The Role of Minor Characters in Measure for Measure
Minor characters in Shakespeare’s plays are often dismissed as merely providing comic relief. In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, however, the minorcharacters serve as first-hand examples of some of the main aspects of societythat Duke Vincentio intends to change, which are the moral corruption of thepeople of Vienna, the disregard of religion, and the lack of proper education. Pompey is the “major” minorcharacter of the play, his crucial role that of a commentator on the state ofaffairs among the citizens of Vienna. Although he holds no position of power, he is clever and manages to find loopholes in the law. As Duke Vincentio putshis plan in motion to go undercover to see how things can change with Angelo incharge, Pompey is one of the characters who highlights why simply replacing theperson in charge is not the best solution.
In Act 1, Scene 2, Pompey speaks to Mistress Overdone, his employer, about the new laws which will take down allbrothels in the suburbs of Vienna. She shows concern about what will happen toher brothel, in which Pompey reassures her, Pompey: Come; fear you not. Good counselors lack no clients. Though you change your place, you need notchange your trade. I’ll be yourtapster still. Courage! There will be pity taken on you. You that have worn your eyes almost out in service, youwill be considered. (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 93-97) This portrays how citizens likePompey and Mistress Overdone view the law; it is not strict and never will be, in fact, it is a law to be mocked, as Pompey’s language suggests when he says“I’ll be your tapster still. Courage!”. Therefore Pompey and Mistress Overdoneare confident that they are going to keep their jobs, or at the very least betaken pity on because of their old age. The title of this play is ofinterest of itself, which comes from the King James bible. “For with whatjudgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shallbe measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2). Christianity is embedded in Viennansociety, but as corruption worsened over the years, religion becomes a mereculture that is taken lightly and used for laughs. In the opening lines ofscene two of the play, two gentlemen appear speaking with Lucio on the street, making remarks such as the following:First Gentleman: Heaven grant us itspeace, but not the King of Hungary’s!” and First Gentleman: Why, ’twas a commandment to command thecaptain and all the restfrom their functions: they put forth to steal. There’snot a soldier of us all, that, in the thanksgiving beforemeat, do relish the petition well that prays for peace. (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 3, 11-15) These lines set the scene for theplay, portraying the priorities and standards of the people of Vienna, which isthat personal gain and satisfaction comes first, then come all trivial things, ones of which becomes religion. They are aware of the religious obligation tofollow the commandments of the Bible in order to prosper as a society, but, asthe second gentleman states, pirates and soldiers-and other mundaneindividuals-leave out the commandments that clash with their personal business. Pompey is seen participating in themocking and disregard of Christian morals. When the Provost asks Pompey if hecan cut off a man’s head, his reply is as follows: Pompey: …if he be a married man, he’s his wife’s head, and I can nevercut off a woman’s head.
Pompey is making a joke in referenceto a verse from the Bible, as Ephesians 5:23 is the idea of the husband as thehead of the wife, and Pompey uses this verse as a double-entendre meaning ahusband also owning his wife’s maidenhead. This further depicts howChristianity is common knowledge among citizens, even brothel citizens, yetvery few choose to properly follow it. In another instant, Pompey usesgrounding language to demonstrate that he does not regret his choice oflifestyle, despite it clashing with both the law of the land and the religion. Pompey: …Ido find your hangman is a more penitent trade than your bawd; he dothoftener ask forgiveness. (Act 4, Scene 2, lines 41-43) According to the customs of thesociety in Measure for Measure, anexecutioner typically asks the condemned person to forgive him right before hehas to cut off his head. Pompey, being a pimp at a brothel, admits that he doesnot care to ask for implied forgiveness from the Lord as he compares himself toan executioner who is obliged to do so so often. Pompey: Truly, sir, I am a poor fellow that would live.
As Pompey speaks to Escalus aboutthe nature of his job and why he chooses to live as a pimp, Pompey explainsthat he simply is trying to earn a living. This minor detail in the play shedslight on how poor education is in Vienna; that in order to make a living, manycitizens such as Pompey have to resort to such professions so that they cansurvive. Escalus warns Pompey that beheadings and hangings will be initiated inorder to reduce such crimes, in which Pompey bluntly explains, Pompey: If you head and hang all that offend that way butfor ten year together, you’ll be glad to give out acommission for more heads. (Act 2, Scene 2, lines 219-221) Corruption has run so deep in theveins of Vienna that in ten years, the government will have to repopulate thecity. Pompey repeating the word “head” in accordance with both decapitation, and the head, highlights the dark humor of the play. He continues to use a toneof mockery when referring to the new laws, which gives a sense of more urgencyof the subject at play, which is how deep the corruption of society is, so muchso that it seems irreversible. Furthermore, Pompey is an example ofthe extreme difficulties of change, and that the people of Vienna-includinghimself-will not change, just because the law has. Mockingly, he says, Pompey: I thank your Worship for your good counsel: (aside) But I shall follow it as the fleshand fortune shall better determine. Whip me? No, no; letcarman whip his jade: The valiant heart is notwhipt out of his trade.
