Measure for Measure
Shakespeare’s Relation to Religion in Measure for Measure
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.
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 fixedHis canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God, God,How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitableSeem 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 useTurns 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. bWORKS CITED: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.
The Victorious Woman in Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice
In Shakespearean plays, the female roles are consistently more complex than the male ones, and though the protagonists are often male, the action is frequently directed by a woman. Though the female characters are often perceived to have a definite aspect of craftiness to their personalities, the trickery that sometimes accompanies this craftiness is used for causes that, it can be argued, are honorable both today and during the era when the plays were written. In the play “Measure for Measure”, it is Isabella who sets the quick pace of the play when she approaches Angelo about her brother’s sentence, and it is Mariana who takes fate into her own hands when she agrees to switch places with Isabella in Angelo’s garden. In “The Merchant of Venice”, it is Jessica that steals away with Lorenzo and Shylock’s money. Portia immediately decides to aid her husband Bassanio when he takes leave to help his beloved friend Antonio. Women are portrayed in these plays in several ways at once; it is as though a great many colored spotlights are shining on them during a single performance. They are simultaneously seen in a sympathetic light, a noble light, a clever light, and a determined light. These viewpoints sometimes muddle together and create complicated and problematic characters, but generally offer a sense of verisimilitude that surpasses the relatively simplistic male roles.One of these problematic characters is Mariana. Admittedly, she is hardly a central character in “Measure for Measure”, not introduced until Act IV, Scene 1, and then appearing only briefly in two more scenes. On the surface, it seems as though she is merely a convenient way to advance the plot. Once Mariana introduced, Angelo is revealed as the bad guy he is, Claudio escapes death, Isabella remains a virgin, and Mariana herself wins the man for whom she has been longing. Though she helps to “capture” the villain in the end, and though she appears deceptively simple, Mariana is quite a complicated character. Like so many female Shakespearean characters, she has been wronged by a man, and she seeks justice by wronging Angelo in return. This contributes to the problematic ending, in which the only truly happy couple is Claudio and Juliet. Mariana’s method of remedying the situation creates a sense of ambiguity with regards to the very moral questions the play seems designed to explore. As the “solution” to so many characters’ problems, her equivocal actions make a clear interpretation of the text difficult.On a deeper level, however, Mariana is a feminine hero. She deals with the unequal position of women in Shakespearean society. Though readers today may view Mariana’s methods as problematic, she most likely elicited cheers from women in Shakespearean audiences. Mariana loses her brother and her dowry at sea, and Angelo leaves her. She thus loses both of her male supports in one disheartening blow. It seems as though she is doomed to suffer in isolation, as most women in her situation would. However, Mariana is determined to win back her rights and her lost lover, despite his wretchedness. This is an admirable display of independence and tenacity. In the final scene, the chastened Angelo falls under her control, and Mariana is able to overcome societal conditions while saving Isabella’s virginity and Claudio’s life.Mariana is not the only complex, layered female character in “Measure for Measure”. While it is clear that Angelo wants nothing more than control and sexual power, Isabella is far more complicated, and therefore more realistic. She is a sexually repressed, innocent idealist with a slightly twisted (though subconscious) desire for martyrdom. While the other residents of Vienna sit idly by and watch Claudio paraded through town as Angelo’s trophy, and even Claudio makes no attempt to save his life, Isabella jumps into action immediately upon hearing the news. She goes directly from her convent to Angelo to plead Claudio’s case. It is here, however, that her true mindset begins to be revealed, and we see that she is not as innocent as we have been led to believe. Though she is too innocent to grasp the implications behind Angelo’s words when he asks if she would “Give up [her] body to such sweet uncleanliness / As she that [your brother] hath stained?” (II.4.54-55), her