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Measure for Measure

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Considered one of the most complex of Shakespeare's dark comedies, Measure for Measure (c. 1603) has been characterized as a problem play. Critics have debated almost every aspect of this work, including its themes, style, genre, characterization, and issues of artistic unity and structure. Set in Renaissance Vienna, the play centers on Duke Vincentio, ruler of Vienna; Isabella, a novice nun; and the puritanical deputy Angelo. The Duke, who has ruled the city with a light hand for many years, decides to more forcefully impose the laws of the land after he realizes that his subjects do not take the laws seriously. He leaves Angelo in charge of Vienna and pretends to leave the city. The Duke then disguises himself as a friar and observes Angelo's harsh administration of the law and his subsequent fall from honor. The final resolution, in which the Duke returns to mete out justice, ends in marriage and reconciliation between the major players. The play was first presented to King James I approximately one year after he became king of England. James's reputation as an ineffectual monarch preceded him to the throne, and critics speculate that Shakespeare based the character of Duke Vincentio on the King, using the character to highlight issues of justice, mercy, and the rule of law as they affected James and his reign. In addition to issues of government and politics, critical attention has also focused heavily on Shakespeare's treatment of sexuality, gender issues, and power in the play. Critics also continue to debate the play's ending, which many regard as unsatisfactory because of its many contradictions and ambiguities. Despite the play's difficulties, Measure for Measure has proven to be a popular and versatile subject for performance, lending itself to numerous modern interpretations.

Recent appraisals of character in Measure for Measure have reflected contemporary scholarly interest in gender relations, with study focused on the play's principal female role, Isabella. Often regarded as one of the play's more problematic characters, Isabella is central to the themes of sexuality, gender roles, and marriage in the play. Writing about critical responses to Isabella, George L. Geckle (1971) relates that early critics of Measure for Measure were either disapproving of Isabella or disturbed about her rigid adherence to her principles, which led many to regard her as unfeeling and self-absorbed. However, more recent appraisals of her character have been kinder; Geckle contends that Isabella's character exemplifies a heroine of unimpeachable virtue, one whose outward beauty truly reflects the good inside. Marcia Riefer (1984) contends that instead of focusing on characterizing Isabella as either a virtuous ideal or a rigid adherent to social norm, it is more rewarding to perceive her treatment in the play as a means of exploring the issue of female subjugation in a patriarchal society. According to Riefer, Isabella is pivotal not only in Measure for Measure, but also as a precursor to Shakespeare's later female characters, such as Paulina in The Winter's Tale. The character of the Duke has also elicited critical attention. Many critical essays focus on the comparison of his character and the ideas of kingship espoused by King James in his two treatises on monarchy. In her essay on the Duke and his ideas of justice and mercy, Cynthia Lewis (1983) evaluates the character of the Duke as the means through which Shakespeare demonstrated that even the best and most-beloved monarchs are ultimately human and have imperfections.

The critical debate over the inconsistencies and ambiguities in Measure for Measure has not made the play less popular with production companies. In fact, the ambiguous ending has often provided room for innovative interpretations of the play. In her review of Libby Appel's 1998 production of Measure for Measure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Nancy Taylor (1999) remarks on the successful manner in which Appel was able to stage the play in a modernistic setting, using props and background to blur the lines between audience and performance. D. J. R. Bruckner (1999) reviews a similarly modern interpretation of Measure for Measure staged by Jerry McAllister in the streets of New York City. Bruckner praises the production's untraditional elements, but notes that the background disrupted the action of the play. Another variation from the original is a Turkish staging of the play, directed by Taksim Sahnesi, which Marvin Carlson (1999) calls a “radical adaptation” but one that is “unquestionably the most powerful and effective” staging of Measure for Measure that he has ever seen. Ben Brantley (2001) reviews Mary Zimmerman's 1999 production of Measure for Measure for the New York Shakespeare Festival, which garnered much critical attention both for its acting and direction. Brantley contends that the performance was straightforward and noninterpretive, simply presenting the text as written, with no attempts made to reconcile the numerous ambiguities and contradictions in the play.

Recent thematic criticism of Measure for Measure has concentrated on issues of government and politics. Brian Gibbons (1991, see Further Reading) notes that the play derives both its title and its subject matter from relevant, contemporary issues of Shakespeare's time. He also remarks on Shakespeare's use of appearance to put forth ideas concerning justice and mercy, especially pointing to the masterful contrast built in the very beginning of the play between the character and appearance of Mistress Overdone and a very pregnant Juliet. Although their appearances contrast vividly—the former presenting an image of corruption and decay, the latter presenting a vision of love and fertility—Gibbons points out that in the eyes of the law, both were to be deplored. In this way, according to Gibbons, Shakespeare set up a series of paradoxes and contradictions which manipulated audience response and prompted theatergoers to reconsider initial impressions. Stephen Cohen (1999) contends that Measure for Measure begins as a romantic comedy and ends as a monarch play. The critic maintains that these two incompatible genres result in the play's “notorious contradictions, incongruities, and frustrated expectations.” Further, Cohen draws a parallel between the laws of equity that characterized Elizabeth's reign and the Jacobean view of governance, which emphasized absolute kingly authority. Measure for Measure has also been studied as a political statement about King James's reign. Several critics, including Carolyn E. Brown (1996), have drawn parallels between the character of Duke Vincentio and King James I. Brown notes that the play works at two levels—as a glorification of the theory of divine right, and as an example of the ultimate human failings that plague even the most well-intentioned rulers. Andrew Barnaby and Joan Wry (1998) contend that the play clearly comments on the dangers of using religious rhetoric for political or secular purposes. Lastly, Victoria Hayne (1993, see Further Reading) proposes that while the play rolls toward its apparent happy ending, there is enough variance in the action to suggest that Shakespeare was urging his audience to recognize the balance of social and political norm against human emotion.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15637

SOURCE: Cohen, Stephen. “From Mistress to Master: Political Transition and Formal Conflict in Measure for Measure.Criticism 41, no. 4 (fall 1999): 431-64.

[In the following essay, Cohen contends that Measure for Measure begins as a romantic comedy and ends as a monarch play. The critic maintains that these two incompatible genres result in the play's “notorious contradictions, incongruities, and frustrated expectations.”]

Through most of its critical history, responses to Measure for Measure have been of two types: those proffering a key that unlocks the play's notorious difficulties to reveal its unity and integrity, and those that find the play's unsatisfactory elements irreconcilable and thus declare it a failed or flawed work.1 In the last twenty-five years, however, readings that dismiss the play as flawed have largely been supplanted by others that see in those same flaws a different sort of key to the play: troubling aspects of characterization, plotting, and thematic consistency are now read as intentional violations of dramatic expectations designed to subvert the play's ostensible ordering principles. Thus, in addition to formalist readings that either argue for the play's success as a romantic comedy or assign it to another genre that accounts for its apparent formal deviations, we have readings that explain the play's formal irregularities as intentional expressions of Shakespeare's dissatisfaction with the artificial constraints of generic convention.2 Similarly, “old historicist” readings of Measure for Measure's Duke as a flattering portrait of the new king James I and his political theory and practice have been supplemented by readings that see the play's inconsistent or discomfiting moments as pointed subversions of its superficially positive portrayal of the Duke's (and James') competence and authority.3

In light of recent critical interest in literary texts' ideological orthodoxy or subversion, it is not surprising that historical readings of Measure for Measure have emerged, along with treatments of the play's perennially vexed generic status, as the most popular approaches to the play.4 Given their popularity, however, it is all the more surprising how infrequently the two approaches have been brought together in efforts to account for Measure for Measure's troubling aspects. While New Historicism has emphasized the need to pay close attention to a text's social and cultural contexts, it has been slower to recognize the importance of literary contexts and to explore the complicated cultural work of literary forms.5 Accordingly, attempts to historicize Measure for Measure's ambiguous formal status or to study the role of generic conventions in the play's indeterminate ideological work have been rare. Readings that do address both formal and historical issues tend to treat the play as an unproblematic example of a given genre and its cultural function; in so doing, they ignore or dismiss the play's history of ideological and generic undecidability.6

In what follows, I will argue that a closer examination of the interrelations between form and ideology in Measure for Measure reveals that the play is neither a straightforward nor a flawed nor a subversive instantiation of any single generic or ideological structure. Instead, like the period in which it was written, Measure for Measure is marked by the juxtaposition of two incompatible ideologies and their related dramatic forms. The play begins as a romantic comedy, but at the end of the second act both its ideological perspective and its formal structure undergo a metamorphosis; from this point on the play proceeds to its conclusion in accordance with the form and ideas of the disguised monarch play. This generic shift in medias res is not, however, entirely successful—and its failure is at the root of the play's notorious contradictions, incongruities, and frustrated expectations, which are the result not of the play's subversive intent, but of the conflicting imperatives of two genres fundamentally different in form and ideological function.


In 1603-1604, the likely years of Measure for Measure's composition, England after years of anticipation and anxiety finally saw the accession of its new king, James I. While the peaceful transition from Elizabeth to James was for the most part greeted with an enthusiasm born of relief, it was also the occasion of some unease, the nature and source of which is suggested in a remark of Sir John Harington's occasioned by one of James' first acts as monarch, the hanging of a thief captured during the new king's initial progress to London:

Here now wyll I reste my troublede mynde, and tende my sheepe like an Arcadian swayne, that hath loste his faire mistresse; for in soothe, I have loste the beste and faireste love that ever shepherde knew, even my gracious Queene; and sith my goode mistresse is gone, I shall not hastily put forthe for a new master. I heare oure new Kynge hathe hangede one man before he was tryede; 'tis strangely done: now if the wynde blowethe thus, why may not a man be tryed before he hathe offended.7

Harington's lament neatly captures the rhetoric of romance with which Elizabeth figured her relation to her subjects, as well as the importance of conventional literary depictions of women to that rhetoric. At the same time, Harington's observation concerning the new king—its pointed question notably unblunted by rhetorical or literary conceits—voices both the perceived contrast between James and Elizabeth and the skepticism that such a juxtaposition of lost mistress and new master could inspire.

The gendered iconography invoked by Harington in his eulogistic description of Elizabeth had a long and complicated history. From the earliest days of her reign, Elizabeth was faced with the problem of defining and justifying herself as a female ruler. In doing so she adapted to her own needs two familiar elements of royalist ideology: the doctrines of divine right and the king's two bodies. Based on the argument that as God's earthly lieutenant the monarch was granted undivided sovereignty over his kingdom, the doctrine of divine right was instrumental in Henry VIII's break from the Church of Rome; Elizabeth used this divine authorization to defend her authority not only against the Pope, but also against the unease caused by a female monarch in a patriarchal culture.8 She did so in part by adapting the theory of the king's two bodies, which distinguished between the ruler's mortal “body natural” and the immortal and infallible “body politic” that passed upon the demise of the monarch to the body natural of the new ruler.9 Developed to protect the dignity and authority of the crown against the illness, minority, death, or other incapacity of its individual wearers, the concept was also used by Elizabeth to shield herself from the perceived incapacity of her gender. By locating feminine weakness in her body natural and distinguishing it from her divinely-empowered (and implicitly male) body politic, she was able both to acknowledge the conventional gender theory of her day and to segregate it from her political authority.10

But in addition to invoking the body natural only in order to distance herself from its insufficiencies, Elizabeth was also able in certain situations to emphasize and exploit her gender, turning a potential liability to political profit. The cultural associations of her female body—tender-heartedness, fickleness, physical and mental weakness—provided Elizabeth with a persona that could be foregrounded in situations in which eliciting sympathetic cooperation might be more effective than demanding obedience, and scapegoated in situations requiring unpopular political action or inaction. At the same time, an accompanying invocation of the body politic insisted on the omnipresent royal power that enabled such a risky representational gambit, reminding its audience that the queen is not (merely) what she pretends to be. In a 1575 response to parliamentary urgings that she marry and settle the succession, Elizabeth figured herself as a milkmaid:

if I wear a milke maide with a paile on my arme, whearby my private person might be litle sett by, I wolde not forsake that poore and single state, to matche with the greatest monarche. … Yet, for yowr behalfe, there is no waie so difficulte, that maie towche my privat person, which I will not well content my selffe to take; and, in this case, as willinglie to spoile myselffe of my selffe, as if I sholde put of f my upper garment when it weryes me, if the present state might not therbie be encombred.11

By locating the source of her resistance in a private persona—sympathetically presented as a conventionai figure of female innocence—she displaced responsibility for her notorious temporizing. At the same time, the depiction of this private self as external and inessential, an “upper garment” to be removed at will, assured her subjects that behind the timid milkmaid stood the responsible politician.

Elizabeth, of course, never did “put off” her resistance to matrimony. As hopes for the queen's literal marriage faded, they were replaced by a figurative national romance in which Elizabeth was the unattainable object of desire. Pastoral allegory flourished along with the rhetorics of courtly and Petrarchan love, providing Elizabeth with a series of conventional feminine personae distinct from her powerful body politic. By shifting attention and responsibility from the body politic to a fantasy version of the body natural, Elizabeth's rhetoric of romance worked to mystify or displace the exercise of power, containing and managing political conflict by recasting it as courtship.12 When the economic and political difficulties of the 1590s put increasing pressure on her political authority, Elizabeth's response was thus twofold. On the one hand, she continued to reinforce the crown's divine-right powers both legally and ideologically.13 On the other, she continued to employ the rhetoric of romance to construct a relationship with her subjects based not on power but on reciprocal love. In the “Golden Speech” of 1601, delivered to a parliamentary delegation in the wake of a bitter conflict over monopolies, she acknowledged her feminine weakness, only to balance it with a recompense equally rooted in gender difference: “though you have had and may have many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had nor shall have any that will be more careful and loving.” Yet even in this sentimental apotheosis of the feminine power of love, we find a reminder of the divinely-ordained royal authority that lies behind it: the speech continues, “Shall I ascribe anything to myself and my sexly weakness? I were not worthy to live then; and, of all, most unworthy of the mercies I have had from God, who hath given me a heart that yet never feared any foreign or home enemy.”14 Three years after her death, Harington recalled the success of Elizabeth's rhetorical strategy:

Her speech did winne all affections, and hir subjectes did trye to shewe all love to hir commandes; for she woude saye, 'hir state did require her to commande, what she knew hir people woude willingely do from their owne love to hir. Herein she did shewe hir wysdome fullie: for who did chuse to lose hir confidence; or who woude wythholde a shewe of love and obedience, when their Sovereign said it was their own choice, and not hir compulsion? Surely she did plaie well hir tables to gain obedience thus wythout constraint: again, she coude pute forthe suche alteracions, when obedience was lackinge, as lefte no doubtynges whose daughter she was.15

Love and compulsion, body natural and body politic, shepherdess and imperial monarch—Elizabeth's reign was in many ways built on her ability to maintain a productive tension between such oppositions, using the former to mystify, defer, or displace—but never entirely conceal—the latter.

The success of Elizabeth's representational strategies despite the mounting problems of her last years was at least partly due to their familiarity; by the end of her forty-five year reign the Virgin Queen had achieved a unique status at the center of the national mythology. Her successor, of course, lacked this advantage. Much of what the English public knew of James's political philosophy was gleaned from his two major political treatises, The Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598) and the Basilikon Doron (1599), each reprinted in England in 1603. Both texts are firmly grounded in a divine-right theory of sovereignty in which the king is to be obeyed as God's anointed earthly representative.16 Despite the ground gained by divine-right theory in Elizabeth's last decade, however, James's philosophy of governance was viewed with trepidation by some in the English political community, who feared for their rights in the face of what seemed like the threat of absolutism.17 In part, the problem may have been contextual: Elizabeth's notion of divine right was derived from her father's and she shared his skill in shaping its specifically English articulation and application; James's treatises, on the other hand, were written in and for a Scottish context and derived largely from late sixteenth-century continental divine-right theory.18 Perhaps more important, however, were the iconographic means by which the two monarchs presented their concepts of divine right. Its careful acknowledgment and justification of an exceptional femininity no longer necessary, the Elizabethan construction of the Virgin Queen was superseded under James by a more conventional patriarchal ideology which exploited the analogical equivalence of God, king, and father: “Monarchie is the trew paterne of Diuinitie. … Kings are called Gods … because they sit vpon GOD his Throne in the earth,” James wrote in The Trew Law; and “By the Law of Nature the King becomes a naturall Father to all his Lieges at his Coronation.”19 Moreover, while Elizabeth's gender encouraged her to exploit personae strategically different from her male body politic, James's personal status as a husband and father required no such division. Instead, the new king's political ideology asserted the unity of his personal and political selves, emphasizing that the king's God-given sovereign powers were both innate and unique to his person, and could be neither appropriated nor delegated. Consequently, while Elizabeth often relied on the displacement of authority and responsibility, James insisted at least in theory on a high level of personal legal and political authority. In a tract on the royal prerogative written not long after James's accession, his chief legal officer Lord Chancellor Ellesmere articulated the king's position:

The absolute prerogative which is in Kings according to therie private will and Judgment, Cannot be executed by therie subjecte. … For the King in that he is the Substitute of god imediatelie; the father of his people; and the head of the Common wealth; hath by participation with God, and with his Subjectes, a discretion, Judgment, and feeling of love towardes those over whome he raigneth, onelie proper to himselfe, and his place and person; whoe seeing he Cannot into others infuse the wisdome, power, and guifts which God in respect of his place and Charge hath enabled him with all, Can neither subordinate any other judge to governe by that knowledge which the King can noe otherwaies then by his knowne will participate unto him.20

When contrasted with Elizabeths' strategic distancing of her two bodies, James's rhetorical linking of royal prerogative and private will, “place and person,” signalled a significant difference in political strategy and ideology. And while James's patriarchal construction of his divine authority might in itself seem unremarkable, its juxtaposition with the memory of Elizabeth's self-consciously feminized rule could provoke a troubling cultural dissonance—especially when used to read the sort of personal exercise of power described by Harington. The assumptions and expectations set in place by England's “faire mistresse” may well have left many uncertain about their “new master.”


This change in the way the crown represented its own authority produced a correspondent change in the way that royal authority was represented on the contemporary stage. The last decade of Elizabeth's reign witnessed the maturation of Shakespearean romantic comedy, with the production of such plays as A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and All's Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare's comedies of this period participated in the representation of royal power as indirect or distanced from itself through their structural reliance on the largely passive authority of their dukes and kings and the correspondingly active agency of their lovers. In the typical plot the monarch, often after establishing his authority in an appearance early in the play, is absent or ineffective as the hero and especially the heroine overcome the obstacles to their marriage “naturally”—that is, without recourse to royal fiat. In so doing, they also often provide a “magical” (or ideological) resolution to an intractable political or social problem—the conflict between love and law in Dream, the inequities of primogeniture in As You Like It—that the monarch cannot or will not solve. The resolution commonly takes place in a pastoral “green world” distinct from the political world presided over by the monarch; only after the couple has been united does the ruler reappear to ratify their union, resolve lingering technicalities, and reassert the primacy of the now-harmonious political realm. Even Shakespeare's most active romantic comedy ruler, Duke Theseus, is unable to resolve the legal and romantic difficulties of Dream's couples, forcing them to flee to the pastoral-mythological domain of Oberon and Titania to untangle their mismatched desires before he can grant their arrangements the royal imprimatur.21

A central element of Elizabeth's displacement of political agency was, of course, her exploitation of the different genders of the queen's two bodies; this strategy is reflected and reinforced by romantic comedy's pointed juxtaposition of male monarchs and charismatic heroines.22 In the romantic impotence of Twelfth Night's Duke Orsino and his reliance on Viola as intermediary; the deference of The Merchant of Venice's Duke to Portia in Antonio's trial; and the failure of the King of France to provide All's Well's Helena with anything more than a pro forma marriage which she must herself convert to a genuine relationship, romantic comedy mystifies royal power by displacing agency from the authority of the play's male ruler to the wit and resourcefulness of its central female character, while still supporting her actions with (and containing them within) the monarch's institutional authority. This reflection of Elizabeth's self-representational strategy does not by any means comprise the whole of Shakespearean romantic comedy's cultural work, and the form's generic reflection of royalist ideology does not prevent its individual manifestations from complicating, challenging, or subverting that ideology. It may, however, help us to understand the genre's fundamental connection to a specific set of cultural circumstances.

The changes in those circumstances brought about by James's accession were accompanied by an effort to find a dramatic form suited to the new situation; the result was a series of plays reflecting the more direct style and philosophy of governance suggested by James's writings and early political acts. Commonly gathered under the rubric of the “disguised monarch play,” the group includes John Marston's The Fawn (c. 1604) and The Malcontent (1603-1604), John Day's Law Tricks (1604), and Thomas Middleton's Phoenix (1603-1604); the form was short-lived, disappearing after Edward Sharpham's The Fleire (1606).23 In these plays, the monarch's power is neither displaced nor mystified but instead placed at the center of the dramatic action. Rather than giving place to a charismatic heroine after his initial appearance, the monarch dons a disguise in order to pass unrecognized amongst his subjects, and in so doing remains the play's focal point. The ruler's masquerade allows him to observe the character and conduct not only of his subjects but also of those who rule in his absence: in its course he learns—often through his discomfiture and humilitation—that the vices of the former and the corruption or incompetence of the latter are such that only the wisdom and authority of the rightful monarch can assure justice and properly govern the realm. Thus, rather than mystifying the ruler's direct exercise of power, the delegation of authority to a (failed) surrogate emphasizes the necessity of the ruler's personal fiat. Moreover, the play's focus on the process by which the ruler comes to recognize the inadequacy of delegated authority presents the monarch as acquiescing to rather than insisting on his personal sovereignty; in so doing the disguised monarch play not only asserts but also naturalizes this central tenet of Jacobean political doctrine. Having learned his lesson, the still-disguised monarch commences a program of correction that is brought to fruition by his climactic self-revelation: the subsequent apportioning of punishment to the wicked and reward to the good conclusively demonstrates the efficacy of his authority.24

The rapid rise of the disguised monarch comedy exemplifies the interaction between cultural impetus and literary creativity in the construction of a new dramatic form. That construction did not, however, take place on a cultural tabula rasa; neither James's active promulgation of his political philosophy nor the sudden crowding of the London stages with active male monarchs could erase from the English memory the traces of the Virgin Queen and her dramatic counterpart, the romantic comedy heroine. The dissonance between these juxtaposed ideological constructs, and the cultural and political anxiety created by that dissonance, are at the heart of Harington's skeptical comparison of his “faire mistresse” and his “new master.” In what follows, I will argue that Measure for Measure encapsulates this political and generic conflict, and that the resultant ideological and formal schizophrenia can not only account for many of the play's most persistent critical problems, but also help us to understand the complex political climate of the early seventeenth century and the play's role in it.


Formally, Measure for Measure begins as romantic comedy. The Duke's departure precipitates the genre's archetypal situation: the marriage of Claudio and Juliet, already impeded by difficulties over a dowry, is now more seriously hindered by perhaps the most common of romantic comedy obstructions, the rigid requirements of the law. To the rescue comes Claudio's sister Isabella. She is virginal, innocent, and yet—to the surprise and delight of the worldly Lucio—capable when pressed of passion, wisdom and wit: in short, a potential romantic comedy heroine. The stage is set for Isabella in her confrontation with the law's spokesman to save her brother's life and clear the way for his marriage—and in so doing, to awaken the romantic spirit in both herself and her counterpart in cloistered self-denial, Angelo.25 The play's characterization and structural juxtaposition of these four central characters prepare us for the eventual marriage not only of Claudio and Juliet, but of Angelo and Isabella as well, creating a harmonious new community based not on spiritual sterility and legal rigidity but on love and mercy, to be ratified by the Duke upon his return.26

Ideologically too, Measure for Measure proceeds along familiar romantic comedy lines. Condemning the strict enforcement of the law for its obstruction of royal or aristocratic will is common in the genre, as witnessed by the situations of Egeon in The Comedy of Errors and Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The legal-ideological situation in Measure for Measure is most akin, however, to that in The Merchant of Venice. In the latter, the contest between Shylock's insistence on his legally correct but morally abhorrent bond and Portia's advocacy of an extralegal but ultimately just mercy dramatizes the contemporary jurisprudential battle between the common law and equity.27 The Renaissance theory of equity called for the mitigation of the strictures of the law in cases where the law's inevitable generality, its failure to consider specific circumstances, produced evident injustice.28 The power to grant equity inhered in the conscience of the king, but was traditionally delegated to the chancellor, chief judge of England's main court of equity, the Court of Chancery. Equity was a natural ideological correlative for romantic comedy's valorization of Elizabeth's style of governance: mercy and intercession were traits associated with female rulers, and as a form of royal power exercised by a surrogate equity was well suited to the genre's displacement of agency onto its heroines.29

Equity's significance in Measure for Measure's conflict between Angelo and Isabella is quickly established. In deputizing Angelo, the Duke does not assign him the narrow task of enforcing Vienna's “strict statutes and most biting laws” (I.iii.19),30 but instead pointedly gives him the power either to enforce or mitigate the law, making him a proxy for the royal conscience as well as the royal will:

Hold therefore, Angelo:
In our remove be thou at full ourself.
Mortality and mercy in Vienna
Live in thy tongue and heart … Your scope is as mine own,
So to enforce or qualify the laws
As to your soul seems good.

(I.ii.42-45, 64-66)31

But while the terms of Angelo's commission emphasize his equitable authority, his treatment of Claudio and Juliet quickly makes clear the Deputy's own quite different jurisprudential philosophy. The couple is united by “a true contract” (I.ii.145) or, in the language of English marriage law, a sponsalia per verba de praesenti: a betrothal creating the same legal commitment as a marriage, but still requiring the ecclesiastical benediction of a public ceremony. In order to encourage the fulfillment of this final obligation, consummation of a de praesenti contract prior to the wedding itself was considered fornication, which was both sinful and illegal. Consequently, because they “do the denunciation lack / Of outward order” (I.ii.148-49), Claudio and Juliet have technically violated the law against fornication that Angelo has revivified. Angelo invokes this “heavy sense” (I.iv.65) of the law in arresting and sentencing Claudio; like Shylock, he “follows close the rigor of the statute” (I.iv.67), enforcing the letter of the law strictly and impartially.32

Claudio, however, is no Lucio, and Juliet no Kate Keepdown; in light of the disputed dowry, the precontract, and the obvious remedy of marriage (even the stringent Isabella immediately suggests “O, let him marry her” I.iv.49), the application of the strict letter of the law to their situation is clearly as unjust as it is legal. Claudio's predicament, like Antonio's in The Merchant of Venice, would seem designed to affirm precisely what Angelo's interpretation of his commission would deny: the necessity of equity's power to qualify the strict impartiality of the common law upon consideration of specific mitigating circumstances. The case for equity is presented initially by Escalus, who argues that Claudio's good family (he “had a most noble father” II.i.7), his otherwise blameless character, and the inequity of the law's inability to distinguish between an overeager bridegroom and a habitual felon (“Some run from brakes of ice and answer none, / And some condemned for a fault alone” II.i.39-40) require Angelo to exercise the equitable power given him by the Duke. By refusing to do so, Angelo becomes a figure of the inflexibility of the common law.33

Measure for Measure's ideological advocacy of equity and its generic movement towards marriage are connected thematically by the concept of empathy, or putting oneself in the place of another, which is crucial both to the romantic conversion of Isabella and Angelo and to the recognition of the special mitigating circumstances that are the basis of equity. The importance of empathy to the play, and especially to its theory of judgment, is suggested by the Biblical source of the play's title: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shal be judged, and with what measure ye mette, it shal be measured to you againe” (Geneva Bible, Matthew 7:1-2). As the other characters see it, Angelo's legal intransigence and his romantic unresponsiveness are linked by his lack of empathy. The connection is first suggested by Lucio when, in explaining Angelo's strict application of the law against fornication, he characterizes the Deputy as “a man whose blood / Is very snowbroth; one who never feels / The wanton stings and motions of the sense” (I.iv.57-59). The importance of empathy to a good judge's ability to offer discretionary mitigation is at the heart of Escalus' argument for equity, as he entreats Angelo to:

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


Angelo's response—“The Jury, passing on the prisoner's life, / May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two / Guiltier than him they try” (II.i.18-21)—replaces the judge-centered equity court with the common law's jury system, in which the impartiality of the letter of the law takes precedence over the empathetic responses of the individuals who administer it. This rigid impartiality is at the heart of Angelo's conclusive rejection of both empathy and equity:

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


The stage is thus set for Isabella to stir in Angelo a passion akin to Claudio's for Juliet, and in so doing to show him the need for equitable mitigation of the (com)passionless law.


The otherwise consistent romantic comedy movement of Measure for Measure's opening acts is disrupted, however, by a scene between two characters not involved in the romance plot, the Duke and Friar Thomas (I.iii). The intrusion is particularly evident in that while the scene's primary function is not dramatic but expository, the information that it reveals—the Duke's disguised presence in Vienna and the reasons for it—is unnecessary to the development of the romantic comedy. The scene's function will not become clear to the audience until the second half of the play; for while its revelations add little to the romantic comedy plot, they provide the groundwork for the disguised monarch plot, introducing the Duke's plan to learn about and reform his kingdom. But however necessary to prepare us for his role later in the play, the Duke's heterogeneous presence in the romantic comedy plot initiates the clash of competing generic expectations at the heart of many critical dissatisfactions with the first half of the play.

The problem is encapsulated in the Duke's explanation of his actions to Friar Thomas, which is in fact two explanations, one appropriate to each plot. The Duke's first explanation—his desire to take advantage of Angelo's “stricture and firm abstinence” (I.iii.12) to revivify Vienna's lapsed laws without making himself seem a tyrant—is often taken as evidence of his unseemly Machiavellianism.34 Read with the hindsight of one who had discovered the play's still nascent disguised monarch structure, this may well be so: the Duke is the central figure in the disguised monarch play, and his personal virtue and responsibility as a ruler are among its central concerns.35 But read in the context of romantic comedy—which to this point the play still is—the Duke is a figure of considerably less importance, his motives less subject to examination. In this light his desire to make use of Angelo can be seen purely diegetically, as a means of absenting the Duke and at the same time introducing Angelo's severity, upon which the romance plot depends. The connection of this first explanation to the romantic comedy plot—and its inappropriateness to the disguised monarch plot—is further underlined by the disappearance of the Duke's efforts to revivify the laws in the second half of the play, a disappearance often cited as evidence of the Duke's inadequacy or duplicity.36

While sufficient for the limited needs of the romantic comedy plot, however, the Duke's first explanation is not adequate to the requirements of the disguised monarch story: his desire to have Angelo enforce the law in his place does not sufficiently motivate his plan to stay in Vienna and “visit both prince and people” in the guise of a friar (I.iii.45). To justify this fundamental element of the disguised monarch plot, the Duke belatedly offers his second explanation, his suspicion of the very reputation for rectitude that led him to choose Angelo as his deputy: “hence shall we see / If power change purpose: what our seemers be” (I.iii.53-54). The Duke's qualified presentation of this explanation, his implication that it cannot be completed until later—“More reasons for this action / At our more leisure shall I render you” (I.iii.48-49)—suggests its misplacement within the romantic comedy plot, a suggestion confirmed by critical reaction. A number of critics have seen the Duke's supervisory presence in Vienna as reducing the gravity of the confrontation between the romance plot's chief antagonists, Isabella and Angelo.37 While this may be true in a romantic comedy context, however, the Duke's presence is not only appropriate but necessary in a disguised monarch play, in which the relationship between Isabella and Angelo is secondary to the education of the Duke. Critics have also taken the Duke to task for “setting up” Angelo, placing him in a position for which he suspects him to be unsuited in the expectation that the deputy will prove to be other than he seems.38 In the disguised monarch genre the exposure and humiliation of the villain (usually the usurper of the monarch's rightful power) is central to the action of the play; yet in the play's initial generic context, Angelo is—at this point at least—neither usurper nor deliberate villain, but simply a man doing the job assigned to him by the Duke.39 His entrapment makes the Duke appear unbefittingly meddlesome and duplicitous for a romantic comedy ruler.


Despite this unsettling moment of generic disruption, the climax of the play's first movement, Isabella's first interview with Angelo, proceeds in accordance with the formal conventions of romantic comedy and their ideological correlative in the law/equity conflict. At Lucio's behest, Isabella finds herself in the unwonted position of arguing for equitable mercy in the face of Angelo's rigid common-law stance (II.ii.29-31). In the process, the two disputants rehearse a number of the standard topoi of the law/equity debate. Isabella invokes the jurisprudential distinction at the heart of the conflict, between the statutory criminalization of an act (the domain of the common law) and the consideration of the individual actor and his circumstances (the corrective function of equity): “I have a brother is condemned to die; / I do beseech you let it be his fault, / And not my brother” (II.ii.34-36). Angelo offers the common lawyer's typical response, that such a method of judgment undermines the authority of the law itself:

Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it?
Why, every fault's condemn'd ere it be done.
Mine were the very cipher of a function,
To fine the faults whose fine stands in record,
And let go by the actor.


Despite the logical power of Angelo's common-law arguments, the ideological and emotional heart of the scene belongs to Isabella. Her impassioned speeches linking equitable discretion, royal power, and divine justice are reminiscent of Portia's “quality of mercy” speech, which depicts equitable mercy as rooted in the monarch's divinely-inspired conscience, and thus as superior to mere earthly law. The dispensing of equity, Isabella argues, is both the right and the obligation of the monarch or his authorized subordinates:

No ceremony that to great ones 'longs,
Not the king's crown, nor the deputed sword,
The marshal's truncheon, nor the judge's robe,
Becomes them with one half so good a grace
As mercy does.


Angelo, despite the terms of his commission, refuses to admit the discretionary authority of any individual over the necessary impartiality of the law, and denies the power that Isabella attributes to him: “It is the law, not I, condemn your brother. / Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son, / It should be thus with him” (II.ii.80-82). In response, Isabella explicitly invokes the argument implicit throughout their confrontation, the need for empathy to inspire equity:

Go to your bosom,
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That's like my brother's fault. If it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother's life.


Angelo knocks, and finds in his heart not only the “natural guiltiness” inspired by Isabella's passionate argument but also the authority that she has attributed to him, which he acknowledges in promising to consider her plea.

With this acknowledgment, however, the play's ideological significance begins to shift. While Angelo considers all that Isabella has stirred in him, the issue of equity's superiority to the common law gives way to the question of the nature and qualities of the individual who wields power over the law. Their first interview closes with the suggestion that Angelo has been swayed by Isabella's plea for empathy-inspired equity, albeit by a means that she did not anticipate (but that a reader familiar with the conventions of romantic comedy may well have): “O, let her brother live! / Thieves for their robbery have authority / When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her … ?” (II.ii.174-76). As their second interview indicates, however, the power that Angelo takes up is not the deputed power to mitigate the law's injustices, but rather the monarch's absolute power to shape the law to his will. When Isabella's arrival is announced, Angelo's comparison of the blood rushing to his heart to the thronging of an “obsequious” crowd around a “well-wish'd king” (II.iv.27-28) metaphorically anticipates his revised view of his own authority.41 While earlier he insisted that “It is the law, not I, condemn your brother,” here he boasts that he is “now the voice of the recorded law” (II.iv.61), echoing James's frequent designation of himself as “lex loquens,” or “the speaking Law.”42 But while James presented the rightful king's exercise of his prerogative power over the law as limited by “the health of the commonwealth,”43 Angelo, having “given his sensual race the rein” (II.iv.160), knows no such limitation. The bargain he offers Isabella dramatizes the danger of placing such power in the wrong hands: “O perilous mouths,” she laments in the scene's concluding soliloquy,

That bear in them one and the self-same tongue,
Either of condemnation or approof,
Bidding the law make curtsy to their will,
Hooking both right and wrong to th' appetite,
To follow as it draws!


By the end of Act II, Angelo has metamorphosed from a symbol of the inflexibility of the common law to a self-proclaimed tyrant (II.iv.169) who holds a power over the law that he is morally unsuited to wield.

This shift in ideological emphasis initiates the play's formal transformation as well. The change in Angelo's legal function displaces the role of his opponent and foil from Isabella, the advocate of equity, to the Duke, the exemplar of the true monarch's proper use of power. This change of protagonists takes place during the prison scene that begins Act III. Act II concludes with Isabella's vow to tell her brother of Angelo's perfidy; at this point the conventions of romantic comedy have prepared us to expect the imperiled but resourceful Isabella to formulate a plan, perhaps with Claudio's help, to save her brother and herself by converting Angelo to the cause of marriage and mercy. But Act III opens with the arrival at the prison not of Isabella but of the disguised Duke, who arranges to overhear the ensuing exchange. When Isabella does arrive, her confrontation with the condemned Claudio quickly degenerates to an impasse—at which point the Duke enters bearing a design worthy of a romantic comedy heroine (and in fact used by Shakespeare's previous heroine, All's Well's Helena): the bed-trick. From this point forward, it is the Duke who dictates and dominates the action, effectively collapsing the separation between protagonist and monarch by which romantic comedy dramatized the difference between the king's two bodies and replacing it with a dramatic demonstration of the inseparability of the ruler and his authority.

This structural shift maks the generic transition from romantic comedy to disguised monarch play. The transition, however, is not a smooth one. Numerous critics have noted a tonal shift at this point in the play, seeing the Duke's abrupt commandeering of the situation as undermining the seriousness of the conflict between Isabella and Angelo, as well as the decisions faced by Isabella and Claudio.44 Certainly if read according to the rubric of romantic comedy, this is true; with the shift to the disguised monarch genre, however, Isabella, Claudio, and even Angelo become relatively minor characters in the Duke's story, and the gravity and psychological depth of their situations becomes correspondingly less important relative to the demonstration of the Duke's virtue and ability. Having put one set of generic expectations in motion, however, the play is unable to shift to another without the sort of dissonance produced here. As the play switches genres, the romantic comedy structure of the first half and the expectations it creates are set aside but never defused or dismantled. As a result, even more than in the isolated generic disruption of I.iii, from this point of transition forward the frustrations and contradictions resulting from the simultaneous presence of two conflicting sets of formal and ideological imperatives will become increasingly evident. And while many of the play's persistent critical problems can be accounted for by the presence of the often-overlooked conventions of the disguised monarch play in what is usually read as a romantic comedy, our awareness of those conventions can only explain, but not eliminate, Measure for Measure's dissatisfactions.


With the play's new genre and ideology comes a correspondent transformation of the thematic touchstone that links them. Along with his plan to save Claudio, the Duke presents a guiding principle for the bearer of supreme legal authority that is related to, but significantly different from, the empathy that is to guide the equitable judge. In dictating that a judge consider equitable mercy for those who commit crimes which under similar circumstances the judge himself might be tempted to commit, empathy posits “some feeling for the sport” (as Lucio puts it at III.ii.119) as a valuable quality in deciding whether the law is unjustly severe. But what is acceptable in a judge under the oversight of a king is inappropriate in the king himself, whose power over the law extends beyond circumstantial mitigation to wholesale creation or abrogation. Given that the authority of the divine-right monarch is located in his person, it is imperative to the integrity of his rule that, like the equity judge, he avoid the hypocrisy of condemning another for a deed he has himself committed. But while the judge who mitigates the law may have certain “crotchets” of his own to inspire his empathetic mercy, the king under whose authority that law is created and enforced must not. As the divinely-appointed leader of his people, the king must present a model of virtuous behavior, both to guide his subjects and to justify his punishment of them if they stray:

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-offenses weighing.
Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kills for faults of his own liking!


In this light, the Biblical passage that lends the play its title becomes not an injunction to leniency and fellow-feeling but an exhortation to maintain the strictest standards of moral behavior.

At the heart of this principle of monarchical exemplarity is the theory of kingship expounded by James in his Basilikon Doron. The ruler's exemplary virtue, he tells Prince Henry, is necessitated by his absolute authority, and both share a common source: his status as God's earthly deputy. The first book, “Of a Kings Christian Duetie Towards God,” begins:

As he cannot be thought worthy to rule and command others, that cannot rule and dantone his owne proper affections and unreasonable appetites, so can hee not be thought worthie to governe a Christian people, knowing and fearing God, that in his owne person and heart, feareth not and loveth not the Divine Majestie. … Therefore (my Sonne) first of all things, learne to know and love that God, whom-to ye have a double obligation; first, for that he made you a man; and next, for that he made you a little GOD to sit on his Throne, and rule over other men. Remember, that as in dignitie hee hath erected you above others, so ought ye in thankfulness towards him, goe as farre beyond others. A moate in anothers eye, is a beame in yours: … any sinne that ye commit, not being a single sinne procuring but the fall of one; but being an exemplare sinne, and therefore drawing with it the whole multitude to be guiltie of the same.


The common foundation of this passage and the Duke's principle of monarchical behavior is indicated by James's reference to Matthew 7:3, the verse immediately following the source of Measure for Measure's title (“And why seest thou the mote, that is in thy brothers eye, and perceivest not the beame that is in thine owne eye?”). Shakespeare's real and fictional monarchs both seem to apply to themselves the rigorous, rather than the lenient, interpretation of the Biblical injunction on judgment. By foregrounding the Duke's principle in its disguised monarch plot, Measure for Measure supplants both common law and equity with James's own divinely-inspired virtue as the state's supreme measure of justice.

The unique importance of the monarch's virtue is illustrated in the Duke's discomfiting confrontation with Lucio in III.ii. In ascribing to the Duke the foibles, and consequent leniency, that he would have in Angelo—“he knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy” (III.ii. 119-20)—Lucio conjures a dystopia in which a moral vacuum at the head of the state presages not equitable mercy but social chaos, where lechery, drunkenness, and impiety are the norm. It is not surprising, then, that in the wake of Lucio's slander the Duke pauses to reestablish his own virtue before encapsulating his theory of proper rule in the soliloquy quoted above. The Duke's critics have suggested that his probing of Escalus indicates a vanity and sensitivity unbecoming in a ruler; but in the context of the principle of rule elucidated in the scene, the audience's need for an assurance of the Duke's fitness makes his line of questioning understandable.

The principle of royal juridical action with which the Duke replaces empathetic equity is thus twofold: (1) the ruler may not punish any man for crimes he has himself committed, and consequently, (2) he must be virtuous enough to limit adequately the behavior of his subjects. It is by these criteria that Angelo will be judged and found wanting, thereby fulfilling the Duke's chief task as disguised monarch hero, the exposure and punishment of the usurper. Angelo has shown himself to lack the ruler's necessary virtue through his proposition to Isabella, and the Duke responds with the bed-trick. By substituting Mariana for Isabella, the Duke would make the deputy liable for the same recompense that true justice demands of Claudio: marriage to the woman he has deflowered.45 But while the bed-trick punishes Angelo's violation of one half of the Duke's principle, its success depends on his fidelity to the other—that Angelo will not put someone else to death “for faults of his own liking.” This assumption is the basis of the Duke's confidence in Claudio's pardon on the heels of Angelo's assignation with Mariana: “This is his pardon, purchas'd by such sin / For which the pardoner himself is in” (IV.ii. 108-10). The subsequent discovery that the document in question is not Claudio's pardon but a warrant for his immediate execution exposes the true extent of Angelo's villainy and his complete lack of fitness as a ruler. The scene's emphasis on the Duke's expectation and its sudden betrayal makes Angelo's duplicity seem all the more egregious.46

Like Lucio's slander and the Duke's response in III.ii, the juxtaposition of the Duke's confident assurances of Claudio's safety with their abrupt contradiction has frequently been taken to indicate the play's subversion of the Duke's authority.47 Aside from their role in foregrounding the importance of the Duke's principle, however, incidents of this sort are necessary to the ideological trajectory of the disguised monarch form. The genre's naturalization of royalist ideology as social and metaphysical necessity requires the dramatization of the disguised monarch's recognition that only his own unique wisdom and authority can restore and maintain his kingdom. The Duke's unsettling series of encounters with Lucio, the Provost, and Barnardine prods him—and with him, at least in theory, the audience—to that realization. His response to Angelo's duplicity in IV.ii illustrates the process: upon discovering the extent of his deputy's malfeasance, the Duke replaces the romantic comdy deceit of the bed-trick with a direct exercise of power available only to himself. When the Provost balks at the “Friar's” plan to switch Barnardine for Claudio, citing his oath to obey not only the Duke but his “substitutes” as well, the Duke offers him “not a resemblance but a certainty” of his true ruler's desire: the unique “hand and seal of the Duke” (IV.ii.188, 192). But to playgoers unfamiliar with the still-developing conventions of the disguised monarch play (or to critics not looking for them), the Duke's situation may appear in a different light. Those accustomed to romantic comedy's less prominent, more static rulers may see the foregrounding of the Duke's discomfiture as a pointed humiliation rather than as part of his character development, and his explicit exercise of sovereign power as a sign of his unseemly interference rather than an illustration of the inseparability of the divine monarch's person and power.48 In this way, the romantic comedy structure of the play's first two acts creates expectations that may obscure the movement of the disguised monarch plot and disrupt its ideological efficacy.49


The disguised monarch movement of the play's second half culminates in the trial scene. To call the proceedings of the last act a trial is, however, something of a misnomer: for while the play's legal critics have debated at length what—if anything—Angelo is guilty of under laws both intra- and extradiegetic, the principle of judgment in the final act is neither strict law nor equitable mercy but the Duke's standard of monarchical virtue. The function of Angelo's trial is not to punish him for his legal misdeeds but to use the discovery of his malfeasance to demonstrate and justify the authority of the true ruler.

The way in which Isabella presents her story to the Duke suggests that the focus of this juridical confrontation is to be different from that of Act II.ii, which was the ideological center of the play's romantic comedy movement. The debate between strict law and equitable mercy in the persons of Angelo and Isabella that was the heart of the latter scene is set aside as “needless process”; instead, the focus of Isabella's description is the encounter's “vild conclusion” (V.i.92, 95):

He would not, but by gift of my chaste body
To his concupiscible intemperate lust,
Release my brother; and after much debatement,
My sisterly remorse confutes mine honor,
And I did yield to him; but the next morn betimes,
His purpose surfeiting, he sends a warrant
For my poor brother's head.


It is this pair of offenses that the scene continues to emphasize: not the original condemnation of Claudio for which Isabella upbraided Angelo in the play's first half, but instead his abuse of power in the monstrous bargain struck with Isabella and the subsequent treachery of Claudio's execution. The connection of these transgressions to the thematic concerns of the play's disguised monarch movement is immediately underlined by the Duke in his ironic defense of Angelo. The deputy's two purported outrages are doubly unbelievable because they violate both of the tenets of the Duke's principle, the ruler's necessary virtue and his forbearance from punishing another for a crime he has himself committed:

First, his integrity
Stands without blemish: next, it imports no reason
That with such vehemency he should pursue
Faults proper to himself. If he had so offended, He would have weigh'd thy brother by himself,
And not have cut him off.


These are the standards by which Angelo is to be judged, and his violations of them are the “crimes” for which he will be sentenced. His technical innocence—despite his intent—of both Isabella's violation and Claudio's wrongful death is irrelevant to his culpability for the violation of the extralegal tenets of proper rule.50

Because the Duke's purpose in arranging Angelo's trial is not to discover his legal innocence or guilt but to expose his unfitness to rule, before proceeding to judgment the Duke sets up a situation in which Angelo is allowed to demonstrate his deficiencies publicly.51 The injustice that ensues when the Duke leaves Angelo to be “judge / Of his own cause” (V.i.166-67) demonstrates the inadequacy of all subordinate officers, whether corrupt (Angelo) or well-intentioned (Escalus), to the complex demands of justice. The travesty of legal procedure culminates when the Duke enters as Friar Lodowick and is threatened with torture for speaking what he and the audience know to be the truth: that only the Duke can offer true justice, and that in ceding the reins of justice to his deputies, he has in fact been unjust (V.i.297-303). With the arrest of Friar Lodowick, the situation has degenerated to an impasse that can be resolved only by the climactic revelation of the Duke's identity, restoring the link between justice and the ruler inherent in the person of the Duke. Appropriately, it is left to Angelo to articulate the ideological message that has been implicit throughout the scene:

O my dread lord,
I should be guiltier that my guiltiness, To think I can be undiscernible,
When I perceive your Grace, like pow'r divine,
Hath look'd upon my passes.


Only the true monarch, by virtue of his divine deputation, has access to the wisdom and power necessary to provide true justice.

The nature of this justice is set forth in the Duke's treatment of Angelo. The disgraced deputy's punishment is to be twofold, in accordance with his offenses. The first, his violation of Mariana, is a transgression of the law against fornication; it is satisfied, however, not according to the terms of the law but by the Duke's administration of the equitable justice that Angelo refused to Claudio. But when the newly-married Angelo returns we are quickly reminded that equitable mitigation of the common law is not the central issue at stake in the Duke's judgment. The transgressions he lists in his second indictment of Angelo—the monstrous proposition to Isabella and the subsequent order for Claudio's execution—are violations not of the law, but of the Duke's principle of proper rule. The Duke explains to Isabella:

For this new-married man approaching here,
Whose salt imagination yet hath wrong'd
Your well-defended honor, you must pardon
For Mariana's sake; but as he adjudg'd your brother—Being criminal in double violation
Of sacred chastity and of promise-breach, Thereon dependent, for your brother's life—The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!”


Angelo's first violation of the Duke's principle, the lack of virtue evinced in his affront to Isabella, has been balanced by his rescue of Mariana's virtue. His second, however, the execution of Claudio for fornication despite both his promise to do otherwise and his own violation of the same law, can only be answered by death: having enforced such a penalty against one of his subjects, Angelo can satisfy the Duke's rule only by being subject to it himself.

Having clarified the principle of justice governing Angelo's trial, the play proceeds to demonstrate the superiority of that principle by contrasting its results with those of both law and equity. The exchange in which Isabella joins Mariana to plead for Angelo's life has traditionally been read as demonstrating Isabella's newfound understanding of empathy and mercy, the final step in her preparation for the full social integration affirmed by her marriage to the Duke.52 Such readings rely on the assumptions of romantic comedy, in which the plot's resolution is effected by the action of the heroine, clearing the way for her marriage.53 To read the conclusion of Measure for Measure in this way, however, is to ignore both the legal content and the dramatic context of Isabella's plea: for her appeal is not to mercy but to law, and its result is not joyful acquiescence but abrupt rejection. Neither Mariana nor Isabella pleads for the unconditional Christian mercy that critics have sought in the play's conclusion;54 instead, they offer legal arguments which in their obvious inadequacy prepare us for the play's true lesson—a lesson less about the mercy at the heart of romantic comedy than the authority at the center of the disguised monarch play.

The exchange begins with Mariana's plea. After the Duke sentences Angelo according to the principle of proper monarchical behavior, Mariana offers an alternative principle by which to determine her husband's fate: the equitable consideration of mitigating circumstances. She contends that both the expiation and the responsibility that accompany Angelo's newly-married status merit the preservation of his life: “O my most gracious lord, / I hope you will not mock me with a husband!” (V.i.416-17). Her plea, though moving, is clearly unsupportable: as the Duke has already indicated, while equitable mercy allows Angelo to pay for his violation of Mariana with marriage rather than death, that marriage does not answer for Angelo's greater offense, the execution of Claudio. Having safeguarded her honor by marrying her to Angelo, the Duke now offers her the more material benefit of Angelo's estate (V.i.419-25); but in light of his other transgressions, to spare Angelo would produce not equitable justice but clear injustice.

To answer for Angelo's execution of Claudio, Mariana turns for help to the victim's sister (V.i.430). Isabella's assent seems to indicate the empathy which was so lacking in her interview with Claudio. Indeed, her initial appeal to the Duke suggests that she understands not only the love that motivates Mariana but the desire that tempted both Angelo and Claudio: “I partly think / A due sincerity governed his deeds, / Till he did look on me. Since it is so, / Let him not die” (V.i.445-48). This suggestion is undermined, however, by the remainder of Isabella's plea, which is based on neither empathy nor equity, but on a narrow application of a fundamental principle of the common law, that intent is not legally actionable:55

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


Isabella's legal argument is, of course, specious: while Angelo did not achieve his “bad intent” with her, he has still committed fornication with Mariana, and thus is as guilty as Claudio. Furthermore, even if we assume—as perhaps Isabella does—that Angelo's marriage to Mariana exempts him from the law's requirement that he die for her violation, it does not absolve him of the death of Claudio, for which he is condemned not by the law but by a higher moral standard. Given the nature of Angelo's crimes, neither Isabella's law nor Mariana's equity can save his life and at the same time satisfy the demands of justice. Only after decisively rejecting the two women's arguments—“Your suit's unprofitable; stand up, I say” (V.i.455)—does the Duke reveal that Claudio still lives, and thus so too may Angelo. The lesson of the Duke's carefully staged drama is clear: only the true monarch can provide justice, not by granting unjustifiable mercy but by exercising his unique powers in order to prevent wrongdoing. By demonstrating the Duke's wisdom and virtue in such dramatic form, the play makes its case for the ruler's personal, extralegal power as the state's supreme authority.


