong person.

Who then is the right person? It must be Angelo: Angelo who, it is true, remains absolutely silent while the two women speak all the lines and command our attention; it is Angelo who is the crucial character even while it is Isabella, ostensibly, who is on trial. In the debate that ensues, we cannot forget that what is at issue between the duke, Isabella, and Mariana is Angelo's life. If Isabella fails as an advocate, he dies. Just as Antonio's life depended on Portia's forensic ingenuity, so Angelo's fate rests not in Isabella's hands but on her tongue, with her words, her rhetorical skill. In both plays, however, while the arguments and counter-arguments are made, the man whose very being hangs in the balance stands before us as a reminder that neither in Venice nor in Vienna is this a moot court: an apparently doomed man stands off to the side; he can do nothing to help his own cause; he is probably resigned to death; indeed, there is reason to believe that (like Antonio) he is half in love with easeful death; yet he must also struggle to repress an all too human and Claudio-like fear of death. Antonio and Angelo, potential victims, believe that they face genuine threats of death, and even the proud and steely Angelo must feel his pulse's quickening as the reality of his situation presses upon him.

The essential purpose of what from one angle of vision may be seen as the testing of Isabella is, dramatically, the turning of the screw on the duke's instrument' of torment for Angelo. Throughout this long scene he has been suffocating with fear of humiliation through exposure; now, as Isabellatries to say whatever can be said to mitigate his guilt, the sweat again streams down his back. Antonio had said to his guiltstricken friend, Bassanio, "I am a tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death" (Merchant of Venice,IV.i.114). Angelo knows, even if some critics forget, that he too is "meetest for death" and that is what the contest is about: whether he should live or die.

Angelo as judge condemns himself to death; Angelo as merely man may hope for life; if the duke hands down a harsh, Angelo-like verdict, the death sentence should be satisfying to the Angelo of old: the absolutist who refuses to make deals, even with himself. If, however, the duke spares his life—well, Angelo must accept, though grudgingly perhaps, this windfall that he would be the first, no doubt, to admit is undeserved. The gift of life, after all, comes from his master, the duke, and cannot be spurned. In any case, even a would-be but failed saint might find it beyond his moral strength to reject what must seem to him a second life. As he silently listens to charge and rebuttal in the Vincendo-Isabella contest, Angelo finds himself in a tight squeeze: either decision will cause him spiritual pain. But it is equally correct to say that whatever fate is measured out to him by the duke, one side of his personality will approve of what is being done to him. Indeed, it turns out that everyone, Lucio excepted and Angelo included, essentially gains his or her heart's desire, and that is what the tragicomic form amounts to. 7 Angelo, like Claudio, is granted the most urgent desire of all—life.

The accomplished actor will show us a man who is riven by equivocal hopes, contradictory fears, and every kind of confusion; these perplexities will play themselves out on Angelo's tense body and imperfectly masked face. Perhaps he does not know what he wants for himself; and witnessing his silent perplexity, we find it all the harder to decide what we want for him, what we want done to him. Thus it is that when finally Angelo's life is spared we do not reject the duke's reprieve as charity misguided, misapplied, and shamelessly unprincipled. These are the charges brought against the duke, and Shakespeare, by critics who are members of what might be called the Angelovean school, because, like Angelo, they are stern and unforgiving moralists who would like Angelo's time on the rack to be longer and harder than the duke and Shakespeare decree. Critics who remain unappeased by the kind and duration of Angelo's punishment remind one of the Hamlet who might but does not "do it pat" when he finds Claudius at prayer; Hamlet seeks a revenge "that has no relish of salvation in it"; the Angeloveans would prefer a punishment for Angelo that would "trip him, that his heels may kick at Heaven / And that his soul may be as damned and black / As Hell whereto it goes" (Hamlet, III.iii.73ff.). But the spirit of tragi-comedy is tolerant and forgiving. The Angeloveans ask for a strict and quantified measuring of justice, whereas the tragi-comic point of the play, surely, is that no such moral precision can be achieved, certainly not by casuistry and possibly not by God, even though He surely sees the prejudices and blind spots of all human judges. The duke himself speaks like an Angelovean when he calls out, "An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!"; but the tragi-comic irony is that the duke, still feigning, still taking bad or bigoted positions, still the corrupt judge who mocks Angelo's corruption by parodying it, discredits the very principle he propounds. Moral comparability is illusory at best, blind and vicious at worst.

What about Isabella: does not she invoke moral comparability in the crucial speech "Look, if it please you, on this man condemned / As if my brother lived" (11. 449 ff.)? The duke gives short shrift to her arguments; he dismisses them with, "Your suit's unprofitable." He is saying in effect, "My savage measuring is the only acceptable one; yours, I reject out of hand." His argument seems simpler thanit is: because Claudio died for the crime of fornication, Angelo too must die for the same crime. The duke's equation must imply that Angelo's thwarted fornication with Isabella—and the workings of the bed trick have already been exposed—is tantamount to an act of commission. It is the wicked intention lodged in Angelo's evil soul that Vincentio wishes to scourge in this climactic moment of moral assessment and counterassessment. But it is not only punishments that are being measured to fit crimes; it is also one kind of comparability, the duke's, measured against another, Isabella's. But comparability simply does not work; it cannot solve the moral problems.

What are we to make of Isabella's arguments?8 There is a genuine humility and generosity in her claim "A due sincerity governed his [Angelo's] deeds, / Till he did look on me" (11. 452-53). It is, however, a testimony to her innocence that she supposes herself to be making a cogent argument when she mentions this point. Sincerity? As we know, Angelo's sincerity—if that is the right word for it—is in some ways worse, at least in its devastating consequences for himself (to say nothing of Claudio, had he not been under the protective wing of Vincentio), then Lucio's blithe insincerity. A jurist might say that this argument is very weak; a literary critic would counter with this rejoinder: in preparing us to accept the duke's generous treatment of Angelo, soon to follow, Shakespeare takes us back to Angelo's vain attempt to pray himself back into wholeness and to the abject "sincerity" of his confession "Heaven hath my empty words, / Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue, / Anchors on Isabel" (II.iv.2ff.).

This is Isabella's main argument:

My brother had but justice, In that he did the thing for which he died. For Angelo, His act did not o'ertake his bad intent, And must be buried but as an intent That perished by the way. Thoughts are no subjects, Intents but merely thoughts.

(11. 453ff.)

We are the jury, and though we may think Isabella's argument a simplistic solution to a fiercely complex moral problem, we must vote not guilty. How can we refute the point that Angelo did not in fact fornicate with Isabella?9

As a prologue to his eye-for-eye principle, Vincentio indicts Angelo for multiple crimes:

But as he adjudged 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 . . . "An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!"

(11. 408ff.)

There are three, possibly four, crimes mentioned here: (1) the attempted rape of Isabella, which converted into (2) the encounter with Mariana ("double violation"), (3) the broken promises to marry Mariana, and (4) the sparing of Claudio's life in return for Isabella's sexual favors. It is not easy to say which of these is the more grave offense or whether any one crime warrants the death penalty.

Isabella, shrewdly, homes in on the one crime that Angelo indisputably did not commit! She ignores her new friend Mariana's "sacred chastity" (we might wonder whether the propounder of the bed trick is in any position to use that pious phrase), and because the second crime has been brushed aside there is no point in considering the third (the broken promise to marry Mariana). The fourth would support Vincentio's vindictive position and, had Isabella been foolish enough to examine it, would have been extremely damaging to her plea for clemency. (Vincentio might have argued, "Not only did the scoundrel try to rape you, he reneged on his promise to let Claudio live as the payoff for the use—abuse!—of your body!") So Isabella is clever to hammer at Angelo's noncrime, the crime that only a deception prevented him from committing, the one crime that Claudio, alas, did commit.

In the theater we cannot and probably need not rely on long memories, but in the study, memory allows us to make revealing connections; in this case, we can go back to the origins of Isabella's argument that "Thoughts are no subjects" to the law's strictures. It was none other than Angelo who had first enunciated Isabella's principle. "'Tis. one thing to be tempted, Escalus," Angelo had insisted, "Another thing to fall" (II.i. 18-19). When Angelo dismisses Escalus' tender-minded request that he imagine himself in Claudio's position, the deputy's icy distinction between deeds and intentions strikes us as a hollow legal formalism; we agree with Escalus, and because what we want most is an understanding and charitable disposition of Claudio's case, Angelo's distinction, we are certain, is a heartless and un-Christian one. Christian morality, after all, is above all concerned with crimes of the heart and is not, like secular and legal morality, narrowly confined to overt deeds. Thus it is that in The Brothers Karamazov, as we have seen, the central moral point is that Dmitri Karamazov, who did not murder his father but did harbor murderous thoughts against him, is from a Christian point of view guilty. Justice was done. Secular injustice represents God's justice.

Isabella uses what had once seemed the bad argument of Angelo to try to save Angelo from threatened death at the hands of the duke. This argument, however, is not "Angelovean" in the way that we have been using this term; to the contrary, it is the very opposite, because its purpose is indeed the Christian one of forgiving Angelo's "bad intent." If then we are tempted to view Isabella's argument as a legalistic evasion of the important moral questions, we might recall that her forensic sister, Portia, also used a legal loophole for a charitable end: to save an innocent life. In the case of Portia and Shylock, Christian morality is explicitly evoked in "The quality of mercy" speech; if, risking the trap of false comparability, we compare Portia's legalism with Isabella's, we see that the former is a quibble, sleight-of-hand, semantic dexterity ("The words expressly are 'A pound of flesh'"), whereas Isabella's defense of Angelo is based on a commonsense distinction universally believed and wished for: that we be tried for deeds done, not evil thoughts contemplated.

Recognizing that Isabella's crucial argument has its genesis in Angelo's once unacceptable distinction between temptation and falling, we must therefore reject those readings of Measure for Measure that tell us that the Isabella who pleads for Angelo's life is a newly enlightened, humane, and maturewoman; she has, we are told, changed, learned, developed; she is not the same person who condemned Claudio to death. The prude of the third act has metamorphosed into a sensitive woman, a womanly woman. How or why Isabella makes the transition from cruelty to compassion it is not easy to say. Does she harbor a secret guilt? But the supposedly "new" Isabella who claims, "My brother had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died" manifests no guilt whatsoever.

Isabella's principle is precisely secular, legal, and non-Christian. Suspect means (such as the bed trick) are often used to achieve good ends in this play; so far as Isabella's character is concerned, the dubious claim that she has achieved some sort of "Christian" compassion is based on an argument that, Christian though it may be in intention is nevertheless unabashedly secular and legalistic in content. But because in the theater we do not hear the voice of Angelo the serpent speaking when Isabella the dove begs the duke to let Angelo go free, we may entertain the illusion that her character has undergone some sort of progressive development. More accurately, one might say that she regresses in espousing Angelo's old (and once repudiated) idea that in order for the law to function with equity and coherence, it must confine its purview to deeds done and not to those dark and dank chambers of the heart in which wicked thoughts fester. Cogent or merely ingenious, Isabella's argument, however, is rejected by the duke, and the rejection does not seem to disappoint Angelo.


1 Though it is unlikely that Vincentio's phrase "razure of oblivion" will in a staged performance recall to the spectator Angelo's soliloquy at the conclusion of act 2, scene 2, the critic may remember the anguished sentence "Having waste ground enough, / Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary, / And pitch our evils there?" (11. 170ff). For Angelo "to raze the sanctuary" is an act of despoilment of the same awful magnitude as the rape he contemplates. For Vincentio the "razure of oblivion," is, as the Arden editor points out (note 14, p. 126), like the idea of injurious time in Sonnet 122. Thematically, Angelo's raze and Vincentio's razure have this in common: the one is used in the context of false, perjured, and diseased love; Duke Vincentio's fulsome praise of Angelo, if it were sincere (as we know it is not), would be as corrupt as Angelo's "love" of Isabella; it is, in fact, however, false and perjured, but for therapeutic and ultimately benevolent purposes.

2 An uncompromising rejection of the fifth act can be found in Marco Mincoff's essay, "Measure for Measure: A Question of Approach," Shakespeare Studies, (1966), 141-52: "And then comes the wearisome business of the unmasking, from which all the salt has gone, and we are asked to follow the peripeteias as though we did not know that it was all an elaborately staged ritual" (p. 146). Wrong though Mincoff is in the claim that "all the salt is gone" out of the maneuverings of the fifth act, he is right when he remarks that Shakespeare makes use of "his frequent method of having things both ways by pointing our emotions in one direction when the logic of the whole context would pull them the other" (p. 146). Mincoff believes that "Shakespeare overstepped the limits of illusion," whereas my analysis attempts to show that even with the knowledge that Vincentio "stages" a parody trial in which he is a caricature judge, we, nevertheless, feel the injustice done to the suppliant women, feel genuine outrage as Angelo seems successfully to escape punishment. Shakespeare is having it both ways, but audiences are capable of complex reactions in which knowledge does not dissipate fear or credulity.

3 Mary Lascelles understands that the fifth act is a "play within the play," and her analysis recognizes Vincentio's design "not to confound Angelo at the outset, but to put him off his guard and so make sure that he will settle into the trap" (Shakespeare's Measure for Measure [Athlone Press, London, 1953]), p. 124. And though she sees what many critics miss—the theatrical brilliance of the trap ("All this is very good theater") she offers an epistemological rather than a dramatic analysis of the duke's role in the final moments of the play: "He knows now what is behind the fair shows of society . . . he knows, but he cannot make his knowledge effectual. . . . He can, that is, see and speak, but he cannot act—until, with the disclosure of his identity, knowledge and power are at last effectually joined" (p. 127). Vincentio can act any time he chooses to do so; he does not act against Angelo, not because of impotence but by design: he is allowing Angelo to enjoy his delusory triumph over the women who accuse him. In this play within the play Vincentio is playing the part of the venal judge; he feigns stupidity and corruption so that our indignation may be fired to a white heat and so that our satisfaction, when it finally comes, may be all the greater: that is the best part of this "very good theater." In the chapter concerned with the fifth act, "The Verdict," casuistry, it might be said, weighs more heavily than artistry for Lascelles; a good case can be made for reversing the emphasis.

4 Anthony Brennan, Shakespeare's Dramatic Structures (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1986), p. 71ff.

5 Anthony Caputi seems to recognize that the duke's behavior causes us pain ("Scenic Design in Measure for Measure," Journal of English and German Philology, 60 [1961], 423-24, reprinted in "Measure for Measure": A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. George L. Geckle [Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970]). "Clearly the primary function of Act V is to cause our sense of distress to yield to a sense of reassurance, to supplement our perception of the precariousness of civilized foundations with the perception that with understanding man can regulate, if not remedy, his difficult situation . . . " (p. 95). However, Caputi's bland duke is described as a man who "simply sits back in Act V to let the intrigue work itself out"; in fact, the duke is very busy behaving like a caricature of a blind and bigoted ruler and judge.

6 R. L. P. Jackson's analysis of the fifth act takes a benevolent view of Angelo ("Necessary Ambiguity: The Last Act of Measure for Measure," Critical Review, 26 [1984], 114-29). "If, as I take it we do, we squirm a little uncomfortably in our seats, then the squirming is partly on Angelo's behalf (p. 116). In his emphasis on ambiguity, the critic assures us, "Shakespeare awakens our sympathies to what it would be like to be an Angelo . . ." (p. 117). In Jackson's view, "we're all on trial in this last act" (p. 123), and apparently are not better than Angelo and probably have "been too easy on our own (as we think them) benignly humanitarian impulses" (p. 120). Such tolerance of Angelo leads to a blurring of moral distinctions. The only revenge that Jackson discusses is that of the duke against Lucio. He does not recognize that our "squirming" expresses the desire to have Angelo stopped, exposed, and punished. It may reflect badly on us, but we cannot identify with Angelo. To the contrary, his success in brazening out the charges leveled against him, until finally the tables are turned, angers us. Traditional moral notions are not on trial, and if we who are guided by these are on trial, it is not in the sense in which Jackson means to humble us. The trial requires us to endure a great deal of sustained frustration in the hope that punitive justice, demanded by Angelo's crimes, will be forthcoming: in the hope that our moral discomfort will be assuaged.

7 The critic A. D. Nuttall asserts, "The play leaves [Angelo] in a state of torture, mitigated only by the fact that Claudio is not, after all, dead" ("Measure for Measure: Quid Pro Quo?" Shakespeare Studies, 4 [1968], p. 247). If it is true that "any producer who has Angelo leave the stage at the close of the play in a state of happy tranquillity simply does not know his business," what is the final effect of what Nuttall calls Vincentio's "orgy of clemency"? Do we leave the theater with punitive desires unassuaged and in a state of irritation?

Nuttall's paradox whereby the Judas-like Angelo takes "upon his shoulders our sins" allows him to explain, at least partially, the "mysterious resonance" that unarguably, attaches to the duke's deputy. Exploring the paradox (found in Borges' "Three Versions of Judas" in Ficciones) Nuttall displays his gifts as a casuist. Angelo in Nuttall's essay seems to suffer exclusively from a moral anguish. But it is in the ferocious miscegenation of principled morality and uncontrollable sexual feelings that Angelo's character is created—or should we say destroyed? Nuttall might have made an even better case for Angelo's bifurcated status as devil and saint if he had confronted the explicitly sexual nature of the deputy's torment.

8 A. P. Rossiter (Angel with Horns [Theatre Arts Books, New York, 1961]) is dissatisfied with Isabella's "plea for Angelo"; it "comes too suddenly, too like a Beaumont and Fletcher switchover—without thought . Shakespeare does not let her open her mind to us. This is worse than her silence for over eighty lines at the end of the play, before she declines coyly into the ex-Friar's bosom" (p. 162). As has been pointed out (Chapter 6, n. 2), nowhere in the play does Shakespeare "let [Isabella] open her mind to us" through the kind of introspective soliloquy that twice affords a window to Angelo's thoughts and feelings. The eighty lines of silence come after Vincentio has declared, "Your suit's unprofitable" (1. 460). Isabella's plea, on behalf of Angelo and, more important, Mariana, who is her true client, has failed, at least momentarily, and to the extent that Angelo values his own life—a problematic point—Angelo will suffer in much the same way Claudio suffered when Isabella had to spurn him as he begged for life. And so the subtle but potent tension, not recognized by Rossiter, keeps Angelo on tenterhooks—he has "crav[ed] death more willingly than mercy"—while Vincentio attends to other matters. If Angelo wants to die, he will soon be punished with life and marriage; if he wants to live, he is being tormented with the threat of death. Rossiter does not focus on the primary character in these final . moments of the play: Angelo, who is in the dock, not attorney Isabella.

9 Northrop Frye tells us that when Isabella "pleads for Angelo's life on the ground that he is less villainous than self-deluded . . . we understand that this is really what the whole second half of the play is about" (The Myth of Deliverance [University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1983] p. 29). Her speech, "Look, if it please you, on this man condemned / As if my brother lived" (V.i.449-50), Frye claims, "expresses the genuine kind of love, the charity which is the supreme virtue, that Isabella had dimly in mind when she first wanted to be a nun."

We must be pleased to find Northrop Frye willing, charitably, to speak of Isabella's charity. He believes in "the genuine sanctity of Isabella," and so do we. Frye goes on to say that, with the reprieve of Angelo, "the law has been, not annulled or contradicted, but transcended; not broken but fulfilled by being internalized" (p. 30). Frye then makes what is surely an unsupportable statement. "Measure for Measure is among other things a subtle and searching comedy of humors in which Angelo andIsabella are released from the humors of different kinds of legalism, or what Blake would call moral virtue" (p. 38). This, however, ignores the obvious fact that it is a legalism, a quibble, that makes it possible for Isabella to argue for Angelo's freedom. Earlier, Frye had glanced at The Merchant of Venice. Strange then that he does not recognize that Isabella, like Portia, uses the law to achieve the deliverance that is the subject of Frye's study. However exalted the aims of these two amateur attorneys, their means are those of the tricky lawyer. As we say nowadays, Portia "gets her client off on a technicality," and so does Isabella. Frye need not have evaded the fact that Isabella uses legalistic means to achieve noble ends. After all, the play as a whole is characterized by the use of expedience to achieve pleasing results.


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Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Substitution in Measure for Measure," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3, Autumn, 1988, pp. 342-59.

[In the essay below, Leggatt stresses that not only is the use of substitutions pervasive in Measure for Measure, but that the substitutions are all problematic in that they fail to achieve the intended ends, or they are in some way unsatisfying. Leggatt concludes that the substitutions, although revealing, are incomplete.]

In the sources that Shakespeare used for Measure For Measure, the heroine gives her own body to the judge in order to save her brother. Shakespeare spares Isabella that fate by putting Mariana in her place. This substitution is part of a pattern of substitution, virtually a chain reaction, that runs through the play. A. D. Nuttall has called "vicarious action" the "principal idea" of the play,1 and James Black has shown how pervasive the idea is: not only does Mariana substitute for Isabella, but Angelo substitutes for the Duke; then Isabella asks Angelo to put himself in Claudio's place, and he does. When the bed-trick fails, "Maidenhead-for-maidenhead" becomes "head-for-head";2 Barnardine for Claudio; Ragozine for Barnardine. In fact, Ragozine has the distinction of being a substitute substitute. Not long ago I took part in a production of this play;3 at the first rehearsal when we were allegedly off book, the Provost approached Angelo and asked, "Is it your will Angelo shall die tomorrow?"—leaving Angelo somewhat at a loss for an answer that fitted the script. Throughout rehearsals—and performances—the transpositions continued. Quite late in the run Escalus was heard to exclaim, "But yet, poor Angelo!" The names chime together: Angelo and Claudio, Barnardine and Ragozine; but this was only a symptom of something deeper. Some gremlin of substitution was in the air, like the evil spirits that haunt performances of Macbeth. This gremlin can be seen at work in the text. Why does Friar Peter take over from Friar Thomas? One could be clever and say that as part of the play's comic movement we go from the doubting apostle to the rock on which the Church is founded; but I suspect it's simply the gremlin at work. Part of the manufactured confusion of the last scene stems from the fact that characters do not speak for themselves. Friar Peter identifies himself as Friar Lodowick's mouth-piece, "To speak, as from his mouth, what he doth know / Is true and false" (V.i.157-58).4 He does this rather oddly, seeming to defend Angelo and attack the women, while the "real" Friar Lodowick does just the opposite. Angelo says of Isabella and Mariana:

I do perceive These poor informal women are no more But instruments of some more mightier member That sets them on.


Lucio casts the Friar in his own role as slanderer of the Duke:

Had he been lay, my lord, For certain words he spake against your Grace In your retirement, I had swing'd him soundly.


Later the Duke, as Friar, declares, "You must, sir, change persons with me, ere you make that my report" (V.i.334-35). Part of the business of the dénouement is quite simply getting people to appear as themselves and speak as themselves, clearing away substitutions and reversing transposed identities.

The idea of substitution appears not just in the comic machinery of the play, where its presence could be seen as conventional, but in the language of the more serious scenes. When Angelo hints that Claudio could be saved by sin, Isabella takes it that he sees mercy as a sin, and she offers to assume the guilt herself:

. . . you granting of my suit, If that be sin, I'Ll make it my morn prayer To have it added to the faults of mine, And nothing of your answer.


She offers, in effect, to take his place. When Claudio at first agrees with her refusal to give up her chastity, she declares, "There my father's grave / Did utter forth a voice" (III.i.85-86); Claudio is speaking as her father, saying what he would say. His declaration, "I will encounter darkness as a bride / And hug it in mine arms" (III.i.83-84) suggests another bed-trick, with death taking the place of Juliet. The idea has other ramifications. Not just in the Duke's peculiar decision to leave Angelo in charge of the city, but in the normal workings of society as a whole, substitution is pervasive. Elbow owes his job to it; he says of his neighbors, "As they are chosen, they are glad to choose me for them." Escalus's order, "Look you bring me in the names of some six or seven, the most sufficient of your parish" (II.i.265-70), makes it clear that he is going to find a substitute for Elbow.

In Isabella's plea for mercy, we touch on the greatest substitution of all:

Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once, And He that might the vantage best have took Found out the remedy.


This is the doctrine of the Atonement. Since this is arguably the central and defining doctrine of Christianity, it is tempting to do what some critics have done and see it as central to the play,5 but that is to ignore the theatrical effect of its placement in the scene. It is part of Isabella's argument but not the climax of it; it has no effect on Angelo, and the scene sweeps on past it. Angelo puts himself not in the place of Christ but in the place of Claudio; Isabella herself, as James Black has noted, will not take the way of substitution: she will not sacrifice herself to save Claudio.6 Another kind of divine substitution is suggested when Angelo laments his fallen spiritual state. His line, "Heaven in my mouth" should almost certainly read "God in my mouth";7 it has been damaged by the general expunging of oaths in the Folio. The passage then reads:

God 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 bread of the communion substitutes for the body of Christ; and Angelo's image suggests that in chewing the name only, with his heart full of evil thoughts, he is incurring the condemnation of which St. Paul writes: "he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body" (I Corinthians, 11:29). Angelo's image is central to Christian liturgy, as Isabella's is central to Christian theology; but once again, this time more directly, the context makes it ironic. One route of salvation is ignored, the other is perverted.

God acts on man through a series of substitutions: the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and the priesthood—represented here by a Duke who dresses up as a Friar and goes around hearing confessions in a manner that would produce a major scandal in an actual Catholic community. In every case the substitution, as it appears in Measure for Measure, is in some way clouded by irony. The substitutions that are central to the plot are all, in various ways, unsatisfying. Angelo and Elbow have this in common: they fail to perform adequately in the roles assigned to them. The bed-trick fails to appease Angelo; the substitution of Barnardine for Claudio is called off when Barnardine refuses to die. We need, then, to do more than note the pervasiveness of substitution in the play; we need also to note its problematic quality, for this may help us to understand why Shakespeare was so interested in it and took the trouble to explore it from such a great variety of angles.

Let us begin with the first of the play's substitutions, Angelo for the Duke. The Duke has two deputies, but in the first scene he speaks to them in very different terms. He tells Escalus,

. . . I am put to know that your own science Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice My strength can give you. Then no more remains But that, to your sufficiency, as your worth is able, And let them work.


The passage is obscure in detail but its drift is clear: the Duke trusts to Escalus's own ability.He is worthy in himself; nothing needs to be given to him. In sharp contrast, the Duke bestows his own role on Angelo, as though Angelo himself is nothing and must be given the Duke's office and capacities before he can function:

What figure of us, think you, he will bear? For you must know, we have with special soul Elected him our absence to supply; Lent him our terror, drest him with our love, And given his deputation all the organs Of our own power. What think you of it?


His persistent questioning suggests an edginess about the decision, as does his repeated insistence on Angelo's substitute role later in the scene: "In our remove, be thou at full ourself" (1. 43); "Your scope is as mine own" (1. 64). Angelo is also nervous about his assignment:

Now, good my lord,
Let there be some more test made of my metal,

Before so noble and so great a figure Be stamp'd upon it.


He imagines that the Duke will give him his identity as the stamp turns a piece of metal into a coin; but he wonders if the metal itself is worthy of the impression.

Why does the Duke make Angelo his substitute? We will consider the Duke more fully later; but we may note here that the motives he expresses overtly come close to cancelling each other out: Angelo will make up for the Duke's failure to clean up the city, and in the process his own nature will be tested. The first motive suggests trust in Angelo, the second distrust. We may also note that certain similarities link the two men: both profess a dislike of crowds, though the Duke's is qualified—"I love the people, / But do not like to stage me to their eyes" (I.i.67-68)—while Angelo is more simply critical of the "foolish throngs" (II.iv.24). There may be more to this than an expression of sympathy for James I's similar feelings. The Duke's love of "the life remoV'd" (I.iii.8) is something that links him both with Angelo, who takes on public office with reluctance, and with Isabella, who has to be practically dragged out of the convent to plead for her brother's life. Making Angelo act for him solves a problem for the Duke's reputation: Angelo

may in th' ambush of my name strike home, And yet my nature never in the fight To do in slander.


He is made to undergo not only the responsibility but the public exposure the Duke shuns. The Duke picks for this role not someone who enjoys the limelight but someone who in this respect is like himself; and Angelo is made to undergo worse than this. The Duke's "Believe not that thedribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom" (I.iii.2-3) is the equivalent of Angelo's "Eve[r] till now / When men were fond, I smil'd, and wonder'd how" (II.ii.186-87). The Duke throws Angelo, on his behalf, not only into the arena of power but into the arena of sexual experience.8 Angelo suffers the disgrace and torment; the Duke comes along when it is all over and proposes marriage.

To put it that way may seem to credit the Duke with a foreknowledge of the plot that is hardly believable. But his curiosity about how Angelo will behave is centered on the question of whether he can control his appetites:

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. Hence shall we see If power change purpose, what our seemers be.


To take on power is to undergo temptation, and Angelo is to do both on the Duke's behalf. The Duke professes abstinence; so does Angelo. In seeing how Angelo behaves, the Duke may be revealing a curiosity, even anxiety, about himself. "Our seemers," interestingly, is plural. We see how nettled the Duke is by Lucio's slanders; and most of these concern his sexual behavior. A similar defensiveness is suggested by the Duke's jest with the Provost, when he asks to be left alone with Isabella: "My mind promises with my habit no loss shall touch her by my company" (III.i.176-77). This is odd and pointless—even, in view of what Isabella has just been through, a bit tasteless. Like his reactions to Lucio, it may reflect the Duke's touchiness about his own sexuality.

In more than one sphere, then, the Duke gets Angelo to do his dirty work. Rosalind Miles observes that "the Duke's realisation of the mistake of trying to enforce the law too strictly seems to have been learned entirely through Angelo, and at his expense."9 Whether the Duke does realize the mistake is a moot point, but it is certainly true that Angelo, on the difficult matter of law enforcement, takes both the risk and the blame. He is clearly the most unpopular man in Vienna. If the tough action needed to clean up the city involves some risk to the soul, or at least to the moral nature, of the authority who tries it (it is not business for a saint), then Angelo must bear that too.10 In being the Duke's substitute, Angelo is also his victim. Moreover, there is only one respect in which the substitution is clearly successful. The defiance of Pompey and the final distribution of pardons make law enforcement look futile; there is no certainty that the city will ever be cleaned up. Though Angelo may be taking the risk of erotic involvement on the Duke's behalf, the connection is not so clearly established as it might be, and in any case Isabella's silence in the face of the Duke's proposal leaves the theme unresolved. What has been achieved, without question, is the testing, exposure, and humiliation of Angelo. Whatever his last thoughts are after the dénouement, his last words express a longing for death. As achievements go, this one is negative.

In the last scene, the Duke's initial action of withdrawing from Vienna and leaving deputies to rule for him is not just reversed but parodied. Putting Angelo and Escalus in charge of the inquiry into Isabella's accusations, the Duke leaves the stage again. He then returns as the Friar and asks for himself. Escalus's reply, "The Duke's in us" (V.i.293) is sharply ironic. The Duke is not in Angelo or Escalus; he is on stage in the person of the Friar. And when Escalus in the Duke's name goes on to badger and threaten the Friar, the effect is increasingly comic. We would expect Shakespeare, as part of the dénouement, to have the Duke finally speak and act for himself, but he goes beyond this, subjecting the whole idea of political substitution to ironic comedy, making it look futile.

The play's other major substitution, the bed-trick, has its own futility. Quite simply, Angelo takes his price and orders Claudio's execution anyway. And just as the Duke's motives in putting Angelo in his place seem mixed and shadowy, so there are aspects of the bedtrick that remain curiously unexplored. Experts may debate whether Mariana loses her virginity under the same legal conditions as Juliet did; what the play is at pains to emphasize is that the personal relationship is utterly different. Claudio and Juliet are simply in love: the key word for their sexual relationship is Juliet's "Mutually" (II.iii.27). Mariana, on the other hand, is obsessed with a man who wants nothing to do with her, and who beds her thinking she is someone else. This raises questions about the nature and quality of their sexual encounter, questions that I think are more than just vulgar curiosity. In the production I was involved in, Angelo and Mariana spoke to each other in the last moments of the play, in dialogue that, since it was not intended to be heard by the audience, gave the performers a certain latitude for mischief. One night Angelo asked Mariana, "How was I?" to which she replied, "Well, I still want to marry you."

In the text there is nothing of the kind. We do not know how Angelo feels about the experience he was so desperate to have; his decision to have Claudio executed might indicate disappointment, but I think it more likely reflects the peculiar legal turn of his mind. The self-disgust he shows in his final soliloquy is nothing new; he has felt it all along. Certainly he feels no better, and he has evidently made no attempt to meet Isabella again; once was enough. About Mariana's feelings we know nothing. Should we expect to know anything? We have the precedent of Helena's words following the bed-trick in All's Well That Ends Well: "O my good lord, when I was like this maid, / I found you wondrous kind" (V.iii.307-8). The sad, touching irony of this line reverberates through the whole relationship of Bertram and Helena. He was a good lover for her because he thought she was someone else. He also seems to have been a better lover than his cynical indifference to Diana once the encounter is over would indicate; he is not just a lecherous young brute. Or is Helena's "wondrous kind" a charitable exaggeration? Or, to take a darker reading, is she simply grateful for anything? However one takes it, the line encourages speculation about the quality of the encounter, speculation that illuminates the characters in a variety of ways. No such illumination is provided in Measure for Measure. We have no indication that the encounter humanizes Angelo or satisfies Mariana; neither character seems different. There is something blank and anonymous about it. James Trombetta has suggested that "Sexuality is deeply threatening to Angelo because it presents itself as the solvent of character, a fall into anonymity";11 whether this is true of Angelo's own thinking, it certainly seems true of the bed-trick. All cats are grey in the dark. It does not represent a stage in the relationship of the participants, as it does for Bertram and Helena. One simple sign of this is that we know Helena is pregnant at the end of the play, while about Mariana's condition we know nothing.

But at least Mariana, like Angelo, has taken the risk of acting for another person, and she has done so more willingly than he. As James Black points out, "Here is the first act of wholehearted substitution."12 We might add that for Mariana all cats are not grey in the light. Angelo has added to his other offenses the intention (and, so far as he knows, the act) of infidelity. The Duke points out, "It is your husband mock'd you with a husband" (V.i.416). He was consummating their relationship only in the most literal, physical way; in his mind he was having sex with Isabella. In that sense he was not the real thing but a substitute, a mock-husband. Yet when the Duke offers to give Mariana Angelo's estate "To buy you a better husband" she replies, "O my dear lord, / I crave no other, nor no better man" (V.i.423-24). For her there is a point at which the game of sunstitution has to stop; for whatever reason, Angelo's value to her is unique, and no other man will do. If there is indeed something impersonal and anonymous about sex, this is Mariana's answer to it.

We may think that the bed-trick frees Isabella from all risk and all responsibility. Mariana will simply do the job for her. But Isabella is not let off: in the last scene their relationship is reversed, as she substitutes for Mariana. She has to undergo the embarrassment and—it must seem for a while—the very considerable danger of accusing Angelo in public, claiming he has done to her what he actually did to Mariana. She undergoes this trial with characteristic reluctance:

To speak so indirectly I am loth; I would say the truth, but to accuse him so That is your part; yet I am advis'd to do it, He says, to veil full purpose.


Mariana has nothing worse to confess than the fact that she has slept with her husband; Isabella must confess, falsely and publicly, to the fornication she actually refused to commit. This is not the same as doing the deed, of course, but theatrically she is forced to imitate the fallen woman she would not be in reality; in its own way this is a kind of surrogate action.

