Measure for Measure
Self-Division and Lack of Self-Knowledge in Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure
In many ways, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure are examples of his “problem plays” that are concerned with self-division and lack of self-knowledge. The former play deals with the duality of the characters and it is in the knowledge or lack of knowledge in this duality between the characters which makes it a problem play. Self-division is also implicit in the latter play, where the characters are forced to confront their different natures due to a crisis which is set upon them. Both the plays, like the innate nature of the problem plays themselves, are torn between how a character perceives himself or herself and how these characters perceive each other differently. Taking this point further, I wish to argue that both plays have a metatheatrical element in them, where my view of each of the individual characters differ from what the characters think of themselves, and that a complex character such as Cressida is actually aware of her mythical identity, whereas other characters, though still just as complex in character, are less aware of their metatheatrical presence and therefore think of their self-division as more of an intuition they have. How are Shakespeare’s famous characters to “be themselves” when their names convey an absolute “identity” that is itself based upon a myth of loss? If, even as the “original” heroes of the “original” epics, they always already encode nostalgia?
Charnes’ questioning deals with the ambiguous ideas of dual-identity and self-knowledge that leads to subjectivity in Troilus and Cressida. Although the play is reproduced by Shakespeare, the characters’ identities are historically tied to the original heroes, making Cressida, inevitably, the one to leave Troilus for Diomede. The characters themselves, seem to be functioned to be aware of their own identity to a certain extent although Troilus discovers this much later than Pandarus and Cressida when he sees Cressida with Diomede in the Greek camp. One may already assume, before even watching the play, that Troilus’ identity is to be “true” and Cressida’s to be “false” in their relationship. “Identity” derives from the Latin word “idem”, meaning the same, the quality of being identical and the fact of being identical being who or what a person or a thing is. In this sense, Shakespeare and the actors who play the characters are bound to the nature of the play’s historicism: the myth of Troilus and Cressida that has been repeated and multiplied many times have given an “identity” to the characters which subjects the actors to “play” the characters as they are destined to play. It is not only Shakespeare, the audience and the actors who seem to be aware on the subjectivity of these characters. Shakespeare designs Cressida to be self-aware of her own subjectivity.
Troilus: What offends you, lady?
Cressida: Sir, mine own company.
Troilus: You cannot shun yourself.
Cressida: Let me go and try: I have a kind of self resides with you; But an unkind self, that itself will leave, To be another’s fool. I would be gone: Where is my wit? I know not what I speak.
Troilus: Well know they what they speak that speak so wisely.
Shakespeare plays with the word “kind” and “unkind” to show the literal split in her personality but also subtly underlines Cressida’s acknowledgement in her two split identities, where the “unkind self” refers to her unnatural and therefore “other” self. She warns Troilus that one of her self will eventually leave to another, Diomede. Furthermore, she shows distress in her own knowledge of this and therefore claims to be offended by her own company, in this case, her identity. “Where is my wit?” If the definition of wit is the capacity for inventive thought and quick understanding; keen intelligence, then the search for her wit could refer to her searching for knowledge of truth. She must be “false” to Troilus in order to be her “true” self. Nevertheless, Cressida tries to avert herself from her pre-decided identity. “You cannot shun yourself” Troilus speaks that, in context, she cannot leave him from his company but this could also be taken into a wider reading: she cannot avoid herself from her identity and thus has no entitlement to selfhood. “Shun” means to persistently avoid, ignore, or reject through caution, which could be taken as Cressida trying to break through the norms by avoiding or rejecting her identity. She wants to “go and try” to eliminate her subjectivity by erasing her multiplicity from the past Cressida(s) that has- or have- existed before her. By doing so, she would be gaining her selfhood, in which I am referring to the state of having experience of one’s consciousness as belonging to oneself. However, “selfhood” can also mean a person’s character, being egocentric. In this sense, Cressida’s selfhood seems paradoxical. She has a split dual identity, where one part of her wishes to remain with Troilus yet her efforts in trying to avert from her subjectivity and achieve selfhood brings out her other self, which will leave him for another. Despite all of this paradoxical effort in losing herself to gain herself, she ends in a futile resolution. She realises the futility of her efforts for she seems to have self-knowledge of her fate.
As long as she has the “wit” of her subjected fate, she “would be gone”. Her role, like Pandarus says, is to “Leave all as I found it. / And there an end”, to play and then leave the stage as she has been identified to be. This shows that she is aware of the metatheatricality of the play, and that the Cressida that I see in her as an audience is the same as the Cressida that she sees in herself. Whilst Cressida seems to be aware of her split identity, Troilus is unable to comprehend with her. He says, “Well know they what they speak that speak so wisely”, which depicts that Cressida should “know” how she is subject to be gone, without himself knowing what he speaks, making him a character that lacks in self-knowledge as well as his knowledge in Cressida. He is too simple in mind to demystify the truth in her speech: …my integrity and truth to you Might be affronted with the match and weight Of such a winnowed purity in love. How were I then uplifted! But alas, I am as true as truth’s simplicity And simpler than the infancy of the truth. Troilus’ integrity may mean that he has the quality of being honest and true. However, it could also mean that he is in a state of being whole and undivided. Unlike Cressida, he is unaware of his self-divided identity in a metatheatrical sense and perceives his selfhood to be whole to himself. Shakespeare creates a character who is only able to see the truth in simple terms and therefore enables the play to proceed on its subjectivity: Troilus, who is as much of a legendary character as Cressida is, must be betrayed by Cressida. His truth in Cressida is at an infant state in Act two, which only matures later in Act five where he sees her “other” self, with Diomede. This, she? No, this is Diomede’s Cressida. If beauty have a soul, this is not she. The separation of “This”; the Cressida that he is seeing, and “she” that he thought Cressida was shows that he is now able to comprehend the division in her identity. His division of Cressida shows that she was subjective to his ideologies: “his” Cressida exists in his mind rather than the external world. He has made the mistake of seeing the truth in simplicity and thus mistaken her for another. Charnes states that “to be ‘taken for another’ is not to be taken at all. Rather, it is to be left behind, ‘exchanged’ as it were, for this mysterious ‘other’ for whom one is mis-taken”. Her comment suggests that Troilus has never truly taken her at all for he was unable to see the “other” side of her identity. Once this truth becomes demystified, Cressida’s role is complete: like all of the other Cressida(s), she has betrayed Troilus. Therefore, she has achieved in fulfilling her role and “Leave(s) all as (she) found it, and there an end” and is seen no more after this scene. Therefore, Shakespeare unveils the fear of identity, self-division and subjectivity by “using” the famous characters and making them lose themselves in order to be themselves. The characters’ identities are identified once more in the play as they carry the weight of their names that convey an absolute “identity” that is itself based upon a myth.
Different criticisms and interpretations of Measure for Measure can be accumulated around the reactions to the central characters in the play: Isabella and the Duke of Vienna. It is difficult to pin down whether these characters are good, bad, powerful, whether they are all or none of these things. Like the inherent nature of problem plays, the characters are problematic in a sense that different characters realise their self-division at different points (some may never realise their self-division) and it is therefore difficult to claim precisely when it is that these characters realise this. On a whole, I agree with Berger’s view of the Duke “is less important or interesting that the Duke’s view of the Duke”. What the Duke views of himself is different from my view of the Duke, and this view applies similarly to the other characters as well. Isabella, much like Cressida, has self-knowledge of her identity from an early point in the play. Although Isabella’s status as a nun may make her appear to be a character of intransigent innocence at first, she is actually has a fragile lenience, where she is a virgin but not quite a maid and not yet a nun. Much like her problematic status, problems are also raised in her self-knowledge of division in her identity. She has self that wishes to be free from male patriarchal society, remain a virgin and, therefore, sustain her innocence. However, her other self recognises her part in the patriarchal society: to be a woman in relation to a man. The problem arises from this division between her two selves. Her selfhood that wishes to sustain her innocence becomes paradoxical once she decides to act upon it; from protecting herself of her innocence, she is in recognition of all the things that are not innocent. Therefore, she can no longer be seen as wholly innocent, yet this does not make her guilty of innocence, in a sense that she is still a virgin. Either ways, in realising the dangers of her selfhood from an early point in the play, she is able to find a resolution for it. She finds a way to escape from the corrupted society by choosing to become a nun. Yes, truly. I speak not as desiring more, But rather wishing a more strict restraint Upon the sisterhood In becoming a nun, she will be able to preserve her virginity and therefore her innocence from further corruption. She asks for further privileges to the nun not as a means of desiring for more worldly resources but in a means of asking for a “more strict restraint” in order to restrain herself from losing her ‘self’, her innocence. This emphasises on her knowledge that sisterhood is a place where she can escape from the sexual production system of the patriarchal society. This can be proven in Act Five when The Duke exclaims that in being a nun, Mariana cannot be classified as an individual in his view:
Duke: What, are you married?
