Measure for Measure
John Locke’s and William Shakespeare’s Views on Identity and Diversity
On Personhood: I Am We, Not Me
What makes me the same person I’ve always been? Is it the way I talk, who I know, possibly my ridiculous hairstyle? It could be something far more innate, as John Locke’s “Identity and Diversity” and William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure both suggest. In this essay, I will compare Locke’s claim that a person is made the same by a continued consciousness and set of memories to Shakespeare’s argument that personal identity is based on self-perception and the perceptions of others. I will show how, when combined, these two claims define how we see justice and dispense punishment for crimes.
John Locke distinguishes between a “man” and a “person” to ultimately assert that a person remains the same over time so long as he maintains the same consciousness, which is defined by his memories. Locke begins by defining principles of individuation for three categories of natural things: atoms, aggregates, and organisms. The distinction between the last two is particularly important to Locke – by his definition, an aggregate is only the same as long as all of its component atoms are the same: “if one atom is removed from the mass, or one new one added, it is no longer the same mass” (Locke, 113). An organism, or organized system, is much more like a plant, animal, or human; it is “one cohering body partaking of one common life” (114). As long as a group of parts is working towards the same purpose over time, they make up the same organism. Herein, Locke defines the same “man” – he remains the same as long as he has “participation in the same continued life” (114). In comparison, Locke sees a person as something that is able to reason and think of itself, and “What enables it to think of itself is its consciousness” (115). For Locke, the consciousness is the key to both being a person and being the same person – as long as a person’s consciousness is maintained, then they are truly the same person that they were previously. The consciousness is rooted in the memory: a person remains the same “as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought” (115). These are important distinctions to make – in cases of dementia and mental illness, a man can become a different person, and in cases of reincarnation or soul transfer, a person could become a different man. They are two distinct and separate concepts, and Locke states conclusively that personal identity rests in the continued consciousness – as long as I remember what I did in the past, I remain the same person as I was in those memories.
Angelo, in Shakespeare’s play, displays a completely different identity in public than he does in private and recognizes these identities as different individuals, suggesting that Shakespeare believes that what makes a person the same is a matter of how he perceives himself or how others perceive him. In Act 4, Scene 4, Angelo reflects on the sins and crimes he has committed, remarking that his lechery and murder “unshapes me quite” (Shakespeare, 4.4.18). Angelo has lost all faith in himself thanks to the magnitude of these crimes; he no longer recognizes himself. The use of the words “unshapes” and “unpregnant” suggest that Angelo has lost morals and self-assurance that he once had (4.4.18-19). He soon after refers to himself as “An eminent body that enforced/The law” (4.4.20-21). He does not refer to himself in the first person while discussing his past sins and crimes – the Angelo who is speaking with a sense of justice doesn’t even seem to recognize his lecherous self as a part of him. Angelo’s language is still that of a moral authority, and he speaks of Isabella’s night with him as a “tender shame” and “maiden loss,” but he doesn’t seem to tie the version of himself that deflowered Isabella with the version of him that is currently speaking (4.4.21-22). His use of first-person pronouns only appear when talking about his public self – “she might tongue me,” but “my authority bears so credent bulk/That no particular scandal once can touch” (4.4.24-25). Angelo associates himself with his public face; his reputation and authority are his, while the lecherous crimes and murderous backstabbing are the fault of some other Angelo. He even calls his trespass “this deed,” referring to it as a separate entity (4.4.18). The speech ends with Angelo lamenting that “our grace have we forgot” – while he once had principles, and possibly part of him still does, they have been lost and a new Angelo has subsequently emerged (4.4.31). Angelo uses the pronoun “we” to apply his situation to all humanity, certainly, but also to suggest a duality in his character. The Angelo that seduced Isabella is so different from the upright and moral Angelo that it is like one person inhabiting two bodies. Through Angelo’s duality of self, Shakespeare shows us how our actions, which change both our self-perception and the perception of others, can turn us into a completely different person.
When reading Locke and Shakespeare at the same time, questions naturally arise – the two views of what makes a person the same over time directly conflict with each other in seemingly irreconcilable ways. Locke would argue that Angelo remains the same person over the entire length of Measure for Measure – he never experiences a mental shift that causes him to lose his memories, so his consciousness remains consistent. Locke says that the “present self that now reflects on it is the one by which that action was performed,” and Angelo is clearly reflecting on past actions (Locke 115). He refers directly to his deed and the “unflowered maiden” – he remembers the sins he has committed, and so Locke would argue that he must be the same person (Shakespeare 4.4.19). When we see Angelo with multiple identities, we are willing to forgive him some of his transgressions. He is straining against a different self he cannot control. He exclaims, in regards to Claudio, “Would yet he had lived!” (4.4.30). This makes us willing to accept his pardon at the end of the play – obviously, the good Angelo has triumphed and the lecherous Angelo has been banished. However, under Locke’s principles, Angelo is at fault for all of his actions. It doesn’t matter if he distances himself from his lesser aspects, they are still a part of his single consciousness. This interpretation makes the ending of the play much more ominous. Though the Duke says that Angelo’s evil “quits you well,” there is no correctional punishment for him besides – his unified conscious still contains those elements that drove him to sin and lechery seemingly apropos of nothing, and that may resurface at any time (5.1.499). Angelo, despite not being placeholder Duke anymore, is still a very powerful man and continues to roam free, suggesting a far more ominous future than when the play is read with Shakespeare’s interpretation of identity.
Shakespeare, in turn, heavily complicates Locke’s ideas with the concept of absolute and relative identity. Shakespeare’s entire play contrasts things that are absolute with things that are relative. The absolute truth of the matter is that Angelo has slept with Mariana and not killed Claudio, but he believes that he has deflowered Isabella and killed Claudio. In relation to absolute truth, what has really happened, the latter statements are false, but they are true in a relative sense to Angelo – he has no reason to disbelieve them. In this way too, we can see Angelo’s divided personhood. Absolutely, Angelo is a single person, bound by one continuous and uninterrupted consciousness. In a relative sense, Angelo is at least two different people – not only based on his self-perception, but his control over himself. He states in Act 2 that “my invention, hearing not my tongue/Anchors on Isabel” (2.4.4-5). Much like Angelo believes that his relative truth is absolute, he believes that his relative personalities are absolute because he can’t seem to control his lustful self. Small nuances bring Shakespeare closer to Locke. Locke says that a person should disregard memories that he cannot “square with or join to the present self” (Locke 121). Not only is a person changed by forgetting, they can consider themselves different from a past self if the memories they have seem false or unlike the current person. Angelo certainly has the memories of his crimes and sins, but they don’t seem to match who he is. We see, then, that a person’s relative perception of himself can alter his personhood. Locke’s theories remain consistent while discussing a person who sees himself as having a certain set of true memories, but when the person relatively perceives his memories to be false or non-compatible, his personhood changes, allowing him to become multiple people based on what set of values and impulses he is acting on at the current moment. Locke’s view is subsequently widened to allow a series of cases like multiple personalities and changes in self-perception and personhood brought about by how an individual relatively regards their memories.
We have found a clear combination of Shakespeare and Locke’s views – a person is made the same through his consciousness, but that his single absolute consciousness can have various different relative identities. Through this we can especially evaluate our conceptions of justice – how do we judge and forgive people based on their identity? As seen in my application of Locke to Shakespeare, forgiveness for wrongdoing often seems to come from whether their criminal qualities remain intact. If we consider Angelo as one person, we want him punished because we still see flaws in his character that have never been addressed. He remains lecherous and perverted and nothing has been done to correct this. If we see Angelo as two relative people, we are more willing to forgive him. We accept that the good Angelo was simply unable to control the lecherous one, but now has returned to power. There is no need to punish the person who is not responsible for these evil deeds. In real life, we let men like Oscar Pistorius off with lighter sentences and allow schizophrenics to plead insanity – we are lenient towards those who seem to have a self that they cannot control. This may run contrary to Locke’s views – that a “man,” not a “person,” should be punished due to how easy it is to lie about personhood – but it is quite obviously how our modern justice system works. Personhood is closely tied to both our justice system and the way that we judge the behavior of people on a day-to-day basis.
Self-Division and Lack of Self-Knowledge in Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure
In many ways, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure are examples of his “problem plays” that are concerned with self-division and lack of self-knowledge. The former play deals with the duality of the characters and it is in the knowledge or lack of knowledge in this duality between the characters which makes it a problem play. Self-division is also implicit in the latter play, where the characters are forced to confront their different natures due to a crisis which is set upon them. Both the plays, like the innate nature of the problem plays themselves, are torn between how a character perceives himself or herself and how these characters perceive each other differently. Taking this point further, I wish to argue that both plays have a metatheatrical element in them, where my view of each of the individual characters differ from what the characters think of themselves, and that a complex character such as Cressida is actually aware of her mythical identity, whereas other characters, though still just as complex in character, are less aware of their metatheatrical presence and therefore think of their self-division as more of an intuition they have. How are Shakespeare’s famous characters to “be themselves” when their names convey an absolute “identity” that is itself based upon a myth of loss? If, even as the “original” heroes of the “original” epics, they always already encode nostalgia?