She goes further in her plea for Angelo's life. Once again she acts on Mariana's behalf, answering the other woman's request, "Sweet Isabel, take my part" (V.i.428), speaking not for what she wants but for what Mariana wants. But she can do more than just substitute for Mariana. In one sense her plea is very different, cold and reserved as Mariana's is not:

I partly think A due sincerity govern'd his deeds Till he did look on me.


This is not Mariana's style. In another way, however, Isabella's plea has far greater force. Mariana can do little more than express her own desire and her hope that Angelo will reform. Isabella, as the party most deeply wronged, can address with real authority the central question of Angelo's offense. Since there is no self-interest behind it, a plea from her has greater weight than a plea from Mariana. As Mariana, not Isabella, was the sexual partner Angelo should have had, so Isabella, not Mariana, is the advocate he really needs.

This substitution, like the others, fails in its apparent purpose. The Duke's reply, "Your suit's unprofitable" (V.i.453), makes it seem futile, and his ultimate intention of mercy means that it was never necessary in the first place. Or, at least, it was never necessary as a way of saving Angelo. Itwas necessary, instead, as a test of Isabella. In every case we have examined so far, the substitution fails in its overt intent but tests the character of the substitute. Angelo does not clean up Vienna but reveals his own nature. Mariana's giving of her body does not save Claudio but tells us something of her own capacity for commitment; Isabella's plea does not save Angelo, but the fact that she can make it at all shows a measure of charity that her harsh words to Claudio made us doubt. In testing and revealing the character of the substitute, each episode also reveals that the substitution cannot be exact; one person simply does not equal another. Angelo is not the Duke, Mariana is not Isabella, nor is Isabella Mariana. Made to act on another's behalf, they reveal their own individuality. In Brecht's Mann ist Mann, individuality is meaningless, and the porter Galy Gay can become for all practical purposes the missing soldier Jeraiah Jip. The play ends with him fixed in his new identity. Shakespeare's human material is less tractable and more significant.

The political and sexual substitutions in the play have of course been much discussed; critics have been less interested in the attempted substitution of Barnardine for Claudio, but I think it was very important for Shakespeare. He took unusual pains to bring the characters together theatrically. Between his great scene with Isabella and his wordless appearance in the finale Claudio appears only once, when the Provost asks that he and Barnardine be fetched out together. Only Claudio appears, explaining that Barnardine is "As fast lock'd up in sleep as guiltless labour / When it lies starkly in the traveller's bones" (IV.ii.64-65). Wakeful and obedient, Claudio initially contrasts with Barnardine—but parallels accumulate. The Duke takes Barnardine as a challenge, determining to "Persuade this rude wretch willingly to die" (IV.iii.80). He has tried the same with Claudio, not altogether successfully; it is safe to predict that with Barnardine he will fail. (There is, incidentally, another substitution in the last scene as Friar Peter is given Friar Lodowick's old job of spiritual advisor to Barnardine—arguably a harder fate than Lucio's.) Later the Duke orders the Provost, "put them in secret holds, / Both Barnardine and Claudio" (IV.iii.86-87), as though they were similar material to be stored in adjacent bins. In the last scene they enter together, suggesting again some equation between them. Shakespeare is hinting, I think, that there is more to Barnardine's relationship with Claudio than the fact that he has a head to sever.

Mary Lascelles notes an echo of the Duke's speech to Claudio on the emptiness of life in the Provost's description of Barnardine as "A man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep" (IV.ii.140-41). She calls this echo "unintended and unlucky,"13 but I am not so sure. Both men cling to a life the Duke describes as "an after-dinner's sleep" (III.i.33); his question, "What's yet in this / That bears the name of life?" (III.i.38-39), is directed at Claudio but applies with equal or greater force to Barnardine. The Provost says of the latter, "He hath evermore had the liberty of the prison: give him leave to escape hence, he would not" (IV.ii.145-47). One reading of this is that wherever Barnardine may be physically, he is always spiritually in the prison of himself; he carries his own cell with him. Physical escape would be pointless and meaningless. This, according to Isabella, is the life Claudio would have if he let himself be rescued at the cost of his sister's shame:

. . . perpetual durance; a restraint, Though all the world's vastidity you had, To a determin'd scope.


Claudio too would carry his prison with him.

But the substitution of Barnardine for Claudio does not, like the bed-trick, fail; it does not even take place. Not only does Barnardine refuse, but in literal terms he was never a good duplicate in the first place. The Provost objects, "Angelo hath seen them both, and will discover the favour"; the Duke replies, "O, death's a great disguiser; and you may add to it. Shave the head, and tie the beard" (IV.ii.172-75). Though the Duke shows his usual confidence, it is clear that this will need more technical work than the bed-trick seems to do. In the end it is Ragozine who takes Claudio's place (and Barnardine's). He is "more like to Claudio," "A man of Claudio's years; his beard and head / Just of his colour" (IV.iii.75, 71-72). His severed head makes a brief appearance, but he is otherwise unseen. He never establishes, like Barnardine, an onstage identity that makes him an individual. All we know of him is that he is "a most notorious pirate" who has just died of "a cruel fever" (IV.iii.69-70). He might be linked with the sanctimonious pirate of I.ii, who went to sea with the Ten Commandments minus one; but that too is an offstage character, and while we may say of Claudio and Angelo that they respect all the commandments but one, the connection is, I think, too general to be very significant. Ragozine's "fever" might have suggested the fires of lust if such imagery had been as pervasive in this play as it is in Troilus and Cressida; but it is not. There are suggestions, perhaps, that Ragozine bears the sins of the other characters and purges them by his death; but these suggestions do not go very far, and the main impression, certainly the theatrical impression, is that Ragozine will do as a Claudio-substitute because he is not really an individual. Barnardine is; so, of course, is Claudio. When the Provost unmuffles him at the end of the play, he calls him "As like almost to Claudio as himself (V.i.487). The phrasing really conveys that there is no one like Claudio. He is, like all human beings, unique and irreplaceable. So is Barnardine. When Barnardine is simply described, he sounds expendable. When we actually see him, we recognize in his brute stubbornness and pride—"If you have anything to say to me, come to my ward" (IV.iii.61-62)—something we would hate to lose. Shakespeare acknowledges this by bringing Barnardine on stage for public forgiveness. In strict plot terms Barnardine is a red herring. We could cut him and go straight to Ragozine, and the story would be unaffected. But he is there as an acid test of the principle that no human being is replaceable or expendable. If we can say that of Barnardine, we can say it of anybody.

The question of whether Barnardine can really be equated with Claudio has other implications for the play's treatment of substitution, to which I would now like to turn. Angelo is like the Duke and unlike him; Barnardine is like Claudio and unlike him—and so on through the play. Characters, ideas, and actions are explored for their similarities and differences, and the result is a series of mirroring effects, of likenesses that are striking but not quite exact (just as a literal mirror image is not quite exact, since it flattens and reverses what it reflects). Claudio's crime is fornication, Barnardine's is murder, and different characters pick away at the possibility of an equation between these crimes. Lucio asks Claudio if his crime is murder or lechery (I.ii.129). For Angelo there is no real difference:

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 mettle in restrained means To make a false one.


He then goes on to give Isabella the choice of sex with him or death for her brother. Her decision, "I had rather my brother die by the law, than my son should be unlawfully born" (III.i.188-90), continues the experiment of weighing sex and killing in the same set of balances. From this point of view Claudio has violated life no less than Barnardine has. It is an interesting notion. But we should listen to the straightforward common sense of the Provost, comparing the two men: "Th' one has my pity; not a jot the other, / Being a murderer, though he were my brother" (IV.ii.59-60).

The equation of Claudio and Barnardine is unexpected, interesting, and worth pursuing for a while, but it finally breaks down.14 The same could be said of other character equations. For example, the two great scenes that pit Angelo and Isabella against each other bring out ironic resemblances between them. Both have been led out, reluctantly, into a world of practical action that is dangerous to them. The Duke's words to Angelo—

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.


—form a rough parallel to Lucio's insistence that Isabella come out of the convent to save her brother. Describing the frailty of women, Isabella uses the image Angelo had used for his own frailty: ". . . we are soft as our complexions are, / And credulous to false prints" (II.iv.128-29). More important, their two scenes together are mirror images of each other. In the first, Isabella argues against absolute standards—"That in the captain's but a choleric word, / Which in the soldier is flat blasphemy" (II.ii.131-32)—while Angelo insists on them. In the second, it is Angelo who argues against the absolute, reacting to Isabella's "'Tis set down so in heaven, but not in earth" with "Say you so? Then I shall pose you quickly" (II.iv.50-51), and driving her into the strict legalism that had been his. There is some point in his challenge, "Were you not then as cruel as the sentence / That you have slandered so?" (II.iv.109-10). In the first scene, Angelo is backed into a corner, and he ends the scene with a soliloquy expressing his dilemma; in the second, this move is repeated by Isabella.15 She admits, up to a point, that she has used dubious arguments that he can now turn against her:

Ang. You seem'd of late to make the law a tyrant, And rather proV'd the sliding of your brother A merriment than a vice.Isab. O 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.


Yet she never succumbs to Angelo's attempt to equate her legalistic cruelty with his:

Ignomy in ransom and free pardon Are of two houses: lawful mercy Is nothing kin to foul redemption.


Like the Provost, she insists on a clear, final distinction based on common sense.

Angelo's offense, up to a point, resembles Claudio's. Isabella asks him to imagine an exchange: "If he had been as you, and you as he, / You would have slipp'd like him" (II.ii.64-65), and later, more directly,

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


These are the words that trigger his first guilty aside: "She speaks, and tis such sense / That my sense breeds with it" (II.ii.142-43). Escalus has already raised the question of Angelo's committing Claudio's sin, and Angelo has given the answer:

You may not so extenuate his offence For I have had such faults; but rather tell me, When I that censure him do so offend, Let mine own judgement pattern out my death, And nothing come in partial.


It appears at the end that this is exactly what will happen:

'An Angelo for Claudio; death for death. Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.' Then, Angelo, thy fault's thus manifested, Which, though thou would'st deny, denies thee vantage. We do condemn thee to the very block Where Claudio stoop'd to death, and with like haste.


Far from denying the justice of the sentence, Angelo insists on it: "'Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it" (V.i.475). Yet it is central to Isabella's plea that the cases are not alike:

My brother had but justice, In that he did the thing for which he died: For Angelo, His act did not o'ertake his bad intent, And must be buried but as an intent That perish'd by the way.


She means that Angelo did not sleep with her, but with Mariana; and her words have a greater resonance than she knows, for he did not kill Claudio either. (The Duke's words have a similar resonance: so long as Angelo is condemned to the block where Claudio died, he is perfectly safe.) Isabella makes a legal distinction between the sexual offenses, making Angelo's seem lighter. We have already made a personal distinction that makes it heavier: we cannot react to the meeting of lovers, mutally agreed, as we do to Angelo's brutal commands, "Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite" and "Redeem thy brother / By yielding up thy body to my will" (II.iv.160, 162-63). The equation of Angelo's offense with Claudio's is an irony that is significant up to a point; but beyond that point it fails.

The same could be said of equations that surround it, that are touched on more lightly: Lucio's image for Claudio and Juliet, "her plenteous womb / Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry" (I.iv.43-44), is echoed by the Duke's hope for the bed-trick: "Our corn's to reap, for yet our tithe's to sow" (IV.i.76). Yet the differences, as we have seen, are crucial. Isabella and Juliet are adopted cousins (I.iv.45-48); Angelo sees himself as taking their relationship a stage farther: "Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness / As she that he hath stain'd" (II.iv.54-55). But the parallel is false, for there is no sweetness in what he offers. This denial of apparent resemblance is repeated in incidental touches throughout the play. The First Gentleman's "Well, there went but a pair of shears between us" is countered by Lucio's "I grant: as there may between the lists and the velvet" (I.ii.27-29). More important, when Escalus feels called upon to defend Claudio's sentence, he adopts one of Angelo's arguments: "Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so; / Pardon is still the nurse of second woe" (II.i.280-81). Minutes later Angelo will declare that he shows pity

most of all when I show justice; For then I pity those I do not know, Which a dismiss'd offence would after gall, And do him right that, answering one foul wrong, Lives not to act another.


The difference is that Escalus adds, in his next breath, "But yet, poor Claudio!" (II.i.282), and we see at once that the two men cannot finally be equated.

In setting up parallels only to question them, the play is in effect examining its own processes, for the drawing of parallels through action, images, and ideas is a device that lends both unity and resonance to the work as a whole. The play produces several variations on Lear's "change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?" (, a question that might well be asked of Angelo and Claudio. Elbow's "mistaking words" is a conventional stage-constable joke, but in transposing varlets and honorable men, and making "respected" a term of abuse, he casts an ironiclight on the respected varlet Angelo. When Abhorson objects to having Pompey as his assistant, the Provost retorts, "you weigh equally; a feather will turn the scale" (IV.ii.28-29). Pompey's jests about cutting off men's heads and women's heads (IV.ii.1-4), given that fornication is a capital offense in Vienna, make the crime and the punishment alike. Given the bawdy implication of "serve your turn" (cf. Love's Labor's Lost, I.i.289-90), Pompey's punning on the word "turn" is more than just gallows humor (IV.ii.54-57). As Josephine Waters Bennett points out, in calling out Abhorson's customers he is acting as pimp to the headsman.16 Coming from brothel to prison, Pompey does not notice much difference: "I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession: one would think it were Mistress Overdone's own house, for here be many of her old customers" (IV.iii.1-4). His catalogue of prisoners is like the catalogue of brothel customers that forms one of the stock devices of Jacobean comedy.17 Also conventional in Jacobean comedy is the linking of the whore and the usurer, both illicit breeders.18 This lends some point to Pompey's complaint, "'Twas never merry world since, of two usuries, the merriest was put down" (III.ii.6-7). Wedding and hanging, proverbially equated, come together in the punishments that threaten Angelo and Lucio. The latter complains, "Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, / Whipping, and hanging" (V.i.520-21). The sex-death equation returns here, as it does in Pompey's change of jobs. If bedding and killing are imaginatively so close, there would seem to be something finally interchangeable about life and death. As Claudio declares, "To sue to live, I find I seek to die, / And seeking death, find life" (III.i.42-43).

Yet however we may play with the idea, death and life are not finally the same. The Duke's insistence on wedding but not killing, and on keeping everyone, even Barnardine, alive at the end of the play, shows Claudio's resolve as heroic but out of tune with the comic world. The ironic equation of brothel and prison is perhaps more convincing, but Pompey finally admits that the new life of the inmates is not really the same as the old one: they were "all great doers in our trade, and are now 'For the Lord's sake'" (IV.iii.18-20). And for all his breezy self-confidence, Pompey the assistant executioner is a smaller figure than Pompey the bawd. We see him taking orders from Abhorson, as he never does from Mistress Overdone (in their relationship he seems, if anything, to have the initiative). The Provost's "Come, sir, leave me your snatches, and yield me a direct answer" (IV.ii.5-6) suggests that his other role as clown will be restrained from now on; while the Fourth Act may create the impression that he will survive and prosper, he lapses into uncharacteristic silence partway through his last scene, and in the Fifth Act he has simply disappeared.

The play of likeness and difference also affects Isabella's plea to Angelo. Not to Isabella but to Claudio and Lucio—and eventually to Angelo himself—it is like a sexual seduction. Claudio imagines that her appeal will be physical, not just intellectual:

. . . in her youth There is a prone and speechless dialect Such as move men. . . .


Egging her on from the sidelines and refusing to let her leave till she has won her man, Lucio behaves in the first Angelo-Isabella scene very much as Pandarus does in the first encounter between Troilus and Cressida.19 Angelo's pun, "She speaks, and 'Tis such sense / That my sense breeds with it" (II.ii.142-43), acknowledges the link. His odd instruction to his servant when Isabella comes forthe second meeting, "Teach her the way" (II.iv.19), suggests that Isabella is about to enter a labyrinth, and this idea is echoed in the elaborate instructions for finding the place of their sexual encounter: "he did show me / The way twice o'er" (IV.i.40-41).20 In both scenes she comes for a debate on a legal, moral, and spiritual question of great importance to her only to find that what is on the line is not her mind but her body. But of course the equation of her plea with a sexual seduction breaks down as soon as we see her own reaction when the trap is sprung. We may note another parallel, smaller but suggestive: the scene in which the Duke brings the two women together is followed immediately by the scene in which the Provost brings Pompey and Abhorson together. A small spark leaps from the Duke's line, "Welcome; how agreed?" (IV.i.65), to the Provost's "Are you agreed?" (IV.ii.46). But the comic piquancy of the resemblance, like the irony of Isabella's plea-cum-seduction, depends as much on difference as on likeness.

Can characters stand for each other? Can actions stand for each other? Measure for Measure gives the usual Shakespearean answer: yes and no. Much of its imaginative and intellectual life depends on this play of likeness and difference, which is also a play on one of the essential conditions of poetry itself, which both examines the likeness of things and asserts their uniqueness: lovers are a pair of compasses, my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun, a rose is a rose is a rose. The play also provokes the question, can characters stand for concepts larger than themselves? It is remarkable how often in criticism of the play the characters have been assigned allegorical roles. Some critics have whole lists of these assignments. Here is G. Wilson Knight's: "Isabella stands for sainted purity, Angelo for Pharisaical righteousness, the Duke for a psychologically sound and enlightened ethic. Lucio represents indecent wit, Pompey and Mistress Overdone professional immorality. Barnardine is hard-headed, criminal, insensitiveness."21 Here is M. C. Bradbrook's: "Angelo stands for Authority and for Law, usurping the place of the Duke, who is not only the representative of Heavenly Justice but of Humility, whilst Isabel represents both Truth and Mercy." Bradbrook later refines Angelo's role, making him stand for "the letter of the Law, for a false Authority" and for "Seeming or False Semblant."22 The marriage of Isabella and the Duke has been seen, variously, as "the marriage of understanding with purity; of tolerance with moral fervour"23 and as the wedding of erring but forgiven humanity with Christ the Bridegroom.24 Other critics have cautioned against such allegorical readings, pointing to the complexity and inconsistency of the characters.25 The good sense of this warning seems obvious; yet, just as there is some gremlin in the text that makes actors transpose names, there is another that makes critics think they are reading a morality play.

Angelo pursues Claudio "To make him an example" (I.iv.68), as his insistence on parading him through the streets suggests. He is to stand for the fornicators of Vienna, as Lucio realizes when he undertakes to save him "for the encouragement of the like, which else would stand under grievous imposition" (I.ii.177-79). Isabella's "Who is it that hath died for this offence? / There's many have committed it" provokes Lucio's comic aside, "Ay, well said" (II.ii.89-90). Vienna, we are told, is seething with corruption, and it is a rare production that does not fill out the lowlife scenes with additional silent characters miming various kinds of debauchery. The text itself, however, is surprisingly economical. We hear something of Lucio's conduct, but in theatrical terms Claudio and Juliet stand for it all; they are the only couple the play picks out. In I.ii we hear of an unnamed "younder man" carried to prison (11. 56-85), but the text is ambiguous at this point, and the man could be Claudio himself. The Provost, speaking from within the play, is struck as Isabella is by the unfairness of the legal procedure: "All sects, all ages smack of this vice, and he / To die for'T!"(II.ii.5-6). We as audience may be struck by the unfairness of the dramatic procedure. Claudio's case is too special, the extenuating circumstances too great to let him stand for the sexual corruption of Vienna.26 The problem comes to a head in Isabella's bitter accusation, "Thy sin's not accidental, but a trade" (III.i.148), against which we instinctively protest: Claudio is not Pompey.

Pompey, Lucio, Froth, and Mistress Overdone stand for the trade itself and for its clients. As Jonathan Dollimore points out, the actual prostitutes "have no voice, no presence." There are no brothel scenes as 27 such; we hear a little about the life of the stews, but theatrically we stay on the fringes of it. Escalus's inability to get a clear account of what happened to Mistress Overdone is the comic equivalent of our inability to see past the individual characters to the brothel life they represent. In the same way, the unseen Flavius, Valencius, Rowland, and Crassus, with the visible but silent Varrius—if they are not simply ghost characters—stand for a network of power the Duke uses but the play never allows us to see (IV.v.6-13). In all these cases the characters are given roles that seem to be representative, but what they represent remains shadowy. And when the characters themselves are cast, by themselves or others, into the sort of allegorical roles critics have wished on them, these identifications are shot through with irony. We may bridle at Isabella's "You do blaspheme the good, in mocking me" (I.iv.38), but she gets her comeuppance when Angelo casts her in the allegorical role of "woman" and demands that she play it (II.iv.133-37). In the same scene, he identifies himself as "the voice of the recorded law" (1. 61), and Escalus later remarks, somewhat grimly, "he hath forced me to tell him he is indeed Justice" (III.ii.247-48). His phrasing suggests that this is not a compliment. In a cooler moment Angelo tries to distance himself from such identification: "It is the law, not I, condemn your brother" (II.ii.80). In fact one of the many resemblances between Angelo and Isabella is that both, as characters, try to stand for large principles: Law, Justice, Goodness, Chastity. But it is the character, not the playwright, who makes the identification. What the playwright shows is that Angelo's allegorical role is sabotaged by his own nature, and Isabella's by a cruel dilemma in which the virtues of charity and chastity are set in conflict.

Looking for some ultimate order we turn, finally, to the Duke. It is he who arranges so many of the play's substitutions, and who seems better placed than any other character to embody its final vision of order, authority, and wisdom. Yet in several respects he is a substitute himself, and the ironies that affect others in this role also affect him. His role as Friar Lodowick is a disguise, and to call it a substitution may be cracking the wind of the poor phrase. But he is taking on, like Angelo, power that is not his own. He gives spiritual counsel, though his advice to Claudio is more Stoic than Christian; more remarkably, he hears confessions. He says of Mariana, "I have confess'd her, and I know her virtue" (V.i.524). This is after the masks have fallen, and we have no reason to disbelieve him as we disbelieve his earlier claim to be Angelo's confessor (III.i.165-66). For anyone who takes this sacrament seriously, the implications of the Duke's conduct do not bear thinking about. There 28 is no such thing as a substitute priest, and the Duke's assumption of priestly power means, among other things, that he is giving false absolutions to people on the point of death. By the narrowest interpretation, if Claudio were to die in this condition, his state would be like that of the elder Hamlet, and he has some reason to be fearful. Yet the Duke seems blandly unconcerned with this problem and so, as far as we can tell, is the play—unless, of course, the Duke's blandness and the lack of criticism he encounters on this point are meant to horrify us with an image of power abused and the abuse accepted.

There are other substitutions of whose effect we can be more certain. The notorious shadowiness of the Duke as a character—for one critic he speaks in many voices, for another he has no distinctive style29—may be related to the fact that he stands for various figures who are essentially outside the play. One of these is God. Angelo's "your Grace, like power divine, / Hath looked upon my passes" (V.i.367-68) makes the identification explicit, though we need to notice that it is a simile: the Duke is like God in his omniscience. He is also, at times, like Him in his power over the characters and the action, re-creating Angelo in his own image30 and producing a providential solution for Isabella's dilemma. His solution does not work, however, and providence itself has to bail him out by providing Ragozine. Nor is the Duke so omniscient as Angelo thinks; Angelo himself can catch him by surprise. Darryl J. Gless gives a sensible statement of how far this particular identification can go: "Of course, he is not providence, but an earthly and therefore imperfect and intermittent simulacrum of it."31 He can also be seen as a representative on stage of God's substitute in Westminster, King James I. His thinking about government, his love of withdrawal and dislike of crowds, his delight in his own "craft," his acute sensitivity to criticism—on all these points he is like the King.32 King James evidently admired his grandfather James V, who practiced the Duke's trick of going disguised among his people.33 Yet Josephine Waters Bennett, who gives a very full account of the reasons for seeing the Duke as a compliment to James, also points out that direct impersonation would have given offense; indeed, the King's Men had already got into trouble for a play about the Gowry conspiracy.34 If the identification were too direct, the Duke's occasional failures would compound the offense. Where a court masque turns to the King himself, present in the audience, for its image of kingship, the play (which we know was performed at court) gives instead an image of an imperfect ruler, leaving the presence of the King in the audience to act, for the loyal imagination, as a standard by which the Duke may be judged and found wanting.35

Finally, and most important for our purpose, the Duke is a surrogate for the playwright himself. This is in line with the play's own interest—characteristic of such earlier comedies as Love's Labor's Lost and A Mid-summer Night's Dream—in examining its own procedures, an interest that I have already touched on. The last act has all the characteristics of a play-within-the-play, contrived by the Duke.36 In an odd touch in his scene with Friar Thomas, the Duke seems to be trying to write the Friar's part of the dialogue: "You will demand of me, why I do this" (I.iii.17). Bennett, finally withdrawing from an identification of the Duke with King James, imagines Shakespeare himself playing the role, with some piquant ironies when we see the Duke at a loss, needing Providence's help, unable to control Lucio.37 I would argue, in fact, that the identification of Duke with playwright, whether reinforced by casting or not, is mostly ironic in its effect, for the Duke is not a very good playwright. Giving himself motives for leaving the city, he seems to be doodling; the motives, as we have seen, do not add up, and the effect of the scene with Frair Thomas is of a rough draft that needs more work to bring it to consistency. At other times he is arbitrary. His deception of Isabella, when he tells her Claudio is dead, is notorious:

. . . I will keep her ignorant of her good, To make her heavenly comforts of despair When it is least expected.


We may wish other motives on him—making Isabella realize how much her brother's deathmeans to her, sharpening the test on her when she is asked to plead for Angelo—but the motive the Duke professes is a playwright's motive: he will heighten the effect of Isabella's final joy by putting her through a period of suffering first. But good playwrights do not impose suffering on their characters arbitrarily. Everything they undergo is accounted for by their own actions, or by some logical turn in the plot. The Duke simply lies. The flurry of contradictory letters he sends to Angelo and Escalus suggests an attempt to create that period of confusion that precedes the resolution of a comedy. Again it is arbitrary, confusion for confusion's sake. Equally arbitrary are the twists and turns that make the final scene so complicated. We may contrast this with what Shakespeare does in plays like The Comedy of Errors or A Midsummer Night's Dream, where every stage in the confusion is honestly earned.

The Duke as playwright, then, works no better than any of the other substitutions—indeed, it is less successful than some. But we may also wonder how much of the play's irony at the Duke's expense is cast back at the figures he is representing: if he stands for God, for James I, and for Shakespeare, how much of his imperfection can be seen as a reflection of theirs? The author of King Lear was not afraid to question and even to protest the ways of Providence; anyone who would criticize Providence might also (in a tactfully implicit way) criticize James I; and for a writer to poke fun at himself is one of the oldest tricks of the trade. Is there, in fact, one last substitution to discuss—that of Measure for Measure for the play Shakespeare would have liked to write? Rosalind Miles observes that "any discussion of Measure for Measure eventually comes down to a discussion of the play as it seems to have been intended, rather than as it is."38 Its inconsistencies are central and notorious: Isabella's moral dilemma is solved by an unprepared technical trick; the scrupulous Angelo of the first two acts is replaced by a cynic who rejects Mariana for material reasons; at the end, key relationships—Angelo and Mariana, Isabella and Claudio, Isabella and the Duke—are left hanging in silence. The central figure, on whom so much depends, seems not so much a bewildering character as a bewildering piece of characterization. It seems appropriate that the comedy should end with a marriage proposal to which no answer is given. I am not saying that Shakespeare, in order to make a point about the imperfection of his art, deliberately wrote an imperfect play. I would prefer to believe that every play of his is as good as he could make it, and I am tempted to add that none of them is perfect. He seems, however, to have found Measure for Measure a harder struggle than most, and as he faced the gap between conception and embodiment, his imagination generated image after image of representations that are vivid but not quite adequate, and substitutions that are revealing and fascinating but incomplete.


1"Measure for Measure: Quid Pro Quo?" ShakespeareStudies, 4 (1968) 231-51, esp. p. 232.

2 "The Unfolding of 'Measure for Measure'," Shakespeare Survey, 26 (1973), 119-28, esp. pp. 124, 125.

3 The production, directed by Ronald Bryden, played at the Robert Gill Theatre, University of Toronto, in March 1987.

4 All references to Measure for Measure are to the Arden edition, ed. J. W. Lever (London: Methuen, 1965). References to other Shakespeare plays are to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1980).

5 See especially Roy W. Battenhouse, "Measure forMeasure and Christian Doctrine of the Atonement," PMLA, 61 (1946), 1029-59.

6 Black, p. 124.

7 Lever admits this in his note on the passage, but retains the Folio reading, as do most editors except J. M. Nosworthy in the New Penguin edition (Harmonds-worth: Penguin Books, 1969).

8 This was pointed out to me by Kate Helwig in an extremely interesting undergraduate essay on Measure for Measure and The Tempest.

9The Problem of Measure for Measure (London: Vision Press, 1976), p. 214.

10 See Nuttall, "Quid Pro Quo?" p. 245.

11 "Versions of Dying in Measure for Measure,"English Literary Renaissance, 6 (1976), 60-76, esp. p. 67.

12 Black, p. 124.

13Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (Univ. of London: Athlone Press, 1953), p. 110. Lascelles goes on to point out that Claudio has a vivid apprehension of death, Barnardine none at all.

14 According to Darryl J. Gless, Angelo's equation of murder with fornication was against contemporary Protestant doctrine, which insisted that some sins were heavier than others. See Measure for Measure, the Law, and the Convent (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 122-24.

15 This was reflected in the blocking of Ronald Bryden's production, in which first Angelo, then Isabella, was cornered behind a desk; the two soliloquies were delivered from the same position on stage.

16 Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment (New York and London: Columbia Univ. Press, 1966), p. 41.

17 See, for example, Marston's The Dutch Courtesan (II.ii) and Sharpham's The Fleer (III).

18 See, for example, the alliance of Syndefy and Security in Chapman, Jonson, and Marston's Eastward Ho; and the marriages of Hoard and the Courtesan in Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One, and of Throat and Frances in Barry's Ram Alley.

19 On the erotic overtones in Lucio's encouragement, see Richard Fly, Shakespeare's Mediated World (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1976), p. 68.

20 Black also notes that Angelo's locked garden is like Claudio's prison, p. 125.

21The Wheel of Fire, (1930; rpt. London: Methuen, 1949), p. 74.

22 "Authority, Truth and Justice in Measure for Measure," Review of English Studies, 17 (1941), 385-89, esp. pp. 385-86, 387.

23 Knight, p. 95.

24 Gless, p. 255.

25 See, for example, Lever, Arden Introduction, p. lix.

26 See Lever, p. lxxv.

27 "Transgression and Surveillance in Measure forMeasure," in Political Shakespeare, eds. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 72-87, esp. p. 86.

27 See Clifford Leech, "The 'Meaning' of Measure forMeasure," SS, 3 (1950), 66-73, esp. p. 70.

29 See, respectively, Bennett, p. 107, and Miles, pp. 180-81.

30 See Gless, p. 24.

31 See Gless, p. 248.

32 For a full discussion of the resemblances, see Bennett, pp. 78-104.

33 See Bennett, p. 97.

34 See Bennett, pp. 105, 107.

35 If William Blissett is correct, there is a bolder effect in Bartholomew Fair, where Overdo is a joking version of the King in the audience. See "Your Majesty is Welcome to a Fair," in The Elizabethan Theatre, 4, ed. G. R. Hibbard (Toronto: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 80-105.

36 See Trombetta, p. 72.

37 See Bennett, pp. 135-37.

38 Miles, p. 285.

Huston Diehl (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: "'Infinite Space': Representation and Reformation in Measure for Measure" in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 393-410.

[In the essay that follows, Diehl maintains that Shakespeare's use of "representational strategies, " such as substitutions, in Measure for Measure reflect his experimentation "with a Protestant aesthetic of the stage."]

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

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

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

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

But, of course, in post-Reformation England Christianity was in crisis, religious ideology unstable, and theological doctrines vigorously disputed. Even among English Protestants religious beliefs and practices were so much the subject of contentious debate that one of James's first acts as the king of England was to convene in January 1604 a conference of bishops and puritans at Hampton Court to try to resolve some of their long-standing differences and perhaps "to begin a further reformation of the Church."8 Yet to illustrate my point, that historical event goes unmentioned in virtually all treatments of Measure for Measure as a play written for or about James even though Shakespeare's 1604 comedy, in staging a conflict between a rigid reformer and a woman intent on entering a strict Roman Catholic religious order, rehearses the extremist views—radical puritan and Catholic—that James sought to suppress at the Hampton Court conference.9 According to Kenneth Fincham and Peter Lake, James used the conference, on the one hand, "to construct and support a common Protestant front against Rome" and, on the other, to contain radical puritanism by "driving a wedge between the moderate and radical wings of Puritan opinion."10

I mention King James's ecclesiastical policy not to argue that Shakespeare advocates or allegorizes it but rather to suggest how fully Measure for Measure engages many of the religious controversies of Jacobean England, exploring theological issues—about monasticism, celibacy, idolatry, auricular confession, merit, righteousness, hypocrisy, reformist zeal, and moral discipline—that trouble and divide James's subjects in the early years of the seventeenth century. Set in the Roman Catholic city of Vienna and featuring a number of characters who are, desire to be, or pretend to be members of the Roman Catholic clergy, the play questions the possibility of achieving either celibacy or a disciplined withdrawal from the world. By using the clerical habit of the friar as a disguise that the Duke puts on and off and eventually discards, the play also demystifies monasticism, perhaps even reinforcing Protestant associations of friars with a fraudulent theatricality, their "humblest habits" with "a false disguise."11 At the same time, the play depicts the very pressing urban problems that preoccupied the Protestant authorities of Jacobean London and critiques the draconian measures proposed by radical puritans to reform human behavior, revealing these measures to be both inhumane and ineffective. It also exposes the moral depravity and hypocrisy of a character associated with these extreme reformist policies—the precise and legalistic Angelo. Thus marking Vienna for its early modern London audiences as a setting simultaneously alien and familiar, papist and puritan, Measure for Measure identifies Isabella's monastic vocation and Angelo's reformist zeal with a false—or counterfeit—righteousness. Angelo's hypocritical and tyrannical behavior, to be sure, is depicted as far more abhorrent than Isabella's idealistic, if excessive, commitment to the rigid rules observed by "the votarists of Saint Clare" (1.4.5). But efforts to read the play as either pro-Catholic or nostalgic for a Catholic past fail to address the ways in which Shakespeare appropriates the representational strategies of English Calvinism, distancing his theater from a fraudulent theatricality widely associated in Protestant England with the Roman Catholic Church while also challenging the vehement antitheatricality of radical Protestants.12

There was, most historians agree, a Calvinist consensus within the national church under King James, who sought at the beginning of his reign to win over moderate puritans "through the incorporationof evangelical Calvinism into the Jacobean establishment."13 Indeed, Patrick Collinson asserts that "Calvinism can be regarded as the theological cement of the Jacobean church . . .' a common and ameliorating bond' uniting conformists and moderate puritans."14 But although Calvinism is the cement that binds together different factions of the Jacobean church, various segments of the population appropriated and adapted it to their own needs and interests—"consumed" it in Michel de Certeau's sense of this word.15 Calvinism was employed in the service of competing authorities and rival political factions and invoked to achieve a range of multiple and even conflicting goals, not all of them religious in nature.

