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Measure for Measure /

A Modern Perspective: Measure for Measure

By Christy Desmet

Measure for Measure concludes with an elaborate mock trial, in which the duke passes judgment on a series of characters whose faults vary widely in severity. Angelo, having restored Mariana’s reputation by marrying her, is condemned for Claudio’s supposed death. Lucio is forced to marry the mother of his child, a fate he considers worse than “pressing to death, whipping, and hanging” (5.1.596–97). Both men richly deserve their sentences. But Isabella must also seek pardon for having unknowingly taken liberties with her sovereign, a transgression that her ignorance and the duke’s enjoyment of his own disguise should certainly mitigate. Even less comprehensible is the duke’s judgment of the provost, who is made to give up his keys of office for executing Claudio without a special warrant, a deed that the provost valiantly strove to prevent and that, in the end, never took place. Nevertheless, the provost readily confesses his fault and asks the duke’s pardon before producing Claudio, the missing piece in the duke’s puzzle that allows him to pardon in turn each of the characters’ transgressions. Lucio’s pardon is conditional, since he still must marry Kate Keepdown, but his life is safe, and the duke implies that marriage to a “punk,” as Lucio calls her, is a small price for slandering a duke.

Under the duke’s “just but severe law” (2.2.58), there is no mercy without prior justice. The biblical logic of the play’s title, Measure for Measure, requires “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death” (5.1.465). Every fault is condemned as soon as it is done, if not before, as Angelo tells Isabella; it therefore follows, as the duke says, that “Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure” (466). The duke’s ritual enactment of “measure for measure” assumes that the distinction between good and evil is both absolute and readily apparent. Yet the parody of judicial process over which Escalus presides, in which Elbow (as Justice) accuses Pompey (as Iniquity) of uncertain crimes, demonstrates the impossibility of clear moral divisions. Not only does Elbow confuse benefactors with malefactors, but the sexual crime also remains undefined (2.1.54–56). Nothing was done to Elbow’s wife “once,” is all that Pompey will admit. “Which is the wiser here, Justice or Iniquity?” Escalus asks, throwing up his hands in exasperation (2.1.180).

The world of Measure for Measure cannot be reduced to a morality play that pits Justice against Iniquity because human behavior is more varied than the scriptural model of judicial exchange—“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death”—would allow. A simple moral mathematics, one that divides the world into angels and devils, governs the notion that an unjust judge must pay with his life for his innocent prisoner’s “death.” Paradoxically, the logic of “measure for measure” depends as well on a contrary assumption, that Angelo and Claudio are indistinguishable from one another. Angelo’s death may requite Claudio’s precisely because they have committed the same sexual crime: fornication. (For an examination of alternative biblical implications of the phrase “measure for measure,” see Historical Background 4: “Measure for Measure.”)

At the lower ranks of Vienna’s legal system, the line between innocence and guilt is even less clear. The comic tie between the executioner Abhorson (whose name suggests an unsavory appearance) and his apprentice Pompey Bum (whose “bum” is the “greatest thing” about him [2.1.225]) demonstrates that a thin line divides criminals from their masters within the judicial system. A “feather will turn the scale” (4.2.30–31) between them. Furthermore, despite the law’s attempt to label malefactors according to their deeds, the relationship between intention and action is often uncertain. The host of allegorical characters who inhabit Abhorson’s prison (Master Rash, young Dizzy, and the rest of Mistress Overdone’s customers) are humors characters, shaped and driven by a single, obvious, and exaggerated trait. Because their crimes have a behavioral rather than moral origin, the terms “guilt” and “innocence” hardly apply to them. Barnardine, by contrast, positively flouts civic and religious law, drinking and sleeping around the clock despite the fact that, for him, the day of judgment is near. The duke calls him “gravel heart” (4.3.68), appalled by the lack of conscience that bolsters Barnardine’s willful refusal to “rise and be hanged” (4.3.22–23).

