Charles Swann (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8172

SOURCE: Swann, Charles. “Lucio: Benefactor or Malefactor?” Critical Quarterly 29, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 55-70.

[In the following essay, Swann examines the ambivalent ideological function of Lucio at the close of Measure for Measure, particularly in relation to the authoritarian figure of the Duke.]

… I do lean upon justice, sir, and do bring in here before your good honour two notorious benefactors.

(Measure for Measure, II.i. 48-50).

In a recent piece, ‘Transgression and surveillance in Measure for Measure’, Jonathan Dollimore dismissed the blandness of one kind of interpretation of the play adequately represented by J. W. Lever in the preface to his edition of the Arden Shakespeare:

‘Not only are the tensions and discords wrought up to an extreme pitch, threatening the dissolution of all human values, but a corresponding and extraordinary emphasis is laid upon the role of true authority, whose intervention alone supplies the equipoise needed to counter the forces of negation.’ … On this view then unruly desire is extremely subversive and has to be countered by ‘true’ and ‘supreme authority’, ‘age and wisdom’, all of which qualities are possessed by the Duke in Measure for Measure and used by him to redeem the State (pp. lx and lxxi). Only these virtues, this man, can retrieve the State from anarchy.1

At the same time, he attempts to pre-empt what he fears may too easily be seen as the ‘radical’ interpretation but which Dollimore regards as a mere mirror image of the traditional viewpoint:

With the considerable attention recently devoted to Bakhtin and his truly important analysis of the subversive carnivalesque, the time [may be seen] as right for a radical reading …, one which insists on the oppressiveness of the Viennese State and which interprets low-life transgression as positively anarchic, ludic, carnivalesque—a subversion from below of a repressive official ideology of order.

Dollimore's intention (if it is not too late) is

to forestall such a reading as scarcely less inappropriate than that which privileged ‘true’ authority over anarchic desire. Indeed, such a reading, if executed within the parameters of some recent appropriations of Bakhtin, would simply remain within the same problematic, only reversing the polarities of the binary opposition which structures it (order/chaos).

(p. 73)

Dollimore, more in sorrow than in a-historical anger, reads the ending thus:

By means of the Duke's personal intervention and integrity, authoritarian reaction is put into abeyance but not discredited: the corrupt deputy is unmasked but no law is repealed and the mercy exercised remains the prerogative of the same ruler who initiated reaction. The duke also embodies a public reconciliation of law and morality. An omniscience, inseparable from seeming integrity, permits him to close the gulf between the two, one which was opening wide enough to demystify the one (law) and enfeeble the other (morality). Again, this is not a cancelling of authoritarianism so much as a fantasy resolution of the very fears from which authoritarianism partly grows—a fear of escalating disorder among the ruled which in turn intensifies a fear of impotence in the rulers. If so it is a reactionary fantasy, neither radical nor liberating (as fantasy may indeed be) but rather conservative and constraining; the very disclosure of social realities which make progress seem imperative is recuperated in comedic closure, a redemptive wish-fulfilment of the status quo.

In conclusion then the transgressors in Measure for Measure signify neither the unregeneracy of the flesh, nor the ludic subversive carnivalesque. Rather, as the spectre of unregulated desire, they are exploited to legitimate an exercise in authoritarian repression.

(pp. 83-4)

Now this seems to...

(This entire section contains 8172 words.)

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me to be, quite simply, wrong in its suggestion that the end offers a unified ideological message. For all the historical knowledge that Dollimore brings to support his reading, he makes that ending too organically coherent—if only because Dollimore has not given any weight to the presence and voice of Lucio throughout the long scene that is Act V. This neglect is the more noticeable as Dollimore has noted the possibly subversive effect of Lucio in the paragraph that precedes my last quotation.

I don't mean, however, to appeal to Bakhtin. There is little suggestion here of positive ‘ludic carnivalesque’ if only because the potentially anarchic responses are shown as already shaped and conditioned by the world the relevant characters are born into—the Duke's world. The absence of the ruler is no opportunity for carnival anymore than it is a real absence of the real ruler (and he is the only one masked—to be unmasked by Lucio of all people) but rather an opportunity for increased repression—which forces the low-life characters not into temporarily liberating disguise but rather into an enforced declaration of the way they live. I want to argue that the ending (and therefore the play's ideological effect) is not as unitary as Dollimore suggests, that—depending on who is listening—the ending has two conflicting levels of meaning. There is no need to appeal to the Bakhtin of carnival, nor to the perhaps more relevant concept of polyphony. There is a case for appealing to the simpler notion of text and sub-text. And it may well be necessary to look to legal language, to invoke ‘mitigating circumstances’—as what I have to do to make my case is to mount a defence of and for Lucio.

Lucio has rarely had a good press—and neither Marxist nor feminist criticism are likely to see him as a heroic figure. If ever there was a male chauvinist pig (not to say a decadent bourgeois), then Lucio is he. Nor can seeming points in his favour be counted on. If, for example, he calls Isabella ‘a thing enskied and sainted’ and speaks in moving terms of Juliet's pregnancy (I.iv), there are easy answers. The feminist can reasonably claim that even the most aggressively sexist pig frequently puts some women on a pedestal (often for class reasons)—and ‘thing’ is, of course, a giveaway: the term neatly makes Isabella an untouchable by desexing and dehumanising her. But here I'm going further than one feminist critic, Kathleen McLuskie, seems willing to go in an essay, ‘Patriarchal bard’ which is immediately after Dollimore's piece:

Feminist criticism of this play is restricted to exposing its own exclusion from the text. It has no point of entry into it, for the dilemmas of the narrative and the sexuality under discussion are constructed in completely male terms—gelding and splaying hold no terror for women—and the women's role as the object of exchange within that system of sexuality is not at issue, however much a feminist might want to draw attention to it.

(pp. 97-8)

I fail to see why feminist criticism cannot discuss the various constructions of masculinity and femininity in the play—unless McLuskie has too simple a notion of ‘the pleasure of the text’ and too easily presumes that Measure for Measure offers ‘the pleasures of comedy’ (p. 98). One reason, after all, for calling it a problem play is precisely because it is not simply a comedy. And leaving aside the question whether gelding may not in the long run give some problems to the heterosexual feminist as well as to the ambitious patriarch, surely splaying (spaying/neutering) had and has some terrors for many women. I certainly wouldn't care for the tender attentions of a male seventeenth-century doctor. Why should the feminist critic allow herself to be excluded from the text? Pompey's comment (II.i. 228), after all, assumes that men and women are equally subject to sexual desire.

Not that this makes Lucio any easier to defend, it may be said. He refuses to stand bail for Pompey and, it seems, has informed on Mistress Overdone. (Here, ironically, he is a ‘good citizen’—at least as far as official ideology goes.) He has, more seriously, got a whore with child in some may-day frolic—and denied paternity. And yet—if Lucio is corrupt, who and what corrupted him and (a slightly different question) how corrupt would he have seemed to a seventeenth-century audience? Is he not, very largely, the product of the Duke's Vienna—and as such an embodied criticism of the Duke's régime—as well as in a position to make criticisms? We don't have to read Stubbs literally to see that he was pointing an admonitory if over-excited finger at a recognisable social phenomenon: ‘until everyone hath two or three bastards apiece, they esteem him no man (for that they call a man's deed); in so much as every boy of twelve, sixteen or twenty years of age, will make no conscience of it to have two or three, peradventure half a dozen several women with child at once’.2 This, of course, is merely to transfer the blame from the play to the culture—but that does affect the way the playgoer might have read Lucio. There was too a tradition for connecting prostitution with the maintenance of power. Again I draw on Salgado's scholarship: ‘“Suppress prostitution” wrote St Augustine ‘and capricious lust will overthrow society”, while Aquinas was even more explicit: “Prostitution in the towns is like the cesspool in the palace; take away the cesspool and the palace will become an unclean and evil-smelling place”’ (p. 51). And what are the results of Lucio's corruption? If it were not for him (as frequently has been pointed out) the too virtuous Isabella and Angelo would kill Claudio between them in about ten lines. If he pimps, he pimps for mercy in that interchange. He is in a particularly authoritative position to pronounce on Vienna—and on the Duke. He is a ‘fantastic’ (as the cast-list puts it), a non-institutional link between the various worlds of Vienna—free-floating and therefore dangerous to any static, hierarchical world-picture such as Angelo's and the Duke's. The Duke wants to turn the clock back—or rather he wants Angelo to turn the clock back for him:

We have statutes and most biting laws,
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong jades,
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip …
Sith 'twas my fault to give the people scope,
'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them do …
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.

(II.i. 19-21, 35-7, 40-4)

It is a kind of irresponsible nostalgia—and it is hard not to concur with Lucio: ‘It was a mad fantastical trick of him to steal from the state and usurp the beggary he was never born to’ (III.ii. 89-90).

But before looking further at the scope and validity of Lucio's criticisms of the Duke, it is necessary to examine the historical context. It has for some time been something of a commonplace in scholarly critical quarters that Duke Vincentio has some relationship to King James VI and I. Lever as ever puts the point moderately and fairly (and provides the relevant evidence and references to the literature):

the case for some measure of identification is too strong to be discounted. Shakespeare and his company, honoured and patronised by the new king, could hardly have been impervious to the political atmosphere of the time or quite uninfluenced by the most widely discussed book of 1603 [Basilikon Doron] …

To see the Duke … as an exact replica of James I would be to misunderstand both Shakespeare's dramatic methods and the practice of the contemporary stage.3 But to suppose that no parallel was to be drawn between the two characters, or that, according to the familiar formula, ‘any resemblance to any living person was purely accidental’, would seem just as untenable.

(pp. xlviii, 1)

The usual tendency of this line of argument has been to state that, if this parallelism is accepted, it very strongly reinforces the view of the Duke as the benevolent providential ruler. This might be thought to support Dollimore's thesis and his methodology, his attempt ‘to recover the text's history’, to ‘look directly for history in the text including the historical conditions of its production’ (p. 85). But one can accept the case for some connection between the Duke and James, accept this historical contextualising of the play without accepting the conservative interpretation that may seem so naturally to flow from it—if one looks more closely at that history. Among the evidence usually put forward for this thesis are James's how-to-be-a-good-king book, Basilikon Doron, his known dislike of the slander of princes and two cases of James's stage-managing of guilt, mercy and justice. The first was a celebrated case ‘when the king in person sentenced a pick-pocket to death but amnestied all the prisoners in the tower, thus demonstrating that justice should be combined with mercy’ (Lever, p. 1). This was in April 1603 at Newark—as James journeyed South to claim his kingdom. The second, which took place at Winchester in the winter of 1603-4, was connected with the so-called Raleigh conspiracy. Again I quote Lever:

After a number of executions, James resolved upon a striking and carefully timed display of mercy. On the very morning fixed for the execution of a group of conspirators, a letter with the royal countermand was secretly conveyed to the sheriff. The prisoners were actually brought out to the scaffold, expecting immediate death; taken back without explanation; and at last recalled to hear a speech on the heinousness of treason and the surpassing mercy of the monarch who had pardoned their lives. This time the king's coup de thèatre was an unqualified success.

There seems an odd tendency to take James at his own valuation here, a tendency to believe that, just because the play was once acted before James, it was only directed towards the king and those entirely loyal to him and his view of the world. If one accepts the poem that prefaces Basilikon Doron as the statement of ideas of seventeenth-century kingship this might be fair enough. But there is something of a gap between ‘God gives not Kings the style of Gods in vain, / For on his throne his Sceptre do they sway’ and Selden's ‘A king is a thing men have made for their own sakes, for quietness’ sake. Just as in a family one man is appointed to buy the meat’. Selden's may have been an extreme position—but at least it reminds us that there was a spectrum of views. James's intention to make symbolic statements about his kingship in the two cases cannot be doubted—but these statements were not always interpreted as James intended. Sir John Harington made an acid comment about the first: ‘I hear our new King hath hanged one man before he was tryed; 'tis strangely done: now if the wind bloweth thus, why may not a man be tryed before he hath offended?’4 It's a statement not without relevance when the Duke's progressive amnesia about the laws he wanted Angelo to enforce is recalled.

There is a well-known letter describing the second case from Dudley Carleton to his gossipy friend John Chamberlain but too often only a small part of the letter is quoted and its tone ignored. Lever, for example, merely takes this (and takes it from a secondary source which only gives a part of the letter):

There was no need to beg a plaudite of the audience, for it was given with such hues and cries that it went forth from the Castle into the town and there began afresh. … And this experience was made of the difference of examples of justice and mercy, that no man could cry loud enough, ‘God save the King’. …

Unfortunately, the quotation continues ‘and at the holding up of Brooke's head, when the executioner began the same cry he was not seconded by the voice of any one man but the sheriff’. And the passage is bracketed in a way that suggests that Carleton is ironically framing and placing the plaudits of the crowd:

[A]s Grey and Markham, being brought back to the scaffold as they then were but nothing acquainted with what had passed no more than the lookers on with what should follow, looked strange one upon the other, like men beheaded and met again in the other world. Now all the actors being together on the stage (as use is at the end of a play), the sheriff made a short speech unto them, by way of the interrogatory of the heinousness of their offences, the justness of their trials, their lawful condemnation, and due execution there to be performed, to all which they assented; then, said the sheriff, see the mercy of your prince, who of himself hath sent hither a countermand and given you your lives. …

You must think, if the spectators were so glad, the actors were not sorry … Raleigh, you must think (who had a window opened that way), had hammers working in his head to beat out the meaning of this stratagem. … The resolution was taken by the king without man's help, and no man can rob him of the praise of yesterday's action; for the lords knew no other but that the execution was to go forward till the very hour it should be performed and then, calling them before him, he told them how much he had been troubled to resolve in this business, for to execute Grey, who was a noble, young spirited fellow, and save Cobham who was as base and unworthy, were a manner of injustice. To save Grey, who was of a proud, insolent nature, and execute Cobham, who had shewed great tokens of humility and repentance, were as great a solecism, and so went on with Plutarch's comparisons in the rest till travelling in contrarieties but holding the conclusion in so different balance that the lords knew not what to look for till the end came out, ‘and therefore I have saved them all’. The miracles was as great as with us at Winchester and it took like effect: for the applause that began about the king went from thence into the presence and so round about the court. I send you a copy of the king's letter, which was privately written the Wednesday night, and the messenger dispatched the Thursday about noon. But one thing had like to have marred the play, for the letter was closed and delivered him unsigned, which the king remembered himself and called for him back again. And at Winchester there was another cross adventure: for John Gib [the Scotch groom of the bedchamber who carried the pardon] could not get so near the scaffold that he could speak to the sheriff but was thrust out amongst the boys and was fain to call out to Sir James Hay, or else Markham might have lost his neck.5

It is clear that James intended a surprise coup de thèatre: it is equally clear that one sophisticated commentator saw the symbolic intention and the deliberate element of theatre—and also saw it as a tragi-comedy which nearly became a bloody farce, a black comedy in dubious taste. The letter ends ‘There were other bypassages, if I could readily call them to mind; but here is enough already for un petit mot de lettre and therefore I bid you heartily farewell’.

I don't think it is too much to suggest that the melodramatic theatricality of James would not be lost on a dramatist—nor that an audience might well recall the dramas of December 1603. It is tempting to compare this to the Duke's plan-making which also so nearly goes awry. In Act V, he tells Isabella

Your brother's death, I know, sits at your heart:
And you may marvel why I obscur'd myself,
Labouring to save his life, and would not rather
Make rash remonstrance of my hidden power
Than let him so be lost. O most kind maid,
It was the swift celerity of his death,
Which I did think with slower foot came on,
That brain'd my purpose.


This is very nearly true. When he plans the bed-trick, he tells Isabella ‘by this is your husband saved’ (II.i. 253-4). He clearly believes that Angelo will send the pardon for Claudio: when he doesn't, the Duke has to think very quickly—and it is remarkably convenient that he was hanging around the jail and that Ragozine, the notorious pirate, not only is good enough to look like Claudio, but tactful enough to die at just the right time.

Harington's and Carleton's ironic comments were not the only criticisms to be made of James even so early in the reign as 1604. He was, for example, widely criticised for spending so much time away from the seat of power—and thus leaving too much to his subordinates. Indeed, Measure for Measure was very nearly not played before the King on 26 December 1604. In late November he was at Royston:

‘What for the pleasure I take of my recreation here,’ he wrote, ‘and what for the fear I stand in to offend the Puritans [by celebrating Christmas], I mind not to return to London till after that profane Christ's tide.’ Of this he thought better and came to Whitehall for Christmas … But by the middle of January 1605, the disorderly revels at Whitehall having ended, he was again at Royston, then at Huntingdon and Hinchinbrook.6

James and Parliament hardly saw eye to eye about a king's proper authority:

‘The state of monarchy,’ James told the House of Commons, ‘is the supremest thing upon earth. For kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God's throne, but even by God Himself they are called gods.’ Like God ‘they make and unmake their subjects. They have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all, and yet accountable to none but God only.’7

It was not quite how the Commons saw it—even if they didn't quite know how to articulate their opposition. But by June 1604, they were complaining that ‘the prerogatives of princes may easily and do daily grow; the privileges of the subject are for the most part at an everlasting stand’.8

Of course far more evidence could be produced, but I hope I've said enough to show that, in terms of the immediate historical context and confining examinations of James to the early days of his kingship, there is no reason to expect the play to have a simple or coherent ideological position. Rather there is reason to expect that the play will need decoding; that it is not unfair to expect that there will be two (or more) levels of meaning—as there are two (or more) audiences and the court audience not necessarily the most important. As Cocke wrote in 1615 of a ‘common player’: ‘howsoever hee pretends to have a royall Master or Mistresse, his wages and dependance prove him to be the servant of the people’.9

Resistance to the surface meaning, to the Duke's plot-making is articulated principally by Lucio. Lever (and he is not alone) clearly feels some discomfort with Lucio—though what he has to say is potentially more explosive than he seems to realise (and here too he is not alone). ‘In reality it is Lucio, not Escalus or Angelo who serves here [in the first two acts] as the Duke's true deputy.’ If true, this should have worried Lever (given his high valuation of the Duke) as should this: ‘Lucio … carried out the practical tasks of a dramatic providence in the first two acts.’ And this: ‘In terms of “theatre” the exemplary ruler survived; with the support of a lord of misrule’ (pp. xcvi, xcvii). It is a strange place to put a semi-colon; it is as though he wants to separate the two characters but cannot find an adequate way of doing so. I want to emphasise Lucio's explicit criticisms—but I find satisfying to see Lever calling Lucio a ‘dramatic providence’ with the clear (if unacknowledged) implication that Lucio is doing the job that the Duke should be doing (and that it is the Duke's fault that the job needs doing). It is hard to see how Lever reconciles his general verdict on the play with these statements: if Lucio is the Duke's ‘true deputy’ surely either Lever should revalue Lucio or devalue the Duke? Does Lever suggest that the one is the other's dark double? It would only need improper ingenuity to make a case that the Duke and Lucio can be seen as a doubling of a figure like James. The Duke, then, would be something like what James claimed himself to be: Lucio would be read as James was too often seen—extravagant, bawdy, unreliable to dependents and inferiors.10 But the temptation has to be resisted for these two ‘halves’ challenge and threaten each other. As the play progresses, the Duke's attempt to suppress what Lucio represents becomes not so much more fully articulated (for ‘slander’—or the Duke's rejection of Lucio's version of him—he always repudiates) but more effective as he more fully exercises his power.

Dollimore says that he has tried to ‘recover the text's history’, looking ‘directly for history in the text including the historical conditions of its production’ (p. 85). But to consider production must be also to consider the conditions of that text's consumption—which is not to say that a sociological study of the audience is necessary, desirable as it would be. If one looks at the text and the historical context, it becomes clear that James VI and I could watch the play and have his views of kingly authority confirmed—at least as in so far those views were declared through his (and the Duke's) rhetoric: ‘Let him be but testimonied in his own bringings-forth, and he shall appear to the envious a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier’ (iii.ii. 140-2). That, of course, is the Friar/Duke on himself. It could be easily paralleled by equally self-enhancing comments by James (or his flatterers)—with the exception of the claim to soldierly virtues. The more sceptical or critical members of the audience (at once more critical of James and more used to watching plays) could see a sub-text in which the Duke's pretensions are repeatedly exposed to examination—the terms for which are provided by Lucio if the audience don't have confidence in their own.

Lucio's comments should, then, have a particular relevance for those disaffected critics—as should the Duke's sour memories of Lucio's ‘slanders’:

And yet here's one in place I cannot pardon.
You, sirrah, that knew me for a fool, a coward,
One all of luxury, an ass, a madman:
Wherein have I so deserv'd of you
That you extol me thus?

(V.i. 497-501)

There is (unfortunately for the Duke) a gap between what he remembers and what Lucio said. No doubt some of this could be accounted for by his sense of outrage (or sheer naughty bad temper). He seems to have forgotten too that Lucio repeatedly desires the Duke's return. But while some of these memories are of vague epithets (ass, madman), one at least is more specific. Lucio never calls the Duke a coward. (Indeed, at one point he seems to imply that he had expected the Duke to lead him and others into action: ‘The Duke is very strangely gone from hence; / Bore many gentlemen—myself being one—/ In hand, and hope of action’ (I.iv. 50-2).) Yet this is what was repeatedly said of James.11 And (qualified) ass is why many called James: ‘The wisest fool in Christendom’ said Henri IV (or Sully). It at least seems possible that Lucio's comments have a particular relevance for the insider—whether he is nostalgic for the days of Elizabeth or anticipating a troubled future for a monarch who claimed more than he should. But even if we remain with the text, surely Herbert S. Weil is right—and particularly right to emphasise performance:

Some dozen passages have seemed unplayable unless we are meant to laugh at the Duke and to find meaningful flaws in his personal private character as well as in his ability to rule …

It is difficult to believe that any actor playing Vincentio could emerge from the dialogue with Lucio and still retain the charisma of an ideal ruler.12

It might, however, have been wiser in 1604 to laugh quietly.

The Duke pardons Angelo (among other things in intent a judicial murderer) and Barnardine (a convicted murderer) with comparative ease. He finds it much harder to forgive Lucio:

Thy slanders I forgive, and therewithal
Remit thy other forfeits. Take him to prison,
And see our pleasure herein executed.
Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death,
Whipping, and hanging.
Slandering a prince deserves it.

(v.i. 517-21)

These are the last lines the Duke speaks to an individual character before his general summing-up. They recall, however, an earlier interchange between the still disguised Duke and Escalus:

                                                                                My business in this state
Made me a looker on here in Vienna
Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble
Till it o'er run the stew: laws for all faults,
But faults so countenanc'd that the strong statutes
Stand like the forfeits in a barber's shop,
As much in mock as mark.
Slander to th' state!
Away with him to prison!

(v.i. 314-21)

It is in the scuffle to expose the slanderer that the Duke is exposed—and in the excitement the virtuous Escalus's verdict is forgotten by the characters. But isn't it essentially correct? The Duke's words are reminiscent of his earlier denunciation of Vienna:

                                                                                                              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. 26-31).

After all the action of the intervening acts Vienna seems to remain equally corrupt and the laws remain unenforced. The Duke (unconsciously) signals his part in that corruption by forgetting his general criticism in his outrage at Lucio's attack on his dignity. The questions raised by the Duke's criticism and Escalus's judgement of that criticism are displaced by the Duke's obsessional concern that he has been slandered.

The placing of that speech to Lucio ensures that it is what we remember when we leave the theatre. The Duke is so outraged that he claims to forgive Lucio his slanders but then forgets that he has ‘forgiven’ him all in the space of four lines. Johnson's hypothesis is tempting and plausible but it hardly accounts for the strength of the Duke's feeling or the placing of the interchange: ‘After the pardon of two murderers Lucio might be treated by the good Duke with less harshness; but perhaps the Poet intended to show what is too often seen, that men easily forgive wrongs which are not committed against themselves.

It is not the severity of punishment that is bothering but the intensity of feeling. It seems to be related to the self pity of the split (?) speech of III.ii and IV.i:

No might nor greatness in mortality
Can censure ’scape. Back-wounding calumny
The whitest virtue strikes. What king so strong
Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?

(III.ii. 179-82)

O place and greatness! Millions of false eyes
Are stuck upon thee: volumes of report
Run with these false, and most contrarious quest
Upon thy doings.

(IV.i. 60-3)

The Duke certainly does his best to tie up that gall—without paying much attention to the questions of the tongue's accuracy. For one kind of critic there is no problem about the Duke's outrage: ‘To abuse a ruler, according to William Willymat, by “evil speaking, mocking, scorning, scoffing, deriding, reviling, cursing”, is a thing “most unhonourable, yea worthy of death” a belief which must have made Lucio's malicious gossip about the Duke appear a much more serious offence than it seems to a modern audience.’ Unfortunately for her thesis, the critic rather gives her case away by noting that it is noticeable how much of the material she quotes (which includes Willymat's A Loyal Subject's Looking-Glasse) ‘was originally to be composed to be delivered before James himself, and how many of the authors manage to include flattering tributes to their royal master’.13 As the immortal Mandy Rice-Davies might have said: ‘Well, they would, wouldn't they?’ If James was the intended audience and hoped-for patron, then much is accounted for. The most that can be claimed is that this was an available idea and understandably attractive to monarchs. The ending of Measure for Measure may seem very reasonable if we are princes—but if you are a cheerfully inventive gossip in the audience, you may well feel some discomfort. Lucio's punishment certainly serves the Duke's desire to declare his power, to stamp his order on Vienna, for whatever else the results of such a marriage may be, one consequence will be to declass Lucio, to fix him somewhere below the rank of ‘gentleman’ (as Lucio has named himself).

Lucio tells truths concealed among untruths—and Shakespeare can be allowed by the authorities to speak those uncomfortable truths by allowing Lucio to be defined by the ‘authority’ within the play as a liar. It is for the members of an audience to pick out those truths among the ‘lies’. Nor are all of Lucio's untruths necessarily lies—except for the most humourless priggish pedant—but rather a metaphorical and extravagant way of speaking a truth. His playful description of Angelo is a good example:

They say this Angelo was not made by man and woman after this downright way of creation: is it true, think you? 
How should he be made, then? [Nice to see the Duke as Lucio's feed.]
Some report, a sea-maid spawned him. Some, that he was begot between two stockfishes. But it is certain that when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice; that I know to be true.

(III.ii. 99-107)

How babies are made is not at issue here: Lucio doesn't expect to be believed literally. The Duke, on the other hand, should be good at recognising untruths (though not at jibes). Not only does he falsely accuse Lucio (as tyrants so often do accuse those who may threaten their power and in doing so unconsciously accuse themselves), he also tells untruths to sustain his role and maintain his ‘priestly authority’ (itself a kind of lie). It certainly isn't true that the Duke is (as he claims) ‘confessor to Angelo’ (III.i. 165-6) and therefore knows his inmost mind—which by itself may not matter much but makes one wonder when, in his final speech, he tells Angelo to love Mariana for ‘I have confess'd her, and I know her virtue’ (V.i. 524). We cannot believe the first statement: why should we believe the second? (To say nothing of our protestant doubts about the confessional.)

It was, I'd claim, a mad trick of the Duke to ‘steal from the state’—and was that ambiguity unmeant? ‘By my troth’ says Lucio to Isabella, ‘I loved thy brother: if the old fantastical Duke of dark corners had been at home, he had lived’ (VI.iii. 155-7). He may be fantastical: he is indeed a Duke of dark corners—and what Lucio says is true. The Duke is ‘at home’—and Claudio lives. Lucio tells the Friar/Duke that the Duke ‘would have dark deeds darkly answered: he would never bring them to light: would he were returned!’ (III.ii. 170-3). The Duke does indeed darkly answer the various dark deeds (including the bedtrick—which literally depends on the dark—and the juggling necessary to produce a look-alike head for Claudio's). Such light as does emerge does so only at the last moment—and still leaves certain things in the dark14 (such as his attitude to the laws)—a point he himself seems to speak to in the last two lines of the play: ‘So bring us to our palace, where we'll show / What's yet behind that's meet you all should know.’ That ‘we’ is, very definitely, the royal we, that ‘you’ excludes us, the audience. There is, it seems, information we are denied.

Dollimore asks for a materialist criticism. There is one way in which a play in performance is irreducibly materialist as anyone who has tried to write or direct a play knows. When we watch a play, there are bodies on the stage who may or may not have much to speak but may have much to ‘say’. (Juliet would be an example here—has she had her baby by the end of the play? She certainly has something to say through her body.) Given that Shakespeare didn't have available to him either electric lights or the advantages of a quick curtain, he has to get his characters on and off the stage with a degree of plausibility, with some significance for the plot. Act V is a good example. The Duke, for example, enters as Duke and has to be got off so that he can reappear as Friar and so be unmasked as Duke/Friar. Lucio is unforgettably present in that last scene (or tiresomely so from the point of view of the Duke—as Lucio repeatedly disrupts his attempts to establish rhetorical power). Among the other points that can be made, he is the only one to protest the Duke's final judgment, who resists the Duke's attempt to get assent to his authoritarianism. The stubborn (and here silent) Barnardine gets a qualified pardon—for sustained passive disobedience? The last exchange of dialogue is between Lucio and the Duke. Lucio could easily have been got out of the way earlier: the fact that he is kept to last means that we have to put particular weight on the placing of that exchange. It breaks up—unnecessarily in terms of plot-making—the harmonious happy ending that Shakespeare could have so easily constructed.

This leads on to the question as to when and how can Lucio exit? There is, of course, a certain liberty about such questions when there are no authoritative stage directions and thus an opportunity for the director to stamp his or her interpretation on the play. According to McLuskie, for example, in Jonathan Miller's production Isabella ‘literally refused the Duke's offer of marriage and walked off stage in the opposite direction’ (p. 95). And Peter Brook left Isabella centre stage apparently considering what she should do—almost asking the audience for guidance. These seem to me to be interesting experiments—but patently against the text and less interesting than the problem presented by Lucio:

Slandering a prince deserves it.
She, Claudio, that you wrong'd, look you restore.
Joy to you, Mariana; love her, Angelo:
I have confess'd her, and I know her virtue …
Dear Isabel,
I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours, and what yours is mine.
So bring us to our palace, where we'll show
What's yet behind that's meet you all should know.

(V.i. 521-4, 531-6)

Lever notes that most editors provide an exit for Lucio after line 521. He rightly comments that this ‘distracts attention from the Duke's speech’. Though this would be a nice subversive touch, I find it hard to believe it a good idea. I also find it hard to believe that this exit ‘sacrifices a welcome touch of honour in the final exit’—even though his hypothesis about that exit seems justifiable (except for its suggestion that there is only one way to do it). His note to line 536 goes like this: ‘A processional exit in pairs seems to be indicated by the dialogue; led by the Duke and Isabella; then Claudio and Juliet; Angelo and Mariana; Escalus and the Provost; Friar Peter and Barnardine; with Lucio under guard bringing up the rear’ (p. 149).

Dollimore points out that we should recognise that prostitutes, the most exploited group in the society which the play represents, are absent from it. He is right—if we don't ask too curiously about Juliet's, Isabella's and Mariana's similarities to and differences from whores, if we don't remember how important money/dowries are to Juliet and Claudio, Mariana and Angelo. In both cases, the men didn't get married because—to put it crudely—they want to be paid more. But it is a point which even if nothing is said can be made visible in a production of the play. Kate Keep-down isn't there (even if a Miller or a Brook could easily produce her—and what of a production that did just that?). If characters exit in pairs (as Lever reasonably suggests both in terms of this and other plays of the period), we have first the marriageable couples, followed by a couple of loyal upholders of the state machine, followed by Friar Peter and Barnardine (what a challenge for the friar in that coupling!)—with Lucio accompanied by a guard or guards bringing up the rear. The Duke may have imposed a shape but it is surely visibly highly asymmetrical and potentially unstable, evidence only of power rather than of justice or harmonious symmetry. To endorse the Duke's version of that ending one has to be a ‘wise’ fool who cannot distinguish between language and (the images of) actuality. One has, say, to be a King James or one of his uncritical supporters—or someone too easily impressed by a ‘legitimising’ rhetoric of power. What we have is a declaration and enactment of the Duke's power—which is, very largely, consequent on nearly everyone's mystified acceptance of that power. (What would happen if others joined Barnardine in refusing to play the game?) That declaration is a fictive pseudo-harmony—and if it is questioned, the Duke suggests that if we could go behind the scenes, we would learn more (indeed, what we need to know). That is the evasion of one kind of challenged power. It is patent mystification as the language of (challenged) power so often is.

Elbow, that ‘simple constable’, who gave me my epigraph, suffers from a linguistic confusion which embodies the moral confusion of the Duke's Vienna. He is referring to Pompey, the bawd, and Froth ‘a foolish gentleman’, the one guilty, the other an innocent. There are, I've tried to argue, two more important ‘notorious benefactors’ in the play. Lucio, if one hears the play from outside the circle of power, is a benefactor—even if that state must define him as notorious: the Duke, that gentlemanly bawd for Mariana is—or should be—‘notorious’.


  1. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (eds.), Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), pp. 72-3. J. W. Lever, Measure for Measure (London and New York: Methuen, 1984). All subsequent references will be placed parenthetically in the text.

  2. Gamini Salgado, The Elizabethan Underworld (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1977), p. 51.

  3. Lever ought to have been more careful here. The notion that contemporary figures could not be represented on the stage is not always true: ‘December 18, 1604: The tragedy of Gowrie with all the action and actors hath been twice represented by the King's players, with exceeding concourse of all sorts of people. But whether the matter or manner be not well handled, or that it be thought unfit that princes should be played on the stage in their lifetime, I hear that some great Councillors are much displeased with it, and so is thought shall be forbidden’ (Elizabeth McClure Thomson (ed.), The Chamberlain Letters: a Selection of the Letters of John Chamberlain Concerning Life in England from 1597 to 1626) (London: John Murray, 1966), p. 34). The footnote to this entry reads as follows: ‘On August 5, 1600, at Gowrie House in Perth, and under highly mysterious circumstances, King James had escaped assassination—according to his account—at the hands of the Master of Ruthven and his brother the Earl of Gowrie. August 5 was made a day of national thanksgiving forever after, and a special sermon was preached at Court every Tuesday to commemorate James's escape. The play mentioned by Chamberlain is lost.’ And even when there were less explicit references, there were those who noted the implied criticisms: ‘It is much observed that the players do not forbear to present upon their stage the whole course of this present time, not sparing either King, State or religion, in so great absurdity and with such liberty as any would be afraid to hear them.’

  4. Sir John Harington, Nugae Antiquae, 2 vols. (London: ed. T. Park, 1804), vol. I, p. 180.

  5. Maurice Lee (ed.), Dudley Carleton to John Chamberlain 1603-1624: Jacobean Letters (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1972), pp. 51, 52. My emphases. Carleton makes it clear that James had been rather tiresomely mystifying: ‘Whilst these men were so occupied at Winchester, there was no small doings about them at court, for life or death, some pushing at the wheel one way, some another. The lords of the council joined in opinion and advice to the king, now in the beginning of his reign, to show as well examples of mercy as severity and to gain the title of Clemens as well as Justus; but some others, led by their private spleen and passions, drew as hard the other way; and Patrick Galloway, in his sermon on Tuesday, preached so hotly against remissness and moderation of justice in the head of justice as if it were one of the seven deadly sins. The king held himself upright betwixt two waters and first let the lords know that since the law had passed upon the prisoners and that they themselves had been their judges, it became them not to be petitioners for that but rather to press for execution of their own ordinances, and to others gave as good reasons to let them know that he would go no whit the faster for their driving but would be led as his own judgment and affections would move him, but seemed rather to lean to this side than the other by the care he took to have the law take its course, and the execution hasted’ (p. 49).

  6. D. H. Wilson, King James VI and I (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956), p. 179. This presumably means that the choice of plays for that Christmas season must have been a fairly last-minute affair.

  7. Ibid., p. 243. James was quoting from memory from his Trew Law of Free Monarchies.

  8. J. R. Tanner (ed.), Constitutional Documents of James I 1603-25 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), p. 222. They also, incidentally, complained about ‘many forced and ill-suited marriages’ (p. 229).

  9. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. IV (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1933), p. 256. We know that the play was acted in the banqueting hall of Whitehall on 26 December. We do not know whether it had been acted before nor what, if any, revisions were made to it either for that performance or any subsequent production.

  10. One odd thing is that if anyone is like James in the play—as far as conversation goes—it is Lucio, bawdy, often perceptive, with areas of moral blindness and tactlessness, and occasional touches of sentiment.

  11. ‘King James was the most cowardly man that I ever knew’, wrote the country gentleman, Sir John Oglander. ‘He could not endure a soldier or to see men drilled, to hear of war was death to him, and how he tormented himself with fear of some sudden mischief may be proved by his great quilted doublets, pistol-proof, as also his strange eyeing of strangers with a continual fearful observation’ (D. H. Wilson, op. cit., p. 274).

  12. H. S. Weil, ‘The options of the audience: theory and practice in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, Shakespeare Survey, 25 (1972), pp. 30, 31.

  13. Elizabeth M. Pope, ‘The Renaissance background of Measure for Measure’, Shakespeare Survey, 2 (1949), pp. 71, 70. Willymat certainly was willing to work hard at showing himself loyal: he turned Basilikon Doron into both Latin and English verse. Pope's argument seems highly eccentric when it comes to religion: ‘Roman Catholics held that open rebellion was sometimes permissible when the ruler was a heretic. As the authorities in Measure for Measure are not heretics, this particular question does not arise’ (p. 71). She seems to have forgotten that England was a Protestant country and that there was frequent fear of Catholic plots. Indeed, she seems to have forgotten the Gunpowder Plot—and the rhetoric that followed on from its discovery. I've always wondered if there wasn't a particular frisson for the firm Protestants in the audience at seeing the Duke disguised as a papist friar—an almost instinctual suspicion of the secrets of the confessional.

  14. I've always felt a little sorry for the Provost. Bullied by the disguised Duke into going along with his plans, he later gracefully calls himself the Duke's ‘free dependant’ (IV.iii. 90). The Duke then toys with him in Act V, asking him to surrender his keys—and has the nerve in his final speech to ask Angelo to pardon the Provost for bringing him the head of Ragozine for Claudio's.

Gregory W. Lanier (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10415

SOURCE: Lanier, Gregory W. “Physic That's Bitter to Sweet End: The Tragicomic Structure of Measure for Measure.Essays in Literature 14, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 15-36.

[In the following essay, Lanier presents a structural analysis of Measure for Measure, seeing in its divided form “a juxtaposition of two dramatic modes, tragedy and comedy, carefully poised to create a cohesive, resonant unity.”]

In 1949 E. M. W. Tillyard bisected Measure for Measure into potentially tragic verse and dissolutely comic prose; some years earlier G. Wilson Knight asserted that the symbolic sequence of transgression, judgment, and redeeming mercy provides an innate structural integrity.1 This polarity in critical responses has proved to be nearly as enduring as the play itself. Cynthia Lewis provides a short summary of this division in her recent article:

Readers who, like Harriett Hawkins, find the play's ending “not only aesthetically and intellectually unsatisfying, but personally infuriating,” usually see Measure for Measure as split in tone, structure, and viewpoint. … On the other hand, many readers see Measure for Measure as unified. Arthur Kirsch, who sees Measure as a radically Christian play, concludes that the Duke's secret plotting represents the hidden workings of Providence. …2

Lewis' argument, based on a consideration of “Duke Vincentio not as a plot device or a Providential figure, but as a human character,”3 is a solid and welcome answer to a number of recent excoriations of Measure for Measure. Richard Wheeler's assessment is, perhaps, more indicative of the prevailing voice:

The ending of Measure for Measure does not “playout” earlier developments, it plays them down; it looks back to the previous action with an averted, mystifying gaze that has its emblem in Vincentio's anxiety-denying movement from one character and one issue to another in the final scene. The failure of these characters (and these issues) to respond to him—as in Isabella's silence and the silence of Claudio and Angelo—mirrors Shakespeare's inability to find an ending that responds fully to the whole action. The kind of integration of inner impulse with external reality that is established in a successful play, and which provides a paradigm for the comic action of As You Like It, is not achieved in Measure for Measure. … Instead of clarifying either positively or negatively, the relations between comic art and experience, Shakespeare seeks unearned reassurance in a comic ending that cannot fully acknowledge previous developments in Measure for Measure.4

I strongly disagree with Wheeler's statement that Measure for Measure fails to provide an ending that “responds fully to the whole action,” and I do not believe that the “integration of inner impulse with external reality” defines a successful play. Rather than judging this controversial play by noting its failure to fit into a preconceived notion of what it should be, I think it would be more fruitful to examine the play's disposition, to see what the structure of the play itself reveals. Measure for Measure is, structurally, a tragicomedy. It is a juxtaposition of two dramatic modes, tragedy and comedy, carefully poised to create a cohesive, resonant unity.

But we need not allegorize Measure for Measure into a redemptive pageant with the Duke as Christ-like regisseur to discover its unity. To do so, in fact, obscures the structural division fundamental to the play's essence. The structure of Measure for Measure is, indeed, sharply divided: eight tragic scenes cast the characters into catastrophe; a medial scene wrenches the action about; eight comic scenes restore social harmony. Moreover, as Tillyard noted, the shift from tragedy to comedy precisely coincides with a shift from verse to prose.5 Spatially, as Northrop Frye has said, Measure for Measure presents “a dramatic diptych of which the first part is a tragic and ironic action apparently heading for unmitigated disaster, and the second part an elaborate comic intrigue which ends by avoiding all the disasters.”6 We should, then, approach Measure for Measure as we would approach a diptych altar painting: we should look for correspondence, balance, resonance, and continuity of theme between structural elements while comprehending the essential contrast between and separation of halves. The integrity of Measure for Measure is created through just such a correspondent balance of discontinuous parts. A careful equipoise of antithetical elements informs the play's intrinsic structure; contrast, not similarity, is the dominant mode. The tragic actions, textures, and themes that initiate the play find their measure and fulfillment in the inclusive comic denouement. A fundamental resonance binds tragic fragmentation to comic cohesion and achieves a unified balance through the correlation of contrasting parts, and the main element of that resonance is the temperance introduced into the play's action by the Duke.

The first half of Measure for Measure carefully establishes a tragic pattern—the conflict of inflexible wills that leads to the disintegration of social order. Claudio tenaciously clings to a “weary and loathed worldly life” regardless of the cost; Angelo indulges the tyrant of his “sensual race,” assured of exploiting his office without retribution; Isabella, by steadfastly preserving her chastity, drives the play towards the tragic resolution of violation or violent death. But comedy lurks in the shadows. When Isabella, Claudio, and Angelo have locked themselves into tragic confrontation, the “mad fantastical Duke of dark corners” steps forward and conjures a comic ending. With “cold gradation and well-balanced form,” the Duke tempers conflict into concord, thereby recreating stability in Vienna. Significantly, the Duke's method is recognizably comic. The disguises, deceptions, substitutions, and choreographed spectacles he employs are counterparts to Rosalind's festive manipulations, not Iago's vicious plots.7 The action and texture of the play invert once the Duke applies “Craft against vice.” The play initially sweeps us along with concern for the bloodshed, outrage, and death which threaten the characters but concludes with festive, ceremonial, and almost ritualistic marriages. And that emblematic inversion is the essence of Shakespearean tragicomedy.8 As the play progresses we should be aware that Shakespeare is gently coercing us to subordinate our engagement with the feelings of the characters to our comprehension of their emblematic movement within the larger pattern of the play's dramatic structure.9

Claudio's arrest for his affair with Juliet—perhaps a benign form of sexual license but trangression nonetheless in Angelo's eyes—initiates the tragic movement. The opposition of liberty to restraint provides the pattern for succeeding tragic complications in the play:

Whence this restraint?
From too much liberty, my Lucio. Liberty,
As surfeit, is the father of much fast;
So every scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint.


Surfeit causes restraint with an almost binary exclusiveness. Claudio, unaware of moderation, expresses his dilemma in antithetical terms: surfeit vs. fast, scope vs. restraint. Further, the remainder of Claudio's speech implies that humans are naturally intemperate, unwilling and unable to control their appetites:

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


Man is not merely frail but severely flawed, a slave to his rapaciousness and doomed to actively seek his “proper bane.” Such a description, emphasizing both the appetite's abrogation of the reason and the inevitable destruction that results from that imbalance, presents man as a tragic figure, a life-long calamity who, fallen, can only fall further. Claudio's rhetoric establishes the tragic model followed not only by himself but by other characters in Measure for Measure. In each case the character moves away from moderate actions towards excessive reactions, whether it be to excessive restraint (Isabella and, initially, Angelo) or excessive liberty (Claudio, Lucio, and the fallen Angelo). Without proper government to curb the pursuit of the “thirsty evil,” disintegration on both the individual and social levels inexorably occurs.

A spreading dissolution of the Viennese community is evident quite early in the play, and it is firmly linked to Claudio's excessive libertinism. What appears to be on the periphery of the tragic concerns in Measure for Measure, the comedy of Lucio and his companions, contains a second pattern central to the play's tragedy:

Thou conclud'st like the sanctimonious pirate, that went to sea with the Ten Commandments, but scrap'd one out of the table.
‘Thou shalt not steal’?
Ay, that he raz'd.
Why, 'twas a commandment to command the captain and all the rest from their functions: they put forth to steal.


The pirate captain proves an apt example for Lucio and Pompey, even for Claudio and Angelo. Each had a “function” to follow; each dismisses the law as his convenience (we may read appetite) demands. Lucio habitually flaunts the statutes prohibiting fornication and slander to pursue his moment's fancy. Pompey swears that pandering would be a lawful trade “If the law would but allow it” (II.i.224) and refuses correction, promising to follow Escalus' advice “as the flesh and fortune shall better determine” (II.i.250-51). Neither character will allow any law to impede the indulgence of their “flesh and fortune”; their resolute devotion to gratification demonstrates the accuracy of Claudio's simile comparing man to rats. Claudio also exhibits this disregard for the law, admitting that he lacked the denunciation of “outward order” when he took possession of Juliet's bed (I.ii.138). And, lest we are hastily inclined to exonerate that mutually committed offense, we must admit that Claudio and Juliet's sexual relationship parallels Lucio's escapade with Kate Keepdown. The more chilling resonance, however, links Pompey to Angelo. Pompey would have the law allow pandering; Angelo will have it allow rape. When Angelo determines to give his “sensual race the rein” (II.iv.159), he fulfills the pattern started by Lucio's joke about the sanctimonious pirate. Angelo is in the position to raze any law from the table; he can fulfill Pompey's wish and force the law to allow any transgression he fancies. No law alone sufficiently deters man's natural tendency to glut his appetite. In Pompey's words, “they will to't” unless one manages to “geld and splay all the youth of the city” (II.i.227-30). Again the language and logic are binary, entertaining only the extremes of indulgence or eradication. What began as comic by-play becomes a major tragic theme, an indication of the tightly conceived balance between comic and tragic elements. Man's innate impulses drive him to gratify his animalistic appetites, and his reason, the law over his body, is swept aside. Man's proper balance seeks a median between ascetic denial and unrestrained sensuality. Hence, proper government would seek to temper desires, to channel excess into appropriate vessels. “Firm abstinence,” however, is as dangerous as “sharp appetite,” and as Lucio and Claudio are guilty of excessive liberty, there are those guilty of excessive restraint—Angelo and Isabella.

An icy reserve cloaks Angelo from his first entrance. The Duke's famous “heaven and torches” (I.i.27-47) speech is less remarkable for its Biblical allusions than for its penetrating characterization of Angelo. The image distinguishes an outer, radiant charity from an occult self-absorption, and firmly links Angelo to those who inordinately husband their resources. The Duke later articulates this implied duality:

                                                                                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.


Angelo's controlled appearance is the antithetical complement to Lucio's licentious behavior. Yet the Duke suggests a kinship between them, that stubborn self-control thinly covers the blood and appetite Angelo must possess. Unfortunately, Angelo remains blind to his hypocrisy, and, thinking himself the paragon of humanity, imposes his unnatural restraint on the inhabitants of Vienna.

Once he has assumed the Duke's position, Angelo governs with the inflexible severity of a self-appointed and self-righteous saint. The rigid standard of austerity becomes Angelo's measure of justice:

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 judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial.


Angelo's response to concupiscence is eradication, in Pompey's terms to “geld and splay all the youth of the city,” including himself. This repression presents the antitype to Claudio and Lucio's pattern. Imposed restrictions based on inhuman self-denial cannot eliminate the offenses of sexual license since that desire is ingrained in man's nature. The infliction of “stricture and firm abstinence” (I.iii.12) only further emphasizes the opposition of license to restraint. Moderation is required, but Angelo's justice does not recognize a via media.11

Although the Duke has admonished Angelo to “enforce or qualify the laws / As to [his] soul [seemed] good” (I.i.65-66), Angelo wields strict enforcement, tyrannically demanding that all adhere to his personal asceticism. And Claudio rightly complains that Angelo's sword of justice cuts capriciously:

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


The conflation of just authority with the inscrutable, perhaps arbitrary, design of heaven is striking. It seems that Angelo, swollen in his power, elevates temporal and limited prerogratives to a level beyond their normal scope. Angelo sees himself as the “demi-god, Authority,” a posture confirmed by Escalus:

… my brother justice have I found so severe that he hath forced me to tell him he is indeed Justice.


The stringent puritanism Angelo professes allows him to tyrannize with a righteous indifference. Angelo claims to judge with an immaculate perception, mistakenly combining the immutable justice of providence with the petulant (and maybe malevolent) authority of man. Significantly, Angelo betrays his limitations, seizing only “What's open to justice” (II.i.21)—Claudio's simple and benign case—while impatiently leaving Escalus to sort out matters with the obfuscating Pompey. Juxtaposed, these two judgments point up the haphazard nature of Angelo's oppression. The “words of heaven” do not fall where they will; only the whims of a self-deceived deputy do.

Angelo is not the only character whose self-deception unnaturally restrains the appetite. Isabella denies her humanity as well. Whereas Angelo assumes affected gravity and precise control to restrain his impulses, Isabella relies on the seclusion of the convent to avoid her sexuality. Immediately after the Duke laments the lapse of strict statutes in Vienna, we find Isabella about to embrace even stricter regulations. Moreover, though the rules of the convent are stringent, Isabella thinks them lax. This dissatisfaction seems over-zealous, and one may conclude that Isabella desires to proscribe the world, or perhaps just the male sex, with consecrated walls.12 Isabella, wishing for a “more strict restraint / Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare” (I.iv.4-5), and Angelo, imposing his puritanic law without mitigation, pursue the same ideal. Both demand an unyielding and religiously based code that would prohibit all illicit (and most licit) sex. Both “rebate and blunt [their] natural edge / With profits of the mind, study, and fast” (I.iv.60-61), and expect the same from others. But neither the puritan's gown nor the nun's habit can unconditionally suppress the “wanton stings and motions of the sense” (I.iv.59). Their repressions are only momentary, and we should expect their sexual desires to erupt violently.

The Duke has previously hinted that Angelo's self-deceptions may not last: “Hence shall we see / If power change purpose, what our seemers be” (I.iii.53-54). We are not then surprised that Angelo succumbs to his blood's appetite when he meets Isabella. What should be emphasized, though, is how Shakespeare chooses to present this action. Shakespeare depicts Angelo's fall into concupiscence in explicitly tragic terms, signaled by the fragmented internal landscape of the psychomachia. The calm smugness of Angelo's assertion, “'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, / Another thing to fall” (II.ii.16-17), markedly contrasts with the frantic search for identity a few lines later:

                                                                                                              Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman's lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what are thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good?


The “strong and swelling evil” (II.iv.6) of Angelo's innate desires will no longer submit to restraint. Clearly, the rise of Angelo's blood indicates his position as the play's tragic protagonist, and we expect his fall from his false seeming to initiate a series of violent incidents. Indeed, by choosing to give “his sensual race the rein” (II.iv.159), Angelo converts tyrannous restraint into licensed tyranny. Angelo's attempt to extort sexual intercourse from Isabella fulfills Pompey's wish. As the “demi-god, Authority,” Angelo allows whatever transgression he desires, confident that the outward “austereness of [his] life” (II.iv.154) shall overweigh Isabella's accusations. And as Angelo undergoes tragic fragmentation, so does his society: “Thieves for their robbery have authority, / When judges steal themselves” (II.ii.176-77).13 Angelo's attempt to restrain the world in his own image fails, and Vienna becomes a society where faults are still

… so countenanc'd that the strong statutes
Stand like the forfeits in a barber's shop,
As much in mock as mark.


Though Angelo is determined not to make a “scarecrow of the law” (II.i.1), his repression does not eradicate license from Vienna.

As the play's action then shifts from the court to the prison, the play's tragic texture is distinctly felt. Angelo and Isabella now stand in diametric conflict: Angelo demands Isabella's chastity and Isabella will not yield. Yet the same obsession with sensuality that leads Angelo to give up his restraint leads Isabella to excessively restrain her sexuality, as her rejection of Angelo reveals:

                                        … were 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.


A noble sentiment, but couched in unfortunate images.14 Isabella has long safeguarded her chastity with inordinate compulsion, and when Claudio suggests she yield to Angelo, Isabella's response becomes a perverse sexual hysteria:

                                                                                                              O, you beast!
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is't not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister's shame? What should I think?
Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair:
For such a warped slip of wilderness
Ne'er issued from his blood. 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.


No one, I think, condemns Isabella for resisting Angelo's immoral pressure.15 But the frenzied viciousness of those last four lines damns her. Isabella is in “probation of a sisterhood” (V.i.75); to pray for the death of her brother at the least contradicts the duty of her Christian charity. The last remaining social bond—between brother and sister—violently rips apart. The choices Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio have made create a series of forces moving inexorably towards tragic conflict. The only options are dilemmatic. Isabella either sacrifices her chastity and moral sanctity or Claudio dies. Since either action is irreversible, both would satisfy the logic of the play's tragic structure. The binary opposition that pervades the play leads to tragedy's brutal choice: rape or death. And lacking the necessary dramatic indications for a possible alternative, we can only ponder which shall occur.

Thus the tragic impetus of Measure for Measure swells, capped by Isabella's furious outburst. The elements of the play are precisely arrayed on either side of the gulf separating liberty from restraint, the increasing dismemberment of order demanding a violent and irrevocable action to complete the tragic structure. Comedy, however, ensues. The “old fantastical Duke of dark corners” (IV.iii.156) steps forth and assumes control of the play's action, converting tragedy into comedy.

The Duke's emergence as the director of Measure for Measure's action marks the shift from tragic to comic panel in the plays diptych structure. His appearances had been brief and intermittent; after he approaches Juliet his presence on stage is almost continuous.16 The metamorphosis of tragedy into comedy requires a catalyst, and the Duke alone possesses the freedom and authority to effect that change. The Duke's secular authority in Vienna stands without question. His “terror” is only lent to Angelo, and he resumes it with stunning elan during the comic reversal. Moreover, the Duke's adoption of a friar's robe, along with the clerical habits he appropriates (shriving Juliet, confessing Claudio and Mariana), indicates at least a partial assumption of ecclesiastical authority as well.17 But more important than his ethical role as head of church and state is the Duke's freedom of movement, more exactly his freedom of influence. Only the Duke ranges across all the strata of Vienna's social levels, contacting (and manipulating) characters from Mistress Overdone and Abhorson to Escalus and Angelo.18 As we observe the Duke initiate his design, we become aware of his role as the play's chief manipulator, placing each piece in meticulous order to realize the conclusion he creates. To assert that the Duke envisions a comic ending, though, perhaps oversteps the boundaries of the direct evidence in the play. Measure for Measure lacks the number of revealing soliloquies Hamlet conditions us to rely on for glimpses of motivation. The accumulated evidence of the Duke's actions must provide most of our insight. From the opening of the play the Duke seems to be striving to alter the tendencies of his subjects:

I say, bid come before us Angelo.
What figure of us, think you, he will bear?
For you must know, we have with special soul
Elected him our absense to supply;
Lent him our terror, drest him with our love,
And given his deputation all the organs
Of our power.


Certainly the “special soul” that elects Angelo reveals a complex purpose in the Duke's mind, especially since he passes over the more reliable (and better suited) Escalus. The Duke may expect Angelo's renowned rigor to effectively check the license in Vienna (I.iii.35-43), yet he also suspects that rigor to be fallacious (I.iii.53-54). By dressing Angelo in borrowed “terror” and “love,” the Duke disguises Angelo in a manner analogous to the comic disguises of As You Like It and Twelfth Night where disguise becomes a means by which identity is discovered, not hidden. Viola's “man's attire” (TN I.i.SD) evokes the actual humanity hidden behind the refined facades Orsino and Olivia erect; Rosalind's “doublet and hose” (AYL III.ii.215) elicit a natural gentility from Orlando's tongue-tied rusticity. Further, the disguises allow Rosalind and Viola insight into their identities as well. Viola learns of her role in the play's concatenation of “place, time, and fortune” (TN V.i.250), and Rosalind learns that her feminity makes As You Like It's “doubts all even” (AYL V.iv.25). Similarly, Angelo's assumption of “absolute power and place” (I.iii.13), surrounded with images of dressing, provides the spark of self-awareness that leads to his recognition of the “strong and swelling evil / Of [his] conception” (II.iv.6-7). The consequence of Angelo's perception, the “monstrous ransom” proposed to Isabella, indicates a potentially tragic result from a comic motif.19 But the Duke's freedom to “Visit both prince and people” (I.iii.45) supplies the means to forestall tragic consequences if the Duke exercises sufficient ability and foresight.

By disguising himself as a friar, the Duke places himself in a position to direct the action covertly, subtly guiding Vienna's inhabitants towards proper government.20 This direction has two purposes: to avert Angelo's abuses, and to re-erect the true authority that lapsed fourteen years earlier. Importantly, the method the Duke adopts corresponds to the advice on ruling given by James I in the Basilicon Doron:21 “I neede not to trouble you with the particular discourse of the foure Cardinall vertues, it is so troden a path; but I will shortly say vnto you; make one of them, whiche is Temperance, Queene of all the rest within you.”22 To govern properly in Vienna or London is to exert temperance. Temperance supplies the means by which Measure for Measure's tragedy is converted into comedy since it permits the binary oppositions that have informed the tragic structure to be avoided. The death sentence Angelo decrees for Claudio appears tyrannous (and not just to us, but to Escalus and the Provost as well) because it lacks sensible moderation: “Vse Iustice, but with suche moderation, as it turne not in Tyrannie: otherwaies summum ius, is summa inuria.23 The strictures of the law must be tempered when the circumstances demand or else only dilemmatic options can occur, options which, as we have seen, have only tragic resolutions. We are certainly meant to contrast the rigor of Angelo's inflexible judgments and their inevitable tragic potential for both accused and accuser with the Duke's mitigation. Angelo informs Escalus:

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.


Again we hear Angelo's characteristic division of the problem. One either remains spotless and lives, or slips and dies: “'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, / Another thing to fall.” The Duke's perception of justice is strikingly different: “I find an apt remission in my self” (V.i.496). The Duke can afford to remit forfeits because he is a man of temperance. Escalus' appreciation for the Duke's moderate temper is, in fact, the most accurate evaluation of the Duke's nature in the play:

I pray you, sir, of what disposition was the Duke?
One that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself.
What pleasure was he given to?
Rather rejoicing to see another merry, than merry at anything which professed to make him rejoice. A gentleman of all temperance.


As J. W. Lever notes, “the true ruler or judge was not the most holy or zealous of men, but he whose reason and moderation exalted him above mere pity and passion.”24 Under the Duke's moderate direction the dilemmatic impasses created by Angelo are resolved.25 The Duke's temperate method provides the peripeteia which inverts the tragic oppositions into comic concordance.26 The Duke deflects the tragic possibilities of Isabella's rape or Claudio's death, and, by deflecting these possibilities, admits comic resolutions.

Only after he overhears Claudio and Isabella shriek to an impasse does the Duke begin to exert his influence and alter the direction of the play's action. For his first device the Duke pulls a convenient Mariana out of his cowl. Mariana's introduction marks a significant change in the play's dramatic architecture. The first two acts of Measure for Measure proceed with a smooth verisimilitude in presentation that rivals Lear or Othello or Coriolanus. Shakespeare sculpts the action with an exact eye on the probability of event and character and refrains from staining the dramatic reality of the play. Angelo's tyrannous behavior arises naturally from the combination of his persona and circumstance, just as Isabella's fervid determination to stay chaste and Claudio's plaintive desire to stay alive arise naturally from theirs. But the precipitant introduction of a character who just happens to have a previous connection with Angelo, and who just might be willing to “stead up [Isabella's] appointment” (III.i.251) with Angelo, smacks of contrivance. I do not, however, think this mars the play. Rather, the introduction of elements without consideration to their plausibility (like the concurrent shift from verse to prose) indicates a transformation in the representational mode. In the second half of Measure for Measure Shakespeare abandons the careful causality he used to create the tragic tensions, choosing to allow fortuitous coincidence to establish the critical outlines of the structure. After the crisis in the prison—with Mariana suddenly materializing, then passing undetected in Angelo's bed, and with heaven itself providing a convenient head when no suitable substitute could be obtained—Measure for Measure reads much like Cymbeline or Pericles. The playwright's interest here lies not with psychological veracity, but with the movement of emblematic characters within the denotative structure of the action. Shakespeare chooses to present a suggestive pattern rather than a realistic probability. As Measure for Measure progresses, characterization becomes subservient to form and each character's importance becomes a function of his position in the play's architectural pattern. Mariana, for example, inverts the established pattern of tragic excess into a new comic form. Mariana's love has lost its proper management: “[Angelo's] … unjust unkindness, that in all reason should have quenched her love, hath, like an impediment in the current, made it more violent and unruly” (III.i.240-43). The image of the flood exactly captures the indomitable violence of passion that staggered Angelo. Further, reason's inability to withstand or control sexual impulses indicates the severe need for proper direction. Mariana's state parallels Angelo's but lacks the potential for tragic results. More importantly, her presence provides the balance for Angelo's excess. The flows of desire that plague both characters are channeled; the impediments that augment their excessive tendencies are removed. Bringing Angelo and Mariana together curbs the intemperate license in both:

We shall advise this wronged maid to stead up your appointment, go in your place. If the encounter acknowledge itself hereafter, it may compel him to her recompense; and by this is … the poor Mariana advantaged, and the corrupt deputy scaled.


Thus Mariana measures (the primary sense of the Duke's “scaled”)27 Angelo by functioning as Angelo's comic antithesis. Angelo's sexual impulses, consciously restrained, erupt without control and force him to attempt a brutal crime. Conversely, Mariana's desires, though frustrated, emerge beneath the Duke's temperate guidance and are channeled toward the social balance implied by Shakespeare's favorite image of social harmony—marriage. Mariana's importance to the play's structure derives, therefore, from her pivotal position in the pattern. Her willingness to accept Angelo averts Isabella's tragic violation and anticipates the inclusive comic denouement.

We know that Mariana's presence can temper, perhaps even redeem Angelo; we are less certain about Isabella. Isabella's need for moderation, though, is certain. Her psychomachia is less overt than Angelo's, but the sensual imagery that creeps into her language indicates an inordinate sexual repression, and the vehement tirades she lashes Claudio with betray her quick temper. The Duke himself assumes the task of instructing Isabella in her own humanity. Although he could inform Isabella of Claudio's preservation from Angelo's treachery, the Duke chooses not to, preferring to

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


We first notice that the Duke defers the revelation until a more dramatic moment, just as he delays the public acknowledgement of Angelo's tryst with Mariana until the moment for proper recompense. This postponement is partly structural—Shakespeare desires to include as much as he can in the comic recognition for maximum theatrical effect. But another, perhaps more fundamental, reason remains. Isabella must be purged of the tendency towards tragic excess, just like Angelo and everyone else. Isabella lacks the Christian charity, even the Christian reflection, a future votarist of St. Clare should habitually exhibit. Isabella's ire surfaces clearly when the Duke tells her that Claudio has been executed: “O, I will to him and pluck out his eyes!” (IV.iii.119). The Duke trenchantly replies: “This neither hurts him, nor profits you a jot. / Forbear it therefore; give your cause to heaven” (IV.iii.123-24). Heaven should have had Isabella's cause immediately. Her novice's habit notwithstanding, Isabella demonstrates neither temperance nor charity. Before the Duke gives her “heavenly comforts,” she will learn both.

The most perspicuous indication of the Duke's desire to employ “cold gradation and well-balanc'd form” (IV.iii.99) is his single soliloquy. True authority and proper government emanate from the moderate balance of remission and repression:

He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe:
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and virtue, go:
More nor less to others paying than by self-offences weighing.