A case in point is the battle over the legitimacy of the stage. As literary scholars have frequently noted, antitheatricalists often draw upon Calvinist distrust of theatricality in their attacks on the stage, tapping into their Protestant readers' deepest anti-Catholic sentiments by aligning the London theaters with the "false" ceremonies, "idolatrous" spectacles, and "cunning" theatricality of the Roman Church.16 But apologists for the stage also appropriate basic tenets of Calvinist theology to wield against their opponents, a phenomenon that has for the most part been ignored in the critical literature. In his refutation of Stephen Gosson's Schoole of Abuse, Thomas Lodge, for example, counters Gosson's point that Plato banished the poets from his republic by accusing Plato of idolatry, thus attempting to undermine Plato's authority by associating him with the "idolatrous" Roman church; he also insists that poetry is a gift from God, an argument that Calvin and his followers repeatedly use to justify certain kinds of art.17 Lodge is just one of many writers who appropriate Calvinist arguments and tropes to defend the stage. They charge the antitheatricalists with employing Roman Catholic modes of interpretation, argue that the stage exposes rather than produces the fraudulent kind of theatricality Calvinism distrusts, and apply Calvinist notions of the conscience to their theories of dramatic art.18

Shakespeare, I suggest, participates in these efforts to legitimate the theater by aligning it with the moderate Calvinism of the established English church. At the same time, he raises provocative questions about the challenge of knowing, judging, and reforming in a Calvinist universe. In a sustained exploration of the power and limits of representation, including his own theatrical representations, Shakespeare formulates an aesthetic of the stage that marks and preserves the gap between the sign and the thing signified, arouses and frustrates the desire to know directly and fully, and compels his audiences to confront both the inadequacy of all human knowledge and their own imperfect judgment. By eliciting an enabling kind of dissatisfaction in Measure for Measure, he claims for the theater the project of reforming human behavior even as he acknowledges the limits of that project and distances his theater from the extremist views of radical puritanism.


Rather than assume that Shakespeare's play is flawed because the substitutions staged in the course of Measure for Measure are inadequate or incomplete, I propose to examine its pattern of substitutions in terms of Calvin's insistence that the physical world is itself a representation. English Calvinists encourage the faithful to discern in the visible world signs of another truer and more real world, to find in the transient present images of a permanent future, and thus to see how the world they inhabit mirrors (however imperfectly) the divine. Calling the created world "painted tables, by which al mankinde is provoked and allured to the knowledg" of God, Calvin argues that "God dothin the mirror of his workes shew by representation both himself and his immortali kingdome," and he urges his readers to discern "certame markes" and "ensignes" of God's glory that God has "graven" and "displaid" in the "whole workmanship of the world."19 Indeed, Calvin imagines the world as a magnificent theater and its inhabitants as spectators capable of knowing God indirectly by beholding the beauty of his creation. "For what else is the world," he asks in a sermon on Ephesians, "but an open stage wheron God will haue his majestie seene?"20 Man, he asserts in the Institutes, "is set as it were in this gorgeous stage to be a beholder" of God's works.21

To take an example that might shed light on Shakespeare's duke and deputy, in such a construction of the world a magistrate is in a sense always a representation of the divine judge—God's substitute, if you will—and always to be viewed in terms of both his likeness to the divine (his authority, power, and capacity to judge and punish) and the limitations of that comparison. Calvin defines civil magistrates as "deputies of God" who "altogether beare the person of god, whose stede they do after a certaine maner supply." Ideally, they "are true examplars and paternes of hys bountifulnesse" in whom "the lord himself hath emprinted and engraved an inuiolable maiesty."22 The practice of hanging paintings of the Last Judgment directly above the magistrate's seat in the law courts of Northern Europe visually reinforced the notion that the magistrate was an earthly proxy for the divine judge.23 But to see the magistrate as an image of the all-judging God was to understand not only how he derives his authority from God but also how inadequate he is in relation to God. Even as he urges magistrates to "represent in themselues unto men a certaine image of the providence, preservation, goodnesse, good wil, & righteousnesse of God," Calvin addresses the problem of tyrannical, severe, deceitful, vengeful, and violent rulers, noting how far they have strayed from the God they should figure.24 The comparison between the earthly magistrate and the divine Judge thus inevitably produces dissatisfaction, a longing for that which is represented but absent, the God who cannot be seen in this world face to face.

The peculiar way in which the characters of Measure for Measure seem to point beyond themselves to divine things, even as their flaws firmly locate them in the human world of Vienna, may well reflect Shakespeare's attempt to represent the physical world as it was understood in the age of Reformation, to write not an allegory but a play about living in an allegorized world. For if, as Calvin teaches, the world that humans inhabit is understood to be a theater in which God manifests himself indirectly through images and signs, then Shakespeare's theatrical practice—in the Globe, no less-is a representation of a representation, one that engages its spectators in the challenge of knowing indirectly, partially, by means of signs. In Measure for Measure characters repeatedly define the human condition in representational terms, describing themselves as figures, mirrors, coins, stamps, prints, and forms that image something else. Even Angelo's name, which calls to mind both the spiritual creature and the English coin stamped with the image of the archangel Gabriel, reminds Shakespeare's audiences that a deputy bears the image of the divine and gains his value from that image. The spectators in the Globe of 1604, I am suggesting, were encouraged to engage in acts of interpretation that replicated the way the established English Church—in sermons and catechisms—had taught them to interpret the world. "Because he [God] hath made hym self knowen unto us by his woorkes," the child in an English catechism is taught to respond, "it is necessarie for vs to seeke hym out in them. For our capacitie is not able to comprehende his Diuine substaunce, therefore he hath made the worlde as a Glasse, wherein wee maie beholde hym in such sorte, as it is expedient for us to knowe hym."25 Central to this mode of experience is a profound sense of the gap between the fallenworld and the celestial one it can only shadow.

For early Protestants the challenge of living in a world where human knowledge is partial, indirect, and limited centered on the need to curb the all-too-human tendency to mistake the sign for the thing it signifies. According to Calvin and his English followers, people are always prone to confusing the substitute with the original because they long for direct knowledge and they overvalue the things of this world. "Even the children of God," a 1581 English catechism warns, "feele themselves so intangled in the delight of earthly thinges which of themselves are good" that they commit idolatry, attributing "that to the creature which ys due to the creator."26 The Protestant reformers identify this as one of the chief errors of papistry, evidenced in the doctrine of transubstantiation, the cult of the saints, and the worship of images. In their attack on "idolatrous" theater, the antitheatricalists accuse playwrights of perpetuating this error, claiming that stage plays tempt spectators "to giue that which is proper to God, unto them [the players and their theatrical illusions] that are no gods."27

In Measure for Measure Shakespeare seems intent on guarding against this danger, both by thematizing it and by marking his own representations as representations. From the opening scene when the Duke deputizes Angelo, to the bed-trick when Mariana is substituted for Isabella, to the complicated substitution of Ragozine's head for the unrepentant Barnardine's so that it in turn can be substituted for Claudio's head, to Elbow's comic malapropisms (substitutions that force the audiences to listen for the gap between the literal word and the intended meaning), to the dizzying proliferation of substitutions in the last act: Shakespeare not only explores the capacity of the substitute to stand in for the original but also nurtures a highly self-reflexive awareness of the nature of representation and the problem of indirect knowledge. To illustrate, let me briefly discuss three key episodes: Angelo's sudden and inexplicable lust for Isabella, which I interpret as a classic example of idolatry; the bed-trick and the subsequent playing with the notion of carnal knowledge, which I read as an inquiry into the nature of embodiment; and the often-overlooked but highly significant substitution of the Duke's seal for the deputy's death warrant, which I see as a test of faith.

In the fascinating and disturbing scene in which Isabella, goaded by Lucio, pleads with Angelo for her brother's life, the righteous deputy who has never before experienced sexual passion finds himself overwhelmed by desire for a woman who wishes to enter a convent. Many scholars interpret this sudden and unexpected eruption of sexual desire in Angelo in psychoanalytical terms. Focusing on the relation between repression and desire, they argue that for Angelo "prohibition is aphrodisiac"; but the widely held assumption that "Angelo desires a woman because she is forbidden" obscures, I think, the way this scene locates the origin of Angelo's sexual desire for Isabella in his sense of his own righteousness, identifying his lust for the virtuous woman with his love of virtue.28 "Dost thou desire her foully," Angelo asks himself incredulously after Isabella departs, "for those things / That make her good?" (2.2.178-79).29 Imagining that the devil uses a saint to ensnare him in his own saintliness, he concludes:

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 vigour—art and nature— Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid Subdues me quite.

(ll. 184-90)

How can loving virtue be the source of sin?

Shakespeare, I submit, depicts Angelo's lust for Isabella as idolatry, for when the deputy is aroused by the novice's saintliness—that is, for the way she images the divine—he immediately seeks to know that saintliness directly and carnally. In other words, he substitutes the woman who reflects divinity for God himself, a substitution that simultaneously "foul[s]" Isabella and alienates him from God. Once he is aroused by Isabella's virtue, he can think of her only with a lust he himself identifies with misplaced devotion:

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 Isabella. . . .


Enacting the error of idolatry as it was understood by early Protestants, Angelo is, in effect, "so snared with . . . affection" for one of the "creatures that God hath made for our use" that "the Lord is . . . altogether . . . thrust out of place."30 His imagination "[a]nchors on Isabella" and not the God who created her. Angelo's attempt to "know" Isabella's virtue by "knowing" her body, however farfetched it may sound to us today, conforms to a pervasive early Protestant belief that idolatry—perceived as misplaced devotion, a substitution of the creature for the Creator—leads directly to physical lust and "abominable concupiscences" because it privileges the carnal over the spiritual.31 To interpret Angelo's lust as a misplaced desire to know God directly and carnally—that is, to understand it in theological rather than psychoanalytic terms—is not therefore to deny the utter perversity of it; rather, it is to recognize how dangerous, how fundamentally depraved, the idolater in the Calvinist schema was believed to be. English reformers equate, idolatry with "spirituali fornication," and they warn that the idolater—alienated from God, paradoxically, by trying to physically possess the divine—inevitably falls into "carnali fornication, and all uncleannesse," indulging in "Sodomie," "the stewes," "whoredoms and fornications."32 The idolater, in other words, was understood to be someone who, like Angelo, gives his "sensual race the rein" (2.4.160).

If we understand Angelo's fundamental error as epistemological—a confusion of the sign for what it signifies, a misidentification of the substitute as the original—we can see how provocatively Shakespeare explores the problem of knowing in the bed-trick, where he literalizes Angelo's error in order to expose its absurdity. When the Duke substitutes Mariana for Isabella, tricking Angelo into sleeping with the woman he has wronged and rejected, he exploits Angelo's tendency to apprehend—as the Duke says of Barnardine—"no further than this world" (5.1.475) and forces a recognition of the danger of equating the image with the truth. The bed-trick thus does not simply trap Angelo in his own perverse lust, hypocrisy, and betrayal; it also reveals his central epistemological error, an error that he is in danger of repeating endlessly: mistaking his limited power for absolute power and confusing his asceticism with perfection, as well as desiring Isabella in placeof God.

Before she reveals her identity in the trial scene, the veiled Mariana speaks enigmatically, first declaring "I have known my husband, yet my husband / Knows not that ever he knew me" and then claiming to the startled onlookers that Angelo is her husband and the man "Who thinks he knows that he ne'er knew my body, / But knows he thinks that he knows Isabel's" (11. 184-85, 198-99). Her riddles, like Lucio's comic assertion "I know what I know" (3.1.390) earlier in the play, call to mind an enigmatic passage from First Corinthians in which Paul, preaching against idolatrous practices, questions the validity of all human knowledge and insists that "loue" rather than knowledge "edifieth": "If any man thinke that he knoweth any thing," Paul declares, "he knoweth nothing yet as he oght to knowe."33 In appropriating this Pauline text, which identifies any belief in one's own capacity to know with vanity, pride, and idolatry, Mariana unsettles Angelo, for she not only denies his version of the truth but also challenges the very ground upon which he has passed judgment on others. She plays, too, of course, with the double meaning of the word know, a joke that underscores Angelo's epistemological error, highlighting his presumption that what he knows carnally is valid and emphasizing that the very nature of embodiment impedes direct and full apprehension. Through the bed-trick Angelo thus quite literally experiences the partiality and inadequacy of corporeal knowledge, in the "shadow and silence" (3.1.239) mistaking the substitute for the woman he illicitly desires.

The play, I suggest, produces a similar experience for theater audiences, who are simultaneously invited to believe that what they see embodied on the stage is true and reminded that the theater, after all, is nothing but a "fantastical trick" (1. 340) involving masks and disguises, lies and indirections, shadows and substitutions. But while the artifice of the bed-trick calls attention to the gap between representation and reality, eliciting dissatisfaction in audience members who prefer drama to achieve greater verisimilitude, Shakespeare never entirely demystifies his representations but rather promotes a faith in signs as well as a skepticism about theatrical illusions. Indeed, in one particularly significant scene, he casts as heroic the character who acts solely on the basis of faith in a sign.

I refer to the scene in which the Provost receives Claudio's death warrant from Angelo. Having arranged the bed-trick in order to save Claudio, the disguised Duke is unprepared for this turn of events. Rather than reveal his true identity, he asks the Provost to disobey his superior and delay the execution, thereby risking his own death. Refusing, at first, to violate his oath, the Provost changes his mind when, told that the Duke approves the delay, he is shown "the hand and seal of the Duke" and encouraged to recognize "the character . . . and the signet" (4.2.177-78). Replying simply, "I know them both" (1. 179), the Provost chooses to honor the signet of the absent Duke and to ignore the deputy's death warrant. Except for the Duke's seal and handwriting, the "amazed" Provost has only the assurance of an obscure friar that the Duke's approval of this dangerous course of action is "a certainty" (1. 173). Although the friar promises that the truth will eventually be revealed and the Provost's actions vindicated, he speaks in cryptic and mysterious riddles, offering only more signs to interpret. "Look," he tells the Provost, "th'unfolding star calls up the shepherd" (11. 185-86). In this scene Shakespeare explores the challenge of exercising faith in the absence of direct proof. This was a central concern of early Protestantism and one that English reformers, articulating the tenets of a Calvinist covenant theology, frequently addressed by using the analogy of the king's seal or signet.34 Shakespeare champions the character who has the capacity to recognize, interpret, and trust the signof an absent authority, and he constructs as heroic the ability to act on the basis of faith in such a sign even though one's own knowledge is indirect and incomplete. In the end Claudio's life is spared not (as in Shakespeare's source) because the lustful deputy was provided with a sexual partner but because a seal and signet were honored by the faithful and courageous Provost.

The last act promises to resolve the problem of indirect, partial, and imperfect knowing through the anticipated comic resolution, but, significantly, that promise is not fully realized.35 Shakespeare stages a fictional moment in which the gap between sign and thing signified is eradicated and substitution gives way to identity: the hooded friar is the Duke; the veiled Mariana, the woman who slept with Angelo; the muffled man, Claudio. But the desire for direct knowledge that the play has aroused in the audiences is thwarted, the promise deferred, by Shakespeare's stagecraft. Although the multiple unveilings invoke the Pauline promise of direct knowledge and clear vision, the scene insists on its own dark and fantastical artifice. The Duke's plan resembles a comic script too complex and contrived to be credible; the return of the Duke requires the disappearance of the friar he has been playing, highlighting the theatrical convention of doubling and its attendant problems; the Duke and Friar Peter rehearse the ending with Mariana and Isabella, coaching them on how to relate their story, perform their roles, and "veil full purpose" (4.6.4); and Lucio serves as a skeptical audience member, stripping away the theatrical disguise of the friar, refusing the fiction. Even the stunning revelation that Claudio lives is made ambiguous by the Duke's odd insistence that the muffled man resembles and stands in as a substitute for Claudio rather than actually being Claudio. Presenting the mysterious prisoner "As like almost to Claudio as himself," the Duke withholds any assurance of certainty, telling Isabella that "If he be like your brother, for his sake / Is he pardoned" (5.1.483, 484-86), thereby reintroducing a gap between the substitute and the longed-for original.

By calling attention to the artifice, the staginess, of his comic resolution, Shakespeare denies his audiences the pleasure of believing, even for a moment, that the image and the thing imaged are one. The promised revelations are, after all, only theatrical illusions, reminding the audiences that the players cannot escape their own bodies or the play its own representations. But the resulting dissatisfaction, I suggest, is energizing and productive. The trial scene arouses the audience members' deepest desire for completion and revelation, direct knowledge and certainty. By eliciting a longing for certainty that is promised but perpetually deferred, the play does not merely frustrate; it encourages its audiences to view both the world they inhabit and the fictional world of the play as representations, which are inadequate, to be sure, but also potentially significant, even powerful.


Scholars interested in Shakespeare's treatment of the law in Measure for Measure have examined English ecclesiastical and civil laws pertaining to marriage, adultery, and fornication in some depth, but they generally ignore Reformation theories of the law and, in particular, Calvin's emphasis on the epistemological function of the law. And yet Shakespeare seems far less interested in details of the English legal system—one critic calls the law of Vienna "story-book law"36—than in exploring the relation between law, broadly defined, and the problem of knowing arid judging. Central to his play's inquiry into the law, I suggest, is a Calvinist insistence that self-knowledge can be achieved only by recognizing one's utter inability to fulfill the law, a recognition that necessarily precludes passing judgment on others.

Emphasizing the immeasurable gulf between any individual and perfection, Calvin teaches that no one is capable of obeying the law. His discussions of the law focus not on ethical behavior, discipline, and punishment but on knowledge. "By the law," he writes, "is the knowledge of sinne."37 For him, the law does not correct or control sin but rather represents it, showing people the multiple ways they have transgressed. The law, he writes, is a "loking glasse" that "represented unto us the spottes of our face," a mirror that reveals to people how utterly they have defaced the divine image in which they were made.38 English Protestant catechisms of this period invariably advance Calvin's interpretation of the law, rehearsing the notion that the law is a "glasse" that teaches "that we be imperfect in all our workes," thereby making us aware of "our naughtiness sinne and defectes."39 That awareness, moreover, is productive, for it creates the conditions for repentance and redemption. "And so by our own euells we are stirred to consider the good things of God," Calvin writes, "and we can not earnestly aspire towarde him, untili we begin to mislike our selues."40 For Calvin, the law thus serves a vital function: by revealing our inherent sinfulness, it produces dissatisfaction with the self, a dissatisfaction that, because it initiates the process of repentance, is essential for salvation.41

When Calvin defines the law as a mirror that works to "admonish, certifie, proue gilty, yea and condemne euery man of his owne unrighteousenesse," he declares any belief in one's own righteousness a fantasy; insisting that none "shall come to the mark of true perfection, unlesse he be loosed from the burden of his body," he warns that to presume that one has "any woorthinesse" or "any meane or abilitie to doo good (of himself:)" is "too step intoo Gods place," that is, to confuse one's own powers with God's, usurping the place of the Creator.42 The law thus serves as a continual reminder that "there is none righteous, no not one" (Romans 3:10) by enabling people to see their transgressions, imperfections, and failings. Calvin insists that the person who believes himself to be righteous is deluded by self-love,

so long as he measureth it [his strength] by the proportion of his own will. But so sone as he is compelled to trie his life by the balance of the law, then leaving the presumption of that counterfait righteousnesse, he seeth himself to be an infinite space distant from holinesse: againe, that he floweth full of infinite vices, wherof before he semed cleane. For the evels of lust are hidde in so depe and croked privuie corners, that they easily deceiue the sight of man.43

Setting aside the tantalizing linguistic echoes of this passage in Measure for Measure, I want to suggest how Calvin's theory of law informs Shakespeare's play and, in particular, its theatrical insistence on the gap, the "infinite space," between "counterfait righteousnesse" and "holinesse."

Measure for Measure dramatizes a conflict between two characters who trust in their own capacity to obey the law and to lead virtuous lives: a reformist magistrate smugly confident of his own righteousness and a Roman Catholic novice earnestly preparing to join a strict religious order. Through their confrontation both discover the "infinite space" between their behavior and perfection. Angelo commits a crime far more repugnant than the one for which he has condemned Claudio, and in the trial scene he is forced to acknowledge the distance between the laws he administers and his own rapacious and unruly appetites. Isabella experiences a range of conflicting emotions when she is confronted with Angelo's terrible proposition that requires her to choose between her chastity and her brother's life. Passionately pleading for her brother's life, actively participating in the duplicitous bed-trick, and deliberately giving false testimony against Angelo in order to take her revenge on him,she, too, fails to live up to her ideals of purity and holiness.

The play's insistence that neither the rigorous discipline of the religious novice nor the severe laws of the precise puritan can produce a state of righteousness surely must have resonated in a powerful way with the audiences of post-Reformation England, where questions of human merit, good works, and righteousness were vigorously debated. Protestant reformers vehemently denounce the clerics and saints of the Roman Church because they "most shamelessly call" their lives "Angelike, doing herein verily so great injurie to the Angells of God" when in reality they are nothing more than "whoremongers, adulterers, and somwhat ells muche worse and filthier."44 And satiric attacks on radical Protestantism skewer puritans for assuming they could attain a state of righteousness, exposing that belief to be a grand delusion and exposing them as contemptible hypocrites.45 Many recent critical readings of the play, however, ignore these contemporary religious controversies and especially the intense anti-Catholic and anticlerical sentiments they generated in Jacobean London. Feminist criticism in particular tends to valorize Isabella's commitment to a monastic life of celibacy and saintliness, viewing the cloistered life of a nun as an admirable assertion of "female autonomy" that is inherently subversive of patriarchal society. From this perspective, Isabella's public humiliation in the final act is an inexcusable violation of both Isabella's independence and her religious vocation, a shameless "shaming of a nun."46

For these critics the play's ending, which turns on Isabella's capacity to forgive the man who tried to coerce her into having sex with him, is profoundly disturbing, for that forgiveness represents to them not an admirable willingness to relinquish a "counterfait righteousnesse" but a regrettable surrender to patriarchal authority; and the Duke's subsequent pardon of Angelo constitutes a nullification of the grievous wrongs committed against Isabella. Declaring the final trial scene "aesthetically and intellectually unsatisfying . . . [and] personally infuriating," Harriett Hawkins, for one, complains that "the Duke's decision to grant mercy to everybody revokes the rule of law, and to revoke the rule of human law is to revoke the idea of consequence, of necessity."47 Such an intense resistance to the play's resolution provides insights into late-twentieth-century democratic notions of law and justice, criminals and victims, power and submission. But it may also illustrate the way Measure for Measure challenges traditional notions of merit that were being contested in Shakespeare's own day. The play arouses but thwarts a deeply felt desire for "justice, justice, justice, justice!" (5.1.25), eliciting a profound dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction inherent in Calvin's premise that the law exists not to control the dangerous behavior of a few but to reveal everyone's imperfections.

In deliberately violating the conventions of poetic justice, Shakespeare not only challenges traditional belief in human merit but also interrogates his own theatrical practices. Many critics have noted that the final trial scene resembles a play that the Duke carefully scripts, rehearses, and stages. The insistent metadrama of this final scene, I suggest, underscores how theatrical representation can thwart self-righteous judgment and compel self-knowledge.

In compliance with the Duke's script, the chaste (and chastened) Isabella plays the role of the defiled woman in the trial scene and publicly proclaims that she has slept with Angelo. Although Shakespeare depicts her as self-conscious about the role she reluctantly agrees to play, heightening his audience's awareness of the pretense, he insists on the value of her role-playing. Isabella experiences her theatrical performance as profoundly humiliating, but her public humiliation enables her to identifyand empathize with Mariana. Required to step into Mariana's place, Isabella, "with grief and shame" (1. 96), declares herself a "fallen" woman and is treated as an object of scorn and approbation. Imaginatively reversing the earlier physical substitution of Mariana for Isabella, a substitution that put Mariana at risk in order to save both Isabella's brother and her chastity, the Duke's casting thus forces Isabella to recognize that she, like the woman she plays, is vulnerable, conflicted, passionate, imperfect, and at risk. It is this recognition, the product of a theatrical fiction, that enables Isabella to join Mariana in pleading for Angelo's life.

The Duke's theatrics force Angelo, too, to acknowledge his imperfection. When Isabella and Mariana accuse Angelo of terrible crimes and demand justice, the Duke, in a shocking move, turns the legal proceedings over to the accused, placing him in the seat of judgment and telling him, "be you judge / Of your own cause" (11. 165-66). Rather than reasserting his authority, the Duke delegates his power of judgement to his deputy, the very man whom he knows to have flagrantly abused that power and who is the subject of judicial inquiry. The Duke then stages an elaborate theatrical performance, one in which Angelo is positioned as both dramatic protagonist and judging spectator. Shaken and exposed by this performance, Angelo confesses his crimes and repents. If Shakespeare calls attention to the contrived and scripted nature of Angelo's trial, he nevertheless attributes its efficacy—its capacity to make Angelo's transgressions visible to himself and others and to elicit self-examination and confession—largely to the Duke's representational strategies: his use of indirection; his substitution of Isabella for Mariana; his deployment of a paradoxical riddle; his teasing theatrical presentation of a mysterious, veiled woman; his own complicated doubling as friar and Duke; and the way he forces Angelo to pay attention to the discrepancies between what Angelo thinks he knows and what is. By foregrounding the confusing gaps between language and meaning, knowledge and truth, the substitute and the person she stands in for, the disguise and the person in disguise, the Duke's theater disrupts and confounds its spectators, ultimately revealing to them what has been hidden, denied, or misunderstood.

In Measure for Measure, as in Hamlet, Shakespeare insists on the capacity of theater to activate the conscience, arouse guilt, and elicit confessions of wrongdoing. In both plays he draws on Calvinist theories of the conscience to explain the powerful affect of theater, and in both he nurtures as well as thematizes the interiorized, reflexive, and self-disciplinary gaze that those theories seek to inculcate. According to the many English Protestant tracts on the conscience which proliferated in the wake of the Reformation, the conscience enables a person to see his or her actions from God's perspective and therefore to render "'A man's judgment of himself, according to the judgment of God of him.'"48 Angelo confesses his crimes and declares his heart "penitent" as soon as he realizes that the Duke, "like power divine," has been privy to his most secret acts and private transgressions—that is, as soon as he imagines his actions from the viewpoint of a judging authority:

O my dread lord, 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.


It is, significantly, the Duke's theater that provides Angelo with this perspective by positioning him as a spectator and judge at his own trial. In this scene, as in the performance of "The Murder of Gonzago," Shakespeare claims for the stage the power to activate the conscience—that internalized and self-regulating spectator, "God's spy," "man's . . . overseer," and a keeper "ioyned to man, to marke and watch all hys secretes"—that Protestant reformers taught has the power "to prescribe, prohibit, absolute and condemne de iure."49 In a play that questions the capacity of any individual to achieve righteousness, he imagines a theater that nurtures reflexivity, produces guilt, and thwarts the impulse to judge others.


Inasmuch as the Duke's theater seeks to initiate an internal reformation in its spectators by arousing dissatisfaction with the self, it conforms to the kind of art approved by Protestant theologians. Although they condemn as idolatrous images and plays that seduce, dazzle, and trick the beholder, the English reformers routinely defend art that "provoke[s]" us "to consider ourselves . . . and to condemn and abhor our sin," that serves as "stirrers of men's minds," and that enables its viewers "to remember themselves, and to lament their sins"; and they approve of art that awakens the conscience and nurtures moral self-examination.50 In his defense of the stage, written a few years after Shakespeare's comedy, Thomas Heywood fully articulates a theory of dramatic representation based on these Protestant defenses, arguing that theater has the capacity to "new mold the harts of the spectators" by enabling them to "see and shame at their faults."51 Louis Adrian Montrose asserts that the arguments advanced by Heywood and other apologists for the stage "remain constrained within the terms of the dominant antitheatrical discourse" and thus "do not fully comprehend the cultural practice" they seek to defend.52 He looks instead to the antitheatrical tracts, and especially their pervasive fear of the seductive pleasures of the stage, for a more accurate sense of theater's power over its spectators. But I would like to suggest that, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights were actively appropriating Calvinist theories of representation and creatively exploring the disciplinary potential of their medium in an effort to legitimate the stage in the face of virulent antitheatrical attacks.

Steven Mullaney also takes Heywood's claims seriously, using them to illustrate how the early modern stage was understood to be "a potent forum for the reformation as well as the recreation of its audiences." However, he associates the dramatic practice of inducing apprehension and shame with the suppressed Roman Catholic practice of auricular confession, arguing that early modern playwrights appropriate the "internal drama" of the forbidden sacrament, which was "performed before a judgmental authority, at times harrowingly silent, at times sharply inquisitorial."53 Certainly auricular confession is, as he suggests, a "specter" that haunts Measure for Measure,54 but Shakespeare's play questions its efficacy and, in the final scene, stages another kind of confession, a public and communal rehearsal of mutual guilt that conforms much more closely to Calvinist than to Roman Catholic rituals of confession.

In eliminating the sacrament of auricular confession and instituting a reformed confession, the English Protestant Church substituted one form of apprehension for another. In fact, what the Calvinist reformers most strenuously objected to in the Roman Catholic sacrament of auricular confession was not so much that it aroused apprehension and shame, as Mullaney argues, as that it relieved it in aparticularly offensive way. Calvin complains that

men hauing made confession to a Priest, think that they may wype their mouth and say, I did it not. And not onely they are made all the yeare longe the bolder to sinne: but al the rest of the yeare bearing themselves bolde upon confession, they neuer sighe vnto God, they neuer return to themselues, but heape sinnes vpon sinnes, til they vomit vp all at once as they thinke. And when they haue once vomited them vp, they thynke themselues discharged of their burden, and that they haue taken away from God the iudgemente that they haue geven to the Priest, and that they haue brought God in forgetfulnesse, when they haue made the Priest priuie.55

For him the Catholic sacrament is "pestilente" because it confers on the priest the power to absolve sin, a power he insists resides only in God.56 He seeks instead to devise religious practices that provoke men to "sighe unto God" and "return to themselves," to feel their guilt continuously and reflect on divine judgment.

Calvin privileges the individual's private and internal confession of sins before God, but he also imagines that such a confession will naturally be followed by a voluntary and public confession before men "not only to whisper the secret of his heart to one man, and once and in hys eare: but oft and openly, and in the bearing of al the world simplye to rehearse . . . his own shame."57 Indeed, he imagines an ideal Protestant community as one in which all members share publicly the knowledge of their own failings, rehearsing their shame. "We shoulde lay our weaknesse one in an others bosome," he writes, "to receiue mutuali counsel, mutual compassion & mutual comfort one of an other: then that we be naturally priuie to the weaknesses of our brethren; shoulde praye for them to the Lorde."58 Far from being eliminated from Protestant confessions, then, shame is understood to be shared, and its rehearsal in public is believed to be salutary, arousing the desire for an absolution that no human can confer, nurturing a continual process of self-reflection and repentance, and fostering a sense of community.

In the final scene of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare stages just such a public rehearsal of shame, one in which the comic ending is governed by mutual confessions of weaknesses and transgressions and repeated requests for forgiveness rather than the conventional triumph of love and mirth. Even Escalus and the Provost, who appear relatively blameless, and Isabella, who was clearly wronged, confess their faults and ask—publicly—to be pardoned for their behavior; and Angelo, the most obviously guilty character, not only requests forgiveness but is also asked to forgive the Provost for sending him the head of Ragozine instead of Claudio. Indeed, the Duke himself, having discarded his clerical disguise along with all pretense that he has the power to absolve sins, asks to be pardoned, confessing to Isabella that he is responsible for the supposed death of her brother and even declaring his kinship with the condemned man (5.1.487). All of these confessions are offered spontaneously and openly to the entire community after Lucio inadvertently reveals that the friar is, in truth, the Duke. To the extent that these confessions nurture a sense of community based on shared guilt—that is, a Calvinist community of sinners—they may be understood to liberate Isabella, Angelo, and the other characters from the isolation of their counterfeit righteousness.59

But that community, forged out of the painful awareness of a common guilt, is necessarily imperfect. As many critics have pointed out, the Duke does not achieve the complete reformation he desires.Isabella struggles to forgive Angelo, making a reluctant and qualified plea for his life; Angelo marries Mariana under duress, never speaking a word of affection to her; Lucio resists the Duke's order to marry Kate Keepdown, his wit still directed toward the bawdy and subversive; Barnardine stubbornly refuses all efforts to reform him; and Isabella does not answer the Duke's marriage proposal, her silence unsettling the comic ending. Although he asserts the power of theatrical representation to arouse guilt and produce the conditions for repentance, Shakespeare questions the capacity of the stage to reform its spectators.60 When, in the final act, he makes his own activity as dramatist visible through a Duke who constructs fictional narratives, traffics in substitutions, manipulates desire, cleverly scripts comic endings, and seeks to reform his audiences, he depicts his central character as an imperfect, even a bungling playwright.61

Why might Shakespeare create a figure of a playwright who cannot be trusted, who devises tricks that raise troubling ethical questions, who employs an improbable and highly contrived script, and who cannot even produce the conventional comic ending, unable as he is to reform the transgressors or persuade his romantic heroine to assent to the traditional marriage proposal? One answer may be that, by calling attention to the imperfection of his own art, Shakespeare deliberately cedes the reforming powers of the artist to a higher, divine authority and sacrifices the satisfactions of a comic ending in order to create a felt need for grace. It is surely significant that grace in Shakespeare's play is on everyone's tongue (in the repeated utterance of the words grace and gracious) yet is so noticeably absent.62 The persistent references to grace, like the pattern of inadequate substitutions, function to arouse desire for what the play cannot, on its own, achieve; for in Measure for Measure authority remains stubbornly outside both the world of the play and the realm of the author. Like the law as Calvin conceives it, the play can only reveal, not correct, imperfection, and it thus arouses a longing for what it acknowledges it cannot deliver: divine forgiveness. But even as he exposes the inadequacies of his representational theater, Shakespeare brilliantly exploits them. By portraying an imperfect playwright-Duke, by marring his own comic ending, and by depicting a series of inadequate but evocative substitutions, Shakespeare cultivates a knowledge of lack that is not only dissatisfying but also productive. He creates in his audiences a profound sense of the infinite space that separates them from the divine.


1 Jean E. Howard, "Measure for Measure and the Restraints of Convention," Essays in Literature 10 (1983): 149-58, esp. 149.

2 See, for example, Rosalind Miles, who argues that "there remains an unshakeable sense that it [the trial scene] fails to conclude the play in a way that leaves us entirely content; it does not fully resolve the issues and release the dramatic tensions which the course of the play has created" (The Problem of Measure for Measure: A Historical Investigation [New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976], 250); Anthony Dawson, who argues that "the elaborate restitution at the end of Measure for Measure is more hoax than reaffirmation" ("Measure for Measure, New Historicism, and Theatrical Power," Shakespeare Quarterly 39 [1988]: 328-41, esp. 341); Robert N. Watson, who sees the final revelation as "an illusion manipulated by a fake holy man for his own aggrandizement" and argues that "all the strategies of secular immortality, all the fantasies (religious, artistic, familial) of resurrection . . . lie mortally wounded amid the formulaic resurrections of the final scene" ("False Immortality inMeasure for Measure: Comic Means, Tragic Ends," SQ 41 [1990]: 411-32, esp. 423); and Richard Wheeler, who comments on "Shakespeare's inability to find an ending that responds fully to the whole action" (Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn [Berkeley: U of California P, 1981], 12).

3 Alexander Leggati, "Substitution in Measure for Measure," SQ 39 (1988): 342-59, esp. 359.

4 See, for example, Katharine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995), 172-77; Louise Schleiner, "Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure," PMLA 97 (1982): 227-36, esp. 227; Julia Reinhard Lupton, Afterlives of the Saints: Hagiography, Typology, and Renaissance Literature (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1996), 110-40; and Michael Flachmann, "Fitted for Death: Measure for Measure and the Contemplatio Mortis," English Literary Renaissance 22 (1992): 222-41. For earlier treatments of the play's religious content, see also Roy W. Battenhouse, "Measure for Measure and Christian Doctrine of the Atonement," PMLA 61 (1946): 1029-59; Darryl J. Gless, Measure for Measure, The Law, and the Convenant (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1979); and George Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy, with three new essays (London: Methuen, 1949).

