“Everyone has (or I presume should have) particular favorites among Shakespeare’s plays, however much they worship Falstaff, Hamlet, Lear, and Cleopatra. Mine are Measure for Measure and Macbeth.”

Sexual Hypocrisy in Vienna!

An Introduction to William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

By Dennis Abrams


Measure_for_Measure-520x520Although it’s set in Vienna, Measure for Measure, Shakespeare unsettling comedy of sex in the city, seems to reflect more closely than anything else he ever wrote the Jacobean London that the playwright knew so well.  Saturated with moral decline – something that, not surprisingly, killed its chances for success in the Victorian theater – it quickly moves from court-room, prison, nunnery and brothel as the old tale of a corrupt judge who propositions the sister of a defendant is worked through to a new and troubling conclusion.

Coleridge thought it “the most painful – say rather the only painful” play of Shakespeare’s, and it’s often given first in show among the so-called “problem comedies” those plays whose hard-edges and deeply cynical tone seem to negate any possibility of lasting happiness for any of the play’s characters.  At the same time though, this fable of justice, mortality and power, (and one of my very favorite of Shakespeare’s plays), perhaps intended for performance in front of the newly crowned James I, is by no means clinical – certainly not as coldly clinical as Troilus and Cressida. The rich and raunchy humor of the play’s Viennese fleshpots has a kind of raw energy that frequently threatens (and often does) overwhelm the main business of the plot, while the deeply ambiguous morality of every character on stage (something impossible to ignore in performance) makes it nearly impossible for viewers (or readers) to track the course of Measure for Measure on a straightforward ethical spectrum.

I love this play.

I think you’re going to love it as well.


From Bloom:


MeasureProgramShakespeare-theatre“Composed probably in the span from late spring through late summer 1604, the astonishing Measure for Measure can be regarded as Shakespeare’s farewell to comedy, since one needs to term it something other than comedy. Technically called a ‘problem play,’ or ‘dark comedy,’ like its immediate predecessors Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well [MY NOTE:  I tend to agree with others who date Measure as being written probably in 1603, and All’s Well coming slightly later, following our NEXT play, Othello], Measure for Measure exceeds them in rancidity and seems to purge Shakespeare of whatever idealism Thersites and Parolles had not expunged in him.  I have argued that Thersites is the center, as well as the chorus of Troilus and Cressida, and that Parolles similarly centers All’s Well That Ends Well. The parallel figure in Measure for Measure is Lucio, except that he is too good-natured and scabrously sane to be the emblem of the corrupt cosmos of Measure for Measure. The emblematic role here belongs to the sublime Barnardine, perpetual drunkard and convicted murderer, who speaks only seven or eight sentences in a single scene, yet who can be called the particular comic genius of this authentically outrageous play. Zaniness, a proper term for the celebratory Twelfth Night, is inadequate when we try to characterize Measure for Measure, a play so savagely bitter as to be unmatched in that regard.

Everyone has (or I presume should have) particular favorites among Shakespeare’s plays, however much they worship Falstaff, Hamlet, Lear, and Cleopatra.  Mine are Measure for Measure and Macbeth: The high rancidity of the first and the ruthless economy of the second captivate me as no other works of literary art do. The Vienna of Lucio and Barnardine, and the hell of Macbeth, are unsurpassable visions of human disease, of sexual malaise in Measure for Measure, and of the imagination’s horror of itself in Macbeth. Why Measure for Measure, though not neglected, is not truly popular has something to do with its equivocal tonalities; we never can be certain as to just how we ought to receive the play. Certainly the crazy last scene, when we come to it, abandons us to our astonishment…Shakespeare, piling outrage upon outrage, leaves us morally breathless and imaginatively bewildered, rather as if he would end comedy itself, thrusting it beyond all possible limits, past farce, long past satire, almost past irony at its most savage. The comic vision, to which Shakespeare turned (for relief?) after triumphantly revising Hamlet in 1601, [MY NOTE:  Should that indeed be the case!] ends itself with this wild scherzo, after which tragedy comes back again in Othello and its successors. For me, at least, something of Iago’s spirit hovers in Measure for Measure, suggesting that Shakespeare was already at work on Othello. Iago’s impotent yet destructive sense of human sexuality is appropriate to the Vienna of Measure for Measure, city of Lucio, a fantastic, of Mistress Overdone, a bawd; of Pompey Bum, a bawd turned apprentice to Abhorson, an executioner; above all, of the convict Barnardine, who has the wisdom to stay perpetually drunk because to be sober in this mad play is to be madder than the maddest.”


From Tanner:

MeasureWhich is the wisest here, Justice or Iniquity?

(II, I, 272)

What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault or mine?

The temper or the tempted, who sins most?

(II, ii, 162-3)

“This is a worryingly claustrophobic play. It opens in some unspecified room, perhaps in the Duke’s palace, only to show the Duke making rather furtive arrangements to leave (‘I’ll privily away,’ 1, I, 67); we are next in a street, peopled mainly by characters who bring the fetid reek of the brothel with them; thence to a Friar’s cell in a monastery, and thence to the coolness of a nunnery. The important scenes in Act II take place in a courtroom and then a smaller ante-room, where the atmosphere grows more intense and stifling. For all of Act III and most of Act IV we are in a prison, with one excursion to a moated grange. Act V, does, at last, bring all the characters into a ‘public space near the city gate’; but although this is, as it should be, a site for clarifications, uncoverings, revelations, solvings – people and events finally appearing in their true light, as it were – the longing for fresh, refreshing air and expansive breathing space, which grows throughout the play, is hardly satisfied.

