Measure for Measure Spectator Seduction: Measure for Measure
by William Shakespeare

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(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...

(The entire section is 11,910 words.)