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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 680

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...

(This entire section contains 680 words.)

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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.


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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    see, If power change purpose, what our seemers    be.(1.3.50-55)13

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 might be granted that the Duke is testing both Claudio (by concealing from him the possibility he may be saved from execution) and Isabella (by keeping her unaware that her brother is still alive). Even Juliet, we might agree, is being tested by the Duke when he seeks to discover whether her penitence is sincere or feigned. Neither is it difficult to regard Angelo as a "seemer"17 or hypocrite, since three major characters denounce him as being one. Isabella reproaches him for his "Seeming, seeming!" (2.4.149), and for being "an outward-sainted deputy" (3.1.88); during her public accusation of him, she labels him "an hypocrite" (5.1.41, 52-59). The Duke refers to "this well-seeming Angelo" (3.1.222), and his convoluted (and possibly corrupt) lines, "That we were all, as some would seem to be, / From our faults, as faults from see[m]ing, free!" (3.2.39-40) may be glossed as a reference to Angelo. He is certainly alluding to Angelo when he comments, octosyllabically: "O, what may man within him hide, / Though angel on the outward side!" (3.2.271-72). Even Angelo admits to his own "false seeming" (2.4.15).18

It is also undeniable that the word "purpose" often has an unambiguously sexual connotation in this play19 : Escalus asks Angelo to consider whether "the resolute acting of your blood / Could have attained th'effect of your own purpose" (2.1.12-13); "My words express my purpose," Angelo says to Isabella, who replies, belatedly catching the drift, "And most pernicious purpose" (2.4.147, 149); Angelo, the Duke tells Claudio, "had never the purpose" to "corrupt" Isabella (3.1.160-61); and finally Isabella, pretending that she had yielded to Angelo, states that "the next morn betimes, / His purpose surfeiting, he sends a warrant / For my poor brother's head" (5.1.101-03).20 With these connotations in our ears it is no wonder that so many critics have read "purpose" in "if power change purpose" as referring implicitly to Angelo's aim to remain chaste.21

Despite the cumulative weight of such presumptive evidence, however, I think that the theory of a "test," on closer examination, has very little solid ground to stand on. Based almost exclusively on an exiguous portion of text and a good deal of conjecture, it fails to take satisfactory account of the ambiguity of the phrase "if power change purpose," of the non-sexual connotations of "purpose" also present in the play, and perhaps most tellingly, of the stubborn intractability of the plural word "seemers." Yet such stumbling blocks do not deter critics from asserting, particularly on the basis of lines 53 and 54 ("Hence shall we see, / If power change purpose, what our seemers be") that the Duke is deliberately testing Angelo, or testing the validity of a hypothesis about him. Of course it would be manifestly absurd to argue that Angelo is not undergoing a test—all major characters in Shakespeare, like people in real life, are continually being tested insofar as all experience is a kind of test of a human being's mettle. The Duke frankly acknowledges that, as a result of his designs on Isabella, the "corrupt deputy" will be "scaled" or weighed in the balance, judged, tested (3.1.255). What can and should be denied is the suggestion that the Duke is deliberately or purposely setting out to test his deputy. Granted, Shakespeare often represents characters testing each other for serious or trivial purposes: for example, in The Taming of the Shrew Kate, wishing to test whether Petruchio is a gentleman, strikes him to see if he will retaliate (2.1.217-21); in Hamlet Polonius devises tests to confirm his theory that Hamlet's "transformation" sprang from Ophelia's rejection of him; in The Tempest Prospero tests Ferdinand lest Miranda be won too easily. Examples could be multiplied further. Whether these tests succeed or fail, and whether or not they are reliable, whether or not they are justified, the fact remains that they are set in motion explicitly and deliberately—the "test" of Angelo, on the other hand, is purely circumstantial and fortuitous. There is no hint of a deliberate test of Angelo in any of Shakespeare's sources for Measure for Measure, if only for the simple reason that they contain no character whose role corresponds closely to that of Shakespeare's Vincentio.22