These lines are the central expression of the “philosophy of balance and correspondence on which the play is founded.”28 They speak of an equitable temperance, of the just measure of rigor and mercy, and of divine standards and human fraility.29 Extreme positions, either Angelo's repression or Lucio's license, fundamentally imbalance the social structure. And it remains imperative for the representative of heaven's authority to establish and maintain that balance. We notice that the poetry itself supports this conclusion. The octosyllabic couplets (the only verse in a goodly stretch of prose, a definite indication of its importance) are paired, signalling its formal symmetry. Further, the couplets contain carefully counterpoised units: severity and holiness, the individual and society, knowledge and the action springing from that knowledge. And if we follow the soliloquy through, we discover tragedy and comedy balanced in the same fashion:

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.


The craft of an artist employing devices counteracts the vices leading to tragedy. Beneath the comic motif of mistaken identity—which is the essence of Mariana's substitution for Isabella—we again find the pattern of tragic potentialities forestalled by a figure who creates comic possibilities. The “falsehood” of Mariana's disguise, by consummating the “old contracting” of their betrothal, prepares for the marital festivities that conclude the play and that presage new birth, not death. Angelo's impulses continue to trap him into committing tragic actions (he sends the warrant for Claudio's death to hide his culpability), but he will be forced into a comic resolution by the pattern of the play, now firmly under the Duke's temperate control.

The comedy of Measure for Measure culminates in Act V. A “physic / That's bitter to sweet end” (, the pageant functions as a purge and restorative, negating the consequences of the tragic impulses without eliminating the memory of them. This carefully plotted episode is the comic counterpart to the major action of Act II—Isabella's attempt to rescue Claudio from Angelo's decree, and Angelo's extortionary demand.30 The contiguity between the acts is furthered by the exact recurrence of theme: Angelo is guilty of Claudio's offense, and Angelo's sentence becomes the crucial focus of the pivot from tragedy to comedy. The contrast between locales is a less obvious but critical correlation between Acts II and V. Angelo and Isabella confer privately, within chambers; the Duke ensures his proceedings are both public and well attended. Act V is best regarded as a spectacle of justice, complete with actors (the Duke, Friar Peter, the Provost, and, to a point, Isabella) who have prepared parts.31 The Duke arranges the entire event so that the denouement becomes an emblematic performance of temperate government.32

Speaking as if he were playing the part of a prologue, the Duke ceremoniously opens the pageant of justice in Act V. The painstaking formality echoes the careful protocol of the play's opening lines, thus signalling a completion of one cycle of the play's action: the Duke resumes the authority he lent Angelo and ends his surreptitious direction of events. Although Shakespeare's genius for characterization still obtains, this scene is the structural antithesis to the plausible tragedy of Acts I and II. The characters' actions are subservient to the comic pattern, and though occasional moments of spontaneity indicate partially realistic events, complex psychological motivations are replaced by symbolic postures. The Duke even blocks the initial actions as if he were a stage manager. His gestures (“Give we our hand,” and “Come Escalus, / You must walk by us on our other hand” [V.i.17-18]) lend a masque-like stateliness to the episode. Moreover, the Duke's language reveals a preoccupation with dramatic artifice:

O, but your desert speaks loud, and I should wrong it
To lock it in the wards of covert bosom,
When it deserves with characters of brass
A forted residence 'gainst the tooth of time
And razure of oblivion. Give we our hand,
And let the subject see, to make them know
That outward courtesies would fain proclaim
Favours that keep within.


The language indulges in rich grandiloquence and vibrant imagery, qualities unknown in the Duke's pedestrian prose of the previous two acts. It is almost as if Act V metamorphoses into a royal entertainment staged for our edification and delight. Further, as we might expect in a royal masque, the elegant poetry contains a duality of purpose. The Duke extends courteous greetings and thanks but also darkly denounces the hypocrisy of external appearance belying internal reality. We note the oppositions between a “covert bosom” and “characters of brass,” between “outward courtesies” and inwardly kept “Favours.” The Duke presages a revelation of Angelo's occult behavior which has become deadly only because of its need for secrecy.33 The entire pageant, indeed, is designed to “let the subject see, to make them know” of Angelo's duplicity. But the Duke intends only recognition of, not retribution for, that duplicity. The Duke's comic craft has averted the tragic impulse; to demand punishment for Angelo's transgressions would only revert comedy to tragedy.34 Moderation of actions remains the Duke's goal, and by publicly exposing Angelo's vicious and unrestrained disposition, the Duke may guide him (and his subjects) to conduct his life in a more temperate fashion.35

The action of Act V unfolds reiteratively: previous scenes and textures, once tragic, are now recast as comedy. Isabella's histrionic demand for “Justice! Justice! Justice! Justice!” (V.i.26) inverts her previous plea for mercy before Angelo (II.ii.49ff). Although Angelo's treacherous behavior has ensured our approval of Isabella's fervent demand for redress, the scene communicates none of the deadly impact that surrounds the contest for Claudio's life. Act V's structure allows only a spurious and dramatic threat to Angelo's life, just as the structure of The Merchant of Venice permits Shylock only to menace Antonio without ever placing him in danger of actual bloodshed.36 We know Claudio to be safe; Angelo, therefore, is safe. A second inversion maintains this comic perspective. Isabella has implored Angelo, and most eloquently, to show Claudio mercy:

Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once,
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy. How would you be
If He, which is the top of judgement, should
But judge you as you are? O, think on that,
And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
Like man new made.


The appeals to the elements that normally constitute the comic perspective—the common heritage of man and his shared suffering, the redemption and acceptance of the fallen, the general allusion to the reconstituted man in St. Paul's “man new made”—increase the tragic pitch in the first acts because there they are denied. Conversely, Isabella's desire for strict rigor—“… for that I must speak / Must either punish me, not being believ'd / Or wring redress from you” (V.i.31-33)—increases our expectation of a festive resolution, since reprisals do not sort with our understanding of the comic structure here pertaining. As long as the Duke is present we realize that the intensity of these pre-arranged conflicts is undercut by our awareness of a larger pattern which contains and determines the particular actions. The subliminal comic structure tempers our reaction to momentary dynamics and prevents us from seriously considering a tragic resolution even though the urge to appraise events in dilemmatic terms recurs in Isabella's language:

                                                                                                    'Tis not impossible
But one, the wicked'st caitiff on the ground,
May seem as shy, as grave, as just, as absolute,
As Angelo; even so may Angelo,
In all his dressings, caracts, titles, forms,
Be an arch-villain.


But the antitheses here sound histrionic. The ad hominem attack lacks the trenchant applicability of Claudio's assessment of man's condition. Comparing Angelo to the “wicked'st caitiff on the ground” overstates; Isabella's virulence strains the credibility of the accusations. And, were her estimate accepted, it would lead only to the eradication of a single figure rather than the restoration of an entire society. If we accept Isabella's judgment that Angelo is unredeemable, then his execution is inevitable. But the Duke intends inclusion, and Angelo's death would forbid a concordant resolution.

The Duke's feigned rejection of Isabella's suit, Lucio's interjections, Mariana's tale of a night with her lawful husband, and the disguised Duke's charges of corruption all prepare for the comic reversal. Once Lucio unmasks him, the Duke firmly and finally assumes direct control over the comic resolution. In order to move from an extreme position to a medial, thereby establishing a pattern for temperate behavior, the Duke assumes the position of unwavering, strict justice:

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.’
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.
Away with him.


The Duke's condemnation of Angelo resounds with the tragic textures characteristic of Angelo's judgments. Again, and most clearly, we are confronted with an extreme solution: death for death; Angelo for Claudio. To exercise this lex talionis would return us to tragic themes. Man's faults manifested and condemned—and “We are all frail” (II.iv.121)—lead only to death. Or, to borrow Hamlet's piercing rejoinder to Polonius, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?” (Hamlet II.ii.524-25). Angelo is guilty, just like Claudio, of the “violation / Of sacred chastity” (V.i.402-03), and though his conduct is more vicious than Claudio's, and I believe it is, still it is presented in this play as paradigmatic of the human condition. The majority of the characters in Measure for Measure—Lucio, Pompey, Mistress Overdone, Froth, Angelo, Claudio, Juliet, Mariana—exhibit this infirmity to various degrees. We, with the Duke, must remember the truth of Lucio's statement:

Yes, in good sooth, the vice is of a great kindred; it is well allied; but it is impossible to extirp it quite, friar, till eating and drinking be put down.


If the vice cannot be eradicated, perhaps, as the Duke has just said, “severity” can “cure it” (III.ii.96), but surely all that can actually be done is that the vice can be controlled by temperance.

Isabella's reaction to Angelo's sentence provides the archetype for the comic resolution of Measure for Measure. Stability and order are achieved through forgiveness and moderation, through controlling the impulses that lead man to ravin down his proper bane. The Duke's caution to Mariana indicates the impulses that Isabella must control:

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


But the anger and desire for revenge that had governed Isabella earlier gives way to temperance and the capacious redemption characteristic of Shakespearean comedy. Isabella's request that Angelo receive mercy crystalizes the dramatic nature of tragicomedy, the structure in which tragedy can become comedy. Just as Angelo's transgressions are paradigmatic of the iniquities in Vienna, so must Isabella's tolerance be of comic temperance:

Look, if it please you, on this man condemn'd
As if my brother liv'd.


In that instant Isabella overcomes the binary options that had propelled the characters in Measure for Measure towards tragedy. Isabella bridges the opposition between Claudio's death and Angelo's life with the inclusive possibility “as if,” the fountainhead of simultaneous conceivability from which temperance springs. If one can contemplate the consequences of both extremes, one also discovers the path of moderation between. Mercy extended to one who “should slip so grossly, both in the heat of blood / And lack of temper'd judgment afterward” (V.i.470-71) forms the example of moderate conduct for a world much too predisposed to thrust itself heedlessly into the harsh and deadly shocks that the flesh is heir to. To convert potential tragedy into comedy requires the momentary temperance needed to deter the impulse leading to death and disintegration. Isabella illustrates that temperance and demonstrates its virtue to the characters and audience.

And though it may be identified as such, that temperance is not exactly mercy. Mercy freely pardons; temperance instructs and corrects. As the Duke remarks with regard to Pompey, “correction and instruction must both work / Ere this rude beast will profit” (III.ii.31-32). Those who are sufficiently wise take the emblematic action of Act V as instruction; those who are not (Pompey, Mistress Overdone, Lucio) receive correction. Pompey and Mistress Overdone are removed from their salacious occupations. Lucio is checked, like Angelo, with marriage even though no one expects Lucio to settle into blissful domesticity with Kate Keepdown. Perhaps the humiliation will serve the place of “pressing to death, / Whipping, and hanging” (V.i.520-21). His marriage, like the remission of the “other forfeits,” is emblematic. Lucio represents that portion of humanity “on whose nature / Nurture can never stick” (The Tempest IV.i.188-89). Shakespeare seems actuely aware that a darkness unredeemable lurks in the human soul: all men possess Calibans which they must acknowledge theirs. Fortunately, admitting their existence often leads to the ability to control them.

I cannot overstate the importance of the concluding marriages to the structure of Measure for Measure. Marriage is Shakespeare's most pervasive and most hopeful symbol of concordant social integration. By closing Measure for Measure with a recessional of betrothed and married couples Shakespeare appeals to our recognition of the denotation of this forceful dramatic device. What had begun as tragedy concludes with the comic crystalization of a new society, best described by Frye:

… a new social unit is formed on the stage, and the moment that this social unit crystalizes is the moment of the comic resolution. In the last scene, when the dramatist usually tries to get all his characters on the stage at once, the audience witnesses the birth of a renewed sense of social integration. In comedy as in life, the regular expression of this is a festival, whether a marriage, a dance, or a feast.37

Shakespeare repeatedly relies on marriages to represent the triumph over divisive forces in his plays. We only need to remember the endings of A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night to conclusively demonstrate that argument. And like the marriages in those plays, the marriages in Measure for Measure are less important as psychological realities than as emblematic pairings. Lucio and Kate indicate libidinous impulses momentarily checked. Claudio and Juliet, perhaps the most believable of the pairings, signal the danger of unrestrained and excessive impulses, and how the stability of marriage may rectify the previous intemperance. The marriages of Mariana to Angelo and Isabella to the Duke reinforce that same lesson. I suspect that Shakespeare meant his audience to recognize the social harmony multiple marriages suggest, and I suspect that Shakespeare meant his audience to recognize the attendant triumph of comedy over tragedy as well.

Measure for Measure divides into two structural units that can be described as the progression of locales: the descent from the Duke's chambers to the prison, and the corresponding ascent from the prison to the street. The descent, marked by an increasing polarization that results, finally, in fragmentation, contains the recognizable motifs of tragic conflict. An affair that should signal pastoral harmony is unexpectedly pulled towards untimely death:

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


But Angelo's machinations promise the unnatural truncation of that cycle, not its natural completion:

[Angelo], to give fear to use and liberty,
Which have for long run by the hideous law
As mice by lions, hath pick'd out an act
Under whose heavy sense [Claudio's] life
Falls into forfeit: he arrests him on it,
And follows close the rigour of the statute
To make him an example.


The profit of Claudio's “full tilth and husbandry” is that his life “Falls into forfeit.” Thus procreation begets death. But the tragedy of this movement must be circumvented. A second assignation and its “blossoming time” averts the earlier tragedy. The description of Mariana's meeting place is the comic counterpart to the tragic panel:

He hath a garden circummur'd with brick,
Whose western side is with a vineyard back'd;
And to that vineyard is a planched gate,
That makes his opening with this bigger key.


The overtones of this tryst are antithetical to Claudio and Juliet's affair—Angelo contemplates rape. The result, however inverts that potential and establishes comic stability. The substitution of Mariana for Isabella preserves the comic resolution from Angelo's deadly intentions. Mariana's contact with Angelo, in a setting of hushed fecundity that links their encounter to the fertility of Claudio and Juliet's love, is the seed of comic structure. Mariana craves “no other, nor no better man” (V.i.424), and accepts Angelo without qualification:

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


That acceptance is the essence of the comedy of Measure for Measure, just as Angelo's admission, “Blood, thou art blood” (II.iv.15), is the essence of its tragedy. But the two parts stand in concordant correspondence, not isolation, and are joined by strong and pervading resonances. Measure for Measure is divided, but Tillyard, and later Wheeler, failed to consider how that very division gives the play structural unity. And, I believe, few playwrights have ever created a tragicomedy of Measure for Measure's unified magnificence, the perfect balance of tragedy's “bitter physic” and comedy's “sweet end.”


  1. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1949), pp. 130-31; G. Wilson Knight, “Measure for Measure and the Gospels,” in The Wheel of Fire (London: Metheun and Co., 1930), passim.

  2. Cynthia Lewis, “‘Dark Deeds Darkly Answered’: Duke Vincentio and Judgment in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly, 34 (1983), 271-72. Lewis quotes Harriett Hawkins, Likenesses of Truth (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 76 and refers to Arthur C. Kirsch, “The Integrity of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Studies, 28 (1975), 89-105.

    Those who, with Tillyard, emphasize the play's problematic nature are David Lloyd Stevenson, The Achievement of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966); Hal Gleb, “Duke Vincentio and the Illusion of Comedy, or All's Not Well that Ends Well,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 22 (1971), 24-43; Christopher Palmer, “Selfishness in Measure for Measure,Essays in Criticism, 28 (1978), 187-207; and Marcia Reiffer, “‘Instrument of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), 157-69. Palmer concludes that “Because they retain some certainty of self, and thus some self-interest, these characters resist complete submission to the moral. Each of them asks for a different response, a different comprehension, from us. They cannot be harmonized, and it is futile to attempt to do so” (p. 207). Reiffer, more virulent, states that “This play reveals … the price women pay in order for male supremacy to be maintained. … What [Shakespeare] has created in Measure for Measure is not a poorly written play, but, to some extent, a model for poor playwriting (pp. 169, 167).

    Those who see the play as unified generally follow Knight's argument, though the divine ability each assigns to the Duke varies. See Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965); Darryl J. Gless, Measure for Measure, the Law and the Convent (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979); Roger Whitlow, “Measure for Measure: Shakespearean Morality and the Christian Ethic,” Encounter, 39 (1978), 165-73; Dayton Haskin, “Mercy and the Creative Process in Measure for Measure,TSLL, 19 (1977), 348-62; Lawrence W. Hyman, “The Unity of Measure for Measure,Modern Language Quarterly, 36 (1975), 3-20; and Lucy Owen, “Mode and Character in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly, 25 (1975), 17-32. Haskin states that “The characters in Measure for Measure seem to behave according to a metaphorical pattern rooted in a biblical understanding of human existence” (p. 352). Owen stresses the unification of forgiveness, but downplays the Duke's providential nature: “In Measure for Measure we have a real exploration of the human meanings of repentance and forgiveness without the use of explicitly divine or allegorical figures. There is no concrete representation of the supernatural, eternal world of the spirit” (p. 17).

  3. Lewis, p. 272.

  4. Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), pp. 11-12.

  5. Tillyard, p. 130.

  6. Northrop Frye, The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1983), p. 24. J. W. Lever (intro. The Arden Shakespeare: Measure for Measure [London: Methuen and Co., 1965]) states that the play is “divided into almost mathematical halves” (p. lxii).

  7. The change in the Duke's language also signals the pass from tragedy to comedy. The precise rhetorical structure of the contemplatio mortis, used to comfort Claudio, abruptly gives way to flexible colloquialisms. The effect is palpable, as if we have been propelled from one of Hamlet's soliloquies into the midst of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

  8. I resist the notion that the structure of Measure for Measure was influenced by Guarini's Compendio della Poesia Tragicomica. Guarini defines tragicomedy as a “mixture of comic and tragic elements. Like bronze, which is made of copper and tin and yet is neither copper or tin, tragicomedy is neither tragedy nor comedy but a third form: ‘He who composes tragicomedy takes from tragedy its great personages but not its action, its versimilar plot but not one based on truth, its emotions aroused but their edge abated, its delight but not its sadness, its danger but not its death; from comedy laughter that is not riotous, modest merriment, feigned complication, happy reversal, and above all the comic order’” (from Marvin T. Herrick, Tragicomedy: Its Origin and Development in Italy, France, and England [Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1955], p. 138; Herrick translates the Compendio from Guarini's Opera, 3.403). But there is little mixture of elements, and absolutely no mixture of style, in Measure for Measure. Tragedy runs its course, and then comedy appears with no regard for the decorous interpenetration of style and elements clearly evident in Guarini's most widely known tragicomedy, Il Pastor Fido. The line from Italian tragicomedy to the English stage seems to bypass Shakespeare but is quite evident in the tragicomic works of Beaumont and Fletcher. See also Eugene Waith, The Pattern of Tragicomedy in Beaumont and Fletcher (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1952), pp. 43-85. For an opposite view, see Lever, pp. lxi-lxiii.

  9. Wheeler objects to the disengagement forced on us by the playwright and sees it as a fundamental flaw in the play: “The range of feeling dramatized in Measure for Measure is diminished rather than sustained and controlled as the play moves toward completion. Shakespeare seems not to finish quite so large and powerful a play as the one he starts, but to change the rules—excluding powerful trends of feeling already admitted into the action—so that the play can be finished at all” (p. 5). But I must agree with Northrop Frye's assessment: “[Measure for Measure] is a play about the relation of all such things [as the philosophy of government, the responsibilities of rulers, the social problem of prostitution, etc.] to the structure of comedy. And because comedy is a context word and not an essence word, the phrase ‘structure of comedy’ means among other things the reflection of other comedies in Measure for Measure. … Measure for Measure, then, is a comedy about comedy, as Hamlet is a tragedy about tragedy, and as the history plays are plays about history … considered as a theatrical performance” (pp. 24-25).

  10. All quotations of Measure for Measure are from The Arden Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, ed. J. W. Lever (London: Methuen and Co., 1965).

  11. Lever emphasizes the balancing influence of the Duke: “At the point of total impasse in III.i the motion was reversed by the Duke's direct intervention. Thenceforth in his part of moderator the Duke was tirelessly engaged in ‘passing from side to side,’ ‘working among contraries,’ and shaping a new course for the drama” (p. lxii). We may compare J. C. Maxwell: “The enforcers of the law should not be corrupt. They should take a middle course between excessive laxity and excessive rigour” (“Measure for Measure: The Play and the Themes,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 60 [1974], 209).

  12. The exchange between Francisca and Isabella centers pointedly on restricting relations with men.

    When you have vow'd, you must not speak with men
    But in the presence of the prioress;
    Then if you speak, you must not show your face;
    Or if you show your face, you must not speak.


  13. The failure of Angelo's justice surfaces most clearly in his shoddy handling of Pompey and Froth's case. Without Escalus' patience, Angelo would “whip them all” (II.i.136). Further, Lucio, a more malignant malefactor, freely escapes Angelo's notice.

  14. See Harriett Hawkins, “‘The Devil's Party’: Virtues and Vices in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Studies, 31 (1978), 105-13, for a thorough discussion of Isabella's sexual obsession.

  15. Marcia Reiffer offers this explication of these lines: “Her oaths here are far from endearing. But what they expose is neither rigidity nor coldness but a deeply rooted fear of exploitation, a fear justified by the attitudes toward women prevalent in this Vienna” (p. 164). But this analysis, I think, greatly distorts Isabella's words.

  16. The Duke is on stage for only 229 lines in Acts I and II, a figure eclipsed by his presence in Act III, scene i alone—the entire 270 lines. He appears in every scene of the play's second half save for two short scenes: IV.iv and

  17. But we must guard against overstating the Duke's ecclesiastical position. As A. P. Rossiter put it wonderfully, the Duke is never a “peripatetic providence” (Angel with Horns and Other Shakespearean Lectures, ed. Graham Storey [London: Longmans, Green and Co., Ltd., 1961], p. 156).

  18. Only Lucio, the Duke's antithetical counterpart (playing the role of the “Vice” opposed to the Duke's guiding influence) has a similar freedom of movement, although his contact is not as pervasive or as influential as the Duke's.

  19. See Mary Lascelles, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (London: The Athlone Press, 1953), for a detailed discussion of the folk tale origins of the “monstrous ransom” motif and its literary manifestations.

  20. Lever discusses the emphasis on the role of “true authority” to successfully resolve the play's conflicts (p. lx), and Lewis' entire argument is based on the assumption that the Duke “guides us through the play” (p. 273).

  21. Stevenson offers a solid discussion of the influence of James I's treatise on Shakespeare's play (pp. 134-66).

  22. The Basilicon Doron of King James VI, ed. James Craigie, 2 vols. (Edinburgh and London: The Scottish Text Society, 1944 and 1950), p. 137.

  23. The Basilicon Doron, p. 139.

  24. Lever, p. lxv.

  25. Lever's remarks obtain: “For Jacobean audiences … the importance of the via media may have seemed paramount in real life and likewise in dramas concerned with contemporary issues. … The ‘demi-god authority,’ thus balanced between the opposites of justice and mercy, saw himself as faced with a more difficult task of maintaining ethical poise than private individuals with only their own unregenerate impulses to control” (pp. lxii-lxiv).

  26. Frye offers this summation: “… the reversal in Measure for Measure, carried out by the Duke but dependent also on the genuine sanctity of Isabella, is full of improbability and absurdity, yet none the less it triumphs over the armoured tanks of self-righteousness so completely that we are no longer in this measuring world when the play ends. … the reversal of action in Measure for Measure is not an accident or a stunt, but something deeply involved with Shakespeare's romantic conception of comedy” (pp. 30, 32).

  27. O.E.D. v.1 2: To weigh in scales; hence, to compare, estimate (citing this line and COR. II.iii.257).

  28. Nigel Alexander, Shakespeare: Measure for Measure (London: Edward Arnold, Ltd., 1975), p. 40.

  29. The Duke's summary of a just ruler's responsibility does not indicate that a merciful pardon can replace correction.

  30. We may further note that Lucio serves as prompter and comic foil in both II. ii and V.i.

  31. Duessa's trial in The Faerie Queene (Book V. Canto IX) provides an interesting counterpart to Act V of Measure for Measure. Both Shakespeare and Spenser emphasize the spectacular nature of the proceedings.

  32. Lascelles sees the Duke as an “oppressive producer” (p. 95), and J. C. Maxwell denies the importance of “laws and justice” in Act V (p. 205). On the other hand, Carole T. Diffey reads the last act as in imitation of The Revelation of St. John (“The Last Judgment in Measure for Measure,The Durham University Journal, 35 [1974], 231-37).

  33. Angelo himself makes this clear:

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


  34. Coleridge found the frustration of his desire for poetic justice most unpalatable: “… the pardon and marriage of Angelo not merely baffles the strong indignant claim of justice—(for cruelty, with lust and damnable baseness, cannot be forgiven, because we cannot conceive of them as being morally repented of).” Coleridge's Lectures on Shakespeare and other Poets and Dramatists, ed. Ernest Rhys, (London: J. M. Dent and Co., 1960), p. 84.

  35. The suggestion must remain tentative, for its proof lies beyond the play. The quickening in Angelo's eye may indicate contrition, and the Duke notes that his “evil quits [him] well” (V.i.494). What remains paramount, though, is the emblematic resolution Shakespeare presents for us to consider as the stage empties. To seek psychological veracity where none is intended is to distort the contours of the play.

  36. We expect Portia to deliver Antonio, and much of the scene's delight results from observing Shylock's wickedness foiled.

  37. Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays, 1948 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1949), pp. 60-61.

Jonathan Dollimore (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6760

SOURCE: 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.

[In the following essay, Dollimore provides a materialist analysis of social transgression in Measure for Measure, which he sees as the result of “unregulated desire” responded to by “authoritarian repression.”]

In the Vienna of Measure for Measure unrestrained sexuality is ostensibly subverting social order; anarchy threatens to engulf the State unless sexuality is subjected to renewed and severe regulation. Such at least is the claim of those in power. Surprisingly critics have generally taken them at their word even while dissociating themselves from the punitive zeal of Angelo. There are those who have found in the play only a near tragic conflict between anarchy and order, averted in the end it is true, but unconvincingly so. Others, of a liberal persuasion and with a definite preference for humane rather than authoritarian restraint, have found at least in the play's ‘vision’ if not precisely its ending an ethical sense near enough to their own. But both kinds of critic have apparently accepted that sexual transgression in Measure for Measure—and in the world—represents a real force of social disorder intrinsic to human nature and that the play at least is about how this force is—must be—restrained.

J. W. Lever, in an analysis of the play noted for its reasonableness,1 draws a comparison with Shakespeare's romantic comedies where disorders in both society and individual, especially those caused by ‘the excesses of sentiment and desire’ are resolved: ‘not only the problems of lovers, but psychic tensions and social usurpations or abuses, found their resolution through the exercise of reason, often in the form of an adjudication by the representatives of authority’. In Measure for Measure the same process occurs but more extremely: ‘Not only are the tensions and discords wrought up to an extreme pitch, threatening the dissolution of all human values, but a corresponding and extraordinary emphasis is laid upon the role of true authority, whose intervention alone supplies the equipoise needed to counter the forces of negation’. Lever draws a further contrast with Troilus and Cressida where ‘no supreme authority exists; age and wisdom can only warn, without stemming the inevitable tide of war and lechery’. On this view then unruly desire is extremely subversive and has to be countered by ‘true’ and ‘supreme authority’, ‘age and wisdom’, all of which qualities are possessed by the Duke in Measure for Measure and used by him to redeem the State (pp. lx and lxxi). Only these virtues, this man, can retrieve the State from anarchy.2

But consider now a very different view of the problem. With the considerable attention recently devoted to Bakhtin and his truly important analysis of the subversive carnivalesque, the time is right for a radical reading of Measure for Measure, one which insists on the oppressiveness of the Viennese State and which interprets low-life transgression as positively anarchic, ludic, carnivalesque—a subversion from below of a repressive official ideology of order. What follows aims (if it is not too late) to forestall such a reading as scarcely less inappropriate than that which privileged ‘true’ authority over anarchic desire. Indeed, such a reading, if executed within the parameters of some recent appropriations of Bakhtin, would simply remain within the same problematic, only reversing the polarities of the binary opposition which structures it (order/chaos). I offer a different reading of the play, one which, perhaps paradoxically, seeks to identify its absent characters and the history which it contains yet does not represent.


Whatever subversive identity the sexual offenders in this play possess is a construction put upon them by the authority which wants to control them; moreover control is exercised through that construction. Diverse and only loosely associated sexual offenders are brought into renewed surveillance by the State; identified in law as a category of offender (the lecherous, the iniquitous) they are thereby demonised as a threat to law. Like many apparent threats to authority this one in fact legitimates it: control of the threat becomes the rationale of authoritarian reaction in a time of apparent crisis. Prostitution and lechery are identified as the causes of crisis yet we learn increasingly of a corruption more political than sexual (see especially v.i.316ff). Arguably then the play discloses corruption to be an effect less of desire than authority itself. It also shows how corruption is downwardly identified—that is, focused and placed with reference to low-life ‘licence’; in effect, and especially in the figure of Angelo, corruption is displaced from authority to desire and by implication from the rulers to the ruled. The Duke tells Pompey:

Fie, sirrah, 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. Say to thyself,
From their abominable and beastly touches
I drink, I eat, array myself, and live.
Canst thou believe thy living is a life,
So stinkingly depending?


This is in response to Pompey's observation that such exploitation not only exists at other levels of society but is actually protected ‘by order of law’ (l. 8). This is just what the Duke's diatribe ignores—cannot acknowledge—fixating instead on the ‘filthy vice’ and its agents in a way which occludes the fact that it is Angelo, not Pompey, who, unchecked, and in virtue of his social position, will cause most ‘evil … to be done’. But, because Angelo's transgression is represented as growing from his desire rather than his authority, his is a crime which can be construed as a lapse into the corruption of a lower humanity, a descent of the ruler into the sins of the ruled. Provocatively, his crime is obscurely theirs.

If we can indeed discern in the demonising of sexuality a relegitimation of authority we should not then conclude that this is due simply to an ideological conspiracy; or rather it may indeed be conspiratorial but it is also ideological in another, more complex sense: through a process of displacement an imaginary—and punitive—resolution of real social tension and conflict is attempted.

The authoritarian demonising of deviant behaviour was common in the period, and displacement and condensation—to and around low life—were crucial to this process. … But what made displacement and condensation possible was a prior construction of deviancy itself. So, for example, diatribes against promiscuity, female self-assertion, cross-dressing and homosexuality construed these behaviours as symptomatic of an impending dissolution of social hierarchy and so, in effect, of civilisation.3 This was partly because transgression was conceived in public and even cosmic terms; it would not then have made sense to see it in, say, psychological or subjective terms—a maladjustment of the individual who, with professional assistance, could be ‘normalised’. On the one hand then homosexuality was not considered to be the ‘defect’ of a particular personality type since ‘the temptation to debauchery, from which homosexuality was not clearly distinguished, was accepted as part of the common lot, be it never so abhorred. For the Puritan writer John Rainolds homosexuality was a sin to which “men's natural corruption and viciousness is prone.”’ And this was because homosexuality ‘was not a sexuality in its own right, but existed as a potential for confusion and disorder in one undivided sexuality’ (Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, pp. 16-17, 25). On the other hand it was distinguished sufficiently to be associated with other cardinal sins like religious and political heresy and witchcraft. This association of sexual deviance with religious and political deviance—made of course in relation to Marlowe by the informer Richard Baines4 and rather more recently by the British tabloid press in relation to Peter Tatchell5—facilitates the move from specific to general subversion: the individual transgressive act sent reverberations throughout the whole and maybe even brought down God's vengeance on the whole.

Stuart Clark has shown how the disorder which witches and other deviants symbolised, even as it was represented as a threat to order, was also a presupposition of it. Contrariety, he argues, was ‘a universal principle of intelligibility as well as a statement about how the world was actually constituted’ and ‘the characterisation of disorder by inversion, even in relatively minor texts or on ephemeral occasions, may therefore be taken to exemplify an entire metaphysic’ (‘Inversion, Misrule and Witchraft’, pp. 110-12). On this view then the attack on deviancy was not just a diversionary strategy of authority in times of crisis but an elementary and permanent principle of rule. Nevertheless, we might expect that it is in times of crisis that this principle is specially operative. The work of Lawrence Stone would seem to confirm this. He argues that in the early seventeenth century the family household becomes, at least in contemporary propaganda, ‘responsible for, and the symbol of, the whole social system, which was thought to be based on the God-given principle of hierarchy, deference and obedience’. Such propaganda was stimulated in part by the experienced instability of rapid change, change which was interpreted by some as impending collapse. … According to Stone then, ‘the authoritarian family and the authoritarian nation-state were the solutions to an intolerable sense of anxiety, and a deep yearning for order’ and the corollary was a ruthless persecution of dissidents and deviants. Sexuality became subject to intensified surveillance working in terms of both an enforced and an internalised discipline.6Measure for Measure, I want to argue, is about both kinds of discipline, the enforced and the internalised. Their coexistence made for a complex social moment as well as a complex play.

J. A. Sharpe's recent and scrupulous study of crime in seventeenth-century England confirms this discrepancy between the official depiction of moral collapse among the lower orders and their actual behaviour. Sharpe also confirms that the suppression of sexuality was only ‘one aspect of a wider desire to achieve a disciplined society. Fornication, like idleness, pilfering, swearing and drunkenness, was one of the distinguishing activites of the disorderly’. Further, the Elizabethan and early Stuart period marked an historical highpoint in an authoritarian preoccupation with the disorderly and their efficient prosecution.7 Nevertheless, many of those concerned with this prosecution really did believe standards were declining and the social fabric disintegrating. Puritan extremists like Stubbes saw prostitution as so abhorrent they advocated the death penalty for offenders (Lever, p. xlvi). But if, as Stone and others argue, this fervour is the result of insecurity in the face of change, then, even if that fervour was ‘sincere’, the immorality which incited it was not at all its real cause. This is one sense in which the discourse of blame involved displacement; but there was another: while the authorities who actually suppressed the brothels often exploited the language of moral revulsion it was not the sexual vice that worried them so much as the meeting together of those who used the brothels. George Whetstone was only warning the authorities of what they already feared when he told them to beware of ‘haunts … in Allies, gardens and other obscure corners out of the common walks of the Magistrate’ whose guests are ‘masterless men, needy shifters, thieves, cutpurses, unthrifty servants, both serving men and prentices’.8 Suppression was an attempt to regulate not the vice, nor, apparently, even the spread of venereal disease, but the criminal underworld.9 Similarly, in Measure for Measure, the more we attend to the supposed subversiveness of sexual licence, and the authoritarian response to it, the more we are led away from the vice itself towards social tensions which intersect with it—led also to retrace several distinct but related processes of displacement.

The play addresses several social problems which had their counterparts in Jacobean London. Mistress Overdone declares: ‘Thus, what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom shrunk’ (I.ii.75-7). Lever points out that this passage links several issues in the winter of 1603-4: ‘the continuance of the war with Spain; the plague in London; the treason trials and executions at Winchester in connection with the plots of Raleigh and others; the slackness of trade in the deserted capital’ (p. xxxii). Significantly, all but the first of these, the war, are domestic problems. But even the war was in prospect of becoming such: if peace negotiations then under way (and also alluded to in the play—at I.ii.1-17) proved successful it would lead to a return home of ‘the multitude of pretended gallants, banckrouts, and unruly youths who weare at this time settled in pyracie’ (Lever, p. xxxii). In this political climate even peace could exacerbate domestic ills.

This play's plague references are especially revealing. Both here and at I.ii.85-9, where Pompey refers to a proclamation that ‘All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down’ there is a probable allusion to the proclamation of 1603 which provided for the demolition of property in the London suburbs in order to control the plague. But the same proclamation also refers to the ‘excessive numbers of idle, indigent, dissolute and dangerous persons, and the pestering of many of them in small and strait room’.10 Here, as with the suppression of prostitution, plague control legitimates other kinds of political control. (Enemies of the theatre often used the plague threat as a reason to have them closed). As this proclamation indicates, there was a constant fear among those in charge of Elizabethan and Jacobean England that disaffection might escalate into organised resistance. This anxiety surfaces repeatedly in official discourse: any circumstance, institution or occasion which might unite the vagabonds and masterless men—for example famine, the theatres, congregations of the unemployed—was the object of almost paranoid surveillance. Yet, if anything, Measure for Measure emphasises the lack of any coherent opposition among the subordinate and the marginalised. Thus Pompey, ‘Servant to Mistress Overdone’ (list of characters), once imprisoned and with the promise of remission, becomes, with no sense of betrayal, servant to the State in no less a capacity than that of hangman.

Yet those in power are sincerely convinced there is a threat to order. At the very outset of the play Escalus, described in the list of characters as an ‘ancient’ Lord, is praised excessively by the Duke only to be subordinated to Angelo, the new man. The traditional political ‘art and practice’ (I.i.12) of Escalus is not able to cope with the crisis. Later, the Duke, speaking to the Friar, acknowledges that this crisis stems from a failure on the part of the rulers yet at the same time displaces responsibility on to the ruled: like disobedient children they have taken advantage of their ‘fond fathers’ (I.iii.23). Hence the need for a counter-subversive attack on the ‘liberty’ of the low-life. Yet even as we witness that attack we see also that the possibilities for actual subversion seem to come from quite another quarter. Thus when Angelo resorts to the claim that the State is being subverted (in order to discredit charges of corruption against himself) the way he renders that claim plausible is most revealing:

These poor informal women are no more
But instruments of some more mightier member
That sets them on. Let me have way, my lord,
To find this practice out.


Earlier the Duke, pretending ignorance of Angelo's guilt, publicly denounces Isabella's charge against Angelo in similar terms:

                                                  thou knowest not what thou speak'st
Or else thou art suborn'd against his honour
In hateful practice …
                                        … Someone hath set you on.

(V.i.108-10; 115)

The predisposition of Escalus to credit all this gives us an insight into how the scapegoat mentality works: just as the low-life have hitherto been demonised as the destructive element at the heart (or rather bottom) of the State, now it is the apparently alien Friar (he who is ‘Not of this country’, III.ii.211) who is to blame. The kind old Escalus charges the Friar (the Duke in disguise) with ‘Slander to th'state!’ and cannot wait to torture him into confession (V.i.320, 309-10). That he is in fact accusing the Duke ironically underpins the point at issue: disorder generated by misrule and unjust law (III.ii.6-8) is ideologically displaced on to the ruled—‘ideologically’ because Angelo's lying displacement is insignificant compared with the way that Escalus really believes it is the subordinate and the outsider who are to blame. Yet even as he believes this he is prepared to torture his way to ‘the more mightier member’ behind the plot; again there is the implication, and certainly the fear, that the origin of the problem is not intrinsic to the low-life but a hostile fraction of the ruling order.

Oddly the slander for which Escalus wants to have this outsider tortured, and behind which he perceives an insurrectionary plot, is only the same assessment of the situation which he, Angelo and the Duke made together at the outset. What does this suggest: is his violent reaction to slander paranoid, or rather a strategy of realpolitik? Perhaps the latter—after all, it is not only, as Isabella reminds Angelo (II.ii.135-7) that rulers have the power to efface their own corruption, but that they need to do this to remain in power. And within the terms of realpolitik the threat of exposure is justification enough for authoritarian reaction. But the problem with the concept of realpolitik is that it tends to discount the non-rational though still effective dimensions of power which make it difficult to determine whether crisis is due to paranoia generating an imaginary threat or whether a real threat is intensifying paranoia. And, of course, even if the threat is imaginary this can still act as the ‘real’ cause of ensuing conflict. Conversely, terms like paranoia applied to a ruling class or fraction, while useful in suggesting the extent to which that class's discourse produces its own truth and apprehends that truth through blame, can also mislead with regard to the class's power to rationalise its own position and displace responsibility for disorder. Put another way, realpolitik and paranoia, in so far as they are present, should be seen to coexist more at a social rather than an individual level. An interesting case in point is George Whetstone's A Mirror for Magistrates (1584), a possible source for Shakespeare's play. This work related the story of how the Roman emperor, Alexander Severus, re-establishes order in the State by setting up a system of sophisticated surveillance and social regulation which includes himself going disguised among his subjects and observing their transgressions at first hand. These are denounced with moral fervour and the implication of course is that they are condemned just because they are sinful. But as Whetstone's retelling of the story develops we can see a pragmatic underside to his blameful discourse. In fact, as so often in this period, political strategy and moral imperative openly coexist. The focus of Whetstone's reforming zeal are the ‘Dicing-houses, taverns and common stews’—‘sanctuaries of iniquity’. But what gives him most cause for concern is not the behaviour of the low but that of the landed gentry who are attracted to them: ‘Dice, Drunkenness and Harlots, had consumed the wealth of a great number of ancient Gentlemen, whose Purses were in the possession of vile persons, and their Lands at mortgage with the Merchants … The Gentlemen had made this exchange with vile persons: they were attired with the Gentlemen's bravery, and the Gentlemen disgraced with their beastly manners’ (Izard, George Whetstone, p. 135).

Here, apparently, hierarchy is subverted from above and those most culpable the gentlemen themselves. Yet in Whetstone's account the low are to blame; they are held responsible for the laxity of the high, much as a man might (then as now) blame a woman for tempting him sexually whereas in fact he has coerced her. The gentlemen are ‘mildly’ reproached and restored to that which they have transacted away while the low are disciplined. Whetstone believed that the survival of England depended on its landed gentry; in rescuing them from the low-life he is rescuing the State from chaos and restoring it to its ‘ancient and most laudable orders’ (Izard, George Whetstone, p. 136). A reactionary programme is accomplished at the expense of the low, while those who benefit are those responsible for precipitating ‘decline’ in the first place. The same process of displacement occurs throughout discourses of power in this period. One further example: one of the many royal proclamations attempting to bring vagabonds under martial law asserts that ‘there can grow no account of disturbance of our peace and quiet but from such refuse and vagabond people’ (Tudor Royal Proclamations, III, 233)—and this despite the fact that the proclamation immediately preceeding this one (just six days before) announced the abortive Essex rebellion. The failure of the rebellion is interpreted by the second proclamation as proof of the loyalty of all other subjects with the exception of that ‘great multitude of base and loose people’ who ‘lie privily in corners and bad houses, listening after news and stirs, and spreading rumours and tales, being of likelihood ready to lay hold of any occasion to enter into any tumult or disorder’ (p. 232). For the authoritarian perspective as articulated here, the unregulated are by definition the ungoverned and always thereby potentially subversive of government. At the same time it is a perspective which confirms what has been inferred from Measure for Measure: in so far as the socially deprived were a threat to government this was only when they were mobilised by powerful elements much higher up the social scale. Moreover the low who were likely to be so mobilised were only a small part of the ‘base and loose people’ hounded by authority. In fact we need to distinguish, as Christopher Hill does, between this mob element, little influenced by religious or political ideology but up for hire, and the ‘rogues, vagabonds and beggars’ who, although they ‘caused considerable panic in ruling circles … were incapable of concerted revolt’ (The World Turned Upside Down, pp. 40-1). Of course there were real social problems and ‘naturally’ the deprived were at the centre of them. Moreover, if we recall that there were riots, that fornication did produce charity dependent bastards, that drunkenness did lead to fecklessness, it becomes apparent that, in their own terms there were also real grounds for anxiety on the part of those who administered deprivation. At the same time we can read in that anxiety—in its very surplus, its imaginative intensity, its punitive ingenuity—an ideological displacement (and hence misrecognition) of much deeper fears of the uncontrollable, of being out of control, themselves corresponding to more fundamental social problems.11


In II.i. we glimpse briefly the State's difficulties in ensuring the levels of policing which the rulers think is required. Escalus discreetly inquires of Elbow whether there are any more officers in his locality more competent than he. Elbow replies that even those others who have been chosen happily delegate their responsibility to him.

A similar anxiety about the ungovernability of his subjects leads the Duke to put those of them he encounters under a much more sophisticated and effective mode of surveillance; though remaining coercive, it seeks additionally to get subjects to reposition themselves. First though, a word about the Duke's use of disguise. The genre of the disguised ruler generally presented him in a favourable light. But in Jacobean England we might expect there to have been an ambivalent attitude towards it. In Jonson's Sejanus, contemporary with Measure for Measure, it is a strategy of tyrannical repression; Jonson himself was subjected to it while in jail, apparently with the intention of getting him to incriminate himself.12 Next there is the question of the Duke's choice of religious disguise. As I've argued elsewhere, there was considerable debate at this time over the ‘Machiavellian’ proposition that religion was a form of ideological control which worked in terms of internalised submission.13 Even as he opposes it, Richard Hooker cogently summarises this view; it represents religion as ‘a mere politic devise’ and whereas State law has ‘power over our outward actions only’ religion works upon men's ‘inward cogitations … the privy intents and motions of their heart’. Armed with this knowledge ‘politic devisers’ are ‘able to create God in man by art’.14

The Duke, disguised as a friar, tries to reinstate this kind of subjection. Barnardine is the least amenable; ‘He wants advice’, remarks the Duke grimly (IV.ii.144) and is infuriated when the offer is refused. Barnardine is especially recalcitrant in that he admits guilt yet is unrepentant and even disinclined to escape; he thus offers no response on which the Duke might work to return him to a position of dutiful submission. But the Duke does not give up and resolves to ‘Persuade this rude wretch willingly to die’ (IV.iii.80; cf. II.i.35). A similar idea seems to be behind his determination to send Pompey to prison—not just to rot but for ‘Correction and instruction’ (III.ii.31). Earlier the Duke had been rather more successful with Claudio. His long ‘Be absolute for death’ speech (III.i.5ff) does initially return Claudio to a state of spiritual renunciation, but Claudio has not long been in conversation with Isabella before he desires to live again. Isabella, herself positioned in a state of intended renunciation, struggles to restore Claudio to his. She fails but the Duke intervenes again and Claudio capitulates.

The Duke makes of Mariana a model of dutiful subjection. Predictably, he is most successful with those who are least powerful and so most socially dependent. He tells Angelo to love Mariana, adding: ‘I have confess'd her, and I know her virtue’ (V.i.524). He has indeed, and earlier Mariana confirms his success in this confessional positioning of her as an acquiescent, even abject subject (IV.I.8-20); for her he is one ‘whose advice / Hath often still'd my brawling discontent’ (IV.i.8-9). His exploitation of her—‘The maid will I frame, and make fit for his attempt’ (III.i.256-7)—is of course just what she as confessed subject must not know, and the Duke confirms that she does not by eliciting from her a testimony:

Do you persuade yourself that I respect you?
Good friar, I know you do, and so have found it


Thus is her exploitation recast and indeed experienced by Mariana, as voluntary allegiance to disinterested virtue.

The Duke's strategy with Isabella is somewhat different. Some critics of the play, liking their women chaste, have praised Isabella for her integrity; others have reproached her for being too absolute for virtue.15 Another assessment, ostensibly more sympathetic than either of these because psychological rather than overtly moralistic, is summarised by Lever. He finds Isabella ignorant, hysterical and suffering from ‘psychic confusion’, and he apparently approves the fact that ‘through four … acts’ she undergoes ‘a process of moral education designed to reshape her character’ (pp. lxxx, lxxvii, lxxix, xci). Here, under the guise of normative categories of psychosexual development, whose objective is ‘maturity’, moralistic and patriarchal values are reinstated the more insidiously for being ostensibly ‘caring’ rather than openly coercive. But in the play the coercive thrust of such values suggests that perhaps Isabella has recourse to renunciation as a way of escaping them. When we first encounter her in the nunnery it is her impending separation from men that is stressed by the nun, Francisca. The same priority is registered by Isabella herself when she affirms the prayers from ‘preserved souls, / From fasting maids, whose minds are dedicate / To nothing temporal’ (II.ii.154-6). She seeks in fact to be preserved specifically from men:

Women?—Help, heaven! Men their creation mar
In profiting by them. Nay, call us ten times frail;
For we are soft as our complexions are,
And credulous to false prints.


If we remember that in the play the stamp metaphor signifies the formative and coercive power of authority, we see that Isabella speaks a vulnerability freed in part from its own ideological misrecognition; she conceives her weakness half in terms of women's supposed intrinsic ‘frailness’, half in terms of exploitative male coercion. Further, we see in Isabella's subjection a conflict within the patriarchal order which subjects: the renunciation which the Church sanctions, secular authority refuses. The latter wins and it is Isabella's fate to be coerced back into her socially and sexually subordinate position—at first illicitly by Angelo, then legitimately by the Duke who ‘takes’ her in marriage.

His subjects' public recognition of his own integrity is important in the Duke's attempt to reposition them in obedience. Yet the play can be read to disclose integrity as a strategy of authority rather than the disinterested virtue of the leader. The Duke speaks frequently of the integrity of rulers but the very circumstances in which he does so disclose a pragmatic and ideological intent; public integrity legitimates authority, and authority takes sufficient priority to lie about integrity when the ends of propaganda and government require it (IV.ii.77-83). And the Duke knows that these same ends require that integrity should be publicly displayed in the form of reputation. Intriguingly then, perhaps the most subversive thing in the play is the most casual, namely Lucio's slurring of the Duke's reputation. Unawares and carelessly, Lucio strikes at the heart of the ideological legitimation of power. Along with Barnardine's equally careless refusal of subjection, this is what angers the Duke the most. Still disguised, he insists to Lucio that he, the Duke, ‘be but testimonied in his own bringings-forth, and he shall appear to the envious a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier’ (III.ii.140-2, italics added). After Lucio has departed he laments his inability to ensure his subject's dutiful respect: ‘What king so strong / Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?’ (ll. 181-2; cf. IV.i.60-5). If the severity of the law at this time is anything to go by, such slander was a cause of obsessive concern to Elizabethan and Jacobean rulers,16 just as it is here with the Duke and, as we have already seen, with Escalus.

The ideological representation of integrity can perhaps be judged best at the play's close—itself ideological but not, it seems to me, forced or flawed in the way critics have often claimed. By means of the Duke's personal intervention and integrity, authoritarian reaction is put into abeyance but not discredited: the corrupt deputy is unmasked but no law is repealed and the mercy exercised remains the prerogative of the same ruler who initiated reaction. The Duke also embodies a public reconciliation of law and morality. An omniscience, inseparable from seeming integrity, permits him to close the gulf between the two, one which was opening wide enough to demystify the one (law) and enfeeble the other (morality). Again, this is not a cancelling of authoritarianism so much as a fantasy resolution of the very fears from which authoritarianism partly grows—a fear of escalating disorder among the ruled which in turn intensifies a fear of impotence in the rulers. If so it is a reactionary fantasy, neither radical nor liberating (as fantasy may indeed be) but rather conservative and constraining; the very disclosure of social realities which make progress seem imperative is recuperated in comedic closure, a redemptive wish-fulfilment of the status quo.

In conclusion then the transgressors in Measure for Measure signify neither the unregeneracy of the flesh, nor the ludic subversive carnivalesque. Rather, as the spectre of unregulated desire, they are exploited to legitimate an exercise in authoritarian repression. And of course it is a spectre: desire, culturally manifested, is never unregulated, perhaps least of all in Jacobean London. Apart from their own brutally exploitative sub-cultural codes, the stews were controlled from above. This took several forms, including one of the most subtly coercive of all: economic investment. Some time between 1599 and 1602 the Queen's Lord Chamberlain, Lord Hunsdon, appears to have leased property for the establishing of an especially notorious brothel in Paris Gardens, while Thomas Nashe declared in 1598 that ‘whoredom (the next doore to the Magistrates)’ was set up and maintained through bribery, and Gāmini Salgādo informs us that ‘Most theatre owners … were brothel owners too’.17

At the same time in this period, in its laws, statutes, proclamations and moralistic tracts, the marginalised and the deviant are, as it were, endlessly recast in a complex ideological process whereby authority is ever anxiously relegitimating itself. Measure for Measure, unlike the proclamation or the statute, gives the marginalised a voice, one which may confront authority directly but which more often speaks of and partially reveals the strategies of power which summon it into visibility. Even the mildly transgressive Claudio who, were it not for the law, was all set to become law-abiding, becomes briefly that ‘warped slip of wilderness’ (III.i.141). But if Claudio's desire to live is momentarily transgressive it becomes so only at the potential expense of his sister. The same is true of Pompey and Lucio who, once put under surveillance or interrogation by authority voice a critique of authority itself (III.ii.6-8; 89-175), yet remain willing to exploit others in their position by serving that same authority when the opportunity arises. Ironically though, it is Angelo's transgressive desire which is potentially the most subversive; he more than anyone else threatens to discredit authority. At the same time his transgression is also, potentially, the most brutally exploitative. This is an example of something which those who celebrate transgression often overlook: even as it offers a challenge to authority, transgression ever runs the risk of re-enacting elsewhere the very exploitation which it is resisting immediately.

What Foucault has said of sexuality in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seems appropriate also to sexuality as a subcategory of sin in earlier periods: it appears to be that which power is afraid of but in actuality is that which power works through. Sin, especially when internalised as guilt, has produced the subjects of authority as surely as any ideology. At the same time it may be that not everyone, indeed not even the majority, has fallen for this. The ‘sin’ of promiscuity, for example, has always been defended from a naturalistic perspective as no sin at all—as indeed we find in Measure for Measure. But those like Lucio who cheerfully celebrate instinctual desire simultaneously reify as natural the (in fact) highly social relations of exploitation through which instinct finds its expression, social relations which, we might say, determine the nature of instinct far more than nature itself:

How doth my dear morsel, thy mistress? Procures she still, ha?
Troth sir, she hath eaten up all her beef, and she is herself in the tub.
Why, 'tis good: it is the right of it: it must be so. Ever your fresh whore, and your powdered bawd; an unshunned consequence; it must be so.


And Pompey, whom he refuses to bail, Lucio perceives as ‘bawd born’ (III.ii.66). Mistress Overdone, her plight as described here notwithstanding, was one of the lucky ones; after all, the life of most prostitutes outside the exclusive brothels was abject. Overdone is at least a procuress, a brothel keeper. For most of the rest poverty drove them to the brothels and after a relatively short stay in which they had to run the hazards of disease, violence and contempt, most were driven back to it.

In pursuing the authority-subversion question, this chapter has tried to exemplify two complementary modes of materialist criticism. Both are concerned to recover the text's history. The one looks directly for history in the text including the historical conditions of its production which, even if not addressed directly by the text can nevertheless still be said to be within it, informing it. Yet there is a limit to which the text can be said to incorporate those aspects of its historical moment of which it never speaks. At that limit, rather than constructing this history as the text's unconscious, we might instead address it directly. Then at any rate we have to recognise the obvious: the prostitutes, the most exploited group in the society which the play represents, are absent from it. Virtually everything that happens presupposes them yet they have no voice, no presence. And those who speak for them do so as exploitatively as those who want to eliminate them. Looking for evidence of resistance we find rather further evidence of exploitation. There comes a time of course when the demonising of deviant sexuality meets with cultural and political resistance. From the very terms of its oppression deviancy generates a challenging counter-discourse and eventually a far-reaching critique of exploitation. That is another and later story.


  1. Measure for Measure, ed. J. W. Lever (London: Methuen, 1965).

  2. For another kind of critic sexuality in Measure for Measure continues to be seen as something deeply disruptive though now it is the individual psyche rather than the social order which is under threat. Thus for Marilyn French this is a play which ‘confronts directly Shakespeare's own most elemental fears’—hence its ‘sexual obsessiveness, mixed guilt, abhorrence’. She writes further of ‘the hideous and repellent quality sex has throughout the play. It is, it remains, evil, filthy, disgusting, diseased’ (Shakespeare's Division of Experience (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982), pp. 195-7).

  3. Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men's Press, 1982); Stuart Clark, ‘Inversion, Misrule and the Meaning of Witchcraft’, Past and Present, 87 (1980), 98-127; Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975).

  4. For the Baines document see C. F. Tucker Brooke, The Life of Marlowe and the Tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage (London: Methuen, 1930), pp. 98-100.

  5. Peter Tatchell, The Battle for Bermondsey, preface by Tony Benn (London: Heretic Books, 1983).

  6. Lawrence Stone, The Family Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977), pp. 653, 217, 654, 623-4; and F. G. Emmison has estimated that in the county of Essex around 15,000 people were summoned on sexual charges in the forty-five years up to 1603 (Elizabethan Life: Morals and the Church Courts (Chelmsford: Essex County Council, 1973), p. 1). Commenting on these figures Stone remarks that “in an adult lifespan of 30 years, an Elizabethan inhabitant of Essex … had more than a one-in-four chance of being accused of fornication, adultery, buggery, incest, bestiality or bigamy’ (The Family, p. 519).

  7. J. A. Sharpe, Crime in Seventeenth-Century England: a County Study (Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 57, 70, 215-16.

  8. A Mirror for Magistrates quoted from Thomas C. Izard's helpful study, George Whetstone: Mid-Elizabethan Gentleman of Letters (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942; reprinted New York: AMS Press, 1966), p. 140.

  9. See the Proclamation of 1546 ordering London brothels to be closed, in Tudor Royal Proclamations (3 vols.), ed. Paul L. Hughes and James L. Larkin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964-9), I, 365-6; also Wallace Shugg, ‘Prostitution in Shakespeare's London’, Shakespeare Studies 10 (1977), 291-313, especially p. 306.

  10. Stuart Royal Proclamations (vol. I), ed. James F. Larkin and Paul L. Hughes (Oxford: Clarendon, 1973), p. 47.

  11. See especially Leonard Tennenhouse, ‘Representing Power: Measure for Measure in its Time’, in The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Norman: Pilgrim Books, 1982), pp. 139-56; David Sundelson, ‘Misogyny and Rule in Measure for Measure’, Women's Studies, vol. 9, no. 1 (1981), 83-91.

  12. Ben Jonson, Works, ed. C. H. Herford and P. Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1922-52), I, 19, 139.

  13. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Brighton: Harvester, 1984; University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 9-17.

  14. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 2 vols., introduction by C. Morris (London: Dent, 1969), II, 19.

  15. In the nineteenth century for example A. W. Schlegel praised ‘the heavenly purity of her mind … not even stained with one unholy thought’ and Edward Dowden her ‘pure zeal’ and ‘virgin sanctity’. By contrast Coleridge found her ‘unamiable’ and Hazlitt reproved her ‘rigid chastity’. These other passages from earlier critics are conveniently collected in C. K. Stead, ed., Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, a Casebook (London: Macmillan, 1971); see especially pp. 43-5, 59-62, 45-7, 47-9.

  16. See especially Joel Samaha, ‘Gleanings from Local Criminal Court Records: Sedition among the inarticulate in Elizabethan Essex’, Journal of Social History, 8 (1975), 61-79.

  17. E. J. Burford, Queen of the Bawds (London: Neville Spearman, 1974); Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 483; Gāmini Salgādo, The Elizabethan Underworld (London: Dent, 1977), p. 58.

Stephen J. Phillips (review date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4875

SOURCE: Phillips, Stephen J. “‘Adapted for Television’: David Thacker's Measure for Measure.Forum for Modern Language Studies 35, no. 1 (January 1999): 23-33.

[In the following review, Phillips examines David Thacker’s 1999 television adaptation of Measure for Measure for British broadcast, highlighting the cuts, transpositions, and characterization decisions that Thacker made for the televised medium.]

In the autumn of 1994 the British Broadcasting Corporation transmitted a series of programmes that explored the work of Shakespeare. This coincided with a major festival at the Royal Shakespeare Company's London base. The BBC offerings included an overview of the cultural impact of the Bard, documentaries showing directors Adrian Noble and Michael Bogdanov at work in very different contexts, classic Shakespearean films, and a new television production of Measure for Measure by David Thacker. This was the first major British production of a Shakespeare play for television since the BBC/Time-Life series ended in 1985.1

Desmond Davis had directed the BBC/Time-Life Measure for Measure which was transmitted in Britain in February 1979. The series had begun transmission in 1978 and met with charges of dullness. Davis' Measure for Measure, however, was acclaimed. Writing in Literature/Film Quarterly in 1984, H. R. Coursen judged that it “remains one of the best” productions in the series. He argued that the play “seems almost to have been written for television”; it is a problem play, a genre that tends towards melodrama, and television audiences familiar with soaps are able to respond to this. Measure for Measure is built upon “a series of vivid one-on-one confrontations” which can be accommodated within the space of a television screen.2

Much that Coursen says is valid. Television can serve some Shakespeare plays better than others. It is not comfortable with crowd scenes; exteriors always seem phoney. The close-up is its characteristic unit, encouraging the viewer to scrutinise the actor's face. It has conditioned audiences to expect a story to unfold in a series of relatively short sequences.

Some features of the medium make it inherently unsuited to Shakespeare. British television plays rarely exceed ninety minutes; the individual programmes that make up an average evening's viewing are considerably less. If Shakespeare's plays are to be successfully transposed from the stage to the studio they must undergo a process of adaptation. Unfortunately certain restrictions prevented this from happening during the making of the BBC/Time-Life series with the result that some productions were simply bad television. I do not share Coursen's readiness to acclaim Desmond Davis' contribution to the series, and will compare this production with David Thacker's version which, I will argue, benefited from exploring ways of bringing Shakespeare to television that the BBC/Time-Life series denied itself.

Cedric Messina, who originated the series and was its producer from 1978 to 1979, wanted his directors to create productions that would be “accessible to audiences throughout the world”. They were to “let the plays speak for themselves”.3 Two major consequences of this policy were that directors could not make substantial alterations to the text and that they had to set their production either in Shakespeare's time or the period in which the story took place. However, Messina also advised them to remember that television viewers would have a very different set of expectations to a theatre audience. He wanted to make Shakespeare's plays available to a mass public via a mass medium. The language of television drama had to be respected so Messina preferred to engage experienced television directors whose experience with Shakespeare was secondary.

Messina's instructions created a double-bind situation. Directors were being asked to observe the conventions of television drama while making minimal changes to scripts that were not written for the medium. If they adapted the script so that it made better television drama, they broke one of Messina's key rules; if they kept to the rules, the result was dull television.

Unlike Messina's chosen directors, David Thacker had had considerable stage experience, which included work with the RSC, and had directed two previous productions of Measure for Measure. His television production of A Doll's House for the BBC in 1993 had won the BAFTA Best Single Drama award. Thacker was not bound by a house style such as that imposed by Messina. The opening credits of his Measure for Measure describe it as having been “adapted for television by David Thacker”. Shakespeare's play was given a modern-dress setting and major textual alterations were made to allow the editing rhythms of television to be exploited.

The opening two scenes of the 1979 production run for approximately nine-and-a-half minutes. The Alexander text was used with line 25 being cut from I.i and lines 46-55 and 106-08 from I.ii. The text published by the BBC hardly differs from a theatre prompt-book. By contrast a transcription of Thacker's adaptation of the same two scenes looks like the script of a television play.4

By inserting sequences from I.ii into the first scene, Thacker is taking account of the expectations of a television audience who are not used to lengthy exposition scenes. He cut the exchanges, which would be incomprehensible banter to the majority of television viewers, between the two gentlemen and Lucio. The former do not appear again in the play and their presence here is only likely to confuse a mass audience unfamiliar with Shakespeare. Thacker also used the language of television to foreground a major theme of Measure for Measure—the handy-dandy nature of morality. By intercutting scenes in the Ducal apartments with scenes in Mistress Overdone's establishment the audience is prepared to question the morality of the politicians. The Duke is linked with Lucio as we see both of them drinking whisky. The joyless duties of political leadership are contrasted with the sensual pleasures offered by the city's nightlife.

Thacker's version runs for about eleven minutes but moves at a faster pace than Davis' textually faithful rendition. There are more moments of silence in Thacker's production where the story is narrated by what is seen rather than by what is said, as is appropriate in a powerfully visual medium. More of Shakespeare's text can be discarded in a television production than would be possible in the theatre because the camera can pick out details that advance the story, and a television audience is accustomed to filling in the gaps as the plot-line unfolds. The Duke's long speech of praise and encouragement to Angelo (ll. 28-42) is replaced by a brief sequence in Mistress Overdone's brothel where we see Kate Keepdown and Lucio quarrelling. When the camera returns to the Ducal apartments the Duke, Escalus and Angelo are seated around a table and the Duke has got to the heart of the matter—the temporary transfer of his power to Angelo. It is clear to a television audience that time has passed and that the Duke has spent it briefing his deputy as he has already told Escalus he proposes to transfer power to Angelo while he is absent from the city.

