Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies
Shakespeare. Measure for Measure. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, third edition. 891-959).
Act 1, Scene 1 (pp. 901-03, Duke Vincentio of Vienna says he must travel and appoints upright young Angelo to govern in his stead, with old Escalus as his second-in-command. A stunned Angelo accepts; he and Escalus withdraw to determine their powers.)
We can see from the outset that the Duke’s plan will not be simply to install the most experienced subordinate as his substitute while he’s gone. His absence will have the character of a test, an experiment. When the Duke says to Angelo, “Spirits are not finely touched / But to fine issues” (1.1.35), he is setting forth the typical Renaissance understanding of virtue as an active power that reveals itself in welldoing. He professes to see this active power at work in Angelo. However, the young man himself seems uncertain about his sudden elevation, or at least that’s what he says.
The Duke tells Angelo that while he holds office, he will have the power “So to enforce or qualify the laws / As to your soul seems good” (1.1.65-66). He also professes a certain shyness when it comes to mingling with the people: “I love the people, / But do not like to stage me to their eyes” (1.1.67-68). In itself, this quality is by no means a defect in the Duke; we find a similar reticence in strategically wise rulers such as Henry the Fourth, who in the first of Shakespeare’s two plays on that king criticizes Richard the Second for his profligate willingness to mix with the common people. Henry tells Prince Hal that such rash conduct debases a king’s image, and he implies that by such rashness, Richard squandered his once-high currency in the realm, and became an eminently defeatable laughing-stock.
The problem is, the Duke of Vienna does not seem to be as good at maintaining his authority as was Henry the Fourth. We will soon hear from him that he has not been assiduous in upholding the law in Vienna. He has not, it seems, followed his own observation about turning one’s virtue towards action in the world. That kind of failure can cost rulers dearly in Shakespeare’s plays. In The Tempest, for example, Prospero, the Duke of Milan, prefers his private studies to actually governing his people. This defect opens the door for his greedy brother to exile him to a remote island. In such difficult circumstances as Duke Vincentio has allowed to develop, Angelo may have power to “mitigate” the law, but as we shall see, the expectation seems to be that he will do the reverse, and serve as a harsh corrective, with the end-goal being a lasting balance between justice and mercy. As the first scene concludes, Angelo and Escalus cordially withdraw amongst themselves to figure out the exact scope of the powers given to each man. This suggests that they mean to be precise in the carrying out of their duties.
Act 1, Scene 2 (pp. 903-07, Lucio and two gentlemen exchange witticisms about syphilis. Mistress Overdone announces that Claudio is being led off to prison for impregnating Julietta, and airs her fears that the city’s severe new moral dispensation will put her on the streets. Pompey cheers her up. Claudio gets perp-walked into the scene, and shares his views on Angelo’s harshness with Lucio. Claudio invests his hopes for release in his sister Isabella’s beauty and rhetorical skill.)
The BBC version sets this scene in a tavern, which works well. We have gone instantly from seeing Angelo and his second-in-command remove themselves to discuss the precise parameters of their own power to a silly scene in which precision becomes a matter of words used in jest. Lucio needles the first and second gentlemen about their lack of moral standing, and implies that one of them is afflicted with syphilis—hardly unlikely, given the nature of the conversation. Basically, these are the type of people the Duke is worried he’s given too much license to misbehave, and the place where they are enjoying themselves is one to which the law’s power has scarcely extended itself.
Soon, the Bawd (Mistress Overdone) interrupts all the jesting about syphilis to tell Lucio and his companions that Claudio has been arrested “for getting Madam Julietta / with child” (1.2.66-67). Lucio seems genuinely distressed, while Mistress Overdone takes to complaining about the sorry state of her business: war, plague, crime or the punishment thereof, and poverty have deprived her of a great number of customers. Pompey the Clown endeavors to cheer her up, promising that she will have some recompence even though the brothels outside the city are to be “pulled down” (1.2.93). He says that he will keep the alcohol flowing, which is what a tapster like him can do. Just as Shakespeare has highlighted the power structure in Vienna and will soon make plainer the problem that currently besets it, so in this second scene he gives us a little portrait of the red light district of Vienna, which constitutes a separate economy of its own, and which has deeply human problems to deal with, just as a legitimate or legal economy has. Mistress Overdone is sincerely worried about what will become of her in the new dispensation being established by the Duchy’s severe, even puritanical moralists. In this light, all the comic talk about venereal disease becomes more ominous: there were no effective treatments for diseases such as syphilis, which ravaged the underground economy constituted by Mistress Overdone and those like her. A prostitute who became unwholesome because of her affliction with such illnesses was liable to be cast out to oblivion and death. In a later era, William Hogarth would depict in his eight paintings collectively titled A Rake’s Progress (1735) the dreadful path followed by a wealthy merchant’s son who contracted syphilis and ruined his and others’ lives.
Enter Claudio, bitterly complaining that he is being grossly put on display by the Provost. This is what we would call a “perp walk” today. At the moment, Claudio is not waxing bitter towards those who have arrested him; he is rather philosophical about it, saying in accordance with St. Paul in Romans 9:15 that heaven will call down judgment “on whom it will” (1.2.111). All the same, he says, this is justice. The perspective Claudio offers does not greatly differ from what we will soon hear from the Duke: the looseness, the moral laxity, of men such as Claudio, is the cause of their suffering and shame. As this character admits eloquently, “Our natures do pursue, / Like rats that raven down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die” (1.2.117-119). This understanding is of a piece with Shakespeare’s dark “Sonnet 129,” which describes the great power of lust as follows: “none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” Centuries later, the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would write with similar clarity in one of his melancholy sonnets, “I see / The lost are like this, and their scourge to be / As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse” (“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”).
Claudio tries to reckon with Lucio the cause of the harshness that Angelo has just shown against him, first advancing the Machiavellian point that the governor may be trying to set a new example for an unruly public. Then he comes around to suggesting that Angelo has had him arrested “for a name” (1.2.157), which is to say for enhancing his own reputation. In this passage, the young man sounds bitter, not philosophical as before. We begin to see a certain vacillation of temperament in this character that will soon turn problematic. Lucio’s quibbles effectively trivialize the offense, reducing it to simple sexual pleasure. Claudio puts his hopes in his virtuous sister Isabella, saying, “in her youth / There is a prone and speechless dialect, / Such as move men. Beside, she hath prosperous art / When she will play with reason and discourse, / And well she can persuade” (1.2.170-174). Perhaps with these gifts of beauty and rhetorical skill, Isabella can obtain her brother’s release.