response reveals a mind in which pain and sexuality are strangely mingled:were I under the terms of death,Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,And strip myself to death as to a bedThat long I have been sick for, ere I’d yieldMy body up to shame. (II.4.100-104)Though Isabella would rather suffer a terrible, agonizing death than relinquish her chastity, her language fails to indicate actual pain. She instead implies that a martyr’s delight lies in suffering; her blood would be treasured and displayed for all to see, as rubies. The potentially masochistic significance of whipping is further enforced by her word choice: “keen”, “strip”, and “bed” (for which she longs). Here, Isabella imagines that in a martyr’s death she would find all of the sexual fulfillment that she would be denied were she to enter the nunnery. When she consciously realizes Angelo’s implications, her answer is unambiguous: she would rather give up her brother’s life than surrender her virginity.While Isabella’s decision might seem cold-hearted to a modern reader, readers during Shakespeare’s era would empathize with her more easily. To give herself to Angelo would mean eternal damnation, and to abstain would result in only a clean death for her brother. It is extremely idealistic on Isabella’s part, however, to assume that her brother will follow suit. Her cleverness is revealed when she begins her conversation with Claudio by speaking lowly of Angelo so that Claudio will see the baseness of Angelo’s request, saying that should her brother wish it, it would “…fetter [him] till death. (III.1.66)” Isabella’s sinister side is explored further when she reports back to the Duke disguised as a friar, hiding the fact that she has made plans to meet with Angelo in his garden at night. Her tone suggests that she is, in fact, enjoying the masquerade: she expresses her amusement at Angelo’s enthusiastic desire to show her “[t]he way twice o’er. (IV.1.38)” Similarly, she is pleased with the fact that she has invented a waiting servant in order to explain the briefness of her visit. Like Mariana, Isabella is a sort of savior. She takes matters into her own hands, and when faced with failure she simply puts another plan into action. In this manner, Isabella heightens the complexity of the play: there is really no answer that she can give to the Duke’s proposal at the end of the play that would not alter the reader’s feelings for her and seriously compromise her already questionable moral standing. Rather than risk that, the play ends with the reader wondering what Shakespeare had in mind, and leaves Isabella with her honor intact. She is a very true-to-life character, unsure of what she wants, but able to hide a few tricks up her sleeve. Isabella is portrayed as confused and a bit egotistical, but, like Mariana, her heart is in the right place.In “The Merchant of Venice”, the roles of women are similarly layered. The females are complicated characters that immediately go for what they want, letting nothing stand in their way. Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, is one example of this. We learn in Act II, Scene 3 how Jessica feels toward her father: “Our house is hell, and thou a merry devil / Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness. (II.3.2-3)” Jessica begins her mischief as soon as her father is out of earshot – she gives Lancelot a letter to deliver to her secret love, Lorenzo, thereby setting her plan in motion. Thus begins one of the play’s many interwoven plots. Here, however, it is the male character who is taking orders from a female character. Lorenzo tells Gratiano and Salerio how Jessica “hath directed / How I shall take her from her father’s house” (II.4.29-30). In fact, Jessica is the torchbearer, the one literally lighting Lorenzo’s way. Not only does she succeed in escaping the unwanted male protection, but she overcomes the societal assumption that the male leads the way in a relationship.Portia also leaps over this massive hurdle without so much as flinching. We begin to see the depth of her character the very first time she is introduced, in Act I, Scene 2. Though she at first may seem spoiled, complaining about the many suitors that seek her hand, closer inspection reveals her true character. Portia’s suitors are judged not on the basis of wealth or goods, but in terms of personal and moral qualities. However, despite her feelings for these men, she has no control over the selection. Her father’s will rules her choice of husband. Portia’s seeming centrality is revealed as false during a series of transactions with the Princes of Morocco and Arragon. In truth, she is merely an object of exchange, passing from her father’s hands into those of a lucky suitor. It is only when Bassanio is chosen as her husband that Portia begins to exercise her power of manipulation, helping her to