The differing approaches to government taken by the Duke and Angelo are quickly and sharply demonstrated, using the characteristic strengths of the television medium. Tom Wilkinson plays the Duke as overwhelmed by the moral decay he sees around him. The images of a corrupt society that he watches on a wall-screen video as the opening credits are screened only provoke weariness and despair from the man who has failed to maintain respect for the law. The shutters of the room are drawn, books lie scattered around, and the Head of State seeks refuge in whisky. After the Duke's departure Angelo examines the chaotic room, looking disapprovingly at the empty whisky bottle he finds on the sofa. He plays the wall-screen video—images of hookers touting for custom, crack-smokers and cars set alight disgust him. Determinedly he searches for a book, finds the old, large tome he is looking for and takes it to the desk. While Escalus seems unready to assume his new responsibilities and says that he is unsure of the extent of his power, Angelo scours the pages of the book that will refresh his memory. Finally, he taps a page firmly, reassures Escalus, and pulls back the shutters. The camera cranes up and music swells. The shot establishes Angelo as a new broom who plans to sweep very clean. Much of this could be duplicated in the theatre but a director could not move so rapidly to the arrest of Claudio which takes place in the next sequence and then show Mistress Overdone being told the news by Pompey before following Claudio to prison where he is subjected to a strip search. As the camera follows him along the prison corridor the audience is made aware of the short, sharp shock that Angelo is preparing to administer to the city in an attempt to reverse its moral decline; the prison authorities are making arrangements to accommodate the expected rise in the number of inmates. Thacker returns to the brothel where Lucio hears of his friend's fate, leaves to “learn the truth of this”, and just escapes being arrested in the police raid that closes down the establishment.

A British audience would read Thacker's production not as a soap, as Coursen suggests could be the case with a television version of the play, but rather as a political thriller, a genre that was very popular during the 1980s and 1990s. Desmond Davis drew on horror films for the prison scenes with “flambeaux and red lighting and dwarf jailers”;5 Thacker's audience were confronted with prison officers in modern uniforms who had access to closed-circuit surveillance of the cells and an up-to-date mortuary. Aspects of Shakespeare's text that would jar with this screen treatment were cut; all references to Vienna were omitted and Constable Elbow did not appear.6 Purists will complain that such radical cuts call into question the Shakespearean nature of this Measure for Measure. If Shakespeare cannot be done well on television is it worth doing at all?

Such arguments overlook the fact that theatre companies in Shakespeare's day clearly adapted their repertoire to suit different venues—what worked at the Globe might not work at Court or on tour. Thacker is doing no worse than Shakespeare's own colleagues did to his scripts. By adapting Measure for Measure more closely to the medium of television than Desmond Davis did Thacker draws his audience into the play. Those viewers who are less than committed to Shakespeare might well have been reaching for the handset by the time Lucio and the two gentlemen were halfway through their exchange in the 1979 production. Thacker first establishes that this version will work as a television play; when he has gained an attentive audience he wields the blue pencil less freely.

Many of his cuts and transpositions in the middle section of the play are made to create short individual sequences more in keeping with the nature of television writing. For instance, Thacker breaks I.iv into two scenes. Lines 1-5 now come after I.iii and Isabella's recent arrival in the nunnery is signalled by her long hair which is being cut off by Francisca. The scene between the Duke and Friar Thomas comes next allowing time to elapse for Lucio to reach the nunnery and for Isabella to appear with a cropped head. The rest of I.iv is then played with no more cuts than might be made in a stage production. The result is more satisfying television which conforms to the viewers' expectations of the medium with regard to both editing conventions and the use of music. The latter is a powerful narrative device in television and film which Thacker skilfully employs to a degree that would be unacceptable in the contemporary theatre.

Thacker makes few major cuts in V.i, at 537 lines the longest scene in the play, and in his production it runs for just under twenty-six minutes.7 The Duke's return is covered by a television news team which allows Thacker to show other characters' responses to events taking place in the Ducal apartments as they watch the broadcast in different locations without viewers losing the dramatic thread. We are familiar with politicians addressing the nation through the electronic media so are readily caught up in the drama whereas the Duke's public return in the 1979 production which used a hoard of extras at an exterior location was less involving.

Thacker heightened the drama by cutting the lines in which Isabella reveals that Friar Lodowick, whom we know to be the disguised Duke, has warned her that he may speak against her ( The effect was enhanced further by inserting sequences at the prison where Claudio was led to mock execution and then watched the Duke's broadcast in the Provost's office. When the Duke refused to believe Isabella's charge against Angelo, Claudio expressed his contempt for the blindness and corruption of the political classes, using lines 114-17 from I.ii:

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

For a moment the viewer is led to believe that the Duke may double-cross Isabella exactly as Angelo had. The sight of Claudio alive also makes Isabella's decision to intercede with Mariana for the life of Angelo all the more momentous and moving. In Shakespeare, Claudio is not seen again after IV.ii until his appearance at the end of the play; here the television audience is reminded how significant it is that Isabella does not know that her brother is still alive. Thacker's inserted sequences at the prison break up a long scene in a manner acceptable to a television audience while not obscuring the development of this crucial final scene. He also makes some important dramatic points that would be difficult to realise on stage.

The television medium allows Thacker to illuminate other moments in the play which usually go for nothing. David Bradley's Barnadine was a pitiful alcoholic who beneath the bravado feared death and threatened his would-be executioners with a broken bottle. The mobility of television allowed Thacker to hold the shot on Barnadine after he had slammed his cell door on the Duke, Abhorson and Pompey, and to show him sinking down onto his straw and sobbing. A close-up of his face allowed us to see his expression change from one of resignation to incredulity to sincere gratitude when the Duke forgave him in the final scene. This was a man capable of change and not a character provided for mere comic relief.

Thacker also used the television medium to show another side of Pompey. When he was thrown into a cell he found his fellow-prisoner was Ragozine who lay in bed dying of fever. Thacker had Pompey wipe the sweat from his brow while speaking his lines from III.ii:

'Twas never merry world since, of two usuries, the merriest was put down, and the worser allow'd by order of law a furr'd gown to keep him warm.

(ll. 5-7)

When he was taken from the cell to become Abhorson's assistant, Pompey looked back with sympathy at the dying man. Far from being a perverse misreading of the play, Thacker used such devices that would be difficult to duplicate on stage in order to question the validity of a system of justice that does not have a place for mercy. As the Duke demonstrates in the final scene, if absolute justice were administered few characters would escape punishment. From the opening images on the Duke's wall-screen video and the despairing tone of his voice, the viewers are encouraged to believe that the city is on the verge of anarchy and that a smack of firm government is long overdue. The close-up of Tom Wilkinson's face as he watches the confrontation between Claudio and Isabella in III.i on the prison's closed-circuit surveillance system foregrounds his reaction on hearing of Angelo's abuse of power for all viewers in a way that could only be achieved clumsily in a stage production. His readiness to pass the political buck has placed a man's life in jeopardy and this shocking responsibility strikes home. What we and the Duke learn through the prison scenes is that it is easy to speak of the need for firm government but more difficult to put it fairly into practice. Thacker's humanising of Barnadine and his treating of Ragozine as something more than a convenient head amplified the complex issues of Shakespeare's play.

Traditionally British television drama has been dominated by realism, especially with regard to character development. Thacker adapts Shakespeare's treatment of character to the dominant mode of television. Angelo is fleshed out during the Duke's speech to Friar Thomas in I.iii where—as we are told that “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” (ll. 50-3)—we are shown Angelo working late at night, laying down his pen, and producing a photograph of himself with Mariana from his desk drawer. Angelo's personality is deepened for us by this indication of a side to him that neither the Duke's observations nor Lucio's claim that he is “a man whose blood is very snow-broth” (I.iv.57-8) lead us to expect. When both Escalus and Isabella ask him in Act II to consider whether he might once have been tempted to commit a similar fault to Claudio's, we know that Angelo does have something to hide. His response to Isabella is not beyond the bounds of realistic character development given what we now know of him as a result of Thacker's interpolation. But as a consequence, II.iv may lose the shocking impact that Shakespeare clearly intended it to have by structuring his plot the way he did.

Thacker's decision to adapt Shakespeare's mode of characterisation to the conventions of television realism sometimes weakens the production. He fails to find a suitable technique for incorporating asides and soliloquies into his chosen medium. He eschews both direct address to camera and voice-over. The former would obviously violate the bounds of realism but the latter has become an acceptable convention in television drama. Instead Thacker has his actors speak asides sotto voce which simply looks absurd when Corin Redgrave delivers Angelo's “She speaks and 'tis such sense / That my sense breeds with it” (II.ii.142-3) while Juliet Aubrey's Isabella sits only inches away from him!

Thacker accepts and exploits television's tradition of realism and, consequently, aspects of Shakespeare's plot begin to strain the viewer's credulity. The Duke's disguise becomes unbelievable in a medium such as television when characters share the close-up together. Kenneth Colley in Desmond Davis' 1979 version only attempted to mask his face when approached by Escalus in III.ii and when appearing in the public square in the last scene, and made no real effort to disguise his voice on these occasions. Tom Wilkinson brought the cowl of his habit forward or concealed his face in shadow, and adopted an Irish accent. Thacker also helped the viewers to accept the Duke's disguise by having Lucio suggest that he suspected Friar Lodowick was more than he claimed to be. Once again Shakespeare's characters were brought within the bounds of television realism. As a result it is hard to accept the bed-trick in Thacker's production: would Angelo really be unaware that the young, crop-headed Isabella has swopped places with the middle-aged and generously coiffured Mariana?

Such points can be accommodated in the theatre where a mixed mode of production is currently acceptable. Television generally lacks this flexibility at present. However, this is not an inherent feature of the medium as some of Dennis Potter's plays have demonstrated. Television directors of Shakespeare must adapt his work to the changing conventions of the medium just as stage directors respond to changes in the theatrical climate if they wish their productions to have any vitality; the alternative—to adapt Peter Brook's phrase—is Deadly Television. If justice is to be done to a young and rapidly developing medium, the processes of adapting Shakespeare for television will have to be more radical—and undoubtedly offend more purists—than those which are employed, without provoking so much as a murmur, when a version is prepared for the stage today.


  1. I am excluding Othello, transmitted on BBC2 in 1990, which was based on Trevor Nunn's 1989 stage production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and television versions aimed at schools such as the Animated Tales.

  2. H. R. Coursen, “Why Measure for Measure?”, reprinted in: Shakespeare on Television: An Anthology of Essays and Reviews, ed. J. C. Bulman & H. R. Coursen (Hanover, 1988), pp. 179-84 (pp. 179, 182). The play has rarely received a screen treatment and there is no record of its having been televised in English before: see K. S. Rothwell & A. H. Melzer, Shakespeare on Screen: An International Filmography and Videography (London, 1990).

  3. Messina as quoted in J. C. Bulman, “The BBC Shakespeare and ‘House Style’”, in: Bulman & Coursen, pp. 50-60 (pp. 50, 51). Both Graham Holderness (“Radical Potentiality and Institutional Closure: Shakespeare in Film and Television”, in: Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. J. Dollimore & A. Sinfield [Manchester, 1985], pp. 182-201) and Elijah Moshinsky (Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary?, ed. J. Elsom [London, 1989], pp. 114-39) discuss the institutional pressures on directors involved with the BBC/Time-Life series. However, Susan Willis concludes, “that we have the televised Shakespeare series at all is entirely due to Messina; that we have the Shakespeare series we have and not perhaps a better, more exciting one is also in large part due to Messina” (The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making the Televised Canon [Chapel Hill, 1991], p. 24).

  4. The BBC TV Shakespeare: Measure for Measure (London, 1979). I have transcribed Thacker's adaptation from a video recording. The transcription is reproduced here with his permission. In the absence of a commercially available video of the production this is a poor substitute, and it is, of course, my own interpretation of what Thacker chose that viewers should see and hear, of how he composed his shots, and of the actors' performances. David Thacker has seen this transcription and raised no objections to it. However, there will always remain a gap between the medium of print and the medium of drama, and all such descriptions of performance commit the heresy of paraphrase.

    The Ducal Apartments. The Duke watches wall-screen video from sofa; camera cranes down as music swells. Shutters closed; room dark. Images of hookers touting for custom, down-and-outs, burning cars, male stripper. Freezes video.

    (wearily) Escalus.
    My lord.
    Of government the properties to unfold
    Would seem in me to affect speech and discourse.
    Sith your own science exceeds the lists of all advice
    My strength can give you. The nature of our people,
    Our city's institutions, and the terms
    For common justice, you are as pregnant in
    As any we remember. Here is your commission
    From which we would not (with emphasis) have you warp.
    (To female PA) Call hither,
    I say, bid come before us, (pause; ominously) Angelo.
    For you must know we have
    Elected him our absence to supply;
    Lent him our terror, dress'd him with our love,
    And given his deputation all the organs
    Of our own power. What think you of it?
    (Sips tumbler of whisky)
    If any be of worth
    To undergo such ample grace and honour,
    It is Lord Angelo.
    Always obedient to your Grace's will,
    I come to know your pleasure.
    Brothel. Mistress Overdone holds Kate Keepdown's child.
    KATE Keepdown:
    Thou art always figuring discases in me but thou art full of error; I am sound. (Storms upstairs)
    Well, not, as one would say, healthy; but so sound as things that are hollow: thy bones are hollow; impiety has made a feast on thee.
    The Ducal Apartments. All seated at table.
    Hold, therefore, Angelo—
    In our remove be thou at full ourself;
    Mortality and mercy
    Live in thy tongue and heart. Escalus,
    Though first in question, is thy secondary.
    Take thy commission.
    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.
    (Tetchily; Firmly) No more evasion!
    We have with a leaven'd and prepared choice
    Proceeded to you. Your scope is as mine own,
    So to enforce or qualify the laws
    As to your soul seems good. Give me your hand;
    I'll privily away. (Putting on overcoat) I love the people,
    But do not like to stage me to their eyes;
    Though it do well, I do not relish well
    Their loud applause and Aves vehement;
    Nor do I think the man of safe discretion
    That doth affect it. (Warmly to Escalus) Fare you well.
    To the hopeful execution do I leave you
    Of your commissions.
    KATE Keepdown:
    Thou art a wicked villain! (Bites Lucio's hand) Do I speak feelingly now?
    I think thou dost; and with most painful feeling of thy speech.
    Kate Keepdown collects her child from Mistress Overdone, who passes a bottle of whisky to Lucio.
    The Ducal Apartments. Angelo finds an empty whisky bottle on the sofa; plays video-images of male stripper, crack-smoker, hookers touting for custom, burning cars. Angelo looks for a large book; takes it to the desk and consults it.
    (having looked through his brief)
    I shall desire you, sir, to give me leave
    To have free speech with you.
    A power I have, but of what strength and nature
    I am not yet instructed.
    (Taps Book) We may soon our satisfaction have
    Touching that point.
    Angelo opens shutters; books are scattered everywhere, many open. Light floods the room, camera cranes up, music swells.
    Mistress Overdone's restaurant; Pompey as waiter. Police enter and arrest Claudio. He lunges forward as they pull away Juliet and is forced face-down onto the table.
    Bear me to prison, where I am committed.
    Pompey enters the brothel from the restaurant and changes his jacket.
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    How now! what's the news with you?
    Yonder man is carried to prison.
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    Well, what has he done?
    A woman.
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    But what's his offence?
    Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    Is there a maid with child by him?
    No, but there's a woman with maid by him.
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    Who is it, I prithee?
    Signior Claudio; he's led to prison.
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    Claudio to prison? 'Tis not so.
    I saw him arrested; I saw him carried away. You have not heard of the proclamation, have you?
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    What proclamation, man?
    All whorehouses must be pluck'd down.
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    What! all our houses of resort to be pull'd down?
    To the ground, mistress.
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    Well, here's a change indeed in the commonwealth!
    Prison. Claudio is led through a dark corridor. Bed frames are being carried through for the anticipated rise in the number of inmates now that Angelo has come to power. Claudio strips for body search.
    Why dost thou show me thus unto the world?
    PRISON Officer
    (putting on rubber glove)
    I do it not in evil disposition,
    But from Lord Angelo by special charge.
    (Inserts his gloved fingers into Claudio's anus. Claudio winces.)
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    What shall become of me?
    Come, fear not you: good counsellors lack no clients. Though you change your place you need not change your trade; I'll be your tapster still. Pity will be taken on you; you that have worn your eyes almost out in the service, you will be considered.
    Lucio swaggers over to the bar with a girl and two male friends.
    Ah, behold, behold, Madam Mitigation! I've purchas'd as many diseases under her roof as come to—
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    There's one arrested and carried to prison was worth five thousand of you all.
    Who's that, I prithee?
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    Marry, sir, that's Claudio, Signior Claudio.
    Claudio to prison? 'Tis not so.
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    Ay, but I know 'tis so; and, what is more, within these three days his head to be chopp'd off.
    Art thou sure of this?
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    I am too sure of it; and it is for getting Madam Juliet with child.
    (shrugging off girl's hand): Away! I'll go learn the truth of this.
    Hooker pukes over the bar.
    MISTRESS Overdone:
    What with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with the poverty, I am custom-shrunk.
    The brothel is raided. Pompey, stripper, hookers and clients try to flee. A mirror reflecting images from a soft porn film is smashed.
    The Provost's office at the prison. Claudio seated.
    How now, Claudio, whence comes this restraint?
    From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty.
  5. The BBC TV Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, p. 19.

  6. The city's crest does appear on official documents but the average viewer would not understand its significance. Desmond Davis' 1979 production was careful to specify the location with the opening credits being superimposed over a Renaissance drawing of Vienna.

  7. Desmond Davis made no cuts at all to V.i which runs for just under twenty-nine minutes in his 1979 production.


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Measure for Measure

Classified by modern scholars as one of Shakespeare's “problem plays,” Measure for Measure has fascinated and perplexed audiences and critics alike for centuries. Set in the corrupted world of Renaissance Vienna, Measure for Measure is principally concerned with the subject of sexual morality, and is driven by Shakespeare's depiction of harsh early modern Viennese laws regarding sexual intercourse outside of wedlock. Its principal figures are the seemingly ineffectual Duke Vincentio, his severe deputy Angelo, Claudio, who has been sentenced to death for fornication, and Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella. While Isabella's entreaties for her brother's pardon do prove successful, critics acknowledge that many of the tensions raised over the course of the play remain open, resulting in a largely unsatisfactory resolution. Critical disagreement over the often contradictory manner in which the play confronts the theme of justice has been ongoing, as has the problem of the drama's structural cohesiveness, reflected by its discordant shifts in tone from comic to tragic. Overall, the debate concerning its classification, the critical struggle over ambiguities in Shakespeare's characterization, and the potent dynamics of marriage, celibacy, lust, and love continue to dominate current evaluations of Measure for Measure.

Recent critical discussion of character in Measure for Measure has typically focused on Isabella and Duke Vincentio, or on one or more of the play's minor figures. Linda McFarlane (1993) discusses Isabella's no-win situation in the play and mentions the limited choices—matrimony or chaste monasticism—offered to her as a woman, possibilities that echo during her notorious silence after the Duke's proposal of marriage. Carolyn E. Brown (see Further Reading) studies Isabella and Duke Vincentio from the point of view of psychoanalysis, concentrating on repressed sexuality as a dominating element in their relationship. Although a relatively minor figure in Measure for Measure, Lucio is nevertheless considered a significant foil to others in the drama. Charles Swan (1987) associates Lucio’s essentially comic character with a number of the play's ambiguities, noticeably in his subversive critique of the authoritarian Duke. Similarly, Kaori Ashizu (1997) highlights the importance of Barnardine, an apparently inconsequential man imprisoned by the Duke years before the action of the play and then forgotten. Using Barnardine's example, Ashizu maintains that the Duke cannot be envisioned as a completely noble or godlike governor, as a number of earlier critics have claimed.

Productions of Measure for Measure at the close of the twentieth century illustrate the play's interesting, if irregular, stage career, which has seen it produced along a continuum from a serious drama concerned with a woman's struggle to preserve her chastity, to an irreverent comedy that mocks society's hypocritical attitude towards sexual morality. Libby Appel's 1998 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of the drama places itself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum by resonating with both hard-edged sexuality and bawdy eroticism. Commenting on the performance, critic Nancy Taylor (1999) observes the drama's potential to disrupt boundaries of identity between individual characters in the play, eliminate barriers between audience and stage, and even blur the distinction between spirituality and sexuality. Highlighting David Thacker's 1999 production of Measure for Measure for British television, reviewer Stephen J. Phillips (1999) examines the cuts, transpositions, and characterization decisions Thacker made for the televised medium, and contends that Thacker’s adaptation of the play to the “conventions of television realism” weakened the production.

While thematic studies of Measure for Measure confront a number of varied issues in the work, easily the most absorbing topic to contemporary critics has been that of sexuality. Materialist critic Jonathan Dollimore (1985) emphasizes the trangressive quality of human desire depicted in the drama, which threatens the social order and is exploited by the Duke to legitimate authoritarian repression. Disruption of sexual norms also figures prominently in Susan Carlson's (1989) analysis of a feminine-centered sexuality that pressures the conventional, male-dominated sexual hierarchy of Measure for Measure. Barbara J. Baines (1990) links alternative sexualities with power in her study of Isabella's chastity. In a parallel discussion, Alberto Cacicedo (1995) notes the use of marriage as a means of limiting feminine freedom and denying autonomy in the repressive and highly-gendered society of Shakespeare's Vienna. Maurice Charney (see Further Reading) clearly voices the proposition that Measure for Measure is fundamentally a drama about human sexuality, and examines the erotic, if not openly sexual, relationship between Isabella and Angelo. Describing the work as “sadopornographic,” David McCandless (1998) explores the psychological dynamics of sexuality as punishment in the play.

Other topics eliciting recent commentary have included law, spirituality, and the troublesome question of the play's genre. Ervene Gulley (1996) offers a legalistic and meta-theatrical analysis of Duke Vincentio's performance in Measure for Measure, which, she argues, is deeply embedded in Shakespeare's conception of law. Maurice Hunt (1987) comments on the motif of earthly versus otherworldly love that reverberates throughout the drama. Confronting prior accusations of inconsistency of genre in the work, Gregory W. Lanier (1987) acknowledges Measure for Measure's problematic division between the comic and tragic, but sees in Shakespeare's balanced juxtaposition of these dramatic modes a structural unity. Likewise, Gideon Rappaport (1987) argues that Shakespeare depicts a coherent theme of virtue in the drama that vindicates its supposedly inadequate conclusion. Finally, Kate Chedgzoy (2000) surveys the stage history of Measure for Measure in order to glean insights regarding the play's resistance to the ordinary dramatic categories of comedy and tragedy.

Linda MacFarlane (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: MacFarlane, Linda. “Heads You Win, Tails I Lose.” Critical Survey 5, no. 1 (1993): 77-82.

[In the following essay, MacFarlane discusses the restrictions on Isabella's freedom as a woman in the Renaissance Vienna of Measure for Measure.]

                                                                                                              Be that you are,
That is a woman; if you be more you're none.

(Angelo, II. iv. 134-5)

In Measure For Measure Isabella is placed firmly in a no win situation. Even on the threshold of a convent, at the very moment of making a clear statement about her vocation, her desires and her sexuality, she is not safe. She is plucked back into the outside world to bear the responsibility for the sexual urges, misdemeanors and fantasies of four men.

As Lucio approaches to plead for Isabella's intervention in her brother's cause his greeting sexualises her: ‘Hail, virgin—if you be, as those cheek roses / Proclaim you are no less!’ Lucio clearly identifies Isabella by her sexuality and his subsequent encouragement of her in the face of her imminent failure to win over Angelo supposes she must use her sexuality if she is to succeed. He assumes that Isabella's assertion that she will ‘bribe’ Angelo is an offer of sex. He suggests that she ‘had marred all else!’ a statement which indicates at this early stage in the play the limited possibilities perceived by men for women. In fact Isabella's ‘bribe’ is to be ‘with true prayers’. Lucio is unable to do other than he does—the exchange he envisages is part of the parcel of assumptions about women which this play foregrounds.

It is with this ‘parcel of assumptions’ that this essay is concerned. As the play explores matters of power, justice and mercy, it chooses to do so through a revelation of gender relations which makes it deeply relevant to a twentieth-century audience. Attitudes to female sexuality and choice are a particular focus and are clearly signalled in the opening moments of the play when Isabella's choice of a convent life is being totally disregarded—in fact, is not even considered.

Angelo, of course, shares Lucio's assumptions and the fascination with Isabella's virgin state. It is her purity which makes her desirable and for Angelo, who sees sex as something corrupt and corrupting, to have that which is untouched holds its own attraction. This point about the desirability of the sexually inexperienced is made when Angelo, torn by his desires and wracked by his hatred of sex, questions himself:

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

(II. ii. 178-85)

It is noticeable that for all the emphasis on virtue and saintliness it is Isabella's lack of sexual experience, made clear in the contrast between ‘maid’ and ‘strumpet’, which stirs Angelo's temper. He is unable to envisage a state of chastity or purity which is sexual. There is nothing between abstinence and prostitution. This points to one of the many double binds women find themselves in: to be sexually active is to be suspect, to be a virgin is to be desirable and therefore potentially sexually active and potentially suspect. Either way women lose. Either way they are sexualised.

Claudio's demands of his sister are couched in a language which presumes her power: ‘sweet sister, let me live:’ and heaps all the responsibility for his life (or death) onto her shoulders. Her power to save him is vested at this juncture totally in her assent or refusal to use her sexuality.

Isabella is reduced by the attitudes of Lucio, Angelo and Claudio to a sexual being at the very point in her life when she has chosen abstinence from sex as a way of life. Isabella is reduced, not because sexual activity is essentially reductive, but because all other aspects of identity are being denied her.

The demands made of Isabella's sexuality do not end here. At the end of the play her mentor, the Duke, who in his guise of friar has ostensibly taken a vow of chastity which should guarantee Isabella's freedom from predation and respect for her own choice of vocation, exerts another pressure, again sexual and invites (commands?) marriage. This it must be noted in spite of the assurance given earlier to the Provost that ‘My mind promises with my habit no loss shall touch her by my company.’ (III. i. 178-80). It must be asked why it is felt necessary to give this assurance. It is as if, by being female, Isabella is automatically ‘at risk’ and that this ‘risk’ entails some form of taking or having by which she will be diminished in some way, hence the idea of ‘loss’. The Friar/Duke is at least conscious of the state of things even as he professes the purity of his intentions. His words also make clear that the agent of the supposed ‘loss’ would not be Isabella herself. As has already been noted, the Duke's words to the Provost prove meaningless.

Isabella and male attitudes to her are placed at the centre of the play, thus audiences are forced to face their own attitudes to female sexuality. Many directors of the play have shown us an Isabella actively or unconsciously encouraging Angelo's advances. This has usually to be done by some surreptitious glance or coy movement or even, in one recent production, by the removal of Isabella's headcovering by Angelo as she abased herself at his feet. Whilst one would not like to deny directors interpretive powers, it is clear that such an interpretation owes much to the deepseated belief that when women say no they mean yes and nothing at all to the evidence of the text. The text makes the Isabella/Angelo situation unambiguous. Angelo is attracted by Isabella's aloofness and she is prepared to bribe only with prayers. If Angelo finds all this attractive then he must, as he clearly does, accept the responsibility and look to himself:

What's this? What's this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?
Ha, not she. Nor doth she tempt; but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flow'r,
Corrupt with virtuous season.

(II. ii. 162-7)

The emphatic positioning of ‘I’ at the end of the third line of this quotation makes the point unequivocally that the tempter is imbued with the power to tempt by the tempted. That Angelo is responsible and accepts responsibility for his own feelings is clear and further, having named Isabella as tempter, he then restates his position, ‘Nor doth she tempt’. He knows who is the agent in this particular act of temptation even if others have been less clear.

What has been ignored by all the male characters is Isabella's choice of vocation. Her decision to become a nun assumes sexual abstinence as part of a way of life, but this has been disregarded as unimportant not only within the play, but by a body of opinion which has focused on Isabella as some sort of fanatic with a neurotic attachment to her virginity. The judgement is turned on the woman who in asserting her freedom to choose is held responsible for her brother's death—this in spite of the fact that she is being manipulated and pressured by men, especially Angelo, who have alternatives open to them. She is sexualised, marginalised and depersonalised as remorselessly by such criticism as she is by Lucio, Claudio, Angelo and the Duke.

One of the points the play illustrates so well is that Isabella's freedom to choose is severely limited by male versions of her, all of which limit her identity to that which is simply sexual. The issue of choice between Claudio's life and Isabella agreeing to Angelo's demands, though central to the play, is often subsumed in the spurious argument about whether Isabella would be giving up much if she agreed to Angelo's demands. Roughly stated the argument runs, ‘what's a one off sexual encounter against a man's life?’ The play is not merely asking this question. Those who reduce the issue to this align themselves clearly with those who collectively pressure Isabella and collectively disregard her version of herself and her version of personal integrity. They also miss much that is revealed by the play's probing of attitudes to sexuality, both male and female, but especially of male attitudes to women as wholly and only sexual. For if we project ourselves imaginatively into the situation where Isabella has gone to Angelo and if we approve her going though we know how unwillingly she goes, we are accepting that female sexuality should be traded to satisfy the tyrannical desires of the rich and powerful. If we accept this state of affairs then who should we really be judging?

The reduction of the issue to a simple choice between enforced sex and a man's life disregards Isabella's version of herself. She does not split off her sexuality from the rest of herself. It is an integral part of herself—in fact this attitude to the self as somehow integrated leads her to offer her life for Claudio's life. It leads her to assert: ‘I have spirit enough to do anything that appears not foul in the truth of my spirit.’ (III. i. 208). What is emphasised here is a self which has the potential to be faithful to its own idea of truth. The argument centres on a notion of integrity of ideal and action in which there can be no split between what is believed and what is done, between one's sexual self and the rest.

In spite of, or perhaps because of this version of herself, Isabella does not judge others' sexual behaviour. Her immediate response to the news of Juliet's pregnancy reveals this: ‘O let him marry her.’ (I. iv. 48). What she does judge is Angelo's abuse of power and Claudio's fear of death. Her passionate outburst as she scorns Claudio's pleading for life comes from the torment of being caught in an intolerable situation. The intemperate nature of her response and her abhorrence at what she is being asked to do is surely understandable. It should be emphasised that it is the idea of buying her brother's life with loveless and enforced sex that Isabella finds abhorrent, not sex itself. It is the context which revolts Isabella. As a woman of Christian commitment and absolute faith it should not surprise us that she has no fear of death. To Isabella death is preferable to the shame of such an exchange as Angelo has suggested. In her desperation she makes the mistake of expecting her brother to have the same response as she does.

So what is Isabella's real ‘crime’? Is it simply that she chooses a way of life which includes sexual abstinence as one of its aspects? Those of us who do not make this choice may well ask why we feel threatened by those who do—why, when someone expresses abhorrence at the idea of loveless enforced sex, we feel free to judge that person, usually female, as somehow abnormal. In Isabella's case this ‘defect’ has also been given the label frigidity, which is another sexual category applied to women, though in the situation we are dealing with it is difficult to see that the term has any meaning.

Perhaps it would be more helpful if we were to see Isabella's choice as a form of sexual freedom. After all, it is no less a sexual freedom than sexual activity in its various forms; both are circumscribed as are all notions of free choice. Indeed some might see sexual activity as the greater evil, leading, as our male writers have often shown us, to a tension between desire and the ability to cope with that desire. Such agonisings have long been the subject of male writings in the form of novels, poems, plays, jokes and films. Angelo in this play is but one example. His appallingly inadequate response to his desire for Isabella is to degrade rather than celebrate sexual desire, to be inwardly tormented into self-hatred and to outwardly disregard the otherness of Isabella. Whatever our views about the ‘value’ of individual sexuality, whether we cherish and celebrate it by being sexually active or by sexual abstinence or whether, like Angelo, we fear and mistrust it, what is abhorrent is not only that Isabella is expected to ‘give up’ that which she has chosen to ‘protect’, but that her attitude to her own sexuality as an integral part of herself is being scorned.

At the moment when the play produces absolute alternatives, it mercifully avoids the choice. The Isabella—Marianna swap is an avoidance not a negation of the situation which has been vividly presented to us. It conveniently prevents Isabella from having to face the consequences of her decision—whatever that ultimately might have been, for there were many options available. The closure in the play prevents the audience from witnessing one of the awful alternatives—the death of a man about to become a father or the sexual humiliation of a woman against her own clearly expressed wishes, almost literally on the threshold of a convent. The closure prevents the dramatic following through of either alternative, but it does not prevent the imaginative engagement with what the play has opened up.

The swap is a necessary dramatic convention and represents that moment when the play ceases to be an exploration of the attitudes to sexuality it has hitherto disclosed and imposes on itself a schematic resolution to its own problem. Having turned away from the great difficulty it has set itself the play returns to its beginning, coming full circle in the final dénouement as Isabella is propositioned by the Duke and faces once again her earlier dilemma, albeit in the form of marriage.

Isabella's failure to reply, her collapse into silence, may signal her utter disbelief and exhaustion or her resignation at the turn events have taken. It may also show that Isabella has learned to use one of the few sources of female power, silence. To reserve at least one's thoughts to oneself denies the power of knowing to others. It may also bring us back symbolically to the earlier entry into the silent and enclosed order of nuns at the play's opening or to a beginning in which Isabella's silence represented her initial inability to plead with Angelo. In any case we have learned that both her silence and her articulate pleadings, her quick-witted rhetoric and her logical arguments have got her precisely nowhere. In not answering the Duke she makes no commitment, but, ironically, places herself in the position of the woman who says nothing and can therefore mean anything.

Isabella has nowhere to turn in this play. Even as she and Marianna manipulate events to get Isabella off the hook they are indebted to the Duke for suggesting and enabling the course of action they plan to follow. It is a course of action in which power is defined in a peculiarly female form, that is the use of sex and supported by another, deceit. The very framework which enables also reveals the limits of female power and clearly reminds us that for the women in this play there is no other power available. The convenient willingness of Marianna only serves to highlight the helplessness of her situation while at the same time revealing the limited nature of the control she and Isabella have over their own lives.

As a result of the machinations of the Duke and the actions of the two women, Marianna is secure in the knowledge that she will at last be married—a state which represents one of the options open to women in the play, the others being whoredom, institutionalised chastity or pregnancy outside of marriage. All are defined by sex.

Isabella represents the female struggle to define and decide her own project for herself. If the site of the struggle is to be the limited spectrum of female choices offered in the play, all of which are delineated by particular versions of female sexuality, then she has to function within that world. When she does threaten to expose some of the corrupt structures which uphold it she is constrained by the obvious power relations between Angelo, the embodiment of state power and herself, a woman wishing only to escape the world to enter a convent. Her total defeat by Angelo, who represents one form of male power, is only prevented by her total dependence on that other powerful male, the Duke. This play shows very forcefully what is the nature of the limits placed on female choices and by whom those choices are defined. It seems Isabella would have been safe from the predations of the males only if she had become a fully fledged nun. It says much that Isabella's decision to express her sexuality in her own way could not be respected unless supported by the external and protective walls of an institution—the convent enclosing its order of nuns. It says more when we consider that this freedom is enclosed by a male sanctioned institution.

Gideon Rappaport (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5138

SOURCE: Rappaport, Gideon. “Measuring Measure for Measure.Renascence 39, no. 4 (Summer 1987): 502-13.

[In the following essay, Rappaport responds to critics who view Measure for Measure as lacking unity, contending that there is sufficient thematic coherence in the drama's resolution.]

O place and greatness! millions of false eyes
Are stuck upon thee. Volumes of report
Run with these false, and most contrarious quest
Upon thy doings; thousand escapes of wit
Make thee the father of their idle dream,
And rack thee in their fancies.


In her call for papers for the 1980 Shakespeare Association Convention's seminar on Measure for Measure, Barbara Hodgdon wrote the following sentence, which may stand as a representative postulate of problem-play criticism: “Because of its ambiguities, Measure for Measure resists cohesive treatment.” The assumption contained in this statement and the conclusion it comes to were seconded in some way by nearly all the participants in the seminar and seem to be almost universally subscribed to at the present time. Yet if the statement is true, the inevitable condition of the modern reader's relation to the play is antagonism. Our perception of ambiguity must interminably battle our longing for coherence, in our minds and in countless published skirmishes, with no peace in sight. Some critics, like L. C. Knights, feel merely a “discomfort” in the play's ambiguities (222). Others, like Ann Barton, go so far in pursuing and identifying not only its ambiguities, but its difficulties, roughnesses, stylistic contrasts, illogicalities, obsessions, and savageries, that even the vague hope for a unity produced by the play's “noncohesiveness” (as Ms. Hodgdon puts it) is dashed and only confusion remains. Those of us who love the play and are moved by it again and again may therefore be justified in inquiring whether in such assessments the incoherence is not traceable less to the play itself than to the comprehension of its audience and readers. If it is, we ought properly to distinguish those conflicts that Measure for Measure actually dramatizes from the unwarranted conflicts between us and the play that arise from our own preconceptions. Perhaps when we recognize that the villain ambiguity lies in ourselves, the supposed ambiguity of the play will vanish and peace between our perception of ambiguity and our longing for coherence, between our imagination and Shakespeare's play, will be restored.

About Isabella at the end of the play Ms. Barton writes,

Like Angelo, she has arrived at a new and juster knowledge of herself and also, by implication, of a world of compromise and imperfection which has, at least to some extent, to be accepted on its own terms.


This statement suggests that the ultimate knowledge to be gained in the play, and by implication in life, is a provisional acceptance of compromise and imperfection, an attitude in keeping with Ms. Barton's view of the end of the play as a muddle of compromised principles, defeated intelligence, and clashing values (547-48). But reading the scene again we are compelled to ask, is it not in Christian love rather than in compromise that Isabella kneels at the end? Surely her craving for justice for Angelo, a craving even the Duke pretends will not be altered, is converted not in the name of a provisional acceptance of imperfection but in the name of mercy. (The Duke himself uses the word about her kneeling.) Isabella forgives Angelo, moved by his repentance, by Mariana's plea of love, and by recognition of her own significant (though innocent) part in his fall. And she is right to do so. It is the best gesture of one who all along has had “spirit to do any thing that appears not foul in the truth of my spirit” (III.i.205-207).

Angelo, in the same scene, surrenders not merely because he has been caught: he recognizes his pride and destructive self-will as sin, honestly repents, and becomes for the first time capable of true justice in calling for the death penalty to be executed upon himself:

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.


His words here are neither ambiguous nor deceitful, any more than are his confessions in the soliloquies of Act II. Nor is Shakespeare writing in careless haste (Knights, 232) or succumbing as Ms. Barton claims, to the pressures of “comic form” (548). He is providing, rather, a polished and morally serious resolution. Where before the seemer sacrificed justice to pursue his own corrupt will, now he is able to surrender his will and his very life in the name of justice.

The Duke, whose goal all along has been not to study or torment but to guide corrupt Vienna toward the true harmony of justice and mercy and of virtue and desire, at last succeeds. In the first scene he lent Angelo “our terror” and “our love”: “Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue and heart” (I.i.44-45).

In the last scene Isabella is called to enact the truth that, at a certain point, mercy is just. And Angelo is forced to learn that there is no true justice without mercy. Both have been tested in the crucible of mortality through the false government of Vienna by Angelo and the false government of Angelo by his vice. Through a suffering, not caused but overseen by the Duke, all have come to recognize and celebrate the mysterious but now revealed truth that love makes justice and mercy one.

If these perceptions of the last scene are correct and exemplary, as more than one critic has argued, then the question the play actually raises is not what unity can there be in all this ambiguity but what is it that causes so many of us to see ambiguity in this communion? What is wrong with our vision when in looking at mercy and repentance we can see only compromise and acceptance of imperfection, when we call the “probing deep into the dark places of society and the human mind” realism but the dramatization of sublime motions of the spirit mere fairytale? (Barton, 548).

The fault with our vision is the characteristically modern axiom of thought underlying it—that the world is accidental and that meaning, in life and in plays, is a merely human (and so equally accidental) product and not, therefore, truly meaningful. The bleakness of this pervasive axiom gives rise to the conviction that seeing through all pretensions to meaning is the only true seeing there is, that only “the dark places of society and the human mind” are true and the light places, wherever they appear, must necessarily be illusions. This conviction, when it becomes a habit of mind, is known traditionally as despair. If there can be nothing but accidental meaning, then all claims for transcendent meaning must be false. If only misery is true, happiness must be suspect. Building on these unconscious assumptions we then refuse to, or rather cannot, take seriously mercy in Measure for Measure. Before we ever experience its reality as it is revealed in the play, we are certain it must be a “blatant fiction.”

The results are that we both fail to receive the play as it is and feel compelled to re-invent it according to the variety of our own conflicted images of reality while at the same time compelling Shakespeare, against his will, to validate the particular kind of misery and despair that is in fact ours alone. As F. R. Leavis puts it,

Taking advantage of the distraction caused by the problems that propose themselves if one doesn't accept what Measure for Measure does offer, [the bad prepotent tradition] naturally tends to smuggle its irrelevancies into the vacancies one has created.


The “bad prepotent tradition” is that which

has placed Measure for Measure both among the ‘unpleasant’ (‘cynical’) plays and among the unconscionable compromises of the artist with the botcher, the tragic poet with the slick provider of bespoke comedy … that incapacity for dealing with poetic drama, that innocence about the nature of convention and the conventional possibilities of Shakespearean dramatic method and form, which we associate with the name of Bradley.


In this tradition, the happy ending is either denied (Isabella does not with a gesture, accept the Duke's proposal; she may beg for Angelo's life but cannot truly forgive him) or defined out of existence (the author has weakly succumbed to the pressure of a fairytale ending in place of what should have been a realistic one—leaving, presumably, each character with a grudge or dead). Isabella becomes a heartless prude, the Duke an arbitrary tyrant, Lucio and the bawds exemplary exponents of teeming life, and Angelo everyman only to the point where he repents, whereupon he is abandoned as one more fairytale. It is certain that any hope for finding coherence in Measure for Measure within this tradition is doomed, for not only can Shakespeare not be both the authoritative dramatic genius we axiomatically take him to be and the botcher of Measure for Measure, but no play can possibly cohere for a reader despairs of all unconflicted meaning.

In fact, however, the common conclusion, based upon all the supposed ambiguities, that the shadow of the tragedies hangs over Measure for Measure is simply false. There is, first of all, no such shadow of the tragedies as the statement implies. The tragedies themselves reveal as much, containing not only a vision of evil but also as thoroughgoing a vision of good (albeit presented under a different aspect) as that to be found in the comedies. It is true that the play is different in tone and mood from both a farcical comedy like The Comedy of Errors and from a love comedy like As You Like It. The threat of death that hangs around the edges of those plays is at the center of this one. But it is not far in spirit from The Merchant of Venice or The Winter's Tale. At the same time, like them, though it is not at all bleak or conflicted as a whole, it does dramatize profound, painful and potentially deadly conflicts—to the soul as well as to the body.

Angelo is torn between pride in his reputation and the lust that belies it. Vice drives him the whole sinful route through false seeming, lechery, and murder to become the embodiment of injustice. Only the Duke preserves him from doing real damage. The general discovery of his sin destroys his pride (for his reputation, in which he takes pride, is exploded). He is then free to embrace true justice. For Claudio, the apparent conflict, whether or not to preserve his life at the expense of his sister's chastity, merely serves to reveal his real conflict between faith and despair, between love for Isabella and selfishness. This inner conflict is resolved in his acceptance of the Duke-Friar's appropriately tuned advice, a resolution from which he falls away momentarily only because of the false (and falsely embraced) hope constructed by Angelo's evil conditions. (As we shall see, understanding the terms of this challenge to Claudio's virtue is essential to understanding Isabella's reaction.)

As for Isabella, she undergoes no moral conflict at all (in the sense of having to overcome any evil in herself) but rather suffers the challenge and the pain that come with consistently responding with complete virtue to the variety of evil conditions presented to her by Angelo's villainy and to the good that is brought out of them through the Duke's endeavors. In conversation with Angelo (II.ii & iv) she is the pure voice of reason, justice, truth, and mercy. In conversation with Claudio (III.i) she is at first properly supportive of his virtuous resolution to die (“There spake my brother”). She is ready to sacrifice her life if doing so could save his (“O, were it but my life”), and we are to believe her, as Claudio himself does. She is compassionate (“Alas, alas!”) toward his fear of death, which, as the images he uses reveal, is really fear of damnation, a form of despair and Claudio's worst sin so far. And when his fear turns to reprehensible pleading (for he does become precisely a “faithless coward” and a “dishonest wretch” when his despair makes him tempt his sister to sin for his sake), she properly resist with righteous anger. Her agreement to the bed trick later is, in the circumstances, exactly what the Duke calls it, an act of virtuous boldness. And her forgiveness of Angelo at the end is the crowning act of her goodness.

Isabella's reaction to Claudio's pleading is perhaps more troublesome to the modern sensibility than anything in the play. When we read her outburst,

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. 143-46)

we are tempted to compare it with the moment in Act V when she kneels to beg forgiveness for Angelo and to conclude that Isabella has been changed. She has grown, according to one interpretation, out of a selfish and prudish harshness into a newly acquired humility; or, according to another, out of an honest if distasteful-sex revulsion into a fake and superficially comic coupling instinct. Even Robert G. Hunter, in his otherwise excellent discussion of the play, likens Isabella to Angelo and finds “an armor of unyielding righteousness” and “an instinctive turning to death as a way out of life's difficulties” behind Isabella's “lack of charity in her harsh judgment of the human weakness of Claudio.” He claims that Isabella's solution to the problem of Claudio's sinful weakness is his death” (218-23).

But to argue in these ways is to misunderstand what evokes the different reactions in Isabella. The contrast is not between a healthy and a sick or an innocent and a guilty response to “man's sinful nature.” The true contrast is between the virtuous reaction to penitence and the equally virtuous reaction to sin, for the Claudio that pleads for his life here, while he is very like the Angelo of the previous scene, is very unlike the Angelo Isabella forgives in Act V. The difficulties of seeing Isabella's virtue at this moment are dispelled in Philip Thompson's discussion of the lines:

[Their] meaning is an unexpected one. … The statement is certainly opposed to charity, but you could say that in such a situation an act of charity could be expected only of a saint. What some see in Claudio as only a natural weakness [Isabella] feels as a mortal assault, and it is for this violent crime that she personally condemns him to death, as anyone but a saint would condemn to death his murderous assailant at the moment of attack. Claudio's crime here is like Angelo's in being the fruit of weakness, and it is as bad as Angelo's in its disregard of everything but the weakness inspiring it. To gain the power to repudiate his crime against her (his only sin), Claudio needed to feel the fury of her swift and devastating judgement (“judgement” itself).

Her prayers for his death … are … prayers for his good death. Forgiveness-of-sins and judgement are not contraries: reflecting, I forgive any man any sin against me because I wish all sinners (every man) to overthrow the government of sin and to find the salvation established by divine forgiveness; suffering at the hands of sin, I resist it with the judgement and the hope that “the wages of sin is death,” and Claudio concurs.

As judgement itself in the person of the Duke moves Angelo to repent in Act V, so in the person of Isabella it moves Claudio here. It is Claudio, then, who has become for the moment an Angelo. Isabella has not.

Two additional passages require specific mention since, together with her angry response to Claudio's plea for life at the expense of her chastity, they constitute the only cause for the accusations made against Isabella even by those who admit her fundamental goodness and her final forgiveness: they are her first words to the nun Francisca wishing “a more strict restraint / Upon the sisterhood” (I.iv. 1-5) and Lucio's repeated exhortations to her to speak again and less tamely to Angelo in Act II, Scene ii.

Isabella is accused of a proud and uncompassionate moral rigor in wishing the most strict of the orders of nuns to be stricter still and in being willing to settle for Angelo's initial pronouncement without further resistance. But here is another example of the tendency to fill the space left by the rejection of what Shakespeare has given us with the problematic inventions of our own minds. Only one already doubtful that the desire for a perfect strictness could be a sign of piety and devotion would read Isabella's first lines as other than a sign of just that. And those who can entertain the possibility of such a representation of piety but reject that interpretation are reading backward, looking at the introduction of Isabella through eyes already clouded by what the “bad prepotent tradition” has had to say about Isabella's later actions.

Likewise, that Isabella needs Lucio to prod her to defend her brother is not a sign of “the frosty lack of sympathy of a self-regarding puritanism” (Knights, 222), but rather a sign of her innocence of that morally corrupt and unredeemedly passionate world which has called her from the gates of a haven of holiness to do battle with it in the name of goodness. She does need prodding, not because of unfeeling detachment but because of her unfamiliarity with and innocence of the powerful evil and rank injustice hidden behind the very authority she ought to be able to (and does at first) trust. Isabella is not an unfeeling prude learning the riches of teeming life but a lively innocent confronting the cold hard fact of sin, learning that there are seemers. Lucio knows better at this moment not because he loves more compassionately but because he is cynical about all authority, the Duke's as well as Angelo's, and seeks to preserve license against all preventions, tyrannical or just. And it is precisely because she does love her brother, and distrusts the justice of the sentence upon him, that Isabella puts off her meekness, responds to Lucio's encouragement, and confronts the authority of Angelo.

Finally, the Duke himself, like Isabella, is guiltless and exemplary and in no way internally conflicted, and like Isabella he has been slandered by those who ought to know better than Lucio. Even a critic who acknowledges that the Renaissance held ideal government to be an instance of imitatio dei and who observes the Duke's similarity to the absent testing master of the Gospel parables, as does Louise Schleiner, nonetheless accuses the Duke of spiritual usury, of cruel manipulation and of a comically ironic failure to be God (227-35). Arguing that the play “shows what a delicate balance exists between morality … and the potent drives” of unredeemed men like Pompey and Barnardine, between the Duke's craft and Angelo's vice, Ms. Schleiner asks, “Why must the play be either dark or sententious?” She answers, in effect, that thanks to the magic of irony it is really both. But to think of good and evil, of God's mercy and men's sins, as equal opposites, to settle for “a comedy of a well-intentioned ruler with the rather quixotic notion of actually imitating the New Testament God in his government” (235), is again to pretend that the incoherence we observe because of our own cynicism is in fact the coherence of a reductive Shakespearean irony. It is to get the allusions but miss the point.

And the point is that Renaissance sentences, as Renaissance audiences well knew, often contain not merely sententiousness but truth. True to life goodness in a dramatic character is not for them a contradiction in terms. The Duke never does think of himself as imitating God (is not proud) but is meant to be seen by the audience as like God (just, merciful). Nor does he manipulate the souls of Vienna in the name of some kind of egotistical spiritual usury. (Here Ms. Schleiner gets even the allusion wrong.) Rather, he leads them to become more worthy the Creditor before whom all men are, as the Lord's Prayer worded it in Shakespeare's day, debtors. His confession that he has been too lax in his government is not a dramatic complication to be pounced on as a sign of his dubious authority or inconstant nature; it is rather a revelation of his humility in blaming others' sins on himself and of his gentle character in resisting severity as long as possible.

The critic continues to miss the point when she argues that the Duke, to be justified as a ruler and as a man, ought to be even more like God than he is and that the play ought not to be called “straightforwardly doctrinal” because it is unthinkable that one of the goats on Judgement Day would interrupt God with “bawdy, self-serving interjections,” as Lucio interrupts the Duke in Act V. To argue thus is to misunderstand both Christian doctrine and Shakespearean drama. The former is presented as mere theater so irrelevant to life that the latter is doomed to choosing between it and truth. If doctrine is present, so the error inevitably concludes, it can only be that Shakespeare means us to see it ironically (Schleiner, 232).

It is true, of course, that no ruler, no man, can transform the dark sinfulness of men. But, according to Shakespeare's drama, the divine love can, and it does so not by offering an unattainable ideal but by working actively in the lives of men, inspiring just rulers and transforming sinful villains. Nor does truth to life, as Shakespeare employs it, preclude the “straightforwardly doctrinal” representation of divinity thus working in the world. Shakespeare steers between our ideas of pure allegory and slice-of-life realism, combining poetic allusions to the rich complexity of Christian texts and tradition with a dramatically convincing articulation of character. Only the conflicted modern sensibility will demand that Shakespeare confine himself to writing either mystery plays or Ibsen. Only in a peculiarly modern species of despair will critics assume that doctrine and life are absolute contraries which can never coexist in the same play (or in the same world) unless irony wed them. Shakespeare did not assume so, and the Duke, like any other Shakespearean character rightly understood, is proof. He is a man moved by justice and mercy, and only thus does he stand poetically and dramatically for the One in whom justice and mercy have their source.

The Duke defers telling Isabella that Claudio is alive not in cruelty but in goodness and for two complementary reasons. First, Claudio must be thought to be dead by all, including Isabella, if her own pleading for justice, Angelo's repentance, and the Duke's judgement are to have full force. Second, the Duke wants, just as he says, “To make her heavenly comforts of despair, / When it is least expected” (IV.iii. 110-11)—that is, to reward her not merely with the life of her brother but with his resurrection. Claudio's reappearance becomes, for the audience as well as for the characters, an image of all heaven's reunions, of the comfort that despair cannot imagine. Thus Shakespeare, so far from botching the play or cheating us with an “ironically employed theological pattern” (Schleiner, 227), is in fact demonstrating that not only sin but its wages, death itself, can be transformed by God's grace; that all trials are at last redeemed in being revealed as mercy working for our good. Act V is not heaven debunked by the world but heaven foretold in it. It is the slanderous fantastic Lucio, benightedly imagining his prince to be no better than himself, who calls the Duke “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners.” The audience, enlightened by the play, ought to see more clearly: the Duke only enters dark corners to bring light. Not to see this is to miss the whole dramatic point, to be guilty of studying to ironic, novelistic tatters what was written to be dramatically apprehended as deep and simple truth.

One additional example of the supposed incoherence of the play lies in the apparent ambiguity of the Duke's attitude to unsanctified sexual union. He calls for Claudio and Juliet to confess the sin of their deed and then arranges for Mariana to perform the same deed with Angelo. The ambiguity disappears, however, when we recognize that while the acts may be the same, their spiritual contents are opposite. The parallel is crafted precisely to dramatize that the real issue in both cases is the right relation of sexuality to sacrament. Claudio and Angelo have both been guilty of divorcing the two and thereby of betraying each his betrothed, Claudio through his passion's impatience and Angelo through his more vicious denial of love; one in the act of sexual union, the other in withholding himself from that union and the consummation it implies. The begetting of life and the consequent threat of death force Claudio and Juliet to recognize their sin and to repent. Angelo comes to recognition and repentance by finding that it is not after all Isabella but Mariana who has satisfied his lust. (That she has satisfied it is a demonstration to him, and to us, of the illusory nature of his compulsion to possess Isabella.) Both Claudio and Angelo have learned that the only worthy love is the love that defeats lust in sacramental union and that it alone constitutes their true happiness.

In the end, it is love that resolves all the real conflicts in the play—between justice and mercy, sexuality and sacrament, will and conscience, tongue and heart. And the resolution consists in the recognition that where love governs there is no conflict between these things. This is why the pairings of the last scene are in no sense the theatrical “disease” Ms. Barton accuses them of being (548). Such an accusation can grow only out of an utter misreading of what has gone before, the sort of misreading that finds at the foundation of Isabella's character an “irrational terror of sex” (546). But Isabella has no such negative terror. She has, rather, a positive love of chastity which, for Isabella as for Shakespeare, includes both the virginity of the convent and the sacramental union of the marriage bed. It is not sex but sin that Isabella would shun, and not out of false antipathy but out of a true love of the good. Her movement toward marriage from the celibacy of the convent does parallel Angelo's movement toward it from his pretensions to icy virtue, but only in outward form. In spirit they are complementary opposites. Hers is a progress to redeemed earthy love through all virtues: his is a progress to the same through sin and repentance.

The marriages at the end are thus the appropriate symbols, the incarnations, and the joyful rewards of the harmony of love. Isabella accepts the Duke's loving proposal (on stage must be shown to do so with a gesture), for it does import her good. Angelo has received both mercy and his life, and will now properly value both, because of Mariana. And because of her faithful love, and for the sake of their sworn, consummated, and now finally acknowledged and sanctified union, he will learn to forgive even himself. These marriages are no more fairytales (again in Ms. Barton's negative sense) than Angelo's falseseeming or Claudio's moment of despair. Nor does the Duke's influence on events bespeak chaos in heaven. Rather the resolution of all the play's painful conflicts in sacramental marriage embodies and prefigures the harmony of heaven itself.

There is no desperation and no confusion of values in Measure for Measure. And Shakespeare did not write problem plays. The play is, in fact, a clarification of values, a demonstration of the truth that “with what measure ye mette, it shal be measured to you againe” (Matthew 7:2, Geneva). And let us be sure what this means in the play. It is not merely an expression of the principle of an eye for an eye, whose apparent abrogation by repentance and forgiveness in the last scene many critics find so hard to swallow. Rather, it means that as the measure of sin will be the measure of punishment, so the measure of repentance will be the measure of forgiveness. As justice will requite sin, so mercy will requite penitence. (We may add, as ambiguity will require doubt, so coherence, at least in Shakespeare, will requite faith.) In the Gospel itself it is not the plucking out of eyes that is being discussed but the redeeming of their sight:

Hypocrite, first cast out the beame out of thine owne eye, and then shalt thou se clearely to cast out the mote out of thy brothers eye.

(Matthew 7:5, Geneva)

In the recognition of one's own fallibility and the forgiveness of the other's lies the harmonizing of justice and mercy. The Duke and the Friar, as the quick changes of the last scene impress upon us, are one.

In seeing both the mote of Claudio's sin and the beam of Angelo's, the Duke is a representation of Divine Providence (as accusers and defenders of the play both claim), but no more so than any fictional ruler who has succeeded in removing the beam from his own eye. And Isabella is a representation of the sanctified human soul, but no more so than any fictional heroine who always responds with the particular virtue called for by the moment. Her responses, meekness and boldness, argument and outrage, courage and patience, and finally forgiveness, all reveal a soul answering in right measure to the civil and good measures that confront her. She is an appropriate wife for the Duke, for they are of one mind in goodness. Thus it is precisely the coherence of virtue that Shakespeare has made wonderfully visible in Measure for Measure, a coherence which the Duke and Isabella embody, which Claudio and Angelo learn, and in which, if we will only permit ourselves, we may in full measure rejoice.

Works Cited

Barton, Ann. Introduction to Measure for Measure. In The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1974.

Hunter, Robert. Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.

Knights, L. C. “The Ambiguity of Measure for Measure.Scrutiny 10 January 1942.

Leavis, F. R. “The Greatness of Measure for Measure.Scrutiny 10 January 1942.

Schleiner, Louise. “Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure.PMLA 97 1982.

Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. The Riverside Shakespeare.

Thompson, Philip. Letter to the author, Nov. 1, 1981.

Maurice Hunt (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7879

SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “Comfort in Measure for Measure.Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 27, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 213-32.

[In the following essay, Hunt investigates the theme of spiritual comfort and its complex relationship to the human capacity for love, primarily represented through the figures of Isabella, the Duke, and Mariana in Measure for Measure.]

Pax vobiscum”—versions of the time-honored words of spiritual comfort repeatedly echo in Measure for Measure, especially in the language of Vincentio and Isabella, the disguised Friar Lodowick and the aspiring nun. “Peace be with you” Vincentio exclaims at the end of Act III, when Escalus announces that he will visit condemned Claudio, whom Vincentio has attempted to comfort through a vision of the hollowness of earthly life. Earlier in the play, Lucio travesties the familiar blessing when, upon entering the nunnery of Saint Clare, he presumptuously shouts, “Hoa! Peace be in this place!” (I.iv.6).1 “Peace and prosperity!” Isabella understandably replies; if comfort exists anywhere, it ought to live in a convent. These greetings of comfort help constitute the approximately twenty expressions of comfort in Measure for Measure, a total higher than that for any other appearance of the word or its derivatives in Shakespearean comedy. That fact alone suggests that comfort may be an important idea in this dark comedy. At the center of the play stands a scene in which comfort is first offered, then lost, only to be finally refound. Positioned thus in the play, the scene, in retrospect, offers itself as a model of the movement of the drama as a whole. An analysis of Act III, scene i of Measure for Measure reveals Shakespeare's understanding—at least his 1602-1604 understanding—of the complex relationship between love and the ability to give and receive comfort. The despair of Claudio, who desperately loves life, indicates that the key to the relationship does not simply involve one's relative capacity for love. Rather, as the character of Mariana suggests, the redemptively mixed quality and aim of one's love determines a life of comfort for others, if not necessarily for oneself, during a stormy earthly pilgrimage. Identifying the special make-up and goal of Mariana's love thus becomes crucial for understanding the source of comfort in Shakespeare's Vienna—not only in the events of Act III but in those of Act V as well. And yet that wellspring of comforting love flows in Act V only when Providence helps arrange dramatic events so that Vincentio can tap it. Both virtuous Isabella and philosophical Vincentio discover in the course of the play that they have some truths to learn about love and comfort, truths crystallized in the haunting figure from the moated grange.

Analysis begins with the conclusion of Act II. There, Isabella, shocked by Angelo's threat to draw out tortuously her brother's death because of her refusal to yield to his lust, resolves to reveal to Claudio the extent of her propositioner's vice:

Then, Isabel live chaste, and brother, die:
More than our brother is our chastity.
I'll tell him yet of Angelo's request,
And fit his mind to death, for his soul's rest.


In her capacity as nun rather than natural sister, Isabella seemingly plans to use Angelo's outrageous demand as an example of corruption that makes any worldly life, including Claudio's, not worth living. The comfort of dying that Isabella intends to offer Claudio, however, quickly becomes Vincentio's subject during the opening of Act III. As Friar Lodowick, Vincentio, in a bravura oration (“Be absolute for death”), argues that feverish, self-tormenting life is only a breath that “none but fools would keep” (III.i.8). Powerfully “proving” that life is death's fool, Vincentio claims that mundane existence is an ignoble, cowardly, insubstantial, unhappy, uncertain, impoverished, friendless, teasing affair:

                                                                                                    what's yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths; yet death we fear
That makes these odds all even.


Doomed Claudio appears to find comfort in the Friar's compelling portrayal of the endless discomfort of this world:

                                                  I humbly thank you.
To sue to live, I find I seek to die,
And seeking death, find life. Let it come on.


At the midpoint of the play, the question of consolation appears to have been quite easily and definitely settled.

Because Vincentio has been a “man of comfort” for some time, his apparently effective consoling of Claudio is not surprising. When the Duke, disguised as Friar Lodowick, approaches Mariana, who is listening to a boy's plaintive song, she exclaims:

Break off thy song, and haste thee quick away;
Here comes a man of comfort, whose advice
Hath often still'd my brawling discontent.


Paradoxically, the character who gradually emerges as the wellspring of comfort in the play confesses her repeated need for consolation. Moreover, Mariana's comment implies a time frame for Vincentio-as-Lodowick much larger than we had imagined; as a “man of comfort,” Friar Lodowick has successfully consoled Mariana, bereft of her brother Frederick, on many occasions. Apparently Vincentio's request that Friar Thomas supply him with a religious habit and instruct him how he “may formally in person bear / Like a true friar” (I.iii.47-48) antedates Mariana's remark by much more time than we had supposed.2 Rather than implying double-time in Measure for Measure, Mariana's comment firmly establishes Vincentio's character as a man of comfort. The Duke has, after all, been portrayed by reliable Escalus as “a gentleman of all temperance”—high praise within the dramatic context of Hamlet, whose protagonist regards the virtue as the source of composure amidst a sea of troubles.

Immediately after Vincentio's consolation of Claudio, Isabella's saintly pax vobiscum is heard—“What hoa! Peace here; grace and good company!”—a benediction of comfort ironically extended to a young man who has seemingly just attained spiritual relief. Responsive to Isabella's greeting, Claudio pointedly says, “Now, sister, what's the comfort?” (III.i.53). Isabella replies:

As all comforts are: most good, most good indeed.
Lord Angelo, having affairs to heaven,
Intends you for his swift ambassador,
Where you shall be an everlasting leiger.
Therefore your best appointment make with speed;
Tomorrow you set on.


During the series of questions and answers which follows, Claudio discovers that he might live if Isabella would give up her virginity. His outburst over her refusal reveals that he has not, in fact, been comforted by Friar Lodowick's contemptus mundi argument:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bath in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world: or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling,—'tis too horrible.
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a paradise
To what we fear of death.


In retrospect, Vincentio's lack of success with Claudio is predicted by his similar failure to console Juliet. After leading a penitent Juliet to embracing the “shame” of her pregnancy “with joy,” a satisfied Vincentio exits with the blessing “Benedicite,” only to leave the audience to hear the mother's words of torment:

                                                                                                              O injurious love,
That respites me a life, whose very comfort
Is still a dying horror!


