Vivian Thomas (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Thomas, Vivian. “Order and Authority in Measure for Measure.” In The Moral Universe of Shakespeare's Problem Plays, pp. 173-209. London: Croom Helm, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Thomas examines Isabella and Angelo in Measure for Measure and contends that these figures exhibit a realistic delineation of human character, full of nuance and convincing, if sometimes suppressed, psychological motivation.]

One of the essential qualities of the stories upon which Shakespeare draws for All's Well and Measure for Measure is that they are fables which set forth a series of events that are to be taken as given. Even when the precise details differ, as for instance between Cinthio's play and his novella, psychological interrogation is not invited. Their essential purpose is to present a moral. Though the design of the story or drama is intended to maintain the reader's interest, the writer neither attempts psychological exploration nor encourages the reader to do so. Shakespeare draws on the sense of fascination aroused by these enduring fables and uses them to explore both human psychology and social institutions. So it is that audiences and critics experience a sense of incongruity or a duality between the clarity and simplicity of the story and the density and complexity of the dramatic presentation. This tension, between the unidimensional quality of the fable and the multidimensional nature of the social and psychological conflicts, is felt most keenly at the moment of resolution: ‘and they lived happily ever after’ attaches itself very naturally to the fable; the intensely realistic exploration of human nature, including its most unsavoury aspects, calls forth a questioning and sceptical response from the audience. We can enjoy the fable and its lesson, which is clear and unequivocal, but find ourselves drawn less cheerfully into a range of psychological and social issues which do not admit of comfortable solutions.

Quite apart from the dramatic possibilities precipitated by his source material, Shakespeare would have been acutely aware of the contemporary significance attaching to sexuality and law. Despite the wide ranging investigation of the bearing on the play of such matters as theology and judicial procedures, scant attention has been devoted to the running debate over the role of civil law in matters of sexual morality.1 The essential question was whether sexual misdemeanours should be brought within the purview of the legal system or left to the discretion of ecclesiastical authorities. This debate culminated in legislation in 1650. The consequences of this Act and the arguments which preceded it have been analysed with admirable clarity by Keith Thomas, who comments:

If any single measure epitomises the triumph of Puritanism in England, it must surely be the Commonwealth's act of 10 May 1650 ‘for suppressing the detestable sins of incest, adultery and fornication’. This was an attempt, unique in English history, to put the full machinery of the state behind the enforcement of sexual morality. Spiritual misdemeanours were reclassified as secular crimes and severe penalties prescribed for behaviour which had previously been left to the informal sanctions of neighbourly disapproval or the milder censures of the ecclesiastical courts. Incest and adultery became felonies, carrying sentence of death without benefit of clergy. Fornication was punished by three months in gaol, followed by a year's security for good behaviour. Brothelkeepers were to be whipped, pilloried, branded, and gaoled for three years; for a second offence the penalty was death.2

If the legislation of 1650 seems to have little bearing on what Shakespeare was writing during the first few years of the century, it is worth quoting one more sentence from Keith Thomas: ‘Although owing...

(This entire section contains 7040 words.)

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its final passage to the special circumstances of the newly established republic, anxious to conciliate the Presbyterians and fearful of sectarian licence, it represented the culmination of more than a century's legislative pressure.’3 It is not surprising, then, that Shakespeare's interest was kindled by the story which he found in Cinthio and Whetstone and with which he was probably familiar from other sources. Because of the relevance of the contemporary debate, Shakespeare's play immediately acquires a great deal of social significance. Claudio's plight is not merely a requirement of the plot but a situation which could become a social reality for Shakespeare's audience.

The contemporary relevance of this issue probably encouraged Shakespeare to intensify and vivify the low-life element of the drama which he found in Whetstone's play. The inversion is significant. Whetstone's corrupt officials are expunged; sexual licence is much more pervasive, and clearly uncontrollable. The implication is that when such laws bite, the victims will invariably be the mildest of offenders as they are less skilled and practised in the art of evasion. Moreover, the sexual drive is so elemental and potent that even the establishment of a totalitarian society is incapable of exercising control over the activities of its citizens. Pompey mischievously responds to Escalus' assertion that fornication will no longer be tolerated, by asking: ‘Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?’ (II.i. 227-8) Lucio likewise insists on the inevitability of lechery: ‘the vice is of great kindred; it is well allied; but it is impossible to extirp it quite, friar, till eating and drinking be put down’ (III.ii. 97-9).

Not only is sexual impropriety inevitable because of man's nature, but it will be manifested in prostitution because it gives rise to the possibility of financial gain. The social reality is such that even those who wish to live by means of legitimate activities may be unable to do so. Measure for Measure portrays a whole stratum of individuals who operate in an environment where gaining a livelihood calls for guile and dexterity. The implication is that severe legislation is of little use in such circumstances. Significantly, the only alternative employment available to Pompey is that of executioner. And as the Provost reminds the professional hangman who expresses his distaste for being given a bawd as an assistant, ‘you weigh equally: a feather will turn the scale’ (IV.ii. 28-9). Ironically, the social esteem accorded the man who takes on the task of executing wrongdoers is on a par with that of the individual who turns sexual desire to profit.

Neither Angelo nor Isabella are concerned with the reality that encompasses the social world of Pompey and Mistress Overdone. Isabella seeks an unsullied existence in a nunnery; Angelo is prepared to deal out punishment to people as if they were capable of steely discipline rather than being frail creatures of flesh and blood. Rather than confront reality they seek to escape from it.

When Angelo falls he descends far below Pompey and the traders in flesh: what he attempts is sexual violation and judicial murder. When confronted with his crimes his conscience is so weak that he resorts to lies to save himself. Pompey's manoeuvres and equivocations, when he is being tried by Escalus, seem dignified in comparison—and comparison is surely intended by the dramatist. Moreover, dishonesty and low dealing are not new to Angelo. He has broken his pledge of marriage to Mariana and slandered her in order to justify his own breach of promise. What is new to Angelo when he encounters Isabella is not moral corruption, but lust. This self-deceiver who possesses not one spark of compassion for Claudio or Julietta appears less capable of reform than Pompey, and certainly possesses less humanity. Pompey is merely carried along with the current, making his way as best he can in a world that affords him few choices; Angelo deceives Mariana, revels in his reputation for self-discipline, takes pleasure in inflicting punishment and gives free rein to his newly discovered lust. Not content to rest there he is prepared to execute a man who is innocent in comparison with himself in order to avoid retribution, and finally to lie brazenly when confronted by Isabella.

What are the social implications of the implicit comparison between Angelo and such disreputable characters as Pompey and Mistress Overdone? Angelo stands for a regime characterised by rigorous discipline. Effectively he determines to establish order and morality through the tyranny of law. Pompey and his clique intend to operate in the ‘black economy’ regardless of the institutional changes which take place around them. The stews may bubble all the more vigorously through their participation but they are not capable of reforming or corrupting society. Their existence and way of life is a comment not on lax laws or judicial procedures, but of weaknesses inherent in human beings and the failure of their social superiors to create a better world. The real threat to society comes from Angelo: his world view is so confined and his conception of mankind so narrow that he is the embodiment of totalitarianism. Shakespeare is not making some glib point about striking a careful balance between rigour and compassion: he is exploring the nature and application of the conception of the disciplined society. Angelo before he experiences lust is the quintessential disciplinarian. The implications of such values are revealed vividly in the terror of the young man who falls victim to them. Claudio's speech expresses the newly experienced realisation of death which is simultaneously personal and universal:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod;

(III.i. 117-20)

It is astonishing that after such a vivid realisation of death Isabella can respond to Claudio's plea—to give herself to Angelo to save his life—with such violence. She exhibits all the contempt for human frailty that characterises Angelo. Isabella may possess a purity of spirit, but it is not of this world. To save her brother's life through committing such a sin, she argues, would constitute ‘a kind of incest’ (III.i. 138), and goes on to cast doubt on her mother's fidelity before concluding that Claudio is not guilty of a slip but possesses an ingrained vice.

Of course this seeming callousness in large part reflects Isabella's fear of sexual violation. Her repressed sexuality is suggested in her interview with Angelo when she asserts:

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

(II.iv. 101-4)

Isabella, then, is as frightened as Claudio. But the very recognition of his right to make such a plea to her causes her to denounce him in the harshest terms because she could only meet his request by plunging herself into an action from which she recoils in terror. The paradox is that both Angelo and Isabella insist on a purity in the world: he must be free to impose the harshest penalties without let or hindrance; she must be free from any threat of physical violation or moral contamination. They are both idealists of sorts, but their idealism cannot encompass social reality. Both suffer severe shock when they have to face unpleasant facts. Angelo's cry of anguish is genuine: ‘Blood, thou art blood’ (II.iv. 15). Isabella's horror at Angelo's proposal and Claudio's plea for her acceptance of it shake her to the foundations. She is provided with an honourable escape from the impasse, but it involves participating in the real world where even Mariana's love is not free to find expression without the exercise of duplicity. Angelo discovers that the power of lust totally transcends anything that he has previously experienced and surpasses even his capacity for self-control. But what does the acquisition of self-knowledge do to these characters?

Angelo discovers that once he has fallen he cannot simply change course without suffering disgrace or even facing execution. The strong advocate of resoluteness is incapable of such moral courage. If Angelo eventually becomes a reformed character, it is the consequence of others saving him from his intended actions and the love of the remarkable Mariana. But there is no clear intimation of what the new Angelo will be like. He does not utter a word after admitting to Escalus that his impending execution is deserved. All that the dramatist provides is an indication of Angelo's sense of relief at escaping death:

By this Lord Angelo perceives he's safe;
Methinks I see a quickening in his eye.

(V.i. 492-3)

Likewise, Isabella remains mute after making her plea for Angelo's life. Does the Duke's marriage proposal come as a complete surprise to her? If so, is she shocked? Or has she learned that the world needs all the virtue it can obtain and that she can make a greater contribution to humanity through engaging fully in an active life than in confining herself to the spiritual purity attainable in the nunnery? The latter interpretation seems the more probable, but it is not possible to demonstrate that this is the genuine or intended conclusion. There is a clear suggestion that though sex is a potent force it need not lead to whoring and prostitution—though such things are inevitable—and that the physical side of love requires no apology: indeed, its opposite, sexual repression, is anything but wholesome. It is significant that the loveliest speech in the play is delivered by Lucio to Isabella when he informs her of Claudio's situation:

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

(I.iv. 40-4)

This speech encompasses the process of nature in all its fecundity and sees man as an integral part of it.

The contrast to this portrayal of man as part of bounteous nature is Lucio's description of Angelo:

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

(I.iv. 57-61)

Here is a man who refuses to recognise his natural passions. Not content with that, he intends to direct the rest of erring humanity along the same narrow path. Consequently the institution of law which was designed for the protection of human beings, in his hands becomes the ‘hideous law’ (I.iv. 63). Just as Angelo finds the exercise of justice too lax, so Isabella finds the discipline of a nunnery too mild:

Yes, truly; I speak not as desiring more,
But rather wishing a more strict restraint
Upon the sisters stood, the votarists of Saint Clare.

(I.iv. 3-5)

Both these characters are extremists seeking to supress what they perceive to be the inferior and degrading aspects of human nature. Isabella wishes to cut herself off from a social universe which is soiled; Angelo is intent on cleaning it up. Paradoxically these puritanical characters are drawn together through an action of Angelo's against which Isabella finds it difficult to argue. When told of the circumstances of Claudio's arrest, Isabella's first reaction is to feel a sense of impotence: ‘My power? Alas, I doubt’ (I.iv. 77). Here is a woman who has mentally disengaged herself from the world. When pressed into action by Lucio—a licentious scoundrel and slanderer—Isabella immediately expresses her reluctance to plead for clemency in such a case:

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

(II.ii. 29-33)

Hence the famous debate scene commences with the antagonists sharing values which appear to be at variance with those of virtually the whole of Vienna. Seconds before Isabella makes her opening speech Angelo has given his instructions for dealing with Julietta in a tone which leaves little doubt about his disposition:

See you the fornicatress be remov'd;
Let her have needful, but not lavish means;

(II.ii. 23-4)

Angelo is not only a man of extreme views but someone who enjoys wielding power. His response to Isabella's apologetic opening is terse: ‘Well: the matter?’ (II.ii. 33) The contrast between these speeches and the Provost's aside could not be more marked: ‘Heaven give thee moving graces!’ (II.ii. 36) He invokes heaven to assist in securing a pardon for Claudio. Evidently he does not share the extreme views of Angelo or Isabella on the nature of the crime.

If Isabella's preamble is unpromising, her argument that Angelo should condemn the fault but not her brother is positively feeble. Amazingly, when Angelo quite rightly rejects her argument Isabella is prepared to leave: ‘O just but severe law!’ (II.ii. 41) Ironically, Claudio's life-line is provided by the disreputable Lucio who pushes Isabella into renewing her appeal. Once Isabella sets forth the claim for mercy her passion is kindled: and it is only when that happens that the force of her intellect is brought to bear on the case. It is as if the suppression of her natural impulses has obstructed the power of her mind. A second before Isabella launches on the upward curve of her passionate appeal Lucio upbraids her with the words, ‘You are too cold’ (II.ii. 56). It is the release of her natural energies and impulses which carries her forward in an unrelenting quest to save Claudio.

Isabella claims that there is no quality that more becomes the judge or ruler than mercy. She moves forward naturally from the proposition that were their roles reversed Angelo would not find Claudio so severe, to the Christian argument that spiritual salvation is dependent on the mercy of God. Angelo seeks to evade the force of this argument by claiming impotence and detachment: ‘It is the law, not I, condemn your brother’ (II.ii.80). This is, of course, manifestly false as Angelo has unfettered power to invoke the full rigour of the law or to mitigate it.

When Angelo insists that Claudio is to be executed the next day, Isabella responds even more passionately. There is a note of desperation in her claim that Claudio is not prepared for death; then she puts forward the argument that it is unfair that one man should die for a crime which is widely committed but goes unpunished—quite rightly implying that the law in such circumstances becomes arbitrary, merely making an example of unlucky victims. Angelo's response is invalid in this particular case: he argues that the sin of fornication would be less common had the law been used to make examples of wrongdoers. Whatever the general case for deterrence it manifestly does not apply in the case of fornication. Interestingly, Angelo's riposte is embodied in language redolent of the cycle of birth and death: ‘conceiv'd, ‘hatch'd and born’, ‘successive degrees’, ‘live’, ‘end’ (II.ii. 97-100).

Finally, Isabella begs Angelo to be pitiful, but the quality of pity has been wholly submerged in him in his quest to discard his animal nature. Angelo's cold response calls forth the full flood of Isabella's indignation—a quality which she has sought to quell through the discipline of the nunnery:

                                                            Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne'er be quiet,
For every pelting petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder; nothing but thunder.
Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splits the unwedgeable and gnarled oak,
Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,
Dress'd in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd—
His glassy essence—like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

(II.ii. 111-24)

Isabella has moved so far during her assault on Angelo's position that rather than requiring nudges from Lucio she receives his enthusiastic approval along with that of the Provost. Her final thrust is to ask Angelo that he seek within himself to see whether he has contemplated Claudio's crime. If he has, she insists, he cannot condemn Claudio. Ironically, it is Isabella who unintentionally provokes Angelo's desire. From this moment, clearly recognised by Angelo in the line ‘She speaks, and 'tis such sense / That my sense breeds with it’ (II.ii. 142), he has no excuse for condemning Claudio. As Angelo recognises, in a soliloquy which gives full expression to his bewilderment and anguish, he has so successfully suppressed his emotions that when sexual desire breaks loose in him he is undone.

                                                                                                                                  Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman's lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live!
Thieves for their robbery have authority,
When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again?
And feast upon her eyes? What is't I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper: but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Ever till now
When men were fond, I smil'd, and wonder'd how.

(II.ii. 168-87)

Angelo's awakening evokes a good deal of sympathy, but that is soon dissipated during his second encounter with Isabella. He is both calculating and brutal in the way in which he makes his demand for her body in return for Claudio's reprieve. When Angelo was grave and bloodless he required everyone else to conform to his view. Now that he is bent on gratifying his sexual desire he seeks to strip away any claim to virtue or purity: women are creatures of base passions who merely affect reticence; their function is to satisfy men's needs:

                                                                                                    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.

(II.iv. 133-7)

As Angelo relinquishes all semblance of honour, Isabella responds with spirit and dignity. Yet, left alone with Angelo's demand ringing in her ears she is adamant that no brother could desire a sister to sacrifice her honour to save his life. Isabella has discovered a good deal about the nature of the world in a short space of time, but her unequivocal conclusion is chilling:

Then, Isabel live chaste, and brother, die:
More than our brother is our chastity.

(II.iv. 183-4)

All sorts of religious and moral arguments can be advanced to justify her position, but nevertheless it seems deficient in charity.

No sooner has Isabella expressed her conviction so forcibly than we encounter a frightened young man in the condemned cell: the taste of fear, which so obviously infects Claudio, brings all moral formulas into question. Confronted by death Claudio quite naturally has little sense of certainty attaching to any philosophy or principle. The Duke underlines the fragility and insignificance of mankind, but his speech can do nothing to ease the journey to the axeman's block. His bleak account of the nature of life rolls on to a conclusion that at an intellectual level makes the loss of life seem unimportant:

                    Thou hast nor youth, nor age,
But as it were an after-dinner's sleep
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld: and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty
To make thy riches pleasant. What's yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths; yet death we fear
That makes these odds all even.

(III.i. 32-41)

Claudio's immediate rejoinder to this stark philosophical perspective is:

To sue to live, I find I seek to die,
And seeking death, find life.

(III.i. 42-3)

But he feels a quickening of his pulse when Isabella arrives. Claudio's response to Isabella's picturesque announcement that he is to be executed the following day is telling:

Is there no remedy?

Isabella's reply is intended to quell Claudio's anxious hope:

None, but such a remedy as, to save a head
To cleave a heart in twain.

The effect is to create a belief in Claudio that there may be some hope of salvation, so that his desperation is intensified:

But is there any?

(III.i. 60-2)

As Isabella reveals that there is a means of escape but one that is unacceptable, Claudio punctuates her drawn out disclosure of the circumstances with a series of short lines expressive of hope, fear, anguish and impatience until he bursts out with ‘Let me know the point’ (III.i. 72). Isabella's consciousness of Claudio's intense fear of death, and her counterbalancing fear of violation, causes her to attempt to make it impossible for her brother to beg her sacrifice to save his life:

O, I do fear thee, Claudio, and I quake
Lest thou a feverous life shouldst entertain,
And six or seven winters more respect
Than a perpetual honour. Dar'st thou die?
The sense of death is most in apprehension;

(III.i. 73-7)

As the Duke in his Friar's habit recommends acceptance of death on the basis of the worthless nature of life, so Isabella rests her case on the value of honour over life. When she goes on to reveal Angelo's true character and the nature of the offer he has made, Claudio is sufficiently shocked to insist ‘Thou shalt not do't’ (III.i. 102). But Isabella evidently feels a sense of guilt about being unwilling to make the necessary sacrifice as she then insists:

O, were it but my life,
I'd throw it down for your deliverance
As frankly as a pin.

(III.i. 103-5)

Despite Isabella's religious convictions and the nature of her chosen vocation, she does not express her objection to giving herself to Angelo in theological terms. It is Claudio, as his resolve weakens and he searches for a means of staying alive, who refers to the matter of sin. He casts doubt on the severity of the sin of fornication and admits his fear of death: ‘Death is a fearful thing’ (III.i. 115). Isabella does not respond by setting forth the theological implications of such a sin but rather points to the dishonour Claudio would incur by paying for his life by means of her sacrifice.

Claudio's response is frighteningly human. Through his eyes we experience for the first time the dreadful fears of death; the terror felt by a young man who has visualised his earthly extinction. At the end of this agonising speech Claudio begs his sister to sacrifice herself with an argument which is simultaneously rational and a rationalisation:

Sweet sister, let me live.
What sin you do to save a brother's life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That is becomes a virtue.

(III.i. 132-5)

Isabella still fails to contradict the validity of his argument but instead breaks into a hysterical denunciation directed at her brother's lack of manhood. The speech is infused with references to sexuality but devoid of any hint of theological implications:

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

(III.i. 135-42)

This is not cold-blooded inhumanity, but panic; not a fear of committing sin, which she never mentions, but a subconscious fear of violation that finds expression in her explicit references to incest and adultery. Indeed, poor Claudio's sexual misdemeanour, and his frightened plea for his life to be redeemed by his sister's sacrifice, leads Isabella to denounce him as licentious:

Thy sin's not accidental, but a trade;
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd;

(III.i. 148-9)

What is intriguing in this exchange is what it reveals about Isabella's attitude towards sexuality: as Angelo perceives no distinction between the procreation of an illegitimate child and murder, so Isabella quickly relegates her brother to the level of Pompey. Shakespeare seems to have presented two characters whose fear of sexuality has led to suppression of natural feelings to such an extent that their vision is distorted. For Isabella, fornication is an act that she can't bring herself to name; Angelo once vested with power immediately resurrects a statute dealing with sex.

Even when she has calmed down, Isabella informs the Duke that she has no intention of agreeing to Angelo's proposal: ‘I had rather my brother die by the law, than my son should be unlawfully born’ (III.i. 188-90). Here again the objection is not theological, but social. This remarkable feature of Isabella's response to her situation has received inadequate attention from scholars because they have frequently assumed that her objections are theological. (And there is some evidence for that view in her confrontation with Angelo.) But this is a characteristic of the problem plays; at key moments major characters employ arguments that are surprisingly or completely unexpected. The King in All's Well subordinates the principle of heredity to human goodness and Hector in Troilus and Cressida is responsible for the perpetuation of the war having delivered a critique which makes its continuation indefensible.

What Shakespeare does in the prison scene is to generate an intense awareness of the desperate desire of human beings to hang on to life in the face of any countervailing pressures, be they theological, philosophical or social. The will to live asserts itself; and just as surely the potency of sexual energy will prevail in the face of the most draconian laws. Thus a critical feature of the play is the tension which exists between order and control on the one hand, and energy and anarchy on the other. No sooner has Isabella left the stage than Pompey appears making a complaint which underlines this tension: ‘'Twas never merry world since, of two usuries, the merriest was put down, and the worser allowed by order of law’ (III.ii. 6-8). Pompey protests that the profit (procreation) arising from usury is tolerated whereas procreation resulting from lechery is restrained. But the speech contains an irony of which Pompey is unaware. Interest rates in excess of 10 per cent (the maximum allowed under the statute of 1570) were not the consequence of official connivance but the result of economic pressures which asserted themselves over theological misgivings. Shakespeare is well aware that pressures against moral injunctions and legal constraints are not confined to the sphere of sexuality but manifest themselves powerfully in other areas where human passions are strong. Few human drives are stronger than acquisitiveness. Indeed, Shakespeare links these two elements very firmly in depicting the world of Pompey and Mistress Overdone. These are professional dealers in sex as opposed to Lucio who is licentious. But if the vitality of this underworld of sexual activity is inevitable, at no point does it appear less than thoroughly distasteful. The Duke sums up the nature of Pompey's activities when he chastises him for profiting from lechery:

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

(III.ii. 22-6)

Nevertheless, at the very moment that Pompey is carried off to prison the worldly Lucio insists the nature of lechery is such that ‘it is impossible to extirp it quite, friar, till eating and drinking be put down’ (III.ii. 98-9). So long as lechery exists there will be people who profit by it, no matter how many laws are passed.

Profit is a key term in this play: it constitutes a distinguishing mark between the actions of the disreputable and the honourable. When Pompey describes the inmates of the prison as well-known clients of Mistress Overdone, he goes on to enumerate their activities. These involve illegal profiteering or fraud, commencing with Master Rash who is in jail for engaging in the common crime of making part of a loan in commodities, which are either of poor quality or out of fashion, so that the real rate of interest greatly exceeds the legal maximum of 10 per cent. At the other extreme from this kind of activity is the Duke's proposal to Isabella:

Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.

(V.i. 533-4)

In contrast to the wholehearted nature of the Duke's declaration of love for Isabella, is the gradual exposure of Angelo: he attempts to hide behind his office and reputation in order to save himself and has already devalued Mariana by claiming that her reputation had been called into question. The whole process is preceded by Angelo's contemplation of his crime and the question of status and evaluation.

This deed unshapes me quite; makes me unpregnant
And dull to all proceedings. A deflower'd maid;
And by an eminent body, that enforc'd
The law against it! But that her tender shame
Will not proclaim against her maiden loss,
How might she tongue me! Yet reason dares her no,
For my authority bears so credent bulk
That no particular scandal once can touch,
But it confounds the breather.

(IV.iv. 18-26)

Thus Angelo bases his security on his commanding position and Isabella's fear of besmirching her reputation. He hides behind his authority and believes she will be equally eager to conceal her loss of honour. Although expressing regret about Claudio's death, he justifies it on the grounds that the young man's sense of dishonour, through gaining reprieve by means of his sister's loss of honour, would drive him to revenge. Angelo feels remorse, but rather than losing his grip on things his calculations are cynically precise.

If Angelo seems momentarily to waver, the weakness of his conscience soon becomes manifest. The Duke greets him with commendations which ought to discomfort him. When confronted by Isabella's accusation, Angelo is astonishingly cool:

My lord, her wits I fear me are not firm.
She hath been a suitor to me for her brother,
Cut off by course of justice.

(V.i. 35-7)

Angelo's suavity is in sharp contrast to Isabella's passion which crashes forward on a series of clauses that are logical but knotted. (Interestingly, she is now capable of uttering the word ‘fornication’.) The Duke in asserting scepticism and disbelief creates a number of clear opportunities for Angelo to confess. Indeed, the situation is structured precisely to ensure that Angelo has these clear invitations to give way, to be overcome by a sense of guilt. One speech by the Duke is aimed directly at Angelo's conscience:

                                                                                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.

(V.i. 110-15)

Still Angelo remains impassive, his conscience untouched so that the Duke is obliged to press on with the torment of Isabella by giving orders for her to be taken to prison.

Angelo absorbs the further praise of Friar Peter and the Duke and accepts the offer of being judge in his own case. It might be argued that Angelo has been struggling with his conscience as he remains silent after his initial denunciation of Isabella, but as soon as Mariana removes her veil and accuses him Angelo reveals the full force of his mendacity: the chief reason he cites for his betrayal of Mariana is that ‘her reputation was disvalu'd / In levity’ (V.i. 220-1). He is the very man who ‘disvalu'd’ her reputation in order to escape from his commitment when her brother was lost at sea and she ceased to be a profitable investment. Morally, Angelo seems several steps below Pompey. This speech, which refers back to events which occurred five years previously, is concluded with the line ‘Upon my faith and honour’ (V.i. 223). When he speaks those words it is impossible not to draw a parellel between the extravagant and pointless calumnies of Lucio and the straightforward marketing of sexuality by Pompey and see them as open and innocuous by comparison. What seems clear is that the Angelos of the world are able to get away with a tremendous amount of dishonesty. When he finally turns with full force on Mariana, Angelo appears both callous and vicious:

                                                            I did but smile till now:
Now, good my lord, give me the scope of justice.
My patience here is touch'd: I do perceive
These poor informal women are no more
But instruments of some more mightier member
That sets them on. Let me have way, my lord,
To find this practice out.

(V.i. 232-8)

As Angelo plumbs the depths of cynicism he is prepared to make use of Lucio's testimony against the disguised Duke and even calls on Lucio to help restrain the mysterious Friar. As the Duke emerges from his disguise there can be no doubting the genuine nature of his contempt for Angelo as a man who has abused his authority, betrayed the trust invested in him, and denigrated honest people in a ruthless fashion. Angelo is not even referred to by name:

We'll borrow place of him. Sir, by your leave.
Hast thou or word, or wit, or impudence,
That yet can do thee office?

(V.i. 360-2)

It is only now, when it is absolutely clear that lies and evasions are of no further use that Angelo admits his guilt and seeks death. He still has the possibility of equivocation over his engagement to Mariana, but in response to the Duke's question, ‘Say: wast thou e'er contracted to this woman?’ his answer is brief and clear: ‘I was, my lord’ (V.i. 373-4).

Angelo's fall, it must be remembered, is unique in magnitude but not in kind. It is clear that his treatment of Mariana is well known to the Duke before the action of the play begins, and his evaluation of Angelo is such that he expects him to behave badly when given sole command. The Duke has detected something rotten in Angelo that needs to be exposed before he has the opportunity of exercising unfettered control over people. As the Duke prepares his controlled experiment he confides in the Friar:

                                                                                                    Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at guard with Envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows; or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone. Hence shall we see
If power changes purpose, what our seemers be.

(I.iii. 50-4)

This speech suggests that the Duke has not only detected a strain of dishonesty in Angelo, but that he has discerned a powerful capacity for self-deception: Angelo is playing up to a role which is designed to convince himself, as well as others, but the price paid is repression. There is a marked contrast between the attributes of the two men. Angelo can, under the intense emotional pressure of recognising his lust for Isabella, confess to himself, ‘yea, my gravity, / Wherein—let no man hear me—I take pride’ (II.iv. 9-10). The Duke, Escalus avers, is ‘One that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself’ (III.ii. 226-7). Recognition of his true nature comes as a shock to Angelo which is encapsulated in his expression ‘Blood, thou art blood’ (II.iv. 15). But not only has the Duke explored his own nature frankly, he possesses a generosity of spirit and receives delight from the joys of others. Again as Escalus puts it in response to a question about the Duke's pleasures: ‘Rather rejoicing to see another merry, than merry at anything which professed to make him rejoice. A gentleman of all temperance.’ (III.ii. 229-31) Angelo appears so cold-blooded that Lucio suggests that he ‘was not made by man and woman, after this downright way of creation’. Indeed, ‘Some report a sea-maid spawned him. Some, that he was begot between two stockfishes. But it is certain that when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice.’ (III.ii. 100-7) Moreover, Angelo takes an evident delight in seeing others suffer. Before encountering Isabella he dismisses contemptuously the Provost's plea on behalf of Claudio, and leaves the confusion of Pompey's trial expressing the wish to Escalus that he will ‘find good cause to whip them all’ (II.i. 136). The Duke can even feel compassion for Barnadine; Angelo seems devoid of human warmth or fellow feeling.

What, then, are the prospects for his reformation? The answer can not be obtained from the text. Angelo's disgrace has not diminished his taste for life, for when Claudio appears alive and well his response is one of immediate relief. As the Duke observes,

By this lord Angelo perceives he's safe;
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.

(V.i. 492-5)

The last line taxes Angelo to be worthy of Mariana, and stresses the need for him to achieve a merit that can counterbalance hers. Is this a pious hope? Or is there within Angelo the seed of a wholesome spirit that can come to fruition under the warmth of Mariana's love? The structure of romantic comedy calls for a positive response to the latter question, but in this play the question hangs in the air. The audience leaves the theatre pondering the most likely outcome.


  1. Schanzer makes a brief reference to this aspect of the play and draws attention to the critics who have considered the question. Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare: A Study of ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Measure for Measure’, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1963), pp. 86-7.

  2. Keith Thomas, ‘The Puritans and Adultery: The Act of 1650 Reconsidered’ in Donald Pennington and Keith Thomas (eds), Puritans and Revolutionaries: Essays in Seventeenth Century History, Presented to Christopher Hill (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978), p. 280.

  3. Ibid., p. 281.

Nigel Alexander (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: Alexander, Nigel. Shakespeare: Measure for Measure. London: Edward Arnold, 1975, 64 p.

[In the following excerpt, Alexander considers the classification, structure, and historical context of Measure for Measure.]


In order, therefore to appreciate the nature of this artistic triumph and understand the problems which it poses its audience the play must be seen not as some dark aberration but as a normal and crucial stage in Shakespeare's development.

The enormous technical triumphs of Julius Caesar and Hamlet made possible, after 1599, the power and intensity of the great tragedies. It may be possible to speak of a tragic period but it would be a mistake to regard these plays as evidence of a despairing spirit or consider the comedies written at the same time as inevitably tinged with pessimism. The early comedies contain matter dark enough for any melancholic taste. Their range of thought and emotion is astonishing and the reaction of an audience to A Midsummer Night's Dream or Twelfth Night may be as highly charged as their response to King Lear. Both kinds of play illumine the strong bonds of human affection and its power to transform existence even in the face of death. Shakespeare never stopped writing comedy and the plays produced during this great central period are both an independent triumph and the logical connection between the early romantic successes and the last great comic sequence on the triumph of time, composed between 1608 and 1611, which contains Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, arguably the finest plays he ever wrote.

The central comedies, Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure can properly be grouped together because they share a form of construction and a method of manipulating comic convention which differs radically from Shakespeare's normal practice. It is an old principle that the art of the drama is the art of preparation. Compression of time, and the short span of human attention, compel a playwright to provide his audience with continuous predictions of what is about to happen on stage, as well as information about the action actually taking place. This structure of information and predication is one of the most vital elements in any plot. It is said that at the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest Oscar Wilde paced backstage in an agony of apprehension until the moment when Jack enters in mourning for his brother Ernest. The audience have to appreciate that not only is Ernest a fiction but that he is a fiction who is at that very instant being successfully impersonated by Algernon captivating Cecily in the next room. The roar of laughter which greeted Jack's entrance was, therefore, sufficient indication to the author that his preparation had been successful. It is also a perfect example of the operation of incongruent information—that is, information which is known to the audience but is not shared in equal measure by the characters on stage. A character performs within a known situation but the acts and words that he considers appropriate may have another significance to an audience able to place them in a totally different context. Tragic irony is evidently one kind of incongruent information but it also forms the constant pattern of comedy.

In an excellent and important book, Shakespeare's Comedies, Bertrand Evans showed that Shakespeare used incongruent information (which he calls ‘discrepancy of awareness’) as his basic structural principle in the creation of comedy.1 At a fairly simple level The Comedy of Errors depends upon the audience, but not the characters, knowing that there are two sets of identical twins within the city of Ephesus. In Love's Labour's Lost the comic complication depends on the incongruity of the information possessed by the Lords, the Ladies, the Pedants and the Clowns. In A Midsummer Night's Dream the lovers and mechanicals pick their way with partial sight through the coils of the wood near Athens, made even more puzzling by Puck's misapplication of love-in-idleness, to a resolution which still leaves them unaware of the beneficent fairy power imperfectly controlling their fates. As play succeeds play a distinct and recognizable pattern develops. The character who possesses the greatest amount of accurate information, and can therefore use it to manipulate the other characters, is the heroine. As Evans expresses it: ‘The heroines of Shakespeare's comedies either hold from the outset, or very shortly gain, the highest vantage-point in their worlds.’2 This is evidently true of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Twelfth Night.

This statement is, in effect, a key to the nature of early Shakespearean comedy. These naturally masterful and controlling heroines invariably fall in love. Their avowed aim is to realize this love in action and their purposes are therefore usually benevolent. This good will extends throughout the action of the play and it therefore follows that the anxieties aroused by the details of the story—as Shylock's pound of flesh—are all successfully contained within this context of universal reassurance. The Forest of Arden turns out to be as enchanted as the wood near Athens, Venice and Verona belong to that Italy of the heart's desire where all ends well. What Shakespeare did with this brilliantly enchanted world (which was also a clear commercial success) was to shatter it to bits and attempt to rebuild it, not nearer the heart's desire, but nearer that truth of constraining circumstance which must limit all earthly paradises. The great triumph of the central comedies is to accomplish this transition from the world of fairy tale to the world of romance where love and beauty will endure both the tale that is told in winter and the shipwreck of the tempest. It is, therefore, significant that Evans's brilliant description of Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is as applicable to Angelo as it is to Leontes: ‘The case of Proteus, hero bent on making a villain of himself, is typical: in the comedies villainy can but peep at what it would, for it is circumscribed and rendered impotent, if not ridiculous, by the bright-eyed heroines who, with their superior awareness, control everything in this woman's world.’3 What has changed is the degree of control exercised by the heroines. It is not a change in the nature of the girls, since Isabella, Helena, Imogen or Perdita are as interesting as Julia, Portia, Rosalind or Viola. The way in which Shakespeare altered their circumstances in the central comedies is by changing the way in which he kept his audience informed of the situation.

What Professor Evans has established is that, in the early comedies, as much information is given to the audience as early as possible. They, therefore, make up their minds about most of the main characters from an early stage and there is little that can occur to shake their faith in Portia or Rosalind. This is not true of Measure for Measure. Here information given after the event must cause a radical revision of the audience's estimate of a character. The Duke's disguise at first appears as the normal operation of incongruent information. No firm reason, however, is offered for his appointment of Angelo and the justification for that strange decision only emerges in the course of the action. Angelo himself is unlike the Duke's first description of him—not merely because of his attempted rape of Isabella but because of the rejection of Mariana. This vital clue to his personality is only released half way through the play.

Equally important is the treatment of Isabella. At the time that her virginity is required of her there is no suggestion that the sacrifice would be futile. The audience watch Isabella's interview with Claudio without any awareness that the compromise he asks is impossible since Angelo will execute him in any case. Nor is there any precedent in the early comedies for the way in which the clowns and characters of ‘low life’ are here allowed to win two major dramatic victories over the main characters before they are controlled in the final reconciliation which many critics have felt to be less than conclusive. It appears that the doubts, hesitations and provisional judgements which are such a feature of criticism of the play have their origin within its dramatic structure. It is a comedy of delayed interpretation.

This delay, I believe, is Shakespeare's method of dramatizing moral questions, the ambiguity of action and the uncertainty of choice—without losing the basic advantage of a comic structure. The heroines of the romantic comedies are not only in control of their worlds—they are by far the best and brightest people in them. The consummation of their love is devoutly wished for by both spectators and characters. The moral position is not in doubt—indeed some of the difficulties that we now experience with The Merchant of Venice may be due to the play's apparent failure to question its assumed convention of Christian virtue. Julius Caesar brings such certainty to an end. There the spectator may hope for the conspiracy's success and yet be appalled by it. Antony wins sympathy in the market place with his genuine love for Caesar at the same time as he arouses revulsion by using that love as a calculated instrument of policy. Even Cassius commands respect and understanding as he is overwhelmed by the monster he has himself created, a politic plot which can only be led by Brutus, a man incapable of successful conspiracy. The clash of swords dramatizes the opposition of claims which are both valid and irreconcilable. No one steps forward to tell the audience what they should think and feel. In the comedies there is no need; in the plays after Julius Caesar there is no point. They are designed to provoke opposing reactions. To make up one's mind about the characters in a Shakespeare play is to find one's own position in some of the great moral and political debates which have extended from the Renaissance to our own time and which our successors are likely to keep alive. Measure for Measure clearly dramatizes exactly such a divisive debate.


It is probably the first play Shakespeare wrote in the reign of King James VI and I. The new king had taken Shakespeare's company under his own protection and there is evidence that the dramatist had considered the taste and opinions of his royal patron very carefully. Indeed some critics believe that in striving to content the king, Shakespeare has been driven to include in his comedy things which can never please. Yet any consideration of the opposition of Angelo and Isabella, and its resolution through the intervention of Mariana under the guidance of the Duke, must emphasize how far the leading dramatist of the King's Men has gone beyond mere compliment and entertainment. Other courtly pageants of the year 1604 have faded and left no wrack behind. Measure for Measure remains to puzzle the will. Shakespeare was capable of handling its themes of justice, charity and government in a fashion undreamt of in the philosophy of James and therefore his play still proves in performance to be a dazzling theatrical device for disturbing the intellect and delighting the imagination.

The opening of the play draws attention to its proposed subject. Handing over his power, the Duke modestly declines to instruct 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: 


The Duke is one of the chief instruments used by the dramatist to unfold the art of government in his fictional Vienna to an audience. The disclaimer is instructive since James rated highly his own grasp of the arts of government. In 1598 the king had composed for his eldest son, Prince Henry, a treatise which he called Basilicon Doron (a title transliterated from Greek meaning ‘The Kingly Gift’). This had been privately printed in 1599 in Scotland and in 1603, on James's accession to the English throne, it was published in London.

Louis Albrecht and David Lloyd Stevenson have drawn attention to a number of obvious similarities between the political philosophy of Basilicon Doron and the thought and conduct of the Duke in Measure for Measure.4 Like James, the Duke believes that a ruler ought himself to be a pattern of virtue, and that those virtues must, if they are to be of any value, be expressed in action. Such actions expose a ruler to the risk of misrepresentation and slander which the Duke, like the king, regards as one of the most detestable of crimes. The opinions of the Duke on mercy, justice, and the necessity of firm government can all be paralleled in the treatise. Professor Stevenson concludes his examination of the evidence in this way:

Duke Vincentio, though he has been variously identified by contemporary scholars as a stock character in Jacobean comedy and as a forebear of Prospero, in The Tempest, is also, and much more importantly, seen to be the figure of a Renaissance prince and autocrat, wilfully Jamesian in his views of himself and in his attitudes toward affairs of state. We are forced to conclude that Shakespeare's intentions were deliberate, that he created in the Duke a character whose acts and whose theories of government would be interesting to the new age and its new king because they were so carefully like ones which the king had identified as his own.5

In a further important study Josephine Waters Bennett has argued that the play was not only written with the king in mind, it was specifically commissioned to open the Christmas celebrations on St Stephen's night, 26 December 1604, the first Christmas which James had kept in London at Whitehall.6 There exists an extract from the accounts of the Master of the Revels which records such a performance and which is now generally accepted as genuine. There are also, as Professor Bennett points out, a number of specific references in the play to members of the court who might be expected to be present at the performance on St Stephen's night. At II.iv.78-81 the lines:

Thus wisdom wishes to appear most bright
When it doth tax itself: as these black masks
Proclaim an enshielded beauty ten times louder
Than beauty could, display'd.

probably refer to Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness in which the queen and eleven of her ladies were to appear as ‘blackamoors’ in the closing performance of the festivities on Twelfth Night, 6 January 1605.