Charnes’ questioning deals with the ambiguous ideas of dual-identity and self-knowledge that leads to subjectivity in Troilus and Cressida. Although the play is reproduced by Shakespeare, the characters’ identities are historically tied to the original heroes, making Cressida, inevitably, the one to leave Troilus for Diomede. The characters themselves, seem to be functioned to be aware of their own identity to a certain extent although Troilus discovers this much later than Pandarus and Cressida when he sees Cressida with Diomede in the Greek camp. One may already assume, before even watching the play, that Troilus’ identity is to be “true” and Cressida’s to be “false” in their relationship. “Identity” derives from the Latin word “idem”, meaning the same, the quality of being identical and the fact of being identical being who or what a person or a thing is. In this sense, Shakespeare and the actors who play the characters are bound to the nature of the play’s historicism: the myth of Troilus and Cressida that has been repeated and multiplied many times have given an “identity” to the characters which subjects the actors to “play” the characters as they are destined to play. It is not only Shakespeare, the audience and the actors who seem to be aware on the subjectivity of these characters. Shakespeare designs Cressida to be self-aware of her own subjectivity.
Troilus: What offends you, lady?
Cressida: Sir, mine own company.
Troilus: You cannot shun yourself.
Cressida: Let me go and try: I have a kind of self resides with you; But an unkind self, that itself will leave, To be another’s fool. I would be gone: Where is my wit? I know not what I speak.
Troilus: Well know they what they speak that speak so wisely.
Shakespeare plays with the word “kind” and “unkind” to show the literal split in her personality but also subtly underlines Cressida’s acknowledgement in her two split identities, where the “unkind self” refers to her unnatural and therefore “other” self. She warns Troilus that one of her self will eventually leave to another, Diomede. Furthermore, she shows distress in her own knowledge of this and therefore claims to be offended by her own company, in this case, her identity. “Where is my wit?” If the definition of wit is the capacity for inventive thought and quick understanding; keen intelligence, then the search for her wit could refer to her searching for knowledge of truth. She must be “false” to Troilus in order to be her “true” self. Nevertheless, Cressida tries to avert herself from her pre-decided identity. “You cannot shun yourself” Troilus speaks that, in context, she cannot leave him from his company but this could also be taken into a wider reading: she cannot avoid herself from her identity and thus has no entitlement to selfhood. “Shun” means to persistently avoid, ignore, or reject through caution, which could be taken as Cressida trying to break through the norms by avoiding or rejecting her identity. She wants to “go and try” to eliminate her subjectivity by erasing her multiplicity from the past Cressida(s) that has- or have- existed before her. By doing so, she would be gaining her selfhood, in which I am referring to the state of having experience of one’s consciousness as belonging to oneself. However, “selfhood” can also mean a person’s character, being egocentric. In this sense, Cressida’s selfhood seems paradoxical. She has a split dual identity, where one part of her wishes to remain with Troilus yet her efforts in trying to avert from her subjectivity and achieve selfhood brings out her other self, which will leave him for another. Despite all of this paradoxical effort in losing herself to gain herself, she ends in a futile resolution. She realises the futility of her efforts for she seems to have self-knowledge of her fate.
As long as she has the “wit” of her subjected fate, she “would be gone”. Her role, like Pandarus says, is to “Leave all as I found it. / And there an end”, to play and then leave the stage as she has been identified to be. This shows that she is aware of the metatheatricality of the play, and that the Cressida that I see in her as an audience is the same as the Cressida that she sees in herself. Whilst Cressida seems to be aware of her split identity, Troilus is unable to comprehend with her. He says, “Well know they what they speak that speak so wisely”, which depicts that Cressida should “know” how she is subject to be gone, without himself knowing what he speaks, making him a character that lacks in self-knowledge as well as his knowledge in Cressida. He is too simple in mind to demystify the truth in her speech: …my integrity and truth to you Might be affronted with the match and weight Of such a winnowed purity in love. How were I then uplifted! But alas, I am as true as truth’s simplicity And simpler than the infancy of the truth. Troilus’ integrity may mean that he has the quality of being honest and true. However, it could also mean that he is in a state of being whole and undivided. Unlike Cressida, he is unaware of his self-divided identity in a metatheatrical sense and perceives his selfhood to be whole to himself. Shakespeare creates a character who is only able to see the truth in simple terms and therefore enables the play to proceed on its subjectivity: Troilus, who is as much of a legendary character as Cressida is, must be betrayed by Cressida. His truth in Cressida is at an infant state in Act two, which only matures later in Act five where he sees her “other” self, with Diomede. This, she? No, this is Diomede’s Cressida. If beauty have a soul, this is not she. The separation of “This”; the Cressida that he is seeing, and “she” that he thought Cressida was shows that he is now able to comprehend the division in her identity. His division of Cressida shows that she was subjective to his ideologies: “his” Cressida exists in his mind rather than the external world. He has made the mistake of seeing the truth in simplicity and thus mistaken her for another. Charnes states that “to be ‘taken for another’ is not to be taken at all. Rather, it is to be left behind, ‘exchanged’ as it were, for this mysterious ‘other’ for whom one is mis-taken”. Her comment suggests that Troilus has never truly taken her at all for he was unable to see the “other” side of her identity. Once this truth becomes demystified, Cressida’s role is complete: like all of the other Cressida(s), she has betrayed Troilus. Therefore, she has achieved in fulfilling her role and “Leave(s) all as (she) found it, and there an end” and is seen no more after this scene. Therefore, Shakespeare unveils the fear of identity, self-division and subjectivity by “using” the famous characters and making them lose themselves in order to be themselves. The characters’ identities are identified once more in the play as they carry the weight of their names that convey an absolute “identity” that is itself based upon a myth.
Different criticisms and interpretations of Measure for Measure can be accumulated around the reactions to the central characters in the play: Isabella and the Duke of Vienna. It is difficult to pin down whether these characters are good, bad, powerful, whether they are all or none of these things. Like the inherent nature of problem plays, the characters are problematic in a sense that different characters realise their self-division at different points (some may never realise their self-division) and it is therefore difficult to claim precisely when it is that these characters realise this. On a whole, I agree with Berger’s view of the Duke “is less important or interesting that the Duke’s view of the Duke”. What the Duke views of himself is different from my view of the Duke, and this view applies similarly to the other characters as well. Isabella, much like Cressida, has self-knowledge of her identity from an early point in the play. Although Isabella’s status as a nun may make her appear to be a character of intransigent innocence at first, she is actually has a fragile lenience, where she is a virgin but not quite a maid and not yet a nun. Much like her problematic status, problems are also raised in her self-knowledge of division in her identity. She has self that wishes to be free from male patriarchal society, remain a virgin and, therefore, sustain her innocence. However, her other self recognises her part in the patriarchal society: to be a woman in relation to a man. The problem arises from this division between her two selves. Her selfhood that wishes to sustain her innocence becomes paradoxical once she decides to act upon it; from protecting herself of her innocence, she is in recognition of all the things that are not innocent. Therefore, she can no longer be seen as wholly innocent, yet this does not make her guilty of innocence, in a sense that she is still a virgin. Either ways, in realising the dangers of her selfhood from an early point in the play, she is able to find a resolution for it. She finds a way to escape from the corrupted society by choosing to become a nun. Yes, truly. I speak not as desiring more, But rather wishing a more strict restraint Upon the sisterhood In becoming a nun, she will be able to preserve her virginity and therefore her innocence from further corruption. She asks for further privileges to the nun not as a means of desiring for more worldly resources but in a means of asking for a “more strict restraint” in order to restrain herself from losing her ‘self’, her innocence. This emphasises on her knowledge that sisterhood is a place where she can escape from the sexual production system of the patriarchal society. This can be proven in Act Five when The Duke exclaims that in being a nun, Mariana cannot be classified as an individual in his view:
Duke: What, are you married?
Mariana: No, my lord.
Duke: Are you a maid?
Mariana: No, my lord.
Duke: A widow, then?
Mariana: Neither, my lord.
Duke: Why, you are nothing then; neither maid, widow, nor wife!