Even as Claudio's “comfort” thinly masks the terror of dying, so Juliet's “content” hides a horror at the imminent execution of the father of her unborn child. In each case, Vincentio not only overestimates the power of his consolation but underestimates the human frailty of his subject as well.

When attempting to account for Vincentio's notable lack of success in comforting Claudio, critics sometimes refer to the Duke's conspicuous omission of any reference to the joys of a Christian afterlife.3 In their view, a morbid Vincentio paints only one panel—the somber one—of the traditional diptych of contemptus mundi.4 The Duke's omission is even more striking in light of his apparent belief in Christian Providence; Vincentio's later allusion to the unfolding star that calls up the shepherd, resonant with overtones of the Nativity, reflects a hope that an otherworldly providence abets his own faltering efforts at redemption.5 And yet we should not expect that any mortal, regardless of spiritual qualifications, can fully comfort another condemned to a possibly unjust death. While we have no reason to doubt the reality of the generally temperate life that Escalus ascribes to the Duke, Vincentio has, on at least one occasion, been an intemperate ruler of Vienna. That is simply to say that he is a man—a creature unable to conform to his own idealistic account of the wise ruler drawn in tetrameter couplets at the end of Act III.6 Vincentio's lapse in enforcing unpleasant laws has allowed Viennese vice to grow unchecked to the degree that the painful and deceptive measures which form the play's subject matter are necessary. An early version of the retiring Prospero, Vincentio has been too comfortable in his lax withdrawal from his people, from the hurly-burly required for political strength. He has, through his license, made his subjects too comfortable with such an illegal act as fornication. Vincentio tells Friar Thomas that his “secret harbour hath a purpose / More grave and wrinkled than the aims and ends / Of burning youth” (I.iii.4-6). Almost certainly an older man, the Duke perhaps takes unjustifiable pride in having a “complete bosom” that the “dribbling dart of love” cannot pierce (I.iii.1-3). Though not a “burning youth,” Vincentio later falls in love with Isabella. While he has ever strived to know himself, the Duke, on at least one count, has not fully acquired self-knowledge.

Thus it is not surprising that imperfect Vincentio cannot convert Claudio. In a figure who, like Hamlet, can admire balance and reasonable moderation but never precisely attain them, the omission—for whatever reason—of the crucial heavenly half of the diptych of contemptus mundi nicely reveals the inner disproportion of an ethical character who would seem to be perfect.7 Claudio's speech implies that no lasting comfort can be found for mortals for whom death is the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns. Through the centuries, audiences have responded more warmly to Claudio's poetic cry of the heart than they have to the Duke's set piece on the empty promise of this world, primarily because Claudio's rich imagination triggers the spectator's instinctive love of life. Shakespeare validates Claudio's outburst through the character of the convict Barnardine, who ironically is so comfortable in the most wretched circumstances that he feels no need to seek or receive Vincentio's spiritual comfort. And yet, unlike Claudio, Barnardine does not cling to misery because he fears death. Still, Barnardine's attitude, regarded in the light of his “loathed worldly life,” underscores Claudio's protest; a rooted and (in Claudio) somewhat attractive love for admittedly miserable life may qualify the impact of spiritual comfort in Measure for Measure.8

In keeping with the impasse between earthly love and spiritual comfort, Isabella extends no comfort to the brother who would cling to a life which he loves, if for no other reason than Juliet's and his unborn child's welfare. It is clear, as critics of the play often emphasize, that any dislike we feel for Isabella derives, in large part, from her resolve—so much like Olivia's in Twelfth Night—to remove herself from those warm realities that make life worth living. After all, it takes a degree of emotional detachment to pun upon the words “ambassador” and “leiger” while telling a brother that a vicious judge will send him, via bloody execution, to another world. Moreover, once Isabella hears Claudio's compromising proposal, she lashes out so unnecessarily that countless audiences have been pained by her words:

                                                                                          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.


At this point, the eavesdropping Duke intercedes, unaccountably excusing Angelo, who Vincentio claims is “testing” his judgment of human nature by making an odd trial of Isabella's virtue. The Duke then, without any attempt at rhetorical persuasion, baldly proclaims that Claudio must be absolute for death on the morrow, even though he has heard his philosophy fail in Claudio's horror at the loss of all sensation. A second time in the scene Claudio admits to having received comfort, although in this case the deceptively genuine ring of his words issues from the blackest of moods. “Let me ask my sister pardon. I am so out of love with life that I will sue to be rid of it” (III.i.170-71). Vincentio has not persuaded Claudio of life's worthlessness; nor has Claudio silently shed his natural fear of death. The utter despair that should be heard in the actor's tone of voice reveals that the cruelest resignation, rather than positive insight, motivates Claudio's willingness to die.

In summary, the positive comfort promised at the beginning of this scene is never truly felt by its intended object. Alone with Isabella, Vincentio proposes his trick of substituting Mariana for Isabella in a dark meeting with Angelo, thus preserving Claudio's bartered life and Isabella's virginity. “The doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof” (III.i.258-59). Or so Vincentio argues. Isabella's reaction to Vincentio's scheme predicts a comic resolution for the play: “The image of it gives me content already, and I trust it will grow to a most prosperous perfection” (III.i.260-61). The comfort announced in this remarkable scene's beginning is fulfilled in its closing lines, although in a sense initially unintended. “I thank you for this comfort,” Isabella exclaims, referring to Vincentio's morally ambiguous bed-trick; “fare you well, good father” (III.i.269-70). Paradoxically, the positive comfort promised for Claudio is felt by the uncomforting Isabella; strangely, comfort has been found not in the other world but in the machinations of this morally muddy one.

Vincentio's final promise of comfort relies upon the whole-hearted cooperation of Mariana. The comfort recovered at the end of III.i in fact radiates from this enigmatic character, isolated by the moated grange—the reduced green world of this perplexing comedy.9 As part of his scheme, Vincentio explains to Isabella that Mariana has known extreme worldly loss in her brother Frederick's death by drowning, the sea-swallowing of her marriage dowry, and in rejection by her betrothed Angelo. “Did Angelo so leave her?” Isabella incredulously asks. “Left her in her tears,” Vincentio affirms, “and dried not one of them with his comfort” (III.i.224-26). Isabella's angry reaction focuses the solution offered by dying: “What a merit were it in death to take this poor maid from the world! What corruption in this life, that it will let this man live!” (III.i.231-33). In Measure for Measure, ideas meant for one character often make a striking impression upon a character who has no need for them. It is as though the life-denying Isabella has heard Vincentio's “be-absolute-for-death” speech and been truly persuaded by it. Like Angelo, who later sues for death rather than mercy, Isabella strikes the viewer as a rather brittle character who has never loved life, or as one who has never found anything lovable in life. Thus she stands amazed at Mariana's desire to embrace not only this often sorrowful life but also the man who has so basely wronged her. Obviously Isabella cannot imagine herself doing so. Vincentio patiently explains: “This forenamed maid hath yet in her the continuance of her first affection. His unjust unkindness, that in all reason should have quenched her love, hath, like an impediment in the current, made it more violent and unruly” (III.i.239-43).

Hearing these words, we may briefly recall Helena's masochistic love for Demetrius, the unhealthy affection in A Midsummer Night's Dream that grows stronger with each of Demetrius's insults.10 Yet this context from the earlier comedy, if remembered at all, is not an appropriate one for judging Mariana's affection. In the later comedy, a more positive frame of reference emerges. By saying that Mariana's love for Angelo has strangely grown out of his betrayal, Vincentio touches upon the mystery of self-denying, spiritual love. “Violent and unruly,” part of Mariana's love for Angelo is strongly passionate; at first glance, the loves of Mariana and Juliet seem to be similar in their turbulence. The pregnant Juliet has cried out against the lacerating love that saves her life—for her child's sake—and yet condemns the child's father (II.iii.40-42). Unlike Juliet, however, Mariana understands that passionate love, rather than being injurious, can be the key to salvation for herself as well as for others. It does, after all, urge her to play the potentially redemptive role Vincentio writes for her when reason and personal honor would dictate otherwise. And yet directing Mariana's erotic feeling is the greater part of her love—her love against all sense for her enemy.11 Graciously bestowed where undeserved, Mariana's secular agape condenses the “Mary” of her name.12 Her self-sacrificial devotion to Angelo does make her an intercessor for mankind in the fallen world of the play. Ironically, it is the Catholic novice Isabella who can least appreciate this greater love of Mariana's.

Shakespeare comments upon the staging of comfort in III.i in the comic episode following it. Richard Levin has explained how Shakespearean comedy often acts as either a foil to or a parody of ideas seriously presented in a play.13 Often a comic episode functions simultaneously as foil and parody.14 Such is the case in III.ii of Measure for Measure. The scenario in question begins when Pompey, arrested for being a pimp, is about to be hauled off to jail; straightway, he sees his salvation in Lucio: “I spy comfort, I cry bail! Here's a gentleman, and a friend of mine” (III.ii.40-41). In other words, Pompey resembles Claudio needing comfort while Lucio takes the place of the comforter Vincentio. Pompey's word “bail” crystallizes what was latent in the preceding scene; the ghostly father Lodowick's initial comfort—“be absolute for death”—implies Christian redemption. Christ was the bail for mankind, just as Christ's vicar, the Friar, ought to be. However, as depraved and ridiculous foils, Pompey and Lucio heighten the genuine dilemma of Claudio and the well-meant if ineffective counsel of Vincentio. Cruelly baiting Pompey, Lucio certainly is no savior. “I hope, sir, your good worship will be my bail?” (III.ii.70), Pompey entreats. “No, indeed will I not, Pompey,” Lucio replies, “it is not the wear. I will pray, Pompey, to increase your bondage; if you take it not patiently, why, your mettle is the more!” (III.ii.71-73). “You will not bail me then, sir?” (III.ii.78), Pompey asks plaintively a third time. “Then, Pompey, nor now,” Lucio coldly responds. Shakespeare now appears to be parodying Isabella's icy refusal to bail Claudio once she learns that he would embrace life at the price of her virginity. Like Claudio, Pompey receives no true comfort. In the longer speech quoted above, a certain malice creeps into Lucio's wish that Pompey's bondage be increased—not abated. The parallel focuses and accentuates the cruelty latent in Isabella's desire that Claudio die quickly. “I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,” Isabella has asserted, “no word to save thee” (III.i.145-46).15 In short, Pompey's and Lucio's dialogue causes the viewer to realize that Vincentio's bed-trick depends upon sacrificial bail rather than a legally complicated rationale for what constitutes Elizabethan marriage.16 More precisely, Vincentio's bed-trick is possible only because in Act III, the still-loving Mariana is a sacrificial bail for Claudio and Isabella, intending to save his life and her virtue. Through the comic episode, Shakespeare stresses by contrast (or by default) the indispensability and admirable nature of Mariana's sacrifice, causing us to realize that such an act, beyond the grasp of reason, can give desperately-needed comfort.

After listening carefully to the dialogue of Act III, a question forms itself in the mind of the theater audience. Does Vincentio, a character who has denigrated romantic love (“the dribbling dart”), possess an adequate understanding of how love can lead to comfort?17 While the passionately loving Mariana's role in his bed-trick would indirectly indicate that he does, his somewhat cold and unsuccessful attempt to comfort Claudio casts doubt upon the question. Moreover, while Vincentio at one point says “I love the people,” he quickly adds “But do not like to stage me to their eyes” (I.i.67-68). His attitude appears to stem from a disdain for popular enthusiasm:

Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause and Aves vehement;
Nor do I think the man of safe discretion
That does affect it.


Yet Shakespeare later suggests that Vincentio misreads his people's affection for him. Stung by his lust for Isabella, Angelo creates an elaborate simile of how his blood rushes to his heart, incapacitating him:

So play the foolish throngs with one that swounds,
Come all to help him, and so stop the air
By which he should revive; and even so
The general subject of a well-wish'd king
Quit their own part, and in obsequious fondness
Crowd to his presence, where their untaught love
Must needs appear offence.


Angelo's poetry implies that Vincentio may be mistaken in his appraisal of his subjects' energetic reaction to his royal presence. Ironically, the Deputy bitten by lust has an insight into “untaught” love perhaps unavailable to the virtuous, self-congratulating Duke. Unfortunately Vincentio may never understand how much his people love him.

Considered in the light of his dubious appreciation of love, Vincentio's response to Lucio's libel of him is startling. Critics of Measure for Measure often misread Lucio's slanderous portrait of Vincentio as a secretive whoremonger because they miss the greater meaning of the Duke's rejoinder:

Therefore you speak unskilfully: or, if your knowledge be more, it is much darkened in your malice.
Sir, I know him and I love him.
Love talks with better knowledge, and knowledge with dearer love.


A ring of conviction in Lucio's utterance—“Come, sir, I know what I know”—has misled some commentators into claiming that Vincentio is, in truth, a far cry from the divine deputy sketched by G. Wilson Knight and other critics.18 Yet the Duke's remark about the expressive interaction between love and knowledge detects not only Lucio's slander but also the latter character's pitiless refusal moments earlier to be Pompey's bail. James P. Driscoll has argued that in Measure for Measure Shakespeare “anatomizes the illusions of those who believe they can possess knowledge of themselves, others, and moral law without loving.”19 Earlier possessed of a bosom so “complete” that love could not pierce it, Vincentio has apparently learned the necessity of loving while overhearing the unloving quality of Isabella's words to her wretched brother. On the verge of withdrawing into the religious artifice of eternity, Isabella implicitly endorses a view of mankind as perfectable. Thus it is not surprising that she cannot speak in dear love “with better knowledge” to her flawed brother. The better knowledge issuing in loving speech is generally experiential in nature, composed of the belief that mankind will err by necessity but that forgiveness should rule, because all are cut from the same patched cloth. The Duke of Act I, protective of his perfectable self-image, has given way to the Vincentio of Act III, a character who, in his deceptive bed-trick, plans to forgive the unforgivable Angelo because, eavesdropping, he has been struck by the absolute need for empathetic love as part of the better knowledge leading to mankind's comfort.

Speaking in the better knowledge of forgiving love and offering to sacrifice oneself for another thus become the road to enduring comfort in Measure for Measure. Still, unforeseen events in this often frustrating play intrude between loving attempts to comfort and a prosperous ending.20 As Claudio exits in Act IV, seemingly to meet his death, the Provost exclaims, “Heaven give your spirits comfort!” (IV.ii.68). Appropriately, the character knocking loudly at the door as Claudio exits is the man of comfort—Friar Lodowick. “What comfort is for Claudio?” the Provost eagerly asks. “There's some in hope,” Vincentio replies, confident that Mariana's bed-trick and Angelo's imagined promise have gained Claudio's pardon. Yet when that pardon never arrives the exasperated Duke must quick-wittedly resort to another means of redemption. Learning that the dissolute and manifestly guilty Barnardine is scheduled for execution that afternoon, Vincentio proposes to the jailer that the criminal's head be substituted for Claudio's. In order to save Claudio, Vincentio at this moment must reveal to the surprised Provost that Claudio is no more guilty than Angelo and that this truth will be known within four days.21 As surety for this startling claim, Vincentio offers to lay himself in hazard (IV.ii.155). Perhaps impressed by Mariana's example, the Duke takes the first step toward offering himself as bail for fallen mankind, even though his sacrifice in this case would not be literally physical.

And yet, maddeningly, the unshriveable Barnardine ruins Vincentio's plan for saving Claudio when the convict refuses to be executed on someone else's timetable. The unregenerate prisoner balks at supplying his cutoff head as a replacement for Claudio's. Like Mariana's, Barnardine's name evokes a Christian prototype—Saint Bernard and the Bernardine monks, the saviors of travelers near death.22 In this case, however, the allusion points a contrast; Barnardine will not rescue Claudio by his own death.23 As their religious-sounding names suggest, Mariana and Barnardine—the greatest and the least—are complementary figures in the world of Measure for Measure. In brief, Vincentio's meeting with Barnardine receives a comic turn of the screw. The Duke announces: “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” (IV.iii.49-51). But as was previously mentioned, Vincentio's earlier but dead-end oration against worldly life haunts him with a vengeance when Barnardine finds a godless, dungy existence somehow pleasurable. “To transport him in the mind he is in,” the Duke morally concludes, “were damnable” (IV.iii.67-68).

Thus Providence, despite the best initial intentions of such spiritually knowledgeable mortals as Vincentio and Mariana, must provide—deus ex machina—an immediate savior for Claudio, keeping alive the purposed comfort of Measure for Measure. At this point, Mariana's self-sacrificing love and the Duke's better knowledge, by themselves, have not been sufficient to heal a diseased city: an actual, sacrophantic death is required. Comfort becomes attainable when the great fever on goodness in Vienna breaks. The first sweats appear when the pirate Ragozine dies of an actual fever, miraculously making available a disguisable head at the very instant that one is needed. Ragozine's hair and beard even match the color of Claudio's. “O, 'tis an accident that heaven provides” (IV.iii.76), Vincentio correctly estimates. Not Vincentio, not Barnardine—but the depraved Ragozine becomes the crucial bail for the most knotty of dramatic problems. And to comprehend the humbling and inexplicable working of Providence is, in this case, to gain the better knowledge, prompting kind, forgiving words of love. A couplet from All's Well aptly comments upon the dramatic situation: “He that of greatest works is finisher / Oft does them by the weakest minister” (II.i.136-37).

With Claudio preserved, Vincentio has the leisure to teach Isabella a lesson about comfort. Having failed in his consolatory efforts with Claudio, he perhaps can succeed with his sister. When she enters to learn the outcome of Vincentio's plot, he speaks the following aside:

The tongue of Isabel. She's come to know
If yet her brother's pardon be come hither;
But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair
When it is least expected.


Strangely, Vincentio would lead Isabella to heavenly comfort by first depriving her of comfort. The Duke clearly plans to mislead Isabella concerning Claudio's preservation; in fact, he would have her think that her brother died. Still, Vincentio's concluding statement is somewhat ambiguous. His explanation of his reason for having Isabella believe that her brother has perished admits two interpretations, which are mutually exclusive. Each reading hinges upon the auditor's selection of a different referent for the pronoun “it” in the utterance “To make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected.”

No doubt relying upon Shakespeare's penchant for referring to plural nouns by singular pronouns, G. Blakemore Evans glosses “it” as “comforts.”24 Vincentio will make Isabella heavenly comforts of despair when comfort is least expected. In this reading of the speech, the Duke tells the audience that Isabella's later learning of Claudio's rescue (her “good”) will be a “heavenly” comfort. Vincentio has noticed that Isabella's love for her brother requires refining; he has heard love speaking without the benefit of better knowledge. Moreover, struck by Providence's hand in his plot, he perhaps also believes that he can imitate its working upon another mortal (Isabella), instructing her in its marvelous power.25 In any event, the divine degree of Isabella's later comfort depends, in this reading of Vincentio's speech, upon the depth of her despair over Claudio's imagined death. In this interpretation, the word “of” in the phrase “heavenly comforts of despair” connotes “bred out of”—the notion being one of “a physic / That's bitter to sweet end” ( Such a reading of Vincentio's speech causes him to resemble that other ghostly father—Friar Francis—who in Much Ado About Nothing tells Leonato and Benedick that maintaining the falsehood of Hero's death will spiritually educate the Claudio of that play:

She dying, as it must be so maintain'd,
Upon the instant that she was accus'd,
Shall be lamented, pitied, and excus'd
Of every hearer; for it so falls out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lack'd and lost,
Why then we rack the value; then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
Whiles it was ours. So will it fare with Claudio:
When he shall hear she died upon his words,
Th' idea of her life shall sweetly creep
Into his study of imagination,
And every lovely organ of her life
Shall come apparell'd in more precious habit,
More moving, delicate, and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of his soul,
Than when she liv'd indeed.


Vincentio may be hoping that the report of Claudio's death will—in the language of Friar Francis—cause Isabella to lament, pity, and excuse her brother, and that, having lost him, she will “rack” (increase) Claudio's value, sweetly recreating him in her imagination. But if such a purpose is Vincentio's, Isabella shows no sign of having lovingly transformed Claudio in her mind when he is discovered at the end of the play; in fact, she is enigmatically silent in the moments after Claudio's unmuffling. Obviously Isabella to some degree loves her brother; otherwise she would not weep so bitterly upon first learning of his death.26 Yet the quality of her love neither causes her imagination to dignify (and so excuse) the lost Claudio, nor prompts her to say that she wishes he were alive (or that she wishes he could have lived). If Isabella tersely says as late as V.i.446—“My brother had but justice”—she can scarcely be thinking at this penultimate moment that Claudio's death is the transvaluing loss that would reconstitute her imagination.27

Now let us address the second, more likely reading of Vincentio's statement:

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

At the moment these words are spoken, Isabella, having trusted the Friar's stratagem, expects comfort; it is despair that she least expects. If the pronoun “it” refers to despair, the Duke is saying that he will make Isabella heavenly comforts of despair when despair is least expected. In this reading, Vincentio apparently believes that, by despairing of any good in this life (such as a last-minute reprieve for a brother), one becomes inclined to seek “heavenly” comforts—comforts in a Christian afterlife. The Duke's remark, in this reading, thus becomes another extension of his “be-absolute-for-death” philosophy.

The troubling possibility exists that Vincentio, who overheard Claudio deny his philosophy, persists in believing that contemptus mundi provides an inclusive ethos for living all of life. Yet why Isabella should need further schooling in this doctrine of comfort escapes understanding. When she publicly begs Vincentio early in Act V to believe her charge against Angelo, she says,

                                                                                          as thou believ'st
There is another comfort than this world,
That thou neglect me not.


Yet such quotation is unnecessary; the would-be nun distrusted the potential comfort of a worldly life as early as Act I. Still, Vincentio's and Isabella's exchange in Act V clearly endorses this second, troublesome reading of Vincentio's suggestive speech about Isabella's comfort. After he has finally indicted Angelo, Vincentio turns to Isabella:

Your brother's death, I know, sits at your heart:
And you may marvel why I obscur'd myself
Labouring to save his life, and would not rather
Make rash remonstrance of my hidden power
Than let him so be lost. O most kind maid,
It was the swift celerity of his death,
Which I did think with slower foot came on,
That brain'd my purpose. But peace be with him.
That life is better life, past fearing death,
Than that which lives to fear. Make it your comfort,
So happy is your brother.


In this late speech, Vincentio appears to be expanding upon his earlier, ambiguously expressed purpose in concealing Claudio after Isabella's brother has been saved. The Duke's final utterance again reprises his “be-absolute-for-death” philosophy, making the heavenly comforts earlier referred to those of a Christian afterlife. Not surprisingly, Isabella's response to the Duke's speech is a quick and simple “I do, my lord” (“I do make my comfort my belief that Claudio is happy in another world”).

Vincentio's fifth-act emphasis upon otherworldly comfort is puzzling in light of Shakespeare's simultaneous valuing of worldly life throughout Measure for Measure. This valuing is perhaps most apparent in the implicit underwriting of the sensual life occurring in overtly humorous episodes. Elbow's malapropisms concerning his great-bellied wife, Master Froth, and Mistress Overdone's “hothouse,” for example, suggest not only that Christians (like Isabella) on occasion might be profane but also that a brothel might in some sense be respected. Shakespeare's indirect challenging of Vincentio's and Isabella's conventional morality prepares us for understanding why these characters finally can be classed together. In general, the characters of this dark comedy can be grouped according either to a love for earthly life or to an indifference to its possible pleasures and rewards—fruits such as Claudio's and Juliet's child (one of the traditional comforts of dramatic comedy).28 Claudio, Lucio, and Barnardine, for example, belong in differing degrees to the first camp. Angelo and Vincentio basically belong to the second group of characters, those who either find it easy to die and relinquish this life or who place their trust in the comfort of another world. Once accused, Angelo finds craving death easier than begging for mercy (V.i.474); for him, non-existence is preferable to the painful duty of trying to find happiness in a problematic life. Isabella of course belongs in this latter group, as her ready agreement with Vincentio's advice indicates. Paradoxically, she has never needed the comfort that he planned to teach her.29 In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare disturbingly creates his major characters without a strong zest for living, without, in other words, a powerful need to practice the pleasure principle that, from the time of the Greeks, has informed dramatic comedy. It is perhaps unnecessary to point out that Shakespeare does not sanction one group's view over that of the other.30 Instead, in keeping with his mindset of complementarity, he sanctions both views at once in the mysterious figure of Mariana.

Only Mariana finds comfort both in a love for the unlovable Angelo and the hard-earned joys of this life, as well as in the faith that an afterlife redeems miseries of daily existence. Two loves she has—that for Angelo and that for the God described by Friar Lodowick. Her name, reminiscent of a heavenly mediator, links her with the Providence of Measure for Measure that makes double comfort possible for those who desire it. Even Isabella finally comes under her influence. Kneeling to beg for mercy for Angelo, Mariana exclaims,

                                                            sweet Isabel, take my part;
Lend me your knees, and all my life to come
I'll lend you all my life to do you service.


By her admonition “take my part,” Mariana is asking for more than Isabella's emotional support; she is in fact entreating her to assume her role of spiritual mediator. Finally dropping to her knees to ask for Angelo's salvation, Isabella mirrors Mariana beside her, capable at last of the self-humbling, forgiving attitude required of the comforter. According to Vincentio's first-act definition of virtue, good qualities become realities not when we simply possess them but only when they “go forth of us” (I.i.34), only when they issue in actions, in “use.” Through the acts of kneeling and clasping her hands, Isabella's virtue clearly materializes. Comfort finally becomes a deed rather than a consolatory word that has so often failed. Vincentio's curt dismissal of her plea for Angelo's life as “unprofitable” ought not to indict her as mediator; he simply knows that her argument is rendered irrelevant by her brother's life—a reality he hastens to reveal. Like the audience, Vincentio tacitly must be pleased with Isabella's new-found capacity for comfort. That her subsequent silence before unmuffled Claudio troubles us should not qualify the triumph of her willingness to imitate Mary's blessed intercession. Such silence coming so soon after victory simply accentuates the mingled yarn out of which the play's characters are woven. Initially offered, seemingly lost forever, refound in the figures of the praying Mariana and Isabella of Act V, comfort in Measure for Measure becomes an overriding value, a complex value that Shakespeare teaches us to forego in easier, more comprehensible reductions, and to admire in its mysterious incarnations. Leaving the theater we find consolation in the visual image of two kneeling women which remains imprinted in our minds.


  1. All quotations from Measure for Measure are taken from the New Arden edition, J. W. Lever, ed. (1965; rpt. New York: Random House, 1967). All other Shakespearean dramatic references are to The Riverside Shakespeare, G. Blakemore Evans, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. This temporal discrepancy is also noticed by Richard A. Levin, “Duke Vincentio and Angelo: Would ‘A Feather Turn the Scale’?” SEL 22 (1982):264; and by Louise Schleiner, “Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure,PMLA 97 (1982):232.

  3. See, for example, F. R. Leavis, “The Greatness of Measure for Measure,Scrutiny 10 (1942):238-39; A. P. Rossiter, Angel With Horns: and Other Shakespearean Lectures (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961), pp. 165-66; Lever, p. lxxxvii; Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), pp. 116-19; and Judith Rosenheim, “The Stoic Meaning of the Friar in Measure for Measure,ShakS 15 (1982):187-88. For an alternative account of the structure and nature of the Duke's famous speech, see Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare: A Study of “Julius Caesar,” “Measure for Measure,” “Antony and Cleopatra” (1963; rpt. New York: Schocken, 1965), p. 80.

  4. The most interesting interpretation of Vincentio's failure is Joseph Westlund's in Shakespeare's Reparative Comedies: A Psychoanalytic View of the Middle Plays (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 164-67. In his opinion, Vincentio purposely creates through words a valueless world so that Claudio will stop idealizing others and blaming sex and Juliet for his undoing—the young man compelled in the process to find comfort in something pragmatically real, after the Duke's devastating portrait. But if this represents Vincentio's plan for comfort, his strategy does not work; Claudio never speaks of something more real than his vital love of life.

  5. Josephine Waters Bennett, in Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1966), comments upon the Duke's “Look, th' unfolding star calls up the shepherd”: “The court audience had celebrated Christmas morning just the day before, and would surely be reminded of the star and the shepherds of the Nativity story” (p. 27).

  6. Also see III.ii.179-83 and IV.i.60-65, in which Vincentio implicitly alludes to himself as a mighty king, possessed of greatness.

  7. The immoderation of Measure for Measure is well portrayed by W. L. Godshalk, “Measure for Measure: Freedom and Restraint,” ShakS 6 (1970):137-50.

  8. Leavis asserts that an implicit criticism of Vincentio's speech is conveyed through Barnardine: “of all the attitudes concretely lived in the play, the indifference to death displayed by him comes nearest to that preached by the Friar. … And towards him we are left in no doubt about the attitude we are to take: ‘Unfit to live or die,’ says the Duke, voicing the general contempt” (p. 238).

  9. See James Trombetta, “Versions of Dying in Measure for Measure,ELR 6 (1976):62.

  10. Helena's masochism has been described by Joan Stansbury, “Characterization of the Four Young Lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream,ShS 35 (1982):57-63.

  11. Darryl J. Gless, in Measure for Measure, the Law, and the Convent (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), explains that the coexistence of Mariana's passion and miraculous love finds precedence in the reconciliation of passion and piety in such Renaissance works as Spenser's Four Hymns and Epithalamion (p. 222). Gless's citing of the libertine Lucio's gracious speech on natural fertility as an analogue is also convincing.

  12. In “Measure for Measure and Christian Doctrine of the Atonement,” Roy W. Battenhouse notes: “And Mariana, without whose gift of herself the ransom could not have been paid, and the brother must then have perished, combines in her name (meaning literally ‘bitter grace’) the memory of Mary the Virgin and Anna the immaculate mother,” PMLA 61 (1946):1035.

  13. Richard Levin, The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 111-24.

  14. Levin, p. 124.

  15. Concerning Isabella's turning upon Claudio, Norman Rabkin, in Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Macmillan, 1967), remarks that “her fault is not in what she asks, but rather in her failure to recognize the value of the sacrifice she demands. Though she is right she seems too right, acts as if what she asks of Claudio is easy to give; she is a prig” (p. 102).

  16. Critics have been hard put to find precedent in Elizabethan canonic and civil law for excusing Angelo's sexual intercourse and damning Claudio's. In “The Marriage Contracts of Measure for Measure: A Reconsideration,” Karl Wentersdorf concludes, after a survey of Elizabethan de facto marriage contracts, that “in no sense does Friar Lodowick's assertion that Mariana will commit no sin in bedding Angelo ring legally true,” ShS 32 (1979):142. Also see Schanzer, pp. 75-76. According to both Wentersdorf and Schanzer, Claudio's and Juliet's private expressed intention to wed constitutes a valid Elizabethan per verba de praesenti marriage. Schanzer asserts that “the marriage-contract between Angelo and Mariana seems to have been a case of sworn spousals per verba de futuro (in which the couple promise under oath to become husband and wife at a future date). Now any de futuro contract was turned into matrimony and became as indissoluble as a de praesenti contract as soon as cohabitation between the betrothed couple took place” (pp. 110-11). III.i.213-18 establishes the de futuro dimension of Angelo and Mariana's marriage contract.

  17. Vincentio's initial naiveté about “wholesome romantic love” is described by Cynthia Lewis, “‘Dark Deeds Darkly Answered’: Duke Vincentio and Judgment in Measure for Measure,SQ 34 (1983):279. Also see John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and his Comedies (1962; rpt. London: Methuen, 1968), p. 194.

  18. Like G. Wilson Knight in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy with Three New Essays (1949; rpt. Cleveland: World, 1957), pp. 73-96, Bertrand Evans, for example, views Vincentio as a supreme power, wholly omniscient and omnipotent. See Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), pp. 186-219.

  19. James P. Driscoll, Identity in Shakespearean Drama (Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1983), p. 107.

  20. For the aesthetically frustrating dramaturgy of Measure for Measure, see Michael Goldman, “Comic Expectation in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 162-74; Richard Fly, Shakespeare's Mediated World (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1976), pp. 53-83; and Jean E. Howard, “Measure for Measure and the Restraints of Convention,” ELWIU 10 (1983):149-58.

  21. Vincentio's admission that Angelo is as guilty as Claudio confirms the similarity of Claudio's and Angelo's acts of fornication, and so reveals Vincentio's desire to deceive Isabella for her own good when he explains that Mariana and Angelo may copulate without sin.

  22. In n. 17 of 1:156 of The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow, 5 vols. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958-1966), McKerrow suggests that the name Barnardine may be “a jesting allusion to the order of St. Bernard.”

  23. For other interpretations of Barnardine's name, consult James E. Ford, “Barnardine's Nominal Nature in Measure for Measure,PLL 18 (1982):77-81; and Gless, pp. 257-64.

  24. The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 577.

  25. However, if Vincentio wanted to teach Isabella a lesson mainly about Providence, immediately divulging the providential death of Ragozine, the substituting of the head, and the saving of Claudio's life would be equally if not more effective.

  26. Shakespeare stresses the intensity of Isabella's grief over Claudio's loss by calling attention to her tears on three occasions. “Nay, dry your eyes” (IV.iii.127), Vincentio first implores; then he urges Isabella to “Command these fretting waters from your eyes / With a light heart” (lines 146-47). Finally, Lucio states, “O pretty Isabella, I am pale at mine heart to see thine eyes so red” (IV. iii. 150-51). While love—not simply anger or frustration—must partly cause these tears, Isabella does not love Claudio in a way that encourages her to refrain from judging him. Her love has not led her to speak apologetically (in better knowledge) of his frailties.

  27. Another reading of the failure of Vincentio's efforts with Isabella vis-à-vis Claudio is Christopher Palmer, “Selfishness in Measure for Measure,EIC 28 (1978):199-200.

  28. For the conflict between life- and death-fulfilling desires in Measure for Measure, see R. A. Foakes, Shakespeare: The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1971), pp. 17-31. Also see Lawrence W. Hyman, “The Unity of Measure for Measure,MLQ 36 (1975):3-20.

  29. In King Lear, the failure of Edgar's educational program for comforting Gloucester (his son's ill-timed revelation literally kills him) confirms Shakespeare's skeptical Jacobean attitude toward the likelihood of consoling someone through deception. In this regard, see Philip Edwards, “Shakespeare and the Healing Power of Deceit,” ShS 31 (1978):119-24. Alternative detailed readings of Vincentio's “education” of Isabella are given by Gless, pp. 178-213, and by Bennett, pp. 69-74.

  30. In Measure for Measure, Norman Rabkin describes a complementary “opposition between the Christian and the hedonistic-naturalistic views of life, so powerfully dramatized in the parallel speeches of the Duke and Claudio in III.i” (p. 104).

Nancy Taylor (review date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

SOURCE: Taylor, Nancy. Review of Measure for Measure.Theatre Journal 51, no. 1 (March 1999): 73-76.

[In the following review of the 1998 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Measure for Measure directed by Libby Appel, Taylor comments on the performance's resistance to the boundaries of character and setting, as well as its highly eroticized atmosphere.]

Artistic Director, Libby Appel, created a series of boundary dissolutions in this production, an appropriate post-modern era approach to a play driven by stark and extreme contrasts. Her production of Uncle Vanya similarly highlighted the interdependence of presence and representation, spectator and spectacle inherent in the theatrical medium.

When I walked into the performance space, I saw larger-than-life erotica plastering the walls under the title “Sex Museum.” Scenic designer William Bloodgood's figures, inspired by the early 20th-century Viennese artist Egon Schiele, provoked a sense of the grotesque, of a potentially cruel and lonely sexuality. In the center of the playing space a square platform framed by iron works suggested the French Quarter. The floor was covered with tabloid newspapers, advertisements for phone sex, and fliers announcing Angelo's edict to shut down the bawdy houses. But on a support pillar near the back of the space was a painting of a crucifix. The juxtaposition of Christ's nearly naked body with the pornographic figures was startling. The apparent dichotomy between Christ's spiritual suffering and an atmosphere of sexual pleasure was further compromised by the bawdy characters' sadomasochistic sexuality throughout the production, and Isabella's submissive prostration before the crucifix. The set itself constructed and deconstructed apparently stable boundaries.

She borrowed the fundamental concept from Tina Packer, who directed Measure for Measure for her own Shakespeare and Company and for Lisa Wolpe's Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company. Appel cast the play with seven actors, each playing both a higher and lower character. Vilma Silva, for instance, played both Isabella and Mistress Overdone. The tension between good and evil resonated most dramatically in Angelo (Richard Howard). Just before his second interview with Isabella, he entered flagellating his bare back with a whip, frustrated and desperate both to contain and express his desire. By the end of that scene, he had torn off Isabella's head covering, pinned her to the ground, and covered her mouth with his hand to stop her screams when she saw him reach to unzip his pants. Then suddenly, he pulled his hand away, as if stunned by his own violence. Deeply shaken, Isabella covered her head again for her final monologue. But her voice had a confused and questioning note when she asserted that she must protect her chastity at the expense of her brother's life. The audience was also encouraged to question her decision; as she got to her feet, the tattooed body stocking of Mistress Overdone flashed us from beneath Isabella's black robe. During Angelo's monologue following the scene, Isabella stood in the upstage left corner, first immobile as a statue, her hands clasped over her stomach as if sickened by what she was hearing. Brian Nason lit her from either side by a pink and a white light. As Angelo's desire ignited, she pulled off her head covering and touched her hair seductively, the image of his fantasy.

The confusion of boundaries between the multiple characters each actor played extended to a confusion among character and actor and audience. The play began with all the actors sitting on a series of stepped platforms upstage left and the Duke (Derrick Lee) introducing the play as a storyteller. On this structure or along the edges of the playing space, actors/characters often watched the scenes taking place throughout the production. At some points, they responded in character. When Isabella told the Duke of Angelo's outrageous behavior, Howard rose from his seat on the platform and exited backstage, embarrassed, even though Angelo did not actually hear this conversation, because he was surprised by the revelation in the fifth act. At other points, an actor watching the play displayed a physicality clearly at odds with his or her character's but at one with the actor's own body.

The actors thus literally became a part of the audience while still performing insofar as we were watching them, aware of their off stage choices. The Duke always lurked in the shadows if not onstage, vacillating between his roles as audience and playwright/storyteller. Although he was portrayed as benevolent and uncomfortable with evil, his voyeuristic tendencies surfaced in the scene when he came upon Mariana (Suzanne Irving). She had been lightly masturbating while singing, and he had watched her for some time before she turned to discover him. The actors also frequently addressed the audience, transforming the audience members into actors of sorts. Pompey and Mistress Overdone's gazes were seductive, and Pompey even kissed the head of one female patron, offered his hips to be slapped by another, and sat on the lap of a third.

The final scene juxtaposed a harmonious resolution with a disjunctive tableau resisting closure. In contrast to the opening scene when the characters danced lustfully with one another, here they danced lovingly, as if they had finally united their spiritual and sexual impulses. The pairs exited the stage. The Duke, left alone centerstage, extended his arms toward Isabella, who watched him from the border of aisle and playing space completely motionless and impassive. Her face and figure remained literally as unreadable as her silence in the text.

Kaori Ashizu (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Ashizu, Kaori. “‘Pardon Me?’: Judging Barnardine's Judge.” English Studies 78, no. 5 (September 1997): 417-29.

[In the following essay, Ashizu examines Duke Vincentio’s poor treatment of the prisoner Barnardine in Measure for Measure, and argues against conceptions of the Duke as an ideal or godlike authority.]

Measure for Measure is certainly one of Shakespeare's most controversial works; it has elicited and continues to elicit a diversity of violently conflicting interpretations. However, no matter how various the elements and interests in these controversies, the arguments seem to converge after all on one subject—how to see Duke Vincentio. The critical commentary on the Duke falls, roughly speaking, into the following two schools. The first consists of the anti-Duke critics, including many early critics such as William Hazlitt1 and E. K. Chambers2 as well as recent ones like A. D. Nuttall:3 they regard the Duke as unpleasant or even repulsive, and find fault with his unmotivated plotting and his heartless manipulation of the others' actions and emotions. This critical view of the Duke was not staged until John Barton's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970.4 A second school of critics, who only started to appear in the 1930s, hold favorable views of the Duke, giving him a special dispensation which, in one way or another, resolves or dissolves the problems in his character and behavior. Most of these critics, including G. Wilson Knight5 and Roy W. Battenhouse,6 favour Christian interpretations which treat the play as a parable of the Christian doctrine in which the Duke represents God. In terms of stage history, this was the view that Peter Brook staged in his famous production in 1950.7 F. R. Leavis, though not Christian, also belongs in this oddly-assorted pro-Duke school when he argues that ‘the Duke's attitude, nothing could be plainer, is meant to be ours’.8 And so do historicists like W. W. Lawrence9 and E. E. Stoll,10 when they emphasize conventional elements and regard the Duke as a ‘stage Duke’. The effect of this is, once again, to endow the Duke with a special licence.

The present paper seeks to cut its way into this vital problem of how to regard the Duke—by examining a character whom many critics have simply ignored or paid little attention to in their arguments. Indeed Barnardine, a convicted murderer in prison, is a ‘bit part’, one of the tiniest roles of all the named characters in the play. We first hear of him refusing to appear, and his later appearances are limited to two occasions: in Act 4 Scene 3 he speaks no more than fifteen lines; in the final scene he appears again but remains completely silent. However, in spite of the smallness of the role, his dramatic function is significant and strikingly consistent. For everything we learn about him bears significantly on that problem of how to regard the Duke. Whatever Barnardine says, does, does not say, does not do, and also what we learn of his previous history, reflects adversely on the Duke.

If true, this in itself would be striking, and I shall remind you of the relevant details in a moment, so that you can judge for yourselves. But let me first also remind you that there is no Barnardine in Shakespeare's source materials for this play. What I am calling Barnardine's dramatic function is all the more striking because Shakespeare does not inherit Barnardine; he invents him. So why does Shakespeare want, or need, to invent Barnardine? The answer to that must be: because Barnardine has a job to do—or, as I put it earlier, a dramatic function. Any coherent account of this play must be able to explain—or must, at the very least, be compatible with some other plausible account of—what Shakespeare chose to invent. If my own account of Barnardine's significance does not seem persuasive, it would not be enough to reject it; it would need to be replaced, since we want some answer to that question, why invent Barnardine and his remarkable history?


We first learn about Barnardine in Act 4 Scene 2, when Angelo sends the order that Claudio and Barnardine are to be executed. Asked by the Duke who Barnardine is, the Provost informs us of Barnardine's earlier history: he is a prisoner who has been rotting in jail on suspicion of murder for nine years, without any final sentence or judgment until this moment. It then becomes apparent, although the Provost does not clarify, that the Duke himself had tried Barnardine's case, could not decide what to do when Barnardine's friends appealed for ‘reprieves’, left Barnardine in prison—and forgot all about him, so that he now needs to ask the Provost, nine years later, ‘Who is that Barnardine who is to be executed in th'afternoon?’ Really, it is not so easy to think of Barnardine's judge as the same character whom so many modern critics think of as an ideal, and even godlike, governor.

At the very least, one effect of these revelations should be to make us ponder what sort of governor Vincentio has been. In the third scene, the Duke himself admitted to Friar Thomas that the (real or presumed) crisis in Vienna was the result of his own lax government, in letting the laws ‘slip’ for fourteen years. Not until the fourth act does Shakespeare reveal specific details of what ‘lax’ government or justice might mean—in revealing the incompetence with which the Duke judged both Barnardine's case and Lucio's, which I shall discuss later. My immediate point is that to leave a prisoner rotting in jail for nine years, while forgetting his name and existence, is worse than lax.

Moreover, when Shakespeare does finally reveal these details of Barnardine's history, the light they throw on the Duke as governor is all the more harshly ironic because the revelations come not merely from the Provost but through the dialogue between the Provost and the Duke. In Shakespeare's skillful dramatization, timing and inadvertent self-revelation are both crucial. I take it that we are, or should be, shocked when the Duke cannot even remember who Barnardine is or why he has been in prison all these years—until Angelo quickly and efficiently reviews his case and arrives at a verdict which is ‘most manifest, and not denied by [Barnardine] himself’ (4.2.139).11 But then, if we do find that shocking (not a sign that the Duke is godlike), we will also be shocked by the stupidity of the Duke's next question, ‘How came it that the absent Duke had not either delivered him to his liberty or executed him’, and by the hint of self-regard in his further comment that ‘I have heard it was ever his manner to do so’. And, in each of these scenes we should notice how Shakespeare is departing—deliberately, creatively, and provocatively—from his source materials. So far as the third scene is concerned, the departure involves the way the Duke himself is implicated in the supposed Viennese crisis—through misgovernment, as he himself admits. Yet he will not countenance anybody else's criticism of his judgment, as we see in his self-excusing remarks about ‘slanders’ to Friar Thomas. Similarly, when the Provost reveals one disturbing detail after another, the Duke shows no disturbance at his own mishandling of the case. If we ask why Shakespeare made these changes and innovations, various answers might be possible, but none allows an uncritical view of the Duke.

You may also notice a strikingly consistent and unique feature of Barnardine: his own attitude towards life and death is always described in terms of sleep—or, in the Provost's words, being ‘insensible’ (4.2.145). When summoned by the Provost for the first time in the play, Barnardine refuses to appear onstage because, as Claudio explains, he is

As fast lock'd up in sleep as guiltless labour
When it lies starkly in the traveller's bones.
He [Barnardine] will not wake.


This association of Barnardine and sleep and insensibility is even more clearly voiced by the Provost in his depiction of the obdurate prisoner:

A man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep, careless, reckless, and fearless of what's past, present, or to come; insensible of mortality and desperately mortal.


Furthermore, when Pompey and Abhorson, comic hangmen, attempt to bring him out of the prison for execution, Barnardine's first reply amply demonstrates this extraordinary attitude towards life and death:

Master Barnardine! You must rise and be hang'd, Master Barnardine!
What ho, Barnardine!
(Within.) A pox o'your throats! Who makes that noise there? What are you?
Your friends, sir, the hangman. You must be so good, sir, to rise, and be put to death.
(Within.) Away, you rogue, away! I am sleepy.
Tell him he must awake, and that quickly too.
Pray, Master Barnardine, awake till you are executed, and sleep afterwards.


This characterization of Barnardine's ‘insensibility’ is consistently developed through these descriptions of Barnardine and through his own few utterances. This in itself can be very funny, and excite an audience's laughter; yet more is in question than comic ‘relief’. Once again, Barnardine is being used to raise questions about the Duke's inauthenticity as a disguised Friar and about his love of playing games with other people's lives.

Of course, we will not see how this is happening in the play if we regard the Duke as Shakespeare's spokesman. Rather, we need to see how the dramatic design, and Shakespeare's organization of telling contrasts and juxtapositions, implicate the Duke in the extreme contrast between Barnardine's ‘insensible’ responses and Claudio's own, all too ‘sensible’—human and fearful—attitude towards death.

Barnardine is always juxtaposed with Claudio: Angelo commands the Provost to execute the two on the same day; the Duke then plans to substitute the former for the latter; in the final scene Barnardine appears onstage with Claudio, and both are silent. In Act 4 Scene 3, when the Duke pronounces Barnardine ‘unfit to live or die’, he regrets that Barnardine will not listen to the Duke's advice. However, Claudio has had the benefit of the Duke's lengthy advice in the ‘Be absolute for death’ speech, which the deeply Christian Dr. Johnson found so shallow and shocking in its impiety.12 Claudio's first response showed some resignation;

                    I humbly thank you.
To sue to live, I find I seek to die,
And seeking death, find life: Let it come on.


However, within minutes of the satisfied Friar-Duke's departure, Claudio's deeper feelings about death erupt in one of the most extraordinary speeches in this extraordinary play:

Ay, but to die and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts
Imagine howling—'tis too horrible!


The contrast with the ‘insensible’ Barnardine is obvious enough. Claudio's speech also passes its own dramatic comment on the kind of insensibility seen in the Duke's speech.

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


Death is more than that, just as life is more than ‘an after-dinner's sleep’ (3.1.33) to anybody who feels this ‘sensible warm motion’. Claudio's trembling words tell us that the pseudo-friar can give no more than pseudo-comfort.

However, although Vincentio's words of consolation fail with Claudio, we are soon to find them realized, in a mockingly truthful way, in another figure, namely, Barnardine. Not only does he apprehend ‘death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep’; but also his insensible sleepiness passes its own comment on the pseudo-friar's advice to think of life as ‘an after-dinner's sleep’. Apart from its comic effect, the characterization of Barnardine as an ever-sleepy prisoner is, again, to question the Duke's insensitive manipulation of Claudio's life and emotion.

Claudio is not the only person to whom Vincentio attempts to preach. Shakespeare makes use of the act of preaching—a mission typical of friars—as the special occasion for implying the inauthenticity of the disguised Duke: Vincentio attempts to preach a sermon to the other two people, Juliet and Barnardine. Earlier in the play the Duke in disguise tries to preach to Juliet, Claudio's lover. Exhibiting a perfect awareness of the nature of her fault, however, Juliet cuts off his unnecessary and moralistic sermon unfinished (2.3.35-6). Interrupted in mid-sentence, the Duke reveals his incompetence as a preacher.

Barnardine more severely frustrates Vincentio's capricious scheme. After persuading the Provost to spare Claudio and to execute Barnardine instead, the Duke ‘mercifully’ talks to Barnardine, ‘Sir, induc'd by my charity, and hearing how hastily you are to depart, I am come to advise you, comfort you, and pray with you’ (4.3.50-2). The response from the prisoner is, however, one that the Duke had never expected:

I will not consent to die this day, that's certain.
O sir, you must; and therefore I beseech you
Look forward on the journey you shall go.
I swear I will not die to-day for any man's persuasion.
But hear you—
Not a word. If you have any thing to say to me, come to my ward, for thence will not I to-day.


Barnardine's blunt refusal to die or to listen to the Duke-Friar not only spoils the Duke's neat plan, but also exposes, again, the Duke's inadequacy as a ‘friar’.

After the failure to persuade Barnardine to accept his death sentence, or even to bring him out of the prison, the irritated Duke gives the order to ‘bring him to the block’ (4.3.65).13 Vincentio tries to carry out his scheme coercively, in spite of his view of the prisoner:

A creature unprepar'd, unmeet for death;
And to transport him in the mind he is
Were damnable.


Why is the Duke so determined to execute Barnardine a few hours earlier, if he really finds Barnardine in such a mental state as this?—Because the Duke's scheme depends upon having Barnardine's head now. Only after betraying such a coercive aspect of the Duke, Shakespeare lets the Provost introduce the timely news of Ragozine's head: ‘O, 'tis an accident that heaven provides!’ (4.3.77), exclaims the Duke most suitably for a pious ‘friar’, while for the audience it is nothing but a loudly signaled contrivance that a dramatist provides. Herbert S. Weil, Jr. observes that this speech by the Duke ‘invariably brings laughter in the theater’.14 Shakespeare thus sets off the contrivance itself, by adding an extra substitute, Barnardine, to the normal plot of the substitute head inherited from the source play.

Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra, one of the sources for Measure for Measure, contains the episode of the head-trick, or contrivance with the substitute head. Some critics such as Walter Raleigh and H. B. Charlton regard Barnardine as ‘a mere detail of machinery’ created as a counterpart for the substitute head in Promos and Cassandra.15 However, in their views, he was too endearing and unique a character to be destroyed by the hand of the dramatist.16 On the other hand, many other critics do not agree with ‘this rather sentimental explanation’,17 holding that Ragozine is the counterpart for Whetstone's substitute head which the Gaoler brings in. The latter opinion obviously supports my argument above. That is, Barnardine is a pure invention of Shakespeare without an origin in the source; Shakespeare chooses to create this prisoner in order to call attention to the Duke's contrivance itself, by bringing things to a point where a substitute for the substitute is needed.

After Pompey and Abhorson take Barnardine off, we never hear his voice again. The last scene allows us only to see him: however, the silent Barnardine onstage no less powerfully reflects adversely on the Duke, as we shall see in the following section.


Philip McGuire discusses in Speechless Dialect the final scene of Measure for Measure as ‘the most challenging and complex example of Shakespeare's use of open silence’, in which six characters conspicuously maintain silence. In no other Shakespearean comedy are so many characters silent at the very end. ‘Open silence’ is, according to McGuire's definition, a silence ‘whose precise meanings and effects, because they cannot be determined by analysis of the words of the playtext, must be established by nonverbal, extratextual features of the play that emerge only in performance’.18 What is Isabella's response when she suddenly discovers that her brother is still alive? In performance she cannot not respond, yet the text does not tell us how she responds—whether she is speechless with joy, or shows some more troubled or even indifferent response. Similarly, the text does not tell us how she responds to the Duke's proposal. Does she look pleased or startled, or even shocked? When the characters leave the stage, does she go off with the Duke, or with Claudio, or does she leave by herself?

In McGuire's view, Barnardine's silence when the Duke so suddenly pardons him is ‘open’ in that it can be played differently, without any contradiction to Shakespeare's original text, within the particular context of different performances. As McGuire observes, Barnardine's silence can be played as an act of defiance—as in Keith Hack's 1974 production for the RSC—which casts into doubt the nature of the Duke's mercy and of his own staging of himself as an ideal governor.19 It can also be played as a sign of gratitude or repentance—as in Barry Kyle's 1978 production for the RSC—which affirms the Duke's power and mercy.20

This conception of ‘open silence’ is especially helpful in considering the final scene—with so many carefully orchestrated silences. However, McGuire does not open up a new path in interpreting Barnardine's silence; despite his intelligent and clarifying analysis based on different productions, McGuire goes no farther than to observe that Barnardine's silence ‘has the potential to confirm, cast into doubt, or totally undercut the Duke's mercy toward him [Barnardine]’.21 But is it really sufficient only to say that there are different alternatives for interpreting Barnardine's silence?

Whatever took place on stage when Measure for Measure was performed by the King's company at Whitehall on 26 December 1604, we may be quite sure that Barnardine's silence would not—could not—have been represented as being both an act of defiance and an act of submission. If in doubt about how to respond to the Duke's pardon, the actor who first played Barnardine could have asked Shakespeare about his dramatic conception, whereas the modern actor, or critic, or reader cannot do that. However, this does not mean that we shall never know what is meant by Barnardine's silence or that there is no point in seeking for it.

Let me again remind you that Barnardine is a pure invention: Shakespeare would not have created the silent Barnardine in Act 5 as well as that boisterous Barnardine in Act 4 without any dramatic purpose. Our best way forward in interpreting Barnardine's silence is to consider its place within Shakespeare's elaborately designed final scene. This involves considering how two different issues come together. On the one hand, there is the local and immediate issue of whether Barnardine's response to the pardon shows that he is as ‘insensible’ as ever; we have seen how the text is, as it were, awkwardly silent about Barnardine's silence. On the other hand, Barnardine's response should not be considered in isolation; he is only one of four recipients of ducal mercy in the final scene. The others are Angelo, Claudio, and Lucio—none of whom seems grateful for the ‘mercy’. If Barnardine's silence were an expression of gratitude, for example, it would actually contrast with the others.

Here we might notice how the opposed interpretations of Barnardine's silence in the Hack and Kyle productions correspond with—or rework—that disagreement I mentioned earlier between the two, anti-Duke and pro-Duke ‘schools’. Keith Hack clearly supposed that Barnardine remained ‘insensible’ or even aggressively defiant. In other words, Barnardine's behavior at the end is consistent with his earlier behavior, and once again brings into focus a (more than ever) harsh view of the Duke's inadequacies. To pardon and release a convicted and unrepentant murderer is at odds with any serious conception of justice.

In sharp contrast, Kyle was driven to use stage business to establish what the text itself nowhere explicitly suggests—that Barnardine is grateful and repentant. This reading might be compared with that of Darryl Gless, who looks upon Barnardine's silence as a sign of his ‘acquiescence in the Duke's sentence’ since ‘it contrasts strongly with his earlier obstreperous desire to hear “not a word”’.22 Gless supposes that Barnardine ‘may be willing, like his yet-unborn kinsman Caliban, to “be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace” (Tempest 5.1.294-5)’—and adds, very revealingly, that ‘If this likelihood should prove wrong, then at least the Duke will have erred in the right direction’.23 That shows how indifferent Gless is to practical and legal issues: if Barnardine is unrepentant and kills somebody else, the Duke will not have erred in the right direction. But Gless's and Kyle's readings align them very clearly with my second ‘school’ of modern, pro-Duke critics.

Kyle's only warrant for staging a sudden transformation in Barnardine is not, in the strict sense, textual, but interpretative; he is disposed to think that the Duke's extension of mercy to Barnardine must be justifiable. The pardon cannot be justified unless Barnardine is suddenly transformed, so we must assume that he suddenly transforms, and stage the scene accordingly. This quite inevitably involves using stage business to establish what the text itself leaves uncertain.

One response to this Gless-Kyle reading can be helpfully focused by considering another ‘open silence’ which McGuire does not include among his six examples—that of the Provost, who is onstage, though silent, when the Duke pardons Barnardine. As you may remember, the Provost is the only person (apart from Angelo) who shows a thorough grasp of the history and character of this murderer; virtually all the information about Barnardine comes from him whereas the Duke remembers nothing. Furthermore, the Provost is presented as ever impartial, consistent and sensible in his words, deeds and judgment. The capriciousness in the Duke's reversal of the sentence becomes all the more striking if we remember the firmness of the Provost's earlier judgment of Barnardine:

Th' one [Claudio] has my pity; not a jot the other [Barnardine], Being a murtherer, though he were my brother.


Having fetched Barnardine, the Provost is likely to stand beside or close to Barnardine. When the pardon is granted to the prisoner, the Provost would be visible onstage: we could not expect his response, though speechless, to be approving. This stagecraft seems to be incompatible with the pro-Duke reading, and therefore such a production as Kyle's would need some further stage business to erase the incompatibility.

As I observed earlier, Barnardine's sudden transformation could make the Duke's pardon of Barnardine seem less unjustifiable. Whether there is such a transformation is precisely what is in dispute. When the Duke has sent the Provost for Barnardine—‘Go fetch him hither, let me look upon him’ (5.1.469)—one effect of what immediately follows is to make it more unlikely that any mere (nonverbal) gesture of repentance from Barnardine could seem adequate, after hearing in Angelo the accents of true penitence and self-disgust:

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.


Again Shakespeare's timing is very telling; only after this speech does Barnardine appear, to whom the playwright could have given exactly the same speech if he wanted a penitent Barnardine. The Duke talks to the prisoner:

Sirrah, thou art said to have a stubborn soul
That apprehends no further than this world,
And squar'st thy life according. …


This brief summary of Barnardine's earlier behavior, directly opposed to the deep penitence in Angelo's preceding speech, offers a striking contrast between Angelo and Barnardine; the former penitently craves ‘death more willingly than mercy’ whereas the latter, far from craving death, has stubbornly refused to be executed. Even if Barnardine were given Caliban's speech—promising to ‘be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace’—it would sound very weak after Angelo's agonized self-condemnation.

For McGuire, ‘The contrast between the two characters deepens when Barnardine silently accepts from the Duke the life-giving mercy that Angelo has just explicitly rejected’. I do not think the contrast works in that way; rather, Angelo's repentance emphasizes the absence of any corresponding feeling in Barnardine. Thus, the context of Barnardine's appearance makes it much more difficult to read repentance in his silence and therefore to stage the scene accordingly.

The most crucial issue in considering Barnardine's silence is of course the content of the Duke's pardon itself. And it is, again, likely to stress the critical view of Vincentio within the context above examined. While Barnardine stands by silently, the Duke begins with ‘There was a friar told me of this man’ and goes on talking;

                                                                                          Thou'rt condemned,
But for those earthly faults, I quit them all,
And pray thee take this mercy to provide
For better times to come …


First of all, you may notice here Vincentio's unnatural introduction of Barnardine. The line ‘There was a friar …’ indicates that the Duke evades mentioning the fact that he himself tried Barnardine nine years ago. Yet this might be remembered by any spectator who is inclined to ask ‘why does Vincentio need to speak about Barnardine in this way?’

Another point should be made on the lines cited above: it is obvious to everybody but the Duke himself that the pardon sounds problematic or even ridiculous in moral and legal terms. Barnardine is, most importantly, a self-confessed murderer whose guilt is ‘most manifest, and not denied by himself’ (4.2.139). And he has not shown the slightest hint of repentance up to the point where he is pardoned, even if he should repent later. Is Vincentio's pardon convincing as an explanation for releasing a murderer like this? Certainly not; sparing such a murderer simply means that he is free to kill again. However, the Duke thrusts the future responsibility for that onto Friar Peter, nonchalantly saying ‘Friar, advise him, I leave him to your hand’.

We can question the issue in another way: if Vincentio can grant to Barnardine such a disturbingly benevolent mercy as this, why was he ready to bring Barnardine ‘to the block’ in Act 4 Scene 3 when he needed the substitute head? Indeed, as Graham Bradshaw points out, ‘If the Duke's subsequent decision to pardon Barnardine is not to seem unprincipled, capricious and stagy, we need to know what principles apply in Act 5 which did not apply in Act 4, when the Duke wanted a substitute head’.24

As I suggested earlier, Barnardine's silence should also be examined in a larger design of the final scene, in which the Duke passes judgment on four men—not only Barnardine, but also Angelo, Claudio, and Lucio. The first pardon, to Barnardine, is only the start of what A. D. Nuttall calls the ‘orgy of clemency’—one of the most controversial episodes of the play:25

[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. But fitter time for that.
By this Lord Angelo perceives he's safe;
Methinks I see a quick'ning in his eye.
Well, Angelo, your evil quits you well.
Look that you love your wife; her worth worth yours,
I find an apt remission in myself; …


Here the Duke spares the other two characters, Claudio and Angelo, who were also to undergo the death sentence.

Claudio's offense is not taking but making a life—begetting a child by his beloved woman before they are legally married. This is typical of what the Duke regards as Vienna's critical condition. Here we are faced with another contradiction in the ducal pardon to Claudio. If Vincentio really thinks, as he says in Act 3 Scene 1, that the present Viennese crisis needs reformation, why does he not punish Claudio according to the ‘strict statutes and most biting laws’? This mercy to Claudio, which looks very much like a return to the old laxity, seems to suggest that Vincentio was not really concerned with the Viennese crisis; he simply needed a good reason for embarking on his scheme for the sake of caprice and curiosity. Then, Claudio would have been the Duke's greatest victim, who has had to undergo various kinds of mental and physical adversity—the imprisonment, the terrible fear of death, the swearing words of his sister. Claudio neither complains of those adversities, nor thanks the Duke for the life-granting mercy, nor talks to his sister; instead he keeps complete silence. Considering what he has been through in the play, however, it is extremely hard to take Claudio's silence for an expression of joy or gratitude.

Angelo's case is more complicated: first, he has only planned to kill a man and rape a woman, for which he is deeply penitent and even wishes to die; secondly, he has abandoned his betrothed, but this is not a legal crime, if inexcusable in moral terms, since Mariana could not fill her part of the contract and there was no physical consummation. This case seems to need much fuller examination, but one simple point is to be made here. Angelo does not welcome the Duke's mercy on him, for, firstly, he has just expressed his sincere wish to ‘crave death more willingly than mercy’. Moreover, it would be an awful torture for him to marry a woman, Mariana, whom he not only does not love but also has once betrayed. Thus considered, it should not be hard to read what is in Angelo's silence.

Vincentio next turns on Lucio, suddenly changing his tone:

And yet here's one in place I cannot pardon.
[To Lucio] You, sirrah, that knew me for a fool, a coward,
One all of luxury, an ass, a madman …


Lucio is guilty not only of begetting an unlawful child, like Claudio, but also of slandering a ruler, which was commonly punished by death at the time this play was written. Lucio's fathering of an unlawful child is another strong indicator of Vincentio's misjudgment in the past. Earlier in the play, Mistress Overdone testifies to Escalus: ‘Mistress Kate Keepdown was with child by him [Lucio] in the Duke's time; he promis'd her marriage. His child is a year and a quarter old come Philip and Jacob’ (3.2.199-202). Moreover, Lucio himself confesses to the disguised Duke that he was tried by the absent Duke (4.3.169-70), but managed to deceive the Duke through forswearing (4.3.172-4). Nevertheless, Vincentio never mentions, throughout the last act, his former trial of Lucio or its failure. In Lucio's case, as in Barnardine's, the Duke either does not, or does not want to, remember his previous, mistaken judgment. Earlier in the play, the Duke boasts to the Provost of his ‘ancient skill’ of reading brows (4.2.153-5). The revelation of his misjudgments of Lucio as well as Barnardine, however, makes this pride of the Duke sound stupid or even blasphemous, because that ‘skill’, which claims a kind of quasi-divine omniscience, was certainly of no help when the Duke was trying the two cases.