5 Elizabeth Pope, for example, explicitly argues that in Measure for Measure Shakespeare "touches . . . only on such elements of traditional theology as were shared by Anglican, Puritan, and Roman Catholic alike" ("The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure" in Aspects of Shakespeare's 'Problem Plays', Kenneth Muir and Stanley Wells, eds. [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982], 57-73, esp. 71). Making no distinctions between Roman Catholic and Protestant views of chastity, Jonathan Dollimore assumes that "the Church" approves of Isabella's renunciation of her sexuality; see "Transgression and surveillance in Measure for Measure" in Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985), 72-87, esp. 82. Leggatt remarks that were a duke to disguise himself as a friar and go "around hearing confessions," he would create "a major scandal in an actual Catholic community" (344), but he never considers how a dramatic representation of such an action might play to a Protestant audience in early modern England. Carolyn Brown does not address the radically different views of Roman Catholics and Protestants on religious flagellation, asserting instead that the practice of flagellation "did not die in the Middle Ages but, to the contrary, survived and flourished through the sixteenth century in most of Europe" ("Erotic Religious Flagellation and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure" ELR 16 [1986]: 139-65, esp. 141).

6 Watson, for example, ignores Protestant condemnation of vows of chastity when he argues that because the play makes "a mockery of the pious notion that virginity is a plausible or even permissible way to pursue immortality," it is subversive of all religion, and he suggests that the play is "potentially heretical, even blasphemous" (426 and 415). Harriett Hawkins suggests that the play reveals how "organized religion itself . . . provide[s] solutions that are false, ways out that are too easy" ("'The Devil's Party': Virtues and Vices in 'Measure for Measure'" in Muir and Wells, eds., 87-95, esp. 95).

7 See, for example, Dollimore, 72-87; Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983); Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: U of California P, 1988); andLeonard Tennenhouse, "Representing Power: Measure for Measure in Its Time," Genre 15 (1982): 139-56.

8 I quote from Frederick Shriver, "Hampton Court ReVisited: James I and the Puritans," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 33 (1982): 48-71, esp. 48; see also, William Barlow, The Summe and Substance of the Conference . . . at Hampton Court (London, 1604).

9 "James's ecclesiastical policy was often conceived and presented as a via media between these two extremes" of puritanism and papistry, write Kenneth Fincham and Peter Lake, who note that "the king himself never tired of pointing out the equivalence of these two menaces" ("The Ecclesiastical Policy of King James I," Journal of British Studies 24 [1985]: 169-207, esp. 170). They argue that "James I not merely identified and opposed the threats of popery and Puritanism but also endeavored to emasculate the political dangers that both contained" (171).

10 Fincham and Lake, 175 and 172.

11 See, for example, in Henry Peacham's MinervaBritanna (London, 1612), the emblem of a hypocrite, who wears a friar's habit and carries a rosary and staff (198); Peacham identifies the friar's "humblest habits" with "a false disguise" that cloaks his "hidden villainies."

12 In her fascinating analysis of what she calls "the relics of hagiography in Shakespearean drama," Julia Reinhard Lupton finds in this play "a residually Catholic discourse not fully subject to its Reformation into secular literature" (140). She argues provocatively that Measure for Measure stages "the founding of secular literature on the supersedure of Christian forms" (135), but in identifying the Protestant Reformation with the "classicizing . . . humanist, rationalist, and empiricist initiatives of the Renaissance" (xxxii), she is, I think, too quick to equate early English Protestantism with the secularizing impulses of modernity.

13 Fincham and Lake, 207.

14 Patrick Collinson, The Religion of Protestants: TheChurch in English Society 1559-1625 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 82.

15 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendali (Berkeley: U of California P. 1988).

16 See, for example, Louis Adrian Montrose, "The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology," Helios 7 (1980): 51-74; and Michael o'Connell, "The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm, Anti-Theatricalism, and the Image of the Elizabethan Theater," ELH 52 (1985): 279-310. Both argue that the early modern London theater develops in reaction against Protestantism, a religion they assume is hostile to all theater. Montrose has recently distanced his position from o'Connell's; see Louis Adrian Montrose, The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996), 32n.

17 Thomas Lodge, "A Reply to Stephen Gosson's Schoole of Abuse: In Defence of Poetry Musick and Stage Plays" (1580?) in The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge, 4 vols. (Glasgow: Robert Anderson for the Hunterian Club, 1883), l:A4 , A7 , and B2 . I would r r r even suggest that it is Lodge, in his reply to Gosson, who first formulates a position on the stage that draws on Calvinist theology. It is only when Gosson answers Lodge's critique of his first tract that he fully develops the relation between antitheatricality and Protestant theology.

18 For a detailed discussion of these Calvinist defenses, see my book, Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1997), 71-72 and 205-7.

19 John Calvin, The Institution of Christian Religion, written in Latine, trans. Thomas Norton (London, 1562), Biv and Avir. Subsequent references to the Institutes follow this sixteenth-century edition.

20 John Calvin, The Sermons of M. Iohn Caluin, upon the Epistle of S. Paule too the Ephesians, trans. Arthur Golding (London, 1577), fol. 87.

21 Calvin, Institutes, Biiiiv, Gir-v , and Niiiv-Niiiir. Calvin elsewhere laments that most men are blind to these signs, preferring to "rest in beholding the workes without hauing regard of the workeman" (Biv ).

22 Calvin, Institutes, QQQviir, RRRvv, RRRviiv, and SSSir.

23 For a discussion of these pictures, see Craig Harbison, The Last Judgment in Sixteenth-Century Northern Europe (New York: Garland Press, 1976), 52-61.

24 Calvin, Institutes, RRRir. In an extended discussion of civil government, Calvin raises many of the central issues that Shakespeare explores in Measure for Measure, including the problems caused by too severe and too lenient administration of the law.

25 John Calvin, TheCatechisme, or maner to teache Children the Christian Religion (London, 1580), A4V .

26 William Wood, A Fourme of Catechising in true religion (London, 1581), CP. For Calvin, G. R. Evans writes, "The signs are present in this world, seen by our eyes and touched by our hands, Calvin's fear is that if this spatial separation of sign and thing signified is not emphasized there will be idolatry" ("Calvin on signs: an Augustinian dilemma," Renaissance Studies 3 [1989]: 35-45, esp. 40). Early Protestants repeatedly define idolatry in terms of substitution: see, for instance, Calvin, Institutes, Biiir ; "An Homilie Against perill of Idolatrie, and superfluous decking of Churches" in Certaine Sermons or Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth I . . . A Facsimile Reproduction of the Edition of 1623, ed. Mary Ellen Rickey and Thomas B. Stroup (Gainesville, FL: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1968), 11-76, esp. 49; and William Perkins, A Treatise of Mans Imaginations (Cambridge, 1607), B12 -Clv r .

27 Stephen Gosson, Playes Confuted in flue Actions (London, 1582), D7V .

28 Maus, 164 and 163. See also Janet Adelman's discussion of "the battle within [Angelo] between fierce repression of sexual desire and equally fierce outbursts of degrading and degraded desire"; Adelman concludes that for Angelo "desire is necessarily the ravishing of a saint" ("Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure" in Shakespeare's Personality, Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris, eds. [Berkeley: U of California P, 1989], 151-74, esp. 164).

29 Quotations of Measure for Measure follow TheNorton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).

30 Wood, B8v-Clr.

31 "An Homilie Against perill of Idolatrie," 49.

32 "An Homilie Against perill of Idolatrie," 49; and William Perkins, A Warning against the Idolatrie of the last times. And an Instruction touching Religious, or Diuine worship (Cambridge, 1601), F6r .

33 1 Corinthians 8:1-2. Biblical quotations in this essay follow the 1560 Geneva Bible and will hereafter be cited parenthetically in the text.

34 See, for instance, Calvin, Sermons upon Ephesians, fol. 85.

35 Although he does not discuss this play in terms of Calvinist theology or the Reformation, R.L.P. Jackson makes a similar observation in "Necessary Ambiguity: The Last Act of Measure for Measure," The Critical Review 26 (1984): 114-29, esp. 117.

36 Margaret Scott, "Our City's Institutions': Some Further Reflections on the Marriage Contract in Measure for Measure," ELH 49 (1982): 790-804, esp. 794. For interesting discussions of civil and ecclesiastical law and Measure for Measure, see Victoria Hayne, "Performing Social Practice: The Example of Measure for Measure" SQ 44 (1993): 1-29; and Maus, 157-81.

37 Calvin, Institutes, Diii .

38 Calvin, Institutes, Diiiv. According to John T. McNeill, "the term 'Law' for Calvin may mean (1) the whole religion of Moses . . . ; (2) the special revelation of the moral law to the chosen people . . . ; or (3) various bodies of civil, judicial, and ceremonial statutes." He notes that "Of these, the moral law, the 'True and eternal rule of righteousness' . . . is most important" (John T. McNeill, ed., Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960], l:348n).

39 Edmond Allen, A shorte Cathechisme: A briefe and godly bringinge up of youth in the knowledge and commandements of God. ([Zurich] 1550), C5V V and D3 . See also A Short Catéchisme, or Playne Instruction (London, 1553), B5V ; John Dod and Richard Cleaver, APlaine and familiar Exposition of Ten Commaundments, with a methodicall short Catechisme (London, 1605), Ff4v ; and Stephen Egerton, A Briefe Method of Catechizing (London, 1631), A5r r r -A7 and C6 .

40 Calvin, Institutes, Air.

41 Alexander Nowell writes that the law "striketh their heart with a wholesome sorrow, and driveth them to . . . repentance" (A Cathechisme written in Latin [1570], trans. Thomas Norton, ed. G. E. Corrie [Cambridge: Parker Society, 1854], 141).

42 Calvin, Institutes, Diiir and Diiv; Calvin, Sermons upon Ephesians, fols. 77v-78v.

43 Calvin, Institutes, Diiiv.

44 Calvin, Institutes, GGGiiiir.

45 See, for instance, Ben Jonson's portrayal of the Anabaptists in The Alchemist (1610) and of the puritan Zeal-of-the-Land Busy in Bartholomew Fair (1614).

46 Mario DiGangi, "Pleasure and Danger: Measuring Female Sexuality in Measure for Measure," ELH 60 (1993): 589-609, esp. 596; Laura Lunger Knoppers, "(En)gendering Shame: Measure for Measure and the Spectacles of Power," ELR 23 (1993): 450-71, esp. 462. Knoppers believes that Isabella's desire to enter a convent is "threatening" to patriarchal society (464). See also Brown, who laments that the Duke's shaming of Isabella "prevents her from ever returning to the protection of the convent" (216).

47 Harriett Hawkins, Likenesses of Truth in Elizabethan and Restoration Drama (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1972), 70 and 68. See also Richard Ide, who writes: "For Barnardine to be forgiven along with Claudio also seems an abuse of justice on the part of the lenient Duke" ("Shakespeare's Revisionism: Homiletic Tragicomedy and the Ending of Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Studies 20 [1987]: 105-27, esp. 119).

48 William Ames, Conscience with the Power and CasesThereof (London, 1639), BP. For a discussion of early Protestant notions of the conscience, see John S. Wilks, The Idea of Conscience in Renaissance Tragedy (New York: Routledge, 1990).

49 Jeremiah Dyke, Good Conscience or A TreatiseShewing the Nature, Meanes, Marks, Benefit, and Necesity thereof (London, 1624), B7r ; Calvin, Institutes, DDDiv ; Richard Carpenter, The ConscionableChristian (London, 1620), Hir .

50 Thomas Cranmer, The Bishop's Book (1537), quoted here from John Phillips, The Reformation of Images: Destruction of Art in England, 1535-1660 (Berkeley: U of California P, 1973), 57; "The Contents of a Book of Articles devised by the King," quoted here from The Actes and Monuments of John Foxe (1570), ed. Stephen Reed Cattley, 8 vols. (London: R. B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1937-41), 5:163.

51 Thomas Heywood, An Apology For Actors (London, 1612), B4r r v r and F4 ; see also Gl -G2 . For a detailed discussion of Heywood's defense of the stage and Protestant theories of conscience, see my book, Staging Reform.

52 Montrose, The Purpose of Playing, 44-45.

53 Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License,Play, and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988), 95, 98, 101, and 100.

54 Mullaney, 99.

55 Calvin, Institutes, CCviiv-CCviiir .

56 Calvin, Institutes, CCviiv.

57 Calvin, Institutes, CCiiiir .

58 Calvin, Institutes, CCiiv.

59 In "The Politics of Theatrical Mirth: A MidsummerNight's Dream, A Mad World, My Masters, and Measure for Measure" (SQ 43 [1992]: 51-66) Paul Yachnin argues that Measure for Measure represents "theater as the place of private conversional work rather than as the gathering-place of politically reconciliatory mirth," and he contends that Jacobean comedy, in sharp contrast to Elizabethan comedy, seeks "to exert itself with respect to the individual as individual rather than as a member of the community" (62). But he ignores the way the final scene's public rehearsal of mutual guilt creates a community of sinners. Victoria Hayne, in "Performing Social Practice," argues that "the audience is repeatedly invoked as witness, compurgator, congregation, jury" (21); and it might be possible to argue aloné these lines that the final act positions Shakespeare's audience as a congregation, witnessing these public confessions. But while she examines puritan emphasis on the congregation's judgmental role, I focus on Calvin's emphasis on the importance of the congregation's identification and compassion.

60 Noting that Viennese "society seems singularly unaffected" by the Duke's efforts to inflict "anxiety for ideological purposes," Stephen Greenblatt argues that "salutary anxiety is emptied out in the service of theatrical pleasure," thereby calling into question the Duke's goals (141 and 138). Greenblatt argues that the pleasure the audience experiences is "bound up with the marking out of theatrical anxiety as represented anxiety—not wholly real, either in the characters onstage or in the audience" (135). But I want to suggest that salutary anxiety, rather than simply being emptied out, has both an aesthetic and a disciplinary function.

61 Anne Righter Barton makes a similar observation in Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962) when she notes that "the Duke's managerial rôle flatters neither himself nor the theater" (178).

62 The word grace or graces occurs twenty-five times in Measure for Measure, the words gracious and graciously eight times; see T. H. Howard-Hill, ed., Oxford Shakespeare Concordance: Measure for Measure (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

Structure, Imagery, And Inconsistencies

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Herbert Weil, Jr. (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Form and Contexts in Measure for Measure" in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 55-72.

[In the essay that follows, Weil studies the apparent discrepancies between the form of the first and second halves of Measure for Measure, arguing that Shakespeare 's design can be viewed as comprehensive only if the play 's falling action "is played in a light comic, often farcical, vein. " Weil maintains that Shakespeare parodies the melodrama of his sources and highlights the limitations of comic conventions, but at the same time "stretches them into new possibilities. "]


Among the most challenging problems presented by Measure for Measure is why Shakespeare so thoroughly terminates before mid-play the dramatic intensity of his early acts. Although readers and critics have recognized this slackening of tension and suspense, few have been willing to grant that the dramatist may have carefully planned this change of mode. None, so far as I can discover, has shown convincingly why he turns his action to such frustrating anti-climax. Nor has any critic presented a theory of the play's unity that indicates why Shakespeare chose most of the details we find in his last acts. I feel that only if much of the descending action is played in a light comic, often farcical, vein, can all of its speeches fit into a comprehensive design.1 I use the phrases 'Light comic' and 'broad comedy' to represent passages which aim to arouse our laughter as our immediate response. This need not limit the seriousness of the subject matter, the after-effects, or the implications. Comedy then does not indicate any lack of serious thematic relevance or resonance—unlike the limited seriousness of threats in the fable.

Unless we recognize this increasingly comic mode we cannot understand the unusual formal coherence that Shakespeare creates through his juxtaposition of such discordant elements as potential tragedy and farce. Until the decisive change in Act III, our responses alternate between moderate suspense for the main plot and laughter at the sub-plot—perhaps mingled with some confusion. After the eavesdropping Duke Vincentio, disguised as a friar, steps in to interrupt Isabella's angry denunciation of her brother Claudio, powerful moral and intellectual concerns seem to be ignored. The resulting frustration felt by most readers and critics has been a major cause for two prevalent, but misleading, attitudes toward the final and longer part of the play. One interpretation recognizes that mode and spirit do change drastically in Act III, scene 1, but maintains that thereafter the play is carelessly conceived and carelessly executed.2 The most common and influential examples of this approach tend to view the play as if it were tragicomic melodrama; they continue to emphasize the threats posed by the villain Angelo. The other approach argues for the play's unity by focussing upon the character of the Duke.3 But its proponents find this unity only at the expense of neglecting significant speeches which suggest a paradoxical conflict between the Duke's role and his moral attributes. Prompt-books for every production of Measure for Measure since 1945 at Startford-on-Avon show significant cuts in passages that tug against playing the Duke as heroic or as reliable.

Critics seeking excitement and deepening involvement with Isabella or Angelo naturally find the final acts lacking in proper seriousness. Critics who see the play as successfully unified about the Duke, in effect, ask us to believe that the play becomes more serious in its second half—that the seriousness of characters and story are sacrificed for some higher seriousness. In so arguing, they falsify the relaxed confident mood of the final acts. Both of these approaches impose on the play's descending action demands that Shakespeare makes no attempt to satisfy. Consequently they prevent any valid judgment of the unity and accomplishment of the play as a whole. I shall attempt to show how deliberately Shakespeare alters both the mode and structure of his sources and of his own opening acts. With the discordant form that results, he attempts to create an unusual direction for our disappointment at the failure of his action to resolve in convincing depth the moral dilemmas and physical dangers his characters face.

Especially significant is the way in which Shakespeare carefully calls our attention to the extreme shift in subject matter, style, and tone at that moment—Act III, scene 1, line 152—when the Duke interrupts Isabella's outburst against her brother.4 For the remainder of the play, the Duke and the comic characters—Lucio, Pompey. Barnardine—become increasingly prominent. Whenever Lucio or Pompey is on-stage, he tends to transform the spirit of the play with irreverent jests. This comic mode, foreshadowed at intervals during the earlier acts, now affects every aspect of the situation of the monstrous proposal—including the Duke who takes it in hand. Those critics who admire him with few reservations lean too heavily on the power of the Duke to avert any catastrophe. They do not explain why he speaks in such an awkward and pompous way nor why he repeatedly makes a fool of himself in response to Lucio and Barnardine.

Because the fifth act of Measure for Measure mirrors the structure of the whole play, it supports our discovery of Shakespeare's carefully planned design. As in the complete action, reversal, discordance, and anticlimax are vital. Major moral problems are first convincingly posed and then resolved very superficially or evaded altogether. By treating this final act as a mirror as well as a conclusion, we return to the difficulties created by the use of the spectator's frustrated involvement. Is Measure for Measure a better play because Shakespeare engages our minds with significant moral questions—the relation of justice to mercy, of chastity to sexual license—even though the play's action does not work them out in any depth? What finally holds the play together when the author so strikingly changes its spirit and the responses of his audience?


Most emphatic among the objections to the descending action of Measure for Measure is the preface to the new Cambridge edition by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. He accurately observes that, after the Duke intervenes, subject matter and style generally lose the intense vigorous quality of earlier passages. This has been generally accepted, but Quiller-Couch goes on to claim:

The two halves of this scene cannot be made of a piece by anyone possessing even a rudimentary acquaintance with English prose and poetry . . . We say confidently that the two parts could not have been written by the same man, at one spell, on one inspiration, or with anything like an identical or even continuous poetic purpose.5

Although many of us may have shared his disappointment during our first reading, we should not argue from our initial response that there is a major flaw in Shakespeare's design. Shakespeare prepares for this reversal and takes pains to make it so conspicuous. He uses it to signal his audience that they should not feel disturbed suspense over the dangers to the heretofore prominent Claudio and Isabella. The scenes to follow are not melodramatic; they should be played as broad comedy of farcical insults, non-sequiturs, and fantasy.

If the spectator is to feel a radical shift of emphasis after the impassioned debates, the comic elements in the early scenes must not stand out too strongly. But if the shift in tone and emphasis is to surprise the spectator rather than shock or amaze him, the early acts must contain the seeds that make the later change credible. This Shakespeare accomplishes through his use of the comic sub-plot. In an atmosphere of coarse (and, at times, perhaps intentionally humourless) jesting, we first learn about the central situation of the main plot, the sentencing of Claudio to death. Through Lucio, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone, the spectator further learns about the widespread corruption in the city, about Angelo's proclamations that close the houses of prostitution and reinstate the long dormant death penalty against fornication, and about Isabella at the convent of St. Clare. After feeling offended by Lucio's initial greeting, the heroine quickly recovers and becomes closely linked with him. He accompanies the girl to her first debate with Angelo, and she later defends him against the angry Duke.

In addition to these expository functions, Shakespeare's comic characters help establish an important, unobtrusive rhythm. Repeatedly, an idealistic statement is succeeded by clowning and broad jests. In the first scene of the play, the Duke delegates his power to Angelo, claiming that he has no time to explain his motives, but taking time to expound upon the ruler's duties and the need for mercy. Instead of developing or applying directly any of these principles, Shakespeare shifts to a scene of broad comic gossip and jesting about venereal disease. When we first see Isabella in scene iv, she is requesting 'A more strict restraint' upon the sisters of the convent. Lucio then bursts in to interrupt with his mood-shattering. 'Hail virgin, if you be'. The next scene opens with an argument between Escalus and Angelo, who insists that penalizing fornication with death is proper and that his own virtue will support his extreme decree. But any expectation we might have that Angelo's lines will lead to a straight-forward investigation of the nature of justice or to a development of tragic potentialities for the judge or his prisoner is promptly eliminated. The constable Elbow and the tapster Pompey enter, and in the broadest farce of the ascending action use Angelo and Escalus as straight men, constantly interrupting their judges and each other. Angelo reveals mainly his inability to deal with concrete problems of corruption, but he does so in a joyous context that leads to Elbow's defence of his wife:

If ever I was respected with her, or she with me, let not your worship think me the poor Duke's officer. Prove this, thou wicked Hannibal, or I'Ll have mine action of battery on thee.

(II. 1. 814-8)

From this use of comic characters for exposition, atmosphere, and rhythm, we, of course, receive no certain proof that the story will end happily. But such frequent comic interruptions, combined with the audience's knowledge that the Duke is watching over Angelo, should help prevent our feeling that there has been no adequate preparation for the relaxed optimistic mood of the final acts.

Rather than try to hide the disparities between the two halves of his play by involving our emotions, Shakespeare calls our attention to his changes by unmistakable contradictions and discords. As the ascending action of Measure for Measure ends in the midst of Act III, scene i, the highest ethical position of each character in the plot of the monstrous proposal has been shattered. Angelo has learned that his self-controlled purity has been an illusion; Claudio has learned that his resolution to die nobly is weak; and Isabella has shown the audience that her love of mercy is not reflected in her action toward her brother. She cannot sympathize with Claudio's cowardice and his desire to live; her last words to him are:

Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd. 'Tis best thou diest quickly.

Because these three characters can neither resolve their dilemmas not face them nobly, it becomes necessary for an outsider to assume control over these problems.

But no sooner does Vincentio step from his hiding place than the play's mode shifts completely into another key. The Duke opens the descending action with praise for Isabella at her most brutal moment with deceptive lies to Claudio that would deprive him of all hope to live, and with his proposal of the bed-trick. Even the Duke's clumsy prose, full of awkward repetitions, formulas, and clichés, contrasts sharply with Isabella's preceding lines of blank verse ranting. It is surely significant that this transition comes in mid-scene when we are most likely to notice it.

Such a transition clearly suggests that there will no longer be any real dangers on the story level; it should also prepare us for a dénouement that does not depend on careful moral deliberation. There is little visible need for the Duke's deception of Claudio in such statements as 'Angelo had never the purpose to corrupt her [Isabella]' or 'Tomorrow you must die;' these lies can hardly be accorded the intensity or verisimilitude which the debates have established. Only a few lines later, the Friar introduces his device of the bed-trick which, if it is successful, will contradict his statements to the condemned Claudio. Even if attentive spectators who notice these discrepancies have no ready explanations for them, they would realize that they were no longer to take the dilemmas and dangers of Claudio and Isabella with the seriousness that they deserved in the ascending action. Isabella now need only acquiesce in the devices arranged by the Friar. Claudio does not even receive an honest account of his temporal situation. Until the end of the play, he is rarely on stage and apparently should only prepare himself for death.

The language of the Duke suggests how the mode changes from danger, debate, and moral responsibility to mere justification of non-moral plot devices. He offers a rather long-winded defence of the bed-trick, concluding, 'The doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof Interestingly enough, Vincentio here, to justify a trick, uses ethical arguments strikingly similar tothose Isabella rejected when they were used by Claudio and which her prototype accepted and acted upon in Promos and Cassandra.* Although she refused to sacrifice her virginity when Claudio, attempting to save his life, begged, 'Nature dispenses with the deed so far that it becomes a virtue,' she agrees happily to the Duke's scheme for Mariana, The image of it gives me content already; and I trust it will grow to a most prosperous perfection.'

That Shakespeare in All's Well That Ends Well and twice in Measure for Measure provides extended expository apology for the bed-trick, seems to indicate that he could not, or felt that he could not, rely on the facile acceptance by his audience of this familiar convention.7 His procedure indicates that he does not want any such unquestioning acceptance; he uses the general mood of his scene and the Duke's clumsy reiterative explanations to Isabella in order to suggest to his audiences that they are no longer watching the same morally serious world as that of the ascending action. This focal scene shows us that he intends us to change our perspective as he changes his tone.

Shakespeare's treatment of the turning point in his action distinguishes him from the writer of melodrama. This term, however anachronistic, describes clearly the dominant mode in the sources and analogues for Measure. In effective melodrama, the writer cannot invite a detached and critical response to his plot mechanics, much less burlesque them. The spectator at a melodrama usually suspends any belief he might have that a dire and seemingly inevitable catastrophe will be averted. Because he must not feel any relaxed confidence in a happy ending, he must not be shown how that ending will be reached. In Measure for Measure, however, before mid-play we share the knowledge of the controlling character and feel sure that the dangers will not come to pass.8

Through the remainder of the episodic third and fourth acts, the stage is dominated by the Duke and by comic characters who establish the mood and who insist on commenting about the main action. Shakespeare changes his dramatic focus by repeatedly inventing new, incidental and often comic characters—Mariana, Kate Keepdown, Barnardine, Ragozine, Abhorson—as foils for figures in both main and sub-plot. These new characters draw our attention from, and tend to decrease our involvement with, Angelo's potential victims, Claudio and Isabella. In addition, Shakespeare reduces the activity of these formerly prominent characters, while he increases that of the Duke. During the descending action either Duke Vincentio or some comic character is present for all but seventy lines. The sequence of substitutions through which Vincentio saves Claudio becomes progressively more farfetched. Although the Duke has successfully preserved Isabella's chastity by substituting Mariana for her in Angelo's bed, his first trick has failed to save Claudio's life. Because Angelo breaks his agreement, Claudio's situation—to outward appearance—remains what it was before either Isabella or the Duke interfered. Conveniently, the Duke discovers a substitute for Claudio, one Barnardine. This prisoner, we learn, is 'Drunk many times a day,' is 'Fearless of what's past, present, or to come,' and 'Hath evermore the liberty of the prison; give him leave to escape hence, he would not.' Why he is offered the opportunity to run away we never discover, for Barnardine is represented with the minimal credibility he needs to be a foil for Claudio and a test for the Friar. The tone of this episode is set by the first lines spoken to him—Pompey's 'Master Barnardine, you must rise and be hanged, Master Barnardine.' The condemned criminal refuses the clown, 'Away you rogue. I am sleepy.' He will treat the disguised Duke in the same way. When the Duke begins his instruction, 'Sir, induced by my charity and hearing how hastily you are to depart, I am come to advise you, comfort you and pray with you,' the impatient prisoner refuses to listen:

Friar, not I: I have been drinking hard all night . . . I will not consent to die this day, that's certain . . . I swear I will not die today for any man's persuasion.

(IV. iii. 56-63)

And he does not. After interrupting the Friar-Duke, he storms off the stage, reappearing only in the final act to receive an unconditional pardon.

It is hard to imagine playing this scene as anything other than broad comedy. And it is even more difficult to take seriously the device which finally succeeds in saving the life of Claudio. Only seven lines after Barnardine leaves, the Duke and the audience suddenly learn, 'There died this morning of a cruel fever/One Ragozine, a most notorious pirate/A man of Claudio's years.' The Duke exclaims, 'O, 'Tis an accident that heaven provides!' and dispatches his head to Angelo.

Such a fast-paced farcical treatment of Claudio's impending execution eliminates any possible fear or tension the most literal-minded spectator might feel. Even if he has somehow taken quite earnestly the Duke's plans for the substitution of Mariana, the second and third ready-made substitutions would strain his belief. They clearly push too far an initially shaky plot device. Barnardine's unwillingness to serve as a substitute parodies Mariana's docility and transforms a grotesque situation into broad comedy. By such exaggeration, Shakespeare signals that he does not wish the spectator to remain emotionally involved with his story.

Barnardine's refusal to cooperate with the Duke climaxes a series of meetings between the disguised ruler and the comic characters. These scenes help to set the tone of the descending action. More important, but less obviously, they reflect essential personal traits in the controlling character himself. For all his power and good intentions, Vincentio, when confronted by a member of the sub-plot, usually tends to become a comic character himself. The comic aspects of the Duke apparently need stressing because most recent critics who praise the unity of Measure for Measure focus on his character or role but tend to omit any thorough discussion of his shortcomings. G. Wilson Knight, F. R. Leavis, Francis Fergusson, and David L. Stevenson treat the Duke either as a symbol for Divine Providence, as a tribute to the newly crowned James I, as the ideal ruler, or as a figure for the author-director, 'Whose attitude, nothing could be plainer, is meant to be ours.'9 It is often argued that the Duke as director of the action provides its unity by working out some central theme, usually the relation of justice to mercy or of chastity to natural sexual desires. But a unifying theory based upon the virtues of the Duke leaves unexplained such major questions about the final acts as: Why does Lucio so constantly harass the disguised Duke with 'compliments' to his lenient rule and his alleged sexual prowess? Why does the Duke-Friar use such clumsy devices to manipulate the action? Why does he tell Isabella in Act V that her petition for Angelo's pardon is in vain? And why does he repeatedly praise himself with such awkward prose? Studies that discover a neat, allegorical resolution to Measure for Measure do not recognize how fully the split in mid-play has affected its mode.

Perhaps our best evidence that the reiterated and verbose self-praise by the Duke is not merely awkward or careless writing comes from his direct confrontations with the comic characters. After his interview with Claudio and Isabella, in quick succession Vincention meets Elbow, Pompey, Lucio and Mistress Overdone. These meetings help create contexts for the Duke's behaviour quite unlikethose in the earlier acts when he never confronted any of the comic characters. Now the Duke's reactions to them, usually exaggerated beyond either the requirements of the plot or the demands of verisimilitude, betray his own character. For example, the Duke, just after leaving Isabella, shows his lack of competence and compassion when he sees Elbow and Pompey. Elbow appears only twice in Measure for Measure. Each time he is leading Pompey to jail. The parallel responses that the constable and his prisoner elicit, first from Angelo and then from the disguised Duke, provide an important implicit connection between the ruler and his deputy. Vincentio first exclaims, 'O heavens! what stuff is here?', and then goes on to berate Pompey:

A bawd, a wicked bawd! The evil that thou causest to be done, That is thy means to live. Do thou but think What 'Tis to cram a maw or clothe a back From such a filthy vice . . . Canst thou believe thy living is a life, So stinkingly depending?

(III. ii. 20)9

Pompey stumbles, admits that his life does 'stink in some sort, sir, but yet, sir, I would prove . . . ' The Friar does not permit Pompey to finish. As if forgetting his disguise, Vincentio instructs his constable. 'Take him to prison, officer . . . This rude beast will profit.' Like Isabella's outburst against Claudio at the climax of the previous scene, the Friar-Duke's attack on Pompey is meant to show us angry vituperation far in excess of any immediate justification. His lines remind us of Angelo's disgust at Elbow and Pompey and his desire that both be punished.

Two choral comments tend to reinforce this exposure of flaws that Vincentio does not recognize in himself. His next speech about 'The rude beast' Pompey is a cryptic aside:

That we were all, as some would seem to be, [Free] from our faults, as faults from seeming free.

(III. ii. 40-1 )10

With the protracted wordplay and the enforced emphasis of the eighteen monosyllables in this couplet, the Duke shifts the tone of the dialogue and interrupts the action. Vincentio suggests how Pompey (the final 'Faults') is superior to the idealistic, hypocritical Angelo The Duke acknowledges—for this one moment—virtues in the comic characters that the spectator has probably long felt. Pompey's essential quality has been captured during his first arrest when he answers Escalus, 'I am a poor fellow that would live.' When we last see him he gaily presents the most concrete, visual example Shakespeare will provide of reform in corrupt Vienna: 'I have been an unlawful bawd time out of hand, but yet I will be content to be a lawful hangman.' In this delight, vitality, and flexibility, not in any disgust or morbid cynicism, lies the spirit of the comic sub-plot.11 Unlike Angelo, unlike most men, and unlike the Duke himself, Pompey and the comic characters avoid all 'seeming' or pretence to a virtue they do not possess.

Lucio, like Barnardine and Pompey, reminds us that Vincentio is not as noble as he thinks himself.Their arguments are central in the descending action, much as Isabella's debate with Angelo had been in the earlier acts. The audience knows that Lucio cannot win, that the Friar is really the Duke. But even with all his advantages, the Duke appears foolish. Often we laugh at the Duke's imperceptive egoism as he turns Lucio's intended compliments into insults. It is clear that Lucio incriminates himself with 'pretty tales of the Duke' and of his own wenching. But if we notice only this obvious, facile self-revelation, we miss completely the richness and suggestiveness of their doubled-edged witcombats. Lucio first greets the disguised Duke with varied rumours concerning his absence, concluding, 'It was a mad fantastical trick of him to steal from the state and usurp the beggary he was never born to.' He then leads Vincentio into defending the harsh measures of Angelo. With his most hyperbolic comic metaphors, Lucio declares that, 'Angelo was not made by man and woman after this downright way of creation . . . Some report a sea-maid spawned him; some that he was begot between two stock-fishes. But it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice, that I know to be true.' In burlesquing Angelo's view that denies the natural in procreation, Lucio shifts his idiom easily, from fantastic rumour to fantastic certainty. Equally fantastic are the rumours he repeats and his claims to certain knowledge.

Lucio means to compliment the Duke both as ruler and as man by contrasts with the unnaturally cruel Angelo:

Why, what a ruthless thing is this in him, for the rebellion of a cod-piece to take away the life of a man! 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. 121-8)

Angered by the sexual allusion, Vincentio praises himself, thereby denying Lucio's statements and leading his comic gadfly on to exaggerate, in turn, his alleged knowledge of the 'Absent' Duke. When the Duke commends himself, 'Wise? Why no question but what he was,' Lucio now takes the opposite stance, 'A very uperficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow.' Losing all self-control, the angered Duke explodes:

Either this is envy in you, folly, or mistaking. The very stream of his life and business he hath helmed must, upon a warranted need, give him a better proclamation. Let him be but testimonied in his own bringingsforth, and he shall appear to the envious, a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier.

(III. ii. 149-55)

I find it difficult to believe that the audience was expected to treat such self-praise as reliable characterization. To interpret the Duke as a tribute to James I, as the ideal Renaissance ruler, or as an allegorical figure for Providence requires that we ignore his angry and wonderfully funny reactions to Lucio.