Mariana: No, my lord.
Duke: Are you a maid?
Mariana: No, my lord.
Duke: A widow, then?
Mariana: Neither, my lord.
Duke: Why, you are nothing then; neither maid, widow, nor wife!
The Duke, in asking a list of questions on what she is, he makes Mariana prove his point that women are reduced to nothing through her replies being a list of cancellations. It is interesting to see how in some versions of the play, “Why, you are nothing then; neither maid, widow, nor wife!” is written as a statement with an exclamation mark, whereas other versions “Why, you are nothing then; neither maid, widow, nor wife?” end with a questioning. One can read the exclamatory phrase as the Duke making a clear statement of what was perceived of women at that time in Vienna, whilst the phrase that ends with a questioning emphasises on the problem that not all women can be fully defined by his three categories; the Duke is in confusion of where to place Mariana in the patriarchal system. However, Isabella is partly free from this categorising as she has chosen to become a nun. In a Christian narrative, she becomes a daughter of God. The Duke creates multiple identities of himself through theatricality. Theatricality enables the play to end with him remaining as a supposedly good lord. He maintains the ‘appearance’ of a good ruler; whether he truly is a good ruler or not is debatable. For example, he deliberately humbles himself from his social position of a Duke as the friar until his true identity is revealed. He waits until Isabella publicly appears to lose her honour in a convincing way and yet without actually losing it so that when he comes back, he may appear to bring back her honour and therefore bring justice and law back in form. When he does reveal himself as the Duke, Angelo accepts that he has always been watched over by the Duke. O my dread lord, I should be guiltier than my guiltiness To think I can be undiscernible, When I perceive your grace, like power divine, Hath looked upon my passes. In a Christian narrative, the Duke can be seen as God, who sacrifices His son to the human world, watches over His children and gives final judgement on Judgement Day, where The Bible states that God “has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth”. There is a correlation of God and the Duke’s actions, as the former claims to judge the “inhabited earth”, meaning that He will judge the human beings that has populated in Earth, rather than the Earth itself. Similarly, the latter judges the acts that have gone wrong in the play rather than criticising the corrupted state of Viennese society. In this sense, the Duke’s decision in disguising himself as the friar can be seen as a “sacrifice” made in order to be able to retrieve his people from wrongdoings. He becomes a superior omniscient being.
Like God, who is the creator of things, the Duke has created a stage where he lets the problems arise whilst he waits until the problems epitomise the scene before he reveals his true identity. This shows that he is aware of the metatheatricality that derives from his self-duplicity and is also aware of how the others will react to it. Through him, one can see that human beings may not always be what they appear to be. Therefore, to have knowledge of others and in order to be able to govern them, one must first have self-knowledge of oneself. However, the point that has just been made is what the Duke may think of himself to be. Berger argues that what the Duke may think of himself differs from what he views the Duke to be. He argues through Graham Bradshaw’s notion that the Duke is: A negligent governor who now believes that he must confront, but still wants to evade, a problem which he has helped to create…The point that immediately matters is not whether we believe that Vienna requires surgery, but that the Duke himself believes this and feels obliged to act accordingly. It could be argued that Vienna’s precarious state, in terms of justice, is a reflection and therefore a result of his inability to govern the society effectively through a lack of self-knowledge. He sees himself as the role of a good Duke, who needs to act upon the problems that has risen, yet unable to recognise that he has helped to create these problems from the first place. Therefore, Berger names the Duke as a “negligent governor” who is self-divided: a part of him thinks that he must confront these problems and the other part of him wants to evade them.
In conclusion, I have explored how both the plays are torn between how a character perceives himself or herself and how these characters perceive each other differently. Furthermore, some of these characters are aware of the metatheatrical elements and use this understanding as a means of understanding themselves.
John Locke’s and William Shakespeare’s Views on Identity and Diversity
On Personhood: I Am We, Not Me
What makes me the same person I’ve always been? Is it the way I talk, who I know, possibly my ridiculous hairstyle? It could be something far more innate, as John Locke’s “Identity and Diversity” and William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure both suggest. In this essay, I will compare Locke’s claim that a person is made the same by a continued consciousness and set of memories to Shakespeare’s argument that personal identity is based on self-perception and the perceptions of others. I will show how, when combined, these two claims define how we see justice and dispense punishment for crimes.
John Locke distinguishes between a “man” and a “person” to ultimately assert that a person remains the same over time so long as he maintains the same consciousness, which is defined by his memories. Locke begins by defining principles of individuation for three categories of natural things: atoms, aggregates, and organisms. The distinction between the last two is particularly important to Locke – by his definition, an aggregate is only the same as long as all of its component atoms are the same: “if one atom is removed from the mass, or one new one added, it is no longer the same mass” (Locke, 113). An organism, or organized system, is much more like a plant, animal, or human; it is “one cohering body partaking of one common life” (114). As long as a group of parts is working towards the same purpose over time, they make up the same organism. Herein, Locke defines the same “man” – he remains the same as long as he has “participation in the same continued life” (114). In comparison, Locke sees a person as something that is able to reason and think of itself, and “What enables it to think of itself is its consciousness” (115). For Locke, the consciousness is the key to both being a person and being the same person – as long as a person’s consciousness is maintained, then they are truly the same person that they were previously. The consciousness is rooted in the memory: a person remains the same “as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought” (115). These are important distinctions to make – in cases of dementia and mental illness, a man can become a different person, and in cases of reincarnation or soul transfer, a person could become a different man. They are two distinct and separate concepts, and Locke states conclusively that personal identity rests in the continued consciousness – as long as I remember what I did in the past, I remain the same person as I was in those memories.
Angelo, in Shakespeare’s play, displays a completely different identity in public than he does in private and recognizes these identities as different individuals, suggesting that Shakespeare believes that what makes a person the same is a matter of how he perceives himself or how others perceive him. In Act 4, Scene 4, Angelo reflects on the sins and crimes he has committed, remarking that his lechery and murder “unshapes me quite” (Shakespeare, 4.4.18). Angelo has lost all faith in himself thanks to the magnitude of these crimes; he no longer recognizes himself. The use of the words “unshapes” and “unpregnant” suggest that Angelo has lost morals and self-assurance that he once had (4.4.18-19). He soon after refers to himself as “An eminent body that enforced/The law” (4.4.20-21). He does not refer to himself in the first person while discussing his past sins and crimes – the Angelo who is speaking with a sense of justice doesn’t even seem to recognize his lecherous self as a part of him. Angelo’s language is still that of a moral authority, and he speaks of Isabella’s night with him as a “tender shame” and “maiden loss,” but he doesn’t seem to tie the version of himself that deflowered Isabella with the version of him that is currently speaking (4.4.21-22). His use of first-person pronouns only appear when talking about his public self – “she might tongue me,” but “my authority bears so credent bulk/That no particular scandal once can touch” (4.4.24-25). Angelo associates himself with his public face; his reputation and authority are his, while the lecherous crimes and murderous backstabbing are the fault of some other Angelo. He even calls his trespass “this deed,” referring to it as a separate entity (4.4.18). The speech ends with Angelo lamenting that “our grace have we forgot” – while he once had principles, and possibly part of him still does, they have been lost and a new Angelo has subsequently emerged (4.4.31). Angelo uses the pronoun “we” to apply his situation to all humanity, certainly, but also to suggest a duality in his character. The Angelo that seduced Isabella is so different from the upright and moral Angelo that it is like one person inhabiting two bodies. Through Angelo’s duality of self, Shakespeare shows us how our actions, which change both our self-perception and the perception of others, can turn us into a completely different person.