The undisguised ruler's extralegal but ultimately just resolution of an unjust situation provides the disguised monarch play with its formal and ideological climax; there remains only the final distribution of punishments and rewards through which the genre confirms the value of monarchical authority and effects its formal closure. It is here, however, that Measure for Measure's unresolved generic duality proves most disruptive. Approaching its conclusion with two operative sets of conventional requirements, the play attempts to fulfill both and succeeds in neither, and the resultant frustration of expectations is at the root of the overwhelming critical dissatisfaction, both formal and ideological, with the play's ending.

The ideological schizophrenia of the play's conclusion is clearest in the contradictory array of sentences handed down by the Duke, which satisfy neither those anticipating the confirmation of the true monarch's authority through his just distribution of rewards and punishments, nor those expecting the renewal and expansion of romantic comedy's community through the granting of equitable mercy. While Claudio's miraculous appearance rescues Angelo from justice's requirement of “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death,” both the Duke's principle and the conventions of the disguised monarch play dictate that Angelo pay for his abuse of the Duke's authority. But instead, the mercy and social reintegration required by romantic comedy frustrate the punishment of the usurper that conventionally concludes the disguised monarch play. Angelo's fate suits his role as misguided judge and naive antiromantic in the play's first half, but in so doing leaves unpunished his actions as the duplicitous tyrant of the second half.56 Conversely, the Duke's treatment of Lucio has to some seemed inappropriately harsh. If his punishment—marriage to the prostitute who bore his child—seems equitable in the fashion of Claudio's marriage to Juliet and Angelo's to Mariana, its impetus suggests otherwise. Turning to Lucio after pardoning Angelo, the Duke takes him to task not for his sexual transgressions but for his slander: “You, sirrah, that knew me for a fool, a coward …” (V.i.500ff). When Lucio objects to his enforced marriage, the Duke makes his motivation explicit: “Slandering a prince deserves it” (V.i.524). As the Duke's final act before his closing speech, this reinforcement of the ruler's moral and political authority accords with the requirements of the disguised monarch play, particularly in light of Measure for Measure's emphasis on the connection between the ruler's exemplary virtue and his authority. But in doing so it sounds a punitive and repressive note incompatible with romantic comedy's expected celebration of mercy and forgiveness.

The explicitly punitive nature of Lucio's marriage also emphasizes a more general formal conflict in Measure for Measure's problematic closure. The conventional romantic comedy plot is initiated by the obstruction of mutual romantic desire; the goal of the action is the removal of the obstruction and the liberation of desire, formally confirmed and celebrated in the marriage of the lovers. In the disguised monarch plot, however, the situation is much the opposite: set in motion by an excess of liberty, the action moves towards the necessary limitation of that liberty by the monarch. While romantic comedy is predicated upon its concluding matches being based on the will and actions of the participants rather than the monarch, the disguised monarch comedy is founded on the necessity of the monarch's intervention. In shifting its focus from the union of Claudio and Juliet (and the more speculative but also more intriguing union of Isabella and Angelo) to the prevention of Angelo's (and to a lesser extent Lucio's) excesses, Measure for Measure absorbs two conflicting formal imperatives.57 The result is the play's notoriously unsatisfactory marriages: unions that represent not the removal but the imposition of restraint, and that celebrate not freedom but authority. Not only the marriage of Lucio and Kate, but also that of Angelo and Mariana, is clearly both coerced and punitive; even the play's initial match, the only one motivated by mutual desire, is absorbed within the Duke's authoritarian fiat as he commands the play's original felon, “She, Claudio, that you wrong'd, look you restore” (V.i.525). Even the play's most obvious analogue in the juxtaposition of marriage and authority, A Midsummer Night's Dream, depicts Theseus overruling Egeus in order to allow the couples to marry as they wish; only in Measure for Measure does a ruler use his authority to compel the marriages of his subjects.58 The result, as many critics have observed, is a conclusion that produces neither the celebratory tone nor the harmonious community typical of romantic comedy's conventional matrimonial closure.59

This copting of a romantic comedy convention for the ideological ends of the disguised monarch genre also undermines Measure for Measure's effectiveness as a disguised monarch play. Several critics have noted that while the forced marriages reassert the Duke's authority, their lack of mutuality calls into question their long-term effectiveness as a means of restoring order in Vienna, as Lucio's fear of cuckoldry suggests (V.i.514-17).60 The conflict between romantic commedy's formal conventions and the ideological work of the disguised monarch genre is most notable, however, in the (proposed) marriage of the Duke and Isabella. From the first lines of the disguised monarch plot's introduction when the Duke assures Friar Thomas, “Believe not that the dribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom” (I.iii.1-2), to the denial of his own sexual appetite in his confrontation with Lucio (III.ii.121-22), Measure for Measure makes clear that the Duke is a facilitator rather than a participant in the play's romantic and sexual intrigues.61 As a result, his proposal to Isabella is both unanticipated and characterologically unmotivated; it undermines the Duke's carefully cultivated image as an austere giver of justice in order to include him in romantic comedy's matrimonial imperative. The proposal's awkwardness, and the origin of that awkwardness in the play's generic conflict, are underlined by Isabella's failure to reply. In the context of the disguised monarch play's emphasis on the Duke's authority, her silence may be read to suggest that her response goes without saying; that she, like the others (Lucio excepted), recognizes the Duke's right and ability to act in everyone's best interest. Judged by the standards of romantic comedy's emphasis on mutual agreement, however, her silence may be taken to suggest the proposed marriage's lack of mutuality and thereby taint the Duke with the same sexual coercion for which Angelo is condemned.62

As the union of holy virgin and divine patriarch; of romantic comedy heroine and disguised monarch hero; of a character whose function has been superseded and one whose role is new enough to be easily misunderstood, the marriage of Isabella and the Duke is in many ways emblematic of Measure for Measure itself. Not the least of the parallels between marriage and play is the problematic status they share, their composition awkward and unsettling, their closure ambiguous, and their ultimate success debatable. But while recognizing the play as a marriage of convenience between two incompatible genres helps us to understand the source of its notorious critical dissatisfactions, it leaves us with the question with which we began, that of their significance. If, as I have argued, the play's problems can be explained but not explained away, we are left with the choice faced by the play's recent formalist and historicist critics: is Measure for Measure flawed or subversive? Each option has its difficulties. To argue that the play is flawed is to swallow an unpalatable conclusion even in today's atmosphere of critical iconoclasm, and to beg the question why?: why would a dramatist who was unarguably a master craftsman at the height of his productive powers suddenly and temporarily lose control of his craft? To argue that the play is subversive is also to raise the question why?: why would a playwright with a new royal patron (the Lord Chamberlain's Men became the King's Men in 1603, and Measure for Measure was performed at court in December of 1604) risk antagonizing that patron so early in his reign? Numerous answers have, of course, been offered to both of these questions; especially, in recent years, to the latter. Rather than choosing one side or another, I would like to suggest that a historical understanding of the play's problematic generic and ideological situation offers if not a third alternative then at least a middle ground. Measure for Measure is, in fact, a flawed play—flawed less because of the failure of its author's powers than because of its precarious historical position, written at a moment of political and literary transition in which old forms and ideas were no longer useful and new ones were still coming into being. Measure for Measure is also, however, a potentially subversive play—subversive not as a result of its author's intentions, but because of the dissonance created by its unsuccessful melding of ideologies and genres, a dissonance that existed not only in the play but in the culture as a whole. The juxtaposition in a single cultural moment of two incompatible constructions of political reality makes possible a potentially demystifying ideological clash; the formal and thematic presence of those ideologies in a single text only increases the chances of contradictions which reveal the inadequacy of either or both. The dissatisfaction and unease generated by these contradictions would seem to be at the heart of much recent criticism of Measure for Measure; a similar reaction from a contemporary audience—one much more sensitive to the nuanced connections between the politics and theater of the time—seems even more probable. Read in this light, Measure for Measure tells us less about the politics of its author than about the fragile political situation early in James's reign and the origin of the ideological conflicts that helped shape the first half of the seventeenth century in England.


  1. On this division and its history, see Jean Howard, “Measure for Measure and the Restraints of Convention,” Essays in Literature 10 (1983): 149-58, especially p. 149.

  2. In “The Difficulties of Closure: An Approach to the Problematic in Shakespearean Comedy,” in Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan, ed. A. R. Braunmuller and J. C. Bulman (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1986), 113-28, as well as the essay cited above in note 1, Jean Howard offers this sort of reading as an alternative to those that see the play as either flawed or unproblematic. For other arguments of this type, see Richard S. Ide, “Shakespeare's Revisionism: Homiletic Tragicomedy and the Ending of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 105-27; and Robert N. Watson, “False Immortality in Measure for Measure: Comic Means, Tragic Ends,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 411-32.

  3. For some versions of this very popular mode of argument, see Louise Schleiner, “Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure,PMLA 97 (1982): 227-36; Stephen Greenblatt, “Martial Law in the Land of Cockaigne,” in Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), 129-63; Anthony Dawson, “Measure for Measure, New Historicism, and Theatrical Power,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 328-41; and Craig A. Bernthal, “Staging Justice: James I and the Trial Scenes of Measure for Measure,SEL [Studies in English Literature] 32 (1992): 247-69.

  4. In addition to Greenblatt, other New Historicist and cultural materialist studies of the play include Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 230-39; Leonard Tennenhouse, “Representing Power: Measure for Measure in Its Time,” in The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt; Genre 15 (1982): 139-56; Stephen Mullaney, The Place of the Stage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 88-115; and Jonathan Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 72-87.

  5. I have discussed New Historicism's aversion to applying its critical techniques to questions of literary form in “New Historicism and Genre: Towards a Historical Formalism,” REAL 11 (1995): 405-23. On the need to historicize the analysis of form, see also Heather Dubrow's A Happier Eden: The Politics of Marriage in the Stuart Epithalamium (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), in which she calls for a “new formalism that can view aesthetic issues as related, not inimical, to history … and can explore the dynamic interplay between aesthetic decisions and social conditions” (268-69). Dubrow's own work in A Happier Eden as well as Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995) offers excellent examples of this “new formalism.”

  6. Like the connection between genre and new historical reading in general, the effort to link form and ideology in Measure for Measure had a promising beginning: Tennenhouse's “Representing Power” was published in the special issue of Genre in which Greenblatt first used the term “New Historicism” to describe the emerging critical practice, and in which he emphasized attention to genre as an important aspect of that practice (Introduction, 6). Since then, however, aside from Tennenhouse's reworking of his ideas in his book-length study of Shakespeare's genres, Power on Display (New York: Methuen, 1986), 154-59, the only rigorous attempt to historicize the play's generic status of which I am aware is Ivo Kamps's “Ruling Fantasies and the Fantasies of Rule: The Phoenix and Measure for Measure,Studies in Philology 92 (1995): 248-73.

  7. Sir John Harington, Nugae Antiquae (London, 1804), vol. I, 180. My discussion of this passage as a marker of political and ideological transition is indebted to Mullaney's The Place of the Stage, 105. For evidence that Harington was not alone in his anxiety about the new king's intentions, see note 17 below.

  8. On Henry VIII's invocation of the doctrine of divine right and its subsequent use by Elizabeth and James, see John Guy, “The ‘Imperial Crown and the Liberty of the Subject: The English Constitution from Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights,” in Court, Country and Culture, ed. Bonnelyn Kunze and Dwight D. Brautigam (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1992), 65-87. For a detailed treatment of the difficulties faced by Elizabeth because of her gender, see Carole Levin, “The Heart and Stomach of a King”: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).

  9. See Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).

  10. In a 1563 speech to the Commons Elizabeth explained that “The weight and greatenes of this matter might cawse in me being a woman wantinge both witt and memory some feare to speake, and bashfulnes besides, a thing appropriat to my sex: But yet the princely seate and kingly throne, wherein God, (though unworthy) hath constituted me, maketh these two causes to seme litle in myne eyes.” The speech is quoted and discussed in Allison Heisch, “Queen Elizabeth I: Parliamentary Rhetoric and the Exercise of Power,” Signs 1 (1975): 34-35. Other recent discussions of Elizabeth's use of the doctrine of the king's two bodies to counter the problems caused by her gender include Levin 122-23; Helen Hackett, Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen: Elizabeth I and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: St. Martin's, 1995), 40-41; and Leah Marcus, “Shakespeare's Comic Heroines, Elizabeth I, and the Political Uses of Androgyny,” in Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. Mary Beth Rose (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986), 138-39. All three discuss the queen's gendering of her political self as male, though Levin notes that the practice was not consistent.

  11. Elizabeth's speech is reproduced in Harington, 125.

  12. For a more detailed treatment of the often conflicting uses of pastoral/courtly rhetoric by Elizabeth and her courtiers, see Louis Montrose, ‘“Eliza, Queene of shepheardes, and the Pastoral of Power,” ELR [English Literary Renaissance] 10 (1980): 153-82; Catherine Bates, The Rhetoric of Courtship in Elizabethan Language and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); and Philippa Berry, Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen (London: Routledge, 1989).

  13. John Guy describes the ascendency of divine-right sovereignty over the mixed polity theory of government in political and legal thought during the 1590s; the pivotal decision was in Cawdrey's Case (1591), which used divine-right theory to affirm Elizabeth's authority over the church courts—and, by extension, over the entire English legal system. See “The Elizabethan Establishment and the Ecclesiastical Polity,” in The Reign of Elizabeth I: Court and Culture in the Last Decade, ed. John Guy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 126-49. For a nuanced reading of one of Elizabeth's late deployments of divine-right iconography, see Daniel Fischlin, “Political Allegory, Absolutist Ideology, and the ‘Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I,” Renaissance Quarterly 50 (1997): 175-206.

  14. The complete speech is reproduced in J. E. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 1584-1601 (New York: Norton, 1966), 388-91.

  15. Letter to Robert Markham, Nugae Antiquae, 355-56. Harington does not refer specifically to the Golden Speech, but to Elizabeth's governance in general.

  16. “Out of the lawe of God,” James explained in the Trew Law, “the duetie, and alleageance of the people to their lawfull king, their obedience, I say, ought to be to him, as to God's Lieutenant in earth, obeying his commands in all thing.” In The Political Works of James I, ed. Charles Howard McIlwain (New York: Russell & Russell, 1965), 61.

  17. Just over a year after James's arrival, a discontented minority in the House of Commons would complain in the Form of Apology and Satisfaction that “What cause we your poor Commons have to watch over our privileges is manifest in itself to all men. The prerogatives of princes may easily and do daily grow; the privileges of the subject are for the most part at an everlasting stand.” In Constitutional Documents of the Reign of James I, ed. J. R. Tanner (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1961), 222. In a persuasive series of articles, Jenny Wormald has argued that James and his political writings were misinterpreted by his new subjects: see “James VI and I: Two Kings or One?” History 68 (1983): 187-209; “Eclesiastical Vitriol: The Kirk, the Puritans and the Future King of England,” in The Reign of Elizabeth I, 171-91; and “James VI and I, Basilikon Doron and The Trew Law of Free Monarchies: The Scottish Context and the English Translation,” in The Mental World of the Jacobean Court, ed. Linda Levy Peck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 36-54.

  18. See Wormald, “James VI and I, Basilikon Doron and The Trew Law of Free Monarchies,” 38-43, 48.

  19. Ibid., 54,55. The English populace recognized—and in many cases anticipated—the iconographic shift: many of the dual-purpose poems lamenting the death of Elizabeth and celebrating the accession of James described the transition through paired opposites like mother/father, moon/sun (Phoebe/Phoebus), and “Mayden-Queene”/“manly King.” (All three examples are cited in Hackett, 220.) On the importance of patriarchal rhetoric to James's divine-right claims, see J. P. Sommerville, Politics and Ideology in England, 1603-1640 (London: Longman, 1986), 27-34.

  20. “A Coppie of a Written Discourse by the Lord Chauncellor Elsemore Concerning the Royall Prerogative” (c. 1604), reprinted in Law and Politics in Jacobean England: The Tracts of Lord Chancellor Ellesmere, ed. Louis A. Knafla (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 197-98. In contrast, while the judges' decision in Cawdrey's Case (see n. 13 above) was no less an assertion of the monarch's divine right, the case itself concerned Elizabeth's power to authorize others (in this instance, the judges of the Court of High Commission) to act.

  21. While the use of pastoral mythology locates Dream within the rubric of romantic comedy's structural mystification of royal authority, the formal dynamic is only one part of the play's complicated representation of Elizabethan gender and power. For a fuller treatment of that representation, see Montrose, “Shaping Fantasies.” For a discussion of the royal/ducal figure and its relation to genre that emphasizes Theseus' active role in the play, see Douglas Bruster, “Comedy and Control: Shakespeare and the Plautine Poeta,” Comparative Drama 24 (1990): 217-31.

  22. In “Shakespeare's Comic Heroines,” Leah Marcus locates the interplay between the queen's two bodies within Shakespeare's androgynous, cross-dressing heroines themselves. The two possibilities are, of course, not mutually exclusive.

  23. For discussions of earlier plays that may have been precursors to the mature form, as well as analyses of the relations of Marston and Middleton's plays to Measure for Measure, see Rosalind Miles, The Problem of “Measure for Measure”: A Historical Investigation (London: Vision Press, 1976), 125-60; and Thomas A. Pendleton, “Shakespeare's Disguised Duke Play: Middleton, Marston, and the Sources of Measure for Measure,” in “Fanned and Winnowed Opinions”: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, ed. John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton (New York: Methuen, 1987), 79-98.

  24. For other readings of the royalist politics of the disguised monarch play, see Tennenhouse and Kamps. For an alternative perspective, see Albert Tricomi's reading of the genre as anticourt (though not necessarily anti-James) in his Anticourt Drama in England, 1603-1642 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989), 13-24. Tennenhouse and Kamps discuss Measure for Measure at length; Tricomi does not.

  25. The motif of the resolutely anti-romantic couple being awakened to their own mutual desire in the process of facilitating the marriage of loved ones had of course already been employed by Shakespeare in Much Ado about Nothing.

  26. This is, in fact, precisely what happens in Shakespeare's principal source for Measure for Measure, George Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra (1578), in which Cassandra does give her body to Promos, and later marries him. Virtually all of Shakespeare's significant alterations of his source materials help facilitate the play's shift from romantic comedy to disguised monarch play; see, for example, note 51 below. On the general relationship between Measure for Measure and Promos and Cassandra, see Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. II (London: Routledge, 1963), 399-417.

  27. On the contest between common law and equity in The Merchant of Venice and its relation to the growing socioeconomic conflict between the parliamentary gentry and the crown, see Stephen Cohen, ‘“The Quality of Mercy: Law, Equity and Ideology in The Merchant of Venice,Mosaic 27. 4 (Dec. 1994): 35-54.

  28. Renaissance legal scholars traced their concept of equity to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which defines the equitable as “not the legally just but a correction of legal justice. … When the law speaks universally … and a case arises on it which is not covered by the universal statement, then it is right, where the legislator fails us and has erred by oversimplicity, to correct the omission.” The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, trans. David Ross (London: Oxford University Press, 1925; repr. 1971), book V, sec. 10. On Tudor equity and its Aristotelian roots, see Christopher St. German, Doctor and Student (London, 1530), ed. T. F. T. Plucknett and J. L. Barton (London: Selden Society, 1974), 95-101; and William Lambarde, Archeion (London, 1635; written c. 1591), ed. Charles H. McIlwain and Paul L. Ward (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), 43-44.

  29. On the gender-specific nature of Elizabeth's association with mercy, see Hackett 168-74. Like love, mercy was a “power” that a female monarch could emphasize as compensation for her lack of traditionally masculine virtues.

  30. All references to Shakespeare's plays are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  31. This was, in theory, precisely the power granted to the chancellor by the English monarch. Compare John Cowell's Interpreter (1607), which defines the “Chancelor” as “the cheife man for mater of justice … next unto the prince. For whereas all other Justices in our common wealth, are tied to the lawe, and may not swerve from it in judgement: the Chancelor hath in this the kings absolute power, to moderate and temper the written lawe, and subjecteth himselfe onely to the lawe of nature and conscience.” (N2r).

  32. For the application of English marriage law to Measure for Measure's complex web of promises and betrothals, see Ernest Schanzer, “The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 13 (1960): 81-89. Recent critics have noted that English marriage law at the beginning of the seventeenth century was complex to the point of undecidability, even (or perhaps especially) for those living under it: see Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 171-75; and Victoria Hayne, “Performing Social Practice: The Example of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (1993): 1-29. Hayne argues convincingly that despite the confusion, Shakespeare's audience would have found Angelo's insistence on the strict letter of the law to be in conflict with the more lenient social norm on marital matters.

  33. In chapter 4 of Puzzling Shakespeare, Marcus also identifies Angelo as a representative of the common law, though without exploring the broader implications of the terms of his commission. The conflict between “local” common law and “unlocalized” legal jurisdictions associated with or friendly towards royal prerogative (equity, civil, and canon law) is central to Marcus's reading of Measure for Measure in terms of the contest for control of London being played out between local authorities (Angelo as Lord Mayor) and the crown (the Duke as King James). My own reading, on the other hand, sees Isabella as the play's representative of equity, whose role as protagonist is superseded by the Duke as a Jacobean advocate for an extralegal royal prerogative based on the monarch's unique relation to divine right. For the most salient implications of the differences between Marcus's reading and my own, see section 5 of this essay and note 48 below.

  34. See, for example, Gordon Ross Smith, “Renaissance Political Realities and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure,Proceedings of the PMR Conference 7 (1982): 83-92. Smith cites Ben Jonson's disapproving attribution of this stratagem to Machiavelli (cf. Timber par. 91, “Clementia”), and offers its use by the Duke as evidence that the play critiques the Duke's—and James's—political practice (85).

  35. See Kamps, however, who argues that “a ruler who conducts his affairs by means of guile and deception was not nearly as distasteful to Jacobean audiences as it is to us” (257).

  36. See Bernthal, 264, and Terrell L. Tebbetts, “Talking Back to the King: Measure for Measure and the Basilicon Doron,College Literature 12 (1985): 130-31.

  37. See Michael Goldman, “Comic Expectation in Measure for Measure,” in Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 164-65; and Herbert Weil, Jr., “Form and Contexts in Measure for Measure,Critical Quarterly 12 (1970): 58.

  38. Tebbetts, for example, uses this argument as evidence for his contention that the play critiques James and his use of power (129).

  39. It is unclear whether the Duke at this point knows of Angelo's treatment of Mariana; the audience, however, certainly does not, and attempts to read a hint to that effect into the Duke's cryptic comment to Angelo that “There is a kind of character in thy life, / That to th'observer doth thy history / Fully unfold” (I.i.27-29) are surely based on hindsight.

  40. Compare Portia's speech:.

    But mercy is above this sceptred sway, It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God's When mercy seasons justice.

    (Merchant of Venice, IV.i. 193-97).

  41. David L. Stevenson, in “The Role of James I in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure,ELH 26 (1959): 188-208, sees Angelo's metaphor as a sympathetic reference to James's own reputed dislike of crowds (see also I.i.68-73); he notes that the metaphor itself, however, is “strained” (194). I would suggest that the awkwardness of the figure reflects the inappropriateness of Angelo's royal ambitions.

  42. “For you all know, that Rex est lex loquens; and you have oft heard mee say, That the Kings will and intention being the speaking Law, ought to bee Luce clarius” (“A Speach to Both the Houses of Parliament, Delivered in the Great Chamber at White-Hall, the Last Day of March 1607,” in McIlwain, 291). See also Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare, 178, which refers to the same passage (n. 29).

  43. “For albeit it be trew … that the King is above the law, as both the author and giver of strength thereto; yet a good king will not onely delight to rule his subjects by the lawe, but even will conforme himselfe in his owne actions thereuneto, alwaies keeping that ground, that the health of the common-wealth be his chief lawe” (Trew Law, 63).

  44. See E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950), 118-38; Richard Fly, Shakespeare's Mediated World (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976), 77-79; Howard, “Restraints,” 151, and “Difficulities,” 120. In the latter, Howard suggests that the awkwardness of the transition may lead us to question the play's generic status; she also notes that the Duke usurps the function of the conventional romantic comedy heroine (122). But in neither instance does she identify the cause as a shift from one genre to another.

  45. Schanzer (“Marriage Contracts,” 86) notes that fornication would render the de futuro contract (or “pre-contract”; see IV.i. 71) between Angelo and Mariana as binding as the de praesenti contract between Claudio and Juliet. The fact that the fornication arranged and advocated by the Duke is illegal only emphasizes the necessity of a ruler whose power allows him to violate the strictures of the law to achieve true justice.

  46. The effect is compounded by our own lack of preparation for the deceit. We have last seen Angelo in II.iv reaffirming his offer of Claudio's life for Isabella's chastity; his self-serving decision to do otherwise is dramatized only in retrospect at IV.iv.20-34.

  47. See, for example, Goldman, 168-70; or A. M. Potter, “The Problem of Form and the Role of the Duke in Measure for Measure,Theoria 69 (1987): 46.

  48. Similarly, though she does not discuss issues of genre, Marcus's identification of the Duke with equity and canon law rather than an extralegal personal fiat leads her to read his technically illegal use of the bed-trick and, later, the immediate forced marriage of Angelo and Isabella as unjustified arrogations of power that contemporary audiences might have found troubling (Puzzling Shakespeare 182).

  49. It is worth noting that the two critics who have treated Measure for Measure as a disguised monarch comedy from a historical perspective, Tennenhouse and Kamps, have read the play as supportive rather than subversive of James. Tennenhouse says little about the Duke's troubles in Acts III and IV; Kamps argues that they are less evidence of the Duke's ineptitude than opportunities for him to demonstrate his ability to overcome unexpected adversity (265).

  50. Even if—as all but the Duke and the Provost believe—Angelo's order of execution had been carried out, it would not constitute a violation of the law. Claudio is guilty of the crime with which he is charged, and its lawful penalty is death, regardless of the motivation of his sentencer.

  51. Shakespeare's intent here is suggested by his alteration of the play's source. In Promos and Cassandra, after deputizing Promos, King Corvinus plays no part in the ensuing action; consequently, although the audience knows that Andrugio is alive, the concluding trial over which Corvinus presides functions as a genuine inquiry on his part into Promos's guilt. The Duke's behind-the-scenes, extralegal manipulation of Measure for Measure's trial, like his orchestration of the bed- and head-tricks, is Shakespeare's invention.

  52. See, for example, David Bevington's introduction to Measure for Measure in his Complete Works of Shakespeare, 3rd ed. (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1980), 465-66.

  53. This is the case in the probable source of both Measure for Measure and Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra. Cinthio's tale of Juriste and Epitia, in which Epitia's forgiving her new husband Juriste, who has both deceitfully seduced her and ordered her brother slain, inspires the Emperor to pardon Juriste and Juriste to vow to cherish his new wife. See Giraldi Cinthio, Hecatommithi (1565), decade 8, novella 5, in Bullough, 420-30.

  54. See, for example, Ronald Berman, “Shakespeare and the Law,” Shakespeare Quarterly 18 (1967): 141-50; or John W. Dickinson, “Renaissance Equity and Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 287-97.

  55. For this argument, see Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), 101-4.

  56. For a similar response to Angelo's fate, see Oscar James Campbell's chapter on Measure for Measure in his Shakespeare's Satire (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1963), 121-41.

  57. Tennenhouse describes this formal conflict in “Representing Power,” 147. While I see the conflict of genres as playing out over the course of Measure for Measure, however, Tennenhouse reads the play as a disguised monarch play throughout, and localizes the conflict in the use of romantic comedy's martial convention in the last act.

  58. For the comparison of Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night's Dream, see Philip C. McGuire, “Silence and Genre: The Example of Measure for Measure,” Iowa State Journal of Research 59.3 (Feb. 1985): 247. In All's Well That Ends Well, the King of France forces Bertram to marry Helena, yet the marriage occurs not at the end of the play but in the second act, and the greater part of the play's action is devoted to Helena's efforts to turn her hollow marriage into a real one.

  59. See Howard, “Restraints,” 156; and McGuire, passim. McGuire argues that the play's comic closure is called into question by the new couples' silence, their failure either to express love for each other or to thank the Duke, with the boisterous objections of Lucio being the exception that proves the rule. I would add that this silence, while atypical in romantic comedy, is entirely in keeping with the emphasis on the ruler's authority as the “last word” in the disguised monarch play.

  60. See Bernthal, 264; and Weil, 69.

  61. This abstention is typical of the disguised monarch play: in The Phoenix, Prince Phoenix facilitates the marriage of his friend Fidelio but remains single himself; in The Fawn, Duke Hercules sends his son Tiberio to woo Dulcimel in his name in hopes that Tiberio will himself wed her; and in The Malcontent, Duke Altofronto is already married, his wife functioning primarily as a paradigm of virtue in the face of the usurper's designs upon her.

  62. If we do read the proposal in this way, we still cannot, as some critics do, entirely equate the conduct of Angelo and the Duke: Isabella never refuses the Duke's proposal, nor does he imply that she will suffer if she does. The unanswered proposal is unsettling, but not conclusively damning. For a nuanced reading of the relation between Isabella's silence, her potential coercion, and the audience's dissatisfaction, see Laura Lunger Knoppers, “(En) gendering Shame: Measure for Measure and the Spectacles of Power,” ELR 23 (1993): 450-71, especially 470-71.

George L. Geckle (essay date spring 1971)

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SOURCE: Geckle, George L. “Shakespeare's Isabella.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 2 (spring 1971): 163-68.

[In the following essay, Geckle addresses Measure for Measure as a problem play, focusing specifically on the character of Isabella.]

Since critics are generally persistent in terming Measure for Measure a “problem play,” it is useful to designate exactly what the problems are. These cover a wide range of issues, such as the relationships between government and morality, law and justice, and mercy and justice, the dramatic structure and genre of the play, and the attitudes and actions of the play's various characters. In terms of the play's major figures probably more absurd statements have been made regarding Isabella than practically any other Shakespearian character, with the notable exception of Hamlet. It is Isabella who stands out today as Measure for Measure's greatest critical “problem.”

This problem of Isabella derives from the fact that a consensus has been taking shape over the years, an inaccurate, critically untenable consensus. It is based upon two stages of critical development: first, a great number of major critics have disapproved of Isabella; secondly, certain events and speeches in the play have been distorted to prove that Shakespeare also disapproved of Isabella and, in fact, subtly undercut her position throughout the play.

Samuel Johnson was the first great literary critic to discuss Isabella, and he did so in his customarily judicious manner. Where Isabella berates Claudio in III. i, Johnson says in his notes to Measure for Measure: “In Isabella's declamation there is something harsh, and something forced and far-fetched. But her indignation cannot be thought violent when we consider her not only as a virgin but as a nun.”1 Johnson, in other words, finds extenuating reasons for Isabella's behavior in a scene which Mrs. Charlotte Lennox, a Johnson protégée, had singled out as being proof positive “that Isabella is a mere Vixen in her Virtue.”2

In his Characters of Shakespear's Plays (1817, 2nd edn., 1818), William Hazlitt took a position somewhere in between those of Johnson and Charlotte Lennox: “Neither are we greatly enamoured of Isabella's rigid chastity, though she could not act otherwise than she did. We do not feel the same confidence in the virtue that is ‘sublimely good’ at another's expense, as if it had been put to some less disinterested trial.”3 Hazlitt's oblique reference to the substitution of Mariana in the bed-trick is only one in a long series of critical pronouncements condemning the device.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who called Shakespeare's Measure for Measure “the most painful—say rather, the only painful—part of his genuine works,”4 averred that Isabella “of all Shakespeare's female characters, interests me the least.”5 In a little known comment recorded by J. Payne Collier, we find out that the bed-trick was particularly abhorrent to Coleridge:

In the course of Lectures on Shakespeare delivered in the year 1818, Coleridge pointed especially to the artifice of Isabella, and her seeming consent to the suit of Angelo, as the circumstances which tended to lower the character of the female sex. He then called “Measure for Measure” only the “least agreeable” of Shakespeare's dramas.6

Coleridge is not condemning Isabella for her “rigid chastity” but for her seemingly dispassionate approach to the bed-trick.

Although there were several nineteenth-century critics who took a sentimental, albeit positive, view of Isabella,7 the criticisms of Johnson, Hazlitt, and Coleridge have been raised time and again. First, Isabella is too harsh toward Claudio; secondly, she seems too “rigid” in her chastity; thirdly, she taints herself by her participation in the bed-trick. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch merely elaborates these objections to Isabella in his well-known condemnation of her and concludes “that she is something rancid in her chastity; and, on top of this, not by any means such a saint as she looks. To put it nakedly, she is all for saving her own soul, and she saves it by turning, of a sudden, into a bare procuress.”8 Una Ellis-Fermor likewise echoes Quiller-Couch's sentiments: Isabella's fear of physical violation is an “obsession”; she is “Hard as an icicle”; she has about her “a pitiless, unimaginative, self-absorbed virtue.”9

The critics I have thus far cited have two things in common. They do not like Isabella very much, of course, but more importantly they all feel that the fault of Isabella's unattractiveness rests with Shakespeare. Quiller-Couch, for instance, feels that Isabella is an inconsistent character (p. xxxi). Ellis-Fermor speaks of “the lowest depths of Jacobean negation” (p. 260). Many modern critics, however, have taken a more subtle, sophisticated approach to the problem. They argue that Shakespeare knew what he was about and that he deliberately undercut Isabella throughout Measure for Measure. For example, G. Wilson Knight feels that Isabella is a flawed girl and that she behaves “like a fiend”10 towards Claudio. Knight takes a modern psychological approach to Isabella, an approach similar to Ellis-Fermor's: “Now Claudio has forced the responsibility of choice on her. She cannot sacrifice herself. Her sex inhibitions have been horribly shown her as they are, naked” (p. 102). He concludes: “Chastity is not a sin—but neither, as the play emphasizes, is it the whole of virtue. And she, like the rest, has to find a new wisdom” (p. 103). Isabella's “new wisdom”, of course, involves her plea for the life of Angelo.11 Now, the crucial implication of Knight's line of reasoning is that Isabella should have yielded to Angelo in order to save Claudio. We have come a significant distance from Dr. Johnson's contention that we should “consider her not only as a virgin but as a nun.”

It is the double failure to consider seriously Renaissance ideas about chastity and to accept the total dramatic statement of the play that leads many influential modern critics to a perverse view of Isabella. Following G. Wilson Knight's approach to the play, for example, we find F. R. Leavis arguing that Isabella betrays “in the exalted assertion of her chastity, a kind of sensuality of martyrdom.”12 William Empson feels that Shakespeare “could not quite stomach the old reverence” for virginity exemplified in Isabella.13 D. A. Traversi sees nothing essentially wrong with Isabella's virtue, but her “inexperience” and “false simplicity” are inadequate in the complex moral world in which only the Duke's “understanding is absolute, perfect.”14 Isabella lacks human sympathy, but is taught compassion and compromise by the Duke, argues Donald A. Stauffer.15 Francis Fergusson likewise feels that Isabella is “matured by suffering” and taught the “wisdom of love” by the Duke.16 In a recent study, Ernest Schanzer goes so far as to say that Measure for Measure is a “problem play” essentially because of Isabella's choice of action.17 (I feel that Schanzer comes close to the essence of the play's “problem,” but the “problem” is the critics' view of Isabella, not her own choice of action.) Schanzer feels that Isabella could have yielded to Angelo without risking eternal damnation (p. 100). “Shakespeare keeps his heroine single-minded and free from doubts but his audience divided and wavering” (pp. 108-109).

Even more recently, in what is certain to become a major criticism of Measure for Measure, J. W. Lever argues that Isabella is “learning, not teaching, a lesson in public and private demeanour towards wrong-doers” in her plea for Angelo in Act V.18 Lever agrees with Schanzer that a “compelled” sin would not endanger Isabella's soul. “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” (p. lxxviii).

David Lloyd Stevenson agrees with Lever's view and continually denigrates Isabella in the course of a new full-length study of Measure for Measure. Stevenson's position is illustrated by such statements as the following: “As audience, we feel it is her vanity, her picture of herself as a saint, that she is defending when she cries out, ‘More than our brother is our chastity.’”19 Moreover, when Isabella attacks Claudio, “she is the living antidote to all human charity, to all generous, deeply concerned sympathy and love, Jacobean or twentieth-century” (p. 49).

Now it is because Stevenson and the rest of the above critics are primarily concerned with Isabella from a contemporary and personal, and not a Jacobean, point of view that much of the misreading of her character occurs. The need for historical perspective has, of course, been stressed by W. W. Lawrence, R. W. Chambers, Elizabeth Marie Pope, Mary Lascelles, and Madeleine Doran,20 to name some of Isabella's most convincing defenders. To buttress their arguments and historical evidence, I would refer the reader to such obvious Renaissance defenses of chastity as are found in Spenser's Faerie Queene and Milton's Comus. In addition, such “courtesy” books as Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier and Romei's The Courtiers Academie21 were popular works containing extravagant praise of the virtue of chastity. Works by Lodovic Vives, Sir Thomas Elyot, Dorothy Leigh, and Barnabe Rych22 corroborate the esteem in which chastity was held in Shakespeare's era. Even in Shakespeare's major source for Measure for Measure, George Whetstone's ten-act Promos and Cassandra, the heroine roundly condemns herself once she yields to Promos' lust.23

But Shakespeare's Isabella is a novice and, of course, does not yield to Angelo. Is it possible that Shakespeare's own audience, not to mention a twentieth-century one, would have looked askance at Isabella's choice of her own chastity over her brother's life? We can always fall back upon the New Testament doctrine that Isabella so often alludes to, but no amount of quotation from St. Paul or even from the glosses in the Geneva version of the Bible24 is likely to change the minds of those who dislike Isabella. What is finally most useful and most relevant in interpreting Isabella is the evidence from the play itself.

The key moment in Measure for Measure for most of those who dislike Isabella occurs in III.i where Isabella berates Claudio for his human frailty. Surprisingly, no one who has ever defended Isabella has paid sufficient attention to the Duke's reaction to her castigation of Claudio. Does the Duke, generally acknowledged as the ultimate authority in the play, chastise Isabella for a lack of charity? He does not. On the contrary, he says:

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.184 ff.)25

There is nothing equivocal about the Duke's statement. He says that God has made Isabella both physically attractive (i.e., “fair”) and morally upright (i.e., “good”). In some women physical attractiveness is easily come by (“the goodness26 that is cheap27 in beauty”), but also that very physical attractiveness tends to make those women morally deficient (“makes beauty brief28 in goodness”29). In Isabella, however, a fair exterior reflects a pure interior. Her “complexion,” with the common Renaissance pun on “external appearance” and “temperament or disposition,” is instilled with the Christian virtue of “grace.” The Duke, in short, is expressing the commonplace Neoplatonic doctrine that true physical beauty is a reflection of true spiritual goodness, a doctrine that finds eloquent expression in Castiglione's The Courtier: “And therefore is the outwarde beautie a true signe of the inwarde goodnesse, and in bodies this comelines is imprinted more and lesse (as it were) for a marke of the soule, whereby she is outwardly knowne.”30 Spenser's An Hymne in Honour of Beautie makes the same point poetically: “For of the soule the bodie forme doth take: / For soule is forme, and doth the bodie make. / Therefore, where ever that thou doest behold / A comely corpse [living body], with beautie faire endewed, / Know this for certaine, that the same doth hold / A beauteous soule, with faire conditions thewed, / Fit to receive the seede of vertue strewed” (lines 132-138).31

As for Isabella's subsequent behavior in the play, Shakespeare takes pains, I would argue, to present her in a favorable light. As both E. M. W. Tillyard and Miss Lascelles have pointed out, the Duke makes all of the decisions after his speech to Isabella at III.i.184 ff.32 The fact that Isabella takes part in the bed-trick has given rise to a great deal of scholarly conjecture about types of Elizabethan betrothal contracts, but surely Shakespeare meant his audience to accept the Duke's explanation that “the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof” (III.i.271-272). Shakespeare, in fact, has the Duke repeat his plans and the justification for them twice more (III.ii.291-296 and IV.i.71-76).

A greater problem lies in the question as to whether or not Duke Vincentio is teaching Isabella a lesson during the remainder of the play. We know that the Duke is testing Angelo (I.ii.51-54), but the text of Measure for Measure as we now have it does not support the critical assumption that Isabella is being taught a lesson in charity or anything else. The only point in the play at which the Duke explains his reasons for keeping Isabella ignorant of Claudio's salvation is at IV.iii.111-115:

                                                  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.

It is more than likely that Shakespeare keeps Isabella in ignorance so that he can dramatize the theme of forgiveness in Act V. However, Shakespeare's purpose is not necessarily to be equated with the Duke's. In fact, I would argue that the text of Measure for Measure is more conducive to the supposition that Isabella teaches the Duke, rather than the other way around.

In Act V the Duke, after conducting a spectacular public trial, cries out:

‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still For Measure.


We have no solid textual evidence, although it makes a nice critical generalization, to show us that the Duke is testing Isabella as well as Angelo at this point. It may well be that the Duke truly means to execute Angelo, who is “in double violation / Of sacred chastity and of promise-breach” (V.i.409-10). However, Isabella intercedes for Angelo, “Against all sense” (V.i.438)—and it is after her act of true Christian charity that the Duke produces Claudio and pardons everyone, including Angelo, Barnardine, Claudio, and Lucio.

The Duke may have planned to extend mercy to everyone well before the crucial moment in Act V, but the fact of the matter is that Shakespeare does not inform us as to the Duke's intentions. In its own way, the final revelation in Measure for Measure is as spectacularly dramatic as the one in The Winter's Tale. Moreover, the initial impetus to the denouement comes from the young Isabella. It is Isabella's ability to put into practice in Act V the moral axioms she uttered in the previous scenes that raises Measure for Measure above the level of mere theatrics. Far from treating Isabella ironically, Shakespeare has presented a heroine of superior moral qualities; one who so impresses her sovereign that she elicits a proposal of marriage from him (V.i.540 ff.); one of whom, in fact, it can be said: “The hand that hath made you fair hath made you good.”


  1. Samuel Johnson, ed. The Plays of William Shakespeare. In Eight Volumes (London, 1765), I, 321, n. 5.

  2. Charlotte Lennox, Shakespear Illustrated, I (London, 1753), 32.

  3. William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespear's Plays, in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, IV (London, 1930), 346.

  4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor, 2nd edn. (London, 1960, Everyman's Library Edition), I, 102.

  5. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge's Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor (Cambridge, Mass., 1936), p. 49.

  6. J. Payne Collier, ed. The Works of William Shakespeare (London, 1842), II, 5. Raysor seems to have missed this reference to Coleridge's comment on Isabella. For the reasons behind Coleridge's dislike of Isabella, see my “Coleridge on Measure for Measure,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] XVIII (1967), 71-73.

  7. Mrs. Jameson's effusions are too well-known to bear repeating. See Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical (Philadelphia, 1833), I, 85-99. Other similar critiques are found in the following studies: J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, ed. The Complete Works of Shakspere (London, 1850), I, 137; H. N. Hudson, ed. The Works of Shakespeare, II (Boston, 1851), 15; Charles Knight, Studies of Shakspere (London, 1851), p. 318; F. J. Furnivall, “Introduction” to The Leopold Shakspere (London, 1877), p. lxxiv; Arthur Symons, “Notes and Introduction to Measure for Measure,” in The Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Henry Irving and Frank A. Marshall, V (New York, 1889), 170.

  8. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, “Introduction” to Measure for Measure, ed. Quiller-Couch and J. Dover Wilson (Cambridge, 1922), p. xxx.

  9. U. M. Ellis-Fermor, The Jacobean Drama (London, 1936), p. 262.

  10. G. Wilson Knight, “Measure for Measure and the Gospels,” The Wheel of Fire (London, 1930), p. 102.

  11. Previously, both Walter Pater and Walter Raleigh argued that Isabella develops in the course of the play from a severe to a sympathetic creature. Neither critic felt, however, that Isabella should have sacrificed her chastity. See Walter Pater, Appreciations: With an Essay on Style (London, 1889), p. 184; Walter Raleigh, Shakespeare (New York, 1907), pp. 170-171.

  12. F. R. Leavis, “The Greatness of Measure for Measure,Scrutiny, X (1942), 243.

  13. William Empson, “Sense in Measure for Measure,The Structure of Complex Words (London, 1951), p. 279.

  14. D. A. Traversi, “Measure for Measure,Scrutiny, XI (1942), 47-49, 52.

  15. Donald A. Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images: The Development of His Moral Ideas (New York, 1949), pp. 153-154.

  16. Francis Fergusson, “Philosophy and Theatre in Measure for Measure,KR, XIV (1952), 116.

  17. Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (London, 1963), pp. 106-107.

  18. J. W. Lever, ed. Measure for Measure. The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1965), p. lxxii.

  19. David Lloyd Stevenson, The Achievement of Shakespeare's “Measure for Measure” (Ithaca, N. Y., 1966), p. 45.

  20. See W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York, 1931), passim; R. W. Chambers, “The Jacobean Shakespeare and Measure for Measure,” Annual Shakespeare Lecture of the British Academy, 1937; Elizabeth Marie Pope, “The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure,ShS [Shakespeare Survey] 2 (1949), pp. 66-82; Mary Lascelles, Shakespeare's ‘Measure for Measure’ (London, 1953), passim; Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art: A study of form in Elizabethan drama (Madison, Wis., 1954), passim.

  21. See Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Sir Thomas Hoby (1561), ed. Drayton Henderson (London, 1928, Everyman's Library Edition), p. 223; Count Hanniball Romei, The Courtiers Academie (1585), trans. I [ohn] K [epers] (London, 1598), p. 126.

  22. See Lodovic Vives, The Instruction of a Christen Woman (1538), trans. Richard Hyrde (London?, 1541?), sigs. E1, E4v-F2, L2v-L3; Sir Thomas Elyot, The Defence of Good Women (1540), ed. Edwin Johnston Howard (Oxford, Ohio, 1940), pp. 56-57; Dorothy Leigh, The Mothers Blessing: Or, The godly Counsaile of a Gentle-woman, not long since deceased, left behind her for her Children. 10th edn. (London, 1627), pp. 29-30, 37-38; Barnable Rych, The Excellency of good women (London, 1613), p. 22.

  23. See Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, II (London, 1958), 469, 498.

  24. See esp. 1 Cor. vi: 9-10, 18-19 and the glosses in the Geneva version.

  25. Citations from Shakespeare are from The Complete Works, ed. Hardin Craig (Chicago, 1951).

  26. See OED [Oxford English Dictionary], adj. 3e, where “good” means “satisfactory with regard to beauty.” OED cites Pericles IV.ii.51 for an example.

  27. “Cheap” could mean “costing little labour, trouble, effort, etc.; easily obtained” (OED, adj. 3; Measure for Measure II.iv.105 is cited for an example). “Cheap” could also mean “accounted of small value, made little of, lightly esteemed; esp. brought into contempt through being made too familiar” (OED, adj. 5; 1Henry IV III.ii.41 is cited as an example).

  28. “Brief” here means “of short duration” (OED, adj. 1), as in Measure for Measure II.ii.118.

  29. “Goodness”, when applied to persons, commonly meant “moral excellence, virtue” (OED, 1a; Measure for Measure III.i.215 is cited as an example).

  30. Castiglione, p. 309.

  31. The Complete Poetical Works of Spenser, ed. R. E. Neil Dodge (Cambridge, Mass., 1936), p. 748.

  32. See E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (Toronto, 1949), pp. 134-135; Lascelles, p. 152.

Cynthia Lewis (essay date autumn 1983)

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SOURCE: Lewis, Cynthia. “‘Dark Deeds Darkly Answered’: Duke Vincentio and Judgment in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 34, no. 3 (autumn 1983): 271-89.

[In the following essay, Lewis evaluates the character of the Duke as the means through which Shakespeare examined the imperfections of the monarchy in Measure for Measure.]

Unlike many Shakespearean plays that concern justice and human judgment, Measure for Measure opens with a clear-cut statement of its moral standard, an ideal, of sorts, which Duke Vincentio urges Angelo to achieve:

Mortality and mercy in Vienna
Live in thy tongue and heart.(1)

From the start, the Duke calls for moderation in judgment, for a balance between exact punishment and forgiveness that, throughout the play, will remain a touchstone. Measure for Measure explores both the ultimate possibility of realizing this standard and the extent to which its characters, particularly the Duke, meet such a challenge.


Whether the Duke ultimately reaches his goal to unite strict punishment and mercy is an issue that has evoked as much comment as the means by which he sets out to accomplish it. 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 fundamentally split in tone, structure, and viewpoint. For Hawkins, any effort in Measure to combine law and mercy fails utterly. Moreover, she argues, the Duke's character becomes muddled and unconvincing. He proves contemptibly shallow “by forcing the comic upon the characters and the audience.”2

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 and that, although the Duke's human schemes often fall short of the ideal, he struggles successfully to realize justice—to reform his vice-ridden people by compelling them to repent of their sins.3

At least some critical disagreement is, I think, capable of resolution if we consider Duke Vincentio not as a plot device or a Providential figure, but as a human character. If Measure pays tribute to James I (as some critics have argued), or praises Christ's emphasis on mercy,4 the play also depicts the human imperfections of earthly rulers, imperfections to which Kirsch merely alludes and which Hawkins overestimates. The Duke, of course, is a wise man; but nowhere does Shakespeare imply that he is prescient. Like everybody else, the Duke must guess about the future; if he is going to do so effectively, he will have to adapt to new and complicating circumstances as they arise. And they do arise, most conspicuously and abundantly in Act III, during and after which the Duke alters his original outlook. If, at this same point, the entire play did not shift with him—in tone, structure, and viewpoint—Measure for Measure would be no less “flawed” than it is often taken to be by critics who object to its shift in Act III. And it would be far less potent as didactic art.

Because Measure opens with an unequivocal statement of its ideal (e.g., I.i.44-45), it is not surprising that we are disappointed when that ideal is not reached; nor is it surprising that this disappointment sometimes prompts us to make more excuses for the play than it needs. The same holds true for the Duke, who immediately draws us into the play: our secret knowledge of the Duke's objective, to which we are privy from the beginning (I.iii), engages us in solving his political problems along with him. But because of our involvement with the Duke, we are extremely sensitive to any suggestion of weakness in him. He guides us through the play; if our trust in him is shaken, we are understandably inclined to feel betrayed. Such a feeling Shakespeare deliberately evokes, however, because Measure for Measure involves not only the regeneration of Vienna's citizens but also the inner growth of Vienna's ruler.


In the opening act of Measure, Shakespeare develops two interlocking contradictions on which the portrayals of both Duke Vincentio and Vienna's citizens will depend. The first is a disparity between the Duke's modes of self-description in scene i and in scene iii. The second is a disparity between the Duke's assessment of Vienna's moral condition in scene iii and Shakespeare's presentation of the Viennese in scenes ii and iv. As to the latter question, the Duke believes that his subjects have interpreted his leniency as license:5

                                                            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.


Significantly, Shakespeare offers us the Duke's perception of Vienna's moral laxity only after he has already given us a more direct introduction to the city's character (I.ii). This order of presentation provokes us into scrutinizing the Duke's subsequent evaluation with more care than we might otherwise bring to it, since we have already formed an attitude toward the Viennese that is more mixed than the Duke's.

On the one hand, the opening of scene ii certainly seems to bear out the Duke's complaints. The ethics of Lucio and his friends are situational at best (I.ii.1-84). However humorous, their lines about ignoring “commandements” embody the excesses the Duke seeks to remedy: drunkenness, prostitution, and “disease.” Bereft of self-restraint, these subjects have lost any sense of responsibility for their own actions.

On the other hand, we learn in this scene that licentiousness has not infected all the Viennese to the same degree. We discover as much through Claudio: although Claudio has been indicted for indulging in “too much liberty” (I.ii.125), he is consistently portrayed as a man of his word and even as a moralizer:

He promis'd to meet me two hours since, and he was ever precise in promise-keeping.


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


Even though his offense is relatively minor, Claudio's sense of guilt turns out to be stronger than anyone else's in the play, except perhaps Julietta's (II.iii).