The Duke, in asking a list of questions on what she is, he makes Mariana prove his point that women are reduced to nothing through her replies being a list of cancellations. It is interesting to see how in some versions of the play, “Why, you are nothing then; neither maid, widow, nor wife!” is written as a statement with an exclamation mark, whereas other versions “Why, you are nothing then; neither maid, widow, nor wife?” end with a questioning. One can read the exclamatory phrase as the Duke making a clear statement of what was perceived of women at that time in Vienna, whilst the phrase that ends with a questioning emphasises on the problem that not all women can be fully defined by his three categories; the Duke is in confusion of where to place Mariana in the patriarchal system. However, Isabella is partly free from this categorising as she has chosen to become a nun. In a Christian narrative, she becomes a daughter of God. The Duke creates multiple identities of himself through theatricality. Theatricality enables the play to end with him remaining as a supposedly good lord. He maintains the ‘appearance’ of a good ruler; whether he truly is a good ruler or not is debatable. For example, he deliberately humbles himself from his social position of a Duke as the friar until his true identity is revealed. He waits until Isabella publicly appears to lose her honour in a convincing way and yet without actually losing it so that when he comes back, he may appear to bring back her honour and therefore bring justice and law back in form. When he does reveal himself as the Duke, Angelo accepts that he has always been watched over by the Duke. O my dread lord, I should be guiltier than my guiltiness To think I can be undiscernible, When I perceive your grace, like power divine, Hath looked upon my passes. In a Christian narrative, the Duke can be seen as God, who sacrifices His son to the human world, watches over His children and gives final judgement on Judgement Day, where The Bible states that God “has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth”. There is a correlation of God and the Duke’s actions, as the former claims to judge the “inhabited earth”, meaning that He will judge the human beings that has populated in Earth, rather than the Earth itself. Similarly, the latter judges the acts that have gone wrong in the play rather than criticising the corrupted state of Viennese society. In this sense, the Duke’s decision in disguising himself as the friar can be seen as a “sacrifice” made in order to be able to retrieve his people from wrongdoings. He becomes a superior omniscient being.
Like God, who is the creator of things, the Duke has created a stage where he lets the problems arise whilst he waits until the problems epitomise the scene before he reveals his true identity. This shows that he is aware of the metatheatricality that derives from his self-duplicity and is also aware of how the others will react to it. Through him, one can see that human beings may not always be what they appear to be. Therefore, to have knowledge of others and in order to be able to govern them, one must first have self-knowledge of oneself. However, the point that has just been made is what the Duke may think of himself to be. Berger argues that what the Duke may think of himself differs from what he views the Duke to be. He argues through Graham Bradshaw’s notion that the Duke is: A negligent governor who now believes that he must confront, but still wants to evade, a problem which he has helped to create…The point that immediately matters is not whether we believe that Vienna requires surgery, but that the Duke himself believes this and feels obliged to act accordingly. It could be argued that Vienna’s precarious state, in terms of justice, is a reflection and therefore a result of his inability to govern the society effectively through a lack of self-knowledge. He sees himself as the role of a good Duke, who needs to act upon the problems that has risen, yet unable to recognise that he has helped to create these problems from the first place. Therefore, Berger names the Duke as a “negligent governor” who is self-divided: a part of him thinks that he must confront these problems and the other part of him wants to evade them.
In conclusion, I have explored how both the plays are torn between how a character perceives himself or herself and how these characters perceive each other differently. Furthermore, some of these characters are aware of the metatheatrical elements and use this understanding as a means of understanding themselves.
Presentation and Treatment of Women in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure
Examine the presentation and treatment of women in Shakespeare’s play ‘Measure for Measure.’ Consider other writers’ views in your response.
When Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure around 1604, society was very sexist towards females, and men were seen as the stronger gender, women were regarded as subservient to men. They were seen as only being useful for sex, caring for their husband and children and doing all the household chores. In this play, Shakespeare uses the typical stereotypes of the way women are presented in literature. Bertens suggests these stereotypes include, “an immoral and dangerous seductress, the woman as cute but helpless, the woman as an unworldly, self- sacrificing angel.” These stereotypes can be reflected upon characters within Measure for Measure. Isabella could be considered as the “self-sacrificing angel” as this suggests that women should yield to please men; this is seen in the play when Claudio asks his sister to let him live even though he knows it will affect her vocation as a nun. Mistress Overdone could reflect on the “immoral seductress” as she doesn’t follow society’s moral guidelines, exchanging money for sex.
In this play, women are represented in a variety of ways, such as prostitutes, religious icons and deceitful characters; however, the treatment of them remains the same as they are all seen to be disrespected and degraded to a lower status than men. Each of the women in the play is restricted and dominated by the forces of a male dominated society. Although the women in the play are vastly different, their social status is determined by the men in their lives. They can be seen as victims of patriarchal control, for example, Isabella, a novitiate nun is blackmailed; Mariana is abandoned for not having a large enough dowry; and Julietta, who is pregnant is compromised by the attitudes and judgement she will face if she has an illegitimate child. Also, women are seen as the weaker sex to men, Angelo states to Isabella that “women are frail,” this shows the negative attitudes towards the female characters of this play as they could be seen as incapable or too delicate and inadequate. Women in this play seem to be used for one thing only: sex. The place where Measure for Measure is set, Vienna, is filled with drugs, violence and most of all, prostitutes. Mistress Overdone is the owner of a successful brothel where men gather to use women for sex. This accentuates the fact that women were degraded, used purely for a man’s selfish needs.
In addition to this, Isabella, a novitiate nun is blackmailed by Angelo, he offers her Claudio’s life in return for sex. This shows the lack of respect for women and religion at this time as Angelo is asking Isabella to sacrifice her virginity for his own selfish reasons. It could be argued that Isabella can be seen to use her womanly charms to her advantage. When speaking to Angelo, she attempts to seduce him which could be interpreted as hypocritical as she criticises Claudio for having sex outside of marriage but she is seducing men, this contradicts her role as a novice nun. Nevertheless, Isabella is confident that Angelo wants her and she is playing on this to try and save her brother’s life, “I had rather give my body than my soul.” Isabella is tempting Angelo to imagine her body, making herself seem more sexually desirable to him. When speaking to Angelo, Isabella takes the role of a submissive woman, portraying the views that women are weak, “For we are as soft as out complexions are,” here, Isabella is exploiting her femininity and beauty so she may seem more desirable, she is also presenting herself as “soft,” making Angelo feel dominant. Similarly, Isabella’s strength is accentuated when she claims that she could denounce Angelo by revealing his immoral scheme to the world, “with an outstretch’d throat,” this is Isabella suggesting the damage that it could do to his reputation is distressing. This shows how women were always expected to obey men and additionally demonstrates how women adopted and achieved their form of dominance and independence.
In the 17th Century, virginal women were respected as they were considered honourable and innocent. This attitude draws attention to the contrasting characters of Isabella and Mistress Overdone, as Mistress Overdone owns a brothel, she is considered as being lower class compared to Isabella who is a novitiate nun. An example of this is when Isabella declares to Angelo, “There is a vice which most I do abhor and most desire should meet the blow of justice,” this could show how much Isabella disagrees with the sin that Claudio has committed. Mistress Overdone is supportive of Claudio as she could be seen to sin frequently, so she may be used to this behaviour, this putting emphasis on the contrasting characters of Mistress Overdone and Isabella. Shakespeare could have been trying to present the different types of women in this period, the respectable, pure religious icon and prostitutes who are presented as unhygienic and not worthy of admiration. Conversely, it could also be seen that they are very similar in a way that they are both strong women which differs from societal views at this time. This can be seen when Mistress Overdone responds to the first gentleman that tries to mock her, “Well, well there’s one yonder arrested and carried to prison was worth five thousand of you all,” this shows how she is strong and not intimidated by men. This same confidence is reflected by Isabella in her language use whilst talking to Angelo, “Sign me a present pardon for my brother or with an outstretched throat I’ll tell the word aloud what man thou art.” Isabella is quite serious in her threat to Angelo, proving that she is a woman of intelligence and power, much like Mistress Overdone.
It would also be legitimate to suggest that the character of Mariana is presented as isolated and broken after Angelo’s treatment of her. Angelo left Mariana due to her dowry being lost at sea, this shows that men only wanted women for their wealth and for the women to obey the men and serve them along with their family. “But mark how heavily this befell to the poor gentlewoman.” The fact that Mariana is presented as a damaged, “poor” woman and Angelo is shown as a successful, powerful man could demonstrate the contrasting gender representations. Women are shown as pathetic without a man in their life but a man is still shown as authoritative, even without a woman by their side. This echoes the strong attitudes towards women in the Jacobean era.