When reading Locke and Shakespeare at the same time, questions naturally arise – the two views of what makes a person the same over time directly conflict with each other in seemingly irreconcilable ways. Locke would argue that Angelo remains the same person over the entire length of Measure for Measure – he never experiences a mental shift that causes him to lose his memories, so his consciousness remains consistent. Locke says that the “present self that now reflects on it is the one by which that action was performed,” and Angelo is clearly reflecting on past actions (Locke 115). He refers directly to his deed and the “unflowered maiden” – he remembers the sins he has committed, and so Locke would argue that he must be the same person (Shakespeare 4.4.19). When we see Angelo with multiple identities, we are willing to forgive him some of his transgressions. He is straining against a different self he cannot control. He exclaims, in regards to Claudio, “Would yet he had lived!” (4.4.30). This makes us willing to accept his pardon at the end of the play – obviously, the good Angelo has triumphed and the lecherous Angelo has been banished. However, under Locke’s principles, Angelo is at fault for all of his actions. It doesn’t matter if he distances himself from his lesser aspects, they are still a part of his single consciousness. This interpretation makes the ending of the play much more ominous. Though the Duke says that Angelo’s evil “quits you well,” there is no correctional punishment for him besides – his unified conscious still contains those elements that drove him to sin and lechery seemingly apropos of nothing, and that may resurface at any time (5.1.499). Angelo, despite not being placeholder Duke anymore, is still a very powerful man and continues to roam free, suggesting a far more ominous future than when the play is read with Shakespeare’s interpretation of identity.
Shakespeare, in turn, heavily complicates Locke’s ideas with the concept of absolute and relative identity. Shakespeare’s entire play contrasts things that are absolute with things that are relative. The absolute truth of the matter is that Angelo has slept with Mariana and not killed Claudio, but he believes that he has deflowered Isabella and killed Claudio. In relation to absolute truth, what has really happened, the latter statements are false, but they are true in a relative sense to Angelo – he has no reason to disbelieve them. In this way too, we can see Angelo’s divided personhood. Absolutely, Angelo is a single person, bound by one continuous and uninterrupted consciousness. In a relative sense, Angelo is at least two different people – not only based on his self-perception, but his control over himself. He states in Act 2 that “my invention, hearing not my tongue/Anchors on Isabel” (2.4.4-5). Much like Angelo believes that his relative truth is absolute, he believes that his relative personalities are absolute because he can’t seem to control his lustful self. Small nuances bring Shakespeare closer to Locke. Locke says that a person should disregard memories that he cannot “square with or join to the present self” (Locke 121). Not only is a person changed by forgetting, they can consider themselves different from a past self if the memories they have seem false or unlike the current person. Angelo certainly has the memories of his crimes and sins, but they don’t seem to match who he is. We see, then, that a person’s relative perception of himself can alter his personhood. Locke’s theories remain consistent while discussing a person who sees himself as having a certain set of true memories, but when the person relatively perceives his memories to be false or non-compatible, his personhood changes, allowing him to become multiple people based on what set of values and impulses he is acting on at the current moment. Locke’s view is subsequently widened to allow a series of cases like multiple personalities and changes in self-perception and personhood brought about by how an individual relatively regards their memories.
We have found a clear combination of Shakespeare and Locke’s views – a person is made the same through his consciousness, but that his single absolute consciousness can have various different relative identities. Through this we can especially evaluate our conceptions of justice – how do we judge and forgive people based on their identity? As seen in my application of Locke to Shakespeare, forgiveness for wrongdoing often seems to come from whether their criminal qualities remain intact. If we consider Angelo as one person, we want him punished because we still see flaws in his character that have never been addressed. He remains lecherous and perverted and nothing has been done to correct this. If we see Angelo as two relative people, we are more willing to forgive him. We accept that the good Angelo was simply unable to control the lecherous one, but now has returned to power. There is no need to punish the person who is not responsible for these evil deeds. In real life, we let men like Oscar Pistorius off with lighter sentences and allow schizophrenics to plead insanity – we are lenient towards those who seem to have a self that they cannot control. This may run contrary to Locke’s views – that a “man,” not a “person,” should be punished due to how easy it is to lie about personhood – but it is quite obviously how our modern justice system works. Personhood is closely tied to both our justice system and the way that we judge the behavior of people on a day-to-day basis.
Presentation and Treatment of Women in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure
Examine the presentation and treatment of women in Shakespeare’s play ‘Measure for Measure.’ Consider other writers’ views in your response.
When Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure around 1604, society was very sexist towards females, and men were seen as the stronger gender, women were regarded as subservient to men. They were seen as only being useful for sex, caring for their husband and children and doing all the household chores. In this play, Shakespeare uses the typical stereotypes of the way women are presented in literature. Bertens suggests these stereotypes include, “an immoral and dangerous seductress, the woman as cute but helpless, the woman as an unworldly, self- sacrificing angel.” These stereotypes can be reflected upon characters within Measure for Measure. Isabella could be considered as the “self-sacrificing angel” as this suggests that women should yield to please men; this is seen in the play when Claudio asks his sister to let him live even though he knows it will affect her vocation as a nun. Mistress Overdone could reflect on the “immoral seductress” as she doesn’t follow society’s moral guidelines, exchanging money for sex.
In this play, women are represented in a variety of ways, such as prostitutes, religious icons and deceitful characters; however, the treatment of them remains the same as they are all seen to be disrespected and degraded to a lower status than men. Each of the women in the play is restricted and dominated by the forces of a male dominated society. Although the women in the play are vastly different, their social status is determined by the men in their lives. They can be seen as victims of patriarchal control, for example, Isabella, a novitiate nun is blackmailed; Mariana is abandoned for not having a large enough dowry; and Julietta, who is pregnant is compromised by the attitudes and judgement she will face if she has an illegitimate child. Also, women are seen as the weaker sex to men, Angelo states to Isabella that “women are frail,” this shows the negative attitudes towards the female characters of this play as they could be seen as incapable or too delicate and inadequate. Women in this play seem to be used for one thing only: sex. The place where Measure for Measure is set, Vienna, is filled with drugs, violence and most of all, prostitutes. Mistress Overdone is the owner of a successful brothel where men gather to use women for sex. This accentuates the fact that women were degraded, used purely for a man’s selfish needs.
In addition to this, Isabella, a novitiate nun is blackmailed by Angelo, he offers her Claudio’s life in return for sex. This shows the lack of respect for women and religion at this time as Angelo is asking Isabella to sacrifice her virginity for his own selfish reasons. It could be argued that Isabella can be seen to use her womanly charms to her advantage. When speaking to Angelo, she attempts to seduce him which could be interpreted as hypocritical as she criticises Claudio for having sex outside of marriage but she is seducing men, this contradicts her role as a novice nun. Nevertheless, Isabella is confident that Angelo wants her and she is playing on this to try and save her brother’s life, “I had rather give my body than my soul.” Isabella is tempting Angelo to imagine her body, making herself seem more sexually desirable to him. When speaking to Angelo, Isabella takes the role of a submissive woman, portraying the views that women are weak, “For we are as soft as out complexions are,” here, Isabella is exploiting her femininity and beauty so she may seem more desirable, she is also presenting herself as “soft,” making Angelo feel dominant. Similarly, Isabella’s strength is accentuated when she claims that she could denounce Angelo by revealing his immoral scheme to the world, “with an outstretch’d throat,” this is Isabella suggesting the damage that it could do to his reputation is distressing. This shows how women were always expected to obey men and additionally demonstrates how women adopted and achieved their form of dominance and independence.
In the 17th Century, virginal women were respected as they were considered honourable and innocent. This attitude draws attention to the contrasting characters of Isabella and Mistress Overdone, as Mistress Overdone owns a brothel, she is considered as being lower class compared to Isabella who is a novitiate nun. An example of this is when Isabella declares to Angelo, “There is a vice which most I do abhor and most desire should meet the blow of justice,” this could show how much Isabella disagrees with the sin that Claudio has committed. Mistress Overdone is supportive of Claudio as she could be seen to sin frequently, so she may be used to this behaviour, this putting emphasis on the contrasting characters of Mistress Overdone and Isabella. Shakespeare could have been trying to present the different types of women in this period, the respectable, pure religious icon and prostitutes who are presented as unhygienic and not worthy of admiration. Conversely, it could also be seen that they are very similar in a way that they are both strong women which differs from societal views at this time. This can be seen when Mistress Overdone responds to the first gentleman that tries to mock her, “Well, well there’s one yonder arrested and carried to prison was worth five thousand of you all,” this shows how she is strong and not intimidated by men. This same confidence is reflected by Isabella in her language use whilst talking to Angelo, “Sign me a present pardon for my brother or with an outstretched throat I’ll tell the word aloud what man thou art.” Isabella is quite serious in her threat to Angelo, proving that she is a woman of intelligence and power, much like Mistress Overdone.
It would also be legitimate to suggest that the character of Mariana is presented as isolated and broken after Angelo’s treatment of her. Angelo left Mariana due to her dowry being lost at sea, this shows that men only wanted women for their wealth and for the women to obey the men and serve them along with their family. “But mark how heavily this befell to the poor gentlewoman.” The fact that Mariana is presented as a damaged, “poor” woman and Angelo is shown as a successful, powerful man could demonstrate the contrasting gender representations. Women are shown as pathetic without a man in their life but a man is still shown as authoritative, even without a woman by their side. This echoes the strong attitudes towards women in the Jacobean era.