The second scene of the first act begins with this exchange:

If the Duke, with the other dukes, come not to composition with the King of Hungary, why then all the dukes fall upon the King.
Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary's:

The queen's brother, the duke of Holstein, had come to England in November 1604 to raise men for a force he planned to take to Hungary. There a long war had been in progress since 1593. It was a confused three-cornered struggle between the Emperor Rudolf II, one of whose titles was king of Hungary, the Turks, the Protestant province of Transylvania and Michael of Moldavia. Transylvania had been reduced by the imperial general George Basta in August 1604 and a reign of terror followed. At Christmas 1604 the king of Hungary's peace would have a particularly menacing meaning and, since the duke of Holstein remained in England till June 1605, it is probable that he would have been present at the performance.

The other court figure clearly referred to is the king himself. In 1776 Thomas Tyrwhitt pointed out that two passages, the Duke's abrupt leave-taking at I.i.68-73 and Angelo's soliloquy at II.iv.24, reflect tactfully on the discomfort James felt at the pressing eagerness of his English subjects to catch a glimpse of their new king. D. L. Stevenson quotes the account by Gilbert Dugdale in The Time Triumphant (1604) to show that these passages must refer to James.7 The king took coach to the Exchange in order to view the decorations and triumphal arches prepared for the royal procession to the coronation at Westminster. There he was so pressed in upon by the populace that he had to take refuge in the Exchange and have the doors closed.

These clear references, and many other features of the play, led Professor Bennett to her conclusion that the play was specifically written for the Christmas of 1604. The assembled evidence is not sufficient to make such a hypothesis certain but it is evident, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the accession of James had a profound influence upon the writing of Measure for Measure. It was composed at a moment that Gilbert Dugdale, and many others, obviously regarded as a time triumphant. The new reign was greeted with hope and optimism which perhaps gave an added sincerity to the traditional images of official pageantry appropriate to such an occasion. There are few better examples of this symbolism than the arches of triumph which James had hoped to see when he was mobbed at the Exchange. We have accounts of them by Stephen Harrison, the joiner and architect who was responsible for their construction, and by Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson who were responsible for the poetic allegories incorporated within them. The sixth of these arches, erected ‘above the conduit in Fleet Street’, is described by Dekker as having, among other figures: ‘The principal and worthiest was Astraea [Justice] sitting aloft, as being newly descended from heaven gloriously attired; all her garments being thickly strewed with stars, a crown of stars on her head, a silver veil covering her eyes.’8 Under her were Virtue and Fortune with Envy occupying a dark and obscure place by herself. Below them were the four moral virtues opposite personifications of the four kingdoms now thought to be united under one rule—England, Scotland, France and Ireland. The whole arch, Dekker tells us, represents the moment written of by Virgil:

Iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna.

(Eclogues IV.5)9

The virgin who returns is Astraea, daughter of the Titan Astraeus and the Dawn, who distributed justice among men during the golden age but was forced to retire from the earth during the age of iron and become the constellation Virgo. In 1603-4 it was a common compliment to say that the king, in uniting the kingdoms, was producing a union of peace and virtue that inaugurated a new golden age.

Ben Jonson, who shared with Dekker the responsibility for the triumphal arches, makes use of similar, but more elaborate, symbolism for his first two court masques. The Masque of Blackness, as we have seen, was performed at court on Twelfth Night 1605. The Masque of Beauty, its sequel, was not performed until 1608 but it shares a common inspiration. The ‘blackamoors’ portrayed by the queen and her ladies were the daughters of Niger who had been turned black by the sun. In brief, they arrive at the court of the sun-king James who is even more powerful than the celestial body since his power can turn them white, which was, for Jonson's purposes, equated with beauty. One of the most spectacular effects of the second masque was the arrival of the throne of beauty divided into eight squares with the sixteen masquers placed by couples within them. Jonson intended more than a simple compliment to the king. As Professor D. J. Gordon has written: ‘More is involved here than the formal stereotyped gesture of the panegyrist; we are dealing here with notions more “remov'd” than the everyday apotheosis of the Crown. A grander apotheosis is adumbrated, in which James is given the position and function assigned to the Sun in the theory of Beauty held by the Florentine Platonists.’10

Jonson was later to make clear his view that Shakespeare was not a learned dramatist. Yet it seems probable that the dramatist of the company most favoured by the court should know something of the style of compliment so lavishly expended at it. It was, I believe, exactly this familiarity which led him to write a play about the trials of a just virgin. Those trials, the condemnation of her brother and her own threatened rape, illuminate in many ways the promises and engagements entered into on betrothal and marriage. They also provoke a debate about licence and liberty, love and grace, justice and mercy in the government of a state which continues throughout the action. In resolving these difficulties by the union of justice and mercy in the proposed marriage of the Duke and Isabella Shakespeare found a way of complimenting his sovereign and engaging his interest in questions which deeply concerned both prince and people without offending against the strict stage censorship of the time. The play can be taken as expressing the confident hope that the new reign will be an age of measure for measure.

As can be seen from the accounts of Dugdale, Harrison, Dekker and Jonson, the arrival of the king in London was treated as a festival and triumph. The Renaissance had adapted the honour awarded by the senate of republican Rome—permission for an unusually successful general to march his troops through the city together with the prisoners and plunder taken during the campaign—for its own court ceremonial. The form was, therefore, used for both practical and literary purposes since it admitted exactly the kind of allegorical or symbolic references required on such occasions of high solemnity.11 It is interesting that the Duke, who is never named in the play, should be called Vincentio in the list of characters. If he leaves the city privately at the beginning of the play he does return in full triumphal ceremonial through the gates at its end. The name may well carry its Italian meaning of ‘conqueror’—the person most fitted to have a triumph. The clown, who is depicted as one of the chief instruments of vice in Vienna, is called Pompey. This name is used for two significant jokes. At II.i.200-10 Escalus established that his name is Pompey Bum and comments that he is ‘in the beastliest sense’ Pompey the Great. Lucio repeats the joke at III.ii.40 when Pompey is being carried to prison:

How now, noble Pompey! What, at the wheels of Caesar?
Art thou led in triumph?

The Caesar on this occasion is Elbow, the Duke's constable. The combination of a head of state called Vincentio, an Elbow, and a bum or arse end of the commonwealth whose filthy habits must be reformed looks like a comic glance at the traditional theory of the state as a ‘body politic’. The idea may have come from Basilicon Doron where the king writes: ‘For ye shall make all your reformations to begin at your elbow, and so by degrees to flow to the extremities of the land.’ (p. 85.) Vincentio does triumph over vice, and he triumphs over Angelo, the deputy who turned out to be considerably lower than the angels, but most of all he triumphs in restoring the righteous virgin who withstood both vice and tyranny. In the final union of justice and mercy the Duke brings to the body politic of Vienna the order and harmony which prevail in the macrocosm of God's universe. He has succeeded in making measure answer to measure.

There is no doubt that Shakespeare was thoroughly familiar with the Renaissance concept of a triumph since the King of Navarre's opening speech in Love's Labour's Lost celebrates the triumph of Fame. Jonson makes use of the same concept in The Masque of Queens (1609) and gives Cesare Ripa's Iconologia as his authority. Now, as D. D. Carnicelli has demonstrated, Ripa had drawn heavily on Renaissance representations of Petrarch's Trionfi—a poem that was considered his most powerful work until nearly the end of the sixteenth century.12 Whether Shakespeare or Jonson knew Petrarch's poem is uncertain. They were certainly working in a tradition which derived from it. The Trionfi is a kind of allegorical or spiritualized autobiography which uses the imagery of a triumphal procession to mark six states of the human condition. The respective triumphs are, in order, those of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity. Love conquers all, reducing everything to its service but is unable to triumph over chastity. In turn chastity must yield to death but fame, or good reputation, can outlast death until defeated by time which will in the end bring all to oblivion—were it not for the fact that time itself must come to an end with the Day of Judgement when all the virtues become one in the triumph of God's eternity. Although not slavishly followed, this triumphal progression exists in Measure for Measure. Lucio, Claudio and all Vienna are in thrall to love. Only Angelo in his virtue appears to hold out and it is for this reason that the Duke chooses him to cleanse Vienna of its lechery. Angelo, however, falls a victim to love and, as lust's servant, is resisted by the chaste Isabella. The deputy overcomes her chastity by threatening the life of her brother, and actually thinks he has killed him. He hopes to cover this crime by the strength of his own reputation and the question debated before the Duke is whether he or Isabella should be believed. It is relevant that at this point Angelo should be shown as having reduced himself below the level of the slanderer Lucio whose vices he should have suppressed and curbed. The return of the Duke in deliberately staged triumph eventually assures the victory of Isabella's reputation while the revelation of Angelo's crimes certainly threatens to bring him to oblivion and death. Time, however, also reveals that Claudio is alive and the final union of justice and mercy proclaims the final triumph of eternal grace. Isabella pleads for Angelo and the lust which nearly consumed Vienna is transmuted into the harmony of the promised marriages.

A play which ends with a triumph of eternity might indeed be thought to assert that measure answers to measure—or, if not, then the fault should be looked for in us or in our changed circumstances. It is here that Shakespeare demonstrates his brilliance as a dramatist and, arguably, his understanding of the Christian religion. It is precisely because of the triumph of eternity that measure cannot answer to measure. It is not surprising that this play should be filled with biblical quotations and overtly Christian concepts to an extent quite unusual in Shakespeare's plays. But the solution is not only in the words. The dramatist has built it into the very fabric of his play.

The relationship between grace and justice is clearly a suitable subject for a play performed before a king who had so recently been welcomed to his new kingdom with triumphant shows and festivities. Shakespeare adopted the subject, the language and the symbolism appropriate to such an occasion and fashioned them in to his own triumphal form which can certainly be read as an expression of hope that these virtues will be combined in the new government. It also reminds its audience of the difficulty of defining mercy and justice and the enormous effort required to unite them, amid the corrupted currents of this world, in the government of intractable humanity. England's first Stuart sovereigns failed to achieve the triumph of Duke Vincentio, indeed they so unbalanced the state that it cost Charles I his life. Shakespeare's choice of subject for the year 1604 is an illuminating one. The complex way in which it is handled, a plot in which measure never does quite answer to measure so that the gap between them has to be bridged by the grace of love, a grace whose operation may be called a mystery, accounts both for the play's difficulty and for its enduring achievement.


  1. Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford 1960).

  2. Shakespeare's Comedies, 15-16.

  3. Shakespeare's Comedies, 17.

  4. L. Albrecht, Neue Untersuchungen zu Shakespeares Mass für Mass (Berlin 1914) and D. L. Stevenson, The Achievement of Shakespeare's ‘Measure for Measure' (Ithaca, N.Y. 1966).

  5. The Achievement of Shakespeare's ‘Measure for Measure’, 162.

  6. J. W. Bennett, ‘Measure for Measure’ as Royal Entertainment (New York 1966).

  7. The Achievement of Shakespeare's ‘Measure for Measure’, 140-41.

  8. John Nichols, The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities of King James The First (London 1828) vol. I, 369.

  9. Now returns the Virgin, now return the ages of Saturn.

  10. D. J. Gordon, ‘The Masque of Blacknesse and The Masque of Beautie’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 6 (1943), 122-41.

  11. Alastair Fowler, Triumphal Forms (Cambridge 1970).

  12. D. D. Carnicelli, Lord Morley's Tryumphes of Fraunces Petrarcke: The First English Translation of the ‘Trionfi’ (Cambridge, Mass. 1971), 67.

Harold C. Goddard (essay date 1951)

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SOURCE: Goddard, Harold C. “Power in Measure for Measure.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 25-43. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1951, Goddard interprets Measure for Measure as a study in the corrupting effects of power and self-righteousness on character.]

“Would you know a man? Give him power.” History sometimes seems little else than an extended comment on that ancient maxim. Our own day has elucidated it on a colossal scale. Measure for Measure might have been expressly written to drive home its truth. It is little wonder, then, that the play of Shakespeare's in which the word “authority” occurs more often than in any other should have an extraordinary pertinence for a century in which the word “authoritarian” is on so many lips. The central male figure of the drama is one of the most searching studies ever made of the effect of power upon character.

Measure for Measure, like Troilus and Cressida, is closely bound to Hamlet. It is as if Shakespeare, having exposed in the masterpiece and the plays that culminated in it the futility of revenge as a method of requiting wrong, asked: what then? How, when men fail to keep the peace, shall their quarrels be settled, their misconduct penalized, without resort to personal violence? To that question the all but universal reply of the wiser part of human experience seems to have been: by law. In place of revenge—justice. Instead of personal retaliation—legal adjudication. “A government of laws and not of men”: that is the historic answer of those peoples at least who have some freedom. And there in the imposing body of common and statue law to back it up. Trial by jury. Equality before the law. The advance of civilization that these concepts and conquests register cannot be overestimated. Under their spell men are even tempted to the syllogism:

Quarrels are settled by law.
Wars are just larger quarrels.
Therefore: wars can be settled by law.

Recent history is little more than the story of the world's disillusionment with regard to this conclusion. The weakness of the syllogism lies in its major premise. “A government of laws and not of men.” It sounds august. But there never was, there is not, and there never will be, any such thing. If only laws would construe, administer, and enforce themselves! But until they do, they will rise no nearer justice than the justice in the minds and hearts of their very human agents and instruments. Those with power may sedulously inculcate in subjects the illusion that there is a necessary connection between law and justice as the very cement of the state, without which the political structure would collapse (as well it might); but, philosophically, any mental structure erected on this illusion is built on quicksand. Disillusionment on this subject, if it comes at all, usually comes gradually. We cling to the older and more comforting notion here as we do to infantile ideas of God. When at last we realize that the blessings of the law (which cannot be exaggerated) are due to the wisdom and goodness of man, and its horrors (which also cannot be exaggerated) to his cruelty and greed, we have grasped the fact that law is just an instrument—no more good or bad in itself than the stone we use as a hammer or a missile—and we will never again be guilty of thinking of law and war as opposites, or of confusing peace with the reign of law. Whether the horrors of war are greater or less than the horrors of law may be debated. Shelley, for one, put “legal crime” at the nadir of human baseness. In cowardice, at any rate, it ranks below open violence. Measure for Measure records, possibly, Shakespeare's first full disillusionment on this subject.

It is the law, not I, condemn your brother.

The entire play might be said to have been written just to italicize that lie. The angel-villain tries to hide behind it as behind a shield. So-called civilization tries to do the same. But civilization—as Emerson remarked—crowed too soon.


For fourteen years Vienna has suffered from so lax an enforcement of the laws that the very babies have taken to beating their nurses, and a visitor from outside the city might actually

                                                  have seen corruption boil and bubble
Till it o'er-run the stew: laws for all faults,
But faults so countenanc'd, that the strong statutes
Stand like the forfeits in a barber's shop,
As much in mock as mark.

The ruling Duke decides that, with such a reputation for lenity, he is not the one to rein in a steed that has known no curb. He will delegate his power to a sterner hand and let justice get a fresh start under a new regime. At least, such seems his motive on the surface. But the Duke is a curious character—“the old fantastical Duke of dark corners”—whether born so or made so by the exigencies of Shakespeare's plot. He is as fond of experimenting on human beings and inquiring into their inner workings as a vivisector is of cutting up guinea pigs. And when he retires not for a trip to Poland, as he gives out, but to return, disguised as a Friar, to note the results of his temporary abdication, his motive seems less political and social than psychological. He is really not so much giving up his power as increasing it by retaining it in secret form. The Duke is as introspective as Hamlet, “one that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself,” and his theatrical instinct also reminds us of the Prince of Denmark, though in his fondness for dazzling his audience he is more like Hal. In spite of his professed love of retirement and hatred of crowds and applause, he is the very reverse of a hermit, and intends (though he doesn't announce the fact in advance and may even be unconscious of it) to burst forth out of the clouds of disguise in full dramatic glory, as he does in the fifth act. His whole plan may be viewed as a sort of play within a play to catch the conscience of his deputy—and of the city. Moreover, he does not intend to miss the performance of his play any more than Hamlet did. The proof that his impulse is melodramatic, or at best psychological, is the fact that he knows at the time he appoints his deputy of a previous act of turpitude on his part. Angelo—for so the deputy is ironically named—deserted the girl to whom he was betrothed when her worldly prospects were wrecked, and slandered her into the bargain to escape the world's censure. He succeeded. His reputation for virtue and austerity is unimpeached. He can be reckoned on to put the screws on all offenders. It is as if the Duke were saying to himself: “Granted that my dispensation has been too lenient; I'll show you what will happen under a paragon of strictness. See how you like it then!” If he had not been more bent on proving his point than on the public welfare, why did he pick out a man whose secret vices he knew? How often have men been given temporary power precisely in order to prove them unworthy of it! Lord Angelo, says the Duke in the first act,

                                                                                          is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.

That last is tolerably explicit. And that there may be no doubt as to what the Duke has in mind, Shakespeare has him again call him “this well-seeming Angelo,” when, much later in the play, he reveals his outrageous treatment of Mariana.


So Angelo comes to power—ostensibly in association with the kindly and humane but weak-kneed Escalus, who, however, is chiefly a figurehead. The new ruler's hammer comes down first on Claudio, who, under an obsolete blue law, is condemned to death for anticipating the state of marriage with the girl to whom he was betrothed. The judgment is the more reprehensible because the worldly circumstances of the guilty pair demanded a certain concealment, their union was a marriage in fact if not in law, and no question of premeditated infidelity or broken vows was involved. The moral superiority of Claudio to the man who is to judge him is sufficiently pointed. Isabella, Claudio's chaste and virtuous sister, who is about to enter a nunnery, in spite of her reluctance to condone any laxity, intercedes with Angelo on Claudio's behalf. Angelo, at first, will do nothing but repeat “he must die,” but as Isabella's beauty mounts with her ardor, the Deputy, who prides himself on being above all such appetites, is suddenly aware of a passion for her, his attitude alters, and he says, with a new sensation at his heart:

I will bethink me. Come again tomorrow.
Hark how I'll bribe you;

retorts Isabella, carried beyond discretion by her sense of coming victory.

How! bribe me?

cries Angelo, startled by a word that fits with deadly accuracy a criminal thought he has not dared to confess to himself. We can fairly see him turn on his heel and grow pale.

Ay, with such gifts that heaven shall share with you,

the innocent Isabella replies. But what other Isabella, or what devil within the innocent one, had put that fatally uncharacteristic and inopportune word “bribe” on her tongue? It is one of those single words on which worlds turn that Shakespeare was growing steadily more fond of.

Isabella returns the next day, and Angelo, after hints that produce as little effect as did Edward IV's on Lady Grey, makes the open shameful proposal that the sister herself be the “bribe” to save her brother. Isabella, spurning the infamous suggestion, cries that she will proclaim him to the world if he does not give her an instant pardon for her brother. But when he reminds her that his impeccable reputation will protect him like a wall, she realizes it is true, and goes to report her failure to Claudio and to prepare him for death.

The scene between brother and sister (on which the disguised Duke eavesdrops) is one of the dramatic and poetic pinnacles of Shakespeare, and we scarcely need to except anything even in Hamlet when we say that few scenes in his works elicit from different readers more diametrically opposite reactions. Is Isabella to be admired or despised? Some think her almost divine in her virtue; others almost beneath contempt in her self-righteousness. You could fancy the two parties were talking about two different Isabellas. They are. There are two Isabellas.

Hamlet acquaints us with the psychological proximity of heaven and hell. This play goes on to demonstrate that, despite their polarity, the distance between them can be traversed in just about one-fortieth of the time it took Puck to put a girdle round about the earth.

A pendulum is ascending. It reaches the limit gravity will permit and instantly it is descending. A ball is sailing through the air. It touches the bound interposed by a wall and instantly it is sailing in the opposite direction. And even when the reaction is not instantaneous the same principle holds: everything breeds within itself the seed of its contrary. Human passion is no exception to the rule. At the extremity, it too turns the other way around, upside down, or inside out.

“Why, how now, Claudio!” cries Lucio, meeting his friend under arrest and on his way to jail, “whence comes this restraint?”

From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty:
As surfeit is the father of much fast,
So every scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue—
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,—
A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.

To which Lucio, ever the wit, replies: “I had as lief have the foppery of freedom as the morality of imprisonment.” The play is saturated with antitheses like that, and abounds in examples that recall Claudio's rat. There is a woman in it, a bawd and keeper of a brothel, Mistress Overdone, almost the double in marital virtue of Chaucer's Wife of Bath.

Hath she had any more than one husband?

Escalus inquiries of Pompey, her tapster, and the loyal Pompey proudly replies:

Nine, sir; Overdone by the last.

Overdone! it might be the name of most of the leading characters of the play. Each of them is too something-or-other. And what they do is likewise overdone. Good and evil get inextricably mixed throughout Measure for Measure, for virtue is no exception to the rule, and, pushed to the limit, it turns into vice.

Which brings us back to the two Isabellas.

Whatever it may be to an inveterately twentieth-century mind, the question for Shakespeare does not concern Isabella's rejection of Angelo's advances and her refusal to save her brother at such a price. Any one of his greater heroines—Imogen, Cordelia, Desdemona, Rosalind—in the same position would have decided, instantly, as she did. Who would doubt it? The notion that Isabella is just a self-righteous prude guarding her precious chastity simply will not stand up to the text. Lucio's attitude toward her alone is enough to put it out of court. Her presence can sober this jesting “fantastic” and elicit poetry and sincerity from his loose lips:

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

Prudes do not produce such effects on libertines and jesters.

The question rather concerns what follows. The sister comes to the brother religiously exalted by a consciousness of the righteousness of what she has done—ever a dangerous aftermath of righteousness. The brother catches something of her uplifted mood.

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


There spake my brother,

the sister, thrilled, replies. And there indeed the noblest Claudio did speak, or Shakespeare would never have put such poetry on his lips. But Isabella, whom we interrupted, has instantly gone on:

                                                  there my father's grave
Did utter forth a voice. Yes, thou must die.

What a flash of illumination! Is there a ghost in this play too?

And when Isabella reveals the terrible price that Angelo has put on his life, Claudio is equal to that too—or he and his sister's spirit are together. Pushed to his limit by that spirit, his instantaneous reaction—it cannot be marked too strongly—is exactly hers:

O heavens! it cannot be,

and, again,

Thou shalt not do 't.

If it were my life, Isabella cries, I would throw it down like a pin. And she would have at that moment, as Claudio perceives:

Thanks, dear Isabel.

But Claudio is made of more human stuff than his sister, and, held as she has held him to an extremity of courage and resolution almost beyond his nature, the law of reaction asserts itself and he drops into fear:

Death is a fearful thing.

And then follows that terrific Dantesque-Miltonic picture of life after death with its “viewless winds” and “thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice” that leaves even Hamlet's similar speculations nowhere—nowhere in appalling power at least. Obscurity made vivid.

Sweet sister, let me live.

And what does the sweet sister reply?

O you beast!

Imagine Desdemona saying that! Claudio has said, or done, nothing to deserve such a term. A weak wretch on the threshold of execution, yes. But surely no “beast.” What has happened? What always happens. What happened a few seconds before to Claudio himself in another fashion. The overstretched string of Isabella's righteous passion snaps. She has herself dropped from saintliness to beastliness—and projects her own beastliness on her brother. “Isabella—beastly!” her defenders will cry. Why not? There is both beast and saint in every one of us, and whoever will not admit it had better close his Shakespeare once for all, or, rather, open it afresh and learn to change his mind. It is now, not before, that those who have harsh things to say about Isabella may have their innings. Drunk with self-righteousness, she who but a moment ago was offering her life for her brother cries:

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.

This is religion turned infernal. And it is the worse because of her allusion, in her scene with Angelo, to Christ's atonement:

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

And then, “O you beast!”

What is there to question in this psychology? Is there any human being who cannot confirm it—on however diminished a scale—from his own experience? Who in the midst of making a speech, performing a part, or carrying a point, realizing with delight that it is “coming off,” has not paused for a fraction of a second to pat himself on the back, and then—it was indeed all “off” in another sense! The whole thing collapsed, instantly or gradually according to the degree of the complacency.

Commentators have wondered at the pure Isabella's quick acquiescence in the disguised Duke's scheme for having her go back and seem to consent to Angelo's proposal while he arranges to substitute the rejected Mariana, once the Deputy's betrothed, at the rendezvous. You may call the Duke's stratagem vile, shady, or inspired, as you will, and Isabella's reaction to it laudable or damnable. Commendable or not, her conduct is one thing at any rate: credible. It is just the next swing of the pendulum. Conscious, or underconscious, of the fearful injustice she did her brother in that final outburst, she now seeks to set the balance straight. She would not have turned a hand to save him: therefore, she will now do anything to save him. Whatever we say, and whatever the Elizabethans said, to the morality of this much debated point, the psychology of it at any rate is sound. Shakespeare's part was done when he showed how a girl made like Isabella would act in those circumstances. And her conduct here coheres perfectly with another bone of contention at the end of the play: her apparent abandonment of getting herself to a nunnery in favor of getting a husband to herself—or at least taking one when offered. Her religious fervor at the outset—with which the ghost of her father plainly had something to do—was “overdone.”

And that prospective husband, the Friar—otherwise the Duke! He is tarred with the same brush of excess. He professes to affect retirement and shun publicity. But it is not solitude that he loves. Whatever he was as a ruler, he becomes a moral meddler as a Friar, as intoxicated over the human puppet-show whose strings he is pulling as Angelo is in another way over the moral-social drama of which he is manager. He will lie right and left, and even make innocence suffer cruelly (as in his concealing from Isabella the fact that her brother is not dead), merely for the sake of squeezing the last drops of drama or melodrama from the situation. And we must admit that it is a situation indeed, a dozen situations in one, in the last act. Measure for Measure has been widely criticized as an example of Shakespeare's own too great concession to theatrical effect. The point is in one sense well taken. But the author very shrewdly shifts the responsibility from himself to the Duke by making the man who was guilty of the worst offenses of that sort just the sort of man who would have been guilty of them. The man who made the great speech beginning:

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves,

had rare insight. It is Shakespeare's own ideal of going forth from ourselves and shining in, and being reflected from, the lives of others. But torches can serve the incendiary as well as the illuminator, and while the Duke did not go quite that far, if we reread the fifth act—with special attention to his part—the verdict will be: “Overdone by the last.”

The only way to make the Duke morally acceptable is frankly to take the whole piece as a morality play with the Duke in the role of God, omniscient and unseen, looking down on the world. As has often been pointed out, there is one passage that suggests this specifically:

O my dread lord,

cries the exposed Angelo, when the Duke at last throws off his disguise,

I should be guiltier than my guiltiness,
To think I can be undiscernible,
When I perceive your Grace, like power divine,
Hath look'd upon my passes.

The title of the play—the most “moral” one Shakespeare used—gives some warrant to the suggestion, as does the general tone of forgiveness at the end. But if the Duke is God, he is at first a very lax and later a very interfering God, and both the atmosphere and the characterization of the play are too intensely realistic to make that way out of the difficulty entirely satisfactory. If Shakespeare wants us to take it so, the execution of his intention is not especially successful. But we may at any rate say there is a morality play lurking behind Measure for Measure.


And this brings us to the apex of the triangle, or the pyramid, Angelo, for the illumination of whom almost everything in the play seems expressly inserted.

Angelo is one of the clearest demonstrations in literature of the intoxicating nature of power as such. Power means unbounded opportunity, and opportunity acts on the criminal potentialities in man as gravitation does on an apple. Shakespeare wrote his Rape of Lucrece around this theme (and came back to it in Macbeth), and the stanzas on Opportunity in that poem are the best of glosses on Measure for Measure, such lines, to cull out just a few, as

O Opportunity, thy guilt is great!
.....Thou sett'st the wolf where he the lamb may get
.....And in thy shady cell, where none may spy him,
.....Sits Sin, to seize the souls that wander by him
.....Thou blow'st the fire when temperance is thaw'd
.....Thou foul abettor! thou notorious bawd!

This is why power as such is so often synonymous with crime. “Power as such,” said Emerson, “is not known to the angels.” But it was known to Angelo.

Angelo, in spite of his treatment of his betrothed, Mariana, was not an intentional villain or tyrant. His affinities are not with Pandulph and Richard III, but with Edward IV and Claudius. His soliloquy, on his knees,

When I would pray and think, I think and pray
To several subjects. Heaven hath my empty words,

looks back to Hamlet's uncle, as his

Would yet he had liv'd!

when he supposes Claudio is dead at his command looks forward to Macbeth. But his case is in a way worse than theirs, for, supposing himself a mountain of virtue, when the temptation—and with it a sensation he has never experienced—comes, he rolls almost instantly into the abyss. Spiritual pride erects no defenses.

                                                                      I have begun,
And now I give my sensual race the rein.

He loathes himself:

The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?
Not she; nor doth she tempt: but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, … Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue.

In loving Isabella, he thinks he means. But how much profounder the second construction that the sentence bears, which makes it embrace both intending violator and intended victim! Though poles apart, the virtuous maid and the respected head of the state are here identical. Their vulnerable spot is the same: the sin of loving their own virtue.

There are few passages in Shakespeare that give a more inescapable impression of coming from the poet himself than Isabella's great speech to Angelo on power. It is the speech perhaps above any other in his works that seems written to the twentieth century and that the twentieth century should know by heart. The spectacle of

                                                                                          man, proud man,
Dress'd in a little brief authority,

“like an angry ape” playing “fantastic tricks before high heaven” made Shakespeare as well as the angels weep. But her words recoil too perfectly on Isabella's own head not to make them also perfectly in character:

                                                                                                    Merciful Heaven!
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle.

This shaft is aimed at the man who would make the soft Claudio a public example of the moral austerity of his regime. But how about Isabella herself, who is shortly to launch thunderbolts against the same weakling in the scene where she calls him beast?—not to mention what she is doing at the moment, for Angelo in strength is nearer the myrtle than the oak he considers himself. Tu quoque! Shakespeare perceives that spiritual power is quite as open to abuse as political power. The sheer theatrical effectiveness of this astonishing scene can easily blind us to the tangle of moral ironies and boomerangs it involves. This retiring girl, who had fairly to be pushed into the encounter by Lucio, finally standing up with audacity to the first man of the state is thrilling drama. But unfortunately Isabella gets an inkling of that fact herself.

Go to your bosom,

she cautions Angelo,

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

If only she could have said those lines to herself, substituting for the last one,

That's like this man's offence,

she never would have let slip from her lips that fatal word that ties some unplumbed sensual element in her own nature to the very corruption of justice and virtue she is condemning.

But Angelo's blackest act is not his sin of sensuality against Isabella, which he commits in wish and as he thinks in fact. Nor is it even the prostitution of his office that that involves. It is his acceptance of Isabella's sacrifice of herself and his then sending Claudio to death nevertheless. This final infamy—completed in intention though defeated in fact—ranks with John of Lancaster's treachery to the rebels in Henry IV. Nothing worse need be said of it than that.

Alack! when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right,

Angelo cries, in anguish at what he has done. He might just as well have said,

Alack! When once our power is unbounded,
Nothing goes right,

for his are the typical sins and crimes of unlimited authority.

“Power is poison.”

What power is has never been more tersely summed up than in those three words of Henry Adams in the section of the Education in which he analyzes its effect on presidents of the United States, as he had observed it in Washington.

Power is poison. Its effect on Presidents had been always tragic, chiefly as an almost insane excitement at first, and a worse reaction afterwards; but also because no mind is so well balanced as to bear the strain of seizing unlimited force without habit or knowledge of it; and finding it disputed with him by hungry packs of wolves and hounds whose lives depend on snatching the carrion. … The effect of unlimited power on limited mind is worth noting in Presidents because it must represent the same process in society, and the power of self-control must have limit somewhere in face of the control of the infinite.

Shakespeare was saying precisely that, I think, in Measure for Measure. If concentration of authority in time of “peace” can let loose such demons of Opportunity in those who possess power, and transform their subjects either into pelting petty officers, hungry packs of wolves and hounds, or into their victims, what will the same thing do in time of war? In “peace” such unadulterated authority is at least not “necessary.” It is the crowning infamy of war that it does make it essential. Victory demands efficiency, and efficiency calls for undisputed unity of command. War is authority—overdone.


The underplot of this play is unsavory. But of its kind it is a masterpiece of the first order, both in itself and in its integration with the main plot and its themes. Mistress Overdone, the keeper of a Viennese brothel, Abhorson, the executioner in a Viennese prison, and Barnardine, a condemned murderer, may be said to be its symbolic triad. A prison is presumably a place where Justice is done. Pompey, Mistress Overdone's tapster, is struck rather by its resemblance to his employer's establishment.

“I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession: one would think it were Mistress Overdone's own house, for here be many of her old customers. First, here's young Master Rash” and foregoing acquaintance with the rest of the inmates whom Pompey goes on to introduce, we are sent back in astonished recognition, by that name “Master Rash,” to Hamlet (and his “prais'd be rashness”) who first made known to us the idea that the world is a prison. This play carries Hamlet's analogy a step further, and continually suggests the resemblance of the main world, not so much to a prison—though it is that too—as to a house of ill fame, where men and women sell their honors in a dozen senses.

Lucio, for instance, mentions “the sanctimonious pirate, that went to sea with the Ten Commandments, but scraped one out of the table.” If this is not an oblique, if a bit blunt, hit at Angelo (on Shakespeare's part of course, not Lucio's), then a cap that fits should never be put on. It was “Thou shalt not steal,” of course, that the pirate scraped out. We know which one of the ten Angelo eliminated, if, indeed, it was not half-a-dozen of them. It would be interesting, taking Lucio's hint, to run through the cast and ask which and how many of the commandments each character discarded. Isabella certainly could close her eyes to the first one. But without taking time for the experiment, one thing is certain. There would be no perfect scores—either way. The man in ermine in this play casts wanton eyes on the same woman whom the libertine looks on as a saint. That is typical of almost everything in it.

“'Twas never merry world,” declares Pompey, comparing his profession with a more respectable one, “since, of two usuries, the merriest was put down, and the worser allowed by order of law a furred gown to keep him warm; and furred with fox and lambskins too, to signify that craft, being richer than innocency, stands for the facing.” This might be dismissed as the irresponsible chatter of the barroom, did not the main plot so dreadfully confirm it and Angelo himself confess it in soliloquy:

Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves.

If it will help any ultramodern person to understand Pompey's “usuries,” read “rackets” in their place.

When the Provost tells this same Pompey, then in prison, that he may earn his freedom if he will act as assistant to the executioner, Shakespeare gives us another of his deadly parallels between the world of law and the world of lawbreakers. Pompey jumps at the chance: “Sir, I have been an unlawful bawd time out of mind; but yet I will be content to be a lawful hangman.” But Abhorson, who is proud of his calling, is scandalized at the suggestion: “A bawd, sir? Fie upon him! he will discredit our mystery.” To which the Provost replies: “A feather will turn the scale.” (Between being bawd and executioner, he means, of course.) As to what Shakespeare thought, we get a hint when we remember the Duke's tribute:

This is a gentle Provost: seldom when
The steeled gaoler is the friend of men.

So recklessly does Shakespeare go on heaping up analogies between persons and things of low and those of high estate that when Elbow, the Constable, who must have been Dogberry's cousin, brings Froth and Pompey before Angelo and Escalus in judicial session, and introduces his prisoners as “two notorious benefactors,” we begin to wonder, in the general topsy-turvydom, whether there may not be relative truth in his malapropism. At any rate, the upperworld characters are guilty of far worse moral and mental, if not verbal, confusions. “Which is the wiser here,” asks Escalus, “Justice or Iniquity?”

And you shall have your bosom on this wretch,

cries the disguised Duke to Isabella, when Angelo's infamy becomes known to him,

Grace of the Duke, revenges to your heart,
And general honour.

An odd idea of honor for a supposed Friar to impart to a prospective nun: the time-worn notion that it consists in having all your old scores settled. And when he hears that “a most notorious pirate” has just died in prison of a fever, thus supplying a head that can be sent to Angelo in place of Claudio's, he exclaims:

O, 'tis an accident that Heaven provides!

—an equally odd idea of heaven. But he far exceeds these lapses. At the end of the play, in an atmosphere of general pardon, Lucio, who—unwittingly but not unwittily—has abused the Duke to his face when disguised as a Friar, does not escape. The Duke orders him married to the mother of his illegitimate child, and, the ceremony over, whipped and hanged. “I beseech your Highness,” Lucio protests, “do not marry me to a whore.” And the Duke relents to the extent of remitting the last two but not the first of the three penalties.

The emphasis on this incident at the very end brings to mind the moment when Lucio pulls off the Duke's hood:

Thou art the first knave that e'er mad'st a Duke …
Come hither, Mariana.
Say, wast thou e'er contracted to this woman?
I was, my lord.
Go take her hence, and marry her instantly.

Poor Mariana's willingness, in contrast with Lucio, to marry her “knave” makes the parallelism more rather than less pointed.

Measure for Measure—once one gives the underplot its due—fairly bristles with disconcerting analogies and moral paradoxes like this last one. Only a hopelessly complacent person will not be challenged by it. And whoever will be honest with himself will confess, I believe, to a strange cumulative effect that it produces. Barring Escalus and the Provost, who are put in to show that not all judges are harsh nor all jailers hardhearted, we are more in love in the end with the disreputable than with the reputable characters. Overworld and underworld threaten to change places.

Whether Measure for Measure was a favorite play of Samuel Butler's I do not know. It ought to have been. In it Shakespeare certainly proves himself a good Butlerian, an adherent to the principle that “every proposition has got a skeleton in its cupboard.” Many entries in the Note-Books might have been composed to illuminate Shakespeare's play:

God is not so white as he is painted, and he gets on better with the Devil than people think. The Devil is too useful for him to wish him ill and, in like manner, half the Devil's trade would be at an end should any great mishap bring God well down in the world. … The conception of them as the one absolutely void of evil and the other of good is a vulgar notion taken from science whose priests have ever sought to get every idea and every substance pure of all alloy.

God and the Devil are about as four to three. There is enough preponderance of God to make it far safer to be on his side than on the Devil's, but the excess is not so great as his professional claqueurs pretend it is.

What is this but the repentant Angelo's

Let's write good angel on the devil's horn,

slightly expanded?

Quite in conformity with Butler's dicta, I am not sure that honest readers do not find Barnardine, the condemned murderer, the most delectable character in Measure for Measure—he who for God knows how long has defied the efforts of the prison authorities to execute him. We like him so well that we do not wish to inquire too curiously into his past. For my part, I am certain the murder he did—if he really did it—was an eminently good-natured one. “Thank you kindly for your attention,” he says in effect, when they come to hale him to the gallows, “but I simply cannot be a party to any such proceeding. I am too busy—sleeping.” Let him sleep. Let anyone sleep to his heart's content who puts to rout one Abhorson. He has earned his nap.

Like Falstaff, Barnardine tempts the imagination to play around him. No higher tribute can be paid to a character in a play, as none can to a person in life. The fascination he has for us—he, and, in less degree, the rest of the underworld of which he is a member—is partly because these men and women, being sinners, have some tolerance for sin. And some humor, which comes to much the same thing. Judge not: they come vastly nearer obeying that injunction (of which Measure for Measure sometimes seems a mere amplification) than do their betters. Never will anyone say of them as Escalus said of Angelo: “my brother justice have I found so severe, that he hath forced me to tell him he is indeed Justice.” They are not forever riding the moral high horse. They make no pretensions. They mind their own business, bad as it is, instead of telling, or compelling, other people to mind theirs or to act in their way. It is a relief to find somebody of whom that is true. “Our house of profession.” No, Pompey is wrong. It is not the establishment to which he is bawd and tapster, but the main world, that better deserves that name. For everybody with power—save a few Abraham Lincolns—is, ipso facto, professing and pretending all day long. “I am convinced, almost instinctively,” says Stendhal, “that as soon as he opens his mouth every man in power begins to lie, and so much the more when he writes.” It is a strong statement, and Shakespeare would certainly have inserted an “almost” in his version of it, but there are his works, from the history plays on, to show his substantial agreement with it. Why does Authority always lie? Because it perpetuates itself by lies and thereby saves itself from the trouble of crude force: costumes and parades for the childish, decorations and degrees for the vain and envious, positions for the ambitious, propaganda for the docile and gullible, orders for the goosesteppers, fine words (like “loyalty” and “co-operation”) for the foolishly unselfish—to distract, to extort awe, to flatter and gratify inferiority, as the case may be. Dr. Johnson ought to have amended his famous saying. Patriotism is only one of the last refuges of a scoundrel.