In his function as "contriver," the Duke admittedly spends much of his time directing the actions and destinies of other characters, although not, I think, with quite the magisterial authority of Prospero, let alone (pace G. Wilson Knight and others) of providence or God.23 Mesmerized by the lure of establishing a neat and unifying teleological pattern, critics like Knight exaggerate the significance of the element of testing in Measure for Measure; although undeniably present in the play, it is not as omnipresent as they make out, and is certainly no more important than the "testing" which runs through other Shakespeare plays. To regard the Duke as considerably more than a purely incidental tester, as Knight, Coghill, Schleiner, and Wharton do, is to succumb to a very general and imprecise use of the word "test" and thereby distort the play in the interest of a thematic pattern or theological paradigm. The unstated syllogism at the back of their minds might run something like this: God is the supreme tester, Duke Vincentio acts as a kind of God, therefore the Duke is a supreme tester. Unlike Time, which is presented in Shakespeare as the most persistent and formidable tester of all,24 the Duke deals only intermittently and opportunistically with characters, like Claudio and Juliet, in a way which will illuminate what kind of people they are. The main "testing," if we retain the question-begging term, is not carried out by the Duke, but by Angelo: after all, it is he who orchestrates the situation in which Claudio and Juliet are forced to confront the consequences of their past actions, and it is he (together with Claudio) who confronts Isabella with a terrible choice—the "tests" of her chastity, her courage, and her integrity are not instigated by the Duke, who intervenes after they have been set in motion. And even if Angelo is seen as instigating tests of Claudio and Isabella, testing them is not his main purpose: his main purpose is to punish the one and violate the other—the "tests" are inevitable concomitants of Angelo's actions, not their major objectives. Far from being the primum mobile, the Duke is not even as instrumental as Angelo is: he is limited, for the most part, to improvising methods of "damage-control," that is, trying to remedy or palliate situations unilaterally brought about by Angelo, and trying to extricate those entangled in them. In fact, the Duke's supposed role as principal "tester" is sometimes transmogrified into that of an occasional and disgruntled "testee," particularly at the ungentle hands of Lucio, who doesn't readily concur with his inflated estimate of himself or, like the uncooperative Barnardine, who resists being cajoled into being hanged: "I swear I will not die today for any man's persuasion" (4.3.59-60). It is salutary to remember that on leaving Vienna the Duke expressed no intention of being either a "tester" or a "testee"—his purpose of adopting disguise was, as he informs Friar Thomas, for visiting "both prince [=Angelo] and people," "to behold [Angelo's] sway" (1.3.43-45).25 Although he initially intended simply to be a detached observer, the Duke is forced by events to intervene in the affairs of his subjects. Compelled intervention is a curious position for a primum mobile to find itself in.


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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).

The first two are political considerations which apply equally well to Escalus, who is also being entrusted with a position of authority. Angelo is being tested for his capacity to govern well, to discharge his responsibilities fairly and conscientiously, but also for his incorruptibility. According to Coghill, Angelo "of course falls at the first fence" [italics mine]: "He falls at the test of faithfulness in elementary matters of justice, when he is to adjudicate in the case of Mr. Froth and Pompey Bum; instead of doing his duty he exhibits the insolence of office, refuses the tedium of sifting evidence and departs with a pun and a flick of cruelty, leaving the patient Escalus to do his work for him" (Coghill, p. 19). Even if this is as serious a dereliction of duty as Coghill makes out, the Duke, absent from this scene, never comes to learn of it—it is a very odd kind of "testing-master" who sets tests without being privy to the test results. Moreover, despite Isabella's threat to "discover his government" (3.1.193-94) and his own reference to "the corrupt deputy" (3.1.254-55), the Duke takes relatively little notice of Angelo's abuse of authority and does not punish it at the end of the play. If he, admittedly in pretense, can think of discharging the provost from his office for failing to obtain a special warrant for Claudio's execution, surely Angelo deserves (in addition to the suffering he feels) some formal punishment for his corrupt abuse of authority. It would seem, then, that if anything is deliberately being tested, it is not Angelo's fitness to govern.