Although Julietta plays a minor part in the story, the treatment she suffers through is quite reflective of men’s views of women as a whole in the Jacobean era. Julietta, who is pregnant, is kept in terrible conditions as she was pregnant outside of marriage, it is stated in the play that the only reason she hasn’t been executed is due to her pregnancy. Usually, if a woman is pregnant, they should be cared for, yet, the treatment of Juliet is due to Angelo’s patriarchal control, highlighting how women were seen as the minor sex, leading to the degrading treatment of them. Consistently, it would also be reasonable to suggest that this male dominated society could be reflected through the use of stichomythia, Isabella uses the phrase “please you to do’t” then in Angelo’s speech, he uses the similar phrase “pleas’d you to do’t.” This could suggest that Angelo is attempting to claim his dominance over Isabella, showing that he is in control. This accentuates this idea of women’s place in society at the time.
Examining the play as a whole, women are presented as having limited roles, particularly in a discussion between the Duke and Lucio, “Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife?” In this, they are saying women without a title of either “maid, widow or wife” are nothing and they assume that without this title, women are prostitutes or the equivalent. Additionally, it could also be seen that the men of the play, such as Claudio and Angelo are able to disobey social customs, with varying levels of success, however it is difficult to find a woman who challenges social prescriptions. For example, Mariana appears to be coerced into following the Duke’s “bed trick” to seduce Angelo as she lacks any alternative. Her most reasonable motivation for sleeping with Angelo is to legitimise the relationship that he neglected. Isabella is also controlled by societal expectations, she seems to be panicked when her two roles as both sister and nun demand conflicting commitments. Correspondingly, the views of women in the Jacobean era suggest that women were expected to obey their ‘superiors’ who in this time, would be men and this is reflected in the play. In Measure for Measure: the women are presented as either religious icons, widows or sexually transgressive females. They are treated as inferior to men, following the roles that the men set for them. Whilst the constraints faced by female characters may not be described in much detail within the play, other characters behaviour makes it clear that women in Measure for Measure are lacking in great power and influence. Lucio’s contemptuous attitude towards prostitutes, for example, indicates there is hardly any room to deviate from the roles that are assigned to them by the male dominated society that they live in.
Measure for Measure – William Shakespeare’s Dark Comedy
Response Paper of Measure for Measure
Having been performed in New York’s Fiasco Theatre on November 25th to December 20th, 2015, the “Measure for Measure” play by William Shakespeare is an example of a dark comedy with live music. New York’s Fiasco theatre is a case of Shakespeare’s bewildering plots to narrate a singular tale of morality and manipulation. The play was directed by Noah Brody alongside Ben Steinfeld combines incidences of injustice, hypocrisy, and the difficulty of inflexible virtue to explore sexual politics and social justice.
The Fiasco’s theatre’s production in New York includes a dose of live music even as the darkest comedies are acted. As the play is performed, the Duke of Vienna masquerades himself as a friar among his people but finds the city disentangling in an ethical free fall. Even before he can reclaim his position as the Duke of Vienna, it is questionable if he can assist her brother from criticism of the villain Angelo. The creativity in the theatre show is, therefore, an illumination of William Shakespeare’s surprising plots to narrate stories of decency and exploitation (Measure for Measure).
The play involved a cast of six characters with a set that comprises of six doors and some benches. The play was in one way or another considered a revival of the play that has been considered an effort in its story of corruption and stringent moral codes. The simple setting in which the play was performed promotes the inventiveness of using everything that is at the disposal of people and makes the most out of them. During the theatre play, the directors were responsible for leading the conversation, but they did not dictate the approach to be used by the cast of six (Measure for Measure).
During the performance, a lot of seriousness, as well as comedy, are witnessed throughout in the same scene and the same line. The stage is, therefore, lively as the director of the play managed to make instantaneous shifts between hysterical vulgar and the theatre-hushing seriousness. The approach used in the Fiasco play was probably meant to bring out nuances and fun in the entire play. The production underlined the tension between morality and sexual appetite as well as the tension between transparency and secrecy. The self-exile of Vincentio in the play illuminates the place of the production in William Shakespeare’s works. Before the play, Shakespeare’s works featured self-exile scenarios in the form of abandonments, expulsion, and resignations. The director’s experience was evidently visible in the outdoor space, with a broad comedy was shown in the dark than anybody would expect (Measure for Measure).
The show incorporated modern film elements such as video footage, contemporary music, film itself, and reference to the television. The contemporary elements offered the audience a new frame and way of seeing the play. The play took no different directions by following both disturbing and darkly comic sides. However, religious allegories were not overlaid in a way that could be easily noticed. For instance, no solution is found for the existing problem.
Critically, the production did not make sense in highlighting Duke’s cruel behavior. No clear reasons are given why he delayed informing Isabella that his brother was alive. Nonetheless, the play was incredibly enjoyable, making it proof that the play Measure for Measure could be used as a comedy in the film industry.
Shakespeare’s Ambiguous Message: Religion in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and “Hamlet”
Shakespeare’s plays employ many allusions to religious stories and beliefs. Hamlet and Measure for Measure, for example, both address religious themes and incorporate religious imagery. However, Shakespeare’s personal religious beliefs have never been clear. Some argue that his plays reflect Shakespeare’s doctrine, but mere references to religion do not prove that the playwright himself was a follower of Catholic tradition. An analysis of Hamlet and Measure for Measure, along with consideration of typical religious beliefs in Shakespeare’s time, shows that the messages in at least these two of Shakespeare’s works neither condone nor condemn religious teachings.
Though Shakespeare’s Hamlet is classified as a revenge tragedy, it does include scenes and speeches that deal with religious beliefs. The idea of the afterlife is dealt with many times. In the opening scene we are presented with a ghost caught in purgatory, one who claims to be Hamlet’s father and describes in detail the pain he suffers as a result of dying without having been cleansed of his sins: “I am thy father’s spirit, Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, And for the day confined to fast in fires, Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature Are burnt and purged away” (I.v., 9-13). The effect of one’s life deeds on his afterlife is a theme that runs throughout the play. In Hamlet’s first soliloquy, we see that Hamlet refrains from committing suicide in order to avoid God’s wrath:
“O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew; Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God, God, How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (I.ii., 129-134)
It is clear that Hamlet does not lament his suicidal thoughts because he feels guilty; rather, he refrains from “self-slaughter” only out of fear that he would go to hell or purgatory for doing so. The question of what one must do to ensure admittance to heaven permeates the play. Its opposite – how can Hamlet ensure that Claudius lives in eternal torment? – appears as well. Hamlet realizes that murdering Claudius would have the undesired effect of sending Claudius, who would die seeking forgiveness and purging his soul of sins, to heaven: “A villain kills my father, and for that I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven. Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge” (III.iii., 76-79). Hamlet uses his religious belief to “save” Claudius on earth and thereby – so Hamlet believes – send him to hell for killing Hamlet’s father.
During Ophelia’s burial scene, religious beliefs are once again used to determine a character’s placement in death. Act V, Scene i opens with a banter between two gravediggers who are discussing Ophelia’s proper burial. Because of her possible suicide, they are unsure whether her body should be allowed in consecrated ground: “If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should ahve been buried out o’Christian burial” (V.i., 23-25). Here we see that social standing takes precedence over what the gravediggers believe to be religious law.
At the very end of the play, we see that Laertes confesses his guilt in the attempted murder of Hamlet and wishes to clear himself of his sins before he dies. “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, Nor thine on me!” (V.ii., 323-325) Hamlet grants him that forgiveness but, considering that this idea of what it takes to cleanse one’s soul and ensure entry into Heaven, their confessions and forgiveness are rather short-winded and seemingly insincere. Once again, it would seem as though the two exchange ‘forgiveness’ not because they truly forgive one another, but because they are desperate to avoid the depths of hell once they have passed away.
In none of these examples does Shakespeare take a stance on what characters should do about their dilemmas. In the case of Laertes, Shakespeare even alludes to the folly of religion – if one may be forgiven so easily and with such little conviction, how meaningful can the religious doctrine really be?