Angelo and the Duke, if anyone, ought to know, and in their hearts they agree exactly. Hear them in soliloquy. The identity is not accidental.

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

The effect of power on those who do not possess it but wish that they did, Shakespeare concludes, is scarcely better than on those who do.

And here in the deepest reason—is it not?—why we prefer the “populace” in this play to the powers-that-be. The vices of the two ends of “society” turn out under examination to be much alike. But the lower stratum has one virtue to which the possessors and pursuers of power, for all their pretensions, cannot pretend: namely, lack of pretension. Here is a genuine basis for envying the dispossessed. Revolutions by the downtrodden, abortive or successful, to regain their share of power have occurred throughout history. The world awaits a revolution by the powerful to gain relief from the insincerities to which their privileges and position forever condemn them. Thoreau staged a one-man revolution based on a kindred principle. If this is what it implies, Measure for Measure may yet be banned by the authorities. … But no! it is as safe as the music of Beethoven. “The authorities” will never understand it.


If we do not want a world presided over by a thundering Jove—this play seems to say—and under him a million pelting petty officers and their understudies, and under them millions of their victims, we must renounce Power as our god—Power and all his ways. And not just in the political and military worlds, where the evils of autocracy with its inevitable bureaucracy of fawning yes-men, while obvious to all but autocratic or servile eyes, may be more or less “necessary.” It is the more insidiously personal bondages to power that should concern us first. Revolution against authority—as Isabella, for all her great speech, did not perceive, and as Barnardine did—begins at home. Let men in sufficient numbers turn into Barnardines, who want to run no one else but will not be run by anyone, even to the gallows, and what would be left for the pelting petty officers, and finally for Jove himself, but to follow suit? There would be a revolution indeed. The more we meditate on Barnardine the more he acquires the character of a vast symbol, the key perhaps to all our troubles. Granted, with Hamlet, that the world is a prison. We need not despair with Hamlet. We may growl rather with Barnardine at all intruders on our daydreams, and learn with him that even in a prison life may be lived—independently. Why wait, as modern gospels preach, until we are out of prison before beginning to live? “Now is a time.”

Approximately three hundred years before the twentieth century, Measure for Measure made clear the truths that it has taken two world wars to burn into the consciousness of our own generation: that Power lives by Authority and that Authority is always backed by two things, the physical force that tears bodies and the mental violence that mutilates brains:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

The two—dynamite and propaganda, to use modern terms—are always found together. “By skilful and sustained propaganda,” said Hitler, “an entire people can be made to see even heaven as hell and the most miserable life as paradise.” Where there is an Angelo on the bench, there will always be an Abhorson in the cellar. And how well Shakespeare liked Abhorson, his name proclaims.

                                                                                O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
.....Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne'er be quiet;
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder,
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven!
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle; but man, proud man,
Dress'd in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Charles Isherwood (review date 25 June 2001)

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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Measure for Measure.Variety 383, no. 6 (25 June 2001): 29.

[In the following review of Mary Zimmerman's 2001 production of Measure for Measure at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park, Isherwood praises the talented cast, but laments the loss of the play's more disturbing and thought-provoking qualities in this comic interpretation.]

The comedy easily trumps the darkness in Mary Zimmerman's production of Shakespeare's dark comedy Measure for Measure, the first summer entry from the Public Theater at the Delacorte in Central Park. Zimmerman, whose inventive stage adaptations of various literary classics have not been seen much in New York, takes a sunny and lucid approach to the Bard's “problem” play, seeming to find nothing particularly problematic about it.

The cast is handsome and generally able; the laughs peal brightly; the convoluted plot is communicated with impressive simplicity, economy and grace. Played on an airy set by Daniel Ostling that echoes Zimmerman's streamlining approach to the play, this is indeed a crystal-clear production that will only give pause to fans of the play who believe it to be anything but.

Joe Morton's performance as Duke Vincentio is emblematic. The actor is gifted with a handsome, honey-dipped baritone and a comfortingly elucidating way with Shakespearean verse. He cuts a commanding figure and is every inch the earnest nobleman he appears to be as he hands over rule of Vienna to his underling Angelo, hoping to put to the test the morals of the man and the city.

As Morton's Duke goes about his business steering the play's rather gruesome plot toward a strenuously achieved happy ending, there are no suggestions that his motivations are anything but pure and rational, his means anything but noble. There is darkness and peculiarity in the Duke—as there is in every character in this play—but it's largely ignored here (unless we are to take the bland suavity of the performance with an ironic wink, which I doubt).

Morton delivers the Duke's most beautiful speech, his peroration on the desirability of death, prettily enough, but with little feeling to distinguish it from anything else in the role; his rich voiceover voice turns it into a nice little infomercial for mortality. The chill of its nihilism evaporates in the summer night.

There are two sides—at least—to every character in Measure for Measure, which is one of the reasons the play has an abiding fascination. But here we rarely get more than one. Sanaa Lathan is an astonishingly pretty Isabella and brings a bright, passionate conviction to her two major scenes—the battle with Angelo, who has condemned her brother Claudio to death and allows that he'll rescind it if the virginal girl gives him her favors, and the scene that follows, in which Isabella is appalled when Claudio seems not entirely happy with the idea of going to his death to protect her honor.

Lathan's innocent conviction is convincing—she almost keeps us from recoiling at her preference for her chastity over her brother's life—and in the production's face-value approach to the text, possibly the best and only choice for this difficult role. But it's an anodyne performance that would benefit from some real psychological penetration.

As the play's most consistently monstrous character, Angelo, Billy Crudup is surprisingly subdued. His stiff-necked moralist—in a clever touch, we mostly see him from the back until his true character is exposed—is overwhelmed by the sheer presence of Lathan's Isabella, and Crudup makes the character's inward recoiling at his awakened lust visible on his pinched face. The performance doesn't bloom, however, and when Angelo's ignominy is exposed in the play's extended denouement, Crudup seems at a loss; he reverts to the dry bloodlessness of the first scenes. (His handling of the language is a bit too casual, as well.)

For a small but incisive illustration of the play's deepest paradoxes, we must look to John Pankow's thoroughly splendid Lucio. Labeled a “fantastic,” Lucio comes off here, as he often does, as the character who most consistently speaks sense—even when he's spewing malicious invective. Although the coke-snorting is an unnecessary flourish, Pankow's Lucio connects instantly and indelibly with a contemporary sensibility, both through Pankow's deft handling of the language and the character's postmodern cynicism.

The other comic roles are handled with comparable dexterity. Christopher Evan Welch's happily corrupt Pompey and Tom Aulino's idiotically righteous Elbow are both zesty comic turns that earn their robust laughs, and Traber Burns shines briefly in the brilliantly funny scene in which his Barnardine blithely declines to be executed when he's got a hangover, thank you. Herb Foster and Christopher Donahue deserve note for their thoughtful turns in small but sincere roles as Escalus and the Provost, respectively.

A riot of yellow chrysanthemums is splashed across the stage in the play's attenuated last scene, in which the complacent Duke Vincentio exposes Angelo's hypocrisy and concludes the play with a welter of weddings. Zimmerman's production sees nature as a benevolent force that can heal the perversions of mankind (the caged trees of Ostling's set are a potent symbol). What the production overlooks is that while the world may be a lovely place, it is tended by man, a gardener of dubious proclivities who measures out vengeance and lust as liberally as he does love and mercy.


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Measure for Measure

A dark comedy likely written in 1603, Measure for Measure is often viewed as Shakespeare's most challenging problem play. Set in Renaissance Vienna, the drama features three principal figures: the Viennese Duke Vincentio, his puritanical deputy Angelo, and Isabella, a novice nun. After the Duke places Angelo in charge of Vienna and pretends to leave the city, he disguises himself as a friar so that he may observe Angelo's harsh administration of the law. Angelo, displeased by what he perceives as the lax morality of Vienna's citizenry, decides to more forcefully impose a code prohibiting fornication, or sex out of wedlock, and accuses Isabella's brother Claudio of the crime. Faced with the execution of her brother, Isabella entreats Angelo for Claudio's life but recoils when she is told that the price of what she asks is the sacrifice of her virginity. At the play's resolution, the Duke returns to power, spares Claudio, and offers a proposal of marriage to Isabella. This apparently happy ending, however, has struck many as unsatisfactory. Scholars generally acknowledge that the ethical questions raised over the course of the play remain largely unresolved at its conclusion. Additionally, debate over the play's indeterminate genre has led many scholars to renew their focus on Shakespeare's dramatic design in Measure for Measure. Several commentators, including Robert B. Bennett (2000), have argued that in Measure for Measure Shakespeare presented a unique and experimental comic method. Bennett maintains that unlike the utopian moral framework of Shakespeare's previous festive comedies, Measure for Measure is a comic romance that highlights the paradoxical qualities of human nature.

Contemporary critical examination of the characters in Measure for Measure has tended to focus on the triad of Duke Vincentio, Isabella, and Angelo, and generally highlights the complexity of Shakespeare's portrayal of these figures. Mark Taylor (1994) presents a psychoanalytic examination of the major characters in Measure for Measure. Taylor explores the dynamics of sexual desire in the play by applying psychologist Karen Horney's theory of neurosis, suggesting that the outwardly inconsistent behaviors of the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella are a result of their hidden sexual anxieties. Taylor additionally studies Isabella's emotional development and the relationship of Lucio's bawdy humor to the drama's depiction of sexuality. Natasha Korda (2002) offers a feminist and new historicist interpretation of Measure for Measure's female characters, arguing that the presence of numerous unwed young women in the play manifests a patriarchal anxiety concerning the threat of the single woman to post-Reformation European social stability. The critic notes that while some women, such as Isabella, opt to remove themselves to a nunnery, others such as Marianna, Juliet, and Mistress Overdone reflect the status of the single woman as a potential site of poverty, prostitution, or premarital pregnancy that requires the surveillance and intervention of male authority. Vivian Thomas (1987) studies Isabella and Angelo in Measure for Measure and contends that these figures exhibit a realistic delineation of human character, full of nuance and convincing, if sometimes suppressed, psychological motivation. Thomas underscores the intentional ambiguity in Shakespeare's characterizations of Isabella and Angelo by analyzing their verbal exchanges, particularly Isabella's pleas for the life of Claudio. The critic also notes that in their scenes together, Angelo's self-delusion and cynical moralism clash with Isabella's repressed sexuality.

In spite of its ambiguity, Measure for Measure has remained relatively popular on the stage. The play can be a challenge to directors, who often struggle to find the right balance between the drama's serious moral content and its comic elements. In his review of Mary Zimmerman's 2001 staging of Measure for Measure at the Delacorte Theater in New York City, Charles Isherwood (2001) notes the production's focus on the play's comic aspects. While Isherwood praises the performances of the talented cast, he laments the loss of the play's more disturbing and thought-provoking qualities in this interpretation. In her review of director Liz Huddle's 2003 production of the drama at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Celia Baker (2003) remarks on the easygoing appeal of this conventional comic staging, but notes that the production did not attempt to resolve the problematic questions raised by Shakespeare's play. Reviewers Kenneth Tucker (2003) and Michael Billington (2003) critique director Sean Holmes's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Measure for Measure, which was set in the devastated, corrupt, and war-torn Vienna of the 1930s and 1940s. Tucker finds the production to be a compelling interpretation of one of Shakespeare's most challenging plays. Billington, on the other hand, finds fault with Holmes's overemphasis on the corruption of modern society. According to Robert Hurwitt (2003), Daniel Fish's 2003 California Shakespeare Theater production of Measure for Measure effectively emphasized the complexities and enduring appeal of the play. Hurwitt remarks on the dark and irreverent humor mingled with bold seriousness in Fish's postmodern update of the drama, set in a contemporary insurance office. Overall, Hurwitt considers this staging inventive, provocative, thoughtful, and funny in its mordant depiction of the intricate relationship between the wages of sin and virtue.

Critics often highlight Measure for Measure's depiction of justice tempered by mercy and the corrupting mixture of human concupiscence and worldly power. Reflecting this trend, Harold C. Goddard (1951) interprets Measure for Measure as a study in the corrupting effects of power and self-righteousness on character. The critic singles out Angelo as an embodiment of a strident morality distorted by his own power over others, leading the Duke's deputy to immoderate sensuality (in his coercion of Isabella) and a hypocritical, self-righteous desire to punish others. William B. Bache (1969) examines the social and ethical concerns outlined in Measure for Measure and contends that the play points to self-sacrificing love as a remedy for the excesses of human liberty. Harriet Hawkins (1987) describes the fundamentally ambiguous qualities that have earned the drama's categorization as a problem play. Exploring Measure for Measure's focus on the problematic relationship between sex, sin, vice, and virtue, Hawkins suggests that Shakespeare's drama presents an irresolvable conflict between the rule of law and matters of human desire. Similarly, Martha Widmayer (1999) discusses themes of justice, law, and Christian mercy illustrated by Isabella's petition that Angelo's life be spared in the final scene of the play. The critic also explores the legal controversy over fornication and the legitimization of sexual intercourse as Elizabethan audiences would have perceived the issue, illuminating motifs of enforced marriage, criminalized sexuality, and the limits of secular justice in Measure for Measure.

Mark Taylor (essay date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Taylor, Mark. “Farther Privileges: Conflict and Change in Measure for Measure.Philological Quarterly 73, no. 2 (spring 1994): 169-93.

[In the following essay, Taylor presents a psychoanalytic examination of the major characters in Measure for Measure—the Duke, Isabella, and Angelo.]

At the end of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure the Duke, a man not “much detected for women,” as he said of himself earlier, suddenly proposes marriage to Isabella, a woman not much detected for men. Very little in the play has overtly prepared the reader or spectator for the Duke's expression of romantic interest; nor are there explicit indications how Isabella should, or does, respond to the offer. She is silent, but does her silence show acceptance or rejection of the proposal, mute delight at being chosen by the ruler of Vienna or smoldering indignation that her commitment to the celibate life should be taken so lightly? But the Duke's proposal is surprising, and Isabella's response problematical, only if one assumes both that their initial devotions to sexual abstinence were acceptable on the play's terms—were normal, that is, according to whatever standards define normalcy in the world of Measure for Measure—and that the two characters remain at the end of the play as they were at the beginning. If, on the other hand, it can be shown that the play is implicitly critical of sexual abstinence, or that sexual abstinence represents some form of emotional incompleteness, and also that the Duke and Isabella grow or change or develop between acts 1 and 5, then it might follow that their mutually-desired marriage is a signal of their gaining of psychic health and the fulfillment of their inner growth. This growth is what I shall try to demonstrate in the pages that follow; in doing so, I shall discuss the behavior of the Duke and Isabella and, to a lesser degree, of Angelo as revelatory of unresolved inner conflicts; and I shall assign to Lucio major responsibility for the positive changes in the Duke and Isabella.

A convenient and compelling theoretical scheme for understanding the Duke, Isabella, and Angelo, individually and in relation to each other, has been provided by the psychoanalyst Karen Horney—fortuitously, because in two relevant works she mentions neither Measure for Measure nor Shakespeare. In Our Inner Conflicts she argues that human neurosis is revealed by inconsistency of action, “as definite an indication of the presence of conflicts as a rise in bodily temperature is of physical disturbance.”1 She sees neurosis as arising from “basic anxiety,” the fundamental insecurities of childhood, the child's “reaction to all the contradictions he senses in the parents' behavior,” for example.2 The child's reaction, and the adult's afterwards, to the internalized conflict—the neurosis itself—follows one of “three main lines”: movement “toward people, against them, or away from them” (original emphases).3 “In each of these three attitudes,” Horney writes, “one of the elements involved in basic anxiety is overemphasized: helplessness in the first, hostility in the second, and isolation in the third.”4 These attitudes are often far more complicated, and can be displayed with far more ingenuity and subtlety, than a brief synopsis can indicate. Horney develops her model of conflict, neurosis, and defense in two different books—Our Inner Conflicts (1945) and Neurosis and Human Growth (1950)—which at times stress very different-seeming aspects of the defensive strategies. Movement against people, for instance, need not take the form of overt belligerence; it can manifest itself also as perfectionism, whose “type feels superior because of his high standards, moral and intellectual, and on this basis looks down on others.”5 There are other variations as well, but Horney's essential paradigm remains tripartite—involving movement toward, against, or away from other people—and extremely comprehensive. Horney's evidence is clinical, not literary, but so precisely and completely do the three main characters of Measure for Measure correspond to the basic types of her paradigm that it is as if she formulated it with them in mind.

The Duke and Angelo, certainly, and Isabella, possibly, are monumentally inconsistent in their actions. The Duke prides himself on the “complete bosom” that love cannot penetrate, on the lack within him of “the aims and ends / Of burning youth” (1.3.3, 5-6), yet at the end of the play he declares to Isabella “a motion [that] much imports your good, / Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline, / What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” (5.1.535-37).6 Angelo, “A man of stricture and firm abstinence,” who “scarce confesses / That his blood flows; or that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone” (1.3.12, 51-53), nevertheless was once engaged to be married to Mariana, a woman he had made to love him; and in the course of the play he discovers and then “give[s] my sensual race the rein” (2.4.160). That the Duke and Angelo behave thus—inconsistently—is no discovery, but what it means may be. One great strength of Horney's theoretical model is that it permits the identification of symptoms as symptoms. The play's third principal is more problematic. Isabella's whole life is organized about her commitment to celibacy—or chastity, as she calls it—yet it is perfectly conceivable, as in most productions of the play until recent times, that she is happily responsive to the Duke's marital overtures at the end.

If their inconsistencies may point to the presence of conflict, their behavior reveals the neurosis stemming from this conflict, precisely according to Horney's model. In part, their behavior has been understood accordingly. A recent study by Bernard Paris, Bargains of Fate: Psychological Crises and Conflicts in Shakespeare and His Plays, presents a sustained application of Horney's psychology to Shakespeare's plays. This is an important book that offers a comprehensive assessment of Horney's achievement, in general, and that shows the efficacy of her “three interpersonal strategies of defense,” as Paris calls them, for an understanding of Shakespeare's characters, in particular.7 Paris places the Duke among those who show “helplessness in the compliant solution” to conflict;8 he places Angelo among those who display “hostility in the aggressive solution,” though the exact form of Angelo's hostility is perfectionism;9 and he finds Isabella also “a predominantly perfectionist person,” which would make her a variation on Angelo.10 From this last characterization I demur: as I shall demonstrate below, it is more consistent with the facts of her behavior, and more helpful to an understanding of the play, to see Isabella's response to conflict as retreat rather than aggression. Consequently, what I am doing here may be seen as, among other things, a correction of Paris's analysis and also an extension. Overall, Paris's study focuses on the “major tragedies,” Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, with only a few pages given directly to Measure for Measure. However, since the three main characters in this play so perfectly correspond to the three basic Horneyan personality types, and since these characters are (as we shall see) so thoroughly illuminated by the application of Horney's ideas, a more concentrated investigation will be rewarded.

Karen Horney writes of the “aggressive type” that “his primary need becomes one of control over others”; he possesses “A strong need to exploit others, to outsmart them, to make them of use to himself”; and “Because he is driven always to assert himself as the strongest, shrewdest, or most sought after, he tries to develop the efficiency and resourcefulness necessary to being so.”11 For the perfectionist variant, she writes, “What really matters is … the flawless excellence of the whole conduct of life. … His own perfection … is not only a means to superiority but also one to control life.”12 Any one of these statements could follow from direct observation of Angelo, who spends much of the play believing in his own perfection and who, when the belief is no longer possible, works tirelessly to keep others convinced of its truth.

The most salient characteristics of the person whose conflict requires movement toward others are helplessness and a need for love. “Far from abhoring these conditions [of helplessness and suffering],” Horney writes, this person “rather cultivates and unwittingly exaggerates them.”13 The identification of the Duke with James I of England,14 the frequent ascription to him of both omniscience and omnipotence, and Angelo's likening him to “pow'r divine” (5.1.369) may make the Duke an unlikely agent of helplessness, but consider what he does and what he neglects. For many years preceding the play, he has been entirely worthless as a ruler; as Claudio says, Vienna's laws “have, like unscour'd armor, hung by th' wall / So long that nineteen zodiacs have gone round / And none of them been worn” (1.2.167-69). The Duke himself refers to the “strict statutes and most biting laws / (The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds), / Which for this fourteen years we have let slip” until “our decrees, / Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead, / And liberty plucks justice by the nose” (1.3.19-21, 27-29). Then, knowing what he has allowed to come to pass, the Duke reasons against taking corrective action himself: “Sith 'twas my fault to give the people scope, / 'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them / For what I bid them do” (35-37). His helplessness has produced the conditions of Vienna, and before these conditions he remains helpless.

Putting Angelo in charge of moral urban renewal (for complex reasons, of course, since he wants also to see “If power change purpose” [1.3.54]), the Duke stands helplessly by for half the play as bad goes to worse for Claudio, Isabella, and probably Angelo himself. Or the Duke is absent altogether; between his taking the disguise of friar in act 1, scene 3, and his comforting Claudio in act 3, scene 1, the Duke appears only in the brief third scene of act 2, and then only to remind Juliet of the heaviness of her sin: this chastisement, within the gathering storm of Angelo's draconian punishments, appears at the time yet another helpless gesture. Thereafter, of course, once he comes forward a second time in act 3, scene 1, at line 151, at the celebrated turning point or fulcrum of the play, the Duke becomes a master of planning and execution, anything but helpless. But even then, it may be noted, Angelo's refusal to honor his bargain with Isabella and pardon Claudio, and the general obscurity of the Duke's purposes (e.g., “I will keep her ignorant of her good, / To make her heavenly comforts of despair, / When it is least expected” [4.3.109-11]) make the Duke appear far less in charge and far less prepared for contingencies during much of the play's second half than he may in fact be. Furthermore, even when he has tidied most matters up at the end of Measure for Measure, his earlier ditherings are not eradicated in the reader's memory.

The compliant type, in whom helplessness is manifest, has a great need of affection. “[T]his type,” Horney writes, “needs to be liked, wanted, desired, loved; to feel accepted, welcomed, approved of, appreciated; to be needed, to be of importance to others, especially to one particular person; to be helped, protected, taken care of, guided.”15 Is this the Duke? He claims to Friar Thomas to be impervious to love, and he surely does not seek “to be of importance … to one particular person” except at the very end to Isabella. The compliant type's display of his neuroses is what Horney calls “the self-effacing solution.”16 One can hardly more obviously and dramatically efface oneself than by disappearing or taking a disguise—respectively, what the Duke pretends to do and what he in fact does. In disguise, except during his prolonged absence in act 2, the Duke is continually inserting himself into groups of people and ingratiating himself with them. As the Duke he had been ignored; as the friar he is ever more appreciated. In act 2, scene 3, he is with Juliet; in act 3, scene 1, with Claudio alone, then Claudio, Isabella, and the Provost, then Isabella alone; in act 3, scene 2, with Elbow and Pompey, then them and Lucio, then Lucio alone, then Escalus, the Provost, and Mistress Overdone; in act 4, scene 1, with Mariana alone, then her and Isabella; and so forth. As a friar, he is in general deferred to, obeyed, and treated with respect and reverence. He is almost always at the center of these scenes. When he is the Duke again, following line 355 of act 5, scene 1, he is respected more than ever: Angelo is abject before “my dread lord” (366), and Mariana and then Isabella kneel to him. It is as if the Duke has become the beneficiary of all the honor that has been developing toward Friar Lodowick.

The Duke, in his friar's habit, and Lucio are on stage together with no one else twice in the play, in act 3, scene 2, and again in act 4, scene 3. Both of these segments follow moments when the Duke has worked especially hard “to be of importance to others,” in Horney's phrase, and with considerable success. In the earlier segment he and Lucio are left alone about eighty lines after Isabella's departure, originally (in the 1623 Folio) in the same scene. It was in this conversation with Isabella that the Duke had begun his intervention in the play's action, designing the strategem whereby “your brother [will be] sav'd, your honor untainted, the poor Mariana advantag'd, and the corrupt deputy scal'd” (3.1.253-55). The Duke's plan greatly pleases Isabella, who vigorously approves it: “The image of it gives me content already, and I trust it will grow to a most prosperous perfection” (259-60). It should be noted that although the Duke's relation to the play's action has changed greatly, his seeking of the approbation of Vienna's citizenry continues except that now he wishes not merely to avoid seeming “too dreadful” (1.3.34) but rather, positively, to offer “content.” Isabella has but one more speech in the third act, and it ends on a word that signals respect for Friar Lodowick's profession, gratitude for his accomplishment, and warmth and affection for the man she takes him to be: “I thank you for this comfort. Fare you well, good father” (268-69).

She exits, the Duke remains on stage, and there ensues some business with Pompey and Escalus, during which Lucio enters. He greets the disguised Duke, whom he has never met before, “Bless you, friar” (77), and still in the presence of the other men, asks him, “What news abroad, friar? what news?” (82-83). Elbow leads Pompey off, and Lucio says, “What news, friar, of the Duke?” (86). In what remains of the segment, nearly one hundred lines, Lucio frequently addresses Vincentio as “sir,” by which term Vincentio frequently addresses him also, and four more times calls him “friar.” Angelo, he seems to say, is “Something too crabbed that way, friar” (98). Of lechery Lucio maintains that “it is impossible to extirp it quite, friar, till eating and drinking be put down” (102-3). He tells the Duke “thou art deceiv'd in me, friar” (168-69), and finally he bids him, “Farewell, good friar” (180).

Unlike Isabella, and for that matter Juliet (2.3.29), Escalus (3.2.214), and the Provost (4.2.272 and elsewhere), Lucio never calls the Duke “father,” and the proliferation of his “friar's,” perhaps the more prominent because of Isabella's earlier “fare you well, good father,” amounts to a refusal to do so. In calling the Duke “friar” seven times during this encounter, Lucio deliberately declines to address him, as the others mostly do, as “father.” (The Provost, 2.3.2, and Mariana, 4.1.53, also call the Duke “good friar,” one time each.) Unquestionably, Lucio's preferred form of address sounds perfectly in character: “friar,” repeated so often, possesses a tone of disrespect, a brashness, an insolence that is entirely absent in “father” used vocatively to a priest. No one would expect the feisty Lucio to be awed by, or humble before, the habit of ecclesiastical office.

But, I propose, there is much more involved in the matter of address than Lucio's own assertion of personality. What he is doing, also, and perhaps in spite of himself, is puncturing the Duke's carefully cultivated image of goodness. For fourteen or nineteen years, the Duke has not taken arms against the sea of troubles in Vienna for fear of seeming too harsh to its citizens, of alienating them—in effect, of losing their regard for him, their love. In the play he continues to ignore these massive social problems (with which Angelo would deal only too extravagantly); as friar, however, he does attempt to adjust satisfactorily the lives of Claudio, Isabella, and Angelo, but he still seeks gratitude, the acknowledgment of his contribution, universal appreciation. If, as Horney argues, the need “to be liked, wanted, desired, loved” is the most salient characteristic of the compliant type, then Vincentio no less obviously belongs to this type as friar than as duke.

“Father,” used warmly as a vocative, or term of address, signals approval, appreciation, love, by attaching to the priest something of one's most engaging feelings toward a male parent. By addressing him, instead, as “friar,” a title lacking all overtones of affection or intimacy, Lucio is refusing to indulge the Duke's needs; he is refusing to feed the neurosis of the compliant type. This de facto refusal means neither that Lucio understands the Duke's neurosis, in the manner of a Horneyan psychoanalyst, nor that he penetrates the Duke's disguise and perceives him inside the friar's habit, though the latter has been suggested.17 Lucio's own motivation is entirely explained by the insolence and disrespect noted above: of course, he would call a friar “friar” to his face, not “father.” But to the ears of the man so addressed the word is a rebuff, a repudiation of the carefully-constructed image of benevolent agent for which people should love him. And notwithstanding Lucio's innocence of the Duke's psychic problems and identity, his form of address to the Duke is something the reader can perceive as the beginning of therapeutic treatment. It is important for the Duke, if severely irritating to him, that someone not call him “father.”

The main subject of their discourse in act 3, scene 2, and then again in act 4, scene 3—the degree of the Duke's inherent sexuality—also advances the Duke's image of himself, only to question it and perhaps finally to translate it into something else.18 According to Lucio, the Duke is an insistently, even aggressively sexual being. Entirely unlike Angelo, who has “a ruthless thing … in him, for the rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a man!” (3.2.114-16), according to Lucio, “the Duke that is absent … 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” (116-20). The Duke protests, “I never heard the absent Duke much detected for women, he was not inclin'd that way,” and Lucio corrects him, “O, sir, you are deceiv'd” (121-23), and goes on to allege further improprieties, like drunkenness, in the “very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow” (139-40) who used to rule Vienna.

In act 4, scene 3, Lucio repeats his charges of sexual promiscuity. He recites this bill of indictment to a man, the disguised Duke, who has just saved the life of Claudio with the brilliant device of substituting for his head that of Barnardine (4.2.170-71), and then saved the life of Barnardine with the equally brilliant device (suggested by the Provost) of substituting for his head that of Ragozine (4.3.69-81). It has been a very impressive display of power and ingenuity, and the Duke would be very unusual if he did not feel himself a master of the game, at this moment, as in unseen and unsuspected ways he manipulates the destinies of others—all, of course, for their own good.

Entering on the scene with a jaunty “Good even. Friar, where's the Provost” (4.3.149), Lucio gives the Duke his comeuppance as he quickly moves to erase the possibility that the Duke lacks the motives and instincts of other men. Even before Isabella exits, Lucio says, “But they say the Duke will be here to-morrow. By my troth, Isabel, I lov'd thy brother. If the old fantastical Duke of dark corners had been at home, he had liv'd” (155-58). Although little credited, Lucio's epithet has clung to Vincentio ever since, for few commentators on the play fail to make some reference to “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners.” In the New Variorum edition of the play Mark Eccles quotes the gloss of Malone from 1780: “This duke who meets his mistresses in by-places,” and in the New Arden edition J. W. Lever writes, “Lucio means ‘keeper of secret assignations.’”19 I suggest that “dark corners” is anatomically as well as architecturally, or geographically, specific. Othello's claim, “I had rather be a toad / And live upon the vapor of a dungeon / Than keep a corner in the thing I love / For others' uses” (Othello, 3.3.270-73), represents the female genitals as a “corner.” Lucio thus incorporates extreme sexual intimacy, and not simply a taste for trysting, into his tag for the Duke.

Isabella leaves (in the judgment of Theobald and most subsequent editors), the Duke denies Lucio's allegations, and Lucio renews them: “Friar, thou knowest not the Duke so well as I do; he's a better woodman than thou tak'st him for” (161-62). (Woodman equals “wencher” or “hunter—here of women.”20) The Duke tells Lucio that he will “answer this one day” (163), be held to account for his slander. Lucio confides that he has forsworn getting with child the “rotten medlar” (174) pregnant by him, the confession that will prove his undoing in the denouement. And at scene's end they go off together, Lucio asserting, “Nay, friar, I am a kind of bur, I shall stick” (179).

The Duke claims early on to possess “a complete bosom” impervious to “the dribbling dart of love” (1.4.3,2); and in the first scene with Lucio he maintains, “I never heard the absent Duke much detected for women, he was not inclin'd that way” (3.2.121-22). At the end of the play his complete bosom is thoroughly pierced by the image of Isabella, for whom he is indeed detected, toward whom he is much inclined. So either he is knowingly misrepresenting himself earlier—lying—or he has changed in the course of the drama. If he were lying, we might expect to find, along the way, some evidence, as we do not, of a conscious contrary disposition; and so I propose that he has changed by late in act 5—he has in effect acknowledged the needs within himself that had been concealed, even to him, beneath a facade of bland compliance—and that the agent of this change is Lucio. This means that if the Duke is somehow better, or better off—physically, emotionally, morally, or socially—then Lucio has made him that way.

The erotic persona attributed to the Duke by Lucio is not necessarily more demeaning of him than the posture of celibacy that it contradicts and, finally, corrects. Large numbers of men, whatever they might wish to do or be, would surely rather have it said of them that they “had some feeling for the sport,” perhaps even that they were accomplished woodmen, than that they were not “much detected for women.” (Detected is, however, an interestingly ambiguous word: by it the Duke may intend “suspected” [Malone, 1778] or “accused” [Charles Richardson, 1836].21 But it means also “discovered” or “made known”; I shall be arguing that Lucio is in the process of making known, even to the Duke himself, that the Duke is indeed for women. Claiming not to be detected for women, the Duke perhaps fears being found out—even by himself.) The Duke may be perfectly entitled to his eccentric choice of celibacy, but it should be seen for the eccentricity it is. Lucio's extravagantly sexy Duke is no less appealing a figure than the Duke's own sexless self. But ultimately both images are false personae.

Monogamous, heterosexual attraction is evident, at the beginning of the play, only in the demonstrated desire of Claudio and Juliet for each other: their union, Harriet Hawkins writes, “is the only sexual act in Measure for Measure that was undertaken with mutual consent, prompted by mutual desire, and dignified by mutual love” (original emphasis).22 Apart from them, most of the play's characters are defined by total sexual renunciation and abstinence—the Duke, Isabella, and Angelo—or indiscriminate and boundless promiscuity—Lucio, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone's employees and clients. Most of the characters begin, in other words, by incorporating an extreme, nothing-or-all attitude toward sex (and it is significant that Claudio, one of the couple that embrace a seemingly sensible mean between nothing and all, is to die for his preference). At the end of the play, of course, Claudio and Juliet are no longer socially isolated by their attitude: Mariana has been found to hold similar monogamous inclinations; the Duke suddenly declares himself eager to marry; perhaps Angelo and Isabella have the same promptings; and Lucio and Kate, God help them, will become husband and wife. In proposing to Isabella, the Duke is hardly revealing himself to be sexually licentious, Lucio's man after all; but in acknowledging the power of desire, he is admitting that there exists some little truth in Lucio's reports, more than in his own. Nor is the Duke simply collaborating in a happy ending for the play, tying himself and Isabella together to leave fewer loose threads dangling from a marriage comedy. He tells her, in his last speech, a few lines before the end,

                                                                                                                        Dear Isabel,
I have a motion much imports your good.


Motion means “proposal” or “suggestion”; it also means—in this play it cannot not mean—“sexual prompting,” what Lucio thought Angelo lacked when he said that he “never feels / The wanton stings and motions of the sense” (1.4.59-60).23 One's motions are what move one, as in Claudio's too candid declaration that in Isabella's youth “There is a prone and speechless dialect, / Such as move men” (1.2.183-84). The Duke discovers this motion, which “imports” its object's “good.” The Duke has acknowledged, at last, sexual response.

The Duke's displeasure in everything Lucio says about him (a displeasure augmented by Lucio's persistent vocative “friar's”), his determination to defend himself from the charges, and his final punishment of his detractor all suggest that Lucio is forcing him to confront latent and, for some reason (which we can never know), disagreeable possibilities within himself. To be sure, sexual appetitiveness is not the only feature in Lucio's portrait of the Duke. He also, as the Duke will remind him at the end, “knew me for a fool, a coward, / One all of luxury, an ass, a madman” (5.1.500-1). I shall not try to absolve Lucio, either by arguing that he did not commit all these slanders or that they are somehow true, although be it said that “coward” is not an especially inappropriate term for the man who allowed the deplorable conditions of Vienna to develop and then refused to deal with them. That the Duke is “One all of luxury” is Lucio's most sustained and serious charge against him; it is also the one that is theoretically most specific, because it should follow from observable behavior, and therefore most unlikely seeming, and it is shown, as I suggest above, not to be true, but to be more nearly true than the Duke's view of himself.

One might suppose, then, a relationship among the following circumstances: Lucio's repeated charges of sexual motives; the Duke's fervent denial of the charges; his severe punishment of Lucio for having made them; and the small measure of truth contained in the charges. This constellation of phenomena resembles a pattern common in psychoanalysis in which the analysand offers resistance to the analyst for leading him toward recognition of that which, often at great cost, he has repressed in the first place. Freud writes: “A vehement effort must have been exercised to prevent the mental process in question from penetrating into consciousness and as a result it has remained unconscious; being unconscious it had the power to construct a symptom. The same vehement effort is again at work during analytic treatment, opposing the attempt to bring the unconscious into consciousness.”24 The existence of sexual desire, which cannot quite be called a mental process, is what the Duke has not permitted to penetrate into his consciousness. The observable facts of his life, the features of what Karen Horney calls the compliant personality, are the symptoms constructed as a consequence of this repression. What Lucio says to the disguised Duke, during act 3, scene 2, and act 4, scene 3, works to bring the matter of the Duke's “unconscious into consciousness,” thereby stimulating the “vehement effort” opposed to it. Still, in the long run, the analysis succeeds. “I shall stick,” Lucio says, and he does: the proof is the Duke's overtures to Isabella. But at the same moment the Duke expresses, not gratitude for sexual and psychic health, but rather resentment for personal slights by sending Lucio to prison for the purpose of “Marrying a punk” (5.1.522). “If Lucio is seen as the Duke's alter ego,” Meredith Skura writes, “the Duke's excessive anger with him makes more sense. …”25 But the great anger makes sense, too, if Lucio is seen as a correction from outside the Duke, instead of inside. The patient does not always love his analyst.

Of the three characters in Measure for Measure who claim immunity to the infection of sexual desire—the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella, who would “strip myself to death, as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I'ld yield / My body up to shame” (2.4.102-4)—only Isabella may be connected, however tenuously, to a specific emotional crisis, the death of her father, occurring before the play. In a general environment that associates fathers with punishments and rewards, as in Claudio's calling “surfeit the father of much fast” (1.2.126) and the Duke's image of “fond fathers / Having bound up the threat'ning twigs of birch, / Only to stick it in their children's sight, / For terror” (1.3.23-26), the young girl Isabella lost a father and some time thereafter made plans to join the sisters of St. Clare, that very demanding of orders, which is still not demanding enough for her since she “wish[es] a more strict restraint / Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare” (1.4.4-5). Her desire for greater discipline in this life of withdrawal invites the hypothesis that she understands the sisterhood as filling the role of her lost father, or that she demands this function of it, and the principle of discipline and authority that he incorporated.

Whether or not this hypothesis is entirely plausible, Isabella follows the third strategy of defense in the Horneyan paradigm, not compliance or aggression but detachment. “What is crucial” to such persons, Horney writes, “is their inner need to put emotional distance between themselves and others. More accurately, it is their conscious and unconscious determination not to get emotionally involved with others in any way, whether in love, fight, co-operation, or competition.”26 (It is such “unconscious determination not to get emotionally involved with others” that explains Isabella's coldness in the first part of her first encounter with Angelo—until Lucio's promptings finally inspire some enthusiasm for the task. He is good for her, as he is good for the Duke.) The world can scarcely be more threatening than to a young girl who has lost her parents, and removal from the world's power can scarcely be more absolute (short of suicide) than in the form of retreat into a convent. The basically detached person, Horney writes, “believes consciously or unconsciously, that it is better not to wish or expect anything. Sometimes this goes with a conscious pessimistic outlook on life, a sense of its being futile anyhow and of nothing being sufficiently desirable to make an effort for it” (original emphasis).27

In Bargains with Fate Bernard Paris recognizes a small number of “predominantly detached characters in Shakespeare,” who include Jaques, Horatio, Thersites, and Apemantus, but he does not place Isabella among them.28 But surely her withdrawal at the beginning of the play signals a wish for detachment, and were it not for Claudio's predicament, which brings her forth from her retirement, that detachment would become an achieved and lasting state. Paris calls Isabella “a predominantly perfectionistic person” (which would make her a variation of Angelo) although she also “has a compliant side” that is ultimately responsive to the Duke's overtures.29 Isabella desires rules and discipline, but her insistence on moral perfection—as she understands it—is something she is driven to by circumstances she has never sought. Asked to intercede with Angelo for her brother, Isabella is forced to compromise her ideal of isolation.

It is during her great scene with Claudio in act 3 that Isabella twice invokes her dead father. Early in the scene, when Claudio declares, “If I must die, / I will encounter darkness as a bride, / And hug it in mine arms” (3.1.82-84), Isabella believes, or at least wants to believe, that there will follow no effort to persuade her to lie with Angelo. She says,

There spake my brother; there my father's grave
Did utter forth a voice.


The Claudio who allows Isabella continuation of her virgin state is an echo of their father. The father thus becomes a source of rectitude and moral guidance, as one might suppose of a father, and the convent, a substitute for that rectitude and guidance in his absence. When Claudio changes his tune, however, when he pleads with her to “let me live” and argues that “What sin you do to save a brother's life, / Nature dispenses with the deed so far, / That it becomes a virtue” (132-35), she wonders whether her father could have been his father:

Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair,
For such a warped slip of wilderness
Ne'er issued from his blood.