The other two aspects of Angelo that might be tested concern his private life. As I have noted, the Duke's "Hence shall we see / If power change purpose, what our seemers be" is cited as evidence that Angelo is a "seemer" or "dissembler" by critics who remind us that Angelo jilted Mariana when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck in the Duke's version of events, "by pretending in her discoveries of dishonour" (3.1.227).26 In the words of Coghill: "Of course the Duke knows, before the play begins, that there is some reason to suspect Angelo's integrity; indeed he gives him the strongest possible hint that he knows of his not wholly creditable past when he tells him that one who has observed his history could unfold his character. ['There is a kind of character in thy life, / That to the observer doth thy history / Fully unfold' (1.1.27-29).] The hint wears a polite veil of ambiguity, but it is a warning to him none the less" (p. 19).27 It is likewise perceived as ironic that Isabella should say to the Duke-Friar: "But O, how much is the good duke deceived in Angelo! If ever he return and I can speak to him, I will open my lips in vain, or discover his government" (3.1.191-94). The irony, as Wharton rightly points out, is that "she is already speaking to the Duke and disclosing Angelo's government." But a further irony Wharton detects ("that the Duke was not deceived in Angelo in the least") lacks foundation (1989, p. 69). If the Duke is already convinced that Angelo is a dissembler, isn't it redundant to put him to trial again?28 Wharton finds this "a troubling question" and answers it by a rather tendentious and exaggerated argument without textual support: "The Duke wants stronger proof of Angelo's worthlessness, wants him to commit some outrage, wants to see him break moral limits. He puts him in the ideal position for these things to happen" (1988, p. 38). I cannot accept either that Angelo is "worthless" or that the Duke thinks he is; nor can I accept that Angelo's being in a position of authority will necessarily expose his "worthlessness."

A more moderate approach might be to say that the Duke is seeking to expose Angelo as a dissembler and to subject him to public humiliation. But even this he is not entitled to do because Angelo is not a dissembler: callous, selfish and even immoral as his behavior may have been, it was not sinful or criminal, nor (although out of expediency rather than natural predisposition an element of pretense was involved) was it demonstrably hypocritical: a hypocrite, according to a typical definition, is "a person who pretends to have desirable or publicly approved attitudes, beliefs, principles, etc. he does not actually possess." Only if Angelo had publicly claimed to be a man who treated women honorably, and who said he always abided by his words and commitments, could his actions be construed as hypocritical. Pretending to be better than one knows oneself to be, and pretending that a woman is worse than one knows her to be, are horses of a very different color—indeed, damaging a woman's reputation by falsely accusing her of promiscuity may well be thought more shamefully immoral than any kind of hypocrisy. Angelo's initial account of his relationship with Mariana is, in some respects, very different from the Duke's and Mariana's: there was, according to him, not a marriage contract, but only "some speech of marriage" between them, and it was (unilaterally?) broken off, partly because she could not provide the full dowry she had first promised, but chiefly because "her reputation was disvalu'd / In levity" (5.1.217-22). "Disvalu'd" by whom? we might ask. Believing in a rumor about Mariana's promiscuity (or using it as a convenient pretext) is not the same as putting such a rumor in circulation. Even if the contract were a binding one, and later Angelo admits having been "contracted" to Mariana (5.1.376-78), Angelo would have had every right to dissolve it on suspicion of promiscuity.

Angelo's supposed lack of "integrity" in his cruel desertion, and slandering, of Mariana cannot be the object of a test in any sense: in deciding to appoint Angelo his deputy the Duke could not have anticipated that Angelo's past conduct would become a matter of public knowledge (if that was what the Duke wished to happen), and if he wanted it to happen he could easily have done so without making Angelo his deputy. Equally, he could not have anticipated that Angelo's breach of promise to Mariana would be replicated in breaking his word to Isabella that Claudio would live if she yielded to him. It is a crucial mistake to ironize the Duke's initial declaration of confidence in Angelo by invoking his knowledge of the jilting—the two episodes are, thematically and temporally, quite discrete—and it would be impossible for any audience, on learning about the jilting after a lapse of more than an hour of stage time, to ironize the opening scene in the light of this fresh knowledge. The jilting of Mariana is likely to recall the bedtrick stratagem, not the issue of Angelo's competence to govern, or any doubt about that competence on the part of the Duke.