In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare addresses this question. In this play, a Duke disguises himself as a religious figure and Isabel is about to become a nun. Because one is only posing as religious and the other has not fully committed to enter the convent, neither character can be considered a truly religious figure; as critic Harper notes, “In Measure’s Vienna, Isabella is not a nun but a novice, the Duke is no real friar, and Angelo is certainly no angel” (p.2-3)
The Duke feels obligated to give power to Angelo because he, the Duke, has been lax in law enforcement and let his people become out of control. Angelo then arrests Claudio for premarital sex and sentences him to death. Claudio argues that he had planned to marry his lover but had not yet announced the engagement, and therefore deserves leniency. When asked why he has been arrested, Claudio responds:
“From too much liberty, my Lucio. Liberty, As surfeit, is the father of much fast; So every scope by the immoderate use Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue, Like rats that ravin down their proper band, A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.” (I.ii.118-122)
Claudio’s statement underscores the Duke’s reason for giving the harsh Angelo responsibility for law enforcement – too much liberty causes problems, and Angelo is strict on laws affecting personal freedom. But how strict is too strict? Claudio does not deserve death for his crime. This question leads us to ask whether religious law should be enforced by the state or by God, who, presumably, has a more nuanced view than Angelo about when and how to punish – or forgive. The question of who is fit to administer justice becomes more complicated as the play goes on, as we realize that both Angelo and the Duke act in morally dubious ways. Angelo’s proposition towards Claudio’s sister is inappropriate, and by marrying Isabella the Duke takes her away from the religious life – not exactly a sin, but hardly an endorsement of the religious life.
As in Hamlet, Shakespeare remains neutral in Measure for Measure on the question of whether religious law is right or wrong; he simply uses the question to advance the story. A number of critics have argued that Measure for Measure “illustrates central concepts of Christian doctrine” (Gless p.1) but that does not mean Shakespeare adhered to such a doctrine. In addition, if his goal were to promote Christianity why would Isabella abandon her plan to become a nun? As Gless states, “despite [Isabella’s] once fervent commitment to virginity and to her impending vows, she tacitly but clearly agrees to marry [the Duke]” (p.5). In the case of Hamlet, a play that promoted Christian doctrine would most likely allow characters make amends for their wrongdoings and receive God’s forgiveness; instead, nearly all the characters die unredeemed.
Shakespeare does reveal some of his own beliefs in these plays. He makes it evident that he believes in hell as a consequence for some actions, but does not say which actions lead one there. Similarly, he does not leave his audience with a clear notion of whether we should be governed by mortal law or God’s; instead, he suggests that a merger between both types – as in the marriage between the ‘soft’ Duke and the disciplined Isabella – is probably optimal.
If he was religiously indifferent, why would Shakespeare incorporate so many Christian references and themes? Most likely it was to suit the audience of his time, one that was so well acquainted with the Bible it may not even have noticed the plays’ numerous allusions to Scripture (Bryant 1994). Through Biblical reference, Shakespeare ensured that his audience could relate to the characters. Just as writers now may use elements of our popular culture to help audiences understand a message, so did Shakespeare use the familiar cultural references of his time. Whether or not Shakespeare was himself a religious man is less important than his skillful use of religious themes to connect with the public at large.
Bryant, J.A. Jr. “Typology in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension. Roy Battenhouse. Indiana University Press, 1994. Pp. 23 – 24.
Cormican, L.A. “Medieval Idiom in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension. Roy Battenhouse. Indiana University Press, 1994. Pp. 24 – 27.
Gless, Darryl F. Measure for Measure: the Law and the Convent. Guilford: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Harper, Carolyn. Twixt Will and Will Not: The Dilemma of Measure for Measure. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1998.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. T.J.B. Spencer. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1980.
Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. Ed. J.W. Lever. New York: The Arden Shakespeare, 1965.
What themes and issues are introduced in Act I of “Measure for Measure?”
In the words of nineteenth-century critic F. S. Boas, “Measure for Measure” is undeniably a “problem play”, meaning that it is a play that centres around certain moral or philosophical issues. However, as well as simply being a play about problems, “Measure for Measure” is a problem in itself – it is neither a fully-fledged tragedy nor a comedy, and one cannot isolate a single “problem”, or issue, that the play seeks to solve. Rather, the play contains a host of contrasting moral and philosophical themes, many of which Shakespeare introduces us to in the first act of the play. The most obvious theme is that of symmetry and antithesis; the idea of balance and counter-balance. The name “Measure for Measure” alludes to this in no uncertain terms, hinting of the overtones of balance and equivalence that feature heavily in the play, and conjuring the image of the ‘scales of justice’, a common image of the law. These scales represent a balance between mercy and punishment, a balance between crime and the response that it elicits. It is often suggested that the name Escalus – that of the aged, wise character of the play – intends to imply this image of the ‘scales of justice’. This title is an apt summary of the main theme and ethic of the piece – namely, the idea of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”Crucially, many of the apparent symmetries of the play are in fact antitheses. A prime example of this in the first act is Angelo’s overly severe punishment of Claudio – sentencing him to death for “lechery”, a crime and punishment that clearly are not in balance with one another (a fact that Lucio expresses with the question “is lechery so looked after?”). The character of Angelo fits perfectly the image of apparent balance that is in fact imbalance – his soul “seems good”, yet he resorts to “tyranny” and abuse of power; he would appear to be a man of “stricture” and “firm abstinence”, yet who (we later discover) has an illegitimate child. Indeed, we often see references to coins and money in reference to Angelo (an Angelo being a type of coin), such as the idea of a “figure” being “stamped” upon his “metal”. A coin is an apt metaphor for Angelo’s character, and indeed the play as a whole – although it appears to be one simple thing, a coin has two distinctly different sides. Angelo’s misunderstanding of the Duke’s reference to “mortality” is much like this; the Duke intends this to mean “life”, whereas Angelo sees the ‘other side of the coin’ and interprets this statement as a proclamation that he has the power to sentence his people to death. The themes of semblance and power within “Measure for Measure” are summarized by the Duke, with his decree that “we shall see, if power change purpose what our seemers be.” The theme of substitution is linked to that of semblance, and is also introduced in the first act. Substitution becomes a key facet of “Measure for Measure” – such as the substitution of Mariana in place of Isabella. We also see Angelo taking the Duke’s place, and the Duke taking that of the Friar. These substitutions hark back to the central ethic of the play – the idea of ‘measure for measure’ as alternatives that appear to be balanced often rely upon the substitution of one person for another. The idea of fraudulence or substitution fits well within the morally corrupt society in which the play is set – a society in which brothels and sexual disease are common, and in which even the most seemingly pious of people have immoral secrets to hide.The themes of sexuality and sexually-transmitted diseases permeate the entirety of “Measure for Measure.” The play is full of questions of sexual morality; such as those regarding brothels and sex outside marriage. We see multiple bawdy innuendos – such as “a French crown more” in reference to “French disease” – but we also see language pertaining to sexuality used in other contexts – the Duke calls Angelo “pregnant”, meaning knowledgeable, and Claudio wishes Isabella to “make friends with the strict deputy”. Whether or not these are used as double entendres by the characters, Shakespeare certainly includes them with the knowledge that they will be heard as such by the audience. This serves numerous purposes; firstly to foreshadow and allude to the theme of sexuality that drives the play, and secondly perhaps to illustrate that there is sexual intention behind much of what people do – again adding to the general impiety of the piece. A linked theme is that of crime and punishment. Also a sub-theme of the ‘balance/counter-balance’ that preoccupies the whole play, the concepts of crime and punishment are crucial in “Measure for Measure”. The play is obsessed with the difficulty of a balance between crime and punishment – there are abundant references in Act I to the excessive severity of Angelo’s ruling, and the courtroom scenes within the play only compound the suggestion that the workings of the law are comical and purely perfunctory. Finally, another prevalent theme is that of freedom and restraint. Another example of Shakespeare’s utilisation of ‘two sides of the same coin’; the interwoven themes of freedom and restraint are made clear even in the first act. Paradoxically, we see restraint represented as a more positive state than freedom. Claudio blames “too much liberty” for his arrest, arguing that it is not in human nature to be able to regulate one’s freedom, “like rats that ravin down their proper bane”. Similarly, Isabella wishes for “a more strict restraint”, and the Duke, who having absconded is free to do as he pleases, chooses to adopt the hermit-like life of a friar. Nineteen years of freedom has led to the appalling moral state of Vienna, and although Lucio argues that unrestricted freedom is better than just restraint, Shakespeare generally conveys that freedom should only be exercised within boundaries. Incidentally, there are many parallels between the Vienna of “Measure for Measure”, and Shakespeare’s London, which an audience at the time would have been very aware of. There could be a religious undertone to “Measure for Measure” – a preference for the moral boundaries of religion, as opposed to the total freedom of immorality. Indeed, there is much to suggest religion’s presence in the background of “Measure for Measure”. The title itself appears to come from the New Testament, “and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again”. This reading of “Measure for Measure”, as an essentially religious piece, is quite common, with Brook mentioning the “religious thought of the play’s ideals”. The implications of such a reading would be that religion is the factor which can balance the imbalanced scales of such a society as Vienna, “the needful bits and curbs to headstrong jades”. In conclusion, “Measure for Measure” is, in essence, a “problem play”, in that it is a play that grapples with many problems, moral and ethical. Shakespeare shows us ‘both sides of the coin’ in this first act – piety and impiety, crime and punishment, freedom and restraint – and we, as the audience, are implored to collectively measure the value of each.