Isabella is entirely consistent on this point: the brother who seems to counsel abstinence is her father's son; the brother who counsels compliance with Angelo's wishes cannot be. In this prison in Vienna Isabella's father was heard to speak: “there my father's grave / Did utter forth a voice.” And then, too soon for Isabella, the voice is stilled.

But then his grave again utters forth a voice. The Duke as Friar Lodowick comes forth from concealment and Claudio leaves, and the Duke proposes to Isabella “a remedy” beyond anything she could hope for. He says,

I do make myself believe that you may most uprighteously do a poor wrong'd lady a merited benefit; redeem your brother from the angry law; do no stain to your own gracious person; and much please the absent Duke, if peradventure he shall ever return to have hearing of this business.


This speech promises a solution to everyone's problems, and it is perfectly consonant with Isabella's understanding of what her father expects of her. She needs the details, and so she replies,

Let me hear you speak farther.


The fourth Folio of 1685 presents Isabella's reply thus:

Let me hear you speak, father …

a reading adapted by Pope in his second edition (1728) and by Hanmer in his first (1743-44), but seldom if ever thereafter.30 I wish to argue, however, that the fourth Folio, Pope, and Hanmer are not so much offering an alternative reading of the line as they are revealing its indisputable manifest content. In Shakespeare's Pronunciation Helge Kökeritz declares that “there is a good deal of evidence” to show that “r was already [i.e., by Shakespeare's time] silent before other consonants,”31 as in much speech today, so that “father” and “farther” would be homophones. Therefore, except for a slight but perhaps indistinguishable pause after “speak,”

Let me hear you speak, father …

is identical with

Let me hear you speak farther. …

Other editors have substituted “further” for “farther,” and so what Isabella says, in effect, is

Let me hear you speak further, father,

an appropriate vocative to the friar she thinks she is addressing, her spiritual father. (Isabella also says to Lodowick, “Show me how, good father” [3.1.238] and “She'll take the enterprise upon her, father, / If you advise it” [4.1.65-66].) But since the vocative occurs in the context of speech—since it is a request for further speech—a context introduced into the scene by the voice from “my father's grave,” Isabella is also addressing a surrogate for her dead biological father and requesting of him advice that will sustain her celibate condition. If the Duke/Friar appears considerably older than Isabella, as in perhaps most productions of the play, his identity as father-surrogate is reinforced. When matters are darkest for her, when she is compelled to leave the safe haven of St. Clare's and then to choose between her brother's death and her own deflowering, Isabella hears again the voice of guidance and authority whose loss had sent her into the convent.

The word farther occurs only one other time in Measure for Measure; Isabella speaks it on an earlier occasion. And although no editor seems to have emended this word to “father,” it is in fact still more revelatory of her search for her lost father than is its occurrence in the speech to the Duke examined above.32 The first words Isabella ever speaks are a brief question to Francisca, a nun of the order she is entering:

And have you nuns no farther privileges?


Francisca's failure to understand the question shows that it is more complex than it might otherwise seem. She asks,

Are not these large enough?


to which Isabella replies,

Yes, truly; I speak not as desiring more,
But rather wishing a more strict restraint
Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare.


That the first speech of a major character in the play can be misunderstood—can be taken to mean the opposite of what it actually means—is an extraordinary way of foregrounding its contents and the psychological conditions that framed it. And what Francisca hears is perfectly reasonable: it sounds indeed as if Isabella seeks more, not fewer, privileges. It is probable that Isabella's ambiguous language expresses a real if largely unconscious ambivalence toward her future monastic life: she simultaneously welcomes and dreads the restraints that she will experience as one of the Poor Clares. To the extent that she dreads them, she reveals a commitment to the convent and its rules less total, even at this early moment, than she is generally thought to possess. Such reservations would make her acceptance of the Duke's proposal in act 5, if she does accept it, not entirely out of character, for marriage is the only acceptable alternative to life in the convent (and it is worth pointing out that Isabella, unlike Juliet and Mariana, has never had a “contract” with a man, has never before the end of the play received a marriage offer); the existence of doubts, even unconscious ones, would also considerably complicate Isabella's motives in entering the convent, making uncertainty and, therefore, also stress and emotional trauma components of her decision.

And when Isabella's question can be reflected upon with hindsight—with the knowledge of how she will twice invoke her dead father in act 3 and implicitly engage with his remembered image when she tells the Duke, “Let me hear you speak farther”—it, her question, becomes resonant with the sense of his loss. “Have you nuns no father privileges?” she asks Francisca: must we really do without the guidance and authority and love that a father confers? Is this the reality of the new life I have chosen? But when Francisca misunderstands her, Isabella retreats from her own evident meaning: “I speak not as desiring more [father],” but rather less. Consciously, Isabella does desire to learn to live, as she now must, without a father; but in her unconscious, which is revealed by her asking Francisca exactly what she intends not to ask her, that fact inflicts pain beyond expression.

Isabella will come of age, therefore, if she is to do so, not by the conventional process whereby the living father tacitly releases her from her felt obligation to him and encourages the transfer of erotic feelings to a proper object,33 but rather by discovering within herself a power to influence human affairs, mainly those in which she is herself involved, a sense that not only her actions but her very existence can make a difference. That is why the climactic moment of the play, as well as of Isabella's development in it, is her act of intercession—her deliberate involvement in someone else's affairs, which shows a mature competence and conviction of ability. Isabella must find what is inside her; toward this discovery Lucio directs her.

Following Claudio's request to “Acquaint [my sister] with the danger of my state; / Implore her, in my voice, that she make friends / To the strict deputy” (1.2.179-81), and so forth, Lucio confronts Isabella outside the gate to her convent and tells her,

All hope is gone,
Unless you have the grace by your fair prayer
To soften Angelo.


He tells her to “Assay the pow'r you have,” a directive that puzzles Isabella, who thinks herself without any power at all: “My power? Alas, I doubt—,” she responds, utterly without confidence (76-77). Lucio tells her,

                                                                                                                        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.


It will be before the Duke, in act 5, that Isabella kneels to deliver her final petition, in Mariana's behalf, to save Angelo's life. Mariana, on this latter occasion, implores her to do so—“Sweet Isabel, take my part! / Lend me your knees” (5.1.430-31); “Sweet Isabel, do yet but kneel by me” (437); “O Isabel! will you not lend a knee” (442)—though the Duke tells her that to do so would be a betrayal of her brother:

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


At the beginning of this scene it is Friar Peter who counsels this posture in order to have the Duke give credence to her charges against Angelo:

Now is your time: speak loud, and kneel before him.


But it is Lucio who first suggests the efficacy of kneeling, when he says, “When they weep and kneel, / All their petitions are as freely theirs / As they themselves would owe them,” and in Isabella's first interview with Angelo, “Kneel down before him, hang upon his gown; / You are too cold” (2.2.44-45). Kneeling before Angelo, if Isabella does so, like tears and argument, leads to trouble, but it at least appears to achieve its desired end—the second interview, the proposition from Angelo, and then the bed-trick whereby Claudio will be saved; and kneeling before the Duke, in act 5, certainly achieves its end, the saving of Angelo's life. In the first instance certainly and in the second conceivably Lucio deserves credit for promoting this instrument of mediation.

During Isabella's first audience with Angelo, it is Lucio who ensures Isabella's involvement in the argument, designed to save her brother's life, for “mercy” (2.2.78), “pity” (99), and the self-knowledge—“Go to your bosom, / Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know / That's like my brother's fault” (136-38)—that will allow a forgiveness of the sins of others. One critic observes, “Ironically, Claudio's life-line is provided by the disreputable Lucio who pushes Isabella into renewing her appeal.”34 If Lucio's function as Isabella's mentor is properly understood—the same function he exercises very differently toward the Duke—then his action will not be regarded as entirely ironic. Alternatively, his whole character may be regarded as ironic since what often seems carping and destructive is in fact restorative. Early in this interview Isabella is twice on the verge of abandoning her cause when Lucio, in asides, spurs her on: “Give't not o'er so. To him again, entreat him, / Kneel down before him, hang upon his gown; / You are too cold” (43-45), and a moment later he repeats this reproach: “You are too cold” (56). Then, as her lengthening speeches show, Isabella becomes less cold, and as she warms to the occasion, Lucio applauds her efforts in a sexually charged vocabulary: “Ay, touch him; there's the vein” (70). When Angelo finally appears affected by Isabella's argument, or by her person, Lucio presents his attitude in terms of appropriate sexual response:

O, to him, to him, wench! he will relent.
He's coming; I perceive't.


Of the word “come” E. A. M. Colman pronounces, confidently and absolutely, that it possesses “No orgasmic denotation in Shakespeare.”35 Perhaps: but irresistable connotations are another matter. Eric Partridge defines “come,” in Shakespeare, as “To experience a sexual emission,” and although the evidence he cites is dubious,36 Lucio's use of the word appears to show that “come” cannot mean less than to experience sexual arousal if not emission. The sexual connotations of his other remarks, particularly in this scene but generally throughout the play, is such that this declaration—“He's coming”—cannot have sexual content excluded from it.37

And, of course, as Lucio will prove correct later about “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners,” so does he prove correct about Angelo, who is indeed becoming sexually moved by Isabella, “this virtuous maid [who] / Subdues me quite” (184-85). Given the immense authority Angelo exercises as deputed head of state, the coercive measure he will employ to get Isabella into bed, and his breaking his promise to her when he believes he has done so, Angelo's claim that she subdues him appears a version of blaming the victim for the sins of her persecutor, accusing a miniskirt or bikini for inciting a rapist; but in terms of the growth of Isabella's character, Angelo has a legitimate point. Earlier in the scene Isabella tells him, “I would to heaven I had your potency, / And you were Isabel!” (67-68), and the development of the play can be understood, partially, as Isabella's gain and Angelo's loss of the power of free action as he becomes ever more dependent upon, responsive to, her—to this young girl whose original powerlessness is so great as to drive her out of the sphere of human action into a convent, as she tries to move away from people into her isolated self. With his plans for the bed-trick, the Duke will advise Isabella in the exercise of power, but in counseling less coldness and more passion in her approach to Angelo, Lucio does so first.

In her puzzling final speech, certainly, Isabella recognizes the power she possesses and Angelo's vulnerability to it. Kneeling, she addresses the Duke:

                                                                                          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.


It may be gratifying, in a comedy, that the heroine can extend forgiveness even to the man who, she believes, has killed her brother; and her doing so may provide a satisfying exfoliation of the text from the Sermon on the Mount that is adumbrated in the play's title: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2). But most of Isabella's stated reason for extending forgiveness defies both common sense and the evidence of the play. As Anne Barton writes, “It is hard to make sense of this argument. At best, it is special pleading of an illogical kind. That Angelo has not slept with Isabella, as he intended, is true. He has, however, slept with Mariana outside the bonds of holy matrimony, even as Claudio did with Juliet. How, then, can Isabella claim that her brother ‘had but justice’ when he died (as she thinks) for exactly the same sin, fornication on a pre-contract, committed by Angelo with Mariana?”38 But there are also in this speech words that are true and easily comprehensible and that reveal Isabella's final view, not of thoughts, intents, and justice, but of herself:

                                                                                I partly think
A due sincerity governed his deeds,
Till he did look on me.

The words are becomingly modest (“I partly think”), and they attribute action of a sort (“look”) to Angelo, not to herself, but they also reveal her understanding of her own power since a man can lose his “due sincerity” simply by looking upon her. And this loss is sufficient reason (“Since it is so …”) for sparing his life (“Let him not die”). Isabella has come a long way from the timid novice of the play's beginning; she has gained self-knowledge of a degree perhaps equalling the Duke's own. He has learned that a bosom grows more complete when pierced by the dart of love; and she now knows that she has the power to pierce a man's bosom, first Angelo's and then the Duke's. When Isabella pleaded for the life of Claudio, she aroused the lust of Angelo; pleading now for the life of Angelo, she arouses at least the need for her of the Duke, and since he has “a motion much imports your good,” probably his desire as well. Nothing has prepared the audience for the Duke's expressions of interest, as is often observed; but nothing prepared the audience for the explosion of Angelo's lust, either. Or perhaps the fact that each man has defined himself proudly in terms of his self-sufficiency is in both cases a kind of ironic preparation. In any event the proposed alliance of Isabella and the Duke reiterates a dynamic revealed in the earlier, very different, proposed alliance of Isabella and Angelo: her need for their help (with someone else's predicament) stimulates their need for her. Thus needed, Isabella ascends to a station of authority and control quite unthinkable when the play began; thus needed, she can forgo entrance into a convent and give play to her own desire.


  1. Karen Horney, Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis (New York: Norton, 1945), 35.

  2. Ibid., 41-42.

  3. Ibid., 42.

  4. Ibid., 43.

  5. Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization (New York: Norton, 1950), 196.

  6. The text of Shakespeare I quote throughout this essay is The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  7. Bernard J. Paris, Bargains with Fate: Psychological Crises and Conflicts in Shakespeare and His Plays (New York: Plenum Press [Insight Books], 1991), 19. I wish to thank my former student Mary Ann McCarra for bringing this work to my attention.

  8. Ibid., 19, 21.

  9. Ibid., 19, 22.

  10. Ibid., 210. I wish to emphasize again the great value of Paris's study for an understanding of Shakespeare and for the partial rehabilitation of an insufficiently appreciated pioneer of the psychoanalytic movement. I am grateful for the appearance of this book as I was beginning to think about Measure for Measure and Karen Horney. Still, Bargains with Fate seems to me to contain a central weakness: Paris's desire to locate all of Shakespeare's characters within the Horneyan model, which is to make them all neurotic in some degree, and to leave the plays without a visible, embodied norm of behavior or model of emotional stability. Examining the “perfectionist” Kent, for instance, Paris concludes that his abuse of Oswald follows from the perception that Oswald is “an embodiment of his despised self, of what he would most hate to become” (116). I would argue that Kent is extremely secure in his own self and that the homicidal opportunist Oswald is intrinsically despicable, is an unmistakable sign of what is most wrong with the new world order that King Lear has unwittingly allowed to be created; Kent's recognition of Oswald's nature reveals only his own clearheadedness and moral disposition.

  11. Our Inner Conflicts, 64, 65, 67.

  12. Neurosis and Human Growth, 196, 197.

  13. Ibid., 215.

  14. See, for example, Josephine Waters Bennett, “Measure for Measure” as Royal Entertainment (Columbia U. Press, 1966), 79ff.

  15. Our Inner Conflicts, 51.

  16. Neurosis and Human Growth, 215 and passim.

  17. See Neville Coghill, “Comic Form in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955): 24.

  18. The Duke's estimation of himself has, until recently, been largely accepted by the play's critics, of whom G. Wilson Knight may be taken as representative. Knight writes: “The Duke, lord of this play in the exact sense that Prospero is lord of The Tempest, is the prophet of an enlightened ethic. He controls the action from start to finish, he allots, as it were, praise and blame, he is lit at moments with divine suggestion comparable with his almost divine power of fore-knowledge, and control, and wisdom” (The Wheel of Fire, fifth revised edition [New York: Meridian, 1957], 74). He adds, “The Duke's sense of human responsibility is delightful throughout: he is like a kindly father, and all the rest are his children” (79).

  19. Mark Eccles, ed., Measure for Measure, a New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1980), 2250n; J. W. Lever, ed., Measure for Measure, the New Arden edition (New York: Vintage, 1967), 4.3.156n.

  20. Respectively, Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy, revised edition (New York: Dutton, 1969), 221, and E. A. M. Colman, The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (London: Longman, 1974), 224.

  21. New Variorum Measure for Measure, 1609n.

  22. Harriet Hawkins, The Devil's Party: Critical Counter-Interpretations of Shakespearian Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 67.

  23. On “sense” here as sensuality, see William Empson, “Sense in Measure for Measure” in The Structure of Complex Words (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, [1951]), esp. 273-74.

  24. Sigmund Freud, Lecture 19, “Resistance and Repression,” in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, trans. Joan Riviere (New York: Pocket Books, 1953), 304. Earlier Freud writes: “Whenever we are on the point of bringing to [the patient's] consciousness some piece of unconscious material which is particularly painful to him, then he is critical in the extreme; even though he may have previously understood and accepted a great deal, yet now all these gains seem to be obliterated; in his struggles to oppose at all costs he can behave just as though he were mentally deficient, a form of ‘emotional stupidity’” (303).

  25. Meredith Skura, The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process (Yale U. Press, 1981), 255. Earlier she attributes to the Duke some of the function I find in Lucio: “Enter the Duke, like an old-style omniscient psychoanalyst. In one sense, his operations, which counter the other characters' errors, are perfectly satisfactory, even therapeutic, because they force each character to come to terms with his major weakness and not just his offenses against the laws about appetite” (251). In my view, the Duke's own major weakness is his offense against the laws about appetite—that is, his denial of sexuality—and it is Lucio who forces him to come to terms with this offense.

  26. Our Inner Conflicts, 75.

  27. Neurosis and Human Growth, 263.

  28. Paris, Bargains with Fate, 24.

  29. Ibid., 210-11.

  30. See the textual note to line 1426 (i.e., 3.1.230) in A New Variorum Edition of “Measure for Measure,” 152.

  31. Helge Kökeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation (Yale U. Press, 1953), 315.

  32. Shakespeare seems to have used the words farther and further interchangeably, though the latter of these occurs about four times as often (201 times) as the former (47). Each word is used with greater frequency to mean “more” or “additional” than it is to mean “more distant” or “more remote.” Three uses of further supplement the two of farther in Measure for Measure: a messenger tells the Provost of Angelo's “further charge” (4.2.103) to get on with the execution of Angelo; the disguised Duke tells the Provost, “I will go further than I meant, to pluck all fears out of you” (4.2.190-92) over substituting Barnardine's head for Claudio's; and the Duke tells Barnardine, “Sirrah, thou art said to have a stubborn soul / That apprehends no further than this world” (5.1.480-81). Farther's puns on “father” are obviously not present here. For these word counts I have relied on Marvin Spevack, The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare (Belknap Press of Harvard U. Press, 1973).

  33. In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Knopf, 1976), 264, Bruno Bettelheim writes, “Only if the father first indicates his readiness to release his daughter from her ties to him can she feel good about transferring her heterosexual love from its immature object (the father) to its mature object—her future husband.”

  34. Vivian Thomas, The Moral Universe of Shakespeare's Problem Plays (Totowa: Barnes & Noble, 1987), 180.

  35. The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare, 188.

  36. Partridge cites an exchange in Much Ado about Nothing between Margaret, who says, “Well, I will call Beatrice to you, who I think hath legs,” and Benedick, who replies, “And therefore will come” (5.2.23-25; Shakespeare's Bawdy, 81). The plain meaning of this exchange is so clear that the presence of a secondary meaning, sexual or otherwise, may be doubted.

  37. A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, ed. R. W. Burchfield, 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972): 583, has 1650 as the date of its earliest citation for come, “To experience sexual orgasm.” Measure for Measure shows, I believe, that the date must be earlier. Cf. Cleopatra's “Methinks I hear / Antony call; I see him rouse himself / To praise my noble act. I hear him mock / The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men / To excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come!” (Antony and Cleopatra, 5.2.283-87).

  38. Introduction to Measure for Measure in The Riverside Shakespeare, 548.

Robert B. Bennett (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Bennett, Robert B. “Measure for Measure as Comic Romance.” In Romance and Reformation: The Erasmian Spirit of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, pp. 55-68. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Bennett maintains that unlike the utopian moral framework of Shakespeare's previous festive comedies, Measure for Measure is a comic romance that highlights the paradoxical qualities of human nature.]


Comedy designed in the spirit of Erasmian humanism assumes that restoration of order occurs because of the reordering powers of Nature itself when these are coupled with human gifts of the spirit that participate in the power of the mediating Logos. This spiritual element—as distinct, for example, from fortune and cleverness that rule in Roman comedy—is what I mean to signal by the term “romance.” It is a scholar's label, like “problem play” or “festive comedy,” that later times find useful to mark distinguishing characteristics of a group of plays within the larger generic compass of comedy. The label itself could be objected to on the grounds that it was not employed in Shakespeare's age, and even more controversial is the claim that the label fits Measure for Measure. However, both the label and the claim serve my effort in this [essay] to provide an alternative to the currently popular dark vision of the play that, however theoretically justifiable, is, as Erasmus might say, not very useful. When I point out that Shakespeare employed the comic romance's Christian humanist operating assumption of a providential universe, I am asserting that Shakespeare made an artistic choice, not a definitive expression of faith; for Shakespeare regularly juxtaposed comic and tragic visions, and … his “Heraclitean” counterpoint for Measure for Measure is Othello.

Here, then, is a definition of comic romance. Broadly defined, the genre evokes genial laughter and general sympathy for its characters and resolves events in such a way as to leave the audience and the characters amazed at what has happened, at how characters' lives and even their natures have been changed.1 Viewed as a comic romance, Measure for Measure embodies a more constructive vision than much recent criticism has recognized.2 Anne Barton's introduction to Measure for Measure in the Riverside edition of Shakespeare's works is representative of those commentaries that find the play's resolution strained and its vision fundamentally pessimistic, the work of “a Shakespeare now seemingly disillusioned with that art of comedy which, in the past, had served him so well.”3 This frequently voiced biographical explanation for Measure for Measure says that Shakespeare was already, mentally, into his tragic period, and his heart was not at one with his comic formula so that the play lacks the traditional green world of comedy; in it, fairy tale clashes with realism, simplifications of plot clash with complexities of character. The Duke, who occupies the place of moral authority in the comic design, is fraught with flaws so that the verbal echoes associating him with Providence, Christ, and the like are seen to be undermined by his deceitful and perverse, but sordidly realistic, actions. To sum up the prevailing reading: the Duke is a scoundrel, religious symbols and scriptural references are powerless, and the comic formula is hollow. For a play as funny and as stimulating as Measure for Measure, this is a disappointing indictment, denying to the play, as it does, any usefulness in enlightening its audience on the questions of sexual mores, justice, mercy, and the law which it raises so intensively.4

A more open readerly orientation of wonder and admiration, which expectation of romance invites, will find support in the broad and deep tradition of Christian humanist piety and rhetoric. If recognized as a controlled comic work of art, Measure for Measure can bring us in touch, through Shakespeare's synthesizing imagination, with Christian humanism's seasoned and sophisticated conception of values, human nature, and the means of healing social ills. At the same time, the play may be seen as Shakespeare's serious inquiry into the socially remediative capacities of his drama, and touchstones within the play's generic design signal its disturbing elements to be part of, rather than contradictory to, its comic vision of reform. The general positions to be addressed here are the following: Measure for Measure, without compromising its sober view of human nature, is still as coherently conceived in comic terms as A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It. The play's Christian symbolism does not dictate, but only supplements, by suggestive analogy, its comic vision. And the Duke, notwithstanding the troubling and perverse appearance of his actions, within the spirit of romance and from a Christian humanist rhetorical perspective may, like an Erasmian Silenus, be seen legitimately to bear the play's vision and values.

Significant shared features of genre link Measure for Measure with other Shakespearean comedies and call for a reading of Duke Vincentio's role as that of the mediating mentor figure of comic romance. Though popularly labeled a “problem comedy,” it participates, with the festive comedies A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, in a triplet study of natural comic processes within contrasting cultures. The differences distinguishing each of the three plays from the others derive from a decorum in keeping with their different fictive cultural settings. Collectively, the plays reveal Shakespeare's way of finding a common harmony of nature within traditions that accentuate different dimensions of the human condition. The setting of each play contextualizes a particular way in which humans experience love. In each one, love's power as a bonding and reconciling force makes it the substantive basis for comedy. The setting of A Midsummer Night's Dream in ancient Greece befits a celebration of love as a Dionysian frenzy which, though utterly beyond reason's grasp or management, is part of nature's means of perpetuating the species; the play, as a fertility celebration, takes a cosmic perspective linking humans with the rest of procreating nature. The setting of As You Like It in the utopian free forum of Arden forest identifies love with civil conversation. In the classical tradition of humanism, wit and reason in service to good will and kind impulse form bonds through mutual affection and instruction. By such means society is fashioned. The utopian forest of Arden calls to mind Peter Giles's garden in More's Utopia and, behind it, the kind of civil setting one finds in Plato's Dialogues. In Measure for Measure the aspect of love that is celebrated is not an external ordering power or utopian right reason, but the reconciling power of the gifts of the spirit—humility, forgiveness, and sacrifice—an expressly Christian world of sinful but redeemable humanity. The fictive Vienna of this comedy images the Augustinian city of man near its judgment day. From title to final scene, language and situations call to mind biblical parables, narratives, and epistles. The sordid world imaged is not an indication of a would-be comedy subverted by the playwright's irrepressible tragic impulses but a setting appropriate for the oikonomia accommodating the virtues that are the subject of the third comedy in the triplet.

As You Like It is akin to such humanist debate plays as Henry Medwall's Fulgens and Lucres and John Heywood's The Play of the Weather. Such issues as the relative merits of court and country are discussed conceptually in leisure-time conversation. By contrast, values in Measure for Measure are worked out through experience rather than debate. We are not entertained by the witty dialogue of unusually well-adjusted and virtuous people, but confronted with events shaped by contorted speeches spoken by confused and groping human beings who are moved more by their passions than their reason. This event-filled, rather than philosophical and conversational, approach to an understanding of values is related in a very real way to the difference between the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is rooted in history, and the classical tradition, which is rooted in philosophical conversation. In As You Like It good and bad are as clearly defined as the lines in a piece of classical architecture. Measure for Measure is more like a Gothic church with crypts, winding staircases, and gargoyles. In Measure for Measure the forces governing inner self and outer world are profoundly mysterious; appearances are almost always at odds with reality in respect to the moral significance of a situation or action; the people, unattuned to the natural law and out of touch with themselves, see through a glass very darkly. The problems upon which the play focuses are moral more than civil, personal more than public, sexual more than material. In exploring this side of the human condition, Measure for Measure is much closer to the world we experience than are the forests of Athens and Arden. Although holiday is commonly associated with a green world, the former is not predicated upon the latter. In 1 Henry IV, the special occasion of royalty unofficially visiting a tavern makes the Boar's Head Inn a holiday world. The closest analogues to the blighted setting of Vienna in Measure for Measure are London during the Lenten season in Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and London during the plague in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist. Holiday is that time when civil systems yield to nature in the governing of human affairs, and that may occur anywhere. The complex reality of Shakespeare's Vienna matches the one in which the Christian tradition seeks to wrest a divine comedy.

Measure for Measure actually presents a more complete comic vision than A Midsummer Night's Dream, precisely because it does confront and include within it realistically the destructive passions of lust and pride. Psychological motivation is masked in the earlier play by the fairy filter, without which the Dionysian perspective turns sour. Shakespeare, had he desired, could have depicted the human events of A Midsummer Night's Dream realistically, omitting the fanciful overlay of a spirit world; and had he done so, Lysander's designs on Hermia would not seem far removed in cruelty spawned by sexual drive from Angelo's assault on Isabella: Lysander's dubious story about a dowager aunt, his leading Hermia into the woods, conveniently losing his way, becoming frustrated by her failure to be forthcoming with her favors, and abandoning her to the forest at night when Helena appears to offer more likely satisfaction of his appetite. From a strictly human point of view, the marriages at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream are no less problematic than those troubling ones at the end of Measure for Measure. The latter play simply acknowledges what the earlier one mutes, and it grounds its hope in a paradox which Mariana's felix culpa plea for Angelo sums up: “They say best men are moulded out of faults” (5.1.439). The comic vision is, in fact, tentative and provisional. Angelo, like the rest of human kind, is flawed. Comedy lies in the possibility, not the certainty, that one will grow spiritually as a result of suffering the consequences of one's failings. This is the play's Christian comic vision; and understood in this fashion, it is not closed, complacent, or reductive.

As only one of a number of elements that comprise Shakespearean humanist comedies, the Christian dimension of Measure for Measure should be seen as a strategy for exploring human qualities, not as a predetermining doctrinal fiat governing the play. Harriet Hawkins, in a stimulating and vigorously argued study, reduces this openness to an indeterminacy that believes nothing: “To impose any external—thematic, formalist, or theological—solution on the manifold and enduring problems posed within [Measure for Measure] is, in fact, to deny this play its rightful claim to greatness.”5 I would point out, however, that indeterminacy is not the only option for the avoidance of dogmatism, and is, in fact, a form of closure in its unwillingness to believe anything. The humanist writer's more fruitful and genuinely open option is humility: the willingness to consider everything and at the same time to recognize the limits of one's own knowledge and reason, which make all solutions personally derived and tentative. Such blatant fortuity as the availability of Ragozine's head is the comic artist's willing reminder to us that he can laugh at the authority of his own vision. Nevertheless, the comic vision revels in the fact that within the course of actual human events, there do occur satisfying resolutions and harmonies, however partial and temporary. The extent of order that does exist, and that philosophical and religious traditions have sought to comprehend through observation and analysis, is surprising and a cause for celebration, given the proclivity of the human creature toward error and destruction. In Hamlet, Shakespeare had put Christianity to a severe test; for showing the inadequacy of doctrine is the task of tragedy.6 In comedy, the playwright's interest is most likely to be in exploring the admirable extent to which the traditional system of thought is responsive to, consistent with, and insightful about dimensions of human nature and experience.


Measure for Measure differs from A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It modally rather than generically; and as the worlds of the three plays move from disorder to order, they share many of the formal elements in the dynamics of comic restoration. Chief among these are a pre-condition of calamitous social disintegration, a leveling of all social hierarchies, and a movement in holiday, itself, toward increasing error, frenzied disorder, and potentially dangerous consequence, which is averted marvelously through some mix of coincidences, conversions, and discoveries. Also important—often, most important—to the comic process is the presence of a Silenus-like mediating figure like Oberon, Rosalind, and Duke Vincentio. This figure is one who, not flawlessly, but deftly, facilitates events so that needed changes of heart can occur within the characters. I will discuss these points in order.

A sobering feature of many Shakespearean comedies is that holiday commences only when the social order has reached a point of near total collapse. This is perhaps romance form's way of accentuating the commonplace that we, too, need holiday when the energies to perform our accustomed social tasks are dissipated. In As You Like It, usurpation and banishment have routed all persons of merit from society and thrust them, desperately in need, into the wintry wilderness of Arden; in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Titania describes how the rift between her and Oberon over the Indian child has put the whole natural world, including human society, into massive disarray. In Measure for Measure, the Duke's departure, which commences the play, comes at no arbitrary time, but precisely when the values of social order and the truth of the law, which the Duke must personify for the people of Vienna, have almost no adherents. As the Duke-Friar observes about the time: “There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure” (3.2.226-27). Those members of society who would serve divine righteousness, Angelo and Isabella, have turned totally inward and are as imprisoned in their dogmatic rules as those citizens who have turned away from the law are slaves to their ungoverned passions. If Claudio's reference to “nineteen zodiacs” (1.2.168) is taken as roughly reliable, the process of decay has been a gradual one, extending like most Shakespearean cycles over a generation. Norman Nathan has noted that nineteen zodiacs, or nineteen years, calls to mind the Metonic cycle that marks the period it takes for the new and full moon to return to the same day of the year.7 The judgment day symbolism in Measure for Measure also suggests the end of a cycle of time. It marks the play's kinship with earlier judgment plays and typological analogues like the Noah plays and The Second Shepherds' Play wherein humanity, approaching a point of irredeemable decay, requires a special form of intervention.8

In Measure for Measure social decay is traced by the Duke, himself, to the failure of the people to derive moral leadership from their head. The Duke speaks not only for Angelo, but also for himself, in regard to the present uselessness of his virtue, when he says “if our virtues / Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike / As if we had them not” (1.1.33-34). If the Duke has been both virtuous and ineffectual, the source for his failure, I will argue in detail later, may derive from the disabling effects of calumny. Unable for whatever reason to serve as an exemplar to his people,9 the Duke by his departure provides an outward sign of a condition of spiritual separation between leader and people that already exists. His situation, in other words, is not much different from that of the exiled Duke Senior, the exiled Duke Altofront of Marston's The Malcontent, or Oberon, whom Titania has exiled from her affection. Like Altofront, too, Duke Vincentio disguises in order to recover some measure of influence and leadership without resorting to violence.

Disabled authority ushers in another common feature of Shakespearean comedy, social leveling. When the humanly constructed powers of social class and title, gender, parentage, primogeniture and the like dissolve, a Saturnalian golden world or holiday world of humans accountable only to their own natures and to their species' place within the abiding order of cosmic nature occurs, essentially by default. Shakespeare typically defines this principle of social leveling and common humanity, in the plays where it occurs, through a dominant motif or symbol appropriate to the particular play. In the romantic pastoral dimension of King Lear, all the good folk caring for one another within the encompassing storm and night discover the commonality of the human condition in folly and madness, Shakespeare drawing here upon the Scriptural tradition so central to Erasmus's work. In the tavern world of 1 Henry IV we witness political leveling through the dissolution of authority based solely in name and title, as Tom, Dick, and Francis freely address the Prince of Wales by his Christian name. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, leveling is evident in the bacchanalian principle of sex drive and fertility, which is signified by the elixir that affects fairies, mortals, and pansies alike; propagation and the impulses thereto are great equalizers. In As You Like It, court and country, civilization and nature, are blended into a scene reminiscent, as Charles the Wrestler observes, of the classless, natural, civil Golden World in which the eloquent shepherd stands as representative of humanity. Ladies turn shepherds, duke and courtiers turn foresters, and the native shepherd, Silvius, like Castiglione's Cardinal Bembo, becomes the unlikely authority on the courtier's obsessional topic, the nature of love. And these “shepherds” are joined by others: the idealized Corin of Melibeus vintage, the bumpkin William, and a courtly fool who can play any role including those of court wit and country copulative. Shakespeare's Forest of Arden variously calls to mind the worlds of More's Utopia, the civil discourses of Plato, the shepherd parables of Scripture, and the golden worlds described by Hesiod and Ovid.

In Measure for Measure, the Duke ushers in holiday by moving from his patriarchal role to a fraternal one, becoming a poor brother who dwells with the people as both counselor and debtor, and obedient to the rule. Stripped of all superficial distinctions, humans are all brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. When Escalus proclaims, prior to his honest error of sentencing Mariana, Isabella, and Friar Lodowick for slander and conspiracy against the state, “the Duke's in us” (5.1.295), the assertion of formal authority resonates with a deeper ironic truth of the Duke's having shared by counsel and complicity in the fallible lives of all his subjects. The Duke's sympathetic participation in the lives of others is a bonding force for community, the chief agency of which is a shared kinship in the Fall. Substitution becomes a presiding plot motif in Measure for Measure for this principle of common humanity. Fallibility is emphasized in the prison setting, within which and in front of which the Duke as Friar carries on most of his business—as friars properly do who perform, among the deeds of corporal mercy, the visitation to those in prison (Matt. 25:36). All in Vienna, from pimp to gentleman to novitiate to Friar to Deputy, will in the course of the events be ordered to prison. Before the law all stand condemned; as Hamlet cautions Polonius, “use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?” (2.2.528-29). Justice, accordingly, is not symbolized absolutely by a law carved in stone on a mountain top but relatively by a balance scale. By play's end, should we place the aspiring saint, Angelo, on one end of the moral scale and, on the other end, the seeming derelict, Pompey, a feather on one side or the other would determine the difference between them. The play's “shears-cloth” and “feather-scale” images (1.2.27, 4.2.30) transcend their immediate comic contexts to point to the leveling principle of the Fall. It is in the principles of commonality, which the holiday environments of dissolved societies occasion, that the seeds for reconstituting society can be planted.10 In such an environment, the Erasmian Silenus, the figure of self-disenfranchisement, can best assist those who do not so easily accept their share in common humanity. A providential pressure mapped by comic design unites the varied visions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, and Measure for Measure. The recurrent elements of comic romance sustain with equal openness the definitions of the human condition that the diverse cultures and traditions informing the Renaissance heritage provide.

Usually, the dynamics of holiday move in the direction of mortal danger and irrevocable error. This feature of mounting confusion is seen in A Midsummer Night's Dream where the lovers' turmoil is brought even to the point of dueling, as the chaos of the forest crescendos. Life-threatening practical jokes of Sir Toby, Duke Orsino's dangerously jealous anger, the over-extended abuse of Malvolio, and Antonio's feelings of betrayal conclude the holiday of Twelfth Night. Midnight tavern revelry leaves Hal, made bold by drink and frolic, unprepared for a vital court summons.11 In the unusually benevolent community of Arden Forest, this tendency toward danger in holiday is muted, although Phebe's misdirected passion toward Rosalind seems to accelerate the need for a general resolution. In Measure for Measure this aspect is expressed first in the Duke's scramble to prevent the execution of Claudio and then, calculatedly on the Duke's part, in the elaborately programmed events of Act Five, where charges, counter charges, and sentencings to prison and death fill the air. Undisguising, miraculous transformation, hearts changed, and couples paired typically round off the festive pattern.


Comic markers do not prove a play a comedy, but they are means by which the author encourages in the audience alert to decorum a certain orientation toward the play's overall vision. For rhetorical reasons an author may, on rare occasion, set content in opposition to form, using genre as a deceptive foil to set up an expectation or prejudice in the audience that he will proceed to undermine. This seems to be Shakespeare's method in The Merchant of Venice. Only because of the preponderance of the normative use of orienting genre, however, can such an exception be effective. If we accept that Measure for Measure is by design a comic romance, we must reevaluate the impulse to pass confident moral judgment on its mediating figure, Duke Vincentio. Normally, it is the genre of satire that places the audience in a morally authoritative position vis-à-vis the characters; romance, by contrast, typically includes us in the mystery and leads us to a renewed, clarified, or changed vision. Duke Vincentio stands in interesting contrast in this regard to Justice Overdo in Jonson's Bartholomew Fair. As justice-figures and busy contrivers for moral reform in their respective worlds, both at times find themselves in laughable situations, when unembraceable experience prevents a tidy working out of their plans. The characters, however, are as different as the tempers of their playwrights. In Bartholomew Fair, our knowing, as audience, always exceeds that of the foolish Overdo, and we watch with complacent satisfaction as the judge discovers the narrow base of knowledge from which he has been presuming to pass judgment on others. In Measure for Measure, we may be as surprised as the Duke appears to be by Angelo's defaulting on his promise to spare Claudio. Given that Shakespeare never affords us access to the Duke's private feelings and intentions, we may have reason to suspect that those complications of his plans may be less surprising to him than to us. The mystery that surrounds the Duke is altogether absent from Justice Overdo, and that difference illustrates a central distinction between the genres of comic romance and satire. Our experience in Measure for Measure is not primarily from above the action. We are as immersed in the confusion of partial knowledge and unrefined judgments as most of the characters. In comic romance there are normally one or more characters with whom we identify, who share our normative perspective and mirror our responses. The Duke's surprising actions and lack of self-reflection distance him from us. In Measure for Measure Angelo and Isabella are our closest kin. Their thoughts, words, actions, and reactions are most accessible to psychological analysis because their function in the play includes embodying the human psyche in the process of testing and self-discovery.

All the components of the comic formula—calamitous opening, social leveling, mounting confusion, and festive resolutions—are of relatively little significance in rendering the play a true comedy if the play's comic protagonist is fundamentally flawed—not slightly flawed, but fundamentally flawed. To many, Duke Vincentio is the latter; and, indeed, he poses a host of ethical problems including his appointment of Angelo, his proposing the bed-trick, his withholding from Isabella the fact that her brother is alive, and his proposing marriage to Isabella. If these are wise and well-intentioned actions on the Duke's part, then they are certainly unconventional; but that is just the point. The mentor figure in comic romance is never conventional because, were he so, he would be subject to conventional wisdom rather than be the propagator of new, reformative vision. The authority of his position within the comic design urges us to reexamine the adequacy of appearances as our own basis for presuming moral authority over the Duke.

Typically, the mentor figure fills the role of the benevolent, shrewd, quick-witted intervenor in human affairs, capable of subtle and imaginative means of working within a complex and often corrupt social environment to bring about reform on both the personal and collective levels. The figure is resilient, self-assured and self-controlled, spontaneous, improvisational, decisive, void of introspection, didactic, patronizing, charismatic, and authoritative. The charismatic quality encourages the audience to believe that whatever incidental setbacks his methods might encounter, success in attaining his goal is never in doubt. The Shavian superman, as defined by Charles A. Berst, is a modern expression of the type. He is

a coherent self flowing through time, acting as much through time and space as acted upon. As such, he has his own personal moral values … which … tend to overwhelm and confuse the fragmentary, poorly-formed moralities of conventional men.12

The Elizabethan equivalent is suggested in such a phrase as “complete bosom” (MM: 1.3.3) and in what Hamlet means in describing Horatio as one “whose blood and judgment are so well co-meddled” (3.2.69) that vicissitudes of fortune cannot unbalance him.13 Though self-controlled, the figure is no stoic, but a lively player in human affairs. The classical prototype for the figure would seem to be the sea god Proteus, as A. Bartlett Giamatti has defined his reputation in the Renaissance.14 The mythic Proteus is regarded variously as limitless man, civic lawgiver, and artist. “He appealed,” Giamatti writes, “to the Renaissance for many reasons, but above all two: because he reconciled all differences and opposites, and because he embodied the principle of illusion as a mask for reality, appearance at once concealing and leading to vital or to deadly truths (444) … [he is] the free imitator of nature and maker of forms … the diviner of secrets and the possessor of valuable truths” (450).