Vincentio then proclaims, in mitigation, that although he carries out the punishment for the unlawful child, he will forgive Lucio's slanders. What the Duke gets from Lucio for this mercy (as he believes) is an ungrateful complaint about the Duke's judgment: ‘Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging’ (5.1.522-3). This boisterous response, which makes a vivid contrast to the others' silence, triggers another problematic statement from the Duke, who instantly answers ‘Slandering a prince deserves it’. This clearly shows that it is for the slanders, not for the child, that the Duke wants Lucio to suffer punishment; the Duke still does not or cannot forgive those slanders. Is this obsession with slanders compatible with the image of a duke as an embodiment of justice and virtue? In all likelihood, he is merely revenging himself, in the name of justice, for those unprincipled slanders and absurd gossips that earlier wounded his inner pride and self-esteem. Thus, the Duke's judgment of Lucio is also a significant reminder of how impossible it is to regard the Duke as a godlike figure or an ideal governor.

The above analysis of the four cases points sharply to the consistent features in the design of the final scene. Firstly, it is a succession of the problematic and disturbing cases, each of which invokes questions, in one way or another, about the Duke himself and the adequacies of his ‘orgy of clemency’; secondly, you may notice a conspicuous absence of any expression of approval from any of the four—Barnardine's, Claudio's and Angelo's silences and Lucio's complaint. Moreover, none of these responses is what the Duke expects. These features become more manifest when Vincentio completes his spectacular demonstration of justice with the final speech of a conventional comic ending (5.1.525-39); to that speech, however, not only the four men but Isabella, Mariana, Juliet, the Provost and Escalus make no verbal responses of the kind that Vincentio would expect. This elaborate stagecraft—the succession of disturbing judgments followed by no suitable response up to the very ending—quite inevitably makes us uneasy about Vincentio's judgments at the conclusion, for it strongly suggests that all the problems and issues are not really resolved, but only seem to be ‘resolved’ through the Duke's spectacular stage of justice and mercy.

Without doubt, the silent presence of Barnardine plays a significant part in this larger, elaborate design of the scene; not only does his pardon come first, but it is also the most obviously problematic case. Consequently, it is likely to trigger the critical awareness of the audience, silently but bitterly pointing at the various contradictions and problems in the ducal judgment at the conclusion. Through this highly complicated stagecraft, Shakespeare raises this crucial issue: we should not respond to the final scene as some kind of demonstration of ideal justice, but regard it as the ironic culmination of that critical view of the Duke which Barnardine has up to this point made all the more pressing.

If Shakespeare's attitude to the Duke had been that of Wilson Knight and later pro-Duke critics, he would not have invented Barnardine. Or, to reverse Leavis's judgment: the Duke's attitude, nothing could be plainer, is not meant to be ours.26


  1. William Hazlitt, ‘Characters of Shakespeare's Plays’, in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe. Vol. 4. (London and Toronto, 1930), pp. 345-349.

  2. E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (London, 1925).

  3. A. D. Nuttall, ‘Measure for Measure: Quid Pro Quo?’, Shakespeare Studies 4 (1968), pp. 231-251.

  4. Barton's production questioned the by then dominant interpretation of the Duke as a godlike figure. Most attention was paid to the final scene, in which Isabella defiantly refused to respond to the Duke's marriage proposal. For further details, see Joseph C. Tardiff, ed., Shakespearean Criticism, Vol. 23 (1994), pp. 318-325.

  5. G. Wilson Knight, ‘Measure for Measure and the Gospels’, in The Wheel of Fire (London, 4th ed. 1949), pp. 73-96.

  6. Roy W. Battenhouse, ‘Measure for Measure and Christian Doctrine of the Atonement’, PMLA 61 (1946), pp. 1029-1059.

  7. Brook's production owed much to Wilson Knight's interpretation. According to H. S. Weil, Jr., Brook's prompt-books deleted a number of significant passages, including a group of lines that suggest that the Duke is either confused or conniving. For further details, see Shakespearean Criticism, Vol. 23, pp. 296-307.

  8. F. R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (London, 1952), p. 163.

  9. W. W. Lawrence, ‘Measure for Measure’ in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (London, 1931), pp. 80-114.

  10. E. E. Stoll, ‘All's Well and Measure for Measure’, in Shakespeare to Joyce: Author and Critics; Literature and Life (NY, 1944), pp. 235-68.

  11. All citations from Measure for Measure in my text are to The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, 1974).

  12. Arthur Sherbo, ed., Johnson on Shakespeare (New Haven and London, 1968), pp. 174-216.

  13. The Folio attributes this line to the Duke, while some modern editors give it to the Provost. I do not find the latter modification necessary.

  14. Herbert S. Weil, Jr., ‘The Options of the Audience: Theory and Practice in Peter Brook's Measure for Measure’, in Shakespearean Criticism, Vol. 23, p. 304.

  15. The quotation is from Walter Raleigh, Shakespeare (London, 1907), p. 148.

  16. See Raleigh, pp. 148-9, and Charlton's Shakespearean Comedy (London, 1938), pp. 215-7.

  17. J. W. Lever, Introduction, Measure for Measure (The Arden Shakespeare, London, 1965. Rpt. London, 1987), p. 89.

  18. Philip C. McGuire, Speechless Dialect (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985) Introduction, p. xv.

  19. For fuller details of Hack's production, see Shakespearean Criticism, Vol. 23, pp. 325-330.

  20. For Kyle's production, see also Shakespearean Criticism, Vol. 23, p. 383.

  21. McGuire, p. 65.

  22. Darryl Gless, Measure for Measure, the Law, and the Convent (Princeton, New Jersey, 1979), p. 229.

  23. Gless, p. 229.

  24. Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare's Scepticism (Ithaca, NY, 1991), p. 170.

  25. Nuttall, p. 239.

  26. Since this essay went to press, Harry Berger Jr. has published a long and important essay on Duke Vincentio in Making Trifles of Terrors: Redistributing Complicities in Shakespeare (Stanford, 1997), pp. 335-426.

Susan Carlson (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10304

SOURCE: Carlson, Susan. “‘Fond Fathers’ and Sweet Sisters: Alternative Sexualities in Measure for Measure.Essays in Literature 16, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 13-31.

[In the following essay, Carlson stresses non-traditional expressions of sexuality in Measure for Measure that stand against the male-dominated sexual order.]

Measure for Measure insists on defining its women in terms of their sexual relations to men. Such definition is clearest in the play's final scene when the Duke concludes Mariana must be “nothing” if she is not maid, widow, or wife (V.i.177-78).1 The definition is corroborated by Lucio with his addition of a more tawdry fourth alternative, “punk,” to the unchallenged list of female types. Many critics responding to the play in recent years have explored this seeming equation of a woman's worth with her sexuality to conclude that the play's sexual attitudes result from a persistent male fear of women.2 Their feminist connection between gynophobia and the play's restrictive sexual definitions has helped explain many of the ambiguities in the play's highly sexualized fabric. But although they call into question privileged, male-powered sexuality, none of them studies alternative sexualities in Measure for Measure. Other critics have begun to characterize the play's diversified sexualities, however, by combining a feminist perspective with their exploration of multiple cultural and social paradigms. While in general terms both Stephen Greenblatt and Jonathan Dollimore have urged that a dominant power structure persists because it allows for, even demands subversion, Jacqueline Rose, Kathleen McLuskie, and Dollimore himself have ventured specific readings of Measure for Measure which assume that the play's sexuality is a plurality of behaviors conditioned by cultural, social, and literary norms.3

The finding of literary scholars that sexuality is pluralistic and mutable is corroborated by the recent work of anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. Elizabeth Janeway, Carole Vance, Gayle Rubin, Jeffrey Weeks, Lawrence Stone and others deny essentialist assumptions that sexuality is a monolithic force existing prior to social life and offer, instead, their finding that sexuality is a social construct constantly “renegotiated” in the intersections of cultural, social, and political relations.4 Guided by such critical reappraisals, I want to identify and explore Measure for Measure's principal alternative sexuality. Whereas the dominant sexuality in the play includes both the traditional definitions of women advanced by the Duke and Lucio and other predictable patterns of relations between men and women, the most viable alternative sexuality in the play is articulated by its women. The sexual realm controlled by the women affirms life as it is not affirmed elsewhere in the play by supporting reorganized relations between men and women and by broadening the sexual options for women. While the whisper of this second sexuality is rarely heard above the commanding din of the dominant order, its resilient presence disturbs the play's characters and influences their actions in significant ways. McLuskie tells us that nothing in the play dislodges the men's established power, and Dollimore cautions that the play's termination offers more exploitation than resistance.5 Although I join them in cautioning that the presence of the women's alternative sexuality does not lead to feminist reformation, I find both unusual and notable the play's fragile openness to sexual redefinition.

Others have convincingly established that the play's dominant sexuality is masculine and authoritarian, operating under the twin assumptions that women are enticements to sexual sin and that women threaten a life of dangerous fecundity. Out of the fear attached to these assumptions grows an elaborate system of double standards designed as a protection against female concupiscence as well as an intricate grammar which linguistically positions women as passive objects—direct objects, indirect objects, prepositional objects.6 An even more subtle controlling standard is the corollary assumption that the sexuality of women as well as men is known and defined in a single way. Yet ironically, in spite of the powerlessness into which women are cast by such logic, they remain a potent enough threat to merit extensive guardianship. In fact, the insistence with which the play's women are defined in these limited ways is suspiciously myopic. For the assumption that there is only one sexuality is belied by the energy expended to protect the dominant order, an energy which suggests as much the possibility of an alternative as it does the exclusivity of the status quo. Before I turn to a study of the second sexuality that does exist in the play, I need to review two factors that complicate the play's alternative image of women and their sexuality: Isabella's anomalous position in the power structures of the play and Measure for Measure's adaptation of comic patterns.

Because the second sexuality is, practically, a way of redressing the power imbalance of traditional sexual roles, it is most closely attached to the women who have been powerless. This alternative can not simply be equated with the play's most visible woman, Isabella, however. Like the rest of the play's women, Isabella somewhat surreptitiously expresses her sexual nature, but unlike them, does so mostly in accordance with the assumptions of the dominant sexuality. Richard P. Wheeler finds that the judicial decisions of the play's powerful men—the Duke and Angelo—are tied to their repression of sexual desire. For Wheeler, Angelo's failure to integrate his own sexual desires into the power structure he administers accounts for his overriding of what would normally be compelling moral, familial, and political strictures. The Duke, he adds, avoids his sexuality by channeling his fear of it into a generalized death wish expressed with false aphoristic certainty.7 While Isabella is the only woman to join the play's men in the repression of sexuality and while her response is—like theirs—evasive, she has fewer options than they do for rechanneling her sexuality since she lacks their authority in social and political arenas. So while the men wield power in response to sexual urges, Isabella can only avoid that power and the world and roles it has created. Although her actions are an extension of the men's, Isabella's necessarily more defensive response to the play's power structures is aligned—in result if not in intention—with subversive strategies all the play's women adopt to survive in a sphere where they are denied power.

Jane Lapotaire, analyzing Isabella from an actress's point of view, concludes that her retreat to the convent is an escape from a world where she has suffered some sexual trauma related to male power. Dollimore, similarly, sees in Isabella's renunciation her seeking “to be preserved specifically from men” and assumes, like Lapotaire, that Isabella knows enough about male power to want to avoid it.8 Indeed, as soon as Isabella is faced with the inhuman logic of Angelo's law, she displays a passionate rhetoric seemingly rooted in personal knowledge of the abuses of power. She belittles the authoritarian as “man, proud man, / Dressed in a little brief authority, / Most ignorant of what he's most assured” (II.ii.117-19). And in II.iv, when Isabella has both Angelo's licentiousness and his abuse of authority to respond to, she chooses to berate only his power (II.iv.172-77). Both Isabella's desire to escape authority and her berating of its abuses are replicated in the actions of the play's other women. But Isabella's sexual repression, her compliance, and her lack of self-knowledge prevent her from standing at the middle of the play's second order of power and sexuality, even though she is the most fervid in her outbursts against the men's power. Along with the other women, she contributes to an alternative, but not one of the women is strong enough, finally, to resist the men's power and paradigm.

The limited sphere of the play's second sexuality observable in Isabella's paradoxical role is countered, in part, by the play's comic inversion. Even though this play does not reproduce the joyousness of earlier Shakespearean comedies, it does share in the comedies' rich reversals. While I agree with Jean Howard and Marcia Riefer that the play's comic form does not lead to the creation of a power-wielding heroine,9 I find, nevertheless, that comic inversion is at work in creating a world disordered enough that its women can test an alternative sexual order. The Duke himself invokes customary comic license when he describes his Vienna as a world out of its order:

And Liberty plucks Justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.


While for several of the play's critics the Duke's conception of Vienna's inverted power structure is negative, the inversion and the prominence it accords women signal the welcomed hope of a second order. Meredith Skura labels the inversion a critique of the phallocentric order; Howard finds that the reversal allows for both convention and its critique; and Carol Thomas Neely argues that the expansion and alteration of comedy in Measure for Measure (as well as All's Well That Ends Well) act in part to protect women's sexuality in the rough world of these problem plays.10 The events of the play do suggest that the central power structure is enticingly changeable. Yet any alternative order in the play is not as powerful, ascendant, or inspiring as these critics would like to believe. Dollimore makes it soberingly clear that the play's Bakhtinian inversion is largely illusory, and worse, that the power released by such inversion is nearly always contained.11 An alternative sexuality generated through women is strengthened by the play's comic inversions, however. The alternative has a limited life, but it interrupts the control which the dominant sexuality wields over the language and actions in the play.

Five scenes mark the existence of the play's tenuous counter sexuality. The most important of these is I.iv, for it makes the fullest statement about what constitutes the sexual alternative in the play. In the exchange between Isabella and Francisca that opens the convent scene, critics usually note how Isabella's overzealous desire for restrictions signals her extreme repression of the life she is about to abandon outside of the convent walls. Just as important, however, is the protest against conventional sexual definitions initiated here. As Marilyn French points out, we know the convent only by its gender-based rules, which are premised on the assumption that piety necessitates the women's avoidance of men.12 Holiness ranks above sex and men in the priorities of this world. The women's abstention from sex is not a denial of sexuality, however, but a component in their redefinition of it. Virginity and chastity are as much ways of embracing sexuality as are acts of making love, for chastity is not the emblem of a sexless soul, but the acknowledgment of a sexual desire that will not be acted on. The nuns' choice of a self-willed unavailability indicates a control over their lives that Isabella, however, never achieves. Her chaste sexuality is suspiciously aggressive. While the community of abstemious nuns she is about to join seem contented in their vows of chastity, Isabella substitutes for their acknowledgment of desire a repression of it. Those famous first five lines of the scene notify us that Isabella is not completely harmonized with her community. It is worth stressing that Isabella is only a novitiate, on the eve of taking her religious vows. This too, in a sense, marks her difference from the community of nuns. And this difference will be crucial to Shakespeare, whose Duke eventually offers Isabella the option of a marriage vow to replace a religious one.13

As I noted above, Isabella is a paradoxical presence in the play, even among its women; she remains, however, a crucial part of a female community which offers alternatives here. In fact, Isabella's idiosyncratic presence in I.iv is one sign of several complex cultural echoes in the nuns' protected sexuality. Maurice Charney reminds us that because of their chastity, nuns have always been enticing figures for pornography. And Lisa Jardine, in detailing the sexuality Isabella, in particular, inherits from the saints, clarifies the power in such chastity. Such power, she suggests, grows out of the legacy of silence and wrongful accusation contained in the saints' lives, and contributes to the dignity and heroism of Isabella and Francisca's sexual restraint and sequestration.14 In short, the combination of self-reliance and sexuality implied in the nuns' chastity is a threat to men. In I.iv, the pious life-choices of the women imply the marginality of men in the convent world and register an unvoiced though diversified protest against the male world outside of the nunnery.

Verbal representations of women in I.iv also suggest a reordering of priorities. In this scene, as in others, most of the references to women put them in classes—like those the Duke and Lucio list in V.i—that do not threaten the prevailing order. References to nuns—“the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare” (5) and “sister” (19)—to “maids” and “Maidens” (32, 80), and to “virgins” (33) identify groups of women who are comfortably defined in their relationship to men. All but one of these references comes from Lucio. Isabella opens up the possibilities of meaning that lie beyond such standard definitions of women, however, when she recalls the “apt affection” (48) she and Juliet shared, an affection so intense they have expressed their closeness by adopting the familial term “cousin” for one another. The relationship, significantly, does not recall any category proposed by the Duke and Lucio because the women are defining themselves outside of their relationship to men. When Isabella calls up the image of herself and Juliet as “schoolmaids” (47) she introduces a second new category of female behavior, one which marks women's intellectual capacities. The double meaning of “sister,” first introduced in this scene, also contributes to the broadening of social and sexual roles for women. While Lucio jokes about Isabella's double role as sister—“a novice of this place, and the fair sister / To her unhappy brother, Claudio” (19-20)—for Isabella the double role later becomes a source of power. In II.ii, Angelo is mildly surprised to learn of Isabella's double sisterhood (19-22) and perhaps is disarmed by this conflation of roles. Later in the scene, Isabella instinctively depends on the doubled role, bolstering her pleas as a sibling with the support of her sisterly convent community (II.ii.153-55). Shaken by the fervor of Angelo's sexual desire in II.iv, Isabella is less able to draw on her multivalent power; yet even in her refusal she fuses the meaning of her two sisterly roles to gain some ground:

And 'twere the cheaper way:
Better it were a brother died at once
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die forever.


Although in III.i Isabella separates the two sisterly roles in arguing with Claudio, by V.i—in her plea for justice—she has returned to the power she can call up through the doubleness: “I am the sister of one Claudio … I, in probation of a sisterhood” (69, 72).15 In I.iv women are presented as several things at once: friends, students, novices, siblings, and rhetoricians. They cannot be one-dimensionally stereotyped.

It is not just the women in the scene who benefit from the transformative power of a new set of assumptions. In fact, when Lucio intrudes into the female world of the convent, we get our clearest picture of the alternative sexuality the scene offers. Even though Lucio brings into this world the harsh news of Angelo's laws, both he and his tale are altered by his telling it in this female environment. Lucio, by several accounts the bawdiest character in the play, can here deliver the play's only description of the sexual relationship between Claudio and Juliet which is alluring, lyric, and positive:

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


It is dangerous, of course, to take Lucio's words at face value, for he seems to be gauging his usual raucous language for Isabella's unworldly ears. Indeed, his rhetorical proficiency has already been proven in the scene. He has opened with a somewhat stiff and rusty graciousness: “Hail, virgin, if you be, as those cheek-roses / Proclaim you are no less” (16-17). And he has moved through direct jest—“For that which, if myself might be his judge, / He should receive his punishment in thanks” (27-28). Yet as Lucio builds to his description of Claudio and Juliet's relationship, he discards jest and formality, and the resulting directness—“Do not believe it. Fewness and truth, 'tis thus” (39)—flowers into the simple, convincing simile of lines 40 to 44. In spite of the urgency of his mission, in a place the women have made us feel is different, Lucio seems to relax and expresses his message in a language that defers to the values of this female environment. It is hard to know how sincere Lucio is, but at the least the women's world of I.iv has liberated a generous and optimistic sentiment that Lucio does not (or cannot) express elsewhere. Outside of the convent and the influence of its women, Lucio's gracious acceptance of others' sexuality will sour to a petty self-protection. In II.ii, still in the company of Isabella but back in a male world, he reverts to a directness that is harsh, jests that are clever but cutting, and even disrespect—as is clear in his reference to Isabella as a “wench” (124). But in the female space of I.iv, he renounces his “familiar sin” to “jest” with “virgins” (31-33) and is selfless in depicting sex as beautiful and life-producing.

Lucio's role in this scene is emblematic of his connection with the alternative sexuality throughout Measure for Measure. Like the women, he is outside of the conventional hierarchies of men's power and must of necessity learn the best ways to make his less-than-welcome voice heard. Lucio has the slight advantage, of course, of retaining the male privilege to make direct his criticisms of authority, as the women rarely can. Lucio shares his welcome in this second society with only one other male, Pompey. Perhaps because of the outcast status Lucio and Pompey share with the women, they alone are able to form relationships with the women on a non-sexual, non-familial basis. In I.iv, Lucio and Isabella initiate a comradely fight to rescue Claudio. And even though Lucio recognizes the sexual overtones of Isabella's pleas to Angelo during II.ii, his responses focus not on them but on her rhetorical skill. Mistress Overdone and Pompey are also able to share an unconventional relationship; because they deal together in sex as a business, they too can relate to one another without being confined by a limited model of male-female relationships. But predictably, both men pay a price for their collusion with women. While the play's subversive women are placed under the protection of men, the play's subversive men are imprisoned.

While I.iv does offer two of the women in Measure for Measure a rare opportunity to be together, it is even more significant for the way it broadens definitions of women and their sexuality. Here sex is affirmatively attached to life, and the attachment stimulates new attitudes toward men and women. Even though Isabella cannot completely embrace the possibilities of the environment, both she and Lucio appear at their best here. The openness and directness of I.iv are evident again in II.iii, the brief scene in which Juliet and the Duke review her sexual sin. Charney has noted that this scene occupies a significant position separating the tense confrontations of Isabella and Angelo in II.ii and II.iv.16 Not surprisingly, then, one of this interlude's main functions is to underscore the sexual dimension of the struggle between Angelo and Isabella. Through Juliet's defiance in II.iii, Shakespeare highlights the rejection of conventional power that undergirds Isabella's more obtuse pleas. And when Juliet refuses to align her actions and thoughts with the sexuality the Duke seeks to impose on her, her unexpected assertiveness transforms the scene into a second forum for the play's alternative sexuality.

Two references to Juliet before she enters predict that the standard view of sexuality will not prevail here. The Provost claims her as “a gentlewoman of mine” (10) and describes her compassionately as one “Who, falling in the flaws of her own youth, / Hath blistered her report. She is with child” (11-12). He lacks Lucio's convent-inspired grace and vision, but not his goodwill, a quality rare in the men's responses to women. When Juliet enters, the Duke's catechism on sin and repentance begins, yet his control is compromised almost immediately and for the first time in the play. While Juliet's responses are mainly compliant and her manner decorous, she rejects the equation of female sexuality with sin by following each proper response with a qualification which subverts her original answer and the dominant sexuality. When the Duke asks her if she repents the sin she carries, she first replies “I do,” but then adds, “and bear the shame most patiently” (20). When the Duke asks her whether she loves Claudio, her “yes” is followed with “as I love the woman that wronged him” (25). Juliet's unmistakable statement of self-love is rare in a play where self-hatred is the rule. Juliet repeats both her subversive independence and her personal contentedness in her final comment to the Duke, when once again her proper answer—“I do repent me as it is an evil”—is followed by her gentle defiance, “and take the shame with joy” (35-36). With this final line, Juliet not only interrupts the Duke, but leaves him only enough room for an uncharacteristically brief and neutral response, “There rest.” Juliet accomplishes what few others do in the play: by refusing to accept the Duke's definitions of her sexual act, Juliet takes from the Duke his power to preach, rule, and pontificate.

Juliet refuses to privilege the shame the church attaches to her sexual act and instead proudly affirms her sexuality, her self, and the new life she is carrying.17 Her decorous defiance also includes a redefinition of male-female relations. She acknowledges the shared responsibility in her sex with Claudio, so that when the Duke reminds her of a double standard which determines “Then was your sin of heavier kind than his,” she can accept and absorb his scorn: “I do confess it, and repent it, father.” Her repentance, it seems, can come without the shame the Duke seeks to invoke. Both Juliet's independence and her sexual redefinitions influence our responses to Isabella in the two scenes which sandwich II.iii. As we have seen, unlike Juliet's, Isabella's sexuality is largely conditioned by her submission to the dominant order: she represses her sexual urges, denounces sexual desires in others, and finds women responsible for sexual sins. Yet, when Isabella refuses to accept the sexual bargain Angelo offers, her disgust at his power engenders a defiance much like Juliet's. Jardine suggests that Isabella's refusal of the sex Angelo would force on her constitutes the breaking of a stereotype, since Isabella would have been expected to submit to disgrace and then to kill herself.18 The positioning of Juliet's defiance in II.iii, then, together with Isabella's own protests, suggests that Isabella's integrity—like Juliet's—is threatened by conventional alignments of power and sexuality. Isabella is simply less cognizant of her compromised position than Juliet. Since she has little to lose, Juliet reacts by refusing standard definitions of love and sex; because she has accepted significant portions of these standard definitions, Isabella's recantation of the primary sexuality is less clear.

Juliet makes two other appearances in the play, both silent. In I.iii she appears briefly and pregnant to serve as a visual reminder of her and Claudio's sexual acts. And in V.i, she joins the ranks of the soon-to-be-married. Her words and her subversive compliance in II.iii are, consequently, uncharacteristic and avoidable. Why then does Shakespeare choose to include the prison interlude? At this strategic point, before Isabella is burdened in II.iv with knowledge of Angelo's corruption, we are encouraged to remember that alternatives, especially alternative sexualities, exist in this world. This scene, however, is the last clear expression of such options. After the major tonal shift in III.i, when the Duke resumes his directing role, the play is mainly given over to his drive to fortify the play's dominant sexuality.

There are, however, two more scenes, before Act V, in which the play's alternative sexuality is evident. Neither makes the strong statements of I.iv and II.iii, but both indicate that the women in the play remain the conduits of heterodox sexual attitudes. In IV.i, at Mariana's “moated grange,” we return to an environment where women have a respite from male control.19 And as in II.iii, the Duke enters as an outsider into a world where women can speak openly and honestly. When we learn from Mariana that she has “sat here all day” (19-20), we register a more leisurely world than the turbulent, discordant Vienna which is the dominant setting in the play. In this new environment, love is the main topic. We begin, in the song, with an acknowledgment that sexual contact can go by the name of love; lovers who up to now in the play have been bodiless acquire “lips” and “eyes.” The verse also centers on a metaphor of light and dawn, a rare occurrence in a play that is pervasively dark in both imagery and tone. Even though the song's new day is one of fresh betrayal and self-abusive desire, the darkened love is informed by the play's second sexuality. Mariana's grange, however, mournful, is a home for reveries on the possibilities of love, fulfillment, corporality, and sensuality.

Like Juliet, however, Mariana knows that her relaxed behavior is not sanctioned. Because of this, like Juliet, Mariana has two modes of behavior—one for the Duke and one for a world without the Duke. The boy and his lyrics are dismissed hastily as soon as the Duke appears, and Mariana launches into an excuse for her leisure. The linguistic convolutions of her explanation signal the illogic of her divided life:

I cry you mercy, sir, and well could wish
You had not found me here so musical.
Let me excuse me, and believe me so,
My mirth it much displeased, but pleased my woe.


As the Duke censures her behavior and her music (almost at her invitation), he assumes control of the scene and the environment; and in the process the alternative world of the grange dissipates. No longer do the women act together as any sort of community, much less suggest an alternative order. While Mariana and Isabella meet for the first time in this scene, they directly exchange only four lines of dialogue (58, 67-69) in seventy-five. Isabella, by this time, has relinquished her passionate protests and her references to alternative options. Early in III.i, her chastity has hardened into a death wish for both herself and her brother, and she gives over any remaining volition to the Duke later in the same scene. Isabella has not, like Juliet or Mariana, displayed a wide range of behaviors dependent on her environment, but by the time of this first scene with Mariana, even her behavior has narrowed and the protests of I.iv, II.ii, and II.iv are gone (except, of course, for moments when the Duke calls them up for his own purposes in the final scene). But while the alternative sexuality of the scene remains more suggestion than actuality, the unusual environment still encourages unconventional actions in the Duke. Although elsewhere he is seen separating people and admonishing sins of collusion, here he brings the two women together, telling Mariana “Take then this your companion by the hand” (54). He also acknowledges the necessity of sex as he manipulates events to allow Mariana and Angelo to consummate their wedding contract. In fact, the location of IV.i may help explain why the Duke sanctions sexual behavior here that he seems to abhor elsewhere. In this world where feelings and flexibility are encouraged, the belated fulfilling of Mariana and Angelo's de futuro contract makes every sense and can be encouraged. The Duke's agricultural image is a final sign of his subtle transformation; echoing the natural growth and increase Lucio celebrated in I.iv, the Duke explicitly acknowledges life processes: “Our corn's to reap, for yet our tithe's to sow” (75).

In, the last scene before the Duke's triumphant re-entry in V.i, we have our final exposure to the play's other mode. Unlike the other scenes in which an alternative sexuality operates, does not take place in a protected environment like the nunnery, the prison, or Mariana's grange. In the transitional space of this scene—a Viennese street—the brief exchange of Isabella and Mariana becomes emblematic of both the alternative order the women have offered and their difficulty in holding onto that alternative once they are reestablished in the official world of Vienna. In the nine lines the women exchange before Friar Peter ushers them off, they discuss the indirect behavior the disguised Duke has directed them to adopt. They comment not only on their upcoming deception, however, but also on the clandestine, subversive nature of their actions throughout the play. Priding herself on her directness, Isabella opens the scene by complaining: “To speak so indirectly I am loath; / I would say the truth” (1-2). Yet by the end of the same four-line speech, she has adopted a passive role—“Yet I am advised to do it” (3). Her passivity, together with the acceptance Mariana urges in her command—“Be ruled by him”—reestablishes here the inclination of the play's women to submit, at least in public, to the desires of others. Thus, in one of the rare moments we see the play's women alone together, we note little of the tentative reorganization suggested in I.iv and II.iii. Instead, we see only the women's consciousness of the indirection they engage in, their reluctance to accept it, and their helplessness in doing anything about it. Our response to their aversion is qualified, however, by our knowledge that both women have, since we saw them last, acted the leading roles in the bed trick. Yet their mendacity is not the compromised behavior it first seems. In the women's sexual paradigm, directness, vitality, and naturalness determine actions; but when the women must operate in the standard sexual paradigm, they adopt the subversive tactics they have needed to survive in the men's world where women are assumed to be concupiscent and threatening bearers of life. Just as Lucio and the Duke modulate their actions and words when in the women's sphere, the women, in the men's world, pragmatically adopt behaviors that will ensure their survival.

Before I move to the play's final scene, I want to consider Mistress Overdone and her connection to the play's woman-based alternative sexuality. In my scenic analysis above, she has been notably absent. Because of her differences from the play's other women (differences of class and profession) she does not appear in their relatively protected spots; yet her fleeting presence is a telling comment on the sexual redefinition the other women more visibly undertake.

Mistress Overdone appears only twice, under constraints each time. In I.ii, her entry into the bawdy exchange of Lucio and his friends is compromised not only by their ridicule of her but also by her own contradictory behavior. After informing Lucio and the others of Claudio's arrest, she becomes the seemingly uninformed audience for Pompey's lewd jokes about the same news.20 Perhaps she is deferring to Pompey's authority even though she knows full well what he is about to tell her, and thus is falling in line with the general tendency of the play's women to defer to men. What is more constraining about her appearance in I.ii, however, is that she is mocked from the start. Because she is laughingly equated with sexual disease and sexual excess (she has had nine husbands), the power of her sexuality is trivialized and defused. When Mistress Overdone appears briefly again in III.ii, she is physically constrained, on her way to prison. She is also the solitary woman in an atmosphere increasingly commanded by traditional attitudes toward women. Against condemnation and disgust from Escalus and the Provost, she constructs a meagre self-defense by accusing her accuser Lucio of illegal fornication and by offering the heretical thought of herself as a foster mother to his child. While defiance is implied on the occasion of both scenes, Mistress Overdone finds her voice only briefly, once, in I.ii, when she is left alone on stage (after the exit of Lucio and the gentlemen and before the entrance of Pompey) to bemoan her increasingly difficult situation: “Thus, what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk” (I.ii.78-80). This lament connects Mistress Overdone to the play's subversive sexuality, as it offers a compact view of Mistress Overdone as a woman much affected by the sexual laws Angelo imposes. But more importantly, her soliloquy reminds us that Mistress Overdone represents a community of whores who can be found only in the margins of the play. It is the absence of this community which is the most telling aspect of her “presence” in the play. Both Dollimore and Alexander Leggatt have noticed this remarkable void in a play about sexuality.21 Not only are the women physically absent, but references to Mistress Overdone's business further erase the women by recalling a male community, not a female one (most notable is Pompey's IV.iii comparison of the prison community to the community at Mistress Overdone's). The ephemeral appearance of Mistress Overdone and the absence of her community of prostitutes both suggest, once more, how women and their sexuality are marginalized in the play. Mistress Overdone does not contribute much to the alternative order the play's other women hint at; but her isolation is in harmony with the dim nature of those other women's attempts to define their lives.

The play's final scene has necessarily become the linch-pin for most interpretations of Measure for Measure. It has always been a key to characterizations of the Duke and to studies of the play's genre. It must be a part of any analysis of this play's power structures or its portraits of rule. The scene's movements toward closure are also crucial for my reading of the alternative sexuality, for the efforts to establish a sexuality which runs contrary to the play's male order are effectively terminated here. The structure of the scene draws perversely on comedy, but the reestablishment of order that comes with even a forced comic conclusion truncates any liberty or space the women in the play have found. … Yes, the scene abounds in ironies and may be, as Anthony Dawson contends, “self-subverting,”22 but in it we watch the firm reassertion of the play's traditional sexuality. Repeated references to women call up stereotypes based on women's concupiscence and sexual culpability. In this scene, as noted earlier, we have the Duke and Lucio categorizing women according to types—wife, widow, maid, and punk. There is also the persistent equation of women with sexual desire and sin, when Escalus calls Isabella and Mariana “giglets” (344), and also when the Duke publicly attaches Mariana to sin and conspiracy—“and thou pernicious woman, / Compact with her that's gone” (239-40). Throughout the scene, in fact, one of the principal logical weapons that the Duke wields is his certainty that his audience will want to assume women are weak, concupiscent, and subversive. The indirection that has been foregrounded by Mariana and Isabella in is repeatedly attributed to women here by the Duke, Escalus, Angelo, and Lucio, who variously find the women “informal” (234), “pernicious” (239), and “light” (278). Even men who have elsewhere seemed compassionate and sensitive reflexively display such simplistic responses. Escalus allows Lucio to joke about Isabella's night with the Duke (269-80), and Friar Peter (as part of his role in the Duke's scheme) accuses Isabella of lying and sinning (158-62). These charges of overweening desire and subversion all go unanswered by the women who have agreed to lie about certain things and who have learned to be silent about others.

The linguistic stereotyping of the women is reinforced by the choreography of their appearances during the scene. Most important, Isabella and Mariana are separated for most of the 534 lines. Isabella must make her charges against Angelo on her own in the first part of the scene, and later Mariana must confess her entrapment of Angelo without Isabella's presence. And while Isabella may exit after her line at 125, she can, as most editors suggest, remain on stage until 162, in which case her exit immediately precedes Mariana's entrance. The crossing actions accentuate the separation of the two women. When they later plead together for Angelo's life, it is at the Duke's suggestion, not the women's inclination, that they finally coordinate their efforts.

The play's final response to the alternative sexuality the women sporadically intimate lies in the marriages proposed in this scene. In Shakespearean comedy, marriage can be a blessing on love, a sign of order reestablished, a reward for perseverance, or a natural outlet for sexual desire. Yet marriage can also be, as feminist critics like Carol Thomas Neely, Peter Erickson, Shirley Nelson Garner, and Clara Claiborne Park have pointed out, an end to female characters' language and freedom.23 I suggested earlier that the play's comic plotting encourages an alternative sexuality, even though that alternative is fleeting. In adopting comedy's tumble toward marriage, Measure for Measure further highlights the dissonance in its comedy, for the pairing off of Angelo and Mariana, Isabella and the Duke, Claudio and Juliet, and Lucio and Kate Keepdown calls to mind marriage's threat of pain more than its promise of happiness.24 Throughout the play, marriage has represented everything but a dream or a goal. When Claudio adopts marriage as the metaphor for death, for example, he turns marriage's togetherness into doom:

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


For Elbow, as II.i makes clear, marriage is a constant trial of unrewarded watchfulness. And for Angelo and Lucio, marriage is predominantly punishment. Angelo's only verbal response to his forced marriage to Mariana is indirect, but his craving “death more willingly than mercy” (V.i.472) strongly suggests his choice of death over marriage. Lucio has been much more vocal in denouncing marriage. In IV.iii he jokes to the disguised Duke that he has narrowly escaped marriage to the “rotten medlar” he has gotten pregnant (169), and his fear is realized in this final scene when he responds, in horror, to the Duke's actualizing of this very punishment of marriage: “Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging” (V.i.517-18). Along with Claudio and Juliet, who we may assume give silent approval to the marriage ordered for them, only Mariana looks joyously on the prospect of marriage. The others display various shades of reticence. We have seen that horror colors Lucio's response. Angelo asks for death instead of marriage and then resigns himself to silence for the rest of the play when his request is denied. The Duke, who has earlier denied his own need for sex—dismissing it as “the dribbling dart of love” (I.iii.2)—twice offers marriage to Isabella, though only in moments when her emotions are safely engaged elsewhere. And Isabella can only join Angelo in silence as a response to the prospect of marriage. We know his silence is in protest; we can only assume hers could be. Such silences and disinclinations, although they carry many other meanings, are the scene's only echo of the play's alternative sexuality: the joylessness of these final marriages suggests that other sexual options have disturbed the traditional order.25 As the final signal of a reestablished order, marriage is a vault in which is buried the play's alternative sexuality.

I can clarify both the tenuousness of this alternative sexuality and its rarity in the canon by examining similar situations in other plays, particularly All's Well That Ends Well. Measure for Measure's comic inversion is a structural reminder, of course, that it shares its general narrative movement with less troubled comedies like As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night. The way Rosalind and Celia clear a space for themselves in the forest of Arden recalls the female enclaves of the nuns or of Mariana, although in As You Like It, the heroines must rely on male disguise to gain their leisure and liberty. Rosalind is fully cognizant of sexual double standards and their effect on women, but she can silently join in the comic reversion to the status quo because this play's dominant view of women and their sexuality is characterized more by generosity and love than by fear and misogyny. The Merchant of Venice offers an even more enduring alternative order than does As You Like It. Belmont is, essentially, a female territory where Portia and Nerissa (later Jessica) promote their definition of male-female relations and sexuality. They are constrained, of course, by the mechanism of the caskets and must, like all of Shakespeare's women, take subversive measures to retain their independence. Yet in spite of such handicaps, Portia alone keeps her world (and that of Venice) sane, and manages to maintain an unruliness to the end of the play.26 But as in As You Like It, the women-powered spaces in The Merchant of Venice are less a retreat from misogyny than women's interpretations of their union with men. The comedies are far from being feminist paradises, but they do allow for, even encourage, a dialogue between the sexes that is not entirely on the men's terms.

In marked contrast, All's Well That Ends Well reproduces many of the concerns that give rise to Measure for Measure's alternative sexuality. In both plays, sexuality is a troubling preoccupation, chastity is the standard measurement of a woman's worth, an assumed culpability for sin undergirds talk of women, and the ending is both forced and unfixed. Yet in All's Well an alternative sexuality is not the clear result of these conditions. Two major factors account for these differences in All's Well: first, since marriage is more central to the narrative development, alternatives to it are not explored; and second, since Helena is, on her own, such a threat to the male order, an alternative sexuality is both less necessary and less viable. This play is a comment on, not a copy of Measure for Measure's multiple sexualities.27 The best way to register these differences between the plays is to note how in neither of All's Well's women-influenced locations—the home of the Count of Rossillion and the Widow's house in Florence—do women actively pursue non-traditional sexual options for themselves.

While the two spiritual leaders of the Rossillion household, Helena and the Countess, are women, nothing like the alternative sexuality of Measure for Measure springs up under their guidance. The women's constant interaction and concern with men and marriage replaces the protest and withdrawal of Measure for Measure's women. For example, I cannot argue, although it is tempting, that in the female environment of the opening scene Helena and Parolles' bantering about virginity establishes an alternative view of women's sexuality. The assumptions about men's and women's sexuality that the exchange is based on are, in fact, little different than those the men later use in similar contests of wits. Virginity, which Measure for Measure's nuns prize as a mature commitment and which Isabella would die for, is here merely an object of banter. For Helena, who would gladly lose her virginity to Bertram, the banter marks a pragmatic step towards marrying him, not a definition of other relational options. In addition, Helena's expression of sexual desire is only seemingly uninhibited. Her delivery of revelatory soliloquies both before and after this exchange suggests that when she is with Parolles neither the time nor the place has allowed for her honest expression.

Neither does the second scene at Rossillion give rise to a woman-influenced counter order. As I.iii opens with the Countess and Lavatch discussing his sexual desires, the Countess' playful responses appear to sanction a non-judgmental view of Lavatch's situation. Yet her acknowledgment of his lust, unabashed as it is, is but a familiar acceptance of the unlasting nature of sexual desire. Her openness, though more unusual in her sex, cannot be attributed to her sex. Of more significance is the fact that while Lavatch talks freely of his sexual desires, his talk is only passively welcomed by the Countess. She does not join in except to prod him to further performance. In I.i it was Parolles; here it is Lavatch who talks of sexual matters. The women are encouraging listeners unwilling or unable to articulate their own opinions. In the meeting of the two women at the end of the scene there is also little evidence for their attachment to an alternative sexuality. Even here Helena relaxes only enough to confess, not confide, her love for Bertram; and although the women conspire to further Helena's dreams, they display little consciousness of being handicapped by the traditional order of things. It is Helena's will to have Bertram, not the women's common sex or their shared affection that moves them from confession to plan of action. When Helena and the Countess next meet at the palace in III.ii, Helena is so distracted by her disgrace at the hands of Bertram that her return has little to do with a reunion of the women (who are never alone together). And once more, Helena can express her true feelings only in soliloquy. Both I.iii and III.ii are models of how the play accommodates its women differently than does Measure for Measure. In none of the palace scenes do the women seek release from their bonds with men, and so they have little need to isolate themselves from men or to rail against them.

Neely argues that all the women in the play identify with each other “feeling sympathy and offering help where hostility and rivalry might have been expected.”28 While it is hard to connect such mutual aid between Helena and the Countess with the creation of an environment the women can call their own, in the scenes at the widow's home in Florence, connections among women do mark a spot of relief from men and their assumptions. Yet these scenes also make clearest that Helena's assertiveness has, in large part, replaced the community-based power of Measure for Measure's alternative scenes. Before Helena enters a third of the way through III.v, the Florentine widow, her daughter Diana, and their neighbor Mariana anticipate the appearance of the Florentine army by discussing a maid's peril at the hands of Parolles and Bertram. Although obviously enchanted by Bertram's attentions, Diana acknowledges the truth in Mariana's warnings about endangered maidenhoods. And as Diana pledges “You shall not fear me” (27) she places her ties with women above her infatuation with men. Since women in Measure for Measure were not primarily engaged in searching for men, such direct talk about the dangers of sexual entanglements did not transpire there. But the sense of women's shared burden in traditional male-female relationships implicit in Measure for Measure is explicit here at the Widow's. The combination of community and protest early in the scene is as close as we come, in All's Well, to an alternative women's space. Later in the scene the Widow suggests the bed trick to Helena. Although Helena's new women friends then plan with her an alternative action, their move is guided as much by Helena's desire for Bertram as by the women's belief in the possibility of a different kind of life.

When Helena and the Widow meet two scenes later to transact the business of the bed trick, it is even more evident that Helena's strong character has replaced the kind of alternative that was suggested by enclaves of women in Measure for Measure. Helena's appraisal of Bertram's sexual desire for Diana—“Now his important blood will naught deny / That she'll demand” (III.vii.21-22; see also 26-28)—marks her frankest assessment of human sexuality. Yet this moment of Helena's clear-headed assessment is not a sign of a new forthrightness, since its context is her purchase of the Widow and Diana's aid. When compared to Isabella and Mariana's comparatively passive participation in Measure for Measure's bed trick, Helena's single-minded determination seems excessive, tawdry, and selfish. As Jardine points out, it is Helena's education which extends what is already a potent sexual threat in the play.29 Such intellectual status also separates her from the others; so while Helena's subversive behavior bring her a husband, any benefits (besides monetary) of the alternative action are confined to her.

The tenor of Diana's conference with Bertram in IV.ii underlines, finally, the singular presence of Helena in the play's development. More than any other in All's Well, this scene recalls Juliet's defiance of the Duke. At least until Diana begins the ring bartering in line 39, her responses to Bertram neutralize his suggestive comments and suggest alternatives. Though his jargon is love and the Duke's was religion, the pattern of response between man and woman is the same. To Bertram's first plea for physical contact with her, Diana replies by transforming his lust into her honesty and duty (3-13). In her two longer speeches to follow (17-20, 21-31), she continues to speak of truth and of oaths in garden metaphors and with heavenly references that characterize this defiance as hers, not Helena's. And even as she must seem to acquiesce to Bertram later in the scene, her loyalty to a women's sphere echoes Juliet's. Her protest concludes when, after he leaves, she declares herself always chaste—“I live and die a maid” (74). But while Juliet's defiance highlights Isabella's, Diana's is sacrificed to the relentless pursuit of Helena's plan. In the final scene, when Diana's still protesting spirit withstands the aspersions of Bertram, LaFew, and the King, she deftly makes possible Helena's triumph. But she can be repaid by both Helena and the King only with a dowry for a husband she has renounced in IV.ii. In Measure for Measure we could blame the Duke for the final, public abuse of Isabella and Mariana. Here we must blame Helena.

Since its suggestions of a second sexuality are sporadic and dim, All's Well does not close, like Measure for Measure, with a final scene in which forced couplings bury women's unconventional options. Generally marriage—the plot preoccupation throughout—is a tonic, not a punishment. Helena considers it her reward. And even Bertram, who has done his best to escape marriage to Helena, shows us, in his eagerness to wed Maudlin, that it is Helena, not marriage, that he objects to. Although the happiness at the end of the play is forced, at least for Bertram and Diana, protest against it is not a disruption, as in Measure for Measure. Both marriage and men are acceptable to women in All's Well. And conversely, women are acceptable to men.30

In All's Well a less forceful dominant sexuality compells a less forceful counter sexuality. And the female protest that exists in the play is channeled into Helena's individual battle, which appears independent from a series of women's spaces. Instead of Measure for Measure's multiple options of chastity, of women's community, of mutually enjoyed sex, All's Well offers an assertive woman. All's Well's constricted portrait of sexual relations is, finally, helpful in identifying how Isabella's singular presence contributes to Measure for Measure's alternative sexuality. While the clear misogyny of Measure for Measure undoubtedly provokes the feminine counterforce of the women's second sexuality, the strength of its collective locations is a reflection of Isabella's reticence as well as of a tyrannical world.

As this comparison should emphasize, the alternative sexuality of Measure for Measure is both unusual and fragile. It is the rare and instructive result of a particular collection of dramatic components. But although it is more suggested than actualized, it cannot be discounted as a spectral re-channeling of sexual desires. This alternative is the acknowledgment of qualities, options, and relations for both men and women not sanctioned by the standard sexual politics. It is the testing of new constellations of power in relationships between men and women. It is the abandonment of restrictive stereotypes. It is the affirmation of bodies and of life. And as All's Well makes so clear, this sexuality is nourished only in locales outside the purview of the official paradigm. The play's fond fathers have reconfirmed their power by the final scene of Measure for Measure, but the intermittently visible sweet sisters never completely relinquish theirs. The presence of a second sexuality helps explain the tensions of Measure for Measure and why, for so long, we have felt inclined to scour the play for indications of joy and affirmation that counterpoint its oppressive sexual morality.


  1. Quotations from Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well are taken from The Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking, 1969).

  2. See Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: U of California P, 1981); Meredith Skura, “New Interpretations for Interpretation in Measure for Measure,Boundary 27 (Winter 1979): 39-59; Marianne Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984); and David Sundelson, Shakespeare's Restorations of the Father (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1983). Marilyn Williamson makes a slightly different point in coupling fear of women with fear of a growing population; see her The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1986).

  3. Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and its Subversion,” Glyph 8 (1981): 40-61; Jonathan Dollimore, “Introduction: Shakespeare, Cultural Materialism and the New Historicism,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985) 2-17; Jacqueline Rose, “Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985) 95-118; Kathleen McLuskie, “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare 88-108; Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare 72-87. Anthony Dawson is not writing as directly about women and sexuality, but his reading of Measure for Measure in the context of new historicist criticism similarly points to the complexity of making conclusions about the play's sexual politics. See his “Measure for Measure, New Historicism, and Theatrical Power,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 328-41.

  4. See Elizabeth Janeway, “Who is Sylvia? On the Loss of Sexual Paradigms,” Signs 5 (1980): 573-89; Carole S. Vance, “Gender Systems, Ideology, and Sex Research,” in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983) 371-84; Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes For a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984) 267-319; Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meaning, Myths, and Modern Sexualities (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985); and Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977). There is also much work which relates this notion of mutable sexualities to the psychology of identity formation. See, for example, Julian Henriques, Wendy Hollway, Cathy Irwin, Couze Venn, and Valerie Walkerdine, Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulations and Subjectivity (London: Methuen, 1984).

  5. See McLuskie 97-98; and Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance” 86.

  6. While the Duke most clearly creates a climate in which women are grammatically objectified—both in his language and in his directing of the women after III.i—the assumption that women will play passive roles invades the language of nearly every character, from Claudio to Elbow, from Angelo and Escalus to Isabella. Angelo's comment that “these poor informal women are no more / But instruments of some mightier member / That sets them on” (V.i.233-36) puts in sharpest relief the way women are circumscribed by a male-determined grammar of objectification which refuses them volition.

  7. See Wheeler 98, 100, 121-37. Rose notes that such repression is replicated on the critical level, especially in interpretations of Isabella which replace sexual ambiguity with clear censure (103-105).

  8. Lapotaire's comments are related in Judith Cook, Women in Shakespeare (London: Harrap, 1980) 43. See also Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance” 82. Darryl F. Gless finds, like Lapotaire, that Isabella has fled the world based on her knowledge of it; see his Measure for Measure, The Law, and the Convent (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979) 97-8.

  9. See Marcia Riefer, “‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 157-69; and Jean E. Howard, “Measure for Measure and the Restraints of Convention,” Essays in Literature, 10 (1983): 149-58.

  10. Skura, 53; Howard, 149-58; Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale UP, 1985) 60-2. Covering slightly different territory, Catherine Belsey notes that we can usually gain pleasure from the sexual plurality opened up in Shakespearean comedy. Although she does not refer to Measure, she is discussing a liberty similar to that Skura and Howard identify. See her “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies,” in Alternative Shakespeares 185.

  11. Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance,” 73.

  12. Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York: Summit Books, 1982) 189.

  13. M. C. Bradbrook offers a careful reading of the possibilities for Isabella's religious status. While she suggests that references to Isabella as “a sister” in II.iv.18 and III.i.150 technically should indicate that Isabella has taken her vows (perhaps between the first and second interviews with the Duke), she concludes, more reasonably, that Isabella has probably deferred her vows. See “Authority, Truth, and Justice in Measure for Measure,” in William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987) 13; rpt. from Review of English Studies 17.68 (1941).

  14. Maurice Charney, “‘To Catch a Saint’: Sexual Reciprocities in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Bulletin 21 (1983): 13-16; Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1983) 186-91.

  15. A. P. Rossiter more generally speaks of a doubleness in Isabella's character, although he does not read this as a sign of strength. See his work on Measure for Measure from Angel With Horns, ed. Graham Storey (Longman, Green, & Co., Ltd. Theatre Art Books, 1961); rpt. in William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure: 51-4.

  16. Charney 15.

  17. Juliet's obvious pregnancy and its affirmation of life are repeated in the pregnancies of Mistress Elbow and Kate Keepdown. Elizabeth Sacks also argues that Mariana is pregnant by the end of the play, and that Isabella soon will be. See her Shakespeare's Images of Pregnancy (London: Macmillan, 1980) 55. Such possibilities only reinforce my argument that the women of Measure for Measure represent a vitality feared by most of the play's men.

  18. Jardine, Still Harping 190-2.

  19. Gless interprets the isolation of Mariana's grange negatively, suggesting that the confinement here, like that in the play's prison, “generates an atmosphere of claustrophobic repression” (95-96). My disagreement with this reading rests on the autonomy that women have a chance at only in such unsanctioned locales.

  20. Mistress Overdone's strange behavior may be the result of authorial error. Nevertheless, it functions curiously well as an example of women's public deference to the play's men.

  21. See Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance” 86; and Alexander Leggatt, “Substitution in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 356.

  22. Dawson 338.

  23. See Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays; Peter Erickson, “Sexual Politics and Social Structure in As You Like It,Massachusetts Review 23 (1982): 65-83; Shirley Nelson Garner, “A Midsummer Night's Dream: ‘Jack Shall have Jill: / Nought shall go ill,’” Women's Studies 9 (1981): 47-63; Clara Claiborne Park, “As We Like It: How a Girl can be Smart and Still Popular,” in The Women's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980) 110-16.

  24. Williamson discusses the dissociation between marriage and desire in the play (101-5).

  25. See Philip C. McGuire for a thorough analysis of the silences which surround this play's conclusion in marriage: Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences (Berkeley: U of California P, 1985) 63-93.

  26. Both Lisa Jardine and Karen Newman refer specifically to Portia's continued “unruliness.” See Jardine's “Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines: ‘These are old paradoxes,’” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 16-18; and Newman's “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 19-33.

  27. Neely studies thoroughly the image of marriage in All's Well; see Broken Nuptials 64-92. Jardine amplifies the potent threat Helena so singly represents by suggesting that her threats of sexuality are bolstered by her rare intellectual accomplishments. See her “Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines.” My work on All's Well has also been influenced by Barbara Hodgdon's “The Making of Virgins and Mothers: Sexual Signs, Substitute Scenes and Doubled Presences in All's Well That Ends Well,Philological Quarterly (1987): 47-71. Hodgdon finds the play's sexuality is expressed clandestinely, in a series of doubles and substitutes.

  28. Neely 74.

  29. Jardine, “Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines” 5-12.

  30. My reading of the position of women at the end of the play differs from both Williamson's and Neely's. Williamson argues that Shakespeare's splitting of his central female figure into Helena and Diana diffuses women's power (69-72). In her discussion of the women in the play, Williamson rarely writes of the women together, suggesting how easy it is, even in a feminist analysis of the play, to deal with the play's women only in relation to men. Neely does directly write about the community of women in the play, finding ultimately that the women's bonds—especially those of Helena, Diana, and the Widow—are so strong that they intrude on the traditional heterosexual coupling of the play's conclusion (72-78).

Barbara J. Baines (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: 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.

[In the following essay, Baines studies Shakespeare's depiction of Isabella's sexual purity as a means of garnering social power in the world of Measure for Measure.]

For many readers of Measure for Measure, Isabella illustrates better than Angelo the paradox that “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (II.i.38).1 Critics have, in fact, argued that the primary question of the play is whether Isabella is an embodiment of Christian virtue or pagan pride.2 Recently Marcia Riefer has defended Isabella as a victim of sexual subjugation who changes in the course of the play “from an articulate, compassionate, woman during her first encounter with Angelo (II.ii) to a stunned, angry, defensive woman in her later confrontations with Angelo and with her imprisoned brother (II.iv and III.i), to, finally, a shadow of her former articulate self, on her knees before male authority in Act V.”3

This defense, however, is not altogether convincing because it is predicated upon a “powerlessness”4 that simply does not square with the language and actions of the character. Furthermore, Riefer's delineation of Isabella's defensive reactions does not account for the priority Isabella places upon her chastity at the expense of her brother's life. Although Madeleine Doran identifies the central issue of Isabella as her “choice between her brother's death and the sacrifice of her chastity,” Doran also evades the issue she identifies by simply concluding that “Shakespeare meant to put primary emphasis on the problem of the exercise of power … and not on the problem of Isabella's chastity.”5 More important, Doran's pronouncement of the playwright's intention separates what the play clearly aligns: chastity and power. Within the context of the relationship between chastity and power, Isabella's “choice” articulates a complex, culturally determined imperative. Chastity is the definitive virtue precisely because it is a site and mode of secular power.

First of all, the priority Isabella places on chastity reflects the values of the entire society that the play depicts, not simply the values of a young woman about to enter the convent. Whether or not Isabella's choice of her chastity over her brother's life can be justified by Renaissance religious convictions is finally irrelevant because her adherence to scripture, to convent vow, and to her conscience does not adequately account for her choice. What does account for her choice is the social and psychological, rather than the religious, construct in which she and the other characters function. Isabella's values, then, are representative, not eccentric; and they are grounded more firmly in the secular than in the religious. Society, not scripture, defines chastity as the definitive virtue that gives identity and place to women and to men. The priority society places upon chastity, in fact, enables the distinctions between God's law and man's law, between the letter and the spirit of both secular and divine law, and between the intent and the deed. A theologically prescribed virtue, chastity is appropriated as the standard upon which the economy of secular power is based. Chastity thus establishes each character in the play as a subject, within a pattern of subjection. Interrelated constructs—social, political, and psychological—within which chastity operates define it as a form of power that radically complicates the meaning of Isabella as its principal agent.

Within the social construct, chastity is the definitive virtue not because scripture mandates it but because secular law prescribes it as a remedy for the diseased state. The play presents a society in which the health of the nation and the authority of its ruler are jeopardized by sexual license. Although Claudio, in defense of his sexual liberty, claims that Juliet is “fast” his wife, he acknowledges through his simile the detrimental effects of his incontinence: “Our natures do pursue, / Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die” (I.ii.128-30). The Duke's response to the threat incontinence poses is to awaken the law that places a higher priority upon chastity than upon human life and to delegate the enforcement of this law to a man whose temperament and sexual conduct appear to qualify him for that harsh task. That a strict enforcement of the law is the Duke's objective is evidenced by his choice of Angelo over Escalus as his deputy and by his approval of Angelo's strict adherence to the law. When Escalus complains to the disguised Duke about the severity of Angelo's enforcement, the Duke answers, “If his own life answer the straitness of his proceeding, it shall become him well” (III.ii.255-56). The Duke also labels his own failure to enforce the law mandating chastity as “my vice” (III.ii.270). The “strict statutes and most biting laws” are, in the Duke's words, “The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds” (I.iii.19, 20).

Within this social construct, the laws mandating chastity constitute a prohibition placed on the individual for the greater good of society as a whole; private freedom is subjected by the disinterested concern for the commonwealth. Chastity is thus the form of power that subjugation assumes.

Through a metaphoric explanation of his failure to enforce chastity, Vincentio supplements this altruistic, social concern with his own political concern as patriarch:

                                                                                                    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.


Enforcing chastity thus becomes not only a means of restoring societal health, but also the means of retrieving or buttressing patriarchal authority. Strict enforcement of any law would strengthen the ruler's authority, but society's disregard for the laws that mandate chastity is critical for the Duke specifically because chastity assures legitimacy, and legitimacy authorizes patriarchy.

For similar political and social reasons, the Duke's deputy justifies his strict enforcement of the law that prioritizes chastity over human life by equating the incontinence that results in bastardy with murder:6

                                                                                                              It were as good
To pardon him that hath from nature stol'n
A man already made, as to remit
Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven's image
In stamps that are forbid. 'Tis all as easy
Falsely to take away a life true made
As to put metal in restrained means
To make a false one.


Angelo's equation and Isabella's response, “'Tis set down so in heaven, but not in earth,” are equally illuminating. It is set down in heaven, in scripture, that fornication and murder are sins, but Angelo's equation of the two is set down so in Viennese law, not in divine law. Samuel Johnson in his textual notes commented on the peculiarity of Isabella's response: “I would have it considered, whether the train of the discourse does not rather require Isabel to say, 'Tis so set down in earth but not in heaven'.”7 Johnson was perhaps recalling the place of Mary Magdalene in the life of Christ and Christ's intercession on behalf of the adulteress about to be stoned by the Pharisees. Like English law in Shakespeare's time, Viennese law ignores the example of Christ's compassion for the sexual offender because fornication results in bastardy, and bastardy threatens the social and political privileges of the legitimate male heir within an aristocratic, patrilineal society. In the society this play presents, there is no place for the illegitimate. As Marilyn Williamson has most convincingly demonstrated, bastardy was a major problem of the society for which the play was written. And like Vienna, Renaissance England attempted with little success to check the social and political threat of bastardy with harsh laws.8

More effective in the enforcement of chastity than biting laws was the threat of social shame. Honor for all family members resided in the purity of the bloodline, in the legitimacy of birth, and thus in the chastity of the female. In a patriarchal society, men are privileged with authority, yet, somewhat paradoxically, that authority depends upon the chastity of women. Thus chastity becomes for woman a form of power; through it the woman legitimizes the power of the man and preserves the patriarchal social structure. Responsibility for the power inherent in woman's chastity is perhaps what the disguised Duke alludes to when he confesses Juliet. Hearing from her that the sin of premarital intercourse “was mutually committed,” Vincentio tells Juliet, “Then was your sin of heavier kind than his” (II.iii.28). The Duke's judgment of Juliet is not simply an expression of a male chauvinist's double standard (as Riefer suggests)9 but an acknowledgment of a patriarchal society's dependence upon woman's chastity.

In Vienna, as in Shakespeare's England, women are defined and placed on the basis of their chastity. The alternatives to Isabella's strict renunciation of her sexuality are the shame and harassment of Juliet, the sorrow of Mariana, the tavern jokes at the expense of Mistress Elbow, the exploitation of Kate Keepdown, and the overuse of Mistress Overdone. According to her chastity or lack thereof, a woman takes her place in the nunnery, the jail, the moated grange, or the brothel (that other “nunnery”). Although sexual relations can be hazardous for men, they are inevitably so for women in this play. The surest protection against the hazards of sexual relations is renunciation and retreat, the nunnery or the moated grange. The chastity that the nunnery protects is thus a form of freedom, the only form of autonomy left for women in a world where sexuality means submission to men and degradation in that submission. Isabella's freedom from sexual subjugation is, of course, not without a price, for it requires her submission to the patriarchal law, defined best by Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream (I.i.67-78). Under this law, a woman's control of her body necessitates a form of self-castration. Her chastity is deprived of its social, political, and psychological power through isolation and renunciation.

Freedom within the confines of the nunnery is the subtext of conversation when Isabella first appears in the play. She desires a “more strict restraint” as additional protection from the masculine world locked outside of the convent. Having made her one great concession to the patriarchal law by renouncing her sexuality, Isabella willingly embraces the strictest law of the Mother Superior to escape total subjugation under the law of the patriarch or father, signified by the phallus. Once she has achieved through her vows the status of a nun, she will have the full protection of the sisterhood under the law of the Mother Superior. Francisca explains the terms of this protection to Isabella when Lucio appears at the locked convent gate:

Turn you the key, and know his business of him;
You may, I may not; you are yet unsworn.
When you have vow'd, you must not speak with men
But in the presence of the prioress;
Then if you speak, you must not show your face,
Or if you show your face, you must not speak.


The law of the convent thus anticipates the danger to chastity inherent in man's gaze and in woman's speech that will become apparent when Isabella and Angelo meet. Standing on the threshold between the worlds of masculine and feminine authority, Isabella turns the key of the convent gate to “assay the pow'r” (line 76) of her chastity within the patriarchal order.

As her chastity entitles her to the freedom of the convent, it also elicits the highest esteem in the world outside the convent. The value society places upon chastity is reflected in Lucio's tribute, mocking or not, to Isabella as novitiate:

I hold you as a thing enskied, and sainted,
By your renouncement an immortal spirit,
And to be talk'd with in sincerity,
As with a saint.


Even Lucio's somewhat blasphemous salutation, “Hail, virgin,” suggests that through her chastity Isabella mirrors heaven's queen, the Virgin Mary. According to the men in the play, chastity inspires charity, operates like grace and is, in turn, protected by grace. Lucio assures Isabella that “When maiden's sue, / Men give like Gods” (I.iv.80-81). The Duke tells her immediately after she has affirmed the value of her chastity over her brother's life, “The hand that hath made you fair hath made you good; the goodness that is cheap in beauty makes beauty brief in goodness; but grace, being the soul of your complexion, shall keep the body of it ever fair” (III.i.180-84).

