The Duke, the Professional Virgin and the Dastardly Deputy
Measure for Measure
The first time Hal and I read Measure for Measure aloud, we said, “Huh?” But that was when we were just getting into Shakespeare so we figured we just didn’t get it. The second time, on our first read-all-the-plays-in-chronological-order sessions, we said, “Huh?” Now we’ve read it in our second read-all-the-plays sessions and this time we said, “Huh?”
This is just a really hard play to understand. Not the story. That’s easy like all of Shakespeare’s stories. The Duke temporarily hands over the power to rigid but virtuous Angelo and pretends to leave town but comes back disguised as a friar to connive and manipulate everybody. Angelo immediately uses his power to enforce a long-ignored law against pre-marital sex and condemns poor amorous Claudio to death for impregnating his bride-to-be Juliet. Claudio’s sister is in the process of becoming a nun. She asks Angelo to spare Claudio’s life. Angelo says he will if she’ll have sex with him. She says, “Oh horrors. Never.” The Duke arranges things to make Angelo think he is having sex with Isabella but he’s really having sex with his long-rejected fiancée Mariana. Things sort of turn out in the end. Claudio doesn’t get executed anyway.
The problem is, why are they all so neurotic and perverted and disgusting? Well, not all of them. Some of the characters are puzzled and troubled by the events but the main three – the Duke, Isabella and Angelo –are horrible and I just can’t figure them out.
Seeking enlightenment I took several books from our Shakespeare shelves and because I had found Wilson Knight’s chapters on Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida interesting, I started with him.
I was skeptical from the start because of his title: “Measure for Measure and the Gospels” but I read it. Not surprisingly he compares the whole play to the measure for measure story in the biblical Book of Matthew and concludes that the whole play is a warm, deeply ethical play.
The Duke, according to Knight, stands “for a psychologically sound and enlightened ethic.” He is “the prophet of an enlightened ethic. He controls the action from start to finish…he is lit at moments with divine suggestion comparable with his almost divine power…and wisdom” (page 80). Knight cannot praise the Duke highly enough. He tells us, “The Duke’s sense of human responsibility is delightful throughout: he is a kindly father, and all the rest of us are his children” (page 86). That’s meant as a compliment. I think. Knight says of the Duke’s monologue to poor about-to-be-executed Claudio about life being lousy so it’s better to die, “The thought is profound” (page 92). Well, it is, but I think he means that it’s a good profound thought. Knight concludes that the Duke had been right from the beginning to be lenient, and that the marriage between the Duke and Isabella will be “the marriage of understanding with purity; of tolerance with moral fervor” (page 107).
He’s got to be kidding.
Isabella then. She stands for “sainted purity” (page 80). I think he means this as a compliment too. He emphasizes her plea to Angelo for mercy but he also realizes that her “saintliness” is “self-centered” and her “sanctity” is “ice-cold” (page 102). She “lacks human feeling” (page 103) and her fall, Knight thinks, is deeper than Angelo’s because “she sees her own soul and sees it as something small, frightened, despicable, too frail to dream of such a sacrifice…she, like the rest, has to find a new wisdom” (page 104). When Mariana pleads in the last act for Angelo’s life because she loves him anyway (which Knight doesn’t seem to find unreasonable), Isabella “suddenly shows a softening, a sweet humanity.” Angelo’s passion has “thaw[ed] her ice-cold pride” (page 104). The Dukes sees that she has learned her lesson and “she bows to a love greater than her own saintliness” (page 105). So she (supposes Knight) marries the Duke and “will learn from him wisdom, human tenderness, and love…” (page 107).
He’s kidding, right?
Yucky Angelo then, what’s Knight’s take on him? He sees Angelo not as “a conscious hypocrite: rather as a man whose chief faults are self-deception and his own righteousness” (page 94) but realizes that “he swiftly becomes an utter scoundrel” (page 97). Then Knight comes to the odd conclusion that “Angelo is the symbol of a false intellectualized ethic divorced from the deeper springs of human instinct” (page 98). What?! When he is exposed in Act V Angelo realizes he had “aimed too high when he cast his eyes on the sainted Isabel; now, knowing himself, he will find his true level in the love of Mariana…his acceptance of Mariana symbolizes his new self-knowledge” (pages 105-106). What acceptance? Yes, Mariana inexplicably loves him still even though he has been “a little bad” (Act 5.1) but he gives no sign in the play that he accepts this love. He marries her because the Duke tells him too.
Hm. So much for Knight. My reaction is still, “Huh?”
