“Our natures do pursue,/Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,/A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.”

Measure for Measure

Act One, Part One

By Dennis Abrams



Duke Vincentio of Vienna

Angelo, the Duke’s deputy

Escalus, an old councilor

Claudio, a young gentleman

Juliet, Claudio’s betrothed

Isabella, Claudio’s sister, a novice in a nunnery

Lucio, a ‘fantastic’ (extravagant young man)

Froth, another gentleman

Mistress Overdone, a brothel-keeper

Pompey, Mistress Overdone’s servant

Elbow, a constable

Abhorson, an executioner

Barnadine, a condemned prisoner

Mariana, Angelo’s ex-fiancée

Friar Peter

Francesca, a nun

Varrius, a lord and friend of the Duke

A Provost, a Justice and others



Performed at court on December 26, 1604, it seems likely that Measure for Measure was written up to a year earlier. That performance, coupled with its thematic interest in Puritanism, law and governance, suggests that it draws topical parallels with James I’s rule (he took the throne in 1603).


The play’s chief sources are Girardi Cinthio’s Italian novella Hecatommithi (1565) and an English play along similar lines, George Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra (1578). Other elements seem to be taken from dramas by Shakespeare’s contemporaries – Middleton’s The Phoenix, Marston’s The Malcontent and Jonson’s Sejanus.


The Folio of 1623 provides the sole authoritative text, one probably sent from a promptbook.

burnsideclapp_measureformeasure-775-590x392Act One:  Vienna is lawless and morally corrupt. It’s ruler, the Duke, has decided to leave the city in the care of his puritanical deputy, Angelo, in the hope that he will reintroduce order while the Duke is away. (With the added benefit of leaving the Duke blameless should things go out of control.)  The Duke also has an ulterior motive – instead of leaving town, he disguises himself as a friar in order to observe Angelo in action. Angel immediately announced that brothels are to be pulled down, and that the city’s laws are to be strictly applied.  At one such brothel, Pompey and Mistress Overdone are discussing the proclamation when they are interrupted by Claudio, who is on his way to prison, arrested for getting his betrothed, Juliet, pregnant. Under the new regime Claudio faces execution, and in desperation sends Lucio to find his sister Isabella (who has just entered a nunnery) so that she can plead with Angelo on his behalf.

Hearing of a play entitled Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s contemporaries would, in all likelihood, have though of just one thing:  God.  More specifically, they would have thought of the biblical injunction contained in the gospel of Matthew, regarding how a good Christian should behave towards others.  “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” Christ advised his followers during the Sermon on the Mount,

With what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: And with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. Seest thou a mot in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or, how sayest thou to thy brother: Suffer me, I will pluck a mote out of thine eye: and behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye: and then shalt thou see clearly, to pluck out the mote of thy brother’s eye.  [Matthew 7:1-5]

Christ’s famous words insist that we should think before judging others; before presuming to criticize another person (noticing the “mote” or speck in their eye) we should be mindful not to be blinded by our failing (the “beam” or block on our own). It has been suggested that Shakespeare might have faced censorship from the authorities by alluding so directly to the Bible: a few years after it was written, Puritan campaigners succeeded in pushing through an act of parliament that banned the use of religious words or phrases on stage.

Not that he avoids the more confrontational aspects of the parallel: while Jesus warns against the perils of passing judgment because we ourselves are fallible, Measure for Measure dramatizes an Italian tale about a corrupt official who falls into exactly that trap. In Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, a collection of tales that also provided the inspiration for Othello, (our very next play), Shakespeare found the story of a strict judge named Juriste who falls in love with Epitia, the younger sister of a man Juriste has condemned for rape, when she comes to him to plead for his life. Under pressure from her brother, the young woman gives in to Juriste’s demands, but no sooner has he taken her to bed than he orders that the brother be beheaded anyway. Epitia finds out and demands justice from the city’s ruler, but finds that his punishment is to marry her to none other than Juriste. Fortunately though, she realizes that she has actually fallen in love and everything ends happily.

Shakespeare made the story both richer in texture and even more loaded with problems.  His Isabella is not merely virtuous, she is a nun; her brother Claudio is guilty not of rape, but has merely slept with the girl he’s engaged to marry.  And Shakespeare makes a major role for the shadowy figure of Vienna’s Duke, who leaves his deputy Angelo ruling in his absence yet stays in the city disguised as a friar, safeguarding the comic resolution of a play which frequently threatens to turn into anything but.  The Duke’s motivation for involving himself in the lives of his subjects may be mysterious, but it does divert the play from outright tragedy. And yet the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure might be the play’s most surprising and perplexing aspect.  (More of that when we get to Act Five.)