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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 his supposed doubts about Angelo's integrity confirmed, the Duke seems, in this context (3.1.223) as in others, to be genuinely surprised at his deputy's scandalous conduct. "But that frailty hath examples for his falling," he says to Isabella, "I should wonder at that Angelo" (3.1.185-86). And again in his soliloquy at the end of Act III, the Duke, far from congratulating himself on being right about Angelo's corruptibility, seems taken aback by developments: "O, what may man within him hide, / Though angel on the outer side." If some kind of test has revealed the correctness of the Duke's diagnosis of Angelo's moral character, surely it is here, or in the denouement of the play, that we should look for a reference to such a test, but no such reference is offered in either place. If the Duke's motive was to resurrect strict moral laws, one critic finds it "odd" that the Duke "put the task in the hands of a man known to be unscrupulous."29 But even if the Duke had judged Angelo's conduct toward Mariana to be "unscrupulous" it might not have prevented him from thinking Angelo the ideal man to enforce sexual morality—Angelo was not "unscrupulous" in the sense of being unjust to many, or in the sense of being sexually promiscuous. An isolated moral lapse does not cast doubt on a man's qualifications for political office. The same critic also finds it "odd" that the Duke was prepared "to risk the well-being of his subjects"30 at the hands of such an "unscrupulous" man, but does not stop to consider this as a significant objection to the theory of a "test."

The second possibility is that the Duke is setting out to test the genuineness of what he describes as Angelo's "precise" rectitude and his "holy abstinence" (4.2.83).31 As one commentator has written: "The virtues which have so far appeared in Angelo's precise life of contemplation are now to be tried in the active world of government—and the Duke implies that they will However, be found mere 'seeming' or false show."32 However, as in the revelation of Angelo's treatment of Mariana, he could not anticipate that Angelo's chastity would necessarily be put to a severe trial or that, when it was, the attempt on Isabella's chastity would become known to the populace at large. Modern critics, looking askance at the long and hallowed tradition of Christian (as well as non-Christian) self-abnegation, are inclined to fault Angelo, as the sneering Lucio does, for seeking to "rebate and blunt his natural edge / With profits of the mind, study and fast" (1.4.60-61).33 If we don't approve of Angelo's continence, so this line of thinking goes, neither does the Duke, and his purpose is to compel Angelo to abandon his self-denying ways. If the enforcement of the laws is the Duke's primary concern, then according to one argument, the Duke's explanation for his delegation of authority is "sadly inadequate, especially since the close of the play looks forward to no continued severity in those laws" (Coles, p. 24). If, on the other hand, "the testing of Angelo and the puritan style of life is the Duke's main interest, his actions become more acceptable"—what underlies the test is "the need to return Angelo to humanity," to make him learn "that he has human appetites, [and] that his blood can flow with passion" (Coles, p. 24). There are three objections to this line of reasoning: first of all, as I have shown, the Duke can have no prior guarantee, nor is there any logical reason, that giving Angelo political power will lead to a situation which will induce Angelo to recognize his own latent sexuality, to become aware, in Arthur Symons' striking words, "of the fire that lurked in so impenetrable a flint";34 second, the sexuality which Angelo does come to recognize has more to do with lust (which the Duke wishes to eradicate) than with other-directed, mutual love; and finally, just as Lucio protests being compelled to marry Kate Keepdown, so Angelo, far from being "returned to humanity," is still asking to be put to death even after being compelled by the Duke to marry Mariana (5.1.476-79). An alleged objection to considering enforcement as the major theme is that the play ends with nothing having been done to amend the lax sexual laws, yet the play also ends with Angelo far from regenerate, so by the same token the "test" of him, if it exists, can hardly occupy the central position assigned to it.


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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 his position to satisfy his repressed sexual urges. But there is no reason for the Duke or for us to think that Angelo will abuse his authority in this way. It is more likely, given that his interest in Mariana was more an interest in her dowry, that he would use his office for financial gain.36 Like every other Viennese citizen, Angelo would have had every opportunity for sexual activity and the concealment of such activity during the period of lax enforcement of the laws.