The introductions in the plays in the Norton edition have been consistently helpful in understanding the plays so next we read this one by Katherine Eisaman Maus. It does indeed clarify some things. She puts the Duke’s, Isabella’s and Angelo’s views on sex as evil and dangerous to society in the historical context of Plato and later the Christian church’s equation of sex with sin. However it would be completely wrong to say that everybody in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance actually thought this way and KEM asks the question, “What makes sexuality so troublesome in this play?” In Measure for Measure Shakespeare’s linking in the earlier comedies “between heterosexual desire and marriage seems to have snapped” (page 2040). In this play the more reasonable characters – Lucio, Pompey, Escalus – regard chastity as a good enough thing but not for them. But the Duke’s system of oppressive laws against sex “would not have been unfamiliar to Shakespeare’s original audience” (page 2041). Moreover the Puritans were on the rise and KEM wonders if Shakespeare was asking in this play “what would happen if, as some argued, sexual misconduct could be punished with death?” (page 2041). By setting the play in Catholic Vienna, Shakespeare protects himself from offending the contemporary English Puritans but the parallels are surely there.
About the three characters we are looking at in this study KEM offer this:
The Duke like the others sees sex as “sordid…a sign of degradation rather than a means of creativity or love,” (page 2040) and he is in charge of a system that also makes it illegal. She points out that his character is controversial amongst critics and viewers. Some see him as nearly divine (she means Knight, perhaps?). Others see a parallel to King James I who had recently succeeded Elizabeth I, while still others see him “as a schemer who foists his dirty work onto political subordinates and meddles impudently, even sacrilegiously, with the lives of his subjects” (page 2045).
Isabella, too, is interpreted in different ways and probably elicited the same mixed reactions in Shakespeare’s time as in ours, according to KEM. Is she defiantly heroic for defying Angelo or chillingly selfish to let Claudio die? Chastity was a serious business back then, and as KEM points out “her obstinacy seems justified after the fact, when Angelo has Claudio executed anyway” (page 2043). But KEM goes on to point out that Isabella isn’t as pure as she seems. “She not only shares Angelo’s assumption that the sexual act is a defilement but like him she finds the discipline exciting” (page 2044). Well, that’s interesting.
So, on to Angelo. KEM deals with him brusquely. He is “rigid and self-righteous…[he] imagines himself as tainted meat rotting all the faster under the very sun that gives life to innocent, lovely things…[he] is sexually aroused by prohibition…If he rationalized his behavior on Isabella, he would lose the nearly sensual luxury of self-hatred” (pages 2042-2043). In the end, as KEM points out, he shows no gratitude for having been spared and given Mariana as his wife (page 2045).
So I’m not the only one who thinks these three are awful. KEM helps me put them into a believable framework.
Now Professor Harold Bloom, author of Shakespeare – the Invention of the Human. I always wonder what he’s going to come up with since he’s so often a mish-mash of nonsense and brilliance. And what’s this? He starts out by stating that Measure for Measure and Macbeth are his favorite plays. Another “huh?” Macbeth sure, but M for M? Now I’m curious.
The Duke, then, what does Bloom have to say about the Duke? Words like “dubious”, “peculiar”, “sanctimonious” appear early in the essay. Bloom compares the Duke to Iago but says there “is no Othello for the Duke to bring down, but he seems to plot, quite impartially, against all his subjects, for ends in no way political or moral” (page 361). About Duke Vincentio’s way of running things Bloom says, “The idea of order in Vincentio’s Vienna ultimately is an idea of death” (page 375). The Duke’s treatment of poor Claudio in his life-is-lousy speech, more properly known as the “Be absolute for death” oration, “is blasphemously anything but Christian comfort”. It sounds impressive…but the emptiness at our core that harried Hamlet appears to be a rather good thing to the Duke-friar. If he is serious, then he is half-crazed, which very well may be the case” (page 369). Bloom sees the Duke’s relationship with Isabella as more or less the same as Angelo’s: “Angelo’s sadomasochistic desire for the novice nun is more palpable than the Duke’s lust, but the difference between them is in degree, not in kind” (page 365). He manipulates the terrified Claudio as part of his seduction of Isabella and stoops to “the sadistic degradation of lying to Isabella that her brother has been executed” (page 379). And then he publicly proposes marriage to her. Why? Because he “has emptied life of all value…he wants [Isabella because] he is so vast a sensible emptiness that her zealous chastity at least might spur him on to some zest of his own” (page 372).
Bloom also notes that “Vincentio invariably speaks nonsense” (page 376).“Vincentio makes no sense whether as Duke or as friar” (page 378).The Duke’s “flight from the city’s stew of sexual corruption is manifestly a flight from himself” (page 370) and “Vincentio is his own Vienna, he is the disease he purports to cure” (page 371).
Yes! Thank you, Bloom! You saw through the Duke! I’m not the only one who really thinks the Duke is a creep!
On Isabella, Bloom has less to say but what he says is pithy. He points out that she “is nothing but the voice of the dead father, feeding upon life” (page 372). This in her regard to her happiness when Claudio says he is ready to die: “There spake my brother: there my father’s grave/ Did utter forth a voice. Yes, thou must die” (Act 3.1). When she then turns on him viciously because he pleads with her to help him live and calls him “O, you beast!/ O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!” (Act 3.1), Bloom rightly calls this “plain nastiness” (page 374). He shows her to be “sublimely neurotic” and “unable to distinguish any fornication whatsoever from incest” (page 360). She is simply “maddest of Vienna’s mad” (page 372) and her “peculiar” defense of Angelo in the last act (and her last lines in the play) are described thus: “Isabella, being crazed, must be serious” (page 379). Isabella as crazy – that works for me.