Discussing Proteus in The Antitheatrical Prejudice, Jonas Barish explores both the negative and positive connotations of the figure for the Renaissance and, in the latter vein, observes the connection recognized between Proteus and Christ as divine adopters of human form to advance justice within the human sphere, both users of “craft against craft for holy ends.”15 Erasmus, in Ratio verae theologiae calls Christ Proteus (Holborn 214; LB V 94B) in describing Christ's highly variable behavior with his disciples, the people, and his persecutors. Erasmus juxtaposes passages from the Gospels to illustrate Christ's range of moods, strategies, and even apparent statements on the true nature of things (Holborn 211-15; LB V 92E-94B). Scripture, too, Erasmus observes in Paraclesis, is protean in its ability to reach simultaneously all levels of humanity: “This doctrine in an equal degree accommodates itself to all, lowers itself to the little ones, adjusts itself to their measure, nourishing them with milk, bearing, fostering, sustaining them, doing everything until we grow in Christ. Again, not only does it serve the lowliest, but it is also an object of wonder to those at the top. And the more you shall have progressed in its riches, the more you shall have withdrawn from the shadow of the power of any other” (Olin 100-101, Holborn 141-42; LB V 140A). Paul, too, in imitation of Christ is like a chameleon (Holborn 223; LB V 98F). Proteus is, in sum, a figure of mystery and ambiguity, of truth and authority, and such are the mix of qualities common to the mediating mentor in comic romance. Elizabethan-Jacobean protagonists who are like Duke Vincentio in their resiliency and generally spontaneous mastery of situations include Rosalind, Prince Hal, Prospero, and, most closely in time and circumstance, John Marston's disguised duke, Altofront-Malevole.16

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare gives dramatic expression to the paradoxical principle that justice cannot be just nor mercy merciful without the full participation of each in the other. However much we are inclined to regard justice and mercy as desirable for the proper functioning of society, we do not easily see how the one can and must be always the equivalent of the other. The Duke differs from us in that he comprehends the equivalence and governs his actions according to this surprising and paradoxical understanding. Thus the Duke operates according to a philosophical perspective that is both different from and more profound than our own. The Duke's seemingly inept and outrageous actions with which we are continually confronted, by this orientation alert us not to his degeneracy but to our own need to cut through the foul appearances to the justifying essence.

As the Protean prototype suggests, these characters are more than principles personified; they are persons acting out of principle. Their humanity is a complex one, not immune at a certain level to error and to genuine human feelings that may be subjected to psychological analysis. Commentators unsympathetic to the Duke are likely to see his interest in Isabella as a central motivation behind his actions. The Duke has feelings, and he should not be faulted for proving his humanity by falling in love with Isabella. The power that her beauty and grace have over men, declared by Claudio, is proved by the responses of Lucio, Angelo, and the Duke to her on first meeting. A predominantly psychological reading of the Duke, however, diminishes the importance of his actions in the first two acts before he even knows of Isabella's existence and discounts the fact that disguise, particularly in romance, serves as a shield against the blurring and disabling effects of strong personal feelings. The psychological has its place, but it is, for the purposes of comic romance, a secondary one. Inga-Stina Ewbank is generally right in saying “the Comedies … operate more by patternings of language, structure, and theme than by exploration of the troubled workings of the human mind.”17


The orientation that comic romance form encourages us to take toward the Duke is wonder, not condemnation. Wonder entails both astonishment and the impulse to inquiry, and wonder is the staple emotion of the genre.18 Thus, Celia can tease Rosalind in breaking the news of Orlando's chance arrival in Arden, “O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful! and yet again wonderful, and after that, out of all hooping!” (3.2.191-93). And Rosalind, as Ganymed, will tutor Orlando in faith when she bids: “Believe then, if you please, that I can do strange things” (5.2.59). The same sense of wonder is entailed in Hippolyta's famous estimation of the young lovers' reconciling night in the woods:

And all their minds transfigur'd so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.


By orienting the audience to a world that includes superhuman sprites, Shakespeare will suggest that Peter Quince speaks more profoundly than perhaps he realizes in his instruction to his audience on how to take the play of Pyramus and Thisby: “Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show / But wonder on till truth make all things plain” (5.1.127-28). Though laughable in context, Quince actually expresses perfectly the openness with which the author of comic romance would have his audience receive his work. And Measure for Measure, ever in its minor key, plays a final chord on this refrain in Escalus's astonishment at the discovery of Angelo's fall, observing as he does to the Duke: “My Lord, I am more amaz'd at his dishonor / Than at the strangeness of it” (5.1.379-80). His words remind us that the vagaries of the human heart are more to be wondered at than any contrivances the comic artist can fashion to make things right.


  1. For discussions of the role of nature in comic romance see C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959) and Northrop Frye, The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1983).

  2. Adena Rosmarin, The Power of Genre (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 3-21, provides a useful definition of criticism as a rhetorical and pragmatic discipline: “Its goal is not the visualization or unearthing of something that already … exists but, rather, the performance of an act: the defining of a critical problem in such a way that its significance becomes obvious and its solution possible. Rather than arguing its validity, its mirror-like correspondence to the not-itself, a rhetorical and pragmatic theory seeks to justify its value as an argument … as an ongoing inquiry into what works” (20-21). Rosmarin's study draws importantly upon E. H. Gombrich's notion of schema in Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960).

  3. Anne Barton, introduction to Measure for Measure in The Riverside Shakespeare, 548-49.

  4. Recent essays that emphasize the play as a study in political oppression include Jonathan Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance,” in Dollimore, Jonathan and Alan Sinfield, eds., Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 72-87, and Anthony B. Dawson, “Measure for Measure, New Historicism, and Theatrical Power,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 328-41. Clinical studies of the Duke which deny him any visionary authority and place him on the same level of psychological disturbance as Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio include Richard A. Levin, “Duke Vincentio and Angelo: Would ‘A Feather Turn the Scale’?” Studies in English Literature 22 (1982): 257-70; Ralph Berry, “Language and Structure in Measure for Measure,University of Toronto Quarterly 46 (1976/7): 148-61; and Ruth Nevo, “‘Measure for Measure’: Mirror for Mirror,” Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988): 107-22. Alexander Leggatt, “Substitution in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 342-59, finds not only the Duke a flawed ruler but the play, itself, one that Shakespeare despaired of resolving. Approaches akin to my own, which regard the Duke's actions as directed by moral and ethical principle rather than by psychological or political interests include James Black, “The Unfolding of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973): 119-28; Nevill Coghill, “Comic Form in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955): 14-27; Arthur C. Kirsch, “The Integrity of ‘Measure for Measure’,” Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975): 89-105; Mathew Winston, “‘Craft Against Vice’: Morality Play Elements in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 229-48; and Francis Fergusson, “Philosophy and Theatre in Measure for Measure,Kenyon Review 14 (1952): 103-20.

  5. Harriet Hawkins, “‘The Devil's Party’: Virtues and Vices in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978): 113.

  6. See my essay, “Hamlet and the Burden of Knowledge,” Shakespeare Studies 15 (1982): 77-97.

  7. Norman Nathan, “Nineteen Zodiacs: Measure for Measure I.ii.172,” Shakespeare Quarterly 7 (1956): 83-84. I have discussed Shakespeare's cyclical notion of history in more detail in “Four Stages of Time: The Shape of History in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy,” Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 65-68.

  8. Diffey explores this archetypal framework for the play's events and draws an important link between the play's vision and contemporary problems of law court justice (231-37). Connection of the play with scripture has also been well documented by G. Wilson Knight, “Measure for Measure and the Gospels,” The Wheel of Fire, rev. 4th ed. (London: Methuen, 1949), 73-96; and Roy Battenhouse, “Measure for Measure and Christian Doctrine of the Atonement,” PMLA 61 (1946): 1029-59.

  9. King James, in words to his son, Prince Henry, stresses the importance of making his virtue visible as a model for his people: “what aggreeance … he [the King] ought to keepe betwixt his outward behauiour in these things, and the vertuous qualities of his minde: & howe they should serue for trunche-men, to interprete the inwarde disposition of the minde, to the eyes of them that cannot see farther within him, and therefore must onely iudge of him by the outward appearance” (The Basilicon Doron of King James VI [1599], vol. I, ed. James Craigie [Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1944], 15).

  10. I have explored this principle of leveling in 2 Henry IV and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard in “The Golden Age in the Cycles of History,” 167 and 172.

  11. See my article, “Prince Hal's Crisis of Timing in the Tavern Scene of Henry IV, Part I,Cahiers Élisabéthaines 13 (April 1978): 15-24.

  12. Charles A. Berst, “The Devil and Major Barbara,PMLA 83 (1968): 72-73.

  13. Compare the Duchess's words to Antonio in John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Methuen, Revels Plays, 1964): “If you will know where breathes a complete man—/ I speak it without flattery—turn your eyes / And progress through yourself” (1.1.435-37).

  14. A. Bartlett Giamatti, “Proteus Unbound: Some Versions of the Sea God in the Renaissance,” in The Disciplines of Criticism: Essays in Literary Theory, Interpretation, and History, ed. Peter Demetz, Thomas Greene, and Lowry Nelson Jr. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), 437-75.

  15. Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 114.

  16. The kinship in principles and methodologies of Altofront and Vincentio are very close. The actions of both are conceived in light of Christian humanist reform strategy. The Malcontent, like Measure for Measure, appeared in 1604. See my article, “The Royal Ruse: Malcontentedness in John Marston's The Malcontent,Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 1 (1984): 71-84.

  17. Inga-Stina Ewbank, “Shakespeare's Liars,” Proceedings of the British Academy (April 1983): 158.

  18. J. V. Cunningham, “Woe or Wonder” (1951) in Tradition and Poetic Structure: Essays in Literary History and Criticism (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1960), 188-273, provides an insightful study of the role of wonder in classical and Renaissance literature, noting its workings alike in tragedy and comedy, noting that “wonder, however, is especially the effect of the denouement of those plays which the literary historian calls romances” (216). See also Joel Altman's discussion of the centrality of wonder to the humanist rhetorical tradition influencing the purpose and methods of Renaissance drama (The Tudor Play of Mind, 1-2).

William B. Bache (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: Bache, William B. “The Ethic of Love and Duty.” In Measure for Measure as Dialectical Art, pp. 1-12. Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Studies, 1969.

[In the following essay, Bache examines the social and ethical concerns outlined in Measure for Measure and contends that the drama points to self-sacrificing love as a remedy for the excesses of human liberty.]

In Measure for Measure the Shakespeare ethic of love and duty operates on dark, brutal life. Each character begins with a selfish attitude toward the world and the ways of the world, and the Duke in the guise of Friar tries, and is made to try, to do what he can to preserve life so that it may become human. Escalus and the Provost and Elbow, who represent descending levels of temporal power, have good intentions but are in themselves ineffectual. The caught characters range from Angelo, who in the first scene is given full temporal power by the Duke, down to Barnardine, who is so lost that he cannot be instructed but is finally freed. The play brilliantly catches life as it actually, essentially is: devious, disordered, uncontrolled. Within the kind of realistic world rendered by the play, the characters are forced or led or allowed to enact human justice. And the chief instruments of the resultant goodness are the Duke and Isabella, the finest human beings in the play, who realize themselves most fully as they are forced or enabled or allowed to serve God, to love, and to mend. They become able, and are best able, to extend themselves beyond themselves, to enforce the Shakespeare ethic of love and duty.1

The essential plot problem of Measure for Measure, which the farcical subplot extends and magnificently ramifies, is at the heart of the Shakespearean achievement: how man is to live and how society is to be ruled. In this play this problem is specifically and significantly expressed by the Duke as a riddle: “There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure, but security enough to make fellowships accurst—much upon this riddle runs the wisdom of the world.”2 The Duke was a poor ruler because he was too lenient, too kind, and because a loveless, “seeming” world is too much for any ruler. At first Angelo is a bad ruler because he has no feeling, no heart; later he is a worse ruler, a tyrant, because he wishes to deny the guilt that results from his aroused feelings, the guilt that causes him to put himself above his office. The Duke as Friar uses craft to counteract the growing vice of Angelo, and thus, paradoxically, erring humanity is brought to a secure, true world.

In the first scene, as he turns the city over to Angelo, the Duke says:

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike
As if we had them not.

In the second scene Claudio has just been arrested because Angelo, now acting as the Duke, has enforced an old law against fornication. Claudio is talking to Lucio:

As surfeit is the father of much fast,
So every scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue,
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.

In the fourth scene Lucio has gone, at Claudio's behest, to Isabella, Claudio's sister, as she is about to enter the cloister of Saint Clare. He speaks to her:

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

The three passages3 are difficult and multiply meaningful and ironic: they reach out to the ends of the play. In the first place there is a simple causal relationship: because the Duke gives power to Angelo, Angelo enforces an old law, which catches Claudio; because Claudio appeals to Lucio to be his messenger to Isabella, Isabella is persuaded to go to Angelo, who is then caught by Isabella and her goodness; because of Angelo's importunity, the Duke is able to substitute Mariana, Angelo's rejected betrothed, for Isabella at an assignation. As Angelo's vice grows, the Duke's craft must be more wide-ranging and devious and, it should be added, more desperately dependent upon others.

Each of the three passages is realized in a specific context. The Duke is giving advice; Claudio is bitter at having been caught; Lucio is trying to persuade Isabella to do something that she doesn't want to do. Further, each of the three passages is seen in an enlarging context. The Duke's lines are predicated on an ethical, inclusive view of man, man as true human being. Claudio's lines give a limited view of man, man as animal. Lucio's lines give a limited, amoral view of human beings, of man as husbandman and of woman, metaphorically, as a kind of garden. Thus, in a larger sense, each of the three passages gives a different view of human nature; each presents a different view of responsibility, of the nature of the relationship of the individual to himself, to others, to society, and even to God. One of the remarkable aspects of the passages is that Lucio's seems a perversion of the others.

Now as a matter of fact, Claudio's statement and Lucio's can be seen as being imagistically and mutually compatible: one does not deny or cancel the other. Animal life depends on plant life. “As those that feed grow full” precedes “surfeit,” and both food and surfeit are related to “appetite,” a concept of wide sensual associations, as Troilus and Cressida makes clear. Claudio and Lucio express different conclusions about life for obvious reasons: Claudio is caught, and Lucio wants to engage Isabella. Both passages image life at a grange: “seedness,” “fallow,” “tilth,” “husbandry,” and “rats” are all part of grange life. The rat is simply a necessary, natural addition to Lucio's description. And Claudio's prior passage provides the rat. It is at a grange then that a rat is the enemy and needs to be poisoned, if the harvest is to be protected.

The way of life imaged in the two passages is the way of life that would be enacted at the moated grange, a setting that is suddenly introduced into Measure for Measure at the beginning of Act IV. Mariana, like Sebastian in Twelfth Night, is the character that the poetic logic of the play demands: she is the explicit means, the implicit answer. Mariana forces the equation of Angelo with Claudio: Mariana is to Angelo what Juliet is to Claudio. And Mariana is a substitute for Isabella at the assignation. Mariana makes possible the paired lovers, the couples who are presented in descending human order at the end of the play: The Duke and Isabella; Claudio and Juliet; Angelo and Mariana; Lucio and Kate Keepdown.4 Grange life underlies the life with which the play expressly deals; it is the natural life outside the city upon which the human community inside the city depends. It is only after Mariana comes into the city that the marriages can be effected. And marriage is the symbolic sanction Shakespeare has religion pay to the human community in order to secure it.5 After the characters have been corrected and instructed, they are brought to the city gate, and now, only at the end, can the ceremony of marriage be properly performed, and that ceremony is off stage (with Mariana and Angelo) or in the future.

In a manner of speaking, Mariana also brings Barnardine into the city with her as part of grange life. For it is instructive that Barnardine, the most irreligious person in the play, is mentioned for the first time in the second scene of Act IV. In the following scene Barnardine's angry, brutal voice is twice heard before his attendance is announced by Pompey's remarkable “He is coming, sir, he is coming. I hear his straw rustle.” Imagistically, Barnardine is from the barnyard; he is the rat from the grange. And since he is several times equated with Claudio, Barnardine is what Claudio can become. And if this is true for Claudio, then it is also true for Angelo and Lucio. Barnardine is what man is when he has lost his soul. He is existential man, man as animal. Barnardine doesn't want power, like Angelo; he doesn't want to subvert society, like Lucio; he doesn't even want security, like Claudio. He simply wants to be let alone, to drink and to sleep: to him life is as meaningless as death. He has become almost inhuman, and he seems incapable of correction. He will not feel and he cannot see.

But we aren't allowed to forget that Barnardine is still, after all, a human being. And if Barnardine is imagistically part of grange life, he is only part: Mariana has her saving graces. When she is discovered at the grange, a boy is singing to her:

Take, O, take those lips away
          That so sweetly were forsworn,
And those eyes, the break of day,
          Lights that do mislead the morn.
But my kisses bring again, bring again,
Seals of love, but sealed in vain, sealed in vain.

In order to help make clear the complexity of the song, I quote the following from William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity:

In that he must take his lips away he is already in her presence; she is actually telling him to go, and keeping command of the situation; or if he is only present in her imagination, because she cannot forget him, still the source of her fantasy satisfaction is to pretend that he is already in her presence, that she is in a position to repel him, or pretend to repel him; and her demand would be satisfied both by an expression of her resentment and by a forgetting of her desire. But he cannot be in her presence already, because he must come and bring again her kisses; and thus, when he is not present, she confesses that she wants more of them. But, again (if perhaps he is present, and she is sending him back to fetch the things), he must not bring her new kisses, but only her old ones back, so as to restore her to her original unkissed condition. Notice that the metaphor from seals does not keep up this last pretence, which seems to be her main meaning; it is no more use giving back a seal when it has been broken than a kiss when you wish to revoke your kisses.

The specific reference in the song is to Angelo, to his lips and his eyes, to the light in his eyes “that do mislead the morn.” The song echoes the Duke's passage that has already been given: “Heaven doth with us as we with torches do, / Not light them for themselves.” Angelo's eyes have led him to this evil. After Mariana agrees to take Isabella's place, the Duke ends the scene with a clear echo of Lucio's passage: “Come, let us go. / Our corn's to reap, for yet our tithe's to sow.” Mr. Empson might have suggested, if he were interested in the total play, that “sealed in vain” indicates the solution to the plot problem of the play, for everyone in the play has to break his own seal of vanity or pride before any viable social order is possible. The range of vanity in men is from Angelo's complete concern for self down to Barnardine's complete unconcern for life or death. The range of pride in women is from Isabella's early but complete rejection of the world down to Kate Keepdown's complete acceptance of it.

At the end of Act III and at the beginning of Act IV, Shakespeare presents then a shorthand statement of the dialectical movement of the play. He does this by employing three different modes: first, the riddle, upon which runs much of the wisdom of the world, the riddle posed by an uninstructed, inhuman world; second, the counter to actual vice, the recognition by the Duke of the necessity of his using craft against vice, an answer explicitly stated in octosyllabic couplets; third, not just, as in the couplets, a measure against a measure, but an affirmative, positive answer that obviates the riddle by changing the world. It may be said, I think, that in order to get the answer to the riddle, the world must be given new characters, a new setting, and the harmony of song, words added to music. As the song makes clear, the seals of vanity must be broken if the world is to be human in any meaningful way.

The song is the answer, but the song has to come from outside and out of pressing human needs, and the song has to be implemented, has to be made workable, and the world must find or be luckily given the means of its salvation. After the song the Duke enters as a “man of comfort.” The Duke comes in order to bring again the kisses of Angelo to Mariana, for the Duke has already provided the way for the kisses to be brought again to Mariana. Thus, further, again is a gain. The bringing of the kisses demands that desire be aroused in Angelo, that Isabella give her aid, and that the Duke be more than the Friar, at least ultimately. The song, as it is worked out and enforced, will constitute a real gain for the world, for humanity. The means of the gain are extensive and elaborate.

Angelo is the ostensible Duke. Amoral Lucio operates with vicious effectiveness under Angelo's rule, for Angelo's law is just without being merciful or understanding and can be conveniently used by one who, like Lucio, knows how to play the game. Thus, Lucio is a kind of licensed rat in the city. Like Lucifer he deals in slander, putting a bad light on goodness and virtue and a good light on vanity, in order to bring good down and in order to promote self-interest. To him fellowship is a means, and security makes his operations possible. Lucio is at Isabella's side during her first interview with Angelo because, in addition to wanting to help Claudio, he wants Isabella to undermine Angelo. The Provost, with his asides, is there as Lucio's opposite, for the Provost is concerned with others, with a higher law: he serves the true Duke.

Lucifer means light-bringing,6 and the torch and light image in the Duke's passage looks toward Lucio. For it is one of the central ironies of the play that Lucio unwittingly works for good. By calling Isabella from the cloister and by bringing her back to the city, Lucio brings Isabella to realize herself, to go so far as to be willing to serve Mariana and ultimately to join the Duke in marriage. Lucio is the one who uncovers the Friar at the end, in this way symbolically making the Duke what he has always potentially been; Lucio brings the Duke dramatically back to the world.

In II, 2, during the first interview with Angelo, these lines are spoken:

I would to Heaven I had your potency
And you were Isabel! Should it then be thus?
No, I would tell what 'twere to be a judge,
And what a prisoner.
[aside to Isabella] Aye, touch him, there's the vein.

Lucio's observation is like that of a prospector who discovers rich ore: the relationship of judge to prisoner and what being a judge and being a prisoner mean are pregnant considerations, a rich vein, to Lucio and for us. The play always seems to work from a tension between judge and prisoner. Isabella's first sentence above firmly establishes the equation of Angelo with Isabella, for both of them are initially self-righteous. In addition, Lucio is getting at Angelo, using Isabella to get at Angelo (I “touch him”). Lucio is doing here what the Duke will do with Isabella and Mariana in IV, 1. There the Duke will adopt the means of Lucio, but for an entirely different purpose.

Vein in Lucio's line is picked up by vain in the song, as if vanity is to be seen in Lucio's line here, just as vein is to be seen in the song there. Primarily, however, the reference in “Aye, touch him, there's the vein” is, I think, to a blood vein. Angelo, we see, is moved, impassioned, feeling blood. Lucio perceives the place of touching the vein. Thus the reference seems to be to a shambles (in which case Lucio and Isabella are butchers) or to another place of bloodletting, the prison (in which case Lucio and Isabella are executioners) or to still a third place of bloodletting (in which case Lucio and Isabella are doctors, intent upon curing illness by letting blood). The place of death or the place of health has been found, and Lucio's advice to Isabella can be seen as the advice of one butcher to another, of one executioner to another, of one doctor to another. A butcher is a natural addition to grange life; an executioner is a natural addition to city life; a doctor is a natural addition to human life.

The sealed-in vain must be released, just as the sealed-in vein must be touched. The idea of blood as well as perhaps even, by a kind of witty extension, the idea of blood sports fuses with the insistence on perception. Blood and sight push us into taking seals and sealed in the song as being seels and seeled, the notion from falconry of sewing the eyes of a hawk shut. Vanity or blood seels, prevents any human sight, forestalls the possibility of meaningful perception. Angelo was blinded by self-love, and now he has been made blind by a different love, by his desire for Isabella. Angelo's love is still only vain, in a number of senses: this vain love must be controlled and constrained, or else it will be wantonly destructive, very bloody. In a sense, the sides of Measure for Measure are sonnet 129, lust, and sonnet 116, true love. Of specific pertinence here is the recognition that, metaphorically, Angelo must be kept hooded or seeled until it is time for him to see, that, paradoxically, Angelo has been and will be protected through his being seeled in vain.

In order to best approach the play it seems to me essential to turn quite early to G. Wilson Knight's The Wheel of Fire: Its moral of love is, too, the ultimate splendour of Jesus' teaching.

Measure for Measure is indeed based firmly on that teaching. The lesson of the play is that of Matthew, V. 20:

For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall
exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees,
ye shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The play must be read, not as a picture of normal human affairs, but as a parable, like the parables of Jesus. The plot is, in fact, an inversion of one of those parables—that of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew, Xviii); and the universal and level forgiveness at the end, where all alike meet pardon, is one with the forgiveness of the Parable of the Two Debtors (Luke, Vii). Much has been said about the difficulties of Measure for Measure. But, in truth, no play of Shakespeare shows more thoughtful care, more deliberate purpose, more consummate skill in structural techniques, and, finally, more penetrating ethical and psychological insight. None shows a more exquisitely inwoven pattern. And, if ever the thought at first seems strange, or the action unreasonable, it will be found to reflect the sublime strangeness and unreason of Jesus' teaching.

It is part of the poetic meaning of the play that in a sense Lucio becomes “the light of the world” (an overtone of the Duke's passage that the rest of the play renders) and that Angelo, the angel, must fall before he can become a man. The Duke's lines hint at the future of Lucio and Angelo; the rest of the play uses Lucio and Angelo as two developments of the lesson contained in the Sermon on the Mount, and, once they are introduced, we should not forget Claudio, who is to be saved, and Barnardine, who apparently cannot be reclaimed. The final scene takes place at the city gate, where hidden truths are revealed and accepted.

The play then works from parallels and contrasts, from parable characters, from a series of related characters, and from comparable situations. The caught men present an order in despair and an order then is reclamation: Claudio is more repentant than Angelo; Angelo is more repentant than Lucio; Lucio more than Barnardine. Each is isolated, trapped, and each is released. Claudio, Angelo, and Lucio move into another kind of control, a control signified by the marriage tie. When the Duke is added, almost a complete list results, for security is offered by and through the trapped women: Isabella, Juliet, Mariana, Kate Keepdown. They secure the men and, through the men, society. Barnardine is just released, let go. The test of every character in Measure for Measure is the distance he can move into human awareness, into self-knowledge. It is the test of every character in every Shakespeare play.

At the end, Isabella performs the ultimate act of human kindness and understanding, of human awareness; thinking her brother a forfeit to the law, she kneels beside Mariana before the returned Duke, who now to her is temporal power, and begs for Angelo's life:

                                                                                                    Most bounteous sir,
Look, if it please you, on this man condemned
As if my brother lived. 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 perished by the way. Thoughts are no subjects,
Intents but merely thoughts.

“For Angelo”—that short, strange line—can go with the preceding thought: “My brother had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died. / For Angelo.” Claudio has to be “dead” in order for Angelo to feel remorse, to be really penitent, and in order for Isabella to make her marvelous gesture: Claudio must be “dead” in order for the world to humanly live. Isabella admits the right of justice, and she is herself, at the moment, the instrument of true mercy. In the face of what Isabella believes that justice has done, she can still plead to this bounteous sir for mercy.

Intents would seem to allow us to see the word as being intense, and this makes Isabella's argument extreme. It doesn't make any difference how intense the thoughts are: so long as they remain simply thoughts, they should not be punished as if they were accomplished acts. Further, Angelo wanted Claudio dead because Angelo intended to protect only himself. Angelo intended to destroy Claudio, but the Duke used craft in time in order to control Angelo's intent. Thoughts are worked out as deeds in time. Action has been submitted to time, and the audience has watched the Duke working in time, using time, finally controlling time, providing the world this particular occasion in time. A time consideration has demanded that the Duke enlist the services of the Provost, Isabella, and Mariana. We are meant to understand the pertinence of time to justice and mercy, the ultimate tension of Measure for Measure. At the very end when the Duke accepts his authority, he is then submitting the now-secure world to time—to time where man both comes to maturity and is destroyed, as sonnet 60 makes clear.

Exceedingly relevant to Measure for Measure is E. M. W. Tillyard's notion that the full pattern in a Shakespeare play presents three stages—prosperity, destruction, re-creation.7 For in Measure for Measure an initial “sophisticated” world is presented; that world is destroyed, and out of that destruction emerges a real world, a truly human world. The society at the beginning of Measure for Measure is one of false prosperity, of “seeming”; it is divorced from actual life. And the movement of the action is in the direction of making the world more consonant with true life, with human reality. The characters are corrected and instructed. The movement is toward reality and into truth. The characters move into the light and to the city gate: roles become proper at the very end.

It may be argued, I believe, that the symbolic movement of every Shakespeare play is a movement back to an ordered world, to a garden, to a Garden of Eden existence, to a purified state. Then re-creation must submit itself to prosperity. For in a garden, life is idealized, what life only ideally is. Paradoxically, human life must leave the green world, the garden. Paradise must be lost if Heaven is to be won. At the end of As You Like It, for example, the secure world will leave the Forest of Arden and will return to the envious court. At the end of The Tempest secure society will go back to Naples and Milan: the lessons learned on the magic isle must be submitted to the uncontrolled and uncontrollable real world.

Clearly, Measure for Measure is about human action and human beings, about honor and dishonor, about freedom and responsibility, about being and becoming. The dialectical problem posed by the play can be stated in Eliot's terms: man must be both an individual and a member. If he is just an individual, the result tends toward anarchy; if he is only a member, the result tends toward communism. The essential problem then is one of liberty—the extremes of which are anarchy and tyranny—as the quoted passages by the Duke, Claudio, and Lucio make clear. The social answer is a society that allows maximum human freedom for the individual as member. The Shakespearean answer given in Measure for Measure may be said to be found in the family. And it is toward the family, an enlarged family, that the symbolism of the play moves.

Measure for Measure doesn't lie about the nature of life, about the huge difficulty of finding any kind of human solution to existence. It doesn't, for instance, say that we can truly live in this world by ignoring the problems of living. It doesn't say that we can do what we can get away with, with due regard for the policeman around the corner. It doesn't advocate “the stoical scheme of supplying our wants by lopping off our desires.” The sides of the play are self-centeredness and sacrifice, vanity and love. The essential human problem rendered by the play is how man is to live, to be ruled, and to rule. And the enormously complex solution to this problem is the Shakespeare ethic of love and duty in operation.


  1. For an excellent discussion of the ethical presuppositions of the play see Elizabeth Marie Pope, “The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare Survey, 2 (1949), 66-82.

  2. All quotations are from Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by G. B. Harrison (New York, 1952).

  3. See the discussions of the Claudio and Lucio passages by D. A. Traversi (in An Approach to Shakespeare (New York, 1956), pp. 108-110) and by S. Nagarajan (in the Introduction to Measure for Measure in the Signet Classic Shakespeare Series (New York, 1964), pp. XXIV-XXV).

  4. Though Kate Keepdown is mentioned, she never appears on stage. At any rate, the order of the couples in Measure for Measure is prefigured by the explicit order of the paired lovers in As You Like It: Orlando and Rosalind; Oliver and Celia; Silvius and Phebe; Touchstone and Audrey.

  5. “Shakespeare's comedies also begin with trouble, end in joy and are centered in love, albeit human love. The joyful solemnitas of marriage is an image of happiness that ends his comedies almost as invariably as death ends a tragedy.” (Nevill Coghill, “Comic Form in Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare Survey, 8 (1955), 18.) J. W. Lever expands the observation: “Whatever Shakespeare's religion may have been, the main body of his work from the early comedies to The Tempest suggests that in his view consecrated marriage signified not only the ‘happy ending’ to a play but the gateway to man's fulfillment of his primary function in the natural world.” (J. W. Lever, Introduction to the Arden Measure for Measure (London, 1965), p. XCI.)

  6. Roy Battenhouse discusses the significance of many of the names (Roy Battenhouse, “Measure for Measure and the Christian Doctrine of the Atonement,” Publication of the Modern Language Association, LXI (1946), 1029-59, passim). In a footnote to his article on comic form, Mr. Coghill remarks that Mr. Battenhouse thinks Lucio's name suggests lightness (levity) not light (Lucifer). Mr. Coghill says that Lucio is a minor fiend (Coghill, p. 24).

  7. See E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Last Plays (London, 1951), particularly “The Tragic Pattern,” pp. 16-58, passim.

Michael Billington (review date 5 May 2003)

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SOURCE: Billington, Michael. Review of Measure for Measure.Guardian (5 May 2003): 18.

[In the following review, Billington critiques Sean Holmes's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Measure for Measure and finds fault with its overemphasis on the corruption of modern society.]

After its airborne Taming of the Shrew, the Royal Shakespeare Company comes back to earth with this problematic comedy. Sean Holmes's production has pace, energy and a fine Isabella in Emma Fielding; but its moral negativism seems a hangover from the director's recent work on The Roman Actor.

Holmes's boldest stroke is to set the action in 1940s Vienna: a hedonistic, war-battered world in which whores and black-marketeers haunt the streets and where you half expect to see Harry Lime scuttling into the sewers. But, although this gives the action a social context, it does little to illuminate the central debate between justice and mercy. Even though there are hints of Vienna's yearning for fascistic order, one is mildly surprised to find execution regarded as a punishment for fornication in the milieu of The Third Man.

The overall intention is presumably to stress the hypocrisy of power. Daniel Evans's Angelo is a petty bureaucrat in rimless specs astonished to find himself deputed to run the city. But, although he twitches nervously at the sight of Isabella, you never sense the shock of a man of rigid principle overcome by sensual appetite. Paul Higgins does little to clear up the mystery surrounding the disguised Duke. Jumping up and down excitedly when he hears of Ragozine's death, and making a move on Isabella in prison, he simply comes across as a fast-talking cynic with no fixed beliefs. The attack on false appearances would be more effective if either Angelo or the Duke exuded real authority in the first place.

It is left to Fielding's Isabella to provide the moral centre. The stock argument against the character is that she inhumanly elevates her chastity above her brother's life. But Fielding eloquently persuades us that it would be a mortal sin for a novice of Saint Clare to sacrifice her virginity; and when she refers, in her encounter with Angelo, to “he, which is the top of judgment”, she makes us believe in her faith. Eventually she responds sufficiently to the Duke's advances to imply that she, too, is tainted by the prevailing falsity, neatly pinpointed by John Lloyd Fillingham's Lucio. And this, to me, is the production's flaw. It has bags of surface vivacity and some nice music from Adrian Lee. But, in implying that church and state are inherently corrupt, it seems closer to the cynicism of Graham Greene than to the complexity of Shakespeare's version of the Sermon on the Mount.

Natasha Korda (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Korda, Natasha. “Isabella's Rule: Singlewomen and the Properties of Poverty in Measure for Measure.” In Shakespeare's Domestic Economies: Gender and Property in Early Modern England, pp. 159-91. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Korda studies the precarious social position of the single woman—variously embodied as Isabella, Marianna, Juliet, and Mistress Overdone—in the patriarchal world of Measure for Measure.]

Measure for Measure, … manifests a profound preoccupation with the place of singlewomen—many of whom had formerly lived in, around, and (in the case of those who were impoverished) by the good graces of the nunneries—in post-Reformation society. What was at stake in this preoccupation, I shall argue, was the threat that placeless singlewomen posed to an increasingly paternalistic state (one that had taken over, secularized, and centralized the task of provisioning the poor, which had formerly been presided over by the religious houses) and to a patrilineal property regime pressured by demographic change. Following early modern usage, I deliberately employ the peculiar, compound form of the term “singlewoman” as a single word, in order to emphasize the singularity of this category in the period. For to be a singlewoman in post-Reformation England was to be something of an anomaly.1 This is not to suggest that singlewomen were rare; recent historical demography has demonstrated that never-married singlewomen were far more numerous in northern Europe (and in England in particular) than in southern Europe and that their numbers continued to grow during the sixteenth century, reaching a peak of between 20 and 30 percent of all adult women during the seventeenth century (the numbers being higher in urban than in rural areas).2 If we add widows or “ever married” women to this calculation (who made up some 15 percent of the adult female population), we arrive at an astonishing aggregate figure of between 35 and 45 percent of all adult women living without husbands.3 What made singlewomen anomalous was thus not their rarity, but rather what Ruth Karras has termed their “lack of social space or social identity.”4 In a society in which marital status was a primary “category of difference,” Amy Froide has likewise suggested, singlewomen (who no longer had the option of becoming nuns) quite literally had no social place.5 Historians have only begun to ask, “How did these lone women live in a society which theoretically had no place in its social hierarchy, its ‘great chain of being,’ for the unattached female?”6 An examination of this invisible population will help to illuminate the Jacobean state's increasingly interventionist role in enforcing domestic decorum, including the wife's role as a keeper of (male) property.

Unmarried “maids” in early modern England were expected to live as household dependents (i.e., with family or kin, or as servants in other men's households) and, of course, to remain chaste until marriage. Those who lived independently risked being classified as “masterless women,” witches, or prostitutes (the term “singlewoman” was in fact often used synonymously for prostitute in the period)7 and were singled out for various forms of punitive attention, such as corporal punishment and compulsory labor in “bridewells” or houses of correction (women, according to Froide, “vastly outnumbered men in most of the urban bridewells”).8 The preponderance of women in such institutions in part resulted from singlewomen's susceptibility to poverty. Those singlewomen not living as household dependents who could not find work as servants had few legitimate employment options; they often had to get by on unlicensed, ad hoc forms of economic activity (such as victualing, huckstering, and pawnbroking), or were forced into prostitution or onto the poor-rates.9 Yet poor relief was available only to singlewomen who were accounted “deserving poor” (i.e., the elderly, impotent, pregnant, or widowed); never-married singlewomen who were deemed ablebodied were classified as “undeserving” and were therefore not eligible.

Only recently have historians begun to look at the feminization of poverty—or what Amy Erickson has termed “the systemic economic vulnerability imposed to varying degrees on all women”—in early modern England. The available evidence suggests, in Erickson's view, that singlewomen “were the social group most vulnerable to poverty.”10 While this statement includes both never-married and ever-married (i.e., widowed or separated) women, the former, as suggested above, were even more economically vulnerable than the latter. Because widows were considered “deserving” poor, however, we have more accurate information about them as reflected in records of parish poor relief. According to the census of the poor taken in Norfolk in the seventeenth century, more than 60 percent of those in receipt of poor relief were women, most of them widows with young children.11 In Holkham in 1600/1, women represented 75 percent of those on poor relief (66.6 percent of these were widows); and in Wighton in 1614/15, a staggering 90 percent of all recipients were women (70 percent widows).12 The economic plight of never-married or lifelong singlewomen, and in particular those without children, is more difficult to assess, since they were deemed “undeserving” of poor-relief. There is evidence that many of them migrated to cities in search of a living.13 Those who did so, however, risked being apprehended en route, punished as “masterless women” (by branding, whipping, or, if repeat offenders, even death), and then sent “home” (although many had no homes to which to return).14 Impoverished singlewomen who made their way to towns and cities, but who were unable to find work as servants or in various ad hoc trades (and who, without dowries, were unlikely to find husbands) were liable to be arrested as vagrants or prostitutes and incarcerated in the local bridewell. There, they were “dryven to worke … with such corrections, tyll their handes [were] browght into such use and their bodies to suche paynes as labore and learninge shall be easier to them than idleness.”15 In an age that had little comprehension of the systemic causes of poverty and unemployment (and perhaps even less of their gendered determinants), unemployed or “masterless” singlewomen were viewed as willfully idle and in need of discipline or correction.

The notion that these placeless singlewomen should be the responsibility of the state, however, was a relatively recent one at the time Measure for Measure was written (c. 1604). The gradual secularization of poor relief and emergence of the poor laws following the dissolution of the monasteries had been cobbled together by local authorities up until the passage by Parliament of the famed Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1598 and 1601.16 In its final form, the 1601 Act (which would remain largely unchanged until 1834) had three essential features.17 First were the poor-rates, compulsory tax assessments in each parish to finance the “deserving” poor. The second feature, which Paul Slack describes as “the quid pro quo in return for public taxation,” was the criminalization of “masterless” women and men, who were deemed “undeserving” poor.18 Finally, there were the provisions for putting the latter to work, a strategy which included the erection of houses of correction.