With such contrasts as that between the bawdy Lucio and the guilt-prone Claudio, Shakespeare suggests that the Duke's moral assessment of his subjects is slightly severe. In I.ii we see a more stratified immorality in the populace than the Duke describes when he speaks of his people as homogeneously immoral (I.iii). Shakespeare reinforces our impression of the Duke's severity all the more when, after exploiting Lucio as a witty commentator on Claudio's compunction (I.ii.131-34), the playwright then shows us that Lucio too possesses a strain of loyalty. First by convincing Isabella to beg mercy for her brother and next by coaching her as she makes her plea (I.iv, II.ii), Lucio remains true in his own way to his bond of friendship with Claudio. Indeed, Lucio reveals a fidelity which surpasses that of Angelo, who not only lies about Mariana (III.i.226-27) but breaks his promise to spare Claudio's life in exchange for Isabella's maidenhood (IV.ii.120-26).

This broken trust, of which Angelo becomes almost emblematic, is actually more symptomatic of Vienna's disease, as the Duke conceives of it (I.iii.19-31), than the other characters' license. That the Duke should have left such a man in power becomes an increasingly unsettling source of curiosity to us, especially when we learn that, before giving Angelo his rule, the Duke has already known about Angelo's perfidy toward Mariana.6 From one point of view, the Duke's choice of exorcists seems completely rational: Angelo's rigid adherence to the law appears to be the perfect physic for Vienna's vice, as Escalus implies (I.i.22-24). And even if Angelo should eventually become a mere “seemer,” as the Duke implicitly suspects (I.iii.54), the disguised ruler will be on hand to correct his deputy's errors. Yet the fact that the Duke, despite his incipient misgivings, bestows his power on Angelo prevents us from completely accepting his perspective: if Vienna's moral landscape is really as bleak as the Duke portrays it to Friar Thomas (I.iii.19-31), then why should he entrust Vienna's care to Angelo, who, in respect to his dealings with Mariana, reflects that landscape?

The Duke appears to reveal his motives for giving the rule to Angelo during his talk with Friar Thomas: “I have deliver'd to Lord Angelo / (A man of stricture and firm abstinence) / My absolute power and place here in Vienna” (I.iii.11-13). The Duke here speaks well of Angelo, implying that Angelo's rigor shows promise of purging Vienna's corruption. Yet this explanation is actually the second of two reasons Vincentio gives for absenting himself from Vienna:

Why I desire thee
To give me secret harbor, hath a purpose
More grave and wrinkled than the aims and ends
Of burning youth.
May your Grace speak of it?
My holy sir, none better knows than you
How I have ever lov'd the life removed,
And held in idle price to haunt assemblies
Where youth, and cost, witless bravery keeps.


Here the Duke gives a potentially self-centered reason for retreating to the monastery—his desire to live in contemplation, which, though natural, can be carried to a politically imprudent extreme. In effect, Vincentio hedges in expressing his motives, as he also does when the Friar wonders why the Duke has not himself chosen to administer more severe punishment:

Sith 'twas my fault to give the people scope,
'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them do. …
                                                            Therefore indeed, my father,
I have on Angelo impos'd the office,
Who may, in th' ambush of my name, strike home,
And yet my nature never in the fight
To do in slander.

(I.iii.35-37, 39-43)

The Duke's reasoning here may seem sound enough: feeling unable to right his former wrongs as he would wish, he elects what he considers the best of the choices remaining available to him. Even so, the Duke's excuse for giving his office to Angelo can appear self-serving and morally evasive. For even if Angelo inaugurates a stricter application of the laws, the Duke will still have to answer for Angelo and assume such responsibility later if rigor is to endure. Such firm enforcement will depend on the Duke's reappearing before his people as an authority, an object of respect, admiration, and awe, all of which he finds distasteful (e.g., I.i.67-72). With Friar Thomas the Duke verges on abdicating his responsibility in the same way his subjects have done (I.ii) and as Angelo is eventually to do: “It is the law, not I, condemn your brother” (II.ii.80). Divorcing himself from the law, Angelo refuses to mediate between the law and the people; hence he breaks a social contract. Although the Duke seeks to mediate between the law and his people through Angelo, such indirection suggests his own desire to free himself from the restraints of political responsibility, a desire that reduces our sympathies for his wish to impose harsher rules on the Viennese.

In this crucial scene between the Duke and the Friar, Shakespeare thus elaborates on the character whose antipathy toward public life, as described in the play's first scene, has looked slightly more high-minded than it appears here. It is not until this third scene that we even suspect that the Duke perceives a taint either in his manner of ruling or in the body politic. He has initially presented himself as confident, as though he has already achieved the balanced rule which we later (in I.iii) learn to be a desideratum: “Your scope is as mine own, / So to enforce or qualify the laws / As to your soul seems good” (I.i.64-66). Earlier the Duke had expressed none of the concern about his reputation that he now alludes to in his remarks to Friar Thomas (I.iii.41-43). In scene i he has described his distrust of the people's “loud applause and aves vehement” with a philosophic conviction (I.i.67-72) that now, in his conversation with the Friar, seems little more than a common case of shyness: “I have ever … held in idle price to haunt assemblies …” (ll. 8-9).

In effect, the Duke himself comes across as something of a “seemer” (I.iii.54). He remains admirable for his humility, his generally good intentions toward his people (e.g., I.i.3-7, 67), and his recognition of his own contribution to Vienna's moral decline (I.iii.19-31, 35-43). But the muted contradiction between what he wants from his subjects and how he plans to obtain it makes us slightly suspicious of his conduct. Critics who study the parallels between Vincentio and Prospero, only to reject the idea that the two characters are comparable, reject, I think, too hastily.7 A key aspect of the Duke's character lies in his inclination to abdicate his political responsibilities for the selfish delights of seclusion. Unlike Prospero, the Duke never succumbs completely to this temptation; but I.iii the Duke is a potential Prospero, wavering between using his wisdom to improve the common good and retreating into that wisdom out of contempt for common ignorance (e.g., I.iii.8-10). If, as Brian Rose argues, the Duke resembles James I, whose “fear of crowds was one of [his] weaknesses,” it may well be that Shakespeare saw in the King's aloofness a potential political hazard. A play that largely pays tribute to the King might also convey some criticism of James's “neglect of state” and “interest in academic … matters,” criticism which Rose assures us the King received from other quarters.8 Such criticism, however, would have had to be handled cautiously and worked through carefully.

And so it is. The tension in the Duke's character between private and public interests is so delicately fashioned that we are likely to miss several of its most vibrant signs. One such manifestation is the imagery in the first scene of “warping” and “bending.” Similar images recur in subsequent scenes to describe licentiousness, but in themselves they may suggest both error and resilience.9 In the first scene it is the Duke who uses the image each time. He applies it first to Escalus: “There is our commission, / From which we would not have you warp” (ll. 13-14). His next use of the image is self-reflective: “But I do bend my speech / To one that can my part in him advertise” (ll. 40-41). Courteously drawing Angelo's attention to his careful instruction (ll. 26-39), the Duke excuses his moralizing by associating it with indulgent preaching. He depicts himself as one who strays from a standard only briefly before checking himself from further wandering: “No more evasion” (l. 50). The Duke's casual self-assessment turns out to be an accurate description of himself. For we come to understand that the Duke's inner conflicts lie in his ambivalence toward social responsibility. Although less pronounced than Angelo's internal conflicts—

Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right—we would, and we would not.

—the Duke's indecision repeatedly involves him in his society's failings, so that he must himself learn what he wishes to teach his subjects (IV.iv.33-34).10

Until the Duke reveals himself in Act V, his disguise represents his pendant state, his wavering between accepting and rejecting his true role in Viennese society. The friar's habit allows him to invest his inner “nature” in social reformation without risking his “name” or fully accepting the responsibilities of his office (I.iii.39-43). As he continues alternately to “bend” toward and away from these responsibilities, he will indeed often look like a Providential figure whose hidden knowledge and intrigues portend a beneficial outcome. Occasionally, however, he will also appear at odds with the common good, especially when he demands too much from his subjects. The Duke's removal from his society, Shakespeare implies, has shaped him into something of an idealist, a ruler who, having once been excessively lax, now expects more from himself and his people than human nature is capable of achieving. That the Duke at first sees his subjects as more universally corrupt than we do suggests that he has avoided contact with his people: he does not know them well enough to judge them. The Duke's tendency to announce an absolute ideal of behavior (e.g., I.i.64-66, I.iii.19-31), which he then occasionally fails to meet, is a proclivity with which he must come to terms if he is going to judge others fairly. Through his covert but direct experience with the Viennese during the course of the play, he arrives at an understanding of human failure which enables him to lower his expectations without forsaking his ideals.

Because our estimation of the Duke drops somewhat between the first and third scenes—a shift which intensifies our uneasiness about his integrity—we begin to see him as a human being capable of error. By the end of Act I, then, our evaluation of the Duke's character may decline, but our expectations of him should become more realistic. When the Duke's behavior disappoints us, we should judge him as he does the inconstancies of the Viennese. If we hold him up against the same absolute standards that he himself gradually modifies, we become, like Angelo, the blind absolutists whom the Duke finally exposes.


After Act I, the Duke's essential characteristics are alternately embodied in Escalus and Lucio, who act intermittently as his mirrors. In III.ii, commenting individually to the disguised Vincentio on his character, these two figures illuminate both the most honorable and the least respectable aspects of the Duke as the audience perceives them:

… 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 any thing which profess'd to make him rejoice; a gentleman of all temperance.


The Duke had crotchets in him. He would be drunk too, that let me inform you … the greater file of the subject held the Duke to be wise.
Wise? Why, no question but he was.
A very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow.

(III.ii.127-28, 136-40)

On first glance, these two descriptions seem incompatible. But eventually we come to see that Escalus and Lucio differ less in their opinions than they appear to do here.

Escalus' appraisal of the Duke as a “gentleman of all temperance” conflicts with the Duke's assertion in I.iii that his own excessive leniency has contributed to the dissoluteness in Vienna. But we should remember that Escalus probably approves of the Duke's judgments because they resemble his own: as the Duke has been, Escalus is lenient. For instance, by merely threatening Pompey with punishment (II.i.244-56), Escalus makes a virtual “scarecrow of the law” (II.i.1). The futility of such hollow attempts at intimidation emerges later, when Pompey is placed under the tutelage of the executioner Abhorson: although the purpose of Pompey's exposure to Abhorson's “mystery” is presumably to instill some fear in him of his own execution, Pompey shows no sign of spiritual recovery (IV.ii.34-41). Rather, he chatters at length about the similarities between bawd and hangman (IV.ii.15-59).11

As ineffective as Escalus' mercy may prove, however, it is at least rational: it is founded on his encounters with unregenerate violators like Pompey. When Escalus begs Angelo to forgive Claudio, for example, he bases his appeal on man's universal sinfulness (II.i.5-16). And although Escalus pities Claudio's predicament and cites Claudio's family history in support of his plea, Escalus' mercy does not stem from feelings of personal attachment to criminals. Instead, he bases his claims on objective observation. Forgiveness, he argues, arises from judging an isolated crime in relation to one's own sins and the sins of all men: “heaven … forgive us all!” (II.i.37). Implicit in his viewpoint is the recognition that some crimes, no matter how severely “whipt” (II.i.256), will never be eliminated completely from mankind: “Which is the wiser here: Justice or Iniquity?” (II.i.172).12

Yet Escalus fails to reform lawless behavior by merely “cutting a little” (II.i.5). He is by no means blind to the value of strict justice—“Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so; / Pardon is still the nurse of second woe” (II.i.283-84)—but he cannot really combine legal rigor and mercy. By consistently choosing forgiveness and seasoning it with only the bare threat of punishment, he virtually condones crime. In this, Escalus leaves himself open to the judicial pitfalls to which Angelo is prey. For Angelo, the only way to eliminate crime is to kill the criminal; for Escalus, the only way to preserve human life—and its mixed goodness—is to tolerate sin.

In other words, Escalus has settled for an imperfect choice in an imperfect world. Although he persistently attempts to “save” all sinners, whether they be Pompeys or Claudios (II.i.7), he also recognizes in the law and in himself certain limitations. Hence he acquiesces to his failures, as he acquiesces to Angelo's verdicts: “there is no remedy” (II.i.285).

The Duke, however, has become unwilling to be deterred so easily: “Craft against vice I must apply” (III.ii.277), he says. Escalus' acceptance of what he cannot change acts as a foil, then, to the restlessness of the Duke, who has grown more discontented with the Caliban in himself and in society, but who still lacks Escalus' insight into human nature. In portraying the Duke as generous, easily moved to sympathy, and introspective, Escalus unwittingly puts his finger on the Duke's mixed virtues: “contending especially to know himself,” the Duke has insufficiently examined the humanity around him (III.ii.232-33). As a result, his former leniency—which has sprung from his contemplative and charitable tendencies—has proven politically imprudent.13 Evidence of its consequences can be found, on the one hand, in the Duke's occasionally extremist attitude toward social ills and, on the other, in Lucio's view of the Duke as “flexible.”

Both the content and the confidentiality of Lucio's speeches provide an indication of the potential hazards in the Duke's removed way of governing. By misconstruing the Duke's leniency as testimony to his participation in clandestine sexual affairs, Lucio focuses our attention on the Duke's detachment from and his unfamiliarity with his people:

Why, what a ruthless thing is this in him (i.e., Angelo), for the rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a man! Would the Duke that is absent have done this? Ere he would have hang'd a man for the getting a hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing a thousand. He had some feeling of the sport; he knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy.
I never heard the absent Duke much detected for women, he was not inclin'd that way.
O, sir, you are deceiv'd.
'Tis not possible.
Who? not the Duke? Yes, your beggar of fifty; and his use was to put a ducat in her clack-dish.


Lucio reflects, in cruder form, Escalus' awareness of universal sin; he can conceive neither of a blameless human being nor of a mercy founded on any basis other than the fact that all human beings sin. Lucio suggests that satisfying one's sexual drive is as natural as “eating and drinking” (III.ii.97-103), and on that assumption he proceeds to slander the Duke, who “was not inclin'd that way.”14

In so doing, Lucio inadvertently exposes the Duke's naiveté about sin and even about wholesome romantic love. More importantly, Lucio points out the Duke's failure to reveal to his subjects, in some meaningful way, the activities and thoughts of his private life. Lucio's fanciful depiction of the Duke's inner character, then, springs not only from the perversity of his imagination, but also from the Duke's reticence, which has encouraged such idle minds as Lucio's to supply their own explanations in the absence of real ones. When Lucio refers to the Duke as a “superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow,” he of course describes himself instead (III.ii.139-40). But his epithets hint at what the Duke could become and what, by doing so, he could encourage his subjects to remain. In his wanton lack of self-restraint when speaking behind the Duke's back, Lucio offers us a parody of the Duke's own tendency toward the abuse of privacy, a tendency evident in his near contempt for society (e.g., I.iii.8-10), as well as in his plan to administer justice in disguise, behind the backs of his subjects.

The primary significance of Lucio's commentary on the Duke is that it indirectly describes the insubstantiality of the Duke's former mercy: “The Duke yet would have dark deeds darkly answer'd, he would never bring them to light. Would he were return'd!” (III.ii.176-78). Lucio implies that the Duke has carried out the law in secrecy to avoid embarrassing either himself or the criminal. But the audience—suspecting that the Duke has not been administering the law at all (I.iii)—infers from Lucio's lines that the Duke's real failing has been his refusal to make public his stance toward crime and punishment. Lucio and Escalus both unwittingly intimate that the crucial question about the Duke's behavior is not the extent to which he enforces the law or grants mercy, though that question is of considerable importance. No, Shakespeare's main concern is the Duke's relationship to his people—the extent to which, no matter what he believes, he imparts his beliefs to his subjects. Yet the Duke, as we have noted, cannot himself be sure what he believes about crime until he acquires a deeper vision of human nature.


As the Duke proceeds to shy away from the practical concerns of active life which can inform him, he continues to teeter between an idealistic absolutism and a realistic understanding of the human condition. Our ambivalence about the Duke's idealism reflects an actual Renaissance debate on the nature of mercy. Marion Parker, discussing this philosophic controversy in The Slave of Life, traces the conflict to Seneca:

There are in fact two Latin words translated by Elizabethan-Jacobean writers as “mercy,” clementia and misericordia. … [In the De Clementia] Seneca, in recommending clementia to Nero as something which makes rulers not only more virtuous but more secure, distinguishes it sharply and at some length from misericordia, which he entirely condemns. Clementia he defines as “a moderation of the mind which restrains the power of vengeance, or a lenity of the superior towards the inferior in determining punishment.” Misericordia on the other hand is “a sickness of the mind aroused by the sight of other men's miseries.” Clementia is opposed not to severity but to cruelty, and “I will call those cruel who have cause to punish but have no moderation in their punishment.” … Seneca recognizes that many men will call misericordia a virtue, but insists that it is a vice. “So all good men show clementia but avoid misericordia,” which is “most familiar to the worst minds” and thoroughly effeminate. “Misericordia looks not at the cause but at the condition, whereas clemency is rational.”15

Shakespeare indicates that the Duke, in his previous efforts to administer mercy, has rendered misericordia, not clementia (e.g., I.iii.23-31). Perhaps Escalus has also looked more at the “condition” than at the “cause,” though Escalus has looked more rationally. Yet the distrust with which Seneca viewed—and we may also view—the Duke's tender-hearted leniency was modified in the later commentaries of Aquinas and in Anglican theology. Parker comments on Aquinas' views: “Misericordia, being caused by charity, is in itself the greatest of virtues. … Misericordia is ‘in God,’ in the motion of the divine will moved by absolute charity … the constantly stressed and typical quality of God's mercy is precisely that it is undeserved, that ‘while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.’”16 Hence, from a Christian perspective, the Duke's misericordia reflects a divine ideal which we may well admire.

Shakespeare appears intent on using the Duke's personal conflicts to investigate the ongoing opposition between clementia and misericordia. According to Parker, this debate had evolved, at the start of the seventeenth century, into a tension between political thinkers and theologians. For example, Elyot (Governour) and Bacon (“Of Revenge”) preserve Seneca's distinction between clementia and misericordia by characterizing the former as “politically expedient” and by associating the latter with excessive sentimentality.17 Duke Vincentio, sometimes bridging and sometimes being caught between the theological ideals and the political realities which confuse the issue of mercy, allows Shakespeare to illustrate the political dangers which lie behind ideals like misericordia. For instance, Shakespeare compels comparisons between the Duke and such blatant absolutists as Angelo, as when he closes I.iii with the Duke's statement on Angelo—who “scarce confesses / That his blood flows” (ll. 51-52)—which returns us to the scene's opening lines:

No; holy father, throw away that thought;
Believe not that the dribbling dart of love
Can pierce a complete bosom.


Angelo remains, from start to finish, a projection of the frigid absolutism to which the Duke is sometimes attracted, just as he is attracted at other times to the Christian ideal of misericordia. Such extremes, Shakespeare gradually convinces us, smack of folly.


But it is also the Duke who holds the extremist behavior of the other characters in check. The first bit of information we receive about Vincentio—his unwillingness to “bend” away from his awareness of his own limitations—strongly suggests that the Duke's past endeavors to “know himself” have been fruitful:

(To Escalus.) Of government the properties to unfold
Would seem in me t'affect speech and discourse,
Since I am put to know that your own science
Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
My strength can give you.


Shakespeare here depicts two noble traits: the Duke's humility and his desire to act on principle. It is these attributes that eventually nurture the Duke's interest in and involvement with his people.

When we consider the general curve of the action in Acts II through IV, we notice almost unavoidably that the Duke is exposed scene by scene to a descending scale of immorality. The Duke's first appearance as the friar occurs in II.iii, where he absolves Julietta, the mildest and most guilt-ridden of sinners. The Duke next attempts to instruct Claudio (III.i), then Pompey (III.ii), and then Lucio (III.ii, IV.iv)—the first of whom sins, confesses, and sincerely attempts a conversion; the second of whom sins and confesses only; and the last of whom consciously sins, but refuses even to confess (IV.iv.169-74).18 When, in IV.iii, the Duke at last encounters Barnardine, whose “gravel heart” is so immersed in corruption that he will not budge from his flesh or his jail cell (ll. 62-64), the Duke has had direct experience with a full spectrum of sinners. These various confrontations seem not only carefully ordered, but specifically designed to instruct the Duke by degrees in how to judge sin on a relative basis.

As the Duke makes his way through these encounters, he also moves steadily toward engaging in an active life and revealing his inner self to his subjects. Between II.iii, where the Duke appears submerged in his friar's identity while shriving Julietta, and IV.v, where he tells Friar Peter that he has disclosed his “purpose and his plot” to the Provost (l. 2), the Duke has entered into a series of intrigues calculated to administer Viennese law and to teach his subjects how he plans to observe that law. The correlation between the Duke's gradual exposure to increasingly immoral types and his advances toward integrating himself socially indicates the Duke's growth in moral flexibility. It also constitutes a model for the Duke's behavior toward his people in the trial scene (V.i), where he tries to act directly upon their moral sensibilities, as they have acted upon his.

Act III, wherein the Duke first meets Claudio, is the crucial point of transition for the Duke, as well as for the entire play. The action here implies that the Duke learns as much from his subjects about life as he teaches Claudio about death. Opening with the Duke's speech to Claudio on the benefits of accepting death, the act proceeds to reveal the irrepressible and essentially healthy impulse of humankind to live, despite the corruption of the flesh from which death promises release. The Duke's lines—“Be absolute for death …” (III.i.5-41)—at first seem appropriate both as a consolation for a man about to die and as an eloquent, persuasive memento mori for the living. Their effect on Claudio is not merely comforting, but transforming: immediately following the Duke's speech, Claudio actively “seek[s] to die” (l. 42). This sudden change, however, gradually gives way to Claudio's renewed longing to live (III.i.54-150). Claudio's plea that Isabella sacrifice her virginity to preserve his life may not be justifiable on a philosophical level, but it nonetheless proves philosophy to have its consolatory limits. Claudio's resurgent desire to live, which has been momentarily channeled into the attractive thought of living in death (l. 43), shows us that the Duke has been somewhat naive in his attempt to control Claudio's antipathy toward death by appealing to his “reason” (l. 6).

The suggestion that the Duke's philosophic outlook is ingenuous is reinforced in this scene by Isabella's attitude toward death as a solution to sorrow, a means of avoiding the kind of ambiguity with which Claudio's appeal threatens her. Although the audience may appreciate and even applaud Isabella's refusal to barter her purity for Claudio's life, it is with little sympathy that we hear her protest to the Duke that Mariana would be happier dead than living in grief: “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). Before asking how Mariana might be “availed” (l. 233-34), Isabella assumes that both Mariana and Angelo would be better off dead than they would be if guided toward improving their lives. At the bottom of her reasoning lies an escapist impulse to ignore human problems.

With Isabella, however, the Duke draws away from the temptation to circumvent, rather than confront, such dilemmas. He responds promptly to Isabella's situation with a plan by which neither Claudio's life nor Isabella's purity will be lost. Significantly, the Duke's attempt to reconcile the conflicting wishes of Claudio, Isabella, Angelo, and Mariana occurs after he has overheard the exchange between Claudio and Isabella (III.i.54-150). After hearing that dispute, the Duke has had to confront what we have just ascertained ourselves and what Escalus appears to have known long before: that Claudio's hunger for life as well as for love is representative of certain human instincts which the law must accommodate. Claudio's vitality puts Isabella's idealism in perspective: though high moral standards like hers can be valuable guidelines for human behavior, such standards cannot always be met. On the contrary, Claudio's conduct, when viewed in terms of a more worldly standard and in relation to the crimes of Angelo and the lower comic characters, embodies its own kind of value. Claudio's trespass against Julietta is formal only.19 Founded on genuine love, Claudio's secret sexual union fosters new life and hope, whereas the prostitution in which Pompey and Lucio partake breeds disease.20 Rather than condemn Claudio's appetite because of its potential evil, as does Isabella, the Duke therefore devises a scheme to modulate Isabella's refusal to countenance Claudio's passion. He sets out to temper the absolutism in Isabella's stiff rationale that has typically emerged to a lesser degree in his own attitude toward vice.

In arranging the bed-trick, the Duke prepares to serve up to Angelo a punishment which matches, almost precisely, Angelo's violation of Mariana's trust: “So disguise shall by th' disguised / Pay with falsehood false exacting, / And perform an old contracting” (III.ii.280-82). By insisting that his subjects act on their promises, the Duke begins to live up to his own promises: he resumes on his own the legal enforcement which he has recently only spoken of or wished for (I.i, I.iii). This merging of the Duke's private and public selves reflects the knowledge about Angelo that he has recently acquired from Isabella. Before the Duke has overheard Isabella's charge against Angelo (III.i.94-102), he has been reluctant to consider the possibility that Angelo's deception in his personal life might be paralleled by Angelo's approach to politics (I.iii.50-54). Yet once the Duke has acknowledged the relationship between these two sides of Angelo (III.i), he devises a means of exposing the fraudulence of the whole man—a means that also requires a personal investment from the Duke himself.

The Duke also admits to his own sexuality, for the first time in the play, by maneuvering Angelo into a situation where he will have to own up to his vows and, more radically, his humanity (III.i.151 ff.).21 The bed-trick also forces Isabella, through fantasy, to see herself in sexual terms. Before fashioning the bed-trick, the Duke has apparently not been aware that Angelo's, his own, or anyone else's blood could flow toward a good end. From his contacts with both Julietta and Claudio he has learned that sexuality, properly channeled, can be an agent of goodness (II.iii, III.i.1-150).22

As the Duke proceeds to confront more severe forms of criminality, the remaining traces of his own idealism continue to recede. The Duke never ceases his eager attempts to reform licentiousness. Sending Pompey off to prison with the reproach, “Go mend, go mend” (III.ii.27), he retains a faith in the possibility of reforming sinners; and he persistently employs the same extreme means of evoking emotional response in his subjects that he has first applied to Julietta (II.iii.36-42) and later to other characters, like Isabella (IV.iii.109-11).23 At the same time, however, he slowly incorporates into his austere expectations an added sense of his own limitations as a ruler. As appalled as the Duke is by Lucio's slander, for example, he seems to respond to the experience, in part, by re-evaluating his ducal responsibilities. Although the Duke first laments, rather evasively, his inability to “tie up the gall in the slanderous tongue” (III.ii.188), he soon after describes the ideal ruler as one who provides a model for the Lucios in Vienna:

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
Then by self-offenses weighing.


A just ruler should not only measure the guilt of others in the awareness of his own culpability; he should also present himself as a model of the character he demands in others.24 The Duke illustrates his mastery of this principle when, in IV.iii, he extracts from Lucio the offhand confession that Lucio too has forsworn his love (ll. 169-74)—a confession the disguised Duke stores away for the future purpose of demonstrating, in the confrontation between Lucio and himself, the disparity between the Duke's demands and Lucio's unsatisfactory conduct (V.i). This is but one of the ways in which Act III provides the Duke with the knowledge he needs to rule effectively.

For us, the disquieting aspect of the Duke's entrance into active life is that, for him, to involve himself in society is to make judgments the enactment of which may have a startling effect on us. One reason that the Duke's role may be difficult for us to sympathize with is that he exposes crimes which we had thought, along with the characters, to have passed unnoticed. The act of giving palpable shape to thought can be devastatingly frightening. As the Duke himself implies, moreover, the act of judging openly leaves the judge vulnerable to counter-judgment (I.iii.34-43). The Duke, in the process of overcoming his own fear of being judged as a judge, is quite capable of arousing in us our fear of finding ourselves in the same situation. What is more, the Duke's efforts to bring “dark deeds” to light can easily awaken our own private feelings of guilt and our own sense of vulnerability to sudden, unexpected castigation. But if we allow our impression of the Duke to be conditioned too much by these subjective fears and—out of self-protection and under the mask of anger—project these fears back onto the Duke, then we will miss the experience in which Shakespeare invites us to participate, with the Duke, as he becomes a vital part of Vienna's body politic. And having done so, we will remain nervous, suspicious, and repressed, as does Angelo, who, in dreadful and guilty anticipation of Vincentio's return, hastily transfers his own “distraction” onto the Duke: “pray heaven his wisdom be not tainted!” (IV.iv.4-5).

If we fail to experience the Duke's dilemma fully, we will no doubt overlook Shakespeare's brief sketch of the Duke in IV.v as a man poised between his removal from and his re-entry into Viennese society. At this point, the Duke, still somewhat detached from his role as ruler, begins engaging in society with a new enthusiasm:

                                                                                          Go call at Flavio's house,
And tell him where I stay. Give the like notice
To Valentius, Rowland, and to Crassus,
And bid them bring the trumpets to the gate …
I thank thee, Varrius, thou hast made good haste.
Come, we will walk. There's other of our friends
Will greet us here anon. My gentle Varrius!

(IV.v.6-9, 11-13)

Having involved himself in his subjects' lives, the Duke here displays an extra warmth for Varrius and “other friends.” His closing exclamation to “gentle” Varrius is an open expression of the love that can spring solely from serious, honest emotional commitment, and it is equaled in spontaneous purity only by Claudio's plea to Isabella: “Sweet sister, let me live” (III.i.132).


In Measure for Measure justice consists in maintaining contracts; and Duke Vincentio, because he rises to the role of teacher in Act V, epitomizes such loyalty. The Duke's new-found openness toward his subjects enables him, in Socratic fashion, to make judgments on his people by listening to them and by incorporating their viewpoints into his own otherwise sterner verdicts. Judgment in Measure is ultimately a collective activity. It is of no small consequence, for instance, that just as Claudio becomes penitent, the Duke turns amorous. By the play's end, in fact, Claudio seems to have had more effect on the Duke's way of life than the Duke has had on Claudio's. Contrary to the Duke's original expectations, his efforts to instill tighter restraints in his subjects have had the effect of relaxing restraints in at least three repressed characters: Isabella, Angelo, and the Duke himself. These characters are liberated from the constraints that have prevented them from loving completely, just as Claudio is released from prison to love Julietta (V.i.525).

However, the Duke refrains from handing out forgiveness as though it fell “as the gentle rain from heaven.” His merciful judgments consistently contain a stinging element of punishment: nearly every character is asked to enter or renew a contract that requires more commitment than he has previously given. The Duke's threats, though as empty as those of Escalus, still work because they are experienced as real. The public exposure of Angelo, for instance, works as surely to convert him as if he were actually condemned to die (V.i.366-74).25 With this method of forgiving—by measuring mercy against exact punishment—the Duke attempts to teach his subjects the value of mercy.

This pattern in the Duke's instruction emerges most notably in his refusal to admit Isabella's pleas. During the trial, Isabella abruptly shifts from invoking absolute “justice, justice, justice, justice!” to begging complete leniency for Angelo (V.i.25, 443-54). In each instance, the Duke exhibits a disapproval of her insistence that points up the inadequacies of her reasoning. By treating her initially as though she were mad, the Duke elicits from her the background of her case, which includes an expression of sympathy for Claudio: “after much debatement / My sisterly remorse confutes mine honor, / And I did yield to him [Angelo]” (V.i.99-101). Isabella has not felt such “remorse” at the time of Claudio's imminent execution, of course (III.i.147-50). But by promoting Isabella to explain herself in sympathetic terms, the Duke indirectly makes her imagine herself as truly sympathetic. Her statement of “remorse,” though spoken falsely, appears to temper her rigor and provides the foundation for her later, sincere appeal to spare Angelo (V.i.443-54).

That appeal demonstrates Isabella's victorious ability to beg mercy for one who has harmed her. Yet it too is ill-founded:

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


Mariana's reasoning, naive and trusting though it is (V.i.437-41), rings truer than Isabella's legalism, which is strained at best. The cases advanced by the two women, the one sentimental and the other casuistic, both belong to the category of misericordia, as the Duke's strong refutations imply (V.i.418-25, 433-36, 455).26 The Duke's firm rejection, by turns, of Isabella's polar claims thus permits him to confer his own definition of mercy on the public while engaging his people in arriving at that definition.

However, as evident as the Duke's control over this exposition of justice and mercy becomes, Shakespeare hints that, even during the trial over which he presides, Vincentio himself has not yet fully come to terms with his role as governor. Between the opening of Act V, when the Duke and Isabella appear resolutely at odds, and the conclusion of the play, when the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella, the Duke has assumed three identities in an order that recapitulates his progress during the preceding action. At the beginning, he enters as he was before he left Vienna and, for all his people know, as he remains. Pretending to be deaf to Isabella's charges, he mimics his previous detachment from his subjects (V.i.46-162). Casting aspersions on common folly, he self-consciously directs irony toward the patronizing view in which he once held the general public (I.i, I.iii). And once again he places Angelo in the seat of judgment: “Do you not smile at this, Lord Angelo? / O heaven, the vanity of wretched fools!” (ll. 163-64).

After the Duke re-enters in his second identity (l. 277), he loses much of the ironic humor he displayed behind his first pose. We may find “Friar Lodowick's” diatribe against Vienna's vice rather testy and his praise of the Duke self-defensive:

… I have seen corruption boil and bubble,
Till it o'errun 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.


I protest I love the Duke as I love myself.

(l. 341)

“Friar Lodowick's” object here, of course, is to induce guilt feelings in his subjects and, more particularly, to manipulate Lucio into incriminating himself. Yet the Duke's aggressive posture here, as well as the mounting tension between him and Lucio, exhibits vestiges of the Duke's former self: for example, his tendency toward moral absolutism and his fear of humiliation in the eyes of his people, both of which have consistently motivated his detachment from the Viennese. When the disguised Duke is threatened with prison (l. 346), he has temporarily lost control of the proceedings. Clinging to the friar's habit, beneath which he can audaciously preach, he clings also to the conception of himself as “lovable,” a conception in which he wants to believe and which he fears to have questioned (l. 341). Symbolically, “Friar Lodowick” is earlier said to be “sick … of a strange fever” (ll. 151-52), a mixed allusion to his grief over Vienna's corruption and to the disease such intense grief breeds. The final implication is that “Friar Lodowick,” as an entity unto himself, must die—or be sloughed off as a false identity—before the Duke can re-emerge in control of the “Friar Lodowick” within him. Vincentio has ample opportunity to cure himself by revealing himself (ll. 344-55), but he resists taking the final step toward fulfilling his political responsibility.

To take that step, the Duke needs one more push from his old adversary Lucio, whose indiscreet unveiling of the Duke is, paradoxically, a blessing (l. 355). Lucio provides the ultimate mechanism by which the Duke is forced to take justice into his own hands and, by administering it, to decide when to temper it with mercy. By remaining true to his rude audacity, Lucio performs perhaps the most Providential action in the play; he makes way for the Duke to rectify the ignorance of the people, and most especially of Lucio himself. Once the Duke has recovered his judge's seat and initiated his new rule (ll. 363 ff.), it is no coincidence that Lucio's slander receives the stiffest punishment (ll. 500-525) the Duke metes out. In baring himself to his subjects and at last electing to marry Isabella, the Duke rejects the part of himself that has most resembled Lucio: his tendency toward clandestine and self-indulgent behavior, reflected in Lucio's slander and hedonistic sexuality. Thus Lucio's perfectly apt statement—“Cucullus non facit monachum” (l. 262)—becomes both a self-fulfilling prophecy and an axis on which the Duke makes his final way to a modified rule and to his true self, wherein his first two identities are integrated.

The net result of the dialogue between the Duke and his subjects, then, is a compromise that approximates the ideal balance, presented in I.i, between strict punishment and mercy.27 Shakespeare, of course, leaves us wondering whether the Duke's attempt to change Angelo will work and whether the Duke's rebuttals to Mariana and Isabella will alter their present willingness to turn the other cheek. We also wonder about Lucio, the Duke's suppression of whom could well turn out to be unprofitable, both in terms of Lucio's capacity to meet the Duke's demands and in terms of the Duke's reluctance to see himself as mirrored in Lucio's disturbing, but radically truthful, visions. Perhaps more disquieting yet are the pardon of Barnardine (l. 483) and the disappearance of Pompey after the fourth act: we have no idea whether Barnardine will commit another murder or whether Pompey's punishment—to assist Abhorson—will yield the desired results.

Shakespeare chooses deliberately to withhold from us such projections into the city's future—and perhaps rightly so, since it is only by understanding the present that we can predict and, to a point, will, the future. But given what we have seen about the Duke's past, his future seems encouraging. Exiting with his people, he promises them an account of the events that have led up to the present:

So bring us to our palace, where we'll show
What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know.


The “mortality” that the Duke has mentioned to Angelo in the first scene has here assumed additional meaning. In revealing himself publicly, Duke Vincentio stresses his own humanity—including his fallibility—and it is that which binds him to his people.


  1. G. Blakemore Evans, gen. ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), Measure for Measure, I.i.44-45. All subsequent references are to this edition.

  2. Harriett Hawkins, Likenesses of Truth (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), pp. 76, 68, 69. Hawkins continues:

    … Duke Vincentio learns nothing. He admits no limits to his power and he never once analyses the total situation. And so, in defiance of all our critical efforts, Duke Vincentio, in the second half of Measure for Measure, remains outside any meaning, an external plot-manipulator, a dramatic engineer of a comic ending, who never sees beyond his single theatrical goal.

    (p. 73)

    Coleridge, too, saw Measure in negative terms: “Measure for Measure is the single exception to the delightfulness of Shakespeare's plays. It is a hateful work, although Shakespearian throughout. Our feelings of justice are grossly wounded in Angelo's escape. Isabella herself contrives to be unamiable, and Claudio is detestable.” [From Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1930), II, 352, selections from “Table-Talk.”] Other critics who essentially agree with these views include E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1949), pp. 124-45; W. W. Lawrence, “Measure for Measure and Lucio,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 9 (1958), 443-44; Hal Gelb, “Duke Vincentio and the Illusion of Comedy, or All's Not Well that Ends Well,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 22 (1971), 24-34; and Roger Sale, “The Comic Mode of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly, 19 (1968), 55-61.

  3. Arthur Kirsch, “The Integrity of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey, 28 (1975), 89-105. See also Darryl J. Gless, “Measure for Measure,the Law, and the Covenant (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), chap. 6. Gless expands Kirsch's argument. See also M. C. Bradbrook, “Authority, Truth, and Justice in Measure for Measure,Review of English Studies, 17 (1941), 385-99.

    Brian Rose, who writes on the parallels between the ethics of Measure and the teachings of James I in the Basilicon Doron, suggests in numerous and intelligent ways that Shakespeare, in alluding so frankly to King James's doctrine, was “striving to interest his new monarch and to engage his sympathy.” Rose further contends that Shakespeare, as a man of the theatre, sympathized with King James's rejection of Puritan legal rigor (represented by Angelo) and that the Duke's final forgiveness manifests Shakespeare's support of the King's preference for the New Law over Mosaic Law. [“Friar-Duke and Scholar-King,” English Studies in Africa, 9 (1966), 72-82.]

    The Basilicon Doron was published in Edinburgh in 1599 and was “secretly printed in London while Queen Elizabeth was dying” [Josephine Bennett, “Measure for Measure” as Royal Entertainment (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1966), p. 82].

    See also D. L. Stevenson, The Achievement of “Measure for Measure” (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966), for various discussions of the Duke as modeled on Providence and James I; and Donald A. Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images (New York: Norton, 1949), p. 142, for an argument that the Duke is “playing God.”

  4. See Gless pp. 253-54, for an argument that, “from Augustine's age onward,” the “major implication” of the Sermon on the Mount was interpreted to be “Judge not.”

  5. Marion D. H. Parker, in The Slave of Life: A Study of Shakespeare and the Idea of Justice (London: Chatto and Windus, 1955), pp. 111-12, 112, states the Viennese social problem thus, but does not question the Duke's perception.

  6. The Duke's knowledge of Angelo is indicated not only in the Duke's narrative to Isabella (III. i.197-269), but also in Mariana's suggestion that the Duke has often come to visit her in a friar's disguise (IV. i.8-9). For an alternative interpretation of IV. i.8-9, see Mary Lascelles, Shakespeare's “Measure for Measure” (London: the Athlone Press, 1953), p. 105. Harriett Hawkins (p. 62) views the Duke's deputation of Angelo with considerable scorn.

    It is also worth noting here the juxtaposition of the prison cell to which Angelo consigns Claudio and the “moated grange” where Mariana dwells in dejected solitude (III.i.264, IV.i). Throughout Measure Shakespeare plays with cells as symbols of social estrangement, which he also identifies with Isabella and the Duke, who sometimes choose religious cells.

  7. See, for instance, Kirsch, p. 105.

  8. Rose, pp. 74-75.

  9. Some other instances of this image occur in I.iii.20 and III.i.141.

  10. Interestingly, Isabella also expresses such blatant ambivalence: see II.ii.29-33. The Duke, talking with the Provost, seems to deny his own ambivalence (IV.ii.132-34). Interestingly, however, the Provost indirectly confirms the Duke's laxity: his government, unlike Angelo's, lacked sufficient evidence to condemn Barnardine (ll. 135-37).

  11. The Duke implies that Pompey's assignment as Abhorson's assistant is intended to “correct” and “instruct” Pompey (see III.ii.27-33). Pompey adapts to his new role almost immediately, alluding to the Christian theme of regeneration (IV.ii.49-51). But the “bawd-born” chameleon does not sincerely convert and thus mocks the authorities' attempts to convert him (III.ii.68).

    See Gelb, passim, for an exceedingly dark interpretation of Pompey and the other low comic characters.

  12. This theory of judgment and its relationship to the entire play has been discussed by many critics. See, for example, Bradbrook, p. 397.

  13. I do not mean to condemn the Duke's charitable contributions (e.g., III.ii.126-27), but only to question his motives—that is, his apparent confusion of such charity with leniency toward crime.

  14. Lucio's character and dramatic role, like the Duke's, have been much debated. As one might expect, the readers who condemn Lucio are, almost without exception, the same ones who, like Kirsch and Rose, stress the Duke's attractive qualities. Some critics who have seen Lucio as a rather serious commentator include Clifford Leech, “Shakespeare's Comic Dukes,” Review of English Literature, 5 (1964), 112-13; Francis Fergusson, The Human Image in Dramatic Literature (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), pp. 135-36; and Northrop Frye, “Characterization in Shakespearian Comedy,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 4 (1953), 276.

  15. Parker, p. 51.

  16. Parker, pp. 52-53.

  17. Parker, pp. 53-54.

  18. Like the sinners in Measure, the moralistic characters may also be viewed in terms of a scale. Isabella, Angelo, Escalus, and the Duke, in that order, come to reflect ascending levels of moral consciousness. Isabella, on one end of the spectrum, reveals no awareness that she is capable of transgression—an awareness that Angelo eventually reaches, but will not readily admit. The Duke, who finally arrives at the top of the scale, learns to use his knowledge of universal sin, which Escalus shares, toward converting the sinner.

  19. The crime is “formal” in the sense that it goes against the wishes of the Church, which urged against clandestine marriage in order to guard against one partner's desertion of the other. See Karl Wentersdorf, “The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure: A Reconsideration,” Shakespeare Survey, 32 (1979), 135. See also Claudio's lines in I.ii.147-49, and compare Gless, pp. 234-37.

  20. See Kirsch pp. 98-100, for a longer and richer discussion of views in Measure concerning human sexuality. Kirsch also relates the themes of sexual love and felix culpa (p. 105).

  21. Kirsch, pp. 94-95, makes a point similar to mine about the Duke's treatment of Angelo.

  22. Like so many aspects of Measure, the morality of the bed-trick has been debated over and again. See especially Wentersdorf, pp. 142-44. See also Hawkins, p. 73, and Leech, pp. 112-13, for extremely negative responses to the Duke's scheme.

  23. Elizabeth Marie Pope, in “The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey, 2 (1949), 71-72, points out that the right to use “extraordinary means,” like disguise, was one of the more or less official privileges of an Elizabethan-Jacobean ruler.

  24. So James I also wrote in the Basilicon Doron:

    For it is not ynough that ye haue and retaine (as prisoners) within your selfe neuer so many good qualities and vertues, except ye imploy them, and set them on worke, for the weale of them that are committed to your charge: Virtutis enim laus omnis in actione consistit.

    From James I, Basilicon Doron, ed. James Craigie (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1944), I, 105. (I quote the Waldegrave MS. of 1603.)

  25. See Gless, chap. 6, for a description, similar to mine, of the Duke's method. Gless sees the Duke as a physician.

  26. On Isabella's maturation see, for instance, Parker, p. 119. Pope pp. 79-80, argues that Mariana's plea for mercy is of a “foolish” kind.

  27. That critics disagree so much over whether it is law or mercy that the Duke finally serves is but one indication that he serves both. Whether the Duke's mercy belongs to the Senecan category of clementia is hard to say; but its rational, reserved quality bears resemblance to clementia.

    I am suggesting that the term “measure” in this play ultimately connotes moderation, as Stevenson suggests in Achievement (p. 20). See also Stauffer, p. 155, for a view that “measure for measure” is a titular reference to the Aristotelian mean.

Jessica Slights and Michael Morgan Holmes (essay date summer 1998)

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SOURCE: 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.

[In the following essay, Slights and Holmes highlight the role of religion in Measure for Measure through an analysis of Isabella's character.]

The symbolic centrality of religion in Measure for Measure comes as no surprise; after all, much of the play involves complications that are provoked by the machinations of a duke disguised as a friar. On a more political level, Shakespeare's play encourages audiences to consider the ways in which religion might facilitate personal desires and enable characters to challenge dominant social norms. In particular, the character of Isabella illustrates the implication of religious devotion and institutions in questions of moral agency and cultural reproduction. As a woman about to become a novice of the Order of Saint Clare, Isabella's desire to lead a cloistered existence defies early modern gender norms and suggests ways in which women could find self-affirming affective life together.

Our initial motivation for engaging with this topic was a discomfort with critical appraisals which assign Measure for Measure to a tradition of early modern antimonasticism. At the same time, though, we recognize the importance of these earlier investigations in turning attention to religious issues. Darryl J. Gless, for instance, valuably situates the play within antimonastic legal, ecclesiastical, and literary contexts, focusing on accusations of pride, avarice, hypocrisy, and cupidity leveled against nuns and monks by medieval satirists and reformers such as Luther, Calvin, and Tyndale.1 In this study, however, we take Gless's recognition of the importance of Isabella's status as a novice in a new direction by pointing to the sympathetic portrayal of Clarist life reflected in Isabella's determined support for “fasting maids, whose minds are dedicate / To nothing temporal.”2 Shakespeare, we argue, sets the volitional restraints of convent life in stark opposition to the coercive regulations of public morality practiced by Vienna's secular authorities, thereby drawing attention to the positive aspects of monastic life.

We also engage with recent sex/gender criticism of the play. In their work on Measure for Measure, Kathleen McLuskie, Barbara J. Baines, and Carolyn E. Brown fail to problematize adequately a limiting conception of womanliness that regards disinterest in heterosexual marriage as a complete renunciation of sexuality.3 By accepting the normative definitions of gender roles articulated by the male characters in the play, each of these critics reads Isabella's vocation as instrumental to her victimization by a manipulative patriarchy. Mario DiGangi has a more thorough appreciation of the multiplicity of women's sexual desires, but he too assumes that, along with Mistress Elbow, Juliet, and Mariana, Isabella becomes a wife at play's end.4 We hope to demonstrate instead that Isabella's religious devotion actually allows her to resist pressures to marry. As Katherine Eisaman Maus ably shows, “any link between desire and marriage in the play seems to have snapped,” and marriage functions primarily as a form of social “discipline” that attempts to override the “invisibility, inwardness, and incalculable idiosyncrasy” that characterize the citizens of Shakespeare's Vienna.5 At the end of her analysis of Measure for Measure. Maus argues that sexual desire's “fundamental unruliness” opens the possibility of unorthodox interpretations of Isabella's aspirations and fate.6 Modifying Maus's position, we propose that Isabella's spiritual desires (which may possess an erotic or sexual component) more precisely empower her to resist marital disciplinary measures.

Isabella's yearning for solidarity among women in an all-female community undermines, we suggest, the production of conventional sex/gender identities and the play's heteronormative telos. Drawing on historical and theoretical considerations of early modern nuns' lives and the relations among desire, religion, and the conscience, we examine efforts to subjugate Isabella to a normative definition of womanliness and her own attempts to achieve an alternative existence. On our account, the play's last scene does not necessarily signal Isabella's passive acquiescence to Duke Vincentio's marriage proposal, but may be interpreted as an affirmation that convent life offers her an enriching sense of community and a positive feeling of control over her own destiny.


Although there has been a tendency among critics of the 1970s and 1980s to dismiss early modern religious institutions as organs of repression, revisionist historians have more recently sought to emphasize the emancipatory potential of the experiences that religious sisterhood offered its members. The essays collected in Craig A. Monson's volume The Crannied Wall, for instance, put to rest what Katherine Gill, one of the contributors, labels the general “monochromatic” idea of early modern nuns' lives.7 Even after the strict post-Tridentine reforms, life in an early modern convent could offer an intelligent woman like Isabella outlets for creative expression. By recovering early modern texts both by and about religious women, historians and literary critics give us a rich picture of nuns whose lives frequently involved as much creative labor as prayer.8 Carolyn Walker Bynum's bibliography, for instance, includes a number of works written by fifteenth-century monastic women, while Isobel Grundy discusses the historical chronicles of seventeenth-century English nuns.9 As A. F. C. Bourdillon observes, Clarists had the opportunity to read widely in theology and mysticism,10 and, as Nicholas Orme explains, many early modern nuns had the chance to share their learning and creativity through teaching.11 Monastic women also composed music, painted, and took active roles in architectural and decorative projects.12

In addition to acknowledging the creative outlets convent life afforded, an investigation of Isabella's position as a novice requires a sensitivity to women's desires for strong affective bonds—including homoerotic ones—with other women and their frequent discovery of those connections in convent life. Along with artistic endeavors, everyday activities such as cooking for one another, praying together, gardening, and tending each other's illnesses had the potential to draw cloistered women into loving friendships. The “mutual touching, kissing, rubbing, and … cleaning” that marked the daily chores of early modern nuns provided a physical intimacy that was integral to a shared spiritual vocation.13 As Grundy observes, seventeenth-century accounts of convent life by English nuns almost always include attention to the duties of good housekeeping. The communal history of Saint Monica's convent at Louvain, for instance, reveals that “shared domesticity” was a principal component in the affectionate relationships between nuns and a way to assert the biblical paradox that, in a place of apparent weakness, there was actually strong familial love in a self-renewing community.14

The companionship made possible by religious sororities inevitably posed both tacit and explicit challenges to men's control over women's bodies and minds. Unfortunately, women who discovered in convent life a source of resistance did not always escape punishment. For instance, Shakespeare was probably familiar through Holinshed's account with the story of Elizabeth Barton. As a result of her public opposition to the king's divorce and marriage proceedings, Barton became the first female martyr to the Catholic cause during the Henrician Reformation. Known popularly as “the Nun of Kent,” she entered the convent of Saint Sepulchre near Canterbury in 1525 and was vilified as a fraud and executed at Tyburn only nine years later. Barton was at least well remembered by the Benedictine nuns who, upon her death, purchased from the state some of their sister's homely personal possessions.15

The late-seventeenth-century publication of Mary Astell's Serious Proposal to the Ladies … By a Lover of Her Sex (1694 and 1697) indicates the persistent linkage of female oppositionality and conventual ideals, as well as the long-standing belief held by numerous English Protestant women that the dissolution of the convents had stripped them of an important alternative to married life.16 Unlike Roman Catholicism, Protestantism offered women no positions of social power, the role of a pastor's wife being a weak substitute for that of an abbess.17 Added to the emotional and spiritual distress of their forcible removal from their communities was the suffering experienced by English nuns at the dissolution as a result of the acute penury in which many of them were left to survive. In the diocese of Lincoln, for example, sixty percent of nuns were pensioned off at a rate of £2 or less, while only six percent of monks received such inadequate stipends.18 Throughout England, lay sisters and novices received nothing because it was assumed that they could marry.19

Despite the changes wrought by the dissolution, many English women continued to turn to Catholicism and to convent life in order to assert their independence and to express politically unorthodox views. Elizabeth Throckmorton and Elizabeth Cary are just two of the women known to have found in their associations with convent life both refuge and an inspiring sense of community. At the dissolution of the three houses of the Minoresses in 1539, Elizabeth Throckmorton of Coughton, the abbess of the Clarist convent at Denny, regrouped several of her sisters in her family's Warwickshire home. While their physical buildings had passed into the Crown's possession, until her death in 1547 Throckmorton and her companions maintained the spirit and practices of the Poor Clares, and stand as historical testament to the determination of certain women to keep their communities alive.20 Although she herself never took the veil, in 1626 Elizabeth Cary defied social pressure and her husband's authority by formally and publicly converting to Roman Catholicism. Despite the hardship that her scandalous defection from both Protestantism and marital obedience brought her, Cary later successfully encouraged four of her daughters to become nuns.21

By diminishing women's mobility, independence, social status, and opportunities for positive community life, England's legislators attempted to negate what had for centuries been a locus of female empowerment. If the English Reformation succeeded in inhibiting official religious sororities, however, it had more difficulty quelling public debate about the value of the contemplative life. Indeed, monasticism in Measure for Measure ought to be examined in light of the remarkable tenacity with which sympathy for Roman Catholicism endured in post-Reformation England. J. J. Scarisbrick points to how the work of Marian priests and lay people (in particular, women) ensured the survival of the old faith through Elizabeth's reign and well into the seventeenth century.22 On a similar note, Christopher Haigh has recently detailed the strong doctrinal, priestly, and material (icons, vestments, altars, etc.) continuity between medieval Catholicism and its post-Reformation incarnations as religious conservatism and eventual recusancy.23 Eamon Duffy also points out that a basic dislike of change and an ingrained Catholic instinct caused even “well-schooled subjects” to respond to vigorous Protestant reforms with inaction and concealment.24 Such demonstrations of the survival of the old faith in England gainsay the assumption that few if any in Shakespeare's audiences would have imagined a cloistered vocation to be a fulfilling life.