Finally Angelo. None of us like him. Why should we? Bloom says it “is difficult to decide who is more antipathetic, Angelo or Duke Vincentio” (page 365) but at least Angelo is blatant about his lust for the forbidden. “One feels,” observes Bloom, “that Angelo’s heaven would be a nunnery” (page 366) and sums him up thus: “This splendid Return of the Repressed makes for wonderful melodrama, particularly when its theatrical context is comic, however rancidly so. Angelo is bad news and Shakespeare happily sees to it that the news gets no better, right down to the end of the play” (page 367).
And that brings us back to Shakespeare. What does he mean? What is Measure for Measure about? What’s the bigger picture?
Wilson Knight sees in it a play about “Christian redemption” (page 81), the Duke’s “gospel ethic” (page 80), “Christian ethic” (page 80), a satire “directed primarily against self-conscious self-righteousness” (page 83), “the moral nature of man in relation to the crudity of man’s justice” (page 79). Knight sees the Duke to be “like Jesus…the prophet of a new order of ethics” (page 88). To Knight the play is a “masterpiece of ethical drama” and “must be read, not as a picture of normal human affairs, but as a parable, like the parables of Jesus…it will be found to reflect the sublime strangeness and unreason of Jesus’ teaching” (page 107-108).
No. Sorry. That just isn’t it. If you want this play to reflect Jesus then Jesus isn’t the good guy a lot of people want him to be.
Katherine Eiseman Maus, in the spirit of the New Historicist interpretation in the Norton edition, writes as mentioned earlier that this play must be seen/read within the framework of the Christian church’s fear and loathing of sex. While Shakespeare is not recommending anything, KEM points out that he is “deeply attentive to general issues about the often-vexed relationship between civic life and human passion, and between religious commitment and the conduct of secular affairs. What happens to individuals and a community when sexuality…becomes the subject of public discipline” (pages 2041-2)? This question, KEM adds, is highly relevant in our day too. The question of chastity in Shakespeare’s play must also be seen against the backdrop of both the Catholic and the Protestant paradoxical views on sex. Neither church could (can) make up its mind on what to do about sex. This, if I have read KEM right, is one of the things Shakespeare was trying to point out.
I certainly have no argument with that.
Bloom is definitely not a New Historicist. In fact he rails quite wildly at times against them (us). But here there is no conflict. On Measure for Measure he minces no words on the question of Christianity. The fact that the title is taken from the Sermon on the Mount “has suggested an interpretation as crazy as the play but much less interesting: certain Christianizing scholars ask us to believe that Measure for Measure is an august allegory of the Divine Atonement” (pages 359-360). Shakespeare, Bloom says, “involves his audience…in the…simultaneous invocation and evasion of Christian belief and Christian morals. The evasion decidedly is more to the point than the invocation, and I scarcely see how the play, in regard to its Christian allusiveness, can be regarded as anything but blasphemous” (page 359).
Wow. Dear old Bloom. We’ve had our differences. You’ve called me names (or at least people who think like me) and I’ve called you names. We will undoubtedly do so again but here? Hats off to you! You have made this play work for me. “Nihilistic”. “Outrageous”. “Blasphemous”. The Duke, Isabella, Angelo, and all the rest fall into place (their historical place, I might add!). They are neurotic and perverted and disgusting. I was right all along.
Knight’s Christian view? The Bible has many words of wisdom but this play is not a representation of them. So no thanks. KEM’s New Historicism? Absolutely. That’s always right. But Bloom’s blasphemy? Oh yes. I like that.
I like that very much. Now Measure for Measure makes a kind of crazy sense. I think that’s what Shakespeare was aiming for.
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare - the Invention of the Human. 1998.
- Eisaman Maus, Katherine. Introduction, Norton edition.
- Knight, Wilson. The Wheel of Fire. 1930 and 1989.
- BBC, 1979. Directed by Desmond Davis. Cast: Isabella – Kate Nelligan; Angelo – Tim Pigott-Smith; the Duke – Kenneth Colley; Claudio – Christopher Strauli; Lucio – John McEnery; Escalus – Kevin Stoney; Pompey – Frank Middlemass; Mariana – Jacqueline Pearce. A straightforward interpretation that seems to miss the essence of the play. The cast is for the most part earnest, except for Lucio who is silly when he should be sardonic and cool. The disgusting absurdity Shakespeare is trying to show us is not presented as an outrageous comedy, but as a … I’m not sure what. Still I enjoyed it quite a lot until the final scene when Isabella smiled and took the Duke’s hand. That kind of ruined everything.
Seen on stage: no.