Note the first words of Measure for Measure:  “Of government.”  The dominant action of the play concerns an experience to see just how best the people of Vienna should be governed – whether, in fact, they even can be governed. The initial evidence is not promising:  Having ruled Vienna leniently, Duke Vincentio has decided to try a stricter approach. But instead of implementing the crackdown himself, he turns it over to his puritanical deputy (a man “whose blood/Is very snow-broth,” according to the libertine Lucio) to take charge.  As the Duke explains to Friar Peter, the city needs harsh measures, and fast:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws,

The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,

Which for this fourteen years we have let slip;

Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave

That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,

Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch

Only to stick it in their children’s sight

For terror, not to use, in time the rod

More mocked becomes than feared: so our decrees,

Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;

And Liberty plucks Justice by the nose,

The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart

Goes all decorum.

Just as the Duke has been struggling (and seemingly failing) to maintain his power for all those years in office, here it is his very language that runs riot. He manages to say “headstrong weeds” rather than “headstrong steeds,” making nonsense of his own figure of speech, and the jumble of metaphors he calls on to describe the ways in which “decorum” has been threatened sounds every bit as chaotic as the life in Vienna he describes. Though he does his best to speak like a Puritan zealot, the Duke’s analysis sounds only troubled in its attempt to keep things under control.


From Bloom:

measure_wideweb__430x249Measure for Measure, more specifically than any other work by Shakespeare, involves his audience in what I am compelled to call the dramatist’s simultaneous invocation and evasion of Christian belief and Christian morals. The evasion decidedly is more to the point than the invocation, and I can scarcely see how the play, in regard to its Christian allusiveness, can be regarded as other than blasphemous. Ultimately that includes the title, with its clear reference to the Sermon on the Mount: ‘With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,’ a reverberation of ‘Judge not that ye be not judged.’ This 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, in which the dubious Duke is Christ, amiable Lucio is the Devil, and the sublimely neurotic Isabella (who is unable to distinguish any fornication whatsoever from incest) is the human soul, destined to marry the Duke, and thus become the Bride of Christ! Such Christian critics as Dr. Jonson and Coleridge knew better, as did Hazlitt, himself no believer but the son of a Dissenting minister. Sanity concerning Measure for Measure begins with Hazlitt’s recognition that insofar as the play shows Shakespeare as a moralist, he is ‘a moralist in the same sense in which nature is one.’ Nature, as a moralist (at least in this drama), seems to follow the Duke’s dubious admonition to Angelo:

     nor nature never lends

The smallest scruple of her excellence

But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines

Herself the glory of a creditor,

Both thanks and use.

Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, is taking a holiday from reality, and leaves his city-state under the proxy rule of Angelo. ‘Morality and mercy in Vienna’ are deputized to Angelo, a whited sepulcher who proclaims virtue: fornication and its begetting of illegitimate children are to be punished by beheading. Mistress Overdone, the bawd, is called ‘Madame Mitigation’ by the witty Lucio, but the mitigation of desire is now a capital offense in Vienna. Claudio is doomed to death, a consequence of ‘Groping for trouts, in a peculiar river.’ Betrothed to Juliet but not yet married to her, Claudio states the morality of nature:

    Our natures do pursue,

Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,

A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.

A law, improbably placed upon Vienna’s books by Shakespeare, promises death for unsanctioned lovemaking, and the peculiar Duke Vincentio pretends to leave town so that this mad statute can be enforced by his surrogate. Angelo, whose own sexual correctness could withstand no deep scrutiny. Shakespeare does not bother to provide the Duke with any motivations; Vincentio’s antics, throughout the play, make him a kind of anarchistic precursor of Iago. 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. Is he, as Anne Barton adroitly suggests, Shakespeare’s own surrogate as a comic dramatist? If so, comedy goes beyond rancidity into Marxist mischief (Groucho’s not Karl’s), and Shakespeare’s purposes are only a touch clearer than the Duke’s. This scherzo ends comedy for Shakespeare, though strange laughters erupt in the remaining range of his work.

Sexual desire, a disaster in Troilus and Cressida, becomes very unhappy comedy in Measure for Measure. A considerable despair richly informs the play, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the despair was Shakespeare’s, at least imaginatively. I myself, rereading the play, hear in it an experiential exhaustion, a sense that desire has failed, as in Ecclesiastes, where ‘all the daughters of music have been brought low.’ Whether Isabella, in her revulsion from a vision of universal incest, somehow speaks for the play, we cannot know, though this is the implicit conclusion of Marc Shell’s The End of Kinship (1988), the best full-length study of M for M. Something is very wrong with Vincentio’s Vienna, yet to suggest that ‘a withering of the incest taboo’ (Shell) would be a remedy for any Vienna – Freud’s included – is charmingly drastic. Still, Shakespeare is very drastic in this play, which almost rivals Hamlet as a ‘poem unlimited,’ breaking through traditional forms of representation.