Act 1, Scene 3 (pp. 907-08, Duke Vincentio explains to a friar his purposes for wanting to disguise himself as a friar and return to observe Vienna: he wants Angelo to impose strict justice to reset the city’s moral conduct, and he wants to see how power affects this puritanical young man.)
The Duke reassures his friend the friar that his visit has nothing to do with romantic matters, and gets to the point. He reminds the friar that he has “ever loved the life removed” (1.3.8), and reports that he has appointed Angelo to govern in his absence. What’s the reason? It is essentially a Machiavellian shift: the Duke admits that he has not maintained law and order in Vienna—he has “let slip” (1.3.20) the “strict statutes and most biting laws” (1.3.19) that would otherwise have been sufficient to keep order. The picture he paints of present-day Vienna is not pretty. The laws are flouted, and good people are abused. The friar is no politician, so he asks why the Duke does not simply reassert the laws himself. To this, the Duke replies that the correction would seem “too dreadful” (1.3.34), so he wants to avoid the appearance of tyranny (his term). When Angelo imposes strict punishments, the Duke’s name may come into it, but not, he thinks, his nature, and in this way, he will not incur the people’s hatred. This is logic straight from Machiavelli’s famous conduct book for rulers, The Prince: a prince should strive to be loved, but since being loved is not always possible, he should seek to be feared without being hated. At the extremes of such logic, we may be reminded of something Machiavelli’s ideal prince Cesare Borgia did: he allowed a deputy to act with great severity, and then, when the people started to get really upset, he had the fellow cut in half and displayed in the public square. The Duke won’t carry things so far, but he delegates his severer functions of judgment and punishment to Angelo and Escalus. In essence, the balance between being loved and hated is to be respected. That seems to be what the Duke is aiming at. But the Duke’s description of the man he has appointed in his stead leads us to another purpose for disguising himself as a friar and returning to observe Vienna: “Lord Angelo is precise, / Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses / That his blood flows or that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone” (1.3.50-53). Given as much power as the Duke has granted Angelo, what will the latter man do, and what will be the consequences? The Duke will be interested to know: “Hence shall we see / If power change purpose, what our seemers be” (1.3.53-54).
Much about this scene might be taken as disturbing with regard to the Duke’s reasoning and even his character. He bears himself like an upright man, but his Machiavellian logic leads to a certain complexity or moral ambiguity in terms of how he plans to deal with a problem that, as he admits, he himself has largely caused and for which he bears responsibility. A common strain of interpretation in the criticism of Measure for Measure caststhe Duke as a godlike figure hiding himself but nonetheless dispensing ultimate justice to the souls in his charge. But is he, we might ask, instead treating his subjects like hapless animals in some potentially gruesome experiment?
Act 1, Scene 4 (pp. 908-10, Lucio visits Isabella’s convent of St. Clare, and enlists her aid in winning through her charm the release of her wayward brother Claudio. Isabella is at first doubtful, but agrees.)
Our first impression of Isabella is a rather strange one. She enters speaking with a more experienced nun, and immediately admits that she wishes the holy order which she is just now joining would impose even stricter rules. Critics have sometimes suggested that this desire may reveal something about Isabella’s psychosexual makeup. More on this later on. Lucio soon enters on a mission from Claudio, Isabella’s brother. He relates the unfortunate situation of this brother to her, and she can scarcely believe it. Neither does she trust Lucio’s manner, but the man seems sincere in his desire to help Isabella get her brother out of his predicament. He reassures Isabella as follows: “I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted / By your renouncement, an immortal spirit…” (1.4.35-36). At base, says Lucio, Angelo has chosen to center his efforts on the sexual mores of Vienna’s citizens, and he wants to make an example of Claudio for getting Julia pregnant. It has been said that the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind like nothing else, and Angelo seeks to impose such focus on the people of Vienna.
The most interesting part of the scene occurs near the end, at the point where Isabella, when asked to reflect upon or weigh the power she may have to help her brother, says, “My power? Alas, I doubt” (1.4.78). She probably just means, “I don’t believe I have any power to help my brother.” But Lucio’s response seems to suggest another act of reflection on her part: “Our doubts are traitors / And makes us lose the good we oft might win, / By fearing to attempt” (1.4.78-80). Lucio brings into the conversation the concept of fear, not simply doubt in the modern sense. For the word “doubt” in Shakespeare’s day contained both meanings. He may be asking Isabella to look within herself and reflect that she has powers to move men that may frighten her: her beauty, her sexuality. He wants her to consider these and use them. The rest of his speech to her makes this quite plain: “Go to Lord Angelo…” (1.4.80ff). Lucio is suggesting that even Angelo—severe, upright Angelo—is nonetheless a young man and that his shield of probity will prove no match for Isabella’s charm, if she will only deploy it. Isabella responds in a way that should give hope to Lucio and Claudio: “I’ll see what I can do” (1.4.84).
Aside on critical methodology: Lucio, a silly, foppish, and often dishonest character, gets some wonderfully eloquent lines. See his concluding remarks to Isabella in this very scene, as well as his admiring remarks about Isabella’s rhetorical performance later in the play, when she tries to convince Angelo to relent. The same is true of Isabella herself, and Claudio. But does the Duke receive a similar allotment of fine speaking? If not, this may be another sign that this character can’t control things to the extent he would like. We might do well to think of Measure for Measure like a “city comedy,” wherein the power shifts from royal, magisterial figures like the Duke to the citizens themselves. Of course, if we take that approach, we may somewhat undermine the play’s overt treatment of reasserting control as a royal function. In any case, it’s worthwhile attending to the distribution of eloquence throughout Shakespeare’s plays: who speaks finely, who speaks plainly, and who seems most self-conscious about his or her way of speaking and observing (or breaking) the polite rules of decorum.
Act 2, Scene 1 (pp. 910-16, Escalus counsels moderation, but Angelo insists on condemning Claudio to death. The Provost enters with Pompey and Master Froth, offering a convoluted story alleging that his wife has been abused by them in Mistress Overdone’s establishment. Escalus is bemused, but dismisses Froth and indulgently lets Pompey go after scolding him. Escalus tells the Provost to bring some replacements for his office to court.)
