Spectator Seduction: Measure for Measure - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Spectator Seduction: Measure for Measure

Louis Burkhardt, University of Colorado, Boulder

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
      —Alexander Pope, "An Essay on Man"


(Shakespearean Criticism)

More clearly than any other characters in the play, Angelo and Isabella discover themselves to be puppets of desire. They mediate "righteous" indignation to spectators. With less prominence, Claudio functions as a model-rival to these two characters, although he himself is conspicuously susceptible to models. While both Angelo and Isabella exhibit the full effects of passing judgment, Isabella's role makes the progression from judgment to doubling more perceptible. In addition, two of her speeches comment on the theme of mimetic bondage. While I do not examine the comic characters in this article, many of them, particularly Lucio, undergo mimetic oscillations similar to their graver counterparts. In contrast to these reluctant disciples, Duke Vincentio, who avoids unwanted models, is minimally imprisoned in psychological judgment. He functions rather to turn our attention to the play's spectators and their desires.

Angelo's response to Vienna's antifornication statute marks the undoing of a personality that thrives on overdifferentiating responses.14 What appears as a legal judgment unveils the reciprocity of a moral judgment. The statute Angelo enforces eventually governs him, unleashing forces that transform him from lifelong frigidity to newly awakened concupiscence. This degeneration reveals the underlying moral logic of the play. In his first soliloquy (2.2.162-87), he remarks that his chastity, up to meeting Isabella, has come easily. He has not been pretending sexual purity:

Never could the strumpet
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir by temper: but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Ever till now
When men were fond, I smil'd, and wonder'd

Shakespeare carefully registers this change in Angelo as shocking not only to himself but also to other characters. Claudio is taken by surprise. Hearing about Angelo's sexual extortion of Isabella, Claudio exclaims, "The precise Angelo!" (3.1.93). Duke Vincentio, also, is surprised: "but that frailty hath examples for his falling, I should wonder" (3.1.185-86). Finally, Lucio's explanation of Angelo's birth reinforces the unlikelihood of an outbreak of passion: "Some report, a seamaid spawned him. Some, that he was begot between two stock fishes. But it is certain that when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice; that I know to be true. And he is a motion ungenerative; that's infallible" (3.2.104-08). This polyphony of voices, each surprised by Angelo's fall, warrants our attention. Intentionally, it seems, we are asked to ask, "How is it that now, for the first time in his life, Angelo feels passion for a woman?"

Whereas the psychoanalytic answer would focus on the object of that (hitherto repressed) passion, interdividual psychology looks at Angelo's circumstances and discovers a significant model. Before Isabella, Claudio is. Although Shakespeare allows Angelo to claim he is merely carrying out his duty to enforce the law that "hath slept" (2.2.91), the play indicates how tendentious is the selection of Claudio. Vienna is teeming with sexual transgressions. The contrast between Claudio and the play's innumerable overlooked candidates for arrest raises the question of Angelo's motivation. If, as I propose to argue, Angelo is attracted to Claudio as a model and entrapped by Claudio as an obstacle, which traits in Claudio attract Angelo and which traits entrap him? Claudio's sensuality piques Angelo's interest, while Claudio's engagement to a dowerless woman causes Angelo to stumble. The sensuality provides the basis for Angelo's overdifferentiating judgment (which takes the guise of a legal judgment). The engagement makes Claudio an inimitable model of enduring commitment to one's fiancée. Judgment against Claudio's sensuality brings Angelo face to face with Claudio's integrity; recognition of Claudio's integrity makes Angelo sensual. Angelo fails to see that whether he attempts to imitate "enduring commitment" or brute sensuality, his stoicism will frustrate either course he chooses, causing him finally to find victims who might bridge the inevitable gap between desire and fulfillment.

On the surface, Angelo judges Claudio because of their dissimilarities. Claudio, like a rat, pursues lechery, whereas Angelo, until meeting Isabella, would smile "when men were fond" and wonder "how?" The confidence with which Angelo arrests Claudio depends upon a difference whose importance Angelo overestimates: he has never slept with a woman. His mental act of overdifferentiation might be expressed thus: "I would never be like Claudio—without self-control, wanton, carnal." At one point in the dialogue, Angelo says something suspiciously similar. Refusing Isabella's request for mercy, Angelo says, "I will not do't" (2.2.51). Do what? Pardon? Fornicate? For Angelo, the two are inextricably bound. To refuse pardon (in light of Angelo's motivations) locks him into a trajectory that points toward extortion, fornication, slander, and intended murder. Thus the original difference between Angelo and Claudio necessarily disappears.