MakeThumbnail.aspxWe have seen Shakespeare, in Troilus and Cressida, refuse inwardness to his characters, thus going against the grain of his mature art as a dramatist.  In M for M, everyone is an abyss of inwardness, but since Shakespeare takes care to keep each character quite opaque, we are frustrated at being denied an entry into anyone’s consciousness. This has the singular effect of giving us a play without any minor characters. Barnardine’s somehow is a large a role as the Duke’s or Isabella’s. Even Lucio, the ‘fantastic,’ who is saner than anyone else on stage (as Northrop Frye remarked), rails on with an intent we cannot grasp. I used to brighten my viewing of bad movies by fantasizing the effect of arbitrarily inserting Groucho Marx into the action. In the same spirit, (though M for M is, as great as it is, finally opaque), I sometimes envision placing Sir John Falstaff in Vincentio’s Vienna. The sage of Eastcheap, a fierce discursive intelligence as well as the monarch of wit, would destroy the entire cast by mockery, and yet might leave the stage sadly baffled by even his inability to reduce the Duke’s project to some realistic, Epicurean sense. The Falstaffian scorn would be a proper reaction to the Duke’s sanctimonious poem that sets up the bed trick by which Angelo will ‘perform an old contracting’ to Mariana:

He who the sword of heaven will bear

Should be as holy as severe:

Pattern in himself to know,

Grace to stand, and virtue, go.

Shakespeare cannot be serious, we rightly feel, and yet the Duke enforces the irony of the play’s title. Coleridge, Shakespeare’s fiercest Bardolator, said that only M for M, among all the plays, was painful for him. Walter Pater, in what remains, after more than a century, the best essay on the play, slyly contrasted it to Hamlet:

It deals, not like Hamlet, with the problems which beset one of exceptional temperament, but with mere human nature. It 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 there 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?

‘Mere human nature, ‘the genial, seed-bearing powers of nature,’ ‘the verge of wantonness,’ ‘a strong tyranny of nature’: Pater’s subtle litany intimates just what being ‘full of desire’ comes to in this play, to a force that compels both public order and Christian morality to choices between nullity and hypocrisy. The ‘philosophy of life’ on our ‘spectator’s side’ is the Epicurean flux of sensations, the ‘sort of equity’ is, as Marc Shell adumbrates, retaliation, the law of talion, or the giving back of like for like. Measure for measure is reduced to like for like, Claudio’s head for Juliet’s maidenhead, Vincentio’s bed trick for Angelo’s attempt upon Isabella’s impregnable chastity. Lucio’s enforced marriage to the whore Kate Keepdown for Lucio’s mockeries of the duke-turned-false-friar. Perhaps Shakespeare should have called the play Like for Like, but he chose not to forgo his hidden blasphemy of the Sermon on the Mount, just sufficiently veiled to escape his own regime’s frightening version of the law of talion, which had murdered Marlowe and broken Kyd, barbarities that we can assume still weighed upon Shakespeare, even as he lived through his too-brief final days in Stratford.

The forerunners of nineteenth-century European nihilism, of Nietzsche’s prophecies and Dostoevsky’s obsessives, are Hamlet and Iago, Edmund and Macbeth. But M for Msurpasses the four High Tragedies as the masterpiece of nihilism. Thersites, in Troilus and Cressida, his scabrous invectives, still relies upon absent values, values that implicitly condemn the moral idiocy of everyone else in the play, but there are no values available in Vincentio’s Vienna, since every stated or implied vision of morality, civil or religious, is either hypocritical or irrelevant. So thoroughgoing is Shakespeare’s comic rebellion against authority that the play’s very audacity was its best shield against censorship or punishment. Shell argues, with real brilliance, that the mad law against fornication is Shakespeare’s paradigm for all societal laws, his make-believe foundation for civilization and its discontents. Though I find that extreme, Shell catches, better than anyone else since Pater, the essential wildness of M for M. No other work by Shakespeare is so fundamentally alienated from the Western synthesis of Christian morality and Classical ethics, and yet the estrangement from nature itself seems even sharper to me. The spiritual despair of King Lear and Macbeth, as I read them, removes them further from Christianity than we are in Hamlet and Othello, and further also from the naturalistic skepticism of Montaigne, which is firmly insulated form nihilism. M for M, the threshold to Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, harbors a deeper distrust of nature, reason, society, and revelation than the ensuing tragedies manifest. IN every deep of this comedy a lower deep opens, a way down and out that rules out return. That must be why (as we will see) the play’s final scene is so little concerned with convincing either itself or us of the resolutions and reconciliations brought about by the equivocal Duke.