A better meaning of the phrase "if power change purpose" would be "if the laws are more stringently enforced," so that Angelo is to be seen as the agent or instrument of harsher measures, not as the subject of a change in his personal conduct. "What our seemers be" is elliptical for "what our seemers might be," the auxiliary "might" being omitted,37 and the relative pronoun "what" can be construed either as a substitute for "who" or as an ellipsis for "what kind of persons." For advocates of the moral experiment, "seemers" (=hypocrites) should constitute a problem, for if the Duke is testing Angelo specifically it is hardly appropriate for the word to be in the plural. If he means that Angelo and Escalus may turn out to be "seemers," only seeming to possess the capacity to govern well, why does he preface his reference to "seemers" with an irrelevant allusion to Angelo's cold and unsexual nature while saying nothing, relevant or irrelevant, about Escalus? At this early stage of the play, despite his knowledge of Angelo's despicable conduct towards Mariana, the Duke does not and cannot suspect Angelo of being a "seemer." Even his later punning exclamation "O, what may man within him hide, / Though angel on the outward side" (3.2.272-73), although it is spoken after the Duke has learnt of Angelo's dishonorable intentions toward Isabella, is not accurate as an accusation of hypocrisy. Doesn't Isabella accuse Angelo of being a hypocrite? Yes, she does, but that is part of her rhetorical strategy to bring him to justice. Later, in a different context when she is imploring the Duke to spare Angelo's life, she cannot bring herself to accuse him of downright, inveterate hypocrisy: "I partly think," she says, "A due sincerity governed his deeds / Till he did look on me" (5.1.447-49). Until the encounter with Isabella there is no shred of evidence that Angelo has been a hypocrite in the sense of practicing vice while preaching virtue; were this the case, Angelo's cool and controlled reply to Isabella's threat to expose him ("Who will believe thee, Isabel?"38) would lose much of its dramatic force: the encounter with Isabella has simply revealed him to be a fallible man who has, against all expectation (including his own), felt irresistible sexual desire for the woman least likely to excite or accommodate it. As already indicated, the Duke evinces surprise at Angelo's sexual misdemeanour,39 and Escalus is equally shocked: "I am, more amazed at his dishonor / Than at the strangeness of it" (5.1.332-33).40 Angelo is not so much a practitioner of hypocrisy (which involves habitual and active deceit) as a victim of self-deception.41

So, if in this speech Angelo is not being referred to as a "seemer," who is? Not, we can agree, the comic characters in the play, for they "avoid all 'seeming' or pretence to a virtue they do not possess."42 The "seemers" the Duke is alluding to are, I suggest, those citizens of Vienna who have managed during the old dispensation to engage in pre- or extramarital sex while maintaining an untarnished reputation for virtue; it is these people, the Duke concludes, who will be exposed as hypocrites if Angelo, as he confidently expects and has perhaps commanded in his written "commissions," chooses to exercise the full weight of the law. Given that Angelo "scarce confesses / That his blood flows,"43 he is just the man, the Duke thinks, to expose and suppress sexual offences and the kind of hypocrisy which habitually attends them.44 It would be easier to make a case that Claudio and Juliet have been exposed as "seemers" (that is, not chaste lovers) as a direct result of the new rigidity that Angelo is imposing. The "wise burgher" (1.2.103) who saved the brothels in the city (by means of intercession, purchase, or bribery) may also have been a "seemer."

Another candidate is the Duke himself. It is an abiding comic irony that the man who is anxious for "seemers" to be exposed is himself, in his masquerade as friar-confessor, an unequivocal "seemer." "We should note," writes Leech, "that he claims to know Angelo's mind by virtue of being Angelo's confessor. One does not have to be deeply religious to be affronted by this piece of impertinence" (Leech, p. 70). What is most offensive is not his false pretences, but the implied willingness to betray the secrets of the confessional: he is similarly indiscreet when, after having doffed his disguise, he says: "Joy to you, Mariana. Love her, Angelo; / I have confessed her, and I know her virtue" (5.1.528-29). In a way (although not as a result of appointing Angelo his deputy) he is also exposed as being a "seemer"45 in the sense that critics think Angelo is. After all, the man who unctuously tells Friar Thomas not to believe that "the dribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom," maintaining that his departure "hath a purpose / More grave and wrinkled than the aims and ends / Of burning youth" (1.3.2-6), and who repudiates Lucio's accusations that "he had some feeling of the sport" by declaring that "he was not inclined that way" (3.2.120, 123), ends up by suddenly proposing to the same novitiate who had involuntarily thawed Angelo's icy blood. To see the Duke as "testee" rather than "tester" also exonerates him from any charge of wilful irresponsibility in choosing Angelo as his deputy, and obviates what might otherwise appear as inconsistencies or contradictions in the conduct of the plot.


