An Analysis of MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
No play in the Shakespearean canon is as politically radical as Measure for Measure, suggesting, as it does, that all political authority is corrupt at its core. It is the antithesis of The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s most reactionary play.
The title, Measure for Measure, is richly ambiguous. It refers directly to the Hebraic and Christian Bibles–in particular, to the Sermon on the Mount: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” [Matthew 7:2]. This is Jesus’ endorsement of divine justice. While Jesus repudiates the endless cycle of human eye-for-an-eye violence, he has no problem endorsing a divine lex talionis.
In Shakespeare’s play, the character Angelo, who is no angel, makes of himself a figure of divine justice. He is invested with secular authority, as well. Before Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, withdraws from the city, he deputizes Angelo, delegating to him all of the powers of the state:
Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue, and heart [I:i].
Well, mortality does, at least. But no mercy lives in Angelo’s reptilian heart.
The Duke only pretends to withdraw from Vienna and to migrate to Poland (others say to Russia or Rome); all the while, he remains in the city, disguised as a friar.
In the Duke’s (apparent) absence, Angelo sentences to death a young man named Claudio for lechery. Claudio is betrothed to his beloved Juliet, but their marriage has not yet been consecrated:
[S]he is fast my wife, / Save that we do the denunciation lack / Of outward order [I:ii].
“Outward order” is indeed the problem of the play. She has been impregnated out of wedlock. For this, the sin of fornication, Claudio is to be beheaded.
Angelo is a theocrat who does not distinguish between secular and religious authority. He recognizes no nuance, no degree between offenses. Every crime is equal to him. In accordance with his absolutist morality, all of the bordellos in Vienna are ordered to be plucked down [I:ii]. When the demi-god Authority [I:ii] hammers down on the city of Vienna, it knows no distinction between murder and fornication. Prostitution is a secular and a spiritual offense in Angelo’s eyes. Unlicensed sex is the same as murder and deserves the same penalty as murder:
To pardon him that hath from nature stolen / A man already made, as to remit / Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven’s image / In stamps that are forbid. ’Tis all as easy / Falsely to take away a life true made, / As to put mettle in restrained means / To make a false one [II:iv].
Angelo’s moralism is anti-sexual, and what is anti-sexual is anti-life. It is also, of course, an unreachable ideal. As Lucio puts it, it is impossible to extirpate human sexuality. You might as well condemn the sparrows for lechery. Pompey’s question (to Escalus) is a propos: “Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?” [II:i]. Indeed, Angelo’s New Vienna is much like Giuliani’s Times Square in the 1990s. Like Giuliani, Angelo would desexualize the city, eunuchizing its populace.
A more measured justice, against the moralistic extremism of Angelo, is represented by Vincentio. And this is the second connotation of the title: As opposed to the absolutism of measure-for-measure religious violence, a more moderate, more measured secular justice is desirable.
There is a third connotation in the play’s title that I would like to illuminate. The entire play is a web of substitutions. Measure for Measure means, in this context, taking one thing for another. Angelo replaces Vincentio—when the surrogate takes the place of the original, disaster results. Ragozine’s head replaces Claudio’s head. The violation of Isabella’s virginity would substitute for Claudio’s death. There are linguistic transpositions, as well: Pompey says, “benefactor” instead of “malefactor,” “varlets” instead of “honourable men,” “Hannibal” instead of “cannibal,” etc. [II:i].
* * * * *
Claudio asks his sister Isabella (by way of Lucio, friend to Claudio) to prostrate herself before the deputy and plead for his life. He knows the erotic power that she radiates:
For in her youth / There is a prone and speechless dialect / Such as move men [I:ii]
Venice is a pornocracy, and in that pornocratic city, brother prostitutes sister. Or he would do so. Claudio would be his sister’s procurer. One should recall that “prone” connotes “lying down.” It is unclear what the denotative meaning is supposed to be. “Move” suggests the contagion of sexual desire. Her words would not be a logical appeal, an appeal by reason to reason, but an erotic appeal, an appeal by reason to the libido.
Isabella isn’t a very strong advocate for her brother’s life. “I’ll see what I can do” [I:iv], she tells Lucio. And she gives up far too easily when her petition is rejected. During the first interview with Angelo, she says, weakly, “O just but severe law! I had a brother, then: heaven keep your honour” [II:ii]. After her appeal seems to be rejected during the second interview, she says, unimpressively, “Even so. Heaven keep your honour” [II:iv].
Isabella’s argument for her brother’s life is a biblical one: Hate the sin, but not the sinner. Angelo sees himself as a vehicle for divine law. It is the law, not he, who is responsible for condemning her brother to death. Both Isabella and Angelo depersonalize in their arguments for and against the death penalty as punishment for “illegitimate” sexual intercourse. Here is what Isabella says at the beginning of her argument:
There is a vice that most I do abhor, / And most desire should meet the blow of justice; / For which I would not plead, but that I must; / For which I must not plead, but that I am / At war ’twixt will and will not [I:ii].
