Theme of Human Erotic Desire, Excess, and Marriage in Shakespeare’s Play Measure for Measure

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

In reading Measure for Measure, one cannot help but to be confronted with the depravity of desire within the human race. Prostitutes and pimps run rampant in Vienna, and the laws against fornication and lechery have gone unenforced for many years. The Duke begins the play by leaving Angelo in charge so that he may began the process of imposing the ignored laws on sex in the city. When a society is unregulated, Shakespeare shows the two extremes to which humans can fall. Isabella aims for excessive virtue, even asking the nuns whether that is all when they have told her the rules.

On the other hand, Claudio speaks of excessive freedoms that resulted in his death penalty. Angelo casts judgment from a standpoint of excessive virtue, but he soon falls into the folly of excessive liberty. In an unregulated society, excessive virtue leads to pride and excessive liberty results in lust and fornication. Thus, measures must be put in place to regulate these liberties and these virtues. Shakespeare institutes the Duke as the enforcer of these measures. Immediately, this raises the question of whether or not erotic desire can be regulated? Furthermore, if desire and sexual acts can be regulated, how and to what extent?

Isabella, Claudio, and Angelo are characters that represent the excesses that result from self-regulated erotic desire. Isabella stands as an example of excessive virtue, Claudio as excessive liberty, and Angelo as both. Isabella is so abhorrent of the human sin that is lust or desire that she seeks restrictions to the point of excess and embarks to follow those restrictions as a point of pride. She commits the sin of pride in the excessiveness of her virtue. Angelo falls prey to a similar sin when he measures himself and others against excessive virtue. Alternatively, Claudio struggles with erotic desire in the context of his excessive liberty. Claudio himself admits his issue when Lucio asks why he is in chains:

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 bane,

A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die


Claudio claims that his immoderate use of excessive liberty to pursue his own desire led to his imprisonment. He goes on to say that human nature causes man to pursue sex at risk of death as rats crave to drink the very poison that kills them. Angelo attempts to be the executor of the law from a standpoint of excessive virtue, yet he too falls prey to erotic desire as a result. In the last act, the Duke returns to himself in order to rectify the mistakes of Angelo and to restore order to his depraved city.

As the Duke ultimately rectifies excess and sin by orchestrating the marriages of four couples, perhaps marriage is the ultimate regulator of erotic desire. He absolves the excessive liberties of Claudio and Lucio by wedding them to the women they impregnated. He rectifies both excessive virtue and excessive liberty in Angelo by foregoing execution to marry him to Mariana. Finally, he condemns the excessive virtue of Isabella by asking for her hand in marriage. Curiously, once wedded, or simply proposed to in Isabella’s case, these four characters fall silent. They do not speak in the play once they have been regulated. The Duke has bypassed the Catholic procedure to authenticate marriage—espousal, consummation, and dowry—yet he still propagates the antiquated ideas of marriage. By this, I mean that his use of marriage as a punishment and as a way of rectifying an excess of liberty reinforces the idea that marriage is an act of possession. The Duke has already married Lucio and Angelo, and he instructs Claudio to “restore” Julietta by marrying her in his last soliloquy. The Duke asserts:

She, Claudio, that you wronged, look you restore.

Joy to you, Mariana. Love her, Angelo:

… Dear Isabel,

 have a motion much imports your good,

Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline,

What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine.

(5.1. 566-567, 575-578).

He ties together Claudio and Julietta to legitimize the baby and erase the sin. The Duke marries Claudio to Julietta—and Lucio and Angelo—without heed for the Catholic process of marriage, specifically he ignores the lack of dowry in all three cases. Moreover, he asks Isabella to marry him, coining the phrase that so often use to describe marriage in modern times: “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine.” This phrase equalizes the two spouses in the marriage, and one could argue that this is a departure from marriage as male possession of the female. However, the very nature of the Duke’s proposal and Isabella’s non-response reinforces the idea that marriage is a construct for male possession of a woman. The Duke can describe a married couple as equals, but his actions speak to the fact that the man controls the marriage.

At the end of the play, the Duke successfully regulates erotic desire by orchestrating the marriage of the characters that have fallen prey to excess. In this way, he places measures upon excessive virtue and excessive liberty. However, using marriage as a restraint on erotic desire is significant in many ways and raises a multitude of further questions about the nature of marriage. By the end of the play, marriage is a religious construct, an equalizer, a vehicle for male possession of the female, and a punishment all at once.


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