In Shakespeare’s Vienna, the equivocal nature of authority itself complicates the relation between law and morality. Both the play’s biblical subtext and early modern political theory support the duke’s characterization of the sovereign as God’s secular arm. The duke says that “He who the sword of heaven will bear / Should be as holy as severe” (3.2.261–62). Angelo, being only an “angel on the outward side” (272), cannot fulfill the ideal of justice to which he has committed himself. But the mere fact that he can fill the duke’s place contradicts the symbolic equation between secular and religious authority. In appointing Angelo as his deputy, the duke has created a counterfeit, the political equivalent of the illegitimate children produced by Vienna’s sexual counterfeiters, who “coin God’s image / In stamps that are forbid” (2.4.47–48).

Not only the duke’s abdication of his authority, but also his adoption of another identity as a friar, is problematic. In drama from the period, the conventional figure of the disguised duke is morally unambiguous. Passing unrecognized through his realm, he observes the true nature of his subjects and learns important lessons about them and himself. Shakespeare’s duke, however, usurps the function as well as the form of a religious figure. He prepares Claudio for death and attempts to perform the same function for Barnardine. He also acts as confessor and spiritual guide to Juliet, Isabella, and Mariana. The duke’s assumption of religious authority is legally and theologically suspect.

Furthermore, his disguise seems to be a device for political surveillance rather than enlightenment and self-knowledge. The duke often is, as Lucio calls him, the “fantastical duke of dark corners” (4.3.170). He watches Angelo’s failed stewardship as an interesting experiment in the effect of power on human nature. He eavesdrops on Isabella’s private conference with her condemned brother and establishes himself as Mariana’s confidant. Even Lucio might object that the duke, by virtue of his disguise and a strategic reticence, encourages the slanders that he later punishes with such rigor. Finally, the duke’s wanderings throughout Vienna seem to produce not knowledge, but doubt and confusion, for the duke must turn to Escalus for confirmation of his own character. He praises the death of Ragozine the pirate (whose severed head conveniently replaces that of Claudio) as “an accident that heaven provides” (4.3.82), but in this case, the substitution of one head for another smacks more of desperate improvisation than of divine providence. In the play’s concluding scene, Escalus orders that the “Friar” be sent to prison for slander to the state, so that the duke seems momentarily to become the victim of his own disguise.

The relationship between Iniquity and Justice is most complicated in the play’s exploration of marriage as a legal institution. There are two, perhaps three, married couples in Measure for Measure: Claudio and Juliet, Angelo and Mariana, and, less obviously, Lucio and Kate Keepdown. The status of all three is uncertain. In Shakespeare’s England, a series of rituals marked the stages of a couple’s legal commitment to one another. The formality of courtship and the place of dowry negotiations in this process varied according to social class and geography. In general, however, after a period of courtship and a financial agreement negotiated between the families, the couple exchanged a promise to marry, which in most cases was quickly followed by a public betrothal.1 After the public contract came the announcement of the banns in the parish church, a church ceremony, wedding feast, and the bedding of the couple.

Claudio and Juliet have engaged in a sponsalia per verba de praesenti, or public “handfast” marriage, a declaration that they are husband and wife made before witnesses and symbolized by the pair’s clasped hands. Although Claudio confirms that Juliet is “fast” his wife (1.2.144), the secrecy surrounding that ceremony complicates the legality of their marriage. While Claudio and Juliet have reached the second stage in their commitment to one another, according to Angelo’s account he and Mariana engaged only in a sponsalia de futuro, a private promise to marry in the future that went no further when dowry negotiations broke down. In this case, Angelo’s abandonment of Mariana after her dowry was lost at sea might violate common decency, but it would not be illegal. Nevertheless, when the duke solicits Isabella’s participation in the bed-trick, he assures her that Mariana was “affianced” to Angelo by oath and that the date was set for their nuptial ceremony, suggesting that the negotiations had proceeded much further than Angelo himself admits (3.1.238–40). To complicate matters even more, in the trial scene Mariana refers to “the hand which, with a vowed contract, / Was fast belocked in thine” (5.1.235–36). Situated between Mariana’s memory of the deep past (when Angelo found her beautiful) and the recent past (when she substituted for Isabella in Angelo’s bed), this statement might refer to a formal vow between Angelo and Mariana or a spur-of-the-moment betrothal between Angelo and the woman he thought was Isabella. Mariana’s statement that she took away the “match” from Isabel (5.1.237) leaves the truth in doubt. Lucio and Mistress Kate Keepdown are involved in the most irregular of all the marriages. Mistress Overdone claims that Lucio promised to marry Kate Keepdown, which would probably suggest a private contract followed quickly by sexual consummation, especially since the child was apparently conceived on May Day, a holiday traditionally associated with courtship and sexual freedom. Lucio’s marriage may be not only incomplete, but also irregular. Like other young women whose impromptu courtships and vows were conducted in the spirit of holiday license—women whose cases sometimes came before the ecclesiastical courts—Kate Keepdown may have discovered that she and Lucio understood their union in very different terms.2 Thus they, like the other characters in this play, are at once married and not married.