As Duke Vincentio repeatedly defends Angelo and stresses his own puritanical abhorrence of sex, his resemblance to the deputy becomes much more clear. Although Lucio's allegations may be unfair to the Duke as a private person, they are credible deductions from his negligent practice as a ruler. Ironic self-incrimination is suggested in Lucio's 'Friar, thou knowest not the Duke so well as I do. He's a better woodman than thou tak'st him for.' Lucio speaks to the character who earlier declared, 'Believe not the dribbling dart of love can pierce a complete bosom (I. iii. 1).' We might well expect such lines from Angelo. The misogyny and pride so emphatically expressed are carefully placed at the opening of scene iii when the Duke 'Returns' to Vienna and discloses to the audience the deception he practised in the opening scene. The Duke who moves from this description of himself to propose marriage with the Isabella who wants to be a nun may well be a better 'Woodman' than he recognizes. Vincentio offers in the lighter contexts of the final half of the play a clear parallel to Angelo's false confidence in his ability to rule efficiently and to resist love or temptation. And Lucio repeatedly scores these failures in the man who 'Above all other strifes contended especially to know himself.'


This presentation of the Duke as a well-meaning powerful figure who delights in his own manoeuvring but who fails to understand his own weaknesses will help explain many otherwise perplexing details of Act V. Much of this act must seem trite or irrelevant if one attempts to understand the play either as a romantic melodrama designed to arouse suspense over the fate of threatened characters or as a didactic morality which demonstrates the fair and proper meting out of justice and mercy by the ruler. For example, most commentators have felt that after the Duke reveals that he has saved Claudio, Shakespeare simply forgot to give speeches to the boy and to his sister, for each remains silent. Shakespeare seems, however, to attend carefully in his closing lines to such minor details as the Provost's failure to carry out Angelo's order and the freeing of Barnardine. In fact, Shakespeare in his final lines spends more time on the pardoning of Barnardine and on the punishing of Lucio than on any of the major characters from the monstrous proposal plot.

But Shakespeare's conclusion becomes readily intelligible when we view this last act as a mirror of his structure and strategy throughout the play. In the first part of the scene, we watch the devices of the Duke (about which the audience has been specifically forewarned in the closing moments of Act IV) and his comic badgering by Lucio. The Duke's praise for Angelo recalls the play's opening scene; Angelo tries his accusers, Isabella and Mariana, as he judged Pompey. The emotional and ethical climax comes in Isabella's plea that Angelo be spared. Her speech works out a moral pattern that has been implicit since her petition for Claudio. It therefore should not surprise the reader but rather impress him as morally and formally right. Like her suit to Angelo for Claudio, it is refused—to be succeeded, again, by the intentional anticlimax of the Duke's manipulating—his hasty pardons, marriage proposal, and extended dialogue with Lucio.

The need to resolve the main plot, which has hinged on Angelo's 'Monstrous proposal' and Isabella's response, can explain why the heroine and Mariana accuse the deputy. But only the demands of the broadly comic perspective established by the descending action can account for Vincentio's surprising departure in the midst of the trial when he leaves instructing Angelo as deputy to punish his accusers 'To the height of your pleasure.'

Why, when Angelo has been truly accused, should he be left to judge his own case? Isabella and Mariana—mingling truth with falsehood—have claimed that Angelo has lain with them. Isabella's false charge has seemed true to Angelo; Mariana's true accusation has made public information about Angelo's behaviour that only the Duke, the two women, and the audience knew. The continued deception is not necessary as a means to trap Angelo. He promptly and simply confesses 100 lines later when Lucio pulls the Friar's hood from the Duke. The multiple lies and Vincentio's unjust delegation of power—which he himself shortly will attack while wearing the Friar's habit—are necessary only so that an aspect of the story, seemingly secondary to the monstrous proposal plot, can be included in the resolution. Shakespeare has constructed his act carefully so that his dramatic emphasis falls upon the disguises and manipulation of the Duke.

When he returns to the stage, again disguised as Friar Lodovick, the Duke, who has always refused to listen to comparable criticism by Lucio or Pompey, strongly objects to his own policy and rule. Now as he addresses Isabella and Mariana, he claims:

The Duke's unjust . . . to put your trial in the villain's mouth . . . I have seen corruption boil and bubble till it o'er-run the stew; laws for all faults stand like the forfeits in a barber's shop as much in mock as mark.

These lines have the surface function of leading Lucio on so the Duke can spring his carefully laid trap. But they also bind the Duke's role as ruler more closely to his personal character. Because Vincentio has consistently shown himself to be inefficient and sometimes unmerciful, we cannot consider his initial departure from Vienna and his disguise as mere plot devices.

Only the Duke's desire to emphasize his own tricks and their effectiveness in preserving Claudio explains why the ruler handles Isabella's petition as he does—first carefully shaping the context in which she pleads and then denying her request for mercy. There should be little doubt of the Tightness of Isabella's petition. On formal grounds, she makes the only satisfying choice. Isabella earlier told Angelo she would grant mercy if she were in his position; Angelo has repented and confessed; we know his crimes have been only of intent, except for his lying with Mariana, and we certainly expect the final resolution to pardon Claudio for a similar 'crime'. Perhaps most important, mercy fulfills the highest moral ideal of the play's action. Here in her final speech Isabella shows extremely effective humility and simplicity. Earlier she has shown an idealized devotion to mercy, but no ability to practise it. In her scene with Claudio, we ignore Shakespeare's dynamic moral action if we emphasize the Tightness of Isabella's decision to preserve her chastity, rather than the cruelty with which she answers the brother she believes soon to be executed. Because her choice of mercy is not inevitable, her truly merciful behaviour to Angelo is the moral climax of the play. This climax achieves its success largely because it grows from and momentarily transcends the confused and untested values which Isabella upheld. It satisfies us because Shakespeare creates a situation that would permit a cynical or grotesque conclusion—and then rejects the conclusion. He thereby gives us the feeling that, even in this world of Vienna, the morally and logically right decision can be made.

The context in which Isabella pleads is vital. Lucio has just unfrocked the Friar and revealed the Duke; Angelo has been forced to wed Mariana; the audience and the Duke know that Claudio lives. As the newlywed couple re-enter, the Duke, who has just assured Isabèlla that Claudio is happier because he is dead, now tells her that she must pardon Angelo because he did not achieve his evil intent. But in the same sentence, the Duke continues:

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.

(V. i. 408-16)

Particularly important here is Vincentio's ironic use of the idea of equal substitution and especially of the play's title. Only now, when both the audience and the speaker know that there has been no harm done—that the specific reference to Claudio's death is false—does Shakespeare introduce the title of his play. We cannot accept either the threat of Angelo's execution or the moral appropriateness of the words 'Measure still for Measure' in this context because both are contingent upon 'An Angelo for Claudio, death for death.' The Duke has deprived Isabella's petition of any credible influence on events. Here, as in the pivotal scene where the eavesdropping Friar takes control, moral conflict tends to separate from dramatic action.

That Isabella does not speak again suggests that the dramatist does not want her to detract from the impression she has just created. In his closing lines, Shakespeare deliberately underplays the plot of the monstrous proposal in order to end the action on a comic and anti-climactic note. In one sentence of confused syntax, the Duke, who thoroughly dominates the stage, reveals Claudio, pardons him, and proposes to Isabella:

If he be like your brother, for his sake Is he pardon'd; and for your lovely sake— Give me your hand and say you will be mine— He is my brother too.

(V. i. 495-8)

The wedding of the misogynist Duke-Friar to the chaste novice Isabella, who 'Most abhors' the sexual vice of her brother, achieves a comic lightness, for Shakespeare combines the formal, conventional resolution with a variation that surprises precisely because neither character has shown the least desire to marry.

The next lines between the Duke and Lucio seem to burlesque not only the hastily presented resolutions in marriage but also the continuing motif of the Duke's fair meting out of justice. Vincentio turns to Lucio with, 'And yet here's one place I cannot pardon'. As usual, Lucio causes the Duke to betray—in a comic manner—his own weakness as a ruler. The one character who has insulted the manipulating Duke remains his anathema. The Duke demands that Lucio marry the woman he has 'Wrong'd. The nuptial finished, let him be whipp'd and hang'd.' Although Lucio pleads that to marry him to a whore will make him a cuckold, the Duke insists upon the dubious justice of this marriage—which parodies the three other more happy weddings:

Upon my honour, you shalt marry her. Thy slanders I forgive; and therewithal Remit thy other forfeits.

Lucio's last line, 'Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging,' may gain him nothing, but once again he reveals Vincentio's ineptitude. The Duke is provoked to contradict explicitly his 'Forgiveness' of five lines earlier when he replies to Lucio 'Slandering a prince deserves it.'

This concluding scene builds to a dramatic climax which coincides with its moral peak—only to lead to intentionally anti-climactic, non-moral manipulation. We move from the plot of the monstrous proposal to the bawds with whom the Duke proves so futile. In this comic world, Vincentio has the last word, but he must answer Lucio who has the next-to last word.


Any criticism of Measure for Measure as a unified play must account for rather than evade the implications of its inconsistent details, its fluctuating focus upon different characters, and especially the levels of intensity that distinguish its two halves. For a full understanding of the play, it is necessary to consider the action from two contrasting, overlapping formal perspectives. On one hand, Shakespeare involves us in the situations of his major characters and the dilemmas they face. But he never works these out in convincing depth. This perspective we may call the 'problematic' if we use this term as it refers to a work (or major aspect of a work) in which the author poses significant and disturbing moral problems, for which he intentionally offers only superficial resolutions. One can readily see that the critic can discuss this perspective only with very limited precision.

On the other hand, when we consider the story in Measure and our attitudes toward the threats Angelo poses, we see that Shakespeare offers an increasingly comic approach. The ascending action builds up our concern for Claudio's life and our antipathy toward Angelo because the death penalty seems harsh and excessive. But Shakespeare carefully concentrates his intensity in the first part. The three debates when Isabella faces first Angelo and then Claudio comprise less than 800 lines and all come within the second quarter of the play. Even here, Shakespeare uses Lucio to accompany Isabella when she first meets Angelo and he carefully shows the audience the disguised Duke hiding, but learning all that takes place, when Isabella tells her brother of the deputy's monstrous proposal. The Duke's presence implies the existence of some eternal force that will prevent a direct working out of the dilemmas posed. Once the Duke interrupts Isabella's tirade against her brother, never for more than a moment need we feel concern over the effectiveness of the devices by which Claudio is saved as we would if we were watching an effective melodrama.

In the descending action, the problems of justice, mercy, and sexual promiscuity, posed so forcefully by Isabella and Angelo, remain important, but their relevance often is adapted to the world of Barnardine and Kate Keepdown. The transformation of mood and control proves so complete after the Duke reduces Isabella's dilemmas to such devices as substituting heads or virgins that we must recognize that ethical choices are no longer vital to work out the story. The action of Measure for Measure does not lead us to any new discoveries that can resolve bitter conflicts between mercy andjustice. In the final scene, as the Duke has contrived the climactic choice, both mercy, and justice require that Angelo be pardoned. And thç final weddings surely are not meant as an earnest solution to the excesses of promiscuity and of chastity—for the last comment on the subject is Lucio's objection that forcing him to marry a punk will make him a cuckold.

Once the critic of Measure recognizes its over-all comic structure and its increasingly comic perspective, his approach often tends to flatten out or ignore vital distinctions between the early debates and the later farce.12 Yet the play has become increasingly popular with modern audiences and readers largely because of the early atypical scenes—and their emotional and intellectual engagement which other comedies so rarely can create. While Shakespeare remoulds his overt action, and the moral problems in so far as they are embodied in that action, he expects the alert responsive spectator to feel disturbed. Anti-climactic rhythms and structure call the disparities between problem and solution to the attention of the spectator. Through Lucio and Pompey, the dramatist repeatedly draws our attention to the inadequacy of solutions that the perfectionists in the play—Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke—profess to find adequate. They all share a lack of the self-knowledge which each claims. This false conception leads each to impose demands for extreme purity on those subject to his power, and then to abuse them cruelly when they prove flawed.

Shakespeare, then, creates an action to which we respond in distinct ways. We know that on the level of the fable, no harm will be done. Yet we feel certain that the explanations given by well-meaning, apparently reliable characters do not provide the meaning of the experiences represented. That the Duke saves Isabella and Angelo from the consequences of their self-deception should satisfy us, especially because it comes through their testing and increased awareness. The comic characters, in turn, remind us of the Duke's own pretences and thereby help construct the underlying integrity of the play. The Duke's flaws become laughable because of the contexts in which they are presented and because he does save Claudio and Isabella—as we have long felt confident he would. In this respect, they are similar to the weaknesses of heroes in Shakespeare's romantic comedies. But in keeping with the increased seriousness of tone and subject matter in Measure for Measure, they are more consistent and significant. From the perspective of the spectator's immediate response, such flaws suggest a playful comic author. In respect to the thematic issues—the private character of the ruler, the need for mercy and justice, the discrepancies between major flaws and mild effects—all raised in emphatic contexts, we remain aware of unresolved problems as Shakespeare's use of the problematic structure generates a play of mind which is not completely reabsorbed by the action itself. It would be a mistake therefore to suggest that Measure is completely unified or that any interpretation of it could explain away all disappointment and discomfort. Shakespeare's technique is a daring and experimental one, for this play of mind, held under minimal control, may well become subjective and tangential to the matters actually represented. (The failure of many critics to limit their own play of mind has been one major cause of the general failure to distinguish the internal comic action of the play from its suggestions about the 'everyday world' external to the formal action.)

My argument here indicates some ways in which we can discriminate more precisely the mingling of the serious, the comic, and the problematic. Shakespeare again and again calls our attention to the disparity between the emotional involvement with his action and the facile formal resolution that seems inherent in comedy. It is clear that Measure for Measure is no attempt at tragedy or melodrama. The excitement of the early acts creates an energy that is not absorbed in the latter partof the play. This energy leaves us appropriately disturbed over the pretences of the characters—pretences perhaps best exemplified by the Duke's misleading praise for Isabella when he interrupts her tirade. But for the spectator, this energy like the suspense, is, for the most part, transformed into a joyous, playful, mocking comedy. Shakespeare parodies the melodramatic structure he took over from his sources. He reveals a hero pompous and apparently successful, yet failing to recognize his own weaknesses. He finally makes us aware of the limitations of the very comic conventions and implausible devices he uses as he stretches them into new possibilities.

Because it combines intellectual vigour and delight with its challenging problematic side, Measure for Measure may well be Shakespeare's finest achievement in comedy.


1 Performances of Measure for Measure at Stanford University in May 1962 demonstrated clearly that an audience can readily recognize and respond to the interpretation proposed in this essay. Such opportunities unfortunately have been uncommon. Even the production of the play which Tyrone Guthrie directed for the Bristol Old Vic company in 1967 developed the humour only for the characters of the sub-ploj. Many of the Duke's clumsier lines were cut thus losing the dual-edged critical humour. Guthrie's production of the play for the Festival Theatre in 1929 may have been the first in this century to make much of its broad humour.

2 See for example the introduction to the new Cambridge edition of the play (1922) by Arthur Quiller-Couch; E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays, (London, 1949); and Virgil K. Whitaker, Shakespeare's Use of Learning, (San Marino, 1953), 215-22.

3 See for example, F. R. Leavis, 'The Greatness of Measure for Measure* Scrutiny, (1942). This essay has probably been more influential than any other in proposing the view most prominent in recent criticism of the play. Further development will be found below in Footnote 9.

4 Line references, with the single exception cited, are taken from Shakespeare Complete Works, ed., William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill (Boston, 1942).

5 Quiller-Couch, op. cit., XXXIX.

6 Close comparison with George Whelstone's Promosand Cassandra indicates that Shakespeare probably used its text while writing Measure for Measure, but that he invariably reacted strongly against the moral evaluations and the tone of this source. Whetstone's play, perhaps never produced, is most conveniently available in Geoffrey Bullough, ed; Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. II., (New York, 1958).

7 For an influential opposing view, see W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, (New York, 1931).

8 Perhaps the most extreme statement of the often-held view that Shakespeare strives for melodramatic suspense may be found in Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960),203: 'With infinite shrewdness the dramatist made Isabella describe the details of the route to the garden house so vividly that now the mind's eye can trace the course while the outer eye observes the substitute action.'

9 This phrase comes from F. R. Leavis, 'The Greatness of Measure for Measure' reprinted in the Best of Scrutiny (New York, 1948), 154. It is quoted with enthusiasm by David L. Stevenson, 'The Role of James I in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure,' ELH, XXVI (1959), 188-206. The other references are to G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (London, 1930), Ch. IV, and Francis Fergusson, 'Philosophy and Theatre in Measure for Measure; Kenyon Review, XIV (1952), 102-23.

10 This cryptic couplet has received many various emendations. I have used the form in the Folio, adding only 'Free' the initial word of the second line. Unlike most emendations, this adds only a word that must be assumed whether or not it is expressed.

11 For strong expressions that the play is careless and disgusting, see Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, ed. Terence Hawkes, (New York, 1957), 249-50. Among numerous more recent examples of such distaste for the play are Una Ellis-Fermor, The Jacobean Shakespeare (London, 1936), 260; Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York, 1943), 186; and Caroline F. E. Spurgeon, Shakespeare 's Imagery and What it Tells Us (Boston, 1958), 289. One might suggest here the need for special attention to contexts in studies of imagery in comedies. Even A. P. Rossiter, in Angel with Horns (New York, 1961), 108-28, 152-70, the most perceptive study of the play's darker side and character relationships, concludes his essays with emphasis on 'The tottering values and the distorted will, 166' and 'The lack of inner conviction, 169' that he considers are the mark of the play.

12 See for example Josephine Waters Bennett, Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment, (New York, 1966), 158: 'The play is, from beginning to end, pure comedy, based on absurdity, like The Mikado'.

Harriett Hawkins (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: " 'They That Have Power to Hurt and Will Do None': Tragic Facts and Comic Fictions in Measure for Measure," in Likenesses of Truth in Elizabethan and Restoration Drama, Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 51-78.

[Below, Hawkins discusses the discrepancies between the two halves of Measure for Measure, and maintains that as tragicomedy, the play "is a magnificent failure" in that the contradictions in the playbetween "equally valid claims to human devotion " and between the comic and tragic formsmay be irreconcilable.]

We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force.


It is an old paradox of literary history that certain works which confront their critics with conspicuous flaws (like Measure for Measure) nevertheless remain greater than similar works whichpose no serious difficulties (like Marston's The Malcontent). Indeed, the simple fact that a play which creates insoluble critical problems can still demand the adjective 'great' (nobody calls Measure for Measure 'good') serves as an important reminder of the essentially mysterious nature of literary greatness. The most brilliant critic living cannot tell a gifted young poet how to write a masterpiece any more than our categories of genre can explain why masterpieces so often transcend generic categorization. And Measure for Measure still stubbornly defies the whole modern range of critical methods and historical information to solve its problems. There are at least three books on Shakespeare's tragicomedy and there have been discussions galore.1 But nobody has come up with any over-all interpretation of the play which cannot be refuted or countered by some opposing interpretation with equal, if separate, validity. The play itself splits into parts so essentially different that they compete with each other,2 and so do our conflicting, mutually contradictory, responses to them. The detached point of view predominant in the second half of the play does not extend back to encompass the first half, and the intense personal involvement aroused by the first half is not sustained or even permitted in the second half. In short, the first half of the play has the power to hurt; the second half will do none. The play refuses to do the thing it most did show. The first half moves others (us) to desire tragedy and then the second half asks them (us) to be unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow. Each half thus represents a dramatic country on which the other half has declared war. And there are other problems as well. Maybe a quick account of the way Measure for Measure differs from The Malcontent—a comparable and very successful tragicomedy—followed by a discussion of key difficulties with Measure for Measure can help explain why it remains a great play which haunts the memory and the imagination, and also remains a frustrating, annoying companion, constantly nagging about probblems which nobody can solve for it, since they are problems that have no social, theological, or dramatic solution.

It is obvious at a glance that the general tragicomic outlines of Measure for Measure and The Malcontent are similar, and their similarities can be swiftly, if dully, described. Within the corrupt societies of both plays a disguised duke manipulates characters and intrigues so that the outcome of a play which might otherwise have developed in the pattern of revenge tragedy results in mercy and harmony. Here the similarity ends and some illuminating differences emerge. Where the ending of Measure for Measure creates disturbing problems for its audience, the conclusion of The Malcontent satisfies its audience, or at least a common reader has no objection to that conclusion. Where Marston's play is all of a piece throughout, the language and action of Shakespeare's play split into two distinct parts. But the most noticeable difference between the two tragicomedies lies in their initially differeing modes of characterization.

Marston's characterization poses no problems for his audience. His characters are, every one of them, familiar types on the Elizabethan stage. The disguised Duke Altofronto, speaking as Malevole, sounds enough like Jonson's Macilente and other characters of the same type to be readily accepted as the play's satiric spokesman from the moment he first opens his mouth. Marston's villain, Mendoza, is a nicely portrayed Machiavel with a Marlovian flair for overstatement. The other characters need no more detailed introduction to any audience or reader even superficially familiar with their dramatic predecessors and contemporaries. We have Celso, the loyal friend and confidant; Bilioso, the doddering old man; various licentious courtiers; a fool; a virtuous duchess; a bawd. However bitter Marston's presentation of his up'sidedown world may be, its inhabitants are our old dramatic friends whose ancestors, siblings, and progeny people many of the most popular plays on the Elizabethanstage. Familiarity, in this instance, breeds relaxed acceptance and enjoyment. We know exactly what to expect from Marston's characters, and they gratify us by living up to our expectations (in the manner of Jonson's 'Humour' types). All Marston has to do, given his skilful depiction of these well-known types, is to set them in action in a series of interesting intrigues. And his characters are such conventionally theatrical figures that even when the action moves in an ominous direction, nobody in the audience really worries. The highly theatrical posturing, running about, double murder assignments, and masque are lively, vivid, and fun to watch. Marston's world is certainly out of joint, but from the beginning it is so obviously a theatrically disordered world that there is no surprise when the playwright—via his spokesman and agent, Malevole-Altofronto—manages, theatrically, to set it right. For any problems created by the dramatic intrigues of one set of characters may be effectively solved by the dramatic intrigues of another group of characters, and dramatic 'Humours' can be expelled dramatically. Also, the satire is consistently, if savagely, funny. The perfume sprayed on the stage in the opening scene, Malevole's gleeful exposures of everyone, Mendoza's exaggerated, contradictory, speeches about the nature of women,* all move the play's satirical thrust in the direction of comedy. Marston further makes it impossible to worry seriously about the fate of his characters because he continually reminds us that Malevole-Altofronto will take over just as soon as time and place adhere. Their predicaments are serious, and the corrupt court of The Malcontent evokes righteous indignation from its inhabitants; but Marston rightly calls his play a comedy since, however dark and devious his dramatic world may be, his primary emphasis falls on the dramatic intrigues, and not on the suffering which it causes.3

The situations presented in the first half of Measure for Measure cause some extreme suffering, and Shakespeare's major characters evoke no laughter. If, in the first half of his play, Shakespeare exaggerates the traits of Angelo and Isabella, he does so in ways significantly different from Marston's stylized exaggeration. Where Marston gives us old dramatic acquaintances, Shakespeare gives us characters different from any of the dramatis personae in his own works or in those of his contemporaries. Where Marston anchors his characters and action in the dramatic tradition, Shakespeare looses our dramatic moorings at the same time that he disturbs familiar ethical and moral assumptions. There are lots of villains like the machiavellian Mendoza—there is none like Angelo. Isabella's concern for her chastity goes far beyond the conventional purity of Marston's Maria (or Whetstone's Cassandra) and becomes the fiery asceticism of a medieval saint. Until Act III, Scene i, line 153 of this play, Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio (when he faces death) have the classical intensity of figures in the Antigone. The three are all absolutists. Angelo is absolute for the letter of the law, then for Isabella. Isabella is absolute for chastity. Claudio soon becomes absolute for life. In their great confrontation scenes Shakespeare moves this triumvirate in what seems to be an inexorably tragic direction. Surely an audience which has watched these confrontations is left not with a vague impression but with the absolute conviction that, given their situation, each of these characters would choose to bring tragic suffering upon another. Indeed, Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio themselves (in turn) convince us that Angelo would, without doubt, take Isabella and dishonour her in spite of his own horrified conscience; that Isabella would never yield to Angelo, even to save her brother's life; that Claudio could not willingly choose death, even to save his sister's honour. In the first half of the play Shakespeare makes these tragic decisions seem both probable and necessary. Thus, just before he alters the course of action in the direction of comedy, he passes a dramatic point of no return. For he creates in his audience a very simple and passionate appetite to watch these characters enact their tragic choices.

Furthermore, whether we approve or violently disapprove of them, and however they may shock or infuriate us by their personal assumptions and behaviour, Angelo, Claudio, and Isabella force us to experience their dilemmas with them. On a personal and intimate level, which the words of Marco Mincoff both illustrate and describe, the first half of this play gives us 'A man who believes he is more than his fellows, who stumbles and falls, and struggles blindly to understand how he has become the thing he despises'. The true meaning of Angelo, for Mr. Mincoff, may lie in 'The fact that we have experienced his fall with him . . . have felt his very repressions bursting out with double force, and his bewilderment when the staff he has always relied on, his freedom from temptation, collapses under him' and 'That we have felt, even in him, something of the potential splendour of humanity'. It gives us a girl, 'With an ideal of virtue beyond this world', who is faced 'With the necessity of consigning her own brother to death, and turning from him in horror when he sinks to the level of her tempter'. It gives us her brother, 'brought up to regard death as preferable to dishonour and steeling himself to meet it steadfastly, yet breaking down when a hope of life offers itself. And it shows them to us in a complex set of interactions that form a moving and exciting story. It does not ask us either to accept or to reject the. assumptions on which these people believe they must act, it only asks that we should feel with them, and realize how hard it may be to live up to such assumptions. It presents these figures to us in a language so pregnant and splendid that it lends to them an added significance and an added depth, so that they seem both larger and truer than life.'4 If only half of a play can evoke this kind of response from a perceptive and intelligent critic (and from many others like him), it is surely part of a very great play. But the deeply involved, highly personal nature of this response suggests that this half of Measure for Measure is more readily comparable to Hamlet than to The Malcontent or The Tempest.

Throughout The Malcontent, the point of view of Malevole-Altofronto, the satirist who exposes and castigates the vices and follies of the other characters, is the predominant one, the one which we in the audience are encouraged to share. Marston's comedy is an imitation of follies and vices which the playwright (in the words of Sidney's Apology) 'Represented in the most ridiculous and scornfull sort that may be, so as it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one'. And Marston's stylization of his characters allows us to heap our scorn and ridicule on them from a safe dramatic distance. In The Tempest Prospero's perspective (the perspective which dominates the play and which we are encouraged to share) allows us to view the characters and action from a great height, like a god contemplating the theatre of the world without tears or fear. Too frequently, I think, modern criticism takes it for granted that we watch all plays and their characters either with the diagnostic, highly critical, moralistic superiority of the satirist, or with the cosmic, philosophical detachment of a Prospero who can control his own emotions as perfectly as he controls the action. Mr. Mincoff s vision of the characters and action of Measure for Measure fits neither of these categories. It is very personal, as well as aesthetic; very emotional, as well as rational. He speaks as a human being engaged by the play as well as a critic detached from it. He has been moved by Shakespeare's 'Hart-ravishing' presentation of 'virtues, vices, and passions so in their natural states, laide to the view' that the spectator, along with the characters and their language, 'May be tuned to the highest key of passion' (Sidney's phrases about poetry's power to move its audience). Where The Malcontent and The Tempest, for their individual and proper dramatic reasons, subordinate their emotional impact for the sake of and by means of other kinds of effects, the first half of Measure for Measure makes a direct assault on the emotions. For this reason, Mincoff s response seems to me to be much truer to this part of the play than a critical approach which assumes that we are detached, distant, anduninvolved, unmoved and unchanged by the dramatic experience, and which assumes that our of the play can only be distorted by our emotions.

D. L. Stevenson, for instance, has argued that the audience, throughout this play, is encouraged to examine the moral decisions and conflicts of the characters with 'A sardonic detachment equal to that of the Duke', and that the characters here are 'deliberately simplified and made less interesting in themselves than is Hamlet, for instance, or Falstaff.5 Much of what Mr. Stevenson has to say is perfectly true—of The Malcontent. And do we really want to see Measure for Measure turned into a duplicate of Marston's play? On the contrary, the history of criticism of Measure for Measure reflects just about every possible attitude towards the moral decisions and conflicts of the characters except sardonic detachment. For while it is true that a detached perspective on the characters and action is encouraged by the second half of the play, initially there is no dramatic insulation between our personal responses and characters who arouse in us simultaneous pity and terror and, in the process of doing so, sear themselves into our imaginations. The Duke (who will be discussed later) reveals no firm standpoint remotely comparable to the consistent attitudes provided for us by Malevole and Prospero. There is no traditionally satiric, comic, or romantic stylization of the central characters or their language that effectively lends aesthetic distance. Again, the first half of Measure for Measure has the dramatic impact of a play comparable to Hamlet.

Certain great plays may be compared to the remarkable characters they so frequently contain, or to the stars who act in them, since they are all capable of demanding an indelible and passionate response from their observers. This capacity is ultimately mysterious, like the appeal of a supremely vivid human personality, whether it be expressed in the play, Hamlet; embodied in its central character; projected by its star player; or inherent in its author. Play, character, actor, and playwright all may share the power to evoke not only an aesthetic, impersonal fascination, but also to compel a deep, instinctual, highly emotional, and private response from their observers and in doing so to take on an independent existence in the observer's imagination. For instance, characters like Hamlet and Falstaff have had, throughout the years, personal after-lives in the imaginations of their admirers that exist quite independently of their original dramatic contexts. They have somehow transformed themselves from component human parts in given dramatic spectacles into spectacular human beings interesting for their own sakes. Earlier criticism, such as The Fortunes of Falstaff Coleridge on Hamlet, Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy, bears witness to this phenomenon. Modern criticism, which frequently argues that such characters have no right to any existence apart from their immediate dramatic context, tends to imply that this phenomenon does not or should not exist. But whether or not it should, it does. The passionate adoration which individual critics accord to their own, private, saintly, or lovable Isabellas, and the equally passionate revulsion which other critics express towards their own smug, vixenish, intolerant, selfish Isabellas, testify to Isabella's after-life in the heavens or hells assigned to her by individual imaginations.6 This phenomenon, as it recurs over time, demonstrates that, like Falstaff, the plays, characters, artists, and individuals who have the mysterious power to move—to delight, to hurt—are the cause of wit in others. They somehow make people see better, know things, feel them intensely, and it does not especially matter (in art) whether the insight communicated is beautiful or terrible, good or evil, disturbing, pleasant, or amusing. It is doubtful if the secret of this power can be rationally explained. There is something irrational and compulsive about any rapt reader or audience. Tolstoy thought that the vogue for Shakespeare was a kind of contrived mass mania, and perhaps this is exactly what certain great plays and characters create—amass mania, contrived by their creators and admirers, that survives the tests of time and truth posed by the imagination of individual readers. As Dr. Johnson said, a substantial period of time is necessary to establish the enduring validity of a classic writer or work, and in the experience of the individual reader or playgoer the same principle applies. Our personal classics—plays, characters, or writers—are remembered for a lifetime and sought out again and again in different periods of that lifetime. They make it impossible for us to forget them. They will not let us go.

The first half of Measure for Measure has these indelible qualities. The characters, their lines, their cruel dilemmas are quite impossible to forget; for Shakespeare forces us along with Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio on their way to 'Temptation where prayers cross'. He exhibits before us, with ruthless and disturbing power, the irreconcilable contradictions which very frequently arise, in life itself, between equally valid claims to human devotion. He shows us the contradiction between Isabella's ideal of her own chastity-integrity and the claims of her devotion to her brother; the contradiction between Claudio's will to live and his devotion to his sister; the intrinsic contradictions between the claims of the rule of law, the claims of ideal justice, and the claims of Christian mercy. Here, surely, the truths of literal reality and the artist's imaginative presentation of them are fused, for the sheer power of Shakespeare's dramatic exhibition of these conflicts drives home the harsh but undeniable fact that certain contradictions between equally valid claims to human devotion may be totally irreconcilable. And the major problem in this 'problem play' is precisely that the memory of the characters, their speeches, and their conflicts between mutually exclusive moral alternatives simply cannot be revoked by the theatrical intriguing of a Duke who argues that measures can always be taken, that solutions can always be found, that 'All difficulties are but easy when they are known'.

It is true that all things are possible in the drama. Shakespeare has a perfect right to change his mode of characterization and the direction of his action in the middle of the play if he wants to. The problem here is that he cannot alter the memory of his own audience. For by the time Shakespeare shifts his dramatic emphasis in the direction of intrigue and comedy, his earlier movement towards tragedy has become part of the spectator's memory, part of his personal experience, part of his own private past. And, in the words of Milton,

Past who can recall, or done undo?
Not God Omnipotent, nor Fate!

Not even Shakespeare. For while we can easily be taught something new, we cannot be commanded to forget information which is implanted in our minds by the command itself: 'Try to count to ten without thinking of a rabbit.' The dramatic shock of watching an Angelo previously unmoved and invulnerable to temptation become obsessed by a young novice makes its awesome dramatic impact before Mariana's name is ever mentioned. The subsequent references to his marriage contract and the action based on this contract are therefore, except for the obvious contrivances of the plot, more annoying than effective. They remind us of the earlier Angelo who has claimed our imagination and who will not let us go. The same thing is true of Isabella. The memory of the original Isabella causes acute resentment of the Duke's proposal of marriage. Whether we approve of extreme asceticism or not, the passion for chastity which Isabella expressed with such uncompromising conviction in the opening scenes of the play makes it impossible to believe that the same woman would ever willingly marry anyone. 'Get her to a nunnery,' one student snarled. Mary Lascelles pointsout that it is the very idleness of criticism to ask how this play's new-married couples will settle down together,7 and it is certainly true that Shakespeare frequently ends his comedies with matches which no marriage counsellor would sanction. And yet none of the parties to his other matches are creatures endowed with personalities so fundamentally hostile to a stock romantic future as Isabella and Angelo. It is their earlier, unforgettable selves who, haunting the memory of their audience, ask how they could settle down with Mariana and the Duke. In fact, their own ultimate silences in this connection are eloquent enough to raise the question. I realize there may be textual omissions in the final scene, but Angelo's last lines in the play as it stands plead for justice, for consequences, for death:

I crave death more willingly than mercy; 'Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it.

(V. i. 474-5)

Angelo never once, in the text we have, expresses the slightest desire 'To marry a good woman and be happy'. Isabella's last lines are about Angelo's desire for her. She says not a single word about the Duke's proposal.8 Given Shakespeare's powerful initial presentation of these characters and their own stubborn refusal to accept officially the futures assigned to them, it seems fair enough for an audience to wish that Shakespeare had allowed them to face the truths and the consequences of dilemmas and desires which once seemed their own dramatic business—not the Duke's.