There were many people in early modern Europe and England, however, who mocked and opposed nuns' supposedly threatening liberties. Discussions of cloistered women's religiously sanctioned but socially problematic freedoms and the rejection of heterosexual love that their lifestyle occasioned inevitably found their way into literature through accusations of hypocrisy and sexual perversion. Satirization of same-sex desire between monastic women appears, for instance, in both Erasmus's widely read “The Girl With No Interest in Marriage” (Virgo …) and in Clement Marot's lively French translation of that colloquy.25 By 1604, the year of Measure for Measure's first recorded performance, post-Reformation England had also seen the development of a strident strain of anti-Catholicism that routinely targeted convent life for ridicule. Andrew Marvell's characterization in “Upon Appleton House” of the sodomitical Cistercian nuns as “Hypocrite Witches” is a well-known example of such negative attitudes toward women who chose sisterhood over marriage.26

Not all the literary evaluations of monasticism, however, were negative. This plurality of perspectives is attested to by the fact that Edmund Spenser—a writer who usually took a dim view of monks, friars, and nuns—voiced occasional support for monastic ideals.27 Shakespeare too at times presented convent life as a valid alternative to marriage. In A Midsummer Night's Dream Duke Theseus counsels Hermia to examine her “desires,” and to ask herself whether she

can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mew'd,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chaunting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.


Even Theseus, however, acknowledges the divine nature of clausura, noting that “Thrice blessed [are] they that master so their blood / To undergo such maiden pilgrimage” (74-75).28

The negative elements of Theseus's commentary can be understood not so much as satirizing Catholic devotional practice as responding anxiously to nonreproductive same-sex relations. As Valerie Traub notes in her discussion of early modern dramatic treatments of women's homoeroticism, even when such desires and friendships are not vilified they are relegated to an elegiac past. “Heterosexual desire is produced and inserted into the narrative,” she suggests, “in order to create a formal, ‘natural’ mechanism of closure.”29 Thus, the naturalization of heteronomativity is a matter of both social coercion and manipulative generic convention. Not only does female same-sex desire threaten to destabilize familiar patterns of social behavior, but it also risks disrupting conventional comic tropes and structures.

Measure for Measure constitutes an intriguing complication of Traub's insightful analysis. We suggest that the options afforded women by religious sorority call for the expansion of Traub's conclusions to include same-sex female solidarity expressed through the bonds of religious sisterhood. Such unions offer a form of mutuality that explicitly defies heteronormative closure just as powerfully as it asserts the existence of alternative options for women. Like DiGangi, we are interested by Isabella's “history of homosocial independence and cherished virginity.”30 These two aspects of her character encourage a critical awareness that female solidarity and the potential for choice entailed by the very existence of the homosocial convent and its warrant of virgin chastity remind audiences and readers of the variety of possible constructions of female identity and lifestyle the play offers.

Through its representative, Isabella, the convent of the Clares is made a constant presence in the Vienna of Measure for Measure. Shakespeare's decision to make Isabella a sister of Saint Clare was likely based on an awareness of the order's reputation for asceticism as well as a knowledge of its tradition of resisting patriarchal control. The eponymous Order of Saint Clare—the first of the enclosed sororities—was founded at Assisi, Italy in 1212. At eighteen years of age, Clare received the habit from the hands of Francis of Assisi and, despite dogged protest by her family, entered into monastic life. Clare was eventually joined by other women, including her own mother, sisters, and nieces. Setting a standard of absolute poverty and great austerity of life, she eventually established the Second Order of Saint Francis at San Damiano. Clare's most important cultural legacy was her long battle with the church fathers over her right to compose the rule of her order. In 1253, only two days before her death, Clare was victorious; her rule was approved for use and the Clarists' right to self-determination was confirmed.

In England, the Middle English version of the Rule of the Second Order, or “Menouresses enclosid,” testifies to the continued importance the Clarists placed on chastity and silence. Drawn up circa 1263 (and later revised by Pope Boniface VIII), this version of the rule was probably written for use in the Convent of the Minories in London. According to the rule, chastity and silence are central to the vows taken by the Clarists: “I Suster … bihote to god & owre ladi blissid mayde marie & to seynt Fraunces, to myne ladi seint Clare & to alle seyntis … be alle (th)e time of myne life, In obedience, In chastite, wi(th)owte properte or voyse in (th)e Cloyster.”31 In terms of Shakespeare's naming and characterization of Isabella, it is important to note that this uniquely English version of the Rule of the Second Order is known as the Isabella Rule after its author, the Blessed Isabella, sister of Louis IX, King of France, and founder of the monastery of the Humility of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Longchamp, near Paris.32 G. K. Hunter argues that the names of Isabella and her companion nun, Francisca, indicate Shakespeare's “detailed knowledge” of the Clarist presence in predissolution England.33 Hunter's tracing of her Clarist lineage supports our claim that Isabella's strong convictions go beyond mere personality quirk and are instead grounded in a powerful and potentially oppositional woman-centered social environment.


Like Saint Clare's dream of founding a religious order for women, Isabella's desire to become a nun involves a dissident repudiation of men's right to control women's destinies. When we speak of “dissidence” here, we do not have in mind full-scale revolution, but rather the various tactical actions that allow individual agents to resist coercive authority in their daily lives. Such dissident acts are often necessary to accommodate fundamental personal desires and ought, therefore, to be considered techniques of social survival as well as, at times, critical interventions in otherwise hegemonic cultural formations. Jonathan Dollimore argues that “desire” often makes it appear that women and men freely choose their own destinies when, in fact, desire is an ideologically constrained dimension of thought and volition.34 Although we accept that there are no primordial desires which reveal the “truth” of human nature, we nonetheless want to argue that it is precisely at the level of desire that individuals in Measure for Measure are able to resist and reshape the material and ideological forces that constitute their social experience. Nowhere in Shakespeare's play is this better demonstrated than in those desires filtered through religion, a phenomenon implicated in political, sexual, and devotional agency.

Early modern people were acutely aware that ideological systems and social structures are susceptible to fragmentation and change.35 Gaps between individual desires and official norms frequently lead to the disturbance of cultural and political values. In Measure for Measure such a gap is produced through the juxtaposition of Isabella's desire to find a fulfilling life outside the bonds of marriage and state authorities' attempts to deploy religion as a means of policing public morality. Disguised as a monk, Duke Vincentio, for instance, attempts to shape his subjects into devout, orderly, and hence nonthreatening citizens. Stephen Greenblatt and Dollimore point to the Machiavellian component of the duke's attempt to effect an internalization of ideological norms and thereby render his citizenry compliant.36 According to Machiavelli, Roman history proves that religion aids “in the control of armies, in encouraging the plebs, in producing good men, and in shaming the bad.”37 Vincentio's strategy entails just such an appropriation of religion in order to produce “good men” (see Measure 1.2.43-45), most obviously by invoking a weighty contemplatio mortis tradition (3.1.6-11, 19-21).38 The Duke is interested in manipulating Claudio's spiritual identity because he recognizes that it is the conscience which must be shaped in order to produce a docile and pliant citizen. As Claudio's fear and despair show, however, in Measure for Measure control over the conscience is not so easily achieved. In fact, a more powerful but seldom noted connection between religion and conscience in the play explains Isabella's ability to resist such manipulation.

Isabella is first mentioned by her imprisoned brother Claudio, who instructs Lucio to inform her of his plight and to ask her to petition Angelo, the duke's surrogate, for his release. Claudio's description of Isabella informs an audience that she is scheduled to enter a convent as a novice this same day, and that she has powerful persuasive abilities:

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.


Claudio's description of Isabella is a strange amalgam of mixed metaphor and oxymoron. The image of a “prone and speechless dialect” that he identifies with his sister's particular talent for persuasion (and, implicitly, with his own hope for survival) is ambiguous and erotically charged. Claudio hints that while she has developed and practiced the art of verbal persuasion, his sister's youthful body possesses even greater persuasive potential. By yoking Isabella's logical and rhetorical skills—her ability to “play with reason and discourse” to change men's minds—with “speechless” seduction, he intimates an even more compelling bodily discourse and foreshadows the paradoxical role Isabella is to play as his defender and, later, as his accuser.

If Claudio's exchange with Lucio paints a portrait of Isabella in which agential force resides within her, the language and action of the following scenes further complicate this understanding of representational strategies and social dynamics. When we first encounter Isabella she is at the convent of the “votarists of Saint Clare,” discussing with a nun named Francisca her wish for “more strict restraint / Upon the sisterhood” than even the Order of the Poor Clares, renowned for its severity, requires (1.4.4-5). This picture of Isabella clashes fairly dramatically with that drawn earlier by her brother. Here, Isabella associates her religious vocation with a personal desire for restrictions on social interaction and emphasizes her proclivity for taciturnity, if not silence, rather than the oratorical skills her brother chose to accent. While some might regard the Viennese convent as a place of unnatural and coercive repression and surveillance, the history of clausura that we have charted encourages a recognition that many women found personal security and tenderness in such an environment. Given the Clarist emphasis on silence, the actors performing the roles of Francisca and Isabella have an opportunity to convey this affectionate side of nuns' lives through a recurrent readiness to communicate through “speechless” (but not action-less or emotion-less) silence.

Like Saint Clare, Elizabeth Throckmorton, and her other historical analogues, Isabella must find a way to negotiate the competing claims of, on the one hand, male relatives and their authority, and, on the other, her desire for a cloistered life spent solely among other women. When Lucio tries to convince Isabella to act on behalf of Claudio—“All hope is gone, / Unless you have the grace by your fair prayer / To soften Angelo” (1.4.68-70)—Isabella is at first unwilling to accept the task. While Lucio interprets Isabella's reticence as insecurity—she speaks in the briefest of sentences only to greet her visitor and to question him regarding his business—her relative silence suggests an aversion to leaving the convent and a disinclination to abandon its restrictions on speech. Indeed, Lucio's noisy arrival at the convent gates affords a direct glimpse of the quiet, female world Isabella has chosen to enter.

Turning again to the English Poor Clares' emphasis on silence, it is possible to detect what is likely an important precedent for Shakespeare's treatment of Isabella and Francisca:

Silence, be it alle Sustres holden in soche maner, (th)at (th)ey speke nat wi(th)oute licence no one to o(th)er, ne to none o(th)er, sauynge (th)efebel & (th)e syke. But alle gates (th)at (th)e Abbesse, or presedente take kepe ententifeliche in whoche place, whan, & how sche schal gif licence to sustris for to speke. … Whan anybodi to any of (th)e Sustris schal speke, First schal (th)e Abbesses be warnid … And allegatis (th)at (th)e sustris whiche haue for to speke to any straunger, (th)at (th)ey be welware (th)at (th)ey aboundyn nat hem for to speke in vayne wi(th) owtyn profit & houre longe.39

Echoing the general precepts governing speech among members of the Order articulated in this part of “The Rewle,” Francisca's words to Isabella emphasize the separation from a male-centered world of business that convent life in Measure for Measure entails:

It is a man's voice. Gentle Isabella,
Turn you the key, and know his business of him;
You may, I may not; you are not 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.
He calls again; I pray you answer him.


Francisca's reassuring tone stands in marked opposition to Lucio's boisterously invasive greeting. “Ho! Peace be in this place!” Lucio cries from offstage, inviting an audience to acknowledge that Isabella is only likely to find true peace once she has fully entered into the companionate and silent life of sisterhood for which she yearns. Although the rules of her order are strict, there is no hint of coercion or repression in Francisca's speech. Isabella is free to communicate with this visitor, she insists. Once Isabella has chosen to take the final vows of her order, however, she, like Francisca, will have elected to enter an environment in which her sisters will be her constant companions.40

Apparently either ignorant or disdainful of clausura's interdictions against speech and mixing in society, Lucio hollers outside the gates of the convent while the women continue their calm conversation. Once he has gained access to the convent, Lucio is no less abrasive. Ignoring Isabella's first tentative inquiry (“Who is't that calls?” [1.4.15]), Lucio assails her with chatter and innuendo. His instructions to Isabella recast Claudio's earlier confusion of rational persuasion with physical seduction:

Go to Lord Angelo,
And let him learn to know, when maidens sue,
Men give like gods; but when they weep and kneel,
All their petitions are as freely theirs
As they themselves would owe them.


The connotations of the word “sue” in this speech include an eroticized wooing or courting. Whether or not an audience catches Lucio's pun, it seems clear that his strategy for securing Claudio's release depends upon the persuasive force of Isabella's physical presence. Significantly, Isabella does not respond directly to Lucio's scheme or its method, but does finally agree with an unenthusiastic, “I'll see what I can do” (1.4.83). Isabella's offhand, even sullen promise sounds more like the stuff of late-twentieth-century adolescence than of early-seventeenth-century sisterhood, and signals her grudging acceptance of familial duty rather than eager approbation of Lucio's plan.

Isabella again demonstrates her lack of enthusiasm during her initial visit with the Duke's deputy. At first, her suit is unsuccessful; she turns to leave after Angelo's first rebuff and stays on only at Lucio's further prodding. “Give't not o'er so,” urges Lucio,

To him again, entreat him,
Kneel down before him, hang upon his gown;
You are too cold. If you should need a pin,
You could not with more tame a tongue desire it;
To him, I say!


Although Isabella obeys Lucio's command to remain, she chooses not to use the strategies of persuasion he recommends. Rather than deploying the “speechless dialect” of body language—rather than throwing herself at Angelo's feet and hanging upon his gown—Isabella attempts to win over the deputy by appealing to his reason and faith, relying on rhetorical skill and ethical argument instead of on physical seduction to persuade him.

Importantly, Isabella does not begin to “move” Angelo until she deploys a discourse of religiosity, a strategy of persuasion foreshadowed by Lucio's earlier instructions regarding “grace” and “fair prayer.”41 The concept of mercy is key to Isabella's rhetoric:

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.


Framed by an appeal to Angelo's secular power, Isabella's speech invokes Christ's merciful dealings with humankind. Rather than attacking his right or might as the Duke's surrogate, Isabella equates Angelo's political powers with those of divine governance. By speaking compassionate words, she suggests, Angelo can become the source of life; by exercising Christian mercy, Angelo might claim both the power of creation and the salvation of the just. Here and elsewhere, Isabella's words allude to the title of Shakespeare's play as they recall Christ's injunction from the Sermon on the Mount:

Iudge not, that ye be not iudged. For with what judgement ye iudge, ye shalbe iudged, and with what measure ye mete, it shalbe measured to you againe. And why seest thou the mote that is in thy brothers eye, and perceivest not the beame that is in thine owne eye? … Hypocrite, first cast out that beame out of thine owne eye, and then shalt thou see clearely to cast out the mote out of thy brothers eye.42

Angelo, the play's principal “hypocrite,” defends his decision to condemn Claudio by denying his own agency, a tactic that enables him to eschew mercy: “It is the law, not I, condemn your brother” (2.2.80). Angelo's recourse to abstract and inherited principles of justice belies both the constructed character of the law and the necessary role of human agency in administering its precepts.

As Judith Butler points out, a judge derives power through “citation”; “it is through the invocation of convention that the speech act of the judge derives its binding power; that binding power is to be found neither in the subject of the judge nor in his will, but in the citational legacy.”43 Indeed, Angelo's defense accords with an early-seventeenth-century shift in English jurisprudence away from reason and the recognition of contingency and toward historical precedent as the guiding force in legal decisions.44 The increased inflexibility entailed by this shift is reflected in Angelo's invocation of originary precedent:

The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept.
Those many had not dar'd to do that evil
If the first that did th' edict infringe
Had answer'd for his deed. Now 'tis awake.


According to Isabella, the law's awakening entails the slumbering of human compassion and virtue, and the establishment of “tyrannous” rule (2.2.108). In essence, Isabella does little more than remind Angelo of the full extent of his own power. Angelo is no longer simply an advisor to Duke Vincentio and hence an agent of the law; he is, albeit temporarily, the final authority in Vienna and it is to this ultimate power, this quasi-divine agency, that Isabella appeals. “Mortality and mercy in Vienna,” her arguments seek to remind him, “Live in thy tongue and heart” (1.1.44-45; our emphasis). Worldly justice is always administered subjectively, Isabella asserts; because of its contingent origin justice can and ought to be administered mercifully.

The first clear verbal indication that Angelo has been upset occurs as a result of Isabella's powerful directive to

Go to your bosom,
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That's like my brother's fault. If it confess
A natural guiltiness, such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother's life.


In an aside, Angelo reveals the consternation that Isabella's words have provoked—“She speaks, and 'tis such sense that my sense breeds with it” (2.2.142)—and he immediately attempts to dismiss her from his presence. Isabella's instruction to Angelo to “Go to your bosom, / Knock there” conforms to the Socratic dictum “Know thyself,” a philosophic commonplace much repeated in humanist circles. In addition, however, it suggests an intriguing doubleness in Angelo's identity. On the one hand, Angelo possesses a social, exterior persona as Viennese administrator; on the other, Isabella posits a more fundamental, “natural” self described as inward yet discoverable. Drawing on a Christian ethic of recognizing shared abjection before God, Isabella attempts to provoke in Angelo an awareness of his common humanity with Claudio and, from there, to inspire him to pity and assist other people. Isabella's rhetoric of self-knowledge and shared guilt problematizes a mainstay of Angelo's official position—the equivalence of actions and agents—a view articulated when he claims: “Mine were the very cipher of a function, / To fine the faults whose fine stands in record, / And let go by the actor” (2.2.39-41). Angelo fears that by recognizing his common humanity he will become a “cipher,” a thing that according to the OED “fills a place, but is of no importance or worth, a nonentity, a ‘mere nothing.’”46 In order to count in the world, according to Angelo, one must strictly conform to prescriptive moral and legal codes. Isabella instead deciphers normative ethics, showing that juridical categories of being and nothingness, innocence and guilt, are culturally constructed tools necessary for social ordering and exploitation.

Isabella's understanding of human identity and culpability insistently takes into consideration people's intentions as well as the results of their actions; she also applies reason to each case and judges each independently, thereby throwing into stark relief the brutish side of civil order.47 As Isabella insists, and as a wary audience likely all along suspects, Angelo's claim for impartial objectivity and unified identity is a sham. When confronted with the power of Isabella's insight, his facade crumbles. Alone on stage, Angelo confesses his moral turpitude:

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.


Even the indirection of Angelo's third-person syntax unsettles his vaunted coherence when he asks, “What dost thou? or what art thou, Angelo?” (2.2.172). Angelo is indeed following Isabella's advice and inquiring as to what guilt his heart knows; yet, obdurately focused on his own sexual lust, he is unwilling to take the charitable next step.

Almost prophetically, Isabella's words about “natural guiltiness” come back to haunt her, as Angelo conceives a lustful passion for the Clarist novice:

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.


Angelo's use of the word “heaven” twice in this short speech points to the precariousness of even the most basic religious and ethical tenets. Without an agent's will, all the heavenly doctrine in the world cannot ensure goodness if a person refuses to digest it. Words, the play reminds us, do not bear a necessary affinity to a person's inward desires and “inventions”; they can also easily be perverted from their common signification.48

Seeking to fulfill his own sexual desire, Angelo resorts to brute force, attempting to trade Claudio's life for Isabella's virginity: “You must lay down the treasures of your body / To this supposed, or else to let him suffer” (2.4.96-97). Even as he seeks to take advantage of his privileged position as Vienna's supreme patriarch, Angelo's words direct attention to the gendering of experience that authority inculcates:

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.


Angelo's lines associate the life of a woman with servitude and demand that Isabella adopt a costume that signifies her subjection. He emphasizes his conviction that the outside of a woman—her anatomical “external warrants”—must conform to a predetermined inward narrative of sexual desire that confirms his own limited notion of identity coherence. Angelo's strategy of molding Isabella confirms Butler's observation that “femininity is … not the product of a choice, but the forcible citation of a norm.”50 As his words reveal, Angelo desires Isabella to be really “feminine.” The fact, however, that Angelo requires Isabella to supplement her “external warrants” with a womanly “livery” (i.e., the costume of a servant) demonstrates his anxious recognition that gendered “destiny” could be a semiotic, and not necessarily a biological or metaphysical, phenomenon.

The gender aporia that Angelo's talk of performance and fate reveals encourages playgoers and readers to ponder what other identificatory options might exist for Isabella. While Angelo's notion of what a woman can be rejects plurality, his words ironically signal an important connection that bears on subsequent developments in the play. “If you be more, you're none,” claims Angelo. No matter how Isabella is costumed at this moment, attentive audience members will note the play on the word “none” which, in this context, relates to Angelo's equation of the nonconforming woman with nothingness—that is, if a woman won't have sex with a man she has no identity—as well as to Isabella's chosen profession as a sister of the Order of Saint Clare. With this deft doubleness of signification, Shakespeare establishes in Isabella's office as a nun a radical challenge to patriarchal gender norms that predicate female identity on insemination. At once a chaste bride of Christ and a politically savvy woman, Isabella is “more than” a woman in Angelo's terms and as such constitutes a forceful challenge to conventional assumptions about the connection between sexuality and female identity. While the male characters in the play seek to define her according to conventional secular categories of womanliness, Isabella's role as future nun is powerful proof of the inadequacy of conceptions of gender that insist on yoking identity to sexual behavior.

In Measure for Measure the corrosion of normative gender identities is not confined to womanliness; manliness, too, comes under demystificatory scrutiny. When Angelo demands that she acknowledge the essential frailty of women, for instance, Isabella agrees but undercuts his normative logic by arguing that all selves are created selves:

Nay, women are frail too.
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.


This passage is often read as Isabella's restatement of the common assumption that women are by nature weak, vain, and therefore susceptible to sexual exploitation by men.51 Her clever manipulation of familiar images, however, reveals Isabella as anything but “credulous.” She begins by comparing women to glass on the basis of their shared fragility. Her simile, however, not only evokes the proverbial association of glass with virginity, but also yokes women with mirrors through their shared ability to create forms. Women make forms, this figure suggests, not simply by having children, but also by having created the images they see reflected back at them in mirrors. If Isabella's image of women implies their frailty and sexual fecundity, it also emphasizes their ability to fashion themselves. As the pronoun slippage at lines 127-28 and 129 suggests, if women are creators of selves, so too are men. The ambiguity of Isabella's pronoun use when she asserts that “men their creation mar” suggests she is arguing not simply that women are frail and malleable, but also that women are creative and men are malleable.

At the end of her brief speech, Isabella picks up on Angelo's earlier comparison of the unlawful begetter of children and the counterfeiter (“their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven's image / In stamps that are forbid” [2.4.45-46]). As the subject of Isabella's sentence shifts from “they” (women) to the collective—or at least gender-ambiguous—“we” (socially constructed selves), her figurative image evolves into a metaphoric association of imprintable selves with the soft metal of coins that take the print of sovereigns.52 Isabella's final punning homonym drives her dual point home: Angelo's identity is a constructed one, and men and women alike must be wary of both “false prints” in general and the false prince to whom she is speaking in particular.

Isabella recasts her criticisms in even more pointed language when she rails at Claudio for wanting her to exchange her chastity for his life:

Oh, 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?


In addition to pointing out the ideological nature of masculinity—a man is “made,” not born—Isabella skillfully argues that Claudio's pride in both his sister's virginity and her agential force rests in their potential to fulfill his own desires. Although he employs religious imagery, Claudio's appeal is based on a claim to “natural” fraternal love: “What sin you do to save a brother's life, / Nature dispenses with the deed so far, / That it becomes a virtue” (3.1.132-34). A sinful action on his behalf, Claudio's sophistry runs, would make Isabella virtuous. For Isabella, sin can never be virtuous; a relationship that calls on her to relinquish not simply her honor but also her personal beliefs, desires, and sense of self is monstrous rather than natural.53


While some audience members might criticize Isabella's own protection of something the value of which is itself culturally constructed—as indicated especially by her evocation of the coercive notion of “shame”—many will likely be stirred by her defense of the basic right to self-determination in the face of such hostile attacks. Given what spectators see of Viennese manhood, gentle Francisca and the promise of other like-minded women cannot help but seem a relief from Lucio, Angelo, Claudio, and the duke of dark corners. In addition, Isabella's chastity is presented as much more than simply the mechanism by which she clings to the social status of maidenhead, a power that McLuskie, DiGangi, and others have identified as hollow and determined by men's desires. Understanding Isabella's values as “grounded more firmly in the secular than in the religious” realm, however, Baines suggests that Isabella is duped into self-abnegation by a constraining cultural imperative. Having made her “one great concession to the patriarchal law by renouncing her sexuality,’ Baines argues, “Isabella willingly embraces the strictest laws of the Mother Superior to escape total subjugation under the law of the patriarch or the father, signified by the phallus.”54 To understand Isabella's vows of celibacy as nothing more than a repression of natural desire (as both Baines and Angelo seem to do), or to see her chastity as merely a strategy by which she misguidedly attempts to retain agency in the secular world, is to accept a paternalist ideology that ignores early modern nuns' many positive evaluations of convent life. Isabella herself shows no sign of doing either. Rather, she presents her chastity as an instrumental part of her spiritual vocation and a material condition of her desire to devote herself to God. Indeed, Isabella's attitude toward chastity offers audiences the opportunity to consider women's sexuality as comprising more than bodily contact with men, especially for women living in a nuptial relation with Christ.55

In the final act of the drama, Shakespeare's reintroduction of the construction of gender through heteronormative sexuality and marriage provides Isabella with an opportunity to affirm her commitment to life as a nun. As disguises are shed and narrative knots united, a predictable series of marital promises is effected. Maids become wives and wives become wives; Claudio will have Juliet and Mariana will wed Angelo. This is all to be expected in a comedy. But even as the apparently paternalist agenda of the play reasserts itself and rescues these women from marginality by returning them to seemingly fulfilling places within the established hierarchy, positively troubling points of resistance to closure remain.

The equation between an actual woman and the cultural category of womanliness is evoked and challenged as Mariana—another veiled woman—appears before the newly returned duke to bear witness against Angelo. When Mariana refuses to lift her veil until commanded by her husband, but replies under questioning that she is neither wife, nor maid, nor widow, the duke, echoing his deputy's earlier words to Isabella, concludes, “Why, you are nothing then” (5.1.177). A woman who cannot comply with available models of femininity and womanly behavior, a woman without a specified role defined in terms of the men with whom she has been associated, ceases to “be” as far as Viennese patriarchy is concerned. Although intended both as an insult and as a joke, Lucio's suggestion that the veiled woman may be a prostitute (179-80), and therefore a “less than nothing” according to the entrenched social and moral hierarchy of the city-state, further illuminates the absurdity of such arbitrary and culturally constructed accounts of womanliness.

If Mariana's betrothal to Angelo occludes the disruptive potential of her marginal status, what then of Isabella's even more precarious position? Although entreated by the duke four times to marry him, Isabella never explicitly accepts his proposal. Tellingly, the first three times the duke raises the subject of marriage he expresses his intent as an imperative: “Come hither, Isabel, / Your friar is now your prince” (381-82); “And now, dear maid, be you as free to us” (388); “Give me your hand, and say you will be mine” (492). The first time, Isabella changes the subject; the second, her “I do, my lord” (399) merely reflects her agreement that “life is better, past fearing death” (397); and, upon the third, Isabella is silent, her actions left up to individual directors. Only the fourth time does the duke alter his speech pattern to sound a little more accommodating:

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 is yours is mine.


Two lines later the play ends, and readers of Shakespeare's text are left to determine for themselves whether Isabella had a “willing ear” or not. In the theater, however, an actor must visually represent Isabella's state of mind, thus allowing audience members to witness her final decision.

Bowing to what seems an unnecessarily limiting conception of comic closure, many productions of Measure for Measure offer audiences a fairly standard final tableau: Isabella smiles at the Duke and takes his arm, tacitly accepting his proposal.56 Other directors choose to disrupt both the narrative of nuptials and the comic resolution of the play's close by having Isabella turn her back on Vincentio's “motion.” We contend that neither conclusion manages to account satisfactorily for what an audience has learned about Isabella's habit of mind while also acknowledging the levity of spirit that pervades the play's final scene. In light of our foregoing analysis of gender and agency in Measure for Measure, we argue that there is little textual evidence that Isabella happily betroths herself to Vincentio. Not once does Shakespeare suggest that Isabella has undergone the kind of volitional transformation experienced, for example, by Olivia or Portia of Belmont that would motivate her to accept the Duke's offer of marriage. As Anthony Dawson points out, “the elaborate restitution at the end of Measure for Measure is more hoax than reaffirmation.”57

If a pliant Isabella, suddenly willing to sacrifice her hard-won right to self-determination, jars with the play's consistent complication of normative definitions of both identity and happiness, a fiercely hostile Isabella, ready to flaunt secular power and march back to the convent, collides with the play's insistence on the value of community and the need for humane government. Throughout Measure for Measure, Isabella recognizes the importance of her ties to the secular world, affirming the strength of both her own familial bonds as well as those of Juliet and Mariana. She also grants the necessity of secular law and secular rulers, providing that neither contravenes the laws of God. Isabella recognizes the authority of “lawful mercy”; it is the recommendation of “foul redemption” to which she objects (2.4.112-13). Neither meek acceptance nor spiteful refusal seems an acceptable characterization of Isabella's final moments on stage.

At the end of Act 5, a knowing, self-confident, and somewhat amused Isabella—rather than one who is either docile or self-righteous—would be in keeping with her desires and character as they have been revealed throughout the play. Rolling her eyes heavenward, Isabella might direct at audiences an exasperated and conspiratorial smile. The joke is, after all, on the men of the play who have yet to understand the weakness of the normative foundations on which their claims to authority are constructed. Through the course of Measure for Measure, meanwhile, Isabella has won a series of important battles that undermine such misconceptions. She has successfully defended her chastity and hence protected her right to self-determination. She has seen her brother resurrected. She has emerged victorious from both the legal and emotional turmoil of repeated and abusive encounters with an inflexible, male-centered secular world. Without undermining the comic flavor of the play's final moments, Isabella's gaze heavenward and her conspiratorial smile would signal both a firm determination to return to a life of religious devotion and a recognition that, while her battle for the right to define herself and to fulfill her own desires has been won, the war for the control of women's bodies and minds is far from over.

Assuming that her silence equals consent, most recent critics do not discuss the possibility that Isabella rejects the Duke's final attempt at coercion in favor of a return to her convent.58 We contend that Isabella's silence at the end of Measure for Measure is a dissident action constituted not in speech, but in the language of the body. When the Duke tries to gain possession of Isabella through marriage, he is met first with derision (as we have already noted, Isabella appears to mock his desire by giving her “I do” to an unrelated issue), and finally with silence. In the opening scenes of the play Isabella employs her rational and rhetorical skills to defend her brother; at the end of the play, her role in secular affairs concluded, Isabella elects to return to the ways of her Order. At Measure for Measure's end Isabella communicates in the same way that her Clarist sisters do, by not speaking. If, in the world of Shakespeare's play, being a woman entails domination and use by men, then Isabella wants no part of that injustice. Literalizing the role of a nun, someone alien to the world and its coercive measures, Isabella rejects speech. Refusing to speak the performative discourse of the secular world, Isabella dissents from the ritualized repetition of patriarchal control over women's bodies, thus making “nunsense” of Western culture's identificatory norms.59


A short speech near the play's conclusion conveys in clear terms Isabella's relation to social coercion, personal predilection, and the locus of dissenting desires. As punishments are meted out and marriages arranged, Mariana twice pleads for Isabella to join her in begging the Duke to spare Angelo, her husband-to-be. Finally agreeing to plead on Mariana's behalf, Isabella argues that Angelo should not be punished because his crime existed only at the level of thought and never physically materialized:

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


In the sentence that concludes her speech, the word “subjects” can mean either substantive entities or citizens of the state. Taken either way, the epigrammatic statement indicates the value Isabella places on the sanctity of private thoughts. If one reads “subjects” in a political sense, however, Isabella's words support an interpretation of her desire for the state to leave people's private lives alone, whether those involved are Juliet and Claudio or she and her sisters. In this sense, Measure for Measure marks a stage in the privatization of desire in Western culture, a process that began during the late Middle Ages and that seems to have gathered especial force in the seventeenth century. As boundaries between licit and illicit desires and behaviors came to be ever more regulated and defined by governmental intervention, sexualized and gendered identities began to be constructed around privatized desires.60 Isabella's desire to realize an inward spiritual turn—which involves an outward turn toward a supportive community—can be seen as part of Shakespeare's exploration of this historical transformation in ways of conceiving of identity and of possible resistance to its normative configurations.

The importance of a community of like-minded women is apparent even in the secular world of the play, especially in Isabella's relations with Mariana. In the eyes of the world both Mariana and Isabella are “nothing” and Mariana has herself spent many years living a cloistered existence in the moated grange at St. Luke's. During the unfolding of the bed trick in the final scene, the identities of Mariana and Isabella become entwined, the former telling the duke that Angelo “thinks he knows that he ne'er knew my body, / But knows he thinks that he knows Isabel's” (5.1.203-204), the syntactical complexity of her observation underscoring the two women's similarity. The religious resonance of Mariana's words similarly emphasizes a spiritual unity when, unveiling herself, she intones, in language evoking Christ's redemptive grace: “this is the body / That took away the match from Isabel” (5.1.210-11). Finally, the solidarity between Mariana and Isabella is suggested by their joint kneeling in common cause before the Duke, and the silence with which they both greet his marriage plans for them. While Mariana's desire is to move out of a cloistered space into the world of heterosexual marriage and Isabella seeks to return to a society composed entirely of women, they both experience and draw upon the solidarity of female friendships to achieve their ends.61

In Measure for Measure, invisibility and silence are vital clues to the nature of Isabella's desires. For Isabella, the physical survival of her body is of less concern than the integrity of her beliefs and values. Isabella informs Angelo that she would willingly sacrifice her life or endure torture to save Claudio (2.4.55, 99-103; cf. 3.1.104). She will not, however, “yield / [Her] body up to shame” (2.4.103-4; cf. 2.4.105-8 and 3.1.116). Describing intercourse with Angelo as “foul redemption” (113) and “abhorred pollution” (183), Isabella chooses to safeguard her “chastity” (185). The strength of her conviction is poignantly demonstrated when she looks her imprisoned brother in the eye and declares her resolution with the words: “Take my defiance! / Die, perish!” (3.1.142-43). Isabella's fortitude derives, we argue, from inward conviction. As she tells the disguised Duke several lines later: “I have spirit to do any thing that appears not foul in the truth of my spirit” (3.1.205-7). If her adamant references to “my defiance” and “my spirit” underscore the individuality of Isabella's notions of morality, her vocation for the sisterhood expresses the communal component of her ethical commitment.

The unproblematized assumption that marriage and sexual behavior are linked to gender in immutable ways is not confined to characters in Shakespeare's play-text. The dominant codes of Western public culture dictate that if you are a “woman,” to desire a “man” proves it.62 The refusal to credit women with deep and lasting emotional and possibly erotic attachments to other women is still alive in many circles today, including literary criticism. According to many people, being a “real” woman (or, for that matter, a “real” man) means leaving behind same-sex attachments as mere playthings and entering the world of adult-read: heterosexual-relationships. Isabella, however, desires a world of total female companionship within a context explicitly oriented to religious devotion. Her choice illustrates the vulnerability of even the most apparently secure of ideological formations to internal dissidence. Isabella wishes to be a nun and, therefore, according to cultural norms, is “no woman” because she does not sexually desire men. As a sister of Saint Clare, Isabella will be neither married (in corporeal terms) nor procreative. Isabella's challenge to conventional notions of what a woman is and of how she ought to use her body as well as her mind demonstrates that religion in early modern culture was much less a hegemonic absolute than a potentially dynamic zone of self-assertion and cultural critique.


  1. Darryl J. Gless, “Measure for Measure,” the Law, and the Convent (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979). We would like to thank Michael Bristol, Stephen Ahern, and Dennis Denisoff for their valuable insights and good humor. In addition, we gratefully acknowledge the financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the intellectual and economic support of the McGill Shakespeare in the Theatre Research Group.

  2. William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 2.2.154-55. All subsequent quotations from Measure for Measure and from Shakespeare's other plays are from the Riverside edition and are documented parenthetically in the text.

  3. Kathleen McLuskie, “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 88-108; Barbara J. Baines, “Assaying the Power of Chastity in Measure for Measure,SEL [Studies in English Literature] 30 (1990): 283-301; Carolyn E. Brown, “Erotic Religious Flagellation and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure,ELR [English Literary Renaissance] i6 (1986): 139-65.

  4. Mario DiGangi, “Pleasure and Danger: Measuring Female Sexuality in Measure for Measure,ELH 60 (1993): 589-609.

  5. Katharine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 158, 179, 177.

  6. Maus, Inwardness and Theater, 180.

  7. Craig A. Monson, ed., The Crannied Wall: Women, Religion, and the Arts in Early Modern Europe (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 16. On convent life in early modern England, see David Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961); Jo Ann Kay McNamara, Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); Eileen Edna Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge: The University Press, 1922). On the rich varieties of religious women's lives on the continent, see also McNamara, Sisters in Arms, and Penelope D. Johnson, Equal in Monastic Profession: Religious Women in Medieval France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

  8. Establishing a history of early modern nuns' lives has been hampered by a paucity of primary sources and by a scholarly tradition that has marginalized cloistered women's experiences. This process has been further complicated by a critical neglect of writings by early modern women. As Betty Travitsky notes, the forms of writing most common to women of the Renaissance—diaries, memoirs, occasional journals, spiritual autobiographies, and private letters—are now considered uncanonical and therefore receive comparatively little scholarly attention (The Paradise of Women: Writings by Englishwomen of the Renaissance [New York: Columbia University Press, 1989], xvii).

  9. Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991); Isobel Grundy, “Women's History? Writings by English Nuns,” in Women, Writing, History: 1640-1740, ed. Isobel Grundy and Susan Wiseman (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 126-38.

  10. A. F. C. Bourdillon, The Order of Minoresses in England, vol. 12 of British Society of Franciscan Studies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1926), 78-80.

  11. Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: The Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 60-65.

  12. See Jeryldene M. Wood, “Breaking the Silence: The Poor Clares and the Visual Arts in Fifteenth-Century Italy,” RenQ [Renaissance Quarterly] 48 (1995): 272, 267-69.

  13. Colin Richmond, “The English Gentry and Religion, c. 1500,” in Religious Belief and Ecclesiastical Careers in Late Medieval England, ed. Christopher Harper-Bill (Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell Press, 1991), 140.

  14. Grundy, “Women's History?” 132-33, 136-37. Patricia Crawford also points to the wide variety of domestic activities that could comprise a nun's religious commitment. She cites the case of Lucy Knatchbull, whose experiences as a novice speak to the association between spiritual fulfillment and daily activities like praying, reading, singing, sweeping, and washing dishes (Women and Religion in England 1500-1720 [London: Routledge, 1993, 84).

  15. On Elizabeth Barton, see Crawford, Women and Religion, 28-29; Knowles, Religious Orders, 182-gl; Alan Neame, The Holy Maid of Kent: The Life of Elizabeth Barton, 1506-1534 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971).

  16. See Retha Warnicke, “Private and Public: The Boundaries of Women's Lives in Early Stuart England,” in Privileging Gender in Early Modern England, ed. Jean R. Brink, vol. 23 of Sixteenth-Century Essays and Studies (Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1993), 133; Merry E. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 136.

  17. See Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, abr. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 141; Wiesner, Women and Gender, 193.

  18. Crawford, Women and Religion, 29-30; Wiesner, Women and Gender, 192.

  19. McNamara, Sisters in Arms, 426.

  20. See Bourdillon, Order of Minoresses, 77-84. The survival of Throckmorton's Clarist community is paralleled by that of a group of Bridgettine nuns at Mr. Yates's moated house (Lyford Grange) near Wantage in Berkshire, following the dissolution (twice) of Syon Abbey (J. J. Scarisbrick, The Reformation and the English People [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984], 140-41). See also Scarisbrick on the story of Isabel Whitehead who, after her community in Chester was dissolved, became an itinerant Catholic apostolate (151-52) and McNamara, Sisters in Arms, on the flight of English nuns, including Poor Clares, to the continent (491).

  21. It is interesting to note that while two of Cary's sons became monks in France but later recanted and returned to England, her daughters remained steadfast in their allegiances to the Benedictine convent of Cambray. See Barbara Kiefer Lewalski for a discussion of Cary's conversion as resistance to patriarchal control (Writing Women in Jacobean England [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993], 179-80). St. Monica's chronicle also includes a number of explicit and positive connections between becoming a nun and defying paternal authority and marriage (Grundy, “Women's History?” 136).

  22. Scarisbrick, Reformation, 136-61. For more information on women and Catholic survival in Protestant countries, see McNamara, Sisters in Arms, on what she calls the “‘matriarchal’ phase of Catholicism” (462).

  23. Christopher Haigh, “The Continuity of Catholicism in the English Reformation,’ in The English Reformation Revised, ed. Christopher Haigh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 178-207.

  24. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c. 1580 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), 571.

  25. Erasmus, The Colloquies of Erasmus, trans. Craig R. Thompson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965); Clement Marot, OEuvres, vol. 2 (1911; reprint, Geneve: Slatkine Reprints, 1969).

  26. Andrew Marvell, The Complete Poems, ed. George de F. Lord (1984; reprint, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 205. For a literary contextualization of these men's opinions, see Graciela S. Daichman, Wayward Nuns in Medieval Literature (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986). Judith C. Brown's study of the love and punishment of the sixteenth-century “lesbian” nun, sister Benedetta Carlini, adds a historical and continental dimension to the literary record (Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy [New York: Oxford University Press, 1986]). On the positive medieval representations of same-sex desire between cloistered women, see E. Ann Matter, “My Sister, My Spouse: Woman-Identified Women in Medieval Christianity,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2, no. 2 (Fall 1986): 80-86. In terms of Isabella, we suggest that these instances of same-sex desire between nuns validate homoerotic companionship as a possible reason for her longing to enter the convent.

  27. See Gless, Measure for Measure, 87-89.

  28. Another instance of Shakespeare's positive treatment of monasticism is the humble and dignified Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing (4.1.161-67; see Gless, Measure for Measure, 89). One might also add to this example Duke Ferdinand's peaceful conversion and decision to live a monastic life at the end of As You Like It (5.4.154-65, 181-82).

  29. Valerie Traub, “The (In)significance of ‘Lesbian’ Desire in Early Modern England,” in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, ed. Susan Zimmerman (New York: Routledge, 1992), 159.

  30. DiGangi, “Pleasure and Danger,” 605.

  31. “The Rewle of Sustris Menouresses enclosid,” ed. Walter W. Seton, in A Fifteenth-Century Courtesy Book, ed. from the ms. by R. W Chambers and Two Fifteenth-Century Franciscan Rules, ed. from the ms. by Walter W Seton (London: K. Paul, 1914), 83-84.

  32. The first two English foundations of the Order of Minoresses were made at the end of the thirteenth century in London (at the instigation of Blanche, Queen of Navarre) and at Waterbeach (by Denise de Munchensey), seven miles northeast of Cambridge. For a history of Clarist foundations in England, see Bourdillon, Order of Minoresses, 26; and John Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order From Its Origins to The Year 1517 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968). The Minories in London, one of the Order's most important houses, was surrendered to Henry VIII by Elizabeth Savage in 1539 (St. Clare and Her Order [London: Mills & Boon, 1912]). For more information on the Isabella Rule, see Walter Seton's introduction to “The Rewle,” 68-70; on the Isabella Rule's origin and the differences between it and the five other Clarist Rules, see Bourdillon, Order of Minoresses, 2-9.

  33. G. K. Hunter, “Six Notes on Measure for Measure,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 15 (1964): 167-72.

  34. Jonathan Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 73.

  35. Kevin Sharpe, Politics and Ideas in Early Stuart England (London: Pinter, 1989), 11, 13.

  36. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 24, 27; Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance.”

  37. Niccola Machiavelli, The Discourses of Niccolo Machiavelli, trans. Leslie J. Walker, vol. 1 (London: Routledge, 1975), bk. 1, disc. ii, sec. 3.

  38. See 3.1.42-43 for evidence of the temporary success of the Duke's plan.

  39. “The Rewle,” 87-88.

  40. Crawford notes that contrary to Protestant antimonastic literature, “nuns themselves wrote of their choosing a monastic life as a means of finding spiritual satisfaction” (Women and Religion, 83). She notes too that nuns had the opportunity to develop personalized modes and means of devotion within the basic structure of convent existence (84).

  41. In addition to the visual and verbal confirmation of Angelo's crisis of conscience provoked by Isabella's arguments, an audience is able to gauge Angelo's state of mind by Lucio's many encouraging and lascivious asides, such as: “Ay, touch him; there's the vein” (2.2.70); XV, to him, to him, wench! he will relent. / He's coming; I perceive't” (2.2.124-25).

  42. Matt. 7:1-3, 5, The Geneva Bible, 1602, ed. Gerald T. Sheppard (New York: Pilgrim, 89).

  43. Judith Butler, “Critically Queer,” GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 1, no. i (1993): 17-18.

  44. See Sharpe, Politics and Ideas, 174-81.

  45. Angelo, in fact, merely echoes the duke's own sentiments (1.3.20-32). By contrast, Escalus, the lord placed next in command under Angelo, represents an older, more flexible attitude toward justice, one more akin to Isabella's. Although he does not employ religious language, Escalus makes an argument parallel to Isabella's when he asks Angelo to spare Claudio's life (2.1.5-16).

  46. OED [Oxford English Dictionary], 2nd ed., s.v. “cipher,” 2 a, b. The OED records this use of the word “cipher” in Measure for Measure as its first occurrence in print.

  47. See, for example, 2.2.117-22. In Act Five Isabella demonstrates her adherence to rational deliberation when she uses the philosophy of intent to defend Angelo against the Duke's death sentence (5.1.450-54). In addition to demonstrating her merciful nature, Isabella's words associate her with a seventeenth-century interest in casuistical reasoning.

  48. Consider, for example, the unintended effects of Isabella's rebuttal of Angelo's proposition:

    were I under the terms of death,
    Th' impression of keen whips I'ld wear as rubies,
    And strip myself to death as to a bed
    That longing have been sick for, ere I'ld yield
    My body up to shame.


    Although the exquisite language of martyrdom, illness, and torture lends affective force to her argument, Isabella's corporal images seem only to fuel Angelo's lust. Unlike Carolyn Brown, we do not interpret Isabella's statement as a “perverse” “psychological nightmare” that “subconsciously” aims to encourage her “partner [sic] to sharpen his sexual appetite” (“Erotic Religious Flagellation,” 164-65). Brown's grim Freudian view of religious mortification as always indicative of displaced and perverse eroticism (see 140-41, 149, 152-58) takes too dim a view of Isabella's desires for a cloistered life. In order to understand better the phenomenon of flagellation, it is useful to go beyond eighteenth-century antimonastic sources and consult medieval and early modern writings by women on the subject. As Caroline Walker Bynum persuasively shows, the post-eleventh-century focus on somatic suffering in Western Christendom was generally regarded as a matter of imitatio Christi and a way for women to empower themselves in a patriarchal culture (Fragmentation and Redemption, 119-50, 181-238).

  49. DiGangi, in “Pleasure and Danger,” notes Angelo's “rich use of the essential ideological verb ‘to be” in this speech, a linguistic sign that betrays “an anxiety about female autonomy (as the super-feminine virgin) and its threat to male desires for ownership and control” (596).

  50. Butler, Critically Queer,” 23.

  51. See, for example, Brown, “Erotic Religious Flagellation,” 150.

  52. Anthony B. Dawson observes that women in the play are often described as “texts” that are “written on” by sex, a tactic which is part of a wide power/knowledge regime that attempts to naturalize ideological gender destiny (“Measure for Measure, New Historicism, and Theatrical Power,” SQ 39 [1988]: 336). Isabella seems to be making the related point that all identities are socially constructed.

  53. Ironically, in her rebuke of Claudio, Isabella echoes an earlier speech in which she informs Angelo that through merciful treatment of her brother he will be a “man new made” (2.2.79). Not only does this repetition (“Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?” [3.1.137]) further denaturalize masculinity, but it also eerily aligns Angelo and Claudio in hypocritical exploitativeness.

  54. Baines, “Assaying the Power,” 287.

  55. Bynum explores in depth the eroticized potentials of female piety and its growing materiality in late medieval and early modern Western Europe (see Fragmentation and Redemption, esp. 119-50, 181-238).

  56. The 1978 BBC video version of Measure for Measure, for instance, presents Kate Nelligan as a white-robed and wimpled Isabella delighted at the prospect of marriage to Kenneth Colley's Vincentio. Following a seven-second stare, Isabella smiles, puts her right hand in the Duke's outstretched left, and the two parade off with the other couples to the sound of a cheering crowd (Measure for Measure, dir. Desmond Davis, with Kate Nelligan [BBC Enterprises, 1978]). More recent productions sometimes include elements of slight conflict, but ultimately conform to the standard narrative. In his 1994 RSC production, for instance, Steven Pimlott had Isabella (Stella Gonet) slap the Duke (Michael Feast) but immediately thereafter kiss him, thereby signalling her acceptance of his proposal (John Stokes, “Exposing what men lack,” review of Measure for Measure, dir. Steven Pimlott, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, TLS [Times Literary Supplement] 4 [Nov. 1994]: 21). Declan Donnellan's 1994 Cheek by Jowl show presented Isabella (Anastasia Hille) in a traditional nun's habit in a way that, according to Peter J. Smith, “emphasised her desire to abandon modern society” especially through contrast with the late-twentieth-century garb of the other actors. Despite the strong sense of difference such costuming suggested, Donnellan's Isabella still ended up accepting the Duke's offer, even if she did so with a “weak half-smile” (Review of Measure for Measure, dir. Declan Donnellan, Cheek by Jowl, Warwick Arts Centre and Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, Cahiers Elisabethains: Late Medieval and Renaissance English Studies 46 [1994]: 85, 87).

  57. Dawson, “Measure for Measure, New Historicism,” 341.

  58. Writing in 1939, Raymond Wilson Chambers considers the possibility of Isabella's return to the convent, claiming that “Isabella will do her duty in that state of life unto which it shall please William Shakespeare to call her, whether as abbess or duchess.” Unable to leave the resolution ambiguous, however, Chambers ultimately advocates marriage and actually offers lines Isabella might have spoken after the end of the play (Man's Unconquerable Mind [London: Jonathan Cape, 1939], 307, 308). More recently, Marcia Riefer has dismissed the Clarist community entirely (“‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Construction of Female Power in Measure for Measure,” SQ 35 [1984]: 157-69). Challenging Riefer, Baines invokes the possibility that Isabella's silence is a form of resistance, but quickly says that such a scenario is “improbable” given the context of Vincentio's “intimidating power of display” (“Assaying the Power,” 299). Maus, meanwhile, supports the possibility that Isabella “flees in horror from the Duke” (Inwardness and Theater, i80); however, she never openly ponders what Isabella's destiny might be. In a short article largely devoted to uncovering Isabella's textual genealogy, David N. Beauregard does point out that the “ambiguity” of the play's end means that, for reasons of character, theme, and politics, Shakespeare distances her from outright rejection of convent life (“Isabella as Novice: Shakespeare's Use of Whetstone's Heptameron,” ELN [English Language Notes] 25.4 [June 1988]: 22). Yet, Beauregard's ultimate interpretation of the play's religious elements as “quite obviously … dramatic devices subordinated to dramatic ends” obfuscates any social commentary or intervention that such a reading might accomplish (23).