Although Julietta plays a minor part in the story, the treatment she suffers through is quite reflective of men’s views of women as a whole in the Jacobean era. Julietta, who is pregnant, is kept in terrible conditions as she was pregnant outside of marriage, it is stated in the play that the only reason she hasn’t been executed is due to her pregnancy. Usually, if a woman is pregnant, they should be cared for, yet, the treatment of Juliet is due to Angelo’s patriarchal control, highlighting how women were seen as the minor sex, leading to the degrading treatment of them. Consistently, it would also be reasonable to suggest that this male dominated society could be reflected through the use of stichomythia, Isabella uses the phrase “please you to do’t” then in Angelo’s speech, he uses the similar phrase “pleas’d you to do’t.” This could suggest that Angelo is attempting to claim his dominance over Isabella, showing that he is in control. This accentuates this idea of women’s place in society at the time.
Examining the play as a whole, women are presented as having limited roles, particularly in a discussion between the Duke and Lucio, “Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife?” In this, they are saying women without a title of either “maid, widow or wife” are nothing and they assume that without this title, women are prostitutes or the equivalent. Additionally, it could also be seen that the men of the play, such as Claudio and Angelo are able to disobey social customs, with varying levels of success, however it is difficult to find a woman who challenges social prescriptions. For example, Mariana appears to be coerced into following the Duke’s “bed trick” to seduce Angelo as she lacks any alternative. Her most reasonable motivation for sleeping with Angelo is to legitimise the relationship that he neglected. Isabella is also controlled by societal expectations, she seems to be panicked when her two roles as both sister and nun demand conflicting commitments. Correspondingly, the views of women in the Jacobean era suggest that women were expected to obey their ‘superiors’ who in this time, would be men and this is reflected in the play. In Measure for Measure: the women are presented as either religious icons, widows or sexually transgressive females. They are treated as inferior to men, following the roles that the men set for them. Whilst the constraints faced by female characters may not be described in much detail within the play, other characters behaviour makes it clear that women in Measure for Measure are lacking in great power and influence. Lucio’s contemptuous attitude towards prostitutes, for example, indicates there is hardly any room to deviate from the roles that are assigned to them by the male dominated society that they live in.
Measure for Measure – William Shakespeare’s Dark Comedy
Response Paper of Measure for Measure
Having been performed in New York’s Fiasco Theatre on November 25th to December 20th, 2015, the “Measure for Measure” play by William Shakespeare is an example of a dark comedy with live music. New York’s Fiasco theatre is a case of Shakespeare’s bewildering plots to narrate a singular tale of morality and manipulation. The play was directed by Noah Brody alongside Ben Steinfeld combines incidences of injustice, hypocrisy, and the difficulty of inflexible virtue to explore sexual politics and social justice.
The Fiasco’s theatre’s production in New York includes a dose of live music even as the darkest comedies are acted. As the play is performed, the Duke of Vienna masquerades himself as a friar among his people but finds the city disentangling in an ethical free fall. Even before he can reclaim his position as the Duke of Vienna, it is questionable if he can assist her brother from criticism of the villain Angelo. The creativity in the theatre show is, therefore, an illumination of William Shakespeare’s surprising plots to narrate stories of decency and exploitation (Measure for Measure).
The play involved a cast of six characters with a set that comprises of six doors and some benches. The play was in one way or another considered a revival of the play that has been considered an effort in its story of corruption and stringent moral codes. The simple setting in which the play was performed promotes the inventiveness of using everything that is at the disposal of people and makes the most out of them. During the theatre play, the directors were responsible for leading the conversation, but they did not dictate the approach to be used by the cast of six (Measure for Measure).
During the performance, a lot of seriousness, as well as comedy, are witnessed throughout in the same scene and the same line. The stage is, therefore, lively as the director of the play managed to make instantaneous shifts between hysterical vulgar and the theatre-hushing seriousness. The approach used in the Fiasco play was probably meant to bring out nuances and fun in the entire play. The production underlined the tension between morality and sexual appetite as well as the tension between transparency and secrecy. The self-exile of Vincentio in the play illuminates the place of the production in William Shakespeare’s works. Before the play, Shakespeare’s works featured self-exile scenarios in the form of abandonments, expulsion, and resignations. The director’s experience was evidently visible in the outdoor space, with a broad comedy was shown in the dark than anybody would expect (Measure for Measure).
The show incorporated modern film elements such as video footage, contemporary music, film itself, and reference to the television. The contemporary elements offered the audience a new frame and way of seeing the play. The play took no different directions by following both disturbing and darkly comic sides. However, religious allegories were not overlaid in a way that could be easily noticed. For instance, no solution is found for the existing problem.
Critically, the production did not make sense in highlighting Duke’s cruel behavior. No clear reasons are given why he delayed informing Isabella that his brother was alive. Nonetheless, the play was incredibly enjoyable, making it proof that the play Measure for Measure could be used as a comedy in the film industry.
Shakespeare’s Ambiguous Message: Religion in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and “Hamlet”
Shakespeare’s plays employ many allusions to religious stories and beliefs. Hamlet and Measure for Measure, for example, both address religious themes and incorporate religious imagery. However, Shakespeare’s personal religious beliefs have never been clear. Some argue that his plays reflect Shakespeare’s doctrine, but mere references to religion do not prove that the playwright himself was a follower of Catholic tradition. An analysis of Hamlet and Measure for Measure, along with consideration of typical religious beliefs in Shakespeare’s time, shows that the messages in at least these two of Shakespeare’s works neither condone nor condemn religious teachings.
Though Shakespeare’s Hamlet is classified as a revenge tragedy, it does include scenes and speeches that deal with religious beliefs. The idea of the afterlife is dealt with many times. In the opening scene we are presented with a ghost caught in purgatory, one who claims to be Hamlet’s father and describes in detail the pain he suffers as a result of dying without having been cleansed of his sins: “I am thy father’s spirit, Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, And for the day confined to fast in fires, Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature Are burnt and purged away” (I.v., 9-13). The effect of one’s life deeds on his afterlife is a theme that runs throughout the play. In Hamlet’s first soliloquy, we see that Hamlet refrains from committing suicide in order to avoid God’s wrath:
“O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew; Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God, God, How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (I.ii., 129-134)
It is clear that Hamlet does not lament his suicidal thoughts because he feels guilty; rather, he refrains from “self-slaughter” only out of fear that he would go to hell or purgatory for doing so. The question of what one must do to ensure admittance to heaven permeates the play. Its opposite – how can Hamlet ensure that Claudius lives in eternal torment? – appears as well. Hamlet realizes that murdering Claudius would have the undesired effect of sending Claudius, who would die seeking forgiveness and purging his soul of sins, to heaven: “A villain kills my father, and for that I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven. Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge” (III.iii., 76-79). Hamlet uses his religious belief to “save” Claudius on earth and thereby – so Hamlet believes – send him to hell for killing Hamlet’s father.
During Ophelia’s burial scene, religious beliefs are once again used to determine a character’s placement in death. Act V, Scene i opens with a banter between two gravediggers who are discussing Ophelia’s proper burial. Because of her possible suicide, they are unsure whether her body should be allowed in consecrated ground: “If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should ahve been buried out o’Christian burial” (V.i., 23-25). Here we see that social standing takes precedence over what the gravediggers believe to be religious law.
At the very end of the play, we see that Laertes confesses his guilt in the attempted murder of Hamlet and wishes to clear himself of his sins before he dies. “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, Nor thine on me!” (V.ii., 323-325) Hamlet grants him that forgiveness but, considering that this idea of what it takes to cleanse one’s soul and ensure entry into Heaven, their confessions and forgiveness are rather short-winded and seemingly insincere. Once again, it would seem as though the two exchange ‘forgiveness’ not because they truly forgive one another, but because they are desperate to avoid the depths of hell once they have passed away.
In none of these examples does Shakespeare take a stance on what characters should do about their dilemmas. In the case of Laertes, Shakespeare even alludes to the folly of religion – if one may be forgiven so easily and with such little conviction, how meaningful can the religious doctrine really be?