The real trouble with Measure for Measure begins when, in the course of some acutely human events, Shakespeare suddenly endows the Duke of Vienna with the superhuman, omniscient, manipulative powers of a Prospero—powers far beyond those of Marston's manipulator-spokesman, Malevole. An audience will readily accept superhuman intervention from benevolent manipulators like Oberon or Prospero, who initially demonstrate their power and announce that all will be well for the human mortals who enter their domains. But the same audience may justifiably question such intervention when a previously undistinguished character in a realistic dramatic context suddenly begins, half-way through the action, to exercise prerogatives that are traditionally associated with a dramatic divinity. There is just not enough evidence provided early in the play that Shakespeare's Duke (even to the degree of Marston's Duke Altofronto) can, wants to, or will be able to control the situation in festering urban (and suburban) Vienna. Indeed, the first motive the Duke gives for leaving the city is that the legal and social situation there has got out of his control and he wants somebody else to clean up the mess which his own permissiveness has created (I. iii. 19-43). This motive hardly entitles him (morally or dramatically) to put an objecting Angelo (I. i. 48-51) to a test, or to cause unnecessary suffering for a number of his subjects merely in order to find out what might lie behind Angelo's stony exterior (I. iii. 50-4). And if the Duke knew all along that Angelo had jilted Mariana, as he says later on (III. i. 206-17), he would hardly have needed to test Angelo for flaws in the façade. F. R. Leavis argues that we should not analyse the Duke as if he were 'A mere character, an actor among the others', but there is no evidence early in the play that he is anything more. In the long run we cannot analyse him as such because he will not stand up under the kind of analysis which we can give with no effort at all to, say, Lucio or Barnardine. So one alternative is to interpret the Duke allegorically, to see in him the workings of a mysterious Providence. But are a few allusions to Power Divine, a disguise as a priest, a speech informing us that the Duke has ever sought to know himself (III. ii. 218-19), really enough to exalt him, late in the action, to the status of a 'Morethan-Prospero'As Leavis calls him?9 I think not. He is much less than the real Prospero, who makes his powers and the limits of his powers clear, who analyses himself and controls himself along with the situation and the other characters. But I wonder, in fact, if any form of deus ex machina introduced in the third act of Measure for Measure could be successful, any more than some super-Polonius, disguised, providentially, as a priest, could, half-way through the play, convincingly manipulate Hamlet and Claudius into reconciliation and shift the action from revenge tragedy to comedic mercy. The personal conflicts and the intellectual dilemmas presented in the first acts of Measure for Measure are, like those in Hamlet, too deeply rooted for any happy resolution.

Indeed, the fundamental clash between the claims of the rule of law, the claims of abstract justice, and the claims of mercy which Shakespeare introduced in the opening scenes of Measure for Measure may not admit of any final solution at all apart from the tragic non-solution which the same conflicts produce in Melville's Billy Budd and which similar conflicts produce in the Antigone. In an imperfect world (and Vienna is notably imperfect) the realm of law is necessarily a realm of judgement and choice which dialectically conflicts with the realm of Christian idealism where all judgements are regarded ultimately as simple: Forgive your enemies; judge not that ye be not judged.10 And Isabella's contrast between a god's or even an individual's renunciation of vengeance and a governor's enforcement of the law is an unfair one. Shakespeare knew this perfectly well. Henry V makes clear distinctions between divine mercy, an individual's renunciation of vengeance, and legal punishment:

God quit you in his mercy! Hear your sentence.

Touching our person seek we no revenge; But we our kingdom's safety must so tender, Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws We do deliver you.

(Henry V, II. ii. 166-77)

Much of our annoyance with Duke Vincentio stems from his consistent refusal (and this refusal seems to be the most consistent thing about the Duke) to face up to the dilemmas and responsibilities of a governor who, whether he likes it or not, is bound to enforce the law. In other plays where the justice-mercy conflict arises, Shakespeare emphatically distinguishes between a ruler's personal pity and forgiveness and his duty to the law, even when the law is cruel or silly. 'We may pity, though not pardon thee' (Comedy of Errors, I. i. 98) is the typical statement of the Shakespearian governor. In A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare explicitly contrasts the magical domain of Oberon, who is free from human law and necessity, with the realm of Theseus, who rules by the statutes of Athens:

For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself To fit your fancies to your father's will, Or else the law of Athens yields you up— Which by no means we may extenuate— To death, or to a vow of single life.

(I. i. 117-21)

In The Merchant of Venice the Duke is very sorry for Antonio, and does his best to qualify Shylock's rigorous course, but Antonio himself realizes that 'The Duke cannot deny the course of law', and Portia agrees:

. . . there is no power in Venice Can alter a decree established; 'Twill be recorded for a precedent, And many an error, by the same example, Will rush into the state.

(IV. i. 213-17)

And Escalus, the closest thing to a raisonneur in Measure for Measure, reminds us of the characteristic dilemma of a virtuous Shakespearian governor:

Escalus. It grieves me for the death of Claudio; But there's no remedy.Justice. Lord Angelo is severe.Escalus. It is but needful: Mercy is not itself that oft looks so; Pardon is still the nurse of second woe. But yet, poor Claudio! There is no remedy.

(II. i. 266-71)

This essential and dramatic clash between the law, justice, and mercy appears in Measure for Measure well before Angelo becomes obsessed with Isabella. Vienna is in a state of misrule because of the Duke's refusal to enforce the laws:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws, The needful bits and curbs to headstrong steeds, Which for these fourteen years we have let slip; Even like an o'ergrown lion in a cave, That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers, Having bound up the threat'ning twigs of birch, Only to stick it in their children's sight For terror, not to use, in time the rod Becomes more mock'd than fear'd; so our decrees, Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead; And liberty plucks justice by the nose; The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart Goes all decorum.

(I. iii. 19-31)

So the Duke brings in Angelo, who rigidly enforces the letter of the laws on the books and arrests Claudio under an exceptionally severe old statute against fornication. Still, under the law, Claudio is guilty as charged, and though his pre-contract and intent to marry Julietta make the deathpenalty completely unjust, it is nevertheless perfectly legal. In her arguments with Angelo, Isabella never denies the legality of Claudio's sentence or even questions the validity of such a cruel statute ('O just but severe law!' II. ii. 41)—she appeals to Christian mercy. And Claudio himself blames 'Too much liberty' for his current predicament. Given the situation in Vienna, Angelo's decision to enforce the letter of the law seems no less (though no more) acceptable than the Duke's repeated decisions to ignore law and pardon everybody on his criminal docket. In one case, severity plucks justice by the nose, in the other case, liberty does.11 And, unlike the Duke, Angelo intellectually confronts the issues inherent in a judge's responsibility, and he makes some valid points in his arguments with Isabella:

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. 80-2)

A cluster of Shakespearian associate justices—the Duke in Othello (I. iii. 67-70), Henry V and the Lord Chief Justice of England (2 Henry IV, v. ii. 70-117)—would assent to the impartiality of Angelo's enforcement of the law. And Angelo's statement about precedent,

Those many had not dar'd to do that evil If the first that did th'edict infringe Had answer'd for his deed

(II. ii. 91-3)

has strong support from the Duke's own original account of the legal and social mess in Vienna.

An exceptionally good gloss on the cruel legal dilemma surrounding Claudio appears in Melville's Billy Budd. Captain Vere is faced by the paradox that though the vicious Claggart was rightly struck down by Billy, 'The angel of God', the Mutiny Act requires that 'The angel must hang'. At the Last Assizes, Vere says, ultimate justice will acquit Billy. 'But how here?' he asks. In a navy threatened by spreading mutiny, Vere decides that he must proceed under the law of the Mutiny Act:

For suppose condemnation to follow these present proceedings. Would it be so much we ourselves that would condemn as it would be martial law operating through us? For that law and the rigor of it, we are not responsible. . . . But the exceptional in the matter moves the hearts within you. Even so too is mine moved. But let not warm hearts betray heads that should be cool. Ashore in a criminal case will an upright judge allow himself off the bench to be waylaid by some tender kinswoman of the accused seeking to touch him with her tearful plea?12

Now the problems and the conflicts introduced in both Measure for Measure and Billy Budd are not essentially literary problems and conflicts. They are universally relevant social, human, and legal dilemmas which have, in this fallen world, no perfect social, human, or judicial solution. Laws can be cruel, they can go out to prey, they can bite, they can hurt. But without them liberty may become licence, the baby may beat the nurse, and headstrong steeds (or weeds) may run wild. Indeed Shakespeare's initial appeal to the facts of human experience represents a threat to certain theological ideals, for it reveals that the law set down in heaven, 'judge not that ye be not judged', offers no solution to the earthly problem. It is a spiritual law set down for mortals to obey when they renounce personal vindictiveness or choose tolerance. It has never been set down on earth as an explicit guide for the conduct of magistrates, for it would then be a commandment to command them from their function—it is their business to judge. Furthermore, in the first half of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare gives the Duke's permissiveness and Angelo's severity (for which the Duke's earlier permissiveness and retreat is responsible) equal blame for the grievous personal and social suffering displayed. Thus, when the Duke gives pardon to everybody in the end, there are all sorts of ghostly stage whispers chorusing 'Remember me' from the cellarage. They come from the reverberating echoes of earlier statements by the Duke, Angelo, and Escalus concerning precedent and the rule of law. And any argument that the Duke has somehow developed an intellectual and moral conviction that his earlier permissiveness was socially and legally justified all along is just as shaky13 as an argument that the personalities and passions of an Angelo or an Isabella can be as readily and satisfactorily altered as stock comic humours—neither argument is supported by the text on the desk. Furthermore, if this Duke is Providence, his own continuing improvidence turns him, in the play as it stands, into a contradiction in terms.

For, both socially and dramatically, the Duke's decision to grant mercy to everybody revokes the rule of law, and to revoke the rule of human law is to revoke the idea of consequence, of necessity (the law may be a kind of dramatic metaphor for blind necessity in this play). It does not impose order (providential or otherwise) on the action, it imposes the disorder of incredibility. Of course it attempts to transform what is a fundamentally human and tragic situation into some sort of comedy, but whether this transformation is successful is a debatable point. Whether it is desirable is another one. As it is made in Measure for Measure the transformation deprives the characters (including the Duke) of human and dramatic dignity by denying them the full measure of responsibility that comes from facing the consequences of their own decisions and desires. And it deprives the audience of watching them make the terrible choices between equal claims to their devotion. In effecting his final shift from a tragic to a comic mode, Shakespeare, by breaching it, calls to our attention an essential decorum described in a tale by Isak Dinesen:

[Tragedy is] a noble phenomenon, the noblest on earth. But of the earth only, and never divine. Tragedy is the privilege of man, his highest privilege. The God of the Christian Church Himself, when He wished to experience tragedy, had to assume human form. And even at that . . . the tragedy was not wholly valid, as it would have become had the hero of it been, in very truth, a man. The divinity of Christ conveyed to it a divine note, the moment of comedy. The real tragic part, by the nature of things, fell to the executors, not to the victim . . . Tragedy should remain the right of human beings, subject, in their conditions or in their own nature, to the dire law of necessity. To them it is salvation and beatification. But the gods, whom we must believe to be unacquainted with and incomprehensive of necessity, can have no knowledge of the tragic. When they are brought face to face with it they will, according to my experience, have the good taste and decorum to keep still, and not interfere. . . . [And] we, who stand in lieu of the gods and have emancipated ourselves from the tyranny of necessity, should leave to our vassals their monopoly of tragedy, and for ourselves accept the comic with grace. Only a boorish and cruel master—a parvenu, in fact—will make a jest of his servants' necessity, or force the comic upon them.14

In Measure for Measure, those lords of the theatre, Shakespeare and his Duke, make a jest of their servants' necessity by interfering with the tragic, by forcing the comic upon the characters and the audience; and thus, as we shall see later, they call the validity of this particular kind of tragicomedy into question. Certainly when mercy is granted to Angelo it denies his (and our) pressing requests for necessity, for consequences:

Immediate sentence then, and sequent death, Is all the grace I beg.

(v.i. 371-2)

And by so frustrating the desire for consequences, for tragedy, which he himself earlier created, Shakespeare may very well increase it, since, over the years, whether they are common or uncommon, Christian or agnostic, readers have found the ending of Measure for Measure not only aesthetically and intellectually unsatisfying, but personally infuriating. In this instance, critics as temperamentally different as Coleridge and Dr. Johnson use the same word—'Indignation'. For Coleridge, the ending 'baffles the strong indignant claim of justice', and Dr. Johnson believed that 'every reader feels some indignation when he finds [Angelo] spared'.15

Prospero, as we all know, granted universal mercy too. But Prospero set everybody free to pursue their private destinies, for good or ill. In legal jargon, Prospero dismissed the jury and let the defendants go. Similarly, Marston's Duke Altofronto simply kicks out Mendoza and allows the other characters to pair off as they choose. But Duke Vincentio limits the freedom of his subjects to the incongruous futures that he chooses for them. Barnardine is placed in the custody of a friar (v.i. 483-4). The severe Angelo and the rakish Lucio are alike ordered into shot-gun weddings. And then the Duke proposes marriage (of all things) to Isabella. All this sounds closer to the comic sentences of Volpone than to the comic release of The Tempest. But watching the action of Volpone, we watch the characters create their own dramatic designs and destinies, and they are permitted their own morality or immorality. In Measure for Measure the Duke forces his own arbitrary morality and his own dramatic designs upon the action. F. R. Leavis argues that the Duke's total attitude 'Is the total attitude of the play'.16 But where does the Duke articulate a 'Total attitude'? We watch the Duke appear severely righteous with Julietta (II. iii), condemning her 'Most offenceful act'—without irony or sympathy—as 'A sin'. Then later we hear him tell Mariana that, since Angelo is her husband on pre-contract, "Tis no sin' for her to do virtually the same thing that Julietta did (IV. i. 70-1); and because no clear legal or moral distinctions between de praesenti and de futuro betrothals are given us, what appears to be simply a double standard on the part of the Duke is naturally confusing to any common sense of either justice or morality. Elsewhere we watch the Duke deliberately put Angelo to a test (I. iii. 50-4), then condemn him for failing it, and finally take the credit for forgiving Angelo while conveniently forgetting that he himself was directly responsible for Angelo's original predicament and therefore for all the suffering in the play. Prospero's situation was very different. Prospero's 'Rarer action' represented his personal forgiveness of people who injured him personally: Prospero himself has suffered, and we watch him struggle to forgive. But so far as the text of Measure for Measure is concerned, the worst thing that the Duke of Vienna faces in his entire dramatic life is a series of rather amusing insults from Lucio. And the Duke finds these personal insults harder to forgive than any other offences in the play—major or minor, attempted or committed. But in his final judicial role, the person to compare the Duke with is not Prospero but Henry V, andthe Duke does not come off very well. Henry readily takes into account extenuating circumstances and grants pardon to a drunk who slandered him personally; then he personally forgives the traitors, but he finally turns them over to the law. It is in Henry V and not in Measure for Measure that we find an upright judge who does his best to achieve a viable legal and human solution to the legal and human dilemmas inherent in his role as governor.

In order to justify the Duke as Providence Divine, or the Image of an Ideal Ruler, or a Compliment to James, it becomes necessary to transform Shakespeare from the greatest of poets into the kind of philosopher that Sidney set beneath the poet: 'I say the Philosopher teacheth but he teacheth obscurely so as the learned onely can understand him, that is to say, he teacheth them that are alreadie taught.' The poet, in contrast, 'beginneth not with obscure definitions which must blurre the margent with interpretations, and loade the memorie with doubtfulnesse'. Now on a literal (as opposed to any symbolic) level, Shakespeare's Duke has much less in common with either Providence Divine or an Ideal Ruler than he has in common with Ben Jonson's tyrant Tiberius. Jonson's enigmatic Emperor and Shakespeare's Duke of dark corners both deliberately retire from view and in doing so they get 'seconds' (Angelo and Sejanus) to do their political dirty work for them. Later on they both write contradictory letters, and finally they manifest their full power and overthrow their deputies. But Jonson's tyrant obviously represents neither Providence Divine nor an Ideal Ruler. In the words of Sejanus, a tyrant 'Is a fortune' sent to test the virtue of Roman citizens. Gradually, in the course of the action, Jonson equates the inconsistent, arbitrary behaviour of Tiberius with the inconsistent, arbitrary behaviour of the Roman deity Fortune. In parallel scenes, Fortune and Tiberius turn away from Sejanus, and we learn in the end that Tiberius, not Sejanus, has turned fortune's wheel in Rome from the very beginning. But Tiberius does not himself change his mode of behaviour. We are simply given progressively fuller information about him that changes our attitudes towards him and incorporates his modes of behaviour into the over-all meaning of the play. Shakespeare's Duke changes his attitudes and actions as the plot requires, moving from incompetence to omniscience, from advocating severity to advocating leniency, with no modulation in between.

No matter how hard we try to incorporate the Duke's behaviour into some over-all interpretation of the play, all the incorporation and all the interpreting appears to be ours—not Shakespeare's. If, uncertain how to justify the intrusion of his deus ex machina and unable to resolve the essential dilemmas of the first acts without doing so, Shakespeare made his text hard to follow because of non sequiturs, contradictory moral attitudes, impressive-sounding references to Power Divine, and elaborate in-jokes to compliment James, then we shall have great difficulty in finding out exactly what Shakespeare intends us to understand. We shall have to reason it out much as we reason out a notice in some language we do not fully understand. Thus some pretty strenuous reasoning may be interposed between the author's conceptions and our interpretation of them, and it is strangely easy to forget that in this specific instance the reasoning was not Shakespeare's, but all our own.17 The strenuous reasoning behind most of the critical justifications of the Duke, behind all the allegorical and historical interpretations of Measure for Measure, appears to me to have been done by individual critics rather than by Shakespeare, who, in the text as it stands, seems to treat the Duke with something like poetic contempt. For while he lavishes great poetry on the early Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio, and while he treats them, even in their moments of extreme cruelty or cowardice, with great dramatic sympathy, he never gives the Duke a speech which is not self-contradictory or contradicted by the action itself. In fact, the reader in search of the tritest lines in the play, or even the tritest lines in the complete works of Shakespeare, need look no further than the Duke's summing-up of Measure for Measure. The same final lines issue a command just as silly and as unenforceable as the legal commandment against fornication. The Duke says 'Love her, Angelo'. Now if human biology cannot be subjected to magisterial command, neither can human emotion. Love your enemies and forgive them if you can. But do not command them to love you, or to love each other. Not even Prospero, Shakespeare's most powerful dramatic manipulator, commanded or expected that. King Lear learned the folly of such commandments too. But Duke Vincentio learns nothing. He admits no limits to his power and he never once analyses the total situation. And so, in defiance of all our critical efforts, Duke Vincentio, in the second half of Measure for Measure, remains outside any meaning, an external plot-manipulator, a dramatic engineer of a comic ending, who never sees beyond his single theatrical goal.

Thus, precisely because of the Duke, throughout the final scene of Measure for Measure I feel great sympathy for Angelo, who was placed in a position to be tempted, given a dramatic appetite, then cheated of the satisfaction of gratifying it and piously condemned because he tried to do so. The play is comparable to a lady who first deliberately excites desire, then refuses to satisfy it. The ending implies that we ourselves should overcome any temptation to demand consequences and retributive justice, just after it has provocatively tantalized us with precisely this temptation. If Shakespeare wished to lead us, in the course of this play, from an appetite for tragedy (for Hamlet) to an appetite for comedy (for The Tempest) this is not the way to do it, and this specific experiment in tragicomedy is a magnificent failure. The rarer action may be in virtue than in vengeance, but we like to choose virtue for ourselves; we do not like having virtue thrust upon us any more than we like to see it thrust upon characters who are not born virtuous and do not achieve virtue for themselves in the course of the action. Indeed we may rebel against virtue imposed more than against punishments imposed. For if the facts of life have always rebelled against conventional poetic justice because it simply is not true that virtue is inevitably rewarded and vice always punished, it is even less true that divine or ducal intervention will finally make everybody be good. And do we, in fact, truly want everybody to be good at the dramatic price exacted from us by the Duke?

One school of modern criticism, on its knees before the Duke, overlooks the obvious fact that the Duke's protection ultimately forces personal and dramatic diminution on those he protects. It forces the awesome Angelo to lie down in the second-best bed of the faceless Mariana, and it blithely passes this off as the best of all dramatic destinies. At the very same time that it shelters the characters from the ultimate consequences of their own decisions and desires, it denies them the dramatic magnificence which comes only from facing such consequences. And it deprives the audience itself of an ultimate dramatic confrontation with the terrible facts of life, with the crushing dilemmas, the human vice, the human pathology which all lurk in the wings at the end of Measure for Measure but which the Duke, by ignoring them, tries to keep out of our sight. Indeed the Duke would seem to have precisely the same essentially patronizing designs upon us that he has upon Isabella: his palpable didactic design attempts to make us feel merciful, and his mechanical comic design attempts to make us forget the reality and the suffering of the first half of the play. For these reasons, it is good and proper that Isabella and Angelo remain silent at the end. In the 1970 production of the play at Stratford, Isabella, with stunning effect, remained alone on the stage at the end. It would be equally interesting to see Angelo coolly manifest resentment and contempt as he stands before the Duke, for this would dramatically deprive the Duke of his all too easy victory, leave Angelo with his original individuality, and lend the impact of truth to the conclusion:

Forgive me not, Vincentio, My will remains my own; You know it not, but I well know I still remain Lord Angelo, By choice myself alone.


Still, in the long run, the violence of all these aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional objections to Measure for Measure testify to the play's continuing power. It is impossible to forget either its power to hurt or the things it most did show. But here any analogy with Sonnet 94 breaks down, since even some of the bravest dramatic weeds cannot outbrave the dignity of Shakespeare's festered lily. Who would prefer to have written The Malcontent if he could have written the great first half of Measure for Measure? Nevertheless, the fact remains that The Malcontent works as a whole, while Measure for Measure, taken as a whole, leaves us all knotted up in a snarl of contradictions. The play appears to show us that extremism in the pursuit of anything (chastity, sex, mercy, law) causes such damage that it becomes a vice. But at precisely the same time, the play emphatically demonstrates that while extremism in the pursuit of chastity, sex, or law may produce very great drama, extremism in the pursuit of a happy ending most definitely will not. Similarly, in defiance of the Duke's decisions (which suggest that they will suffice) the over-all action of the play demonstrates that the laws set down in heaven will not work down here on earth. And likewise, in defiance of its artificial reconciliations, the play haunts us with the cruel fact that there may be totally irreconcilable contradictions between equally valid claims to human devotion. Measure for Measure also clearly reveals that there are certain equally irreconcilable contradictions between comic and tragic form. For this particular tragicomedy amounts, in structure, to a dramatic self-contradiction.

In The Malcontent Marston took a satiric via media between comic and tragic form, and the result is a consistent dramatic intrigue which is governed by a consistent satirical perspective. Likewise, the dramatic realm of The Tempest—ruled by magic and governed with benign, philosophical detachment—transmutes comic and tragic elements alike into a rich and strange substance of its own. But the first half of Measure for Measure, so far as its major characters are concerned, is exclusively tragic, while the second half is a network of comic intrigues. And these two dramatic modes of presentation admit no more reconciliation than the original conflict between Isabella's desire to maintain her own chastity and her desire to save her brother's life. A decision between them is necessary; and where its major characters decide for tragedy, the play decides for comedy. But if comedy gets the last word, tragedy gets the first word, and the first word prevails because it is more powerfully expressed poetically and dramatically, and also because the word rings true. The first half of the play shows us what is in fact the case; the second half is escapist fiction. Indeed it may be a fact of dramatic life that without magic, and certainly without a clear, consistent, imaginative modulation or assimilation of them, the literal facts of human necessity, human evil, and human passion will inevitably threaten any moral or dramatic idealism that guarantees that All will be Well, and assumes that all things are but easy when they are known. For if, as Leavis argues, in the second half of the play the Duke affords us a 'criticism of life', the facts of life in the first half of the play afford us with a devastating criticism of the ducal contrivances of the second half. For Vincentio's realm was vividly introduced as a threatening world of striving and failing, of choices and judgements, a world ofnecessity, where people are condemned by laws they never made—in short, as the world we know. The second half of the play is thus doomed to fail the test of truth when it attempts to replace, reject, or ignore the nature of its own original dramatic dispensation. And so, and still, the phoney dramatic solution imposed upon this play's problems only calls our attention to its own ineffectuality, and thus unofficially makes us notice what we are apparently not officially supposed to notice. For by so abruptly moving into the conventionally theatrical realm of The Malcontent—the realm of intrigues and the expulsion of humours—only after powerfully exhibiting a series of insoluble human dilemmas, the play creates its own insoluble artistic dilemmas. And this is its major problem. And this is where We came in.

One kind of aesthetic experience creates the appetite for a different kind, and after a confrontation with Measure for Measure—a play which involves us personally, emotionally, intellectually, and morally, and poses problems on all these levels—it is a refreshing change to turn to a Restoration comedy which holds us morally at arm's length and sets out, without any apologies, to entertain us with some enduringly fashionable and fascinating human vices and follies. There are times when a play like Etherege's The Man of Mode can satisfy a very genuine dramatic need, otherwise

In Briton why shou'd it be heard, That Etheredge to Shakespeare is preferr'd? Whilst Dorimant to crowded audience wenches, Our Angelo repents to empty benches: . . . The perjur'd Dorimant the beaux admire; Gay perjur'd Dorimant the belles desire: With fellow-feeling, and well conscious gust, Each sex applauds inexorable lust.


Steele's Epilogue to Measure for Measure goes on to cry 'For shame!' and to ask his readers to 'scorn the base captivity of sin'. I shall make no such request of mine. In fact the whole gist of my discussion of The Man of Mode may be introduced by echoing some conventional wisdom: when faced by attractive and amusing immorality (in art, of course) it is best to relax and enjoy it.


1 For a good survey (and bibliography) of criticism of this play see Jonathan R. Price, 'Measure for Measure and the Critics: Towards a New Approach', Shakespeare Quarterly, xx (1969), 179-204.

2 A full account of the stylistic differences between the two halves of the play appears in E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's Problem Plays (London, 1951), pp. 123-38.

3 See Marston's Prologue to The Malcontent, which reminds the reader of the lively action which his comedy had on the stage. Of course a satiric point of view similar to Marston's governs the action of contemporary tragedies as well as contemporary comedies. The same point of view and a markedly similar cast of characters, appropriately darkened for tragic purposes, appears, for instance, in Tourneur's Revenger's Trag-, edy. In both The Malcontent and The Revenger's Tragedy the stylizedcharacters and the satirical perspective on them lend aesthetic distance to the action.

4 See the full discussion by Marco Mincoff, 'Measurefor Measure: A Question of Approach', Shakespeare Studies, ii (1966), 141-52.

5 D. L. Stevenson, The Achievement of Shakespeare's'Measure for Measure' (Ithaca, N.Y., 1966), pp. 12, 14. Mr. Stevenson himself later changes his mind and acknowledges that 'What is held brightly in focus is an excited and intensified sense of the immediate knowableness of a created and complex being: a Hamlet, an Isabella' (p. 120).

6 For examples of saintly or lovable Isabellas see Roy Battenhouse, 'Measure for Measure and Christian Doctrine of the Atonement', PMLA, lxi (1946), 1029-59; R. W. Chambers, 'Measure for Measure', in Man's Unconquerable Mind (London, 1952), pp. 277-310; Eileen Mackay, 'Measure for Measure', Shakespeare Quarterly, xiv (1963), 109-13, and others cited by D. L. Stevenson (n. 5, above), p. 89. For smug, selfish Isabellas see Arthur Quiller-Couch's Introduction to his edition of the play (Cambridge, 1922), pp. xxix-xxxiii, and U. M. Ellis-Fermor, The Jacobean Drama (London, 1958), p. 262.

7 Mary Lascelles, Shakespeare 's 'Measure for Measure' (London, 1953), p. 137. I am indebted to studies of the play by Miss Lascelles and by A. P. Rossiter throughout this chapter.

8 F. R. Leavis (The Common Pursuit (London, 1952), p. 172) argues that we should willingly 'Let Angelo marry a good woman and be happy', and we might—if Angelo himself ever expressed a desire to do so. The effect of Lucio's dramatic punishment might likewise be altered if Lucio verbally decided to accept and make the best of his fate, like the character tricked into marrying the witty whore in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. But the characters in Measure for Measure express no resignation, much less enthusiasm, concerning their dramatic destinies. In Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York, 1931), pp. 106-7, W. W. Lawrence notes that Isabella does not formally assent to the Duke's proposal in the closing lines of the play, but he does not think that 'There is any doubt that Isabella turns to him with a heavenly and yielding smile'. I myself would prefer to see her turn away from him with a frowning sneer, and I do not see why my preference is any more (or less) subject to doubt than Lawrence's, since the text itself gives not one shred of evidence concerning Isabella's response.

9The Common Pursuit, p. 169. For interpretations of the Duke as Power Divine, and the play as a kind of Christian allegory, see G. Wilson Knight, 'Measure for Measure and the Gospels', The Wheel of Fire (London, 1930), pp. 80-106, and the essays by Roy Battenhouse and R. W. Chambers (p. 58, n. 6, above).

10 For a full account of the essential conflicts between the rule of law and theological mercy see Reinhold Niebuhr, Love and Justice (New York, 1967).

11 See Elizabeth M. Pope, 'The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure', Shakespeare Survey, ii (1949), 74, who quotes a contemporary distinction between two kinds of equally bad judges. The first are men such as the Duke, 'such men, as by a certain foolish kind of pity are socarried away, that would have nothing but mercy, mercy, and would . . . have the extremity of the law executed on no man. This is the high way to abolish laws, and consequently to pull down authority, and so in the end to open a door to all confusion, disorder, and to all licentiousness of life.' The second kind are men such as Angelo: 'such men as have nothing in their mouths, but the law, the law; and Justice, Justice; in the meantime forgetting that Justice always shakes hands with her sister mercy, and that all laws allow a mitigation. . . . These men, therefore, strike so precisely on their points, and the very tricks and trifles of the law, as (so the law be kept, and that in the very extremity of it) they care not, though equity were trodden under foot.' There is a middle ground—equity—but its spokesman in Measure for Measure is Escalus, not the Duke (see Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (London, 1965), p. 116).

12 Ultimately, in this story, 'The condemned man suffered less than he who mainly had effected the condemnation'. Such is the potentially tragic dilemma of judges. For a contrasting view of what might be expected from an upright judge see W. W. Lawrence (Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, p. 114): 'An audience would hardly see virtue in a man who insisted on sending a youth to death for a venial offence, in the face of moving appeals for mercy uttered by a beautiful heroine.'

13 See Clifford Leech, 'The "Meaning" of Measurefor Measure', Shakespeare Survey, iii (1950), 69.

14 See Isak Dinesen, 'Sorrow-acre', in Winter's Tales (New York, 1961), pp. 52-3. See also A. H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (Princeton, N.J., 1962), p. 198, who clearly distinguishes between living in a realm of the imagination which is free from the laws of necessity, in the 'Inner psychic world' of love, poetry, art, and fantasy, and 'Living in and adapting to the non-psychic reality which runs by laws [the individual] never made and which are not essential to his nature even though he has to live by them'. By contrast with 'The more effortful, fatiguing, externally responsible world of "reality", of striving and coping, of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood', the world of the imagination may be called 'Heaven'.

15 Coleridge and Johnson are quoted by George L. Geckle in 'Coleridge on Measure for Measure', Shakespeare Quarterly, xviii (1967), 71-2.

16The Common Pursuit, p. 163.

17 I have applied to Measure for Measure the same treatment that P. B. Medawar gives to obscure modern philosophical writing in 'Science and Literature', Encounter (January 1969), p. 19. Medawar concludes that 'In all territories of thought which science or philosophy can lay claim to, including those upon which literature has also a proper claim, no one who has something original or important to say will willingly run the risk of its being misunderstood'.

18 My apologies to Mr. Auden.

19 Steele, 'Epilogue to Measure for Measure', quoted by Joseph Wood Krutch in Comedy and Conscience After the Restoration (New York, 1924), p. 245.

Phoebe S. Spinrad (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Measure for Measure and the Art of Not Dying," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 74-93.

[In the following essay, Spinrad examines the correlation between the prison imagery in Measure for Measure and the concept of death as an escape from the prison of life.]

In many ways, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure may be considered a culmination of the Morality tradition that extends from Pride of Life to Doctor Faustus: a tradition that poses the moment of death as an understanding of life, offers the soul a last chance on earth to choose salvation or damnation, and dispatches the soul accordingly. But in Measure for Measure, the soul is not dispatched. And in this respect, Shakespeare's "problem" play mirrors the "problem" of life itself: that even though death offers the perfection of salvation to an imperfect world, we are often afraid to accept the terms of the offer; and that when we have overcome our fear and are ready to embrace death as a release, the kindly offer may be withdrawn.1

This is not to suggest that Measure for Measure is a grim forerunner of the twentieth-century existentialist school, or that we are meant to leave the theater shaking our heads in pity over the bad fortune that has inflicted life upon the characters of the play. Claudio, Isabella, and Angelo, we feel—yes, and even Lucio and Pompey—will be as moderately happy with their lots as any human creatures can hope to be. But there are some grim sets of images that dominate the action of the play, of which the primary and most pervasive is that of the prison, both the literal prison of Vienna and the figurative prison of life.

The pivot of the action in Measure for Measure is, of course, Claudio's death sentence, and throughout all but the first and last scenes of the play, Claudio remains in prison. To this prison come the duke, Isabella, Lucio, and Pompey; in this prison reside the provost and Abhorson, the executioner; and ordering the affairs of this prison are Angelo and Escalus. Outside the prison walls are more walls: Isabella's convent, Mariana's moated grange, and Angelo's double-locked garden and chamber. By the end of the play, although some of the characters will elect to remain in their enclosures, or will exchange one enclosure for another, most of the original doors will be opened, and the inmates will be allowed to leave. What is interesting, however, is that each character will first come to realize that there are more ways out of prison than the one that he or she has planned, and that one of the doors is Death.

In several of the possible sources of Shakespeare's play, this alternate exit is indeed made the subject of a grim joke. Juriste, the Angelo-counterpart of Cinthio's Epitia (1582), also promises to free Epitia's brother from prison if she will go to bed with him; but after she has done so, Juriste sends her the dead body of her brother with a messenger who explains: "This . . . is your brother whom my lord Governor sends you freed from prison."2 In the play that Cinthio himself made from this story in the Hecatommithi, the joke becomes more elaborate; the messenger is made to deliver the message twice (once to the maid and once to Epitia), and Juriste's sister, Angela, explains the irony to the audience, who may have missed the point:

Angela: My brother I have cursed. . . . He answered, that he promised Epitia To give her Vico freed from prison, true, But never promised to release him living; So that she has exactly what he promised.

(III.ii; Bullough, p. 436)

In George Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra (1578), another promiser fulfills his pledge ironically. With the head sent to Cassandra, Promos sends a message that: "To Cassandra, as Promos promised thee, / From prison, lo, he sends thy brother free" (IV.ii; Bullough, p. 469)! And in Thomas Lupton's Too Good to Be True (1581), although no such ghastly message is carried to the gentle-woman with her husband's body, the judge speaks in what appear to be deliberately equivocal terms: "and whereas your husband should have been executed tomorrow in the morning, I will dispatch him and send him home tomorrow unto you before noon at the furthest, if it be not before" (Bullough, p. 520). The gentlewoman's husband is, of course, "dispatched" by the hangman.

Shakespeare omits this sadistic joke from his play—probably to make Angelo less evil and more forgivable.3 But the underlying irony of the joke is one that is inherent in a more serious tradition: the de contemptu mundi view of life itself as a prison and death as a release. A motif running through both Roman Catholic and Protestant Arts of Dying, it was first and most forcefully stated by Pope Innocent III in De Miseria Condicionis Humane:

"Infelix homo, quis me liberabit de corpore mortis huius?" Certe non vult exire de carcere qui non vult exire de corpore, nam carcer anime corpus est.