  59. Christina Luckyj's survey of the varied directorial, actorly, and critical treatments of Volumnia's concluding silence in twentieth-century productions of Coriolanus helps to confirm our position that not only is Isabella's future unconfined by marriage but that the way silence is acted can have an impact on an audience's understanding of the play as a whole. In her discussion of Volumnia's silence, Luckyj argues that Shakespeare uses the Roman matron's speechlessness to problematize the supposed transparency of intention, motivation, emotional state, and character evolution. As Luckyj points out, Volumnia's use of silence in this play bears affinities to Paulina's at the conclusion of The Winter's Tale as well as to Isabella's at the end of Measure for Measure (“Volumnia's Silence,” SEL 31 [1991]: 328).

  60. Much has been written recently on the construction of sexual and gender identities in Western culture. Among the most illuminating studies for the present argument are Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), see esp. 67-80, and, because of their relevance to early modern studies, Bruce R. Smith's Homosexuality in Shakespeare's England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) and Jonathan Goldberg's Sodometries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), see esp. 15-23, 105-43.

  61. A further Catholic link between the two women is suggested by the possibility that a contemporary audience would have noted in Mariana's name an aural echo of “Marian,” the adjective used in print since at least 1608 to signify things pertaining to Queen Mary (the restorer of the old faith to England) or her time (OED, 2nd ed., s.v. “Marian”). The OED also records use of the term “Marian” to denote a “worshipper, or devotee of the Virgin Mary” beginning in 1635, though it is highly likely that this usage was in oral circulation prior to this date.

  62. Although controversial since its appearance in 1980, Adrienne Rich's essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (Signs 5 [1980]: 631-60) is still crucial to understanding how heteronormativity constructs sexual and gender identities; on this topic, see also Butler, “Critically Queer,” 28.

D. J. R. Bruckner (review date 20 August 1999)

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SOURCE: Bruckner, D. J. R. “Lower East Shakespeare: Life Encroaches on Art.” New York Times (20 August 1999): E5.

[In the following review, Bruckner praises Jerry McAllister's use and incorporation of the surrounding neighborhood in his street-stage production of Measure for Measure.]

Were it not for the neighborhood it is in, the Expanded Arts company's production of Measure for Measure might drive an audience to distraction with its determination to turn this ambiguous, moody play into a laugh circus. But the robust neighborhood steps in with its own distractions often enough to make what is in effect a series of witty comments on this, the last production this year of the company's free “Shakespeare in the Park(ing Lot)” series.

The director, Jerry McAllister, has announced that the setting is not Vienna, but Times Square right now. How to know? Since the scenery is minimal—a low platform and two small chunks of brick wall painted on plywood—a viewer more likely will conclude that the action occurs in a municipal parking lot between Ludlow and Essex Streets south of Delancey on the Lower East Side.

It certainly is not 17th-century Vienna, but it is definitely the place for this show, which has characters careering around on in-line skates, bicycles, a little red wagon and, in the case of Pompey, Shakespeare's pimp, on a small motorized scooter. That all these toys, and much of the actors' use of them, have nothing to do with the play begins to appear amusing as the neighborhood goes about its business.

As happens all over the city, in the evening an empty lot running between two streets becomes a thoroughfare. Pompey has just putted off on his scooter and the busy hypocrite Angelo has just answered his cell phone when a local youth, passing between the north-south streets, zooms across the lot on his scooter and a van using the same short cut (no traffic lights) passes the other way, driven by a man who slows down to see what's going on and then reports his findings into his own cell phone.

In this conception of the play a remarkable number of characters are souses who stagger around and call for drink, but none of them notice several different men who carry six-packs across the lot during the evening as they make their way home from Delancey Street delis. Since no stage is marked off, as families stroll through, sometimes stopping to watch for a minute, or as people carrying bags pause to rest, it gets hard to know who is in the play. At one point a young man shuffles the length of the lot, sits on the concrete base of a light stanchion and apparently drowses off. Much later, when it comes time for the Duke, posing as friar, to find someone for the executioner to behead so Angelo will not know his scheme to kill Claudio has aborted, it turns out the dozing man is none other than the subhuman prisoner Barnardine, whose neck looks perfect to the Duke.

Altogether, this city transportation department lot is a good place for this play; it provides a fine perspective. Still, the constant trolling for laughs rankles. Someone in the company should have noted early on how effective the malaprop Elbow is at tickling audiences in just two brief appearances, and thus have been inspired to restrain Lucio, Pompey and several others who ham it up non-stop.

In the end we do not know what it was all about anyway: Angelo is caught, but has he learned anything or have we learned anything from his lust, deceit and injustice? And the Duke, as always, gets the chaste Isabella, even though he is clearly responsible for much of the corruption of his associates. It is enough to make you wonder what the neighbors gazing from windows on Ludlow Street, or even a group staging a loud brawl over on Essex, think of the morals of Shakespeare as he turned old.

Marvin Carlson (review date October 1999)

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SOURCE: Carlson, Marvin. “Measure for Measure (Kisasa Kisas).” Theatre Journal 51, no. 3 (October 1999): 320-22.

[In the following essay, Carlson reviews a Turkish production of Measure for Measure, lauding it as a radical, powerful, and effective staging of one of Shakespeare's most difficult comedies.]

The spring season announcement for the five stages that make up the National Theatre in Istanbul listed fifteen productions, one third of them Turkish plays, the rest an impressive selection of international classics (such as Goethe's Urfaust and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac) and modern works (such as Shaffer's Black Comedy and McNally's Maria Callas). One of the more unusual and provocative selections was a powerful and highly unconventional interpretation of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in one of the National Theatre's larger spaces, the Taksim Sahnesi, staged by the much-admired artistic director, Nesrin Kazankaya. Besides directing, for which Nazankaya prepared with study in Germany, she has since 1980 also served as one of the leading actresses of the National Theatre.

Although this was easily the most radical adaptation of this difficult play I have ever witnessed, it was also unquestionably the most powerful and effective. Often in Shakespeare's later dark comedies, director and actor must struggle to come to terms with extreme actions whose motives are never explained. In no play is this more troubling than Measure for Measure, the machinery of which is set into motion and ultimately stopped by the mysterious Duke, whose reasons for the odd behavior that creates the play's action are never made clear.

Director Kazankaya's solution to this problem was to change radically the conditions of the Duke's departure, providing a much clearer motivation quite unlike anything hinted at in the original. In the opening scene, the Duke (Nihat Ileri) and Escalus (here played by an actress, Gönen Aykaç, so that the two seem an elderly couple) were frantically burning papers in two open censors on an upstage platform (fire and paper would be recurring motifs of this highly visual production). The reason for this activity was soon clear. A gang of terrorist-insurgents in obligatory fatigues and ski masks (the costuming was neutral but vaguely modern) soon burst into the room, seized and bound the couple. Their leader was Angelo, who had taken control of the state and who proceeded to set up a regime of puritan excess, showing the former Duke only the mercy of sending him into exile. Suddenly, we found ourselves moved from the dark fairytale world ordinarily presented by this strange play, to a far more familiar (perhaps especially here close to the Middle East) and because familiar, more frightening and immediately relevant world in which a usurper strong man assumes power and institutes a regime of prudish severity. Yetkin Dikinciler, a tall, burly, powerful figure was a frightening and convincing embodiment of Angelo, and contrasted sharply with the thin and gaunt Ileri, whose unruly shock of snow-white hair gave him something of the appearance of a Lear, until in disguise he tied it in a ponytail and hid it under a monk's hood.

The Duke's return in disguise, suggesting in the original something of the Haran al-Rashid tradition from the Arabian Nights, became a reasonable, if dangerous, response to the situation, and as the production continued, behind the main action were continual vignettes of mysterious hooded and masked figures, rushing here and there, or, more ominously, gathered around guttering candles in dark corners in a clearly conspiratorial manner. There was little doubt that the regime Angelo seized remained unstable and that new coups were constantly brewing. Not surprisingly, the figure of the disguised Duke was often observed among these furtive shapes. The spatially complex setting, designed by Gürel Yontan, was a great aid to this clandestine behavior. Composed basically of a high scaffold platform that ran across the upstage area, accessed from downstage by one main center staircase, the set came directly toward the audience, with a small staircase on either side. The crude newel post at the top of the stairs doubled as open fires or torchieres. Under this scaffolding, a warren of never totally illuminated spaces provided the major area for the comings and goings of conspirators.

This rather straightforward neutral setting was qualified in two important ways. First, the entire stage wall behind it gave the appearance of a dim industrial or fortress surface, regularly covered at about four foot intervals by projecting studs, while the main floor was a rumpled reddish cloth, extending out over the stage front into the audience. Second, and more striking, the action continually flowed out into the auditorium, which was architecturally integrated into the setting. An actor coming down the central staircase from the upper platform could keep moving straight ahead and descend another staircase at the front of the stage into a central aisle of the auditorium, and continue heading out the back of the house or, by taking a cross aisle, out the sides. The stage was extended beyond the proscenium, and the left and right walls of the auditorium connected with staircases that led up the front edges of the balconies. Enough of an aisle ran along the front of the balconies that actors could play scenes from there as well. The balcony and auditorium generally represented the “town” and from it came the clown figures, most notably the fast-talking Lucio (Ali Düşenkalkar) and Çaçamama (Sema Çeyrekbasi), who played the renamed Mistress Overdone almost entirely in Italian, a choice that the audience seemed to find appropriate and amusing, and which was a real god-send to this non-Turkish speaking observer.

The central part of the production followed Shakespeare much more closely than the beginning and end. Ayşe Lebriz was both powerful and vulnerable as Isabella, and the scene where Angelo is drawn to her was very effectively played, with just a hint of comedy, as Angelo at first scarcely noticed her, obsessed, as he frequently was, with sorting through endless papers, and then finally focused upon his intended prey.

The ending of the production departed as radically from the original as the beginning but perfectly complemented it. The revelation of the Duke was accompanied by the same show of force as that which opened the play, but this time the hooded followers of the Duke seized Angelo and his supporters. The Duke then set up a kind of tribunal and meted out judgments, beginning in a temperate fashion which became more maniacal as he continued. Mounting the central stairs, he turned the fury that in the original is directed toward the foolish Lucio toward the usurper Angelo, and as Angelo ascended the stairs to appeal to him in a sudden violent motion the Duke slit Angelo's throat. The other cast members fled the scene in horror, some through the wings, others, led by Isabella, through the audience. The Duke continued to rage at the top of the stairs, while striking backlighting accented his wild shock of white hair and suggested more than a little Lear upon the heath. In his fury he passed his hands repeatedly through the flames of the roaring torchieres on either side of him in seeming defiance of pain. The cycle of anger, violence, and betrayal had claimed its final victim and the curtain fell with the Duke, glowing in the feverish white back lighting in a sea of flames produced by red lighting, raging over the prostrate body of his nemesis.

Ben Brantley (review date 18 June 2001)

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SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Shakespeare's Darkness is Flooded with Light.” New York Times (18 June 2001): E5.

[In the following review, Brantley praises Mary Zimmerman's production of Measure for Measure at the New York Shakespeare Festival for its straightforward and simple presentation.]

It is alarming, you must admit, to see a grown man suddenly discover that he has a sex drive. Billy Crudup takes us through such a moment with appalled eyes and gritted teeth in the spry new production of Measure for Measure in Central Park. And while Mr. Crudup is a handsome fellow, it is definitely not a pretty scene.

The rising star of films like Almost Famous and Jesus' Son, Mr. Crudup plays Angelo, lord deputy of Vienna and super-prig of all time, the sort of person, it is said, who will “scarce confess that his blood flows.”

But Angelo has just met Isabella, the comely sister of a man he has condemned to death for fornication, and suddenly the lord deputy's blood is rushing like Niagara. You can actually see a reluctant blush creep over this actor's dead-white cheeks. Rigid with surprise and self-revulsion, he wipes his folded lips with the back of his hand, as though to erase in advance any illicit kisses. What's an angry young puritan to do? For Mr. Crudup's Angelo looks to be barely out of his teens, and nature will always have her way with the young.

The Measure for Measure that was to open last night beneath open skies at the Delacorte Theater under the direction of Mary Zimmerman happily makes the point that nature is not to be denied. It seemed appropriate that seconds before the play began in a recent preview an oriole flitted across the stage, and that immediately after a white egret preened conspicuously in the pond behind.

And how obliging of all the birds who sang a noisy accompaniment to Shakespeare's winged words throughout most of the evening. For Ms. Zimmerman and her designers have chosen not to compete with the green outdoors but to take advantage of it. The keynote of Daniel Ostling's delightful set is the image of two fat leafy trees in mesh enclosures.

When you look beyond to the teeming verdure of the park itself, it seems silly to put a tree in a cage. Those souls in old Vienna who would try to pretend that man doesn't take part in seasonal efflorescence obviously haven't got a chance.

Thus does this Measure for Measure, the first of the summer offerings from the New York Shakespeare Festival, set up a determinedly optimistic frame for Shakespeare's most bizarrely sour work. This story of corruption, deception and hypocrisy has been described by Coleridge as “the only painful play” in the canon and more recently by Harold Bloom as Shakespeare's nihilistic farewell to comedy.

But Ms. Zimmerman, who provided a blithe take on the comparably disturbing All's Well That Ends Well in Chicago several years ago, is having none of this. Her response to the so-called problem plays seems to be simply: “Problems? What problems?” Rather than look for psychological consistency in the contradictions of tone, she accepts these works at face value as fables.

Mr. Bloom may see anticipations of the Marquis de Sade in Measure for Measure; Ms. Zimmerman prefers to stress its affinities with the Brothers Grimm. Deconstructing fairy tales may provide insights, but Ms. Zimmerman appears to believe that it also kills the magic.

Her Measure for Measure may not be magic of the highest order. You can get away with ignoring this comedy's essential darkness for only so long. While there are charming individual performances—especially from Sanaa Lathan as an Isabella worth sinning for and Daniel Pino as her life-loving brother—only Mr. Crudup seems to be working beneath the surface of things.

Still, Ms. Zimmerman's decision to emphasize the big metaphysical picture over authentic emotional detail pays off. What after all do you want from an alfresco entertainment on a June night, when nuanced interpretation can be lost in the drone of passing airplanes? In focusing on a grand scheme that makes fools of prudes and tyrants, and choosing the comic over the grim whenever possible, the production makes Shakespeare's notoriously unpleasant play pass by quite pleasantly.

Not surprisingly, this Measure avoids the specifically seamy visions of decadent Vienna common to recent versions (whores and their customers rife with syphilitic tics and chancres; people trussed up in black leather). Those debauchees may snort cocaine and wear mirrored glasses, but they tend to be about as sinister as the conniving animals in old Warner Brothers cartoons.

The play's gallery of vices is embodied with friendly exaggeration. Pompey the panderer (the agreeable Christopher Evan Welch) is most notable for his boot-licking sycophancy.

John Pankow plays the cynical Lucio with a cape-swirling swagger that makes him close kin to Nathan Lane's Max Bialystock. Elbow, the malaprop-dropping constable, is rendered by Tom Aulino a la Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fife.

There are inspired quick sketches of the madam, Mistress Overdone, played by Julia Gibson as a blowsy, cigarette-winded working girl, and of a nervous, briefcase-clutching john named Froth by Daniel Pearce. And Herb Foster and Christopher Donahue, as men of state, offer lovely soft-spoken performances that capture the essence of the moderation the play advocates.

The crisply spoken Joe Morton has the pivotal and impossible role of the duke, Vincentio, who hands the reigns of power to Angelo so that the duke may roam the city in priestly disguise. Looked at realistically, Vincentio is one sick puppy, a sadistic puppeteer of his subjects. Mr. Morton and Ms. Zimmerman present him instead as a smooth master of ceremonies, responsible for moving the characters into their assigned places, whose worst sin is vanity.

Like Angelo, Mr. Morton's Vincentio registers instantly that he is smitten by Isabella, the novitiate. And with Ms. Lathan in the role who wouldn't be? She's a luscious, unaffected creature, only half aware of and frightened by her attractiveness. She is also without the usual cargo of neuroses. Mr. Crudup takes care of that side of things all by himself.

Yet there is room for hope for even Angelo in this Measure. He is after all so young, and when he tries to seduce Isabella, it's with the stiff, fumbling gestures of a boy who has only just learned what a girl is. You figure that with time, he too may learn the importance of naturally doing what comes naturally.

Marcia Riefer (essay date summer 1984)

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SOURCE: Riefer, Marcia. “‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 2 (summer 1984): 157-69.

[In the following essay, Riefer argues that Isabella highlights the negative impact of patriarchy on female characters in the play, and contends that her eventual subjugation to male authority is incompatible with the dramatic tradition of romantic comedy.]

Isabella has recently been called Measure for Measure's “greatest problem.”1 She has not always been taken so seriously. Coleridge dismissed her by saying simply that Isabella “of all Shakespeare's female characters, interests me the least.”2 Criticism of her character has been cyclical and paradoxical, in part because critics have tended to focus on one implicit question: is she or is she not an exemplar of rectitude? On the one hand Isabella has been idealized as a paragon of feminine virtue; on the other hand she has been denigrated as an example of frigidity. Over the centuries, Isabella has been labeled either “angel” or “vixen,” as if a judgment of her moral nature were the only important statement to be made about her.3 When not idealizing or denigrating Isabella, critics have generally ignored her.4


The debate over Isabella's virtue obscures a more important point, namely that through her one can explore the negative effects of patriarchal attitudes on female characters and on the resolution of comedy itself.5 In the course of the play, Isabella changes 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. As the last and one of the most problematic of the pre-romance comedies, Measure for Measure traces Isabella's gradual loss of autonomy and ultimately demonstrates, among other things, the incompatibility of sexual subjugation with successful comic dramaturgy.

The kind of powerlessness Isabella experiences is an anomaly in Shakespearean comedy.6 Most of the heroines in whose footsteps Isabella follows have functioned as surrogate dramatist figures who are generally more powerful, in terms of manipulating plot, than the male characters in the same plays. One need only recall the Princess of France and her ladies in Love's Labor's Lost, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Mistresses Page and Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Viola in Twelfth Night, Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, and, of course, Rosalind in As You Like It. Those heroines who have not actually been in control of the comic action have at least participated in it more actively than Isabella ever does. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, for instance, Helena and Hermia, while admittedly acting within Oberon's master plot, still take the initiative in pursuing their loves, which is certainly not true of Isabella. Even Kate in The Taming of the Shrew exercises dramaturgical skills. In her final “tour de force” she employs those very tactics which Petruchio has taught her, reversing them subtly on him and indicating through loving opposites—as he has done in his “taming” of her—that she may have some taming of her own in store for him.7 Her “obedience” to Petruchio's dramatic manipulation is far more playful and even assertive than Isabella's obedience to Vincentio. Besides, as Richard Wheeler points out, Petruchio's long-range significance is that the model of love by male conquest he embodies very soon drops out of the maturing world of Shakespeare's comedy, to be replaced by such forceful, loving heroines as Portia and Rosalind.8

It is hardly incidental that in Measure for Measure Shakespeare places dramaturgical control almost exclusively in the hands of a male character—Duke Vincentio—who is, in effect, a parody of his more successful, mostly female, predecessors. An understanding of Vincentio's function in this play is essential background for exploring Isabella's character and dramatic function, so it is to him that we must turn our attention first.


As a dramatist figure, the Duke perverts Shakespeare's established comic paradigm in that he lacks certain essential dramaturgical skills and qualities previously associated with comic dramatist figures—qualities necessary for a satisfying resolution of comedy—especially (1) a consistent desire to bring about sexual union, what Northrop Frye calls “comic drive,”9 and (2) a sensitivity to “audience.”10 The prime victim of the Duke's flawed dramaturgy is, of course, Isabella, who, more than any of Shakespeare's heroines so far, is excluded from the “privileges of comedy,” namely the privileges of exercising control over the events of the plot—privileges from which, Linda Bamber claims, it is Shakespeare's men who are typically excluded.11 Deprived of her potential for leadership, Isabella succumbs to the control of a man she has no choice but to obey—a man whose orders are highly questionable—and as a consequence her character is markedly diminished.

That the Duke's actions are questionable is apparent from the beginning, when he unexpectedly appoints Angelo to rule in his place instead of Escalus, who, as the opening scene establishes, is clearly the logical choice. Throughout the play, the Duke continues to undermine his credibility as a dramatist figure by making decisions strictly according to his own desires without considering the responses of those he is attempting to manipulate. For instance, his lofty tone in lecturing Claudio on how to make himself “absolute for death” (III.i.5-41) is far from sensitive to the condemned man's situation. Not surprisingly, his effort fails; within a hundred lines Claudio is begging, “Sweet sister, let me live” (l. 132). Similarly unsympathetic, and similarly unsuccessful, is the Duke's attempt to convince the recalcitrant Barnardine to offer his head in place of Claudio's. This attempt results in the ridiculous appearance of a head whose owner, Ragozine, has no other purpose in the play than to cover for (even while calling attention to) Vincentio's insensitivity to the exigencies of motivation. The Duke's ineptitude as a playwright surrogate lies partly in his failure, in Viola's words, to “observe their mood on whom he jests” (Twelfth Night, III.i.62)—a failure which will prove especially detrimental to Isabella.

Another way in which the Duke perverts the Shakespearean comic paradigm is in his unusual antagonistic relationship to the “normal action” of comedy, which Frye defines as the struggle of the main characters to overcome obstacles in order to achieve sexual union.12 The Duke appears to be possessed by a comic drive toward union when he proposes the bed-trick (dubious as it is) or when he arranges what Anne Barton refers to as the “outbreak of that pairing-off disease”13 in Act V. But his explicit denial that he has anything in common with those sinners and weaklings who allow themselves to be struck by the “dribbling dart of love” (I.iii.2)—along with his implicit condoning of Angelo's revival of obsolete sexual restrictive policies (“I have on Angelo impos'd the office, / Who may, in th' ambush of my name, strike home” [I.iii.40-41])—sets him apart from earlier comic dramatists, predominantly women, whose desire was to escape, rather than to impose, sexual restriction. As Wheeler says, “Measure for Measure is guided to its comic conclusion by a character whose essence is the denial of family ties and sexuality, the denial, that is to say, of the essence of comedy.”14 Vincentio represents not love's facilitator but its “blocking” agent. In this play, the hero and the “alazon” figure—the main obstacle to resolution in a typical comedy15—are, ironically, identical. Thus, the Duke, as protagonist, also embodies those traits characteristic of a comic antagonist. The “savior” in Measure for Measure turns out to be a villain as well. (Vincentio even allies himself with the play's more obvious antagonist, announcing that Angelo can “my part in him advertise” [I.i.41] and inviting Angelo, in his absence, to be “at full ourself” [I.i.43]. The Duke's intent may be to flatter Angelo with these phrases, but by positing this unity of their characters, he leaves himself open to suspicion.)

Part of what is comically “villainous” in the Duke is his excessive self-interest. Thomas Van Laan is among those critics who point out the Duke's egotism, arguing that he “cares about his image above all else.” Van Laan describes the Duke as writer/producer/director of his own “carefully devised playlet,” a man who is “like some film star more interested in his own virtuosity than ideal representation of the script.” Indeed, the Duke's purpose for relinquishing his public responsibilities—a purpose he himself admits is “grave and wrinkled” (I.iii.5)—is reminiscent of Tom Sawyer's reason for playing dead: he wants to find out what people will say about him when he's gone.16

While some may argue that such an evaluation of the Duke as selfishly motivated is unduly harsh, there is much in this play to support it, especially in those scenes in which the Duke's actions seem well-intentioned. During the opening scene, for example, Vincentio lavishes praise on Angelo in an unnecessarily long and rhetorically elaborate passage (I.i.26-41), all the while knowing that Angelo has abandoned Mariana, an act which the Duke later calls “unjust” (III.i.240). Far from having Vienna's best interests in mind as he claims—and as many critics accept—the Duke is actually setting up Angelo for a fall while protecting himself (“my nature never in the fight / To do in slander” [I.iii.42-43]), and at the same time betraying the public as well, a public whom he admits he has effectively “bid” to be promiscuous through his permissiveness (ll. 36-38). His ultimate intention seems to be setting the stage for his final dramatic saving of the day—a day which would not need saving except for his contrivances in the first place. Vincentio's brand of dramaturgy is not as well-meaning as it first appears, and it should make us apprehensive about the Duke's potential to warp the experiences of those involved in his plots.


The female characters in this play, Mariana and Isabella, are the prime victims of the Duke's disturbing manipulativeness—a significant reversal of the roles women have played in earlier comedies. While both male and female characters serve to some extent as the Duke's “puppets,”17 only the men resist his orders; the women are bound to be “directed” by him (IV.iii.136), “advised” by him (, “rul'd” by him ( As Jean E. Howard points out, Barnardine, Lucio, and Angelo, even though punished in the end, do at times “refuse to be pawns in someone else's tidy playscript”: Barnardine refuses to die, Angelo refuses to pardon Claudio, Lucio refuses to shut up.18 Neither Mariana nor Isabella ever exhibits such defiance. Thus this play creates a disturbing and unusual sense of female powerlessness. But far from prescribing female reticence, Measure for Measure serves to reveal contingencies that make it difficult for women, even strong-willed women like Isabella, to assert themselves in a patriarchal society like Vienna—contingencies that do not impinge in the same way on the men. By allowing such contingencies to dominate the action, Shakespeare throws into question both the play's status as a comedy and the legitimacy of the prevailing social standards it portrays.

When we judge Isabella, we must consider, as Wheeler does, that she is surrounded by “the threat of sexual degradation”—a threat which, in this play, is “moved to the very center of the comic action,” while in the festive comedies that threat is “deflected by wit and subordinated to the larger movements” of those plays.19 More than any comic heroine thus far, Isabella has reason to take sexual degradation seriously. Whereas in most Shakespearean comedies the patriarchal world is peripheral to the main action, thereby allowing female characters exceptional latitude, in this play the expansiveness of a “green world” is inconceivable. Isabella has no Arden to retreat to. As Frye suggests, the green world in Measure for Measure, if present at all, has shrunk to the size of Mariana's all but inconsequential moated grange.20

The constriction of the heroine's power throughout the course of Shakespeare's pre-romance comedies has been noted by Anthony Dawson, but only with regard to Portia, Rosalind, and Helena.21 Isabella represents the logical extension of this trend. The restrictiveness of Isabella's environment in Measure for Measure is evident in her doubts about her effectiveness (“My power? Alas, I doubt—” [I.iv.77]) in the world as it must appear to her—a Vienna in which lust is rampant and in which even fiancées and wives are referred to in the same terms as whores. Elbow's speeches, for instance, denigrate, if inadvertently, his own wife: “My wife, sir, whom I detest before heaven and your honor—” (II.i.69-70), and “Marry, sir, by my wife, who, if she had been a woman cardinally given, might have been accus'd in fornication, adultery, and all uncleanliness there” (ll. 79-81). Of the female characters who appear in this play, none are actually wives, and the one who is betrothed, Juliet, is called a “fornicatress” (II.ii.23). Otherwise, one of the women has been wronged (Mariana), one is a nun who has withdrawn from this lust-infected Vienna, one is trying to withdraw (Isabella), and the last is a whore (Mistress Overdone, nicknamed Madam Mitigation) whose customers are all sent to jail, leaving her to fret over her lost income. Sex in this Vienna is to be either punished or belittled. While Claudio, the true lover, sits in prison, the rakish Lucio roams the streets, joking about getting caught at a game of “tick-tack” (I.ii.190-91). The word “healthy” could hardly be associated with female sexuality in such an environment, no matter how positively a woman saw herself.

What Isabella is afraid of, synonymous with her loss of virginity, is her loss of respect, both her own self-respect and the respect of the community. Her desire for “a more strict restraint / Upon the sisterhood” (I.iv.4-5) must be linked with a strong fear of the consequences of integrating herself into a society dominated by exploitative men. In Irene Dash's terms, “In Measure for Measure Shakespeare again raises the question of woman's personal autonomy—her right to control her body.”22 For Isabella, in light of the Vienna facing her, sexuality and self-esteem are mutually exclusive options. She has made her choice before she ever sets foot on stage. A woman in her position would not make such a decision without difficulty, even resentment. Isabella realizes that her “prosperous art,” her ability to “play with reason and discourse” (I.ii.184-85), would be wasted in the city. So she attempts to withdraw to the protective cloister—an option much missed by women in post-Reformation England.23 Just as Kate has taken “perverse refuge” behind the role of Shrew,24 Isabella tries to take refuge behind the role of Nun.

But just as Isabella is on the brink of forswearing the company of men, Lucio arrives to pull her back into it. Reluctantly she returns to Vienna, where, gradually, her character dissolves, her spirit erodes, and she becomes an obedient follower of male guidance: an actress in a male-dominated drama.


If we examine Isabella's development in this play, we can see how her sense of self is undermined and finally destroyed through her encounters with patriarchal authority, an authority represented emphatically, but not exclusively, by the insensitive Duke. Her dilemma initially becomes apparent when she appears, a mere nun, before the Duke's appointed deputy. At first she is hesitant to assert herself against Angelo and is ready, at the slightest resistance, to give up her task of persuading him to free Claudio. But with Lucio's prompting, her “prosperous art” with words becomes evident. More and more masterfully she develops her argument, pleading eloquently for her brother's life:

                                        Go to your bosom,
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That's like my brother's fault. If it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother's life.


Even though at this early point in the play Isabella is already acting according to male direction, namely Lucio's, her integrity, which she so adamantly desires to protect, is still intact. Her voice remains, impressively, her own.

But Angelo assaults that integrity when he forces Isabella to choose between her brother's life and her maidenhood. He commands her, “Be that you are, / That is a woman,” defining a woman's “destin'd livery” in no uncertain terms (II.iv.134 ff.). As hard as she has tried to avoid understanding Angelo earlier in this scene, Isabella can now no longer claim to be ignorant of his “pernicious purpose” (l. 150). When the deputy finally departs, leaving Isabella in the wake of his promise to torture her brother if she doesn't yield up her body to his will (“thy unkindness shall his death draw out / To ling'ring sufferance” [II.iv.166-67]), she cries out in exasperation, “To whom shall I complain?” Her only hope for compassion lies with Claudio: “I'll to my brother,” she declares, assured that there is at least one man in the world possessed of “a mind of honor” (ll. 171-79).

Naturally, when Claudio echoes Angelo's demands, arguing that Isabella's surrendering her virginity in this case would be a virtue, her frustration is exacerbated. She reacts the way a woman might if she had been raped and had found those closest to her unsympathetic; she feels isolated, hurt, terrified, enraged. Loss of virginity, after all, is never a light matter for Shakespeare's calumniated, or potentially calumniated, women. In Much Ado About Nothing, the perception of Hero as sexually tainted corresponds directly with the illusion of her as dead. For Isabella, too, the prospect of giving herself to Angelo is tantamount to dying: “Better it were a brother died at once, / Than that a sister … / Should die for ever” (II.iv.106-8). If we understand how high the stakes are, we can hardly justify labeling Isabella a “vixen” when her strong will, until now subdued, gets the better of her and she swears,

                                                  O you beast!
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
.....                                                                      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.


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. Claudio's urging Isabella to give up her virginity, understandable as it is from his point of view, compounds her increasing sense of vulnerability and helplessness.

Our experience of Isabella's being “thwarted here, there, and everywhere”25 is reinforced by the intervention of the Duke at precisely this troublesome point in the play. Although his intentions appear honorable at first, in his own way he replicates Angelo's and Claudio's indifference to Isabella's desire to remain true to herself. Like Angelo and Claudio before him, Vincentio sees in Isabella a reflection of his own needs. Consider his surprising endorsement of her attack on her brother. Rather than recoil at the harshness of her attack (as most of the play's critics have done), the Duke responds with delight: “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). The Duke's perceptions of Isabella here reveal more about his character than about hers. What the Duke sees at this moment is the ideal woman that Hamlet never found: a woman who combines beauty and honesty; a woman who doesn't need to be told to get herself to a nunnery; a woman who represents the opposite of Frailty. Unfortunately for Isabella, the Duke is so taken by his Hamletian fantasies that he fails to see the woman she really is—a woman in distress, who fears the very thing he will eventually require: the sacrifice of her autonomy.

Isabella's willingness to cooperate with the Duke's unscrupulous plot—and so to forfeit her autonomy—is clearly related to his choice of disguises. Vincentio, wearing Friar Francis' robe, has become the very thing he accuses Angelo of being: an “angel on the outward side” (III.ii.272).26 Lucio is right to call him the “Duke of dark corners” (IV.iii.157).27 But whatever “crotchets” the Duke has in him (III.ii.127), his disguise represents an authority that Isabella, as a nun, can hardly repudiate. When he invites her to fasten her ear on his advisings, she agrees to follow his direction. But like the Provost, who protests that the Duke's orders will force him to break an oath (IV.ii.181), Isabella makes it clear that she does not want to play any part that would require her to violate her personal sense of truth: “I have spirit to do any thing that appears not foul in the truth of my spirit” (III.i.205-7). She does not want to have to sacrifice her own voice.

But by the time the fourth act closes, the Duke has imposed on Isabella a role which goes against her wishes. As she explains to Mariana in the last scene of that act, “To speak so indirectly I am loath. I would say truth” (ll. 1-2). However, because a supposed religious superior has instructed her to “veil full purpose” (l. 4), she denies her personal inclinations and obeys the Duke without questioning. Neither green world nor cloister is available to Isabella now; she can neither subvert nor avoid the distorted value system which Vienna represents. She has no alternative but to submit to the Duke's authority. The Church, which was originally to function as Isabella's protector, has become her dictator.28 Even though she was able to resist both Angelo's attempt to ravish her body and Claudio's attempt to change her mind, Isabella is unable, finally, to resist the Duke's demands on her spirit.


This negation of Isabella's essentially self-defined character becomes complete upon the Duke's taking control of the action in Act III. Critics have noted this change variously. Richard Fly, for example, says that Isabella, “formerly an independent and authentic personality with a voice of her own,” is “suddenly reduced to little more than a willing adjunct to the Duke's purpose.”29 Clara Claiborne Park refers to Isabella as losing center stage.30 Whatever autonomy Isabella possessed in the beginning of the play, whatever “truth of spirit” she abided by, disintegrates once she agrees to serve in the Duke's plan. As soon as this “friar” takes over, Isabella becomes an actress whose words are no longer her own. There are no more outbursts. In complying with the role Vincentio has created for her, Isabella becomes his creation in a way that the male characters never do. When he presents her with the irreverent idea of the bed-trick, Isabella simply answers, “Show me how, good father” (III.i.238) and “The image of it gives me content already” (l. 259). She cooperates with the Duke throughout the last act, in spite of her preference for “saying truth.” When Angelo says that he perceives these “poor informal women” as “instruments of some more mightier member / That sets them on” (V.i.235-38), he doesn't know how truly he speaks.

The Duke claims, of course, to be acting in Isabella's best interests, just as he has claimed to be acting in the best interests of Vienna. He professes to be withholding the news that Claudio is alive in order to make Isabella “heavenly comforts of despair, / When it is least expected” (IV.iii.110-11). But the relationship between his professed intentions and the scenario he asks Isabella to act out is tenuous. In reward for her cooperation, Isabella has to kneel and swear in public that she, a recognized member of a local convent, “did yield” to the learned deputy (V.i.101)—a humiliating position to be forced into, no matter how cleverly the Duke may be intending to redeem her reputation.31 In retrospect, the Duke's promise to comfort Isabella—what Frye calls a “brutal lie”32—appears to be a veiled justification for perpetuating his control over her. The passage in which the Duke urges Isabella to “pace” her wisdom “In that good path that [he] would wish it go”—a passage densely packed with imperatives (IV.iii.118-48)—is followed, significantly, by the entrance of the ego-puncturing Lucio. This juxtaposition of scenes should warn us not to take the Duke's proclaimed altruism at face value—just as the Duke's proclaimed aversion to staging himself to the people's eyes (I.i.68) belies its face value. Vincentio's grand opus, Act V—complete with trumpets to announce his entrance—is so conspicuously dramaturgical that it divides into a five-part structure.33 Clearly we are not to rest easy with this man's proclamations, nor should we be comfortable with the role he is asking Isabella to play.

Isabella's last words reveal just how far this imposed role diminishes her character. To those who argue that rather than depriving Isabella of autonomy the Duke is actually releasing her from moral rigidity by arranging for her to plead for Angelo's life, I answer that Isabella's final speech, often accepted as representing character growth, in fact represents the opposite.34 Ostensibly, Isabella is once again displaying her “prosperous art,” using rhetoric to reveal a new-found capacity for mercy. But the quality of mercy here is strained:

                                                  Most bounteous sir:
Look, if it please you, on this man condemn'd
As if my brother liv'd. I partly think
A due sincerity governed his deeds,
Till he did look on me. Since it is so,
Let him not die. My brother had but justice,
In that he did the thing for which he died;
For Angelo,
His act did not o'ertake his bad intent,
And must be buried but as an intent
That perish'd by the way. Thoughts are no subjects,
Intents but merely thoughts.


This speech lacks the integrity of Isabella's earlier speeches in which she pleaded with Angelo to ask his heart what it knew that was like her brother's fault. Logic, used so convincingly in the earlier speeches, has become twisted. For example, Isabella argues that since Claudio did “the thing for which he died” but Angelo did not commit the sin he thought he had, Angelo should not be punished. This argument is illogical because it wrongfully implies that evil actions, when carried out under mistaken circumstances, are harmless. If the crime had been misdirected murder, by this logic Isabella would have claimed that the act was no crime since the intended victim was still alive. Not only the laws of logic, but the concept of justice is twisted here. Isabella claims—as she need not—that her brother's supposed execution was, in fact, just. Her mode of argument is unsettling, not only because she sounds indifferent to Claudio's death, but also because she resorts to specious legalism where one would expect her to appeal to her faith, as she did when pleading for Claudio's salvation in II.ii.75-77:

                                        How would you be
If He, which is the top of judgment, should
But judge you as you are?

In comparison with this earlier speech, Isabella's final appeal represents not an increased but a stunted capacity for mercy. Her “prosperous art,” subjected to the Duke's perverted dramaturgical efforts, has itself become perverted. Vincentio's charge—“trust not my holy order / If I pervert your course” (IV.iii.147-48)—becomes retrospectively ominous.

With the conclusion of her final speech, Isabella is immediately confronted with a series of overwhelming events: a living Claudio appears, the Duke proposes marriage, and Angelo is pardoned. All of Isabella's main assumptions—that Angelo was condemned, that the Duke was a committed celibate, that her brother was dead, and that she herself would remain chaste for life—are challenged, if not negated, in the space of five lines. 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.


If we see Isabella as a victim of bad playwriting, we can compare her bewilderment at the end of Measure for Measure with our own. She has trusted the Duke, as we've trusted our playwright, to pattern events as he has led her to expect events to be patterned—and the Duke, sharing Shakespeare's affinity for surprises in this play, pulls those expectations out from under her.35 But by using Ragozine's head, for example—caput ex machina—to call attention to the ridiculousness of the Duke's machinations, Shakespeare simultaneously calls attention to his own superior skills. With this play Shakespeare has moved from comedy's romantic pole to its opposite, ironic, pole.36 What he has created in Measure for Measure is not a poorly written play, but, to some extent, a model for poor playwriting.37 (Such a model, clearly of abiding interest to Shakespeare, is less subtly depicted in the rustics' production of “Pyramus and Thisby” in A Midsummer Night's Dream.) By creating in Duke Vincentio a model third-rate playwright—one whose mind-set Jean Howard calls “confining, inelastic, dangerously reductive,” one who has no qualms about “[draining] the life out of previously vital characters such as Isabella”38—Shakespeare calls into question the ethics of his own craft, including the ethics involved in handling characters of the opposite sex. However, the extent to which Shakespeare transcends the Duke's limitations is not clear, especially with regard to the treatment of female characters. It is in this area that the comparison between the playwright and his surrogate becomes most murky.

Vincentio's sexual double standard is hardly subtle. Ever oblivious to female experience, Vincentio tells Juliet that because she returns Claudio's affection—because the “most offenseful act” is “mutually committed”—her sin is therefore “of heavier kind” than Claudio's (II.iii.26-28). Such chauvinism, while present in Shakespeare's previous comedies, has almost always eventually been subverted in favor of mutuality.39 It would be tempting to claim that because the expected subversion of chauvinistic values does not occur in Measure for Measure, therefore Shakespeare must be consciously critiquing the Duke's double standard, once again—as in the case of Ragozine's head—showing himself to be the superior craftsman. But this claim would be ill-founded, considering that Shakespeare's own treatment of female characters at this point in his career becomes less than generous. As Vincentio “drains” life out of Isabella and Mariana, so Shakespeare drains life out of Gertrude and Ophelia, giving them scarcely any character at all. Joel Fineman's well-documented discussion of Shakespeare's “not uncommon defensive gynophobia,” which erupts in certain tragedies, would support such an argument.40 If Shakespeare can be credited with critiquing Vincentio's treatment of female “characters,” which seems unlikely, then he must also be said to be critiquing his treatment of some of his own.

But regardless of the playwright's intention, Measure for Measure, more than any of his previous plays, exposes the dehumanizing effect on women of living in a world dominated by powerful men who would like to re-create womanhood according to their fantasies. Duke Vincentio's distorted interpretation of Isabella's outrage in the prison scene is only one example of this kind of dehumanizing mind-set. His tampering with Isabella's character in Act V—which she must endure, according to religious edict—is no less a violation than Angelo's attempt to possess her body. As Hans Sachs puts it, the Duke succeeds in committing “in a legitimate and honorable way, the crime which Angelo attempted in vain.”41

This play reveals, among other things, the price women pay in order for male supremacy to be maintained. That price for Isabella is, precisely, a mandatory denial of her personal standards. But Isabella's plight is only one element in a larger pattern. As a whole, Measure for Measure explores the incompatibility of patriarchal and comic structures. The world of patriarchy, antithetical to the world of comedy throughout Shakespeare's works, comes closest here to overthrowing the comic world. Far from the one-dimensional representative of morality that critics have perceived her to be, Isabella is a key part of a dramatic environment in which the forces of patriarchy and comedy clash. In this context, her dramaturgical powerlessness becomes a variable in an equation in which the pervasiveness of chauvinism and the possibility of comic resolution are indirectly proportional. In other words, the stronger the forces of patriarchy, the less likely—or at least less convincing—comic resolution becomes.

Generically, Isabella is Shakespeare's pivotal female figure. She simultaneously links the dramatically effective early comic women to the victimized tragic women, even while her sympathetic portrayal anticipates the revival of influential women in the later plays. If Isabella's voice is lost in Measure for Measure—to remain mute throughout Shakespeare's tragedies, in which male misfortune and misogyny explode into significantly linked central issues42—that voice is rediscovered in the romances, Shakespeare's most mature creations, in which patriarchal and misogynistic values, if present at all, are, as in the early comedies, subverted, and in which the imaginative environment once again allows female characters, like Paulina in The Winter's Tale, for example, to exert a powerful, positive force in shaping dramatic action.


  1. George L. Geckle, “Shakespeare's Isabella,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 22 (1971), 163.

  2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge's Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1936), p. 49.

  3. Among those who idealize Isabella are Anna Jameson (Shakespeare's Heroines: Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical [London: G. Bell, 1913], p. 66) and George Geckle, who call her, respectively, an “angel of light” and a “heroine of superior moral qualities.” Taking the opposite stance are Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (“Introduction” to Measure for Measure, ed. Quiller-Couch and J. Dover Wilson [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1922], p. xxx), who calls Isabella a “bare procuress” who “is something rancid in her chastity”; Charlotte Lennox (Shakespeare Illustrated, I [London, 1753], p. 32), who calls her a “Vixen in her Virtue”; and Una Mary Ellis-Fermor (The Jacobean Drama: An Interpretation [London: Methuen, 1936], p. 262), who refers to her as “Hard as an icicle.” I am grateful to George Geckle for several of these references.

  4. Frank Harris (Women of Shakespeare [New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1912]) ignores Isabella, presumably because he could not identify a correlative for her in Shakespeare's life. A book by “An Actress” (The True Ophelia and Other Studies of Shakespeare's Women [New York: Putnam, 1914]) similarly excludes Isabella, as does Helena Faucit, Lady Martin's On Some of Shakespeare's Female Characters (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, 1887). Even recent feminist critics slight Isabella. In The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, Carol Thomas Neely [Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980]), only two articles make significant mention of her, both pointing out that Isabella is one of the few female characters in Shakespeare to confront men without benefit of men's garments. (See Paula S. Berggren, “Female Sexuality as Power in Shakespeare's Plays,” p. 22, and Clara Claiborne Park, “As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular,” p. 109.) Two other recent books written from a feminist perspective—Irene Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981), and Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982)—have little more to say about Isabella, relegating her to footnotes or oblique references.

  5. For a discussion of patriarchy as a destructive force in Shakespeare's tragedies, see Madelon Gohlke, “‘I wooed thee with my sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms” in The Woman's Part.

  6. See Linda Bamber's Comic Women, Tragic Men for an articulate recent analysis of the centrality of women in Shakespeare's comedies.

  7. Note the similarity between Kate's descriptions of the ideal husband—far from Petruchio's shrewish behavior thus far—(a “prince,” a man “that cares for thee and for thy maintenance,” someone who is “loving” and “honest,” and who “commits his body to painful labor” for his wife's sake, V.ii.147-60) and Petruchio's earlier descriptions of the ideal Kate—far from her behavior at that time—(her “mildness prais'd in every town,” her “virtues spoke of,” and her “beauty sounded,” II.i.185-94).

  8. Richard Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 141.

  9. Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York: Harcourt-Brace, 1965), p. 73.

  10. The merry wives, for example, must correctly gauge their “audience's”—Falstaff's—vanity in order for their plots to succeed. Viola demonstrates a similar sensitivity to audience response when, disguised as Cesario, she explains to Olivia the way a man should present himself if he wants to elicit a woman's love (Twelfth Night, I.v.268-76). In As You Like It, the splendidly dramatic Rosalind is not only astute about her own audience, but she teaches Orlando to be more sensitive to his as well (see, for example, IV.i.44-52).

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

  11. Bamber, p. 120.

  12. Frye, A Natural Perspective, p. 72.

  13. Anne Barton, Introduction to Measure for Measure in The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 548.

  14. Wheeler, p. 149.

  15. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 164-65, 172.

  16. See Thomas F. Van Laan, Role-Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1978), pp. 98-100. See also Wheeler, pp. 130-32.

  17. William Empson (The Structure of Complex Words [London: Chatto and Windus, 1951], p. 283) sees the Duke as a character who manipulates “his subjects as puppets for the fun of seeing them twitch.”

  18. Jean E. Howard, “Measure for Measure and the Restraints of Convention,” Essays in Literature, 10 (1983), 151-52. Dr. Howard has provided immeasurable support to me in my preparation of this study.

  19. Wheeler, p. 102.

  20. Frye, A Natural Perspective, pp. 141-45, and Anatomy of Criticism, pp. 182-83. See also Bamber, pp. 36-38, on the relationship between the world of “holiday brilliance” (the green world) and that of “political hegemony” (the patriarchal world) in Shakespeare's comedies.

  21. Anthony Dawson, Indirections: Shakespeare and the Art of Illusion (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1978), p. 87.

  22. Dash, p. 251.

  23. English convents, offering “a haven and a vocation for gentlewomen,” were closed at the Reformation (Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1957], p. 145). According to Watt, “What was most needed, it was generally thought, was a substitute for the convents.”

  24. Wheeler, p. 140.

  25. Sarojini Shintri, Woman In Shakespeare (Dharwad: Karnatak Univ., 1977), p. 276.

  26. Christopher Marlowe (The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950], p. 9, I.iii.25-26) supplies a literary precedent for Vincentio's hypocritical disguise when he has Faustus assert that the “holy shape” of a Franciscan friar “becomes a devil best.”

  27. Calvin S. Hall (A Primer of Freudian Psychology [New York: New American Library, 1979], p. 92) could be describing Duke Vincentio when he explains “reaction formation” (caused by a repressed wish to possess something): “Romantic notions of chastity and purity may mask crude sexual desires, altruism may hide selfishness, and piety may conceal sinfulness.”

  28. Church-supported witch hunts were still a reality in Shakespeare's England. The playwright could hardly have been unaware of the sexual oppressiveness, latent and actual, in religious doctrine of his day. For information on the involvement of both Catholic and Protestant churches in the witch hunts, see Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women (New York: Doubleday, 1978), pp. 35-39, or their booklet Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (Old Westbury, N. Y.: The Feminist Press, 1971), pp. 6-15.

  29. Richard Fly, Shakespeare's Mediated World (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1976), p. 59.

  30. Claiborne Park, p. 109.

  31. See Wheeler, p. 129.

  32. Frye, A Natural Perspective, p. 11.

  33. See Josephine Bennett, Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 131-33.

  34. See Fly, p. 69, Dawson, p. 114, and Geckle, p. 168, for discussions of the problematic nature of this passage.

  35. Surprise is an important element of the plot—both for the characters and for us as audience. Among the bewildered audiences that Measure for Measure leaves in its wake are Angelo and Escalus at the end of I.i, just after the Duke's sudden exit; Mistress Overdone in the following scene (“But shall all our houses of resort in the suburbs be pull'd down?” I.ii.101-2); Friar Thomas, not quite grasping the Duke's partial explanation for his abdication (“It rested in your Grace / To unloose this tied-up justice when you pleas'd,” I.iii.31-32); Isabella, hearing of her brother's imprisonment (“Woe me! for what?” I.iv.26); Escalus and Angelo, confounded by the bumbling protestations of Pompey, Elbow, and Froth (II.i.); Angelo, surprised at his awakened lust (II.ii.162); Isabella, hearing of Angelo's mistreatment of Mariana (“Can this be so? Did Angelo so leave her?” III.i.224); the Duke, shocked at Angelo's order for Claudio's immediate execution (IV.ii.120-29); the Provost, “amazed” when the disguised Duke miraculously produces a letter with the Duke's seal on it (IV.ii.204); the Duke, surprised by Barnardine's resistance and by Ragozine's conveniently appearing head (IV.iii.77); Escalus and Angelo, confused by the Duke's “uneven and distracted” letters (IV.iv.1-7); and, of course, Isabella, stupefied at the Duke's proposal of marriage, along with Angelo and Lucio, distressed at their suddenly ordered couplings.

  36. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, pp. 177-79.

  37. Those who view the play as exemplifying some lapse on Shakespeare's part include Philip Edwards (Shakespeare and the Confines of Art [London: Methuen, 1968], pp. 108-10), who deems the play a “failure” because of its “insistence on a happy ending in spite of the evidence.” On the other hand, critics like Howard and Fly credit Shakespeare with having purposefully created a disruptive audience experience—an argument prefigured by Michael Goldman's appendix on Measure for Measure in Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), p. 164, in which he suggests that in Measure for Measure, as in Hamlet and Lear, audience experience is “turned against itself to produce a comment on the action.”

  38. Howard, pp. 155 and 151, respectively.

  39. See, for example, Marianne L. Novy, “Giving, Taking, and the Role of Portia in The Merchant of Venice,Philological Quarterly, 58 (1979), 137-54 for a discussion of mutuality in relationships in Shakespearean comedy.

  40. Joel Fineman, “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles,” The Psychoanalytic Review, 64 (1977), 426.

  41. Hans Sachs, “The Measure in Measure for Measure,” in The Design Within, ed. M. Faber (New York: Science House, 1970), pp. 495-96.

  42. Bamber, p. 15.

Carolyn E. Brown (essay date fall 1996)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11573

SOURCE: Brown, Carolyn E. “Duke Vincentio of Measure for Measure and King James I of England: ‘The Poorest Princes in Christendom.’” Clio 26 (fall 1996): 51-78.