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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 right man to prevent future offenses from occurring, and second, as an elaboration of his first position, that Angelo is also the right man to detect and punish offenses committed in the past and since concealed. However arbitrary and unfair we may think it to be, the arrest of Claudio and Juliet is an example of this course of action. But it is only one in a play which could have seen far more: taking "seemers" to refer to Angelo deflects attention away from the fact that the promise (and premise) of moral and social regeneration with which the play started has not been followed through—as so often in Shakespeare, character conflict has pushed thematic concerns into the background. Furthermore, at no point in the play does the Duke make it clear that his main or even subsidiary purpose is to test Angelo. And, although it would be foolhardy to base an argument solely on as botched an ending as that of Measure for Measure, there is no acknowledgment in the denouement of any such a test having taken place, or that the moment is ripe to evaluate it. It may be, as Rosalind Miles has said, that the whole idea of "testing" is "alien, even repugnant,"46 to modern sensibility. But that is not a compelling reason to resist it—a better reason is that it is spurious. For those like myself who remain unconvinced of the centrality or even the existence of the theme of a "test," Angelo is, or rather is not, a test case.


A shorter version of this paper was presented in May 1992 at a session of the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies at the Annual Conference of Learned Societies, Charlottetown, P. E. I.

1 Clifford Leech, "The Meaning of Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey 3 (1950), 67-68.

2 Coles Editorial Board, Measure for Measure (Toronto, 1987), p. 24. What helps to make this source representative is that it is explicitly designed for students' use.

3"Measure for Measure and the Gospels," in The Wheel of Fire (London, 1930), p. 79. Cf. T. F. Wharton: "The idea of law-enforcement is simply [the Duke's] device to entrap and break Angelo," Moral Experiment in Jacobean Drama (London, 1988), p. 41. Long before Knight and Wharton, Richard G. Moulton had claimed that by withdrawing from Vienna the Duke "is designedly contriving special conditions in which he will be able to study the workings of human nature." See The Moral System of Shakespeare (London, 1903), pp. 148-49.

4 "Comic Form in Measure for Measure, " Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955), p. 19. Like Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (New York, 1963), pp. 126-27, I find no evidence for any test of Isabella.

5 With the exception of Lucio, who "is the only major character who is not tested; no assay is made on whatever virtue he may be thought to have" (p. 22). Ernest Schanzer has pointed out that Angelo is the very opposite of Lucio, "the lapwing and jester, the reckless scandalmonger, the debauchee, and the loving friend" (p. 84).

6 Coghill, pp. 24, 21.

7 "Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure," PMLA, 97 (1982), 227, 228, 229. Schleiner's essay was thought sufficiently important to be included in the "Modern Critical Interpretations" series on the play, ed. Harold Bloom (New York, 1987). Coghill's was reprinted in an earlier casebook, "Measure for Measure ": Text, Source, and Criticism, ed. Rolf Soellner and Samuel Bertsche (Boston, 1966).

8 Wharton offers the same view in his monograph entitled Measure for Measure (London, 1989).

9 F. R. Leavis, "Measure for Measure, " in The Common Pursuit (London, 1952), pp. 160-72; Peter Ure, William Shakespeare: The Problem Plays (London, 1961), p. 30; Anne Barton, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (London, 1962), p. 178.

10 "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca," in Elizabethan Essays (New York, 1964), pp. 33, 34.