This scene begins with Angelo and Escalus hashing out their thoughts on the fate of Claudio. Escalus tries to soften Angelo’s rigorous application of justice, asking him if indeed, he might have been tempted to do the same thing as Claudio did at some point or other in his past. To this reasonable plea for reflection, Angelo responds in a truly Shylockian manner: “’Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, / Another thing to fall” (2.1.17). He admits that sometimes those who impose justice are themselves rascals, and that faults often go unnoticed, but sees no reason to attenuate his severity on that basis. All he can say is, “When I, that censure him, do so offend, / Let mine own judgment pattern out my death, / and nothing come in partial” (2.1.30-31). This is not far from Shylock’s exclamation, “My deeds upon my head!” (The Merchant of Venice 4.1.204). To this, Escalus can say very little because the power belongs to Angelo, not to him, and Angelo says Claudio must be executed tomorrow morning. But to himself, Escalus remarks upon the inconsistency of the application of law: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (2.1.38). That is a startling admission coming from a man tasked with applying the law.
With the entrance of the Provost followed by Constable Elbow and Master Frost along with the roguish Pompey, Escalus gets an opportunity to administer law more to his liking. What with all the double entendres, insinuations of immorality, malapropisms, and just plain confusion and prolixity, it takes Escalus a few hundred lines to figure out why Constable Elbow has brought these men in with him. It seems that the matter has to do with insults of a sexual nature being offered to the Constable’s own wife when she entered Mistress Overdone’s house of dubious propriety to buy some stewed prunes. Escalus and Angelo are both present at the outset of this comical interlude, but Angelo slips away as soon as he can, leaving the field to his second-in-command. Escalus takes the whole affair in good humor, and avoids imposing the severity that Angelo had already suggested. Escalus dismisses the addled Master Froth and lets Pompey go after scolding him for being something other than a “tapster,” as Pompey is pleased to call himself. Escalus has passed down a lax sentence of the very sort that allowed Vienna to slip into near-decadence. This is hardly the strict justice that the Duke had it in mind to reintroduce. All the same, it’s hard to blame Escalus since Constable Elbow is unable to specify the nature of the charges with anything like the precision needed to establish guilt. Pompey, as we can tell from his delighted reaction afterwards, has no intention of obeying the threat of a whipping: “I shall follow it as the flesh and fortune shall better determine” (2.1.230), says Pompey to himself. Still, Escalus’s decision seems in line with what Portia (as judge Balthasar) says incourt against Shylock: “The quality of mercy is not strained” (The Merchant of Venice 4.1.182). This scene has shown us that Escalus and Angelo are two very different men, operating at different levels of wisdom and maturity. Advantage, Escalus.
Act 2, Scene 2 (pp. 916-20, Isabella faces much resistance from Angelo in her suit to save her brother, but at last, with Lucio and the Provost looking on, her words and charm overcome Angelo’s denials, leaving him in agony.)
The Provost enters and in his way tries to get Angelo to delay execution of the sentence upon Claudio until he can reflect on its implications. But Angelo is in no mood to temporize. Isabella enters and soon begins her attempt to soften up Angelo. Her first gambit is to suggest, “let it be his fault, / And not my brother” (2.2.36-37). Angelo easily parries this attempt, and Isabella immediately gives up, only to be chided by Lucio, who tells her she is “too cold” (2.2.46). “Hate the sin, love the sinner” has not moved Angelo, so Isabella moves on to something like the modern driver’s complaint to a traffic cop: “But everyone else speeds too! What’s the big deal?” Isabella says, “I do think that you might pardon him, / And neither heaven nor man grieve at the mercy” (2.2.50-51). This line fails instantly, too, and Lucio again chides Isabella for her coldness. In Isabella’s next attempt, there is a mixture of straightforward pleading and expressions of anger, even reproach: “If he had been as you, and you as he, / You would have slipped like him, but he like you / Would not have been so stern” (2.2.65-67). She says that if she were a judge like him, she would show him a better way, a more merciful approach. Lucio is impressed with this, but Angelo still is not. Isabella next makes a bluntly religious appeal, saying, “Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once, / And He that might the vantage best have took / Found out the remedy” (2.2.74-76). To this appeal to the pattern set by Christ, Angelo sets up a barrier by appealing to the law as an abstraction. Angelo, explains Angelo, does not condemn; the law does, and it cannot be put by.
Isabella’s next move is the Lucio-like claim that after all, the offense isn’t so terrible: “Who is it that hath died for this offense? / There’s many have committed it“ (2.2.88-89). Angelo’s response invokes the classic case for deterrence: when the law wakes up (his metaphor) to the evils being committed and punishes them appropriately, others will think twice before they do the same. Isabella moves on when this, too, fails to move Angelo, uttering beautiful lines that constitute a deep reproach to him, “Oh, it is excellent / To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant” (2.2.108-10). Isabella’s following lines sound angry; she condemns the arrogance of “man, proud man, / Dressed in a little brief authority, / Most ignorant of what he’s most assured…” (2.2.118-20). Lucio is almost beside himself with joy at this rhetorical turn, and we may suspect that it is not so much Isabella’s eloquent words that make him so happy as the passionate manner in which she speaks them. There is fire and righteous anger in her words. It’s clear that Angelo is moved, if not necessarily convinced by the logic of Isabella’s argument. But she tells him to look within himself, and examine his conscience: might he himself be guilty of something like the desire that led Claudio to sin? This seems canny on Isabella’s part because it is, we can tell from his words, precisely such desire that her words and manner have awakened in him: in an aside, he admits that his “sense breeds” (2.2.143) with hearing her good advice. He offers only to reflect more deeply on the matter, but Isabella stops him in his tracks by employing the word “bribe” (2.2.146). She will bribe him, that is, with “true prayers” (152) and not with gold or jewels.
Clearly, once he is alone, Angelo is profoundly shaken by what he has just experienced. He soon comes to the heart of the matter: “What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo? / Dost thou desire her foully for those things / That make her good?” (2.2.175-177). He says that he always “smiled and wondered how” (2.2.189) when he came across infatuated lovers. He now finds that his dry, abstract notions of the good are no match for Eros, for love in its fully physical manifestation.
Act 2, Scene 3 (pp. 920-21, The Duke, disguised as a friar, enters the prison in Vienna and counsels Juliet on how to bear up under the weight of her transgression with Claudio. He also informs her that Claudio is scheduled to be executed tomorrow.)
In this brief scene, the Duke, now disguised as a friar, visits the prison-house in Vienna and counsels Juliet, informing her as well that her lover, Claudio, is set to be executed tomorrow. Juliet voices content to the friar, saying that she accepts “the shame with joy” (36). But privately, she is stunned at the news about Claudio and apparently feels that the law has stolen all hope from her even as it spares her life: “O injurious love, / That respites me a life whose very comfort / Is still a dying horror” (41-42).