Isabella's power, place, and value in society are so determined by her chastity that its forfeiture would constitute for her a form of social and psychological suicide. What is ironic about Isabella's commitment to her chastity is her self-righteous assurance that this commitment is governed exclusively by her religious convictions; what her language subversively reveals is that it is psychically and socially determined. In other words, she is ignorant of how she, as subject, is constituted and subjected by her chastity. Like the critics who attack or defend her, she is unconscious of the imperatives that govern her choice of chastity over life. Furthermore, her discourse reveals an appropriation, however inadvertent or unconscious, of religious authority to valorize the psychological, social, and political imperative of chastity. This appropriation, problematic by itself, becomes increasingly suspect as it resembles the calculated appropriation by the Duke, through his disguise, of holy orders—both scripture and sacraments—to manifest his absolute authority. The match (made on earth, not in heaven) between Isabella and the Duke, illuminates the forms of power through which each controls and is, in turn, controlled.

Confronted by Angelo with the choice between her chastity and her brother's life, Isabella defends her chastity through a series of lexical shifts. She first equates her chastity with her soul as she equates Angelo's term for her sexual submission, the giving of her body, with death: “Sir, believe this, / I had rather give my body than my soul” (II.iv.55-56). Angelo tries to retrieve the meaning of the words she has thus appropriated: “I talk not of your soul; our compell'd sins / Stand more for number than for accoumpt.” As he redefines her sexual submission as one of the “compell'd sins,” he can then ask, “Might there not be a charity in sin / To save this brother's life?” But his efforts to control the meaning of words fail as Isabella shifts the referent of his term “compell'd sins” from her sexual submission to Angelo's granting of mercy to Claudio. Having thus shifted the referent, she then crosses out the signifier: “no sin at all, but charity.” Angelo, having lost this first lexical round, tries once more to force his terms upon Isabella. She, however, again refuses his terms by holding fast to her equation of her chastity with her soul, an equation that allows her to privilege her chastity above her own life as well as her brother's. The equation of her chastity with her soul thus protects the self from any kind of sacrifice: “Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die; / More than our brother is our chastity” (II.iv.184-85). More than an effective linguistic defense, this equation reveals that Isabella is totally subjectified by her chastity. Her language reveals a psychic construct that does not allow for a distinction between her body and her soul.

In her confrontation with Claudio, Isabella's terms and arguments mirror, at first, those in the debate with Angelo; again, forfeiture of her chastity would constitute forfeiture of her soul. Moreover, according to Isabella, Claudio's willingness to extend his life at the expense of his sister's chastity would damn Claudio's soul as well: “There is a devilish mercy in the judge, / If you'll implore it, that will free your life, / But fetter you till death” (III.i.64-66). Again Isabella declares a willingness to give her life but not her chastity for her brother: “O, were it but my life, / I'd throw it down for your deliverance / As frankly as a pin” (III.i.103-105). Once more this offer is highly ironic in that Isabella's life is her chastity.

When religion fails to authorize the priority of her chastity over her brother's life, Isabella is forced to shift the terms of her discourse from the religious to the social. Angelo's “devilish mercy” thus becomes that which “Would bark your honor from that trunk you bear, / And leave you naked” (III.i.71-72). She further urges Claudio not to respect “six or seven winters” more than “perpetual honor” (lines 75-76). Suddenly, the entire family honor is at stake as well. When Claudio speaks of the priority of honor over life, Isabella commends him: “There spake my brother; there my father's grave / Did utter forth a voice” (lines 85-86). Claudio's unforeseen willingness to forfeit his sister's chastity, on the other hand, forfeits not only the honor of mother and father but Claudio's legitimacy as well:

                                                                                          What should I think?
Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair!
For such a warped slip of wilderness
Ne'er issu'd from his blood.


Isabella's language further makes it clear that her religious concerns merely supplement social and psychological concerns when she confidently declares, “I had rather my brother die by the law than my son should be unlawfully born” (lines 189-91).

Isabella's identification of her self exclusively with her chastity not only precludes mercy and compassion for her brother but also blinds her to her own passion, her desire for revenge against perfidious Angelo. To gratify this desire, Isabella is willing to do to herself what Angelo and Claudio could not persuade her to do: to compromise her chastity and subsequently redefine herself as something distinct from it. To expose Angelo, she denies her chastity by claiming that she forfeited her virginity to save her brother's life (V.i.). Having thus “unmaid” herself, she refashions herself in the compassion she shows Mariana and Angelo as she pleads before the Duke for Angelo's life. What enables Isabella's release from absolute subjection by her chastity is her trust in the authority of the holy father, disguised Vincentio; one form of power modifies another as Isabella becomes less the subject of her chastity and more the subject of the Duke.

The change in Isabella is mirrored by a change in the terms of her discourse. Although the Duke's judgment upon Angelo centers again on the issue of incontinence, Isabella does not ground her defense of Angelo in scripture, as she did in the case of Claudio. She does not, in other words, remind the Duke, as she did Angelo, that “all the souls that were were forfeit once, / And He that might the vantage must have took / Found out the remedy” (II.ii.73-75), because such a comparison of Christ's mercy with the Duke's apparent condemnation of Angelo would call the Duke's power into question, precisely as it did Angelo's. Her appeal for Angelo is, instead, pragmatic and social rather than scriptural:

His act did not o'ertake his bad intent,
And must be buried but as an intent
That perish'd by the way. Thoughts are no subjects,
Intents but merely thoughts.


In other words, within the social context of man's law, no real harm was done. However, under God's law, according to the Sermon on the Mount, the scriptural subtext for this play, the thought or intent is indeed subject: “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery there already in his heart” (Matt. 5:28, Geneva). To this divine law that is not invoked but nevertheless intrudes, Isabella might again say, “'Tis so set down in heaven, but not in earth.”

Perhaps what is most significant in her appeal for Angelo's life is her willingness to speak for him at her own expense by accepting some responsibility for his fall: “I partly think / A due sincerity governed his deeds, / Till he did look on me” (V.i.445-47). Looking back on her relationship with Angelo, Isabella seems to sense what the language of the play has revealed all along: a subtle duplicity in the power of her chastity and thus in the role she, as the embodiment and agent of chastity, has played.

Isabella's role is, in fact, morally problematized even before she appears on stage. Escalus first makes her role suspect through his own efforts to soften Angelo by reminding him of his sexuality. The supposition is thus established that if Angelo were to acknowledge his own sexual desires he would be obliged to show mercy to Claudio. Escalus, however, lacks the power to soften the icy hardness of the deputy. The dark subtext of Isabella's qualifications for the task is indicated by the sexually suggestive language that Claudio uses10 as he defines for Lucio his sister's power:

Implore her, in my voice, that she make friends
To the strict deputy; bid herself assay him.
I have great hope in that; for in her youth
There is a prone and speechless dialect,
Such as move men; beside, she hath prosperous art
When she will play with reason and discourse,
And well she can persuade.


Lucio offers Isabella the challenge: “All hope is gone, / Unless you have the grace by your fair prayer / To soften Angelo.” He urges her, “Assay the pow'r you have” and describes the triumphs that result “when maidens sue.” This appeal to the power of her chastity is irresistible because chastity is the seat of Isabella's identity and pride. Her response, “I'll see what I can do,” expresses a willingness to test her power against Angelo's authority. Even the minor characters understand the power of chastity in this contest; the Provost introduces Isabella to Angelo as “a very virtuous maid, / And to be shortly of a sisterhood, / If not already” (II.ii.20-22). The authority of Isabella's chastity is suggested by the fact that at first Angelo does not trouble himself with an address for her, but as she becomes increasingly forceful, he recognizes her with “Maiden” and then “fair maid.”

After some hesitation, Isabella goes about the necessary task of putting Angelo in Claudio's place by telling Angelo, “If he [Claudio] 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” (II.ii.64-66). The intent of Isabella's substitution of Angelo for Claudio is to force Angelo to accept the imperative of mercy; the effect of the substitution, however, is to allow Angelo to register his own sexual desire as figured in Claudio. And since Isabella urges mercy for Claudio, who has gratified his sexual desire, Angelo takes hope from the substitution that he too will be shown “mercy.” Having displaced Angelo by putting him in Claudio's place, Isabella, in her angry response to Angelo's dismissal, reveals her desire to displace Angelo in yet another way: “I would to heaven I had your potency, / And you were Isabel!” Isabella's desire for a reversal of roles is ironically fulfilled as she gains the potency to grant or withhold mercy to Angelo, who in his desire becomes her supplicant. The shift in focus of the debate from Claudio's transgression to “the proud man, Dress'd in a little brief authority” reveals that what is ultimately at issue here is power.

Through her power, Isabella does indeed soften Angelo. As he succumbs to his sexual desire for her, he becomes “ten times frail” and “soft as [women's] complexions are” (II.iv.128-29). Angelo defines his submission to Isabella's power in language that suggests, through the image of conception, gender reversal:

When I would pray and think, I think and pray
To several subjects. Heaven hath my empty words,
Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue,
Anchors on Isabel; heaven in my mouth
As if I did but only chew his name,
And in my heart the strong and swelling evil
Of my conception.


The implication that his sexual desire has quite unmanned him is as paradoxical as his conviction that Isabella's chastity arouses his desire. Angelo recognizes both his impotence and his submission: “this virtuous maid / Subdues me quite” (II.ii.184-85). But he clearly does not understand the force of Isabella's chastity—“Can it be / That modesty may more betray our sense / Than woman's lightness?”—and can only define it as the work of the devil (lines 167-69). In fact, the operation of Isabella's chastity involves neither supernatural good nor evil. For this society and for Isabella in particular, chastity is a natural form of power; it is the control over the body and thus for woman the control of the self and the means of resisting the political power of men. The attraction of Isabella's chastity is thus the attraction of power, and as politicians (real and fictional) seem inevitably to discover, power is the great aphrodisiac. What Angelo desires most is power; what he fears is being, as he says, “the very cipher of a function” (II.ii.39). By robbing Isabella of her chastity as he robbed Mariana of her reputation (III.i.227), Angelo hopes to regain his position of male dominance—to transfer, that is, the image of feminine subjugation from himself to Isabella.

The reversal of gender roles resulting from the power of Isabella's chastity is emblematically presented in Isabella's account of the tryst with Angelo:

He hath a garden circummur'd with brick,
Whose western side is with a vineyard back'd;
And to that vineyard is a planched gate,
That makes his opening with this bigger key.
This other doth command a little door,
Which from the vineyard to the garden leads;
There have I made my promise upon the heavy
Middle of the night to call upon him.


As conventional sexual symbols, the key is masculine or phallic; the lock, gate, and garden are feminine. Yet here Isabella possesses the phallic keys that open the locks of Angelo's enclosed garden; she is the caller, he is the one who passively waits.

Despite the real and obvious victimization of Isabella by Angelo, there is a sense in which Isabella has never been passive, never totally innocent of the power-play inherent in her chastity. Her gracious defense of Angelo, “I partly think / A due sincerity governed his deeds, / Till he did look on me,” is misleading because it implies a passivity that her speech acts and the nature of her language belie. Angelo experiences desire not when he looks at her but when she speaks to him. Her opening words to Angelo constitute a linguistic ambiguity that mirrors the moral ambiguity of the role she is to play:

There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice;
For which I would not plead, but that I must;
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war 'twixt will and will not.


Her intent is to plead not for a vice but for a brother's life, yet her language reveals her equation of the one with the other and inadvertently invites Angelo to make the same equation and subsequently to see Isabella as compromised by her appeal. Her account of herself as “At war 'twixt will and will not” is also duplicitous in that it reflects a dilemma, a degree of moral confusion, and thus a degree of moral vulnerability. The phrase is particularly misleading for Angelo since one meaning of the word “will” is “sexual desire.”11 Because Isabella's first speech presents her as pleading for a vice and caught between desire and prohibition, it invites Angelo to see her as a mirror image of himself as he succumbs to his desire for her. As her words make his desire known, they, in a sense, actively engender desire: “She speaks, and 'tis / Such sense that my sense breeds with it” (II.ii.141-42). The duplicitous operation of Isabella's language is most conspicuous in the closure of her appeal: “Hark how I'll bribe you. Good my lord, turn back” (lines 144-45).12 Set on by the sexual implication of these words, Angelo is then immediately taken off when the bribe becomes the true prayers of “fasting maids, whose minds are dedicate / To nothing temporal.” Isabella's bribe is yet another reminder of the power of chastity that excites as it threatens and of the ambiguity of the language that presents this chastity. Thus to her farewell, “'Save your honor!” Angelo responds, “From thee: even from thy virtue” (line 161).

Isabella's language serves her no better in the second meeting with Angelo. Her salutation, “I am come to know your pleasure” (II.iv.31), initiates a dialogue of double meanings and conflicting purposes, in which Isabella could say as well as Angelo, “I can speak / Against the thing I say” (lines 59-60). Angelo expresses his frustration with the ambiguity of language, with the breach between the speaker's intent and the listener's comprehension: “Your sense pursues not mine: Either you are ignorant, / Or seem so [craftily]; and that's not good” (lines 74-75). When Angelo confronts Isabella with the trap her own language creates—“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”—she acknowledges the burden of her ambiguous language: “O, pardon me, my lord, it oft falls out / To have what we would have, we speak not what we mean” (lines 117-18). Her failure to control language, to speak what she means, elicits an acknowledgment of human frailty and sets for Isabella yet another linguistic trap, her pronouncement that women are “ten times frail” (line 128). Operating within the male discourse that equates virtue with chastity, frailty with incontinence, Angelo springs the linguistic trap:

I do arrest your words. Be that you are,
That is a woman; if you be more, you're none;
If you be one (as you are well express'd
By all external warrants), show it now,
By putting on the destin'd livery.


Within Angelo's linguistic equation, to be woman is to be frail, to be subject to and subjected by the sexual desires of men. This language Isabella refuses to comprehend: “I have no tongue but one; gentle my lord, / Let me entreat you speak the former language” (lines 139-40).

At this point the duplicitous play of her language has so betrayed Isabella that she sees no choice but to submit to the authority of the holy father, disguised Vincentio, whose words promise to do what hers could not: preserve her chastity and save her brother's life. But the Duke's performance depends upon the willingness of Mariana and Isabella to allow him to appropriate and exploit the power that resides in their chastity. The power of the father-ruler is qualified not only by this appropriation and exploitation but by the deceptions within which his power operates: the bed trick and the false testimony of Isabella against Angelo.

Aware of the moral questions his scheme raises, Vincentio assures Isabella that Mariana will not be compromised: “I do make myself believe that you may most uprighteously do a poor wrong'd lady a merited benefit” (III.i.199-201). But an element of doubt persists in the clause, “I do make myself believe,” and this doubt is not erased by the differences between sponsalia per verba de futuro, the betrothal of Angelo and Mariana, and sponsalia per verba de presenti, the betrothal of Claudio and Juliet.13 What seems to justify the forfeiture of chastity by one couple but not the other is neither a statutory nor a moral difference but simply the Duke's authority, the law of the father. The absence of any substantial difference in the premarital consummations of the two couples validates Claudio's perspective:

Thus can the demigod, Authority,
Make us pay down for our offense by weight
The words of heaven: on whom it will, it will;
On whom it will not, so; yet still 'tis just.


Chastity acquires importance as the site or context within which authority manifests itself. Derived from woman's chastity, masculine authority asserts itself by the control of woman's chastity. Angelo, likewise, cannot be “scal'd” and found wanting by the Duke until Isabella, in compliance with the Duke's instructions, is willing to claim that her chastity has been forfeited. Isabella voices to Mariana her reservations about this lie:

To speak so indirectly I am loath.
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's simple reply, “Be rul'd by him,” underscores the contextual, contestatorial relationship between feminine chastity and masculine authority.

Masculine authority depends not only upon control of the chastity of women but upon the male's adherence to chastity as well, for chastity determines power and place for men as well as for women. Restraint comes “from too much liberty” (I.ii.125) as Claudio, Angelo, and Lucio discover. Even the prince is subject to the rule of chastity. In fact, Vincentio's right to rule others is directly associated with his self-governance, his chastity. He assures Friar Thomas, “Believe not that the dribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom” (I.iii.2-3). Disguised as the friar, Vincentio takes great solace in Escalus's pronouncement that the Duke is “a gentleman of all temperance” (III.ii.237). Because chastity authorizes authority, nothing, not even the perfidy of Angelo, seems to evoke the ire of Vincentio as much as Lucio's depiction of him as incontinent (III.ii.114-88). The Duke's anger over Lucio's slander threatens for a moment the comic resolution of the play as the Duke twice pronounces the death sentence upon Lucio: “Let him be whipt and hang'd” (V.i.513). The conventions of comedy prevail, however, as the Duke reduces Lucio's sentence from death to marriage.

Shakespeare's adherence to the conventions of comedy goes too far, according to many critics,14 in the proposal of marriage by the Duke to Isabella. This proposal is not only precipitous but contextually problematic, for it is spoken to one who has already chosen to be a bride of Christ and spoken within the Duke's display of absolute authority. The Duke's proposal is precipitous because the dramatist is trapped by the chastity essential to the characterization of the Duke. One whose “complete bosom” is safe from “the dribbling dart of love,” whose chastity allows him to wear the robes of a holy friar, can hardly acknowledge that he has fallen in love. His proposal of marriage must, likewise, by couched not in terms of the fulfillment of his desire but as a benefit to Isabella: “I have a motion much imports your good” (V.i.535). Darryl Gless argues that a Protestant audience would see the offer of chaste marriage to the Duke as preferable to the celibacy of the convent and thus something that, indeed, imports Isabella's good.15 This argument is, of course, predicated on the dubious assumption that the audience (uniformly reconciled to Protestantism) would share the Duke's perspective, not Isabella's, or would not even register a difference in the perspectives of these two characters.

If the Duke's desire is written out as Isabella's “good” is written in, wherein lies the good of this match for the Duke? Perhaps the answer lies in the terms of his offer. Somewhat inept at asking for anything, he begins with the wrong, but nevertheless telling, terms: “Give me your hand, and say you will be mine” (line 492). He then corrects his egocentric orientation and authoritarian language:

I have a motion much imports your good,
Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.


What the Duke has to offer in this exchange is his authority, his power; what Isabel has to offer is her autonomy, forfeited as she gives her body in marriage. At first glance the Duke's terms of exchange seem an ideal resolution of the power conflict between masculine authority and feminine chastity. But such an offer coming from a prince whose identity is his absolute authority can hardly be taken literally. Furthermore, since marriage institutionalizes the authority of the husband over the wife, the Duke, in fact, has everything to gain and nothing to lose through Isabella's acceptance. Marriage is thus not only the Duke's solution to all forms of sexual liberty but also his solution to the resistance against patriarchy inherent in Isabel's sexual renunciation. By making Isabella his chaste wife, the Duke appropriates the power of her chastity and closes off the one avenue of her resistance to masculine authority. Her probation complete, he takes this prospective bride of Christ as his own in the ultimate act of appropriation that asserts his power as indeed “like pow'r divine” (V.i.369).

To the Duke's twice-offered proposal of marriage, Isabella responds with a perfect silence that challenges the interpretive skills of readers and directors alike. Isabella's silence is usually interpreted in performances as happy compliance and gratitude. Smiling and taking the hand of the Duke, she speaks with her body a submission to marriage in keeping with the conventions of comedy and the ideology of patriarchy. To stage Isabella's silence in this manner, however, is to see it through the Duke's eyes; woman's silence is her submission to the “natural,” patriarchal ordering of things. Marcia Riefer offers a different gendered reading of Isabella's silence: “She remains speechless, a baffled actress who has run out of lines. The gradual loss of her personal voice during the course of the play has become, finally, a literal loss of voice. In this sense, Measure for Measure is Isabella's tragedy. Like Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, the eloquent Isabella is left with no tongue.”16

To these readings of Isabella's silence as either cheerful compliance or tragic defeat, I wish to offer two alternative interpretations. The first is that Isabella does not lose, but only holds, her tongue; she is not silenced but, instead, chooses silence as a form of resistance to the patriarchal authority and to the male discourse within which this authority operates.17 In her silence to the Duke's proposal, Isabella thus adheres to the rules of the sisters of St. Clare: she shows her face but remains silent, perhaps with the key to the convent still in her pocket.

Appealing as this reading of Isabella's silence might have been to recusant Catholics in Shakespeare's audience or might be to feminist readers today, it is, perhaps, improbable, given that the silence occurs within the context of the Duke's intimidating display of power. But the proposal, itself, attests, parodoxically, to the fact that the Duke's power requires a supplement. His proposal, “What's mine is yours” has validity as an abbreviated and thus coded acknowledgment that can be decoded: “My sexuality and thus my identity as patriarch is yours to validate by your affirmation of your sexuality through your acceptance of me as your husband.” Isabella's sexual renunciation, a form of self-castration, would thus, if perpetuated, constitute a form of castration for the Duke as well. Given the significance of Isabella's acceptance of the Duke, the freedom to refuse him seems highly improbable. But the absence of choice for Isabella does not constitute for her the absence of power; the power of chastity operates through and upon the Duke and Isabella alike. The play's depiction of the relationship of the Duke's authority and Isabella's chastity thus confirms Foucault's assertion that

Power is employed or exercised through a net-like organisation. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power. They are not only its inert or consenting target; they are always also the elements of its articulation. In other words, individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application.18

The Duke is correct in the sense that “What's yours is mine and what's mine is yours” already and inevitably, for authority privileges chastity and depends in turn upon chastity to authorize authority. Whether or not Isabella is free to keep the convent key, she clearly holds the Duke's “key” in her pocket.


  1. All quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. Marcia Riefer, “‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure,SQ 35 (1984): 157-69, provides a brief survey of the conflicting responses to Isabella. For a more detailed survey, see George L. Geckle, “Shakespeare's Isabella,” SQ 22 (1971): 163-68. In defense of Isabella, Raymond Wilson Chambers (Man's Unconquerable Mind [London: Jonathan Cape, 1939], p. 288) asserts that “Christianity could never have lived through its first three hundred years of persecution, if its ranks had not been stiffened by men and women who never hesitated in the choice between righteousness and the ties to their kinsfolk.” Chambers argues that Isabella's adherence to her chastity must be seen in light of her identity as a votarist of St. Clare: “Whether she remains in the Convent or no, one who is contemplating such a life can no more be expected to sell herself into mortal sin, than a good soldier can be expected to sell a stronghold entrusted to him” (p. 292). J. W. Lever refutes Chambers by arguing that Isabella's stance “is occasioned by no true principle. If lay heroines in previous versions of the story were commended for setting aside the thought of shame in order to save a brother's or a husband's life, the novice of a spiritual order might also overcome the fear of disgrace in the world's eyes and manifest true grace by a sacrifice made in self-oblivious charity. Chastity was essentially a condition of the spirit; to see it in merely physical terms was to reduce the concept to a mere pagan scruple” (Introduction to the Arden Edition of Measure for Measure [London: Methuen, 1965], p. lxxviii).

  3. Riefer, p. 158.

  4. Riefer, pp. 158, 161-62.

  5. Madeleine Doran, The Endeavors of Art (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1954), pp. 368-69.

  6. Angelo's equation reverses, but with the same sophistry, Parolles's equation of virginity with suicide: “He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” (All's Well, I.i.138-41).

  7. Quoted from A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, ed. Mark Eccles (New York: Modern Language Association, 1980), p. 109.

  8. Marilyn L. Williamson, The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 81-99.

  9. Riefer, p. 168.

  10. David Lloyd Stevenson contends that Claudio “thinks that Angelo's liability to Isabella's attractions as a woman, to the ‘prone and speechless dialect’ in ‘her youth,’ to the seductive, feminine qualities he understands so well and has already succumbed to in Juliet, may save his life” (The Achievement of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure” [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966], p. 38).

  11. Shakespeare's frequent play on the word “will” is perhaps most evident in the sonnets. See, for example, Joel Fineman, Shakespeare's Perjured Eye (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1986), pp. 293-94.

  12. Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 439, describes Isabella's use of “bribe” as “one of those single words on which worlds turn that Shakespeare was growing steadily more fond of.” Harriett Hawkins points out that Isabella's speech in her debates with Angelo are “charged with an erotic power that might well envoke a gleam in the eye of the most depraved marquis in the audience, to say nothing of a saint-turned-sensualist like Angelo” (“‘The Devil's Party’: Virtues and Vices in Measure for Measure,ShS 31 [1978]:107).

  13. For a discussion of the two forms of “spousals,” see Lever, pp. liii-liv and lxv; also, Darryl F. Gless, “Measure for Measure,” the Law and the Convent (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 179-80, 200-201, and 234-35. Gless (p. 200) cites other studies on the subject: Ernest Schanzer, “The Marriage-Contracts in Measure for Measure,ShS 13 (1960): 81-89; S. Nagarajan, “Measure for Measure and Elizabethan Betrothals,” SQ 14 (1963): 115-19; and J. Birje-Patil, “Marriage Contracts in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure,ShakS 5 (1969): 106-11.

  14. Most recently, Williamson, pp. 104-105, and Joseph H. Summers, Dreams of Love and Power (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 68.

  15. Seeing the play as a reflection of the Protestant antimonastic tradition, Gless argues that Isabella's acceptance of the Duke's proposal frees her from “the sterile bondage” of the convent and marks “her entry into a world governed by fruitful, married love” (p. 212).

  16. Riefer, p. 167.

  17. Williamson supports this interpretation, arguing that “Isabella's silence may be a compound of shock and defiance, and we have other examples in Iago and Hieronimo, where silence after eloquence may signify not acquiescence, but defiance of an urgent authority” (p. 104).

  18. Michael Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. and trans. Colin Gordon et al., (New York: Pantheon, 1980), p. 98. Although Williamson (p. 11) quotes this passage from Foucault in her introduction, she says nothing in her discussion of Measure for Measure about the Duke's “undergoing” or submission to power, but virtually everything about his exercise of power; much, likewise, about Isabella as a point of power's application, but nothing about her as an agent of power.

Alberto Cacicedo (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9801

SOURCE: Cacicedo, Alberto. “‘She Is Fast My Wife’: Sex, Marriage, and Ducal Authority in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Studies (1995): 187-209.

[In the following essay, Cacicedo contends that Measure for Measure dramatizes the repression of feminine freedom by state authority via the institution of marriage.]

Children who stand in little awe of their parents, and have even less fear of the wrath of God, readily set at defiance the authority of magistrates. … It is therefore impossible that a commonwealth should prosper while the families which are its foundations are ill-regulated.

—Jean Bodin, Six Books of the Commonwealth

Feminist thought regards the sexual/familial organization of society as integral to any conception of social structure or social change. And conversely, it sees the relation of the sexes as formed by both socioeconomic and sexual-familial structures in their systematic connectedness.

—Joan Kelly, “The Doubled Vision of Feminist Theory”


In her introduction to Edmund Tilney's Flower of Friendship, Valerie Wayne argues that in early modern England female subjectivity is licensed only to the extent that it mirrors the male, who then acts to erase the female.1Measure for Measure has been treated as an instance. Kathleen Mcluskie, for example, points out that the female characters in the play are “defined theatrically by the men around … [them] for the men in the audience,” and argues that “Feminist criticism of this play is restricted to exposing its own exclusion from the text.”2 The sexual license that Measure for Measure presents from the second scene, she suggests, supports the exclusion because the play makes it seem that women are centrally responsible for the decadence of Vienna and so deserve the erasure they undergo. Psychoanalytic criticism of the play addresses the same issue, focusing on what Peter Erickson calls the “avoidance of the mother.”3 From such a perspective, the sexual license of Vienna is an indication of the danger that “the mother” represents, particularly in regards to the initial dramatic complication of the play, the pregnancy of Juliet, whom we see as the hapless cause of Claudio's death sentence. That she, the visibly expectant mother, and not he is held to be the responsible party is clear in Claudio's statement that “The stealth” of his and her “most mutual entertainment / With character too gross is writ on Juliet” (1.2.154-55).4 Were it not for such writing, one supposes, the “mutual entertainment” would have passed unremarked and Claudio would have remained free, his sexual behavior and so his masculine identity unconstrained. Juliet's pregnancy becomes a threat to Claudio's identity, metaphorically presented in the play as his prospective death.

Onto “the mother,” then, is loaded the sexual guilt of Vienna, which prompts Angelo to threaten “geld[ing] and splay[ing] all the youth of the city” (2.1.230-31), as Pompey puts it. But one could argue further that the “avoidance of the mother” represents the growing conviction on Shakespeare's part that “the mother,” more generally “female contamination,” can in fact not be avoided by men.5 Motherhood is “the sin you carry” (2.3.19), as the Duke tells Juliet, but it is also, as Richard Wheeler says, an “inner contamination” in Claudio himself, and by extension in all men.6 In effect, Shakespeare is working out the implication of Benedick's offhand acknowledgment in Much Ado that “a woman conceiv'd me” (1.1.238). Both physiological and psychological, the “conception” of men by women marks them with “the mother.” Thus, in Janet Adelman's reading of “the mother” in Measure for Measure, “sexuality becomes the original sin that brings death into the world,” and all humans, male as well as female, are complicit in that sin.7

From such a perspective, Measure for Measure becomes part of the “reproductive anxiety” that abounds in the Renaissance.8 In The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, and Unconstant Women (1615), Joseph Swetnam puts the issue straightforwardly: “If thy head be in her lap, she will make thee believe that thou art hard by God's feet, when indeed thou art just at hell gate.”9 As Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus say in their summary of Swetnam's text, he “advises men to avoid marriage altogether, for it will bring nothing but misery,” in large part because no woman can be controlled in her sexual and material desires, but also because women “weaken a man's strength and take away the beauty of the body,” ultimately causing death.10 In short, women are an external expression of an internal male condition, and their presence makes men externalize that condition. On the other hand, “Women are all necessary evils” for economic and for procreative reasons.11 Claudio says about “too much liberty,” that men must “ravin down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die” (1.2.125, 129-30): Swetnam implies that any contact at all with women automatically becomes “too much liberty,” but that nonetheless such contact is the inevitable condition of life.12 Thus, according to Robert Watson, although the Duke in Measure for Measure indulges a “fantasy of parthenogenesis” in making Angelo “at full ourself” (1.1.43), Angelo turns out to be a “bastard son”: the failure of asexual reproduction is “what the Duke must … repair at the end by marrying Isabella.”13 Like the gentlemen in Love's Labors Lost, the Duke comes to recognize what all his subjects, with the exception perhaps of Angelo, seem to have acknowledged from the outset, that in regards to women, “Necessity will make us all forsworn” (LLL 1.1.149).

In Measure for Measure the consequence of forswearing, the irresistible power of “Cormorant devouring Time” (LLL 1.1.4), is much more insistently deadly than in that earlier comedy manqué. In Measure for Measure, masculine illusions of self-sufficiency built on the patriarchal denigration of women is subject to collapse as a consequence of the denigration itself. Claudio's death sentence presents one image of such a collapse. Ultimately, however, the play presents a less final image of the collapse, namely the state of matrimony, which constrains the female by what is, according to Lucio, “pressing to death” (5.1.521-22) the male. In what seems a typical strategy of patriarchal discourse, the play substitutes the agony of the male under the authority of the state for the erasure of the female in the relationship of marriage. As Wayne says, “reciprocal sexual control originates in and returns to the control of women's bodies, even as a means of controlling men's.”14

And yet, in Measure for Measure, the destructiveness of male authority, both in its abeyance and in its assertion, precedes and defines the putative danger of “the mother.” When state authority fails, rapacious men, who according to Lucio have never been “where grace was said” (1.2.18-19), make women prey to their desire. It is the Duke's failure as governor that underlies, almost as cause, Juliet's pregnancy as well as the general decadence of Vienna. Even Elbow, whose wife “was respected with him before he married her” (2.1.170-71), seems to come under the general uncontrollability of desire, doubled in his case by the confusion of his malapropisms and Pompey's wit, which cast doubt as to the paternity of Elbow's child. In the case of Elbow's wife as in Juliet's case, moreover, the fault is attributed to the woman, whose pregnancy makes her long “for stew'd pruins” (2.1.90). And yet the fact that Mistress Elbow has come into a bawdy house, where “stew'd pruins” can be human or vegetable, reflects the failure of state authority to curb male desire. To correct the failure of control, Angelo's authority is made to extend over men as well as women more costively and destructively than any corrupting force attributed to “the mother.” Finally, to correct Angelo's failure and so to save Claudio—and the Duke's purposes—requires the sacrifice of Isabella, about to leave the world of men when she first appears, and of Mariana, retired from the perfidy of men behind her “moated grange,” but also of Angelo's soul, Claudio's identity, and Ragozine's head. In Measure for Measure, then, women's bodies are controlled, but so are men's. If women are erased by patriarchal discourse, men too are erased, “hardly seem to fare better,” as Watson says, “whether in bed or in prison.”15

Watson argues, I think correctly, that Measure for Measure presents the victory of Foucault's “‘bio-power’: specifically, the need of the state, under the guise of personalized benevolence, simply to keep the procreative machine running.”16 But the play also shows what Freud argues about the origin of patriarchal rule, that the procreative machine requires the sacrifice of male sexual license in order to run effectively.17 The Duke discovers that he is as subject to the imperative of that machine as are the characters whom he thinks he can shape and shift as he wills. The play presents the issue as the inevitability of marriage, from Lucio and his whore to Isabella and her bawd. But like Troilus and Cressida (where marriage fails to hold the wife) and All's Well That Ends Well (where marriage fails to hold the husband), it does so by problematizing the bond that marriage represents. Claudio's explanation to Lucio of why he is being haled off to jail does end with the “character too gross … writ on Juliet.” But it begins with the assertion that he and Juliet are married:

Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed.
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order. This we came not to,
Only for the propagation of a dow'r
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us.


Claudio alludes to the fact that in early modern England “marriages could be made simply by the parties declaring to each other ‘I … take you … as my wife/husband.’”18 Fornication was not unexpected after such spousals: in a case before the Archdeaconry of Norwich in 1564, for instance, Katherine Salter asserts “that after a couple have talked of matrimony it is lawful for them to have carnal copulation.”19 Claudio's language indicates that the contract between himself and Juliet was public, “a true contract,” and he seems to appeal to Lucio for confirmation of the public nature of the relationship—“You know the lady; she is fast my wife.” Indeed, Claudio's assertion that he and Juliet are “fast” married by spousals and consummation is echoed in the play by the duke's scheme for uniting Angelo and Mariana.

Claudio's puzzlement, then, is not so much that “the mother” betrays their “mutual entertainment,” but rather that a traditionally sanctioned form of marriage has suddenly become not only irregular, but identical with fornication in a brothel.20 As we shall see, that had in fact happened in Catholic countries when, in 1563, the Council of Trent declared spousals entirely invalid. In an English context, what Claudio's puzzlement points to, and what Lawrence Stone underscores, is that, increasingly in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, marriage itself—how one got married, what constituted a licit union, what steps were necessary to ensure such a union—had become a site of conflict in which subjects, the church, and the state were often at odds with each other. In early modern England, in fact, marriage was not a clearly and well defined institution.21 There were at least three different modes of marriage, sanctioned by different legal definitions, each sometimes agreeing and sometimes disagreeing with the others. Shakespeare's plays present a brief abstract of all three. Sanctioned by canon law from the twelfth century but rejected by common law from the reign of Henry III, the most problematic of the forms of marriage was the marriage by spousals, such as Claudio asserts he has contracted with Juliet.22 A second form of matrimony, clandestine marriages such as Romeo and Juliet contract in Friar Lawrence's cell, were accepted by common law, but invalidated in English canon law in the revised canons of 1604.23 And, of course, accepted by both common and canon law, public, priest-officiated, church-celebrated marriages such as that between Petruchio and Katherina became increasingly the norm, and finally were defined as the only legal form of marriage in England by the Marriage Act of 1753.24 Not yet imposed by state authority, such “outward order,” as Claudio calls it, became legally, if not popularly normative in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It entailed a new balance of power between couples wishing to marry and the state and its ecclesiastical and parental surrogates.

I want to argue that Measure for Measure traces the mutual inscription of “a sex/gender system and a system of productive relations,” the “double order” in patriarchal societies that according to Joan Kelly pacifies “men oppressed by the … maldistribution of social wealth and power” by offering all men “dominion over women.”25 My thesis is that in Measure for Measure the threat to male identity represented by the state's effort to limit and control sexuality is recuperated by the erasure of women in matrimony. Masculine identity is saved, just barely, in a tendentious exaltation of the common-law version of marriage over the traditional/canon law affirmation of the binding power of spousals. Furthermore, both subjections, of women in relations with men and of men in relations with the law, in turn enable an increasingly assertive, and ultimately monologic state authority.


If one considers the relations between husband/wife and the state, the reasons for the concern with the legality of marriage in early modern England are not far to seek. The confusion about what constitutes a licit union involves the potential wedded pair in profound doubts and complications, most of them concerning the legitimacy of their offspring. Common law, for instance, insisted so thoroughly on the public, social aspect of marriage, that it refused to consider children born before wedlock to be legitimate, even after the child's parents married. Civil law, on the other hand, made distinctions among kinds of bastard predicated in part on the intention of the copulating pair in regards matrimony and, like canon law, allowed for the post-matrimonial legitimation of hitherto illegitimate children.26 Presumably, then, if one takes seriously Cleopatra's affirmation that the dead Antony is her “Husband” (5.2.287), in canon as well as in civil (also called Roman or imperial) law, her children by him cease to be what Octavius calls them, “the unlawful issue that their lust / … hath made between them” (3.6.7-8). And, perhaps, Cleopatra's statement that Antony is her “husband” might constitute a spousal that, in canon law, establishes the two as married. In common law, a child produced as the result of the rape of an unmarried woman was always illegitimate. On the other hand, on the principle stated by John Brydall, “whose is the cow, his is the calf also,” if the raped woman marries before the child is born, the child is the legitimate heir of the husband. Indeed, if a woman is married, “Albeit the wife were as common as the cartway, making open profession of her filthiness; yet her husband, if she be not altogether out of his guard, shall be adjudged the only father.”27 Canon law complicated the issue even further. According to Henry Swinburne, “a learned canon law judge” whose A Treatise of Spousals is the “standard handbook” on the issue,28 since for the church the consummation of spousals by copulation turned the espoused pair into husband and wife, the rape of a woman by her espoused “friend”—what we might call date rape—converts the spousals into matrimony.29 Of course, in common law the child of such a union, if the parents do not wed before its birth, remains a bastard. In regards to parental consent, canon, civil, and common law were in agreement: an otherwise legal marriage could not be voided by the absence of parental consent.30

The Marriage Act of 1753 affirms and makes rigorously standard for all people the public, church-celebrated marriage that had become normal for the propertied classes—what Stone calls the “official mode practised by the ruling elite.”31 The provisions of the law are specified by Teichman: “first than banns had to be published two weeks before the ceremony was to take place; second, that the marriage had to be solemnized in a parish church in the presence of a priest and two other witnesses; and third, that parental consent was necessary for persons under 21.”32 From the point of view of the elite families themselves, the “official mode” worked to ensure that they had some measure of control over the wedded pair and therefore over the transfer of property and influence that represented the civil aspect of the marriage contract. The problem that Claudio and Juliet have in concluding their marriage is an indication of the power that public marriages conferred on the families of the pair. But before 1753 the common law did not in fact require parental consent. Brabantio, for instance, does not argue that, absent his consent to Desdemona's marriage with Othello, the union is void. Instead, Brabantio urges the Senate and Duke of Venice to consider “That with some mixtures pow'rful o'er the blood, / Or with some dram (conjur'd to this effect) / He [Othello] wrought upon her” (1.3.104-6). Surely, says Brabantio, Desdemona's free will must have been constrained in her agreeing to so monstrous a marriage. As Stone says, in England “the powers of parents to dictate the marriage of their children was less than absolute.”33 Alan Macfarlane goes further: he argues that the absence of an explicit legal requirement for public weddings in which parental consent was presumed—in short, the English way of marriage from the twelfth century to 1753—constitutes a “subversively individualistic and contractual foundation for a marriage system.”34

According to Stone, “What parents did have at their disposal was the power of the purse, by which they could exercise considerable economic pressure not to marry without consent.” The power of the purse, and of the social conventions that underlay the purse, make Amussen caution that “The ‘freedom’ that historians have seen in the choice of partners by young people in early modern England was exercised within closely defined limits”.35 As Capulet says, if Juliet continues to disobey his choice of Paris as her husband, she can “hang, beg, starve, die in the streets, / For, by my soul, I'll ne'er acknowledge thee, / Nor what is mine shall never do thee good” (3.5.192-94). Similarly, the King of France in All's Well That Ends Well gives Bertram the choice to marry Helena or to lose his position, for the king “will throw thee from my care for ever / Into the staggers and the careless lapse / Of youth and ignorance” (2.3.162-64). These are harsh illustrations of the “power of the purse,” of course, but both Capulet and the king give their dependents a choice, and a legal case could be made that Capulet and the king are not constraining marriage, but rather exercising their right, granted in English law, to favor whomever they wish. Juliet and Bertram, like Cordelia after Lear rejects her, in principle can find spouses where they will. In that fashion the letter of the law that Swinburne defines can be preserved. “The Verb Spondeo,” says Swinburne,

is as much as sponte do, that is, to give freely or without constraint, insinuating thus much, that how great soever the authority of parents is in that behalf, yet the children or parties promised or espoused, are to give their consent freely and voluntarily; or at least that they are not to be constrained thereunto against their wills, by the rigor of covetous parents, or by any other sinister means; otherwise the contract of spousals or matrimony, made through fear, is utterly voide ipse jure.36

The mirror image of Juliet's and Bertram's “willfulness” appears in Katherina's “cursedness” in The Taming of the Shrew, which Petruchio must overcome so that he can eventually get “the one half of my lands, / And … [immediately get the] twenty thousand crowns” (2.1.121-22) that Baptista promises him. Without Katherina's consent there is, as Swinburne says, no valid contract. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, by contrast, the law of Athens runs exactly counter to the common and canon laws of England. If Hermia refuses to obey her father, she is given the false “choice” “Either to die the death, or to abjure / For ever the society of men” (1.1.65-66). In either case, of course, Hermia would be unable to give her free consent to marriage.

The absence of a well defined mode of marriage in early modern England, in other words, inscribes the absence of a well defined system of paternal authority. In Catholic countries, the confusion about marriage that makes English marriages “subversive” came to an end in 1563, when the Council of Trent regularized the rules of marriage along the lines of Stone's “official mode.” The Tridentine law did not change the rule concerning parental authority, however. In France, therefore, beginning almost immediately after 1563 and continuing with greater and greater rigor into the seventeenth century, the lapse in the Tridentine laws was made good by secular law. Most importantly, the voluntary nature of the marriage contract was abrogated so that parents become empowered to dictate marriages to their offspring. Obviously, such parental authority presupposes that matrimony can be contracted only in the “official mode”: publicity and parental control went hand in hand. From the point of view of the state, Stone indicates the general motivation of the new rules: “the monarchy felt itself to be so dependent on the patriarchal family as a model for its power, that it went to extraordinary pains to support and reinforce the latter.”37 By contrast, English law, both canon and common, retained its aspect of voluntary choice up to 1753.38 It is therefore that Stone argues that “‘Patriarchy’ may … be too strong a word to describe a parent-child relationship” in England; and, as Macfarlane concludes, because of the inapplicability of such strong relationships, the patriarchal control of families by the state was also weaker in England than in any other European country.39 Margaret Scott argues that in Measure for Measure one finds “fictional law, the like of which has never been enacted in England, nor … in Vienna,” and makes a strong case that Shakespeare plays English laxity in marriage laws against his audience's generalized sense of post-Tridentine rigor in Catholic countries.40 Scott concludes that therefore the particularities of English laws on marriage are not relevant to a study of Measure for Measure. As I see it, however, Measure for Measure reflects in almost every aspect the conflicted place of marriage laws and sexual and gender rules as the state affirms its interest in an ordered family life and the due succession of property rights.


Angelo's major concern seems to be with the application of the “official mode” of marriage to the propertied classes. He generalizes the new sexual regime of Vienna, but he has little enough interest in the case of Elbow and Froth, whom he is willing to leave to Escalus's relatively lenient judgment (2.1.135-37).41 With Claudio, on the contrary, he cannot find any mercy that will not “make a scarecrow of the law” (2.1.1). The same distinction appears in Cymbeline when Cloten objects to Imogen's “contract [which] you pretend with that base wretch,” and points out that

                    though it be allowed in meaner parties
                                                                                … to knit their souls
(On whom there is no more dependancy
But brats and beggary) in self-figur'd knot,
Yet you are curb'd from that enlargement by
The consequence o' th' crown …


Angelo's motivation is mystified by the sense that the Duke and Lucio both express, albeit in different ways, that there is always a devil living underneath the precision of “our seemers” (1.3.54). And, of course, the play shows that sexual desire bubbles up uncontrollably in even the most precise of seemers.42 The affective aspect of relationships, in other words, is certainly very much present in the play. But Angelo's refusal to accept the consummated spousals of Claudio and Juliet as a valid marriage is also inscribed very straightforwardly in the legal confusion about marriage of the early modern period. The Duke tells Isabella that Angelo had been “affianc'd” to Mariana “by oath, and the nuptial appointed,” but that “between … [the] time of the contract and limit of the solemnity, her brother Frederick was wrack'd at sea, having in that perish'd vessel the dowry of his sister” (3.1.214-18). Angelo, in short, was concerned that his spousals with Mariana might be held to constitute a permanent matrimonial relationship. If so, he would be obliged to accept Mariana as his wife even though he would lose the prospect of any financial gain by the matrimony. To affirm, even by implication, the requirements of the “official mode” of marriage would make Angelo's own matrimonial state much less ambiguous.43

The reasons for Angelo's doubts are myriad. As we have seen, spousals had been declared invalid in common law since 1226, in the reign of Henry III. However, in canon law spousals were still held to be valid in “foro conscientiæ,” as the epistle “To the Reader” appended to Swinburne's Treatise of Spousals indicates.44 The laws concerning the effect of spousals on the matrimonial condition of the espoused pair were especially ambiguous, however, in part because there were three versions of spousals, laboriously and subtly distinguished from each other and with very different consequences for the matrimonial state of the espoused pair. The most direct was the spousals per verba de praesenti, by present contract, which meant that the pair so espoused had contracted a valid marriage, even though the “outward order” required by common law had not yet been performed. Even without that “outward order,” as Swinburne makes very clear, those who “have contracted spousals de præsenti … cannot by any agreement dissolve those spousals, but are reputed for very husband and wife in respect of the substance, and indissoluble knot of matrimony.” Such was the case even when spousals de praesenti had not been consummated.45 In other words, spousals de praesenti made it impossible for a pair so contracted to marry anyone else without being guilty of bigamy. A second form of spousals, per verba de futuro, allowed for the breaking of the contract “even if only one person renounces the contract.” On the principle that the pair's voluntary agreement to marriage is absolutely essential to the validity of matrimony, the present rejection of the future contract was deemed to constitute a withdrawal of the will to marry. It is on those grounds that Angelo's spousals with Mariana seem to have been broken. The third form of spousals, conditional, makes the contracted marriage depend on the fulfillment of some matter external to the matrimony as such—for instance, the consent of parents or the settlement of dower and/or dowry. In effect, Claudio's spousals with Juliet are conditional; presumably, so are Angelo's with Mariana, although the Duke does not give enough information to determine the facts.46 Whether the spousals were de futuro or conditional, however, the act of copulation converted the spousals immediately to spousals de praesenti47—hence the bed trick by which the Duke “marries” Angelo to Mariana. Furthermore, the distinction between spousals de praesenti and de futuro come down to the difference of a single word—“do” in de praesenti as opposed to “will” in de futuro. And, as Stone, quoting F. W. Maitland has it, “lovers are the least likely to distinguish precisely between the present and the future tense.”48 On so small a difference depends the matrimonial state of Angelo in canon law and therefore of his financial status in common law.49

But Angelo, of course, is acting on behalf of the Duke. And just as Angelo's economic interest in a narrow definition of marriage is mystified by the affective changes he undergoes in the play, so also the Duke's political motives are mystified. To be sure, we understand from what the Duke tells Friar Thomas that there are some overt political motives for the Duke's actions (1.3.35-43). Politically craven though his reasons are, one can well believe that the Duke would want to shift the blame for a rigorous enforcement of the law from himself to Angelo. The Duke's second overt reason for absconding, to test Angelo, is also credible, also seriously meant, also craven, and also partial. The play, in fact, never fully addresses the Duke's motivations, particularly for continuing in disguise even when it seems impossible for him to prevent the death of Claudio without revealing himself. Why does he affirm that “Craft against vice I must apply” (3.2.277) when a straightforward discovery of himself such as Lucio finally accomplishes for the Duke would resolve the problem immediately? The answer, it seems to me, is that without staging the discovery of Angelo, the Duke will be unable to have his political cake and eat it too—that is to say, demonstrate the need for rigorously enforcing sexual laws and at the same time be merciful in the eyes of his people. To demonstrate that not only mortality but also mercy spring from him, in other words, the Duke must continue to be “crafty.” The agents of his craft at this point, moreover, are Mariana and Isabella:

With Angelo to-night shall lie
His old betrothed (but despised);
So disguise [i.e., Angelo] shall by th'disguised [i.e. Mariana]
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting.


By the end of the play, at any rate, Mariana's disguise has functioned as a test of Isabella's willingness to submit herself to the Duke's direction and so subordinate herself to a man. Cynthia Lewis argues that the Duke must learn the same lesson that he wishes to teach his people.50 At this point, however, marked prosodically as it is by the passage's octosyllabic couplets, it seems that the Duke's lesson is fully articulated: women's subordination buys the miraculous political cake.

Legally speaking also, the Duke seems to want it both ways. He uses the practices of spousals encoded in English canon law when it suits him to catch Angelo; but he privileges state authority by affirming the necessity for the “official mode” of marriage encoded in common law. By the same token, as the Duke enables the canon law, he sets himself in opposition to Angelo's interest in property; but as he affirms common law, he articulates exactly Angelo's concern with “familial” property rights. How conscious the Duke is of the inconsistencies and the shifting alliances of his strategies is difficult to determine. And yet the play suggests that the Duke is encountering the “moving equilibrium” of social control that Peter Stallybrass describes as “a process in which the dominant groups have to negotiate with and respond to both each other and the subaltern classes, and in which the discourses and practices through which alliances are formed are never given in advance.”51 In Measure for Measure the Duke finds himself allied to Escalus, Angelo, Isabella, the Provost, Pompey, Mariana, Barnardine, Ragozine, Claudio, even Lucio in the sense that Lucio enables him to show the extent of ducal power; he also finds himself converted to friar, voyeur, pimp, stage-manager, and—absent the “accident that heaven provides” (4.3.77) in the form of Ragozine's death—executioner as well, all in order to effect the social control he seeks.

The same “moving equilibrium” is tacitly present in the Duke's description of Vienna to Friar Thomas:

                                                                                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.


This is the familiar topos of “the world turn upside down.”52 Interestingly, however, the Duke's image of children out of control avoids the real issue that the play examines while at the same time giving the impression that it engages the problem directly. The Duke's language suggests that one mode of social inversion is much like another: unruly children represent the same threat to order as unruly “mothers,” so that to control the child is to control “the mother.” To be sure, children, albeit still in the womb, are centrally involved in Claudio and Juliet's plight. But the defining concern of the play is not the control of children, but the control of “the mother” in marriage in order to enable the control of men in the state. At the same time, while the Duke's description seems to make his own paternal authority the victim of the unruly children, it is in fact the nurse who is beaten by the baby. The reaffirmation of his authority will simply shift the site of the beating: now the Duke will be able to beat down “the mother” directly, both in anatomizing power of male desire—“the mother” as it exists in men—and in subordinating women to his own patriarchal purpose. The substitution of one inversion for another in the Duke's description acts as Stallybrass suggests: “an inversion in one sphere is legitimated as a critique of an inversion in another sphere.”53


Of course, the Duke does not legitimate the inversion of the “proper” relationship of father over children. Instead, he affirms that the carnivalesque dislocation is an unfortunate truth. The fact that the nurse ends up taking the beating, however, points to the inversion that the Duke critiques. The women in Measure for Measure are remarkable for the assertiveness of their subjectivity. When we first see Isabella, for instance, she is responding to the world of male power and desire by seeking to remove herself from its orbit. As with Angelo, one can focus on the affective aspect of Isabella's precision, and note that her withdrawal is as much fear of her own desires as it is rejection of male power. Rather than fornicate, she says, she would “Th' impression of keen whips … wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death, as to a bed / That longing have been sick for” (2.4.101-4). Surely here the rejection of desire only discloses further desire. And that is precisely the point. Isabella has desires. To be sure, they have been misshapen by the form under which desire is expressed in the patriarchy, but nonetheless Isabella seeks to be her own subject. In contrast to Isabella, Juliet is an almost silent character. But she too maintains a strong subject stance. Reprehended by the Duke-as-Friar, Juliet acknowledges her fault, recognizes the mutuality of her and Claudio's culpability, and twice accepts the “shame” that has come to her (2.3.19-36). She is certainly not cast in the same mold as Hero in Much Ado, from whom one expects not much more than primping and swoons. There is a hint that Juliet, like the worthy ladies whom Lady Julia describes in Tilney's The Flower of Friendship,54 wants to sacrifice herself because Claudio will die: “O injurious love, / That respites me a life whose very comfort / Is still a dying horror” (2.3.40-42). As I read this difficult passage, however, Juliet does not want the “respite” of her life taken away. On the contrary, she complains about the horror of the life she must lead, when every glance at her child will remind her of the horror of Claudio's death. It is an objection against the rigor of the law, not against continuing to live, that Juliet voices. Similarly, that well-to-do business woman, Mistress Overdone, objects vigorously against the new law that Angelo has imposed (1.2.104-5). Like Isabella and Juliet, Mistress Overdone is unable to intervene in the application of the law, but all three women are subjects who do not easily erase themselves. On the contrary, we come to see that their containment within patriarchal discourse is the hard-fought object of that discourse—and of the Duke's effort to impose the “official mode” of marriage.

All three women suggest a practical dislocation in the ideological place of women. The fear and control of self-assertive women in early modern England is detailed by David Underdown, who points out that “scolds” are associated not only with disobedient wives—who in the extreme version “celebrated” in the carnivalesque inversions of skimmington beat their husbands—but also with “independent” women such as accused witches and prostitutes.55 Underdown and Amussen both indicate that the number of court cases involving scolds peaks during times of greatest social instability.56 Amussen also points to “sketchy” evidence that during times of unrest a similar peak occurs in cases involving accusations that wives have been sexually unfaithful.57 Amussen concludes that sexual fidelity is so closely connected to the social superordination of men, that a disobedient wife effectively gave her husband the horns of a cuckold.58 In the case of unmarried women, sexuality was seen to be even more dangerous: “Women who bore bastards posed an implicit challenge to social and familial order by creating a ‘family’ without a head.”59

What Measure for Measure does not, and perhaps cannot overtly acknowledge is this discourse of patriarchy, in which the Duke's political gestures are inscribed. The Duke must regularize marriage and prevent extramarital sex because his authority ultimately depends on the certainty that children are legitimate. Laws concerning bastardy in early modern England underscore the obsessive concern with the transfer of property and “honors” from generation to generation. The common law tended to leave the unmarried partners of an irregular sexual union more or less unpunished. As Macfarlane says, the only real concern of the laws was that any illegitimate offspring not be “chargeable to the parish,” as a statute of 1610 stipulates; to the parents of a bastard child, the only legal “punishment” meted out was “public penance in church during a service. It is not even clear whether the father was meant to undergo the same penance as the mother.”60 The real penalties in law were reserved for the bastard child itself. Writing in 1703, John Brydall details the effects of illegitimacy: first, it “staineth the blood; for that he who is a bastard, is not permitted to challenge to himself either honour or arms from the father or mother”; second, “it renders him that is illegitimate liable to reproach”; third, it incapacitates the bastard in law, so that the bastard cannot inherit or have heirs other than “of his body”; finally, “it excludes him that is a bastard from all succession.”61 Bastard children, in effect, are so profoundly marked by “the mother” that their legal status is much the same as that of a woman unattached to a man.62 Legally speaking, bastards were “nonpersons.”63 And yet, of the four effects of bastardy, the only one that applies to commoners with no property to leave to their offspring is the second, that “it renders him that is Illegitimate liable to reproach.” Such reproach can be and actually was a very powerful tool of control, of course. Macfarlane, for instance, notes the statute of 1624 which made infanticide by mothers seeking “to avoid their shame” punishable by “death as in the case of murther.”64 But it is clear that the focus of the laws is the propertied classes, for whom, by the sixteenth century, the “official mode” of marriage would have been standard.

The method that the Duke takes to control “the mother” is, not surprisingly, exactly along the lines of the “official mode” of marriage. By the canon laws that apply to spousals, as we have seen, both the marriage of Claudio to Juliet and the marriage of Angelo to Mariana are unquestionably valid from the moment that consummation takes place: they simply lack the “outward order” that would make their offspring legitimate. And yet the Duke insists on the public, church-centered, priest officiated marriage of Angelo and Mariana, and urges Claudio to do the same by Juliet (5.1.525).65 In effect, the Duke is imposing common law practice on the wedded pair, presumably to make absolutely unambiguous the married state of all four characters and so to certify the legitimacy of any offspring they might have. If marriage by spousals leaves unclear the matrimonial status of the contracted pair, it also leaves in legal limbo the status of offspring; the publicity required in marriages by common law, on the other hand, ensures that there is no doubt at all as to the legitimacy of offspring. As Peter Laslett makes clear, moreover, the clarity of children's legal status is, in its turn, inscribed in “the ideology of the property-owning [class] … [which] is bound to interpret any threat to succession as menacing its property rights, and illegitimacy is indeed a threat to the transfer of property between succeeding members of a property-owning class.”66 Ensuring that powerful families are legitimate has the effect of legitimating state authority, particularly as the state becomes more and more responsible in defining what constitutes the legal condition of matrimony. The move in France to identify parental control of marriage with royal control of the state affirms the point both as it reflects the state's power of defining a licit union and as it identifies patriarchal authority in the state with paternal authority in the household. The progressive tightening of the rules of marriage in England during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries gestures towards the condition represented by France.

Mariana may well represent the ideal of womanly behavior towards which the Duke machinates all the women in the play, and by doing so reimposes his authority on the state. As Marcia Riefer says, the “moated grange” is not a wizened remainder of the “green world,” but is rather a sign of Mariana's inability to contend with the ruthless social game that Angelo has played.67 And Angelo knows as much. He is prepared to make sure that Mariana is not able to challenge his breaking of the spousals: not only have the conditions of the contract not been met, he says in public to the Duke, but “her reputation was disvalued / In levity” (5.1.221-22). “At the centre of reputation,” as Amussen says, “particularly for women, was sexual behavior.” By contrast, Angelo's super-precise behavior ensures that his reputation will not be in question if Mariana were to bring a case against him: “Existing reputation—‘common fame’—determined one's ability to contest further assaults on one's reputation.”68 But the Duke has ensured that Mariana would never come to the point of contesting openly with Angelo. The Duke-as-Friar, says Mariana, “Hath often still'd my brawling discontent” (4.1.9)—so effectively has he done so, that the brawl is never voiced. She is not, or at any rate is not allowed to be a “scold.” Certainly Mariana has not seen fit to become one of the growing number of women in the seventeenth century who brought suit against their allegedly betrothed men for breach of contract.69 In effect, between them the Duke and Angelo have put Mariana in the same position that, as it were by accident but in fact as a result of the Duke's machinations, Angelo puts Isabella when he requires her body to free Claudio. “I'll tell the world aloud / What man thou art,” says Isabella, to which Angelo cold-bloodedly responds,

                                                  Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoil'd name, th' austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i' th' state,
Will so your accusation overweigh,
That you shall stifle in your own report,
And smell of calumny.


Indeed, if Mariana is completely docile before the Duke/Friar's compelling reasons, by the end of the play Isabella has been reduced to the same condition.70

The process of Isabella's silencing, her growing sense of incapacity in the face of a world controlled by men, begins in response to Angelo's proposition, but it culminates in her ambiguous final silence when the Duke offers marriage. Her silence speaks out the Duke's power in the same way that Mariana's acceptance of Angelo does. In light of what Mariana herself says about “cruel Angelo” (5.1.207 ff.), her marriage seems to be nothing short of a despairing recognition of her own irrelevancy as an unmarried woman. The Duke seems to agree: “Consenting to the safeguard of your honor, / I thought your marriage fit,” he says in response to Mariana's plea that the Duke “not mock me with a husband” (5.1.418, 419-20). Her “honor,” of course, is her reputation, irretrievably lost without the marriage and “saved” in only the most notional of ways by the marriage. Given what we have seen of Angelo's corruption, after all, Mariana's argument for leniency on the grounds that “best men are moulded out of faults, / And for the most, become much more the better / For being a little bad; so may my husband” (5.1.439-41) seems to lean very heavily on “a little bad” and “may.” In any case, by forcing Angelo to avow his solely economic interest in Mariana, the Duke has destroyed any lingering illusion Mariana may have in the propriety of Angelo as husband.71 She may “love” him, but as a result she is perpetually stuck with a man so blown in reputation that there can be no hope of a social recovery.

One comes to the same conclusion about all the men in the play: there is no propriety in the relationships imposed by the ending of the play except as the “little bad” in men is eked out by their social superordination. The Duke's machinations throughout the play have worked to guarantee that superordination—indeed, Mariana and Isabella cannot appear in the fifth act without acknowledging, tacitly but explicitly, their dependence on men. For Isabella the recognition is also an immediate affirmation of Vincentio's authority as Duke. For the Duke himself, on the other hand, Isabella is “lovely” (5.1.491) and so worthy of a proposal only after she has demonstrated that she can subordinate her cause for scolding to a mystified forbearance that just barely covers the interest of the state in marriage. If, as Amussen says, marriage in early modern England was as much a celebration of communal values as of family and personal interest, then the Duke has managed to subsume all of those elements of marriage under his own authority. In effect, from the point of view of the women, the play is a grand skimmington geared to silence them and so justify the state authority that has affected such a change. The Duke has shown that la famille, et puis l'état, c'est moi.


  1. Valerie Wayne, introduction to Edmund Tilney's The Flower of Friendship: A Renaissance Dialogue Contesting Marriage, ed. Valerie Wayne (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 61-62.

  2. Kathleen Mcluskie, “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 96 and 97 respectively.

  3. Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 180, n. 15.

  4. All quotations from Shakespeare's plays are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. B. Evans (Boston: Houghton, 1974).

  5. The identification of “the mother” with the womb is standard in Renaissance physiology. Coppélia Kahn gives the phenomenon a psychological turn in “The Absent Mother in ‘King Lear,’” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 36. For a physiological reading of the phenomenon, see Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), passim. The “mother” as disease is also commonplace. See, for instance, the account of “Margaret Fraunces, who was charged with bewitching Joanne Harvey” in 1600, but who was released when a gentleman assured the Justice of the Peace that “Harvey suffered from a disease, ‘the mother’, which led to fits” in Susan Dwyer Amussen, An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England, Family, Sexuality and Social Relations in Past Times (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 135.

  6. Richard Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 107.

  7. Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, “Hamlet” to “The Tempest” (New York: Routledge, 1991), 87.

  8. I borrow the phrase “reproductive anxiety” from Carolyn Whitney-Brown's essay, “‘A Farre More Worthy Wombe’: Reproductive Anxiety in Peele's David and Bethsabe,” in In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, ed. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1991), 181-204.

  9. Joseph Swetnam The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, and Unconstant Women or the Vanity of Them, Choose You Whether, in Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy About Women in England, 1540-1640, ed. Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 202. One might hear an echo in Lear's assertion that “But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiends”’ (4.6.126-27) and in the multiple instances of “hell” as metaphor for the womb in the Sonnets, most notably Son. 144.

  10. Joseph Swetnam, The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, and Unconstant Women, (1615), 207 and 202, respectively.

  11. Ibid., 191, 210, 212.

  12. Consider Swetnam's question, “Is it not strange that men should be so foolish to dote on women, who differ so far in nature from men? For a man delights in arms and in hearing the rattling drums, but a woman loves to hear sweet music on the lute, cittern, or bandore. A man rejoiceth to march among the murdered carcasses, but a woman to dance on a silken carpet; a man loves to hear the threatenings of his Prince's enemies, but a woman weeps when she hears of wars. A man loves to lie on the cold grass, but a woman must be wrapped in warm mantles; a man triumphs at wars, but a woman rejoiceth more at peace” (ibid, 208-9).