["Unhappy man that I am, who will release me from the body of this death?" Surely, no man wishes to escape from prison who does not wish to escape from the body, for the body is a prison to the soul.]4

And again, of the just man, Innocent says: "Sustinet seculum tanquam exilium, clausus in corpore tanquam in carcare" (II.18; "He endures the world as though he were in exile, locked up in his body as in a prison"). The 1576 translator of Innocent's treatise, H. Kirton, indeed editorializes further on the theme: "Beholde the lamentation of the silly soule, which would fayne be discharged out of prison. Whereof the Psalmist sayth thus. O lorde bring my soule out of captiuitie. There is no rest nor quietnesse in anye place heere in this world."5 And the translator of Petrus Luccensis's Dialogue of Dying Wel (trans. 1603) carries the analogy still further to Claudio's case:

When an imprisoned malefactor hath receaued sentence of death and knoweth he cannot escape, oh how many waylings, and how many lamentings maketh the wretche in that time, seeing that assuredly he must foorthwith be put to death. In this case are all men liuing found to bee, against whome as soone as euer they be borne, in this miserable and transitorie lyfe, the seuere sentence of death is pronounced.6

That such a motif had become almost a commonplace by the time of Measure for Measure is evident not only from its appearance in treatises, poems, and broadsides but also from the sardonicremark made by Sir Charles Mountford on his release from prison in Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness (ca. 1603), a play whose subplot also requires that a sister sacrifice her honor for her brother's well-being:

Keeper: Knight, be of comfort, for I bring thee freedom From all thy troubles.Sir Charles: Then am I doom'd to die; Death is th' end of all calamity.7

And in this sense of death as a release from prison, the famous Act III prison scene of Measure for Measure may be considered a series of attempts by the duke and Isabella to offer Claudio every possible escape route out of his prison, while Claudio obdurately refuses them all.

Shakespeare's audience would certainly have understood the duke's, "Be absolute for death" speech (III.i.5-41)8 as a compendium of many traditional Christian exhortations on the vanities of life—and if, as some critics have maintained, the speech contains allusions to such pagan philosophers as Lucretius,9 it is Lucretius filtered through Christian homiletics. Pope Innocent himself had used many of the figures and analogies that the duke uses: the baseness of the flesh, the revolt of the organs of the body, and the afflictions that torment all living creatures regardless of age, class, or virtue. Treatise after treatise had echoed Innocent in these figures and had echoed as well his comparison of death to a welcome sleep, just as does the duke:

Duke: Thy best of rest is sleep; And that thou oft provok'st, yet grossly fear'st Thy death, which is no more.


But in order to welcome sleep, one must first be weary, and Claudio is by no means weary of his life. Consequently, the duke, like the preachers before him, must first evoke in Claudio a sense of the frustrations of life:

Duke: Reason thus with life: If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing That none but fools would keep. A breath thou art, Servile to all the skyey influences That dost this habitation where thou keep'st Hourly afflict.


This idea of the insubstantiality of human existence is certainly not contrary to Christian belief, as J. W. Lever has claimed;10 it does not deny the divine origin of the soul, but rather contrasts the soul's heavenly importance with the laughably frail, earthly shell in which the soul resides. E. Hutchins, in his popular and rather lovely religious handbook, David's Sling against Goliath (1598), had made many such comparisons about human life on earth:

Now therefore reason with me. Shal we feare death for the losse of a shadow: shall wee by sighs and sobs storme againste the Lorde for the loss of a vapour? . . . So yt our life is like a ruinous house, alwayes readie to fall: like a thin thred, alwaies readie to rotte: like a running cloude, whereof we are vncertaine, where and when it falleth.11

Considering the downfall of Claudio's expectations, he should certainly be receptive to such preaching.

But unfortunately, weak, mortal creatures seldom respond as they should and, when subjected to uncertainties in life, usually assume that they can find compensating certainties in that same life. Such was Everyman's assumption; such is Claudio's. At first, it is true, he seems to have resigned himself to death and to be giving the theologically proper response: "To sue to live, I find I seek to die, / And seeking death, find life. Let it come on" (III.i.42-43). Christopher Sutton's Disce Mori (ca. 1600) had said much the same thing: "That which we call life, is a kinde of death, because it makes us to die: but that which we count death, is in the sequele a very life: for that in deede it makes us to live."12 Or, in Kirton's translation of De Miseria: "We then are dying whiles we Hue, and then doe we cease from dying, when we cease to liue. Therefore it is better to dye, alwayes to Hue, than to Hue to dye euer. For the mortali lyfe of man is but a liuing death."13 For Claudio, so far, so good. But he and the audience know something that the duke does not know: Isabella has been to see Angelo about Claudio's pardon and is even now on her way to the prison—to open, as Claudio thinks, an exit for him other than dying. As long as he retains this hope for another exit, he cannot be "absolute for death."

There is, furthermore, another element missing from Claudio's apparent preparation for death: repentance. The de contemptu mundi sermon which the duke has given him was traditionally only the first step toward readying the dying man; it forms the first of three parts in Innocent's De Miseria, the other two of which deal with the deadly sins and the pains of hell; and it serves primarily as an introduction to the serious business of death in all the Arts of Dying. But the duke does not have a chance to proceed to the second step of his deathbed counseling; he is interrupted by the arrival of Isabella.14 And from the moment Isabella enters, we know that Claudio has not really accepted the fact of death.

Claudio's first question—"Now, sister, what's the comfort?" (III.i.53)—is much like Everyman's questioning, in that it is posed in temporal rather than eternal terms; his "comfort," at this point, should be the ghostly comfort that the duke has given, but Claudio speaks only in terms of life on earth. Isabella apparently senses his weakness and his excessive attachment to life at any cost. Although she has earlier assured herself that her brother would gladly die "On twenty bloody blocks" to save his soul and hers (II.iv. 176-82), his plea for "comfort" seems to frighten her into a circumlocution. Instead of blurting out Angelo's perfidy and the choice which Claudio must make, she spins an elaborate conceit on Claudio's coming journey to heaven, where he will be an "everlasting leiger," an ambassador in the court of God (III.i.56-60). It is noteworthy that she has omitted any mention of the words "die" and "death" and has inverted the traditional figure of "Death, the mighty messenger" to make Claudio the messenger instead.

But Claudio is still looking for a way out and, by a series of more and more insistent questions, forceshis sister into telling him what he does not want to know:

Claudio: Is there no remedy?Isabella: None, but such remedy as, to save a head, To cleave a heart in twain.Claudio: But is there any?


The audience, here, might remember parts of the first debate between Angelo and Isabella, in which earthly and heavenly "remedies" were compared:

Isabella: Must he needs die?Angelo: Maiden, no remedy.Angelo: Your brother is a forfeit of the law, And you but waste your words.Isabella: Alas, alas! Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once, And He that might the vantage best have took Found out the remedy.

(II.iii.48, 71-75)

Why does Isabella not point out this heavenly "remedy" to Claudio? Perhaps because his mode of questioning has already indicated to her, as it has to us, that he is not open to heavenly comfort yet, that he is still too concerned with earthly comforts.

Isabella, then, becomes a shrewder comforter than the duke has been, although she, too, will fail temporarily. Taking her cue from Claudio's questions, she turns not to thede contemptu mundi (which her brother will not believe) but to the Christian humanist's approach to death: the appeal to heroism and the integrity of the human spirit. She begins in the negative vein, evincing doubt about Claudio's courage—perhaps as a natural expression of her new fear, but also as a plea for Claudio to prove her wrong:

Isabella: O, I do fear thee, Claudio, and I quake Lest thou a feverous life shouldst entertain, And six or seven winters more respect Than a perpetual honour. Dar'st thou die? 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.


This is much like two of the arguments used by the Christian humanist Thomas Lupset in A Compendious Treatise Teachynge the Waie of Dieyng Well (1530): first, that it is just as foolish to haggle over a few years of life as it would be for a condemned felon to demand to approach the scaffold last in line; and second, that the pain of dying is of necessity a short one, feared more by beasts than by men.15 "Let vs then take a lusty courage of this desperation," Lupset had said, "seeinge there is no remedy: lette vs manfully go to it" (p. 280). And this ploy, for the moment, seems to work on Claudio. Flushed with resentment, he demands hotly, "Why give you me this shame?" And just as he has echoed the religious tone of the de contemptu mundi in reply to the duke, so he echoes the heroic tone of Lupset's "good pagan" in reply to Isabella:

Claudio: If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride, And hug it in mine arms.


Alas, alas, as Isabella would say. The sexual imagery and conditional "i f clause bode no good. But since Claudio has apparently responded to the humanist's call to honor, Isabella reinforces her appeal in the positive vein, congratulating him on his nobility and adding a confirmatory appeal to family as well as individual honor: "There spake my brother: there my father's grave / Did utter forth a voice" (III.i.85-86). Claudio, after all, as the eldest male in the family, should be willing to lay down his life for his sister's honor. But can there be some subliminal warning bell that causes her, even in the midst of her approving speech, to answer Claudio's "i f with such a positive "yes"? "Yes," she says, "thou must die" (III.i.86).

Claudio is still bargaining. To be sure, he can expect more than the "six or seven winters" which Isabella has predicted for him, and for a man still too firmly attached to this world to see things in terms of the next, even six or seven years seem better than six or seven hours. Perhaps he may even find a way, in those years, to redeem his honor—and his soul. But he is in the position, now, of Lupset's convict, merely dropping back a place in line each time the line moves toward the hangman; and every time he drops back, he makes death harder for himself.

Both the duke and Isabella may indeed have misjudged the nature of Claudio's fear, or at least the nature of his worldly attachment. He is not merely clinging to the outward trappings of fashion, as the duke has imagined; nor is he merely flying from the fear of corporal pain, as Isabella has imagined. Claudio is more pagan than either of his comforters has realized; he fears and half believes in the total annihilation of self. The first words of his last desperate appeal for life are a cry of horror at self-disintegration—a cry couched solely in terms of the body, the only self he knows:

Claudio: Aye, 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 . . .


The very words of the de contemptu mundi have become, for Claudio, not a reason to preparefor death but a reason to dread it.

When Claudio turns his mind to the possibility of an afterlife, he is perhaps not quite pagan, but not quite an ideal Christian either. He gives no thought to heaven, but pictures in turn the fires of the preachers' hell and the torments of Dante's Inferno: the "thick-ribb'd ice" of the traitors and the windblown eternal motion of the uncommitted and the lustful. All his thoughts are of dissolution, agony, and damnation; he has succumbed at once to the traditional deathbed temptations of infidelity, impatience, and despair.

In such a state of mind, Claudio may well cry out, with Hamlet, that the suffering of life may be preferable to the sleep of death, that "the dread of something after death" (in Claudio's case, perhaps, the dread of Nothing after death) "makes us rather bear the ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of (Hamlet, III.i.78-82):

Claudio: 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.


He cannot now believe the preachers who have tried to tell him the opposite: "Yea, this case of the soule is such a cage of filth, as a man of God hath said, that no Bocardo, no dungeon, no sinke, no puddle, no pitte is in any respect so evil a prison for this bodie, as the bodie is of the soule."16

This is not to suggest that Claudio is wrong to fear death; no preacher or poet would have claimed that such fear is unnatural. But all would have remarked upon Claudio's failure to overcome his fear, whether by faith or by reason, and would especially have pointed out that to bargain for life at the expense of one's soul is a mortal sin: "Saynt Austyn sayth: More greate is the dommage of one soule the which is loste and deed by dampnacyon than it is of ye dethe of a thousande bodyes deed of the dethe corporali and by putryfaccyon."17 How much worse, then, to bargain for life at the expense of someone else—a deed that will encompass the "dampnacyon" of not one, but two immortal souls.

Claudio, however, is beyond the reach of traditional appeals. He is a Worldly Man in a sense undreamed of by the sixteenth-century Moralists: the man who sees Nothing beyond the limits of his own consciousness, the quasi-solipsist who in his own demise sees the disappearance of the universe. Both the medieval and the Renaissance Christian formulas are therefore meaningless to him, since both posit a universe independent of his own being; for him to accept death, he must be convinced of the existence of things outside himself, of a continuity of Being once he is gone. And Isabella, whose impulsiveness so often bursts out in wild and whirling words, in her own desperation hits upon the right cure for her brother:

Isabella: O you beast! O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch! Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice? Take my defiance, Die, perish! Might but my bending down Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed. I'Ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death; No word to save thee.

(III.i.135-37, 142-46)

It is an angry speech, a furious speech, a violent rush of words from a young woman at the end of her rope. And almost from the earliest performances of Measure for Measure, critics have either denounced the speech or made tortuous excuses for it.18 But ironically, the one thing that both Isabella's detractors and her champions have glossed over too quickly in their analyses of her words is the most important thing about them: they work where all else has failed.

Up to now, Claudio has managed to control his universe, despite the sentence of death, and has thus managed to maintain his sense of being the universe. He has sent for his sister, and his sister has arrived. He has tossed off the correct response to the duke's sermon, and the duke has been satisfied. He has juggled with the seven deadly sins to make Angelo's proposition seem sinless, and he has convinced himself and fully expects to convince his sister. Even the apparent coincidence that the "precise" Angelo should suddenly act out of character in a way that may save Claudio's life is proof that Claudio's will makes and remakes the universe. How, then, should he die?

The only answer is Isabella's. Her defiance, her thrusting of death in his face when he has it least in mind, her very refusal to listen to his repeated cries of "Oh, hear me, Isabella!" are all concrete evidence of a world outside Claudio's control. And Claudio, who has declared himself unafraid of "age, ache, penury, and imprisonment," is shocked back to reality by something far worse than any of them: a sister's contempt.

To be sure, his immediate response to Isabella's outburst is no more promising than was his response to the duke's sermon, or to Isabella's first appeal: "I am so out of love with life that I will sue to be rid of it" (III.i.170-71). We have heard those words before, and then have heard Claudio retract them. But his preface to them, this time, is promising: "Let me ask my sister pardon." Theologically, he has taken the first step toward repentance, and psychologically, he has taken the first step toward acceptance: he has admitted that there is Being outside himself, and at least a human being, if not a divine one, more important than himself.

The results of Isabella's shock treatment become most evident later in the play, when Claudio and Barnardine are served their death warrants. Claudio now evinces a calm acceptance of his mortality, and when asked about Barnardine, uses a simile which links his own past with Barnardine's present: "As fast locked up in sleep as guiltless labor / When it lies starkly in the traveller's bones" (IV.ii.64-65). Despite the implicit irony of the word "guiltless" (Claudio is not above sarcasm himself), this is not the traditional metaphor of sleep as a type of corporal death, but rather a metaphor which the duke has introduced earlier: sleep as a type of spiritual death—an insensibility to the meanings of life and death alike: "Thou hast nor youth, nor age, / But as it were an after-dinner's sleep / Dreaming on both" (III.i.32-34). The provost himself sees Barnardine in these terms: "A man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep" (IV.ii.140-41). And when Barnardine receives his summons to death, he flatly refuses to die.

In the old Morality Plays, and even in the new secular tragedies, Barnardine would have had no choice. Humanuni Genus and Everyman at first refused to die; Tamburlaine and Macbeth refused to die; and all of them died. Why Barnardine is allowed his refusal we shall see later; but the refusal itself, at this point, serves as an almost allegorized extension of Claudio's previous denial and bargaining, and thus throws his present acceptance into sharper relief. Indeed, the connection between the two men is reinforced by the nature of Barnardine's imprisonment, a form of transitional half-life similar to his "drunken sleep." He is the prisoner who cannot and will not be released to life or death; he has gained stay after stay of execution, and, the provost says, if he were offered a chance to escape, he would not go. Like Claudio, he prefers the circumscribed prison of his own ordering, where, by denying the power of forces outside himself, he can maintain the semblance of control. Does he not have "the liberty of the prison" (IV.ii. 145-46)? But it is a prison after all.

The duke's evaluation of Barnardine's insensibility—"Unfit to live or die. O gravel heart!" (IV.iii.63)—is, then, a commentary on Claudio's earlier behavior as well. But as always in this play where people say much more than they think they mean, the duke is speaking not just of Barnardine and Claudio but of all the major figures who move around him in prisons of their own making—including himself.

Like Claudio in his physical and mental prison, Angelo, Isabella, and the duke begin by thinking that they can order the universe to their own requirements. Angelo in particular is the Puritan mind carried to its coldest extremes, a man who has mentally segregated humankind into the all-good and the all-bad, with no room in his world for the mixed creature who can sin, repent, and sin and repent again. But although—or perhaps because—he so easily sends the reprobate to a literal prison, he does not see that he is creating a separate but equal figurative prison for the elect.

Raymond Southall has postulated Angelo as an extreme post-Reformation Catholic type who relies too much on outward signs of grace, and Isabella as an extreme Protestant who relies too much on inward, individual signs; both, says Southall, must recombine into "Medieval Christianity."19 But such an interpretation seems curiously perverse—or at least makes Shakespeare seem curiously perverse in his methods. Why, after all, clothe a symbol of radical Protestantism in a nun's habit, unless to confuse the audience needlessly? And why refer to a Roman Catholic as "precise" (I.iii.50), a term used almost exclusively of Puritans in Shakespeare's day? Indeed, Shakespeare's audience might have recognized Angelo as a Puritan even without references to his "precision" and would certainly have recognized the dangerous nature of his Puritanism: the frighteningly sincere distinction between good and evil that allows for no compromise and will make no exceptions, even for oneself.

To speak of Angelo's sincerity might sound as self-contradictory as to speak of Iago's honesty. But Isabella is only partly correct, during the judgment scene, when she says, "I partly think / A due sincerity govern'd his deeds / Till he did look on me" (V.i.443-45). A due, if warped, sincerity has governed Angelo's deeds even after he has looked on Isabella; he is as sincere in his sin as he was in his virtue. It is especially interesting to watch him chart his moral regression throughout the play and to match the chart against the Calvinist preacher William Perkins's outline of the progress of sin:

Actuall sinne in the first degree of tentation, is, when the mind upon some sudden motion, is drawne away to thinke evill, and withall is tickled with some delight thereof. For a bad motion castinto the mind, by the flesh and the devili, is like unto the baite cast into the water, that allureth and delighteth the fish, and causeth it to bite. Sinne in conception, is when with the delight of the mind, there goes consent of the will to do the evill thought on. Sinne in birth, is when it comes forth into an action of execution. Sinne in perfection, is when men are growne to a custome and habite in sinne, upon long practice. . . . And sinne thus made perfect, brings foorth death.20

In Angelo's first stage, temptation, he does indeed use the image of the bait and fish: "O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint, / With saints dost bait thy hook!" (II.ii.180-81). And when he has failed to master his temptation, he speaks of his "conception":

Angelo: 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.


Even his shocking double entendre to Isabella, "Plainly conceive, I love you" (II.iv.140), may carry more than double meaning in this sense; he is inviting Isabella to give consent of her will to sin. And by the time he tells her, in no uncertain terms, "Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite" (II.iv.160), he has looked ahead to the next stages of his sin: "I have begun, / And now I give my sensual race the rein" (II.iv.158-59). He is predicting, here, not merely the birth, or action, of the sin of fornication, but perfection in sin, the next sin that he will "perform in the necke of the first (Perkins, p. 98)—lying to cover his tracks: "Say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true" (II.iv.169).

Having charted his course so accurately, he must now expect that his "sinne thus made perfect, brings foorth death." And indeed, when we next see him alone, he explains in soliloquy that his reason for ordering Claudio's execution, in violation of his promise, was not gratuitous villainy, but an attempt to stave off retribution for a while:21

Angelo: He should have liV'd; Save that his riotous youth, with dangerous sense, Might in the times to come have ta'en revenge By so receiving a dishonor'd life With ransom of such shame. Would yet he had lived.


That last phrase is a telling one. Angelo, knowing that he deserves death, half craves the punishment—but fears the consequences. For him, in his state of sin, death means hell.

From the beginning of the play, Angelo has served as his own prosecutor, judge, and jury. He sincerely believes what he has told Escalus:

Angelo: When I that censure him do so offend, Let mine own judgement pattern out my death, And nothing come in partial.


When he does "so offend," then, he convicts himself utterly, leaving no room for a repentance that he, as a reprobate, cannot expect to be granted. Consequently, although he dreads the damnation that he knows will follow death, when his sins are exposed during the judgment scene, he twice demands his right to die—almost, we feel, with a touch of relief that the flight from death is over:

Angelo: Immediate sentence then, and sequent death

Is all the grace I beg.

I am sorry that such sorrow I procure, And so deep sticks it in my penitent heart That I crave death more willingly than mercy; 'Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it.

(V.i.371-72, 472-75)

Before we applaud Angelo's self-judgment, however, we must remember that a "penitent heart" does not refuse grace, mercy, or a chance to amend. This is not acceptance of death, but something uglier: despair. Isabella may forgive him; Mariana may forgive him; the duke and all the laws of man and God may forgive him; but unless something drastic happens, Angelo will never forgive himself. Like Barnardine refusing to escape from jail, Angelo is locked into the prison of his rigid, ultra-Puritan belief: once a sinner, forever damned.22

Isabella herself, who stands in opposition to Angelo throughout the play, opposes him only in the sense that a mirror image opposes the thing it reflects. She, too, wants to order the universe. Her idea of order, however, leans more to an ideal of neatness than to a system of rectitude; she is far more willing than Angelo to make moral exceptions for other people and is not above special pleading for a cause which she does not wholeheartedly espouse. It is especially noteworthy that when she learns that her brother has impregnated Juliet, her immediate response is not moral horror but commonsense practicality: "O, let him marry her" (I.iv.49). But although she grants human society the right to go to hell happily on the road of its own choosing, she herself wants a divorce from that society and would choose for herself a martyr's crown—and a martyr's isolation.

There is no need to condemn the whole system of monasticism, or to assume, as Darryl F. Gless has recently done, that Shakespeare is condemning it,23 in order to see the self-imprisoning nature of Isabella's choices. She is not content with the already severe restrictions placed on the Poor Clares, whom she seeks to join, but would have the whole order translated into an ideal society of martyrs, one which probably cannot exist among fallible human creatures:

Isabella: And have you nuns no farther privileges?Nun: Are not these large enough?Isabella: Yes, truly; I speak not as desiring more, But rather wishing a more strict restraint Upon the [sisterhood], the votarists of Saint Clare.24


Whether Lucio is indeed "mocking" her when he calls her "a thing enskied and sainted" (I.iv.34) is a moot point; the important point is that Isabella would like to see her chosen world in these terms and that she finds it difficult to accept the existence of her own noble thoughts in the mind—or on the lips—of an ignoble creature from the outside world.

There is no reason, then, to doubt Isabella's word when she twice offers to lay down her life for her brother. It is the heroic thing to do, and Isabella yearns to be a saintly hero. The very words that she uses about her voluntary martyrdom show that she has adopted her ideas about sacrifice from the luridly detailed martyrologies of the time, as well as from the combined sensual and spiritual imagery of Loyolan meditation and the new poetry:

Isabella: [W]ere I under the terms of death, 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.


But Isabella is not now in the ideal world of the martyrologies, and her imagery only whets Angelo's sensual appetite. Furthermore, not even the audience is allowed to retain Isabella's romantic view; we are made too vividly aware that those "keen whips" are in the hands of the rough-hewn Abhorson and the bumbling Pompey, an ex-pimp.

Nothing goes the way Isabella expects. Angelo turns her brilliant logic-chopping against her; the noble Law makes illicit propositions; her glorious martyrdom must be traded for a sordid tumble; and her valiant brother, who should rush to her protection, turns out to be a sniveling coward. It is small wonder that when the duke greets her after her disastrous interview with Claudio, she can hardly wait to get back to her nice, safe convent. "I have no superfluous leisure," she says. "My stay must be stolen out of other affairs; but I will attend you awhile" (III.i.156-58). This is no mere social excuse; Isabella has found the world too disappointing—yes, even too messy—and wants only to return as soon as possible to her ideal world where there are (she thinks) no loose ends and no human frailties.

It is exactly at this point that the duke steps in and begins arranging the "happy" denouement. As Rosalind Miles, who perhaps unconsciously uses the prison metaphor in her analysis, points out:

With this structure of character and plot involving Isabella, Angelo, and Claudio, the audience comes to realize that there is no help for these three from each other. Shakespeare has closed the trap of the plot upon them, and it is a trap which can only be opened from the outside. They must have external help, and that help must be the Duke's.25

It is true; we do feel that there is, at this point, no way out but a guilty life or death for the three. But the "trap" of which Miles speaks is Shakespeare's only at second remove, and each of thecharacters has come to the trap through the mental trap each has built for himself or herself. Furthermore, the duke's "external help" is itself a product of his own mental prison.

Miles's observation that the duke's "outside intervention is bound to be artificial and unreal" (p. 260) is a good one, but again it focuses too much on Shakespeare's plot making at the expense of the duke's. The duke, after all, could just as easily have revealed himself at this point and saved the three in a more straightforward manner. But he, too, is circumscribed by a need to order the universe—a need that combines the active meddling impulse of Angelo with the passive withdrawal impulse of Isabella. From such a mixture can come only disaster.

From the beginning of the play, it is obvious that the duke has been an anti-Machiavel, a ruler who wants to be loved more than feared by his subjects, and who has consequently been both too removed from and too permissive toward the people of Vienna. He has "ever loV'd the life removed," he tells Friar Thomas (I.iii.8), but his failure to become more involved with the punitive aspects of his ducal responsibility has caused sin to run riot in Vienna. Friar Thomas's commonsense reply to this—"It rested in your Grace / To unloose this tied-up justice when you pleas'd" (I.iii.31-32)—is not, however, to the duke's liking. He pleads that it will seem "tyranny" in him to enforce the laws that he has previously ignored and, in a revealing bit of rationalization, explains why he has given that chore to Angelo:

Duke: I have on Angelo impos'd the office, Who may in th' ambush of my name strike home, And yet my nature never in the fight To do in slander.


We may recognize here the sentiments of every official, major or minor, down to the present day: the desire to be loved as a beneficent figure and a source of recourse against one's own rigorous enforcement agencies.

But things do not go according to plan for the duke, any more than they do for Angelo, Isabella, or Claudio. Like the eavesdropping kings and queens of Shakespeare's history plays before him,26 the duke discovers that his people do not universally applaud him, and he must listen to some unpleasant truths about himself even from the most slanderous tongues.

And what of the famous bed trick? It is indeed "artificial and unreal," as Miles has said, and so flimsy that we can hardly imagine Isabella agreeing to it if it had not been endorsed by a friar. Furthermore, at the introduction of the bed trick, the play begins to change with an audible creaking of machinery. But there is one thing about the bed trick that has been consistently overlooked by critics who condemn it: the bed trick does not work.

In the tales and plays that used the trick before Measure for Measure, the ploy does what it is supposed to do: it brings about recognition, reconciliation, or revenge. Even in Shakespeare's own All's Well That Ends Well, Helena gets the man she wants through a bed trick—regardless of what we think about the scoundrel that she gets. But in Measure for Measure, the trick makes everythingworse: it hastens the order for Claudio's execution, temporarily blackens the reputations of both Isabella and Mariana, and throws Angelo into a dangerous state of despair. The duke himself is placed in a quandary by Angelo's response to the trick; he must suddenly change all his plans, must find a new way to save Claudio's life and Barnardine's soul, must very nearly reveal himself to the provost ahead of schedule, and must later subject himself and the two women to public scorn. What has gone wrong?

The men and women of Measure for Measure, when they assemble at the judgment scene, have wrought havoc with their own lives, with the lives of others, and with the story-book ending that we expect of a comedy. There have been too many playwrights at work within the play, each working from a script that the others have not seen. Even after the final revelations and pardons, many of them seem only to have left one prison for another. Mariana has come out of her moated grange to be tied for life to the Puritanical Angelo. Angelo himself is in a state of despair that leads only to hell. Isabella, after what she has undergone, is as firmly locked out of her convent as she was once locked in. The duke must abandon his own quasi-monastic dreams to undertake marriage and the resumed rule of Vienna. Pompey has moved from the whorehouse to the executioner's shed. Barnardine, in or out of prison, remains in his "drunken sleep." And Lucio is married to a prostitute. Nothing, it seems, has changed, except possibly for the worse. Or has it?

The falloff which so many audiences have seen in the second part of Shakespeare's play is a reflection of the falloff which his characters have seen in their ideal worlds, as they learn to accept both death and life—their own and others'. And as in Everyman and the Arts of Dying, the central event of Claudio's death sentence has taught the lesson. Death, far from being the glorious martyrdom of Isabella's dreams, the comfortable sleep of the duke's dreams, the nuisance of Barnardine's, the punishment of Angelo's, or the horror of Claudio's, is in fact simply a part of life, to be accepted on its own terms and neither fled from nor sought after. The readiness, as Hamlet would say, is all; and the readiness itself casts a steadier light on life, revealing that it cannot be perfect but must not therefore be scorned. If life, in fact, is second best to heaven or whatever perfection each person imagines as his or her own ideal, second best to perfection is not a lowly status after all.27

This, then, is why Angelo and Barnardine must not be allowed to die. Theologically, they have not achieved repentance, and psychologically, they have not yet learned to live. In the end, what Mariana has said of Angelo is the lesson that all the great but fallible human creatures of Measure for Measure are in the process of learning about existence as they leave us:

Mariana: They say best men are molded out of faults, And, for the most, become much more the better For being a little bad. So may my husband.


Death, as Sir Charles Mountford has said, is the end of all calamity—but in the words of the old Jewish proverb, "You don'T die so easy; you live with all your aches and pains."28 The universe itself is a compromise of warring elements, and it is only through a truce with death that we may begin to negotiate with life.


1 My discussion deals primarily with the individual's response to impending death and with his or her concept of death itself. I do not address the reactions to Claudio's supposed execution because this convention of illusory death (used in such plays asRomeo andJuliet, Antony and Cleopatra, All's Well, and AWinter's Tale) has more to do with the survivor than with the potential victim.

2Cinthio,Hecatommithi, 8.5., ed. Geoffrey Bullough, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), II, 425. All references to Bullough are to this volume. Where Bullough gives the old spelling, I have modernized it for uniformity.

3The only remnant of the figure is the duke's, "He hath releas'd him, Isabel,—from the world. / His head is off, and sent to Angelo" (IV.iii.114-15). But the duke offers comfort immediately afterward, and knows, besides, that Claudio is alive.

4Innocent III, De Miseria Condicionis Humane, ed. Robert E. Lewis (Athens: Georgia University Press, 1978), I.19. Translations from this text are mine.

5 Idem, The Mirror of Mans Lyfe, trans. H. Kirton, STC 14093, D3v.

6 Petrus Luccensis,A Dialogue of Dying Wel, trans. R. Verstepan, STC 19815, A8r-v.

7 Thomas Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness, inRevels Plays, ed. R. W. Van Fossen (London: Methuen, 1961), x. 18-20.

8 All quotations fromMeasure for Measure are from the Arden edition, ed. J. W. Lever (London: Methuen, 1965).

9 See especially Arthur H. Scouten, "An Historical Approach to Measure for Measure," Philological Quarterly, 54 (1975), 75; and Lever's introduction to the Arden edition, p. lxxxvi.

10Lever, ed., p. lxxxvii.

11E. Hutchins, David's Sling against Goliath, STC 1403, pp. 186-87, 188-89.

12Christopher Sutton,Disce Mori. Learne to Die, STC 23474, p. 114.

13Mirror of Mans Lyfe, D5r.

14Whether the duke knows, at this point, that he will save Claudio's life along with his soul is a fruitless speculation. However, that he does plan to continue his sermon is evident from his parting words: "Dear sir, ere long I'Ll visit you again" (III.i.46).

15In The Life and Works of Thomas Lupset, ed. John Archer Gee (New Haven: Yale UniversityPress, 1928), pp. 281, 280.

16Hutchins, p. 174.

17The Arte or Crafte to Lyue Well or to Deye Well (Anon., ca. 1506), STC 793, F. lii.

18See Rosalind Miles, The Problem of Measure for Measure (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1976), for an excellent account of the centuries-long argument over Isabella's denunciation of her brother.

19Raymond Southall, "Measure for Measure and the Protestant Ethic," Essays in Criticism, 11 (1961), 10-33.

20William Perkins, The Whole Treatise of Cases ofConscience, ed. Thomas F. Merrill (Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1966), p. 98.

21Critics who defend Claudio's willingness to lay down Isabella's honor for his life may well take note that even Angelo expects better of him and understands what Claudio's society would demand of him in such a crisis.

22Although both Luther and Calvin had posited a state of quasi-despair as the prerequisite for conversion, Calvin's doctrine of perseverance in grace allowed for no fall and second conversion; any recurrence of despair was a sign that the soul was reprobate (see Calvin's Institutes, esp. III.iii.32 and III.v.3): Angelo, having once thought himself of the elect, stands self-convicted of reprobacy and hence of an inability to repent.

23Darryl F. Gless, Measure for Measure, the Law, andthe Convent (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), esp. chaps. 1-3.

24I do not agree with Lever's substitution of "sisters stood" for "sisterhood" in this line. It seems just as likely that "sisterstood" in F was a typo, since it was corrected to "sisterhood" in F2 and subsequent editions.

25Miles, p. 260. Although Miles obviously disagrees with critics who see the duke as a Christ figure who returns to mete out justice and mercy, she gives a good account of the duke's eschatological—and folkloric—associations (see esp. her pt. 2, chap. 1-2).

26See, e.g., 3 Henry VI, II.v; Richard II, III.iv; 2 HenryIV, II.iv; and Henry V, IV.i.

27As for Lucio's cry that "Marrying a punk . . . is pressing to death, / Whipping, and hanging" (V.i.520-21), can we really see Lucio choosing death before dishonor? Like the other characters in the play, he has tried to order his own destiny—in this scene, by requesting whipping instead of hanging. After the duke first offers him both and then remits both, all Lucio can bargain for is a remission of the marriage as well. But he, too, must learn to live with someone else's idea of justice and mercy.

28Like all proverbs in other languages, this is a difficult one to translate accurately. "Meh shtarbt nisht azoi gring; meh lebt un mitchet zich" is really a response both to "These troubles will kill me" and to "I wish I were dead." The use of the reflexive verb, "mitchen zich," also implies that the troubles or griefs are the function of oneself—not necessarily in the sense of assigning blame, but in the sense that the human condition is inherently a condition of trouble, that we breathe in pain as we breathe in air. But we continue to breathe.

T. A. Stroud (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Lucio and the Balanced Structure of Measure for Measure" in English Studies, Vol. 74, No. 1, February, 1993, pp. 84-95.

[In the essay that follows, Stroud argues that the comic plot initiated by Lucio is intended to balance the more serious, "quasi-tragic" plot initiated by Angelo.]

The title of Shakespeare's problem play is an open invitation for readers to speculate about its polarities, especially about which of the symmetrical oppositions are crucial to its interpretation. Long ago Lever adequately summarized its 'contrasts and antimonies juxtaposed and resolved',1 of which a memorable example is Stevenson's analysis of Angelo and Isabella as 'paired and balanced representatives of human nature'.2

No matter how obtrusive Lucio may have seemed to Lever, however, and to others who search for 'A unified ideological message' in the play,3 they generally dismiss him as a 'comic scapegoat figure'4 unworthy of further speculation except by those who depend on his remarks to denigrate the Duke's character, either as Satan's emissary or as 'A pious bawd'.5 In a recent article Swann 'Refutes' the traditional view of Lucio (a favorite goal of post-modernists) most ingeniously as a 'benefactor' who for whatever reason seeks to punish the authorities for corrupting him . . . if by Jacobean standards he was corrupt at all.6 I hope that my conception of his role as intended to balance Angelo's will constitute an indirect refutation.