In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare addresses this question. In this play, a Duke disguises himself as a religious figure and Isabel is about to become a nun. Because one is only posing as religious and the other has not fully committed to enter the convent, neither character can be considered a truly religious figure; as critic Harper notes, “In Measure’s Vienna, Isabella is not a nun but a novice, the Duke is no real friar, and Angelo is certainly no angel” (p.2-3)
The Duke feels obligated to give power to Angelo because he, the Duke, has been lax in law enforcement and let his people become out of control. Angelo then arrests Claudio for premarital sex and sentences him to death. Claudio argues that he had planned to marry his lover but had not yet announced the engagement, and therefore deserves leniency. When asked why he has been arrested, Claudio responds:
“From too much liberty, my Lucio. Liberty, As surfeit, is the father of much fast; So every scope by the immoderate use Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue, Like rats that ravin down their proper band, A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.” (I.ii.118-122)
Claudio’s statement underscores the Duke’s reason for giving the harsh Angelo responsibility for law enforcement – too much liberty causes problems, and Angelo is strict on laws affecting personal freedom. But how strict is too strict? Claudio does not deserve death for his crime. This question leads us to ask whether religious law should be enforced by the state or by God, who, presumably, has a more nuanced view than Angelo about when and how to punish – or forgive. The question of who is fit to administer justice becomes more complicated as the play goes on, as we realize that both Angelo and the Duke act in morally dubious ways. Angelo’s proposition towards Claudio’s sister is inappropriate, and by marrying Isabella the Duke takes her away from the religious life – not exactly a sin, but hardly an endorsement of the religious life.
As in Hamlet, Shakespeare remains neutral in Measure for Measure on the question of whether religious law is right or wrong; he simply uses the question to advance the story. A number of critics have argued that Measure for Measure “illustrates central concepts of Christian doctrine” (Gless p.1) but that does not mean Shakespeare adhered to such a doctrine. In addition, if his goal were to promote Christianity why would Isabella abandon her plan to become a nun? As Gless states, “despite [Isabella’s] once fervent commitment to virginity and to her impending vows, she tacitly but clearly agrees to marry [the Duke]” (p.5). In the case of Hamlet, a play that promoted Christian doctrine would most likely allow characters make amends for their wrongdoings and receive God’s forgiveness; instead, nearly all the characters die unredeemed.
Shakespeare does reveal some of his own beliefs in these plays. He makes it evident that he believes in hell as a consequence for some actions, but does not say which actions lead one there. Similarly, he does not leave his audience with a clear notion of whether we should be governed by mortal law or God’s; instead, he suggests that a merger between both types – as in the marriage between the ‘soft’ Duke and the disciplined Isabella – is probably optimal.
If he was religiously indifferent, why would Shakespeare incorporate so many Christian references and themes? Most likely it was to suit the audience of his time, one that was so well acquainted with the Bible it may not even have noticed the plays’ numerous allusions to Scripture (Bryant 1994). Through Biblical reference, Shakespeare ensured that his audience could relate to the characters. Just as writers now may use elements of our popular culture to help audiences understand a message, so did Shakespeare use the familiar cultural references of his time. Whether or not Shakespeare was himself a religious man is less important than his skillful use of religious themes to connect with the public at large.
Bryant, J.A. Jr. “Typology in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension. Roy Battenhouse. Indiana University Press, 1994. Pp. 23 – 24.
Cormican, L.A. “Medieval Idiom in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension. Roy Battenhouse. Indiana University Press, 1994. Pp. 24 – 27.
Gless, Darryl F. Measure for Measure: the Law and the Convent. Guilford: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Harper, Carolyn. Twixt Will and Will Not: The Dilemma of Measure for Measure. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1998.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. T.J.B. Spencer. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1980.
Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. Ed. J.W. Lever. New York: The Arden Shakespeare, 1965.
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.
“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.
The Portrayal of Women in Measure for Measure
‘Measure for Measure’ features female characters from various backgrounds, representing the whole of Viennese society. Women from the upper-classes, such as Isabella, are featured alongside their lower class compatriots, such as brothel keeper Mistress Overdone. However, all of them have one thing in common; in male-dominated Vienna, women are portrayed, first and foremost, in terms of their sexuality.
One of the ways in which Shakespeare presents women is through dialogue, or lack thereof. In the play, Isabella is the main female character, and the one to whom the most lines are given .However, she speaks entirely of her own volition in only two scenes- that of her second meeting with Angelo and her chastisement of Claudio. She uses strong language and fiery rhetoric in order to express her emotions and reject the attempts of both men to make her give up her maidenhead (which, in her ‘measure’, weighs more than Claudio’s head). In every other scene she is encouraged by Lucio or has her words scripted by the Duke, making her a mere conduit for someone else’s words. As soon as the Duke takes over, Isabella’s speech gradually fades away. Her words are taken over by the Duke, as she submits to his control (“Show me how, good father.”). At the end of the play she is completely silent, forcing the Duke to repeat his marriage proposal twice. This can be interpreted as a silencing of the independent voices of women, forcing them to conform to masculine control.
Further proof lies in the fact that Isabella is the only woman who has over a 100 lines, a privilege shared by other male side characters including Pompey and Escalus. By contrast, the next most important female, Mariana, has only 68 lines, far lower than Isabella’s 420 lines. Thus, women are meant to be seen and not heard. Even when they do speak, their words eventually become layered with sexual overtones. This is expected from characters such as Mistress Overdone, whose usage of sexual slang differentiates her from upper-class women such as Isabella. However, Isabella’s metaphysical debate on the nature of justice with Angelo, in Act 2, Scene III only serves to awaken his lust (“she speaks, and ‘tis such sense that my sense breeds with it”). In Act 2, Scene IV, her words language reflects how she subconsciously responds to Angelo’s sexual overtures, with imagery reminiscent of masochistic beating fantasies (“Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies/And strip myself to death as to a bed….”).
Instead of their voices (and by extension, their rational thoughts), the body language of women is emphasized as a means of communication. The pregnant Juliet is silently present on stage for an entire scene, and Claudio refers to her pregnant body (“the stealth of our most mutual entertainment, with character too gross is writ on Juliet). In Act V, Mariana uses physical gestures to emphasize her point, including kneeling, unveiling (“this is thy hand…thy face..and so on)”. In speaking of his sister, whom he wants to persuade Angelo, Claudio speaks of her body first- “A prone and speechless dialect” refers to her body language. He places her talent for rhetoric second, although theoretically it is the latter which should be more important as an instrument of persuasion. The dramatic device of a bed-trick also shows how women’s bodies are more important than their speech. The substitution of Mariana for Isabella satisfies Angelo’s desire. But ironically, it was Isabella’s rhetorical skill which attracted him in the first place. When women are objectified, they cease to become individuals. Hence Angelo asks Isabella to “put on the destined livery”, indicating that a woman’s sole purpose is to satisfy a man’s desires.
Besides that, in the play, women are also identified in terms of their relationship to a man. In Act V, the Duke questions Mariana, invalidating her existence if she is “neither maid, nor widow, nor wife”. These three categories have one thing in common- firstly, they designate women to a particular role in society based on her relationship to a man. Secondly, they fit a woman’s sexuality into socially acceptable boundaries. In a patriarchal society such as Vienna, women being seen as sexual objects mean that their sole purpose is to fulfill a man’s sexual desires in a socially acceptable way- marriage. Those who do not do so seem unnatural, because they resist masculine control. This is shown by the two figures who are at opposite ends of the sexual spectrum- the nun and the prostitute, who are conflated into one by the corrupting gaze of Angelo. By staying chaste and being hypersexual respectively, both step out of the acceptable categories of sexual behavior, and must be subjugated as both do not derive their identities from any single man. Hence, the Duke acknowledges the identities of neither, and proposes to Isabella to fit her sexuality into a socially acceptable category. An argument which takes a favorable view of the Duke’s proposal to Isabella is that sexual abstinence is unnatural. Shakespeare shows this by having various initially abstemious characters, such as the Duke and Angelo, eventually show interest in a woman. So, the Duke is giving Isabella a chance to stop surprising her latent sexual urges (shown by the sexual overtones of her words in Act 2, Scene 4, as mentioned earlier). Simultaneously, the other figure, the prostitute Kate Keepdown, is made more respectable by being married off to Lucio, symbolically bringing that aspect of a woman’s sexuality under control.
