Sexuality and Anarchy in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

The aim of this paper is to examine how sexuality and anarchy are interrelated in Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure and how they jointly function in the whole course of the play. Sexuality is a word which originates from the word ‘sex’ which indicates the basic denominator of difference between the two main divisions of human as well as other living beings(namely, male and female). However, sexuality has multiple interpretations as a word. Sexuality is defined in various dictionaries as ‘capacity for sexual feeling’ or ‘a person’s sexual orientation or preference’. Sexuality is much more than mere body parts and sex, though it includes these elements also. Sexuality includes our gender identity as well the roles we have as the representatives of our respective gender. It includes our sexual orientation as well as our sexual experiences and how we shape our sexual selves. Thus we see that sexuality is a much broader term and covers wider aspects of human sexual feelings. Anarchy, on the other hand, refers to a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling system.

Both elements of sexuality and anarchy are dominant in this Shakespearean play and both, to a certain extent, are interrelated in the course of action in this play. We can bring a number of examples from the text to justify this point. The play is centered on the very theme of sexuality and anarchy and Shakespeare has wonderfully portrayed the nature of humans regarding sex and how a person, irrespective of the social class he/she belongs to, is vulnerable to this basic human denominator. And this vulnerability leads to a state of disorder in governance and creates a scope for abuse of power by a person of authority in order to keep him/her away from all the allegations and offenses that he/she is charged with.

Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure is set in Vienna and the play begins with the Duke Vincentio giving away his powers and position to the inexperienced Angelo against a more experienced and ideal person Lord Escalus, with the hope that Angelo would be able to reform the city by enforcing the laws which were for long remained unused. Angelo, a man of strong morals, in accordance with the belief of the Duke, applies the laws more strictly, especially in case of sexual malpractices that were increasing in the Vienna. However, how this strict moral disciplinarian suffers from the same carnal desires for which he has severely punished his fellow city-people, and how it leads to a situation of anarchy and social and political disorder, that is expressed exceptionally by Shakespeare and it dominates the central plot of the play. There are a number of instances where we find the clash between sexuality and power which further establishes the connection between sexuality and anarchy. Some of these instances are discussed below: As soon as Lord Angelo gets the power and position of the Duke, he takes it upon himself to make the city clean by employing the laws more strictly, especially in sexual matters. That is evident in his statement in the Act 1, Scene 2 where he commands “All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down” Here we learn that all the brothels in Vienna’s suburbs are scheduled to be torn down because prostitution is illegal and the spread of venereal disease is out of control. It shows that Angelo is a morally sound fellow who wants to strictly curve the sexual acts, which led to a state of chaos in the city.

However, in this process of curving the sexual malpractices in the city, Angelo orders to arrest and give capital punishment to anyone who is charged with such a crime. Claudio, Isabella’s brother is charged with fornication and is given death penalty. But when Isabella comes to plead for her brother’s life to Angelo, the newly appointed Duke gets attracted to Isabella and tries his best to use the power of his position to win Isabella. Angelo, at first tries to suppress his feelings for Isabella, but ultimately fails to control his emotions and ends up forcing the latter to sleep with him. In fact, the conversation between Angelo and Isabella in Act 2, Scene 2 and Act 2, Scene 4 is mostly relevant to the issue of anarchy in the drama. Isabella understands the intentions of Angelo and is greatly disturbed at his tyrannical behavior. That is evident from her remark in the Second Scene of Act 2 in the play.“ O, it is excellent / To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant” -Isabella (Act 2, Sc 2)

Again, in this scene at one point Isabella makes a remark about Angelo and his ill-use of power. Isabella says,“ But man, proud man,Dress’d in a little brief authority,Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d—His glassy essence—like an angry apePlays such fantastic tricks before high heavenAs makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,Would all themselves laugh mortal.”

These lines makes it evident that Angelo, according to Isabella, has become so proud of his position and power as the Duke that he considers himself superior and acts ignorantly. Isabella even compares him to an ‘angry ape’. As the conversations carry on, we find Angelo weaker and more corrupt both mentally and sexually. He tries his best to take advantage of her situation which is quite unlike his nature with which we are familiar at the beginning of the play. This man of strong moral values has become a victim of his sexual attraction and his acts reveal his abuse of power for fulfilling his own sexual urge. Angelo though is aware of his fault, is unable to stop himself from indulging in such morally corrupt acts. In Act 2, Scene 2 of the play, Angelo’s soliloquy at the end of the scene reveals his sense of guilt. This is a very important soliloquy in the play.

What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault, or mine?The tempter or the tempted, who sins most, ha?Not she: nor does she tempt: but it is IThat, lying by the violet in the sun,Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it beThat modesty may more betray our senseThan woman’s lightness? Having waste ground enoughShall we desire to raze the sanctuaryAnd pitch our evils there? Oh fie, fie, fie,What dost thou or what art thou, Angelo?Dost thou desire her foully for those thingsThat make her good? Oh, let her brother live:Thieves for their robbery have authorityWhen judges steal themselves. What, do I love herThat I desire to hear her speak againAnd feast upon her eyes? What is’t I dream on?Oh cunning enemy that, to catch a saint,With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerousIs that temptation that doth goad us onTo sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpetWith all her double vigour, art and nature,Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maidSubdues me quite. Ever till now.”