Isabella is the strongest female character in “Measure for Measure.” She debates with Angelo on an equal level and is not undermined by his authority. Her strength as a character derives from several sources; her chastity being one of the most significant. Isabella’s chastity provides her with a tool which most of the other females in this play lack, since they have all been sexually dominated by men. Her status as a nun also helps Isabella convince others of the accuracy of her convictions since she can appropriate the Christian doctrine as her own. Despite these two powers, it is her ability to manipulate two sets of laws, human and divine, and apply these to her advantage which truly allow her to continue to participate in situations typically attributed to males. Finally, Isabella manages to achieve her goal without compromising her values, but eventually bows down under male authority, in her implicit acceptance of the Duke’s marriage proposal. Regardless of the male dominated conclusion, Isabella’s powers of chastity, speech and interpretation of law allow her the opportunity to advance as far in the plot as to free her brother and debate with male authority, two events in which a woman’s participation were inconceivable in this time period.One of Isabella’s most unique characteristics is her chastity. She has renounced a sexual life in order to become a nun of the religious order of St. Clare. This decision elevates Isabella’s status in society due to the importance placed on chastity as a symbol of purity and legitimacy of birth at that time. “In a patriarchal society, men are privileged with authority, yet, somewhat paradoxically, that authority depends upon the chastity of women” (Baines, 286). When an unmarried woman is chaste she is guaranteeing the legitimacy of her children, thus ensuring the patriarchy of the family. Purity in blood relations was an important issue in Shakespeare’s time, and therefore it was the female’s responsibility to be chaste in order to preserve the family’s honor as well as her own. The Duke exemplifies this mentality when confessing Juliet, and declaring her sexual proclivity “a sin of heavier kind” (37, 29) than that of Claudio, who was equally responsible for her pregnancy. The excessive sexual license in Vienna leads the Duke to enforce chastity through a law which values chastity above a human’s life. The new valorization of chastity in Vienna increases the respect Isabella’s chaste status receives in the Viennese society; this is made evident in Lucio’s praise of her as a “thing enskied and sainted, by your renouncement an immortal spirit..” (17, 34)Isabella’s position as a nun also allows her to challenge Angelo using Christian doctrine in defense of her brother’s life. The doctrine is one of the few elements of authority which even Angelo must obey, since God’s laws apply to everyone, including those of the highest authority on earth. Upon Isabella’s first encounter with Angelo she condemns the ease with which Angelo judges others and tries to dissuade his stern judgment of Claudio by asking “How would you be, if he, which is the top of judgment, should but judge you as you are?” (33, 76) Here Isabella is trying to make Angelo identify with Claudio by implying that even Angelo himself is not free of sin. This vision of all humans as sinners and therefore not apt to pass judgment comes directly from the Christian proverb “let he who has not sinned, cast the first stone”. Angelo cannot refute Isabella’s imposition of religious doctrine and defends himself by citing the earthly laws as responsible for the condemnation of her brother. Isabella skews Christian law and interprets it to her advantage. Though her brother has committed the sin of premarital sex, she tries to convince Angelo that exculpating him “is no sin at all, but charity” (42, 63). After Angelo proposes the idea of a “compelled sin” in order to save Claudio’s life, Isabella changes her perspective on Claudio’s death and tries to uses religious justification to excuse her from renouncing her chastity. “Is’t not a kind of incest to take life from thine own sister’s shame?” (53, 138) Here Isabella uses the definition of all Christians as siblings in order to transform Angelo’s proposal into a societal sin, that of incest. This could also be interpreted on a more personal level, since Claudio is taking advantage of Isabella’s sex to lure Angelo into pardoning him. In both cases, the use of incest, a sin in Christian doctrine, is being highlighted. Isabella’s role as an exemplary model of Christian worship gives her the opportunity to use Christian doctrine as laws which empower and validate her actions and opinions.Isabella, though desiring to be a part of the religious world, continues to value the norms imposed by the Viennese society. She uses these standards as arguments in defense of her brother, referring to the power of authority since “that in the captain’s but a choleric word, which in the soldier is flat blasphemy” (35, 130). Isabella focuses on the ability of authority to corrupt the laws of society to their advantage, a common practice during that time, yet a taboo subject to discuss. Her separation from that world because of the convent allows her to breach such subjects without fear of repercussion, since she is not looking to marry and become a part of Viennese society. She knows how authority hides behind the laws and therefore questions Angelo on the legal possibilities of releasing her brother, “but might you do’t and do the world no wrong…” (32, 53) The issue of bastardy, key to Viennese society, is also important to Isabella. “I had rather my brother die by the law than my son should be unlawfully born” (55, 187). Though Isabella seems willing to disregard society’s judgment, which would condemn Claudio to death, the dishonor of birthing an illegitimate child supersedes her affections for her brother. This shows Isabella’s true regard for upholding certain standards of Viennese society; she wants to be held in an exemplary position by this society and is not willing to sacrifice this status for her brother.Isabella uses both divine and human law to justify herself, usually invalidating one set of laws to further validate the other. Her decision to “live chaste, and, brother, die: more than our brother is our chastity,” (47, 183) constitutes an example of her use of religion to validate her chastity, while invalidating the moral law which would encourage her to sacrifice her chastity for Claudio’s life. Nuns participate in a “marriage” with Christ; by giving herself to Angelo, Isabella would abandon the opportunity to join the sisterhood. She would thus pollute her soul, which should be the purest element of her being. Isabella thinks “better it were a brother died at once, than that a sister, by redeeming him, should die forever” (44, 106). Isabella has decided to elevate the worth of her soul above that of Claudio’s body. This stance could be considered hypocritical. If purity of soul were above that of the body, by giving herself to Angelo Isabella would be saving her brother’s body and would not have to put her soul at risk. This act would be a sacrifice of her body, similar to Jesus’ corporeal sacrifice, forced upon her by others, thus lacking the participation of her soul. Despite Isabella’s repeated allusions to the death of her soul, it is her fear of dishonor and rejection by both the divine and Viennese society which truly motivates her to reject Angelo’s offer. Isabella also rejects one set of laws in order to further her purpose when Mariana begs her to forgive Angelo, in order to prevent his death. Isabella persuades the Duke to exonerate Angelo by claiming that “thoughts are no subjects, intents but merely thoughts” (106, 451). Since Angelo did not succeed in his attempt at illicit sex Isabella believes that he should not be charged. This reasoning, though permissible in human law, where charges are lessened if the actual deed does not take place, is unacceptable by Christian standards. In the book of Matthew Jesus tells his worshippers that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Therefore, Christianity condemns the thought as strongly as the action, yet Isabella chooses to ignore this and convince the Duke using society’s laws regarding guilt. Isabella needs the support of a given set of laws to persuade the male characters of the accuracy of her statements, yet she is willing to use divine and human law interchangeably to achieve the desired result, keeping both her chastity and honor intact.Despite the allure of chastity as a rare value in the Viennese society, Isabella does not understand or recognize men’s attraction towards her. She has chosen to devote her life to God, and it is this “marriage” which she considers holy, not the union between man and woman encouraged by society. One could consider her apprehensive towards men, desiring a “more strict restraint upon the sisterhood,” (16, 4) and telling Lucio that “my power, alas, I doubt,” (19, 77) when regarding her ability to convince Angelo to release her brother. This could be a factor in Isabella’s decision to join a nunnery; the isolation from men would prevent her from suffering the dishonor so prevalent among the majority of the female characters in this play, who are subjugated by men. By the end of the play, Isabella begins to grasp the power she holds over men, and defends Angelo by claiming that “a due sincerity governed his deeds till he did look on me” (105, 444). She now recognizes the power of her beauty and chaste nature in influencing men’s actions.Isabella’s newfound understanding does not indicate her acquiescence with the societal union the Duke offers her, “what’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine” (109, 535). The uncharacteristic silence which ensues after the Duke’s proposal for her hand in marriage marks Isabella’s dissatisfaction with the idea of marrying him. The Duke is responsible for saving her brother’s life, which makes Isabella indebted to him. Her initial duty, that of preserving her chastity and devoting her life to God, will now be neglected as Isabella is subjugated by the Duke’s authority. This moment marks one of the most significant changes in Isabella’s personality. The impending loss of her chastity, a characteristic which increased her power and value, destroys Isabella. She must now succumb to the authority of a male, the very idea she has been fighting against throughout the course of the play. Marriage represents both a loss of chastity and value to Isabella, who must reject her religious ideals and thus lower her status from a pure worshipper of God to a common female bowing down under the authority of a male.Isabella’s speech, peppered with religious doctrine and societal morals, persuades most of the male characters in the play. Unfortunately, her beauty and sexuality work against her, tempting Angelo to propose illicit sex as payment for her brother’s freedom. The implication of Isabella’s transformation from a nun, renouncing sexual activity, to a whore, giving herself over in exchange for her brother’s life, is impossible for her to accept, and she chooses to let Claudio die. Isabella’s chastity, at the beginning a persuasive tool, turns into a distinguishing part of her identity which must be guarded at all costs, even if this cost is Claudio’s life. Isabella’s power is such that she is able to save her brother and keep her chastity, through her cunning and speech. Yet, in a tragic turn, Isabella unwillingly succumbs to male authority and her powers vanish; she is now a common female whose opportunities have been thwarted by societal norms.