overcome her position of weakness. Portia’s gift of her ring to Bassanio is more significant than one might imagine. The ring is a visual sign of her vow of love and submission. It is a representation of Portia’s acceptance of her new place in society, which is characterized by her subjection, her loss of legal rights, and her status as “goods”. Furthermore, it signifies her place in a male-dominated hierarchy. At first, this declaration of love seems to show Portia’s acceptance of a woman’s place in such a system. It is only with her final disclaimer that we begin to see that she may not be so easily subdued.this ring,Which when you part from, lose, or give away,Let it presage the ruin of your love,And be my vantage to exclaim on you. (III.2.171-174)The gift of her ring is the beginning of Portia’s plan to gain control over her life after so many years of oppression at the hands of her now-deceased father.When Bassanio leaves for Venice to aid his friend, he has no ideas about what to do, unlike his wife, who already has a plan in mind. Portia embodies the traditional female when she promises Bassanio that in his absence she and Nerissa will live as “widows”, and tells Lorenzo that they will leave immediately for the convent. This fits the conventional ideal of womanhood at that time; women were expected to be chaste, silent, and obedient. Portia first evokes the ideal of a proper lady, and then transgresses it. She takes off for Venice dressed as a man, engages in public speech suitable only for males, and, most significantly, actively partakes in a trial. Portia practices a profession that depends upon knowledge, logic, reasoning, and rhetoric, all of which were areas of education not readily available to women. She surpasses the expectations of the average female, and is victorious in court. However, “The Merchant of Venice” does not end with this victory. When Portia asks Bassanio to return her ring, knowing that she herself has secretly taken it, she reveals the conniving side of her personality. In losing his ring, Bassanio seems paradoxically to lose the male priviliges promised by the exchange of Portia and the ring, and he gives Portia “vantage to exclaim” on him. This is echoed in Gratiano’s loss of Nerissa’s ring. The rings no longer represent traditional relationships: they now symbolize female power – a power that was nonexistent for traditional females in the Shakespearean era.The complicated female characters in Shakespearean plays have extraordinary significance. Isabella, Mariana, Jessica, and Portia all share qualities that set them apart from traditional women. These characters are dynamic, optimistic role models who take control of the lives that society says do not belong to them, but rather are the property of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Their deeds often set the action of the plays in motion, keep the ball rolling, and pick it up at the end. These complex characters offer a refreshing sense of verisimilitude that their male counterparts do not possess. In these plays, Shakespeare reveals himself as a true feminist, and uses the electric female psyche to move the action along. These women cross the boundaries of societal laws and break down the power structure, ultimately emerging victorious.
The Prince and Its Relation to Measure for Measure
While the connection between Machiavelli and Marlowe is distinctly articulated in the preface to the latter’s Jew of Malta, the parallels between Machiavelli’s Prince and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure are less explicitly expressed, but certainly no less significant. One must, of course, be cautious in suggesting that Shakespeare was familiar with Machiavelli’s Prince in its original form – it is most likely that he read one of the numerous English or French paraphrases that were circulating at the time. There is no doubt, however, that the great majority of characters in Measure for Measure – the Duke, Angelo, Claudio, Pompey and even Isabella – display Machiavellian qualities. An comparison of key passages, both of The Prince and Measure for Measure, will establish this very fact.A study of kingship, arguably the entire premise for Measure for Measure, is immediately introduced in the first scene, with the Duke’s declaration “Of government the properties to unfold/ Would seem in me t’affect speech and discourse.” It is not until the third scene of act one, however, that this political discussion becomes specific and, ultimately, linked to the Machiavellian notion of statecraft. In this scene, which details the exchange between Vincentio and the Friar, we learn the reasons for the former’s deputising of Angelo. Both of the Duke’s significant dialogues – I.iii.20-33 and I.iii.36-55 – reveal that, for the last fourteeen years, the “strict statutes and most biting laws” (I.iii.20) punishing pre-marital intercourse