At first glance, the state's role in provisioning the female poor, on the one hand, and in punishing them, on the other, would seem to be represented in Measure for Measure by the politics of the Duke and Lord Angelo respectively. At the start of the play, the Duke likens his paternalistic benevolence toward his subjects to that of a “fond father” (1. 3. 23), whose excessive affection for his children/subjects prevents him from exacting due justice. As a result, he complains, the punishing “rod” of the state has become “more mock'd than fear'd … / The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum” (1. 3. 27, 30-31). The Duke blames his “nursing” of his subjects for the lack of domestic decorum that plagues his state, which is populated not by families but by unwed mothers and illegitimate children. Fearing that a sudden shift in his own style of governance will appear “too dreadful” to his people, he deputizes Angelo, hoping that he “may in th'ambush of [the Duke's] name strike home” (1. 3. 41). The phrase “strike home” aptly describes the early modern state's increasingly interventionist role in policing domestic conduct.19 The “precise” Angelo's assumption of this role within the play would seem to align him with the Puritan magistrates whose “determination to shape a godly commonwealth,” in Slack's words, put them at the vanguard of the effort to enforce social discipline.20

Yet the binary opposition set up at the start of the play between the Duke's reluctant, and Angelo's overzealous policing of domestic conduct is soon complicated by the Duke's own surreptitious policing of the “dark corners” of his realm. For it is the Duke's shadowy surveillance and manipulation of his subjects—a policy that is repeatedly defended within the play as a form of secularized “charity”—that perhaps best exemplifies the lengthening arm of the state in domestic governance and, in particular, its “growing use of poor-relief as a means of social control.”21 Ironically, the secularization of poor-relief following upon the dissolution of the monasteries and culminating in the Elizabethan Poor Laws (which became the model for the state's increasingly interventionist role in domestic governance), finds expression in Measure for Measure in a pre-Dissolution setting. In his disguise as a mendicant friar, the Duke may therefore extend the reach of the state into the “dark corners” and recesses of his realm, exerting control over subjects who had hitherto evaded its grasp, all under the rubric of monastic “charity” and pious poverty: “If thou art rich, thou'rt poor,” he preaches, “For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows, / Thou bear'st thy heavy riches but a journey, / And Death unloads thee” (3. 1. 25-8). The subjects over whom the disguised Duke exerts the most complete and effective, but also the most coercive, control within the play are all placeless singlewomen. Each of these women represents a different kind of antitype to the figure of the housewife: the nun (Isabella); the unwed mother (Juliet and Kate Keep-Down); the prostitute (Kate Keep-Down); the economically dependent singlewoman (Mariana); the economically independent bawd and widow (Mistress Overdone).

In foregrounding Measure for Measure's singlewomen, I am intentionally moving against the grain of previous criticism, which has focused instead on its “broken nuptials” or failed marriages, thereby reproducing the period's positioning of marriage as a “primary category of difference.”22 Such critics might object that neither Mariana nor Juliet are single by choice; in both cases, their marriages fail, not because they end in separation, but rather (as was more common in the early modern period) because their marriage contracts are never successfully achieved in the first place.23 To clarify the obstacles impeding marriage in the play, commentators have concentrated on the intricacies of spousals law. While such criticism has made an important contribution to our understanding of how the marriages in the play fail, it is nonetheless insufficient to explain why they do.

To comprehend the significance of the play's preoccupation with broken nuptials and its equally marked concern with missing dowries, we must explore the economic, as well as the legal, barriers impeding marriage during the period. The former, moreover, may provide us with a more dynamic view of spousals law than that elaborated by previous criticism. For while it is true that the law of spousals defined what constituted a valid marriage in England from the twelfth through the mid-eighteenth centuries, by the late sixteenth century, ecclesiastical courts were increasingly reluctant to consider such contracts valid in the absence of public solemnization in church and began to prosecute couples for premarital fornication with greater frequency, even in cases such as that of Juliet and Claudio, in which the couple had merely postponed public solemnization.24 This is, of course, precisely what happens in the play; the couple decide to postpone public solemnization until such time as the dowry is forthcoming and are prosecuted for premarital fornication. The zeal with which such cases were prosecuted may be attributed, according to Ingram, Wrightson, and Levine, to the sharply increasing levels of poverty and illegitimacy during the period.25 Church authorities were willing to turn a blind eye to premarital pregnancy, according to Wrightson and Levine, as long as “expectations of housing, a settlement, land or employment were met and marriage ensued.”26 During the economic crisis of the 1590s, however, when such settlements were often not forthcoming, the number of marriages declined and officials began to prosecute such cases more assiduously.27

Measure for Measure's preoccupation with the policing, prosecuting, and provisioning of singlewomen likewise seems to center on the threat illegitimacy posed to an increasingly paternalistic state and to a patrilineal property regime pressured by demographic change. This is perhaps most clear in the case of Juliet, who at the start of the play is incarcerated for conceiving a child out of wedlock. Significantly, it is Juliet's pregnancy that makes her visible, and therefore subject, to the state; her crime is quite literally written “with character too gross” (1. 2. 143) on her belly. In his explanation of why Claudio has been sentenced to death, Angelo obliquely blames Juliet's pregnancy: “What's open made to justice, / That justice seizes … 'Tis very pregnant, / The jewel that we find, we stoop and take't, / Because we see it; but what we do not see, / We tread upon, and never think of it” (2. 1. 21-26). As a dowryless, unwed mother, Juliet's pregnancy makes her an object of penal attention, for she has become an economic burden to the state: “What shall be done, sir, with the groaning Juliet?” the Provost of the prison asks Angelo, who responds, “Dispose of her / To some more fitter place; and that with speed … Let her have needful, but not lavish means; / There shall be order for it” (2. 2. 15-17, 23-25). Angelo's implied reference to Juliet as a “jewel” cast aside in the gutter points to the further economic threat her pregnancy poses to patrilineality: for in conceiving a child out of wedlock, she has thrown away the “jewel” of her patrimony. Almost as soon as she appears, this specter of the placeless singlewoman is whisked away, removed from view until the end of the play. The dilemma posed by her lack of social space and identity is marked within the play by the peculiar imprecision of the site to which she is removed, which is designated only as “some more fitter place.”

The Jacobean statute books were far less imprecise about designating the social space befitting unwed mothers: “Every lewd woman which shall have any bastard which may be chargeable to the parish, the justices of the peace shall committ such woman to the house of correction, to be punished and set to work, during the term of one whole year.”28 By contrast, the punitive regulation of singlewomen in Measure for Measure is effectively invisible except when the object of such regulation is defined as a prostitute (Kate Keep-Down and Mistress Overdone are summarily hauled off to prison). At the start of the play, all eyes are on Claudio, not Juliet, as the culprit to be punished by Angelo. While Claudio is paraded in public as a criminal (“why dost thou show me thus to th'world?” he complains to the prison Provost [1. 2. 108]), Juliet is notably silent onstage. We are immediately informed that “within these three days his head [is] to be chopped off” (1. 2. 62), but no mention is made of Juliet's punishment. When the Provost informs the disguised Duke of their situation, he makes this discrepancy clear: “She is with child,” he says, “And he that got it, sentenc'd” (2. 3. 13). The punishment of the father, rather than the mother, of the illegitimate child in Measure for Measure runs counter to contemporary legislation, which viewed “bastardy … as the exclusive responsibility of women and a sign of their promiscuity.”29 Yet the inhabitants of the prison in Measure for Measure, who are described as former customers of Mistress Overdone's (4. 3. 1-20), are all men, impoverished gallants who have squandered their fortunes and who are therefore unable to keep familial households. A similar type is represented in a contemporary engraving, in which a singlewoman presents her “Bastard Child” to its father, a destitute gallant, who replies: “O pre'thee Wench, lett mee alone, / for I protest, all's spent and gonne.” The financial ruin of his household is metonymically figured by the decay of his household stuff, by the shattered status-objects that surround him: cracked urns, broken tobacco-pipes, smashed goblets, strewn playing-cards, and so on. These objects of luxury likewise figure his moral dissolution, suggesting the vices of drunkenness and gaming, in addition to the lechery evoked by the swaddled child he spurns. With no wife to “keep” his household stuff, the image implies, his home is bereft of both subjects and objects; his only companions are the mice that scurry across his floor, gnawing the scattered remains of his elite identity.

Although Juliet temporarily resides in the prison at the start of the play, she is kept there just long enough to confess to the Duke that her offense, in spite of her more lenient treatment, is “of heavier kind” (2. 3. 28) than Claudio's, even though the sin was “mutually committed” (2. 3. 27). Thus, while the play refrains from staging the forms of punishment meted out to singlewomen who conceived bastards during the period, it nevertheless suggests in more subtle ways their greater culpability for this crime, and works to instill this notion in them, thereby ensuring future self-discipline. Women were more vulnerable to punishment for bastard-bearing, of course, because paternity was always open to doubt in a way that maternity was not. The double standard regarding extramarital sex likewise found support in the commonplace misogynist notion that women provoke men to intemperate lust. This notion is woven throughout the Angelo / Isabella narrative, most famously in Angelo's “Is this her fault or mine? / The tempter, or the tempted, who sins most” (2. 2. 163-64) speech, but later lent support by Isabella's plea for Angelo's life: “I partly think / A due sincerity govern'd his deeds / Till he did look on me” (5. 1. 443-44). Contemporary writers were quite aware of this double standard, and were at pains to justify its legitimacy by explaining the cultural stakes of the ideological overvaluation of female chastity: namely, the security of a patrilineal social order and property regime.30

It is the threat of undermining patrilineal property transmission that determines which singlewomen are subject to penal regulation in Measure for Measure and which are not. It is only the prostitute and the bawd who feel the full weight of Angelo's newly instituted “proclamations.” The play's other singlewomen are all protected from this fate by their removal to another scene (Isabella to a nunnery, Mariana to a moated grange, and Juliet to some “fitter place”); they are thus protected from being branded as singlewomen by the law (branding was quite literally the punishment set aside for masterless women who were arrested in the period). For to be interpellated within this category was to be immediately confused with a prostitute or “lewd woman,” and therefore to become disqualified as a guarantor of patrilineality. This risk is particularly clear in the case of Mariana: as soon as she leaves the moated grange and confesses to being “neither maid, widow nor wife” (5. 1. 181), she is accused of being a “punk” (5. 1. 180). The Duke must then prove that she does not belong to this category, by insisting, “I have confess'd her; and I know her virtue” (5. 1. 524). When Isabella leaves the sanctuary of the nunnery, she is likewise confused with her vulgar other (prostitutes were known as “nuns of Venus”) by Angelo, who offers her her brother's life as payment for her sexual favors.

Yet if what characterizes the play's singlewomen at the start of the play is their impoverishment, and hence unvendibility on the marriage market, how can their status as guarantors of patrilineal property transmission be at issue? The ideological ruse of Juliet's, Mariana's, and Isabella's impoverishment, I would maintain, is that, like the Duke's, it is “usurped” (Lucio accuses the Duke of “usurp[ing] the beggary he was never born to” [3. 2. 90]). For unlike Kate Keep-Down or Mistress Overdone, they are all clearly designated as being of elite status. Isabella and Claudio, we are informed, “had a most noble father” (2. 1. 7). Mariana's elite status is likewise emphasized when her brother Frederick is described as “noble and renowned” (3. 1. 219). Juliet, as we have seen, has a dowry. It is merely being withheld by certain “friends” (presumably her dead father's executors). From this perspective, the “poverty” of the play's female protagonists appears to be nothing more than a romantic fiction (including star-crossed lovers and a shipwreck), a temporary obstacle impeding marriages that appear all the more miraculous when they are achieved. In this sense, the play's impoverished gentlewomen both evoke and efface the very real dilemma posed by the growing population of impoverished singlewomen.

My analysis of the play's treatment of singlewomen has thus far focused almost exclusively on the state's punitive function, as represented by the “severe” statutes enforced by Angelo. Yet the play suggests by its outcome that such severity is not the most effective form of governance; in the end, it is the Duke's surreptitious surveillance and manipulations of his subjects, not Angelo's enforcement of draconian statutes, that achieve order in the state. In his disguise as a mendicant friar, the Duke extends the reach of the state, under the rubric of pious poverty and charity, into the “dark corners” of his realm, exerting control over subjects who had hitherto evaded its grasp. Arriving at the prison to begin his surreptitious survey of his subjects, the Duke describes his purpose to the Provost in the following terms: “Bound by my charity, and my bless'd order, / I come to visit the afflicted spirits” (2. 3. 3-4). The subjects over whom the Duke exerts the most complete and effective, but also the most coercive, control within the play, as Lucio suggests, are all singlewomen; his male subjects are far less receptive to his “charity.” Although Claudio claims that the Duke has prepared him spiritually for death when the latter visits him in prison, he nevertheless moments later begs his sister impatiently for news of a reprieve, (“Now, sister, what's the comfort?” [3. 1. 53]), so that when she leaves the Duke must once again insist, “tomorrow you must die; go to your knees, and make ready” (3. 1. 168-69). Even more resistant to his “charitable” coercion, however, is Barnardine, who responds to the Duke's announcement, “Sir, induced by my charity … I come to advise you,” with a simple refusal, “Friar, not I” (4. 3. 49, 52). Lucio's resistance to the Duke reaches the level of outright slander.

Kiernan Ryan has argued that such forms of resistance have been insufficiently acknowledged by previous criticism and, more provocatively, that such acknowledgment reveals Measure for Measure to be a “utopian” play, rather than a dystopian dramatization of “the transition from a culture in which power asserts itself through spectacular, public displays of punitive violence, to one which secures subjection by subtler strategies of surveillance.” Ryan does not dispute that the play dramatizes such strategies of power, but argues that through the resistance of characters such as Barnardine, it “subject[s] them to a lethal critique” (Barnardine is thus “the key to Measure for Measure,” he claims).31 While I agree with Ryan's claim that it is important not to ignore the forms of resistance to the Duke's disciplinary regime within the play (although describing it as “utopian” seems a bit wishful), I think it is equally important to point out that the state meets with less resistance—or, more precisely, less audible forms of resistance—in its singlewomen than it does in its single men.

The goal of the Duke's surreptitious strategy of surveillance and suasion with respect to the play's impoverished singlewomen is quite simply to remove them from this category by transforming them into propertied brides. First, he works to instill self-discipline in his female subjects by persuading them that they bear primary responsibility for the crime of bastardy. As we have seen, the purpose of his interview with Juliet before she is removed from prison is to make clear that her crime—despite Angelo's more stringent punishment of Claudio—is “of heavier kind than his” (2. 3. 27-29). Juliet proves an eager recipient of the Duke's counsel, promising, “I'll gladly learn” (2. 3. 23) when he offers, “I'll teach you how you shall arraign your conscience” (2. 3. 21). She not only immediately confesses the truth of his estimation of her greater culpability and “repent[s] it,” she reassures the Duke that her repentance results not from a “fear” of the repercussions of her act, but simply because the act itself was “evil” (2. 3. 29, 34-35). The quid pro quo for the singlewoman's provisioning by the state within the play would appear to be her ideological interpellation as one who bears greater (or, within the culture at large, total) culpability for the crime of producing illegitimate subjects, and thereby her implied future self-discipline; immediately thereafter she is removed from the prison to “some more fitter place.” Juliet's interpellation as a criminalized singlewoman is thus only temporary; her reputation and property are restored, and her child rendered legitimate. In the end, Juliet's status as a singlewoman is effectively erased.

The trajectory traced by Mariana likewise transforms her, through the agency of the Duke, from a placeless singlewoman to a propertied bride. At the start of the play, Mariana epitomizes the singlewoman's lack of social space or identity. Residing—in what has become perhaps the most memorable of all liminal, literary spaces—“at the moated grange” (3. 1. 265), Mariana, like Juliet, is removed to the margins of a society in which sexually ambiguous singlewomen had no place. Mariana herself calls attention to her lack of social identity at the end of the play, when she appears, veiled, for her interrogation by the state's governors. Her veiled face, she makes clear, signifies her lack of identity; for until her putative husband hails her, she remains unclassifiable within what were the only socially recognized and legitimated categories of female subjectivity in the period—maid, wife, and widow:

Is this the witness, friar?
First, let her show her face, and after, speak.
Pardon, my lord; I will not show my face
Until my husband bid me.
What, are you married?
No, my lord.
Are you a maid?
No, my lord.
A widow, then?
Neither, my lord.
Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife!
My lord, she may be a punk; for many of them are neither maid, widow nor wife.
Silence that fellow!

(5. 1. 169-82)

The Duke's bald statement that a woman is “nothing” if she does not fit into the categories of maid, widow, or wife recalls Isabella's earlier remark that a woman in this situation is better off dead: “What a merit were it in death to take this poor maid from the world!” (3. 1. 231-32). While Isabella knows Mariana to be a “poor maid,” the rest of the world does not; as an impoverished singlewoman living alone, her sexual reputation is highly vulnerable, as Lucio's insinuation that she must be a “punk” or prostitute makes clear. Mariana's putative promiscuity is cemented when Angelo “pretend[s] in her discoveries of dishonour” (3. 1. 227), thereby removing her from the category of maid and effectively rendering her unmarriageable.

The potential threat posed by the figure of the placeless and unclassifiable singlewoman is distanced by Mariana's removal to the liminal enclosure of the “moated grange.” During the five years of her seclusion there, Mariana is “bestowed … on her own lamentation” (3. 1. 228); her “brawling discontent” (4. 1. 3) is turned inward. Mariana's self-reflexive, female subjectivity is in a sense the opposite of the internalized oeconomy of the disciplined housewife; for it is not domestic order, but rather disorder that she has internalized, not rule, but “violent and unruly” (3. 1. 243) passions that arise from her status as an impoverished singlewoman. Unlike Desdemona, Mariana is not content to “beshrew” herself for her mistreatment and slander by Angelo; rather, she “brawls,” if only inwardly, against her mistreatment, silently professing her “discontent.” Yet the audience is only briefly allowed to glimpse this unruly, internalized oeconomy; for whereas the merry wives' self-discipline wards off spousal intervention, the melancholic Mariana's internalization of her disorderly discontent is quickly resolved by the intervention of an increasingly paternalistic state.

In certain respects, Mariana bears closest resemblance to a widow, mourning the loss of her husband. The figure of the widow was less threatening to the social order than that of the never-married singlewoman, according to Amy Froide, in spite of the fact that many of them lived alone, choosing not to remarry: “Widows had a public and independent place within the patriarchal society, singlewomen did not.”32 Froide's observation applies only to propertied widows, however; for impoverished, propertyless widows, like unwed mothers, placed a significant burden on parish poor-rates.33 In the play's final scene, the Duke seeks to transform Mariana into a propertied widow. Having married her to Angelo, he immediately orders the latter put to death and designates Mariana as the recipient of his property: “For his possessions, / Although by confiscation they are ours, / We do instate and widow you with all” (5. 1. 420-22).

In the next breath, however, the Duke makes clear that Mariana is not to remain a propertied widow, but is to use her newly acquired estate to remarry or, in his fiscal terms, “To buy you a better husband” (5. 1. 423). As satirical representations of propertied, “merry” widows in the period make clear, while such women may have had a “public and independent place” within early modern culture, their sexual and economic independence was itself perceived as threatening and subject to pervasive criticism. In Measure for Measure, however, this criticism is deflected onto the figure of Mistress Overdone, who, having been widowed nine times, chooses to remain single and earn her living as a brothel- and alehouse-keeper. Her economic and legal vulnerability as a widow is nevertheless emphasized from the start, when she complains of her “poverty” (1. 2. 76), only to learn of Angelo's “proclamation” dictating that her house “must be plucked down” (1. 2. 89). Because Mistress Overdone may be classified within the socially proscribed categories of “punk” and bawd, however, the play does not hesitate to send her off to prison. As a “poor gentlewoman,” however, Mariana faces a different destiny; she is preserved at the moated grange until such time as she may be repositioned as a wife and keeper of (male) property.

It is the Duke's restoration of the play's propertyless singlewomen as propertied brides that appears to balance the scales of justice within the play. At a rhetorical level, this balancing is reflected in the reciprocal, chiastic exchange of value that marriage represents in his final cautioning of Angelo: “Look that you love your wife: her worth, worth yours” (5. 1. 495). What is elided by the ideal equality of “worth” that marriage represents in the Duke's utterance, however, is the wife's loss of propriety under coverture. In marrying Angelo, Mariana effectively forfeits many of the rights in Angelo's property that she would have enjoyed as his widow. Isabella is likewise transformed from singlewoman into wife, at least within the balancing rhetoric of the Duke's “measure for measure”: “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” (5. 1. 531-34). She is thereby enjoined to renounce the female oeconomy outside of marriage that the nunnery represents. The ruse of Measure for Measure's solution to the problem posed by the figure of the placeless singlewoman is that marriage represents a reciprocal exchange of value or “worth” between husband and wife and that this exchange “imports” the wife's own “good.” From this perspective, the play's narrative works effectively to ensure that property never remains in the hands of its placeless singlewomen; Isabella's dowry is mentioned only at the moment she is poised to marry an earthly, rather than a spiritual, bridegroom.


  1. The compound term “singlewomen” is likewise deployed in a recent volume of essays edited by Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide entitled Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999). This groundbreaking volume has made a significant contribution to our understanding of various aspects of the predicament of singlewomen living in early modern Europe, and my discussion in what follows is deeply indebted to several of the essays contained in it.

  2. See Maryanne Kowaleski, “Singlewomen in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: The Demographic Perspective,” pp. 52-53 and Amy M. Froide, “Marital Status as a Category of Difference: Singlewomen and Widows in Early Modern England,” pp. 236-37, both in Singlewomen, ed. Bennett and Froide. On the high percentage of men and women never marrying (between 10 and 20 percent of the population) see E. A. Wrigley and Roger Schofield, The Population History of England, 1541-1871: A Reconstruction (London: Edward Arnold, 1981), pp. 258-60; on women remarrying less frequently than men and the higher number of widows than widowers, see also Jacques Dupaquier et al., eds., Marriage and Remarriage in Populations of the Past, Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Historical Demography, Nuptiality and Fertility: Plural Marriage and Illegitimate Fertility, Kristiansand, Norway, September 1979 (London: Academic Press, 1981).

  3. Froide, “Marital Status,” p. 237. I am indebted to Froide for the terms “never married” and “ever married.”

  4. Ruth Mazo Karras, “Sex and the Singlewoman,” in Singlewomen, ed. Bennett and Froide, p. 127.

  5. Froide, “Marital Status,” p. 237.

  6. See Amy Erickson, “Introduction,” in Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, ed. Erickson (1919; New York: Routledge, 1992), p. xxxv.

  7. See Karras, “Sex and the Singlewoman,” p. 131.

  8. See Froide, “Marital Status,” pp. 241-43, 254-55.

  9. On employment opportunities for singlewomen see ibid., pp. 243-52.

  10. Erickson, “Introduction,” p. xxxvii.

  11. Tim Wales, “Poverty, Poor Relief and the Life Cycle: Some Evidence from Seventeenth-Century Norfolk,” in Land, Kinship, and Life Cycle, ed. R. M. Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 380.

  12. Ibid., pp. 360-61.

  13. See Vivien Brodsky Elliott, “Single Women in the London Marriage Market: Age, Status, and Mobility, 1598-1619,” in Marriage and Society, ed. Outhwaite, esp. pp. 90-91.

  14. On the various forms of punishment legislated by the vagabond acts, and for an instance of a “masterless woman” sentenced to be hung as a repeat offender, see E. M. Leonard, The Early History of English Poor Relief (1900; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965), p. 70. Only just over half as many singlewomen on average were arrested under the vagabond acts as single men (in Salisbury in 1598-1638, 171 singlewomen were apprehended as compared with 343 single men; Beier's study of eighteen counties lists 246 singlewomen and 483 single men). Yet this number, according to Beier, may in part reflect the fact that vagrant males “were feared more than females and greater efforts were made to capture them.” A. L. Beier, “Vagrants and the Social Order in Elizabethan England,” Past and Present 64 (1974): 6. For Salisbury figures see Paul Slack, “Vagrants and Vagrancy in England, 1598-1664,” Economic History Review 2nd ser. 27 (1974): 366. A significant number of “masterless women” received punitive attention by authorities. The 1572 statute was at pains to include women under its purview: “all and every person … being whole and mighty in body and able to labor, having not land or master, nor using any lawful merchandize, craft or mystery whereby he or she might get his or her living, and can give no reckoning how he or she does lawfully get his or her living” (my emphasis). Nevertheless, scholars frequently assume a male subject in discussions of vagabondage. Paul Slack thus complains that previous “historians have seldom been able to penetrate the haze of rhetorical abuse to see the vagabond as he was, to define his status, or assess the significance of his mobility. … The first problem for the historian … is to know who the vagrant actually was, to define his status” (my emphasis). While Slack does a great deal to demystify the category of the vagabond, that category is still presumptively male in his own rhetoric. See Slack, “Vagrants and Vagrancy,” pp. 360-62. A. L. Beier's important study of the subject is likewise titled Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560-1640 (London: Methuen, 1985).

  15. Cited in Leonard, English Poor Relief, p. 313.

  16. In response to the increasingly pressing problems of poverty and vagrancy during the last decade of the sixteenth century, some seventeen bills were exhibited in the 1597-98 Parliamentary session, including proposed legislation for the “erecting of Houses of Correction and punishment of rogues and sturdy beggars and for levying of certain sums due to the poor,” for the “necessary habitation and relief of the poor, aged, lame, and blind in every parish,” for the “relief of Hospitals, poor prisoners and others impoverished by casual losses,” for “the better governing of Hospitals and land given to the relief of the poor,” for the “extirpation of Beggary,” “against Bastardy,” for “setting the poor on work,” and “for erecting of hospitals or abiding and working houses for the poor.” See Leonard, English Poor Relief, p. 75.

  17. My discussion of the social significance of the poor laws here is indebted to Paul Slack, “Poverty and Social Regulation in Elizabethan England,” in The Reign of Elizabeth I, ed. Christopher Haigh (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985).

  18. Ibid., p. 222.

  19. See Joan Kent, “Attitudes of Members of the House of Commons to the Regulations of ‘Personal Conduct’ in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 46 (1973): 41-71.

  20. Slack, “Poverty and Social Regulation,” p. 237. This view is taken by Ronald B. Bond in “‘Dark Deeds Darkly Answered’: Thomas Becon's Homily Against Whoredom and Adultery, Its Contexts, and Its Affiliations with Three Shakespearean Plays,” Sixteenth Century Journal 16, 2 (1985): 190-205.

  21. Slack, “Poverty and Social Regulation,” p. 238.

  22. A recent exception to this trend is Theodora A. Jankowski's discussion of the “queerness” of Isabella as a virgin who “repudiates” marriage in Pure Resistance: Queer Virginity in Early Modern English Drama (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), pp. 170-77. On “broken nuptials,” see note 16 above.

  23. According to Martin Ingram, “cases concerning the formation of marriage, not marital breakdown, normally constituted the bulk of matrimonial litigation in the English ecclesiastical courts.” Ingram, “Spousals Litigation,” p. 36.

  24. Ibid., p. 54.

  25. Ibid., pp. 54-55, and Keith Wrightson and David Levine, Poverty and Piety in an English Village: Terling, 1525-1700 (1979; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 127.

  26. Indeed, as many as one-third of the brides studied by Wrightson and Levine were pregnant prior to marriage. Wrightson and Levine, Poverty and Piety, p. 128.

  27. Ibid., p. 133. Both Ingram and Wrightson and Levine attribute this shift to widespread poverty brought on by the crisis and to a “growing hostility towards bastard bearing” occasioned by an “explosion of illegitimacy.” Wrightson and Levine, Poverty and Piety, pp. 127, 131; see also Ingram, “Spousals Litigation,” p. 54.

  28. Cited in Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith, Bastardy and Its Comparative History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 73. See also the discussion of this statute in Mark Breitenberg, Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 19.

  29. Breitenberg, Anxious Masculinity, p. 19.

  30. Thus, for example, the misogynist in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, Gaspar Pallavicino, argues that chastity is “more needful” for women than for men “in order for us to be certain of our offspring” (in Hoby's translation, “continencie was thought more necessarie in them [women] than any other, to have assurance of children”). See Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (New York: Anchor, 1959), p. 189, and The Book of the Courtier by Count Baldassare Castiglione Done into English by Sir Thomas Hoby (1561; New York: E.P. Dutton, 1948), p. 177.

  31. Kiernan Ryan, “Measure for Measure: Marxism Before Marx,” in Marxist Shakespeares, ed. Jean E. Howard and Scott Cutler Shershow, Accents on Shakespeare Series (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 231, 235, 237.

  32. Ibid., p. 237.

  33. In spite of the fact that, in Erickson's words, “for a substantial number of women, widowhood meant poverty,” the plight of the impoverished widow has been largely ignored by early modern scholarship. Erickson, “Introduction,” pp. xxxvi-xxxvii. Although B. A. Holderness observes that “Destitute or insolvent widows and old maids [sic] almost certainly outnumbered those who had property to live upon or savings to invest,” he excuses his “neglect of their plight” in his study of widows in pre-industrial society with the assertion that “the poor widow … is less important as a historical phenomenon than her wealthier contemporaries.” B. A. Holderness, “Widows in Pre-Industrial Society: An Essay upon Their Economic Functions,” in Land, Kinship, and Life-Cycle, ed. Smith, p. 428.

Harriet Hawkins (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Hawkins, Harriet. “Sex and Sin in Measure for Measure: Some Open Questions.” In Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, pp. 11-42. Brighton, UK: Harvester Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Hawkins examines the problematic relationship between sex, sin, vice, and virtue depicted in Measure for Measure.]

You are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct posing of a question. Only the second is obligatory for an artist. Not a single problem is solved in Anna Karenina and Eugène Onegin, but you find these works quite satisfactory … because all the questions in them are correctly posed. … The court is obliged to pose the questions correctly, but it's up to the jurors to answer them, each juror according to his own taste.

(Anton Chekhov)

Where God hath a temple, the devil will have a chapel.

(Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy)

          Where's that palace whereinto foul things
Sometimes intrude not? Who has that breast so pure
But some uncleanly apprehensions
Keep leets and law-days, and in sessions sit
With meditations lawful?

(Shakespeare, Othello)

                              Let the devil
Be sometime honour'd for his burning throne!

(Shakespeare, Measure for Measure)

In Measure for Measure, the internal, dramatic dialectic whereby differing questions and arguments give rise to altogether different counter-questions and counter-arguments, may explain why there is not now, and perhaps never will be, a critical concensus concerning the correct answers to any of the major questions posed in, and by, the play itself. Here, for instance, are some of the sexual, social, moral, and political questions that remain wide open to debate.

How important—or unimportant—is chastity? And what constitutes rape? How grievous a violation is it to be blackmailed or tricked into bed with someone you, personally, would not choose to have sexual intercourse with? Given a conflict between Christian virtues (like chastity and charity), which should take precedence? Should a brother allow his sister to prostitute herself in order to save him? Should a young novice sacrifice her chastity, and so jeopardise what she believes to be her immortal soul, in order to save her brother's life? And if she will not do so, should she encourage another woman to do it for her?

And what about the rule of law? Does the scriptural commandment, ‘Judge not that ye be not judged’ apply to princes and magistrates who are professionally bound to enforce the laws of the land? If so, or if not—‘'twas my fault to give the people scope’—is it right for the Duke to deputise Angelo to ‘strike and gall’ the people for what he, himself, had bid them do?—‘For we bid this be done, / When evil deeds have their permissive pass / And not the punishment’ (I.ii. 37-9). And what if certain laws ‘set down in heaven’, or on earth, conflict with the biological and psychological laws of human nature? How socially disruptive, or socially acceptable, is premarital sex? Or organised prostitution? And what about shot-gun weddings? Isn't the free consent of both parties just as important in marriage as in sex? How binding is a legal certificate if there is not a marriage of true minds?

Throughout the play, differing characters give us conflicting and contradictory answers to such questions, even as Isabella, Angelo and Claudio dramatically give each other measure for measure concerning the major conundrum debated in their confrontation scenes. Would it be a ‘sin’ or an act of ‘virtue’, for Isabella to save Claudio by yielding to Angelo? Isabella, of course, believes that it would be a mortal sin:

Better it were a brother died at once
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die for ever.

(II.iv. 106-8)

Conversely, Angelo argues that there would be a ‘charity’ in sinning to save a brother's life, and at the Last Judgement our ‘compell'd sins / Stand more for number than for accompt’ (II.iv. 57-8, 63-4). Claudio himself goes even further and tells Isabella that

What sin you do to save a brother's life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue.

(III.i. 135-7)

Isabella, in turn, insists that if her brother had any virtue, then ‘had he twenty heads’,

                                                  he'd yield them up
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorr'd pollution.

(II.iv. 181-3)

‘Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?’ she asks Claudio:

Is't not a kind of incest to take life
From thine own sister's shame?

(III.i. 139-41)

Which, if any, of these characters, or arguments, is right? Given their differing personal and moral priorities and premisses, as well as their differing vested interests and desires, are all of them, in one way or another, right? Or, given the clash between differing values and virtues (such as chastity and charity), aren't there certain cases where no single option or argument can possibly be deemed right or acceptable to all of the individuals concerned? When confronted with dramatic conflicts of this kind, we in Shakespeare's audience occupy a position comparable to that of the characters themselves, in so far as our personal situations, as well as our historically or theologically (or sexually or ideologically) based opinions about the issue may, in turn, determine which of their opinions we concur with, or reject.

So complex are the issues, so powerful are the contradictory arguments, that it would seem quite impossible to prove which, if any, of the arguments he gave to Isabella, Claudio, Angelo or the Duke was deemed to be right by Shakespeare himself. Did he, for instance, view life as a fate worse than death?

                                        The best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provok'st; yet grossly fear'st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself;
For thou exists on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
For what thou hast not, still thou striv'st to get,
And what thou hast, forget'st. Thou art not certain;
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
After the moon. If thou art rich, thou'rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear'st thy heavy riches but a journey,
And Death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What's yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths; yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even.

(III.i. 17-41)

It is hard to imagine any bleaker reasons to ‘Be absolute for death’ than the ones that the Duke gives to Claudio. But then, mutatis mutandis, it is difficult to imagine any better reasons to be absolute for life than the ones that Claudio gives to Isabella:

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

(III.i. 119-33)

Thus, on the basis of counter-quotations from the same script, individual members of the audience—very like the individual characters portrayed on the stage—may arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions about the same issue; or remain torn between conflicting attitudes towards the same thing (life, death, chastity-integrity, authority, permissiveness, the rule of law, etc.). What it is almost impossible to do is to defend any one position or character or response—or interpretation of the play as a whole—without arguing against another one. The critical result is a tangle of intertwined, yet mutually contradictory, interpretations of the play based on different arguments for or against the various characters, all of which can be supported by quotations from the text itself, and so would appear to be equally valid. Yet when they are looked at in isolation from each other, they also seem equally reductive, since Shakespeare himself tends to confront his (or our) strongest case in favour of someone or something with the most powerful arguments that can be levelled against it—and vice versa—as if the pros (and indeed the play) would be incomplete without their cons. The fact that Shakespeare here would seem to have felt that the major, if not the only obligation of the artist was to assure that the various questions in the play were, and are, ‘correctly posed’, is what makes Measure for Measure so fascinating; but it also makes it difficult to reach any agreement about the rights and wrongs involved, since what one character (or critic) insists is right, another character (or critic) insists is all wrong. What makes certain conflicts even more difficult for any one—or all—of us to resolve, is the fact that the major characters in the play so often contradict themselves.

For instance, in Act 2 Scene 3, the Duke sanctimoniously arraigns Julietta's conscience for her ‘sin’ in having voluntarily had sexual intercourse with Claudio, whom she dearly loves, and to whom she had been pre-contracted (I.ii. 138-42), but had not yet finally married in church:

Love you the man that wrong'd you?
Yes, as I love the woman that wrong'd him.
So then, it seems, your most offenceful act
Was mutually committed.
Then was your sin of heavier kind than his.
I do confess it, and repent it, father.
'Tis meet so, daughter, but lest you do repent
As that the sin hath brought you to this shame,
Which sorrow is always toward ourselves, not heaven,
Showing we would not spare heaven as we love it,
But as we stand in fear—
I do repent me as it is an evil,
And take the shame with joy.
                                                            There rest.

(II.iii. 24-36, my italics)

Julietta's sexual complicity (her act of love) is thus morally held against her. Yet the identical act that is here deemed by the Duke to be a ‘wrong’, a ‘sin’, a ‘most offenceful act’ to be repented as an ‘evil’, is, in the case of Mariana, proclaimed to be ‘no sin’ at all. ‘Fear you not at all’, the Duke (still disguised as a friar) tells Mariana,

[Angelo] is your husband on a pre-contract.
To bring you thus together 'tis no sin,
Sith that the justice of your title to him
Doth flourish the deceit.

(IV.i. 70-3, my italics)

Given the seemingly arbitrary and ad hoc judgements involved in the Duke's moral about-face, it is hard to see what, if any, common principle of morality or justice or equity, governs his arraignment of Julietta's conscience and the instructions and absolution he gives to Mariana. Sexual ‘sin’, the Duke seems to imply, is (or is not) whatever he says it is (or isn't). It also seems as hypocritical as it seems inconsistent—

                                                  lawful mercy
Is nothing kin to foul redemption.

(II.iv. 112-13)

                                        [Better a brother died at once]
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorr'd pollution.
More than our brother is our chastity.

(II.iv. 182-5)

Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd.

(III.i. 151)

—when Isabella joins the Duke in encouraging Mariana to play the bed-trick on Angelo: ‘The image of it gives me content already’ (III.i. 250).

Yet another inconsistency involving criteria of sexual morality, justice and judgement occurs in Act 5, when Isabella argues that Angelo should not be subject to the death penalty, on the grounds that, unlike Claudio, he was guilty only ‘in intent’:

                                                  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.

(V.i. 446-52)

Isabella is certainly correct so far as Angelo's determination to force her into sexual intercourse, and for that matter, his subsequent intention to have Claudio killed, is concerned. Yet judged by the standards of her own judgement of Claudio, who was ‘Condemn'd upon the act of fornication / To lose his head’ (V.i. 70-1), Angelo remains legally subject to the death penalty, since (as a result of the bed-trick) Angelo also ‘did the thing’ for which Claudio appeared to have died, having, likewise, had sexual intercourse with a woman to whom he was pre-contracted, but had not finally married in church.

Indeed, when seen in terms of the obvious dramatic ironies here involved, the wheels of Measure for Measure appear to have turned full circle, as it were in order to ensure that Angelo would, finally, offend against the law of Vienna in exactly the same way that Claudio did:

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


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

(II.i. 17-31)

This is [Claudio's] pardon, purchased by such sin
For which the pardoner himself is in

(IV.ii. 103-4)

Claudio, whom here you have warrant to execute, is no greater forfeit to the law than Angelo who hath sentenc'd him.

(IV.ii. 149-50)

                    as he adjudg'd your brother—


The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’


Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.

(V.i. 401-9)

Although they may be necessary to display Isabella's decision to show mercy to her enemy and (perhaps?) to persuade Shakespeare's audience that Angelo should be spared the death-penalty since his acts ‘did not o'ertake his bad intent’, Isabella's arguments still seem casuistical, since the legal case against Angelo remains as valid as the one against Claudio (who ‘is no greater forfeit to the law’ than Angelo, who sentenced him), while the moral case against Angelo is stronger far. This kind of legal and moral nitpicking would seem critically absurd with reference to another kind of play; but because the characters themselves constantly indulge in it, Measure for Measure positively encourages it.

For instance, in recent years there has been a concerted scholarly effort to justify the Duke's, and Isabella's, comparatively lenient judgements of Mariana and Angelo, and comparatively severe condemnations of Julietta and Claudio, in terms of legalistic distinctions between two different kinds of Elizabethan betrothal contract (de praesenti and de futuro). Yet there is no scholarly certainty concerning what kind of pre-contract which couple had. The reason for this confusion is that Shakespeare himself, as it were deliberately, describes the two pre-contracts in virtually identical ways. Here is Claudio's account of his sexual and legal relationship with Julietta:

Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed.
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order; this we came not to,
Only for propagation of a dow'r.

(I.ii. 138-43)

And here is the Duke's account of the contractual relationship between Angelo and Mariana:

She should this Angelo have married: [he] was affianced to her by oath, and the nuptial appointed; between which time of the contract and the limit of the solemnity her brother Frederick was wreck'd at sea, having in that perished vessel the dowry of his sister.

(III.i. 206-9)

To demonstrate the obvious similarities consequent on the bed-trick, one need only put Claudio's statement into the mouth of Mariana, since the identical words describe her situation just as accurately as they described Claudio's: ‘Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract I got possession of Lord Angelo's bed. You know the man. He is fast my husband, save that we do the denunciation lack of outward order. This we came not to, only for propagation of a dow'r.’

If there is any difference between the kind of contract that Claudio had with Julietta, and the pre-contract between Mariana and Angelo, it is so super-subtle that one can readily understand why ‘the courts themselves in Shakespeare's day were frequently at a loss to distinguish between the two types of betrothal contract’ (see Harding 1950, p. 149). None the less, there are numerous arguments insisting that Shakespeare's original audience would have realised that what was ‘wrong’ in the case of Julietta and Claudio, was ‘no sin’ in the case of Mariana and Angelo, since the ‘type of betrothal which Claudio and Juliet had entered upon did not in law give them any marital rights, whereas Mariana's contract with Angelo did, at least in law’ (see Nagarajan 1964, p. xxx). One critic goes so far as to assert that Claudio must have been lying to Shakespeare's audience, as well as to Lucio, when he claimed to have a ‘true contract’ with Julietta (see French 1972, pp. 17-19). But no such legal or moral distinctions are made clear in the script itself. Why not?