In terms of the plot, it can be said that poor Claudio causes all the trouble, by suggesting that Lucio be recruited to move Angelo to mercy:

Implore her, in my voice, that she make friends

To the strict deputy: bid herself assay him.

I have great hope in that. For 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.

Perhaps Claudio is not altogether conscience of what he implies, particularly since ‘prone’ does not mean ‘lying down.’ But what does it mean? What are we to make of ‘assay?’ ‘Move’ and ‘play’ are certainly ambiguous, and Claudio’s diction prefigures the strong, sexual effect that Isabella has upon men, virtually each time she speaks. Angelo’s sadomasochistic desire for the novice nun is more palpable than the Duke’s lust, but the difference between the two is degree, not in kind. When we first encounter Isabella, we hear her ‘wishing a more strict restraint/Upon the sisterhood’ she is about to join. Something of her unconscious sexual power is suggested by that desire for sterner discipline, presaging her rejection of Angelo’s offer to trade her brother’s head for her maidenhead, measure for measure.

     were 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. 100-104]

Had the Marquis de Sade been able to write so well, he might have hoped to compete with that, but in fact he wrote abominably. Yet it is his peculiar accent that Isabella anticipates, even as she further excites Angelo’s sadism (and ours, if we would admit it).

My next post:  More on Act One, Sunday evening/Monday morning.

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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8 Responses to “Our natures do pursue,/Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,/A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.”

  1. Mahood says:

    I’m really looking forward to starting this one…from the first 2 posts here on M for M, it seems to have it all: sex (including S & M references), blasphemy, rebellion against authority, suspicion of nature, reason, society etc. – in other words, everything you want in a good yarn!

    One background figure that must be very important here is King James I (coming to power in 1603, the year before this play was performed). I’ve read elsewhere (and Bloom alludes to it here) of the problem for potential charges against writers like Shakespeare writing in an increasingly puritanical country – Marlowe and Kyd got it in the neck (or in Marlowe’s case, the eye!) for their troubles…and yet the Bard seemed to be exempt from prosecution. How? Bloom suggests that he ‘chose not to forgo his hidden blasphemy of the Sermon on the Mount, just sufficiently veiled to escape his own regime’s frightening version of the law of talion…’ He must have known that he was treading on dangerous ground…How did he get away with it?! This threat of censorship must have been there for the rest of the Bard’s life and yet he managed to side-step the authorities all the way.

    Or am I reading much to much into this?!

    • Mahood: Excellent question, and you’re not reading too much into it, I think. And I’m going to try and answer your question (or at least provide a way of thinking about it) in Sunday evening’s post.

      • Mahood says:

        Great – looking forward to that. One last thing (and at the risk of digressing)…Bloom’s comment on ‘the freest spirit that had ever lived’: the man who swam endlessly through the lakes of Sodom…:

        ‘Had the Marquis de Sade been able to write so well, he might have hoped to compete with that, but in fact he wrote abominably…’

        I’ve always had a secret soft spot for Sade. Was he really that bad a writer? (Is it really fair to compare him (or anyone, for that matter) to Shakespeare?

        Sade was very sharp and wrote some great lines. He also wrote some of the sublimest and funniest blasphemy you’ll ever read. He’s very underrated (in my opinion 😉 )

      • Mahood: I’ve got to say I haven’t read nearly as much Sade as I probably should. Recommended starting point?

  2. Eddie says:

    Due to the recent theft of my computer, I’m way behind on the blog, so I don’t know if it’s already been discussed, but the dilemma of Isabel reminds me of a couple of songs, “Gallus Pole” recorded by Leadbelly and also recorded as “Gallows Pole” by Led Zeppelin, and also Bob Dylan’s song “Seven Curses.” However, the outcome is not the same in the songs as in the play.

  3. Mahood says:

    Dennis: Most people start with the so-called ‘libertine’ novels (The 120 Days of Sodom, Justine, Juliette and Philosophy of the Boudoir). The 120 Days of Sodom is by far the most extreme of his works (but central to what he was about): a courage of the stomach and the mind is needed when reading them…Justine may be the better starting point (though it’s still quite shocking).

    His letters from prison are a fascinating read too.

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