have slipped into disuse. Although this scene is by no means extensive, it furnishes the reader with much food for thought. Vincentio’s Machiavellianism, as manifest in the above scene, is centred upon three main elements – his previous laxity, his present need to deflect responsibility and his use of Angelo as an instrument in effecting the enforcement of this “most biting law.” Upon closer inspection, both of Measure for Measure and The Prince, we discern that the neglect apparent in the Duke’s initial non-enforcement of the law may not really be neglect at all, but rather a strategic choice. Immediately relevant are Machiavelli’s remarks on the need to avoid contempt and hatred : a prince who wants to maintain his rule is often forced not to be good, because whenever that class of men on which you believe your continued rule depends is corrupt, whether it be the populace, or soldiers, or nobles, you have to satisfy it by adopting the same disposition; and then are good deeds your enemies. By not enforcing a law which the vast majority of citizens – the base and the noble – at some point transgress, Vincentio ensures the stability of his position. The appointment of Angelo as deputy is complex, to say the least, and can be variously interpreted. We could assume that the Duke’s remarks display his awareness of the hypocrisy of personally enforcing the law – Sith ’twas my fault to give the people scope,’Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them For what I bid them do” (I.iii.36-38). Of course, one may just as easily argue that the Duke’s newfound ‘morality’ is a direct result of the realisation that he, like the “rod” of the law, is perhaps “more mocked than feared” (I.iii.28). This interpretation is given credence when we consider the possibility that Lucio’s remarks regarding the Duke may to some degree be representative of a general spirit of disdain rather than just a humorous product of his bawdy and irreverent nature. Neither must we forget the Duke’s own avowal which is couched in very negative (and martial) terms: I have on Angelo imposed the office,Who may in th’ambush of my name strike homeAnd yet my nature never in the fight To do in slander. (I.iii.41-44) Clearly, Vincentio wishes to distance himself as far as he can from an act which will inevitably engender hatred, resentment and civic disturbance (if not defiance, as we see in the case of Pompey, who declares to Mistress Overdone in I.ii.91, “I’ll be your tapster still.”) Once again the Duke has clearly taken the advice of Machiavelli, who repeatedly argues that the wise prince’s best defence is the goodwill of his subjects:a wise prince who is more afraid of his own people than of foreigners builds fortresses; he who is more afraid of foreigners than of his own people rejects them […] your best possible fortress is that your subjects do not hate you […] I blame any prince who considers the hatred of his people unimportant. The substitution of Angelo for the Duke also recalls Machiavelli’s account of the Duke of Romagna:After the Duke had seized the Romagna and found it controlled by weak lords[…] the whole province was full of thefts, brawls, and every sort of excess[…] Hence he put in charge there Messer Remirro de Orco, a man cruel and ready, to whom he gave the most complete authority. This man in a short time rendered the province peaceful and united, gaining enormous prestige. Then the Duke decided there was no further need for such boundless power; so he set up a civil court in the midst of the province[…] And because he knew that past severities had made some men hate him, he determined to purge such men’s minds and win them over entirely by showing that any cruelty which had gone on did not origiate with himself but with the harsh nature of his agent. So getting an opportunity for it, one morning at Cesena he had Messer Remirro laid in two pieces in the public square with a block of wood and a bloody sword near him. What Machiavelli alludes to in the above passage is the Duke’s realisation of Orco as a potential threat, “gaining enormous prestige…boundless power.” Implicit in this is the Duke of Romagna’s awareness of the implications of his forceful capture of the province – he is perfectly aware of the possibility that Orco may resort to the same tactics to consolidate and enforce his power. Shakespeare’s Duke Vincentio betrays a similar concern regarding Angelo. While he needs his services, he does not entirely trust him, and so stays behind to “visit both prince and people” (I.iii.46) and ascertain “If power change purpose”(I.iii.55).Other than this last reference to the tendency of power to corrupt, Shakespeare uses allusion and suggestion rather than explicit reference to explore the play’s Machiavellian possibilities, and even these are nowhere near as violent as those we find in The Prince itself. A truly