  13. Robert Watson, “False Immortality in Measure for Measure: Comic Means, Tragic Ends,” SO 41.4 (1990): 418-19.

  14. Wayne, introduction to Tilney's Flower of Friendship, 55.

  15. Watson, “False Immortality,” 424.

  16. Ibid., 415. I agree as well with Watson's conclusion that the play “refutes Foucault's claim that this concern was an invention of the eighteenth century” (415). To Terry Eagleton's list of Shakespeare's reading—Freud, Marx, Hegel, etc.—we must add Foucault. See Eagleton's William Shakespeare, Rereading Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), ix-x.

  17. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey, Standard Edition (New York: Norton, 1961), 47, 57.

  18. Jenny Teichman, Illegitimacy: An Examination of Bastardy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 25.

  19. Amussen, An Ordered Society, 110. In her note to the quotation, Amussen explains that she “has seen no evidence that it [pre-nuptial fornication] was frowned on after a public promise of marriage.”

  20. In England, fornication was never punishable by death. Even during the rigors of the Rump, fornication was punished by three months in jail. Incest and adultery, on the other hand, did entail the death penalty under the Rump. See Martin Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England 1570-1640, Past and Present Publications (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 153. Compare Ernest Schanzer's assertion that Angelo's sentence is “unquestionably legal. Claudio knows this only too well …” in “The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 13 (1960): 83.

  21. Lawrence Stone affirms that “by the sixteenth century marriage was fairly well defined,” but he means that the contractual basis of marriage for “persons of property” was well defined; how one actually entered the state of matrimony was not. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, abridged ed. (New York: Harper, 1979), 30. See also Alan Macfarlane's Review of Lawrence Stone's Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, in History and Theory 18.1 (1979), 103-26.

  22. Lawrence Stone, Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 54.

  23. Ibid., 97. In law there were no consequences for the wedded pair, but there were stiff economic penalties for the officiating priest.

  24. Teichman, Illegitimacy, 25-26.

  25. Joan Kelly, “The Doubled Vision of Feminist Theory,” in Sex and Class in Women's History, ed. Judith L. Newton, Mary P. Ryan, and Judith R. Walkowitz, History Workshop Series (London: Routledge, 1983), 267-68.

  26. John Brydall, Lex Spuriorum: Or, The Law Relating to Bastardy. Collected from the Common, Civil and Ecclesiastical Laws, Classics of English Legal History in the Modern Era (1703. Rpt. New York: Garland, 1978), 35-38.

  27. Ibid., 84, 86.

  28. Stone, Road to Divorce, 52. Stone indicates that the book was probably written around 1600.

  29. Henry Swinburne, A Treatise of Spousals, or Matrimonial Contracts: Wherein All the Questions Relating to That Subject Are Ingeniously Debated and Resolved (London: S. Roycroft, 1686), 226.

  30. Ibid., 4; Stone, Road to Divorce, 58.

  31. Stone, Road to Divorce, 53.

  32. Teichman, Illegitimacy, 25-26.

  33. Stone, Road to Divorce, 58.

  34. Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction 1300-1840 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 128-29.

  35. Stone, Road to Divorce, 58; Amussen, An Ordered Society, 109. The revised canon law of 1604, which forbade clandestine marriages, tended to give parents some measure of control, at least in stopping a marriage of which they did not approve.

  36. Swinburne, A Treatise of Spousals, 4.

  37. Stone, Road to Divorce, 55-56.

  38. By then, Stone argues, expectations concerning affective relations between courting pairs made the provision of parental authority almost void. See Stone, Road to Divorce, 60-61.

  39. Stone, Road to Divorce, 58; Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England, 128.

  40. Margaret Scott, “‘Our City's Institutions’: Some Further Reflections on the Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure,English Literary History 49.4 (1982), 790-804.

  41. A similar phenomenon seems to be at work generally in England in the last four decades of the sixteenth century. See especially David Levine and Keith Wrightson's “The Social Context of Illegitimacy in Early Modern England,” in Bastardy and Its Comparative History: Studies in the History of Illegitimacy and Marital Nonconformism in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, North America, Jamaica, and Japan, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith, Studies in Social and Demographic History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 158-75.

  42. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development, 93-94.

  43. Jonathan Dollimore makes a similar point about the end of the play concerning Escalus' eagerness to “torture” the disguised Duke into confession: “disorder generated by misrule and unjust law … is ideologically displaced on to the ruled.” See “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 78.

  44. Swinburne, A Treatise of Spousals, sigs. A2v-A3r.

  45. The summary and quotations that follow are from Swinburne, A Treatise of Spousals, 12-14.

  46. Schanzer argues—mistakenly, I think—that Claudio's contract with Juliet is de praesenti (84): if it were, then there would be no condition such as the settlement of a dower to impede the matrimony. Schanzer also argues that Angelo's contract with Mariana is “sponsalia jurata, sworn spousals” (85). Swinburne does write about “spousals confirmed with an oath” and finds that such spousals cannot be broken except for causes that would dissolve any marriage (217-18). But that is what he says of spousals de prasenti as well (9). Towards the end of the book, I think, Swinburne is simply reiterating the binding nature of spousals, and so concludes that “The parties which have contracted the spousals together, are bound by the laws ecclesiastical of this realm, to perform their promise, and to celebrate matrimony together accordingly” (222).

  47. Swinburne, A Treatise of Spousals, 73, 121.

  48. Stone, Road to Divorce, 53-54.

  49. Scott, who argues that no audience would have kept in mind the niceties of canon vs. common law (795-96), is surely wrong to say that ordinary people were not aware of the obligations incurred in promises made during courtship. Compare Amussen, who details instances in which women argued precisely such fine points of the law (An Ordered Society, 109-16).

  50. Cynthia Lewis, “‘Dark Deeds Darkly Answered’: Duke Vincentio and Judgment in Measure for Measure,SQ 34.3 (1983): 272-73.

  51. Peter Stallybrass, “The World Turned Upside Down: Inversion, Gender and the State,” in The Matter of Difference: Materialistic Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Valerie Wayne (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 217.

  52. For a less absolute visual image of the situation the Duke describes, see Stallybrass, The Matter of Difference, 203, particularly the second frame of the first line.

  53. Ibid., 211.

  54. Edmund Tilney, The Flower of Friendship: A Renaissance Dialogue Contesting Marriage, ed. Valerie Wayne (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 129-32. Wayne concludes that “Their construction as subjects requires their own death, which suggests that the very best wife in this narrative is one who proves her love through her own annihilation” (64).

  55. David Underdown, Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 39-40.

  56. Ibid., 29; Amussen, An Ordered Society, 121-22.

  57. Amussen, An Ordered Society, 120-21.

  58. Ibid., 117-18.

  59. Ibid., 117.

  60. Alan Macfarlane, “Illegitimacy and Illegitimates,” in Bastardy and Its Comparative History: Studies in the History of Illegitimacy and Marital Nonconformism in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, North America, Jamaica, and Japan, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith, Studies in Social and Demographic History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 73-74. See also James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 459-63.

  61. Brydall, Lex Spuriorum, 15-21.

  62. In her Introduction to Tilney's The Flower of Friendship Wayne quotes The Lawes Resolution of Women's Rights, written by one T. E., and published in 1632, to the following effect: “See here [i.e., in “Eve's part in the Fall”] the reason of that which I touched before, that women have no voyce in Parliament, they make no Lawes, they consent to none, they abrogate none. All of them are understood as either married or to be married and their desires or [are] subject to their husband, I know no remedy though some women can shift it well enough” (14-15).

  63. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society, 543.

  64. Macfarlane, “Illegitimacy and Illegitimates,” 77.

  65. Despite the fact that Juliet is “groaning” and “very near her hour” (2.2.15-16), I take it that in the final scene Juliet has still not given birth—otherwise the child would remain illegitimate whether or not its parents married.

  66. Peter Laslett, “Introduction: Comparing Illegitimacy over Time and Between Cultures,” in Bastardy and Its Comparative History: Studies in the History of Illegitimacy and Marital Nonconformism in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, North America, Jamaica, and Japan, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith, Studies in Social and Demographic History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 62.

  67. Marcia Riefer, “‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure,SQ 35.2 (1984): 161.

  68. Amussen, An Ordered Society, 98-100.

  69. Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage, 194.

  70. See Reifer, ‘“Instruments of Some Mightier Member,” 165. Dollimore finds a significant difference between Mariana and Isabella precisely as they are coopted by the Duke: Mariana's “exploitation [is] recast and indeed experienced by Mariana as voluntary allegiance to disinterested virtue”; Isabella, on the other hand, “conceives her weakness half in terms of women's supposed intrinsic ‘frailness,’ half in terms of exploitative male coercion” (“Transgression and Surveillance,” 82, 83). Mcluskie, on the other hand, finds both women equally contained by the “patriarchal bard” (“The Patriarchal Bard,” 96-97).

  71. Amussen recounts the following incident, which puts Angelo's self-interest in a highly ambiguous light: “In 1565 Margaret Underwood admitted that Thomas Deynes had talked of marriage with her, but ‘he said if he might enjoy the house and land in her mother's possession that he would be content to marry with her, wherefore for that he would have had her for her land's sake as she conjectured, she made him an answer that she would no more talk with him in any matrimony [sic] matter’” (An Ordered Society, 76).

Further Reading

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Bernthal, Craig A. “Staging Justice: James I and the Trial Scenes of Measure for Measure.Studies in Literature: 1500-1900 32, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 247-69.

Observes the topical affinity of King James's acclaimed 1603 pardon of alleged anti-royal conspirators in relation to Duke Vincentio's merciful treatment of Angelo and others at the end of Measure for Measure.

Boose, Lynda. “The Priest, the Slanderer, the Historian, and the Feminist.” English Literary Renaissance 25, no. 3 (Autumn 1995): 320-40.

Mentions the anti-feminist dynamics of the judicial scenes in Measure for Measure.

Brown, Carolyn E. “Erotic Religious Flagellation and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.English Literary Renaissance 16, no. 1 (Winter 1986): 139-65.

Highlights the “erotic subversion of religious practices” in Measure for Measure, viewing the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella as, respectively, a repressed observer, inflictor, and receiver of sexualized abuse.

———. “Measure for Measure: Isabella's Beating Fantasies.” American Imago 43, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 67-80.

Psychological understanding of Isabella that illuminates her repressed sexual desire and masochistic tendencies.

———. “The Wooing of Duke Vincentio and Isabella of Measure for Measure: ‘The Image of It Gives [Them] Content.’” Shakespeare Studies 22 (1994): 189-219.

Offers a largely psychoanalytical understanding of the Duke and Isabella in Measure for Measure that concentrates on the repressed sexuality of both characters.

———. “Duke Vincentio of Measure for Measure and King James I of England: ‘The Poorest Princes in Christendom.’” Clio 26, no. 1 (Fall 1996): 51-78.

Studies Measure for Measure as a carefully veiled critique of the rule and political doctrines of King James I.

Charney, Maurice. “‘Be That You Are, / That Is, a Woman’: The ‘Prenzie’ Angelo and the ‘Enskied’ Isabella.” In ‘Divers Toyes Mengled’: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Culture, edited by Michel Bitot, pp. 379-90. Tours: Publication de l'Université François Rabelais, 1996.

Interprets Measure for Measure as a play about human sexuality, centering on the sexualized relationship between Isabella and Angelo.

Friedman, Michael D. “‘O Let Him Marry Her!’: Matrimony and Recompense in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 46, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 454-64.

Considers marriage proposals in Measure for Measure as a form of male compensation for past sexual indiscretions.

Gorfain, Phyllis. “Riddling as Ritual Remedy in Measure for Measure.” In True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Edward Being, pp. 98-122. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Explicates the apparently nonsensical exchange between Pompey and the executioner Abhorson in Act IV, scene ii of Measure for Measure as a riddle, and offers further evidence of riddling as a thematic touchstone in the drama.

Harper, Carolyn. 'Twixt Will and Will Not: The Dilemma of Measure for Measure. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1998, 161 p.

Interprets links between Duke Vincentio of Measure for Measure and the historical King James I, maintaining that Jacobean audiences would have seen Shakespeare's Duke as an extremist and therefore inferior to their own ruler.

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

Evaluates Measure for Measure in the social context of early modern England, remarking on its cultural theme of marriage as a “remedy for sexual behavior … preferable to death.”

Jackson, R. L. P. “Necessary Ambiguity: The Last Act of Measure for Measure.The Critical Review 26 (1984): 114-29.

Counters critical estimations of the resolution of Measure for Measure as dramatically unsatisfactory by concentrating on the play's theme of justice and the figure of Angelo as sympathetic and forgivable.

Kaplan, M. Lindsay. “Slander for Slander in Measure for Measure.Renaissance Drama 21 (1990): 23-54.

Regards the theatrical representation of slander as a state-authorized method of punishment in Renaissance England, with particular reference to Lucio's denigration of Duke Vincentio and the Duke's own defamatory abuses in Measure for Measure.

Levin, Joel. “The Measure of Law and Equity: Tolerance in Shakespeare's Vienna.” In Law and Literature Perspectives, edited by Bruce L. Rockwood, pp. 193-207. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

Legalistic analysis of Measure for Measure as a drama depicting the effects of rule by law without tolerance or mercy.

Lupton, Julia Reinhard. “Afterlives of the Saints: Hagiography in Measure for Measure.Exemplaria 2, no. 2 (Fall 1990): 375-401.

Describes saintly chastity and comedic marriage as internalizations of law and mercy, respectively, and analyzes both as the critical factors in the judgment scenes of Measure for Measure.

McCandless, David. “Measure for Measure.” In Gender and Performance in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, pp. 79-122. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Offers a reading of Measure for Measure based on the drama's “sadomasochistic dynamics” and informed by post-structuralist, psychoanalytic, and feminist literary theory.

McFeely, Maureen Connolly. “‘This Day My Sister Should the Cloister Enter’: The Convent as Refuge in Measure for Measure.” In Subjects on the World's Stage: Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by David G. Allen and Robert A. White, pp. 200-16. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995.

Centers on the convent as an unobtainable sanctuary for Isabella in Measure for Measure.

Pinciss, G. M. “The ‘Heavenly Comforts of Despair’ and Measure for Measure.Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 30, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 303-13.

Emphasizes the theme of despair as a means toward spiritual growth in Measure for Measure.

Seigel, Catharine F. “Hands Off The Hothouses: Shakespeare's Advice to the King.” Journal of Popular Culture 20, no. 1 (Summer 1986): 81-88.

Contends that, in preparing Measure for Measure for a 1604 performance at the court of King James I, Shakespeare used the play's bawdy Pompey-Mistress Overdone subplot to charm the new monarch into seeing London's brothels as harmless.

Slights, Jessica and Michael Morgan Holmes. “Isabella's Order: Religious Acts and Personal Desires in Measure for Measure.Studies in Philology 95, no. 3 (Summer 1998): 263-92.

Presents a feminist response to critics of Measure for Measure who regard the play as anti-monastic, pointing to Shakespeare's sympathetic depiction of Isabella and her earnest desire to become a nun.

Smith, Nigel. “The Two Economies of Measure for Measure.English 36, no. 156 (Autumn 1987): 197-232.

Examines the emphasis on the language of economics and exchange in Measure for Measure and its metaphorical link to the ethical issues raised by the drama.

Stevenson, David L. “The Role of James I in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.ELH 26, no. 2 (June 1959): 188-208.

Cites Shakespeare's use of King James I as a partial model for Duke Vincentio and other allusions to Jamesian politics in Measure for Measure.

Taylor, Mark. “Farther Privileges: Conflict and Change in Measure for Measure.Philological Quarterly 73, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 169-93.

Discusses the psychological development of Measure for Measure's principal characters—the Duke, Isabella, and Angelo—in terms of Horneyan neurosis theory.

Thatcher, David. “The Uncomfortable ‘Friar’ in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Jahrbuch 132 (1996): 114-27.

Identifies Duke Vincentio, in his disguise as “Friar Lodowick,” as a source of potentially destabilizing comic incongruity in Measure for Measure, rather than as the embodiment of combined secular and sacred authority envisioned by conventional interpretations.

Tovey, Barbara. “Wisdom and the Law: Thoughts on the Political Philosophy of Measure for Measure.” In Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, pp. 61-75. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.

Investigates the theme of just rulership in Measure for Measure, and compares Duke Vincentio with Prospero of Shakespeare's later drama The Tempest.

Watson, Robert N. “The State of Life and the Power of Death: Measure for Measure.” In Shakespearean Power and Punishment: A Volume of Essays, edited by Gillian Murray Kendall, pp. 130-56. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1998.

Assesses Measure for Measure as a tragicomedy that examines questions of sexual morality and portrays human desire as legitimated through fruitful marriage.

Ervene Gulley (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Gulley, Ervene. “‘Dressed in a Little Brief Authority’: Law as Theater in Measure for Measure.” In Law and Literature Perspectives, edited by Bruce L. Rockwood, pp. 53-80. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

[In the following essay, Gulley reads Measure for Measure as a play about law, scripted by a legalistic Duke Vincentio, who determines its outcome through his theatrical performance and political power.]

Few lawyers are among the significant characters in Shakespeare's plays, and one tipsy daydreamer is even allowed to suggest that reforming society might begin by killing all the lawyers. Yet Shakespeare's dramatic romance with the law itself is obvious. Reflecting familiarity with the language and procedures of law in his time and addressing a society for which the actions of courts and their officers provided both structure and entertainment, Shakespeare drew repeatedly on the legal world for imagery, characters, plot elements, and themes.1 The power and scope of law in combining the most lofty philosophical issues with the most mundane functional matters—the ideal with the real, the social with the individual—make it exceptionally resonant as a medium through which to explore the full range of human behaviors and concerns, from the lightly comic to the darkly tragic.

Although legal imagery and characters are present across the chronological and generic range of Shakespeare's drama, and although one of the most famous trial scenes in all of literature centers the early Merchant of Venice (1594-1598), it is in the later, darker period of the major tragedies and the “problem” comedies,2 of which Measure for Measure is one, that we see the issues and procedures of law used in the richest ways. Reflecting a sense of law as both method and metaphor by which western civilization organizes and evaluates human behavior, these plays go beyond the specific contexts of courts and lawyers to explore law as warp for the broader fabric of existence. In moments of significant conflict, characters whose circumstances force them to act while depriving them of reliable guides validate their actions by scripting, directing, and performing those actions as legal process. Law becomes theater.

Hamlet, Othello, and Lear all shape points of crisis and decision in the struggle against chaos by creating temporary dramas in legal form. Called to revenge by his father's ghost, Hamlet conducts a conflated hearing and trial in the form of a play he helps to script and direct, with the accused the audience and himself and Horatio the jury. King Lear, shivering in a hovel as storms rage outside, stripped of power, position, family, shelter, and sanity, focuses both the loss of his old self and the movement toward new awareness in a parodic trial of his faithless daughters and, subsequently, in arraignment and conviction of his own former self for crimes against humane and responsible leadership. And, in a more fully developed pattern, Othello marshals his jealous destruction of Desdemona through a privately conducted trumpery of legal procedure: indictment on the basis of Iago's pseudo-evidence (3.3); arraignment, trial, and conviction in the secretively staged “brothel scene” (4.2); sentencing (death) in conference with fellow juror Iago (3.3 and 4.1)—the clear perversion of even the form of justice evident in the order of sentencing before trial; and execution in the bed to which he has directed Desdemona to go (5.2). Later, disabused of his fatal assumptions about Desdemona, he arraigns, tries, defends, convicts, and executes himself, balancing the scales of justice in a summary parallel to the earlier script.

For each of these characters, the patterns of the law, with their implications of order, ethics, and power, are adapted to the need for personal and situational justification. And in each case, the mechanism is dramatization: the staging of pseudo-legal actions that give to the abstract principles of law and justice the local habitation of each character's personal situation. (Significantly, only Macbeth, steadily and entirely clear on the immoral and illegal dimensions of the course he has chosen, makes no use of the structures of law in scripting his actions; they are beyond justification, power and pretense his only defenses.)


In Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, legal dramatization is a device for articulating character and focusing thematic issues; law is not the primary subject matter, though power, kingship, family bonds, personal responsibility, and individual morality, which are among the foregrounded subjects, are closely touched by law. In Measure for Measure, however, Shakespeare offers us at once his most fully developed example of legal dramatization by a major character and law itself as the focus of the play. The consequent vision suggests that each exercise of law is intrinsically a theatrical act, thematically driven by legal principles and narratively shaped by the characters and actions pulled temporarily into active relationship with those principles.

The legal occasion in Measure for Measure is one of comprehensive social scope and importance. Like the disappointed God figure in a medieval morality play, Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, observes with dismay the depravity into which his city has fallen and resolves to return law to its proper force. Unlike the morality God, however, the Duke holds himself responsible for too-lax enforcement of the legal order: although there are “strict statutes and most biting laws,” he has for so long let them slip that they, “[d]ead to infliction, to themselves are dead” (1.3.19, 28).3 The immediately obvious remedy is for the Duke to reverse his neglect: the structure for stabilizing society exists and requires only that the Duke “unloose this tied-up justice” to enforce compliance. This is not, however, the course of action he chooses. Reasoning that, having allowed the license, it would be tyranny now “to strike and gall” his people, he deputes a surrogate “[w]ho may in th'ambush of my name strike home” (1.3.41). The Duke himself, disguised as a friar, remains to observe “[i]f power change purpose, what our seemers be” (1.3.53-54). Instead of adapting his role to the logic of the situation itself, the Duke scripts an alternative scenario, placing himself outside and above the action, as director of his personally designed play of law and justice.4

The workings of the law are thus presented in two modes: law as reality and law as theater. The characters in the Duke's play, unaware of his intermediate control, will accept as real and absolute the system of values and roles stipulated for them and will work out their destinies within that context. The Duke himself, empowered by his ability to reclaim his position at any time but temporarily released from its obligations and further privileged by the nearly unrestricted access available to a friar, will be free to manipulate events for all the others—scripting, casting, directing, and acting in his own play of the law. In more formal terms, the generic and static concepts of law will be engaged by the particularizing and dynamic forces of theater. And the resulting dialogue, between law as abstract system with which men and women seek to reach accommodation in the best interests of all and law as theatrically manipulated construct serving the vision of individuals with power, drives Measure for Measure, generating its narrative tension, its thematic interest, and, not incidentally, some of the interpretive problems it poses.

The theatrical nature of the Duke's plan is immediately evident: he casts Angelo as temporary Duke (“In our remove be thou at full ourself” (1.1.44)), simulates his own departure from Vienna by giving out rumors that he is abroad, and undertakes his new role as Friar Lodowick.5 The Duke's script at this point is very general—a commedia structure in which clearly defined characters work from their own natures to flesh out a play from a narrative sketch. Within this loosely scripted action, the newly cast ruler, Angelo, whose “blood is very snow-broth,” is expected to act from character in restoring legal order to Vienna—a test of the relationship of law to social welfare. At the same time, in the larger play conceived by the Duke, Angelo is to undergo a test of his handling of power—a test of the relationship between character and law.

Although in concept the Duke's script is simple, the possible lines of development are numerous and difficult to predict—Angelo is new to power, the citizens of Vienna are many, and the scope of vice is, by the Duke's own testimony, great. In the face of such potential for chaos, only a director unconcerned with his play could abandon it to its own development, and only a ruler unconcerned with the welfare of his citizens could abandon them to the consequences of legal experiment. The Duke is neither, and the progress of events very shortly forces him to abandon the loose-script, director-as-observer position in favor of a tighter script developed in response to events as they shape themselves within the original play. In so doing, the Duke must come to terms with the very issues he sought to avoid—the proper relationships between law and human nature, between law and justice, between justice and mercy, and between the abstract and the particular. The legal drama he has constructed to test the law becomes in addition a test of the Duke himself and moves him from observer to participant.

Early evidence of how the Duke's play is developing is provided on both serious and comic levels, in the arrest of Claudio for impregnating his fiancée and in an absurdly tangled altercation in the Viennese demi-monde. Both incidents reflect the challenge of applying law to specific cases, and in both, the Duke's deputed officials themselves resort to scripting as a means of dealing with the difficulty.

As the first victim of Angelo's get-tough enforcement of laws against fornication, Claudio brings to instant visibility the problem of the general principle incompatible with the particular situation and thus becomes a natural center for legal theater. (With significant irony, Shakespeare has placed the scene of Claudio's arrest just before the scene in which the Duke explains to Friar Peter his plan in “leaving” Vienna. The effect is clearly to show the Duke's script going awry even while he is developing its first stages.) Claudio, protesting that he and Juliet are duly betrothed and prevented from marriage only by technicalities of dowry not under their control, makes clear that they are in a kind of bureaucratic limbo at odds with their mutual emotional commitment and the near-legal union represented by their betrothal.6 If, as the Duke's description indicates, the danger in sexual license is that it threatens moral health and social order, Claudio is clearly not an appropriate target. Nonetheless, Angelo rejects arguments for leniency because he wishes to use Claudio in a legal mini-drama, the referential focus of which is Angelo himself.

Having already been told that he is being publicly paraded through the streets “by special charge” of Lord Angelo, Claudio sees the script and its theme clearly, recognizing that the sudden enforcement of this long-neglected statute is “surely for a name.” While ostensibly affirming the power of the law itself, the script will actually demonstrate and validate Angelo's individual view of the law. But because that script has been written with the pen of real power, Claudio cannot refuse his role. Nor do logical attempts at dissuasion by Escalus, Angelo's wise and moderate second-in-charge, nor moral and emotional pleas from Isabella, Claudio's sister, persuade Angelo to change his text.7 Consequently, unless the Duke is prepared to allow the death of Claudio, he must abandon the original commedia structure and involve himself in script and direction. The absolutes of “real” law and power (events in Angelo's Vienna) are to be brought actively into dialogue with the relativities of legal theater (scripting/directorial choices in the Duke's macro play).

In tonal and thematic counterpoint to the arrest of Claudio comes the appearance of constable Elbow bringing before Angelo and Escalus “two notorious benefactors”—Pompey, a bawd, and Froth, “a foolish gentleman.” The facts of the case, somehow involving Froth, Pompey, Elbow's pregnant wife, a house of ill repute, and a dish of stewed prunes, are hopelessly tangled in Elbow's malapropisms, Froth's irrelevancies, and Pompey's evasions. Angelo, his patience quickly exhausted, leaves Escalus to sort out the matter, with the hope that he will “find good cause to whip them all” (2.1.138). In contrast, Escalus, listening astutely and patiently, responds with an impromptu script that sets characters in varying relationships to the law and assigns them courses of action appropriate to those relationships. Froth, deemed guilty only of bad judgment, is sent home with a warning to keep away from places likely to bring him afoul of the law; Pompey, unapologetically engaged in the business of illicit sex, is warned that another appearance before Escalus “upon any complaint whatsoever” will bring down the full force of the law; Elbow, earnest but inept, is thanked for his service and charged to bring Escalus names of others who may be called to act as constable.

The scripting of these two cases serves to point up variations in both the principles from which and the persons by whom law is administered. Angelo's rigid, simplistic a priori script, treating law itself as a body of rules and individuals as abstractions under those rules, ironically attacks the very type of citizen whose primary values—social order and personal responsibility—are those the law seeks to promote. Escalus's more complex script, setting as it does the rule of law in mediate relationship between the facts of each individual case and the general principles in which law is grounded, casts as villains only those whose behavior threatens the general welfare, setting out for others roles preserving their own welfare and that of society.8 Though neither of these incidents is directly observed by the Duke, their early staging establishes and evaluates polar approaches to law and to the scripting of legal theater, positioning the audience advantageously to evaluate the Duke himself as legal dramatist.

One clear point of contrast between Angelo and Escalus as legal dramatists is their awareness of creating scripts. Angelo's initial approach to the law as supreme and absolute removes him from any sense of personal control over its administration and simultaneously prevents him from seeing himself as the scriptor he actually is. When Escalus asks Angelo to consider that many people in Claudio's circumstances, perhaps even Angelo himself, might be as guilty as Claudio, Angelo responds, “What's open made to justice, / That justice seizes” (2.1.221-22). And when Isabella argues that Angelo would exercise his power most fittingly by tempering it with mercy, he counters “It is the law, not I, condemn your brother” (2.2.85). Escalus, by contrast, invokes and applies the law with the clear awareness of his own agency: to Froth, he says “Get you gone, and let me hear no more of you” (2.1.206-7); to Pompey, “I advise you let me not find you before me again upon any complaint whatsoever” (2.1.244-5); and to Elbow, “Look you bring me in the names of some six or seven [men] …” (2.1.270-1) [emphasis added]. Both Escalus and Angelo are scripting the action of the law, but only Escalus seems consciously aware of doing so, and his awareness seems intrinsically tied to the superiority of his legal judgment.

Early in the play, then, Escalus is identified as an ideal mediator between the theory and practice of the law. As second in command, however, his position is responsive rather than creative, and subject to the restrictions of place in the hierarchy (he can alter neither the law itself nor Angelo's authority as its interpreter). That his potential as a restorative, stabilizing force for Vienna is limited by the role in which the Duke has cast him reflects the power of the script and reinforces the developing sense of law as theater. Ironically, too, the prescriptions of the Duke's initial scenario are the means of its undoing: the authority assigned him as legal guardian of the public welfare can empower and protect a growing corruption of spirit that makes a charade of the law.

The form this corruption takes is, with full and fitting irony, Angelo's unlawful lust for Isabella. Her appearance before Angelo to plead for her brother's life is itself a small piece of theater, suggested by Claudio in a desperate attempt to counter-script his role as villain brought to justice in Angelo's play. Angelo's initial response is rigidly observant of his role as the instrument of justice, denying Isabella's pleas for mercy as inappropriate and irrelevant to the absoluteness of Claudio's guilt. As he is denying the relevance of individual human factors to the workings of the law, however, one of his own individual human qualities is surfacing, deforming the outlines of his character, undermining the stability of his leadership in Vienna, and subverting the Duke's script for legal reform. Overcome by sudden lust for Isabella, yet finding no place for it within his rigid sense of his role, Angelo becomes in effect two players in a single body, the inner man who would gratify his desires using the outer man as shield and enabler.9 His power to punish Claudio for unlawful lust now becomes the ironic means by which he seeks to compel Isabella's compliance in the same act—his public role as guardian of the law now hollowed to accommodate his personal transgression. His new sense of agency is reflected clearly in the proprietary language he adopts in speaking of his power:

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


Angelo's awareness that he can simultaneously enforce and subvert the law enables him to take power over his role, manipulating it to suit his own purposes. And this moment of change is of double consequence for the legal theater in progress. When Isabella threatens to expose Angelo to the world, he reminds her of the power of his role:

Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoiled name, th' austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place I' the state
Will so your accusation overweigh
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny. …
Say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true.

(2.4.155-60, 171)10

Clearly, the man cast as the moral savior of Vienna has turned his role against itself, and though the Duke seems to have anticipated some of this difference between seeming and being, his play of the law has been too vaguely conceived to contain the damage Angelo threatens.

The inadequacy of the Duke's play is, however, confirmation of its importance. The administration of law is, inevitably, performance—the refraction of general principles through individual acts. And if individual actors are improperly cast and scripted, justice may not save itself. For the Duke, therefore, taking control of his legal drama is essential if he is to fulfill his own role as protector of the city and return the play itself to its original constructive design. Take control he does. Using the moral authority and privilege granted by society to his role as friar, he scripts and directs the remaining action to realize his vision of just law.11

In the early stages of this revised drama, the Duke acts from outside the law to counter excesses being shielded within the law. Isabella is persuaded to pretend compliance with Angelo's request. Mariana, to whom Angelo was formerly betrothed, is brought in to be the woman Angelo actually beds (the legal status of the betrothal, an alteration from Shakespeare's source material, seems designed to protect the ethical integrity of the Duke's script, casting him as vindicator rather than violator of the laws). Using the power of theater to suspend and re-create reality, the Duke is beginning to rehabilitate law in Vienna by taking personal responsibility for it. In these earliest directoral interventions, the Duke is able to work through his substitutive and distanced role as Friar Lodowick, persuading Isabella and Mariana to the bed trick as a legally defensible means to the moral ends that are their primary concerns: “And here, by this, is your brother saved, your honor untainted, the poor Mariana advantaged, and the corrupt deputy scaled” (3.1.254-257). In the more extreme matter of saving Claudio's life, however, the Duke is forced to re-enter himself as a character in the action. The execution of Claudio transcends concern with individual abuse of authority, which marks Angelo's treatment of Isabella; the disposition of Claudio's case will paradigm the way law is to be administered in Venice. And for such a matter, the moral authority of a friar is inadequate. When, as Friar Lodowick, the Duke asks the Provost to delay Claudio's execution and, in a kind of theatrical reductio, substitute the cosmetically disguised head of another prisoner for that demanded in proof by Angelo, his attempt at legal scripting is confounded by the law itself.

The Provost, inclined to cooperation by his personal sympathies and respect for the Friar's moral authority, nevertheless finds himself pre-scripted by his legal role: “Pardon me, good Father, it is against my oath” (4.2.182). The Duke is thus unable to continue drawing his own script over or behind the conflicting script implicit in the law itself (a script temporarily under Angelo's control). He is forced to acknowledge that in scripting genuine legal theater, law itself must be accommodated and affirmed: enforcement of an honorable and constructive rule of law requires an honorable and constructive ruler. In dramatic terms, restoring proper action within the play requires proper characters; the Duke must establish himself in the script in order to regain authority over the action. His movement to do so partially acknowledges his real self while preserving the disguise role that will continue to allow him directorial distance:

Were you sworn to the Duke or to the deputy?
To him, and to his substitutes.
You will think you have made no offense if the Duke avouch the justice of your dealing?
But what likelihood is in that?
Not a resemblance, but a certainty. … Look you, sir, here is the hand and seal of the Duke. You know the character, I doubt not, and the signet is not strange to you.
I know them both.
The contents of this is the return of the Duke. … You are amazed, but this shall absolutely resolve you.


The moment is crucial, both legally and theatrically: the Provost is convinced to save Claudio, as the final scene makes clear, and the Duke takes the first step toward resuming his authority, leveraging his own legal script into control over events in the real world of Angelo's Vienna and preparing his play for its resolution.

The final act of the Duke's (and Shakespeare's) play expands from the individual to the social, gathering all the players and lines of development in a public scene of resolution staged at the city gates. The Duke, scripting his return to Vienna as a public resumption of authority and responsibility, has directed that the performance be announced: any citizens with complaints under the law are to bring them for open resolution at this time. Law itself, and the Duke as its embodiment, is being characterized as constant, open, and universally accessible. What is given out as open action, however, has been previously scripted, and the scene develops as a kind of theatrical fantasia replicating the pattern of movement in the play as a whole, beginning in pretense and evolving into reality. The corruption of Angelo's character behind a protective righteous facade, the victimization of Claudio, Isabella, and (earlier) Mariana by ill-enforced law, the education of the Duke himself, and the consequent implications of all these elements for the dangers and benefits of legal authority are re-played in a public performance that engages as players all the principals in the case. The Duke offers his people a theater piece that recapitulates his own journey to discovery, re-asserts his authority in Vienna, confirms and demonstrates the power of the law to censure wrong, articulates the importance of mercy to justice, and demonstrates the significance of human agency to the action of the law.12

Testimony to the Duke's advance scripting for this resolution is on many tongues. The Duke himself asserts, in soliloquy, that he expects to proceed “[b]y cold gradation and well-balanced form” in dealing with Angelo and that he will leave Isabella temporarily believing Claudio is dead, “[t]o make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected” (4.3.110-111). Isabella herself, accepting the Duke's instructions for her appearance at the city gate, says “I am directed by you” (4.3.136b); Angelo and Escalus comment wonderingly on the puzzling actions assigned them by the Duke's letters; Friar Peter describes orders from the Duke to “… keep your instruction, / And hold you ever to our special drift, / Though sometimes you do blench from this to that / As cause doth minister” (4.5.4-61). That the scene itself is to involve simulation and pretense is made especially clear in Isabella's preparatory conversation with Mariana:

To speak so indirectly I am loath.
I would say the truth, but to accuse [Angelo] so,
That is your part. Yet I am advised to do it,
[The Duke] says, to veil full purpose.
Be ruled by him.
Besides, he tells me that if peradventure
He speak against me on the adverse side,
I should not think it strange, for ’tis a physic
That's bitter to sweet end.


The matter of the scene is not especially complex: the focal figure is, of course, Angelo; the action is the Duke's coming to terms with what Angelo represents; and the theme is the proper administration of law and justice. The dynamic of the scene in its context and effects, however, is complicated by the varying relationships of characters to the script. The Duke is scriptor/director and also actor, performing three versions of himself—the former Duke (now only an image in the public mind), Friar Lodowick (a temporarily empowering overlay for the developing character of the Duke), and the present Duke (the ruler who emerges at the end of the scene). He is thus both a creator and a creation of his script, now making from the macroplay of his discovery a dramatic event that serves both to represent problems of law and justice in Vienna and to bring them to resolution. What has been publicly perceived as reality will be re-created, revealed as sham, and displaced by the reality of the Duke's revised script. The citizens of Vienna have been cast as audience for this play of their own salvation under law.

As trumpets sound the Duke's entry into Vienna, his entering accolade to his deputies establishes immediately the kind of theatrical interplay that will shape the scene. Offering general praise for the official conduct of both deputies, the Duke narrows his focus quickly to Angelo:

O, your desert speaks loud, and I should wrong it
To lock it in the wards of covert bosom,
When it deserves with character of brass
A forted residence ’gainst the tooth of time
And razure of oblivion. Give me your hand,
And let the subject see, to make them know
That outward courtesies would fain proclaim
Favors that keep within.


The surface of the Duke's text here—gratified ruler praising faithful subordinate—articulates the original view of Angelo as paragon, offering him a supporting cue to continue his charade. Under the surface, however, is the sub-textual voice of the Duke as theatrical director, speaking the shape of the play to come. It will “make them know” the shape of lawless reality that “keep[s] within” the shell of lawful pretense.

With Angelo thus dramatically positioned, Isabella steps forward to advance the scripted action, declaring that she “did yield to him” to save her brother. Her scripted actions simulate what Angelo assumes to be reality; Angelo, in turn, essays to discredit that reality by labeling it a calumny (i.e. a subversive performance) directed at him. Emboldened by what he believes to be the Duke's confidence, Angelo acts to enlarge his role by requesting judicial authority over Isabella and her charges. The Duke, continuing the pretense of trusting superior, consents and leaves the scene. Again, however, what appears as reality is actually theater. The figure of the Duke who empowered Angelo, and who has performatively re-enacted that empowerment, is leaving the stage both as performer and as idea. When he returns, it is in the transitional role of deliberate pretense—the figure of Friar Lodowick. And Friar Lodowick immediately begins to censure the absent Duke:

… Is the Duke gone?
Then is your cause gone too. The Duke's unjust,
Thus to retort your manifest appeal,
And put your trial in the villain's mouth
Which here you come to accuse.


Thus, the real Duke, in performance as friar, verbally recalls and arraigns his earlier self as a complex of assumptions and actions out of touch with reality and therefore false to his proper role as administrator of justice. When Escalus, consistent in his own role, defends the honor of the Duke, threatening the Friar with the rack, the Friar/Duke speaks simultaneously out of his disguise as a moral man bound to honest criticism of the state and his own identity as the legal head of that state:

                                                  … The Duke
Dare no more stretch this finger of mine than he
Dare rack his own. His subject am I not,
Nor here provincial. My business in this state
Made me a looker-on here in Vienna,
Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble
Till it o'errun the stew; laws for all faults,
But faults so countenanced that the strong statutes
Stand like the forfeits in a barber's shop,
As much in mock as mark.


Purporting to be incensed at the effrontery of a monk who challenges the authority of the state, the irrepressible Lucio pulls away the cowl that has visually defined Friar Lodowick's identity, publicly separating the performer from the “real” Duke, the Duke as he is presently, identical to his former self in power and principle but educated in awareness—a “new” Duke who will erase his earlier image, performatively re-created at the beginning of the scene. As this new self, his original power intact but enriched with knowledge, the Duke acts, using the mechanisms of law to articulate and enforce principles of justice that conserve social welfare by attention to individual welfare. Angelo is first sentenced to marry Mariana, redeeming both past and present wrongs by legitimizing her, then sentenced to die, recompensing in kind his order for the death of Claudio.

At this point in the Duke's play, however, questions of mercy and forgiveness are introduced into the action of law, bringing into thematic prominence the interrelationship of these elements, problematical throughout the macro-play. Significantly, at this point the relationship of script to action becomes unclear, blurring the lines between theater and reality. We have witnessed the scripted preparation of Isabella's charges against Angelo and Mariana's defense of him and assume, by reasonable inference, that the Duke's response—his judgment—is also anticipated in his script. The judgments imposed on Angelo are legally appropriate to the wrongs he has done, and the Duke, in his role as upholder of the law, at first insists on the penalties. When Mariana protests those penalties and begs Isabella to ask mercy for Angelo, however, the Duke grants Isabella her request and Angelo his life. The rigorous execution of justice implied by the initial scripting has been moderated in response to actions which themselves were not explicit in the announced script and thus appear to be spontaneous modifications of it. The resulting action, originating in theatrical pretense, grows to merge with reality, perfecting the Duke's script by balancing justice with mercy for the preservation of social good. Equally spontaneous, but more intractable, are the capricious behaviors of several minor characters: Lucio, a flit whose intrusive and irreverent commentary on people, events, and principles persists even in the face of the Duke's repeated demands for silence; Pompey, an unrepentant bawd whose behavior expresses his radical view of the law as entirely relative to the power of the definer; and Barnardine, a condemned prisoner who simply and repeatedly refuses to cooperate in the execution to which he has been legally sentenced. These intrusions of unscripted action, as R. L. P. Jackson suggests, point up the challenge of disordering reality to the ordering impulse of art.13 By thus limiting the Duke's control over the artifice of pre-determined legal judgment, however, these intrusions ultimately confirm a higher vision of law as compelled to redefine and amend the abstract in response to the particular. Legal theater is thus invested with genuine social force, and the player-Duke is validated as actual and active shaper of justice in his kingdom. The Duke's play of the law becomes the rhetorical mode by which the reality of that law is established; the script he has created as artifice in turn creates him as real.

In mediate relation to this final scene stand those figures whose affairs have been the material of the Duke's script—in the conclusion of the script lies the resolution of those affairs. Isabella is closest to the Duke in consciously falsifying reality (her scripted accusation that Angelo forced her virtue) for the purposes of advancing the play, and Mariana and Claudio are to some degree involved in conscious performance. Yet for them, as for Angelo and the Duke, the final scene is neither fully real nor fully artifice but both—not merely a re-playing of past events as a public lesson but an active resolution of individual conflicts within a larger drama of social reconciliation. Angelo's evil is exposed and his repentance sparked by the scripted accusations and defenses of Isabella and Mariana; Mariana's past wrongs are righted and her future (potentially) assured by marriage to Angelo; Claudio is saved from death and reunited with Juliet and Isabella; Isabella is rewarded by public censure of Angelo, by the revelation that Claudio lives, and by a proposal of marriage from the Duke.

For the Duke's larger audience, the citizenry of Vienna, this recapitulation and resolution form a play about law in a human context. Their involvement in this particular script is not personal, and in that sense what they have witnessed is most identifiably theater—a narrative of general interest performed in their presence by actors. Yet even for the citizenry, the separation of audience and players is not absolute: the player Duke is their real Duke; Angelo is his real deputy, with real, if temporary, power over their welfare; and Isabella, Claudio, and Mariana are fellow citizens whose real lives have been altered by the events of the drama. The play they have witnessed thus is not separable from the reality that shapes their lives, and while that play has affirmed the necessity and power of law as principle, it has also shown the working out of that principle as necessarily shaped by human interpreters, out of the specific circumstances that constitute the legal occasion. Legal theater has served not only as a mechanism for the action of law but as a dynamic meditation on the nature of law itself, suggesting that the constructive operation of law in human affairs will have something of theater in it.


The sense of law which Measure for Measure articulates is, by virtue of the play's construction, tied inextricably to the character of the Duke and the extent of his control over action in the play. The authority in which he is dressed comprehends the entire play and determines its resolution, largely eliminating the kind of dialectic offered by a dramatic structure in which resolution grows out of conflict among strong characters with divergent values and significant degrees of influence on the action. Though the necessity of law itself as an ordering and conserving social construct is never seriously questioned, the Duke's comprehensive power in scripting the action of law seems to compromise the vision of law as transcendent principle, showing it instead as subservient to the temporal power of a single individual. The problematical nature of such a vision is pointed up strongly in the variety of interpretive attempts to fix and evaluate the concept of law being articulated by the play. Is the Duke's theatrical manipulation of the law to be viewed as an essay in relativism, cynically exposing as sham the sense of law as other than a tool for the powerful? Or is the Duke's scripting a metaphorical acknowledgment that the administration of law is inevitably a function of human agency? Is the Duke indulging a personal lust for power or acting as guardian of transcendent moral/ethical values?14 And relatedly, does the Duke's legal drama reduce law to the status of a plaything, or does it express the essence of law as an active social force?

Critical responses to these questions, situated as they are in the interpretive middle distance between play and audience, have made Measure for Measure a mirror in which a plethora of a priori images of law have been reflected, divergent images radically resistant to critical consensus. Certainly, however, the layering of competing scripts that defines the play's structure suggests that law in practice is inevitably performance and, further, that only through performance can the shape of law be determined. The general principle of law in Vienna is merely a conceptual skeleton, to which Angelo or Escalus or the Duke must give fuller form. In this potential for variation and re-evaluation lies identity with what James Boyd White has described as the essence of legal discourse: “… it creates a set of questions that reciprocally define and depend upon a world of thought and action; it creates a set of roles and voices by which meanings will be established and shared. In creating both a set of topics and a set of occasions and methods … it does much to constitute us as a community and as a polity” (71). This description of the dialectic of law is equivalently a description of the action of theater. And the legal theater that forms the subject of Measure for Measure is both literal and metaphorical representation of that identity.


  1. Information and conjecture on Shakespeare's legal knowledge and experience, on the theory and practice of law in Elizabethan England, and on legal imagery and incident in Shakespeare's plays is widespread. An early examination of this question is John Lord Campbell's Shakespeare's Legal Acquirements Considered (London: John Murray, 1859). Campbell traces legal references and language in the plays, concluding that there is substantial, though not conclusive, evidence that Shakespeare had the kind of familiarity with legal process and terminology consistent with service in an attorney's office. A recent exploration of Shakespeare's treatment of law in dialogue with contemporary legal issues and cases is Daniel J. Kornstein's Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare's Legal Appeal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

    Helpful general studies from a literary perspective include Louis Marder's “Law in Shakespeare” (Renaissance Papers, University of South Carolina Press, 1954), W. Moelwyn Merchant's “Lawyer and Actor: Process of Law in Elizabethan Drama” (English Studies Today, 3d series. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1964), George W. Keeton's Shakespeare's Legal and Political Background (New York: Pitman, 1967), and O. Hood Phillips' Shakespeare and the Lawyers (London: Methuen, 1972). Among studies more specifically focused on Measure for Measure are Harold Skulsky's “Pain, Law, and Conscience in Measure for Measure” (Journal of the History of Ideas, 25 [1964], 147-168) and Darryl F. Gless's Measure for Measure, the Law, and the Convent (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

  2. The term “problem,” applied to All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida, refers both to the subject matter of the plays (moral and social problems, rather than love and other personal relationships that are the concern of traditional comedies) and to form (traditional comic resolutions produced not by genuine and productive character change but by trickery or force—happy endings through unhappy means—and therefore lacking in credibility or reassurance). A wealth of critical material addresses this issue; representative discussions can be found in Michael Jameison, “The Problem Plays, 1920-1970,” (Shakespeare Survey, 25 [1972], 1-10), Rosalind Miles' The Problem of Measure for Measure (New York: Harper, 1976), Richard P. Wheeler's Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), Northrop Frye's The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983), and Vivian Thomas's The Moral Universe of Shakespeare's Problem Plays (New York: Routledge, 1991).

  3. All quotations from Shakespeare's text will be from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th edition, ed. David Bevington (New York: Harper, 1992).

  4. The intentionality of Shakespeare's design here is evidenced in the changes in his source material. In the originals from which Shakespeare has drawn plot material, events are largely dominated by the actions of the corrupt deputy, with the Duke figure acting at most as a deus ex machina in resolving events. Fuller discussion of significant patterns in Shakespeare's adaptation of source material is fully and persuasively offered by J. W. Lever in his “Introduction” to the Arden edition of Measure for Measure (London: Methuen, 1965).

  5. Judd Hubert sees this as initiating a general pattern of displacements, with implications for the psychology of the characters and the view of society advanced by the play (“The Textual Presence of Staging and Acting in Measure for Measure,New Literary History 18 (1987), 584-596). Alexander Legatt explores the patterns of substitutions as quasi-allegorical, identifying the triangulated parallels among the Duke, God, and James I as a device for ironic commentary on the wisdom and benevolence of rulers (“Substitution in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988), 342-360). Terry Eagleton finds in the play's repeated and diverse substitutions confirmation of the reciprocity of selves that defines society, where understanding of self depends on knowledge of others (Shakespeare and Society [New York: Schocken, 1967], 83-86). That the pattern of substitutions is intentional is demonstrated by N. W. Bawcutt in a detailed examination of changes made by Shakespeare in adapting his source material (“Introduction” to Measure for Measure (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 19-25).

  6. Helpful on this legal point, in addition to those general sources cited in note 1, are Ernest Schanzer's “The Marriage-Contracts in Measure for Measure”(Shakespeare Survey, 13 (1960), 81-89), J. Birje-Patil's “Marriage Contracts in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure” (Shakespeare Studies, 5 (1964), 106-111), Margaret Scott's “Our City's Institutions: Some Further Reflections on the Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure” (English Literary History 48 (1982) 790-802), and Bawcutt's introduction to the Oxford Measure for Measure (6-12).

    The second of the legal points raised (protest against the invoking of statutes so long unenforced) involves the principle of desuetude. For a concise discussion of the nature and applicability of this principle, see Kornstein's Kill All the Lawyers?, 49.

    For consideration of a related issue—Claudio and Juliet's “authorizing” their own behavior as legitimate, even though in technical violation of law—see James Boyd White's Acts of Hope (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

  7. Most commentators regard Angelo as rigidly excessive and Claudio as sympathetically, if fallibly, human. Judge Richard Posner suggests that Angelo's position is actually a cover for his inexperience, behind which he can retreat from his own sense of inadequacy in administering the law (Law and Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 109). Eagleton, however, faults Claudio's rejection of the law as applicable to him: “Law is the articulation of the relations between things: particularly of the relations between private and public experience, personal behaviour and society, self and others. Without law, personal experience can only remain fragmentary, socially irresponsible” (72).

  8. David Aers and Gunther Kress argue that rhetorical patterns in the play reflect three major concepts of law—an abstraction removed from human influence, a human construct subject to principled human modification, and a simple convention adaptable by any human agency. The kinetic, order-challenging discourse reflective of the third concept characterizes the speech of the under classes and flashes briefly in infrequent moments of rebellion or emotionalism among the elite. This pattern ultimately loses to domination by the static discourse characteristic of the first and second concepts, reflecting the triumph of the powerful classes and their vision of law (“The Politics of Style: Discourses of Law and Authority in Measure for Measure,Style 16.1 (Winter 1982), 22-27).

  9. Hubert regards Angelo's experience here as a psychological split between scripted and unscripted roles. Floundering in the unscripted surprise of his lust for Isabella, Angelo continues to use the script provided by his public role as a protective shell.

  10. Brian Gibbons sees the argument between Angelo and Isabella as modeled after law-court theater, with two types of acting demonstrated: “Angelo, the logician, cold as a chisel, presenting in a few words, a seemingly unanswerable case, Isabella, exploiting a varying rhythm, a variety of different appeals, … stressing the naked humanity of the victim, rapidly exploiting an advantage with thrilling emotion” (“Introduction” to Measure for Measure [The New Cambridge Shakespeare] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 41).

  11. David Bevington sees the Duke's action here—his active engagement in pretense and fictions—as signaling the comic genre of the play. In asserting this kind of control, the Duke acts as “a kind of morally persuasive playwright who can change the lives of his characters for the better” (“Introduction” to Measure for Measure in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 405).

    Louise Schleiner, arguing an ironic pattern of references to New Testament parables, suggests that the Duke resembles the figure of a “testing master” whose results prove so discouraging that they force him to imitate the New Testament God, creating a kind of legal trick by which man can be saved (“Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure,PMLA 97 (1982), 227-236).

  12. The complexity of narrative and thematic action in this final scene has, not surprisingly, generated significant critical attention, the sum of which reflects the range of response to the play overall.

    For some commentators, the primary resonances of the scene are historical and/or political. The presence of James I, and his likely knowledge of this play, have suggested a view of the Duke's return to power as contemporary political commentary. James I himself argued, in The Basilikon Doron, that kings must not only avoid tyranny but “advertise their virtues through manipulation of external appearance and the promotion of public ceremony” (cited in Gless 160). Lever offers a helpful overview of specific parallels to James I and more general ways in which the play may both celebrate and, subtly, criticize the exercise of supreme authority. Legatt argues that the Duke may be seen as a substitute for James I but must be read as an ironic commentary on the wisdom and benevolence of such figures. Leonard Tennenhouse focuses from a similar perspective on the play as reflecting cultural celebration of James' accession as a return to patriarchal structure while also quietly raising questions about the values of the new order (“Representing Power: Measure for Measure in its Time.” Genre 15 (1982), 139-156). Jonathan Dollimore argues more broadly that the Duke's resumption of power merely reflects a larger social pattern in which the ruling class creates and uses legal and moral structures to subjugate the under classes and perpetuate its own dominance (“Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985). Daniel Massey, as actor who has played the Duke, agrees that the Duke's action “is the authentic sound of the arrogance of autocratic power, and it has returned once again to the city of Vienna.” Massey, however, sees the implications of returned power as unresolved by the action of the play (“The Duke in Measure for Measure,” in Players of Shakespeare 2. Ed. Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). Brian Gibbons argues that successful performance is itself the issue, essential to effective rule (40). Related issues are discussed by Anthony B. Dawson in “Measure for Measure, New Historicism, and Theatrical Power.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988), 328-341.

    Other commentators see the Duke's return primarily in terms of psychological, narrative, and thematic patterns within the play itself. Hubert sees the fact and manner of the Duke's return as motivated by the necessity not only of regaining power but of rescuing himself from inappropriate inventions about his character in the minds of his people (594). More cynical is Robert Watson's contention that the Duke's manipulation of the final scene is self-aggrandizing: “The Duke strategically regresses Vienna from the New Testament to the Old so that he can claim credit, as head of state, for re-inventing Christian forgiveness” (“False Immortality in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990), 431). A related approach, in extremis, informed Michael Bogdanov's 1985 Stratford (Ontario) production, which configured the final scene as a rally staged to aggrandize a dictator, with loudspeakers, floodlights, and a cynically self-promoting Duke. Anthony Dawson finds this interpretation effective not only in revealing the limitations of the Duke's individual integrity but also in undercutting the theatrical mode by which the Duke has chosen to display his power: “… it is the theatrical itself that is being called into question; the theatrical as a mode of generic manipulation (i.e., as a way of bringing about closure) and as a mode of political power is deconstructed even as it is used and invoked” (“Measure for Measure, New Historicism, and Theatrical Power” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 [1988], 338).

    Representative views of the play's conclusion as reflecting the Duke's incomplete sense of sexuality and inappropriate treatment of women can be found in Janet Adelman's “Bed Trick: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure,” in Shakespeare's Personality, ed. Norman Holland, et al (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) and Marcia Riefer's “‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Construction of Female Power in Measure for MeasureShakespeare Quarterly 35 (1988), 157-169.

  13. Jackson argues generally that the tensions and apparent incompatibilities in theme and form, particularly in the last act, reflect the thematic tension between the need for an impersonal justice and the necessity of recognizing the individual realities that are the reality of human existence (“Necessary Ambiguity: The Last Act of Measure for Measure,The Critical Review 26 (1984), 121).

  14. Helpful synthetic overviews of varied critical response to Measure for Measure include A. J. Franklin's “Changing Critical Attitudes toward Measure for Measure,Journal of English Studies 3(1980), 13-18; Harriet Hawkins' Measure for Measure (New York: Twayne, 1987), and Mary Ellen Lamb's “Shakespeare's ‘Theatrics’,” Shakespeare Studies 20(1987): 129-146.

    For more extensive overviews and sampling of literary and performance criticism, see Shakespearean Criticism, Volumes 2 and 23 resp. (Detroit: Gale, 1985, 1994).

David McCandless (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: McCandless, David. “‘I'll Pray to Increase Your Bondage’: Power and Punishment in Measure for Measure.” In Shakespearean Power and Punishment: A Volume of Essays, edited by Gillian Murray Kendall, pp. 89-112. London: Associated University Presses, 1998.

[In the following essay, McCandless emphasizes the “sadopornographic” quality of Measure for Measure and the psychological and thematic effects of sexuality and punishment in the drama.]

The first and most striking instance of power and punishment in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is also the play's true beginning: At Angelo's command, Claudio is publicly disgraced, enchained, and paraded through the streets to prison. The preceding action—the Duke's inexplicable departure and hasty deputizing of Angelo, Lucio's scurrilous badinage about venereal disease—amounts to a prologue. The punishment of Claudio, which manifests Angelo's “mortal” power, is the incident upon which the play's entire action turns. It seems to me absolutely crucial that this scene be staged in such a way as to heighten Claudio's humiliation: Lucio and his scruffy cohorts disport themselves in some sort of tavern/gaming den/house of ill repute. They and other customers are hastily diverted from their disreputable amusements by a steadily increasing rumble portending the arrival of a rowdy crowd. Suddenly they find themselves spectators to a shocking event: the public shaming of their friend Claudio.

This directorial choice necessitates excising or transposing the dialogue between Pompey and Overdone, but, to my mind, the resultant theatrical effect more than justifies the revision. Indeed, the director ought, I think, to go further: Claudio is not only in chains but very nearly naked, as part of a ritual of mortification, which sharpens his shame and imparts particular urgency to his protest to the Provost, “why dost thou show me thus to th' world?” (1.2.116). An unruly throng accompanies him, some of them jeering and savoring his torment. From a second-level balcony, Lord Angelo himself watches Claudio's degradation with discernible satisfaction. The image ought to convey the extent to which Angelo succeeds in making a spectacle of Claudio, putting his mortified, fetishized body on public display, reducing him to the personification of an errant flesh that must be extravagantly punished, submitting him to a sadistic, voyeuristic gaze.1

I would like, in this essay, to assay the sadopornographic nature of the punishments in Measure for Measure, examining the process by which the play's central characters attempt to master sexuality by punishing representatives of their rejected sexual selves. This process parallels the aggressive displacement necessary to sadism as Gilles Deleuze defines it: The empowered superego's persecution of feminized images of the rejected ego.2 Deleuze's account of sadism, in turn, coalesces with the feminist reading of pornography as a sadistic mode of representation through which men indulge fantasies of mastering women who embody their own discarded fleshly selves.3 Thus, in Measure for Measure Angelo enjoys a brief reign of authority during which he dominates a series of feminized surrogates forced to accept the status of his own mortified flesh: Claudio, Isabella, and Mariana. The final scene reveals, however, that Angelo has unknowingly functioned as the Duke's feminized surrogate, suffering a kind of public emasculation for falling prey to the female sexuality that the Duke, in his own strange way, aims to regulate.

The imagined staging of Claudio's punishment, then, works to foreground the play's sadopornographic drama. Claudio's tormentor, Angelo, cannot, strictly speaking, be called a sadist, primarily because, once incited by lust, he lacks the sadist's passionlessness: “the true sadist is self-controlled to the point of apathy. … Sade deplores the pornographer's ‘enthusiasm.’”4 By Sade's standard, Angelo seems primarily a pornographer who enacts his fantasy of mastering a helpless “feminine” figure.5 That the “feminine” figure is initially a man only underlines his status as the pornographer's chastened double. Indeed, the persecuted Claudio could be said to function as a kind of male intermediary between Angelo and the person who comes ultimately to occupy the position of degraded “feminine” double: Isabella. The cataclysmic lust that Angelo unleashes against her proves that his severe, desexualized persona is a self-suppressing fiction. The sexual insurrection that he undertakes to defeat arises not simply in Vienna but within his own psyche. In mortifying Claudio, he not only punishes a criminal but pummels the principal adversary in his own psychomachia, forcing Claudio to play the villainous Flesh. He chastens Claudio's body in place of his own. He makes Claudio bear the cross of sexual guilt.

The sadopornographic spectacle of Claudio's degradation has ample historical sanction. In an influential essay, Carolyn Brown traces the play's excoriative imagery to the monastical practice of flagellation, which was celebrated as the most efficacious agency of penitence, breeding in anchorites a capacity for deriving pleasure from the infliction or reception of pain.6 As Brown points out, while monks and nuns frequently flayed themselves in private for bodily trespasses, they also regularly submitted to public beatings from their superiors that, as Brown says, “promoted both active sadism in the flogger and vicarious sadism in the spectators”—turning the punishment of sinning flesh into public spectacle.7

Perhaps even more to the point, Shakespeare's society seems to have elevated sadism to a juridical principle. The exorbitant abuse of lawbreakers was a popular form of public entertainment. Chastised criminals were regularly submitted to a voyeuristic, sadistic public gaze. A Londoner on his daily rounds could amuse himself with a chained robber hanging in a gibbet, “a petty thief in the pillory, a scold in the ducking stool, a murderer drawn to the gallows on a hurdle.”8 Executions, sometimes featuring grisly torture, were likewise turned into public spectacles. Foucault's description of such dramas as rituals for repairing a metaphorically shattered sovereignty seem as apposite to Shakespeare's England as to the seventeenth-century France that he surveys.9 As Foucault suggests, “the punishment is carried out in such a way as to give a spectacle not of measure, but of imbalance and excess; in this liturgy of punishment, there must be an emphatic affirmation of power and its intrinsic superiority.”10 Angelo's public degradation of Claudio becomes the visible sign of the “excess” of executing a man for enjoying conjugal relations with his common-law wife. The absence of “measure” in Angelo's sentence is particularly telling, given the play's title, and recasts the Duke's threatened retribution at the end as “excess for excess.”

In the sense that Claudio represents Angelo's fleshly double, he must be punished for doing willingly what Angelo abhors and can only be hoodwinked into doing: having sexual relations with the woman he has sworn to marry. On the surface, Angelo's dismissal of Mariana for reasons of “levity” seems simply a moralistic cover for a cold financial maneuver—deserting a dowerless, hence undesirable, woman. On the other hand, Angelo's charge that his fiancée is unchaste may have a kind of psychological validity: Since he does not desire her or cannot permit himself to desire her, her unabashed and unextinguishable desire for him must seem frighteningly wanton and excessive. Thus, her loss of dowry frees him from marriage, from a perilous deliverance to a potentially devouring female sexuality. In short, in breaking his betrothal to Mariana, he averts emasculation.

Claudio, however, who reciprocates and fulfills Juliet's desire, who allows himself to become entangled with female sexuality, does not avert it—at least does not in Angelo's eyes. So, in this imagined staging, Angelo turns Claudio's emasculation into a piece of street theater, a fetishistic sadopornographic spectacle, savoring the power of punishing a feminized weakling. Claudio in chains, seminaked, paraded through the streets, is Claudio unmanned, forced to submit to the feminization of his body.

This image of youth and beauty degraded, of the body shamed, calls to mind the brutalized martyrs of early religious iconography (perhaps including Christ himself) as well as the chained and lashed goddesses of contemporary pornography.11 It may also call to mind the degraded god of Euripides' The Bacchae, Dionysos, who, disguised as a mysterious, polymorphous-perverse stranger, is likewise placed in chains and paraded through the city and forced to submit to the chastisements of the Angelo-like governor Pentheus, who ridicules his effeminacy. Pentheus' pose as omnipotent male authority, however, proves as shaky as Angelo's. Both men decide to give their sensual race the rein, Pentheus taking the masochist's route, wearing women's clothes and suffering the brutalizations of the very women he vowed to punish, and Angelo turning sadist and punishing the “feminine” forces that excite the urge to lose “masculine” control. According to Deleuze, “sadism is in every sense an active negation of the mother and an exaltation of the father who is beyond all laws.”12 Thus, Angelo rejects Mariana, a figure of the mother (even her name has maternal resonance) and ascends to the position of father of the land or at least ruthless enforcer of the Law of the Father, effecting a severity that, as later events confirm, counters a contrary pull toward the feminine. Angelo's punishment of Claudio thus achieves additional significance: Mariana's double, Juliet, the woman to whom Claudio succumbs, is visibly pregnant and hence explicitly maternal. For Angelo, Juliet is a groaning “fornicatress” whose pregnancy is proof of female corruption (2.223). The disguised Duke seems to ratify this reading of Juliet's pregnancy, characterizing her fetus as the “sin she carries” and contending that her crime—refusing to repel the passion she ignites—is greater than Claudio's (2.3.26-28), thus reading the female body as both sign and source of sin.13

Isabella so bedevils Angelo because she presents herself, albeit involuntarily, as a potential Juliet, an alluring female body that recalls him to his own. By stridently rebuffing his lecherous overtures, however, she makes him alone bear the burden of the sinful lust she arouses, impregnates him with “the strong and swelling evil of my conception” (2.4.7). In effect, she makes him the source of sin, turns him into Juliet, effectively effeminizing him.