However, it can be argued that the ambiguity of Isabella’s decision is a sign of hope for independent women. In the play, the power of women to arouse desire in men does constitute a kind of power, and is the only one they have. As soon as a woman gives up her chastity, she becomes an object like all the rest, but the chaste woman exudes a purity that makes men desire her. Although he sees Isabella’s beauty first (“as your cheek roses proclaim that you are no less”), the foul-mouthed Lucio initially holds her in high regard (“I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted, by your renouncement an immortal spirit”). Her purity attracted Angelo (“with saints doth thou bait they hook!”). Even the Duke, when he first sees her, equates beauty with goodness (“the hand that had made you fair hath made you good.”) An alternative reading of the Duke’s proposal to Isabella is that he, like his substitute, Angelo, is attracted to Isabella because of her purity- this makes him strive to assist her, and in the end, propose marriage, which is advantageous for her. Lucio commented “when maidens sue, men give like gods”. To make both the Duke and his substitute desire her is a sort of achievement. However, the consequence is that both attempt to control her. Isabella is only saved from either giving to Angelo or watching her brother die at the expense of becoming the Duke’s pawn, and lying in public in Act V, thus sullying her reputation. Thus, Isabella’s power is somewhat superficial.
Nevertheless, unlike the other three women married off in the end, Isabella is the only one with her chastity intact, which lends another interpretation to her silence- she is immortalized as a woman who has the power to make her own choice. Kate Keepdown and Juliet’s illegitimate children are proof of their sexual activities, for whose maintenance the Duke may have ordered them to get married. Mariana’s confession is endorsed by the Duke. She also risks getting pregnant. Throughout the play, references to sexually transmitted diseases and illegitimate children abound, and are always taken as evidence of sexual transgression. Only Isabella is still a virgin. Although her reputation is tainted by her initial confession of having slept with Angelo, she has none of the aforementioned physical evidence to betray her. The ambiguity of her silence thus reflects that she is free to accept the Duke or refuse him and return to the nunnery, as per her own wishes.
In conclusion, women in Vienna are effectively portrayed in terms of their sexuality and their relationship to men, which enables the rulers of Vienna to control them. Out of all the women in the play, only Isabella resists control- yet critical views of her chastity are divided, with some seeing it as unnatural, while others see it as a way to escape the hotbed of vice that Vienna has become. In any case, audience reactions will be influenced by their personal attitudes towards women and sex- Shakespeare’s usage of complex characters creates uncertainty and admits multiple interpretations.
Sex, Death and their Associated Legal Undertakings in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure
In French, la petite mortis an expression that literally means “the brief loss or weakening of consciousness” but usually refers to “the sensation of orgasm as likened to death.” This phenomenon is probably not a revelation, given that every author of hackneyed romance novels references it in trite and often awkward sex scenes but the point is, it is not a novel singularity, originating in mid 20th century erotica but rather, the association of sex and death alongside the law is age-old and has existed even prior to the mid-Renaissance career of William Shakespeare. In the Vienna portrayed in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, sex is set to become highly regulated after a 14-year period of hedonism and wantonness and it falls to Angelo to enforce these rules. The brothels are about to be shut down in Vienna’s equivalent of Amsterdam’s red-light district, and a young man named Claudio is imprisoned, condemned to be put to death for engaging in unambiguously consensual sexual intercourse with his fiancé Juliet, who becomes pregnant. After this introductory chain of events, the play unfolds to reveal a complicated and contradictory juxtaposition of sex and death which is further intensified by the existence of the law which attempts to govern their concurrence. Moreover, Isabella, Claudio’s sister, and Angelo, the leader of Vienna during the majority of the play, are religious and moral extremists who often conflate sex with death in their dialogue and soliloquies to the point it is often unclear which they are referring to and spend the scope of the play negotiating with how to come to terms with their desires in the context of the law.
Measure for Measure opens with Duke Vincentio, the leader of Vienna, handing over the legal jurisdiction of Vienna to Angelo. The Duke bequeaths his power to Angelo by saying, “Mortality and mercy in Vienna/Live in thy tongue and heart (1.1.44-45).” From the onset of the play, the power to kill, the nature of mortality, and the ability to save others from death and offer mercy, are in constant interplay with each other and with matters of the body, in this case, the tongue and the heart which are both explicitly sexual organs or at the very least, organs of romance. In the next scene though, in stark contrast to the formal political machinations of the first scene in the play, Lucio and his friends are jesting about venereal disease in the light-hearted manner of men who have nothing better to do when the tone immediately changes at the entrance of Mistress Overdone, a brothel madam who proceeds to inform the group that Claudio has been imprisoned and sentenced to death for impregnating Juliet. After Lucio’s departure, Pompey the clown enters and notifies the group as well as the audience of the shutting down of all the brothels in Vienna but doesn’t hesitate to assure Mistress Overdone that she will always have enough customers to keep herself and her business financially afloat. When Lucio goes to the prison and asks Claudio himself what crime he has committed to warrant such punishment, Claudio replies,
“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 raven down their proper bane,/A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die (1.2.105-110).”
He eventually stops evading Lucio’s question and tells him that the sin he is being imprisoned for is lechery, in more specific terms, engaging in sexual intercourse with Juliet who he genuinely intended to marry before issues with her dowry arose and her parents halted the progression of the marriage. It is highly notable that in the case of Claudio and Juliet at least, it is not the sheer act of sex that is being punished by the law but the fact that there is physical proof of their fornication with her now visible pregnancy, thereby publicizing an act that was initially inherently private and contained to the bedroom with her lover. Juliet at this point in the play is similar to Isabella herself since both women exist outside the boxes that most women fall into in Renaissance Vienna, as virgins looking to be married, wives, or whores. Isabella is attempting to take herself out of the marriage equation by becoming a nun but Juliet on the other hand is sexually active and faces the consequences of her indiscretion but is not a wife yet and since she only has sex with Claudio and without any financial obligation to do so, she is not a whore either. The question that dominates the Vienna of the play is, if nobody knows that a person had sex, did they actually have sex? If two people copulate in a distant forest somewhere without letting anybody know (and obviously if they take the necessary precautions to ensure no pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease transpires) then theoretically, these people are free of the legal consequences of having sex as well, which is ironic and even hypocritical. The language that Claudio uses to discuss his supposed crime though is highly indicative of the play’s outlook on human sexuality, even sexuality that is consensual and not the result of duty or coercion. The metaphor Claudio uses of rats dying from being poisoned is vivid and odd given the nature of his crime but then again, by criminalizing sexual intercourse outside of marriage, the disparate entities of sex, death, and the laws which govern them cannot be separated or, in the case of Claudio who is condemned to death for his crime of physical love, even remotely differentiated. Claudio proceeds to beseech Lucio,
“I prithee, Lucio, do me this kind service./This day my sister should the cloister enter,/And there receive her approbation./ Acquaint her with the danger of my state…beside, she hath prosperous art/When she will play with reason and discourse,/And well she can persuade (1.2.153-156, 161-163).”
By this entreating, Claudio indicates to the audience that his sister, Isabella, is about to take her vows to become a novice nun, and also that it is not her beauty or her virtue that make her a formidable candidate to plead for his life but her skill with reason and discourse, her ability to persuade. Like many of Shakespeare’s other female characters, Isabella is not described by her physical attributes but rather by the content of her character. In fact, throughout the entirety of Shakespeare’s bibliography, one of the only descriptors of the female form comes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Hermia is described as being of short stature still though with nary a description of her physiognomy. When Angelo feels lust towards Isabella, his rationale is entirely cerebral in nature and his lust seems to be truly sapiosexual if that is remotely possible outside the language of theory. It is notable that Isabella’s reputation precedes her before she is physically present in the play and through her brother’s words, it is clear that not only is Isabella physically and ideologically pure enough to receive her approbation but also possesses a distinct skill of rhetoric, which is far from typical of a novice nun. In a sense, it is possible to postulate that Isabella and Claudio sort of exist in a sort of gender-swapped universe where Claudio is the delicate damsel in distress and Isabella is the one responsible for negotiating his survival although her weapon of choice is not a sword or spear but her wits and her brain. Moreover, when it comes to understanding the relationship between Isabella and Claudio, it is also necessary to consider the underlying insinuations of their existence as almost unattached entities in Viennese society, without parents or patrons and forced to fend for themselves so to speak. At one point in the play, Isabella suggests that the lives of her parents as well were rife with sexual immorality and seems to imply that Claudio’s actions are genetic in nature but for whatever reason, Shakespeare does not extend this potential plot point and never really discusses the familial status of Claudio and Isabella as children but rather focuses on their relationship as siblings and how they negotiate their lives and sexualities in a world that is intent on policing every aspect of their agency.