Assuming that Shakespeare and his original audience had, in fact, based their moral judgements on technical distinctions between betrothal contracts here portrayed as so much alike that any differences between them seem so insignificant as to appear non-existent, then Shakespeare—along with his original audience—could be charged with a legalism comparable to Angelo's, to say nothing of a lack of any common sense or Christian charity or normal humane compassion with regard to Claudio and Julietta (‘O, let him marry her!’). For that matter, Shakespeare himself had a daughter born to him only six months after his own wedding (for further biographical associations, see Scouten 1975, pp. 70-1). Moreover, two of the play's major dramatic and moral ironies get lost amidst scholarly arguments about the pre-contracts, and—arguably anyway—these ironies explain why Shakespeare dramatically stresses the similarities, not the differences, between them in the text.

1. Much of the action of Measure for Measure seems contrived to force Angelo to offend against the law of Vienna in the same way, and then face judgment under the same statute by which he had sentenced poor Claudio to death (‘When I, that censure him, do so offend, / Let mine own judgment pattern out my death’). Having so offended, Angelo keeps his word when, in the end, he asks for the death penalty (‘'Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it’). ‘Like doth quit like’—with a vengeance—until Angelo is granted the mercy he denied to Claudio (for further discussion, see Hawkes 1964, p. 96 and Hunter 1965, p. 219).

2. Claudio's sexual relationship with Julietta does, indeed, differ strikingly from the other sexual and matrimonial relationships involved in Measure for Measure. But it does not differ in its legality. It differs in its mutuality. For the fact is that the act of sex between Claudio and Julietta—which, paradoxically, is the one that is most emphatically, consistently and severely condemned as sinful—is the only sexual act in Measure for Measure that was undertaken with mutual consent, prompted by mutual desire and dignified by mutual love (I.ii. 147; II.iii. 26-7). By contrast, every other act of sexual intercourse that is contemplated or consummated in it involves coercion, prostitution, pandering, blackmail, force or trickery.

The inconsistent judgements by the Duke and Isabella may have resulted from a major moral and structural conundrum; that is, how not to condone premarital sex in general and, simultaneously, justify (a) the bed-trick and (b) the pardon of Angelo. The ‘conscience’ scene between the Duke and Julietta may structurally serve to confirm Claudio's insistence on mutuality (I.ii. 147) so as to make it absolutely clear to the audience that he was not guilty of ‘the forcible seduction of a virgin’ (as were his counterparts in Cinthio's Epitia and Hecatommithi—see Lever 1965, pp. xxxviii, 156-8); and to show us that Julietta is not a ‘loose’ woman; and to stress the way that even the most venial act of illicit sex involves guilt and shame on the part of Julietta and Claudio alike:

As surfeit is the father of much fast,
So every scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die.

(I.ii. 120-4)

Yet the fact remains that, even if we could find some legalistic distinction between their pre-contracts that would allow us to do so, there is no equitable or charitable or truly just way to applaud what Mariana did with Angelo and, simultaneously, condemn Claudio for a sin of heavier kind than Angelo's.

What, then, is the relationship between sex and sin and vice and virtue in Measure for Measure? Which of its characters should be condemned as malefactors, or seen as more sinned against than sinning or more to be pitied than censured? It is as if, in his treatment of sex and sin, Shakespeare here set out to develop the photo-negative reversals between virtue and vice that he had previously described in Romeo and Juliet (II.iii. 17-22):

For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strain'd from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse;
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometime's by action dignified.

Throughout Measure for Measure, Shakespeare dramatically confronts us with specific occasions wherein ‘virtue itself turns vice’, while ‘vice sometime's by action dignified’; even as a state of complete bewilderment concerning virtue and villainy is comically encapsulated in poor Elbow's speech confusing ‘benefactors’ with ‘malefactors’;

I do lean upon justice, sir, and do bring in here before your good honour two notorious benefactors.
Benefactors! Well—what benefactors are they? Are they not malefactors?
If it please your honour, I know not well what they are; but precise villains they are, that I am sure of, and void of all profanation in the world that good Christians ought to have.

(II.i. 47-55)

Can its Christian context help us to resolve the play's conflicts, or does Measure for Measure itself reflect a profound historical and enduring uncertainty concerning the degree of ‘profanation in the world that good Christians ought to have’—or ought to tolerate in others? For that matter, Christ's own teachings about sex and sin seem contradictory. As Milton observed,

Where the Pharisees were strict, there Christ seems remiss; where they were too remiss, he saw it needful to seem most severe: in one place he censures an unchaste look to be adultery already committed; another time he passes over actual adultery with less reproof than for an unchaste look; not so heavily condemning secret weakness, as open malice.

(Milton [1643-8], 1959, p. 283)

In Shakespeare's own time, differing Christian denominations held—just as they still hold—conflicting views about a number of sexual and moral issues involved in Measure for Measure. For instance, if, as St Paul insisted, ‘it is better to marry than to burn’, then, Catholics argued, it is obviously better still to renounce the flesh altogether, to take Holy Orders or enter a convent or a monastery. Conversely, Protestants extolled marriage, as opposed to monasticism. And of course there were, as there always are, some downright irreligious people around in seventeenth-century England, and Shakespeare's audience may well have contained (at least) a few irreverent libertines like Lucio, or like one Thomas Webbe, who is cited by Christopher Hill as having concluded that ‘There's no heaven but women, nor no hell save marriage’ (Hill 1974, p. 9).

Given the course of action in Measure for Measure, it does seem indisputably true that to attempt to expunge all profanation from the world is to invite disaster—which is precisely what the Duke of Vienna does when he summons Angelo, a ‘man of stricture and firm abstinence’ to bring back the birch of law (I.iii. 11-43). As Shakespeare reminds us elsewhere (see Sonnet 94), ‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds’. It is, however, when Angelo crosses it that Shakespeare most dramatically erases the fine line between virtuous and vicious forms of human psychology and sexuality that may elevate men and women or degrade them. For Angelo, a man who never feels the ‘wanton stings’ of sensuality, but ‘doth rebate and blunt his natural edge / With profits of the mind, study and fast’ (I.iv. 60-1), soon goes beyond all measure in punishing sexual offenders, and his self-righteousness almost immediately begins to manifest itself in sadism: ‘[I hope] you'll find good cause to whip them all’ (II.i. 131). ‘Punish them to your height of pleasure’, says the Duke, much later on (V.i. 238, my italics), when Angelo asks to have his ‘way’ with Isabella and Mariana (thus suggesting that the bed-trick failed to effect a miraculous reformation so far as Angelo's pleasure in punishing people is involved). Anyway, from the beginning of the play, the punishment of vice itself turns vicious, misapplied. Furthermore, virtue itself enkindles vice when the purity of a young novice ignites Angelo's desire to defile it. ‘Love in thousand monstrous forms doth oft appear’, wrote Spenser, and this is one of them:

Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O fie, fie, fie!
What doest thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? …
.....O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue.

(II.ii. 171-83)

There is a vicious circle here, since the saintlier Isabella is, the more Angelo will desire her. So any sincere refusal from her would only arouse him still further. Yet Isabella's searing refusal to lay down the treasure of her body to Angelo is charged with an erotic power that might well evoke a gleam in the eye of the most depraved marquis in the audience, to say nothing of a saint-turned-sensualist like Angelo:

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

(II.iv. 100-4, my italics)

In its dramatic context, this speech is peculiarly powerful. Other Shakespearian characters (such as Claudio and Antony) associate death with sex; and other threatened heroines of the time (e.g. Jonson's Celia and Shakespeare's Lucrece) prefer torture or death to dishonour. But here and only here—or so a lurid play-bill might put it—are fused the red and black extremes of passion and pain, the agonies and ecstacies of desire and martyrdom, of repression and sensuality (obviously, no commercially minded producer would dream of cutting this speech). Everything in it is associated with death, yet Isabella's fiery lines, with images of passionate sexuality underlying a prayer for martyrdom, for torture or death, for anything but sexual violation, would seem deliberately designed by Shakespeare to arouse Angelo as saint, as sensualist and as a sadist. And so, of course, they do. Here is Angelo's response, his answer, his ultimatum to Isabella:

                              I have begun,
And now I give my sensual race the rein:
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes
That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will;
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To ling'ring sufferance.

(II.iv. 159-67)

Angelo seems to be recalling, and either deliberately or unconsciously echoing, Isabella's memory-searing lines (her speech comes less than five minutes playing-time before his). She must fit her consent to his ‘sharp appetite’ (his sexual equivalent of ‘keen whips’?). She must ‘lay by’ (strip herself of) all blushes ‘That banish what they sue for’. In short, she must come to his bed ‘as to a bed / That longing have been sick for’ (there is surely a verbal echo in the parallel phrases here). Otherwise, he will have Claudio subjected to prolonged torture, before he has him killed.

Angelo's lines are more explicitly sexual, his threats far more sadistic, than earlier propositions urging Isabella to ransom her brother with the treasure of her body. They are also far more demanding. He insists upon a completely uninhibited response, however unwilling Isabella is to give it. This is what Coleridge saw as ‘horrible’. Seeing sadism and criminal sexuality in him, it was impossible for Coleridge to accept the pardon and marriage of Angelo in Act 5: ‘For cruelty, with lust and damnable baseness, cannot be forgiven, because we cannot conceive of them as being morally repented of’. Whatever Shakespeare might wish him to do at the end of a play so obviously concerned with Christian forgiveness, Coleridge agreed with Dr Johnson (who was, likewise, a devout Christian as well as a great critic) that ‘every reader feels some indignation when he finds [Angelo] spared’. It has been argued (see Kirsch 1975) that no such uncharitable and fundamentally un-Christian indignation would have been felt by Shakespeare's original audience. Elizabethan Christians (Kirsch asserts) would have rejoiced in the pardon and marriage of Angelo, whose ‘libidinousness’ was miraculously transformed by the bed-trick. Yet some Elizabethans might have agreed with Coleridge's conclusion that the ending ‘baffles the strong indignant claim of justice’ in so far as

Faults should be measured by desart, but all is one in this,
The lecher fyerd with lust, is punished no more,
Than he which fel through force of loue, whose mariage salues his sore.

(George Whetstone, Promos and Cassandra, 1578)

These (and other) lines from one of Shakespeare's major sources for Measure for Measure, would appear to suggest that ubiquitous mercy might have seemed, to individual Elizabethans, in certain circumstances, to be as unjust as ubiquitous justice seemed merciless. See Promos and Cassandra, Part 1, Act 2 (reprinted in Eccles 1980, pp. 313-15), where Isabella's counterpart thus pleads the case for Claudio's counterpart:

Behold the wofull Syster here, of poor Andrugio,
Whom though that lawe awardeth death, yet mercy do him show:
Way [Weigh] his yong yeares, the force of love, which forced his amis,
Way, way that Mariage, works amends, for what committed is,
He hath defilde no nuptial bed, nor forced rape hath mou'd,
He fel through love, who neuer ment, but wiue the wight he lou'd.
And wantons sure, to keepe in awe, these statutes first were made,
On none but lustfull leachers, should, with rygrous law be payd.
.....Here is no wylful murder wrought, which axeth blood againe,
Andrugio's faulte may salued be, Mariage wipes out his stayne.

If, in the case of ubiquitous justice, we would all be denied mercy (‘Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once’), in the case of ubiquitous mercy the claims of temporal justice are unsatisfied, when (for instance) a lecher fired with lust to attempted blackmail, rape and murder, is ‘punished no more’ than he ‘which fel through force of loue, whose mariage salues his sore’. There may (on the one hand) be more rejoicing in heaven, or at the end of a tragi-comedy like Measure for Measure (or Promos and Cassandra), when sins that were as scarlet are washed as white as snow. But, on a temporal level, where ‘Faults should be measured by desart’, the rejoicing may be tempered by a recognition that this process baffles the strong indignant claims of justice.

Looked back at from a different perspective, Shakespeare's original portrayals of Angelo and Isabella in their great confrontation scenes make the subsequent action of the play seem frustrating in another way. When Angelo's ultimatum is viewed from a psychological angle, it appears obvious that he sees in Isabella the feminine counterpart of himself (see Rossiter 1961, p. 159). As he was, so she is; as he is, so she might become. As ‘black masks / Proclaim an enshielded beauty ten times louder / Than beauty could, display'd’ (II.iv. 79-81), so the saintly asceticism of her life, precisely like his own, may mask a keen appetite that could indeed give full and fit consent to his desire. As he will give the ‘sensual race the rein’, so must she: he will allow her no modesty, no nicety, no blushes to banish what he now believes they sue for. He will have a response equivalent to his own sexual passion. Could Angelo be right in attributing to Isabella a latent sensuality equal to his own? Does the fact that Angelo once believed himself immune to sex and now is obsessed with it, suggest that Isabella might fall too? Claudio has informed us that

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

(I.ii. 120-2)

So might not the reverse prove true for his sister, as for Angelo? Could her restraint turn to immoderate use? Does her initial desire for more severe restraints within the convent suggest that there is something to restrain? Why does Isabella embrace martyrdom in such passionately sexual terms? Unless the line between saint and sinner, martyr and masochist, righteous severity and sadism—in short, the borderline between angelic and demonic extremes of virtue and of vice—is indeed a very narrow one and all too easy to cross? One may relish or deplore the psychological and sexual reverberations of Shakespeare's confrontations between a fiery saint and a fallen angel, but who would not be fascinated by them? ‘Where's that palace whereinto foul things sometimes intrude not?’ In the audience? On the stage? Why do Isabella's last lines in the play stress Angelo's desire for her?

It could be that, in their confrontation scenes—before Mariana's name is ever mentioned—Shakespeare establishes mysterious and powerful psychological and sexual affinities between Angelo and Isabella that make the bland domestic futures assigned them by the Duke seem incredible, if not unacceptable, to some members of the audience. If this play, in effect, transforms the audience from witnesses to participants in its tragi-comic rituals, we may emotionally participate in a kind of firelight flamenco dance between comedy and tragedy, piety and impiety, virtue and vice, wherein one may threaten, arouse, change places with, embrace—or, finally, repel—the other. For at mid-point in the action (immediately following the major confrontation scenes), there is a dramatic and virtually complete withdrawal of attention from the sexual and psychological proclivities of Shakespeare's heroine and his villain. He never again permits them a moment alone together on the stage. And so he abruptly and conspicuously parts company with his sources (see Lever 1945, pp. xxxv-lv) wherein the counterpart to Isabella always yields her body up, for one night, to Angelo's counterpart. But, then, in none of the sources is the heroine a young novice, nor is the sexual and emotional situation anything like so highly charged. Perhaps for these reasons Shakespeare summons forth the lovelorn Mariana to play the bed-trick, thus assuring that Angelo will be securely fettered to another woman by the bonds of holy wedlock, and then (ever widening the safety-zone between his incendiary pair) he has the Duke claim Isabella for his own. Yet Angelo himself asks only for death—never for Mariana—while Isabella's response to the Duke's proposal is silence. And so, in the end, as in their confrontation scenes, they still somehow seem, oddly, to be two of a kind.

Moreover, something more than Isabella's vanity may be involved in her last reference to Angelo:

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

(V.i. 443-5)

This could be a statement of dramatic fact, so far as the audience's verdict on Angelo is concerned. For the experience of watching an Angelo previously unmoved and invulnerable to temptation become obsessed by a young novice makes its dramatic impression on the audience before the Duke informs us of Mariana's existence. In ways comparable to the doom of Pentheus by Dionysus, it is through Angelo's great soliloquies that Shakespeare most dramatically portrays the fall of a man who has never before known or felt desire. The subsequent information about Angelo's old contracting, and the succession of intrigues based on it may, therefore, seem perfunctorily contrived. Likewise, whether we approve of extreme ascetism or not, the passion for chastity which Isabella expressed with such uncompromising conviction in the confrontation scenes makes it difficult for certain people to believe that the same woman would willingly become the bride of anyone but Christ: ‘Get her to a nunnery’, one student exclaimed. As Mary Lascelles observes, it is easy to argue that it is ‘the very idleness of criticism to ask how this play's new-married couples will settle down together’ (Lascelles 1953, p. 137), and it is certainly true that Shakespeare frequently ends his comedies with matches which no marriage counsellor would sanction. Yet none of the parties to his other matches (with the noteworthy exception of Lucio) are characters originally endowed with personalities that seem so fundamentally hostile to the wedding-bells that toll for them, as Isabella and Angelo, who neither freely choose, nor verbally assent to, their domestic destinies. Of course you could, contrariwise, argue that they will be better off wed, even as F. R. Leavis insists that we should ‘let Angelo marry a good woman and be happy’ (Leavis 1952, p. 172), while W. W. Lawrence does not believe that ‘there is any doubt that Isabella turns to [the Duke] with a heavenly and yielding smile’ (Lawrence 1931, pp. 106-7). But the choice of responses (a smile, uncertainty, shock, joy, despair, resignation, etc.) is left open to the actress playing Isabella, and the actor playing Angelo, even as the individual members of the audience are free to respond to the characters, and their destinies, in altogether different ways.

Yet, however one looks at Shakespeare's original portrayals of Angelo and Isabella, as J. C. Maxwell has observed, it is easy to see the germs of twentieth-century psychological theories in the play: ‘I have even been told of untutored playgoers who thought that it was Jonathan Miller and not Shakespeare who conceived the notion of setting it in [Freud's city] Vienna’ (Maxwell 1974, p. 3). For that matter, Measure for Measure has recently been subjected to what, to my mind, may be the most inane of all the Freudian interpretations currently being imposed upon Shakespeare's plays. For instance, several critics have felt obliged to inform us that Claudio's fear of death can be interpreted, ‘in Freudian terms’, as a fear of ‘castration’ (see Garber 1980, p. 123, and Berry 1981, p. 51). But if so, then what of it? Critically speaking, this would seem on all fours with arguing that a fear of the diagnosis ‘syphilis’ ultimately accounts for a young patient's response to the diagnosis ‘It's terminal cancer’. All one need do is glance back at Claudio's own account of all that men—and women—have feared of death itself to realise what is lost by making Freudian trifles of Shakespearian terrors: the threat to ‘splay and geld all the young men in the city’ (II.i. 218) is not the one that Claudio faces here. Moreover, if ‘fear of castration’ or ‘symbolic castration’ constitutes a psychoanalytical metaphor for a fear of, or a loss of, identity; of integrity; of potency; of face; of life itself; then it cannot, simultaneously, serve to account for the phenomena it was devised to describe: ‘Even in the analyst's office there is little room for diagnoses like the ones offered as psychoanalysis of characters—a psychoanalytic tag offered as an explanation, as though the name made the behaviour any more explicable’ (Skura 1981, pp. 38-42). Some Freudian interpretations of Measure for Measure are admittedly, albeit unintentionally, hilarious. What about, say, the costuming, headgear, etc., required to put this one on the stage?

[In the Fifth Act] the Duke's penetration of the city limits, the opening gates, the holy fountain a league below, all contribute to a powerfully sexual atmosphere. His homecoming is metaphorically portrayed in terms of a vaginal penetration.

(Sacks 1980, p. 59)

What the play we actually have would seem to demonstrate is that Freud was by no means the first to have recognised the existence of subconscious desires, or to have noted that sexual repression can result in neurosis, in a diseased imagination, in psycho-sexual aberrations. All this appears to have been just as obvious to Shakespeare, as well as his near-contemporary Robert Burton, as it is to a student of Freud. Indeed, Robert Burton's compendium of Renaissance psychological theories, The Anatomy of Melancholy, can provide us with external evidence, if any is needed, that certain sexual, social and emotional problems posed in Measure for Measure are no more amenable to solution-by-diagnosis in Freudian terms than they were amenable to a single theological or social or political solution-by-diagnosis in Shakespeare's (or in any other) time.

In his discussions of sexual and religious pathology, Burton (very like Shakespeare in Measure for Measure) brings together ‘Great precisians’ (like Angelo) and ‘fiery-spirited zealots’ (like Isabella), as well as certain types that may well have composed a large part of Shakespeare's audience, as of his dramatis personae: there are the ‘good, bad, indifferent, true, false, zealous, ambidexters, neutralists, lukewarm, libertines, atheists, etc.’ (Burton 1932, iii, p. 387). In Burton, as in Shakespeare, virtue itself may turn into vice: ‘howsoever they may seem to be discreet’, the ‘preposterous zeal’ of great precisians (like Angelo) may result in actions that go ‘beyond measure’ (iii, p. 372). In sexual matters, ‘Venus omitted’ may do just as much damage as ‘intemperate Venus’—it may cause ‘priapismus, satyriasis, etc.’ and ‘send up poisonous vapours to the brain and heart’. If the ‘natural seed be overlong kept (in some parties) it turns to poison’ (i, p. 234). To Burton, the tyranny of religious ‘superstition’ seemed as terrible as the tyranny of princes: ‘What power of prince or penal law, be it never so strict’, could enforce men and women (rather like Isabella) to do that which they will voluntarily undergo out of religious fervour: ‘As to fast from all flesh, abstain from marriage … whip themselves … abandon the world?’ (iii, p. 332). Religious and ideological zealots of this kind will endure any misery, ‘suffer and do that which the sunbeams will not endure to see, religionis acti furiis’; ‘endure all extremities’, ‘vow chastity’, ‘take any pains’, ‘die a thousand deaths’ (iii, p. 350).

According to Burton, organised religion itself may provide dispensations that are spurious, ways out that are too easy. As a Protestant, Burton deplored the ‘general pardons’ issued by Catholics, and complained that their ‘ghostly fathers’ all too easily ‘apply remedies … cunningly string and unstring, wind and unwind their devotions, play upon their consciences with plausible speeches and terrible threats, … settle and remove, erect with such facility and deject, let in and out’ (iii, pp. 403-4). I have never seen, anywhere, what appears to be a better gloss on the dubious contrivances of Shakespeare's Duke-disguised-as-a-friar, as he plays upon the consciences of the other characters; sets up, and then removes, the rod of law; arbitrarily orders people into, and out of, death-row; and finally issues general pardons for all offences. One could, using Burton's arguments, write an essay concluding that Shakespeare himself intended us to be comparably critical of the Duke. But it is just as easy to argue the opposite case: given the structure of the play, Shakespeare appears to be on the side of the Duke, whose compromises, contrivances, improvisations, and intrigues may be necessary in order to maintain any semblance of stability or order or justice or mercy in a fallen world (see Schleiner 1982). Yet markedly unlike the Duke, Shakespeare's play itself ‘does not’ (my terms are again from Burton) ‘repeal a fornicator’ (like Julietta), ‘reject a drunkard’ (like Barnardine) or ‘resist a proud fellow’ (like Lucio), but ‘entertains all, communicates itself to all (iii, p. 413). It is in this spacious humanity that Shakespeare himself might be said to reflect the amazing grace of God. Yet he also pays dramatic tribute to ‘the devil's burning throne’, and the falling, fallen, Angelo stands among the greatest of all his creations.

For here as elsewhere, Shakespeare was not about to subordinate his apprehension of a most protean reality to the dictates of any single dogma, doctrine or dramatic form. Thus the order superimposed on the play in the end is challenged by the recalcitrance of certain characters (like Lucio) even as the Duke's order, ‘Love her, Angelo’, raises questions as to whether affections can be so ordered.

To interpose a jurisdictive power upon the inward and irremediable disposition of man, to command love and sympathy, to forbid dislike … is not within the province of any law to reach.

In whom therefore either the will, or the faculty is found to have never joined, or now not to continue so, 'tis not to say, they shall be one flesh, for they cannot be one flesh [though wedlock try all her golden links, and borrow to her aid all the iron manacles and fetters of law, it does but seek to twist a rope of sand].

(Milton, ed. Sirluck, 1959, pp. 346, 606; the interpolation is from p. 345)

So far as the ‘inward and irremediable disposition of man’ is concerned, you can whip a Lucio, or force him to marry the whore he got with child, but short of hanging him, there's no way to stifle his jeers at all authority. You can pull down all the brothels in the suburbs, but the trade will only move elsewhere, and the brothels in the city that some ‘wise burgher put in for’ will still stand (I.ii. 91-102): the pimp will not be ‘whipt out of his trade’ (II.i. 242). Yet commercial prostitution here seems relatively innocuous when compared to Angelo's ‘salt appetite’ and ‘sharp imagination’ that desires to raze the sanctuary and pitch its evils there: ‘For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness … These are the things which defile a man.’

And so Shakespeare provokes speculation about the ways of an imaginary world (not altogether unlike our own) wherein ‘Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall’ (II.i. 38), and the same individual may ‘become much more the better / For being a little bad’ (V.i. 438-9), and the same thing may ‘make bad good, and good provoke to harm’ (IV.i. 15). Included among the creatures who inhabit it are spiders and flies, burrs that stick, the basest of weeds, and lilies that fester. In this teeming terrain—and not in an ending which appears to have tidied everything up—may lie the source of the play's vitality, of its enduring relevance. To my mind anyway, what seem least significant about Measure for Measure, and certain critical interpretations of it, are the solutions officially offered us, whereby ‘all difficulties are but easy when they are known’ (IV.ii. 192-3) and all its moral, sexual, psychological conundrums can be resolved through substitutions, bed-tricks and marriage certificates. What seem most significant are the open questions posed throughout the play.

For the fact is that, whether Shakespeare intended them to or not, the kinds of solutions to the problems offered to us at the end of Measure for Measure seem obviously inadequate in the face of the psychological, social, sexual and moral conflicts they are supposed to have resolved. By contrast, it seems just fine when, for instance, certain problems posed in the beginning of The Comedy of Errors are solved when twin finally meets twin, and Aegeon is spared. For the death-threat to Aegeon was, from the outset, amenable to a practical solution (i.e. the payment of 1,000 marks), even as the dramatic complications arising from the mistaking of one twin for another can, instantaneously, be unravelled when both twins finally appear together on the stage.

Count Otto von Bismarck described politics as ‘the art of the possible’, and Sir Peter Medawar has described scientific research as ‘the art of the soluble’, and both these descriptions could be applied to a certain kind of dramatic art, in which the playwright poses problems, however complicated they may appear to be, that are finally amenable to a dramatic resolution. On the other hand, a very different kind of dramatic art operates at certain crucial points in Measure for Measure, and it might be most accurately described as the ‘art of the insoluble’. Perhaps a quick account of the way Measure for Measure differs from John Marston's The Malcontent can illustrate the differences between the two kinds of dramatic art.

It is obvious at a glance that the general outlines of Measure for Measure and The Malcontent are similar. Within the corrupt societies of both plays, a disguised duke manipulates characters and intrigues so that the outcome of a play which might otherwise have developed in the pattern of revenge tragedy results in mercy and harmony. Here the similarity ends, and some illuminating differences emerge. Where the ending of Measure for Measure creates difficulties, the conclusion of The Malcontent leaves the audience satisfied, or at least comparatively few commentators have objected to the way the conflicts are resolved. Where Marston's characterisation and style are consistent, the characters, the language and the action of Shakespeare's play sometimes appear at odds with each other. Marston's characters pose no insoluble problems for anyone familiar with Elizabethan drama.

His disguised Duke, Altofronto, speaking as Malevole, sounds enough like Jonson's Macilente and other characters of the same type to be readily accepted as the play's satiric spokesman from the moment he opens his mouth. The villainous usurper Mendoza is a nicely portrayed Machiavel with a Marlovian flair for overstatement; and the other characters need no more detailed introduction to any audience or reader even superficially familiar with their dramatic predecessors and contemporaries. We have Celso, the loyal friend and confidante; Bilioso, the doddering old man; various licentious courtiers; a virtuous duchess; a fool; a bawd. However bitter Marston's portrayal of this upside-down world may be, its inhabitants are old dramatic friends whose ancestors, siblings and progeny people many of the most popular plays on the Elizabethan stage. We know exactly what to expect from them, and they live up to our expectations (in the manner of Jonson's ‘humour’ types). All Marston has to do, given his skilful depiction of these well-known types, is to set them in action in a series of interesting intrigues. And his characters are such conventionally theatrical figures, that even when the action moves in an ominous direction, nobody in the audience really worries. The highly theatrical posturing, running about, double murder assignments and masque are great fun to watch. Marston's world is certainly out of joint, but it is so obviously a theatrically disordered world that there is no surprise when the playwright—via his spokesman and agent, Malevole/Altofronto—manages, theatrically, to set it right. For any problems created by the dramatic intrigues of one set of characters may be effectively solved by the dramatic intrigues of another group of characters, even as dramatic ‘humours’ can be dramatically expelled. In the Prologue, Marston stresses the lively action of the play, and rightly describes it as a comedy, since, however dark and devious his dramatic world may be, the emphasis falls on the dramatic intrigues, not on the suffering, which it causes.

By contrast, the action of Measure for Measure involves extreme suffering, and if Shakespeare exaggerates the traits of certain characters, he does so in ways significantly different from Marston's stylised exaggeration. Where Marston anchors his characters and action in the dramatic tradition, Shakespeare looses our dramatic moorings at the same time that he disturbs familiar ethical and moral assumptions. For instance, morally speaking, Barnardine is awful (‘Unfit to live or die’: IV.iii. 60). But Shakespeare's drunken, impenitent murderer, this death-defying, Duke-defying, ‘careless’, ‘reckless’, ‘fearless’, ‘insensible’ and ‘desperately mortal’ jailbird elicits an emotional and imaginative approbation that transcends critical and moral and ducal judgements alike. ‘Whether the qualities that have made [Barnardine] deathless in the imagination of many readers were part of Shakespeare's design, or came from that bounty which he could hardly deny any of his creatures—here lies no certainty, nor the hope of any’ (Lascelles 1953, p. 113). No one writes that way about any minor character in The Malcontent. The same holds true for the major characters.

Where Marston gives us old dramatic acquaintances, Shakespeare gives us characters different from the dramatis personae in his own works or in those of his contemporaries. There are numerous Elizabethan and Jacobean villains like Marston's Mendoza, and there are plenty of pure heroines like his Maria. There are none like Angelo or Isabella. Until III.i. 153, Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio (when he faces death) behave with the intensity of tragic protagonists, as if they were impelled by elemental forces (the force of Eros, the will-to-autonomy, the will-to-live) and so are capable of surprising and shocking the audience, each other, themselves. All three are associated with absolutes. Angelo is absolute for the letter of the law, then for Isabella. Isabella is absolute for chastity. Claudio soon becomes absolute for life. And an audience that has witnessed their confrontations is left, not with a vague impression, but with an absolute conviction that, given their situations, each would choose to bring tragic suffering upon each other, themselves, etc., that Angelo would, without doubt, defile Isabella in spite of his own horrified conscience; that Isabella would never yield to Angelo, even to save her brother's life; that Claudio could not willingly choose death, even to save his sister from a fate worse than death.

Thus, on the one hand, Shakespeare creates a desire to watch these characters face the tragic truths and consequences of their own decisions and desires and, on the other hand, creates a counter-desire to see how he—or the Duke—is going to save them from death, dishonour, each other, themselves, and so on. So far as dramatic form is concerned, Kenneth Burke has described the ways differing forms of dramatic art create, and satisfy, differing appetites, needs and desires on the part of the audience (Burke 1964, pp. 20-33). Shakespearian comedy can satisfy us like a wish-fulfilment dream, wherein all losses are restored and sorrows end; tragedy can satisfy a desire to go all the way, to see its characters confront the worst consequences of various passions and actions. Measure for Measure can be generically classified as a tragi-comedy since it creates, and attempts to satisfy, both desires. But in drama, as in life, the satisfaction of one desire may, necessarily, entail the frustration of the opposite desire. It may be impossible to arrive at a critical consensus about Measure for Measure because of the differing appetites it arouses, and satisfies, and frustrates, in differing individuals.


Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson, London 1932.

Eccles, Mark. New Variorum Edition of Measure for Measure, New York 1980.

French, A. L. Shakespeare and the Critics, Cambridge 1972.

Harding, Davis P. ‘Elizabethan Betrothals and Measure for Measure’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 49 (1950), pp. 139-58.

Hawkes, Terence. Shakespeare and the Reason: A Study of the Tragedies and the Problem Plays, London 1964.

Hill, Christopher. Irreligion in the ‘Puritan’ Revolution, London 1974.

Hunter, R. G. Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness, New York 1965.

Kirsch, Arthur C. ‘The Integrity of Measure for Measure’, Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975), pp. 89-105.

Lascelles, Mary. Shakespeare'sMeasure for Measure’, London 1953.

Lawrence, W. W. Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, New York 1931.

Leavis, F. R. ‘Measure for Measure’, in The Common Pursuit, London 1952.

Lever, J. W. (ed.) Measure for Measure, New Arden Shakespeare, London 1965.

Maxwell, J. C. ‘Measure for Measure: The Play and the Themes’, British Academy Shakespeare Lecture, Oxford 1974.

Milton, John. The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Areopagitica, and Tetrachordon, in The Complete Prose Works of John Milton, vol. 2., 1643-8, ed. Ernest Sirluck, New Haven, Conn. 1959 (I have modernised the prose quotations from Milton in my text).

Nagarajan, S. (ed.) Measure for Measure, Signet Classic Shakespeare, New York 1964.

Rossiter, A. P. Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures, ed. Graham Storey, London 1961.

Sacks, Elizabeth. Shakespeare's Images of Pregnancy, London 1980.

Schleiner, Louise. ‘Ethical Improvisation in Measure for Measure’, PMLA 97 (1982), pp. 227-36.

Scouten, Arthur H. ‘An Historical Approach to Measure for Measure’, Philological Quarterly 54 (1975), pp. 68-84.

Skura, Meredith Anne. The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process, New Haven, Conn., and London 1981.

Celia Baker (review date 27 June 2003)

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SOURCE: Baker, Celia. Review of Measure for Measure.Salt Lake Tribune (27 June 2003): D22.

[In the following review of director Liz Huddle's 2003 production of Measure for Measure at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Baker remarks on the easygoing appeal of this conventional comic staging, but notes that the play did not attempt to resolve the problematic questions raised by Shakespeare's drama.]

Duke Vincentio thinks Vienna is becoming too licentious. So, he brings in a strict deputy to clean things up, then disappears for a while, secretly checking on his substitute to see how things are going. What follows is a dark comedy that offers an intriguing exploration of public and private ethics—Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, which opened Wednesday at the Utah Shakespearean Festival.

When the bawdy Mistress Overdone (Leslie Brott) and her procurer, Pompey (Joe Cronin), are introduced, it becomes obvious that Vienna is due for a cleanup. Unfortunately, the puritanical deputy, Angelo, carries the matter too far. When he begins enforcing old morality laws without consideration for circumstance, a young gentleman who has impregnated his fiance is sentenced to death.

Not surprisingly, Angelo's self-righteous posturing hides smothered passions. When the condemned man's virginal sister, Isabella, comes to plead her brother's case, Angelo is smitten with unholy desire. Though filled with shame and guilt, he offers Isabella a crude bargain: her virginity for her brother's life. Scott Coopwood, who plays Angelo, needs to speak the text more trippingly, but his intense portrayal brings out Angelo's repressed personality to good effect.

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's more problematic plays, although it is thoroughly engrossing. The playwright's solutions to the play's dilemmas can seem facile, even underhanded, to today's audiences: Isabella's chastity is preserved by a switch of sexual partners under cover of darkness and Claudio's life is preserved by switching a dead prisoner for a live one, simple as that.

Still, the play's artificial situations raise issues that continue to trouble society: How far can morality be legislated? Does preservation of principle trump preservation of life? At what point should justice step aside and allow mercy to prevail? Shakespeare didn't have all the answers, and neither do we.

Director Liz Huddle's interpretation emphasizes Measure for Measure's lighter, more comic elements. Along the way to the too-neat ending, there are many delights. Count among them a moving performance by Elisabeth Adwin as Isabella, along with a show-stealing comic turn by Michael David Edwards as a foppish aristocrat, Lucio. And Henry Woronicz gives his performance as a duke-in-friar's-clothing with canny wit. One can question this character's ethics, but never his likability.

As with the other two Shakespearean plays that debuted this week, production values for Measure for Measure are glorious—a large cast of fine actors, a set featuring elegant Italian murals (Bill Forrester), and luscious costumes rendered with Baroque flourish (Janet L. Swenson). The show's elaborate incidental music, for organ, was composed by Christine Frezza, whose vocal setting of “Sigh No More, Ladies” is sung charmingly by boy soprano Kevin Whitney.

The Utah Shakespearean Festival is not the optimal choice for those who favor hip updates of the Bard's plays or agenda-driven productions set in unexpected times and places. But for beautiful renditions of Shakespeare's works in the traditional vein, USF is the perfect place, and any of this year's offerings will deliver full measure of awe and delight.

Martha Widmayer (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Widmayer, Martha. “‘My Brother Had But Justice’: Isabella's Plea for Angelo in Measure for Measure.Upstart Crow 19 (1999): 62-77.

[In the following essay, Widmayer discusses themes of justice, law, and Christian mercy illustrated by Isabella's petition that Angelo's life be spared in the final scene of Measure for Measure.]

Few speeches have evoked such extensive critical commentary as Isabella's plea for Angelo's life in the final scene of Measure for Measure. Implored by Mariana to “but kneel by me!” (V. i. 445),1 Isabella does far more: she assumes the role of attorney for the defense, arguing that Angelo is not guilty of the same crime for which Claudio was sentenced to death:

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

(V. i. 456-62)

“Merely,” Mariana echoes, suggesting she perceives the same legal distinction as Isabella does and as Shakespeare presumably anticipated his audience would. But in the eyes of many critics the distinction remains elusive. After all, like Claudio and Juliet, Angelo and Mariana engaged in sexual intercourse following mutual promises of marriage. Thus, their marriage is valid, but not licit (or church solemnized). Yet, while Claudio is sentenced to death, the Deputy, according to Isabella, has committed no crime. Furthermore, though Juliet is convicted and imprisoned, the question of whether Mariana should be tried for the same offense never even arises.

How are we to account for this apparent inconsistency? Numerous critical studies attempt to make sense of Isabella's plea by examining de praesenti and de futuro contracts,2 with the usual aim of demonstrating that the marriage contract between Angelo and Mariana is more binding or valid than that of Claudio and Juliet. However, despite much scrutiny of Elizabethan marriage laws and customs, Harriet Hawkins writes, no consensus of opinion has been reached about either the exact nature of the contract each couple made or the legalities involved. Hawkins goes on to say this lack of agreement is understandable, given both Shakespeare's vague descriptions of the contracts and the confusion over them among experts in church law:

If there is any difference between the kind of contract that Claudio had with Julietta, and the pre-contract between Mariana and Angelo, it is so super-subtle that one can readily understand why “the courts themselves in Shakespeare's day were frequently at a loss to distinguish between the two types of betrothal contract. …”3

Critical examinations of the two types of marriage contracts are not without merit: some in the audience, including members of the Inns of Court, might have perceived a distinction between the contracts and, as Craig A. Bernthal writes, welcomed such “‘fictonal questions’ which furnished the beginning of debate rather than the end.”4 But if a difference between the contracts was important to legal experts, apparently it was not important enough to Shakespeare to discuss in the play. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that at the climactic moment when Isabella kneels and pleads for her enemy's life, the dramatist would have left most of his audience scratching their heads over a fine legal distinction.

Much of the controversy surrounding Isabella's plea can be traced, I believe, to a misunderstanding of the nature of her brother's offense. Critics have long taken for granted that “Claudio is sentenced to death by Angelo for the crime of fornication.”5 Certainly Claudio and Juliet have committed fornication, or, more aptly, ante-nuptial fornication, but so have Angelo and Mariana. However, the outcome of their sexual behavior, rather than the nature of their marriage contract, makes Claudio and Juliet legally culpable, while Angelo and Mariana are not. To my mind, recognizing the nature of Claudio's offense can clarify Isabella's plea for Angelo and the play as a whole, which seems concerned, in part, with the inequity of a statute, both fictional and real, that condemned some yet let others go free for the same behavior.

The play provides six descriptions of Claudio's offense, beginning with Overdone's announcement that the young man has been sentenced “for getting Madam Juliet with child” (I. ii. 70-71). In the same scene, Pompey enters, and Overdone asks, “what's the news with you?”:

Yonder man is carried to prison.
Well, what's he done?
A woman.

Given Overdone's question and Pompey's reply, there can be only one interpretation of “done,” especially in the mind of an “over-done” lady. Had Shakespeare wanted his audience to believe that the man had been convicted for simple fornication, the talk of his offense could end here. But Overdone, taking for granted that the prisoner could not have been convicted merely for fornication, requires more information:

But what's his offense?
Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.
What? Is there a maid with child by him?
No, but there's a woman with maid by him.

(I. ii. 85-92)

Overdone's final question assumes that the prisoner is guilty of fathering a child by the maid, a fact Lucio punningly confirms.