However, the conversation between Angelo and Isabella is not the only instance which shows the strong connection between sexuality and anarchy. There are other instances as well as other characters who reveal the same in the course of this play. In this regard, we can mention the characters such as Lucio, Mistress Overdone and even the Duke Vincentio and Claudio. Mistress Overdone though appears a character from a dark background as she is a brothel-keeper, her remark of Angelo is quite apt and it reflects his anarchic attitude. In Act 1, Scene 2 she says, “O, why, here’s a change indeed in the commonwealth! What shall become of me?” The same can be said of the remarks made by Claudio. In the same Act and same Scene at one point when Claudio is arrested, we find him saying, “Thus can the demi-god, Authority/ Make us pay down for our offence by weight./ The words of heaven; on whom it will, it will;/ On whom it will not, so; yet still ‘tis just”.

Claudio calls the new Duke’s rule as ‘tyrannical’. It reflects the fact that Angelo was indeed immature in his acts and thus appeared more tyrannical to his fellow people as he lacked sympathy and compassion. If we look at lines 145-157 of Act 1, Scene 2, we see Angelo being compared to a new rider riding a horse. This image further implies the fact that Angelo lacked the mature outlook that is expected of a person of that high a rank and thus it leads to a state of disorder and social unrest in the city of Vienna.“Unhappily, even so.And the new deputy now for the Duke-Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness,Of whether that the body public beA horse whereon the governor doth ride,Who, newly in the seat, that it may knowHe can command, lets it straight feel the spur;Whether the tyranny be in his place,Or in his eminence that fills it up” – Claudio (Act 1, Sc 2)

Lucio, who is more of a comic character in the play, also appears concerned and rather unhappy with the happenings in the city regarding law and order. Shakespeare has wonderfully used these ordinary everyday life characters in his play to bring into the notice of the readers some of the serious matters and primary concerns of the society. The same can be seen in this play. In Act 1, Scene 4 of the play, in the lines 55-64, we find Lucio commenting about Angelo, which further establishes the fact that Angelo’s ways of handling power and authority was not welcomed by even the commonplace or the socially lower cast characters. Upon his place,And with full line of his authority,Governs Lord Angelo; a man whose bloodIs very snow-broth; one who never feelsThe wanton stings and motions of the senseBut doth rebate and blunt his natural edgeWith profits of the mind, study and fast.He, to give fear to use and libertyWhich have for long run by the hideous lawAs mice by lions, hath pick’d out an act….

These lines indicate the fact that Angelo appeared ruthless as a ruler without any sense of sympathy for anyone. His too much insistence on applying the laws in a harsh manner without taking into consideration any reasons or circumstances for the occurrence of the same makes him an object of dislike by almost all in Vienna. In fact, the Duke Vincentio and Lord Escalus are also aware of the fact that Angelo’s too much strict an approach in the case of applying laws without considering any moral grounds is a disturbing matter which would lead to a state of chaos. In fact, Escalus at times even argues with Angelo regarding the latter’s actions. In Act 2, Scene 1, we find Escalus telling Angelo that though Angelo is appearing to be morally sound, had situation was favorable, he would have also been tempted and even indulged in the act of bodily pleasure or sexual activity. Had time coher’d with place, or place with wishing,Or that the resolute acting of your bloodCould have attain’d th’ effect of your own purpose,Whether you had not sometime in your lifeErr’d in this point, which now you censure him, And pull’d the law upon you. – Escalus (Act 2, Sc 1)

As the play progresses, we as readers get a clear idea that sexual corruption of the people of authority can lead to a state of great social chaos and disorder and the law as a tool of judgement can be misused for individual or personal benefits. Angelo, being sexually attracted towards Isabella, lefts no stone unturned to force her to sleep with him. Isabella appears helpless at the hands of authority, personified by Angelo, until she is saved by Duke Vincentio through a well-constructed plan. Though at the end, things get sorted, the lesson is clear. The sexual urges or desires of man of high rank can lead to a situation of absolute breakdown of law and order. That is evident from the aside uttered by the old Duke in the Scene 2 of the Fourth Act.“When vice makes mercy, mercy’s so extendedThat for the fault’s love is th’ offender friended.” -Duke Vincentio (Act 4, Sc 2)

In the course of the play, the Duke Vincentio though tries to play the role of a god, at the hands of fate he appears more human and at times even helpless. This, no doubt creates a kind of suspense in the drama. However, at the end of the play everything is finally sorted out and order and peace is restored. Thus the state of anarchy motivated by the sexual desires of Lord Angelo was finally resolved.

In fine, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is an exceptional play where the writer deals with various themes such as morality and judgement, law and justice, statecraft, interrogation of authority etc. However, one of the most dominant themes in the play is, of course, sexuality and anarchy. Apart from the actions, the characters also are created mostly around this theme. There are certain characters, who indulge in sexual activities like Mistress Overdone, Lucio, Kate Keepdown etc. In fact, Claudio and Juliet, though with mutual consent, were indulged in sexual intercourse. These immoral persons and their unchecked or uncontrolled sexual activities led to further disorder in the state affairs in Vienna. But ultimately things are sorted out by the old Duke by employing Plato’s principle of ensuring social stability through marriage. At the end of the play, we find most of the characters are married off in order to ensure the fact that social order in restored in Vienna. Thus, marriage appears to be a solution to sexual malpractices and social disorder or anarchy.


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