Act 2, Scene 4 (pp. 921-25, Angelo makes his indecent proposal. If Isabella will have sex with him, he will spare her brother. At first, Isabella does not understand, but then she is outraged at his repeated offer, and even threatens to expose him. Alone at last, Isabella determines to visit Claudio in prison, sure that he will approve of her decision to preserve her chastity.)
Angelo continues to seethe with anxiety over his increasing passion for Isabella, and when she enters his chambers, he tenders her a brutally indecent proposal, repeating it—in a few instances garnished with hypothetical overtones—no fewer than four times without gaining her submission. It seems that Isabella values her chastity more than she values her brother’s life. In this way, she is just as much of a moral absolutist as Angelo had earlier professed to be when it came to enforcing the law. Isabella, however, shows herself more flexible than we might have thought, at least in the sense that she is willing to argue in a manner that softens Claudio’s so-called crime. She calls upon Angelo to consider not only heavenly justice but also the cost of his severity to those here on earth. Ultimately, her refusals expose Angelo’s utter hypocrisy, and he is left stammering that even if she exposes him, no one will believe an ordinary woman like her. As King Lear points out, “Robes and furred gowns hides all” (Lear Folio ed. 4.6.158). Isabella is certain that brother Claudio will support her insistence on maintaining her moral purity, even at the cost of his life. She’s in for quite a surprise.
It is worth noting the point-counterpoint structure that pits Angelo’s declaration “now I give my sensual race the rein” (2.4.157) against Isabella’s passionate rejection: “the 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” (2.4.99-101). This is strongly masochistic language. One could make a Freud-inspired reading of such words, one that suggests the psychic strain that this refusal—as part of Isabella’s ongoing dedication to sexual abstinence and purity—puts on her as she squares off against Angelo with Claudio’s life in the balance. Shakespeare apparently did not need Sigmund Freud to tell him that one cannot simply dismiss “libidinal energy” even for the holiest purposes; the question comes down to how one invests such energy in life’s affairs. As passionately as Angelo allows his cruel sensuality to run riot (indeed, by the end of the scene he sounds like a typical stage villain), just as passionately does Isabella reject her oppressor’s lust.
Act 3, Scene 1 (pp. 925-36, the Duke visits Claudio in prison, counseling him to accept his sentence. Isabella enters and unsettles Claudio by telling him of Angelo’s dastardly attempt on her virtue. The Duke (as Friar Lodowick) takes Isabella aside, explaining how she can help rescue Claudio, do Angelo’s one-time fiancée Mariana a good turn, and expose Angelo’s misconduct. Constable Elbow brings Pompey by on his way to prison, and Lucio refuses to pay the man’s bail; Lucio slanders the Duke, not realizing his interlocutor is the man himself. Finally, Escalus marches Mistress Overdone off to jail, and briefly converses with the disguised Duke, who is then left alone to reflect on his plan to reestablish justice and equity in Vienna.)
The Duke (as Friar Lodowick) offers Claudio a set-piece performance as if he were playing at being Marcus Aurelius or Boethius, remarking upon the nothingness of earthly vanity. On the whole, though, his speech sounds medieval in its reduction of an individual human life to abstraction: “For thou exists on many a thousand grains / That issue out of dust” (3.1.20-21). The Duke at first seems to have won Claudio over with this rather wooden performance, but the young man’s resolve crumbles almost immediately when Isabella enters the picture. The two of them go back and forth, and when Isabella thinks she has brought him around to her eternity-regarding perspective, she tells him, “there my father’s grave / Did utter forth a voice” (3.1.85-86). But this victory is premature. When Claudio hears that the stumbling block is Isabella’s virginity, he loses his resolve, and begins almost to side with the now-corrupted Angelo: “Sure it is no sin, / Or of the deadly seven it is the least” (3.1.109-10). At last he is reduced to the utterance, “Death is a fearful thing” (3.1.116) and to some Dantean-sounding imaginings of what it is like to be dead and to suffer the pains of hell. This is too much for Isabella, who sharply rebukes him and calls him a coward. She asks him pointedly, “Is’t not a kind of incest to take life / From thine own sister’s shame?” (3.1.139-40). We need not take this literally, but there’s a strong point nonetheless: when Claudio seems almost to side with Angelo, he becomes that man’s confederate against Isabella: they’re practically the same man, as if they were members of an “old boys’ club.” Claudio would seem to dismiss the value of something that is more important to Isabella than life itself: her chastity. This portion of the scene (3.1.1-152) ends distressingly, with Claudio continuing to beseech his sister to save him, and Isabella becoming more and more hostile towards his efforts.
At this point, the disguised Duke reenters and again moves Claudio to accept his fate. He claims, falsely, that Angelo is merely testing Isabella. But when he speaks with the latter alone, he admits that it seems Angelo really has made her an immoral proposal. On her own, Isabella cannot see a way out of the predicament her brother is in. But the Duke has a clever plan: he tells Isabella 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…” (3.1.195-198). This plot will involve Mariana, the sister of a renowned soldier named Frederick. She was supposed to be married to Angelo, but this callous man was put off by the loss of her dowry when Frederick suffered a shipwreck and perished. The Duke explains that far from conceiving a hatred of Angelo, Mariana still loves him, and pines for him. This opens the door for Isabella to save the day: all she has to do, explains the Duke, is pretend she is willing to sleep with Angelo after all. Then, at the assignation place, Mariana will substitute herself for Isabella. This is the ancient “bed trick” of literary renown, and in the present play, it will help to rescue Claudio and make long-suffering Mariana whole. Isabella, for her part, is delighted with the plan. So ends this part of the scene (3.1.153-257).
Constable Elbow soon drags Pompey the pimp across the stage, intending to bring him to prison. The disguised Duke chastises Pompey severely, and recommends severe punishment to cure him of his sinful state.At least in disguise, the Duke seems to have benefited from his absence from the seat of power: he is able to speak bluntly to Pompey and call him out for what he is, rather than winking at his deep fault. Lucio, for his part, refuses to help Pompey, jestingly turning down the man’s request for bail money. Lucio’s reason has nothing to do with virtue—it’s merely “the wear” (3.1.323), meaning “fashion,” he says, that leads him to say no.