Machiavellian play would result in Vincentio killing Angelo and reasserting his power, or Angelo killing the Duke. The most likely of both these possibilities, of course, is the latter – throughout the play, Angelo continually reaffirms his Machiavellian qualities. Firstly, he uses his position for personal gain, realising that “[his] false o’erweighs [Isabella’s] true” (II.iv.171) and that he is one of those princes “against whom charges cannot be brought in court.” Secondly, he refuses to rescind Claudio’s death sentence even after (according to his knowledge) Isabella had fulfilled their agreement – Claudio’s continued existence means the continued probability of his vengeance. Angelo has obviously taken Machiavelli’s advice regarding the keeping of promises:By no means can a prudent ruler keep his word – and he does not – when to keep it works against himself and when the reasons that made him promise are annulled. What is perhaps a less well documented aspect of Measure for Measure is Isabella’s own (albeit subtle) Machiavellianism. In her first exchange with Angelo (II.ii), which details the failure of the rhetoric for which she is so famous, Isabella is the one who introduces the notion of bribery which leads to Angelo’s proposal. One also wonders whether it is mere coincidence that the language she uses to signify her religious fervour and purity is so overtly erotic, entrancing and arousing Angelo:Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,And strip myself to death as to a bedThat longing have been sick for…(II.ii.101-103).Not only do these remarks display a kind of masochistic pleasure in self-flagellation (which is of particular relevance considering Angelo’s austere attitude to religion), they more importantly provoke the association of violence with power, and power with wealth. This is surely a combination designed to affect Angelo in the most profound manner and make him even more determined to have his way. The ultimate expression of Angelo’s corruption, however, is prevented by another profoundly Machiavellian concept – Fortune – who ensures that Vincentio is present at the jail when Isabella visits Claudio to tell him of the terrible bargain she must consider.Sidestepping the conflict inherent in the Medieval fatalist world-view of predestination and the Humanist belief in the power of the individual, Machiavelli proposes a moderate view of Fortune. In chapter XVI of The Prince, this view is very succinctly articulated: Machiavelli asserts that “fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half to be controlled by ourselves.” This latter “half” is governed by another key Machiavellian concept, virtù, which signifies intellectual prowess. The prince of virtù must ensure he is as prepared as possible for the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (for she can be thwarted by diligence ) and modify his behaviour to suit the circumstances. The Duke’s obvious lack of control, the constant setbacks he experiences, do not signify inadequacy on his part – they represent the obstacles Fortune throws in his path. Vincentio’s frequent revision of plans is exactly the kind of behaviour Machiavelli praises in The Prince: the one who adapts his policy to the times prospers, and likewise the one whose policy clashes with the demands of the times does not. Fortune, however, does assist the Duke – Mariana just happens to love Angelo still, as well as being receptive to the substitution of herself for Isabella, and Vincentio is fortunately present at the jail when Angelo’s order for Claudio’s execution (despite Isabella/Mariana’s compliance) is received. Likewise, the death of Ragozine the pirate, whose head is substituted for Claudio’s, is highly fortuitous. This is, of course, all necessary to the resolution that occurs in the final act.Shakespeare’s comic intent subverts the tragic potential of Measure for Measure, and the denouement (while primarily characterised by the reinstatement of just reign and the conventional pairing of couples) is profoundly Machiavellian. Not only does Vincentio conceal his knowledge of Claudio’s safety from Isabella, he uses it in an impressive display of stagecraft, specifically designed to evoke a sort of mystical awe in all onlookers (including Isabella, who he later asks to marry him). The Duke has clearly enhanced his reputation by the “spectacular deeds” Machiavelli writes of in his Prince, “[finding] a way for punishing or rewarding[…] that is sure to be much talked about.” BIBLIOGRAPHYShakespeare, William: Measure for Measure, ed. Brian Gibbons, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.Machiavelli, Niccolò: The Prince in Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, vol. 1, trans. Allan Gilbert, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1989Machiavelli, Niccolò: The Prince, trans. George Bull, London: Penguin, 1995.