[In the following essay, Brown suggests that while Shakespeare used the character of Duke Vincentio to comment on King James I's abilities as a ruler, he also used his character to analyze the idea of divine monarchy in general.]

Scholars have proposed that Shakespeare was political in the sense that his plays reflect and comment on the crucial governmental issues and figures of his day, that his plays contribute to “pressing problems about prerogative, power, and authority.”1 It has been argued that Measure for Measure, in particular, reflects on James I and his political doctrines and actions. In fact, it is recorded that the play was performed before James in 1604 during the Christmas festivities. Critics have seen parallels between passages in the play and in James's book on his philosophy about governing—the Basilicon Doron. Shakespeare's fictional character of Duke Vincentio also embodies some of the characteristics of the ideal ruler that James delineates in his book and some of James's own character traits, such as his dedication to virtue and chastity, his reclusiveness, his scholarly nature, and his discomfort with crowds. Because the play was performed for James and because the male protagonist seems a mirror image of James and his model ruler, numerous scholars interpret the play and its main character as a tribute to James and his conception of government, as a dramatic presentation that was meant to entertain and please the king.2 Although much of the new historicism underscores the subversiveness of Renaissance literature, some new historicists—Jonathan Dollimore and Leonard Tennenhouse, in particular—continue to see the play as a validation of not only James but also the Tudor doctrines of monarchy.3

Other critics are more skeptical of Shakespeare's intentions and suggest that he may be counseling or educating his king on proper governing procedures. Some go so far as to suggest that Shakespeare is covertly criticizing, even demystifying, James's rule. While James touted his virtue, moderation, and piety, the reality of his life and rule was anything but praiseworthy. G. P. V. Akrigg contends that any contemporary of James, and I think we could include Shakespeare, could not “but note a painful discrepancy between theory and practice.”4 Although Shakespeare's Measure for Measure appeared relatively early in the new monarch's government—twenty months into his reign—James's indiscretions when he ruled Scotland were well known in England by the time he ascended the throne. Moreover, his political blunders once he became king of England were so similar to those he had exercised as magistrate of Scotland and so conspicuous, especially in comparison to Elizabeth's previous shrewdness and governmental acumen, that he very early developed a poor reputation in England—as early as Shakespeare's writing of Measure for Measure. The often irreverent stage did not spare James. An English agent in Scotland noted that his faults were such common knowledge “that the very stage players in England jeered at him for being the poorest prince in Christendom.”5 Roy Battenhouse contends that to think that Shakespeare was uncritical of a king who was “termed ‘the wisest fool in Christendom, and whose version of Divine Right has been lamented by modern historians, seems to predicate of Shakespeare either a lack of insight in areas of political theory, or else a merely opportunist concern to feather his own nest through sycophancy.”6 Charles Swann believes that “there is no reason to expect the play to have a simple or coherent ideological position” and that we should “expect that the play will need decoding; it is not unfair to expect that there will be two (or more) levels of meaning.”7

Several critics have attempted to decode the play and to detect the covert criticism of James and monarchy hidden under a surface meaning that Shakespeare meant to please the king and his supporters.8 A few critics have seen direct parallels between the last act of the play and a specific event during James's reign that occurred in December of 1603—only a year before the performance of Measure for Measure. This was the prosecution of the conspirators of the Bye plot (including Sir Walter Ralegh), for whom the king staged a public execution, one which he secretly did not intend to enact. He made each offender prepare for death and approach the scaffold—twice. Only at the last moment were they reprieved. Shakespeare has his duke in act 5 plan a spectacle as elaborate and self-enhancing as James did, with both rulers showing their astute appreciation of the art of self-promotion and image enhancing. Josephine Waters Bennett argues that Shakespeare means for his duke to be a tribute to the king and to embody “James's love of stratagems” and a “fondness for dramatics.”9 More recently, Craig A. Bernthal has explored the similarities between the historical event and Shakespeare's last act, but he argues that Shakespeare means to “demystify James's actions” by displaying his duke as an ordinary man who resorts to “elaborate theatrical fakery” in order to project a “mightier image” of himself and the state.10

While I agree with Bernthal that Shakespeare is undermining James's theatrical exercise of power, I look at the parallels from another perspective and at parallels yet to be explored. Shakespeare is drawing analogies between the situation of act 5 of his play and the actions of his king in order to question an abuse of power—an exercise of cruelty and of partisan power based on personal preferences, one that protects those whom James likes for the most heinous crimes, and abuses his critics and those whom he dislikes for less egregious offenses. On a subtextual level, Shakespeare does not present his duke as an ideal monarch but as a flawed human who administers arbitrary and often cruel sentences. Critics have noted that Shakespeare makes his duke echo some of James's sentiments about slanderers. Battenhouse, for example, clarifies that “James was very sensitive on the matter of slander against princes. In 1585 he had persuaded the Scottish parliament to pass an Act, making slander a treasonable offense punishable by death.” Battenhouse argues that Shakespeare means for his duke's forgiveness of Lucio to provide a model of behavior for his king in his treatment of defamers, illustrating the virtues of mercy and toleration.11 Other scholars note James's “concern,” “harsh reaction”—if not “over-sensitivity”—to the subject of slander. Some argue that Shakespeare justifies James's reaction by making the slanderer Lucio unpardonably offensive and irreverent and that he meant to delight James in Lucio's exposure.12 While James's aversion for calumny certainly was an issue, there was another dimension to the situation that caused public concern and that has not received attention from scholars—the inequity between James's treatment of those who criticized him and to whom he, consequently, took a dislike, and of more serious offenders against the state. It is this controversy that Shakespeare explores, making fictional Lucio's situation in some crucial ways mirror that of Sir Walter Ralegh—a parallel that has never been thoroughly explored. He undermines his own king's political actions by undermining the Duke's treatment of Lucio and Angelo.

Because Shakespeare is approaching topical issues in his play—issues political in nature and, thus, necessarily delicate and potentially dangerous to him personally and professionally—he has to be acutely subtle, especially since the play was performed before James himself. On one level, consequently, Shakespeare makes his duke into a tribute to divine kingship, of which James was an adamant proponent. Many critics have read the Duke in such terms, viewing him in almost allegorical dimensions as a god figure in his omniscience and omnipotence. For these critics, the Duke's treatment of Angelo is just and appropriate: the Duke's superior understanding permits him to detect Angelo's flaws and to counteract his nefarious schemes and, thus, bring the play to a happy ending; the Duke is justified in forgiving Angelo since technically he has not committed a crime. Shakespeare, likewise, makes the Duke's treatment of Lucio pleasing to both king and many others in his audience: the Duke looks justified in squelching virulent delineations of a wise leader, and he appears magnanimous in ultimately forgiving a slandermonger who would maliciously besmirch a man of stainless reputation. Certainly James promoted similar images of himself in his pursuit of his detractors.

But Shakespeare writes another level of meaning, one that has contributed to the perception that Measure for Measure is a problem play. Swann argues that James “could watch the play and have his views of kingly authority confirmed” while the more skeptical could see the subtext. Marilyn Williamson concurs that “all of the reservations about Vincentio's conduct are subversive elements.”13 These subversive elements can make the Duke's handling of his subjects perplexing, if not troublesome. He can be read as excessively lenient to Angelo while harshly severe to Lucio. Shakespeare has written a subtext that mirrors the discontent that many of James's subjects felt with his administration of justice. Under the facade of touting the virtue of divine kingship, Shakespeare is actually disputing it, and he is drawing parallels to his own king.

From the play's beginning, Shakespeare intimates that the Duke is showing Angelo preferential treatment. As the Duke contemplates his enigmatic political move of leaving his kingdom, he admits that the “ancient lord” Escalus is the best qualified to rule in his absence: the “worthy” Escalus knows the “science” of governing and is so “enriched” in his particular knowledge of Vienna's government that he is without parallel.14 Nonetheless, the Duke “with special soul / Elect(s) (Angelo) our absence to supply” (1.1.17-18), a young man with no experience of the world, not to mention of governing, who concedes himself that he needs “some more test made of (his) metal, / Before so noble and so great a figure / Be stamp'd upon it” (1.1.48-49). Shakespeare impresses us with a case of favoritism: the Duke “elect(s)” or personally prefers the unseasoned young man over the better candidate for the job; and his decision is made with “special soul,” with excessive emotions, feelings, and close attachment for Angelo, not with reason. Given the Duke's regal stature, the theological meaning of the word “elect” can apply, with Angelo being seen as one of the “Elect,” one of the lucky recipients of temporal blessings over the sometimes more deserving candidates.15 The Duke claims that he has “drest (Angelo) with our love” (1.1.19), an expression that indicates he gives Angelo the position as a way to show his special feelings for him. The incongruity between Angelo's lack of experience and the magnitude of the gift that the Duke grants him underscores the Duke's partiality for Angelo, for he gives him unlimited power to do whatever his replacement wishes: Angelo's “scope is as (the Duke's) own / So to enforce or qualify the laws / As to (his) soul seems good” (1.1.64-65). That Angelo is a favorite who has received a position for which he is unsuited becomes more obvious once he assumes command of Vienna and abuses his power, introducing a reign of terror. Ignoring the hardened criminals such as murderers, he pursues the relatively venial—like Claudio and Juliet—and the bawds. Although Angelo oppresses his subjects and although characters repeatedly lament the deputy's severe and unmerciful actions, the Duke allows Angelo to continue in his terror. The Duke seems more concerned with pleasing a favorite than with protecting his subjects from unnecessary and extreme punishment.

Because Angelo has not been chosen for his governing expertise or for his scrupulous character, he gets himself into political trouble. While the Duke never elucidates why he assumes the persona of a friar and haunts “dark corners” (4.2.156), the disguise allows him to keep a close eye on Angelo, to “behold his sway” (1.3.43), and to assist him when necessary. He is always near at hand to protect his deputy and to disentangle him from any difficulties. The Duke, for example, overhears Isabella tell her brother of her horror at being propositioned by Angelo to give up her chastity in exchange for her brother's life. He learns of Angelo's depravity, of his being “guiltier than him” he tries (2.1.21), and of his “bidding the law make curtsey to (his) will” (2.4.174). And yet he defends his deputy to Claudio: “Angelo had never the purpose to corrupt (Isabella); only he hath made an assay of her virtue, to practice his judgement with the disposition of natures” (3.1.160-63). The mendacity and implausibility of his excuse underscore the Duke's feeble attempts to get Angelo out of a difficult situation and to protect him. In fact, he more often defends than criticizes his deputy. When Lucio, for example, complains about Angelo's “crabbed” (3.2.95) nature and claims the deputy should show “a little more lenity to lechery” (3.2.94), the Duke comes to his replacement's defense: lechery “is too general a vice, and severity must cure it” (3.2.96). Likewise, when the Provost criticizes Angelo, calling him a “bitter deputy,” the Duke rebukes the Provost: “Not so, not so; his life is parallel'd / Even with the stroke and line of his great justice” (4.2.76-78). Shakespeare suggests that his duke may devise the bedtrick not only to save Claudio but also to assist Angelo, as he prevents him from corrupting the law to satisfy his desires and, instead, has him unknowingly do what is legal—consummate his bond with his fiancee, Mariana. While the Duke's substitution of another prisoner's head for that of Claudio can be read as a selfless act of saving Claudio's life, it can also be interpreted as another attempt to protect Angelo, as the Duke prevents Angelo from committing a brutal act. The Duke, in other words, ensures that Angelo, in spite of himself, technically commits no wrongs and breaks no laws.

During the mock trial in act 5, Shakespeare once again allows us to sense that his duke assists Angelo rather than promotes the innocent like Mariana and Isabella and, thus, perverts the judicial process. He reassures his deputy that he will ultimately shelter him from serious harm: “Shall we thus permit / A blasting and scandalous breath to fall / On him so near us?” (5.1.125-26). He informs Angelo that his “near(ness)” to him or his close kinship with him (OED [Oxford English Dictionary] adv. (FN2) 3) compels the Duke to serve as his shield from danger. The Duke tells Angelo's accusers of his partiality for the deputy: “Think'st thou thy oaths, / Though they would swear down each particular saint, / Were testimonies against his worth and credit, / That's seal'd in approbation?” (5.1.241-44). He swears that Angelo enjoys his ruler's “credit” and “approbation”—his personal influence, trust, confidence, and approval (OED “credit” sb. 6, 9a; “approbation” 3)—which outweigh the cogency of the accusations. Angelo is “seal'd” or protected by the sovereign's royal prerogative. He is “well-warranted” (5.1.253), ensconced in his superior's authority to protect him from “blame or legal responsibility” for his actions (OED “warranted” sb1 7). Although there is irony to the Duke's words as he leads the unsuspecting Angelo to a public debunking, there is also some truth to his vows. While shaming his replacement, he ultimately does protect him: “Methinks I see a quickening in his eye. / Well, Angelo, your evil quits you well. / Look that you love your wife; her worth, worth yours” (5.1.493-95). He marries him to the woman with whom he has slept so that he is not “guiltier than him” he tries; he conducts a sham trial that “quits”—absolves or delivers—him of the serious charges against him; and he “quicken(s)” him or gives him life again, saving him from “the very block / Where Claudio (would have) stoop'd to death” (5.1.412-13). Angelo almost seems rewarded for his crimes because he is a favorite.

Shakespeare deviates from his sources in order to address some of the controversial characteristics of his own king. The Duke's protecting and lavishing power on an unqualified favorite, for example, is an enhancement of Shakespeare's sources, where the rulers show no such partiality. David Calderwood argues that James was noted for his predisposition for surrounding himself with male favorites and was warned that his policies with his minions were causing his “good fame” to fall into “decay, and his crown and authorities to be put in question.” He bestowed great titles and gifts on them and allowed them to rule in his absence as he engaged in his favorite sport of deer hunting. He was admonished for “placing unfitt men in offices.”16 For example, James Stuart, James's second favorite in Scotland, enjoyed an undeserved rise to power and riches: he became the Duke of Arran; governor of the castles of Stirling and Edinburgh, the two principal forts in Scotland; Provost of the city of Edinburgh; and Lieutenant General and Lord Chancellor. It was not long before James's British subjects had their first favorite, with James duplicating his unpopular behavior in Scotland: while excelling only at hunting, hawking, bowling, tilting, and gambling, Philip Herbert, according to Francis Osborne, was made a “knight, a baron, a viscount, and an earle (of Montgomery), in one day.”17 Such practices, and the men who benefitted from them, were held as objects of contempt by James's subjects: Anthony Weldon claims these minions “were so hated by being raised from a meane estate, to overtop all men, that every one held it a pretty recreation to have them often turned out”; William Robertson states that “the public beheld, with astonishment and indignation, (Arran) educated as a soldier of fortune, ignorant of law, and a contemner of justice, appointed to preside in parliament, in the privy council, in the court of session, and intrusted with the supreme disposal of the property of his fellow subjects.”18

Because James, like Shakespeare's Duke Vincentio, chose favorites not based on their knowledge of government nor on their character but on his fondness for them, and because he was noted for his foolish generosity, he inevitably attracted men, like Shakespeare's Angelo, who lacked good character and governing skills, and, consequently, abused their positions of power. A commentator states that these favorites “war unworthelie promotit to digneteis above thair capaceties and mereits, and thareby licklie to scurge the poore.”19 According to Osborne, the Earl of Montgomery was a brutal man, “intolerable cholerick and offensive, and did not refraine, whilsest he was chamberlaine, to break many wiser heads than his owne.”20 But it is the Earl of Arran, James's second favorite in Scotland, and Arran's exercise of power that most resemble Shakespeare's Angelo and his reign of terror, similarities that allow for the possibility that Shakespeare modeled his character of Angelo partially on Arran. Robertson claims “there is not perhaps in history, an example of a minister so universally detestable to a nation, or who more justly deserved its detestation” than Arran.21 Sir James Melville explains that James left his kingdom to be ruled in his absence by Arran, who executed justice partially and cruelly, making “the whole subjects to tremble under him … daily inventing and seeking out new faults against divers” subjects, condemning them to death for inconsequential actions.22 James, like Shakespeare's duke, allowed the governmental abuse, more concerned with pleasing his favorites than with protecting his subjects.

His partiality became even more conspicuous when he excused his favorites, as well as the friends of his favorites, of all degrees of crimes, including murder. Calderwood states that he was severely condemned for such protection, for treating his favorites' crimes with “impunitie and oversight,” for allowing these “enemeis of the truthe (to be) favoured and overlooked.” He received constant criticism for his “neglect of justice” and “granting remissiouns” to the guilty.23 One commentator advised James against such partiality: “The dewtie of all, Prence, Magistrat, and King, is equallie to do justice to all men, ever having respect to the caus, and not to the persone; for geve a juge sall have mair respect to freyndship then to the equitie of the caus, the jugement is corruptit.”24 One example centered around Archbald Douglas, who was involved in the murder of James's father and whom James protected nonetheless: after James conducted a mock trial that exonerated the accused man, Douglas “was not only taken in favour by the King, but sent back to the court of England, with the honourable character of his ambassador.” Robertson cites this as one of the many instances in which the king gratified “his courtiers at the expense of his own dignity and reputation.”25

The protection of one favorite in particular—the Earl of Huntly—created the most damning situation for James while he was king of Scotland. Huntly and some other Papist earls engaged in a conspiracy with Spain to unseat James from the Scottish throne and to assist the King of Spain to enter England through conquered Scotland. Queen Elizabeth had intercepted a messenger who carried the letters of treason from Huntly and his cohorts, and, thus, their guilt was irrefutable. But when Huntly went to see his king privately and begged for forgiveness of him and his cohorts, James soon set them at liberty and did not punish them. He later pardoned them of all offenses, restoring them their lands, goods, and houses. Queen Elizabeth expressed her exasperation at his partisan handling of the affair: “Your leniency astonishes me, beyond words. … I smiled to see ‘how childish, foolish and witles a tool you were in the hands of these three traitor lords. You have actually let them turn a bill of treason into a bill of credit. … For your owne sake play the King and let your subjects see you respect your self.”26 Once Huntly had his freedom, he got himself into more trouble by killing the popular Earl of Murray, whom Robertson describes as “a young nobleman of such promising virtues, and the heir of the regent Murray, the darling of the people.”27 Although the king promised to pursue the crime with all rigor of the law, he followed his usual pattern of protecting a favorite. Calderwood clarifies that James advised Huntly to submit to being charged, “assuring him he would incurre no danger.”28 And, indeed, James kept his promise: he not only protected Huntly from a sentence but also exempted him from the formality of a public trial. The ministers cried out from their pulpits and so stirred up the people's outrage at injustice that they converged on the King's lodging, calling each other to arms, and so terrified him that he had to flee for safety.

All of this resembles the great lengths to which Shakespeare has his duke resort in order to protect Angelo, who was also willing to kill a young man “of such promising virtues” and who would have warped his power into serving his private desires of becoming a “virgin violator,” if the Duke had not prevented him. He allows his duke's behavior to be as distressing and problematical as the actions of his own king and encourages his audience to question such a biased display of power. The critics of Shakespeare's Duke lodge complaints similar to those of James's critics. Samuel Johnson, for example, claims that “Angelo's crimes were such, as must sufficiently justify punishment … and I believe every reader feels some indignation when he finds him spared.”29

Another aspect to the controversy surrounding the king's exercise of partisan power is the inequity of punishment, especially as it applied to those whom James perceived as his critics. Samuel R. Gardiner explains that James was most pleased with those who “took care not to wound his self-complacency” and “whoever would put on an appearance of deference, and would avoid contradicting him.”30 But if someone dared to question him or, worse yet, criticize him, he could be very displeased. William Roughead describes James's aversion to criticism: he “was not prone to forgive them that trespassed against him.”31 John Hill Burton states that “where his own sacred person came into question, all vestiges of mercy fled from his heart, and nothing was too heavy a retribution to him who had been guilty of sacrilege against God's viceregent on earth.”32

Robert Pitcairn describes, for example, “cold-hearted and vindictive, nay, sanguinary” judicial proceedings instigated by the king in 1601 against a man for exhibiting the king's portrait on the public gibbet, an act that the king interpreted as “dishonouring and defaming of his Majestie”: James had the man executed for what Pitcairn labels “an offence of so trivial a nature, probably originating in pure accident or inadvertency or at most a foolish jest of the officer.”33 Robertson explains that while James was king of Scotland, the clergy in general and the Ministers of Edinburgh, in particular, “inveighed daily against the corruptions in the administration,” and James responded in various ways—banishment, removal from their posts and confiscation of their movable goods, criminal prosecutions for slander, sedition, and treason.34 James called Andrew Melvil, for example, before the privy council to answer for unfavorable comments he made about the king during his sermons at St. Andrews. Calderwood explains that the king pursued him rigorously, taking the depositions from only “his greatest mislykers.” To escape the king's rage and the possibility of death for treason, Melvil had to seek refuge in England. Such harshness and partiality provoked even more criticism of James, which he, of course, denounced as slander yet again. Calderwood describes Robert Bruce's sermon that denounced the king for “winking at” excommunicated papists (a reference to Huntly and his rebellious crew) while the king “was incensed against (men), nather enemie (s) to God nor the king.” Rollock's sermon chided the king for “letting loose of Barrabas and condemning Christ” and prayed “God to give the king a remissioun for all the remissiouns he had givin to murtherers.”35

That Shakespeare was evoking this controversy that plagued James's Scottish rule is betrayed by the similarities between Angelo's impunity and that of James's favorites, and between Lucio's harsh fate and that of James's critics. Although Lucio's character is as far removed as it possibly can be from that of a religious man, Shakespeare makes Lucio's situation similar to that of the ministers in that he and they were persecuted because they affronted their ruler's inflated ego while murderers, traitors, and criminals were absolved of their transgressions. While the Duke grants Angelo his freedom, he relentlessly pursues Lucio, determined to publicly expose and condemn him because Lucio has offended him.

But the Bye plot that Bennett and Bernthal have seen mirrored in act 5 of Shakespeare's play underscores James's inequitable exercise of power even more pointedly. It made a marked impression on James's British subjects since it occurred early in his reign as king of England. Because James had been receptive to English Catholics, they were disappointed when he did not follow through on his promises, and some developed a plot to kidnap him and release him after he agreed to his promise of toleration. The conspiracy never became formulated enough to pose a threat, William McElwee calling it a “silly conspiracy” with “no substance in it at all,” which “the government could almost have afforded to ignore.”36 But James pursued the conspirators ruthlessly. The primary conspirators were dealt with summarily and hanged while the obliquely involved members (Sir Griffin Markham, Lord Grey de Wilton, Lord Cobham, and Sir Walter Ralegh) endured a long trial and were found guilty. During his testimony, Lord Cobham implicated Sir Walter Ralegh, who, historians contend, was only tangentially involved in the plot. Historians suggest that he was guilty only insofar as he probably knew about the scheme and did not report it. Nonetheless, James had the state attorney, Edward Coke, relentlessly pursue Ralegh. James stacked the jury as well: most of the eleven commissioners appointed to try Ralegh were predisposed against him. Stephen Greenblatt contends that Ralegh was found guilty of treason based on a “tissue of circumstantial evidence.”37 Along with the true conspirators, he was condemned to death. Even prior to this travesty of a trial, James had treated Ralegh poorly: he took away his venerable position as Captain of the Guard, his fine London house, and his chief source of income.

James seems to have disliked Ralegh for several reasons. James's mind had been poisoned against Ralegh by Sir Robert Cecil and Henry Howard, who both disliked Ralegh and presented him unfavorably in their secret correspondence with James before he became king of England. Henry Howard, in particular, presented Ralegh as unhappy with the prospect of James becoming king and, according to David Harris Willson, suggested that Ralegh, Cobham, and Northumberland “were James's sworn enemeies, who would rather see him buried than crowned.”38 Ralegh also had made an unfavorable comment to the king upon his ascendancy, one that suggested that James was not as universally loved by his English subjects as James believed. John Aubrey states that “Sir Walter was never forgotten nor forgiven” for his statement about James's inability to distinguish his friends from his foes.39 Moreover, he and Cobham had questioned the large number of Scottish favorites that James brought with him upon his ascension. James interpreted all of this as slander, and he pursued Ralegh and Cobham (although the latter to a lesser degree) with the same virulence that he showed the ministers who dared to question him.

Ralegh was not a well liked man; in fact, Gardiner calls him “the most unpopular man in England.”40 He was so disdained that crowds gathered, despite the risks of contracting the plague, to curse and jeer at him as he was escorted from the Tower to Winchester. But James's unfair pursuit of Ralegh became obvious to many of James's new subjects, and the same criticism he had received while king of Scotland for his inequitable administration of the laws soon greeted him as king of England. James's tool for tyrannic power, Edward Coke, pursued Ralegh so mercilessly and found him guilty on such scanty evidence, and Ralegh, according to observer Dudley Carleton, “answered with (such) temper, wit, learning, courage, and judgment” during his trial that even the biased jury's views changed.41 Osborne claims that “some of his jury (were), after he was cast, so farre touched in conscience, as to demand of him pardon on their knees.”42 Greenblatt states that “Ralegh's courage and eloquence had transformed a populace ready at the start literally to tear him to pieces into a crowd of admirers shocked at the harshness of the verdict.”43 The situation had backfired on James: he had hoped to remove what he considered an ungrateful, unpopular subject whom he disliked, but instead he had unwittingly made Ralegh into a martyr and a symbol of flagrant injustice. It made James's subjects question his rule even more seriously, for the public response to Ralegh's trial was, according to Gardiner, “the first signal of the reaction which from that moment steadily set in in (sic) favour of the rights of individuals against the State.”44

But the travesty of justice did not end here. James created a memorable spectacle for his subjects, a spectacle to advertise his special kind of clemency. The minor players—Markham, Cobham, and Grey de Wilton—were to be executed. Ralegh's execution was scheduled for the following Monday. After expressly ordering that a bishop give them their last rights, James had each conspirator endure the same fate one at a time: he had them placed on the scaffold, had them take their leave of family and friends, had them say their prayers, and then had them prepared for the block. He had arranged for an inconspicuous man—a Scotch groom of his bedchamber—to attract the attention of the sheriff at the last minute and to deliver a note from James requesting that the execution be suspended until the men were more spiritually prepared for their deaths. He constructed the letter so that the condemned men would perceive no hope of suspension of the death sentence and chose the most obscure man to deliver the letter for the same purpose. After a few hours respite, the men endured the same spectacle before they were at last told of their reprieve. There was almost a fatal slip-up when the groom could not get close enough to the scaffold to attract the sheriff's attention and had to scream for recognition. James had carefully choreographed this spectacle to lead up climactically to the great, suspenseful moment when he would forgive the conspirators, blazoning his merciful nature. James situated Ralegh in a prison cell that allowed him to see the whole puzzling scene from his cell window and did not send Ralegh's reprieve until a few days later. Ultimately, James pardoned Markham and imprisoned Ralegh, Cobham, and Grey. In a letter to John Chamberlain, Dudley Carleton describes the crowd's mixed reaction to the spectacles: when the sheriff proclaimed the king's mercy, “there was then no need to beg a plaudite of the audience, for it was given with such hues and cries”; but earlier when the executioner held up the head of one of the executed major conspirators and cried “God save the King,” “he was not seconded by the voice of any one man but the sheriff.”45 The silence was shocking and embarrassing for the king and might have suggested that James's subjects were less than impressed and, instead, were disturbed by this strange show. During the Easter festivities of 1604, James, however, only made the injustice more glaring: Robert Lacey states that “when King James rode through the gates of the Tower … the great fortress had been entirely cleared of prisoners, all pardoned and released as an act of Easter mercy with the exception of three—Ralegh, Cobham, and Grey.”46 Soon Grey was pardoned. It was quite obvious that Ralegh and Cobham's punishment was not comparable to their crime—a crime, ultimately, of offending the king.

The similarities between this puzzling topical event and Shakespeare's last scene are striking. It seems that Shakespeare deliberately contrived his scene to highlight the controversial aspects of this particular event. While this spectacle revealed James's understanding of the value of theatrics in government, as scholars have noted, this certainly was not the overriding concern of the spectators. Rather it was the king's misuse of his power to punish whomever he wished, to conduct business on the basis of tastes and distastes—a pattern he had notoriously established in Scotland and that Shakespeare chooses to question. Shakespeare embodies these concerns in his contrast of the Duke's treatment of Lucio with that of other characters. Lucio does not appear in Shakespeare's sources, and, like the Duke, is largely of Shakespeare's own creation. Lucio is obviously based on the Vice and Braggadocio character types. But he may be based also on an actual person. While Bernthal draws parallels between Angelo and Ralegh, “whose guilt was not proved but whose innocence (like Angelo's) was never conclusively established,”47 the parallels between Lucio and Ralegh are more striking. Shakespeare may have modeled Lucio on the infamous Sir Walter Ralegh, with whom he shares some similar character traits and a similar situation of having offended the magistrate and suffered immeasurably as a consequence.

While there is not a one-to-one correspondence between Ralegh and Shakespeare's character, Lucio evokes several of the historical figure's admirable qualities. Ralegh was a favorite at Elizabeth's court, a celebrated soldier, a poet, and a historian—all in all, a man of some insight and intellect. Although there are no textual indications that Lucio has literary talents, there are, however, suggestions that he has experience as a soldier and knows about current military actions: he discourses with the two Gentlemen, who are soldiers, about the likelihood of war with Hungary (1.2.1-18), and laments that the Duke has not engaged him in the military service he was promised (1.4.50-52). Although his proclivity for bravado makes his self-characterizations suspect, his assertion of “know(ing),” “lov(ing),” and being an “inward” (3.2.127;145;155) of the Duke may not be a total fabrication. That he is the only character who suspects the Duke is doing more than he professes—that “his giving out were of an infinite distance / From his true-meant design” (1.4.54-55)—allows for the possibility that he is an insider of the court, like Ralegh, one who, as Lucio says, “knows the very nerves of state” (1.4.53) and who was once a favorite of the Duke. His keen observations about Angelo's “crabbed” and “ruthless” (3.2.110) nature also indicate that under his bawdy innuendo lies a sharp intellect.

Lucio shares as well some of Ralegh's less reputable and flamboyant qualities. Gardiner declares Ralegh “was regarded as an insolent and unprincipled wretch, who feared neither God nor man” and “was too apt to treat (others) with the arrogance and scorn which they seldom deserved”; Otto Scott states his “arrogant personality … made him widely unpopular” and he was “held to be completely contemptible”; Lacey declares he had a “reputation for inconstancy” and “could turn on those he called his allies over such trifles.”48 Certainly, the insolent and unprincipled Lucio is capable of the same untrustworthy behavior, as Mistress Overdone reports that Lucio informed on her and caused her arrest. Ralegh also could be flippant and irreverent (a character trait that got him into trouble with James), and Lacey cites an instance where he made a derisive comment about the corruptive practices in parliament and offended Sir Robert Cecil, who considered it a slander on a respectable body.49 It is a similar irreverence that marks the language of Lucio and that gets him into the Duke's bad graces. Ralegh, like Lucio, also had a flamboyance about him; Greenblatt calls it “self-dramatization” and “an awareness of the histrionic sensibility.”50 It was these powers of theatrics that made him so compelling during his trial and that enabled him to win the hearts even of his enemies. This same flare for theatrics gets Lucio into trouble in the last scene when he cannot be deterred from revealing and enhancing Friar Lodowick's indiscretions, creating his own spectacle of unveiling the friar.

While Lucio is unlike Ralegh in that his principal offense is labeled slander, not treason, both suffer from having incited the anger and antipathy of their rulers and, consequently, enduring abuse. Shakespeare, moreover, makes Lucio's punishment seem as gratuitous and unjust as Ralegh's. Undoubtedly, Lucio takes license with the Duke's character, for which he is accused of slander, such a flagrant crime, especially during King James's reign, that it was constituted as treason and punishable by death. But Shakespeare does not make Lucio's characterization of his ruler as clear a case of calumny as the Duke would have it seem, nor does he portray Lucio as clearly deserving punishment. First, by not clarifying whether Lucio recognizes the Duke in the disguise of a friar, Shakespeare allows for the possibility that, in fact, Lucio does know of the Duke's “mad, fantastical trick” of “usurp(ing) the beggary he was never born to” (3.2.90), a phrase that some scholars have read as Lucio's recognition of the Duke's mendicant friar status.51 Lucio's words, then, can be read as more than just pointless defamation of character: they can be read as his attempt to impress upon an absent ruler, whom he recognizes, the need to “return” (3.2.167) and save the life of a young man, who would be executed for the forgivable crime of “untrussing” (3.2.173): “Why, what a ruthless thing is this in (Angelo), for the rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a man! Would the Duke that is absent have done this?” (3.2.110-12). Second, while Lucio's language is incorrigibly laced with bawdiness and irreverence, which make his voice offensive, he in his own inimitable way actually praises his ruler. He, for example, distinguishes the icy cold, brutal Angelo from the Duke, whom he characterizes as a humane, merciful man, who tempered the letter-of-the-law with his heart and tolerance for human foibles: before “the Duke would have hanged a man for the getting a hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing a thousand”; “his use was to put a ducat in (a beggar's) clack-dish”; “he would mouth with a beggar though she smelt brown bread and garlic” (3.2.113-15;122-23;177-78). Like King James, the Duke is over-sensitive to the issue of slander, so fixating on the surface bawdiness and impertinence that he cannot recognize the deeper significance of Lucio's words. He, in fact, is so preoccupied with pursuing what he perceives as slander that it is Lucio who has to say “but no more of this” (3.2.164) and try to return to the more important subject of Claudio's fate.

Shakespeare also attenuates the potentially libelous content of Lucio's characterization by making his Duke at times seem to fit Lucio's description of a shady character more than he does the Duke's ideal picture of himself as a sagacious ruler. Given all of the parallels between James and Duke Vincentio, moreover, some in Shakespeare's audience might not have perceived Lucio's statements as that slanderous or far from the mark. What Lucio says about his duke meshes with some of the disreputable qualities of King James. Lucio characterizes the Duke, like King James, as maintaining a public persona that contradicts his real nature. While the Duke likes to be known for his wisdom, as James was noted for his superior learning, Lucio says he “would be drunk” (3.2.124); “had a feeling for the sport” (115) or lived a licentious life and would “eat mutton” (175) or was acquainted with prostitutes; and had “dark deeds darkly answered” (171) and “would never bring them to light” (172) or was not known for revealing offenders of the law but, rather, for concealing them. This last characteristic may be an allusion to an actual event, for the Earl of Arran, one of James's favorites, was involved in the “dark deed” of getting a woman pregnant. But the circumstances were more heinous than those of Claudio's indiscretion because the Countess of March was married. Calderwood explains that the king “cover(ed) this adulterous fact” by easily obtaining a divorce for the countess and quickly marrying Arran to her. Calderwood also clarifies that the king's favorites were thought to corrupt him by “giving him all the provocatiouns to dissolute life in manners that was possible, by licentious companie, by interteaning of their owne harlots in his presence.”52 The gossip was that whoredom was more frequent in Scotland than princely activities. Weldon contends that another criticism was that James “drank very often,” that he “was excessively addicted to … drinking.”53

The play is so problematical, in part, because of our reaction to the punishment characters receive in the last scene. Shakespeare makes many in his audience react to Lucio as the spectators of the trial reacted to Ralegh. That is, while we at times dislike Lucio for his many flaws and insolence, his wit and humanity win many of the audience over to his side. James himself complained that “at the arraignment at Winchester, … by (Ralegh's) wit he turned the hatred of men into compassion for him.”54 In a play in which “severity” and heartlessness are so revered, Lucio distinguishes himself as the one character who consistently shows sensitivity: he, for example, is the only character who actually takes action to try to save Claudio's life, convincing Isabella to plead with Angelo and prompting her on the best approach; he, moreover, expresses sympathy for Isabella and tries to console her when the Duke makes her believe her brother is dead—“I am pale at mine heart to see thine eyes so red: thou must be patient” (4.2.150-51). He shows more humanity than any of the saintly protagonists, including Isabella, who can garner no sympathy for even her brother. William Lawrence, for example, argues that Shakespeare distresses moralists by making Lucio “with all his faults” win “the sympathy of the audience far more than does Vincentio, with all his virtues.”55

Shakespeare underscores the unfairness of Lucio's fate, juxtaposing it to that of two other characters—Angelo and Barnardine—who in some ways are more sinister than Lucio. Like Ralegh, Lucio seems singled out. If the Duke had not intervened and protected Angelo, the deputy would have been guilty of serious crimes. While Isabella speaks hyperbolically, there is some truth to her characterizations when she denounces Angelo as the “wicked'st caitiff on the ground” and a “pernicious” “arch-villain” (5.1.56;60;91). Yet he goes free. Shakespeare, likewise, introduces the self-professed murderer Barnardine into the play to highlight the inequity of the judgment Lucio receives and the governmental controversy of his own day. Like Angelo, Barnardine is a malefactor. He unashamedly admits to his crime of murder, and the Duke describes him as a “reprobate,” a “rude wretch” “unfit to live or die,” “careless, reckless, and fearless of what's past, present, or to come” (4.2.73;80;63;141-42). Although he shows not one shred of contrition, the Duke acquits him of his “earthly faults” (5.1.481). Shakespeare makes the Duke's actions as questionable as those of James on Easter of 1604 when he gave blanket pardons to all criminals in the Tower except those who had not paid due homage to his divine character. To allow murderers and pernicious characters to go free while the more humane character is condemned because he has offended his ruler strikes us as unfair, as it did James's subjects. Critics of Shakespeare's Duke echo James's detractors of his treatment of Ralegh. Richard S. Ide, for example, argues “if Barnardine the murderer can be forgiven completely, why not Lucio? … The genesis of the Duke's punitive animus against Lucio seems clear: it is personal and partial.”56 Shakespeare undermines the sacrosanctity of kings by having his duke duplicate James's questionable actions of perverting justice to reward his friends and to punish not criminals, but those who dared to criticize him. Shakespeare has his duke act like James, who declined power when it was not to his liking but who abused it and assumed more than his due when it served his selfish needs.

Another one of James's troubling qualities accentuated in the Bye spectacle was the king's exercise of cruelty. McElwee describes James's strange contradictory behavior: he could be “a gentle, peace-loving, friendly soul. But thenceforward any threat to his kingship, any calling in question of his sovereignty … would bring out in him not only an irrational self-assertiveness, but also at times a streak of vindictive cruelty which were beyond his own control.”57 In recording the Bye event, Dudley Carleton noted the strange, contrived dramatic effect, referring to the prisoners as “actors” “playing their parts” and to the scaffold as the “stage.”58 Carleton's unusual description seems to suggest his dissatisfaction with the King's insensitive playing with terrified prisoners as though they were pawns or puppets in a macabre dramatic production. Some subjects may have detected that the King's attempts to advertise his mercifulness were excessive, almost as though he were using clemency as a screen for something else—for his cruelty. Some modern historians have questioned the merciful nature of his actions during this spectacle. Lucy Aikin, for example, condemns James: “Previously to the arrival of the tardy respite, the unhappy prisoners were made to undergo … all the terror and all the ignominy of the scaffold;—nothing was spared them of the last scene but the axe and the halter, and in comparison to the misery to which they were reserved, even these might have been regarded as mercies.”59

In his dramatic portrayal of this topical event, Shakespeare reveals this cruelty and makes it disturbing, as he prompts his audience once again to question a monarch's—and, in particular, James's—abuse of power. Like James, the Duke makes everyone think that characters are dead or are going to die, makes them endure a gruesome spectacle of an impending execution, perilously delays the reprieves until the last moment, and has the most inconspicuous man—the Provost—do the key maneuvering behind the scenes. Just as James suspended the prisoners' death sentence for a few hours but refused to give them any hope of a reprieve, Shakespeare has his duke delay the news about Claudio's safety and refuse to put a swift end to the characters' torment. Angelo is scared with the prospect of his death; Mariana is pained with the possibility of her groom being killed; Isabella is made to think her brother is dead and that she may be partially responsible for the imminent execution of Angelo; and both women are so tormented that they get on their knees to beg for mercy. Scholars voice complaints about the Duke's behavior that echo those of James's critics: Marvin Rosenberg, for instance, calls the Duke's scheme “diabolically plotted, a great cruel spectacle.”60

James's inhumanity toward Ralegh, in particular, is reflected in the Duke's treatment of Lucio. James protracted Ralegh's agony by dealing with him last, making him watch the drawn-out proceedings from his prison cell and hope that the same leniency given to the other prisoners would be shown to him. Dudley Carleton imagines the effect on Ralegh: “Raleigh, you must think, … had hammers working in his head, to beat out the meaning of this stratagem.”61 McElwee calls James's treatment of Ralegh a “streak” of “unimaginative callousness,” “a meanness of spirit of which even James's own son would not be able to forgive.”62 According to Gardiner, Ralegh himself denounced what he called “the cruelty of the law of England,”63 and it was, indeed, cruelty that James showed him. Shakespeare's Duke, in a similar fashion, saves Lucio until the very end. He makes Lucio hope that the same “apt remission” (5.1.496) that the Duke shows murderers and corrupt governors will be shown to him—but, of course, he will not be so lucky. Likewise, James also seems to have delayed the reprieve of Ralegh in order to make him sink into more humiliating depths, making him think that if he begged for mercy he would receive a reprieve, which the king, harboring his secret vendetta against the man, never intended to show him. Lacey explains that Ralegh “despatched a series of grovelling letters to James, to Cecil, to the Privy Council, desperately seeking the help of anyone he thought might help him.”64 James made Ralegh despair so much that, in July of 1603, Ralegh tried to commit suicide. Similarly, Shakespeare has his duke maneuver Lucio into shaming himself as he begs before the whole court for forgiveness: “If you will hang me for it, you may: but I had rather it would please you I might be whipped” (5.1.503-04).

The Duke looks merciful in that he ultimately states that he forgives Lucio. Likewise, the Duke looks benevolent as he lifts the death sentence hanging over Angelo and Barnardine's heads. But his kind of forgiveness is as questionable as was James's. Lacey claims that James showed a “droll style of mercy” (313). What this describes is an established pattern of threatening subjects with the most frightening and severe sentences possible and letting them languish under them, and then relieving the sentence or canceling it all together. Often the new sentence, though, was more inhumane than the original one. Lacey explains that James had the lord chief justice, “as if he had been briefed by James,” meticulously describe the “grisly sentence” that faced Ralegh after he was found guilty of treason, delineating graphically the being drawn through the streets on a hurdle, the hanging, the disemboweling, and the quartering. Lacey clarifies that such an action was gratuitous: “Sir Walter Raleigh could reasonably expect that he would, as a knight, be spared the gory details of this ritualized torture” (307). The action was especially gratuitous considering that James did not intend to enforce the execution. The king's brand of remission was no better: he consigned Ralegh to the Tower for thirteen years with a suspended death sentence hanging over his head and consigned Cobham to the Tower for fourteen years. Ralegh was finally executed in 1618. Once Cobham was given his freedom, the strange kind of mercy did not end. Osborne explains that he was given “such a liberty as only afforded him the choyce of a place to starve in, all his land being formerly confiscate. … He died in a roome, ascended by a ladder, at a poore womans house in the Minorities, formerly his landeresse, rather of hunger, then any more naturall disease.” Osborne condemns James as worse than “infidells, who ever deemed it lesse injustice to take away life, then the meanes to maintaine it.”65 Such a technique allowed James to exercise a kind of sadism while concealing it under a facade of altruism.

Shakespeare has his duke display the same misuse of power to aggravate subjects' pain and has him betray this ghoulish delight in his own words: he compares himself to fathers who bind “up the threatening twigs of birch, / Only to stick it in their children's sight / For terror, not to use” (1.3.24-26). Both James and the Duke seem to terrify subjects, threatening them with the prospect of a punishment that they sometimes do not deliver, making them agonize as they wait for the blow. The Duke, likewise, conceals his cruelty with neat tricks of prestidigitation and seeming benevolence: he, for example, brings Claudio back from the dead. But his love of inflicting torment compels him to punish even his favorite, Angelo. While throughout the play he shows favor to his deputy and protects him, the Duke, nonetheless, persecutes him under the guise of kindness: he forces Angelo to marry a woman whom he does not love, and he so publicly humiliates him and impugns his character that the demoralized Angelo “crave(s)” death “more willingly than mercy” (5.1.474).

Lucio, though, suffers the most, and his fate is similar to Ralegh's. Although the Duke first states that he “find(s) an apt remission in (him)self. / And yet here's one (Lucio) in place I cannot pardon” (5.1.496-97) and proceeds to condemn Lucio to marry a “whore” and then “be whipp'd and hang'd” (5.1.511), the Duke ultimately says he forgives his defamer: “Upon mine honour, thou shalt marry (the woman he has impregnated). / Thy slanders I forgive, and therewithal / Remit thy other forfeits.—Take him to prison, / And see our pleasure herein executed” (5.1.516-19). The Duke appears to be the embodiment of mercy and magnanimity as he not only forgives a rogue for slander but also “remit(s)” or pardons (OED v. 1) his other crimes, and demands only that he marry the mother of his child. And he often receives critical approval for such charitable actions. But even if this is the full extent of Lucio's punishment, it seems unfair that in a crime-ridden society where “corruption boil(s) and bubble(s)” (5.1.316) only Lucio is made to pay for his misdemeanors.

The Duke's actions and language are ambiguous, furthermore, and he may conceal cruelty under a merciful veneer, as James did with Ralegh. While the Duke claims to forgive his accuser, the word “remit” can carry an opposite meaning to that of granting a pardon: it can mean “to send a person back to prison or to other custody; to recommit” (OED v. 10). Moreover, his language contains references to imprisonment and punishment, with the verb “executed” carrying the designation not only of carrying out an action (OED v. 1) but also of inflicting capital punishment upon a person or putting him to death in pursuance of a sentence (OED v. 6). The Duke's slippery word choice, then, allows him to convey two diametrically opposite messages at once. He can be saying that while he forgives Lucio for his slander, he will imprison and punish him, nonetheless, for his other offenses. What helps to give credence to such a reading is that previously when the Duke refers to inflicting punishment, he concatenates it with “pleasure,” as he does here: he, for example, instructs Angelo to “punish (his accusers) to (his) height of pleasure” (5.1.239). Lucio seems to understand that the Duke has more chastisement in mind for him than simply marriage: he exclaims that “marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, / Whipping, and hanging” (5.1.520-21). Lucio makes the argument that marriage to a whore is comparable to the most severe punishment, as if he is trying to plead with the Duke to cancel the sentence of “death / Whipping and hanging.” When the Duke responds to Lucio's plea, he betrays that he has equivocated in his previous response and, that, in fact, he has not forgiven his defamer as he first stated: “Slandering a prince deserves it” (5.1.521). With his duke's evasive language, Shakespeare, then, allows for the possibility that the Duke's last judgment of Lucio is no more merciful than his first: Lucio may go to prison not just to marry Kate Keepdown but also to endure a more physically painful fate. The Duke makes characters suffer needlessly and gratuitously, and, as some of James's own subjects complained, he treats them as his puppets in a carefully staged play of the Duke's own devising.

Shakespeare is evoking more of James's cruel behavior in some of his duke's other actions. James's fascination with pain and the macabre revealed itself during the witch hunts and trials, which he promoted and in which he actively participated. McElwee states that James attended some examinations, “gripped in a sort of fascinated horror” and actually conducted some of the questioning.66 His gratuitous involvement in questioning the accused suggests that he enjoyed the interrogations, the inflicting of mental anguish. But what was most disturbing was his fascination with physical torture. He personally witnessed some of the tortures and, according to Scott, even “suggested new tortures to the examiners, who were surprised that was possible.” Scott also describes James's attendance at a trial and punishment: he went into “the depths of the stone dungeons. There he watched, fascinated, as the examiners approached the accused, stretched naked on stones if a woman and shackled upright if a man, with their instruments. He heard the screams and the stories and was caught into the drama. Bending over the culprits, he put questions himself and suggested ways to break their resistance.”67 During the witch hunts, he permitted, according to Willson, “gross indignities and horrible torture,” which resulted in him being “accused of sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain.”68

Certainly, the Duke's interrogating of Mariana and Isabella in act 5 echoes James's questionable interrogations, as the Duke consigns them to prison and to the prospect of torture. There is also a macabre quality about the Duke's lurking around the cells of the prison in the disguise of a friar. In fact, he is acting very much as James did with the witches who were being persecuted. Although the Duke calls himself a solicitous father, “minister(ing)” (2.3.7) to victims' needs, he is intent on experiencing their physical and mental torment. He conducts needless and merciless interrogations of Juliet and Claudio, for example, and witnesses their physical and emotional pain as prisoners in the jail. In fact, he heightens their torment as did James, leaving them more despondent than when he arrived. Although Juliet is reconciled to her sorrow and sins when the Duke enters her prison cell, after his interrogation she is left cursing life as a “dying horror” (2.3.41). Likewise, critics have noted that the Duke's counseling of Claudio in the prison cell contains more despair than consolation, more references to death than life-after-death. His visiting the “dejected” Mariana for years in a “moated grange,” which seems like a prison, strikes us as strange and similar to James's questionable visits and interrogations of arrested women suspected of being witches. Shakespeare permits us to feel that his duke distorts his power and divinity into a perverse gratification of others' pain.

At the play's end the Duke seems like “pow'r divine” (5.1.367). But Shakespeare punctures holes in the saintly facade by allowing his audience to be “in the know,” to be privy to the Duke's preparations for the spectacular denouement in act 5 and not to be impressed by them. He debunks the inviolability of kings by allowing us to witness the Duke's numerous blunders and near catastrophes that lead up to the wonder of act 5. The Duke's “close calls” resemble those of James with the groom of the bedchamber, who almost did not deliver the reprieve for the Bye conspirators in time. Shakespeare makes his audience's as well as his characters' reactions to the last act mixed, just as the audience of the Bye plot felt ambivalent. On one level, Shakespeare has written a reading of his Duke as the embodiment of the ideal ruler, and the Duke has evoked the praise of many scholars and audiences, who applaud him, as did the witnesses to James's forgiveness of the Bye conspirators. Shakespeare wrote this reading into his play in order to protect himself, and this must have been the way James himself viewed it. But at the same time, Shakespeare makes it impossible to applaud all of the Duke's actions, and some of them leave us as disturbed and puzzled as James's subjects must have felt about his questionable exercising of power. Weldon states that “the world was never satisfied with the justice” administered to the Bye conspirators.69 Shakespeare, likewise, makes many in his audience forever dissatisfied with his duke's sense of justice, a response that results in Measure for Measure being seen as a “problem” play. Shakespeare has his characters' reactions in the last act reflect some of our own reactions. Rather than voicing their gratefulness and admiration, they are relatively mute—especially Isabella, whose conspicuous silence detracts from a happy ending. This evokes the embarrassing silence of the witnesses to James's hanging of the major Bye conspirators. Shakespeare seems to mean their silence to indicate a discomfort with the Duke's actions and to make the audience uncomfortable as well.

Shakespeare disabuses us of the godliness of rightful rulers by portraying his duke as a prevaricator and schemer, not a Solomon or Christ, as the Duke deludes other characters into believing. What we see is not a divine ruler but someone intent on creating a divine image. Part of Shakespeare's divesting the monarchial role of godliness would have been his ability as well to dupe King James. Since, as Weldon claims, James was facetiously labeled “the wisest foole in Christendome” (2: 10) by some of his subjects, Shakespeare, in showing that this epithet is appropriate and that James could be fooled into thinking the play glorified him, was dispelling the illusion of kingly omniscience. He was showing that monarchs are not godlike and do not by nature have divine insight into affairs; they, like James must have been with Measure for Measure, are susceptible to duplicity and hollow forms of flattery. Moreover, the form of the play reflects James's and perhaps monarchs' nature in general—inspirational and noble on the surface but disturbing and imperfect beneath the surface.


  1. Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and their Contemporaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP 1983), 239. See also Alvin B. Kernan, “Shakespearian Comedy and its Courtly Audience” in Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan, ed. A. R. Braumuller and J. C. Bulman (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1986), 100; Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare, Politics and the State (London: Macmillan, 1986), 1.

  2. Consult, for example, the following: Thomas Tyrwhit, Observations and Conjectures Upon Some Passages of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1766); George Chalmers, A Supplemental Apology for the Believers in Shakespeare-Papers (London: T. Egerton, 1797); Charles Knight, Studies in Shakespeare (London: C. Knight, 1849); David Lloyd Stevenson, “The Role of James I in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure,English Literary History 26 (1959): 188-208; Josephine Waters Bennett, “Measure for Measure” as Royal Entertainment (New York: Columbia UP, 1966); Brian Rose, “Friar-Duke and Scholar-King,” English Studies in Africa 9 (1966): 72-82; J. W. Lever, “Introduction” to the Arden edition of Measure for Measure (London: Methuen, 1976); Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature.