In Measure for Measure’s representation of marriage as a legal institution, Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized a social situation that was at once familiar and frighteningly strange. While waiting for Juliet’s dowry or marriage portion to be finalized, Claudio and Juliet have prematurely consummated their relationship, and the signs of pregnancy are now obvious on Juliet’s body. While the English church clearly considered sex before the wedding ceremony a sin, it was also common practice. Varieties of fornication were punished with degrees of penance by the ecclesiastical courts, but members of the play’s audience, like the denizens of Shakespeare’s Vienna, probably would have been horrified to see Claudio condemned to death for premarital sexual relations. They would have been equally confused by the duke’s confident assurance to Mariana that her “precontract” to Angelo (4.1.79) prevents her substitution for Isabella in Angelo’s bed from being a sin. Only Lucio’s ability to evade his marital and parental responsibilities might have seemed sadly commonplace.

The inhabitants of Shakespearean Vienna evaluate Claudio’s dilemma in different ways. Condemned by civil and ecclesiastical law, both Claudio and Juliet are penitent. Claudio, loathe to name his crime, philosophizes about how human nature seeks its own destruction as a rat consumes poison. Juliet not only acknowledges her sin in theological terms, but she is also willing to shoulder more than her fair share of guilt for the child’s illegitimacy. Less scrupulous observers of the social scene, such as Lucio, regard Claudio’s slip as a natural consequence of human nature, a mere “rebellion of a codpiece” hardly worth consideration, much less severe punishment (3.2.116). Pompey voices a widespread belief that the only way to eradicate fornication and bawdy houses in Vienna would be to “geld and splay all the youth of the city” (2.1.238–39). Even the provost, whose job it is to uphold the law, argues that Claudio committed his offense unknowingly, as if in a “dream” (2.2.6).

The fact that Lucio, the least penitent sexual transgressor in this play, has successfully evaded the law for so long suggests that the law itself, not just the imperfect state of human nature, is to blame for Vienna’s sexual crisis. Escalus imagines the wheels of justice in Vienna turning erratically and unfairly, so that “some rise by sin and some by virtue fall” (2.1.42). Claudio, who does not exactly belong to either group, is “condemnèd for a fault alone” (44). The word “fault,” which designates a moral failing somewhere between neglect and active transgression, often of a specifically sexual nature, is the term used most frequently to designate the culpable behavior of characters in Measure for Measure. The fact that a “fault” can be treated variously as a vice or personal habit, a civic crime, and a religious sin signals that the law in Vienna has failed to establish clear distinctions between Justice and Iniquity.