As soon as things have wrapped up with Elbow and Pompey (3.1.258-334), the Duke finds himself alone with Lucio, hanger-on and gossip-monger extraordinaire. This foppish, if articulate and witty, character proceeds to insult Angelo’s strict substitute for his unpleasant reign and to slander the Duke to his face, although unknowingly since the Duke is of course disguised as “Friar Lodowick.” Aside from being hilariously entertaining for the audience, the conversation suggests that Lucio aptly represents a portion of the general public in a state that has gone to seed, or that threatens to do so. While Lucio’s claims about the Duke’s corrupt and dissolute ways are utterly false, as suppositions they are not groundless. If immorality and criminality are rampant in a populace, we might suggest, the best place to look for the source is the people’s governors, who are probably setting a terrible example. At the same time, Lucio offers a cogent view of the prospects of austere do-gooders and reformers generally when he says of lechery, “it is impossible to extirp it quite, Friar, till / eating and drinking be put down” (3.1.348-49). But of course saying this in no way excuses pompous, insinuating Lucio, who is falsely asserting that he has personal, intimate knowledge of the Duke’s alleged transgressions (lechery, drunkenness, and even superficiality). The Duke shows considerable restraint in remaining civil in the face of such a brazen slanderer, who, though he claims he fervently wishes for the lax Duke’s return, ought to fear that outcome above all else. And so ends this portion of the scene (3.1.335-418).
All that remains from 3.1.419-509 is for Angelo’s second-in-command Escalus to order the Bawd (Mistress Overdone) off to prison and leave room for Escalus and the Duke (as Friar Lodowick) to hold some conversation. Before she’s swept away, however, she lets slip a damning piece of information against Lucio: he got the prostitute Kate Keepdown pregnant and then failed to do right by her and the child. Escalus, alone with the Provost and the disguised Duke, informs him that Angelo is constant in his decision to have Claudio executed tomorrow. The Duke apprises the state of the world’s affairs bleakly, saying that inconstancy and mistrust reign everywhere. The riddle that explains it all, he says, is “There is / scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure, but / security enough to make fellowships accursed” (457-59). One reading of this language might be that the Duke shares something of Sir Francis Bacon’s pessimism in his essay “Of Truth” (1625), which concludes (in homage to Luke 18:8), “When Christ cometh, ‘[H]e shall not find faith upon the earth.’” (See Bacon’s The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, of Francis Ld. Verulam, Viscount of St. Albans.) Add to this the melancholy realization that humankind’s faithlessness and scorn for truth lead them to load themselves down with financial and legal bonds, which are more symptomatic of universal corruption than curative of the ills they purport to redress.
When Escalus exits, ruing the rigid severity of his immediate superior Angelo—“he is indeed Justice” (3.1.482)—the Duke is left to his own reflections. The Duke sums up Angelo’s example in rhyming trimeter: “He who the sword of heaven will bear / Should be as holy as severe” (3.1.488-89). There’s a hint here that if the Duke ever believed mortals had any business acting with the severity of his deputy Angelo, the unfolding of the experiment is providing him with a powerful corrective. “Surprised by sin” is a phrase made famous by critic Stanley Fish in his sharp analysis of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and we might do well to apply it here: just as the pretended Saint Angelo is surprised by his propensity to indulge his own cruel lust, so is the Duke at least a little surprised, and more than a little displeased, that his experiment with Angelo has gone so far sideways as to threaten severe harm to his subjects. It is not for fallen humans to play Christ the Judge, and the Duke wisely determines that he must use a classic bit of deceit to establish the partial degree of virtue and equity (fairness) possible in a saucy world: “Craft against vice I must apply” (504). We know this means corralling Angelo into a marriage with Mariana, a woman who inexplicably still loves him, but the final two acts will reveal the rest of the Duke’s dispensation, such as it is.
Act 4, Scene 1 (pp. 936-38, Following a vignette of the jilted Mariana at her home, the Duke in disguise shows up and so does Isabella; these two confer on their plan to trap Angelo, and the Duke introduces the two women. The Duke worries about what his subjects are saying about him in his absence.)
This may be the scene that inspired Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood painter John Everett Millais and Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson to create their respective works of art titled “Mariana.” It is easy for us to suggest that Mariana’s match with Angelo is not exactly made in heaven—the hypocritical Puritan abandoned her when her dowry funding fell through thanks to her brother’s shipwreck. When we are introduced to Mariana in person, the first thing we hear is a boy singing a tale of frustrated romance that perfectly suits Mariana’s predicament. There is a strong sense of sexual frustration about Shakespeare’s entire portrait of her. In this scene, she herself refers to her “brawling discontent” (4.1.9) about what happened with Angelo. As yet, this lady does not know exactly what the Duke will be getting up to on her behalf, but Isabella soon enters and reports to the Duke how their plan is coming along. She has made the necessary promise to Angelo, and learned the way to her destination. The Duke calls Mariana back and introduces her to Isabella, whereupon the latter, at the Duke’s request, takes Mariana aside to inform her of the plan that will serve them both. When they return to the Duke, he reassures Mariana that her conduct will be upright, saying, “the justice of your title to him / Doth flourish the deceit” (4.1.73-74).
Act 4, Scene 2 (pp. 938-42, The Provost makes Pompey the executioner’s apprentice, and summons Claudio and Barnardine to tell them they are soon to die. A messenger arrives with a letter containing Angelo’s stubbornly restated order to execute Claudio. The Provost explains Barnardine’s recalcitrance with regard to his execution, but the Duke tells the Provost to execute this man and bring his head instead of Claudio’s to Angelo. When the Provost balks, the Duke (as Lodowick) reassures him and says the letter signifies the Duke’s imminent return.)
The Provost, ever efficient, decides that Pompey might as well assist the hangman Abhorson in the upcoming executions. Pompey takes up the offer with alacrity since otherwise, he knows, he will be severely whipped for his offenses. Abhorson is somewhat taken aback by this turn, and fears that his “mystery” (4.2.23-24) will be tarnished by the connection with a mere pimp. The Provost does not see matters that way, and neither does Pompey. Claudio and Barnardine are soon brought in and told they must be executed, and the Duke, in his usual disguise, enters soon thereafter. He makes as if to defend Angelo from the charge of tyranny, seeing as no reprieve has come yet for Claudio. The Duke tries to reassure the Provost that a reprieve will come, but the Provost seems uncertain. Soon, terrible news arrives: Angelo not only hasn’t countermanded the writ of execution, he demands “Claudio’s head sent me by five” (4.2.118) and threatens the Provost if this is not done.