Pompey goes on to inform Overdone of the proclamation under which all “houses” in the suburbs are to be closed. Critics generally regard this proclamation and the statute under which Claudio and Juliet are punished as one and the same. If they are the same, we should expect the bawd to be at least as worried over losing her head as her business, especially since when Pompey comes on the scene, he voices his intention to disobey the proclamation by seeing to it that Overdone maintains her “taphouse” (“Though you change your place, you need not change your trade; I'll be your tapster still” [I. ii. 107-08]). Yet, neither before nor after their arrest do the bawds express any concern about meeting the same deadly fate as Claudio. The statute under which Claudio and Juliet are convicted seems to be one thing, while the proclamation, which Overdone and Pompey break by maintaining a “house,” is another.

The third description of the offense comes from Claudio himself, who tells Lucio what has happened:

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

(I. ii. 142-52)

“With child, perhaps?” Lucio asks, evidently baiting Claudio, since the condition of Juliet, standing nearby and soon to give birth, is readily apparent. “Unhappily, even so,” Claudio answers and goes on to explain that Angelo “Awakes in me all the enrolled penalties” of a “drowsy and neglected act” (I. ii. 167-71).

According to Claudio's explanation of the offense, he and Juliet followed what was in Shakespeare's age the fairly widespread, though not church-sanctioned, practice of exchanging promises of marriage, then engaging in intercourse prior to solemnization.6 The marriage was not solemnized, Claudio explains, only for lack of Juliet's dowry, held by her “friends” from whom they decided to conceal their love “Till time had made them for us.” Why the friends would not have approved the relationship, despite Juliet's long friendship with her “cousin,” Isabella (I. iv. 47-48), might be accounted for by the couple's youth; however, Claudio's association with Lucio and other denizens of the “taphouse” or alehouse (OED) suggests another explanation. When Mistress Overdone tells Lucio and the other gentlemen that Claudio was “worth five thousand of you all” (I. ii. 59-60), she is expressing admiration for his integrity. But the phrase takes on additional meaning in the context of the gentlemen's discussion of the money Lucio has been spending at the taphouse. In this context, the implication is that Claudio “was worth” an impressive amount of money that Overdone's use of the past tense suggests is gone. The fact that Overdone has such knowledge could mean that Claudio has lost all or most of his money under her roof. This would link Claudio to Lucio and the other gentlemen, who spend their time and money at the alehouse, as well as to Froth, another young heir whose father is dead and has fallen in with an “idle” companion.

Like Escalus, who warns Froth to stay away from tapsters, justices of Shakespeare's age repeatedly spoke of the danger of alehouses. Perhaps Claudio may be likened to those “accounted Gallants young Gentlemen” condemned by Justice Edward Coke for frequenting alehouses, where “by their intemperate riot, love to spend their inheritance before they come to inherit.”7 Shakespeare may have intended his audience to assume that Claudio's “riotous youth,” as Angelo calls it (IV. iv. 29), resulted in indigence—as Coke and many of the respectable sort believed was the inevitable result of alehouse-haunting. Claudio's loss of his inheritance could explain why the couple concealed their vows from her friends and were unable to afford to solemnize their union, even when Juliet found herself with child—a child who, under English law, would be considered illegitimate because the marriage, though valid (“she is fast my wife”), has not been made licit by solemnization (“outward order”).8

Shakespeare seems to have based the situation of Claudio and Juliet on a common dilemma faced by couples during his age. Much to the consternation of parents and ecclesiastical authorities, the late sixteenth century saw a considerable increase in the numbers of “private spousals”—so called because, as in the case of Claudio and Juliet, the marriage promises were made without the knowledge of “friends” (guardians, parents, or other relatives). Sometimes, these private spousals took place at alehouses where, records indicate, a number of young couples exchanged vows in direct opposition to the wishes of “friends.” John Gillis goes on to say that one of the reasons for the increase in private contracts is that “self-betrothal was a way of neutralizing parental and communal power.”9 Since sexual intercourse made valid promises of marriage immediately and fully binding,10 a young woman like the fictional Juliet could use private spousals to make her own marriage choice, irrespective of the disapproval of “friends.”

The increase in the number of private spousals may have contributed to what historians have described as a sharp rise in illegitimacy in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.11 Moralists of the period tended to associate bastardy with “whoredom.”12 However, indications are that the high rate of illegitimacy was more often due to circumstances like those of Claudio and Juliet. From what Keith Wrightson has found, most couples who produced illegitimate children had intended to solemnize their unions, but later discovered they could not, typically because they lacked the financial means to marry.13

Claudio's offense is next described by Lucio who informs Isabella that her brother is in prison:

Woe me! For what?
For that which, if myself might be his judge,
He should receive his punishment in thanks:
He hath got his friend with child.

(I. iv. 26-29)

Isabella's immediate solution to the problem—“O, let him marry her” (I. iv. 49)—was not an acceptable remedy for bastardy as far as many rate-payers of the age were concerned. Yet, the belief that England was being overrun by “breeding beggars and multitudes of poor children,”14 resulting in a variety of direct and indirect restrictions designed to limit access to marriage among the impoverished,15 no doubt prevented many unwed parents from legitimizing their children's births and thus contributed to the bastardy problem.

The fifth description of Claudio's offense is offered by the Provost. As Juliet approaches him in the prison, he says to the disguised Duke,

Look, here comes one: a gentlewoman of mine,
Who, falling in the flaws of her own youth,
Hath blistered her report. She is with child,
And he that got it, sentenc'd—a young man
More fit to do another such offense
Than die for this.

(II. iii. 10-15)

Like Overdone, Pompey, Claudio, and Lucio, the Provost describes the young couple's offense in terms of Juliet's pregnancy: “She is with child, / And he that got it, sentenc'd.” The Provost's sympathetic understanding of the couple's crime is in sharp contrast to Angelo's comparison of bastardy to murder (“'Tis all as easy / Falsely to take away a life true made / As to put metal in restrained means / To make a false one” [II. iv. 46-49]) and Isabella's preference for death over bastard-bearing: “I had rather my brother die by the law than my son should be unlawfully born” (III. i. 191-93).

Claudio's offense is not spoken of directly again until the final scene when Isabella refers to her brother as having been “Condemn'd upon the act of fornication” (V. i. 74). Her diction suggests it was not fornication itself but what followed upon it—the conception of a bastard child—that accounts for his condemnation.

In Shakespeare's age, fornication or antenuptial fornication could lead to penetential punishment by the church courts,16 but it was not a criminal offense punishable by justices of the peace. Bastardy was quite a different matter. Joan Kent writes that in 1576 Parliament passed the first of what over the next fifty years would become a plethora of statutes against personal conduct offenses such as swearing, drunkenness, alehouse haunting, and bastardy.17 “The first and ferocious part” of the original bastardy statute, observes Frank Milton, “seems to show Parliament using the criminal law for the purpose of suppressing immorality, but the main aim of the legislation was to reduce the numbers of paupers.”18 Indeed, the poor seem to have been the usual target of justices like William Lambarde,19 particularly as Parliament, while willing to punish those whose illegitimate children might become a burden to rate-payers, openly opposed punishing “men of quality” for bastardy.20 Ultimately, however, the decision about who would be punished for bastardy rested with the individual justice. In the opening scene of Measure for Measure, the Duke informs Angelo, “Your scope is as mine own, / So to enforce or qualify the laws / As to your soul seems good” (I. i. 65-67). The kind of discretionary power the Duke gives his deputy was not ordinarily allowed English justices,21 except when it came to personal conduct statutes of the kind regulating bastardy and alehouses, many of which were bawdy houses in disguise.22 While the audience is not told to what laws the Duke is referring, perhaps it is no coincidence that the only laws we see applied under Angelo's magistracy relate to unwed parents and to the keepers of an alehouse.

Convinced that the country was being impoverished by “misbegotten bastards,” William Lambarde encouraged justices to rigorously enforce personal conduct legislation.23 Those most likely to comply were “godly magistrates,” men with strong puritan leanings like Shakespeare's “precise” deputy, who felt it their duty to use their discretionary power to punish bastardy and other forms of “rough behavior”:

The ideal of the “godly magistrate,” a man who saw himself as a partner with the monarch in a fight against all forms of corruption typified a new approach to the notion of good governance … “godly” officers of the parish, as well as “godly” magistrates, could use the law as a weapon against “rough” behavior.24

Angelo's abhorrence of bastardy, which he describes as equal in seriousness to murder (II. iv. 42-49), was shared by many sixteenth and seventeenth authorities who, in the words of one historian, were “almost morbidly obsessed” with the subject.25 This obsession could manifest itself in increasingly severe, even savage punishments of unwed fathers and, especially, unwed mothers:

Given the hostilty of rate payers to “great bellied wenches,” it is not surprising to find the treatment of sexual offenders becoming more severe. Before 1580, the only punishment for offenders—at least if they were willing to support the child—was a few hours in the stocks. Then, in 1588, the Quarter Sessions rolls record the first case of an unwed mother being whipped at the cart's tail, although the strokes were to be “moderately given.” After 1600 the sentences grew harsher: women were to be whipped until their backs were bloody. After 1610 they were sent to the House of Correction for a year.26

Since detecting the fathers of illegitimate children was extremely important to rate-payers, unwed mothers might also be subjected to harsh inquisitions during labor:

… in childbed they found themselves surrounded by midwives charged to refuse to assist them until they declared, often with the accompaniment of bloodcurdling oaths … the name of the father of the child. It is scarcely surprising that some girls faced with these terrors concealed their pregnancies, bore their children alone and then exposed, abandoned, or deliberately killed them.27

Parents or others who gave sanctuary to unwed mothers and fathers risked prosecution by the church courts28 and intimidation by local officials like an overseer who threatened to burn a mother's house down if she did not send her pregnant daughter out. The girl, like many unwed mothers, fled her community: her child was born in a barn in another town.29 A. L. Beier writes that unwed mothers were often “encouraged” to take to the roads by parish officials, masters, and even by parents who wanted to rid themselves of the burden of “great bellied wenches” unable to support their children.30 No more welcome in neighboring parishes than their own, unwed mothers might find themselves driven from one parish to another:

Elizabethan and early Stuart parishes engaged in long, expensive and cruel disputes in which mother and baby were shunted back and forth. The result was a great traffic of girls, their infants, and the fugitive fathers. Somerset girls went as far as Wales to have their bastards, and to London they came from all parts of the country.31

Considering the increasingly brutal treatment of bastard bearers in some English towns, Claudio's death sentence for bastardy, though a fiction, was not altogether implausible—particularly at a time when a person could be executed for the theft of a shilling.32

Somewhat closer to reality is the harshness displayed towards Shakespeare's unwed mother by two of his Justices of the Peace. Publicly humiliated by being paraded through the streets, Juliet goes into labor in the city prison. Only at the intercession of the kindly Provost, who asks Angelo, “What shall be done, sir, with the groaning Juliet? / She's very near her hour,” does the Deputy think to “Dispose of her / To some more fitter place, and that with speed. … See you the fornicatress be removed. / Let her have needful but not lavish means” (II. ii. 18-27). As she waits for the Provost to conduct her to this place, she encounters the Duke in disguise. A common law justice usurping the role that properly belongs to a priest, he appoints himself her confessor, even though his primary purpose is not to minister to afflicted souls as he claims, but to discover the nature of the inmates' crimes so he can determine whether Angelo is enforcing Vienna's strict statutes as the Duke hopes. Later in the play, when he has learned greater humility and felt the first stirrings of love, the Duke will speak more like a true minister of souls to Barnardine (“Sir … I am come to advise you, comfort you, and pray with you” [IV. iii. 51-52]); however, during his interview with Juliet, there is no comfort or prayer in his mouth: much like Angelo, and in sharp contrast with the caring Provost who defends the couple against the law that has condemned them, the Duke is a self-righteous, “respectable” prosecutor and judge who puts Juliet's soul on trial.

The Duke's insensitivity in this scene is underscored by his heedlessness of the young woman's physical and emotional suffering. Not far removed from those who subjected actual unwed mothers to inquisitions during labor, the Duke questions, expostulates, and admonishes, heaping new agony on the girl when she most lacks the strength to bear it. The Duke begins to “minister” to Juliet's afflicted spirit by asking whether she repents “of the sin you carry” (II. iii. 19). The “sin” is that of her soul, but it is also the child she carries, who—as in Angelo's speech against “evils” hatched and born (II. ii. 95-104)—is condemned simply for coming to life. Apparently because Juliet bears her shame “most patiently” (II. iii. 20), the Duke decides her repentance may be false and begins a lesson in soul-searching: “I'll teach you how you shall arraign your conscience, / And try your penitence, if it be sound, / Or hollowly put on” (II. iii. 21-23). Not only does the Duke assume he knows the proper condition of Juliet's conscience, he believes he can see into the young woman's soul. Her response reflects her simple humility: “I'll gladly learn” (II. iii. 24). “Love you the man that wrong'd you?” the Duke asks (25), evidently trying to establish whether Juliet's penitence is genuine by implicitly asking her to reject Claudio, together with her sin. But she does not attempt to exonerate herself by turning against her husband: she answers that she loves Claudio as she loves herself, says the sin was mutually committed, but takes on the burden of blame. When the Duke then threatens to embark upon a lengthy sermon about the necessity for her to feel sorrow towards heaven, rather than sorrow for herself, Juliet effectively cuts him off: “I do repent me as it is an evil, / And take the shame with joy” (II. iii. 35-36).

Apparently satisfied at last with Juliet's admission of wrongdoing, the Duke goes on to say, “Your partner, as I hear, must die tomorrow, / And I am going with instruction to him. / Grace go with you, Benedicite!” (II. iii. 38-40). His blessing is all the more chilling considering he has at every moment the power to relieve Juliet's suffering by ordering his Deputy to rescind Claudio's death sentence. In contrast to the Provost, who seems to have kept from Juliet the information that Claudio is about to die, the Duke speaks almost casually of the impending execution, manifesting shocking indifference to the dangerous condition and feelings of the young woman who has only just spoken of her love for her “partner.” In ministering to Juliet, the Duke robs her of all hope: “Must die tomorrow! O injurious love, / That respites me a life, whose very comfort / Is still a dying horror” (II. iii. 41-43). Her love is “injurious” because her pregnancy has given her the legal right to live, while Claudio, her life's comfort, is a “dying horror.” The Provost's use of an ambiguous pronoun in his response to Juliet's tortured exclamation—“'Tis pity of him” (II. iii. 43)—could be intentional on Shakespeare's part: given the Duke's conduct towards Juliet, we might wonder who deserves more pity: the overly passionate Claudio or the callously dispassionate justice.

The exchange between the Duke and Juliet reveals that the respectable Duke's “virtue,” like that of his Deputy, is a meager, self-serving thing that pales beside the genuine love and patience of the unwed mother. Nowhere else in the play does she speak: however, through this brief exchange, Shakespeare seems determined to enlist our sympathies for Juliet. The audience is forced to look past the stereotypical image of the “great-bellied wench,” threatening to burden rate-payers with her offspring, and see instead a suffering young woman who may be more worthy than the judges who condemn her.

The visible presence of the very pregnant Juliet combined with the several descriptions of Claudio's offense would undoubtedly have told a contemporary audience that the young couple, like many poor, unwed parents in England, were convicted for bastardy. If the offense is interpreted this way, the reasoning behind Isabella's plea for Angelo becomes clear. Claudio is unquestionably guilty of fathering an illegitmate child: “My brother had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died” (V. i. 456-57). On the other hand, she argues, Angelo's trial (in fact, a mock trial) centers on quite a different offense: the extortion of sexual favors from a woman in exchange for her brother's life.

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

(V. i. 458-62)

Despite Angelo's “bad intent,” he did not defile Isabella, but had intercourse with her willing substitute, his betrothed wife. Furthermore, because the bargain he offered Isabella was not fulfilled, Angelo did not renege on his promise when he ordered Claudio's execution. The law, Isabella rightly says, must judge the deeds of an individual, not his intentions or conceptions, however illegitimate. Thus, while Claudio was sentenced to die for a crime he did not intend but nevertheless did commit (bastardy), Angelo is exonerated for failing to commit the crime he intended (sexual extortion).

Isabella's speech has often been criticized for its “legalism.” Ernest Schanzer, for example, writes that “Isabel is here pleading for a judicial pardon, and not on the Christian grounds of the need to show mercy … but on the legalistic grounds that Angelo is technically innocent of the crimes for which he is condemned to die.”33 However, Isabella's “legalism” seems entirely appropriate here. Her bastard-bearing brother's guilt under the law leaves Isabella no choice except to appeal for mercy, as she does earlier in the play. On the other hand, Angelo's innocence under the law makes a plea for mercy superfluous. Despite his intentions to the contrary, the Deputy failed to extort sexual favors from Isabella and must be acquitted if civil justice is to be served.

This is not to say the audience is likely to believe moral justice is served by Angelo's acquittal. On the contrary, Shakespeare seems determined to evoke the opposite response. Hawkins writes that Measure for Measure is largely designed to put Angelo in the same situation as the man he sentences to death (“When I, that censure him, do so offend, / Let mine own judgment pattern out my death”).34 Yet, rather than fulfill audience expectations in this regard, the play invites us to consider the moral justice of enforcing a statute that condemns one couple and exonerates another for the same act. Claudio and Juliet are convicted while Angelo and Mariana are acquitted—not because the law perceives any significant difference in their marriage contracts—but simply because Juliet became pregnant and Mariana, for all anyone knows, did not. Thus legal guilt under this statute depends upon the chance event of pregnancy. Intent is altogether irrelevant. Claudio's intent is to marry validly the woman he loves: Angelo's intent, on the other hand, is to defile a would-be nun.

As Isabella's plea suggests, the Viennese statute under which bastard-bearers are punished is inequitable because it allows for the same sexual conduct to be treated with drastically different legal consequences. England's bastardy statutes were no different. Not only were poor bastard-bearers far more likely to be prosecuted by justices than were those who could afford to support their illegitimate offspring, those, like Angelo, who engaged in fornication or antenuptial fornication but produced no children paid no criminal penalty for their conduct. The same was true of men like Lucio who escaped the law by denying their fatherhood.

In agreement with a number of other critics, T. F. Wharton says Shakespeare's play “depicts a moral experiment, with the Duke as the experimenter” and Angelo functioning as a sort of “second self” of the Duke.35 Lucio serves as a ubiquitous reminder to Vincentio of why he deemed such an experiment necessary. As Marilyn Williamson points out, the fantastical gentleman is like those bastard-bearers described by Philip Stubbes in The Anatomy Abuses (1583) who, after impregnating women, “showes them a faire pair of haeles, and away he goeth.”36 Overdone reveals she is raising Lucio's child by Kate Keepdown, a woman to whom he promised marriage. Brought before the Duke “for getting a wench with child,” Lucio denied being the father because “They would else have married me to the rotten medlar” (IV. iii. 168-69; 172). Having easily escaped detection, Lucio becomes convinced that in the Duke he has found a kindred spirit: “Ere he would have hang'd a man for the getting a hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing a thousand” (III. ii. 113-16). Judging from Lucio's case, the Duke's efforts to control bastardy failed because, having “ever loved the life removed” (I. iii. 8), he was too distant from his people to carry out a sufficiently close investigation of the facts. Tracing the failure of his government to his leniency rather than to his remoteness, he becomes convinced that stronger remedies are needed and appoints Angelo with the expectation that the “precise” Deputy will do what he himself has been reluctant to do: enforce Vienna's “strict statutes and most biting laws” (I. iii. 19). But long before the final scene, it becomes clear that the Duke's decision to set aside his earlier remedy for bastardy and employ a precise justice to turn sin into crime has been an experiment gone wrong. His “second self” uses his new power for the purpose of sexual extortion and sees to it that the only citizens to suffer severely under the strict statutes are a betrothed, unwed mother and a father who openly admits to his paternity. Rather than remedy the bastardy problem, the “strict statutes” contribute to it by preventing unwed parents who wish to marry from doing so and allowing bastard-bearers like Lucio to escape legitimizing their offspring.

On the other hand, the experiment does have its benefits. When he disguises himself as a friar and goes out among his subjects, the Duke eventually blunders upon an important lesson about governing. The effective justice is not one like the early Duke who has “ever lov'd the life removed” (I. iii. 8), values his reputation above all, and denies his own humanity. Rather, like Escalus of II. i., he is a patient investigator who allows himself to come into direct contact with members of the community in order to discover the truth. By coming to know those he rules, Vincentio not only learns the truth about Angelo, he accidentally gathers evidence against Lucio—something the Duke was remiss in doing when Kate Keepdown came before him. Armed with Overdone's testimony and Lucio's unwitting confession, the Duke, having abandoned his experiment, reverts to his old remedy for bastardy: forced marriage. On occasion, this remedy was used by actual justices of Shakespeare's age:

… it is known that, in the early modern period, Justices of the Peace (either at the petition of the pregnant woman, her representatives, or local Poor Law officers) sometimes coerced men into marrying women they had made pregnant as an alternative to being dealt with under the bastardy statutes.37

In opposition to most members of the House of Commons and those justices who, at least where the poor were concerned, would turn sexual sin into crime, Measure for Measure seems to argue on behalf of applying the traditional remedy of the church, which, in the manner of the Duke of the final scene, used public humiliation and marriage to counteract bastardy.

Arthur C. Kirsch has written of Measure for Measure that “without an understanding of the play's ideas and their connotations for an Elizabethan audience, its dramatic experience is often inaccessible or unintelligible.”38 Interpreting Isabella's plea for Angelo in light of the bastardy statutes can help us appreciate the topical relevance of the play and make it somewhat more accessible and intelligible; however, this is not to say a contemporary audience would have found Isabella's defense of Angelo any less unsettling than we do. But perhaps a lingering sense of uneasiness is built into the plea and Measure for Measure as a whole. From beginning to end, Shakespeare seems intent upon evoking audience sympathy for the very human Claudio and Juliet and growing hostility towards the judge who prosecutes their sin of bastardy to the full measure of the law. Perhaps by leaving their sense of moral justice unsatisfied at the close of the play, Shakespeare hoped to extend his audience's compassion from his fictional unwed parents to those of England, where, for years to come, justices would continue to prosecute some sexual offenders under statutes that put others guilty of the same or worse conduct safely beyond the law's grasp.


  1. All textual references are to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

  2. For discussions of marriage contracts, see, for example, J. Birje-Patil, “Marriage Contracts in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Studies, 5 (1969), 106-11; Ernst Schanzer, “The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey, 13 (1960), 81-89; Karl P. Wentersdorf, “The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure: A Reconsideration,” Shakespeare Survey, 32 (1979), 129-44.

  3. Harriet Hawkins, Measure for Measure (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987), pp. 20-21.

  4. Craig A. Bernthal, “Staging Justice: James I and the Trial Scenes of Measure for Measure,Studies in English Literature, 32 (1992), p. 262.

  5. Wentersdorf, p. 129.

  6. Though by pre- and post-Reformation church law, engaging in sexual intercourse between the time of contract and solemnization was considered sinful, country customs sometimes taught otherwise. In fact, for a couple to have relations prior to the “limit of solemnity” was on at least one court occasion defended as being required by “the common use and custom within the countie of Leicester.” See John Gillis, For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 45-46.

  7. Sir Edward Coke, His Speech and Charge: With a Discourse of the Abuses and Corruption of Officers. 1607. Fascimile Edition (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1972), sig. H3. For a discussion of the belief on the part of parish and town officials that the alehouse was “an engine of impoverishment,” see, for example, Peter Clark, The English Alehouse: A Social History 1200-1830 (London: Longman Press, 1983), pp. 166-67.

  8. See Alan Macfarlane, “Illegitimacy and Illegitimates in English History,” Bastardy and Its Comparative History, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980), p. 73.

  9. Gillis, pp. 44-46. Since many alehouses featured sleeping rooms that could be used for casual sexual liaisons or the consummation of private spousals, the alehouse contributed to the high rate of illegitimacy in England; in quite the literal sense, the alehouse was, as it was termed by moralists, a “nurserie of naughtiness.” For a discussion of the alehouse in Measure for Measure, see my essay, “Mistress Overdone's House,” Subjects on the World's Stage: Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. David Allen and Robert White (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1995), 181-99.

  10. Martin Ingram, “Spousals Litigation in the English Ecclesiastical Courts c. 1350-c. 1640,” Marriage and Society: Studies in the Social History of Marriage, ed. R. B. Outhwaite (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981), pp. 35-38.

  11. Keith Wrightson and David Levine, Poverty and Piety in an English Village (New York: Academic Press, 1979), p. 127.

  12. Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (London: Hutchinson, 1982), p. 84.

  13. Wrightson, p. 84. See also Marilyn Williamson, The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1986), p. 82.

  14. Byegones, qtd. in Gillis, p. 23.

  15. For example, the age at which apprenticeships could be completed was fixed to prevent “over hastie marriages and oversone settyng up of households of any by the youthe.” Ralph Houlbrooke, The English Family: 1470-1700 (London: Longman Press, 1984), p. 67. Furthermore, by withholding housing, employment, and rights of settlement, local authorities curtailed marriages by couples who might present a future charge on the poor rates (Gillis, pp. 86-87). Ingram writes that even the Church's requirement that banns be read could be used to prevent the poor from marrying: “ministers, in league with more substantial parishioners, frequently refused to read the banns or conduct marriages between poor people who might burden the poor rates. This practice was undoubtedly against the law of the Church, but apparently ministers who so acted were rarely prosecuted” (pp. 55-56).

  16. F. G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Morals and the Church Courts (Chelmsford: Essex County Council, 1973), 2-24.

  17. See Joan Kent, “Attitudes of Members of the House of Commons to the Regulation of ‘Personal Conduct’ in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 46 (1973), 41-71.

  18. Milton, The English Magistracy (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), p. 103.

  19. For examples of Justice Lambarde's attitude towards and judicial treatment of bastard bearers, see William Lambarde and Local Government: His “Ephemeris” and Twenty-Nine Charges to Juries and Commissions, ed. Conyers Read (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1962).

  20. Kent writes that a 1593 proposal to empower justices to whip, stock, and jail unwed parents without regard to economic status met with strong opposition by the Commons on the grounds that, as one member argued, “gentlemen or men of quality” should not be “putt to such a shame” as to be whipped. Other members agreed, pronouncing such punishment “slavish” when brought against a “liberal man.” The proposal was defeated. See 49-50.

  21. See William Lambarde's Eirenarchia or the Office of the Justices of the Peace. 1581. Fascimile Edition (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1970), pp. 63-64.

  22. Peter Clark, The English Alehouse: A Social History 1200-1830 (London: Longman, 1983), pp. 147-50.

  23. Lambarde warned justices and juries that many bastard children were conceived at alehouses, “nurseries of nautiness,” that attracted “wanton youths.” “Ephemerisand Twenty-Nine Charges, p. 70.

  24. Cynthia Herrup, “Law and Morality in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present, 106 (1985), pp. 104-05.

  25. Milton, p. 103.

  26. William Hunt, The Puritan Moment (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983), p. 76.

  27. Wrightson, English Society, p. 86.

  28. Emmison, p. 25ff.

  29. Hunt, p. 75.

  30. A. L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640 (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 53.

  31. Beier, p. 53.

  32. The play's several associations between Claudio's offense and theft suggest that Shakespeare may have had the draconian penalty for the theft of a shilling in mind.

  33. Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 102.

  34. Hawkins, p. 19.

  35. T. F. Wharton, qtd. in Stephen Derry, “Time and Punishment in Measure for Measure,Notes and Queries, 41 (1994), p. 489.

  36. Williamson, pp. 86-87, p. 82.

  37. Ingram, p. 51.

  38. Arthur Kirsch, “The Integrity of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey, 28 (1975), p. 91.

Kenneth Tucker (review date summer 2003)

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SOURCE: Tucker, Kenneth. Review of Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Newsletter 53, no. 2 (summer 2003): 43-5.

[In the following review, Tucker finds director Sean Holmes's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Measure for Measure, set in the dreary, war-torn Vienna of the early mid-twentieth century, a compelling interpretation of one of Shakespeare's most challenging plays.]

Measure for Measure is notoriously one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays to understand, if not indeed to perform. Conflicting critical estimates have competed for dominance. Victorians and some later critics tended to view it as a rank failure, the result possibly of Shakespeare's taking a wrong turn on his dramaturgic road. Some have found it a comedy as traditional as As You Like It, albeit misunderstood. Others have seen it as a deliberate cynical parody of an orthodox comedy, a product of Shakespeare's disillusionment. Others have found it a challenging work, brimming with intellectual subtleties. Much of the problem results from Shakespeare's seemingly nebulous attitude toward his characters. Are we to see the manipulative Duke as a political bungler, awkwardly trying to nullify his dangerous errors, or as a wise ruler, perhaps even a representative of divine providence or a flattering portrait of King James? Is Isabella a noble heroine or an unyielding prude? Is Shakespeare far too lenient in allowing Angelo to be pardoned and rewarded with marriage, as Dr. Johnson, Coleridge, and numerous others have argued? How different the situation would be if we only knew how it was originally performed! But lacking such knowledge we are faced with a dramatic sphinx that does not easily yield its secrets. Hence, we confront so discordant a play that I doubt any production can catch its dramatic essence—if that indeed is still a goal of theatrical productions. All a director can do is make risky choices and follow them. Sean Holmes's production goes a long way toward presenting us with a play that is provisionally coherent and dramatically engaging.

Updating the play, Holmes gives us a grim Vienna of the 1930's. It begins with the Duke's pretended departure at a railroad station. A sign says “West Wien.” Dark clouds drift slowly but menacingly across the upper cyclorama and continue to do so throughout much of the play. A grimy brick wall extends along the rear of the stage. As the whistle of an approaching railroad train reaches our ears, alcoholics stumble about, prostitutes angle for catches, shady persons skulk in shadows. Clearly this is a Vienna of social, moral, and spiritual decay. And of imminent danger. One cannot help thinking upon emergent Nazism and recall that Austria was annexed to the Third Reich.

In Holmes's interpretation this is the Duke's play, and Paul Higgins readily takes command of the stage. His Duke clearly has been remiss in allowing Vienna's moral laxity; he has also erred in granting power to Angelo. Stung by his own culpability, yet basically decent, Higgins' Duke sets about to rectify his errors. Assuming a broad Scots accent as Friar Lodowick, he energetically begins to move the other characters about so as to nullify Angelo's emergent threats and to produce justice and concord. Indeed as he creates his benevolent machinations, Angelo and Isabella's painful confrontations—so emphatic when the play is read in the study—sink to secondary importance as the Duke and his benign intervention attract the dramatic spotlight.

Although as in Shakespeare's text the Duke suitably rescues Claudio from death and forces Angelo to take Mariana as wife, Holmes ends his version with disturbing question marks. For a while during the trial scene, the dark revolving clouds are brightened by the sunlight, hinting that at the play's conclusion all indeed will be well, but in the closing moments the dark mists invade again, overshadowing the stage.

Holmes solves the problem of the Duke's sudden proposal to Isabella by giving it an unsettling spin. Instead of her gladly accepting his hand or looking indecisive, Holmes's Isabella looks stunned and embarrassed, causing the Duke to respond with similar confusion. In strained silence they exit the stage. All may have ended well at least temporarily for some characters, but the Duke apparently will confront a humiliating rejection.

Passing to the other characters, I might observe that Daniel Evans as Angelo presents us with bespectacled, nerd-like intellectual in a pressed business suit, one whose proper and even innocuous appearance conceals a potentiality for sexual fascism. Emma Fielding's versatility gives us a pitiable and ultimately likable Isabella. And John Lloyd Fillingham's Lucio delights us with the proper mixture of arrogance, comic bravado, and cruelty.

Holmes almost of necessity passes over other possible interpretations of the text, such as the Duke's arguable egocentricity and arrogance in not pardoning Lucio, but this director's careful development of Shakespeare's unwieldy tale gives us an absorbing rendition of the play.

Robert Hurwitt (review date 11 August 2003)

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SOURCE: Hurwitt, Robert. Review of Measure for Measure.San Francisco Chronicle (11 August 2003): D3.

[In the following review of Daniel Fish's 2003 California Shakespeare Theater staging of Measure for Measure, Hurwitt admires the setting, directorial innovations, and excellent performances and claims that the production effectively emphasized the complexities and enduring appeal of the drama.]

The condemned man, bound in duct tape, wears a red-and-white striped hot dog vendor's uniform and his visibly pregnant lover wanders forlornly across the stage singing a haunted “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” A jilted bride, left in the lurch five years earlier, hunkers in her long white gown, microwaving popcorn as she wails along with Johnny Cash on “I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Yes, this is Shakespeare. And very good Shakespeare, too. Daniel Fish's version of Measure for Measure plays loose with the text and even more ingeniously loose with its visual presentation. But the California Shakespeare Theater production that opened Saturday explores the essence of the play with a willfully irreverent modernity that makes Shakespeare's dark, difficult comedy wonderfully immediate, restlessly provocative and unusually touching and funny.

Fish, who made his festival debut two years ago with an equally bold if problematic Cymbeline—another exceptionally difficult play to bring off—outdoes that effort. The look is bold, stark and invigorating. The contemporary musical, political and consumer-culture references are pregnant and piquant. The performances are freshly conceived, arrestingly intelligent and executed with beautifully integrated expertise.

Using a setting as impersonal as an insurance office—Andrew Lieberman's striking set is a broad maze of wall-less cubicles, defined by metal strips and crosspieces hung with bare fluorescent tubes—Fish doesn't so much wrestle with the play's confounding problems as embrace them. Convenient plot devices and abrupt solutions are exploited for humor and innate moral questions. The oft-criticized hasty resolution becomes an asset when treated with bracing ambiguity.

Written on the verge of Shakespeare's dark period (just before Othello, King Lear and Macbeth), Measure has long been considered a comedy principally because it ends with multiple weddings rather than corpses. But two of the four grooms have been sentenced to marry, and a third match is unexpectedly peremptory. This isn't a comedy about love. It's partly a satire on licentiousness, but much more an attack on the fundamentalist Christian movement then flexing its political muscle—which closed the theaters when it took power a few decades later—in a tale of puritanical zeal cloaking corrupt hypocrisy.

Fearing Vienna is becoming too debauched, but not wanting to take the heat for a draconian morality campaign, Duke Vincentio (Gross Indecency star Michael Emerson) announces he's leaving town and puts his power in the hands of the super-righteous Angelo (Bruce McKenzie), hoping he'll crack down on the vice trade. Then Vincentio disguises himself as a friar and hangs around to see what happens.

Angelo immediately starts enforcing long dormant capital punishment laws against fornication. But when the nun Isabella (Carrie Preston) comes to plead for her condemned brother's life (that would be T. Edward Webster as Claudio, the hot-dog vendor), her religious fervor turns him on, disorienting him to the point that he offers to spare Claudio if she'll have sex with him—meanwhile planning to have Claudio executed as a cover-up.

All is resolved with a few convenient switches—a dead prisoner's head for Claudio's; Angelo's spurned bride Mariana (Jenny Lord, comically dispirited in her voluminous gown) slipped into bed in place of Isabella. But Fish isn't interested in such resolutions. As vividly as he portrays the central conflict between McKenzie's intensely self-righteous, then haplessly vicious Angelo and Preston's eloquently distressed Isabella, his focus is on the mysterious ambiguity of Vincentio—and the thought processes that occur between the lines.

Fish and dramaturge Luan Schooler have pared the text rigorously, eliminating minor characters and scenes and reassigning dialogue. He builds in long, pregnant pauses in which Emerson, Preston and McKenzie's expressive features betray the complexity of ideas and emotions rushing upon them. Orchestrating the performances, pauses and the provocative changes in Adam Silverman's soft, harsh, invigoratingly stark lighting, Fish creates a symphony of shifting ideas and loyalties.

He also addresses the text with a fertile sardonic humor signaled in the tawdry stage furnishings, Kate Voyce's wry costumes and the use of pop music—not to mention the disturbing presence of Natalie Rae Cressman as a compliant teen prostitute. Sex in the office and a chief executive's unholy record of frequent executions come into play.

Brilliant performances heighten the satire: Andy Murray's flip, heartily amoral Lucio; Michael Rudko's easygoing, self-assured pimp Pompey; Rod Gnapp's officious, malapropism-spouting Elbow; Gerald Hiken's wondrously woebegone old madame and drunkenly assertive prisoner. But Emerson's Vincentio is the key to the story. Thoughtful, impulsive, vain, soft-hearted, tortured with moral guilt and self-doubt. Emerson embodies the dilemma of the play's teetering theme: “Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall.”

Further Reading

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Brooke, Stopford A. “Measure for Measure.” In Ten More Plays of Shakespeare, pp. 139-164. London: Constable, 1913.

Compares Measure for Measure with other Shakespearean dramas—particularly the tragedies of King Lear, Hamlet, and Othello—and concentrates on the play's moral themes.

Ciliotta-Rubery, Andrea. “An Opposing Worldview: Transient Morality in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and Machiavelli's Mandragola.Logos 6, no. 2 (2003): 84-107.

Contrasts Measure for Measure and Machiavelli's Mandragola in terms of their depiction of moral order and corruption.

Crane, Mary Thomas. “Male Pregnancy and Cognitive Permeability in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 49, no. 3 (autumn 1998): 269-92.

Applies contemporary cognitive theory to Measure for Measure's depiction of mind, body, sexuality, power, and authority.

Dodd, William. “Power and Performance: Measure for Measure in the Public Theater of 1604-1605.” Shakespeare Studies 24 (1996): 211-40.

Links the tragicomic qualities of Measure for Measure with historical attempts by King James I to reinforce his monarchical power by means of the English public theater.

Enterline, Lynne. “What ‘Womanhood Denies’ the Power of ‘Tongues to Tell.’” Shakespeare Studies 27 (1999): 25-36.

Discusses efforts by Shakespeare's female characters to surmount the limitations placed upon their verbal expression by patriarchal discourse, concentrating in particular on Isabella's plea for Claudio's life in Measure for Measure.

Gash, Antony. “Shakespeare, Carnival and the Sacred: The Winter's Tale and Measure for Measure.” In Shakespeare and Carnival: After Bakhtin, edited by Ronald Knowles, pp. 177-210. London: Macmillan, 1998.

Examines the influence of the Erasmian serio-comic tradition on Shakespearean drama, focusing in particular on Measure for Measure and The Winter's Tale.

Gelb, Hal. “Duke Vincentio and the Illusion of Comedy or All's Not Well That Ends Well.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (winter 1971): 25-34.

Maintains that Shakespeare employed an experimental structure in Measure for Measure that mingles comic expectations with tragic potentiality.

Hayne, Victoria. “Performing Social Practice: The Example of Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 1 (spring 1993): 1-29.

Claims that Measure for Measure stages certain social acts, including disrupted betrothals, prenuptial pregnancy, and adultery, in accordance with the comic conventions of the early modern theater.

Little, Arthur L., Jr. “Absolute Bodes, Absolute Laws: Staging Punishment in Measure for Measure.” In Shakespearean Power and Punishment: A Volume of Essays, edited by Gillian Murray Kendall, pp. 113-29. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1998.

Offers a Foucaultian analysis of authority and punishment in Measure for Measure, noting that the play is principally concerned with “the Duke's impenetrable and unknowable body and power.”

Marrapodi, Michele, ed. “English and Italian Intertexts of the Ransom Plot in Measure for Measure.” In Shakespeare and Intertextuality: The Transition of Cultures Between Italy and England in the Early Modern Period, pp. 103-117. Rome: Bulzoni Editore, 2000.

Probes Shakespeare's adaptation of early modern English and Italian literary ransom scenarios in Measure for Measure.

Miles, Rosalind. The Problem of Measure for Measure: A Historical Investigation. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976, 349 p.

Attempts to place Measure for Measure within its proper historical context, evaluating the play's themes, characters, and plot in terms of the social and dramatic conventions of 1604 and preceding decades.

Price, Jonathan R. “Measure for Measure and the Critics: Towards a New Approach.” Shakespeare Quarterly 20, no. 2 (spring 1969): 179-204.

Surveys more than a century of critical dispute in regard to Measure for Measure and discusses the work's inherent ambiguities of character, theme, and dramatic structure.

Shuger, Debora Kuller. Political Theologies in Shakespeare's England: The Sacred and the State in Measure for Measure. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001, 194 p.

Historicist assessment of early modern political theology and the tensions between Christian and secular conceptions of authority and justice depicted in Measure for Measure.

Stevenson, David L. “Design and Structure in Measure for Measure: A New Appraisal.” ELH 23, no. 4 (December 1956): 256-78.

Asserts the central significance of irony and paradox to the dramatic design of Measure for Measure.

———. “The Role of James I in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.ELH 26, no. 2 (June 1959): 188-208.

Approaches Measure for Measure as an “intellectual comedy” centered on the contentious nature of government.

Wasson, John. “Measure for Measure: A Play of Incontinence.” ELH 27, no. 4 (December 1960): 262-75.

Focuses on the critically troubling figures of the Duke and Angelo in Measure for Measure, claiming that the former represents the Christian virtues of temperance and mercy as opposed to retributive justice, while the latter can be interpreted as “the incontinent man” whose wicked or unjust deeds derive from circumstance rather than an inherent character flaw.


Measure for Measure (Vol. 76)


Questionable Purpose in Measure for Measure: A Test of Seeming or a Seeming Test