As a Formalist, I initially assume that Measure for Measure is one of many imaginative narratives, dramatic or novelistic, whose plots constitute aesthetically delightful configurations which cannot be explained by, enhanced by, or subsumed to one message, or even to two unreconciled ones.7 I agree rather with Professor Levin that critics who assume that some moral or social generalization provides an art work with its raison d'être seldom feel any need to explain its pattern or enhance its value. The message they discern in most fictions is as banal as it is socially acceptable, and is rendered ineffective by the fact that other critics often opt for quite different meanings.

Early in this century Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch found it to be 'One of the puzzles of the play that the jackanape Lucio should take so much of the limelight as he does in the finale . . . '8 But few have taken the puzzle seriously. M. C. Bradbrook did comment briefly on his 'symbiotic' relationship with the Duke: '. . . Lucio, who at the beginning of the play organizes what action there is, becomes as it were another deputy for the Duke; first giving his own character to the absent ruler, then fathering his own aspersions upon the Duke himself, in his role of Friar'.9 Similarly, H. W. Bennett observedthat Lucio is 'The thread on which the action of the play is strung',10 but never explained his contribution to what A. D. Nuttall cryptically described as the 'elegant intricacy of [its] plot',11 an elegance which I propose to credit in large measure to the interplay of plot symmetries.

Shakespeare varies his primary source (Promos and Cassandra) in a number of ways, but the significant variations generally involve a reprise of a plot motif or a doubling of its characters. Professor Nevo's impressive list of such doublings begins with the Duke's choice of not one but two polarized deputies12 and the Duke's decision to balance both of them by remaining in Vienna. Such features of Shakespeare's plays are not really surprising, however, when one realizes how frequently symmetries, polarities and doublings appear whenever he introduces novel characters or plot units into his versions of other plays, notably the 'Chinese box' sequence of overheard lovers in Love's Labor's Lost, the parallel hoaxing of Benedick and Beatrice, the 'Interweaving of the stories of two generations' in The Winter's Tale, and the Caliban-Ariel opposition in his last comedy.13 Perhaps the most obvious example is The Comedy of Errors, in which adding a second set of twins greatly increases the number of 'successive episodes of mistaken identity [which] follow an almost mathematical pattern of permutations and combinations';14 but as Kermode points out, in such plays as Hamlet and Lear the playwright's 'doubling' may be less obvious but hardly less basic.15 Is it too much to suppose that human beings have an insatiable craving for symmetries and that no writer ever excelled Shakespeare in satisfying that need?

Admitting the possibility that the text of Measure for Measure suffered significant damage before being preserved in the First Folio, I still maintain that some of the widespread critical dissatisfaction with this play is attributable to an incompleted but intentional balancing or doubling thus far overlooked—namely, the plots initiated by Lucio and Angelo. In formulating these plot strands, I find myself agreeing at times with Professor Miles's observation that 'Any discussion of Measure for Measure eventually comes down to a discussion of the play as it seems to have been intended, rather than as it is'.16 In this instance, I believe that the playwright either scaled down his original conception of the Lucio-Angelo opposition as he fleshed out the scenes or conceived it too late for it to function smoothly in the total configuration. In either case, critics have failed to perceive how nearly the play comes to balancing a quasitragic plot initiated by Angelo against a satirically comic one initiated by Lucio. Without being adjusted to that Angelo-Lucio polarity, any thematic interpretations based solely on other polarities are likely to be inadequate or misleading. Thus, for example, Professor Altieri denies that the play can be unified because the low comic group is used to 'Travesty' rather than modify the main action.17

Both plot strands originate in the Duke's attempt to reconcile the highest degree of morality (in his subjects) with the most mercy (toward the offenders), a condition supposedly existing in Vienna fourteen years earlier (II, i, 19-21), and soon becomes a frantic effort to straighten out the resulting mess. Each strand has its own protagonist, however, and unfolds concurrently without either assimilating the other. (Isabella does at times dominate the play, but always as an antagonist reacting to the others.) Lucio, Angelo and Claudio all try to manipulate her, but none succeeds; later the Duke employs her to solve his crisis and chooses her to help him co-exist with a recalcitrant society.

As to whether Shakespeare intended by the Duke's activities to flatter King James or to censure him, today's historical critics cannot agree, and may be even more confused now that the traditional viewof the the Duke as a surrogate for God18 has been challenged by critics who accept Lucio's view of him as sensually reprehensible.19 Such vital disagreements bring into question most thematic interpretations, and are enough to justify focusing on the aesthetic consequences of positing dual plot strands in Measure for Measure.

Since there is no disguised ruler in Shakespeare's sources, having a Lucio figure slander him is of course original with this play, and so are any doublings of characters and repetitions of plot motifs that depend on Lucio's presence. The subplot in which Promos's henchman easily obtains the favor of a courtesan while Promos struggles to overcome Cassandra's resistance may be the germ of the balanced structures, but the earthy scenes inserted almost at random in Promos and Cassandra do little to account for Shakespeare's variations.20

Few would question that Angelo is the protagonist in a serious plot strand. But why cannot Lucio, as he attempts to save Claudio from Angelo's judgment, then in frustration seeks to defame the Duke, and finally appeals in vain to escape a punishment befitting his crime, provide a non-serious plot strand intentionally (though imperfectly) balancing the other? If Shakespeare's goal was merely to undermine the seriousness of the Angelo plot, it would have been easy to have Angelo slander the Duke without knowing his identity, thus making the comic plot superfluous. By inventing Lucio to serve this purpose, however un-equal at times the bulk of his contribution, and setting his comic slandering against Angelo's unsuccessful seduction-revenge, the playwright achieves the play's present configuration.

The first hint of a balance between Angelo and Lucio involves the names Shakespeare gave them: like Lucifer, Lucio's name is derived from 'Lux', but 'Light' here is a metaphor for 'Loose' rather than 'Moral'; Angelo's is cognate with angelic, but really serves to contrast his sinful potential with his reputation. Lucio's renown among the Viennese for sneering at virtue, for 'blaspheming the good', balances Angelo's monopoly of rectitude. Lucio is a comic talent (that is, a person adept at making others look ridiculous) prone to attribute his own vices to everyone else; Angelo is a moralist ready to punish others for the vices which he denies sharing. Neither is a hypocrite, but Lucio wants credit for more sins than he has committed, while Angelo is inordinately proud of his moral superiority. In the play, neither is guilty of more than idle words and vicious intentions: Lucio because his slanders are vented primarily on his victim, the Duke; Angelo because his victim gets help from the only man capable of preventing the crime, the Duke.

The first two scenes initiate the structural opposition. The first opens with a pillar of rectitude being summoned to the palace, to be ceremoniously but enigmatically assigned the task of reforming his society; the second with an idle gentleman exchanging cheap and pointless insults with two others whose only function in the play is to lose a 'dismal punning match',21 in the process of which they implicitly agree that rulers in general are neither desirous of moral improvement nor capable of improving others. While Angelo is being formally empowered to constrain the immorality of the subjects, Lucio appears as a powerless onlooker; yet he focuses the general assumption of the Viennese underworld that Vincentio's drastic move to reform the society is as Machiavellian22 as it is futile.

In the first scene the Duke is curiously hesitant, even ambiguous about which laws he wants enforced, uncertain about the virtues which 'Must go forth from us' (II, i, 30): Thus he begins confusingly:

Of government the properties to unfold, Would seem to me t'Affect speech and discourse . . .

(I, i, 22-23)

and continues to be so confused that Angelo is given no guidance or limits for his campaign to restore moral order to Vienna. The opening scenes introduce two counterposed plot strands: in one strand the conspicuously moral Angelo eventually commits himself to actions so heinous that he must conceal them from the world, particularly the Duke, in the other a 'Merciful' Lucio would convince the world that the Duke has committed equally heinous crimes without letting him learn the identity of the slanderer. Thus, the audience soon becomes ironically aware that this particular deputy is no more likely to reconcile 'Morality and mercy in Vienna' (I, i, 45) than Lucio would be.

If audiences wonder at all about this juxtaposition, they are soon drawn into three acts of events so intense that the evidence for such a balance is overlooked. The readers who agree with Tillyard that 'The play is not of a piece but changes its nature half way through',23 must be ignoring the opening juxtaposition of a a prudish Angelo pharisaically aching to reform the society with a bored and licentious Lucio craving even more licence. Once they comprehend Lucio's role, however, the notion that the tragedy 'goes to pieces' when Marianna is introduced becomes less plausible.24

In the first scene Angelo accepts (though with modest hesitation) an opportunity to display his moral superiority; in the second, Lucio's being asked to intercede for Claudio affords a welcome outlet for his sexual obsessions and a self-serving cause to pursue. As the instrument which the Duke chooses to redeem Vienna, Angelo lacks the touch or taint of humanity which Lucio (and the Viennese in general) have in excess. When Claudio appeals to Lucio for help, he first assumes that Angelo will relent (I, ii, 124), then that the Duke will countermand an obviously excessive punishment, and even after learning of the Duke's absence, continues to suppose that Claudio's sentence can easily be rescinded. Claudio's telling Lucio that the punishment had some justification (I, ii. 121-26) is ironical, for no one is less likely to take him seriously than Lucio, to whom Claudio appeals for aid, perhaps because he does not feel he deserves a better defender against the authorities. And Lucio is too tainted with cynical irresponsibility to do much, at least not until the cause becomes personal.

Lucio's nature is exemplified by his ambiguously cynical greeting to Isabella: 'Hail, virgin, if you be . . . ' (I, iv, 16). When Lucio's every speech reflects his captious cynicism, why should audiences suppose that Lucio is sincere in complimenting Isabella (I, iv, 34-7), especially as flattery here is serving the purpose of a natural hypocrite? When he calls her a saint, Isabella herself doubts his sincerity: 'Sir, make me not your story' (I, iv, 29). There is little to indicate that Lucio is ever tinged with idealism25 and less that he ever wants to 'curb his own lechery' (IV, iii, 152).

In the source(s) of this play, the female intercessor needs no one to urge her on, whereas urging the sexually repressed Isabella requires a modest degree of rhetorical skill, especially by a roué like Lucio, to have her ask mercy for her brother. At this point Lucio still believes that an appeal to the Duke (of whose absence he has just learned) will be an adequate last resort. In directing Isabella's plea as though he were a master of one-upmanship coaching an apprentice, Lucio foreshadows his role in Act V.26 Lucio urges Isabella to violate her fundamental beliefs both to save her brother's life and (as far as he is concerned) 'For the encouragement of the like, which else would stand under grievous imposition' (I, ii, 182-83). When she indulges in rhetorically inappropriate insults such as 'It is tyrannous to use it as a giant', they strike him as 'Well said' (II, ii, 107-09), and when she naively stumbles into hinting bribery (II, ii, 146), he disapproves only when it has an adverse effect on Angelo. By the time of the second confrontation, of course, Lucio's absence is essential to Angelo's blackmail; and after all, Lucio has no reason to suppose his presence is needed.

In this interplay of the two plot strands, Lucio contributes to Angelo's temptation by insisting that Isabella not merely persist in her pleading but also be sexually provocative.27 What Lucio craves above all is a passionate (i.e., sexually oriented) delivery: 'Hang upon his gown' (II, ii, 45) and 'You are too cold' (II, ii, 56). However excusable, even enviable, Lucio considers Claudio's affair with his betrothed, he never asks the prudish Isabella to pursue loopholes in the law itself. Lucio's comments, though they are as pithy as Angelo's are verbose, partly account for the faulty rhetoric and equivocal language in her plea,28 and balance Angelo's speeches primarily by their incongruity and audacity. The laughs Lucio gets (from the audience?), in spite of the intensity of the scene, help him to feel smug about the outcome, and it is only after learning of Angelo's verdict that he seeks to punish those responsible for his failure. Later, since his slanders are spoken directly to a victim rendered defenceless by the demands of his own role, Lucio has all the skill he needs to drive them home. Vincentio's later soliloquy: 'Millions of false eyes are stuck upon three. Volumes of reports . . . rack thee in their fancies.' (IV, i, 60-1) indicates that he thinks Lucio's slanders are endlessly proliferating.

The situation also explains why Lucio does not choose to slander Angelo, a man whose 'urine is congealed ice' (III, ii, 118), 'One who was not born of woman' (III, ii, 97). Instead Lucio chooses a more vulnerable target, a conveniently absent ruler who is—after all—ultimately, responsible for the miscarriage of justice. There is good reason to suppose that the Duke's disguise was a mystery to Lucio, for otherwise he would not later have risked stripping off the ruler's cowl; yet Lucio's paranoid speculations about the Duke do give the play a further 'Air of design', another 'Turn of the screw'. Reacting to Lucio's slanders 'With rare intensity', Vincentio continues to brood about them in private,29 feeling as desperate to defend himself against Lucio's slanders as he is to forestall Angelo's machinations. Those who credit Lucio's charges despite the absence of any other internal evidence seem suspiciously anxious to 'Refute' traditional views.

The abnormal situation created by the Duke's mysterious disappearance frees Lucio to besmirch Angelo's sponsor, yet only after having his impulse to save Claudio frustrated does he begin to slander the Duke. No matter how many sexual allusions are identifiable in Lucio's initial conversation, the snide remarks about the Duke and his fellow rulers imply nothing personal about his sexual habits. Similarly, Angelo's obsession with having Isabella emerges only after she appears before him in the habit of a novice and convinces him of her chastity: 'O cunning enemy that, to catch a saint, / With saints dost bait thy hook.' (II, ii, 180-81). Thus, Claudio's predicament stirs what may be the only components in Lucio's personality capable of diverting him from an aimless and foppish existence, while Claudio's novice sister may well stir the only iniquitous impulse which Angelo is incapable of suppressing (a situation reminiscent of the minister's reaction to a repentant prostitute in Maugham's short story, 'Rain'). And as the Duke becomes more and more engaged in thwarting the consequences of Angelo's lechery, he becomes increasingly vulnerable to Lucio's slanders.

Since the Angelo-Lucio counterpointing tends to blur in the middle episodes, however, audiences of every age have overlooked or dismissed this structural balancing and settled for labeling Lucio an obtrusive hanger-on. I propose instead that the playwright has sent in a substitute—a move hardly unexpected if Professor Leggatt is correct in finding this a play rife with substitutions.30 Viewing Pompey as a low-class coun terpart of Lucio not only seems plausible but allows the structural balancing with Angelo to be extended into the middle scenes. As Professor Carlson points out, the two share their outcast state alone, enthusiastically agree that women are defined in terms of their sexual relations to men, and prefer the same vulgar language.31 In his very first appearance Pompey out does Lucio in selfish cynicism as he discredits Lucio's motivation for acting on behalf of Claudio. Also Pompey's 'groping for trouts in a peculiar river' neatly echoes Lucio's pun-loving reactions to the situation: 'Filling a bottle with a tun-dish' (III, ii, 182) or more poetically: '. . . her plenteous womb / Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry' (I, iv, 43-44).

I suggest that Lucio and Pompey are as deliberately correlated in this play as are Mercutio and the Nurse in an earlier tragedy, in which they function as equally bawdy and garrulous 'nurses' of Romeo and Juliet respectively.32 As the aristocratic Mercutio tries un successfully to promote Romeo's welfare, so gentleman Lucio tries in vain to save Claudio by having Isabella charm Angelo, both proponents being driven by a macho cynicism inconsistent with their goals. Similarly, Juliet's Nurse and Pompey both tease and circumvent the Establishment, until in a sense they join it. Only the supernaturally-tinged powers of the Duke prevent Measure for Measure from ending as disastrously as Romeo and Juliet.

Pompey's next appearance (II, i), according to Professor Miles, is an 'Amusing stroke of dramatic parallelism'.33 But it should be noted that, like Lucio's badinage with the Gentlemen, Pompey's defense of Froth primarily aims at the denigration of authority. Given the circumstances, Lucio had come as close to defending Claudio as Pompey does for Froth, and in the same spirit. By causing Elbow, that weakest limb of the law, to look even stupider than usual, and by frustrating Escalus with his digressions and incoherencies, Pompey also foreshadows Lucio's climactic assault on the Duke, that torso of the law who symbolically but temporarily combines the church and the state. Pompey impudently exploits Elbow's malapropisms to show Angelo as unequal to routine administrative duties as he is to justice.

Another possible link is the juxtaposition of the Duke's attack on Pompey's 'Filthy vice' (III, ii, 22) and Lucio's complaint to the disguised Duke that Angelo might have 'A little more lenity to lechery' (III, ii, 94). Admittedly, Pompey does not participate in Lucio's verbal abuse of the Duke, who after all is in disguise when he insists that Pompey receive 'correction and instruction' as a bawd (III, iii, 32) but his success in ridiculing the Duke's surrogates neatly equates him with Lucio. Pompey's talent for distracting authorities temporarily postpones his whipping and incarceration; and even after the sentence is pronounced, he gets unexpected relief in the form of an ironically appropriate job as hangman's assistant, for whose duties he becomes even more enthusiastic than the professional Abhorson. In the fifth act Lucio similarly threatens the judicial proceedings with chaos as he first pleases onlookers with his witty slanders of the Friar-Duke, only to have his sentence temporarily postponed by having successfully duped Escalus, and even after being condemned to whipping and death, he suffers only the indignity of retroactive cuckoldry (not that his macho code would ever let him admit his relief).

The hint that Lucio had informed on Pompey and on Mistress Overdone (III, ii, 60) suggests Lucio's callousness and meanness, but hardly more than Pompey's encouragement to Barnardine: 'Awake till you are executed and sleep afterwards' (IV, iii, 33). When the prison-bound Pompey appeals to Lucio for help, in a reprise of Claudio's earlier entreaty, Lucio dismisses the plea with the same derision Pompey would have accorded his acquaintances: 'Farewell, good Pompey. Commend me to the prison, Pompey; you will turn good husband now, Pompey . . .' (III, ii, 67-68), a sneer perhaps hinting at Lucio's imminent 'shotgun marriage'!

Critics haunted by the feeling that the deadly seriousness of the major characters in Angelo's strand aesthetically demands a tragic outcome,34 tend to hold that the play breaks 'Into disparate halves' in order to permit a comic ending. But the break is minimized if we credit Lucio-Pompey with a major role, one which includes inciting laughter during Isabella's pleas for her brother's life, and insolently taunting the authorities.

With Pompey's help, Lucio becomes the center of a society so earthy that the idea of a male being condemned to death for fornication is too fantastic to support a tragic tone. As the Lucio-surrogate Pompey speculates 'If you head and hang all that offend that way but for ten years together' (II, i, 238-39), there won'T be any left to behead. In moving from the intensely emotional confrontations between Isabella and Angelo to the satirical interplay between the Duke's frantic schemes and Lucio's foolhardy malignity, the play admittedly demands somewhat different reactions from the audience; yet in the early scenes Lucio's role, properly understood, should already bring into question the notion that the last two acts are appended as a wish-fulfillment dream sequence.35 The Duke's musing on greatness in IV, i., may seem 'Irrelevant and insufficient',36 but it strengthens the likelihood that Lucio's activities constitute a contrapuntally opposed plot strand.

One particularly intriguing opposition is that referred to as the 'bed trick' and the 'Head trick'.37 The first is a comic element as out of place in the serious plot as the second is in the comic plot. In the serious plot, introducing a woman who craves to lose her maidenhead to Angelo allows Isabella to defy Angelo successfully despite Claudio's refusal to die quietly. In the comic plot, Barnardine's obstinate refusal to supply the needed head (which parodies Claudio's refusal) requires an even more far-fetched comic 'deus ex machina' to furnish a substitute, while the irrepressible Pompey, along with several representatives of the criminal class, unwittingly help Lucio torment the Duke.

Although one may question whether Pompey, even with the incidental support of the other riff-raff, supplements Lucio enough to balance the Angelo plot in the middle sequences, the strands are clearly balanced in the final scenes. It is no surprise that a critic perhaps unaware of the balance remarks that Lucio does 'noticeable damage to the ostensible solemnity of the play's climax'.38 Once more Lucio has fewer lines than the so-called 'Major' characters, but the difference this time is relatively small.

In the presence of the disguised Duke, Lucio desperately redoubles his slanders, while Angelo reinforces his lies as a cushion against exposure (IV, iv). Now we have the ironical switch from a Duke who must endure Lucio's slanders to preserve his disguise to a ruler who cannot prevent further slanders without spoiling the trap triggered by his disguise. Lucio, whose primary motive now is to avoid punishment, joins Isabella in longing for the Duke to appear; Angelo fears her accusations and dreads the Duke's appearance. Then both characters feel unduly safe for a brief period: Lucio becausehe thinks to have nullified any charges of the pseudo-friar by slandering him in advance, Angelo because the Duke apparently defends him against Isabella's charges.

Hoping to expose the conspiracy, the Duke now calls on Escalus, but finds him so thoroughly entangled in Lucio's lies that his slanders seem to have triumphed. Likewise, Angelo, thinking he has an opportunity to bury the evidence of his misdeeds, feels he has escaped exposure. The Duke tricks Angelo into admitting his guilt only after panic has caused him to augment his lies; and in switching roles to achieve that goal, the Duke inadvertently emboldens Lucio to strip off the Duke's cowl, thereby simultaneously exposing Lucio's comic viciousness and nullifying Angelo's power to sneer at human weakness, much less to punish sins according to his lights.

Both characters are condemned to death; then the sentence is reduced to forced marriages with their victims, by which action Angelo is redeemed, Lucio undone. And by being given husbands, Kate Keepdown and Mariana are both made 'Honest' women, Kate despite her bastard, Mariana despite her lost virginity. Angelo, as abject as Lucio is unrepentant, emerges as a quasi-tragic figure undergoing the equivalent of shock treatment:

I am sorry that such sorrow I procure, And so deep sticks it in my penitent heart That I crave death more willingly than mercy; 'Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it.

(V, i, 472-75)

After Angelo realizes the depths of his turpitude, we may assume that he will prove worthy of Mariana's long-suffering love (though the assumption is not shared by those who indulge in the recent fad of 'Attacking the terminality of the ending').39

If it is the Duke's nature to test the morality of others, it is ironical that Lucio and Angelo serve to test him in complementary ways: Lucio his passive tolerance, Angelo his active ingenuity. Of all the persons whose traits the Duke sought to elevate, only Lucio remains untouched. Even as he suffers a paralyzing reversal, he never ceases struggling to regain his status as a 'comic talent': 'I beseech your Highness do not marry me to a whore. Your Highness said even now, I made you a Duke; good my lord, do not recompense me in making me a cuckold' (V, i, 510-12). To suppose that he 'pays dearly for all his jests',40 as some critics do, is to ignore all this balancing of the plots. The fact that Lucio's sentence is withheld until the last moment, that his punishment so neatly fits the crime in subverting his talent for ridiculing or maligning others, and that in the original production he may well have been the last to leave the stage, should lend weight to the balancing of strands. Since Lucio's protests save him from execution, then from beating, why would not he (like Brer Rabbit threatened by the Briar Patch) vehemently protest the cruelty of being forced to marry the 'punk' who bore his son (V, i, 522-23). Lucio is no court jester insulting a ruler for the social good, nor is he in any way redeemed by his experience. Instead he becomes a climactic test of the Duke's capacity for clemency, which now preserves Lucio from the execution appropriate to such a crime in Shakespeare's world.41 Furthermore, the audience finds the Duke's decision aesthetically acceptable because it so appropriately destroys Lucio's power to ridicule or slander.

The play ends, moreover, with four of the most varied and equivocal engagements imaginable. In his 'Festive' comedies, Shakespeare ends with three or more engagements or marriages, most of which are romantic in tone; the four he offers here could hardly be less romantic or more diverse.42 Lucio's plot strand mates a whoremaster and his whore; Angelo's a woman without pride and a man without honor; Claudio is already married except for a technicality, and the Duke has simply found a worthy consort. Lucio has a child already, Claudio's is near, Angelo's wife may have just conceived; but the Duke gives no sign of sex being relevant to his plans, nor is there any reason to suppose that Isabella has changed her mind about sexual activity. Her failure to respond verbally to the Duke's offer has even been interpreted by recent 'Refuters' as a refusal;43 but it seems much more likely to reflect the silence of the 'The Votarists of Saint Clare'. Why should audiences be surprised that no word of love has crossed their lips? The compassion she displays for her would-be ravisher and (as far as she knows) the killer of her brother (though perhaps tainted by self-regard), is consistent with her seeing herself as a nun choosing another, perhaps even 'More strict restraint'.

At the close, therefore, the plot strands clearly renew their contrapuntal balance. Viewed in this perspective, the Duke's verdicts are highly appropriate; any arguments that the punishment of Angelo is indulgent and that of Lucio disturbingly harsh44 ignore the symmetry. That Angelo has undergone a permanent reformation is implied in the Duke's plea: 'Forgive him Angelo, that brought you home / The head of Ragozine for Claudio's (V, i, 526-27). Just the opposite can be inferred from Lucio's responses; in fact, only if Lucio is right about the Duke, as 'Refuters' would have us believe, are we justified in charging the Duke with cruelty. Since most of the evils attributed to the Viennese seem to involve fornication, marrying off the various participants ironically suggests that the citizens can be reformed simply by legalizing their sins. Undoubtedly Vincendo learns from the experience, but what he learns leaves him—and the audience—no closer to reconciling morality and mercy than he was before. Given the 'pretty tales' about the Duke's sexual habits (so inexplicable to him!) and his acquisition of a wife capable of paradigmatic mercy, he is no more likely to reform the state than he was when he delegated the task to a 'Hatchet man'—an outcome delightful for those who prize the ironies of comedy, but hardly one appropriate to religious allegory or conducive to moral improvement.

However driven at this period of his life Shakespeare may have been by a desire to reconcile morality and sexuality,45 themes which undeniably function as opposites in this play, this view of the plot questions the reconciliation with which it has been credited. Admittedly, the play acknowledges many aspects of the moral dilemma, the need for mercy, love, and justice, but implies no remedies. Rather (to return to the initial comment by Nuttall), Shakespeare 'unites elegant intricacy of plot with the greatest possible inconsistency of ethical principle'. To those—like me—who treasure complexity integrated into an aesthetic whole, it confirms Shakespeare's persistent fascination with the aesthetic potential of symmetry.


1J. W. Lever, ed., Measure for Measure, Arden edition (London, 1965), pp. xliii, lvi, ciii, etc. (All quotations are taken from this text.)

2D. L. Stevenson, 'Design and Structure in Measure for Measure', ELH 23 (1956), 266.

3C. Swann, 'Lucio: benefactor or malefactor', Crit. Q. 29 (1987), 56. An earlier exception is Lucio's thematic function in Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare (New York and Oxford, 1986), p. 53.

4Robert Rogers, A Psychoanalytic Study of the Doublein Literature (Detroit, 1970), p. 75.

5Nevill Coghill, 'Comic Form in Measure for Measure', SS, 8 (1955), 23-24, finds him a minor Satan. Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1958) II, 410, calls Lucio an 'Advocatus diaboli'; as do Francis Fergusson, The Human Image in Dramatic Literature (New York, 1957), p. 135; and Louise Schleiner, 'Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure', PMLA, 97 (1982), 227-36.

6Swann, p. 56.

7Richard Levin, 'Some Second Thoughts on Central Themes', MLR, 66 (1974), pp. 3-4.

8Measure for Measure: A. Q-C and J. Dover Wilson (eds.), New Cambridge Edition (Cambridge, 1922) p. xl.

9 The Artist and Society in Shakespeare's England (Brighton, Sussex, 1982), pp. 152-53.

10Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment (New York, 1966), p. 90.

11'Measure for Measure: The Bed Trick', SS, 8 (1975), 51.

12Ruth Nevo, 'Measure for Measure: Mirror for Mirror', SS 40 (1988), 107-22.

13Marion B. Smith, Dualities in Shakespeare (Toronto, 1966), p. 23; Shakespeare Design (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), pp. 27-67.

14Robert Grudin, Mighty Opposites: Shakespeare andRenaissance Contrariety (Berkeley, Cal., 1979), p. 8.

15Frank Kermode, Forms of Attention (Chicago, 1985), pp. 38-44.

16Rosalind Miles, The Problem of Measure for Measure (New York, 1976), p. 285.

17Joanne Altieri, 'Style and Social Disorder in Measure for Measure', SQ, 25 (1974) 16.

18Roy W. Battenhouse, 'Measure for Measure and the Christian Atonement', PMLA, 61 (1946) 1029-59; G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, rev. ed. (New York, 1957), pp. 74 ff.

19W. J. Martz, The Place of 'Measure for Measure' inShakespeare's Universe of Comedy (Lawrence, Kansas, 1982), p. 92, suggests that Angelo's reactions hint that the Duke is homosexual.

20Bullough, II, 444-45; Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare's Sources I: Comedies and Tragedies (London, 1957), pp. 101-9; Anthony Brennan, Shakespeare's Dramatic Structures (London, 1986), pp. 80-82, finds Shakespeare's changes in Cinthio's story to be even more fundamental.

21Louise Schleiner, 'Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure', PMLA 97 (1982), 227-36.

22Harold Skulsky, Spirits Finely Touched: The Testing of Value and Integrity in Four Shakespearean Plays (Athens, Ga., 1976), pp. 100-104. Richard Fly, Shakespeare's Mediated World (Amherst, Mass., 1976), p. 71. Lever, p. xx. suggests that this episode was inserted to reinforce Lucio's 'prominence'. But unless he has more function than is usually supposed, one wonders why. Moreover, if the references in I, ii to laws, prayers and the 'peace of heaven' do foreshadow the monastic features of the plot [D. L. Gless, Measure for Measure: The Law and the Covenant (Princeton, N. J., 1979), pp. 20-21.], they also give context for the neglected law whose drastic enforcement by Angelo strikes at the heart of Lucio's world.

23E. W. M. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (London, 1950), p. 78.

24 Michael o'Donovan (Frank o'Connor), Shakespeare'sProgress (Cleveland, Ohio, 1960), pp. 152-58.

25 Harriet Hawkins, Likenesses of Truth in Elizabethanand Restoration Drama (Oxford, 1972), p. 51.

26 Deconstructors who hold that many of her words are equivocal, such as 'potency', 'prone', and 'skins', ignore the fact that Angelo must believe that she is unconscious of their sexual connotations; otherwise her saintliness would not have baited the hook. The Elizabethans had attached sexual meanings to so many common words that it would have been difficult, I submit, to phrase an emotional plea without employing equivocal words.

27 Patrick Swindon, An Introduction to Shakespeare'sComedies (London, 1973), p. 152.

28 Rogers, p. 171.

29 Nevo, p. 117.

30 Alexander Leggatt, 'Substitution in Measure forMeasure', SQ 39 (1988). pp. 342 ff.

31 Susan Carlson, ' "Fond Fathers" and Sweet Sisters: Alternative Sexualities in Measure for Measure', Essays in Literature 16-17 (1989-90), pp. 13-8.

32 Brian Gibbons, ed., Romeo and Juliet, New Arden ed., (London, 1980), p. 40.

33 Miles, p. 256. Viewing the plots as balanced helps explain why Wylie Sypher, 'Shakespeare as Casuist in Measure for Measure', Sewanee Rev., 58 (1950). 268-70, is puzzled by the Duke's exemplifying both 'comic irresponsibility and ethical responsibility'.

34 Lever, p. 99ff.

35 Contrary to Wheeler's position, it is only in Angelo's world that 'phallic sexuality typically leads to self-alienation and emasculation' (p. 111). In Lucio's world the danger is purely external.

36 Lawrence, p. 450; Lever, p. 99ff.

37 James Black, 'The Unfolding of Measure forMeasure', SS, 26 (1973), 122. That the 'bed trick' was 'unpleasant to modern feelings' a generation ago (Tillyard, p. 270) must be hard for the young to credit.

38 Brennan, p. 79-101.

39 'Refuting Shakespeare's Endings. Part 2', MP, 75 (1977), 132-58; Arthur C. Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge, 1981), p. 146.

40 William W. Lawrence, 'Measure for Measure and Lucio', SQ, (1958), p. 451.

41 Arthur A. Scouton, 'A Historical Approach to Measure for Measure', PQ, 54 (1975) 71.

42 'Refuting Shakespeare's Endings', MP, 71 (1975), 337-49; Part 2, p. 171.

43Ibid, p. 77-81; D. A. Stauffer, Shakespeare's Worldof Images (Bloomington, Ind., 1964), p. 144.

44 Wheeler, pp. 124-27, notes that the other couples say little or nothing.

45 Even if David Aers and Gunther Kress are correct in holding that 'The themes of justice, law, authority, and order illustrate the differing effects the concepts have on the individual' in this play ['The Politics of Style: Discourses of Law and Authority in Measure for Measure', Style, 16 (1982), 36], they still offer no clue whatever to the configuration of the play, which avoids even considering the 'Rewards and punishments after death' (Wheeler, p. 117).

Further Reading

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Baines, Barbara J. "Assaying the Power of Chastity in Measure for Measure." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 30, No. 2 (Spring 1990) 283-301.

Argues that the in the play, chastity is clearly aligned with power and that Isabella's situation and "choice" represent cultural, societal values--not simply Isabella's own religious values.

Black, James. "The Unfolding of 'Measure for Measure'." Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973): 119-28.

Analyzes Shakespeare's use of the bed-trick and maintains that the playwright intended "to convey the sense that Mariana in sleeping with Angelo has done something right, and that the playturns upon the positive virtue of her action."

Bradbrook, M. C. "The Balance and the Sword in Measure for Measure." In The Artist and Society in Shakespeare's England: The Collected Papers of Muriel Bradbrook, Vol. I, pp. 144-54. Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1982.

Examines the treatment of justice in the play, pointing out the play's confusion between ecclesiastical and civil law as they pertain to marriage and sexual offenses.

Brennan, Anthony. "'What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know': The Structure of the Final Scene of Measure for Measure." In Shakespeare's Dramatic Structures, pp. 70-101. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

Maintains that the play's structure is not broken in half, as many critics have argued, but that it logically builds throughout the first four acts to a point where the characters "are ripe for a complete transformation."

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

Suggests that the Duke's marriage proposal to Isabella may not be completely unmotivated and is perhaps more than a weak attempt by Shakespeare to resolve plot complications.

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. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.

Argues that the State's anxiety regarding the socially disordering effects of both fornication and drunkenness in Elizabethan and Jacobean England is reflected in the play through the efforts of those in power to regulate sexuality.

Gibbons, Brian. Introduction to Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare, edited by Brian Gibbons, pp. 1-72. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Provides a detailed overview of the play, discussing the composition date, contemporary political and religious influences, the sources used, the play's themes and characters, and the play in production.

Jaffa, Harry V. "Chastity as a Political Principle: An Interpretation of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure." In Shakespeare as a Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 181-218. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.

Explores the themes of the law, justice, and sexual politics in Measure for Measure.

Kirsch, Arthur C. "The Integrity of 'Measure for Measure'." Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975): 89-105.

Argues that the play's "intellectual and formal structures" have been misunderstood by its critics, who have failed to accurately read the play as it would have been received by Shakespeare's original audiences.

McCluskie, 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. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.

Argues that the female characters in the play represent a variety of sexual relationships and asserts that feminist criticism has no "point of entry" into the play because the issues related to sexuality "are constructed in completely male terms."

Nevo, Ruth. "'Measure for Measure': Mirror for Mirror." Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988): 107-22.

Contends that the play repeats its situations and doubles its personae "because that is the way the play works through, and divulges, the fantasies which energize it. It is a masterly study of repression, and of the repressed. . . ."

Palmer, Christopher. "Selfishness in Measure for Measure" Essays in Criticism XXVIII, No. 3 (July 1978): 187-207.

Asserts that the greatness of the play stems from the manner in which it allows the characters to stress their singularity, or selfishness, in an uncompromising way. Yet in their assertion of the self, Palmer states, the characters "resist complete submission to the moral."


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