In Act I, Scene 3, the Duke asks the Friar to provide him with a costume so that he can disguise himself as a visiting Friar. The Duke states that he does not feel comfortable for punishing the people of Vienna for their hedonism because he technically sanctioned it in the first place but still is concerned about the state of affairs in the city. In addition, it is also assumed that the Duke himself has been guilty of crimes of a similar nature that he is condemning in the possibly not so distant past. While Angelo will later expose himself to be a stalwart hypocrite, propositioning Isabella and suggesting she give up her maidenhead in exchange for her brother’s literal head, but without a sense of any real stated cognizance for the irony of his actions, the Duke is dangerously self-aware. He is the most powerful character in the play and even when he is not on stage, pulls the strings as if every other character in the play are only puppets on strings and engineers the schemes and events that will ultimately decide the fates of the entire cast. In a sense, the Duke is above the law in a sense because he decided how the law ought to condemn individual people and ultimately, it is not about the fact that sex is seen as poisonous to the state of Vienna but rather about the narrative that the Duke allows to be perpetuated about sex. That is, through the closure of the brothels, sex in Vienna is regulated and therefore, it is understood that sex is the problem to be curtailed and even if the danger of sex is imagined, because of its delineation as a threat, it becomes the real issue to be addressed on a societal level. As John Dollimore succinctly summarizes,
“The problem with the concept of realpolitik is that it tends to discount the non-rational but still effective dimensions of power which make it difficult to determine whether crisis is due to paranoia generating an imaginary threat or whether a real threat is intensifying paranoia. And of course, even if the threat is imaginary this can still act as the ‘real cause of the ensuing conflict.” (Dollimore, 78-79)In a sense, the law of the city is mutable according to the whims of the person in power, in this case the Duke since while Angelo is the seeming leader of the city, in some ways, he is still only a figurehead and moreover, it is necessary to understand the nature of the law to understand how the play ultimately pans out.
But, the fact that Isabella is first presented to the audience in Act I, Scene 4 in the convent is intentional and absolutely crucial to her later characterization. Lucio requests that Isabella physically leave the nunnery to plead for her brother’s life, for forgiveness of what she believes to be a sin in accordance to her religion although she ultimately chooses to act on her familial loyalty rather than religious devotion. The existence of the nunnery in relation to the patriarchal atmosphere of Vienna is also crucial to understanding the structures within the city as well as the relationships between sexuality, religion, and the law. As Jessica Slights writes,
“Like Saint Clare’s dream of founding a religious order for women, Isabella’s desire to become a nun involves the dissident repudiation of men’s right to control women’s destinies. When we speak of ‘dissidence’ here, we do not have in mind full-scale revolution, but rather the various tactical actions that allow individual agents to resist coercive authority in their daily lives. Such dissident acts are often necessary to accommodate fundamental personal desires and ought, therefore, to be considered techniques as well as, at times, critical interventions in otherwise hegemonic cultural formations (Slights and Holmes, 272).”
In other words, the desire of Isabella to become a nun can almost be perceived as a subconscious transcendence of the social order even if Isabella is most likely the last person to label herself as an iconoclast. If she becomes a nun, she cannot ever be a wife or mother but also will not ever be directly subservient to the orders of any man, except of course, to the will of God. In a sense, Isabella’s taking the veil is a way of taking herself out of the game of marriage in Viennese society, rendering herself free of a fixed identity that she would otherwise have to be circumspect to as a potential wife and mother. By choosing to enter the church, Isabella has made the active choice to remain a virgin, which in its own way, is an act of consent because no one is forcing or coercing or blackmailing her to join the Church and moreover, her stubborn adherence to retaining her virginity throughout the play is a sequence of attempts to regain control over her own body and sexuality by refusing to be a potential sexual or romantic partner to Angelo or anybody else. Of course, through his proclamation at the end of the play that she will marry him, the Duke alters her identity from the nebulous place of an almost novice who has still not taken her vows to the firm locus of lawfully wedded wife, Isabella.
Act II Scene 2 is a pivotal scene in the play because it is the first meeting of Angelo and Isabella, who are both extremists although while Isabella can be characterized as well-intentioned, Angelo is most definitely not. Isabella begins by pleading with Angelo to condemn Claudio’s fault rather than his person, but Angelo moves forward to argue that a person who commits a crime must be punished for it and well, Isabella definitely agrees that Claudio is guilty of a crime. Lucio whispers to Isabella that she should try harder to bargain for her brother’s life at which point Isabella claims that Claudio would have mercy on Angelo if the roles were to be reversed but to no avail. Isabella then calls out to Angelo that she will bribe him, and Angelo is intrigued by her determination as well as the sexual undertones of her statement and tells her to come back the next day. After Isabella departs, the scene concludes with a soliloquy by Angelo where he realizes he possesses a sexual desire for Isabella which is inappropriate and inopportune in a number of ways. He speaks out,
“What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault or mine? The tempter or the tempted, who sins most, ha? Not she; not doth she tempt; but it is I That, lying by the violet in the sun, Do, as the carrion does, not as the flower Corrupt with virtuous season… Dost thou desire her foully for those things That make her good? O, let her brother live! (Angelo, 2.2.167-172, 177-178)”
The above excerpt is so crucial to the central idea of the play because it directly continues the earlier analogies in the play made between sex and death. Angelo uses the metaphor of the carrion in the sun (carrion is defined as dead, rotting flesh) and directly relates it to his sexual desire for Isabella, his inappropriate and wrongful desire since Isabella is about to be initiated as a nun and is not his wife. It is honestly deeply disturbing that the more Angelo ponders on the wrongfulness of his desire, the more he seems to want Isabella with no regard of her want for him or rather, the lack thereof. But Angelo wonders why he is sexually attracted to Isabella and realizes that it is not her looks or her charm but rather her skill in diction and rhetoric, the way she communicates with him and that along with her virtue tempts him all the more. At this point in the play though, Angelo does not seem to have explicitly formulated the proposal to exchange Isabella’s maidenhead with Claudio’s actual head. However, it is clear that despite the many hazards of sexually desiring Isabella, Angelo is considering yielding to some of his repressed instincts against his better judgment. Ironically and downright hypocritically, Angelo finds himself vulnerable to the same desires he is putting Claudio to death for. His position on the righteousness of sex changes entirely and rather than being insistent on holding up the prescribed law, he is now more focused on avoiding culpability for the potential consequences of his desired union with Isabella. In a sense, Lucio seems subliminally aware of Angelo’s weaknesses from the very beginning, encouraging Isabella to touch Angelo and in a way, present herself as a sexual object when she is initially unwilling to be that kind of sexually available for Angelo or really for anybody. He might even be expecting Angelo’s proposition to Isabella and want Isabella to accept the deal to save her brother’s life but Isabella herself is a puritanical radical and regards fornication outside of the confines of marriage to be an unequivocal sin, for both men and women.
Act II, Scene 4 begins by Isabella once again going to Angelo and requesting that he spare her brother’s life and while he repeats that Claudio will die, he seems marginally more hesitant in his proclamation. When Isabella asks for clarification, Angelo says, “Which had you rather: that the most just law/Now took your brother’s life, or to redeem him/Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness/ As she that he hath stained (2.4.52-55).” In more explicit terms, would she give up her body, that is, her virginity to save her brother’s life? Isabella replies that she would rather give her body than her soul and Angelo pushes back asking whether there is a certain charity in sin if it for the “greater good” so to speak. There is then a few lines of equivocation where Angelo attempts to make Isabella comprehend what he is proposing but she refuses to renege on how she will not redeem her brother’s sin by further sinning. Eventually, Angelo tells Isabella that he loves her to which she replies, “My brother did love Juliet,/And you tell me that he shall die for it (2.4.143).” Isabella is starkly aware of how the criminalization of sexuality in Viennese society means that no matter what, she will be punished for her actions whether or not she has sex with Angelo out of wedlock and moreover, there is the high probability that even if she sleeps with him, he will still kill Claudio. When Isabella rejects him yet again and tells him that she will spread word of his proposition to her, Angelo arrogantly but most likely righteously asks her who will believe her. After all, he has a sound reputation and power in the state while she is simply an intended novice nun with a brother that is condemned to die. Initially Isabella’s naïveté to Angelo’s intentions is frustrating from the perspective of the reader or audience and oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly given the state of human nature, it is the sheer nature of Isabella’s reluctance to sleep with him or with anybody for that matter that seems to make Angelo desire her all the more. Logically speaking, it would not be difficult for Angelo to find a sexual partner in Vienna but because of Isabella’s sheer unavailability, it is only she that draws him out of his resolution to celibacy.