What is missing from Escalus’s parodic vision of Viennese society, in which Justice and Iniquity spar ineffectually with one another, is a concept of positive virtue to counter the excesses of sexual vice and soften the corrective lash of public justice. Isabella and Angelo are the characters most committed to achieving a virtuous life. Angelo’s virtue is in many ways a negative one, an abstinence and evasion of temptation that make him vulnerable to Lucio’s satire and, eventually, to Isabella’s beauty and eloquence. Isabella, as a religious novice seeking admittance to the strict Order of St. Clare, also yearns for a life removed from ordinary temptation. Some critics find Isabella’s preference for her chastity over her brother’s life to be cold, unnatural, and utterly reprehensible. But Isabella’s rejection of Angelo’s proposition is probably prudent. In some versions of this story, when the sister yields her virginity in exchange for her brother’s life, the corrupt deputy quickly executes the brother to prevent him from avenging his sister’s honor. More important, Isabella has intellectual and spiritual reasons for refusing Angelo’s bargain. As an aspiring saint, she declares her willingness to throw down her life for Claudio within the terms of a Christian martyrdom. Isabella demonstrates the power of choice and commitment in a society that seeks to correct a culture of irresponsibility with tyrannical repression. Angelo’s devilish bargain, by contrast, offers Isabella an ignominious ransom for Claudio’s life rather than a “free pardon” (2.4.119).

Ironically, Isabella’s ability to articulate a strong ethical position arouses Angelo’s dormant sexual appetite. She speaks “such sense” that Angelo’s sexual “sense breeds with it” (2.2.172–73). Thus Angelo, who easily resists the strumpet’s superficial arts, succumbs to the eloquence of Isabella’s argument. Her plea for Claudio’s life rests solidly on an analogy between divine and human authority, the same analogy that authorizes the duke and his deputy to enforce the law. God’s willingness to look mercifully on human transgressions demands an equally unconditional mercy from human agents of justice. By the logic of analogy, Angelo must put himself in Claudio’s place, imagine himself as “slipping” into sexual transgression, and show mercy to Claudio. By a perverse twist, the intellectual and emotional power of Isabella’s rhetoric, her persuasive speech, allows Angelo to experience unlawful sexual desire and to demand, almost blasphemously, that Isabella put herself in the sexual position of ordinary women.

Isabella’s ethics, based on putting oneself in the place of another person, becomes the grounds for Measure for Measure’s comic resolution, but the play is darkened by its insistence on silencing Isabella’s female eloquence. Angelo, feeling the sting of sexual desire, is impelled to “raze the sanctuary” of Isabella’s virginity (2.2.208). He can imagine feminine virtue only as an object, a monument to be either venerated or destroyed by male sexuality. Isabella’s powerful speech challenges this division of women into virgins and whores by demonstrating her active commitment to virtue. Nevertheless, the duke himself contains and controls Isabella’s ethical vision by dramatizing a kinship between feminine virtue and vice, first in the execution of the bed-trick and then in the elaborate trial scene that concludes the play. The duke represents the bed-trick, in which Mariana takes Isabella’s place, as morally neutral and even as virtuous. Through this expedient device, Angelo will be judged and Mariana’s long and lonely vigil concluded. “The doubleness of the benefit,” the duke argues, “defends the deceit from reproof” (3.1.284–85). Here the duke conveniently ignores the church’s requirement that a marriage be solemnized before sexual relations begin when he puts Mariana in the position already occupied by Juliet and Kate Keepdown.

Measure for Measure’s concluding trial scene challenges further the role of feminine virtue in the public sphere. In this scene, the duke subjects Isabella and Mariana to his secular authority, completing Angelo’s attempt to raze the sanctuary of female virtue by forcing each, in turn, to put on in public the “destined livery” of female sexuality (2.4.149). Jonathan Dollimore argues that the duke’s strategy is political. He stages this elaborate trial of Angelo to demonstrate his own power and integrity as a ruler.3 In this case, his ritual humiliation of the women is gratuitous. Isabella, noted both for her virginity and her truthful tongue, is forced to commit perjury, presenting herself as a victim of Angelo’s lust. That Angelo is “a virgin-violator, / Is it not strange?” (5.1.46–47), she cries out to a public audience. Mariana, who has long been sequestered in her moated grange, now offers herself to public view as a sexual riddle, the woman who is neither “maid, widow, nor wife” (5.1.203–4), and easily becomes the object of Lucio’s joke: “My lord, she may be a punk, for many of them are neither maid, widow, nor wife” (5.1.205–6). In the duke’s didactic drama, Mariana and Isabella are collapsed into one figure, then relegated to an anomalous and sexually suspect category of “giglets” (5.1.391).