  3. Jonathan Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure” in Political Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1985), 73; Leonard Tennenhouse, “Representing Power: Measure for Measure in its Time” in The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1982), 153-54.

  4. G. P. V. Akrigg, Jacobean Pageant or the Court of King James I (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962), 227.

  5. Quoted in David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1968), 13.

  6. Roy Battenhouse, “Measure for Measure and King James,” Clio 7 (1978): 194.

  7. Charles Swann, “Lucio: Benefactor or Malefactor?” Critical Quarterly 29 (1987): 62.

  8. Consult the following: Herbert Howarth, “Shakespeare's Flattery in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly 16 (1965): 34-36; Battenhouse, 197-98; Louise Schleiner, “Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure,PMLA 97 (1982): 234-35; Cynthia Lewis, “Dark Deeds Darkly Answered: Duke Vincentio and Judgment in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 276; Swann, 59; and Marilyn Williamson, “The Comedies in Historical Context” in Images of Shakespeare: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the International Shakespeare Association, 1986, ed. Werner Habicht, D. J. Palmer, and Roger Pringle (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1988), 188-200.

  9. Bennett, “Measure for Measure” as Royal Entertainment, 98, 99.

  10. Craig A. Bernthal, “Staging Justice: James I and the Trial Scene of Measure for Measure,Studies in English Literature 32 (1992): 256, 263. Consult also Swann, 61, and Anthony B. Dawson, “Measure for Measure, New Historicism, and Theatrical Power,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 336.

  11. Battenhouse, 201-2.

  12. Consult, for example, the following: Elizabeth Marie Pope, “The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 2 (1949): 71; Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (London: Routledge, 1963), 125; Bennett, “Measure for Measure” as Royal Entertainment, 88-91; Rose, 78; Stevenson, The Achievement of Shakespeare's “Measure for Measure” (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1966), 148; Lever, “Introduction” to the Arden edition, xlix; John E. Price, ‘“Back-wounding Calumny: The Subject of Slander in King James's Basilikon Doron and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure,American Notes and Queries 22 (1984): 99-101; and M. Lindsay Kaplan, “Slander for Slander in Measure for Measure,Renaissance Drama 21 (1990): 23-53.

  13. Swann, 63; Williamson, 197.

  14. Arden edition of “Measure for Measure,” ed. J. W. Lever (London: Methuen, 1976), 1.1.3-13. All subsequent citations to Shakespeare's work are from this edition and will be hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  15. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford UP, 1971), “elect” v. 2 and 4; “special” adj. 2b; “soul” sb. 3a. All subsequent citations will be hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as OED.

  16. David Calderwood, The History of the Kirk of Scotland (Edinburgh: Wodrow Society, 1843), 3:653; 5:140.

  17. Francis Osborne, “Traditional Memoyres on the Raigne of King James the First” in The Secret History of the Court of James the First, ed. Sir Walter Scott (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne, 1811), 1:220.

  18. Anthony Weldon, “The Court and Character of King James” in The Secret History of the Court of James the First, ed. Sir Walter Scott, 2:10; William Robertson, The History of Scotland During the Reigns of Queen Mary and of King James VI, 2d ed. (London: A Millar, 1759), 2:105.

  19. Unknown author, The Historie and Life of King James the Sext (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne, 1825), 188.

  20. Osborne, 1:222.

  21. Robertson, The History of Scotland During the Reigns of Queen Mary and of King James VI, 2:106.

  22. Sir James Melville, Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill 1535-1617, ed. A. Francis Steuart (New York: Dutton, 1930), 283.

  23. Calderwood, The History of the Kirk of Scotland, 5:471, 454, 140.

  24. The Historie and Life of King James the Sext, 245.

  25. Robertson, The History of Scotland During the Reigns of Queen Mary and of King James VI, 2:121.

  26. Letter “Elizabeth to James VI” (January 1593-4) in The Warrender Papers, vol. 2, ed. Annie I. Cameron and Robert S. Rait, The Publications of the Scottish History Society, Third Series, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1932), 19:222.

  27. Robertson, The History of Scotland During the Reigns of Queen Mary and of King James VI, 2:176.

  28. Calderwood, The History of the Kirk of Scotland, 5:148.

  29. Samuel Johnson, Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Walter Raleigh (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1952), 80.

  30. Samuel R. Gardiner, History of England (London: Longmans, 1895), 1:49.

  31. William Roughead, The Rebel Earl and Other Studies (New York: Dutton, 1926), 41.

  32. John Hill Burton, The History of Scotland (London: Blackwood and Sons, 1873), 5:384.

  33. Robert Pitcairn, Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland; Compiled from the Original Records and Mss., with Historical Illustrations (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 1833), 7:349.

  34. Robertson, The History of Scotland During the Reigns of Queen Mary and of King James VI, 2:75.

  35. Calderwood, The History of the Kirk of Scotland, 4:11; 5:115, 359.

  36. William McElwee, The Wisest Fool in Christendom: The Reign of King James I and VI (New York: Harcourt, 1958), 119-20.

  37. Stephen Greenblatt, Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles (New Haven: Yale UP, 1973), 114.

  38. David Harris Willson, King James VI and I (New York: Oxford UP, 1967), 73.

  39. John Aubrey, Aubrey's ‘Brief Lives, ed. Andrew Clark (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1898), 2:187.

  40. Gardiner, History of England, 1:88.

  41. Quoted in Thomas Birch, ed., The Court and Times of James the First (London: Colburn, 1849), 1:20.

  42. Osborne, 2:161.

  43. Greenblatt, Sir Walter Ralegh, 1.

  44. Gardiner, History of England, 1:138.

  45. Quoted in Birch, ed., The Court and Times of James the First, 1:31.

  46. Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh (New York: Atheneum, 1974), 316.

  47. Bernthal, 262.

  48. Gardiner, History of England, 1:89; Otto Scott, James I (New York: Masson / Charter, 1976), 271; Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh, 269.

  49. Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh, 270.

  50. Greenblatt, Sir Walter Ralegh, 115, 122.

  51. Consult, for example, the following: Nevill Coghill, “Comic Form in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955): 23-24, and Carolyn E. Brown, “Measure for Measure: Duke Vincentio's ‘Crabbed Desires,” Literature and Psychology 35 (1989): 66-88.

  52. Calderwood, The History of the Kirk of Scotland, 3:593, 658.

  53. Weldon, 2:3.

  54. Quoted in Greenblatt, Sir Walter Ralegh; 2.

  55. William Lawrence, “Measure for Measure and Lucio,” Shakespeare Quarterly 9 (1958): 443.

  56. Richard S. Ide, “Shakespeare's Revisionism: Homiletic Tragicomedy and the Ending of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 122.

  57. McElwee, The Wisest Fool in Christendom, 54.

  58. Quoted in Birch, ed., The Court and Times of James the First, 1:30-31.

  59. Lucy Aikin, Memoirs of the Court of King James the First (London: Longman, 1822), 2:175.

  60. Marvin Rosenberg, “Shakespeare's Fantastic Trick: Measure for Measure,Sewanee Review 80 (1972): 68.

  61. Quoted in Birch, ed., The Court and Times of James the First, 1:31.

  62. McElwee, The Wisest Fool in Christendom, 122.

  63. Gardiner, History of England, 1:123.

  64. Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh, 309.

  65. Osborne, 1:156.

  66. McElwee, The Wisest Fool in Christendom, 71.

  67. Scott, James I, 210-11.

  68. Willson, King James VI and I, 105.

  69. Weldon, 1:340.

Andrew Barnaby and Joan Wry (essay date winter 1998)

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SOURCE: Barnaby, Andrew, and Joan Wry. “Authorized Versions: Measure for Measure and the Politics of Biblical Translation.” Renaissance Quarterly 51, no. 4 (winter 1998): 1225-54.

[In the following essay, Barnaby and Wry trace various biblical allusions used in Measure for Measure, emphasizing that although it is primarily a political play, the work is also a cautionary tale about the danger of using religious rhetoric in a political context.]

Despite the common practice of reading Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in relation to the cultural politics of the first year of the Stuart monarchy, politically-oriented criticism has largely neglected the play's connection to the politics of one of King James's most ambitious undertakings: the new biblical translation first announced in January of 1604 at the Hampton Court Conference. While maintaining that the play cannot be reduced to a simple allegory of James's effort to link his new political authority to the “authorizing” power of scripture, this essay examines how the “topicality” of that effort might be registered in the play's complex pattern of biblical allusion. We argue, finally, that with its staged conflict between ethical ideal and social practice, Measure for Measure offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of deploying religious rhetoric in secular political contexts.

Our comic poets construct their plots on the basis of general probabilities and then assign names to the persons quite arbitrarily … But in tragedy they still cling to the historically given names. The reason for this is that what is possible is persuasive; so what has not happened we are not yet ready to believe is possible, while what has happened is, we feel, obviously possible: for it would not have happened if it were impossible.


Critics have long been drawn to the notion that Shakespeare's Measure for Measure reflects, either explicitly or in more shadowy ways, topical interest in the circumstances of the newly crowned James I. Despite Richard Levin's complaint, first lodged over twenty years ago, that such a critical approach (what he mockingly referred to as the “King James Version” of Measure for Measure) failed to produce compelling evidence of the play's actual connection to James, continued discussion of the issue has focused not on whether James is figured in the play but rather on which aspects of his reign—which events, royal acts, political and constitutional struggles, or patterns of public discourse—are figured.1 Nevertheless, even if we feel justified, as Jonathan Goldberg does, in dismissing Levin's objections for their refusal of “any real confrontation with the play,” we must yet admit that there is a decidedly conjectural element to topical readings of the play. In the end, in fact, and despite his own commitment to a “King James Version,” Goldberg is forced to concede that the play's topicality is something we can only intuit—thus his strangely qualified assertion that “criticism is no doubt correct in feeling that Measure for Measure has some special relationship to the king.”2 For the modern reader, in short, the precise point of reference of the play's topicality must always remain a question.

Although we believe that Levin's central objection—that most of the alleged connections between play and king are “based on nothing more than a collection of isolated and vague similarities of the sort that could be produced throughout the literature of the period”—has never been adequately addressed, a detailed response to that particular objection is beyond the scope of this essay.3 Still, some consideration of topicality, both the specific use of topical reference in the play and the broader question of topicality as a tool of modern critical practice, is in order. We might begin that consideration by noting Leah Marcus's claim that with its “restlessly oscillating topicality … the topical Measure for Measure is a play that will not sit still.” In response, we might briefly observe that what Marcus really shows is not that the play itself is intentionally topical but that Shakespeare's contemporaries might have read any number of topical references into it. And if we are willing to agree (as Levin is not) with Marcus's more general assertion that “when contemporaries attended and talked about plays it was the currency of the stage, its ability to … ‘Chronicle’ events in the very unfolding, that was the primary object of fascination,” a modern critic might reasonably point to the “unfolding events” of the new Stuart monarchy as the most likely focus of the original audience's “current” interests.4

Part of what would make that modern critic's investigation of a play's topicality conjectural would be the difficulty of verifying the claim that a particular element of the play had actually been construed as a topical reference (especially if such a reference had not been intended by the play's author).5 But the conjectural quality of modern topical readings is caused also by the fact that we cannot simply equate a play's topical orientation with the references it might be making to current affairs. Indeed, even assuming that Shakespeare and other Renaissance dramatists habitually drew on such affairs, the fictions of their plays necessarily transformed whatever social or political realities they might have taken as their starting points into the subject matter of theatrical entertainment; hence, as Annabel Patterson concludes, Renaissance plays “both invite and resist understanding in terms of other phenomena.” Even Marcus concedes that, despite the “fascination” with currency, Renaissance “poets and dramatists”—and by extension their readers and audiences as well—always “looked for ways to regularize and elevate topical issues so that they could be linked with more abstract … concerns” (moral, philosophical, religious).6 Viewed in this light, topicality should be understood not as some collection of facts, social realities, and popular opinion that a playwright might have merely replicated as a kind of allegory. Rather it should be understood as a framework of recognition prompting a reader or audience to reflect on what we might call, following Aristotle, the “general probability” of “more abstract concerns.” In Renaissance drama, in short, topical reference might be understood as serving the same function that “historically given names” served in classical tragedy: establishing the conditions of persuasiveness (the historical plausibility, we might say) of the story.7

We shall return to these metacritical reflections at the end of section I and again in our closing section. But for now we can only admit that, for the purposes of the main body of our discussion, we accept the limitations of topically-oriented criticism of the play. In the absence of any direct evidence—the kind of evidence topical readings are rarely able to produce—all one can have is that “feeling that Measure for Measure has some special relationship to the king.” And even as we acknowledge the theoretical problems posed by working between what is fictional or “abstract” and what is historically real, it is to the attempt to describe how Measure for Measure might be understood as “regularizing” and “elevating” one particular topical issue that the following discussion is directed.

That issue, surprisingly, is suggested by Levin himself, who despite his hostility to such readings unwittingly locates a reference point between play and cultural situation that, to the best of our knowledge, has gone otherwise unremarked in scholarship on the play.8 For it is no coincidence, we submit, that Measure for Measure, a play so concerned with how ruling figures attempt to sanction their own public standing and to promote private interests through publicly recognized languages of authority, was written and first performed in the same year (1604) that the new king initiated one of the most significant royalist projects undertaken during his rule: the great collaborative effort of fifty-four scholars and translators that would lead seven years later to the publication of the King James Bible, a project through which James sought to extend his “prerogative” both over and by means of the most authoritative of all languages in Renaissance England, biblical texts.9

We shall discuss James's attitude toward and involvement in this project in section I. Nevertheless, as our discussion has already suggested, we do not intend to reduce the play to a simple allegory of it. Rather, we shall attempt to explicate the play's topicality by showing how it offers, in highly fictionalized form, an extended meditation on the project's organizing impetus (at least from James's perspective), which was to promote the status of the Crown as the privileged translator (and hence authorized interpreter) of biblical texts, a privilege that would in turn help to “authorize” the Crown's political authority. Certainly, we are not the first to argue that the play's focus on the nature of the ruler's authority—especially on how a kind of royal absolutism becomes invested with the aura of divinity—shows affinities with (even if it may also be critical of) James's own widely publicized theory of sacred kingship; nor are we the first to note the play's central concern with the language(s) of public authority. As Goldberg tersely observes of the play's specific representations, “authority speaks a language.”10 But what politically oriented criticism of the play has not adequately explained, we believe, is the context linking these two issues: what we want to address, in short, is why royal authority and the rhetoric of that authority become key themes in a play that is so openly attentive to the language and to the political use of biblical texts.11 And while admitting that it is difficult finally to assess the political commitments of the play, we shall argue that in regularizing and elevating the “topicality” of James's project of biblical translation, Measure for Measure offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of deploying the privileged language of the Bible in secular political contexts. It is to a discussion of both James's stake and the play's engagement in that issue that we now turn.


First announced in a royal proclamation of October 1603, the Hampton Court conference was originally intended to reduce the growing friction between the Puritan and Anglican wings of the church by addressing Puritan complaints about the continued “corruption” of the Elizabethan settlement.12 But although James presented himself as sympathetic to at least some of these complaints, he made it clear right from the start that, because religious issues were inseparable from political ones, any efforts at reform would be carefully scrutinized for their political implications, and especially for possible infringements on the prerogatives of the Crown. Even in the proclamation announcing the conference, James asserted his unwillingness to tolerate those reforms that might in any way promote civil unrest; he thus warned against those whose “contemptuous behaviour” revealed “a more unquiet spirit then becommeth any private person to have toward publike authority” and whose threatened “courses” of action “it is apparent to all men are unlawfull and doe favour of tumult, sedition, and violence.”13 To all but the most disinterested reader, James's almost bland observation that the “furtherance of the Gospel … is the duety most besemming Royall authoritie” would have been immediately recognized as registering some equivalence between the maintenance of the current system of “publike authority” (in this case “Royal authority”) and the “furtherance of the Gospel.” Indeed, in the proclamation's final paragraph James mused that the “true service of God” (marked especially by the “increase of the Gospel”) and “a most happy and long peace in the politique State … doe commonly concurre together.” The more critical reader might have also noted James's implicit claim that royal authority both served the “furtherance of the Gospel” and was served by it.14

At the conference itself, James quickly surrendered the role of impartial moderator of the proceedings to attack any idea that to him smacked of that resistance to royal supremacy he had come to associate with Puritan attitudes towards matters of ecclesiastical and civil government. On the conference's second day, for example, the Puritan signers of the Millenary Petition were equated with the infamous Thomas Cartwright, whose public crusade in the 1570s to make civil authority subservient to ecclesiastical authority—and especially to the only form of ecclesiastical government sanctioned by scripture (Presbyterian)—had given the Puritan efforts at reform their first definitive political orientation.15 Later that same day, recalling in a related context both his own youthful humiliations and those of his mother at the hands of the powerful leaders of the Scottish Kirk, James pounced on the leader of the small Puritan contingent, John Reynolds (President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford) for his use of the terms “Synode” and “Presbyteri” in suggesting a relatively minor reform in the organization of ecclesiastical courts. In William Barlow's account of the proceedings, James “stirred” at the suggestion, seeing in it a direct challenge to his authority as “Supreme Governour in all causes, and over all persons, (as well Ecclesiasticall as Civill).”16 After the close of the conference, however, James's insistence on asserting his supremacy against all but the most trivial of the Puritans' proposals for reform would come back to haunt him. The country's Puritan divines (a thousand of whom had signed the Millenary Petition) proceeded to align themselves with the Parliament as it convened its first assembly under the new king in March, 1604. The ensuing struggles between royal prerogative and parliamentary privilege would, of course, define the political and constitutional history of the entire Stuart period.

Despite his personal humiliation, it was Reynolds who managed to convince James (earlier in that same day, in fact) to support the one serious proposal to emerge from the conference: that a new translation of the Bible be undertaken “because, those which were allowed in the raignes of Henry the eight, and Edward the sixt, were corrupt and not answerable to the Originall.”17 James gave a ringing endorsement to the project, and by the end of the conference a formal resolution to establish the “Authorized Version” of the Bible had been issued. As if intending to confirm that the “increase of the Gospel”—that “duety most besemming Royall authoritie”—did indeed serve Crown interests, James made it abundantly clear (as we shall see in a moment) that the particular form of such “increase” recommended by Reynolds could be put to his immediate political advantage. Despite the fact that the suggestion had come from a Puritan leader, James quickly became what the dedicatory epistle to the new Bible would later trumpet as the “principal Mover and Author” of the project; set in a role analogous to God—whom the preface to the AV called the “author” of Scripture—James thus became a kind of human primum mobile whose “authoring” of (which necessarily included both an authorizing of and authority over) the sacred texts resituated them within his sphere of influence and so rendered the authority of the divine Word serviceable to his own “Royall authority.”18

By late June, the translators (mostly staunch royalists) had been picked and organized into groups (each charged with translating portions of the texts). And even before that the bishops had issued a formal list of “rules” that were to guide the translation. What is especially significant for our purposes is that, as F. F. Bruce remarks, these guidelines were “sanctioned, if they were not indeed drawn up by James himself.”19 James's attentive involvement in the project, so different from his usual detachment from the business of state, was motivated not simply by his perception of the need for a “uniforme” translation of the Bible but also, and more critically, by his desire to replace the most accessible version currently in use, the Geneva Bible (the one Shakespeare himself used), with one “ratified by his Royall authority.”20

What made the Geneva version unacceptable was less the translation itself (much of which was simply updated in the AV) than the marginal notes that provided commentary on the text.21 It was these that James wanted to get rid of, denouncing them as “very partiall, untrue, seditious, and savouring, too much, of dangerous, and trayterous conceipts.”22 Predictably, the two examples James cited both involved challenges to the authority of reigning monarchs. The first, a gloss on 2 Chronicles 15:16, noted that King Asa defied “bothe … the covenant, and … the Lawe of God” when he gave into “foolish pitie” in choosing only to depose his mother, Maacah, rather than execute her for idolatry.23 Bruce reasonably suggests that James's “suspicious mind” projected the gloss as casting aspersions “upon the memory of his own mother,” though clearly James's suspiciousness may have led him to imagine in it subversive reflections on the legitimacy of his own rule.24

The second example was the gloss on Exodus 1:19-20. Coming at the end a brief narrative on Pharaoh's near-genocidal efforts to control the growth of the Israelite community, the verses recount first, how the Hebrew midwives deceived Pharaoh and “preserved alive the men children” he had ordered them to kill; and second, how God responded to this deception: “God therefore prospered the midwives, and the people multiplied & were very mightie. And because the midwives feared God, therefore he made them houses.” Interestingly, the Geneva gloss is not willing to endorse the midwives' actions without qualification: “Their disobedience herein was lawful, but their dissembling evil.” Still, the implication is obvious: even direct disobedience to a king's explicit command would be “lawful” if the violator were heeding divine authority instead. Such a notion could not be tolerated by James, in part because it allowed the reader to imagine a situation in which secular and sacred law were at odds. And in the image of a “mightie” religious minority at once defying the established government and acquiring the military capacity to establish its own rule James undoubtedly glimpsed the very nightmare Francis Bacon would later describe in “Of Unity in Religion,” where the putting of the “temporal sword … into the hands of the common people” could “make the cause of religion to descend to the cruel and execrable actions of murthering princes, butchery of people, and subversion of states and government.”25 It was precisely this possibility that James sought to avoid by coming out with a new “uniforme translation,” completed by a select group of elite royal servants, “ratified by his Royall authority,” and subsequently disseminated through the institutional powers of the Church. In short, against those whose glosses might (even unwittingly) challenge royal supremacy, James would do what he could to fix the text as inviolable.

Organized, as we have tried to suggest, in a general atmosphere of anxiety concerning the politicization of religion, the royal project of biblical translation was a key element in the establishment of a new religious “uniformity” that was inseparable from James's efforts (so crucial for a new king) to solidify his legal, political, and cultural supremacy.26 And if what the project attempted to do was fix the “letter” of the Bible, it did so precisely to restrict its “spirit,” the range of possible meanings to which the letter might be taken to refer. In thus focusing explicit attention—both in its title and in its larger pattern of allusion—on the text of the Bible (and on the Geneva version in particular) as it is drawn into matters of civic concern, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure seems to register, at a minimum, topical interest in the focal point of James's project: the potential of biblical language (or, more accurately, of the interpretation and application of that language) for sustaining or undermining public authority. More critically, however, the play calls attention to the “authorizing” power of Scripture even as its central plot follows the actions of a political figure who uses (or abuses) religious rhetoric as a political weapon, a weapon through which he manages finally to “ratify” his waning royal authority by imposing fraudulent claims to the divine authority—claims deriving in part from biblical texts—upon the body politic.

We must tread warily here, however. As Goldberg observes of his own “King James Version” of Measure for Measure, if the action of the play “provide[s] a mirror for the cultural situation,” it offers “no exact replay of James.”27 This observation should really be read as a warning to all modern topicalists; indeed, recalling our own earlier observation that for both Shakespeare and his audience the play's very currency might have been transformed through the pressures of its composition and reception, we must also acknowledge that there are no clear critical rules for determining the correct “cultural situation” or for describing the precise way in which the play functions as a “mirror” of it. Graham Bradshaw is right to remind us (and it is only surprising that modern critics constantly need this reminder) that “we should think of [a Shakespeare] play not as an encoded message but as a highly organized and powerfully generative matrix of meanings, or field of forces.” Topicality has a place within the Shakespearean “matrix” as but one of many resources available to him for communicating what Bradshaw calls “dramatic intentions”—not “what we must think, but … what we are being given to think about.”28 As a critical tool, moreover, topicality serves only as a starting point of inquiry, for the more plausible the alleged text-context relation appears the more we are compelled to ask just how the dramatic context resituates its topical material and to what end.

The following discussion, then, is our attempt to elucidate Shakespeare's “dramatic intentions” as the design of his Measure for Measure appears to draw out some of the political implications of James's project of translation. Because the play was written during the same year in which James initiated this project—one that sought to ratify his authority by controlling the reception of Scripture among his subjects—it is not unreasonable to see in Duke Vincentio's deliberate and politically self-serving misapplications of biblical “letter and spirit” a topical engagement in, even a critique of, James's own “authorized version.” As we have been insisting and as we shall further argue, Shakespeare does not merely encode the details of this project; not surprisingly, therefore, most of the specific aspects of the project and its “cultural situation” have no counterpart in the play. For example, unlike James, Duke Vincentio never faces (or even imagines) a direct challenge to his royal supremacy coming from an organized and hostile religious minority. At the same time we might note that a character like Lucio does threaten to undermine the duke's authority, and, as we shall see, this situation is in a general sense “theorized” in the play as a threat posed by any politically-motivated misapplication of biblical texts. Though decidedly not a Puritan nor a satiric portrait of one (as Twelfth Night's Malvolio is), Lucio in the context of the play's topicality might be understood as an instance of what Lisa Jardine has recently termed the “textual residue” of history: an element within a literary work that evokes a specific cultural memory or contemporary association even as, like a literary allusion, it can be used to generate meaning only through a creative reworking of the original point of reference.29

In short, it is not so much in the “letter” of James's project that we find the informing “spirit” of the play. We do argue, conjecturally, that James's project is a topical element in the play's larger “matrix of meanings,” but not because Shakespeare is directing explicit attention toward the project. (Whether a contemporary reader or audience might have read into the play some encouragement to reevaluate the project is another matter, of course.) Rather, the topical reference is important because the audience's or reader's awareness of the historical reality of a political figure's motivated use of religious texts provides the plausibility of what becomes the play's central engagement in a “more abstract concern.” And that concern is to be found in the play's inquiry into how the sustaining connections between religious, moral, legal, and political authority are problematized by their “residence” in a language system in which form always threatens to become separated from content (or in which the “letter” cannot always be trusted to refer to “spirit”).

The discrepancy becomes all the more significant in light of the implied control of linguistic meaning inherent in the very notion of an “authorized version,” in which “form” would be adjusted by the process of translation and “content” regulated by the effacement of those parts of the text “savouring, too much, of dangerous, and trayterous conceipts.” It is therefore especially noteworthy, we believe, that Shakespeare drew so much of the play's pattern of biblical allusion, including the title, from the Sermon on the Mount, which among other things gives special attention to the discrepancy between the spirit and the letter of the law. Specifically, of course, the Sermon rewrites the Old Testament's insistence on keeping the “letter” of the law with a new demand to live by its “spirit.” But in adapting that gospel ideal to a decidedly—and troubling—political context, Shakespeare recontextualizes the ideal as vexed by a problem of signification the Sermon itself never considers. The discrepancy between the letter and the spirit of the law becomes, in short, both a site for analyzing how human and divine law might be conflated in the “letter” (a conflation that seeks to render human institutions of the law signifiers of the divine law by which they claim legitimacy) and a site of meditation on an even larger problem: how the peculiarly challenging ethical mandate of the Sermon (with its privileging of mercy over justice) can possibly be accommodated within a human political system that is constantly confronted with violations of its law. The remainder of the essay attempts to describe Shakespeare's own critical examination of the interplay between the text of scripture and the language(s) of authority both as it is generally represented in the play and as it is traced out specifically in the actions of a ruling figure who attempts to re-authorize his public standing through a rhetorical alignment with sacred texts.


Perhaps more obviously than any of his other plays, Measure for Measure marks Shakespeare's obsessive fascination with exposing the mechanisms of power that produce and sustain a cultural order. Indeed, the play is conducted as a veritable experiment in authority, an experiment rendered all the more “hypothetical” by Shakespeare's re-creating within the play's very structure the circumstances of the audience's own observational act. As Angelo, under the watchful eye of the Duke, attempts to impose his new authority on Vienna, we watch the duke create the conditions for his own imposition of authority on Angelo and on Viennese society more generally. And even as the duke declares that he does not like to “stage” himself before the “eyes” of the people, and that he does not “relish … their loud applause” (1.1.68-70), his entire enterprise depends on strategies of manipulation that derive from theatrical practice: the use of disguise, the staging of scenes for public viewing, the arts of story-telling. By this analogy, authority comes to look very much like a form of role-playing that seeks to pass itself off as the “real thing” even as the visibility of this process reveals it as an act of construction whose own interests supersede public ones.30

Moreover, the duke's imposition of coercive fictions is explicitly connected to his fraudulent claim of religious authority. The “habit” and instruction supplied by Friar Thomas, for example, are requested by the duke so that he “may formally in person bear / Like a true friar” (1.3.45-48). But the irony of the final phrase (can mere external resemblance replicate truth?) suggests that the duke's impersonation will enable him to mask political objectives through an appropriation of the signs of religious authority.31 The power inherent in the successful imposition of this kind of fraud (what Angelo's lines on the “devil's crest” mark as a kind of public inscription [2.4.16-17]), is confirmed in the play's final scene, where the amazed Angelo submits to the duke's judgment as a manifestation of some inscrutable divine knowledge: “O my dread lord, / I should be guiltier than my guiltiness, / To think I can be undiscernible, / When I perceive your Grace, like pow'r divine, / Hath look'd upon my passes” (5.1.366-70). Moreover, to the extent that, as we shall explore further in section III, the final legitimacy of the duke's authority is grounded upon moral and religious values (explicitly biblical ones), the play also stages a questioning of the limits of applying those very values in a secular, political context.

Even in its minor scenes, in fact, Measure for Measure constantly confronts the possibility that political or legal authority is more appearance than reality, that it creates its semblance of reality through an imposition of ungrounded claims of religious or moral authority. In 2.1, for example, the confused testimony that Constable Elbow brings against Pompey on the charge of pimping calls attention to the workings of law as a semiotic construct unattached to the reality it claims to represent. At one level, Elbow's misuse of language as the instrument of law functions as a comic parody of Angelo's subsequent mistreatment of Isabella; more broadly, however, his specific comic weapon—his penchant for malapropisms—becomes a metonymic figure for how all legal discourse is problematized by its very confinement in language. A malapropism is a comic trope that puts on display how the form of language may be at odds with its content; or, to put this in the biblical language privileged by the play's title, how the “letter” of language may not coincide with its “spirit.” Moreover, in its displacing of content by form, a malapropism achieves its humorous effect by substituting the speaker's new (comically inverted) meaning for a communally accepted one. In legal terms, this slide between signifier and signified threatens to expose the law's drive to “name” crime as actually creating the reality it names.

Elbow's comic function, in short, is conceptually related to the broader political issues explored in the play not only because as a figure of authority he reveals the limited epistemological resources of those publicly charged with managing the law but also because the specific form of his buffoonery calls attention to the problem of law as it is conditioned upon the workings of language. For in Elbow's barely intelligible accusation of Pompey's crimes we witness how the breakdown of the accepted equivalence between signifier and signified (a possibility inherent in any linguistic act) becomes especially damaging to that legal structure dependent on its claimed capacity to name and codify pre-existing moral distinctions.

The conceptual dismantling of the law's transcendental foundation is most perversely effected in an even earlier scene, in the conversation between Lucio and the two Viennese gentlemen:

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


Lucio's joking about the “razing” of the commandment functions as a grotesque parody of the Sermon on the Mount where, as we noted earlier, Christ rewrites the pharisaical insistence on keeping the letter of the law with a new demand to fulfill its spirit (Matt. 5:17-20). With his typical sense of dramatic economy, Shakespeare uses the brief exchange to get at one of the play's central concerns: that the interpretation of the law, whether human or divine, will end up serving the purposes of the interpreter and so fail to enact the law's true “spirit.” Lucio's mockery thus also demonstrates something of the truth of Pompey's later legal defense; in response to Lord Escalus's rhetorical question of whether his “trade” is “lawful,” Pompey defends himself with the elegantly simple “if the law would allow it, sir” (2.1.226-27). If, as Pompey seems to argue, one might change the meaning of what the law purportedly represents simply by changing the law, Lucio suggests that even divine laws are subject to such rewriting; removing the words from the Mosaic tablet can alter one's moral sensibility, as if the rightness or wrongness of a deed might depend not on its moral “truth” (even when God's own words are at stake) but on the human interpreter who locates truth in a linguistic construct that reflects his own material interests.32

If in Pompey, Elbow, and Lucio Shakespeare plays on these subversive possibilities to comical effect, the characters also provide proleptic parody of those abuses the play's central story-lines treat more seriously. The circumstances of Angelo's coercive propositioning of Isabella, of course, provide the most compelling evidence of the hypotheses generalized in the comic interludes. At the most obvious level, Angelo's actions reveal the shocking discrepancy between reputation (the words that represent one in public) and the reality those words claim to represent. They also confirm Pompey's theory that whatever the law (or the law-giver) will allow may be deemed morally acceptable: “Answer to this: / 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?” (2.4.60-64). From his privileged position atop the social structure, Angelo here rewrites his own planned act of fornication, the very crime for which he has condemned Claudio, as “charity.” Even more audaciously, he reconstructs the very basis of divine judgment in matters of personal morality by insinuating that individual transgressions do not really count against us, as “our compell'd sins / Stand more for number than for accompt” (2.4.57-58).

Moreover, Angelo's abuse of Isabella is consistently represented as a perversely self-interested rewriting of the claims of the Sermon on the Mount. For example, in misapplying Christ's call for a “perfect” love that sets no bounds (Matt. 5:48), Angelo calls into question Isabella's privileging of her chastity over her brother's life, a kind of solipsism explicitly at odds with the “brotherly love” championed by the Sermon. The coercion is both subtle and in a limited way successful, for by the end of the scene Isabella views herself as the agent of Claudio's death (“Then, Isabel, live chaste, and brother, die; / More than our brother is our chastity” [2.4.184-85]). And Angelo's subsequent circumlocutions, evasions, uses of hypothetical cases—all seeking to distance him from the crime by placing Isabella in the role of its instigator, or at least a willing accomplice—demonstrate the pernicious side of the misuse of language visible in Elbow's malapropisms. Angelo's attempts at manipulating Isabella, that is, all display how the division between the meaning and form of linguistic constructs might be employed to trick innocent subjects into consenting to their own exploitation.33

Angelo's rhetorical manipulations here confirm Lucio's warning about self-motivated interpreters of the law, which holds that one might use legal prerogative to make the laws, even those with divine sanction, serve private (human, political) interests. Isabella had registered much the same critique in 2.2, where her mocking of “proud man's” apish imitation of God (2.2.117-23) was made in part to denounce that legal authority whose arrogant claim to stand in for divine authority serves only to mask its subjection of others to its “tyrannous” power. Of particular significance in this charge is Isabella's challenging the very source of the law's power—its authority to judge and punish—which is at odds with the Sermon's (and more generally Christianity's) central ethical imperative, forgiveness: “How would you be / If He, which is the top of judgment, should / But judge you as you are?” (2.2.75-77).

From the point of view of human justice, of course, Angelo's complacent response—“It is the law, not I, condemn your brother” (2.2.80)—is entirely reasonable. For, as he has earlier (and rightly) remarked, the idea that a judge might condemn a crime “and not the actor of it” would render the pursuit of justice redundant (“Why, every fault's condemn'd ere it be done” [2.2.37-38]). Still, Isabella's pointed echoing of Matthew 7:2—“judge not, that ye be not judged”—raises a series of vexed questions that the play continues to explore even as it can produce no satisfactory answers: under the Christian dispensation, how can human society deal with the fact of moral depravity? can authority deal with crimes through simple forgiveness? what happens when the lawgiver is guilty of the same crimes he would punish (or if he is simply fallible)? and, most troubling, what are we to make of that human legal authority that derives its legitimacy from a divine law whose mandates it so utterly fails to heed?

The discrepancy between ethical ideal and social necessity etched into Angelo's story will be shifted, finally, to the play's main action: the duke's testing of Angelo. We will turn to that in a moment, but before we do it is important to register that Angelo's abuse of authority is played out not just as an analogy to the duke's situation but entirely within his elaborately produced and self-serving spectacle of power. That artifice is initiated, we might note, in a transfer of legal authority portrayed primarily as a way of compelling virtue to reveal itself in action, action that will both truly signify an otherwise “hidden” virtue and promote virtuous action in others. Thus the duke insists that the reluctant Angelo accept his deputization by suggesting that he has a moral responsibility to show his virtue in public: “Heaven doth with us as we with torches do, / Not light them for ourselves” (1.1.32-33). The force of the duke's lines derives from their echoing of an earlier passage in the Sermon: “Ye are the light of the world. A citie that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Nether do men light a candel, and put it under a bushel. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good workes” (Matt. 5:14-16). Clearly, from the perspective of Act 2.4 the allusion casts a shadow of irony on Angelo's treatment of Isabella; not only are Angelo's “workes” not “good,” but what can be seen in public (what “shines before men”) actually conceals the truth. In short, his actions as judge fail to show the works of authority properly signifying the divine “light” that gives the human law its meaning in the first place. This gap between “workes” and inner truth (act and intent, letter and spirit) necessarily includes the duke as well, who problematically sets up Angelo to represent his own authority. It is a “work,” we might suspect, at odds with its intent. More broadly, it calls into question the capacity of any royal work—the duke's or James's even—to signify divine authority, authority that may actually be claimed only to obscure the ruler's pursuit of some “hidden” and private interest. And as we shall see in the duke's story, that mystification—the production of “workes” that hide the truth—can be carried out precisely in the abuse of the biblical letter itself.


If Angelo's actions display with unambiguous clarity how the mere show of moral or religious authority might serve private interests, it is the duke who provides the play's exemplary instance of corrupt political praxis. As we observed at the outset of section II, ample critical attention has been paid to how this “Duke of dark corners” (4.3.157) might be read as a kind of Machiavellian anti-hero. Indeed, even if we accept the explanation he himself provides for his actions (1.3.19-43), it is hard to see them as anything but the machinations of an irresponsible ruler, one whose stated concern with restoring the legal and moral foundations of Viennese culture is but a pretense masking a deeper concern with reinvigorating the legitimacy of his own waning political authority. The duke's strategy in trying to achieve this goal is multifaceted certainly, but considerations of space compel us to focus on one particular element of it: his deliberate employment of what we might call a disinformational biblical rhetoric.

We might start by noting how, over the course of the play, Angelo's fall is carefully crafted for maximum public impact and becomes, in effect, the centerpiece of the duke's strategy of re-authorization. At its simplest level, produced as a public scandal, the fall of the “precise” Angelo becomes a potent demonstration of just how difficult it would be for anyone (including the duke) to enforce the laws against sexual misconduct. But rather than becoming the impetus to what seems a much needed legal reform, the scandal becomes the opportunity for the duke to display a hitherto unseen severity. Having created the conditions for a particularly egregious violation of the law—shocking even by Vienna's standards—he stages a tantalizingly perverse, if largely fictionalized, public discovery of it at the city's gates. On the surface what his “discovery” reveals is a ruling figure (Angelo) in precisely the same situation as one already condemned for that crime. But the duke's plan is intended also to put his own ruling authority on display, for he exposes Angelo to judgment before the people in such a way as to enhance his own reputation as a wise and virtuous ruler, one who, in good Machiavellian terms, should be feared and loved simultaneously.34

More important for our purposes, the duke's staging of Angelo's fall is constructed as a kind of demonstration of biblically sanctioned justice. In endeavoring to manufacture a situation in which Vienna's laws will be enforceable again—a situation serving his own political interests—the duke rightly calculates (as his conversation with Friar Thomas clearly suggests) that the deputized Angelo will awaken the full severity of the law. But the duke shows himself to be a masterful playwright in imposing a kind of peripety on Angelo whereby it is he, rather than Claudio, who will be made the rejuvenated law's most potent example:

[A]s he adjudg'd [Claudio]—
Being criminal, in double violation
Of sacred chastity and of promise-breach, …
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.


To the extent that the duke's prosecution of Angelo threatens to expose his own duplicitous authority, it is necessary, of course, that he distance himself from the charge of complicity in the crimes he must now punish. And here, having succeeded in stimulating a demand for strict enforcement of the law, the duke can now appear as the impersonal agent of justice, compelled by the logic of the law itself to sentence Angelo to death (“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!”). The very balance of the phrasing suggests the essential equitableness of the proceedings, even as the inescapable logic of the judgment would seem to rule out any personal stake on the part of the judge. That impersonality is marked most powerfully in—even as it appears to be guaranteed by—the biblical cadences of the sentence. Speaking not just on behalf of the people's will but also on behalf of the law's divine foundation, the duke subtly presents his own role in the proceedings as but serving a higher law.35

We must immediately note that the appearance of biblical sanction for the punishment is itself deceptive, a point which the duke himself recognizes (and whose fuller implications we shall consider shortly). For in alluding to the Sermon on the Mount in rendering his judgment on Angelo, the duke misapplies its central lesson in recalling not its new ethical ideal but rather the Old Testament ethic of an eye for an eye (an ethic specifically set aside in the Sermon [Matt. 5:38-42]). The duke's construction of the phrase would of course be correct from one perspective; as Christ phrases it, God reserves the right to mete out punishment on terms of strict equity: “For with what judgement ye judge, ye shal be judged; and with what measure ye mette, it shal be measured to you againe” (Matt. 7:2). Moreover, in a passage we cited earlier, Angelo suggests that the duke might legitimately claim a similar position for himself: “O my dread lord, / I should be guiltier than my guiltiness, / To think I can be undiscernible, / When I perceive your Grace, like pow'r divine, / Hath look'd upon my passes” (5.1.366-70). Indeed, in his inscrutable, godlike intelligence of Angelo's crimes, the duke appears to manifest that character angelicus which medieval and Renaissance political theology ascribed to the reigning monarch.36

Disguised as Friar Lodowick, the duke has earlier hinted that his secretive actions should be taken as revealing just such a divine condition. Having described for Escalus the “strange tenor” of the messages he has sent Angelo concerning his impending return to Vienna, he editorializes the disinformation as the sign of something akin to divine epiphany: “Look, th' unfolding star calls up the shepherd. Put not yourself into amazement how these things should be; all difficulties are but easy when they are known” (4.2.203-06). G. Wilson Knight was undoubtedly correct when he noted that the duke's words here are meant to recall the “mystic assurance” of Matt. 10:26: “Feare them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shal not be disclosed, nor hid, that shal not be knowen.”37 In Measure for Measure these assurances, which in Matthew call to mind the messianic fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, anticipate the return of the human king and the revelation of that royal intelligence that sanctions secular judgment and punishment.

In so staging the spectacle of human justice as both an analogue and exemplary instance of divine justice, the duke awakens the power of the law as a warning to the citizens of Vienna of what awaits them as well. Indeed, as he informs them, he has full knowledge of what has transpired in his city: “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 countenanc'd, that the strong statutes / Stand like forfeits in a barber's shop, / As much in mock as mark” (5.1.316-22). In his dealings with Angelo, the duke now generates the impression among his subjects that his more general knowledge belongs to one possessed of a godlike wisdom, one for whom “there is nothing covered, that shal not be disclosed, nor hid, that shal not be knowen.”38 What had once seemed simply laxity in enforcing the laws (or even complicity in their violation, as Lucio constantly suggests) now appears, miraculously, as a watchful waiting for an appropriate opportunity to punish.

It is Lucio more than Angelo whose final predicament most forcefully reveals how in the new Vienna past transgressions may suddenly come back to haunt one. Condemned to be “whipt … and hang'd after”—all this to follow his enforced marriage to the prostitute who has borne his child (5.1.507-21)—Lucio finds his protest about the severity of the punishment met by the duke's simple assertion, “Slandering a prince deserves it” (5.1.524). Although we have no way of knowing if Lucio's alleged slanders are actually false, the mere accusation of royal impropriety suddenly becomes a capital offense because it undermines that public “Reverence … wherwith,” as Bacon explains, “Princes are girt from God.”39 It is certainly worth recalling that the very conditions under which Lucio committed this offense were created by the duke's own fraudulent deployment of religious disguise. In this context it is not surprising that the duke's subsequent prosecution is based on biblical sanction: “Thou shalt not raile upon the Judges, nether speake evil of the ruler of thy people” (Exodus 22:27). Nor is it surprising that the duke again violates the new “spirit” of the law as set forth by Christ in the Sermon: “Blessed are ye when men revile you … and say all manner of evil against you for my sake, falsely. Rejoyce and be glad, for great is your rewarde in heaven” (Matt. 5:11-12).

Significantly, Lucio's crime is not simply specified in a biblical verse but in one situated in a scene dedicated to the representation of the divine origin of human laws. In the scene in Exodus, it is Moses who is at once the recipient and sole witness of this bequest as well as its first executor—roles that the duke now borrows. And just as Moses did in his punishment of the idolators (the massacre of the three thousand by the Sons of Levi [Exod. 32:26-30]), so in his punishment of Lucio the duke produces an image of divine authority (and its violation) that sanctions his very actions, a production that translates the responsibility for the execution from human to divine agency.

The threats of punishment for Angelo and Lucio are excessive, certainly (indeed it is not clear that either has committed a capital offense); but then, it would be both impossible and unproductive for legal authority to attempt to punish every violation of the law. What the duke needs, that is, is not so much to enforce the laws but to create the conditions under which his subjects enforce them upon themselves. To accomplish this he must generate their anxious sensitivity to the possibility of enforcement of laws that only appeared dead. And the law that, in imitation of God's final judgment, will show itself when least expected, provides a powerful reminder to all of its violators that fourteen years of unrestrained liberty will not escape the discernment of the “pow'r divine” that has secretly witnessed its “passes.”

Of course, if the staging of legal punishment as divine judgment plays well in the public eye, so too does the staging of pardon as divine mercy. Stephen Greenblatt plausibly suggests that the shocking spectacle at the close of the play of the commuting of Angelo's sentence reflects topical interest in King James's well-publicized pardons of various members of the Bye Plot in late-1603.40 He theorizes this connection by noting their mutual dependence on the production of “salutary anxiety,” a “strategic practice” within the Renaissance discourse of authority whereby anxiety was aroused and alleviated in the interests of ruling institutions. In their efforts to manage the anxiety of their respective subjects, both James and the duke use pardon to control public backlash against the perceived misuse of their legal authority by transforming its psychological basis into the very grounds of its opposite: “gratitude, obedience, and love.”41 James and the duke both seem to understand, moreover, the crucial truth of all ideological constructions of power: that the reproduction of the conditions of production within a culture ultimately depend as much on the ruling regime's successful shaping of its subjects' consciousness of their status as subjects (what Althusser calls their interpellation within a hegemonic discourse) as on overt expressions of its mechanisms of repression.42

If “salutary anxiety” might be understood, then, as one of the key disciplinary techniques sustaining Renaissance England's discourse of authority, Measure for Measure strongly suggests that its persuasive power depends on the production of a public perception of divine approval. Moreover, it represents the divine authority sanctioning pardon, even where pardon seems appropriate, as generated out of the same strategies of deceit and manipulative imposition by which the duke produced Angelo's conviction in the first place. We noted earlier that the appearance of biblical sanction for Angelo's death sentence is deceptive since the very passage the duke cites as warranting his judgment specifically rejects the principles he applies. Indeed, the duke seems to go out of his way to distort the ethical mandate of Christ's Sermon in referring to his death sentence as the logical extension of the law's “mercy” (5.1.407).43 The duke's “remission” of Angelo (5.1.498) will rectify this misapplication and so restore the law's true ethical foundation even as it demonstrates how his rule is grounded in that same providential unfolding by which Christian moral law at once supersedes and fulfills Jewish law (an unfolding recorded most powerfully in the text of the Sermon).

This corrective application, a correction the duke has planned all along, comes only after he has generated anxiety not only in Angelo but also in Isabella, who has been cruelly led to believe that Angelo actually carried out the execution of Claudio. Moreover, the duke himself, as if providing the theoretical rationale for the imposition all such coercive fictions, has earlier noted that keeping subjects “ignorant” is for their own “good, / To make … heavenly comforts of despair, / When it is least expected” (4.3.109-11). The duke produces these “heavenly comforts” for Angelo and Isabella simultaneously, making Angelo's pardon coincide with the discovery that Claudio is still alive, saved as if by some miracle of divine intervention. The duke had earlier assured Isabella, “trust not my holy order / If I pervert your course” (4.3.147-48), and now that trust is justified in such a way as to make the duke's religious disguise appear as the genuine article, the “holy order” through which he rules. Act Five opens with Angelo and Escalus welcoming the return of the duke's “royal Grace” to Vienna (5.1.3); over the course of the scene the duke's power to enforce justice in the city is made to resemble his divine archetype in that his spectacular pardons—of Angelo and Claudio but also, eventually, of Lucio and Barnadine—extend to publicly recognized criminals an unexpected and largely unmerited release from the law's rigor.44

This final, fraudulent imposition of the figure of divine authority upon the mechanisms of secular power is centrally at stake in the duke's resorting to a public trial of Isabella to generate the conditions under which clemency will be granted. Many critics have read this testing in strictly religious terms, a reading in which the play's “Christian humanist exploration of mercy's relationship to justice … justif[ies the duke's] deceptive behavior on the grounds that he is acting for the benefit of Isabella's spiritual growth, forcing her to recognize the value of mercy by forcing her to act on her own stated beliefs.”45 Without denying how religion provides what we might call the primary language of Isabella's request for the forgiveness of Angelo, we would note that, within the design of the play as a whole, the very situation in which Isabella champions orthodox claims of Christian faith is situated as the culmination of the duke's project, a project he himself has acknowledged as having exclusively political motivations. Since what the duke has sought all along is a changed public perception of his ruling authority, Isabella's moral triumph is assimilated to his interests, for by producing the situation in which Isabella pleads publicly for the man responsible for her brother's death, the duke borrows from her excruciating dilemma that public commitment to the Christian life they both claim to espouse. He can then pardon Angelo in such a way as to be seen both sacrificing his own strong feelings to a higher principle—like Isabella, his concerns for justice are subservient to a higher authority—and balancing the need for strict enforcement of the law with a new public demand for clemency. Hence, even Isabella's coming to recognize superior virtue in her own experience is drawn into the production of her and her fellow citizens' anagnorisis of the virtue that rules their political superior. The display of mercy becomes part of the spectacle of the duke's restoration, another sign of his authority newly legible in his subjects.


What, then, are we to make of the play's topicality? Even as we earlier admitted the impossibility of providing proof for this claim, we have been suggesting that the “cultural situation” being “mirrored” in Measure for Measure is the great royalist project initiated by King James earlier in 1604, a project founded on the notion that the king's own authority was at stake in the public production and reception of biblical texts. But topicality is a tricky business indeed. For even when scholars might agree that a literary work is actually employing a topical reference (and consensus can be hard to come by), it is still a matter of conjecture how that reference might have been meaningful in its original context. For example, what we have been reading in Measure for Measure as subversive reflections on James's own “production” of royal authority might have been either intended or (mis)read as its opposite. In other words, because the play's political community (Catholic Vienna) is in theory “other” in relation to Jacobean England, the play's representation could have conceivably provided a conceptual buffer, distancing readers and audiences from confronting its full implications and even confirming orthodox thought.46 Is it possible that the interpretive problem posed here derives from our very idea of “topicality,” with its assumption that what would have been “topical” for a reader or audience in 1604 had to have one specific and easily identifiable historical referent (a fixed “letter” of history employed, with critical hindsight, to restrict the “spirit” of interpretation)?

Without answering it, we might relocate this question by recalling Marcus's assertion that Renaissance “poets and dramatists … looked for ways to regularize and elevate topical issues so that they could be linked with more abstract … concerns.” But which abstract concerns are being worked out in the play? We have focused primarily on the relations between political and religious authority, and the potential for a kind of despotism when the former successfully “stages” itself as the latter. But to the extent Measure for Measure's Vienna stands finally as a general exemplum of that community where religion functions as an interested cultural activity, the play also suggests that, for the human political community, there are problems with the biblical demands themselves and not just with those authority figures who abuse these demands to serve private political ambitions.

Indeed, as we have already suggested, the allusion in the play's title to the Sermon on the Mount is meant to draw attention to one of the central issues of Christian teaching: its distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law. Shakespeare reapplies this distinction most obviously to Angelo's actions in his complex dealings with Isabella and Claudio, but more broadly the gospel paradigm provides a governing idea for the play as a whole in its staged conflict between ethical ideal and social practice. In short, Shakespeare's adaptation of the ideal of ethical behavior put forth in the Sermon seems bent on problematizing it at the point where it enters into the demands of social government. For what is a marker of Christian liberty in Matthew becomes in the final act of Measure for Measure a marker of its failure, or at least of its continued absence under the exigencies of maintaining cultural order. Shakespeare's complex staging of the duke's final abuse of the gospel claim appears then not simply to condemn his (or any ruler's) Machiavellian “fraud” but also to force upon the reader some consideration of what happens when humans try to put divine truths into practice, or perhaps what dilemmas (or perversions) result when humans try to make sense of even the simplest of God's revelations.