Moreover, even though he claims to love her, Angelo never offers to marry Isabella, which would theoretically legitimatize their proposed sexual union under the law of Vienna. Isabella and Angelo both continually remark on the act of “sin,” fornication, in relation to death, Claudio’s death in particular, but also Isabella’s potential death if she is forced to give up her virginity to Angelo, or to anybody for that matter. It is valid to question though even if Angelo’s and Isabella’s union was legitimatized if she would still intend to lay down and because she does not seem to condemn sex under the constraints of the marriage bed but rather solely regards sex out of wedlock as deplorable. But, even if Angelo intended to marry Isabella, she does not want to marry him let alone engage in the physical act of sex with him so in any case, he is putting her in a precarious position, where she is trapped with no way out. Or at least, she would be if it were not for the Duke who as it was previously stated, supersedes both Angelo and the literal law in Vienna because he is the arbitrator of the law even if he technically has to concede to the voices of his people.
When refusing Angelo, Isabella 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 (2.4.99-103).”For someone as averse to the idea of sex as Isabella purports to be, she clearly is fixated on it, utilizing extremely sexualized images to convey how averse she is to sex. The image of being whipped with whips of rubies is extremely sexual in nature which Angelo most likely takes notice of as well. Like Angelo who is extremely repressed, Isabella herself is also equally repressed. As Carolyn Brown writes,
“While disavowing her forbidden gratification, she [Isabella] attests to it her negation. Her religious life secretly gratifies her masochistic needs yet conceals this gratification by asceticism. She reminds us of medieval ascetics who scourged themselves or received flagellations from their superiors and often relished these activities (Brown, 69).”
She formulates the idea that her brother’s death is preferable to her committing an act of sin and she states. She emphasizes how disturbing the intertwined relationship between Isabella’s chastity and her brother’s death is and Isabella at least cannot imagine a world where she can see herself as alive without her virginity.
Act III, Scene 1 begins with the Duke visiting Claudio in prison and attempting to ready him for his death, saying that he should think of it as better than life since life is unequivocally more frightening than death because of its fundamental complications. Then, Isabella enters and requests an audience with her brother, so the Duke takes his leave. Isabella then tells Claudio that there is no way he can avoid his forthcoming death because the only other alternative is life imprisonment but outside of jail, an utter loss of honor. Eventually, she tells him of Angelo’s proposition to exchange her virginity for his life and Claudio initially readies himself to die, musing on Angelo’s hypocrisy, how he can possess such desires towards an almost nun at that but still doggedly enforce a law against those very longings. But Claudio misunderstands the nature of the law, especially as it is in the city of Vienna. As Slights and Holmes write,
“Angelo, the play’s principal “hypocrite,” defends his decision to condemn Claudio by denying his own agency, a tactic that enables him to eschew mercy: “It is the law, not I, condemn your brother” (2.2.80). Angelo’s recourse to abstract and inherited principles of justice belies both the constructed character of the law and the necessary role of human agency in administering its percepts (Slights and Holmes, 278).”
While Angelo’s role is as a guardian of the law, the law is incontrovertibly something intrinsically human and not quantitative in nature. The law is not innate in the backbone of a society but is constructed by human beings who ultimately decide how the law is executed and deals with crime or other misdemeanors in the community. So, when the law attempts to dictate the sexual activities of the people of Vienna, it is really an individual behind it, in this case Angelo, who takes charge of the moral upkeep of the city despite his inability to adhere to this standard of morality himself.
Almost immediately after stating his decision to die though in the aforementioned scene, Claudio reneges on his declaration and begs Isabella to yield to Angelo’s proposition without realizing that even if his sister sleeps with Angelo, Angelo could still very easily have him killed. Claudio claims to Isabella that lechery is not a sin or at least, is the mildest of the deadly sins but to no avail; she angrily calls her brother a coward, telling him that it is a kind of incest for her to have sex in order to save his life and storms out. Then, the Duke enters the scene and tells Claudio that Angelo was only testing Isabella’s virtue and would have him put to death no matter what she did. He then requests an audience with Isabella and asks her how she plans to save her brother from his fate only to have her respond, “I am not going to resolve him. I had rather my brother died by the law than my son should be unlawfully born (3.1.189-190.”In this, she reiterates the direct association between the law and sex and death, in this case Claudio’s own impending demise, which prevails throughout the play.
In the first scene of Act IV, Mariana is introduced although notably, she says very little and mainly lets the Duke dominate the conversation but then again, even Isabella who is previously lauded for her skills in rhetoric and speech demurs to him as well. The Duke easily possesses the most political authority in the play but moreover, he also has a sense of assurance that no other character shares simply because he is highly accustomed to getting his way, in superseding any law or societal expectation that he might disagree with. While the Duke is explaining the bed switch scheme to Mariana and Isabella, he does not mention that it very easily could fail due to the proposed intimacy between Mariana and Angelo which is an intangible entity not to mention the legality or morality of the bed switch but perhaps intentionally so. The bed switch scheme is interesting for a number of reasons because it brings up the issue of sexual consent in terms of the law. The fact is, Angelo would obviously not consent to having sex with Mariana but through the Duke’s manipulations, it comes to be and he is then forced to marry her even though he states that he would rather die. Moreover, the Duke is the ostensible legal authority in Vienna, even when Angelo is the figurehead of political power in the city and so it is highly morally suspect that he encourages the bed switch because it is for all intents and purposes, rape although it is arguable whether the perpetrator of the crime is Mariana or the Duke himself. While Claudio and Juliet had a similar contract to Angelo and Mariana, in their case, their union was fully consensual and for all intents and purposes, loving, but was still deemed unlawful.
n the case of Mariana and Angelo though, even though Angelo would be entirely unwilling if aware of who he was sleeping with, it is still seen as acceptable within the scope of the play, perhaps because Angelo, as a hypocrite, seemingly “deserves” to be punished. However, similar to Isabella’s lack of verbal consent to the Duke’s proposal of marriage at the end of the play, Angelo’s unwillingness to sleep with Mariana contributes to the problematic nature of Measure for Measure as a “problem play.” While female on male rape is rare for numerous reasons, this situation is definitely unique, and it is unclear to what extent Mariana herself has a choice in sleeping with Angelo in Isabella’s place since she too is a subject of the Duke as a citizen of Vienna.
Unlike the comedies which came before it, the ending of the is somewhat discomforting. While Juliet and Claudio are permitted to be married as they so desired and have their child be legitimized, Angelo is forced to marry Mariana after he sleeps with her thinking it was Isabella, Lucio is forced to marry the woman he previously impregnated, and the Duke states he will marry Isabella but notably, she does not verbally consent to the marriage or presumably, to have sex with him and give up her position as a nun. In fact, his proposal comprises the very last lines of the play when he states in front of most of the characters in the play, “If he be like your brother, for his sake/Is he pardoned and for your lovely sake/Give me your hand, and say you will be mine./He is my brother too (5.1.484-487).” But although he proclaims in the last lines to the entire cast that he will marry Isabella, she is noticeably silent, and it is unclear what her actual answer would be to the proposal if she had a real choice in the matter. In some adaptations of the play, both modern and more classic in nature, it concludes with tacit consent on the part of Isabella, a kiss between her and the Duke or at the least a meaningful smile acknowledging her willingness to marry him and give up her erstwhile ecclesiastical intentions. But in the original play, there is no such indication and it falls to the audience or reader to decide to what extent the Duke can be seen to be as sexually coercive as Angelo, the original hypocrite from earlier on in the play who is far easier to condemn because of how clumsy his manipulations are in comparison to the Duke’s. The fact is, throughout the entire play, not a single thing happens without the Duke’s knowledge and while the rest of the characters do have agency to act and are accountable for their actions, the strings are pulled by the Duke, even when he is not present in the scene at hand.
In short, in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, it is crucial to understand the relationship between sex, death, and the law. While it is impossible to precisely state how and why the characters in the play behave as they do, ultimately, the issues raised in the play of consent, agency, sexuality, and the simultaneous desire for and fear of death are omnipresent in all societies both Renaissance and modern alike. In other words, while the technical criminalization of sex out of the sanctions of marriage is probably unlikely to happen again, the policing of people’s sexuality, namely of women’s sexuality is still prevalent to this day in both the United States and all over the world. The characters of Isabella and Angelo in particular are both admittedly religious and moralistic extremists but also at the same time, show their innate mortality in a way that is disturbingly relatable even to the modern audience. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether there will truly ever be any form of real freedom when it comes to human sexuality or if it’s an innate tendency to want to control that sentiment, particularly in women and other groups who are marginalized in terms of their race or sexuality by society at large. But nonetheless, Measure for Measure offers a unique and crucial analysis of the often ambiguous yet highly interrelated topics of sex and death in accordance with the law.