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

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

David Thatcher, University of Victoria

The notion that Duke Vincentio is deliberately leaving Vienna in order "to find out whether Angelo is all that he appears,"1 or "to test the validity of Angelo's pious puritanism"2 is by now commonplace in criticism on Measure for Measure. This "test" theory goes back at least as far as Charlotte Ramsay Lennox's Shakespear Illustrated (1753), and echoes down the centuries in countless commentaries on, and editions of, the play as if it were a self-evident truth hardly worth the trouble of argument and demonstration. G. Wilson Knight is an influential supporter of it: "[The Duke] performs the experiment of handing the reins of government to a man of ascetic purity who has an hitherto invulnerable faith in the rightness and justice of his own ideals—a man of spotless reputation and self-conscious integrity, who will have no fears as to the 'justice' of enforcing precise obedience. The scheme is a plot, or trap: a scientific experiment to see if extreme ascetic righteousness can stand the test of power."3 According to Nevill Coghill, the play, like The Book of Job, some of Chaucer's tales, and (he might have added) the medieval play Everyman, shows "the human world as a testing-ground": "[It] pictures the world as a place where all are continually liable to tests, and some to tests increasingly severe, that they may show their virtues. Isabella and Angelo are tested to the core."4 Coghill discerns a pervasive "pattern of testing" running through the narrative design of the play, a pattern which involves even minor characters5 like Pompey, Barnardine and Mistress Overdone: "We have seen who the tested are. Who is the tester? In all cases, sometimes directly and sometimes at one or two removes, it is the Duke. He is the primum mobile of the play."6

Louise Schleiner has recently endorsed Coghill's allegorical view by developing a full-blown version of the "test" theory: she depicts the Duke as "a man of tests, a character modeled on the absentee-master figure in a group of parables from the synoptic gospels"; she habitually refers to him as "the testing master" who tests not only Angelo and Isabella but also minor characters "by observing their conduct from his absentee perspective and then determining appropriate judgments"; in fact, she regards the Duke as a unifying factor in a play often regarded as structurally divided, since he is "the testing master from beginning to end," contriving "the opening situation to test Angelo, Escalus, and the government he expects of them."7 And, as one final example, T. F. Wharton (1988) has linked Marston's The Malcontent with Measure for Measure as plays of "moral experiment": "It is impossible not to treat the entire leave-of-absence ploy as Vincentio's experiment on Angelo's virtue: to discover either that his virtue is a fraud, and the true self will be revealed, or that his virtue is real, but that power will corrupt it" (p. 37).8 Among the better known twentieth-century critics (besides Knight, Coghill, Schleiner, and Wharton) who unquestioningly subscribe to the "test" or "moral experiment" theory are F. R. Leavis, Peter Ure, and Anne (Barton) Righter.9

Conventional wisdom is always worth challenging, and, since no one ever seems to have challenged this particular tenet of critical orthodoxy, perhaps it is time to take up the gauntlet. As Eliot has said about Shakespeare criticism, "it is probable that we can never be right; and if we can never be right, it is better that we should from time to time change our way of being wrong," and "it is certain that nothing is more effective in driving out error than a new error."10 Perhaps I offer a new error by suggesting that there might be an alternative reading of the text, preferable to the one which has been unanimously adopted, and, further, that even if the text were believed to support the theory of a "test" (which I do not think it does), the...

(The entire section is 8,043 words.)