Barnardine is also to be executed, and this gives the Duke an idea. Barnardine, according to the Provost, “apprehends death no more dreadfully / but as a drunken sleep; careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come; insensible of mortality, and / desperately mortal” (4.2.136-39). The Duke begins to let the Provost in on his secret plans, at least on a need-to-know basis, and says he will soon find that Angelo is far worse a man than Barnardine. But the point is, Claudio’s execution is to be delayed and Barnardine’s head brought to Angelo instead. The Provost is still dubious, but the Duke shows his own “hand and seal” (4.2.181-82), and that proves sufficient. As for Angelo, says the Duke, he will soon be receiving some strange, rumor-filled letters, the contents of which will surprise him.
Act 4, Scene 3 (pp. 943-46, The drunken Barnardine refuses to be reconciled to his execution. The Provost tells the disguised Duke that Ragozine has died—a stroke of luck since he looked like Claudio—so the Duke tells the Provost to present Angelo with Ragozine’s head. The Duke will send letters to Angelo telling him to meet him publicly just outside the city. The Duke falsely tells Isabella that Claudio has been executed. He promises revenge: she will publicly expose Angelo. The Duke then sends her to Friar Peter to set up a strategy meeting.)
Pompey remarks upon the denizens of the prison in which he now assists Abhorson: “One would think it were Mistress Overdone’s / own house, for here be many of her old customers” (4.3.2-3). Barnardine is fetched and told it is his time to be executed. As Pompey cheerfully puts the matter, “You must be so / good, sir, to rise and be put to death” (4.3.24-25), but Barnardine is in no mood to comply. His reason? He has been drinking all night—as usual—and is therefore in no condition to be counseled spiritually as the occasion demands. Barnardine says peremptorily, “I swear I will not die today for any man’s persuasion” (4.3.53). This attitude on the condemned man’s part threatens to upset the discursive apple-cart where the justice system is concerned since its proceedings demand that all concerned in the business of punishment—including the most reprobate criminals—should willingly play their designated role in a deadly performance designed to uphold the moral and symbolic order.* The Provost deftly counters the danger that Barnardine’s refusal presents: the pirate Ragozine has just died of a fever, and he happens to look exactly like Claudio. Why not present his head to Angelo? That will do just fine, by the Duke’s lights. The Duke, meanwhile, writes a letter to Angelo summoning him to a location just outside the city gates, where he will make a public reappearance.
*This performative and symbolic aspect of “justice” is by no means absent in modern justice systems: consider what happens when accused people reject the prosecutor’s offer of a plea deal: if they refuse to admit to a lesser offence and agree to a supposedly reasonable punishment, they can be fairly certain that if they’re convicted, the judge will “throw the book” at them. In a sense, the assumption is that to be accused is already to be guilty, and lengthy punishment menaces anyone who dares to stand up for his or her constitutional right to a jury trial. But what if the accused is in fact innocent? Moreover, what happens when a newly convicted person, asked if he or she has anything to say that might mitigate the harshness of the impending sentence, refuses to utter words of sorrow and contrition? Such recalcitrance might well result in a longer sentence. The “criminal” is refusing to admit guilt and play his or her assigned role. But again, what if the person who has been convicted really didn’t commit any crime? None of this is to suggest that we don’t need a justice system; the point is that any system we come up with is bound to be troubled with imperfections and potential abuses, miscarriages, and outright injustices, all of which may have their ground in the human frailty of the prosecutors and judges themselves. The imperfection of human justice is one of Shakespeare’s major areas of interest, and we can find it in a number of his plays: King Lear, Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Merchant of Venice come immediately to mind, alongside the play we are currently studying.
Isabella enters and is told that her brother has already been put to death. The Duke explains to us that he is doing this only to increase her happiness and amazement when she finds out otherwise: “I will keep her ignorant of her good, / To make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected” (4.3.102-04). This seems like an extreme way to go about things, and perhaps it’s redolent of the Christian notion of the felix culpa or fortunate fall. Still, that’s what the Duke says, and such shifts are really not uncommon in Shakespeare’s plays. Consider, for example, Juliet’s taking of a potion in Romeo and Juliet that mimics the appearance and symptoms of death, or the mortal-seeming fainting spell suffered by Hero in Much Ado about Nothing. In any case, Isabella is to carry a letter to Friar Peter asking him to come to Mariana’s house this very evening. Soon, Friar Peter will escort Isabella into the presence of Angelo, and she will have her chance to accuse him.
Lucio caps off the scene, needling the Duke about his supposed decadence, and promising him, “Nay, Friar, / I am a kind of burr, I shall stick” (4.3.167-68). It is indeed difficult for a city, or a ruler, ever to shake off the kind of loose talk that issues from the mouths of many a Lucio, or entirely to escape the damage done to their reputation. “Public opinion” is a relatively new concern, but in some sense or other, it has been around for many centuries, even millennia. The great Roman politicians, patricians, and Caesars, for example, were much gossiped about, often in roundly salacious terms.
This is also a good place to refer to Shakespeare’s frequent preoccupation with the seamy underbelly of London, the underclass and its economy. Today, we sometimes use the term “prison-industrial complex” to describe the unhealthy relationship among the elements that constitute and interact with the penal system: mainly, a government that gains authority by passing harsh legislation against minor or manufactured crimes and a prison system (both its for-profit and governmental sectors here in the U.S.A.) that either makes billions in profits or gains an immense number of dependents who, by their very presence in the system, argue for greater power and funding. (The whole setup, by the way, inordinately impacts poor people and minorities, sweeping many into the penal system and making it extremely difficult for them ever to get entirely free.) What Shakespeare often describes might be called a “prison pre-industrial complex”: he uncovers a state and an early-capitalist sector determined to benefit from the old, sad tale of human frailty. Pompey the Clown/Pimp is hauled off to the prison-house, where the Provost drafts him into becoming the hangman Abhorson’s apprentice. The Provost has deftly turned a minor criminal’s predicament to the penal system’s advantage. The system has gained a hangman, and the Provost reminds quibbling Abhorson that he isn’t much better than a bawd, in spite of his talk about being an adept in a “mystery” (a craft, in this case one with sacred undertones). And while pimps, madams, and prostitutes (“punks”) were considered unsavory, they certainly made up a significant sector of the Elizabethan and Jacobean economy. Crime, vice, poverty, and misery are not aberrant, isolated things that happen for no reason; they exist in relation to the supposedly legitimate and moral parts of any political and social system. Perhaps the romantic poet William Blake says it best: “Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody Poor…” (“The Human Abstract” from Songs of Experience, 1794).