“If the law would allow it”: Pragmatism and Absolutism in Measure for Measure
Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure explores concepts of moral law within an immoral setting and set upon by leaders with questionable morals. Measure’s Vienna is a setting where pragmatism and absolutism can compete both in the shadows and up front for the control of the city’s system of justice regarding sexual immorality. The conflicts between these two thoughts of law are played through the characters of Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke. Shakespeare uses the apparent sexually immoral city as a backdrop for the change from absolutism to pragmatism to parallel the need for the characters themselves to change from one to the other. One could argue that this dark comedy vindicates the idea of pragmatism towards issues of sexual immorality, rather than absolutism, but Julia Lupton points out that the ending of the play seems to leave the reader on a questionable note, making way for the argument that Shakespeare might have been titling pragmatism as the lesser of two evils, but perhaps not absolutely vindicating for either school of thought regarding the law, especially in cases where corruption seems to have a hold like it does in Vienna. Nevertheless, Measure for Measure follows the transformation of an administration and society from absolutism to pragmatism, setting the latter above the other when it comes to law regarding sexual morality, while still casting a skeptical eye towards the validity of governing under “consent in reserve”.
Measure for Measure’s Vienna and the people who are represented in it play a vital role in why there is a change from absolutism to pragmatism within the plot. There seems to be rampant sexual immorality, which no one is quite sure how to control, or whether they should control it. Pompey says in Act 4, “I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession. One would think it were Mistress Overdone’s own house, for here be many of her old customers” (90). Here, Pompey is calling out many of the courtroom’s inhabitants as being visitors of prostitutes. It can be understood why a city might stick itself under absolute rule under dire pressures, as the Duke says, “We have strict statutes and most biting laws, / The needful bits and curbs to headstrong steeds, Which for this fourteen years we have let slip, Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave / That goes not out to prey” (30). Here, it is said that Vienna has been acting cavalier about the rule of law, with the Duke choosing to rule by amoral relativism and finding it not to be working well for the deviance. Though these lines show the Duke vindicating the reasons that an absolutist take on the law is needed in Vienna, the language Shakespeare uses here describes how the people of Vienna might feel about it. To the people under the law, it would feel like a “biting” predator, as the Duke likens the law at its best to be. There needs to be rampant immorality in Vienna for the Duke’s next lines on that page, “For terror, not to use, in time the rod / Becomes more mocked than feared, so our decrees / Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead” to have grounding. If the people of Vienna were not indeed seeming to mock rather than fear the law as it stands, there would not be such a battle between absolutism and pragmatism.
Angelo is described as an absolutist by many characters, such as when Lucio says, “And with full line of his authority, / Governs Lord Angelo, a man whose blood / Is very snow broth; one who never feels / The wanton stings and motions of the sense, / But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge / With profits of the mind, study, and fast” (33). This is giving Angelo, and absolutism, quite a positive light, giving way to an argument that this kind of ruling can be perceived as needed to people in a setting such as this Vienna. There are far more instances where Angelo’s power seems to hint at corruption, however. He is described as a tyrannical such as when Claudio says, “Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness, / Or whether that the body public be / A horse whereon the governor doth ride, / Who, newly in the seat, that it may know / He can command, lets it straight feel the spur, / Whether the tyranny be in his place, Or in his eminence that fills it up” (28). This is commenting on the fact that Angelo does not rule by the same relativism that the Duke once did. He “lets” the city “feel the spur”, enforcing even arbitrary laws for the sake of law. We see one such law when Pompey says, “All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down” (25). Shakespeare includes this example to show the extent to which Angelo is practicing his absolutism. Even when a law seems to be harming more than helping, Angelo feels he must enforce it. This prepares us for Angelo’s decisions on Claudio. Lucio says, “He arrests him on it / And follows close the rigor of the statute / To make him an example” (33). This is an obvious use of arbitrary absolute power. This is a direct rejection of the apparent relativism that the Duke practiced beforehand, because it ensures that no one is to be spared, case by case, but that Claudio’s life will be struck down to make an example to everyone else in Vienna. The Corruption of this Absolutism Julia Lupton mentions in Citizen-Saints the corruption of governing within the means of “consent in reserve”, meaning the citizens are not quite giving consent to what’s happening. This is seen especially in regards to Isabella and the Duke’s marriage, which we will see later on. It is easy to see the corruption in the examples of the Angelo’s absolutism. When Angelo says to Escalus, “We must not make a scarecrow of the law, / Setting it up to fear the birds of prey, / And let it keep one shape till custom make it / Their perch and not their terror.” (35) This is another example of Angelo denouncing relativism, which can make way for custom in the rule of law, but is also an indication that Angelo does not want the courts to be involved in law enforcement. This should give the characters pause, as a large portion of the action of this play happens inside a jail cell. An absolutist leader calling for an end to the courts in the rule of law screams corruption at anyone who is experienced with a democracy, and Shakespeare included these lines to criticize both absolutism and the corruption found in Angelo’s administration. Perhaps the biggest example of Angelo’s corruption is when he couples his absolutist ruling on the death of Claudio (“It is the law, not I, condemn your brother”(47)) with a sexual proposition to Isabella. He does this by asking, “that there were / No earthly means to save him, but that either / You must lay down the treasures of your body / To this supposed, or else to let him suffer. What would you do?” (57). This is not only a break from Angelo’s rule of absolutism, but corruption at its highest. He is using his absolute power and justice to put Isabella between her brother’s death and the death of her sexual purity, which is very important to a somewhat moral absolutist like Isabella.