While the duke reestablishes law and order in Vienna, he seems uninterested in cultivating among his subjects the kind of active virtue that would make “strict statutes and most biting laws” unnecessary (1.3.20). In a world governed by Isabella’s ethics, based on identification with others and a sympathetic understanding of their faults, the laws that bolster the duke’s power and confirm his identity as God’s secular representative would wither away. The containment of Isabella’s power is therefore politically expedient, even necessary.

The duke may demystify Isabella’s ethics by making her an object of common curiosity, but he cannot silence her altogether. When the duke offers to sacrifice Mariana’s new husband for the supposed death of Claudio, employing the logic of “like doth quit like,” Mariana and Isabella join forces on Angelo’s behalf. Mariana argues that “best men are molded out of faults” (5.1.503). Isabella bends her knee in solidarity with both Mariana and Angelo himself. She recognizes not only the other woman’s feelings, but also the sincerity that governed Angelo’s strict adherence to law before he encountered Isabella. Establishing an imaginative kinship with a man who has “slipped” in exactly the same way as her brother, she distinguishes between Angelo’s bad thoughts and his deeds and pleads for mercy. In the debate between Justice and Mercy, Isabella and Mariana hold the day.

The ending of Measure for Measure, however, calls into question this triumph of female speech and ethics. The duke’s final gesture, an apparent offer of marriage to Isabella, absorbs the aspiring nun into a traditional marriage plot and, at last, silences her altogether. Once the duke makes his proposal, Isabella never speaks another word. In the bed-trick and in the trial scene, the women enact a script provided for them by the duke. In their plea for Angelo, perhaps, they speak their minds. But what can be made of Isabella’s silence in the face of the duke’s marriage proposal? Our experience with the legal complexity of the various marriages in this play might make us regard skeptically the duke’s evasion of all forms of ceremony attached to normal marriages of the period.

Contemporary productions of the play vary in their interpretation of Isabella’s silence. In some, Isabella is swept up willingly in the marriage celebrations. In others, she resists the duke’s offer or rejects him altogether. As Measure for Measure’s anatomy of marriage suggests, without the imposition of strict statutes and biting laws, marriage vows are valid only as long as two people agree on their validity. The theater, as another kind of social ritual, also depends on a consensus between audience and actors in the absence of strict laws of verisimilitude. To the duke’s suggestion that “what’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” (5.1.611), Isabella and the actor who played her offer no response. Throughout the play Isabella consistently resists the logic of measure for measure. She refuses to sacrifice Angelo’s life for Claudio’s death. Perhaps more important, she refuses to exchange her body for Claudio’s life. To Angelo’s offer, Isabella had pledged to wear the “impression of keen whips” as rubies rather than yield her “body up to shame” (2.4.108, 111). In light of this vow, her silence in the face of the duke’s proposal may be very eloquent indeed.

  1. For a detailed discussion of the stages of marriage in this period and their significance to Measure for Measure, see Victoria Hayne, “Performing Social Practice: The Example of Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (1993): 1–29. For an analysis that differs in some respects from my own, see Historical Background 2: “Betrothal and Marriage.”
  2. John Ingram discusses a type of case that frequently came before the ecclesiastical courts, in which a male defendant made “some kind of promise of marriage” to a gullible woman, but acted “insincerely or with fraudulent intention.” For instance, Cecily Chisleton, a servant, allowed Robert Maundrell to have sex with her after he had promised marriage and had given her presents or love-tokens, including a letter with a pair of gloves. Robert, however, changed his mind when Cecily became pregnant. Although the master of the house attempted to force Robert to marry Cecily, in court Robert insisted that he had merely kissed her “as he did other of my lady’s maids” (John Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570–1640 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987], p. 199). By contrast, at the end of a festival day another, wiser young woman named Alice Gidlowe was asked by John Cotgreve, a Cheshire clergyman, to enter an abandoned house and make love to him. She did, but only after the two had made the appropriate vows before their friends (John R. Gillis, For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985], p. 38).
  3. Jonathan Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare, ed. Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 72–87.