Act 4, Scene 4 (pp. 946-47, Escalus and Angelo fret over the strange letters sent to them about the Duke’s impending return. Alone, Angelo admits that his guilt over Claudio’s supposed execution is consuming him.)
Escalus is puzzled over the series of contradictory letters sent by the Duke, but Angelo is more than puzzled—he is alarmed. Even worse, his lustful offense against Isabella is consuming his soul with guilt. As he says, “This deed unshapes me quite….” Angelo also suggests that he ordered Claudio’s execution in spite of his promise to spare him because he feared that the young man’s shame would drive him to take revenge: “He should have lived, / Save that his riotous youth with dangerous sense / Might in the times to come have ta’en revenge / By so receiving a dishonored life / With ransom of such shame” (4.4.26-30). This is rich coming from Angelo, who has knowingly given in to his own erotic impulses where Isabella is concerned. This substitute ruler, this deputy, thereby confesses guilty knowledge of a fundamental truth about governance: they who upset the proper order of things threaten thereby to unleash uncontrollable riot and chaos in the societies they lead, confounding what many would say is the very purpose of civilization or society: the maintenance of harmonious, productive order instead of a violent free-for-all of the sort that Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (I.xiii.9), captures so well with his phrase about life before the social contract: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But all in all, there’s some hint in this passage that what most unsettles Angelo is the prospect of actually getting away with his cruel transgression against an innocent woman. Of course, he does not know what the Duke knows, or what we the audience know. That bit of dramatic irony will soon change.
Act 4, Scene 5 (pg. 947, Outside the city, the Duke—now in his own person—tells Friar Peter to gather together those who are loyal to him.)
The Duke cleverly tightens his plot to trap and expose Angelo in full view of the public. He calls together men he knows are loyal to him and instructs them how to bring his plan into effect with maximum effect and safety. Underlying this careful planning, of course, is a possibility any wise ruler would have to consider: what if Angelo suspects the worst and makes preparations to do some violence to the Duke and take power from him once and for all? We can also see that the play’s final scene will have the character of a play within the larger action, with some characters knowing the truth about the strange proceedings, and others kept in the dark until the very end.
Act 4, Scene 6 (pp. 947-48, Isabella is anxious about her role in the plot, but Mariana tells her to stand fast and accuse Angelo. The plot moves swiftly, with trumpets announcing the Duke’s arrival at the city gates.)
Isabella is still anxious about her role in the drama about to unfold outside the city gates, but Mariana and Friar Peter reassure her.
Act 5, Scene 1 (pp. 948-59, the Duke praises Angelo and Escalus, but Isabella demands justice. The Duke refers her to Angelo, but Isabella keeps up her accusation. The Duke feigns disbelief, and soon she calls for Friar Lodowick. Mariana exposes Angelo for jilting her, explains the plot’s bed-trick details, and unveils herself. The Duke encourages Angelo to judge severely, then exits only to reenter in disguise. Escalus weighs Lucio’s claims about “Friar Lodowick’s” alleged slanders against the Duke, but when Lucio pulls off the Friar’s hood, the Duke is revealed. Angelo confesses, and the Duke orders him to wed Mariana, then condemns him to die. Mariana and Isabella try to intercede, without initial success. The Provost brings in Barnardine, who is now pardoned, along with Claudio. The Duke forgives Angelo, proposes to Isabella, and condemns Lucio to marry a prostitute. He announces the couples’ dispensations, thanks Escalus, and repeats his proposal to Isabella.)
In arranging for his meeting at the city gates, the Duke has set up a venue for the public witnessing of justice. As the observation goes in its most accurate form, “Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.” (The speaker was the Lord Chief Justice of England Gordon Hewart; see Rex v. Sussex Justices,  1 KB 256. Link to Bar & Bench Article.) Spectacle has a strong role to play in the administration of justice, and perhaps we should imagine that this is on the Duke’s mind when he tees up Angelo with decorous praise in front of the gathering throng: “Oh, your desert speaks loud, and I should wrong it / To lock it in the wards of covert bosom …” (5.1.10-11). No sooner does he speak these and other ceremonious words, however, than Friar Peter leads Isabella onto the stage and encourages her to do her part. Her plea is all for justice—so much so that she repeats the word four times, and the Duke refers her directly to his deputy, saying, “Lord Angelo shall give you justice” (5.1.29). Angelo is clearly rattled, and he front-loads the claim that this grief-stricken woman must have taken leave of her senses: “she will speak most bitterly and strange” (5.1.40). She proceeds to do just that, hurling accusations as yet unbacked by any show of evidence, and the Duke professes to accept Angelo’s judgment that his accuser must be insane. Soon enough, however, she comes to the point and gives a chilling summation of the abuser’s crime: “He would not but by gift of my chaste body / To his concupiscible intemperate lust / Release my brother” (5.1.103-05). Isabella claims that she yielded to this demand, and when this charge, too, receives only scorn from the Duke (Angelo has fallen silent for the time being), she is ordered off to prison. But not before she offers the name “Friar Lodowick” in answer to the Duke’s question about who sent her to the city gates to levy her accusations.
This mention of Lodowick brings Lucio to the fore, and he claims that this “meddling friar” (5.1.133) is the very man who has been slandering the absent Duke left and right. Friar Peter says Angelo has indeed been wronged, but so has Friar Lodowick, by Lucio. And with that, off goes Friar Peter to fetch not Lodowick just yet, but Mariana as a witness who can prove Isabella is lying about Angelo. Mariana explains the basic mechanics of the bed-trick subplot, which still more deeply implicates Angelo, and then she finally unveils herself. For her efforts, Mariana is branded by Angelo as having earned a reputation “disvalued / In levity” (5.1.226-27), which sounds like yet another whopping lie on his part. The Duke draws Angelo on to the verge of strictest severity in applying the law against Mariana and Lodowick. Somewhat like Portia dealing with Shylock, the Duke eggs Angelo on to exact his pound of flesh for the insults levied against him. Friar Peter then exits to fetch Lodowick, and (necessarily) the Duke also makes a brief exit so that he may return in disguise as the accused Friar. The interlude sees Escalus giving Lucio yet another go at denouncing “Friar Lodowick” as the slanderer of the Duke, and this is followed up when the Duke himself, in disguise as Lodowick, suddenly appears and promptly turns the accusation around to Lucio himself. It’s a tribute to Shakespeare’s uncanny eye and ear for the dramatic that this trivial character is present at the play’s most significant unmasking: when Lucio rips off “Lodowick’s” hood, there stands the Duke himself, who utters a finely comic reproach: “Thou art the first knave that e’er mad’st a duke” (5.1.358).