The examples of the corruption of absolutism cannot be said to vindicate the Duke’s standing, however. The Duke says outright, “I have delivered to Lord Angelo, / A man of stricture and firm abstinence, / My absolute power and place here in Vienna” (29). The Duke, although he stands for pragmatism, gave Angelo this power after doubting the validity of his practice of relativism. This is an example of not only the government and community changing to a more pragmatic stance, but the characters as well. The Duke’s PragmatismThought we can only know about his prior actions through comments made by him and others regarding the law before Angelo took power, the Duke is proven to be quite the pragmatist during the play. He says about Angelo, “Shame to him whose cruel striking / Kills for faults of his own liking… Craft against vice I must apply. / With Angelo tonight shall lie / His old betrothed but despised; / So disguise shall, by the disguised, / Pay with falsehood false exacting / And perform an old contracting” (79). He is not held back from harming his morality by lying and sneaking around, because he knows his actions will bring about mercy for Claudio and Isabella. The Duke disguises himself a Friar often in the play, as when he says to Juliet, “I’ll teach you how you shall arraign your conscience, / And try your penitence, if it be sound / Or hollowly put on” (52). This can either be seen as corruption, similar to the actions of Angelo, or as reflections of mercy within the pragmatist standpoint. By reflecting the Duke as a Friar, even if he is disguising himself as one, Shakespeare is placing him in a position of moral soundness. Though the Duke may be exhibiting questioning morals when he lies about being a Friar, he is doing it for mercy towards Juliet and Claudio. The Duke is also entreated upon for moral soundness in the legal setting, as well. Isabella says to him, “O gracious Duke, / Harp not on that, nor do not banish reason / For inequality, but let your reason serve / To make the truth appear where it seems hid, / And hide the false seems true” (102). The continued moral portrayals Shakespeare gives of the Duke provides a foundation for the argument that the Duke’s pragmatism is being propped up as, at least, the greater of the two schools of thought.
Isabella seems to be absolutist in her belief for equal justice under the law and sexual morality in certain times of this play. For example, when Angelo asks her, “Might there not be a charity in sin / To save this brother’s life?” as a justification for getting a favor from sex, she replies, “I’ll take it as a peril to my soul; / It is no sin at all, but charity” (56) and later says, “As much for my poor brother as myself; / That is, were I under the terms of death, / Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield / My body up to shame” (57). These lines show us how absolutist Isabella is about her sexual morality, which she could find reason for in the rampant sexuality immorality in the city. We see this again when she says to her brother, “Might but my bending down / Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed. / I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death, / No word to save thee” (66). She is vehemently saying no to her brother’s request here, for the sake of her absolutist belief in her morality. She does not share the relative thought of Claudio when he says, “What sin you do to save a brother’s life, / Nature dispenses with the deed so far / That it becomes a virtue.” Lupton makes the argument that in sticking so firmly to her absolute morality, Isabella is “electing her own chastity rather than the body of her brother” (Lupton 140). This furthers the absolutist Isabella we see until she is given a justification by the Duke later on. We see an example of Isabella’s legal absolutism when she says of her brother’s crime, “Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade. / Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd; / ‘Tis best that thou diest quickly” (66). This is an echo of Angelo’s idea that the law should be applied to anyone who breaks it, and the punishment harsh.
However, we see how easy it is for her change into a pragmatic way of thinking when she wants mercy for her brother, i.e. “O Just but severe law!” (45) or herself. She says to Angelo of her brother’s death sentence, “Yes, I do think that you might pardon him,/ And neither heaven not man grieve at the mercy” (46). Here, she is advocating for more mercy than justice. She also sees the need for relative thinking when she says to Angelo, “O, it is excellent / To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant” (48). By this, she is saying that it is difficult to have absolute power without using it with absolute corruption. She also says to Angelo, “‘Tis set down so in heaven, but not in earth” (55). This is an important line because with it, Shakespeare is showing Isabella’s reconciliation of her religion and her newfound pragmatism within herself. It is especially seen how quickly Isabella turns pragmatic when the Duke presents a way to use legalities to their benefit. The Duke says to Isabella, “I do make myself believe that you may most uprighteously do a poor wronged lady a merited benefit, redeem your brother from the angry law, do no stain to your own gracious person, and much please the absent Duke, if peradventure he shall ever return to have hearing of this business” (68) Isabella is instantly moved by this, saying back, “Let me hear you speak further.” By giving her a justification for an action that would otherwise be deemed quite sketchy by an absolutist, Isabella is swayed over to pragmatism. This is because she measures mercy higher than justice quite a lot of the time, especially in regards to her brother’s sentence, so it is easy for her to justify relative morality when it involves enacting mercy. Shakespeare makes it so that mercy is what changes her mind on pragmatism to show that mercy is much more applicable to the Duke and Isabella’s pragmatism than it is to Angelo’s absolutism.
Angelo returns to absolutism only to ask for death, saying, “No longer session hold my upon my shame, / But let my trial be mine own confessions. / Immediate sentence then and sequent death / Is all the grace I beg” (112). The guy is incredibly harsh on himself because his absolutist beliefs ring true even for himself. The death he asks for greatly juxtaposes with the life the Duke has granted through the play. Through his workings of pragmatism, the Duke grants life to Claudio and Juliet, and instead of death grants a marriage (however unwanted it may be) to Angelo and Mariana.
As mentioned before, however, it is not sufficient to say that the ending makes this a vindication of the Duke’s pragmatism on Shakespeare’s part. Another marriage the Duke proposes is one between he and Isabella. Lupton points out that we do not witness Isabella’s reply. She writes, “By leaving her response in question, I argue, the play ends with the startling spectacle of consent in reserve, bringing forward, suspending, and illuminating the element of mutual agreement” (Lupton 140). Pragmatism is given the better light at the end of the play, but by not giving a direct answer as to whether or not consent of the govern is being given, the corruption discussed earlier could be a stumbling block for Shakespeare’s absolute vindication of the Duke’s practices.
The battle between absolutism and pragmatism is explored in Measure for Measure in a personal and social way. Angelo swims into the waters of corruption because of personal flaws while striking down any rule breakers he governs with his absolute rule of law. The Duke and Isabella represent the pragmatist standpoint, putting straightaway morals into question for the overall good of their causes. After all is said and done, the pragmatists seem to win out, with the Duke being likened to true religious piety and moral upstanding and Isabella succeeding in saving her brother’s life without sacrificing her sexual purity. However, the end, where we miss out on Isabella’s response to the Duke reminds us that no skeptic such as Shakespeare can truly sign his absolute approval on a system like Vienna. In regards to this relativism, Isabella says, “My brother had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died. / For Angelo, / His act did not o’ertake his bad intent, / And must be buried but as an intent / That perished by the way. Thoughts are no subjects, / Intents but merely thoughts” (115). Here, we find the reconciliation of the idea of absolutist justice with pragmatic mercy and customs. It is fitting that Isabella, who expresses ambivalence towards both rules of law in the play, deliver these lines.
Lupton, Julia. Citizen-Saints. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2005. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Bantam, 1980. Print.