In spite of their initial differences, a similarity unites these male characters. Both men have been engaged to dowerless women. They, of course, wear their discontent with a difference: a slanderous breaking off for Angelo, a premature consummation for Claudio. But it is this similarity that sustains Angelo's overdifferentiating reaction. The past celibacy that permits Angelo to distance himself from Claudio is inseparable from the broken engagement that attests to Angelo's bad faith. Consequently, his moral grounds for sentencing Claudio argue at the same time for Claudio's pardon. Worse, his judgment of Claudio eventually foregrounds Claudio's relatively superior treatment of his fiancée. Whereas Claudio's "sin" mediates sensuality to Angelo, Claudio's fidelity mediates a desire for a lost integrity to Angelo. When we recall that Angelo is a character who takes "pride" in his "gravity" (2.4.9-10), a character who must have the endorsements of others in order to (mimetically) value his own piety, we can see the propensity for rivalry between him and Claudio.

Thus, while the arrest of Claudio gives Angelo immediate moral and political distinction ("'tis surely for a name," 1.2.160), it subjects Angelo to a disturbing desire and a scandalous rival. Contaminated by Claudio's concupiscence, Angelo experiences a desire he has never known. Because Angelo has concealed his failure with Mariana by fashioning himself as a stoic, he cannot imitate Claudio. Unable to follow Claudio's steps without relinquishing his gravity, Angelo cannot get beyond the rival-obstacle in his path. Where the path toward acquisitive mimesis is blocked, the way of conflictive mimesis remains open. Angelo's authorization to put Claudio to death is perfectly convenient because, in one legal action, he can memorialize Claudio's moral lapse and at the same time eliminate a living rival. These motivations of course are unrecognized by Angelo, which is why, later, his passion toward Isabella mystifies him.

Although Claudio is Angelo's model of desire, the moral backlash in Angelo's life need not be sexual. He could simply become colder and still be chained reciprocally to Claudio. But Shakespeare makes the mirroring explicit by making Angelo hot. The smallest trickle of desire will reduce his difference/distance from Claudio. Physiologically, the passion in Angelo is simply awakened. Structurally, the passion is recreated, passion for passion, because he has judged or condemned a man for yielding to his passions. Angelo's judgment supplies the form (which is imitation); Claudio's predicament supplies the content (which is fornication). Both as a model of conjugal love and as an object of differentiation, Claudio becomes the basis for Angelo's life. No matter the particulars of Isabella's beauty, purity, personality, or dress, Angelo is already destined to experience unwanted desire when he meets this character who reminds him of Claudio.

Arriving soon after Angelo's legal and moral judgment against Claudio, Isabella unintentionally precipitates his fall in two ways. First, she provides an object for the desire he has unknowingly borrowed from Claudio. Second, she reinforces Angelo's slavery through a second mimetic triangle. She has what Angelo wants: gravity. Apparently, she possesses it in a purer form, one that does not require...

(The entire section is 3531 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Perhaps of all Shakespeare's plays, Measure for Measure causes spectators, both present and past, male and female, to side most intensely with or against its characters. Most spectators have a vested interest in desires that are clustered around activities that begin life (sexuality), degenerate life (compromise and lying), renew life (forgiveness), and end life (death). Moreover, these desires are presented vividly through the characters' dialogue and soliloquies. Except for Duke Vincentio, these characters are not staging desire but instead are desperately struggling with desires, often against their wills and beyond their understanding. This lack of theatricality in the play makes the incarnation of its...

(The entire section is 1609 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

As I argued in the introduction, Measure succeeds exactly where it fails: it catches spectators in a web of partisan character judgments. Referring to all drama, but particularly to Measure for Measure, Harriett Hawkins writes, "There are certain moments in the drama when most members of any audience—Christian or pagan, Elizabethan, modern, or, for that matter, Greek—are virtually forced to join the devil's party, perhaps without knowing it."32 If the devil is another name for the forces of mimetic desire as they shape humanity, then my analysis wholeheartedly supports Hawkins's description. The harsh commentaries on Angelo, Isabella, and Duke Vincentio indicate reactions in the critics...

(The entire section is 4254 words.)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

The magisterial achievement of Measure for Measure is also its nemesis: it provokes intolerance. By mirroring virulent desires in its characters, it mediates similar desires to the offstage spectators (audiences and readers).1 Often, as soon as critics note the intolerance displayed by certain of the play's characters, the critics themselves become intolerant.2 This critical intolerance signals the influential role played by "desire": a category by which I refer to motivational impulses in humans, including forces of repulsion as well as attraction. Desire includes both erotic or binding emotions such as love, pity, and affection and violent or alienating emotions such as fear, hate, and...

(The entire section is 2467 words.)