By afflicting Angelo with desire, Isabella forces Angelo to retrieve the discarded creaturely self personified by Claudio. Indeed, when Angelo exclaims, “O let her brother live! / Thieves for their robbery have authority when / Judges steal themselves” (2.2.174-76), he makes the very concession Isabella labors so strenuously to extract: He and Claudio, the condemned fornicator, are kin. While such fellow-feeling has the effect of moving him momentarily to mercy, ultimately it breeds a vindictive desire to punish Isabella for having effected it. Beset by degrading lust, he stands in relation to Isabella as Claudio previously stood to him—a wretched sinner, a damnable lecher contemplating a lofty and unassailable figure.

Far more provocatively than Claudio, Isabella represents a bodily “feminine” self that Angelo must reject and punish. She therefore takes Claudio's place as the object of Angelo's retributive violence. No sooner has he safely enchained and imprisoned Claudio than Isabella, figuratively speaking, enchains and imprisons Angelo. So he must, in turn, enchain and imprison her. She has made him feel her power; now she must feel his.

Isabella seems scarcely aware of the power she wields, at least initially. “My power,” she protests to Lucio when he bids her “assay” it on her brother's behalf, “alas, I doubt,” (1.4.75-77). Claudio, in fact, has already defined that power, telling Lucio

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


The “speechless dialect” that “moves” (arouses) men is Isabella's sexual charisma—her body language. The word “prone,” connoting both recumbence and receptivity, suggests that Isabella's body speaks the language of sexual availability—or is at least made to speak it.14 Lucio twice urges Isabella to assume a prone—or at least kneeling—position, first at the nunnery when extolling the efficacy of female “weeping and kneeling” (1.4.81) and secondly in Angelo's chambers when arresting her premature exit and admonishing her to “kneel down and hang upon [Angelo's] gown” (2.2.44). “You are too cold,” he reprimands her, implicitly requesting that she infuse her supplications with warmth and sensuality, that she be passionate as well as subservient. Lucio essentially asks her to “be a woman,” anticipating Angelo's more menacing demand that she put on the “destin'd livery.” Thus, when Isabella begins to work her will on Angelo and to weaken his resolve, Lucio exclaims, “O, to him, to him, wench! he will relent. He's coming; I perceive't” (2.2.124-25). Lucio calls Isabella, whom he formerly praised as “a thing enskied and sainted,” “wench” and portrays the success of her appeal in language suggestive of sexual arousal. Angelo's proposition to Isabella, and Claudio's plea for her to comply, simply literalize the outcome of the metaphorical seduction she carries out.

Isabella's speechless dialect is, however, a male language, the only mode of signification that her body commands in a phallocentric economy. Thus, during her second meeting with Angelo, as she laments the weakness of women, Angelo “arrests her words” and declares,

                                                                                Be that you are,
That is, a woman; if you be more, you're none;
If you be one (as you are well express'd
By all external warrants), show it now,
By putting on the destin'd livery.


“Arrest your words” means not only “take you at your word” but “stop your words.” Angelo wishes to deny Isabella the agency of speech, to make her words mean what he wants them to, construing a lament for female weakness as an admission of sexual desire and therefore as a cue for propositioning her. He aims to confine her speech—her signifying power—to the speechless dialect of her body. The destin'd livery he urges her to wear is the mantle of sexual subjugation that replaces the nun's habit, which, to his great vexation, renounces the sexual availability that her speechless dialect signifies. To eschew this mantle of subjugation is to be “more than a woman” and therefore “none” (or “nun”). In Isabella's response—“I have no tongue but one; gentle my lord, / Let me entreat you speak the former language” (2.4.139-140)—one hears an echo of Hermione's protest to Leontes, “you speak a language I understand not.” In Isabella's case, the complaint might more precisely be, “you make me speak a language I understand not.” In a Lacanian context, the scene confirms the impossibility of female speech within a phallocentric system of signification.15

Angelo's determination to impose an image of “Woman” on Isabella takes on sadistic and pornographic dimensions. Indeed, he seems intent on enacting what Susan Griffin considers the quintessential pornographic fantasy: despoiling an idolized virgin.16 In accordance with this fantasy, Angelo seeks to demystify his own mystification of Isabella as exalted, unattainable goddess, to expose her as pure flesh, to affirm her essential sordidness.17 By attempting to defile the goddess remade in the image of whore, Angelo seeks to regain his “masculine” identity, to mortify the fleshly “feminine” self by mortifying Isabella.

Perhaps the most telling phrase of his first soliloquy, then, is “What is't I dream on?” (2.2.178). Angelo struggles not so much against sexual feeling in general as against the specific “dream,” or fantasy, of debauching Isabella, a struggle that lies at the heart of his second soliloquy. Angelo assumes a position similar to Claudio’s: he finds his prayers to heaven empty and unavailing. While he has not, like Claudio, done the dirty deed, he has apparently savored his sexual fantasy sufficiently to experience a racking guilt. Angelo's attempt to confess and repent his lurid dream seems only to intensify its imaginative rehearsal and further tempt its enactment, bringing to mind Barthes's observation that Sade's method for nurturing sexual fantasy closely resembles the spiritual exercise of Ignatius Loyola: Retreat, darkness, imagination, and repetition. This process “dictates” a pornographic text that demands enactment.18

Angelo's pornographic text betrays a tortured fluctuation between sadism and masochism. Masochism, according to Deleuze, reverses the dynamics of sadism, enacting the negation of the father and the exaltation of the mother, a submergence in the “feminine” and dismissal of the “masculine.”19 The masochist fetishizes his female tormentor—an image of the forbidden, desired mother—symbolically surrendering the phallus to her and investing her with the power of law, achieving sexual pleasure by purging through pain the guilt that precludes it.20 As Deleuze puts it, the masochist de-sexualizes his relation with his tormentor in order to achieve re-sexualization.21

On the one hand, Angelo flirts with masochistic feminization. “This virtuous maid / Subdues me quite” he declares (2.2.184-85). Isabella subdues Angelo—that is, subjugates and emasculates him. Desire for her has made him “fond” (2.2.186), he admits—foolish and infatuated and thus potentially feminized like the “fond father” of a Duke whose “rod” is “more mock'd than fear'd” (1.3.23, 26-27). She leads him to a longing for “levity,” for an unmasculine loss of control: He would gladly let go of his “gravity,” he confesses, in exchange for “an idle plume / Which the air beats for vain” (2.4.9-12). One may read in this line a masochist's savoring of powerlessness, an unmanly coveting of vanity that invites “beating.”

Moreover, inasmuch as the self-torturing Angelo elevates Isabella to the status of goddess—who competes with God for his prayers—and verbally flays himself for his forbidden desire, he implicitly assumes a masochistic posture.

When I would pray and think, I think and pray
To several subjects. Heaven hath my empty words,
Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue,
Anchors on Isabel; heaven in my mouth,
As if I did but chew his name,
And in my heart the strong and swelling evil
Of my conception.


The self-lacerating language suggests that Angelo might, in performance, actually flagellate himself during this speech, physicalizing the masochistic pose by excoriating himself at the feet of his (absent) goddess/mistress, enacting an enslavement derived from a guilt-inducing sexual vexation that can only be purged through pain.22

In imagining himself pregnant with his “conception”—the sexual fantasy that Isabella has implanted—Angelo evokes a parody of the virgin birth in which his God, Isabella, descends from on high and impregnates him, leaving him with the unwanted child of lust, the sin he carries.23 In Janet Adelman's resonant phrase, Angelo is “pregnant with his own sexuality,” and Isabella is the inseminating agent.24

Angelo cannot, however, as the masochist must, desexualize the object of his desire, so his would-be masochistic self-mortification becomes autoerotic self-stimulation. His obsessive fixation on the sexual fantasy of ravishing his goddess clearly arouses him—in concrete physical terms the “swelling” to which he refers can only be phallic. Since Isabella seems to have come to occupy the place of God, she has come, in Lacanian terms, to occupy the place of the Other, of ultimate truth or rather ultimate fantasy, the supposed end to which Angelo's vexatious, insatiable desire drives him.25 This Lacanian notion of drive—ultimately beyond satisfaction as Angelo's case seems to prove—tallies with Susan Sontag's treatment of pornography as an outlet for “high-temperature visionary obsessions,” as the vehicle of a sexual passion “beyond love” and “beyond sanity” that aims at the “limits of consciousness.”26

Yet Angelo elects not to confine himself to mystical autoeroticism, adhering instead to the Sadean imperative of enacting his fantasy, which, in the face of what he comes to believe is Isabella's deliberate provocation of a lust she refuses to gratify, shifts from masochistic to sadistic. “Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes / That banish what they sue for” (2.4.162-63), he demands, now believing her chastity to be a seductive affectation. Angelo begins to associate Isabella with the strumpet whose “double vigor” of “art and nature” (2.2.183) suggests a cunning enhancement of sexual appeal. Previously he measured Isabella's attractiveness in terms of her difference from the whore. Now he collapses the difference.

Earlier in the scene, Angelo essentially appoints Isabella a whore's fate in asking her to trade places with the “fornicatress,” Juliet, pregnant with sin: “give up your body to such sweet uncleanness / As she that he hath stain'd” (2.4.54-55). Angelo, pregnant with his own sexuality, essentially asks Isabella to duplicate and thereby terminate his pregnancy. He aims to transfer the sin he carries to Isabella, make her pregnant—if only metaphorically—with a “staining” sexuality. He may, in dirtying her (“pitching his evil”), cleanse himself.

Angelo's strained, oblique courtship culminates in a proposition that becomes, once repelled, a vicious threat, a demand that Isabella satisfy his lust or else accept responsibility for her brother's gruesome death:

                                                                                Redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will,
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To ling'ring sufferance.


Here Isabella's status as mortified stand-in for Claudio becomes explicit. If the violently aroused Angelo, giving his sensual race the rein, cannot brutalize Isabella, he will brutalize her brother by torturing him to death. Angelo openly avows that his violent passion for Isabella fuels his sadistic flaying of Claudio: “Answer me tomorrow,” he tells her, “Or by the affection that now guides me most, / I'll prove a tyrant to him” (167-69).27 Angelo's lust, which he perversely calls love, transmutes into a sadistic urge to subjugate and inflict suffering. Isabella must “yield” to him, submit to his “sharp appetite.” The violence of his language turns his vicious demand into the verbal equivalent of a rape. Here too the director may choose to physicalize the violence of the lines, staging the moment as an attempted rape, which Isabella manages to thwart.28 If Angelo, in his second soliloquy, fondles a fantasy that eventuates in his assault on Isabella, one might well invoke Robin Morgan's celebrated aphorism, “pornography is the theory and rape the practice.” For Angelo, pornographic fixation begets sadistic enactment, the punishment of the threatening female who afflicts him with effeminizing desire.29

Critics have often noted that Isabella's first speech in the play expresses a request for “more restraint,” a wish that the notoriously strict order of St. Clare were even stricter. What has been less noted is the peculiarity of the question that precedes the wish: “and have you nuns no farther privileges?” (1.4.1). It seems decidedly odd that a young woman coveting “farther stricture” should begin by asking after further privileges. Either she masochistically equates stricture with privilege or chafes under stricture but is shamed by Francisca's testy reply—“are these not large enough?”—into shamming a desire for more.30 In either case, she seems ill-suited to the cloister, either balking at sexual renunciation or embracing it with a vigor that invites suspicions of sexual guilt, as though the severity of the restraint she covets matches the fervor of the passion she wishes to restrain. The actress Juliet Stevenson, who played a warm and sensual Isabella for Adrian Noble in 1983, seems to have favored the latter interpretation:

I think she recognizes her own sexuality and the need to apply strict control over it. I don't think she's frightened or surprised by it; she wants to dominate it. Hence her choice of the St. Clares. The severity of the order is, I think, commensurate with the scale of those latent passions in her, which she feels must be harnessed, controlled.31

Isabella's chastity need not be reduced to a pathology, of course. But even if the urge to dominate her sexual impulses may be imputed to youthful self-excitement or monastic imperative, the extremity of that urge, coupled with the sexual corruptiveness of the patriarchal world she flees, tempt the conclusion that she must curb sexual drives that might otherwise propel her into the perilous territory of male sexuality.32 In a telling exchange, Isabella agrees with Angelo that women are “frail”:

Ay, as the glasses where they view themselves,
Which are as easy broke as they make forms.
Women? Help heaven! men their creation mar
In profiting by them. Nay, call us ten times frail,
For we are soft as our complexions are,
And credulous to false prints.


Isabella presents female sexual experience as a process of loss, as the breaking of chastity and the making of “false” forms—the begetting of bastards.33 In Isabella's mind, it would seem, a woman's sexual experience is one of despoliation, impregnation, and abandonment, such as Juliet and Kate Keepdown actually suffer. Isabella's construct presupposes not only male rapacity—men “break the glass” and “mar their creation” by using women—but female wantonness. Men corrupt women because women are corruptible, receptive as well as vulnerable to sexual use. Isabella first refers to such women as “they” and then as “we.” By implication she portrays herself as sexually susceptible, as though confirming that she would rather restrain her sexual impulses than pursue them into a ruinous encounter with a rapacious male. Rather than wear the harness of sexual vassalage, she seeks to harness her own sexuality. In this regard, she resembles Angelo and the Duke: She wishes to achieve “masculine” self-mastery, to disown the “feminine” self, to mortify the flesh. Her choice of the cloister, then, seems simultaneously an act of self-actualization, self-suppression, and self-defense.

If Isabella is a passionate young woman whose only outlet for passion in this patriarchal society is the impassioned championing of monastical chastity, then the task of winning Claudio's pardon, which soon becomes the task of “moving” Angelo, provides a new outlet, one that, far from submerging her in institutionalized masochism, provides for the temporary experience of power: Isabella dominates and sexually arouses the most dominant, seemingly most desexualized man in the land. The director and actress must of course establish the extent to which Isabella is conscious of her effect on Angelo. Certainly it seems plausible that she discerns Angelo's faltering resolve and enjoys the experience of wielding power and weakening his will. From the standpoint of performance, it is not only possible but desirable that Isabella actually harbor an unconscious attraction to Angelo, fueling her implorations with sublimated desire. Certainly Stevenson understood and played the scene as a sublimated sexual encounter, asserting that Isabella and Angelo “copulate across the verse.”34 The text does not overtly substantiate Isabella's attraction to Angelo but, from the standpoint of performance, it is the strongest, most emotionally generative choice, the choice that sets up maximum conflict for Isabella. In fact, this attraction hardly seems implausible if one concedes to Isabella sexual impulses in conflict with her sexual renunciation and considers Angelo as a kind of alluring forbidden object.

In addition, Isabella hints at a subterranean sexual drive during her second interview with Angelo. “I am come to know your pleasure,” she announces upon arriving (2.4.31), a perhaps guileless greeting that nonetheless registers a double sexual meaning, as though Isabella were acknowledging—consciously or not—the sexual undercurrents of their encounters. Isabella's most sexually charged pronouncement comes, however, when she finally begins to grasp the nature of Angelo's proposal:

were 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.


Once more we seem to be nearing the realm of pornographic sadomasochism: Isabella, in piercingly sensual language, imagines herself being whipped.35 She will not accept a whore's fate but will accept a whore's punishment, spurning the bodily violation of vindictive rape for that of punitive beating. This fantasy bespeaks a guilt-ridden compulsion to punish her own sinning flesh, to enact the penitential imperatives of a monastical conscience. Isabella may be sufficiently aware of her provocation of Angelo, sufficiently appreciative of the power she thereby commands, sufficiently distressed by a sting of reciprocal attraction, to feel that her own stimulated, errant flesh stands in need of corrective flaying. From one angle, Isabella employs the discourse of martyrology, drawing on legends and images of female saints cruelly tortured or killed. She reiterates, with martyrish intensity, her readiness to die on Claudio's behalf. On the other hand, the violently erotic imagery of her resolution links martyrology and pornography, associating Isabella and her tortured female saints with the tortured—or in any case sadistically objectified—women in pornography.36 As Griffin asserts, “the metaphysics of Christianity and the metaphysics of pornography are the same. … All the elements of sadomasochistic ritual are present in the crucifixion of Christ.”37 On one level, at least, imitatio Christi means to savor fleshly mortification. Perhaps, for Isabella as well as for Maria Magdalena of Pazzi and Elizabeth of Genton, self-mortification is the vehicle of a spiritual ecstasy imaged as sexual union with Christ the bridegroom. Certainly the erotic imagery of her “rubies” speech commingles flagellation with the sexual act. For Isabella as well as for Angelo, the mystic's ecstatic self-flagellation becomes linked with masochistic autoeroticism.

Isabella's vision registers as an autoerotic fantasy because the fantasized flagellator is simply an empowered aspect of the self, a personified superego, a cultural “masculine” self that inflicts punishment on the feminized body. Thus, Isabella savors in fantasy what her brother suffers in reality. Unlike Angelo, she does not mortify the flesh by persecuting a feminized ego-substitute but by submitting to the persecutions of a masculine superego-substitute. She takes the part not of flagellator but of flagellant. Indeed, she seems to accept the destin'd livery of “lack” that ensures her place in the sexual system, surrendering an active sexuality and embracing masochistic eroticism.

While Isabella's beating fantasy seems to confirm her predilection for mortifying or at least restraining the flesh, it does not, strictly speaking, qualify her as a masochist. She seems to covet a desexualized relation with a forbidden father figure, but not, like the masochist, as a means to resexualization, but as an end in itself. Initially Isabella seems to wish to identify Claudio with her father.38 Before telling him of Angelo's loathsome proposition, she protests that Claudio's acceptance of it “would bark honor from the trunk you bear, / And leave you naked” (3.1.71-72). If Claudio were to agree to his sister's despoliation, he would forfeit identification with his father. Thus, when Claudio protests his willingness to “encounter darkness as a bride / And hug it in mine arms” (83-84), Isabella exclaims, “There spake my brother; there my father's grave / Did utter forth a voice” (85-86). Claudio's momentary resolution would have the effect of saving Isabella from sexual violation and so links him with her protective father. On the other hand, when Claudio implores Isabella to satisfy Angelo's demands, he becomes not his father's but his mother's son: “Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair! / For such a warped slip of wilderness / Ne'er issu'd from his blood” (140-42). In so doing, as Adelman points out, Isabella implicitly protects her father from sexual contamination, as though needing to perpetuate the image of an idealized, desexualized father figure who will protect her from sexual defilement.39 One might even say that such a figure corresponds to God the father, illuminating another facet of her attraction to the nunnery.

Claudio's refusal to facilitate Isabella's desexualization, his suggestion that she might, for his sake, suffer Angelo's brutalization of her flesh, compels her to turn into a flagellator. Indeed, she verbally brutalizes him, transforms him, as did Angelo, into a personified corrupt flesh that must be mercilessly lacerated. In one sense, Claudio once more plays the part of Angelo's chastened surrogate: Charged with incest and thus made complicit in Angelo's assault on his sister, he suffers a vituperation that surely feeds on rage against Angelo even as Hamlet's chastisement of Ophelia channels disgust with his mother. In another sense, Claudio plays the part of Isabella's chastened surrogate, a whipping boy absorbing whatever guilt she feels for igniting Angelo's lust. She identifies Claudio with her own traitorous flesh and punishes him as a feminized ego-substitute, assigning him the role she had assigned herself in the fantasy of flagellation. Claudio now stands in relation to Isabella as Isabella does to Angelo.

Angelo stands in the same relation to the Duke: as scapegoated flesh-monger, mortified “feminine” self. The play's opening scene makes clear that Angelo functions as the Duke's double.40 He is portrayed—and portrays himself—as the stamp upon which the Duke's image is fixed (1.1.16, 48-50). “Be thou at full ourself,” the Duke urges him (1.1.41, 43). Both men are reclusive ascetics ruled by sexual disavowal. Indeed, when Lucio, addressing the disguised Duke, praises him as one who, unlike the frigid Angelo, “had some feeling of the sport” which “instructed him to mercy,” the Duke protests, “I have never heard the absent Duke much detected for women; he was not inclined that way” (3.2.119-22). The Duke implicitly prefers to be linked with Angelo, whom Lucio disparages as freakish (“not made by man and woman”), preternaturally cold (“his urine is congealed ice”), and impotent (he is a motion ungenerative”) (3.2.104-5, 110-12).

In addition, the Duke enters into intimate attachments with the women to whom Angelo is intimately attached: Isabella and Mariana. His desexualized disguise gives him access to their sexual lives. For Isabella, the Duke takes over the role of salvific father-brother that Claudio declined. He addresses her as “young sister” (3.1.151) and she twice calls him “good father” (238, 269). Indeed, Adelman calls the Friar/Duke the “embodiment of the fantasied asexual father who will protect Isabella from her own sexuality.”41 At the same time, his friar's disguise affords him two covert intimate meetings with Isabella in a “dark corner” of Vienna's prison—and we hardly require Pompey's direct linking of prison and brothel (4.3.1-4) to discern in these meetings an image of sexual tryst. The titillating effects of being alone (for the first time in his life, one imagines) with a young woman in secluded crannies of the prison could be made quite clear in performance, especially at the close of their second interview, when a leering Lucio could discover them in some mildly compromising position—touching, hand-holding, embracing—that might discommode the Duke and set up Lucio's later insinuating line, “But yesternight, my lord, she and that friar, / I saw them at the prison. A saucy friar, / A very scurvy fellow” (5.1.134-36).42

Moreover, the text offers hints of the Duke's attraction to Isabella. When first intercepting her, he speaks of “the satisfaction I would require” and later, in the same speech, uses the word in its explicitly sexual sense, urging Isabella to give Angelo “promise of satisfaction” (3.1.154-56, 264). In addition, the Duke secretly (and voyeuristically) witnesses Isabella's excoriation of Claudio and appears to find the sensual fervor of her speechless dialect as provocative in rage as Angelo found it in supplication. Left alone with her, he extols the same chaste allure that exercised Angelo:

The hand that hath made you fair hath made you good. The goodness that is cheap in beauty makes beauty brief in goodness; but grace, being the soul of your complexion, shall keep the body of it ever fair.


From the Duke's perspective, Isabella exercises a sexuality free of corruption, uniting the chastity and beauty that Hamlet accuses Ophelia of having sundered. The Duke might say “get thee from a nunnery,” especially since his later proposal of marriage requires such a displacement.43

On the surface, the Duke's proposal seems a far cry from Angelo's brutal proposition. Yet his wooing of a would-be nun could also be construed as an attempt to possess a self-possessed woman, to subdue a female force that subdues him. In one sense, the Duke's attempt to wed Isabella is analogous to taming a shrew: like the shrew, she demonstrates a willfulness and self-sufficiency, a daunting capacity for fearless raillery, a provocative “openness” that invites patriarchal enclosure.44 Until his proposal, the Duke seems determined to make Isabella feel as helpless as possible. He resolves to keep her ignorant of Claudio's survival in order, he says, “to make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected” (4.3.110-11). In other words, as befits the play's sadomasochistic dynamics, he will hurt her in order to please her, play God in order to secure her devotion, manipulate her into an indebtedness favorable to his proposal. “Give your cause to heaven,” he instructs, overruling her urge toward masculine revenge (“O, I will to [Angelo] and pluck out his eyes” [4.3.119]) and recommending a retreat into iconic femininity (urging “wisdom,” “patience,” and “forbearance” [118, 124]). That he really means “give your cause to me” seems clear from his ensuing admonition that she seek “grace of the Duke” (4.3.119-36). The Duke seemingly deifies himself in order to justify the coercion of Isabella's will.

In the final scene, the Duke increases Isabella's helplessness, orchestrating the public besmirching of her honor. He manipulates her into unchaste public utterances that he scornfully censures, accusing her of madness and wantonness and thereby converting her defamations of Angelo's sexual perfidy into admissions of her own. He places her under arrest, and if, in performance, he also places her in chains, the stage picture recalls the mortified Claudio, the original image of the body shamed.45 As Angelo had threatened, her attempt to indict him redounds to her shame and makes her “smell of calumny.” Having reduced her to absolute powerlessness, the Duke proposes marriage, seemingly consummating a careful plot to bind Isabella to him, to place her in the chains of a possibly unwanted wedlock.

With Mariana the Duke similarly achieves intimacy and mastery. Mariana testifies to their closeness by describing the Duke as “a man of comfort whose advice / Hath often still'd my brawling discontent” (4.1.8-9). The Duke, it seems, has repeatedly enjoyed intimate meetings with Mariana, the likely subject of which is her obsessive, unrequited passion for Angelo, which adds intrigue to his claim to have confessed her (5.1.527). His desexualized pose as father-confessor gives him access to Mariana's private life, sanctioning the disclosure of potentially titillating secrets. Barthes writes of Sade's fondness for inserting rituals of confession into his sadomasochistic orgies in order not only to “parody the sacrament of penitence” but to “illustrate the sadistic situation of the subject submitting to her executioner.”46 Thus Mariana, whose thralldom to Angelo already suggests a desperate masochism, submits to the Duke, whose manipulations of her border on the sadistic. As with Isabella, he oversees the sullying of her honor by mocking the intimate testimony he himself elicits. Even after he drops his disguise, the Duke subjects her to further torments, marrying her off to Angelo and then commanding his immediate execution (5.1.377, 414-16).

The Duke essentially punishes Angelo for pursuing heedlessly the same ends that he achieves carefully, converting Angelo to the personification of a wayward flesh that must be disciplined—a discipline that has distinctly oedipal reverberations. The Duke, whose “rod” is “more mock'd than fear'd,” hands Angelo the phallus of cultural authority, gives him “all the organs / Of our own pow'r” (1.1.20-21), seeming to emasculate himself. In orchestrating the bed-trick, however, the Duke effectively emasculates Angelo, commodifies and feminizes his body, makes him an object of female sexual use. The Duke punishes Angelo as Angelo punished Claudio, similarly staging a piece of sadomasochistic street theater, publicly emasculating him for falling prey to the female sexuality whose clutches the Duke escapes. In assuming the role of a chastened sinning flesh, Angelo finally trades places not only with Claudio but with Isabella and Mariana, whose humiliation the Duke also stages. The Duke forces Angelo to enter the space of shame, the space of “the feminine.”47 Unworthy to bear the sword of heaven or the rod of governance, Angelo must submit to the “mightier member” of the Duke, who confirms his utter powerlessness by wedding him against his will to a devouring (or at least overtly desiring) woman whom he has already rejected. Angelo, who sought to dominate one woman, must now submit to another.

Lucio similarly suffers consignment to an unwanted marriage as punishment for fleshly transgression—specifically for recalling the Duke to his own flesh. Lucio, who “sticks like a burr” to the offended Duke, perhaps shares Angelo's fate because, to an extent, he shares his function, representing a sinning flesh from which the Duke wishes to distance himself. Indeed, more than any other character, Lucio forces the Duke to confront his fleshly self—albeit in the image of Lucio's slanderous caricature. The Duke undertakes to mortify Lucio's unruly flesh not by whipping him but by wedding him to a whore, yoking him to a degraded female sexuality that shames and emasculates him (5.1.508-18).

The Duke mortifies the flesh not only by mortifying Angelo and Lucio but by mastering Isabella. The Duke essentially asks Isabella to embody the “feminine” self that, projected onto his male double—the weak and degenerate Angelo—he disowns and depreciates. The Duke can embrace the “feminine” only by embracing a woman he would coerce into embodying it. The Duke consequently endeavors to disguise the coercions as miraculous deliverances. To the extent that he “resurrects” her brother and hopes to convert her gratitude into devotion, he offers himself as the God who, metaphorically speaking, was her original choice of husband, and, to the extent that he rescues her from sexual shame, not simply by exposing Angelo's perfidy and proving her innocence but by offering to marry her, he seems still to play the protective father figure who safeguards her chastity.48

Yet the Duke's manipulations may leave Isabella with feelings inhospitable to his pose as father-savior. Indeed, in one sense, the Duke tricks Isabella in much the same way that he tricks Angelo. Isabella thinks that she has enjoyed a kind of intimacy with one man, the desexualized holy friar, and discovers that, in fact, she has been intimate with another, the duplicitous and newly sexualized Duke. The Duke has known Isabella while she knew not that she ever knew him.

The Duke implicitly asks Isabella to function as the object of conquest and figure of closure for his oedipal narrative, which must end in his birth as both man and sovereign. The opening scenes of the play establish the Duke's need for initiation into manhood, linking his ineffectual governance to sexual disavowal. Having failed to wield the phallus with authority, the Duke claims that his “rod” is now “more mock'd than fear'd” (1.3.26-27), an image of both political and sexual impotence. He proceeds to undergo a phase of liminality, taking off his breeches and donning a friar's dress, aligning himself with women, circulating reports that he has died or entered a monastery, sending letters whose “uneven and distracted manner” and contradictory contents provoke Angelo to wonder if the Duke has lost his mind (4.4.1-5). These images of bisexuality, death, anti-worldly withdrawal, and witlessness are all aspects of liminality.49 Thus, from one angle, the Duke authors his own ritual of rebirth, passing through a phase of temporary “death” in order to give birth to himself as a man or, in this case, as an ideal sovereign who embodies ultimate masculinity, wielding the phallus magisterially in the final scene and maneuvering a seemingly unconquerable woman into a position of conquest.

To say that narrative is the production of Oedipus is to say that each reader—male or female—is constrained and defined within the two positions of a sexual difference thus conceived: male-hero-human, on the side of the subject; and female-obstacle-boundary-space, on the other … narrative endlessly reconstructs [the world] as a two-character drama in which the human person creates and re-creates himself out of an abstract of purely symbolic other—the womb, the earth, the grave, the woman.50

Isabella is not simply an erotic agent who must be mastered—the personification of an erotic wilderness that the civilizing hero must tame—but the symbolic other out of whom the Duke wishes to create himself, the redemptive “feminine” force who enables his paternity, restores his potency, and affirms his sovereignty—in short, makes a man of him. In bedeviling Angelo and seeking to marry Isabella, the Duke simultaneously punishes one feminine double and seeks to possess another.

In the final scene, when Isabella brings suit to him, the Duke seems to have her where he wants her: On her knees, a prone, powerless, impassioned supplicant, utterly dependent upon him for deliverance. He then maneuvers her into a second posture of proneness when condemning Angelo to death, goading Mariana into a desperate plea that Isabella “take her part” and sue for his pardon. Earlier in the scene, Mariana presents herself as a kind of statue that can only be animated by Angelo's acceptance of her as wife:

He knew me as a wife. As this is true,
Let me in safety raise me from my knees,
Or else for ever be confixed here,
A marble monument!


The pose in which she proposes to freeze herself is that of the prone supplicant, or submissive wife. In taking Mariana's part, Isabella functions as surrogate submissive, assuming the statue's pose of eternal proneness. Mariana, on her knees before Angelo, essentially pleads for permission to become a subservient wife. When Isabella assumes the same posture before the Duke, she involuntarily elicits his permission, assumes the very position he may intend for her in marriage.

Indeed, when the Duke extends his hand to Isabella at the play's end, he implicitly hopes for one final and decisive assumption of the prone position on Isabella's part. Isabella of course says nothing in response to his proposal. Her silence has generated voluminous debate and multifarious performance choices, ranging from joyful, unhesitating acceptance to hostile defiance.51 Yet the complexity of the play seems to require a less simplistic resolution. Certainly Isabella's silence could signify resignation, as though the Duke had hounded her into mute submission. Yet it might also manifest resistance, evoking if not reenacting her original rejection of patriarchy, signified by the vow of silence she was poised to take at the nunnery. Her muteness may not signify the helplessness of an actress who has run out of lines, as Riefer suggests,52 but the resistance of a woman who no longer wishes to speak someone else's.

Ultimately of course, Isabella's speechlessness is ambiguous and open-ended, a mystery for every director and actress—and critic—to solve. In my view, Isabella's silence best supports an attitude of ambivalence and irresolution that returns her to the position she assumed when first forced to reenter the world of men: At war twixt will and will not. Her silence strands her between autonomy and patriarchal inscription and thus generates the unresolved tension that, in Teresa de Lauretis' estimation, attends the representation of female subjectivity, according to which an individual woman is both a woman and Woman, a subject in her own right forced to assume the status of object of male desire, forced to play figure of closure in the Oedipal plot.53 Her resistance or nonreply to the Duke's proposal, her suspension of his patriarchal narrative, suggests that the subject-object contradiction “cannot and perhaps even need not be resolved.”54 In sum, Isabella's silence signifies neither “yes” nor “no” nor even “maybe” but enigmatically manifests the impossibility of expressing an inner experience too complex, too female, to register meaningfully in a male economy of meaning. Once more, the Lacanian postulate of an impossible female language seems to come into play. Yet, in the theater, there is surely speech in Isabella's dumbness—to steal another line from The Winter's Tale. Her speechlessness becomes itself a mode of speech, a dialect that cannot be silenced, even if it cannot be fathomed. Isabella herself, through the actress who represents her, remains a body that cannot be easily fitted to the destin'd livery, a mystery for every spectator—and critic—to solve.


  1. In my own production of Measure at University of California, Berkeley (April 1992), I staged the scene in precisely this way.

  2. The sadist “has a powerful and overwhelming superego and nothing else. The sadist's superego is so strong that he has become identified with it; he is his own superego and can only find an ego in the external world … when the superego runs wild, expelling the ego along with the mother-image, then its fundamental immorality exhibits itself as sadism. The ultimate victims of the sadist are the mother and the ego. … The sadist has no other ego than that of his victims” (Coldness and Cruelty. Trans. Jean McNeil, Masochism, New York: Zone Books, 1989).

  3. See, for instance, Susan Griffin, Pornography and Silence (New York: Harper, 1981) and Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (London: The Women's Press, 1982). Pornography is an exceptionally complex subject. Even within feminist ranks attitudes toward it differ sharply. For instance, Linda Williams, who calls herself an “anti-censorship feminist” finds the attitude of Griffin and Dworkin and other “anti-pornography” feminists to be needlessly prosecutorial and untenably utopian, arguing that “a whole and natural sexuality that stands outside history and free of power” is purely mythical and that power is an ineradicable part of human sexuality. See the opening chapter of her fascinating study of pornographic films, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

  4. Coldness and Cruelty, 29. In an undergraduate Shakespeare class, I screened several versions of the eye-gouging scene from King Lear. The students unanimously agreed that the cruelest Cornwall was Peter Brook's Patrick Magee (who, fittingly, also played Sade in Brook's Marat/Sade) because he was so inhumanly passionless.

  5. I put “feminine” and “masculine” in quotation marks in order to make clear that I am using them to designate subject positions—powerless flesh and powerful law—rather than gender.

  6. “Erotic Religious Flagellation and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure,English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986): 139-165.

  7. “Erotic Religious Flagellation,” 144.

  8. L. A. Parry, The History of Torture in England (Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith, 1975; [reprint, London: Sampson Low Marston, 1934), 41.

  9. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

  10. Discipline and Punish, 49. In a fascinating essay, Gillian Murray Kendall argues that, in Shakespearean drama, “the excessive violence associated with real executions accompanies instead the killings done by subjects against the state, by those using murder to gain political power,” “Overkill in Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (Spring 1992): 34.

  11. Beatrice Faust discerns a continuity between religious art and pornography: “It was only with Christianity that sex and aggression became hopelessly confused. Erotica was driven underground and sadomasochism—with predominantly homoerotic overtones—replaced it in the formally accepted visual arts. Beside the gentle image of the madonna and her child we find the pieta, in which Mary cradles her son's mangled body, the crucifixions, stations of the cross, and multitude of martyrdoms—often depicting langorous young men, less often showing beautiful women. The flagellation literature of the nineteenth century and the recent wave of violence in both pornography and television, may be seen as continuations of a long and sordid Western tradition. Perhaps secular sadomasochism developed to replace the declining religious art,” Women, Sex, and Pornography (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 86.

  12. Coldness and Cruelty, 55.

  13. Janet Adelman connects the Duke's characterization of Juliet's fetus to his overwrought censure of Pompey: “in both instances the language of sexual origin and maternal dependence carries the weight of the Duke's disgust, as though the facts of conception and maternal nursery were in themselves enough to turn one away from life,” Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to the Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992), 87-88.

  14. Brown relates the “proneness” urged on Isabella to the flagellant's position and therefore to Isabella's pledge to “strip [her]self to death,” “Erotic Religious Flagellation,” 163-65.

  15. See Jacques Lacan, Feminine Sexuality, trans. Jacqueline Rose (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), 144-45.

  16. “Over and over again, the pornographer's triumph, the piece de resistance in his fantasy, occurs when he turns the virgin into a whore,” Pornography and Silence, 22.

  17. See Griffin, Pornography and Silence, 29-35.

  18. Sade Fourier Loyola, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), 145.

  19. Coldness and Cruelty, 63. Deleuze contends that sadism and masochism are distinct phenomenon that have been inappropriately linked. He thus contests Freud's characterization of masochism as a manifestation of the death instinct that when turned against the “object” (the mother), produces sadism. See Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Norton), 48-49.

  20. Coldness and Cruelty, 31-32, 76, 88-89.

  21. Coldness and Cruelty, 104.

  22. In my production at the University of California at Berkeley, the scene opened with Angelo's flagellating himself, suggesting that he had been at it for quite some time.

  23. See Robert N. Watson's fascinating discussion of the many ways in which the play evokes the Virgin Mary as a shadow for both Isabella and Angelo, “False Immortality in Measure for Measure: Comic Means, Tragic Ends,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 425-26.

  24. Suffocating Mothers, 93.

  25. See Lacan, Feminine Sexuality, 153-54.

  26. “The Pornographic Imagination,” in Perspectives on Pornography, ed. Douglas A. Hughes (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1970), 112. Though Sontag's philosophical treatment of pornography seems to differ sharply from the ideologically driven critiques of the anti-pornography feminists, her implication that the pornographer ultimately aims at self-transcendence seems perfectly compatible with the feminists' view. The latter, however, associate this self-transcendence with a self-denial that casts women in the role of denied material self.

  27. Brown makes much the same point in “Erotic Religious Flagellation,” 158.

  28. I so staged the scene in my production at the University of California at Berkeley. The scourge with which Angelo had beaten himself at the outset of the scene became Isabella's means of repelling his assault. Trevor Nunn also staged the moment as a near-rape in his recent RSC production.

  29. Male dread of female power and of effeminizing desire springs from the association of femaleness with “lack.” See Madelon Sprengnether's classic essay, “‘I wooed thee with my sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins United Press, 1980), 174-75. For highly illuminating discussions of Angelo's fear of female power and of effeminacy, see David Sundelson, Shakespeare's Restorations of the Father (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983), 91-92; Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies, 115; and Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, 92.

  30. For the first view, see Brown, “Erotic Religious Flagellation,” 153; for the second, see Marvin Rosenberg, “Shakespeare's Fantastic Trick: Measure for Measure,The Sewanee Review LXXX (1972): 54.

  31. Quoted in Carol Rutter, Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare's Women Today (London: The Women's Press, 1988), 41.

  32. This point figures very prominently in Marcia Riefer's provocative essay, “Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, Harold Bloom, ed. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 131-44. See especially 136-37.

  33. The image recalls Angelo's characterization of Claudio's crime: Putting “mettle” in “restrained means” to make “a false [life]” (2.4.48-49)—impregnating an unmarried woman and engendering an “unlawful” child. It also anticipates Isabella's later dread of giving “unlawful birth” (3.1.189-91).

  34. Quoted in Rutter, Clamorous Voices, 49.

  35. For Harriet Hawkins, these lines seem “deliberately designed by Shakespeare to arouse Angelo as saint, sensualist, and as a sadist. And so, of course, they do,” “‘The Devil's Party’: Virtues and Vices in Measure for Measure,” in Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations, 85.

  36. Paul Tillich's wife, Hannah, describes his taste for pornographic slide shows depicting women lashed on crosses: “There was the familiar cross shooting up the wall … A naked girl hung on it, hands tied in front of her private parts. Another naked figure lashed the crucified one with a whip that reached further to another cross, on which a girl was exposed from behind. More and more crosses appeared, all with women tied and exposed in various positions. Some were exposed from the front, some from the side, some from behind, some crouched in fetal position, some head down, or legs apart, or legs crossed—and always whips, crosses, whips,” From Time to Time (New York: Stein and Day, 1973), 14. The image of a publicly revered theologian's privately exercising a sexual vexation that conflates religious and pornographic imagery seems chillingly apposite to Measure for Measure.

  37. Pornography and Silence, 14, 68.

  38. My reading of Isabella's father-fixation is heavily indebted to Adelman's account in Suffocating Mothers, 96-98.

  39. Suffocating Mothers, 97.

  40. Many critics note the extent to which Angelo functions as aspect of the Duke's self. See, for instance, Sundelson, Shakespeare's Restoration of the Father, 90, Alexander Leggatt, “Substitution in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 345-46, and Nancy S. Leonard, “Substitution in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies,” English Literary Renaissance 9 (1079): 296-97.

  41. Suffocating Mothers, 98.

  42. Something of this effect was apparently achieved in Michael Bogdanov's 1985 production at Stratford, Ontario. See Anthony B. Dawson, “Measure for Measure, New Historicism; and Theatrical Power,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (Fall 1988): 339.

  43. The director and actor must of course determine the extent to which the Duke's desire ought to be evident to the audience. His proposal at the end will obviously be the more surprising—even shocking—if it is unexpected and inexplicable. On the other hand, an antecedent attraction could possibly make the proposal more troubling, especially if the attraction is mutual, if Isabella has developed a deep affection for the Friar—or even a desire sublimated and sanctified by his status as fatherly rescuer. Seen in such a light, the Duke's proposal forces Isabella to face her feelings for him while violating the trust that enabled them.

  44. See Charles R. Lyons for a fascinating account of Isabella's resemblance to a shrew, “Silent Women and Shrews: Eroticism and Convention in Epicoene and Measure for Measure,Comparative Drama 22 (1990): 123-40, especially 136-38. The notion of a female “openness” that invites “enclosure” I borrow from Peter Stallybrass's influential essay, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, eds. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 123-42.

  45. The image may also recall the mortifications of Pompey and Mistress Overdone, whose arrests were also turned into humiliating public spectacles in my production at University of California Berkeley. Isabella thus becomes linked with a fornicator, a bawd, and a brothel-keeper.

  46. Sade Fourier Loyola, 145.

  47. See Lynda E. Boose for a discussion of the homology of shame and femininity in the punishments of early modern England, “Scolding Bridges and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 179-213, especially 185-94.

  48. Wheeler also ascribes to the Duke a strategy of rescuing Isabella from the public sexual shaming that he himself has staged, Shakespeare's Development, 129-30.

  49. See Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1969), 95-107.

  50. Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 121.

  51. For an illuminating discussion of the different ways directors have staged this final moment, see Philip C. McGuire, Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 63-93. For other helpful accounts of the play in performance, see Graham Nicholls, Measure for Measure: Text and Performance (London: Macmillan, 1986); Ralph Berry, Changing Styles in Shakespeare (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981), 37-48; Michael Scott, Renaissance Drama and a Modern Audience (London: Macmillan, 1982), 61-75; Jane Williamson, “The Duke and Isabella on the Modern Stage,” The Triple Bond: Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance, ed. Joseph Price (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975), 149-69; and Richard Paul Knowles, “Robin Phillips Measures Up: ‘Measure for Measure at Stratford, Ontario, 1975-76,” Essays in Theatre 8 (1989): 35-59. For a provocative discussion of the play's resistance to feminist performance, see Kathleen McLuskie, “The patriarchal bard: feminist criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure,Political Shakespeare, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), 88-108. For a discussion of the possibilities of feminist intervention in performance, see Rutter, Clamorous Voices, 27-42.

  52. “‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member,’” 142.

  53. Alice Doesn't, 186.

  54. Ibid., 153.

Kate Chedgzoy (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4088

SOURCE: Chedgzoy, Kate. “Tortured into a Comedy.” In William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, pp. 58-68. Tavistock: Northcote House, 2000.

[In the following essay, Chedgzoy explores Measure for Measure's status as a “problem play,” examining stagings of the drama, particularly its final scene, from the seventeenth to the late-twentieth century.]

Measure for Measure, along with some other Shakespeare plays that date from the first few years of the seventeenth century, is often referred to as a ‘problem play’: All's Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida are the other plays most often included in this curious category. At times, this designation seems to indicate little more than a desire to tidy away Shakespeare's plays into neatly classified and labelled boxes—a desire that is frustrated by the diversity of the plays, and by the complex and inventive ways in which Shakespeare experimented with dramatic genre. But it is also a label that can be very revealing about changing attitudes to this strange and fascinating play, and in particular about the shifts in readers' and audiences' responses to its handling of the central, controversial issues of power, justice, sexuality, and the relation between religious principle and social practice.

The term ‘problem play’ is a modern one, which would have been entirely unfamiliar to Shakespeare, yet a century after it was first applied to Measure for Measure and a few other plays it has become so familiar that it is taken for granted. It may therefore be useful to look at it afresh, setting it in historical context in order to indicate what it means and how it came into use. In the mid-twentieth century, there was a widespread notion that Shakespeare wrote the so-called problem plays during a period of his life when he was experiencing some kind of personal turmoil, which found expression in the bitter, misanthropic nature of his work. More often, though, the ‘problem’ has been located in the structure or content of the plays themselves. The plays were first described in this way by the scholar Frederick S. Boas in 1896:

throughout these plays we move along dim untrodden paths, and at the close our feeling is neither of simple joy nor pain; we are excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome. … Dramas so singular in theme and temper cannot be strictly called comedies or tragedies. We may therefore borrow a convenient phrase from the theater of today and class them together as Shakespere's [sic] problem-plays.1

Boas did not, therefore, invent the term, which was already in use to describe the plays of writers such as Ibsen and Shaw, whose dramas treated complex social problems of the time, often in a mode that mingled the tragic and comic and left endings open and unresolved. Indeed, in the late nineteenth century, reviews of Measure for Measure and of contemporary ‘problem plays’ often perceive them in strikingly similar terms. Discussing a New York production directed by Helena Modjeska (who also played Isabella) in 1896, just at the turn of the century in which the play was to achieve new popularity and prominence, one reviewer complained that her efforts to eliminate the play's ‘nastiness’ were futile, ‘for the trouble is radical’; she ‘covered the cesspool … but it is there, nevertheless, breeding disease and distorting minds’.2 Similarly, Ibsen and the other authors of the nineteenth-century ‘problem plays’ who influenced Boas were accused of descending into the gutter and wallowing in psychological filth.

In both Measure for Measure and its late-Victorian counterparts, the exploration of these social issues is often organized around questions of sexuality and marriage. The problem plays of Ibsen and his contemporaries are frequently concerned with the processes by which past sexual transgressions, hitherto kept secret, become known and therefore subject to the moral strictures and disciplinary powers of the public realm. Heroines, in particular, find their present and future under threat because of their sexual past: Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is a good example of this. Measure for Measure has a complicated and mixed relation to this issue, in ways that reveal the interweaving of sexuality, morality, and power. On the one hand, it shows the traumatic consequences of extending the legal surveillance of people's behaviour into what we might consider the private realm of sexuality; on the other, it shows how hard it can be to bring sexual wrongdoing into the light and have it acknowledged and believed. Thus, Claudio and Juliet's main fault seems to be letting the premature consummation of their marriage be betrayed by the corporal sign of Juliet's pregnancy: as Lucio says, Claudio is to be executed because ‘He hath got his friend with child’ (1.4.29). On the other hand, Angelo's warning to Isabella that no one will believe her accusations against a man of his status and reputation seems incontrovertible:

Sign me a present pardon for my brother,
Or with an outstretched throat I'll tell the world aloud
What man thou art.
Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoiled name, the austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i'the state,
Will so your accusation overweigh
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny.


The unusual length of line 153 mimics Isabella's straining, in the final scene, to project her voice into an arena where—despite the apparent fulfilment of Angelo's warning that she will be disbelieved and humiliated—her cry for justice can ultimately be heard. Similarly, the irreconcilable accounts that Angelo and Mariana offer of the history of their relationship show the difficulty of establishing the truth about the sexual past. Angelo draws on dominant ideologies of sexuality and courtship to make his case, claiming that Mariana's dowry was inadequate (‘her promised proportions / Came short of composition’ (5.1.217-18)) and that her behaviour did not conform to his expectations of his bride: ‘her reputation was disvalued / In levity’ (5.1.219-20). Mariana has to rely on ‘words from breath’ (5.1.223), words that ‘make up vows’ (5.1.226). But her words are not acceptable to this impromptu court, and it is only when the Duke emerges from his disguise to endorse her story that she is believed.

Reviewing the history of critical and theatrical responses to Measure for Measure, it often seems that all the problems posed by the play coalesce in the extraordinary dramatic, moral, and social tensions engendered in its long, demanding final scene. Within two hundred lines of the ending of the play, Measure for Measure seems to be set on a course for tragedy, though admittedly the tragic mood is repeatedly punctured by Lucio's lewd and witty commentary. Only in the last hundred lines or so is the happy ending of comedy secured, with the arrangement of multiple marriages, and the return to the stage of Claudio as if from beyond the grave. What is repeatedly emphasized in attempts to make sense of Measure for Measure's problematic generic status is this mixed, uneven quality. One way of tackling this has been to argue that the play belongs to the specifically mixed genre of tragicomedy, which at the beginning of the seventeenth century was a new, avant-garde form that was to enjoy considerable popularity in the succeeding decades. Towards the end of his career, Shakespeare collaborated on several plays with John Fletcher, a successful practitioner of tragicomedy. Fletcher offered an intriguing definition of tragicomedy, portraying it not as an independent genre in its own right, so much as a failure to conform to generic requirements: ‘it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy.’3 Conventionally, the avoidance of deaths and the guarantee of a happy ending provide tragicomic drama with satisfactory closure. What make Measure for Measure different from tragicomedy, therefore, and uniquely problematic, are the discomfort and uncertainty that the ostensibly happy ending generates.

In remarking of Measure for Measure, ‘it is a comedy of the flesh and a tragedy of the soul’4 the nineteenth-century American commentator Edward Arlington Robinson oddly prefigured another way of thinking about the mixed, multifaceted nature of Measure for Measure, an approach to the play that was to be offered by the celebrated theatre director Peter Brook. His 1950 production with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford has been described as the single event that did most to establish the play as a standard of the modern Shakespearian repertoire. Some twenty years later, Brook returned to Measure for Measure in his influential book on theatre, The Empty Space. Brook sketches out an overarching theory of theatre, which has two key facets: the Holy and the Rough. Holy Theatre is the ‘Theatre of the Invisible—Made—Visible’,5 a sacred ritual that makes possible a glimpse of the eternal in the everyday. Rough Theatre embodies the popular in all its multifaceted, grotesque, satirical directness. Brook argues that in Measure for Measure these two elements coexist almost schematically, and are vitally interdependent: the ‘absolutely convincing roughness and dirt’ of the ‘disgusting, stinking world of medieval Vienna’ give Isabella's plea for grace more meaning than it would have in ‘lyrical comedy's never-never land’. The press release for the 1950 production said that the designs—for which Brook was also responsible—drew on the work of the artists Brueghel and Bosch to reflect ‘the cruelty, vice and squalor of medieval Vienna’. But records of the staging and Brook's discussion of the play in The Empty Space testify to an understanding of this aspect of Measure for Measure that is reminiscent of the notion of the grotesque or carnivalesque found in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. By means of a study of festivity in medieval Europe, Bakhtin traces the cultural uses of release—even if constrained and temporary—from the rules and conventions that govern everyday life, identifying the grotesque as a source of liberatory or critical energies. Brook takes up a similar stance in relation to Measure for Measure, arguing that ‘when so much of the play is religious in thought, the loud humour of the brothel is important as a device, because it is alienating and humanizing.’6 The idea that particular dramatic strategies can be used to alienate—roughly, to distance and challenge—the audience is derived from the work of Bertolt Brecht, who, as we have already seen, brought a distinctive, politicized attitude to bear on Measure for Measure in the 1930s. What the notion of alienation implies here is that the rough world of the prison and the streets of Vienna enable the audience to adopt a critical stance in relation to the religious world view that informs the behaviour of the central characters. Brook argues that in Measure for Measure the rough world expresses itself in prose, the holy in verse, and that these two regions of the play require different approaches in staging. For him, therefore, the vitality and significance of the play lie in Shakespeare's ‘ever-shifting devices’: ‘If we follow the movement in Measure for Measure between the Rough and the Holy we will discover a play about justice, mercy, honesty, forgiveness, virtue, virginity, sex and death: kaleidoscopically one section of the play mirrors the other, it is in accepting the prism as a whole that its meanings emerge.’7 Brook sees this mobility and multiplicity as the distinctive features of Shakespeare's plays in general, but as particularly central to Measure for Measure. In his account, therefore, Measure for Measure moves from being a marginal and problematic Shakespearian play, to one that can almost be taken as representative of Shakespeare's whole approach to theatre.

Though Brook's influence has been considerable, it is not solely due to him that in Europe and North America in the late twentieth century Measure for Measure has become one of the most frequently staged of Shakespeare's plays. However, its popularity was not always so assured, and its chequered fortunes on the stage are very instructive about changing perceptions of its ‘problems’. The Revels Accounts, which document performances at the Jacobean court, note that a play by ‘Shaxberd’ called ‘Mesur for Mesur’ was performed, probably for the first time, in the principal London court theatre, the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall on St Stephen's Night (26 December) 1604. It is hard to know what to make of these facts. Though the date obviously indicates that the performance formed part of the extended period of Christmas festivities, and it is widely accepted by scholars that the audience included King James, who had been on the throne of England and Wales for just a few months at this point, these disparate scraps of information cannot furnish a clear sense of how this first audience might have responded to the play. What we do know is that there is no further record of any performances of Measure for Measure in London before the theatres closed in 1642. We should, though, bear in mind the possibility that there were other performances, in London or when the players were on tour in other parts of the country, and that the play was more popular than this apparent absence from the stage would suggest.

This contention is supported by the fact that it was one of the first of Shakespeare's plays to be performed when the theatres reopened in 1660—albeit in thoroughly rearranged form. Sir William Davenant, one of the most influential figures in the London theatre of the 1660s, adapted several of Shakespeare's plays. He hit on the ingenious idea of combining Measure for Measure with Much Ado about Nothing, throwing in an armed revolution, and closing the play (rechristened The Law against Lovers) by marrying off Isabella to Angelo while the Duke retires to a monastery. Prim and sentimental in comparison with Shakespeare's play, Davenant's adaptation seeks to make Measure for Measure into a more straightforwardly comic piece, softening its rough edges in accordance with Restoration taste. Similarly, in 1700, Charles Gildon decided that, as the basis of a night's entertainment, Measure for Measure would be improved by being interwoven with Purcell's 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas: though separately both these works are quite wonderful, the combination does no favours to either of them.

The fact that dramatists of this period saw Shakespeare's plays as a kind of quarry from which attractive but rough-hewn lumps of dramatic material could be mined and reworked to make them more aesthetically pleasing tells us a good deal about the changes that his reputation and status have undergone over the centuries. The adaptations of Davenant and Gildon reveal a sense that, while Measure for Measure has potential, it is commercially unsatisfactory because it fails to conform to the tastes of the age, and this is what they seek to rectify. Later in the eighteenth century, though, a sense that there was something more deeply troubling about the play began to crystallize. This perception was vividly articulated by Charlotte Lennox, a prolific writer across a range of fictional and non-fictional forms, who is now less well known than she deserves to be. With the three volumes of her Shakespear Illustrated, published in 1753-4, Lennox pioneered the source-study of Shakespeare's plays, translating ‘the Novels and Histories on which the Plays of Shakespear are founded’, and offering critical comment on the transformations Shakespeare wrought on his material.8 Lennox valued Shakespeare's originality, and argued that what he did with his sources was more significant than the eventful histories he found in them: ‘a very small Part of the Reputation of this mighty Genius depends upon the naked Plot, or Story of his Plays.’9 As we have seen, the densely detailed theatrical world of Measure for Measure is shaped out of a wide range of cultural materials, from the Bible to contemporary thinking about prisons, and modern scholarship takes account of this. Charlotte Lennox's project was more narrowly defined, and she concentrated on exploring the relevance to Measure for Measure of Novella 5 of Decade 8 of the Italian writer Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi (1565).

Like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Hecatommithi is a compendium of stories supposedly told by a group of travellers to beguile the duller moments of their journey (another of the tales provided Shakespeare with the basic situation and story for Othello). The story that underlies Measure for Measure concerns a young man called Vico, Claudio's counterpart, whose beautiful and virtuous sister Epitia, lacking a puppet-master Duke to stage a bed-trick for her, is obliged to submit to the hypocritical Iuriste, an Angelo-like figure acting as deputy for the absent Emperor Maximian. Piratical substitutes being unavailable in Cinthio's narrative, Vico is executed, to the horror and rage of his sister. On the Emperor's return, Epitia, no less eloquent than Isabella and more readily believed, reveals the wrong that has been done to her and her brother. Appalled, the Emperor orders Iuriste to make amends for his two crimes, by marrying Epitia, and then submitting to execution. Epitia begs for the life of her newly-acquired husband to be spared; moved by her goodness, Maximian agrees, and the conclusion of the novella assures us that they will enjoy a long and happy marriage.

Though Charlotte Lennox was in general an enthusiast for Shakespeare, she was thoroughly underwhelmed by his handling of this story in Measure for Measure. She shared with many of her literary contemporaries a commitment to the moral function of art, and like other readers—notably Samuel Johnson, one of the era's most celebrated commentators on Shakespeare—she found the endings of both Cinthio's tale and Shakespeare's play emotionally frustrating and morally unsatisfactory:

That Shakespear made a wrong Choice of his Subject, since he was resolved to torture it into a Comedy, appears by the low Contrivance, absurd Intrigue, and Improbable Incident, he was obliged to introduce, in order to bring about three or four Weddings, instead of one good Beheading, which was the Consequence naturally expected. … This play therefore being absolutely defective in a due Distribution of Rewards and Punishments; Measure for Measure ought not to be in the Title, since Justice is not the Virtue it inculcates …10

In Lennox's attack, moral concerns are intertwined with a strong sense of the requirements of genre, which are not met by the ending of this play. Though the terms in which she makes this charge are very much of her time, the basic sentiment has been shared by many subsequent audiences and readers. I have already mentioned how close the ending of the play comes to tragedy; I want now to suggest that the final scene has echoes in particular of the subgenre of revenge tragedy, extremely popular at the turn of the seventeenth century, and a form in which Shakespeare showed himself to be adept with plays such as Titus Andronicus and Hamlet. In revenge tragedy, a mourner finds it impossible to get redress for the murder of a loved one through the normal channels of justice, usually because these have been corrupted and have fallen into the hands of the murderer or their allies. Thus the revenger is driven to seek justice by alternative means, often being forced to take the law into his or her own hands: Shakespeare's contemporary Bacon famously described revenge as a ‘kind of wild justice’. In this case, Isabella holds Angelo responsible for the judicial murder of Claudio, and in phrasing that echoes one of the most successful revenge dramas, The Spanish Tragedy, directs her call for redress—‘Justice, O royal Duke! … justice, justice, justice, justice!’ (5.1.20, 25)—to a source of authority in which she still trusts. But, as I noted in the previous chapter, this impassioned plea erupts into a formal, ceremonial moment as the returned Duke invites Escalus and Angelo to walk beside him in a public demonstration of the masculine unity of those who rule Vienna. And the dramatic impact of the moment underlines the revenger's exclusion from the circuits of power and entitlement. To place Isabella and her call for justice, which resonates through the final scene (the word is used eleven times) within the theatrical revenge tradition sharpens the focus of the contest between the law that demands ‘measure for measure’ in the form of appropriate retribution, and the more merciful law which requires its subjects to judge as they would be judged, to measure as they would be measured. The Duke pretends to assume that Angelo would have operated according to this latter principle: ‘If he had so offended / He would have weighed thy brother by himself, / And not have cut him off’ (5.1.110-12). But it is Isabella who puts it into practice, when she lays aside the revenger's obligation and joins Mariana in pleading for Angelo's life. Playing Isabella in Peter Brook's 1950 production, Barbara Jefford was instructed to pause at this point for as long as she thought the audience could bear: legend has it that she sometimes remained speechless and immobile for over a minute, producing an extraordinarily tense demonstration of the theatrical power of silence.

Though they do not receive an immediate answer, Angelo is saved and Isabella's generosity rewarded a few moments later when Claudio is produced by the Provost. The siblings' reunion is another of the play's many eloquent silences, in which bodily performance must fill in for absent speech, though its intensity is indicated by the Duke's breaking-off of his ineptly timed proposal to Isabella:

If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardoned, and for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine,
He is my brother too—but fitter time for that.


This leads us, of course, to Measure for Measure's most famous and problematic silence, that with which Isabella greets the Duke's reiterated proposal in the closing moments of the play. We cannot know how this fraught moment would have been played by Shakespeare's company. In modern productions, actors and directors have to decide whether Isabella's unscripted response to the Duke's proposal of marriage should be a positive or negative one, and how this should be indicated in gesture or movement. The actress Juliet Stevenson, who played Isabella to considerable acclaim with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1983, suggests that, though this question must always be addressed in production, a definitive answer to it can never be achieved: ‘there isn't a fixed end to the play. The script ends. The words run out. But the ending—that's something that has to be renegotiated every performance.11

As Juliet Stevenson's comment shows, performance history is important because, where discussion in the classroom, the scholarly journal, or among readers can examine the supposedly problematic aspects of the play from all angles and yet leave them unresolved, in the theatre decisions about how to solve these problems—if only in the most provisional and temporary way—have to be taken time after time. Some Isabellas flatly refuse the Duke, and this can provide the play with a powerful ending, although one that seems to work against the grain of its generic movement towards closure in marriage. In contrast, Stevenson herself succeeded, most unusually, in demonstrating the growth of love between Isabella and the Duke throughout the play, and so her considered, heartfelt acceptance of his proposal was no surprise. Two years earlier, in the National's Caribbean production, Yvette Harris's lithe, confident Isabella had also accepted her Duke gladly, appearing honoured by his proposal. Darker, more troubled readings have been offered: Robin Phillips's Freudian staging in Canada in 1975 depicted an Isabella whose flight from sexual desire was defeated by the Duke's proposal, but who expressed her disillusionment and distress at the sexism of the culture that had ensnared her by violently ripping off the headdress of her white religious habit. More recently, Stella Gonet's Isabella brought out what one reviewer called the ‘grim farce’ of the play's uneasy, unstable conclusion by first slapping and then embracing the Duke, finally collapsing in tears. Isabella's significant silence holds open a space at the end of Measure for Measure that criticism and performance will always be driven to fill, but can never succeed in closing.


  1. Frederick S. Boas, Shakspere and his Predecessors (London: John Murray, 1896), 345.

  2. Atherton Brownell, ‘Rambles in Stageland’, The Bostonian (Feb. 1896), cited in Shakespearean Criticism, 23 (1994), 281.

  3. John Fletcher, quoted in Mark Eccles (ed.), Measure for Measure (New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare's Works; New York, 1980), 417.

  4. Edward Arlington Robinson, quoted in ibid. 398.

  5. Peter Brook, The Empty Space (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 42.

  6. Ibid. 88.

  7. Ibid. 89.

  8. I draw here on the brief critical account of Lennox and the extracts from her work in Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts (eds.), Women Reading Shakespeare, 1660-1900 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 15-21.

  9. Ibid. 19.

  10. Ibid. 16-18.

  11. Juliet Stevenson, quoted in Carol Rutter, Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare's Women Today (London: Women's Press, 1988), 52.


Measure for Measure (Vol. 49)


Measure for Measure (Vol. 76)