Who would consider this a strong appeal for someone’s life? If your brother were sentenced to death, I would hope that you would plead more forcefully. She speaks of her brother’s death with such flippancy that one must question whether or not she even cares if he will die:
Dar’st thou die? / The sense of death is most in apprehension; / And the poor beetle that we tread upon / In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great / As when a giant dies [III:i].
The Duke, disguised as Friar Lodowick, says nearly the same thing to Claudio: Be absolute for death, since it is better to die than to live fearing death. The argument is specious.
Like all moralists, Angelo is a sanctimonious hypocrite. When Isabella pleads with the corrupt deputy for mercy, he makes a bargain: Only if Isabella surrenders her body to Angelo’s sexual desires will her brother be released from the death sentence. As commentators have suggested before me, Isabella is more concerned with her own vanity, her narcissistic self-regard, than with her brother’s mortality:
Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life / From thine own sister’s shame? [III:i].
Harold Bloom might have been correct when he asserted that Isabella is unable to distinguish sexuality from incest. Notice that Isabella not only accuses her brother of incest for attempting to recruit his sister as an advocate, but claims that he cohabitated with her cousin [I:iv].
Though her basic position might be an anti-sexual one, others have noticed before me that Isabella uses an erotic language to persuade the corrupt magistrate Angelo:
Go to your bosom, / Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know / That’s like my brother’s fault. If it confess / A natural guiltiness, such as is his, / Let it sound a thought upon your tongue / Against my brother’s life [II:ii].
She speaks, and ’tis such sense / That my sense breeds with it [II:ii].
William Empson pointed out, cogently, that the first “sense” connotes reason, while the second “sense” connotes sensuality. Angelo is clearly turned on by Isabella’s coldness (and rationality). The colder (and more rational) she appears, the more he desires her (of course). Isabella wishes “a more strict restraint” than her nun colleagues enjoy [I:iv]. She plays on Angelo’s masochism AND sadism:
[W]ere I under the terms of death, / Th’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 [II:iv].
There is no question that Isabella is trying to turn Angelo on by talking about “stripping herself.” Nor is there any question that she is succeeding. There is no question, either, that Isabella is exciting Angelo’s masochism by her refusal to submit to his sexual will. She is quite revealing when she says to Angelo: “I had rather give my body than my soul” [II:iv]. And yet she never gives her body to the reprobate deputy. When Angelo, in one of Shakespeare’s wondrous soliloquies, listens to himself speak, we get a glimpse into the character’s inner experience:
Dost thou desire her foully for those things / That make her good? [II:ii].
The question is rhetorical. Angelo is thrilled by the idea of violating her celibacy. Polluting what is holy and dragging it down into the mud–that is what excites him. He is corrupt. Why shouldn’t everyone else in the world be? I hear in Angelo’s “We are all frail” [II:iv] a failed attempt at identification with Isabella: He can never be as pure as she, so she must become as impure as he.
As I stated at the beginning of this analysis, Measure for Measure suggests that corruption is inherent to the structure of all political authority. The Duke has the same designs as his substitute. After all, both Angelo and Vincentio desire and pursue the same person: the celibate Isabella.
When the Duke visits Friar Thomas, the former quickly waves away the idea that he could ever have a sexual thought:
No. Holy father, throw away that thought; / Believe not that the dribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom [I:iii].
This is trickery. The Duke might not seem as aggressively amorous as Angelo or as libertine as Lucio, but he does desire women or, at least, a particular woman: Isabella.
Is Duke Vincentio indeed a “gentleman of all temperance” [III:ii]? According to Lucio, “He’s a better woodman than thou tak’st him for” [IV:iii]. A “woodman” is a hunter of women. What if Lucio is telling the truth? And why does the thin-skinned Duke castigate and punish Lucio for having insinuated that the latter has a pulse?
Is the Duke’s self-withdrawal and self-disguising a cunning stratagem to seduce Isabella? This cannot be exactly the case, for the Duke never, in fact, seduces Isabella. He commands her to marry him. And then the Duke compels others to be married, whether they want to be married or not: Lucio is forced to marry the punk Kate Keep-down and Angelo is forced to marry Mariana, whom he abandoned once the dowry was lost. As they enter into compulsory matrimony, the Duke must say goodbye to the “life remov’d” [I:iii] as the novice nun Isabella must say goodbye to her celibacy and dedication to things atemporal.
Isabella never says a word after the Duke compels her to marry him. Her silence is ear-splitting. How are we to understand Isabella’s silence? Is it the silence of shock? The silence of assent? And who is Varrius, and why does he have nothing to say?
Reading the play is like looking into an abyss. Every depth leads to a deeper profundity. It would be impossible to exhaust the meanings that this magnificent play generates.