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

William Shakespeare


(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 theory itself suffers from serious deficiencies of logic, coherence, and plausibility.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

In the opening scene of Measure for Measure Duke Vincentio is curiously reticent about divulging his motives for leaving Vienna in such haste. The urgency of immediate departure is, in fact, invoked as the reason that there is no time even for the briefest explanation, and Angelo and Escalus receive their several "commissions" (the warrants confirming their new authority) very much in doubt as to the nature and extent of their delegated powers. A little later, speaking privately to Friar Thomas (who, it is implied, has insinuated that the Duke is seeking an opportunity for a clandestine love-affair) the Duke says Angelo supposes him travelled to Poland, for that is the destination he has "strewed … in the common ear";11 his hidden agenda or real purpose, he confides, is to permit Angelo ("a man of stricture and firm abstinence") to enforce the "strict statutes and most biting laws" (1.3.12, 19) which he, the Duke, reproaches himself for having allowed to fall into desuetude. We should note that he has invested Angelo with his full ducal power, telling him "Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue and heart" (1.1.43-44), and repeating the point by advising Angelo that he may "enforce or qualify the laws / As to your soul seems good" (1.1.64-65). His words to the Friar, however, indicate that he fully expects, and even hopes, that Angelo will be far less lenient and permissive than he had been and will, in the "ambush" of the Duke's name, "strike home," that is, impose the law to the letter. When he later learns of Angelo's "severity" toward rampant sexual transgression, the Duke approves of it, and calls it necessary (3.3.100-01). It may also be that the "commission" Angelo received from the Duke explicitly commanded him to be strict. When he gives Escalus his "commission" the Duke directs him not to deviate from it (1.1.13-14), suggesting that it contains written instructions.12

Taking the Friar even further into his confidence, the Duke promises to give him "moe reasons" for his departure (although he never actually does so in the course of the represented stage action), and offers what appears to be an additional reason:

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

These lines, the focal point of this essay, have been widely interpreted as providing not simply a refinement of motive but a second and an altogether different motive: that the Duke is leaving in order to test Angelo. In Wharton's view the words "confesses" and "seemers" seem to imply that Angelo "is at best repressed, at worst a hypocrite, and that his appetites are indeed as strong as other men's." Wharton continues: "When [Vincentio]goes on to speak of seeing if power will change purpose, he is directly speaking of an experiment on Angelo. Having placed this suspect character in a position of influence he will test the proposition that all authority corrupts" (1989, p. 63). One's first response is that Vincentio would have had ample opportunity to test whether "all authority corrupts" during his own years in office. At first glance, however, there seems little reason to doubt the apparently interdependent notions that the Duke is contriving a test for Angelo, that he is testing him because he suspects him of hypocrisy, and that his hypocrisy takes the form of some kind of sexual fallibility perspiring under the mask of frigid puritanism and punctiliousness.

The idea of a "test" seems to announce itself at the outset. In the first scene the Duke tells Angelo that "spirits are not finely touched / But to fine issues" (1.1.35-36), a line which, although ambiguous, may be interpreted as meaning that the quality of a man can be tested by his actions as the purity of gold is tested by a touchstone or refined in a cupel (known technically as a "test").14 In his diffident and self-deprecating response Angelo takes up the metaphor of testing gold coins. "Let there be some more test made of my mettle," he implores the Duke, "Before so noble and so great a figure / Be stamped upon it" (1.1.47-49).15 Other images of testing occur later in the play: the Duke-as-Friar assures Claudio, rather mendaciously, that Angelo "had never the purpose" to corrupt his sister and was only making "an assay" of her virtue in order "to practice his judgment with the disposition of natures" (3.1.161-62)16 (exactly what most critics think the Duke is "assaying" with Angelo). It...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Let me return to the nub of my inquiry, the so-called "test" of Angelo. According to Wharton, the "initial experiment" is over once Isabella has told him of Angelo's designs: "The Duke has discovered what he imagined he would discover: that a priggish but also suspect man placed in a position of absolute power would be corrupted by it" (1989, p. 69). But if the Duke is engineering a test, what might the Duke supposedly be testing Angelo for? Is virtue, like gold, being assayed, or (Wharton's reading) is vice or the propensity to vice being exposed? Four major answers present themselves, two pertaining to Angelo as governor (virtue), and two pertaining to his private life and personal conduct (vice).


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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Wharton raises the possibility that "Mariana is a spurof-the-moment invention, the mere objective correlative of a plot device" (1989, p. 38), only to dismiss it out of hand: seeking to "put two and two together" to show that in trusting power to Angelo, the Duke "was licensing a man of known ruthlessness and inhumanity," Wharton has come up not with four but with nothing. Despite the obvious verbal echo, the connection between "seemer" and "well-seeming" is too tenuous to bear the weight of interpretation Wharton places upon it (for one thing, as I shall argue, the Duke's "seemers" may not apply to Angelo at all). It is not the case that the Duke "already knows Angelo to be more than 'well-seeming'." Far from having...

(The entire section is 872 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Whether the "testing" is thought to relate to political or to sexual matters, semantic analysis of the Duke's lines at 1.4.50-54 casts serious doubt on the theory of a "test." The five lines can be broken down into a description of Angelo's temperamental coldness in which the Duke elaborates on his earlier one-line depiction of him as "a man of stricture and firm abstinence," and a deduction ("hence"=therefore), or prediction ("hence"=henceforward), of what will happen once Angelo assumes the reins of power. To those who maintain that Angelo is being tested, the conditional phrase "if power change purpose"35 means that the possession of power might change Angelo's purpose—that he might take advantage of...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

The theory of a "test" is, I conclude, highly suspect: each part of it has been arrived at by extrapolating, retrospectively, elements which occur at a later stage of the play. One of these is the revelation about Angelo's conduct toward Mariana; another is the prominence given to Angelo and the effects of his actions on other characters, a prominence which usurps the stated aim of the Duke's departure: to facilitate the clampdown on sexual license in Vienna. Perhaps what has most misled critics is the impression that in his words to Friar Thomas, the Duke is offering not just a refinement of a motive but an additional one. I take him to be saying, first, that Angelo, being the kind of man the Duke thinks he is, is...

(The entire section is 2129 words.)