11Measure for Measure (1.3.35), ed. S. Nagarajan, in The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York, 1963). All references to Shakespeare are to this edition. Lucio, for one, does not believe the rumor, telling Isabella that he has it on good authority that the Duke's "givings-out were of an infinite distance / From his true-meant design" (1.4.54-55). See also

12 For evidence that a "commission" can convey "an exact command," see Hamlet 5.2.18-25.

13 "Both reasons cannot be true: if, as the last lines seem to imply, Angelo is not going to be a good magistrate, because of personal failings of one kind or another, then the Duke cannot be serious in expecting him to administer the laws harshly but scrupulously. Neither the Duke, nor the play in which he appears, attempts to reconcile these flagrantly different statements of intent; nor is it clear whether the inconsistency is a hit at the Duke or simply an oversight." A. L. French, Shakespeare and the Critics (Cambridge, Eng., 1972), p. 14. Leech makes a similar point, p. 68.

14 Shakespeare is very fond of the "touchstone" idea—he uses it again in Measure for Measure (2.2.150), and in a number of other plays: Richard III (4.2.8-9); King John (3.1.25-26); The Merchant of Venice (2.7.52-53); I Henry IV (4.4.9-10); Timon of Athens (3.3.6, and 4.3.390), and Pericles (2.2.36-38). An alternative reading of 1.1.35-36, and one consistent with the lines that follow, is: "A human being is never endowed with fine qualities unless he is intended to be exercised in matters requiring the finest powers of discrimination and judgement."

15 "But the Duke, reversing the usual sequence, prefers to test his metal after the figure is stamped upon it, in order to see 'if power change purpose, what our seemers be'. … His handing over to Angelo could have been sufficiently motivated, as it partly is, by his desire to test and watch him" (Schanzer, pp. 96, 114).

16 In the same scene the Duke tells Isabella that Angelo "will avoid your accusation: he made trial of you only" (196-97). Perhaps there is an ellipsis here and the words "he will defend himself by saying that" should be inserted after the colon to complete the sense.

17 Shakespeare never uses this word in the singular, and his one use of "seemers" occurs in Measure for Measure.

18 He may even be accusing Isabella of "seeming" (see 2.4.77-80, and 158-66).

19 See under "purpose" in Franklin Rubinstein, A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and Their Significance, 2nd ed. (London, 1989).

20 In his edition of 1854 James O. Halliwell suggested that "purpose" here "may simply be" his purpose of releasing my brother now cooling, quoted in Measure for Measure, New Variorum Edition, ed. Mark Eccles (New York, 1980), p. 243.

21 As, e.g., Oscar James Campbell does in his gloss: "if power change its aim, whether he is what he seems to be." See The Living Shakespeare (New York, 1949).

22 Norman N. Holland has argued that in four respects (including the test on Angelo) the "underlying situations" in Measure for Measure and the story of Remirro de Orco in Innocent Gentillet's so-called "Anti-Machiavel" of 1576 are substantially the same. However, I cannot see that Gentillet's "pious hope" that "Iudges be not suspected nor passionai" implies a reason for appointing and testing Angelo. See Holland's "Measure for Measure: The Duke and the Prince," Comparative Literature II (1959), 16-20.

23 Nagarajan hesitates to accept the Duke as Providence: "Providence never had such a narrow escape from defeat at human hands" (p. 1141).

24 Cf. As You Like It (4.1.198), and The Winter's Tale (4.1.1).

25 He never visits Angelo unless we believe him when he says that he is "confessor to Angelo" (3.1.165-66). He may have confessed Angelo even though his report of that confession is totally fabricated. In any case, what Angelo allegedly told the Duke (about only making "an assay" of Isabella's virtue) is not strictly a confession, since there is nothing sinful about it.

26 Henry Hallam complained as long ago as 1839: "It is never explained how the Duke had become acquainted with this secret, and being acquainted with it, how he had preserved his esteem and confidence in Angelo." Quoted in Eccles, p. 397.

27Cf.: "[The lines] 'Hence we shall see, / If power change purpose, what our seemers be' offer a clear indication that the Duke already knows Angelo to be a dissembler, and the revelations in 3.1 about his treatment of Mariana, which can scarcely rest on freshly acquired knowledge, establish that this is so." Measure for Measure, ed. J. M. Nosworthy (Harmondsworth, 1969), pp. 38-39 (see also ). And also:

28"If the Duke knew all along that Angelo had jilted Mariana … he would hardly have needed to test for flaws in the facade." Harriet Hawkins, Likenesses of Truth in Elizabethan and Restoration Drama (Oxford, 1972), p. 62.