We must recognize in the play, then, a kind of a skeptical meditation on the nature, limits, and prerogative of legal power as well as on the ethics of justice;47 if Measure for Measure is a “problem comedy” it is problematic precisely because it calls into question the very ideals of comic society as a place freed from the restrictions of law. As old-fashioned as his writing now appears, Northrop Frye is still the finest critic we have of this comic impulse, and his notion that Shakespearean comedy aims at the twin experience of social communion and divine grace as these retain their overtly Christian overtones is still a powerful and insightful formulation of a difficult subject.48 Despite the play's final perversion of what we might call a “comic impulse” (marked especially in the three troubling marriages formed at the end), its title strongly suggests that Shakespeare is interested precisely in forcing his audience to confront the vision of a society freed from law, where this “freedom” is now defined in specifically Christian terms as the movement from the letter to the spirit of the law. Measure for Measure undercuts without totally dismantling this ideal by representing its limitations when faced with the reality of human governance in a fallen world. Indeed, what the title and the play's several staged debates concerning the uses and abuses of authority all point to is a kind of anxiety that the cultural necessity of imposing justice runs into conflict with the dream of establishing the Christian ethical life as the basis of human society. In Measure for Measure, finally, justice is put to its greatest test in its attempt to live up to the demands of faith.


  1. Levin, 1979, 171-93. Among the studies that in one way or another attempt to explicate a topical relation between play and king are the following: Bennet; Battenhouse, 1977; Marcus, 160-202; and Bernthal. Although the two types are often related, we might distinguish topical readings from “ideological” readings, those which posit a historically specific meaning for the play in relation not to any particular event in James's reign but to some dominant cultural code. See, for example, Greenblatt, 133-42; Tennenhouse; Dollimore; and Goldberg, 230-39.

  2. Goldberg, 286 (n. 24), 232 (our emphasis in this citation).

  3. Levin, 1979, 186.

  4. Marcus, 200, 26. Levin's more recent work (1995) makes a broader attack on the premises of topicality.

  5. There was always this possibility, of course. In the “Epistle” that prefaced his 1607 quarto-edition of Volpone, for example, Ben Jonson chastised his readers for their propensity for assigning topical meanings to his plays (Jonson, 5:18-19).

  6. Patterson, 14; Marcus, 41.

  7. Aristotle, 33.

  8. For the two minor exceptions, see note 9.

  9. In light of the many fine, meticulously researched studies on the link between James and the play, it is all the more surprising to find virtually no mention of the politics of one of James's most ambitious and best publicized undertakings: the new biblical translation first announced in January of 1604 at the Hampton Court conference. (Lever, xxxv, postulates that the play “was written between May and August 1604.”) In fact, only two recent studies even mention the conference at all: Battenhouse does so only to note that James “loved the limelight” of those proceedings (1977, 210); Marcus twice mentions the conference in connection to Measure for Measure (172, 194) but does not call attention to the project of translation announced there, and elsewhere, when she does call attention to the project (112) she does not do so in reference to Measure for Measure.

  10. Goldberg, 238. For discussion of the play's representation of the relation between political rule and religious authority, see Goldberg, 232-36; Marcus, 178-83; and Tennenhouse, 142-44.

  11. Schleiner rightly notes that “in no other play [by Shakespeare] do the central characters evoke specific biblical passages and theological concepts to explain their crucial deeds; in no other are the [biblical] allusions so prominent; in no other do they define so distinct and consistent a pattern”; hence, she concludes, “we must account for these allusions somehow” (227). Schleiner's own “accounting” belongs to a well-established scholarly tradition dedicated to explicating the play's indebtedness to biblical texts as well as to more broadly religious concepts: see, for example, Knight; Battenhouse, 1946; and Velz. But efforts in this tradition almost invariably refuse to place the play in a historical context and so dismiss its explicit attention to the politics of biblical authority in favor of moralized readings of how the play represents “correct” Christian behavior. The main elements in this “Christian tradition” are usefully summarized by Price, 188-92.

  12. A number of Puritan grievances (some old, some new) had been formally addressed to the new king in such texts as the Millenary Petition, presented to James while he was making his royal progress from Edinburgh to London in the spring of 1603.

  13. In Larkin, 62-63.

  14. Ibid., 61-62. James concluded the proclamation by asserting that “our purpose and resolution ever was, and now is to preserve the estate as well Ecclesiasticall as Politike, in such forme as we have found it established by the Lawes here” (63).

  15. At the time, Cartwright's views were most strongly challenged by Cambridge's Vice-Chancellor, John Whitgift, who in January, 1604 was the Archbishop of Canterbury (and so the official leader of the Anglican settlement at the conference). The attack on the signers of the Millenary Petition is recorded in Barlow, 26-27.

  16. Barlow, 79, 83. James issued his famous synopsis of the Puritan agenda—No Bishop, no King—in this same attack on Reynolds.

  17. Ibid., 45.

  18. Epistle Dedicatory and Preface to the 1611 Bible, quoted in Opfell, 142, 147.

  19. Bruce, 98. The fifteen “rules” were officially drawn up by Richard Bancroft, then Bishop of London. Bancroft had initially opposed the project, but after the death of Archbishop Whitgift in February, Bancroft saw his active promotion of it, so strongly supported by James, as the best way to ensure his ascension to the empty Archbishopric (and indeed James appointed him to that post before the end of the year).

  20. The following account is provided by Barlow: “His Highnesse wished, that some especial pains should be taken … for one uniforme translation (professing that he could never, yet, see a Bible well translated in English; but the worst of all, his Maiestie thought the Geneva to be) and this to be done by the best learned in both the Universities, after them to be reviewed by the Bishops, and the chiefe learned of the Church; from them to be presented to the Privy Councell; and lastly to be ratified by his Royall authority; and so this whole Church to be bound unto it, and none other” (46).

  21. The first of Bancroft's “rules” of translation specified that the Bishops' Bible, the latest authorized version, was “to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the original will permit”; rule 14, however, contradicted this charge, stating that other bibles, including the Geneva version, were “to be used when they agree better with the text than the Bishops Bible” (quoted in Opfell, 139-40).

  22. Barlow, 47. Rule 6 thus states that “no Marginal Notes at all to be affixed, but only for the Explanation of the Hebrew or Greek Words” (quoted by Opfell, 139); and Barlow notes that James himself, even at the moment when he accepted Reynolds's proposal, “gave this caveat … that no marginall notes should be added” (46-47).

  23. All biblical references will be to the Geneva Bible.

  24. Bruce, 97.

  25. Bacon, 1985, 70. In his Certain Considerations Touching the Better Pacification … of the Church (1603), Bacon had warned James that Puritan demands were tending to a state of rebellion (Bacon, 1861-74, 10:103-27). But in his speech opening the 1604 Parliament, James seemed even more concerned with the dangers posed by Catholics: twice noting the “encrease [of] their number and strength in this Kingdome” and linking this to the imperial ambitions of the Pope, James ventured that the “continuall practise” of the most radical Catholics “is the assasinates and murthers of Kings, thinking it no sinne, but rather a matter of salvation, to doe all actions of rebellion and hostilitie against their naturall Soveraigne Lord” (A Speach, As It Was Delivered … Monday the XIX Day of March 1603 [1604], in James I, 140-41).

  26. As another part of these efforts, in March, 1604 James issued a royal proclamation “for the Authorizing and Uniformitie of the Booke of Common Prayer to be used throughout the Realme” (quoted in Larkin, 74).

  27. Goldberg, 235. As part of his own effort to narrow down the field of references, Goldberg dismisses the “literalisms of much topical criticism,” and, much in the manner of Levin, goes so far as to remark of one reading that “there is not a shred of evidence” to support its suppositions (286 n. 24, 232). Of course that last claim might be made of Goldberg's reading as well.

  28. Bradshaw, 15, 32.

  29. Jardine, 6. Levin disparages this kind of historical hedging when he claims that modern topicalists “commonly … disavow the specific historical equations … they suggest and relocate the allusions in a looser analogy to a more general historical situation” (1995, 433); but Levin mistakes the openly conjectural elements of modern interpretive reconstructions of past texts as methodological error, or even bad faith.

  30. Despite his reluctance to stage himself, the duke's acknowledgment that as a practice such theatricality “do[es] well” (1.1.69) suggests that he perfectly understands its effectiveness as a kind of social rhetoric. For further discussion of the play's metatheatricality, particularly in relation to the duke, see Van Laan, 98-100; and Wheeler, 130-32. Obviously we are not the first to suggest the pervasive anti-duke sentiment in the play; for a brief overview of this sentiment in earlier Shakespearean criticism (as well as in productions of the play), see Schleiner, 227. For discussion of the relation between the play's metatheatrical design and its analysis (or critique) of a ruler's techniques of statecraft (Duke Vincentio's or James's), see Bernthal; Tennenhouse; Dollimore; and Dawson.

  31. In a loose recollection of these lines, Angelo's opening soliloquy of 2.4 calls attention both to the general problem of authority's duplicitous use of the appearance of virtue and to the specific form of deception employed by the duke: “O place, O form, / How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit, / Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls / To thy false seeming! … / Let's write ‘good angel’ on the devil's horn, 'Tis not the devil's crest” (2.4.12-17; our emphasis).

  32. We might note here that Lucio's parody is conceptually linked to (even as it inverts) Christ's promise in the Sermon to fulfill Old Testament truths rather than destroy them (Matt. 5:17). Lucio's joking reference to the “scraping out” of the commandment—with its emphasis on a deliberate act of textual revision—seems intended to recall (again, only to mock) Christ's very next line in the Sermon: “For truely I say unto you, Til heaven & earth perish, one jote or one title of the Law shal not scape, til all things be fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18; our emphasis). What is an amusing joke for Lucio and the two gentlemen becomes much more serious as a commentary on the reconstructions of sacred texts by real authority figures.

  33. Although it does not quite fit within the same pattern (since in it Angelo himself is not shown deliberately misapplying biblical texts to further his own interests), it is worth noting how the “resolution” to Angelo's crime is played out as an extended allusion to the Sermon (and in particular to the Sermon's concern with the discrepancy between letter and spirit). Because Isabella is never actually violated (Angelo paradoxically “fornicates” with his wife), Angelo fulfills the letter of the law as it is set out by Christ: “Ye have hearde that it was said to them of olde time, Thou shalt not commit adulterie” (Matt. 5:27). But by merely desiring Isabella, Angelo more profoundly fails to realize the spirit of the law: “But I say unto you, whosoever loketh on a woman to lust after her hathe committed adulterie with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).

  34. In a bizarre way, the duke's actions seem almost self-consciously bent on answering one of the central questions of Il Principe: is it better for the ruler to be feared or loved? As part of this inquiry we might take special note of the duke's description of his transfer of authority to Angelo: “we have with special soul,” he tells Escalus, “lent him our terror, dress'd him with our love” (1.1.17, 19; our emphases).

  35. The biblical sanction for Angelo's punishment (Exod. 21:23-24) comes from the section immediately following God's giving of the Ten Commandments, where God gives to Moses a body of judicial precedents to be used in settling issues of law and custom. Interestingly, the gloss on this passage in the Geneva Bible notes that “the execution of this lawe onely belonged to the Magistrate.”

  36. For discussion of this “political theology,” see Kantorowicz, 495.

  37. Knight, 81.

  38. Isabella shows a similar reverence towards the duke's quasi-mystical knowledge: “O gracious Duke, / … let your reason serve / To make the truth appear, where it seems hid, / And hide the false seems true” (5.1.63-67). As if echoing the duke's words, Bacon would remark in the Advancement of Learning (1605) that “men must know, that in this theatre of man's life it is reserved only for God and angels to be lookers on” (1861-74, 3:314; our emphasis). In that same text, however, Bacon also suggested that the cultivation of this image of inscrutable divine intelligence was part of the ruling strategy of the “deeper politique”: “[F]or as in civil actions he is the greater and deeper politique, that can make other men the instruments of his will and ends and yet never acquaint them with his purpose, so as they shall do it and yet not know what they do, than he that importeth his meaning to those that he employeth; so is the wisdom of God more admirable, when nature intendeth one thing and providence draweth forth another” (3:359).

  39. “Of Seditions and Troubles,” in Bacon, 1985, 45.

  40. Greenblatt, 136-37; for the topicality of this representation, see also Bernthal.

  41. Ibid., 133, 136, 138.

  42. Althusser, 148-58, 170-77.

  43. Cf. Matt. 5:38-48.

  44. Friar Peter's description of the duke's grand return to the city both underscores the royal drive to produce “spectacle” and, within the play's pattern biblical allusiveness, suggests another violation of the “spirit” of the Sermon. We might compare Friar Peter's lines—“Twice have the trumpets sounded; / The generous and gravest citizens / Have hent the gates, and very near upon / The duke is ent'ring” (4.6.12-15)—to the Sermon's injunction to do God's work in secret: “Thou shalt not make a trumpet to be blowen before thee, as hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the stretes, to be praised of men” (Matt. 6:2; our emphasis). Of course the aspect of the duke's work that is done in secret is precisely political and not godly, for it serves only to further his own interests as ruler.

  45. Bernthal, 254; it should be noted that Bernthal is summarizing this traditional reading rather than endorsing it.

  46. As Marcus observes, in 1604 Vienna would have been most strongly “associated … by [the original English] viewers with fears of Catholic invasion and repression, with the dread specter of Hapsburg rule, [and with] a return to the Inquisition and to the bloody persecutions of Philip and Mary”; hence, even if the play was intended as a cautionary tale about the fraudulent nature of rulers' claims to divine authority, the subversive image of deceptive rulers depicted by the play might actually have sanctioned James's own authority as a necessary bulwark against “a dark fantasy of alien Catholic domination” (164). As we observed earlier (n. 25), it was just such a “fantasy” that James himself offered in his very first speech before Parliament in March 1604.

  47. For a valuable discussion of this complex issue, see Kahn.

  48. See especially his “Mythos of Spring: Comedy,” 163-71.


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Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Gerald F. Else. Ann Arbor, MI, 1970.

Bacon, Francis. The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall. Ed. Michael Kiernan. Cambridge, MA, 1985.

———. The Works of Francis Bacon. Ed. James Spedding et al. 14 vols. London, 1861-74.

Barlow, William. The Summe and Substance of the Conference … at Hampton Court, January 14, 1603 [for 1604]. London, 1604. Reprint, Amsterdam, 1975.

Battenhouse, Roy. “Measure for Measure and the Christian Doctrine of Atonement.” PMLA 61 (1946): 1029-59.

———. “Measure for Measure and King James.” Clio 7 (1977): 193-215.

Bennett, Josephine Waters. Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment. New York, 1966.

Bernthal, Craig. “Staging Justice: James I and the Trial Scenes in Measure for Measure.Studies in English Literature 32 (1992): 247-69.

Bradshaw, Graham. Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialists. Ithaca, 1993.

Bruce, F. F. The English Bible: A History of Translations. New York, 1970.

Dawson, Anthony B. “Measure for Measure, New Historicism, and Theatrical Power.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 328-41.

Dollimore, Jonathan. “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure.” In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, 72-87. Ithaca, 1985.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, 1957.

Geneva Bible (facs. 1560 ed.). Madison, WI, 1969.

Goldberg, Jonathan. James I and the Politics of Literature. Baltimore and London, 1983.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988.

James I. Political Writings. Ed. Johann P. Sommerville. Cambridge, 1994.

Jardine, Lisa. Reading Shakespeare Historically. London, 1996.

Jonson, Ben. “Epistle” to Volpone. In Ben Jonson. Ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson. 11 vols., 5:17-21. Oxford, 1925-52.

Kahn, Victoria. Rhetoric, Prudence, and Skepticism in the Renaissance. Ithaca, 1985.

Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton, 1957.

Knight, G. Wilson. “Measure for Measure and the Gospels.” In The Wheel of Fire, 4th ed., 73-96. London, 1949.

Larkin, James F. and Paul L. Hughes, ed. Stuart Royal Proclamations, vol. 1, Royal Proclamations of Kings James I, 1603-1625. Oxford, 1973.

Lever, J. W. “Introduction.” In Measure for Measure. London, 1965.

Levin, Richard. New Readings vs. Old Plays. Chicago, 1979.

———. “The New and the Old Historicizing of Shakespeare.” Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 11 (1995): 425-48.

Marcus, Leah. Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988.

Opfell, Olga S. The King James Bible Translators. London, 1982.

Patterson, Annabel. Shakespeare and the Popular Voice. Oxford, 1989.

Price, Jonathan R. “Measure for Measure and the Critics: Towards a New Approach.” Shakespeare Quarterly 20 (1969): 179-204.

Schleiner, Louise. “Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure.PMLA 97 (1982): 227-36.

Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. In The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston, 1974.

Tennenhouse, Leonard. “Representing Power: Measure for Measure in Its Time.” In The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 139-56. Norman, OK, 1982.

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Wheeler, Richard. Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1981.

Yukari Yoshihara (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6341

SOURCE: Yoshihara, Yukari. “Money and Sexuality in Measure for Measure.” In Japanese Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Yoshiko Kawachi, pp. 70-85. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Yoshihara treats the themes of money and sexuality in Measure for Measure.]

Measure for Measure is much concerned with substitution, exchange and replacement. Angelo is substituted for the Duke as deputy; he proposes that Isabella's maidenhead should be exchanged for Claudio's head or his life; Mariana replaces Isabella in the bed trick; Regozine's head is substituted for Claudio's. In other words, they are exchangeable commodities like money. Furthermore, in the play, sexual reproduction is under surveillance by the state, just as coinage is. Illicit generation is compared to counterfeiting, and the crime of those who get “issues” without the state's sanction is a capital one, just as counterfeiting was a capital crime in Shakespeare's time. The model of monetary exchange informs the characters' bodies and souls. Not only coins, but also the subjects' bodies, their words, even the fluids circulating in their bodies must bear the sovereign's “figure” in order to be legitimately current.

The Duke's “figure” gains omnipotent authority over his subjects' sexual, verbal and mercantile transactions. The Duke assumes that he has absolute authority over metal and mettle; he acts as if his right to “issue” coins in his “figure” automatically authorizes him to regulate the way his subjects use their sexual mettle. I shall argue that his assumption of absolute authority over metal/mettle is quite problematic. I do not believe that the Duke's authority over money authorizes him to monetize his subjects' mettle/metal, to coin, stamp and press it into his “image,” to deal with his subjects' sexual reproduction as the mechanical reproduction of his “figure,” or to treat his subjects' sexual mettle as if they were ingots of metal.


In act 2, scene 4, when asked by Isabella to forgive Claudio's illicit generation, Angelo describes a child conceived in illicit generation as a “false” coin or a counterfeit:

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


Coinage metaphors are usually employed to account for the physical similarities between a biological father and his child; the father's “image” is said to be “coined” and “stamped” on the child. Yet in the lines above, coinage metaphor is employed to affirm the state's authority over its subjects' sexual reproduction, rather than to describe the physical similarities between Claudio and Juliet's fetus. It should be noted that the fetus Juliet bears is not false or a counterfeit, as far as the physical similarities between Claudio and the fetus are concerned. The fetus would be a sterling coin that bears and coins Claudio's original “image” as far as biological kinship is concerned. In the play, however, the political sovereign appropriates biology as a means to naturalize and legitimatize his political authority over the sexual reproduction of his subjects. According to Angelo's argument, the political sovereign has more claim to authority or authorship of a child than the biological father. In order to be legitimate, a child must bear the sovereign's “image,” rather than that of its biological father. In the play, monetary politics assume the state's sexual policy.

Angelo argues that the Duke is authorized to assume the role of a parthenogenetic demi-god who creates everything in his own image, as in the Judeo-Christian myth of the Creation. His subjects must be his copies or clones, monetarily as well as sexually.2 In this regard, Claudio's crime is the violation of the sovereign's “copyright.” Actual sexual reproduction becomes a kind of surrogate reproduction in which the sovereign's image, not the biological father's, is copied and multiplied. In the play, the state, not subject, owns the sexual body. Subjects are standardized, stamped and quantified—in other words, they become the bodies of populating animals which, together with accumulated capital, are used to strengthen the nation's power.3

Procreation is imagined as textual inscription by the male member upon the female body, and hence, as male parthonogenesis. Claudio compares Juliet's pregnancy to textual production: “The stealth of our most mutual entertainment / With character too gross is writ on Juliet” (1.2.143-45). “Character” here means an inscribed, engraved letter, and suggests the biological father's image inscribed on his child; “gross,” here, means “large.” Claudio is the author, Juliet's body is a blank page on which he inscribes his “character” with large letters; the fetus is a text written by Claudio's male member. Claudio assumes the part of an author who claims an exclusive “copyright” for his child, in the fashion of God in the Creation. Claudio's pen or penis has parthonogenetic power to create art or a biological child out of the “nothing” of the female sexual body.


The Duke parthonogenetically re-produces Angelo as his son or a coin that bears his own “figure.” Just before appointing Angelo to be his deputy in his absence, the Duke asks Escalus about Angelo: “What figure of us, think you, he will bear?” (1.1.16). “Figure” here suggests both the physical similarities between a father and his child and the sovereign's figure that a sterling coin bears, and hence the amount of the coin: Angelo is to become the Duke's son who bears his “figure” and “image,” or a coin, pressed with his “figure,” that represents ducal authority in the market. The Duke parthonogenetically “issues” (gives birth to, puts into circulation) Angelo as his own son and a coin of high value. The Duke also assumes the privileged male role of the father or the original “figure” that reproduces itself on the passive and obedient “means” of Angelo's mettle/metal. Will Angelo prove to be the Duke's legitimate son, a sterling coin that reproduces the Duke's “figure” faithfully, or will he be a counterfeit son or coin that distorts the Duke's “figure,” misrepresenting and misappropriating his authority?4

Angelo follows the Duke's figure of speech, and replies using the metaphor of metallurgy and coinage: “Let there be some more test made of my metal, / Before so noble and so great a figure / Be stamp'd upon it” (1.1.48-50).5 Angelo is an essentialist who believes that the monetary value of a coin (“figure”) should correspond to the “essential” value of its ingot. For him, the Duke's “figure” coined on his mettle/metal should be the sign of the Duke's metallurgical estimation of his mettle/metal.

Yet as the Duke soon shows in his conversation with Friar Thomas, he has little faith in the ‘essential’ value of Angelo's mettle/metal (1.3). Angelo's simple belief that there should be a proper correlation between mettle/metal and the “figure” coined upon it is subverted by the very person whose minted “figure” upon coins is supposed to guarantee the value of coins. Does the issuer of currency who debases the coinage have the authority to punish the two counterfeiters—Claudio, who puts “mettle in restrained moulds,” and Angelo who is to be made a counterfeit coin?

The Duke's monetary policy—and hence his sexual policy—resembles a paper money policy in which the substance of the currency has almost no value, and its monetary value is determined solely by the virtue of the figure impressed upon the paper. Even though the metallurgical metaphor is insistently employed to describe the monetary economy of sexuality in the play, the Duke seems to have almost no faith in the genuine metallurgical value of human mettle. Following the model of the Judeo-Christian myth of the Creation, the Duke endeavors to make his “figure” the sole origin of monetary/political authority: his “figure” creates value out of nothing, in his own image.6

The Duke's monetary/sexual politics virtually negates “essentialist” ideas about the distinction between the nobleness and the baseness of human mettle. It is not that the essential value of mettle/metal determines the sign that signifies its value, but that the sign actually determines the value of mettle/metal. Angelo's mettle/metal becomes, in effect, a kind of blank paper of tabula rasa on which the Duke stamps, inscribes and reproduces his “figure”; it has almost no value in itself; it is a void, a nothing, which can be made to signify whatever the Duke's authorial “figure” forges upon it.

The blankness of Angelo's mettle/metal, however, does not serve to prove its innocence. When Angelo is accused of being a “slip,” that is, a counterfeit coin, the question raised is solely about the “corruptible” nature of Angelo's mettle.7 The fact of the Duke's misappropriating his own authority as an issuer of coins is totally concealed.

I am sorry one so learned and so wise
As you, Lord Angelo, have still appear'd,
Should slip so grossly, both in the heat of blood
And lack of temper'd judgement afterward.


Because of “the heat of blood” and “gross” “intemperate lust” (5.1.98), Angelo's mettle/metal has degenerated into ill-tempered mettle/metal that is only fit for a counterfeit. The Duke, who is said to be “a gentleman of all temperance” (3.2.231), is presented as an all-powerful alchemist who detects the base “temper” of Angelo's mettle/metal.8 Vaguely occult suggestions of alchemical refinement and degeneration are, I would argue, a cover to mystify the Duke's illegitimate monetary and sexual policy.

At the start of the play, in praising Angelo's “fine” “spirits,” the Duke employs alchemical terms. In fact, he assumes the role of an alchemist, a touchstone or a metallurgist, who “assays” and tests Angelo's mettle/metal. Even while he employes the rhetoric of occult alchemy, however, his intention remains capitalistic. The ultimate purpose of his alchemical arts is not to “refine” and “sublime” base mettle/metal, but merely to “multiply” the wealth.9

Spirits are not finely touched
But to fine issues; nor Nature never lends
The smallest scruple of her excellence
But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines
Herself the glory of a creditor,
Both thanks and use.


Angelo's “spirits,” being “touched” as by a touchstone, should be used as capital in an economically gainful way, to gain “use” or interest. Similarly, “Nature” is a thrifty usurer who would not neglect “the smallest scruple,” or, by extension, the smallest price of gold.

The lines quoted above are clearly suggestive of “spirits” as seminal fluids and of an offspring as interest or “use” begotten through copulation. In the context of usury regulated by the state, these lines imply that even the use of “spirits” must be regulated by the state. Indeed, procreation is imagined as state-regulated usury. Angelo is allowed to have “fine” issues or offspring on the condition that he subjugates himself to the money-issuer's authority.10 The wasteful “expense of spirit” (Sonnet 129:1) is not allowed in Measure's Vienna. Angelo's “fine spirits,” the Duke urges, must be used to generate themselves in the form of offspring, closely following the model of capitalist accumulation of wealth and of population.

Through usury and through the subjects' sexual reproduction, the Duke's “figure” multiplies. The Duke implies that it is the sovereign himself with the absolute privilege to “issue” coins and to regulate usury, not Angelo, who has the authority to determine what is proper in using Angelo's seminal fluid. Not only the circulation of coins in the body politic, but also the use of seminal fluid that “issues” from Angelo's body, the Duke implies, must be regulated by the money-issuer. The body politic is eroticized, as the human body is monetized and politicized. Every spirit must be optimized to increase the nation's power, in the form of money and the number of men.11 The ideology of heterosexuality, under the guise of benevolent recommendation for the proper use of one's body and spirits, coerces the subjects into becoming usurious machines for mass production of the sovereign's “figure.”


It is ironic that Isabella becomes implicated in money-like exchanges of roles and parts precisely because she refuses the mercenary exchange of her maidenhead with her brother's head. When Angelo proposes that her maidenhead should be used as money to “redeem” and “deliver” her brother from the prison, Isabella firmly resists his mystificating the redemption as an imitation of Christ's redemption, insisting on the mercenary aspects of the exchange between her maidenhead and her brother's head.

Then must your brother die.
And 'twere the cheaper way.
Better it were a brother died at once,
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die for ever.


She refuses to be used as a coin to “redeem” her brother's head, and insists on the unique, unexchangeable value of her maidenhead. Yet, when she consents to the disguised Duke's proposal for the bed trick, she becomes implicated in the undifferentiated exchange of her hymen and Mariana's: any maidenhead will do to “deliver” Claudio, just as any coins of the same figure can stand for each other.

As a candidate for a religious sisterhood, Isabella is a kind of “barren metal” that is not current in the market of sexual transactions. Her status exempts her from the market logic of sexual reproduction. However, her view about sexual reproduction in general is not free from the imperative of phallocentrism. She is concomitant with male-centered view about procreation in that she regards women's bodies as mere “means” to reproduce male “forms.”

Nay, women are frail too.
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.


The multiplication of “forms” by a mirror is clearly suggestive of sexual multiplication. Isabella's melancholic tone lamenting women's “frailty,” though intended to defend women who are powerless before the assault of phallic aggressiveness, actually degrades women's reproductive capacities. According to Isabella, women's reproductive capacities are merely reflective: just as a mirror cannot produce and create “forms” by itself, so women can only reflect the male “forms” in sexual reproduction; woman has no claim to the authorship of her children; sexual reproduction is capitalistic “profiting.” Isabella's phallocentric notions about sexual print pave the way for Angelo's assault.

Be that you are;
That is, a woman. If you be more, you're none.
If you be one, as you are well expressed
By all external warrants, show it now,
By putting on the destined livery. …
Plainly conceive, I love you.


Here Angelo voices biological determinism. He implies that to be a woman is to merely “conceive” a male “figure.” Angelo's version of biological determinism allows no rights or possibilities, as far as women are concerned, except for their capacity to “conceive.” All women must be silent, obedient passive mettle/metal and bear the male “figure” and “character.” Angelo urges women as a group to be reduced to a womb. According to his argument, a woman is not allowed to control her reproductive ability; on the contrary, her womb determines her life. His argument is extreme, yet the ideology of heterosexuality and parthonogenetic ideas about sexual reproduction share Angelo's basic assumptions. The “natural” fact that a woman can conceive a child is appropriated to “naturalize” her passive role in the socio-economic system.

Even the “perverted” desire of Isabella, who says she would prefer “th'impression of keen whips” to Angelo's sexual “impression,” might tell us how far she has internalized the phallic mode of sexual imagination. The fantasy image of whipping is clearly eroticized. She talks of whipping as if it were consummation of her erotic desire. Indeed, her fantasy of erotic whipping is disturbingly reminiscent of sexual reproduction imagined as an inscription of the male “figure” upon the blank page of a woman's flesh:

[W]ere I under the terms of death,
Th'impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I'd yield
My body up to shame.


It is almost impossible to distinguish “th'impression of keen whips” from the sexual inscription by the male “figure.” Whipping in public (a standard punishment for prostitutes) is a sign of the state's overwhelming power to regulate the use of the subjects' sexual bodies and blood. In her fantasy, Isabel's flesh becomes a page on which the political authority impresses and inscribes itself; “keen whips” are pens with which the state presses its “figure” upon its subjects' flesh; the blood Isabella sheds resembles ink on legal papers that legitimatize the state's authority or authorship over its subjects' sexual bodies. For Isabella, all blood—whether shed in cutting off men's heads, breaking hymens, or whipping prostitutes—must be used as ink that testifies the state's authority. Isabella's resistance against unlawful inscription of Angelo's “forms” upon her body does not mean that she is giving a dissident voice to male-centered notions about sexual inscription.

Under the regime of state-regulated birth control, a womb is under the state's surveillance. It becomes analogous to a prison, and to the world imagined as a prison, in the recurrent invocation of ideas about redemption and deliverance. The analogy between a womb and a prison is common; here uniquely both are under surveillance by the state.

Apart from the Christian association, “redemption” and “deliverance/delivery” need socio-political and bio-ideological analysis. As we have seen, Isabella would not allow her redemption of her brother to be mystified as an imitation of Christ's redeeming mankind from original sin.12 In spite of her resistence, Angelo insistently compares the delivering of her maidenhead to Christ's delivering of humankind from the prison of original sin: “Redeem thy brother, / By yielding up thy body to my will” (2.4.163-64). He implies the blood Isabel will shed in yielding her virginity must be used to “redeem” her brother from prison, as Christ shed his blood to “redeem” and buy back humankind from the debt of original sin. His argument has the effect of making Isabel's delivering her maidenhead look as if it were her moral and religious obligation.

Isabella's “redemption” or “deliverance/delivery” of her brother from the prison is understood in terms of her biological capacity to “conceive” and “deliver” a child, as well as in terms of religious “deliverance”; she becomes a mother who “delivers” Claudio from the prison cell of her womb. The association of deliverance from prison with deliverance from a womb is most vividly imagined in Isabel's vehement condemnation of Claudio, who asks her to deliver her maidenhead to deliver him from the prison. She condemns Claudio as a “slip” or a counterfeit, and regards such deliverance as incest:

Wilt thou be made 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.


Claudio is a fetus waiting to be ‘delivered’ from prison. His deliverance is a kind of double incest, for Claudio is either a fetus conceived by incestuous union with his sister, or a fetus conceived by Isabella's incestuous union with their dead father.13

Isabella then becomes a demonized mother who refuses either to “conceive” male inscription or, once pregnant, to “deliver” her child from the prison cell of her womb. Pompey's light-hearted comparison between a prison and a bawdy house (4.3.1-20. Cf. 4.2.1-5) and his professional situation—he who once was an executioner of maidenheads becomes an executioner of men's heads—is revealing: as prostitution must be regulated by the state, in a way analogous to the state's policy over usury, so the womb must be under the state's panoptical surveillance, in a way analogous to the state's surveillance over prisons. In the disguised Duke's sermon to Claudio, he describes death as a longed-for deliverance from a world imagined as a prison and a womb. He completely degrades the value of life in the world, yet offers no comfort after the deliverance (3.1.5-41). The world and the womb become claustrophobic prison-like spaces demonized by the dominant ideology. Reproduction-centered bio-ideology degrades the womb as nothing more than a prison for a fetus, while at the same time enforcing sexual reproduction as women's religio-socio-political imperative.


At the end of the play, Angelo is condemned as a “slip” or a counterfeit who abuses the Duke's authority. However, there is not much point arguing whether Angelo's mettle/metal is essentially “noble” or “base,” in the situation in which the Duke's “figure” reduces his subjects to endlessly exchangeable commodities and in which the “essential” values of mettle/metal do not count for much. In the market where Angelo's authority is current as a coin of high value, there is confusion about the relationship between the monetary value of a coin and the “essential” value of its ingot, between a sign and its meaning. To a large extent “the crisis of representation,” in which a sign does not correspond to its supposed meaning, is caused by the Duke's misappropriation of his own authority and of Angelo's mettle/metal when he introduces a gulf between “figure” and the value of mettle/metal, between a sign and its meaning.

The most extreme instance of “the crisis of representation” arrives when Angelo acknowledges his own authority is counterfeit. Urged to tender her maidenhead to redeem Claudio, Isabella threatens to expose Angelo's evil intentions. She condemns Angelo, for his reputation as a virtuous person is false “seeming” (2.4.150). However, she is naive about representational strategies, for she seems to believe that the conflict between “seeming” and ‘truth’ can be corrected by simply revealing the falsity of “seeming.” Angelo is more pragmatic: he knows, in this situation, “truth” is unrepresentable. He retorts:

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. …
Say what you can: my false o'erweighs your true.

(2.4.153-58, 169)

Angelo is confident that a false coin will be judged heavier and more substantial than a legitimate coin. As Isabella's testimony against Angelo represents the truth; her words are a metaphorical legal tender, and hence must be heavier than Angelo's words which are a metaphorical counterfeit, made of a “base” or lighter metal/mettle. Angelo acknowledges that his mettle/metal is not equal to his authority, yet he is confident that his authority has currency as a sterling coin, as far as the Duke's “figure” authorizes it. As the title suggests, Measure for Measure is full of references to measurement. Even measurement, a seemingly neutral way of just evaluation, does not function properly in this situation.

“The crisis of representation” here paradoxically consolidates the Duke's authority. The disastrous situation in which his “figure” cannot signify what it is supposed to signify, at first might seem to be destructive to his authority over economical and political representation. However, at the very moment the Duke's “figure” is most drastically misappropriated, it becomes omnipotent, for Angelo the “slip” himself acknowledges that the Duke's “figure” can make his mettle/metal become current solely by virtue of its authority, without any reference to the value of his mettle/metal. This is the very situation the Duke has been seeking from the time he issued Angelo as a coin of high value, knowing his mettle/metal was not equal to the “figure” pressed upon it. The Duke's obsessive pursuit of his authority as the author like God in the Creation myth is paradoxically complete at the moment it is thoroughly violated.


In the play, “the rebellion of a codpiece” (3.2.110-11) or the rebellion of a sexual member is tantamount to rebellion against the body politic, and hence to legally lead to the execution of the rebellious citizen. Almost endless substitutions of roles in the play imply that not only can any citizen of the community can be substituted for another, but also the bodily part of one person can be replaced with that of another. In Measure's Vienna, the body is a combination of detachable, exchangeable and replaceable bodily parts.

In the bed trick, Mariana replaces Isabella; or, Mariana's private “parts” represent Isabella's. Urging Isabel to join her in pleading for Angelo's life, Mariana says, “sweet Isabel, take my part” (5.1.428). Isabel is asked to take Mariana's “part” or role in public, in exchange for Mariana's having offered her private “parts” in bed. Furthermore, their mutual exchange of “parts” is a representation in a dramatic sense: in the scene where they appear on stage as Angelo's accusers, they are playing parts assigned by the Duke. He is a playwright whose writing member scripts the scenario. When Angelo detects someone behind Mariana and Isabel, he says, “I do perceive / These poor informal women are no more / But instruments of some more mightier member / That sets them on” (5.1.234-37). The Duke is the “more mightier member.” His “mightier member” that writes the script of Angelo's accusation scene is tantamount to his male member which reproduces his “character” everywhere, making Mariana and Isabel's “parts” represent his authorial intentions. The women's private “parts,” as well as their dramatic and public “parts,” is under the direction of the powerful male author's scripting hand.

In the last scene, Claudio appears on the stage as his own son: he is said to be “as like almost to Claudio as himself:” (5.1.487).14 He is delivered from the prison and a prison cell of the womb, as a son conceived in the sexual intercourse of Angelo and Isabel represented by Mariana. Isabella's horrified fantasy of her brother's incestuous rebirth is finally realized without the sacrifice of her maidenhead. The Duke's surveillance over his subjects' sexual reproduction is disturbingly complete; Isabella is made to “conceive” and “deliver” Claudio, even without her knowledge.

When the Duke proposes marriage to Isabel, the powerful sovereign orders her to become an instrument to reproduce his “figure.” After conducting a successful experiment to make every subject a vehicle to reproduce his “figure,” the Duke intends to carry out another experiment to see if sexual reproduction of his “figure” through Isabel's body can be as successful as in the cases of other-than-sexual reproductions. Will Isabel accept being made into a sexual mold that reproduces the Duke's sexual “character” by consenting to his marriage proposal?


I have tried to delineate the Duke's overwhelming power to multiply his “figure” monetarily and sexually upon his subjects' mettle/metal. In my view, his assumption of authority as the unexchangeable origin of commodity production and procreation is illegitimate. As the exchange value of a coin is partially determined by its content of precious metals, so the Duke's “figure” cannot wholly determine the exchange value of his subjects' mettle/metal. Insofar as the Duke must use his subjects' sexual mettle and molds to multiply his “figure,” his authority is radically dependent on and parasitic to his subjects. Therefore, he transgresses his own political authority as an issuer of currency and overseer of his subjects' sexuality when he deals with his subjects' mettle/metal.

Whether the Duke's transgressing his own authority leads to his subjects' resisting is, however, questionable. Many of the characters seem to subjugate themselves to the illusion that the Duke's “figure” is the only reliable source of justice in monetary, sexual and verbal exchanges. In contrast, I would like to invoke the character of Lucio who would not easily, subscribe to the view that various currencies in Measure's Vienna are dependent on the royal countenance for their circulation.

In the last scene, Lucio is punished for his two-fold violation of the sovereign's exclusive authority over sexual and verbal copyright, i.e., for illicit generation and for his slander against the Duke. Earlier Lucio thought if he pursued the economic activity of buying, the only “interest” or “use” would be a bald head or a “French crown” as a result of venereal disease (1.2.46-53. cf. 27-40); but finally, he is forced to take another “interest,” i.e. his child. He must marry a prostitute who bore his child. Lucio embodies a model of wasteful “expense of spirits” and the market logic of sexual/verbal/monetary currencies that questions the legitimacy of the notion that all currencies depend solely on the royal countenance for their authenticity. As such, he might be qualified as a subversive critique of the Duke's productivity-centered, authoritarian sexual politics over mettle/metal.

Lucio challenges the authoritarian notion that all verbal and monetary transactions depend on the royal countenance for their authority. In fact he recites an outrageous version of the Duke's life to the disguised Duke himself (3.2.83-183). Perhaps Lucio's estimation and interpretation of the Duke's life is not an honest reading. Nonetheless, the Duke's excessive irritation about Lucio's “gall” is suggestive. He laments, “What king so strong / Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?” (3.2.181-82). “Gall” suggests slander, black bile, and an ingredient of ink. The Duke is lamenting the inefficacy of his policy over words, bodily fluids and writing. He can successfully regulate neither the circulation of slander in the body politic; nor the circulation of the black bile (which was supposed to beget malcontent and melancholy) inside Lucio's body; nor the circulation of written words or texts. Lucio, a marginal figure, rewrites the texts that tell about the Duke's life, writing his comments in the margin of the text, with ink full of gall. In Lucio, the Duke's attempt to regulate totally the circulation of various currencies faces a serious challenge.

The most farcical moment of the Duke's failure to control sexual/textual reproduction arrives when he finds he has become a bastardizer of his subjects' fancy and of voluminous piratical texts. His “character,” circulating in the body politic, has multiplied itself, in a fashion analogous to sexual reproduction:

O place and greatness! Millions of false eyes
Are struck 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.


The phrase, “thousand escapes of wit,” conceives (in two senses of the verb) the Duke's “character”; reprinted in the subjects' brain-womb, the Duke's “character” produces “volumes” of its piratical versions. The Duke cannot regulate even the way his own “character” circulates. This is a grievous case for him, for his textual/sexual/monetary policy requires total surveillance over the production and circulation of “characters.” He unwittingly becomes a bastardizer or a counterfeiter of “character,” in some ways like Lucio and Claudio.

Lucio shows that the sovereign cannot wholly regulate the way various currencies circulate in the body politic of Measure's Vienna. Even though Lucio is forced to submit himself to the state's regulation of sexual reproduction, even though he must be pressed and inscribed with the figure of the state's authority by whipping (5.1.501-21), his subversive power of questioning the legitimacy of the sovereign's authority over sexual/textual/monetary reproduction has not been canceled.


  1. All citations are from The Arden Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, ed. J. W. Lever (London: Methuen, 1965).

  2. In his now classic essay on A Midsummer Night's Dream, Louis Adrian Montrose remarks about the Aristotelian idea of procreation as male parthenogenesis that: “Shakespeare's embryological notions remain distinctly Aristotelian, distinctly phallocentric: the mother is represented as a vessel, as a container for her son; she is not his maker. In contrast the implication of Theseus' description of paternity is that the male is the only begetter. … A Midsummer Night's Dream dramatizes a set of claims which are repeated throughout Shakespeare's canon: claims for a spiritual kinship among men that is unmediated by women; for the procreative powers of men; and for the autogeny of men.” See “Shaping Fantasies: Figuration of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” in Stephen Greenblatt, ed., Representing the English Renaissance (Berkley: University of California Press, 1988), 42. I shall employ Montrose's terms “the autogeny of men” and “male parthenogenesis” to study sexual economy in Measure for Measure and apply the term to procreation imagined as coinage.

  3. Employing Foucault's concept of modern “bio-power,” Richard Wilson remarks that the duke “has grasped the power of the modern state will depend … on the optimising of desire for the increase of its population.” He also argues that a Shakespearean comedy depicts “the interdependence of economic and political interests in this era when the accumulation of capital and the accumulation of men were geared together. Richard Wilson, “Discipline and Punishment in Shakespearean Comedy,” Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), 130, 140.

  4. The name Angelo suggests angel coins. Although no direct reference to coins appear in the play, Angelo's line, “Let's write good angel the devil's horn” (2.4.16) and the Duke's, “but that frailty hath examples for his falling, should wonder at Angelo” (3.1.185-86) must refer to them. Cf. angel: An old English gold coin (OED [Oxford English Dictionary], n.6).

  5. test: to subject gold or silver to a process of separation and refining in a test or cupel; to assay (OED, v. 4.1)

  6. In terms of monetary policy based on the “essential” value of ingots, the Duke's policy is untenable, for in that policy the royal countenance, expressed by the sovereign's figure impressed upon coins, cannot be the sole basis of the value of the coins. Discussing the Duke's monetary strategy, Paul Yacknin writes: “With regard to the ideology of monetary value in Measure, it should be noted that in Tudor England and in Jacobean Ireland the marketplace rather than the royal countenance often served to underwrite the value of the coinage. On several occasions, the government attempted to debase the coinage by reducing or removing its precious metal content; on such occasions, market forces took over and had the effect of forcing the monarch to restore the precious metal content of the coinage. Therefore, Measure's audience would have been aware that the value of coinage did not necessarily depend exclusively on royal authority.” See “The Politics of Theatrical Mirth: A Midsummer Night's Dream, A Mad World, My Masters and Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1992), 42n.

  7. slip: a counterfeit coin (OED, n.4).

  8. temper: to bring steel to a suitable degree of hardness (OED, v.14). The official story about Angelo's mettle/metal, scripted by the Duke, is fairly simple. At first Angelo seems to be made of “incorruptible” mettle/metal like gold. This is the primary reason the Duke issues Angelo as a coin of high value. Confronted with Isabella's body, Angelo reveals his “base” mettle/metal and becomes the “corrupt deputy” (2.1.255; cf. corruption: the oxidation or corrosion of metals. (OED, sb 1.c). Isabella's attempt to save her brother is fittingly called an “assay” (1.4.76), for it functions as a metallurgical trial of Angelo's metal. Cf. assay: to test the composition of an ore, alloy, or other metallic compound by chemical means, so as to determine the amount of a particular metal contained in it (OED, v4.a), and “assay” (3.1.161) and “trial” (3.1.196). In these lines Angelo's temptation to Isabel is compared to a metallurgical experiment on Isabella's metal/mettle.

  9. For the distinctions between common alchemists who pursue only the multiplication of capital and occult alchemists who pursue the refinement and sublimation of base metals, and for alchemical patterns in Renaissance literature, cf. Charles Nicholl, The Chemical Theater (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980). Sometimes the Duke is compared to an alchemist who refines his subjects' “gross” metal/mettle into something like fine incorruptible gold. In my view, his interests lie more in accumulating the “gross” number of his subjects by means of gross sexual reproduction than in refining their metal/mettle.

  10. Pompey talks of “two usuries / the merriest was put down, and the worser allowed by / order of law” (3.1.6-8). He pirates the logic of capitalist accumulation, by calling prostitution a means to multiply population. His is critical when both forms of “increase,” usury and procreation are held to be legitimate because they are sanctioned by the state, by the Duke's “figure.”

  11. In Measure's Vienna, overpopulation is also inconvenient for the state. This can be seen in the recurrent references to abortion. For example, “future evils / Either new, or remissness new conceived, / And so in progress to be hatch'd and born, / Are now to have no successive degrees, / But ere they live, to end” (2.2.96-100). “Future evils” are compared to babies who must be aborted.

  12. Christ's redemption and deliverance of humanity from original sin was, according to Isabella, an unequal exchange between Christ's blood and human sin; Christ's blood was a kind of currency to redeem and deliver mankind from the prison of sin; Christ did not require that there be the exact equivalent between his blood and human sin (2.2.70-79). She argues that Angelo, as a representative of God on earth, must imitate Christ by not asking the exact payment of Claudio's life for his sin.

  13. Isabella remains a faithful daughter of partriarchy when she calls her brother a “slip” or counterfeit. Claudio, a bad “issue” or son, is condemned as a counterfeit-like misrepresentation of their father's “figure.” Isabella regards Claudio as a counterfeit “issued” from the contaminated mold of their mother in order to keep their father's “figure” innocent of Claudio's degeneration. As Adelman remarks, Isabella “allies herself with the male voices condemning female contamination” by placing responsibility for Claudio's corruption entirely with her mother.” Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992), 97.

  14. In his inspiring study of various exchanges in Measure for Measure, Marc Shell writes, “Claudio is saved … in a figurative resurrection through ‘a kind of incest’ between him and Isabella … Claudio is born again … as his own new born son.” The End of Kinship: “Measure for Measure,” Incest and the Ideal of Universal Siblinghood (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1968), 139.

This paper is based on my presentation of “Metallurgical Metaphors in Measure for Measure at the 31st meeting of the Japan Shakespeare Society, October 1992.

Further Reading

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Barbour, Richmond. “‘There Is Our Commission’: Writing and Authority in Measure for Measure.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 99, no. 2 (April 2000): 193-214.

Provides an analysis of monarchical concerns as addressed via the character of the Duke in Measure for Measure.

Bawcutt, N. W. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, edited by N. W. Bawcutt, pp. 42-63. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Provides an overview of Measure for Measure, including plot and character analysis and a discussion of sources.

Bradbrook, Muriel. “The Balance and the Sword in Measure for Measure.” In Muriel Bradbrook on Shakespeare, pp. 118-28. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1984.

Examines issues of law as they are dealt with in Measure for Measure.

Dunkel, Wilbur. “Law and Equity in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 13, no. 3 (summer 1962): 275-85.

Notes that Measure for Measure was written and produced in a climate acutely aware of the importance of administering law while keeping justice and equity in balance.

Feingold, Michael. “The Duke of Hazard.” Village Voice 46, no. 26 (3 July 2001): 67.

Reviews Mary Zimmerman's direction of Measure for Measure as one that presents the play at face value, with little or no attempt at interpreting the perceived problems with the play.

Gates, Anita. “Finding New Treasures in a Deep, Dark Comedy.” New York Times (7 April 2000): E5.

Lauds the Women's Shakespeare Company production of Measure for Measure.

Gibbons, Brian. Introduction to Measure for Measure, edited by Brian Gibbons, pp. 1-72. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Presents a critical evaluation of Measure for Measure, including a discussion of the political context in which the play was written and its major characters.

Hayne, Victoria. “Performing Social Practice: The Example of Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 1 (spring 1993): 1-29.

Analyzes text and performance issues associated with Measure for Measure in the social and political context of its time, and comments on its impact and significance for modern audiences, especially with respect to issues of sexual and marital regulation.

Howarth, Herbert. “Shakespeare's Flattery in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 16, no. 1 (winter 1965): 29-37.

Draws parallels between Measure for Measure and King James I's Basilikon Doron, noting that although Shakespeare did not overly rely on this text, it does serve as an important point of comparison to the play.

Isherwood, Charles. “Measure for Measure.Variety 383, no. 6 (25 June 2001): 29.

Presents a positive review of Mary Zimmerman's production of Measure for Measure.

Marrapodi, Michele. “English and Italian Intertexts of the Ransom Plot in Measure for Measure.” In Shakespeare and Intertexuality: The Transition of Cultures between Italy and England in the Early Modern Period, edited by Michele Marrapodi, pp. 103-17. Rome, Italy: Bulzoni Editore, 1999.

Examines how Shakespeare's source texts, including Martin Luther's pamphlet On Secular Authority, treated the issues of justice and mercy.

McCandless, David. “Measure for Measure.” In Gender and Performance in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, pp. 80-122. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Studies Measure for Measure as a play that dramatizes the gender crisis of the early Jacobean period, which was marked by challenges to the traditional paradigm of passive femininity. McCandless notes that Shakespeare's problem comedy reflects this dissonance in society, and that its characters highlight both the conflict and fears that plagued contemporary society regarding issues of gender, sexual power, and politics.

Owen, Lucy. “Mode and Character in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 25, no. 1 (winter 1974): 17-32.

Notes that Shakespeare chose to focus on a realistic exploration of the meaning of forgiveness, repentance, and justice in Measure for Measure, and theorizes that the perceived problems of the play stem from the absence of a supernatural resolution.

Price, Jonathan R. “Measure for Measure and the Critics: Towards a New Approach.” Shakespeare Quarterly 20, no. 2 (spring 1969): 179-204.

Provides a brief overview of the critical history surrounding Measure for Measure, theorizing that the unresolved issues in the play are part of a deliberate effort by the playwright to keep his audience engaged until the very end.

Sale, Roger. “The Comic Mode of Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 19, no. 1 (winter 1968): 55-61.

Proposes that Measure for Measure is an experimental play that foreshadows Restoration comedy and the nineteenth-century novel.

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