There is nothing romantic about this Vienna, in which the play is set – no nearby Belmont, no reachable Forest of Arden. No ‘green word’ at all, really; only a ‘moated grange’ and a reference to Angelo’s garden. One would hardly look for release and revivification in a garden belonging to Angelo. Interestingly, it is a ‘garden circummured with brick.’ Shakespeare invents the word ‘circummured’ for this play, and never uses it again. It means – obviously enough – walled around, or walled in. Not surprisingly, it is the perfect word for the world of this play, for these are ‘circummured’ people. Literally, of course – if not in the courtroom or the brothel, then in the secular prison or the holier confinement of monastery or nunnery. (There are no domestic spaces or scenes in what Mary Lascelles rightly called ‘this strangely unfamilied world.’) But a lot of the main characters are walled up mentally and emotionally – say ‘humanly’ as well. In this respect, the three main characters are oddly similar. The Duke likes to avoid his people and ‘assemblies,’ and prefers to withdraw – ‘I have ever loved the world removed.’ Angelo, in the Duke’s own terms, is ‘precise…scare confesses/That his blood flows, or that his appetite/Is more to bread than stone’; he is ‘a man of stricture and firm abstinence’ who has blunted his ‘natural edge/With profits of the mind, study and fast’; he is very type of the repressed, self-immuring Puritan – except, as we might say, when his blood is up. We first see Isabella in a nunnery ‘wishing a more strict restraint/Upon the sisterhood’ – this, in the famously strict order of Saint Claire. She, too, seems dedicated to a cloisteral sequestering, and a chaste coldness – except when her blood is up, when she displays, in Walter Pater’s words, ‘a dangerous and tigerlike changefulness of feeling.’ In their very different ways, all three find that they cannot live ‘the life removed.’ The Duke’s apparent abdication is the prelude to his disguised descent into the lives of his people; thrust into high office and rendered effectively omnipotent, the apparently bloodless Angelo finds himself swamped with lust and driven to (attempted) murder; Isabella is drawn out of the nunnery, never to return – unavoidably involved in the plots and snares of the distinctly ‘fallen’ world of Vienna. But these emergings from the various retreats of withdrawal and withholding – both actual and temperamental ‘musings’ – are hardly liberations into a new-found freedom. For Vienna, like Hamlet’s Denmark, is itself a prison.

As portrayed here, there are two world in Vienna – the realm of the palace, the monastery, the lawcourt, the nunnery; but something has gone wrong with authority and things go variously, and sometimes dreadfully amiss; until they are rather desperately righted at the end: then the brothel world, with its atmosphere of compulsive yet joyless lust, listless lawlesssness, disease, degeneration and decay, where things, unchecked, go from bad to worse (or just from bad to bad). Lucio, something of a Mercutio, something of a Parolles, and something all himself, buzzes between the two worlds – and all realms come together in the prison, which becomes, through its occupants, at once brothel, lawcourt, nunnery – and, did but the others know it, the palace is there as well. Normality – if we may so designate reciprocal love and reproductive sexuality – is represented solely by Claudio and Juliet, the only genuine ‘couple’ in the play. Their sexual intercourse is described as ‘our most mutual entertainment’, and the act was, both agree, ‘mutually committed.’ These are the only times the word appears in the play: apart from this couple, there is no ‘mutuality’ in this world – and he is under prison under sentence of death, while she is allowed barely sixty words, hardly there at all. There just doesn’t seem to be any ordinary, straightforward love around. This hapless couple apart, we are confronted with, on the one hand, a merciless and tyrannous legalism, a ferocious and rancid chastity, and whatever it is the Duke thinks he’s up to; on the other, ‘mere anarchy’ and ‘concupiscible intemperate lust.’ This is the only time Shakespeare uses the italicized word (or any of its derivatives); it comes ultimately from cupere, to desire, which can be innocent enough; but the word, just by its sound, irresistibly suggests extreme lubricity and uncontrolled sexual desire. Admittedly, there are Isabella’s words a bout Angelo, but one feels that Shakespeare came to share some her nausea at the idea of unbridled sexuality. And the fact that Angelo succumbs to a more terrifying and deranging lust than is manifested by any of the brothel regulars, tells us something about Puritans, certainly, but more generally reinforces the recognition that the realms of authority and anarchy are not so firmly and stably separate and discrete as society, perhaps, likes to imagine. Of course, sex is always potentially a great leveler. What the law – any law – can do about sex, is one of the problems explored by the play. And it has got to do something – unless you regard Isabella’s hysterical chastity, and Mistress Overdone’s punks and stewed prunes, as viable options.”


And finally, from Walter Pater:

Measure-for-Measure-Image“It [the play] brings before us a group of persons, attractive, full of desire, vessels of the genial seed-bearing powers of nature, a gaudy existence flowering out over the old court and city of Vienna, a spectacle of the fullness and pride of life which to some may seem to touch the verge of wantonness. Behind this group of people, behind their various action, Shakespeare inspires in us the sense of a strong tyranny of nature and circumstance. Then what shall be on this side of it – on our side, the spectator’s side, of this painted screen, with its puppets who are really glad or sorry all the time? what philosophy of life, what sort of equity?”


This is really going to be fun.


Our next reading:  Measure for Measure, Act One

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning



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