Contrast the opening soliloquy of Act II sc. iv with that which closes sc. ii.Angelo’s soliloquy in sc. Ii immediately follows his first meeting with Isabella, whereas the speech to which sc. Iv opens precedes her second visit. Understandably, we see a change in Angelo from a man reeling from the shock of newly uncovered feelings, to a man excited and anticipating the appearance of the object of his desires, and, perhaps, something of a darker Angelo. These soliloquies, though short, are full of imagery, symbolism, and emotion as the character begins to warp and distort.In the earlier soliloquy, Angelo can be seen as shocked and confused. He questions himself, asking ‘Is this her fault or mine?’. His use of rhetorical questions echo his searching for an understanding of the thaw taking place in his snow-broth. He examines his motives for his attraction to Isabella, and seems a little disgusted as his desire to ‘raze the sanctuary’ of Isabella’s purity and ‘pitch [his] evils there’. He also must seek for something solid now that his puritanical carpet has been whisked out from under him. When he exclaims ‘O, let her brother live!’ we can see not only his desire to accede to Isabella’s demands, presumably to please her, but also his knowledge that he has lost the moral highpoint from which he was prepared to pronounce punishment. No longer able to claim calmly ”Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, another thing to fall’ from the dais of one who has neither met with temptation nor succumbed to it, he now searches for some compromise.In contrast, scene four shows an Angelo who has clearly been musing on his strange attraction for a while. He has found answers to all of his questions, and not a single question mark is now present in his reflections. This is now an Angelo who has reached some conclusions about the new version of himself he is confronted with. He explains to us that:’in my heart [is] the strong and swelling evil of my conception.’Far from shrinking from his awakened ‘darker side’, Angelo openly acknowledges it to the audience. He explains that he is powerless to resist it (if his prayers to heaven are read as attempts to do this), and the audience are presenting with a much more frightening, calculating Angelo. Even his language here is excited; ‘conception’ suggesting a pregnant evil to mirror the supposed ‘evil’ of Juliet’s illegitimate baby. Whilst Claudio’s child is born out of love, however, Angelo’s child is born out of lust.The imagery used in scene two reflect Angelo’s disturbed state of mind. He likens himself to carrion in the sun which becomes ‘corrupt with virtuous season’ and festers rather that being preserved (seasoned) or fortified like a flower. In this image, the sun seems to symbolise the chaste Isabella who encourages Angelo to carnal desires by virtue of her purity. This comparison is reminiscent of sonnet 94, in which we are told:’Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.’This reflects again Angelo and Isabella, who both have a long way to fall from grace because of their great (apparent) virtue.In these soliloquies, Shakespeare also uses the religious imagery so appropriate to Angelo to elaborate on his state of mind. In the earlier speech, Angelo accusingly describes Isabella:’O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint, with saints dost bait thy hook!’Here Angelo compares himself as an anchorite tempted in a dream by Satan disguised as a virtuous woman. In his eyes he is still ironically ‘the saint’ he has always been. He has yet to mentally adjust to the changes Isabella is wreaking in him. In the later speech, Angelo has become the devil declaring:’Let’s write good angel on the devil’s horn ‘Tis not the devil’s crest.’Although this is not Shakespeare’s clearest metaphor, it can be deciphered as meaning that Angelo will maintain part of his disguise by writing ‘good angel’ on his revealed diabolic side. He is aware, however, that he is no longer an angel. It is this self-awareness which is lacking in the earlier soliloquy. The religious ideas are also present here when Angelo declares that Heaven is in his mouth alone, and no longer has a place in his heart. By this speech, Isabella has displaced religion as Angelo’s obsession, and he knows it.Not only recognising the perversity of his love, Angelo seems to throw the whole weight of his ‘zeal’ behind it. He explains that his duties and studies have grown ‘sere and tedious’ to him, and that he is ready to change from a religious zealot into an ‘idle plumed’ gentleman. He is positively enthusiastic in his anticipation of Isabella’s visit. No longer does he agonise over the morality of the situation, but dismisses it saying ‘Blood, thou art blood!’ Indeed, he seems to care more for the perceived immorality of his intended act and inner feelings than the absolute irreligiousness of it. He admires men who can ‘wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls to [their] false seeming’ because he fears he cannot hide what he is becoming. It is interesting that Angelo mentions that he took pride in his ‘gravity’ and severe reputation as it is further evidence for Angelo’s concern with public appearances. In sc. iv he also crows to Isabella that even is she were to expose him to the world, no-one would believe her. He has, then, a very strong conception of his own image in the eyes of others, and, when the foundations of this are rocked in sc. ii, he quickly realises by sc. iv that a false public perception is as useful as a true one.In sc, ii, then, Angelo recognises the perversity of his own desires but feels powerless to resist them. The intensity of his feelings both shock and confuse him as he is forced to come to terms with another aspect of himself that was previously dormant. By sc. iv he has changed mentally and declares his readiness to change now in his outward appearance and interactions with others. Having now accepted the surprising reality of his snarling libido, he sets out to satisfy it in a terrifyingly unconcerned and calculating way. Despite the heats of his desire, his cold ruthlessness is still apparent and he has mutated from the Malvolean puritan to a self-accepting villain more akin to Richard III.
Shakespeare’s Portrayal of the Duke
What dramatic interest has Shakespeare created through his portrayal of the Duke in Act 3?In order to answer this question, it is necessary to study the character of the Duke and how he is developed in Act 3. The Duke acts principally as an observer, watching Isabella and Claudio argue before sweeping in to resolve the situation. He is also, however, involved with the characters despite his assumption of religious real authority echoing his real status. The Duke is clearly wounded by Lucio’s painful analysis of his motives and dubious virtues in scene two, and also by Angelo’s treacherous behaviour, despite not being unexpected.Act 3 is punctuated with reminders of Angelo and his authority in Vienna. Both Pompey and Mistress Overdone are carried off at his behest, emphasising his presence although he does not physically appear onstage in the whole act. The concoction of a plan to expose his lechery is also placed centre stage, both by the Duke and the playwright, making this absentee character seem all the more important. This is contrasted strongly with the Duke’s presence for the entirety of the act. The Duke acts as an observer for much of the time, and seems apart from the other characters, not least because he is also in disguise as a friar. There is a strange comparison between the omnipresent but not actually present Angelo with his treacherously short-lived power, and the Duke who, although entirely in control of the other characters, appears hidden and only semi-present. Both characters could be said to be involved in a tempestuous sea of power and deception, with the audience denied a lifeboat of unshakeable morality. The Duke certainly tries to make it seem that he is still in control, referring to Angelo as ‘my deputy’ in the last scene. He also cries out’Twice treble shame on Angelo, to weed my vice, and let his grow!’This line shows the Duke’s shock by its punctuation, and perhaps astonishment at the depths to which the angel has sunk. Angelo, however, is not heard from in the scene. Perhaps it is this which dooms him: the Duke is ultimately in control because only his character is allowed to interact with the audience in Act 3 in the same way that Angelo was in Act 2. The balance of power has been shifted back in favour of the Duke by Angelo’s actions. This strange kind of semi-real power struggle helps to hold the audience’s attention in this less dramatic section of the play.Despite his power, the Duke’s judgements are, however, highly questionable. He seems to question Angelo’s ability to command even by his decision to remain in Vienna to observe him. Does the Duke set Angelo up in the expectation of his fall from grace? Perhaps the character can be excused this, as there could have been no play without Angelo’s sudden elevation to power. However, the Duke seems deliberately cruel to Claudio, manipulating him and crushing his hope in scene one. Claudio’s crimes, as Pompey was at pains to point out, is singularly undeserving of his fate. It could be argued that the Duke is merely trying to make Claudio accept his wrongdoing, and so find salvation. This alternative interpretation does, however, rather hinge on the assumption that the Duke is acting purely out of good principles, and that itself has not been determined. Perhaps Claudio’s anticipation of his death is its own punishment. The audience is here presented with a supposed good man, the Duke, acting badly. This questions the Duke’s own authority; coupled with Lucio’s own alternative interpretation of the character as a drunken fool who has himself dabbled in sin, and the Duke’s name seems well and truly sullied. However, Claudio is not present on stage for most of the time, and when he is he seems pitiable but powerfully wronged by Angelo, not the Duke. The Duke himself is much more at the focus of an audience’s attention, and it is possible that Shakespeare meant his treatment of Claudio not to be an issue.It is interesting that the Duke lies to Escalus, declaring himself to be sent by no less than the Pope himself. Even in his deceptions, the Duke has a high opinion of himself. Perhaps he is also arrogant in his shock and horror to hear Lucio’s opinion of himself. The audience is left with a quandary; do they believe Lucio’s gossip, despite having just seen him betray his once-friend, Pompey, with mockery? Or perhaps they believe in the Duke’s untarnished honour and justice. Is the Duke:’A very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow,’as Lucio suggests, or is he instead’He who the sword of heaven will bear … holy as severe’as he seems to view himself? It is hard to reach a compromise between the two extremes, and it is important to realise that the Duke’s plan is one of manipulation and immorality. When attacked verbally, although third party, by Lucio, he responds with anger and threatens the return of the Duke. He admits his own ‘vice’, but is quick to highlight Angelo’s misdeeds.Perhaps more importantly, the Duke spends the whole of Act 3 in disguise. He accuses Angelo ironically at the end of scene ii, saying’O, what may man within him hide, though angel on the outward hide!’He could just as easily be describing himself here for he too is a man who is shrouded in a façade of religious impunity in his donning of a friar’s habit. He too has a veneer of power and extreme religious and legal strictness, and yet has shown himself inept at combating it.In light of the Duke’s sanctimonious speeches to the petrified Claudio and his frequent calls for harsh punishments on the sinful, the Duke to me appears as a self-important man full of high morals. In reality, he is out of touch with his people and unable to comprehend poor Claudio’s fear and his people’s shock at the sudden cleansing of Vienna. The audience is unsure of him as he shifts between Duke and friar, and invents deeply immoral schemes to catch red handed a man he set up in power. He descends to trickery and manipulation, and yet delivers sermons on the need for ‘correction and instruction’. It is through his ambiguousness that the audience interest is maintained. Also the Duke is responsible for driving the plot forward in this scene, producing the ‘bed trick’ from the dusty recesses of his mind. Thus he is a very dynamic and dramatically interesting character.