In the opening 18 lines Act 4, Scene3, Pompey expresses his amusement at the fact that most of the clients he usedto see at Mistress Overdone’s brothel, are now with him in jail. He lists thenames and jobs of many of them, showing that vice and corruption have reachedall the social classes. There is young Master Rash, a man in debt; Marry, anunwanted prostitute; Master Three-pile the mercer, a textile merchant; youngDrop-heir the murderer; and brave Master Shooty the world-traveler. Elbow is another significant minorcharacter in the play. He is a cop, yet cannot enforce the law properly. Infact, he is constantly being taken advantage of by other officers in hisprecinct, and attests to their abuse of power—if a criminal is in the presenceof a deputy, he would be better off being anywhere but there. Escalus: …They do you wrong to put you so oftupon’t. Are there not men in your ward sufficient to serveit? Elbow: Faith, sir, few of any wit in such matters. As theyareChosen, they are glad to choose me for them. I do it for some piece of money, and go through with all. Duke Vincentio: …Take him to prison, officer. Correction andinstruction must both work Ere this rude beastwill profit. Elbow: He must before the deputy, sir; he has given him awarning. The deputy cannot abide a whoremaster: if he be a whoremonger, and comes before him, he were as good goa mile on his errand.
It is important to note that Elbowrefers to his fellow officers as being not as bright as himself. Elbow, despitebeing a law man, his language shows that his education is sub-par to hisposition. In Act 2, Scene 1, he mixes his words multiple times while speakingto Angelo. Elbow: …Ido lean upon justice, sir, and do bring in here before your honor two notorious benefactors. Angelo: Benefactors? Well, what benefactors are they? Arethey not malefactors?” (Act 2, Scene 1, lines 49-52) Elbow’s inability to use precisewords in speech results in Angelo’s annoyance in which he leaves the wholeordeal for Escalus to deal with. And while addressing Escalus, Elbow confusesthe words “attest” and “suspected” with “detest” and “respected, ” consecutively. Elbow: My wife, sir, whom I detest before heaven and your Honor—Escalus: How? Thy wife?
Elbow: First, an it like you, the house is a respectedhouse;Next, this is a respected fellow; and his mistress is a respected woman. (lines 151-153) This is a crucial point consideringthat such terms are common use for cops in their investigations, yet Elbowcannot accurately choose which words are appropriate. These lines depict thestandard of education in Vienna. As in Pompey’s case mentioned earlier, theless education there is, the more difficult it is to find a decent job to keepone out of places like whorehouses which are the greatest contributions ofcorruption in the play. Shakespearehas chosen to give many of the minor characters in Measure for Measure unique names that are directly related to whothey are as people. Most remarkable of these names are Mistress Overdone andthe Justice seen with Escalus in the early pages of the play. In Scene 1of Act 2, Escalus questions Pompey about his employer, who is MistressOverdone. Pompey clarifies that she earned her name when she married her ninthhusband, thus becoming an “overdone” woman. This paints her as a woman who hasno regard for a reputation of chastity and loyalty to one man only, which wasthe custom in the Christian society. Her main concern is her business ofrunning the brothel in which Pompey is an employee. One of Mistress Overdone’s most significant scenes in the play, is when she is gettingarrested for running her whorehouse after Lucio’s accusation of her to Escalus.
In these lines, Mistress Overdoneportrays a prime example of the morality of the common citizen. After outingher accuser with a sin supposedly worse than hers, she also mentions a gooddeed she has committed so that it she could perhaps take advantage of the mercyof the law, and having a positive replace a negative in her favor. This furtheremphasizes the ineffectiveness of the law due to the many years it has beennothing but lenient. Although in this particular scene her tone is not comical, there is irony and mockery in the request she makes, further highlighting thedark theme in which Measure for Measureis warped. Although Justice only appears for atotal of three lines in Act 2, Scene 1, he declares an important statement inwhich Escalus fully supports him on. Justice: Lord Angelo is severe. Escalus: It is butneedful.
Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so;
Pardonis still the nurse of second woe.
Having a character named “Justice”say “Lord Angelo is severe” serves as an affirmation that sometimes justiceneeds to be severe in order to be effective. Escalus backs up this statement byexplaining that oftentimes mercy isn’t the best solution because it often leadsto more pain and problems, such as the case of pardoning too many crimes underthe pretense of mercy. Such mercy is the main factor in the corruption in thestreets of Vienna, and therefore justice must be served severely in order tobring about any potential change. Overall, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure uses its minorcharacters as first-person commentary to the vices of Vienna that the Duke hadset out to fix. While Duke Vincentio actively tries to change the state ofaffairs, all the minor characters prove to the audience why such change is notpossible, therefore contributing largely to the “problem play” element of Measure for Measure. Despite the minorcharacters’ interactions with each other and with major characters being inmostly comedic language, there is a dark undertone to the comic relief theybring, thus bringing to light the darkness and seriousness of the issues athand in the play.
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