29Wharton (1989), p. 38. The same point is made by Leech (p. 68): "We will not stay to consider whether, in view of these suspicions, the appointment of Angelo should have been made."

30Wharton (1989), p. 38. Hawkins notes that the Duke's motive for leaving Vienna "hardly entitles him (morally or dramatically) to put Angelo to a test, or to cause unnecessary suffering for a number of his subjects merely to find out what might lie behind Angelo's stony exterior" Likenesses, p. 62 (see also ). On these grounds Robert Ornstein (one of the few critics to deny Angelo's integrity is being tested) denies that a test is underway: "No intelligent ruler tests his subordinates by giving them power of life and death when he knows beforehand their lack of simple humanity." See The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (Madison, 1960), p. 255.

31Escalus tells Angelo he believes him to be "most straight in virtue" (2.1.9).

32Nigel Alexander, Shakespeare: "Measure for Measure" (London, 1975), pp. 41-42. Cf. Leavis' remark that Angelo "was placed in a position calculated to actualise his worst potentialities" (p. 172).

33There is a similar (very modern) reluctance to grant Isabella the right to choose a life of chastity.

34Cited in Eccles, p. 398.

35Note Shakespeare's characteristically strict use of the subjunctive for something hypothetical, not necessarily true or uncertain. Regarding "if as equivalent to "whether" A. E. Thiselton places a colon after "purpose" to make "what our seemers be" a second object of the verb "see." Some Textual Notes on "Measure for Measure" (London, 1901), p. 12. Following Thiselton, J. W. Lever objects to the "fatuousness" of the commas Rowe placed after "see" and "purpose." Measure for Measure (London, 1965), p. 22n. Contentious issues of punctuation do not, I think, affect my argument.

36It is even doubtful that Angelo would have accepted money for services rendered—although he misunderstands the tenor of Isabella's words, he angrily repudiates the suggestion he might be open to a bribe (2.2.146-47).

37In Elizabethan English, writes N. F. Blake, "almost any part of speech may be omitted." Shakespeare's Language: An Introduction (New York, 1983), p. 126.

As an example of an auxiliary being omitted, "may" is omitted before "Thy" in the Countess' blessing on Bertram: "Thy blood and virtue contend for empire in thee" (All's Well That Ends Well, 1.1.66-67).

38Angelo continues by saying that his "unsoiled name" and the "austereness" of his life will vouch against her (2.4.153ff.).

39 I cannot agree with Mansell (p. 272n.) that the Duke is only pretending amazement at Angelo's fall from grace.

40That is, "more amazed at his lapse from virtue in trying to possess a nun, than at the bedtrick which revealed the lapse." Later Escalus turns to Angelo directly, expressing regret that "one so learned and so wise … [s]hould slip so grossly" (5.1.472,474). "Slip" in Shakespeare is often a sexual slip—see Isabella's use of "slipped" (2.1.65) and The Winter's Tale (1.2.85, 273).

41I am aware that critical opinion is sharply divided over the issue of whether or not Angelo is to be regarded as a hypocrite. See Eccles, pp. 420-27, esp. p. 426.

42Herbert Weil, Jr., cited in Bloom, p. 70.

43Cf. Lucio's "a man whose blood / Is very snowbroth" (1.4.57-58).

44Since the Duke oscillates between the first person singular and the royal (or ducal) "we," it is difficult to ascertain whether "hence shall we see" and "our seemers" refers to private or public knowledge.

45The point has been made by M. C. Bradbrook, who adds: "The difference between the Duke's seeming and that of Angelo is of course that the Duke's is purely an external change." Cited in Bloom, pp. 16, 17.

46The Problems of "Measure for Measure" (London, 1976), p. 279.

Source: "Questionable Purpose in Measure for Measure: A Test of Seeming or a Seeming Test?" in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 26-44.


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