Shakespeare’s Presentation of Isabella
‘Different audiences respond to Isabella in different ways.’ Show how Shakespeare’s presentation of Isabella could lead to a wide range of responses.The mere mention of Isabella’s name appears to strike indignant fear into the heart of the literary critic. Her character divides them into factions of warring interpretations, just as her moral dilemma divides an audience. In the words of Quiller-Couch, critics make ‘two opposite women of her, and praise or blame her accordingly.’ As Measure For Measure has aged, new dimensions of moral outrage and blind exoneration have added to this complexity, which is, in essence, the confused reactions of writers and audiences to Isabella’s decision in the face of Angelo’s ‘sadism’.To the esteemed Quiller-Couch (1922), there is a ‘rancid’ element in Isabella’s chastity brought to the surface when she turns into a ‘bare procuress’ substituting Marianna shamed body for her own. He highlights the divide between Isabella’s morally ‘righteous choice’ and her own deplorable self-preservation. Rosalind Miles (1976) also remarks on her ‘unscrupulous readiness to place another head on the block intended for herself’ after the unshakeable righteousness of her decision to refuse Angelo. This could, perhaps, be seen as evidence of Isabella’s fall from grace. Is it possible that she came to the wrong conclusion in the face of her dilemma?Mary Suddard (1909) has arrived at an entirely contrary conclusion in the face of the same play. She describes how Isabella is a representation of ‘Puritanism under its most favourable aspect …intense in its moderation, passionate in its self-control.’ This peculiarly Puritan paradox is confronted with ‘real life’ and the full consequences of human frailty and immorality, before reaching a new moral high ground where Isabella’s early nunnery training has been ‘not only transcended but unconsciously condemned’. The lofty rules of Isabella’s faith are transformed into narrow constraints, just as the locked doors and walled gardens of her abode are, as the play closes, about to be replaced by the Duke’s palace of light.Many critics are swift to condemn Isabella for her ‘triumphant preservation of chastity’ (Ellis-Fermor 1936). More shocking to Mrs Lennox in 1753 was Isabella’s abuse of her brother:’That torrent of abusive language, those coarse and unwomanly reflections on the virtue of her mother, her exulting cruelty to the dying youth are the manners of an affected prude, outrageous in her seeming virtue; not a of a pious, innocent, and tender mind.’Mrs Lennox proclaims Isabella ‘a vixen’ for her cruelty and ferocity in Act 3, and perhaps she is correct in thinking that, whatever her distress, Isabella’s rage at doomed Claudio’s desperate attempts to save his life could not be exonerated. Nevertheless, J. W. Lever (1965) has tried, pointing out that this is ‘her second male solicitation in a short space of time,’ and the trusted brother on whom she was relying for rescue betrays her, dashing her hopes of salvation. Thus the once clear waters of social acceptance are muddied again. He does however, suggest that though Isabella pleads for her brother’s life, her actions are against her true convictions, contriving to comment on the extremely unusual form of Isabella’s mercy plea. Far from attempting to vindicate her brother, she questions Angelo’s fitness to judge other human beings, and pleads the principle of mercy.’Go… and ask your heart what it doth know that’s like my brother’s fault. If it confess a natural guiltiness … let it not sound a thought upon your tongue against my brother’s life.’Although a argument relevant to Angelo’s later revelations, it is still strange that Isabella foes not address the mitigating circumstances of Claudio’s case, and thus make more a feature of the distinction between civil betrothal and holy wedlock introduced as a theme earlier. F. R. Levis (1952), Harriet Hawkins (1978), S. Moore (1982), R. A. Levin (1982), Ronald Huebert (1983), and Carolyn E. Brown (1986) have all presented a more damning explanation. Moore remarks that Isabella’s persuasions to Angelo have a strong unconscious sexual suggestiveness, and Hawkins describes Isabella as a counterpart of Angelo’s hypocrisy in her professed hatred of sex and unrealised keen appetite. It is Brown, however, who takes the hypothesis to its fullest extent, basing her interpretation of Isabella as a sexual masochist unconsciously offering herself in fantasy to a sadistic Angelo. Brown is keen to stress Isabella’s helpless postures before Angelo, how her plea is based on the possibility of Angelo feeling lust, and the ‘graphic envisioning of her ‘violation’ which could be extrapolated from Act 2 sc. iv lines 100-104. Here Angelo’s shocking transformation from purity to perversity is more understandable is Isabella’s innocent suggestiveness and inadvertent sexual invitations ‘acts as a stimulus to Angelo’s overwrought imagination’ (Miles.)It is, however, perhaps worth remembering here the hatred of the Puritans for contemporary playhouses and vice versa. Puritans claimed that plays set examples of immorality; that such conventions as the playing of women by boys encouraged perverse and lascivious thoughts; that on Sundays the theatres seduced the people from church attendance, and that the public playhouses were haunts of the dissolute and lecherous. When the Puritans came to power in 1642 following the revolution, one of their first moves was to close the theatres completely. Isabella and Angelo, as symbols of Puritanism, would hardly be treated sympathetically by Shakespeare, but were more likely to be turned into ridiculous figures of fun like poor Malvolio for their rigidity.Conversely, R. W. Chambers (1939) suggested that to a fifteenth-century audience, Isabella’s ‘fanaticism’ was well understood in Shakespeare’s day as necessary and swift action in a ‘stern age’. Martyrs were commonplace and the Smithfield fires were still in living memory. Isabella’s cruelty to her brother might have been better received four hundred years ago.Critics have yet to reach a consensus on Isabella’s moral dilemma, J. C. Maxwell (1949) even going so far as to declare it irrelevant, unimportant, and ‘undramatic’. Her ‘unattractive moral grandeur’ (Mrs Jameson 1832) was interpreted by M. Doran (1954) as ‘superior strength and nobility of character’; and by J. Masefield (1911) as an obsessive fire of ‘white generosity’ and Puritanism equating to Angelo’s religious fervour. W. Temple felt her preservation of chastity was the only theologically right thing to do, and A. E. Taylor (1901) argued that it was impossible to pass moral judgement on Isabella. Shakespeare’s ambiguity makes this character impossible to define. However, this does not seem to stop critics from trying.