The Duke immediately pardons Lucio’s harsh and dishonest words, and rounds upon Angelo in what sounds like genuine anger: “Hast thou or word, or wit, or impudence, / That yet can do thee office?” (5.1.365-66). Hearing this, Angelo immediately does something that is, on the one hand, authentic, but on the other unacceptable for a comic conclusion: he says, “Immediate sentence then and sequent death / Is all the grace I beg” (5.1.375-76). And with this, the Duke gets his opportunity to make his dispensations. He summons Mariana and orders Angelo to go and marry her immediately. He then repeats the untruth to Isabella that her brother is dead, claiming that the execution outpaced his attempts to stop it. Isabella is expected to take this information patiently, and even to forgive Angelo, the man who has supposedly executed Claudio. But this same man who is to be forgiven must also himself be executed: after all, says the Duke, “Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure” (5.1.413-14). At this pronouncement, Mariana is taken aback, and she utters a line that in its attractive simplicity completely rejects her new husband’s principle of treating money as more important than loyalty or faith: “I crave no other nor no better man” (5.1.429). Mariana immediately entreats Isabella to take her part in fighting for Angelo’s life. Between the two of them, they engage in an impressive bit of morally pliable lawyering that would make Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad proud. Mariana says, “They say best men are molded out of faults, / And for the most, become much more the better / For being a little bad. So may my husband” (5.1.442-44). As Mariana knows, Angelo has been much more than “a little bad.” He has behaved in a perfidious, abusive, and even potentially murderous way.
Isabella has already shown her willingness to participate in a scheme involving well-intended deception, and at this point, she shows us how far she has come from the rigid moralist we met in earlier acts. Her line of attack is, “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” (5.1.451-55). This logic does not fundamentally differ from, say, the plea from an unsuccessful bank robber that, after all, he did not succeed in his criminal plans, so he should not be charged for the attempt. Even if we should not take for granted that the Elizabethans had precisely the same understanding of the relationship between crime and intentionality as we do today, it is hard to imagine such a claim succeeding in court anywhere, at any time. Still, it is essentially the argument Isabella sets forth to help Mariana save Angelo.
The Duke at once professes to have thought of yet one more fault, and this time it’s the Provost who receives his unwelcome attention. But this, of course, is a pretext for the two of them to reveal, by way of some temporal fudging and an attenuated doubling of Claudio’s identity, that in spite of all that’s been said, Isabella’s brother is still alive. The Duke is now able to pardon Angelo, and he is in such a good mood that he even pardons the murderous drunkard Barnardine, advising him to make something better of his miserable existence. Isabella and Claudio soon embrace, and the Duke asks for Isabella’s hand in marriage. The last piece of business is to deal with the rascal Lucio. The Duke at first sentences him to be whipped and hanged, but relents and simply orders him to marry the prostitute by whom he fathered a child. To Lucio’s comic plea that “Marrying a punk … is pressing to death, whipping, / and hanging” (5.1.525-26), the Duke answers only, “Slandering a prince deserves it” (5.1.527).
The Duke closes the play by making his second offer of marriage to Isabella, saying, “I 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” (5.1.538-39). He still receives no answer, and critics have made much of this lack of affirmation as a way of deepening the “problem play” status of Measure for Measure, but it’s hard to imagine that Isabella is going to walk away from the deal in a huff. Doing so would make little dramatic sense, and Isabella has already shown the flexibility necessary to make her an excellent match for Vincentio. The Duke is not tendering an imperious “indecent proposal” like the one Angelo threw down to Isabella; he is courteously asking if Isabella would like to marry him and, we may presume, exercise considerable power as the Duchess of Vienna.
Why is Measure for Measure considered one of Shakespeare’s darker comedies or along with All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida, and, according to some critics, The Merchant of Venice? The play’s status as problematic seems to come down to its moral complexity. The ending feels to some viewers and readers as if it is somewhat forced, and the play as a whole lacks the sunnier qualities of Shakespearean comedies such as As You Like It. Measure for Measure comes across as being willing to question the status of marriage in a not altogether comical way. In the end, the play brings into stark relief the astute pre-Freudian realization that while marriage is a vital institution that can knit and hold a society together, it is by no means equally efficient at rendering individuals and couples happy. We can speculate that the prospective marriage between the Duke and Isabella will approach the ideal and that the union between Claudio and Julietta is solid, but the marriage between Angelo and Mariana seems, if not purgatorial, less than ideal, and Lucio’s forced marriage with the prostitute Kate Keepdown, by whom he fathered a child, sounds like a dreadful punishment for both. Certainly, there are “odd men out” even in the sunnier comedies—characters such as Malvolio and Feste in Twelfth Night, or Jacques in As You Like It, not to mention less than picture-perfect, high-minded unions like that of Touchstone the Clown and his country lass Audrey. But there’s nothing quite approaching the dark quality of Act 5’s dispensation here in Measure for Measure.
As for the play’s exploration of the concept of justice, that, too, is ambivalent. Many viewers and readers seem not to be overly impressed with the Duke’s achievement by the play’s end. Perhaps, though, the sudden commutations he springs on us (along with the necessary marriages, happy ones and otherwise) may mirror God’s far grander dispensation for the whole of humanity—the divine redemptive process is, after all, often described as sudden, and unmerited on the part of those who receive its great reward. It may be that the demand levied on Shakespeare to prepare us elaborately for the resolution is, in the context of this play about justice, misplaced. Vulnerabilities such as pride, sensuality, and fear of mortality render human beings weak and fallible. “Balance” in administering justice is bound to be elusive, but perhaps the recognition of these defects can pave the way towards the recovery of sufficient virtue to keep a society together. That is a major concern in Shakespeare’s work: how to renew and perpetuate the social order when the material with which one must work is such crumbling, frail, mortal clay as humankind? What shifts and partial tactics and strategy will serve to protect this order from the hollowing-out that seems to beset so many of the societies in Shakespeare’s tragic plays? Critics may be right to claim that Measure for Measure is far from perfectly satisfying in terms of its comic impact, but at the same time, it is an honest play because it doesn’t sugarcoat the shortcomings of attempts to achieve a balance between justice and mercy. As such, in my view, it takes its honorable place in the spectrum of Shakespearean comedy. Anyone who demands perfect fidelity to genre conventions and expectations in Shakespeare is bound to be frustrated; Shakespeare never signed any oath to observe such fidelity, and I suspect that he would have considered it a betrayal of life in its full reality.
Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake